Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Memorable Evening with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra

Under conductor Jun Märkl, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra gave one of the finest concerts I have heard in the Orpheum for a long time.

The concert began with Brahms’ monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, with the legendary Yefim Bronfman as soloist. I was surprised that an artist of Bronfman’s stature did not attract a full house last evening. The performance certainly deserved one.

Right from the French horn solo at the beginning, I sensed that we were in for a very special evening. Only a few pianists have the truly “big” (and I do not necessarily mean loud) sound needed for this concerto. Bronfman has it, in spades. At the forteentry by the piano at m. 11, it was very evident that the soloist captures the essence of Brahms’ idiom. At the same time, the sound Bronfman conjures from the Steinway, no matter how massive it got, was never forced, and was always beautiful. On the other hand, even when Bronfman was playing the most whispering pianissimos, he was somehow able to still project the sound over the orchestral texture. I thought to myself that this must have been what Arthur Rubinstein or even Eugen D’Albert (an earlier exponent of this particular work) sounded like when he played this concerto, because Bronfman’s sound has the same glow, and the same generosity of spirit in it. It is a sound that does not demand, but invites our attention. Mr. Bronfman had not played in Vancouver for many years, and it was certainly great to have him back. Perhaps a solo recital next time?

I was no less captivated by Jun Märkl’s conducting and the playing of the orchestra last evening. The distinguished young conductor captured the Brahmsian sound throughout the work. There was thickness, a real sense of substance, in the sound when the music called for it, but there was always a sense of forward motion, as well as a transparency of texture. 

It was also very obvious that Bronfman and Märkl were listening to each other, making the performance a sort of continuous chamber music. This is for me the highest form of music making. The collaboration between soloist, conductor, and orchestra was, from first note to last, flawless. Moreover, I had never before heard the VSO strings sound so beautiful as I did last evening. Throughout the evening, there was a bloom in the string sound, as well as a truly beautiful pianissimo

For me, last night’s performance of the Andantemovement was magical. At the PiùAdagio section (5 measures after C), where the piano plays with the clarinets, and the strings providing the harmonic landscape, there was a palpable feeling of intimacy and heightened emotions. So well did conductor and soloist paced the music that there was a sense of inevitability, as well as a feeling of catharsis, at the re-entry of the solo cello at letter D. The Allegretto graziosomovement was delivered with as much grace, humour and joie de vivreas called for by the music.

The concert continued with Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Préludes, and here we were witnessed to this conductor’s sensitivity and musicality. I loved the way he shapes the phrases, something we do not often hear. This was obvious right from the outset of the score, with the arpeggiated passage played by the strings. Märkl knows the score inside out. Not only did he direct from memory, his pacing was so impeccable that there was a real sense of organic wholeness or unity in what could have been played as a series of beautiful but disjointed episodes. From the first pizzicato C’s to the triumphant conclusion, every section of the orchestra sounded absolutely glorious.

In Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, which concluded the concert, the opening 16th-note run by the strings sounded positively confident, even defiant. Once again, I must reiterate that the VSO strings were a revelation last night. The swashbuckling opening theme was played with an incredible feeling of swagger worthy of Errol Flynn. In the beautiful theme for the violin at Letter E, there was palpable warmth in the sound, again so rarely heard at the Orpheum. Concertmaster Nicholas Wright did the orchestra proud with his alluring playing in the solos, and the famous French horn theme sounded absolutely secure. Märkl was in control of the ever-changing elements of the music, and directed a performance of this score that was sweeping, breathtaking, and utterly musical. There is a grace in his movement that translates into the music. In each work being played last night, every phrase and every detail in the score pulsated with life. This conductor brought the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to a level of playing I had not heard for a very long time. 

A performance like the one on Thursday evening was truly a celebration of great music, and of the greatness of music.

We are now at the beginning of a new era for the orchestra, with Otto Tausk as Music Director. I think the orchestra would do very well by inviting Mr. Märkl to be Principal Guest Conductor. This way we would secure the services of what is obviously one of today’s most outstanding conductors.

Welcome back to Vancouver, Jun Märkl.