Road report: Vancouver Symphony; Shostakovich and Schumann

The Vancouver (British Columbia) Symphony lacks the flashiness of the LA Phil or the studiousness of MTT and the SFS, but over the course of their concert Saturday the 23rd, they impressed me with unflagging technique across a program of big, demanding works which included Robert Schumann’s infrequently performed Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s musical commentary of life under Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union — his Symphony No. 10.

It’s fitting these two pieces were chosen for the program. As East German turned American guest maestro Gunther Herbig explained with the help of concertmaster and soloist Dale Baltrop, contemporaries of Schumann (Brahms among them) assessed the concerto too personal and a touch mad. Its not surprising to know Schumann would lose control of his mind not long after he finished the concerto. Shostakovich’s 10th was considered by many yet another personal statement on the tribulations of composing under the yolk of Stalin and the Soviet system. Both are churning, grand works that explode with fits of virtuosic energy. Schumann’s more so — in my opinion — than Shostakovich’s.

The Tenth broods its way through a desolate first movement which ruptures into a violent second movement. The sting of life under Stalin blasting forth from every section of the orchestra. The third movement’s wind solos feel more like a lengthy interlude that links the violence of the second movement with the final movement’s hesitant sense of optimism. The VSO’s horns were particularly noteworthy throughout. This symphony places huge burdens on the brass and they delivered in fantastic fashion.

Earlier Baltrop and the VSO were only slightly less impressive in their performance of Schumann’s concerto. Baltrop missed a note here or there, nothing that suggested he was ill equipped to play the piece. The concerto is demanding and at times schizophrenic. If it had been a faultless performance, I would have wondered if the soloist really understood the madness rapidly consuming Schumann or his revelatory harmonic tricks which point the way to Mahler, Bruckner and Schoenberg.

This being my first time hearing the VSO, I was surprised to see two movie screens, one on either side of the stage, broadcasting closed circuit video of the orchestras as they played. At first the projections were disconcerting. Was it necessary for me to see exactly when each principal took up a solo, or when the violas launched into a section written for the middle voice? By intermission, I decided the broadcasts helped more than hindered by adding a visual dimension to the music filling the Orpheum Theater.

A word or two about the Orpheum Theater. Home of the Vancouver Symphony, this is easily one of the most beautiful halls I have ever had the pleasure to hear a concert. It is ornate, warm, and intimate at the same time. Battlestar Galactica fans might remember the Orpheum from its cameo appearance as the Opera House central to the prophecies in the television show. Since I love Battlestar Galactica AND classical music, this was a nice discovery.

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