Violinist Dale Barltrop makes a thought-provoking outing with the VSO

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With violinist Dale Barltrop. At the Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, February 17

Want to test the instrumental mettle of your new concertmaster? Here’s how it’s done: throw him a violin concerto once deemed unplayable by no less of an authority than Jascha Heifetz, book a weekend’s worth of shows into your city’s most prestigious venue, and then stand back and watch as he pivots and swirls through all three concerts with fierce aplomb.

If anyone in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra organization had lingering doubts about Australian transplant Dale Barltrop, they were satisfactorily squelched this weekend. Yet it was not his electrifying and highly physical performance of Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto No. 1 that proved the true test of his character. That came after intermission during Sunday’s matinee, when Barltrop was spotted sitting demurely in the last row of the violin section, sawing happily through Edward Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme.

No one would have objected if he’d remained backstage, or even gone home for a hot bath and a cold beverage, but this guy clearly loves to play. This is good news for Vancouver, and for the VSO.

It’s not like Barltrop had much of a chance to play during the Britten concerto, at least not in the sense of having fun. It’s an unremittingly serious work, and very much of its time: 1939, just after the composer’s experience on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War, and just before German bombs began falling on his birthplace of Lowestoft, England. It’s hard to listen to the keening anguish of the first movement without thinking of Stukas diving on Guernica; hard, too, to hear the grinding rhythms of the second without hearing the tramp of marching feet, the shunting of railway cars, and the mechanized roaring of tanks.

One could, I suppose, contend that conductor Bramwell Tovey and the VSO made a slight misstep during that segment. Their performance was so gutsy that it almost made the marshalling of men and munitions seem glamorous—undercutting, in a way, the pacifist Britten’s antiwar message. But if that was the case, Barltrop’s intense and expressive soloing fully redressed the imbalance.

In his introduction, Barltrop described the Violin Concerto No. 1 as “one of the best-kept secrets of 20th-century violin music”. In Vancouver, at least, the secret’s now out: both soloist and band fully realized Britten’s vision, in particular through their delivery of the composer’s occasionally uncanny tonal effects. Barltrop’s rasgueado-style swipes at his strings were also powerful; at times, an Andalusian guitar seemed to have been added to the VSO’s instrumentation.

After such a sad and stirring masterpiece, the Elgar in the second half sounded more formal, more conventional, than it really is. The imperial composer’s “Enigma” sequence is undeniably a stunning display of compositional acuity, but its more martial aspects felt at odds with the prevailing mood. Perhaps the running order should have been reversed, with the Variations opening and the sweet ear candy of Frederick Delius’s Brigg Fair: An English Rhapsody serving as the finale.

Then again, perhaps not. As played, this was a thought-provoking outing by the VSO, and one that made a deep emotional impact on many listeners.

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