Timpani take centre stage at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's Rituals

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A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presentation. At the Orpheum Annex on Saturday, April 20

Pity the poor percussionist who needed to rent a timpani last Saturday night! Most of Vancouver’s kettledrums—nine, in total—could be found at the Orpheum Annex, with six of them in a neat semi-circle at centre stage. For lovers of percussion, walking into the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s shiny new chamber-music venue was a visual treat, and it soon turned into an aural one as well.

The occasion was a rare showcase for Aaron McDonald, the VSO’s principal timpanist. He’s been a steady presence in the VSO’s back line since 2007 and, as soloist, he didn’t disappoint.

That said, Michael Colgrass’s Concertino for Tympani, McDonald’s feature, wasn’t the most memorable piece of music the VSO has performed this year, or even in this concert. Written in 1953, it was conservative by avant-garde standards then and now sounds merely pleasant, with its only spark coming from the jazzy theme that emerges at its very end. The demands it puts on its tympanist are subtle, and in consequence McDonald didn’t overwhelm with bombastic thunder rolls and mortar blasts—but he did negotiate the work’s lulling low-frequency melody and subtle dynamic shifts with aplomb.

Those looking for percussive fireworks found them in the opener, VSO resident composer Edward Top’s Silk Execution II. Like his Symphony Golden Dragon, performed last November by the full orchestra, this was written during Top’s Asian apprenticeship, and draws on the formal rhythms of Chinese opera in addition to the somewhat less predictable rhythms of street life in Bangkok. There was no dozing off during this piece: percussionist Verne Griffiths’ slapstick jolted listeners into full attention right off the top, and Top’s imaginative use of a five-horn frontline—inspired, he said, by the firing squad in Francisco Goya’s painting Execution of the Rebels the Third of May 1808—was equally commanding.

The notion that Top, who curated, meant Rituals as a survey of contemporary compositional trends was amplified by the second piece on the bill, Giorgio Magnanensi’s Fließend C for String Orchestra. With its pizzicato raindrops, ominous rumblings, and passages of structured improvisation, the work came across as a dark ambient soundscape, clearly marked by the Italian-born Sunshine Coast resident’s time in the local rainforest—and also, despite his disavowal of any ideological content, by his experimentalist’s interest in a more democratic collaboration between composer, conductor, and musicians.

The conductor here, by the way, was Bramwell Tovey’s understudy Gordon Gerrard, and he was in especially good form in the piece that opened the second half of the program, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Descensio. Taken too fast, this invocation of the sacred would be meaningless; too slow, and it would bore. Gerrard got it just right, nailing the mystical Russian’s invocation of the Holy Spirit and all of the raptures that followed.

Alas, the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s Symphony for Open Strings, which ended the night, didn’t bloom in quite the same way, sounding more like an exercise in hocketing than the somewhat ironic “symphony” of its title. I guess that’s what happens when one limits the string players to the use of their bowing hands only.

Still, it was a generous nod on the VSO’s part to local new-music ensemble Standing Wave, whose Vansterdam program on Sunday featured another Andriessen composition as well as a premiere from Top. It was gratifying, too, for Top to bring Magnanensi into the symphonic fold; Vancouver New Music’s artistic director is one of the most outgoing, provocative, and multifaceted musicians on the local scene. Never mind that the rest of the VSO players were running through yet another Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart concerto just a few doors down; Rituals was the better indication of our resident orchestra’s contemporary and community-minded bent.

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