Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's Pacific Rim Celebration was undeniably spectacular

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Pacific Rim Celebration
A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra production. At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (February 8 and 9)

It’s all about perspective. Settling into my seat at the Orpheum on the Chinese New Year–themed first night of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural Pacific Rim Celebration, I closed my eyes and heard a perfectly serviceable rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1. The ensemble was tight and the soloist delivered her notes confidently, although at points she seemed to be testing the limits of her ability. This wasn’t particularly troublesome: hard-working excellence is arguably more interesting than effortless mastery.

Then I opened my eyes and realized I was watching both the youngest and the smallest person I’ve ever seen on a major concert stage: nine-year-old Serena Wang. Suddenly a good performance turned remarkable—and even more noteworthy, once I spotted the diminutive virtuoso accepting audience congratulations during intermission. She does not, it was obvious, have freakishly large hands. So how has she mastered a score written for Beethoven’s own sturdy mitts? Magic, I guess. And six hours a day at the keyboard.

Wang confirmed her budding brilliance with the Frédéric Chopin bagatelle she chose for her unaccompanied encore, bringing a genuine sense of the transcendental to music that could be played as nothing more than a flashy cascade of arpeggios. This, even more than the Beethoven, showed that she’s a musician, not a musical gymnast.

It’s hard to imagine where Wang will go once she’s an adult, but the weekend’s other principal soloist, Sarah Chang, might offer a few clues. Chang also began as a child star, enrolling in the Juilliard School at five after auditioning with Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Coincidentally or not, this was the piece she performed on the weekend’s second night, Celebrate Korea. But whereas that initial rendition must have been charming, the 33-year-old’s current version is fierce. Constantly pushing the tempo while stalking the stage with rock ’n’ roll swagger, she tore into the concluding “Allegro energico” so ferociously that Bruch’s notes smouldered from the heat. If Chang didn’t get a full standing ovation, it’s presumably because more than a few listeners were shocked by this display of raw passion.

Again, it’s a question of perspective. If you approach the violin in the tradition of Niccolò Paganini, Chang’s playing will thrill you. If you’ve grown up in a conservative Korean church, her intensity might read as unseemly. So it goes.

I encountered more than a few occasions to examine my own cultural prejudices during the weekend. To someone approaching it from a western perspective, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin and Orchestra might seem unduly simplistic, even kitschy: the work’s opening movement, with birdsong flute over a low, pastoral drone, lacked only a gambolling fawn to be a perfect Disney fantasy. In the context of Chinese classical music, however, which lacks harmonic complexity but often expresses aspects of the natural world, the work must carry different implications. Soloist Wen Wei was certainly impressive, importing all the timbral nuances of the traditional erhu into her playing, yet taking full advantage of the violin’s greater volume and resonance.

More perplexing was June-Hee Lim’s Arirang Cantata, which closed the second night. With 160 singers from Vancouver’s Zion Mission Choir cramming the bleachers behind the orchestra, it was an undeniably spectacular performance—in the same way that “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)” might be, were it arranged for a similar ensemble and then elongated past endurance.

Nonetheless, it was a stirring reflection of Korean culture in Canada—and as the audience stepped out into the first flurries of a snowstorm that never came, even this cynical Scot felt strangely warm.

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