Vancouver Symphony Orchestra launches its season with ravishing Ravel
At the Orpheum on Saturday, September 22. No remaining performances
Led by VSO music director Bramwell Tovey, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra opened its season with the radiant Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian as soloist. The program featured vibrant, colourful works by French, Spanish, and Russian composers, displaying the orchestra’s dexterity and the singer’s lyrical imagination and lovely voice.
Tovey welcomed the audience to the VSO’s 94th season with an amiable salute to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, now starting its 90th year. The longevity and accomplishments of our VSO are to be celebrated, and were amply confirmed throughout the difficult and dazzling program, interpreted by every section and soloist with precision, supple colours, and grace.
The highlights were two gorgeous works by Maurice Ravel. Setting three poems by his friend Tristan Klingsor, Ravel’s Shéhérazade is only loosely connected to the tale of One Thousand and One Nights, but it conjures exotic images and the female voice brings to life the interior world of the young heroine. Bayrakdarian’s captivating portrayal was pregnant with nuance and subtle understanding of the poems and music. She turned floating dreams of future love magically into nostalgic memories, especially in the second song, “La flûte enchantée”. The sinuous echoing dance of her mellifluous voice with Christie Reside’s flute solos enacted the “mysterious bliss” that the young protagonist dreams of in her captivity. Contrary to its title (“L’Indifférent”), the third song is all seduction, and Bayrakdarian conveyed the alluring images in the poetry and music through every gesture of her voice, face, and posture. Ravel ends the work with a sustained chord full of unresolved suspensions and yearning tones, and the sensuous scene evaporates in luxurious expectancy. Tovey and the VSO were as evocative as Bayrakdarian, and their performance was lusciously nuanced throughout.
Ravel’s four-movement Rapsodie espagnole opened the second half. The extraordinary orchestration was finely rendered and blended by every player. The “Prelude to Night” opens with a repeated descending four-note motif that will return like a remembered fragrance in the later movements. Tovey characterized it with forward motion, rather than dreamy languor, but the atmosphere was vivid and the shifting colours luminous. Every movement featured artfully shaped wind and brass solos, and the entire orchestra delivered this very difficult work with ease and dexterity. Tovey gave the four movements a satisfying arc.
Bayrakdarian returned to the stage for the Cinco Canciones Negras by Xavier Montsalvatge, and "Zapateado" by Gerónimo Giménez, investing each song with her artistry and vivid characterization.
The evening’s Spanish theme included Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol. The performance was clear and balanced, though it evoked Spain in postcards more than fragrances. Emmanuel Chabrier’s España opened the program, and the orchestra poured it clear and bubbly like a refreshing flute of Spanish cava. Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat: Suite No. 2 provided stronger wine for the rousing finale, dancing with Spanish bravado to complement the more dreamy sensuousness of the two Ravel masterpieces.
The orchestra was vibrant and luminous throughout the evening. Their contribution to the artistic life of the city is to be celebrated, commended, and supported. The season ahead offers delights and rewards for every listener.
Richard Kurth is the director of the School of Music at the University of British Columbia.