VSO Chamber Players' new chamber-music series a treat

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At Pyatt Hall on Sunday, November 18. No remaining performances

A full house and a warm performance turned a rainy Sunday afternoon—and the debut of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s new chamber-music series—into an unexpected winter treat.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t entirely unexpected. The presence on the bill of VSO stalwarts Linda Lee Thomas, Mary Sokol Brown, and Roger Cole indicated that the music would be impeccably performed, while the orchestra’s new Pyatt Hall had already proved its acoustic merits during last summer’s MusicFest Vancouver. But the afternoon got off to a slightly shaky start, only to recover splendidly.

It’s impossible to criticize the musicians’ performance of George Frederick Handel’s Trio Sonata in G Major, because both Nicholas Wright and Jason Ho on violin, along with Joseph Elworthy on cello, sounded predictably flawless. More surprising was that Lee Thomas, on harpsichord, was almost entirely inaudible, at least towards the back of the hall. I’m still puzzling over this, as she was very much a presence in the ensuing Trio Sonata in A Major by Baroque composer Jean-Marie Leclair.

Being able to hear all four musicians on this second “trio” helped make the least interesting work on the bill quite pleasing, although I’m not about to run out and buy Leclair’s collected works. I would, however, pay to revisit the VSO Chamber Players’ take on Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet in G Minor, which was as vivid as violinist Sokol Brown’s short, fire-engine-red frock.

Technically speaking, the oboe and clarinet are the stars of this circus-inspired work of early modernism; VSO principals Cole and Jeanette Jonquil, respectively, ate up the Russian composer’s speedy, off-kilter lines, with considerable help from bassist J. Warren Long’s steady presence. Still, Sokol Brown’s percussive bow strokes during the opening “Moderato”—along with violist Andrew Brown’s plucked viola during a later passage—did more to highlight this adventurous ballet score’s essential playfulness.

Five musicians have rarely made a bigger sound in a smaller room.

Also impressive were the rich sonorities that the two Browns, accompanied by cellist Charles Inkman and Lee Thomas (this time on piano), delivered in their reading of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major.

One might argue that in this piece the keyboard was overly dominant—but it was originally written as a gift for Schumann’s wife, early piano virtuoso Clara Wieck, so who’s to say that wasn’t the composer’s intent? Once the four players dialled in the balance, however, they performed like they’d been working as a quartet for years, with a fine blend of assurance, intimacy, fire, and respect.

Based on the impressive performances that various VSO soloists—including many of Sunday’s musicians—have given over the years, we’ve always suspected that they could deliver richly in a downsized context. That suspicion was fully justified by the first installment of what should turn out to be an ongoing gift to Vancouver’s chamber-music culture.

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