After one year at the helm of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Dutch conductor Otto Tausk is satisfied that he made the right choice in accepting the baton from departing music director Bramwell Tovey. And what’s most convinced him of that is the sheer speed of his new charges. Not speed in the sense of shredding, but in the sense of being quick on the uptake.
“Doing the three Mozart symphonies in one evening was a highlight for me, and also for the orchestra,” he says in a telephone interview from Valencia, Spain, referring to a pair of concerts in March of this year. “I think we got to know each other much better in a very short period—in just a couple of days of very intensive work, we made huge steps together.
“I’ve found that the orchestra can work extremely fast,” Tausk continues. “They can get a lot of repertoire done in a very short period of time. I also found that I very much enjoy working on details with the orchestra.…The orchestra and I, we are growing very quickly when we do that.”
The VSO’s work ethic and attention to detail will be fully on display during its final concerts of the 2018-19 season, which will encompass a 100th-anniversary gala celebration and two wide-ranging programs focusing on French and German repertoire. (With Nordic and Russian pieces featured in the gala, the concerts will also supply an overview of the European concert repertoire as a whole—which Tausk says is an accident, but a fortuitous one.)
First up, at the Orpheum this weekend, is Debussy & Ravel: Colour & Image, an expansive program built around the former’s Images and the latter’s Tzigane, but also including two rarely heard pieces by Lili Boulanger, sister of the acclaimed composition teacher Nadia.
“Every orchestra should have French repertoire, first of all because it’s just gorgeous instrumentation and beautiful music, but also because it’s something you need to work on as an orchestra,” Tausk notes. “You need to find the special colours in French music. It’s a really different way of playing.”
Ramping up the celebratory quotient, the official season finale—at the Orpheum the following weekend—is designed to show off the “past, present, and future” of the orchestra, Tausk says. The future is represented by the North American premiere of akin for solo violin, solo cello, and orchestra by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, a friend and contemporary of Tausk’s whom we’ll likely hear more from in the near future. The past will be referenced by Franz Schubert’s Rosamunde overture, which was played frequently during the VSO’s early years. And the present will be illustrated by Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which famously provided the dramatic opening theme for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“It’s a piece to show what the orchestra is capable of right now,” Tausk explains. “It’s a piece where they can show how virtuosic they are, and how good they are at the really big, romantic symphony repertoire.
“And of course everybody knows the beginning, but hardly anybody knows the rest of the piece,” he adds, laughing. “It’s really fantastic work.”
All this will culminate in the VSO100 Centennial Celebration on June 11, which again ties together past, present, and future but with a lighter, more festive focus.
Violinist James Ehnes, who won a 2007 Grammy Award for a recording with Tovey and the VSO, will be one of several guest soloists. Music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky will be performed, but so will pieces by Jean Coulthard and VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock, representing the orchestra’s long-standing commitment to Canadian music and especially music by Canadian women. Young virtuosos Tate Zawadiuk on cello and Lucy Wang on violin will also find themselves in the spotlight, in a nod to classical music’s future—and to the VSO’s own increasingly important role in music education.
With young people like these, Tausk says, “we have the musicians, we have the audience, and we have the future. Classical music is an art form that you need to fight for, but if you do it well it’s very rewarding.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Debussy & Ravel: Colour & Image from Friday to Sunday (May 31 to June 2). Season Finale: Zarathustra! takes place next Friday and Saturday (June 7 and 8). The VSO100 Centennial Celebration takes place next Tuesday (June 11). All concerts are at the Orpheum.