Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and cellist Ariel Barnes touch heads and hearts

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      With cello soloist Ariel Barnes. At the Orpheum on Sunday (October 5). Continues on Monday (October 6) at the Bell Performing Arts Centre

      The Elgar was great, but the Vaughan Williams was a revelation.

      Before we get into why, however, I have a small confession to make. If there’s anything to the notion of reincarnation, and if we have any say in the matter, I would like to come back as a cellist. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy returning as VSO principal cellist Ariel Barnes, except that I have no idea what kind of torments he endures in his personal life. That he is intimately acquainted with some kind of sorrow, however, was perfectly obvious from his reading of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor.

      Written in 1919, it is one of the first and certainly among the greatest of the requiems that emerged from the brutality and suffering of the First World War. Elegiac from start to finish, this almost ritualistic piece honours the war dead, but—as VSO music director Bramwell Tovey pointed out in his introductory remarks—it’s also marked by the composer’s sorrow over his wife’s health; Alice Elgar died of lung cancer just months after the concerto’s premiere.

      But there’s another possible interpretation. Elgar, who was born in 1857, may have also been reflecting on his own mortality, and consciously striving to leave the world a masterpiece. In this, he succeeded—and although he lived until 1934, he never wrote another score of lasting importance.

      All this is to say that while the Cello Concerto in E Minor contains multiple layers of meaning, it’s a piece that needs to touch the heart as well as the head—and on that level, at least, soloist Barnes succeeded marvellously. There could be some debate about the technical virtues of his performance; at intermission, a composer friend remarked that Barnes approached the first movement a little cautiously. I’d rather think that he was treating the piece as an incline to be scaled rather than a sprint, and if his intonation was shaky in one or two instances, that paled in comparison to the spiritual intensity of his performance.

      But, then, I’m a fan.

      I am now also a fan—or at least a bigger fan—of Ralph Vaughan Williams. I’ve always been an admirer of Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries, but the artist I knew was the composer of “The Lark Ascending” and other such pastoral songs. Had any lark ascended into the middle of the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, it would likely have been blown apart by tracer bullets.

      It’s often said that musical life in England lagged behind that of continental Europe, and there’s some truth to that. But the 19th century also ended later in England than elsewhere, having been buried in the soil of Belgium and France circa 1916. Vaughan Williams saw action as an artilleryman during the First World War, and that experience certainly informs this score, premiered in 1935 by Tovey’s mentor Adrian Boult. But with hindsight it’s plausible to say that the Symphony No. 4 also embodies Vaughan Williams’s fears about a second world war. The tympani cannonades, oompah brass, and chaotic strings of the final movement, which shades from almost comical to nearly terrifying, could not be more clear on that account.

      With new wars on today’s horizon, this work now sounds shockingly modern. Ralph Vaughan Williams, avant-gardist. Who knew?