VSO maestro Bramwell Tovey conducts The Rite of... Autumn?

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra opens its season with extra splash, mixing Stravinsky with Tchaikovsky and Morlock

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      Is it wrong to play the Rite in fall?

      We’ll find out this weekend, when the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra kicks off its season with a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s epochal The Rite of Spring, alongside Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, with soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk, and Jocelyn Morlock’s Oiseaux bleus et sauvages.

      For some, it might seem an odd choice. Stravinsky’s pulsing, primal score—written for a Vaslav Nijinsky ballet depicting human sacrifice—is all about vernal energy, albeit of a dark and primitive kind. There’s little that’s misty or mellow about this 1913 work, although fall’s fruitfulness is there: the Rite has inspired a century’s worth of modern music, and continues to do so today.

      Perhaps, though, playing the Stravinsky is a good way to spring into a new season, one that will see some changes in the orchestra and that is also, arguably, its busiest and most adventurous ever. Bramwell Tovey certainly thinks so.

      “We usually have something fairly splashy to begin the season,” the VSO music director tells the Straight in a telephone interview. “To do both a contemporary work and The Rite of Spring for an audience that is sometimes a little bit gala-y on the first night—they’re not necessarily the hard-core people that come—is a good way for us to reach out. And then the Tchaikovsky piano concerto.…Alexander Gavrylyuk played all the Rachmaninoff piano-and-orchestra pieces with us a couple of years ago, and it was a huge success. So I thought it would be an absolute humdinger to be able to open the season with him.

      “It’s a bit of a cocktail of fun,” he adds. “We probably wouldn’t normally do the Tchaikovsky piano concerto with The Rite of Spring, because both of them are enough to seduce an audience in. To have both in one evening is an embarrassment of riches.”

      Tovey has an additional motive for playing the Rite. “For the orchestra, it’s very much a statement,” he notes. “It’s a very hard piece to play, and I think the VSO plays it extremely well. And we’ve always used it as a kind of measuring stick.”

      This weekend, Tovey and his associates will also be measuring Karl Stobbe, the Prince George–born associate concertmaster of Tovey’s former employer, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The violinist is the first of several candidates under consideration for the job of VSO concertmaster, a position left vacant by Dale Barltrop’s decision to return to his native Australia.

      Star soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk will play Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.

      “We’ll be having guest concertmasters in my concerts over the course of the next few months, while we make a decision about our new appointment,” Tovey explains. “Obviously, we’ve got very big shoes to fill with Dale leaving us, but in the meantime we have a quite fantastic assistant concertmaster in Nick Wright, who is quite wonderful. So we’re hoping to make a decision about the concertmaster position early in the new year, but the process starts this week.”

      If there’s any overarching theme that connects the three works, it’s that they all “sample” folkloric material. The Tchaikovsky concerto quite explicitly borrows melodic themes from Russian and Ukrainian folksong, while a repetitive motif in Morlock’s piece alludes to her time studying Balinese gamelan at UBC. Slavic melodies can also be heard in the Rite, although Stravinsky initially denied that it was anything other than fully original.

      There’s a more explicit link between Oiseaux bleus et sauvages and the Rite, however. Both begin with music inspired by birdsong, as Morlock’s mentor Nikolai Korndorf once pointed out to the younger composer. “He said that he’d been out in the country and heard crazy birds—like roosters and all kinds of things—all practically losing their voices singing away at the beginning of dawn,” the VSO’s resident composer recalls, in a separate telephone conversation. “So he thought that was in the Rite, and there is a Stravinsky quote that describes this happening. So there is sort of a bird connection there, not that people think of Stravinsky and birds; they think of [French composer Olivier] Messiaen and birds.”

      And, like much of Messiaen’s work, both Oiseaux and the Rite express a kind of ecstatic engagement with the natural world.

      “That’s probably true, isn’t it?” says Tovey. “I mean, with Stravinsky, his ecstatic rendering of nature is rather more roughly hewn than Jocelyn’s, but nature is many different things, so it’s quite right that it would be.”

      Beyond that, there’s the question of lineage—and here, too, Tovey sees a thread, which he traces back to the young Stravinsky’s meeting with Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Opera, circa 1893. “Stravinsky was in awe of Tchaikovsky, and I think Jocelyn is in awe of Stravinsky,” he says. “So there’s definitely a link there—and of course Tchaikovsky was in awe of [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart, but Mozart doesn’t get a look-in this weekend!”

      For that, we’ll have to wait until Emanuel Ax visits the VSO in January of next year—but we won’t complain about what’s on offer now.

      The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, with pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, opens its 2016-17 season at the Orpheum from Saturday to Monday (September 24 to 26).