Conducted by Alondra de la Parra. At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, November 3. Continues tonight (November 5)
You’ve got to laugh at the VSO’s preconcert announcement exhorting the audience to “enjoy the silence” between symphonic movements. Yes, that’s good concert etiquette, but does management need to make it quite so clear that spontaneous outbursts of joy are unwelcome?
I’m told that this was not always so: that during classical music’s classical era, listeners could be far from contained. And in that light, Mexican conductor Alondra de la Parra’s local debut could be seen as a happy throwback to times when listeners were far from hesitant to make their opinions known. So it seemed, at least at the end of the first, “Allegro non troppo” movement of Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, when a rowdy minority of listeners forgot their instructions and clapped, almost involuntarily, in a show of unrestrained glee.
As for those of us who remained more or less mute, I’m sure I was not the only one stifling little moans of delight. Tottering warhorse that it is—so beloved in the U.K. that Rick Wakeman gave it a solo makeover on an early Yes LP—Brahms’s 1885 masterpiece sounded new on Saturday night.
It would be easy to resist the hype around de la Parra’s arrival on the international scene, but given this performance it’s obvious that she’s the real thing: not just a sinuous extrovert in close-fitting togs, but a born musician with a firm grasp on how to draw the best out of an orchestra. Beautifully paced, with especially lovely work from the brass and woodwinds, her Brahms was as good as it gets.
Overall, it was a good night for looking at classics with new eyes—and listening with new ears. Preceding the Brahms, and the intermission, de la Parra and pianist Angela Cheng teamed up on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. A welcome break from Wolfie’s endless parade of major-key clones, this has more intrinsic drama than most Mozart, which Cheng milked with an unusually assertive left hand and a fair bit of sly wit. She’s probably played this piece thousands of times, and approached it with the knowing affection of old love.
To open the program, de la Parra and the VSO chose composer-in-residence Edward Top’s first orchestral composition, Symphony Golden Dragon. Written in 2000, early on in the former violinist’s compositional career, this portrait of Chinese New Year in Bangkok is a stylistic mish-mash, incorporating a brassy overture with strong echoes of jazz arranger Gil Evans’s work, string writing very much in the hyper-dramatic mode of Hollywood soundtrack artist Erich Korngold, timbral effects sourced from Györgi Ligeti, and plenty of sound effects, including firecrackers, gunshots, and a simulated game of mahjong.
In his preconcert talk, Top acknowledged that it’s the work of a young composer, ready to impress but perhaps not quite so ready to edit himself. Still, de la Parra readily articulated the work’s thematic core—a dreamlike expression of street life and the collective unconscious—and coaxed especially powerful playing from the low brass and an expanded percussion section.
A young conductor who can animate Mozart’s corpse, find fresh beauty in a late-Romantic classic, and navigate the complexities of postmodern composition? De la Parra won a roomful of fans with her Vancouver debut, and we’re all now anticipating her return.