In an unprecedented move, the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra opened its 2017-2018 season by completely vacating the stage.
In its place was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Bramwell Tovey. Judging by the two standing ovations given by the capacity audience, the VSO’s offerings were greatly appreciated.
From the moment Maestro Tovey raised his baton to conduct a sparkling rendition of Gioachino Rossini’s iconic William Tell Overture until the final triumphant chords of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony, the VSO’s performance was clean and well-executed. Details like pizzicatos that were so perfectly timed they sounded like a single finger plucking 38 strings instead of 38 performers plucking together, as well as exquisitely placed entries, made the music come alive. All 68 musicians played and breathed as one.
A special treat was the VSO’s interpretation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony in E minor Op. 64. This is big music requiring a full orchestra on top of its game. Because of Tchaikovsky’s over-active creative genius, there are at least three different melodies at any moment, as well as accompaniment and musical interjections. Many performances degrade into a confusing melee of competing musical lines. However, under Maestro Tovey’s baton the clarity and direction of each musical line was carefully balanced: no note was casually tossed off and no phrase was left dangling. Every musical idea was played with deliberate intent and dedication to creating the right sound for that particular moment. Kudos to flautist Christie Reside for her technical feats and to Oliver de Cercq for his gorgeous French horn solo in the second movement.
Undoubtedly, the piece de resistance in this concert was Bramwell Tovey’s own composition, a song cycle entitled Ancestral Voices. Written in consultation with and for Kwagiulth and Stó:lō First Nations mezzo soprano Marion Newman, the music was heartfelt and honest. Even though the texts were non-aboriginal, the inspiration for their use was to celebrate Canada’s Sesquicentennial in a spirit of reconciliation.
That Tovey knows his orchestra was evident in his delicate use of compositional colour and the neo-romantic tonality of his work.
The first song, In Arcady, set to John Keats’s poem of the same name, was pastoral in tone and delicately scored. The Last Bison was set to stanzas from a longer work by poet Charles Mair. Here, Tovey’s music underscored the emotional message of the text. The third song, titled The Letter was created using phrases gleaned from a letter found in the Canadian government archives. Marion Newman displayed her impressive interpretation skills as she took on the persona of the nameless bureaucrat who urged his superior to “kill the Indian in the child.” Tovey conveyed the disturbing nature of the text with agitated, frenetic violin writing and pompous musical-theatre like accompaniments. The final song, Bring Light to the Truth featured text from speeches by Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau and the UN Declaration on Indigenous People. This song was like a prayer and Newman’s features reflected the pain and hope in each phrase. The work ended on a somber introspective note, inviting us to look deep within to find some sense of reconciling the past and moving into the future.
It was a concert that had the power to transport, enlighten and entertain. Altogether a very satisfying evening, made all the more enjoyable by not one, but two encores: Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5 and Johann Strauss Sr.’s Radetsky March. The latter was conducted by the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra’s Maestra Rosemary Thomson, proving that our own conductor is capable of holding her own in the big league.
The VSO performed in Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon.
Anita Perry is a concert reviewer living in the Okanagan.