A blazing season finale for the Vancouver symphony

Bramwell Tovey
The Vancouver Sun

By David Gordon Duke

Enormous orchestra rises to meet Stravinsky's challenge with feverish intensity

Scheherazade/The Rite Of Spring
When: Saturday
Presented by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra Where: Orpheum Theatre

Two of the greatest orchestral showpieces provided the canvas for VSO conductor Bramwell Tovey's end-of-season extravaganza: Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The pairing is unorthodox but wildly effective. Scheherazade gorgeously runs the gamut of late Romantic orchestral colours; written a generation later, The Rite of Spring is a tough but undisputed Modernist icon, and a work of blazing orchestral virtuosity.

Usually Scheherazade is relegated to pop concerts, not the orchestra's flagship "Masterworks" series. Not that this mattered one iota: Rimsky-Korsakov's richly coloured example of musical narrative rarely fails to please, which it certainly did on Saturday.

Scored with a plethora of solo turns, Scheherazade is akin to a concerto for orchestra. In this respect the performance underscored positive recent developments in the VSO, which has been inexorably changing over the course of Tovey's tenure. Most obvious was the excellent work of new concertmaster Dale Barltrop, who negotiated all Rimsky-Korsakov's florid violin writing with old-school elegance and a rich, honeyed tone. Consistently impressive, too, was lovely solo work by principal clarinet and principal bassoon -- playing of considerable finesse and outstanding presence. Maestro Tovey was his most extroverted self, keeping the pacing taut and delivering a rousingly effective reading.

No matter how enjoyable, Scheherazade can't compare with the radical impact of The Rite of Spring. Serious listeners know it is one of those compositions which can only really be experienced in live performance. On Saturday the enormous orchestral forces (were there really nine horns back there?) produced the requisite feverish intensity. The VSO can be counted on to rise to a challenge; to a player, they responded fully to Stravinsky's complex, intricately crafted music.

Tovey demanded complete commitment from his musicians and got it. Whatever the physical cost to the players, there were no hints of flagging stamina, no slight unravellings, no lapses in concentration. The result was mesmerizing, white-hot from beginning to end.

When the cheers from the nearly full Orpheum finally died down and we were emerged into the late spring twilight, we knew we had been on one hell of a ride.