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20th of October 2018

Canada



Classical music review: Otto Tausk makes his mark with start of new century at the VSO

A new era began at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra this week, with two concerts launching both the orchestra’s 100th season and the tenure of new music director Otto Tausk.

The VSO's new music director Otto Tausk. Ronald Knapp/ VSO / PNG

A new era began at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra last week, with two concerts launching both the orchestra’s 100th season and the tenure of new music director Otto Tausk.

Thursday brought a glamorous performance by American diva Renée Fleming; Friday, the first Masterworks concert of the year.

Of course, there is a great deal of difference between a showcase program for a much loved diva and a conventional classical symphony concert. Presenting them back to back was a calculated proposition. Tausk sailed through his challenges with flying colours.

Thursday’s program started with Ravel’s disquieting La Valse, followed by Fleming’s first turn, Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Later she sang a pair of Italian pieces, then a grand two-part finale of Broadway numbers and a generous assortment of encores. Sandwiched between was Leonard Bernstein’s quirky Divertimento.

It was an excellent choice: Bernstein’s miniatures (written to mark the Boston Symphony’s centennial) mediated a shift from classical to popular sensibilities, provided a belated celebration of the composer/ conductor’s own centenary birthday, and reminded many listeners of Bernstein’s special place in VSO history.

Some artists are so universally beloved that conventional critical responses are meaningless. At the top of that list would be Fleming, a star of the brightest luminance.

Fleming was canny in her choices of repertoire: the lush Strauss songs have been one of her trademark pieces for years; and various popular American idioms have interested her just as long. Performing her Broadway group with microphone came as a bit of a surprise, but it proved exactly right for the music. Encores included an elaborate setting of Danny Boy that Fleming had just sung at the state funeral of maverick senator John McCain.

Singer Renee Fleming performs during the memorial service for US Senator John McCain at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on September 1, 2018. SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty Images

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While Thursday’s program was a glittering one-off, the first Masterworks Gold concert was a declaration of intentions and the commencement of an plan. From the podium Tausk explained how the program symbolized the past, present, and future of the orchestra, starting with a commissioned curtain raiser for the next 100 years, Edward Top’s five-minute Helix.

A former professional violinist, Top knows orchestras well and, as a past composer-in-residence, the VSO in particular. Helix checks all the right boxes, a short work filled with interesting timbres, textures, and rhythmic vitality — perhaps a just a bit cautious compared with more substantial Top works heard in the past but getting the mood of celebration and renewed purpose just about right.

Otto Tausk. VSO / Ronald Knapp / PNG

Next up, after a clumsily extended reset of the stage, was Poulenc’s witty, sophisticated Concerto for Two Pianos. The Jussen Brothers, a young Dutch duo, delivered with exceptional clarity, astonishing dexterity, and not an iota of sentimentality. A severely reduced orchestra did its best to keep up with the dazzling soloists and, despite the occasional flub, was in sync with the spirit of the piece.

Tausk ended the evening with the complete ballet score of Stravinsky’s Firebird — a telling gesture recalling a Vancouver performance conducted by the composer himself a half century ago. He used Firebird to get down to serious work with his new ensemble, exploring the niceties of meticulously delivered dynamics and improved instrumental balances.

Given a score that is an episodic narrative, interpretation was of secondary importance. Tausk employed a purposeful sense of pacing and a practical command of large orchestral forces in a strong demonstration of crucial elements of his artistic tool kit.

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