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VSO gives Rite of Spring a new menacing power

The Georgia Straight
TCHAIKOVSKY PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1: 24 SEPTEMBER 2016
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Bramwell Tovey, Orpheum Annex

"... an utterly winning mix of scientific control and stunt-pilot abandon."

 September 26th, 2016

By Alexander Varty

Good performances of great music are common. But performances that change the way you hear a great and famous work are rare, and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, under music director Bramwell Tovey, has recently treated local audiences to a pair of them. The first, in 2014, was a revelatory reading of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 4 in F Minor that unearthed both the English pastoralist’s hidden modernism and his ability to stare horror in the face. And the latest was Sunday afternoon’s performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which suggested that this once-controversial suite was a glimpse into the brutal future, rather than an invocation of the barbaric past.   

Humour me for a moment.

The Rite was met by a riot on its debut, with the Ballets Russes, in 1913; conventional wisdom is that the Parisian audience's response was due to the score's astringent dissonance and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky's fervid depiction of human sacrifice. Bourgeois complacency was certainly affronted, but perhaps the real offence was the way that Stravinsky and his fellow Russians anticipated the German push for Paris not much more than a year later. Those sirens in the higher strings. The funereal tramping of army boots in the lower. Those harsh, grinding rhythms, so redolent of machinery gearing up for war. And most of all, the hammer blows of bass drum and timpani, like the migraine-inducing pounding of Big Bertha howitzers.

Perhaps it was prescient fear, not reactionary anger, that drove the crowd mad.

We have become inured to worse things since, alas. Still, the VSO’s Rite was alive, menacing, and potent enough to inspire a frisson of anxiety. And in the orchestra’s season opener it was paired with two similarly engaging, if considerably lighter, pieces, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, and VSO composer in residence Jocelyn Morlock’s Oiseaux bleus et sauvages.

Morlock’s piece, premiered by the VSO in 2005, was the perfect introduction: airy but rhythmic, tuneful but complex, it grew from a dawn chorus of “avian flutes”—to quote Tovey’s introductory quip—into a blazing noon. And while the Tchaikovsky concerto is far more familiar—familiar enough, in fact, to have been lampooned in a Monty Python sketch—in guest soloist Alexander Gavrylyuk’s hands it, too, shone.

The Ukraine-born pianist came on-stage in the customary tails, but played Tchaikovsky’s fortissimo introduction as if he were dressed in a tight, white T-shirt, yelling “Stella!” That’s a compliment, by the way: it was a muscular, attention-getting, and masterful gambit. Later on, Gavrylyuk effected another odd transformation: between his round, close-cropped head and his enigmatic half-smile, he began to resemble Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat—if that feline could play piano with an utterly winning mix of scientific control and stunt-pilot abandon.

For his encore, after a well-deserved standing ovation, Gavrylyuk chose to perform the first movement of Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen, “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples”. It might not be entirely fair to read that as sly commentary on the otherworldly Morlock and the provocative Stravinsky, but it’s tempting.

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