Vancouver Symphony review: from the other side of the river

Orchestra's performances of challenging classics reveals musical quality across the Columbia

by TERRY ROSS

That little band across the river, they can’t get no respect. On my side of the I-5 bridge, effete music reviewers  rarely bother to hear the Vancouver Symphony except when it comes to… Portland. And then usually when it’s accompanying a Portland group like the Oregon Repertory Singers. In a Portland venue.

Well, it ain’t fair.

On a Saturday afternoon, April 22, I made the trek to north Vancouver’s Skyview Concert Hall to hear what the orchestra had to offer. And I came away thoroughly impressed, even delighted.

First, the hall. It’s a part of Skyview High School, which is amazing, because it is a state-of-the-art auditorium for concerts and stage productions. With no balcony (and therefore no awful, sound-devouring overhang, as in the Oregon Symphony’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall) and with sound baffles strategically placed along the wide side walls, it projects a clean, direct sound, balanced in treble and bass. A sophisticated sound mixing booth at the rear allows for first-rate recordings. Skyview Concert Hall is  a major orchestra needs.

The Vancouver Symphony is not considered a major orchestra, either by budget or reputation, but it’s doing a good job of impersonating one. In the concert I heard, with long-time (25 years!) conductor Salvador Brotons, who lives in Barcelona, leading with panache and passion (and without a score), the band gave a much more than creditable reading of Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Suite and Ottorino Respighi’s deservedly familiar Pines of Rome.

Ashley Teng played Nielsen with the Vancouver Symphony. Photo: Paul Quackenbush.

Interspersed in the program were performances by the three winners of the orchestra’s 23rd Annual Young Artists Competition, held on January 15. The first to appear was Ashley Teng, a 10th-grader at Camas High School, who is the co-principal flutist with the Portland Youth Philharmonic, the nation’s oldest young persons’ orchestra. After Maestro Brotons and the orchestra played the Grieg, with an admirably big sound in the second-movement Norwegian March and a deeply passionate third-movement Nocturne, Miss Teng took her place in the limelight. Playing to Maestro Broton’s specialty (he has been principal flutist of several orchestras in his native Spain, and he has a doctorate in flute-playing), the young lady, very composed and cool, played the first movement of Carl Nielsen’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra from 1926. It was a thoroughly professional performance of difficult music, nuanced and energetic.

Next came the euphonically named violinist Symphony Koss, who chose for her premiere with the orchestra the very tricky and just plain difficult virtuoso piece, Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra from 1882. She negotiated the score’s innumerable double-stops, octave jumps, and harmonics with only the occasional tuning problem but with great conviction. Kudos to this 10th-grader from Vancouver’s Columbia River High School, who is the principal second violinist in the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

Violinist Symphony Koss enjoys the applause with the VSO. Photo: Paul Quackenbush.

After the intermission, the orchestra reconvened for the third of the prize-winners, pianist Trevor Natuik, a junior at Columbia Adventist Academy in Battle Ground. He took on the greatest of 20th-century pianists, Sergei Rachmaninov himself, in the first movement of the master’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Without the slightest hesitation, Mr. Natuik attacked Rachmaninov’s glorious score and gave an entirely convincing reading of this difficult movement, backed strongly by Maestro Brotons and the orchestra.

Then it was time for the blockbuster, Respighi’s masterful Pines of Rome (1916), one of three pieces the Italian composer wrote about Rome — the others are Fountains of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928). Conducting demonstratively , even occasionally dropping into a crouch, Maestro Brotons elicited from his orchestra a convincing rendition of this ebullient piece, long a signature piece of the band across the river, the Oregon Symphony.  The closing Pines of the Appian Way, with the Roman centurions on the march, was as exciting as it was meant to be, and convinced the sold-out audience at the finish to jump up in a standing ovation. And one richly deserved.

Salvator Brotons conducted the VSO and pianist Trevor Natuik in Rachmaninoff’s first piano concert. Photo: Paul Quackenbush.

For this jaded Portland reviewer, the whole show was like a lungful of clean mountain air. Here’s a community orchestra, professional and playing a limited season, with their entire city behind them, led by a talented and energetic conductor, with a committed group of players and administrators, producing a damned fine musical product. And on the other side of the river!

Recommended recordings

• Grieg, Lyric Suite, Op. 54 (1906)
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducting (Deutsche Grammophon E4278072), 1989.

• Nielsen, Flute Concerto (1926)
Robert Langevin, flute, with New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert conducting (Dacapo 6200003), 2015.

• Rachmaninov, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1891, 1917)
Krystian Zimmerman, piano, with Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting (Deutsche Grammophon 4796868), 2016.

• Respighi, The Pines of Rome (1924)
Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting (Deutsche Grammophon E4158462), 1997.

• Sarasate, Carmen Fantasy (1883)
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin, with Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine conducting (Deutsche Grammophon D144674), 1992.

Terry Ross is a Portland freelance journalist and the director of The Classical Club, through which he offers classical music appreciation sessions. He can be reached at classicalclub@comcast.net.

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