The Vancouver Symphony concert this weekend at Skyview Concert Hall will feature impressionistic, programmatic music by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, John Corigliano, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Ottorino Respighi. Under guest conductor Sarah Ioannides, the orchestra will suggest sounds that might remind you of scenes from nature, cities, exotic cultures, and even ancient Rome.
A highlight of the concert will be Corigliano’s The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, which will feature violin virtuoso Philippe Quint. That piece is taken from The Red Violin, the 1998 movie about a magnificent but haunted violin and its journey over several centuries and continents. The score for the film won the Oscar in 1999.
“The Red Violin music is very cinematic and picturesque,” said Quint via a Zoom call. “The violin is the protagonist. But you don’t need to see the movie in order to understand the story that the music is telling. The piece is very striking and passionate, a bit of a rollercoaster, like the movie. The violin ends up in outrageous situations all over the world. Corigliano’s score is extremely challenging for the soloist, orchestra, and conductor, but it is, at the end of the day, a lot of fun to play. I have an absolute blast performing this piece.”
Quint, who is making his debut with the VSO in this concert, will also play Ravel’s Tizgane, one of the most unique pieces for violin and orchestra ever written, because the soloist plays alone for almost half of the piece before the orchestra joins in.
“The Ravel fits together with the Corigliano,” said Quint. “Both pieces are program music. The great violinist Jelly d’Aranyi gave a performance of gypsy music that inspired Ravel to compose Tizgane and dedicate it to her. The piece is a rhapsody but with virtuosic fireworks. He wanted to make it very virtuosic because of her technical abilities. Ravel looked up works by Paganini and used all sorts of stuff – double harmonics, left-pizzicata, and other pyrotechnical wizardry. The piece is fantastically written and very clever. It’s a masterpiece that every violinist wants to conquer and interpret.”
The concert marks a return engagement for Ioannides, who is in her tenth year as the Music Director of Symphony Tacoma. Ioannides made a terrific impression in her last appearance with the orchestra in January of 2021, even though she had to conduct with a mask because of the pandemic. This time around, she will be freed up to convey a fuller range of emotion.
“I love the impressionist and post-impressionist period of music,” said Ioannides via phone. “This concert will feature rich and lush pieces that resonate well with audiences. Corigliano is one of the great American composers, and his Red Violin Chaconne is based on seven different chords. People can follow the seven-chord line through the piece.”
The concert will open with Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps.
“The Wasps is a very colorful opening that sets up the whole sweep of incidental music for a theater piece,” said Ioannides. “We get the overture feel that Vaughan Williams developed later for a number of significant operas that he wrote. It’s almost like a testing ground for him becoming an opera composer. It has a great, raspy wasp-like irritation at the beginning swarming around you. Then the piece turns into these British-styled melodies – a march and gorgeous long melodies and eventually Vaughn Williams brings them together.”
The buzzy sound at the beginning of the piece is especially intriguing for those of us who have never played a violin.
“The waspy sound is a trill essentially – with bow speed and pressure,” explained Ioannides. “The louder it gets, the faster the bow speed and more pressure with sforzandos as it comes closer to you.”
The concert also includes Debussy’s dreamy Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, which was inspired by the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé. This faun is the mythological creature who is playing his pan-pipes in the woods when nymphs dart by. He pursues them unsuccessfully and finally falls asleep.
“The Debussy starts with a beautiful flute solo,” said Ioannides. “That parallel’s nicely with the Vaughan Williams with the trilling wasps, and the Ravel with the big violin solo. Another connection in the concert is that Vaughn Williams studied with Ravel for several months before writing The Wasps.”
One of the finest programmatic works ever written is Respighi’s Pines of Rome, a tone poem with four movements portraying settings in the city with pine trees.
“You will hear children playing under the pine trees in the Villa Borghese gardens in the first movement,” said Ioannides. “The second presents shadows of the pines by the catacombs. It is hymnlike and mysterious. The third offers a nighttime scene of the pines of the Janiculum hill, and it has a recording of bird sounds. In the fourth movement the dawn comes back, and we are at the Appian Way with a distance army marching toward us as the sun comes up – leaving all the death and the misery behind – glory has come to the new capital.”
The fourth movement also has an unusual sonic feature.
“The score calls for six buccine,” said Ioannides. “These were ancient circular trumpets with limited pitches that were used for military and herding purposes. We will create that effect with antiphonal back and forth between the onstage and offstage brass. That should be fun.”
Since the concert is loaded with impressionistic gems, the music will encourage audience members to close their eyes and use their imaginations. That might cause some people to reach into their purses for bug spray when they hear The Wasps, but who can blame them.