After a slow start to the season, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra reached its stride. Thanks to the thrilling music-making of Alexandre Bloch, the French wunderkind of the conducting world, the diverse programme of Messiaen, Haydn, and Schubert showed off the orchestra at its very best.

Alexandre Bloch © Askonas Holt
Alexandre Bloch
© Askonas Holt
Opening the concert with Olivier Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées was a bold choice. Messiaen’s early orchestral work belies its short length of just 13 minutes and creates an atmosphere that is at once intense, evocative, and shocking. Bloch retained admirable control over the orchestra through the three contrasting parts of the work, beautifully contrasting the profound meditation of the outer sections with the nightmarish, almost hysterical middle portion. Some string intonation slips aside, the orchestra has never sounded better, from the lush Debussy-esque chords of the opening to the shrieking woodwind rhythms in the middle section. Particularly breathtaking was the very final section, with the ascending muted strings evaporating away into an enthralling whisper.

Bloch and the orchestra must be commended for undertaking not one, but two such exhausting and formidable musical journeys – serving as a neat bookend to the Messiaen, the concert closed with Schubert’s Ninth (and final) symphony. Schubert’s mammoth work, despite its popularity, frequently eludes conductors due to its grueling length and sprawling structure. Though Bloch’s interpretation of the piece is by no means completely polished, this was still a strikingly mature and cohesive account. Rather than emphasizing the many melodic themes, he focused on Schubert’s harmonic and structural innovations. This was most evident in the opening movement, in which melodies weaved in and out of a darker, harmonically unstable backdrop. Most striking were the middle two movements, which achieved an ideal balance of transparency and articulation. Despite evident (though understandable) tiring from the orchestra, the final movement was almost threateningly lively, as befitting its Vivace title. Particular mention must go to the brass section, whose constant presence from opening horn solo to final triumphant chords lent a sense of cohesion to this monumental work. 

Serving as a delightful divertissement between these two works was a fine performance of Haydn’s D major keyboard concerto. Though soloist Ingrid Fliter performed the concerto on the piano, her interpretation most definitely owed much to the harpsichord. Fliter plays with astounding clarity and articulation, sounding positively Scarlatti-esque at times. This was particularly effective in the opening movement, with runs, arpeggiated chords, and trills dazzling in their pinpoint accuracy. Though Fliter is certainly a sensitive musician, her muscular articulation served her less well in the lyricism of the second movement – however, the final rondo allowed her to revel in Haydn’s Hungarian rhythms and was a sheer joy to hear. However, it was Alexandre Bloch’s masterful storytelling that will make this concert an experience to remember.

****1