The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra moved to the Bell Performing Arts Centre in Surrey on Monday in rain and strong winds but thriving spirit under energetic guest conductor Alexandre Bloch, Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lille, in works by Mendelssohn, Bruch and Beethoven.

Alexandre Bloch © Alex Hungary
Alexandre Bloch
© Alex Hungary

In 1839 the Leipzig Theatrical Pension Fund had invited Mendelssohn to write an overture and a song for a benefit performance of the play Ruy Blas by Victor Hugo, but he thought it so “absolutely ghastly” that he obliged with only a song. Embarrassed by the Fund’s urging, he followed up with an overture in a day and had it copied in time for the play’s rehearsal the following week. In the play, Ruy Blas is valet to an aristocrat in 18th-century Spain – and a poet to boot. Determined to avenge being scorned by the Queen, the aristocrat passes Blas off as a nobleman but eventually exposes and humiliates him. He tries to poison himself after killing his master, and is pardoned by the queen in his dying moments. Despite Mendelssohn’s distaste for the melodrama, the overture is a vivid portrait of swagger, bravado, swashbuckling chicanery, chivalry and romantic fantasy – a fun ice-breaker to more serious fare.

The Vancouver Symphony, possibly not having warmed up enough in the inclement weather, struggled to bring out the best of Mendelssohn’s overture. The brass was a fraction of a second out of sync in the opening fanfare, and the strings were dull in tone and not quite together some of the time. Bloch kept up a brisk pace and sense of good cheer, occasionally extracting an appropriate dose of lyricism, but not enough to make it an unquestioned success.

Violinist Blake Pouliot then joined the orchestra in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, a work of fine musical imagination. The strings opened up a space specially for the harp near the soloist, reflecting the importance of the instrument suggested by the work’s original published title of “Fantasy for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, freely using Scottish Folk Melodies”. Pouliot’s account was intimate and sensitive, with a strong sense of rhythm showing affinity with the Scottish folk melodies that inspired Bruch. His unassuming entry after the gloomy orchestral opening of the first movement belied his role in shaping the direction of the work. His tone of lament was tear-jerkingly nostalgic, underpinned by unobtrusive pangs of sorrow in the orchestra. The mood perked up in a lively dance rhythm in the Allegro second movement as soloist and orchestra engaged in a banter when the soloist wasn’t soaring to heights of ecstasy. Pouliot’s lyricism in the Andante sostenuto paled in comparison to the first movement, but was nevertheless soothing relief to the preceding vigour. In the Allegro guerriero finale, orchestra and soloist joined hands in unabashed chest-beating celebration. After staying in the background the harp came to the fore, adding colours of romanticism.

Reinvigorated after the intermission, the orchestra tackled Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor with verve but avoiding dramatic hyperbole. Apparently not subscribing to reports of the opening notes being “fate knocking at the door”, Bloch took a subdued approach, emphasising more their rhythmic support of the symphony’s structure. Gesturing vigorously to keep up a palpable propulsive pace, sometimes almost squatting to make a point, he drew from the orchestra distinct layers of colour and variety of dynamics. The reflective oboe response to the hurly-burly of the first movement was not quite as prominent as it should be. The wallowing rhythm of the second movement was mesmerising, as were the passages of triumph majestic, interspersed with a fine interplay between the brass and woodwinds. The haunting moments of darkness on low strings that opened the third movement were soon dispelled by loud brass calls driven by the rhythmic vigour of the first. After a romp on low strings a pause of soft rumbling paved the way to the triumphant and march-like final movement, its paroxysmal energy helped by blaring trombones and piccolo. The cataclysmic pulse was sometimes unrelenting, as the orchestra congealed into the convulsive final moments. After a faltering start, the orchestra finally redeemed itself in a show of defiance.