In a season mercifully free of the inevitable Nutcrackers and Messiahs, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s concert featuring Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and Sarah Chang in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto was as crowd-pleasing as you could get. Despite Chang’s star appeal, it was Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen that proved the main draw in a concert that was occasionally frustrating but ultimately enjoyable.

Sarah Chang © Cliff Watt
Sarah Chang
© Cliff Watt
The concert opened with Burn, a tone poem by the rising young Canadian composer Jordan Pal. Burn is Pal’s most successful work, having received performances all over the country – it’s not difficult to see why, with its impressionistic bursts of colour and texture and exciting, edgy rhythms. While it tended towards the bombastic, the piece allowed Inkinen to take advantage of a dazzling range of colours and volumes from the orchestra. 

Similarly lush was Inkinen’s treatment of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, with horn and woodwind solos bringing to mind the composer’s more famous symphonies. The Violin Concerto has never achieved the widespread popularity of its cello counterpart – with its sprawling first movement and repetitive furiant finale, it requires a soloist of utmost artistic as well as technical skill to turn the work into a cohesive whole. Sarah Chang has virtuosity and showmanship down to perfection without a doubt, but seemed a poor fit for the score’s autumnal lyricism. Attacking the first movement with a tense, edgy tone and little attempt at phrasing, the endless cascades of runs of the first movement seemed interminable. Although Chang effectively warmed up her tone for the second movement, the swift tempo allowed little room for Dvořák’s marvelous harmonies and orchestral textures to shine through. Best of all was the finale, which allowed Chang free rein to dazzle the audience with her remarkable virtuosity and energy. It was not enough, however, if the muted audience response was anything to go by.

Infinitely more artistically satisfying was Inkinen’s treatment of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, drawing out some of the most exquisite sounds I have ever heard from the Vancouver Symphony. The first movement was wrapped in a veneer of wistful nostalgia, with the second theme taken at a daringly slow tempo to breathtaking effect. I missed, however, some of the sheer raw power of the movement, especially the brass fanfare that opens the symphony. The elegiac second movement served as an ideal showcase for the orchestra’s exceptional woodwind section, with each player seemingly trying to outdo the others in how ravishingly soft they could play. In contrast, the final two movements were a dazzling, Nutcracker-esque romp that finely displayed the glittering virtuosity of the entire orchestra and sent the audience home on an appropriately festive note.