Fresh from a whirlwind of New Music Festival programmes ushering in the centenary month of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, newly installed Music Director Otto Tausk settled down to a programme of “traditional” Austro-German music at the Orpheum on Wednesday evening.

Itzhak Perlman, Otto Tausk and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra © Matthew Baird | VSO
Itzhak Perlman, Otto Tausk and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
© Matthew Baird | VSO

I can’t think of a better word than “safe” to describe the Orchestra’s performance in works by Mozart and Schubert in the first half of the programme. The opening chords in D minor – Mozart’s signature key for solemnity and darkness – of the overture to Don Giovanni were emphatic and gloomy enough, but there were plenty of missed opportunities for sharper contrasts in mood ranging from despair to ecstasy, from seriousness to flippancy, in the same way as the opera itself refuses to be typecast as either seria or buffa. The centrepiece passages depicting the ribald amorous exploits of the opera’s protagonist were rather placid. If seduction was this mind-numbing, who would want to engage in it in the first place, least of all Don Giovanni? Nor was there much variation in expression or dynamics either.

Schubert’s symphonies, especially the early ones, are an under-appreciated body of work in the genre, overshadowed by the vast output of towering predecessors and contemporaries such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Yet they possess a charming playfulness not often found in the other masters, and carry traces of his immense talent as a composer for the human voice. Although numbers 8 and 9 are considered his best, the Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major is for me the most enjoyable. Not only is this the mid-point of his symphonies, but it is also approximately the mid-point of his entire oeuvre.

The first movement opens with a light bouncy melody that seems to float, yet in Tausk's hands it was rather leaden. The medium tempo was just right, but the assertive delivery was not befitting the unassuming character of the movement. The Andante con moto second movement had a strong sense of cantabile and was a perfect accompaniment to closing one’s eyes in relaxation but for the intrusive oboe, which kept rising above the rest of the orchestra like an ugly duckling. The third movement, with its flowing dance rhythm and long-drawn-out melody, is a delightful gambol. Here the orchestra came up trumps, but the inconsiderate oboe still kept butting in. The finale, Allegro vivace, is a light-hearted summation of the fun pervading the symphony. Tausk took his time a little too much and missed the almost scherzo-like impishness of the movement.

The second half of the evening was undoubtedly dominated by the soloist, Itzhak Perlman. After going through the routine of taking his violin from the conductor and giving him his baton, he lost little time in launching into Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor, Op 64. His purity of tone and velvety delivery stayed true to the composer’s intentions with little fanfare or overbearing flamboyance. It was as though he was merely a vehicle through which Mendelssohn was speaking to us. The suavity with which he navigated the virtuosic twists and turns of the first movement, especially the cadenza, belied an unrivalled depth of understanding, maturity and thoughtful refinement.

As the bassoon built the bridge into the Andante second movement, the pace slowed down markedly. Continuing in his self-effacing manner, Perlman’s penetrating insight had me shivering in my chair, truly experiencing the sheer impact of the music rather than just hearing it. The final movement shared the light-hearted joy of the finale in Schubert’s fifth symphony, but without its mischief. The interplay between the woodwinds and soloist was delightful and it was clear that both orchestra and soloist thoroughly enjoyed the frolicking. It was inevitable that in the face of a soloist with such superb artistry as Perlman, the orchestra found it hard to shine, but they excelled nevertheless in providing unobtrusive and skilful support.

The true finale of the evening was a work John Williams had composed with Perlman in mind, much as Mendelssohn had done for Ferdinand David and Brahms for Joseph Joachim. The theme from the movie Schindler’s List is a fine example of a quiet but teary celebration of the indomitable human spirit in the face of extreme suffering. As Perlman teased out the duet with the harp, I kept thinking how he was himself a fine example of this spirit. We sent him off, as we had done welcoming him, with a well-deserved standing ovation and almost a teary farewell.

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