That, my friends, was a professional symphony performance I will never forget.
On the final Friday night of September, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) made a tour stop in Kelowna and absolutely positively blew the roof off Kelowna Community Theatre. Typed words cannot accurately express what took place inside the old barn as the VSO packed its 71 full-time musicians onto the stage and went on an amazing orchestral journey from first salvo to last bow.
The Okanagan Symphony Orchestra (OSO) was the evening’s gracious host and perpetrator of this musical masterpiece. Follow these numbers. The OSO unofficially opened its 58th season by literally handing the baton to the VSO which is marking its 99th season. In charge of this confluence was conductor Bramwell Tovey (a perfectly classic name for a Bond villain) who is in his 18th and final season with the VSO.
According to Alan Gove, VSO’s Vice-President, Marketing and Sales, VSO has an annual budget of $16.5 million. It’s the third-largest symphony orchestra in Canada and the largest performing arts organization in Western Canada. In the 2017/18 season, the group will gear up for approximately 141 concerts.
Who doesn’t know the familiar riff of the William Tell Overture by Rossini? That’s how this party, amplified by a filled-to-the-brim house, got electrified early. Heads were swaying as many in attendance were transported back to the time when The Lone Ranger television and radio show dotted the airwaves with this iconic theme. Go ahead, hum parts of this libretto in your head and you’ll hear a mix of cellos, English horns, flutes, and brass.
Part two of the program was a four movement song cycle titled Ancestral Voices and composed by Tovey specifically for Canada 150 celebrations. With this work, the English maestro was speaking to an act of reconciliation that addressed the complicated part of Canada’s shared legacy – the fraught relationship between First Nations people and subsequent arrivals.
While the music and texts stem from non-aboriginal sources, Tovey was careful to seek out the advice and perspective of someone with First Nations heritage. The songs were created for and written in consultation with mezzo-soprano soloist Marion Newman, who has Kwagiulth and Stό:lō First Nation roots. The four songs she admirably soloed were In Arcady, The Last Bison, The Letter, and Bring Light to the Truth.
After intermission, Tchaikovsky took over and killed it. His Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64 had four highly engaging movements that reflected the composer’s outlook on life at the time. The emotional progress he expressed in the music and waltzes was restless striving, heartfelt yearning, and passionate love before the final whirlwind coda that brought an extra-long standing ovation.
My favorite part of this session was watching the strings, mostly the three rows of violinists at stage front, bobbing and weaving their heads, upper bodies, and bows with absolute precision. It was rhythmic poetry and caused me to think these musicians really enjoy what they do. Bravo. I learned after the show from OSO General Manager Roger Tilstra that this technique is called downstroke and upstroke. The musicians practice this choreographed strumming. On this evening, practice made perfect.
Big Finish – but wait, the VSO had a few encores up its tuxedo sleeve. The first was the highly energetic Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. The audience stood throughout. Then Tovey introduced the Radetzky March by Strauss and invited OSO Music Director Rosemary Thomson to conduct. She accepted and orchestrated a vivacious finish to a captivating two-hour show.
The OSO will officially open its 2017/18 season on Saturday, October 28 at KCT with SPOOKtacular. Concert-goers are being encouraged to come in full costume and get into the Halloween spirit.