200px-Lisa_Simpson.png
Lisa would have loved it.
Vancouver Symphony

with pianist Jon Kimura Parker

Bramwell Tovey, cond.

Benaroya Hall

Wednesday, January 23

For years I've thought the

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Vancouver Symphony Brilliantly Enlists Homer, Marge, and Bart's Skateboard

200px-Lisa_Simpson.png
Lisa would have loved it.
Vancouver Symphony

with pianist Jon Kimura Parker

Bramwell Tovey, cond.

Benaroya Hall

Wednesday, January 23

For years I've thought the opening title music to The Simpsons, arranged for piano, would make a great recital encore. Last night, out of the blue, Jon Kimura Parker played exactly that, and it worked just as I'd imagined. Though he introduced it, oddly, by saying it was a piece "you won't recognize unless your taste in TV is as bad as mine"-- which is ridiculous, considering it's one of the most acclaimed comedies of the past quarter-century. It was like apologizing for liking Casablanca. Or Revolver.

Parker was here with the Vancouver Symphony to play Grieg's Piano Concerto, splendidly. Conductor Bramwell Tovey loves extremes of tempo; the slow passages in the outer movements were slo-o-o-o-ow, but ecstatic, beautifully controlled, never sounding arbitrary or micromanaged, and Parker was fully in sympathy with his approach. (Not surprisingly, the end of the concert's dessert encore was Brahms' Hungarian Dance no. 5, which jolts between contrasting tempos with even more of a whiplash effect.) Tovey pulled a neat trick in the concerto's final chord, which I'd never heard; after the initial attack, he potted down the orchestra slightly, except for the brass, letting them shine through for a moment, then crescendoing everyone else back up.

Opening the evening thrillingly, in its third performance after its Saturday world premiere, was Totem by the VSO's Dutch-born composer in residence, Edward Top. It made a few allusions to Europe, specifically to the postwar Polish school: tensile string glissandos and sustained wind chords as cool and aloof as a Hitchcock blonde. But the rest of the piece was built out of logs and hide, full of earthy thwacks and snaps from the percussion (including, at one point, four players on four hand-held drums) and gutsy sound effects from the other sections. All three concise and compelling movements, "Angst," "Rite," and "Mosh," left me wanting more.

I can't think of any other music like the breathtaking closing minute of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony from 1944. As the full orchestra winds up, in chugging Soviet-factory rhythms, suddenly half of it drops out for a few bars; then there's a further sudden reduction to just the first-chair strings and a bit of percussion, the energy level unrelenting nevertheless. It's the most extraordinary zoom-in/magnifying effect, exactly like that "Powers of Ten" short film we all saw in elementary school: a view first of your whole body, then of cells and mitochondria, then of bustling carbon atoms.

This was the piece Tovey brought to really show off the orchestra, and he generated climaxes of blazing brilliance and an overall sound of great presence and richness. I've heard some glorious noise in that hall from the Seattle Symphony going full-bore, but this was something else. Since the classical-music industry a few years back converted to the Church of Dudamel, you'd be forgiven for assuming that performances of this freshness, impact, and vibrancy are attainable only by conductors who can't yet legally buy beer. But here was Tovey (positively antediluvian at 59!) spurring the VSO to sound amazing.

 
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