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Review: Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta makes brilliant VSO debut

Her program brilliantly showed what an adventurous outsider can add to the VSO’s regular classical diet.

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The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s latest Musically Speaking/Surrey Nights pair of concerts was something out of the ordinary: Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta’s debut with the orchestra.

Her program brilliantly showed what an adventurous outsider can add to the VSO’s regular classical diet.

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Back in the day, the VSO’s Musically Speaking Series was designed to be quality repertoire with added commentary. Good idea, but uneven results: Not all guest conductors embrace the idea of platform chat — or manage it with both enthusiasm and skill.

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Falletta showed exactly how it’s done. Within seconds of her “Hello, I’m JoAnne” opening gambit, she established audience trust and rapport — which was a very good thing, as in that half the program was made up of relatively obscure French Modernist music.

The evening launched with Ravel’s evocation of old Vienna, La valse. At first it’s all fun and games in 3/4 time; then it turns dark, and ends in spectacular catastrophe.

Falletta took it by the book, an interpretation that was refined and intrinsically unsentimental, only letting the mask of bogus Gemütlichkeit drop in the final moments of the intricately crafted score. Without overselling the disturbing nature of the piece, Falletta hinted at its connection to the First World War, but didn’t force her thoughts on the audience.

Next up came two pieces by Ravel’s near-contemporary Florent Schmidt (1870—1958) featuring mezzo Susan Platts. With unexpected generosity, Falletta invited Platts to introduce Musique sur l’eau; she demurred with a modest “I’m here to sing, not talk,” but still gave us the inside goods on the slight but fascinating work.

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This new-to-Vancouver delight can hold its own with Debussy and Ravel, especially when sensitively played and beautifully sung. More Schmidt ended the first half, his slightly better known La Tragédie de Salomé, an extended tone poem with voices.

Platts was joined by a small cohort of women from the UBC Opera Ensemble. Though unfamiliar to most of the audience and, one suspects, many in the orchestra, the result was evocative and expressive, a charmingly good workout.

The orchestra performs a handful of pieces from the French repertoire often enough, but it’s fair to say that it doesn’t always excel in the French style — an ineffable combo of exquisite detail and a focused clarity — as consistently as it does Austrian/German or Russian music.

In the Schmidt pieces and, after the interval, the second suite from Albert Rousell’s Arianne et Bachus, Falletta had the orchestra exploring little-known terrain, with fundamentally good results. The Rousell in particular had some insecure moments, but given the conductor’s craft and enthusiasm, it all worked out.

Ending with Ravel’s infamous Boléro demonstrated the showmanship behind Falletta’s programming concept. All conductors have their own take on this electrifying chestnut. Falletta opted for clarity and restraint, keeping the wind and brass solos tasteful and allowing the piece’s reductive eloquence to speak for itself and on its own terms.

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Enthusiastic applause showed that the conductor, the orchestra and the audience rated this first date a considerable success.

Perhaps we can all do this again — and sooner rather than later?

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