VSO kicks off season with extraordinary salvo of concerts

Yo-Yo Ma, Mahler’s Sixth Symphony two early highlights of season.

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Yo-Yo Ma with the VSO

When: Sept. 8, 8 p.m.

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Where: Orpheum Theatre, 601 Smithe St., Vancouver

Otto Tausk conducts Mahler’s Sixth Symphony

When: Sept. 15 and 16, 8 p.m.

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 601 Smithe St., Vancouver

Tickets and info: vancouversymphony.ca

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra launches its 2023-24 season a bit early this September with an extraordinary salvo of concerts.

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First off is a performance featuring stellar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as auspicious a fanfare for the orchestra’s 105th season as anyone could wish for. Music director Otto Tausk begins his program with what is, I believe, a Vancouver premiere — the Overture to Cyrano de Bergerac by his countryman Johan Wagenaar.

Fans of local compositional trivia might like to know that Wagenaar’s son Bernard, also a composer, taught Vancouver’s Barbara Pentland and Jean Coulthard in New York.

Next, Ma essays Dvoak’s blockbuster Cello Concerto. Then Tausk ends in a blaze of glory with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. In all, it’s a wonderfully conceived program of late romantic music. No surprise that it’s been sold out for weeks.

Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is on the docket for the launch of the VSO’s flagship Masterworks Gold series, Sept. 15 and 16. Tausk is starting the season as he means to go on: Mahler’s incomparable Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) will end Masterworks Diamond next June.

Both works are as good as late romantic music gets, exceptionally crafted and overflowing with philosophical and emotional depth. Both are intense and magnificent. But both are also as serious as they can be. Great works of art define their own reality; while lots of classical music is designed to be sophisticated entertainment, big works like those by Beethoven, Brahms, or Mahler speak directly to the great issues of human experience.

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A Royal Albert Hall performance of Mahler's Sixth.
A Royal Albert Hall performance of Mahler’s Sixth. odd Rosenberg Photography

Mahler’s 1904 Sixth Symphony, sometimes referred to with the unauthorized subtitle, The Tragic, is a work of extraordinary intensity. In his first symphonies Mahler explored various post-Beethoven notions of structure and forces, but by the Fifth he was back to a reinvigorated model of four movements without voices, choirs, or texts.

Most Mahler aficionados contend that the Sixth has, if not a narrative story, then the emotional equivalent of a plot: conflict and contrast in the opening movement, a scherzo, a tender slow movement, then the astonishingly dark finale. The latter contains a detail that invariably surprises first-time listeners: the tragic vicissitudes of fate are represented by three apocalyptic hammer blows.

Mahler indicated he wanted a sound “brief and mighty, but dull in resonance and with a non-metallic character — like the fall of an axe.” The story — from Mahler’s unreliable wife Alma — goes that the superstitious composer was so terrified by what amounted to his own prophetic view of the future that in the premiere performance he miscued the final coup de grâce. Good story, and I’ve known of present day conductors who went with two rather than three hammerschlagen.

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Mahler famously wrote, “A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” Before the finale, the great Sixth gives attuned listeners so much to think about: the reconciliation of great contrasts in the opening movement; a bitter danse macabre scherzo, and, for my money, one of the most beautiful slow movements ever penned, as if to underscore the transient nature of beauty and life.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir.
Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Anna Maggý

The problem then is what to program along with the Sixth. It’s almost a full concert on its own — it can run to 85 minutes if the conductor is minded to stop and smell the flowers. Tausk chooses to preface his interpretation of the Sixth with the 22-minute Catamorphosis by contemporary Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. This the result of a high-profile joint commission from Berlin, Birmingham, New York, and Iceland orchestras, and was premiered just two years ago, winning the 2021 Ivors Composer Award for Large Scale Composition.

What a way to start a season.

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