VSO’s season launches with Mahler’s sprawling Sixth Symphony

Music director Otto Tausk purposefully made his orchestra the star of the evening.

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Although the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presented a one-off concert with cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma a few days ago, its 105th season was launched in earnest with the first of the flagship Masterpiece concerts on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Eschewing the traditional starter-concerto-symphony model, music director Otto Tausk presented just two works: Catamorphosis, a new piece by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir, and Mahler’s sprawling Sixth Symphony.

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Tausk purposefully made his orchestra the star of the evening. His decision to opt for ultra-serious repertoire was a bold statement about what an important regional orchestra can and should do.

The starter, a complementary pairing for the Mahler behemoth to come, demonstrated the VSO’s connection to the wider world of contemporary music. Tausk got it exactly right in his brief platform introduction: Catamorphosis is essentially film music, all atmospheric effects and cunningly worked out textures, slow moving but with flashes of quicker patterns and the occasional triad.

Thorvaldsdóttir’s scoring may lack a certain measure of invention, but the piece has consistency and appeal, and was received in rapt silence by the opening night audience.

Orchestras program Mahler’s Sixth Symphony only rarely. It’s an enormous stretch for players and conductor; despite crushing demands, it’s something to be savoured. With a gigantic orchestra filling every inch of the Orpheum stage over a running time of nearly an hour and a half, the enterprise presented abundant challenges, starting with integrating a plethora of extra players who work only rarely with the ensemble; then there’s the physical matter of player and audience fatigue. Add in Mahler’s penchant for enormous grand effects and, more importantly, moments of sublime subtlety, and you have an endeavour that defines ambitious programming.

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Tausk’s gambit worked. The impressive opening movement, itself almost the length of a classical era symphony, was crammed with expression and theatricality. There is ongoing dispute about the preferred order of the middle movements of the work; Tausk opted for the exquisite slow movement in second place, here with truly exemplary solo playing by the VSO’s new principal horn, Alexander Wide. While much of the Sixth relies on shock and awe, the Andante moderato points the way to the composer’s late idiom, myriad precisely calibrated chamber combinations. The dark but always theatrical danse macabre Scherzo led to the nihilist finale; of complementary weight to the first movement, it provides the tragic, seemingly inexorable denouement of the symphony.

How would the opening night audience respond to what has to be one of the grimmest endings of any orchestral work? An instant and heartfelt standing ovation demonstrated that Friday’s masterpiece audience knew exactly what Tausk and his musicians had dared to do, and the value of their accomplishment.

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