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Be not smug, Seattle. Many of the same tough economics apply to both cities: a high cost of living that makes it hard to hold artists; booming real estate development that mows down funky spaces; and a rootless nerd-economy that cares much less about the grand bourgeois art forms. Conservatives cut taxes to the arts, and liberals divert shrinking public budgets to social services. Arts in these cities are an accordion being relentlessly squeezed.
But that broad-brush picture overlooks some encouraging aspects. Vancouver, like Seattle, has a strong early-music scene (meaning classical music before 1800). The opera company, Canada's second largest, while both being more safe and conventional than Seattle Opera also often takes a big risk, as in its world premiere of Lillian Alling in 2010, reviewed here by Crosscut's Thomas May, and the Canadian premiere of John Adams' Nixon in China. (Portland Opera follows a similar pattern.) Coming up in May: Tan Dun's Tea: A Mirror of Soul. The annual late-January international performing arts festival, PuSh, is ambitious, wide-ranging, and exciting.
And there’s the Vancouver Symphony, which has never been stronger and is thriving under a popular and very personable conductor, Bramwell Tovey, who has headed the group for 12 years and is also a jazz pianist and a composer. Seattle Symphony is struggling with an $11 million accumulated deficit and hoping to maintain altitude at its $24-million budget, while the VSO’s more manageable budget of $13.5 million has a cushion of 30 percent public funding.
So how did they sound? Orchestras on tour – alas none scheduled for Seattle next year – are not easy to critique. The big work, in this case Prokofiev’s magnificent 5th Symphony of 1944, gets more rehearsals than normal and is usually picked to show off strengths. A name soloist always comes along as the draw, in this case the fine Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker,. And a splashy contemporary work by a composer in residence (usually short), starts things off (in this case an attractive commissioned premiere by Edward Top, the Dutch-born composer-in-residence).
Touring orchestras also have to adjust to all kinds of different acoustics, which may be one reason the first half, particularly the Grieg Piano Concerto, sounded raw, brass-heavy, and way too loud. (Parker obliged by pounding away.) The juiced-up performance made me long for the kind of subtle, burnished, dialed-back sound that Ludovic Morlot now elicits from the Seattle Symphony. (Rapturous standing ovation, natch.)
But then came the Prokofiev symphony, which was simply fabulous. Tovey conducts in large gestures, and soon the epic landscapes of the work emerged in all of the composer’s steely, sardonic grandeur. The iron filings in the winds became wonderfully harsh and skeletal. Trumpet cries were stabing agonies of war. The basses were lumbering wagons of the military, when not the trudging feet of victims.
This symphony is so resonant because of the extraordinary drama surrounding Russian classical music under communism. These works abound in code messages and ironies that composers like Prokofiev and Shostakovich had to employ to fool the censors and avoid execution and exile. It is a harrowing music of fear and of the soul’s dread.
Just before Prokofiev gave the downbeat for the world premiere in January 1945, he had to pause because of the booming of artillery outside, celebrating the crossing of the Vistuala River by the Red Army, signaling the coming end of the war. The triumphant success of the work was just weeks before an exhausted Prokofiev collapsed and suffered a concussion that would ruin his health for the rest of his life. As the 5th, Beethoven haunts the work, which is Prokofiev’s one fully architectural, fully symphonic work, the work he counted as his best. It might be the last great symphony of our time, maybe the last great symphony to be written at all.
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