One of the particular joys of Benaroya Hall since its 1998 opening has been the occasional appearance of touring orchestras on its mainstage: great as it is to hear the Seattle Symphony on a regular basis, it’s also exciting to compare and contrast.
On Wednesday the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and its music director for 13 seasons, Bramwell Tovey, ventured over the border for a concert in the “Special Performances” series at Benaroya. As an added attraction, the VSO brought along Vancouver-born pianist Jon Kimura Parker, a huge favorite in Seattle (he’ll return to play a President’s Piano Series recital at Meany Theater in May).
The program was cleverly balanced to assuage potential audience consternation over the new work — the U.S. premiere of Edward Top’s “Totem” — with the familiar strains of the Grieg Piano Concerto that followed. Rounding things out was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, a hard-charging and colorful work that is a pretty good indicator of any orchestra’s strengths and weaknesses.
The Dutch-born Top (who lives in Vancouver) composed “Totem” in three movements, each underscored with a primitive and propulsive energy. Top, who discussed the new piece with Tovey onstage before the downbeat, used terms like “the fear of being followed in the forest” and “death metal” to describe atmospheres in “Totem,” which requires such percussion instruments as a siren and a thunder sheet. The piece employs lots of tone clusters, drumming, and eerie string effects, but it sounds more like a collection of soundscapes than a work with structure and direction.
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Parker gave the Grieg Concerto a masterly touch, extracting every ounce of drama from the declamatory passages of the opening and the visceral excitement of the first-movement cadenza, ending the movement at such a spectacular pitch that the audience burst into startled applause. Parker built the crescendos with great skill, brought out the charming folk dance elements, and attacked the virtuoso passages with tremendous verve.
Some of the most telling moments came with Parker’s uncannily perfect sense of exactly when and how to place a soft, delicate note — taking just a little extra time in the lyrical F-major section of the third movement.
Tovey was with Parker all the way, but the orchestra sounded a little unfocused and tentative in the concerto, with some ragged entrances. When the players reassembled for the Prokofiev finale, however, the orchestra emerged as a supple ensemble with a big unified sound, impressive and mostly unified brass, and plangent, expert woodwinds with lots of character. Tovey got a terrific performance out of his players, using a very expressive left hand to elucidate details, and delineating the propulsive beat with no-nonsense clarity.
A resounding ovation brought an encore, Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Parker had earlier played an encore, too: a virtuoso version of Danny Elfman’s “Theme from ‘The Simpsons.’ ” This ought to charm appreciative listeners as the VSO heads south on a two-week concert tour.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.