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News / Life / Clark County Life

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra rides wave of enthusiasm into 45th year, opens season with Prokofiev

By James Bash, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: September 21, 2023, 6:03am

Eager to build on the success of August’s Vancouver Arts & Music Festival that drew crowds to Esther Short Park, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is loading up a panoply of terrific concerts for its 45th season.

Music Director Salvador Brotons has scheduled a vibrant mix of beloved gems and less familiar works. That should appeal to patrons and attract newbies to Skyview Concert Hall, where the hometown orchestra has performed since 1999.

This weekend, the orchestra will kick off the season with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4 and two pieces that are favorites of classical music audiences: Ravel’s “Bolero” and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which will feature virtuoso Antonio Pompa-Baldi.

A native of Italy, Antonio Pompa-Baldi started playing on a toy piano when he was just 3. The following year he began piano lessons and quickly excelled on the keyboard. As a young teenager, he won several competitions in Italy before winning the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 1999 and the silver medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

If You Go

What: Vancouver Symphony Orchestra season opener with Antonio Pompa-Baldi

When: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Online or in person at Skyview High School Concert Hall, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver

Cost: $42 general admission, $10 for students, $15 for livestream

Contact: 360-735-7278 or vancouversymphony.org

Pompa-Baldi, 48, has been featured in more than 30 recordings and appears regularly with major orchestras around the world. He teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music where he is distinguished professor of piano and head of the piano department.

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is most popular of the composer’s four piano concertos. It is familiar even to audiences beyond the walls of concert halls. Themes from the concerto have been used in many movies like Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch.” Some of the concerto’s melodic lines have also been borrowed and burrowed into popular songs like Frank Sinatra’s “I Think of You” and Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself.”

“I first learned and performed Rachmaninoff’s second in 2003, so exactly 20 years ago,” Pompa-Baldi said. “I learned it kind of late but had always wanted to play it. When I finally did, I kept it always in my repertoire.”

In Pompa-Baldi’s opinion, the work is at the pinnacle of the piano concerto literature.

“There are so many things I love about the concerto,” he said. “Obviously, it has some of Rachmaninoff’s trademarks: the gorgeous melodies, the luscious harmonies, the passion, the nostalgia, the nobility, the perfect writing for the piano. I also love its perfect form, the extremely harmonious architecture, the absolute essentiality of every single note, the inevitability of it all. It is simply miraculous.”

“The concerto captures listeners’ attention right away,” he continued, “from the first tolling bells of the solo piano opening, to the outpouring of passion coming from the first bit theme, to the romantic, gorgeous second theme, to the dramatic, powerful climaxes … and that’s only the first movement!”

Since Rachmaninoff was a supremely gifted pianist, his works demand the utmost technical prowess and artistry at the keyboard.

“There are many virtuosic moments in the solo part,” Pompa-Baldi said. “A lot of the passages require a very high level of pianistic skill, but it is all extremely well written, conceived by one of history’s greatest pianists in a very idiomatic way.”

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Another popular piece on this weekend’s program is Ravel’s “Bolero.” Recordings of the piece experienced a huge surge of sales after it was featured in the 1979 romantic comedy “10.”

“Bolero” is not a complex number. It basically begins with solo instruments playing a simple melody. The melody gradually progresses to groups that are often assembled in novel and effective ways. Over the course of 15 minutes, the music travels from a quiet pianissimo to a thundering crescendo, and that always electrifies listeners.

Less well known is Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4. The orchestra will perform the first version of this work, completed in 1930. It was based on themes from Prokofiev’s ballet “The Prodigal Son,” which the composer worked into symphonic form while traveling across the United States via train. The Boston Symphony, under Serge Koussevitzky, gave its world premiere, but Prokofiev missed it because he had already returned to Europe.

Looking ahead

Sarah Ioannides, music director of Symphony Tacoma, will lead Vancouver’s orchestra Nov. 4 and 5 in John Corigliano’s wistful “Chaconne for Violin,” which became famous because of the 1998 movie “The Red Violin.” Virtuoso Phillipe Quint is the soloist, and he is will also play Ravel’s Roma-inspired “Tzigane.” Ioannides, who made an impressive debut with the orchestra in January 2021, will also conduct Debussy’s ethereal “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Respighi’s triumphant “Pines of Rome.”

Brotons will take the podium Dec. 9 and 10 for the orchestra’s annual pops concerts. Although the program has not been announced, it is recommended that you get your tickets ahead of time, because this concert usually sells out.

Ever since the orchestra’s Young Artist Competition went nationwide a couple of years ago, audiences have been treated to an ultra-high level of music making from its winners. Their performances Jan. 20 and 21 will augment a program that will include Carl Nielsen’s vivid Symphony No. 3, which is known as “Sinfonia Espansiva.”

Brotons and company will take you on a roller coaster of a journey with Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on Feb. 24 and 25. You may have heard a bit of it in the recent movie Tár with Cate Blanchett giving a heck of a downbeat. Also on the program is the Symphony No. 5 by British composer William Alwyn. It is also known as “Hydriotaphia” and is dedicated to Sir Thomas Browne, a famous physician, philosopher, botanist and archaeologist.

If you think that playing virtuosic piano pieces with two hands is difficult, try playing with only one. On April 13 and 14, Steinway Artist Vincent Larderet will perform Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Brotons will also direct Tchaikovsky’s lovely “Symphony No. 3” and the “Suite No. 1” from Gorges Bizet’s great opera “Carmen.”

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s season will conclude on June 1 and 2 with the Beethoven’s spectacular “Symphony No. 9” with the Portland Symphonic Choir and soloists yet to be announced.

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Columbian freelance contributor