Spain was the setting for most of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert, with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Emmanuel Chabrier, Maurice Ravel, Xavier Montsalvatge and Manuel de Falla – one Russian, two Frenchmen and two native Spaniards. Ironically, these “Spanish” pieces were probably mere spandrels on the program, offshoots of an attempt to create a context for the evening’s true centrepiece, which had nothing to do with Spain at all: soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian’s performance of Shéhérazade, Ravel’s hallucinatory conflation of Asia and The Arabian Nights. But one piece by Ravel may have led to another, in this case the Rapsodie espagnole, and that put us in Spain.
Europe may once have thought of Spanish music as a species of exotica, but only Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole among the orchestral works on this program managed to convey either the beauty or the mystery associated with that quality. All of these works cycled through similar themes: brass fanfares, idiomatic flamenco guitar flourishes transferred to the orchestra, dance rhythms, ostinatos, cricketing castanets and folk tunes. Indeed, listeners may have thought they were hearing multiple variations of the same piece (albeit with different degrees of sophistication and cultural myopia: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Cappricio espagnol, for example, never convincingly leaves Russia). Each piece had its moment of frenzy, as if anarchy were a Spanish aesthetic prerogative. “Riotous” is the conventional encomium in program notes for such musical mayhem, but we could not greet it with anything but dismay by the time we got to the parodying mania of Falla’s ballet suite from The Three-Cornered Hat. Enough of these crass and noisy Spanish bazaars!
Some of that crassness one blames on the orchestra, because only Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole sounded adequately rehearsed. Even then the first movement laboured through a sluggish tempo that turned its floating four-note theme into a trudging penance. It would be hard to fault individual performers, since one cleanly played solo line followed another all evening, but ensemble was consistently messy and interpretation was of the one-size-fits-all variety.
But while choppy ensemble did affect the Shéhérazade we heard, it didn’t necessarily compromise it. If what one craves most in Shéhérazade is a generous sensuality of sound from the singer and a smooth and supple legato, and if the ear focuses on Ravel’s long vocal lines rather than on its subtle, kaleidoscopic orchestral background, then Bayrakdarian gave us an effective performance. She’s charming and animated, and her voice is full and easy, voluptuous throughout its range and especially seductive at its bottom end. Distinctive, too, is the way in which Bayrakdarian glides expressively into a pitch, ever mellifluous, however angular the line.
If, however, one prefers a less event-filled and more deliquescent world in Shéhérazade – one where the shifting orchestral entries have less rhetorical energy and where colours and textures melt into one another – then this interpretation was not all that subtle. Bayrakdarian is not a singer who pulls the listener into intimate reverie, and certainly the orchestra gave her little help. Effervescence is her forte (a quality she brought in spades to Montsalvatge’s Cinco Canciones Negros in the second half of the concert), and effervescence defined her Shéhérazade.