Symphony’s new director not afraid to experiment

On Sept. 18, Danish conductor Christian Kluxen launched his first season as the Victoria Symphony’s music director with an impressive performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, the Titan. Last weekend, Kluxen returned to lead his first pair of weekend Masterworks concerts, in the Royal Theatre. I caught the Sunday afternoon concert, and was impressed again.

All three pieces on the program tended toward darker tones in terms of expression and orchestral colour.

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This was true even of the concerto — Britten’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1939 as the Second World War loomed.

This is not a showy concerto full of throbbing tunes and glittering virtuosity, though it made a superb vehicle for Canadian violinist James Ehnes, an interpreter of real substance and insight as well as technical command and emotional depth.

(He offered an affecting encore, too: a slow movement from one of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas.)

Also evident in the Britten concerto was a tight and sympathetic connection between soloist and conductor, more so than in Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand on Sept. 18.

The program opened with Harry Stafylakis’s Sun Exhaling Light, which had been commissioned by the Victoria Symphony. Stafylakis, a Montreal native who lives in New York, is composer-in-residence with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and director of the Winnipeg New Music Festival.

Sun Exhaling Light was one of the most impressive works the orchestra has premièred in recent years.

It was inspired by a poem written in response to the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, though it also draws on imagery related to the sun.

And there was indeed a kind of terrible luminosity to the music, which was at times ferociously expressive. Though short, the work was richly varied and was orchestrated with flair.

To close the program, Kluxen offered an ardent and sweeping account of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, one nuanced without being finicky. (Asked to name the most over-rated virtue, in an interview this summer, he replied: “Perfection.”)

The outer movements were impassioned and sometimes furious, the third movement jubilant.

Sometimes the ardour and sweep came at a cost, though. Some of the piece’s most mysterious and evocative passages were rather summarily dispatched — for instance, the transition to the recapitulation in the first movement, the ghostly Beethoven allusion near the end of the slow movement, and the quasi-chorale for wind instruments in the middle of the finale.

In the slow movement, Kluxen seemed to fear dawdling and, at times, the music seemed unsettled, rushed.

Kluxen is a very different interpreter from the Victoria Symphony’s previous music director, Tania Miller, and is already putting his own stamp on the orchestra. For one thing, he is trying out new seating arrangements.

Last weekend, he put the second violins downstage across from (rather than next to) the first violins, a not uncommon practice that works well whether the two sections are playing in unison, in harmony, in counterpoint or antiphonally. (He put the cellos where the second violins formerly were.)

More strikingly, he placed the double basses on risers at the back of the orchestra, as Stokowski used to do. This makes more sense than massing them to one side, given the section’s fundamental role within the orchestra.

Kluxen also divided up the brass and percussion sections. He placed the horns on one side of the stage, the trumpets and low brass on the other, and likewise separated the timpani from the other percussion instruments.

(The woodwinds continued to sit where they always have.)

The common denominator of these decisions appears to be a desire for greater transparency of texture, a more “stereophonic” sound, and better blend and balance when the whole orchestra plays together.

Such goals are less well served by conventional seating arrangements that clump similar-sounding instruments together.

The sound that resulted from the new seating arrangement was subtly rather than radically different, and how much it contributed to the music varied from passage to passage depending on the orchestral texture.

But at times, it quite clearly paid considerable dividends, and so I hope Kluxen will continue to conduct experiments along these lines.

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