Review: Symphony season ends with a bang

Kelowna’s Yamabiko Taiko Drummers perform at the Okanagan Symphony’s closing concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday. - Jim Elderton photo
Kelowna’s Yamabiko Taiko Drummers perform at the Okanagan Symphony’s closing concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday.
— image credit: Jim Elderton photo

On Sunday, Okanagan Symphony’s musical director Rosemary Thomson pulled out all the stops for the season’s closing concert, in celebration of Asian Heritage month.

In addition to several crossover pieces in the Western-Asian tradition, we heard classical pieces from China and Japan, with Japanese harp and flute by Ensemble Liberta, and Kelowna’s Yamabiko Taiko Drummers.

The Japanese harp (koto) is the national instrument of Japan.  The body is said to resemble that of a dragon, and has also been described as “a zither with bridges.” Played horizontally, it has up to 25 strings, using movable bridges to vary the pitch of each string.

On Sunday, Ensemble Liberta’s Kazuko Takeda used two of these. Joined by bamboo flute player Tenzan Yamada, with double bass and keyboard providing a rich but gentle continuo background, they played two pieces with the orchestra, one of which was a koto rendition of Air on a G String from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D.

On their own, the ensemble played their adaptation of Concierto de Aranjuez, written for classical guitar and orchestra by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. By far his best-known work, its success established his reputation as one of the most significant Spanish composers of the 20th century.

And finally, the ensemble performed the traditional Sakura, Sakura (Cherry Blossom) – their recording of which inspired Thomson to book them.

The highlight of the evening was Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto by Chen Gang and He Xhan Hao, played by Canadian violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou.

Hou’s parents were both violinists in Shanghai, and she took her first standing ovation at the age of five.

Raised in Mississauga, she’s had a glittering career after training at the Juilliard.

The concerto has two incredible stories attached. Based on a Chinese tale in the style of Romeo and Juliet, the tragic lovers die, to be replaced by two golden butterflies.

But Hou’s real story is equally dramatic.  Her father, a celebrated soloist in China, was scheduled to premiere the piece, but when it was banned during the Cultural Revolution, he was jailed and forced to confess his wrongful action. After the revolution, when asked by the Chinese government to perform it, he declined because he was waiting to emigrate to Canada.

He’s never performed the piece in China, and now, for the first time, he heard his daughter play it just three days before her Vernon concert.

The usual three movements were played without a break, and contrasted simple pastoral themes with dramatic story interludes. The solo violin was outspoken and challenging – depicting the passion of the daughter, while the cello represented her stern father.

In the concert’s second half, the Yamabiko Taiko drummers played a single unaccompanied piece, remarkable for the musicians’ athletic choreography.

The drummers also accompanied the orchestra for the last piece of the evening, Rhapsody for Orchestra by Yuzo Toyama, an exhilarating blend of Eastern and Western music, and truly ending the OSO’s season with a bang.

Vernon-based freelancer Jim Elderton reviews the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra's season for The Morning Star.


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