VSOs young Hsieh exits by the sweat of his brow

The Vancouver Sun

To use the cliche about food eaten outdoors, there’s something about the experience of listening to music outdoors that makes it seem better: a synesthesia that intensifies pleasure from the sensation of hearing great sounds in the presence of great natural beauty.

It opens up your senses. You become more acutely aware of sounds, just as the sounds make you more aware of the trees, the birds, the pleasure of sitting on a blanket on the grass as the sky turns from blue to rose and deepens through the spectrum. You become as if primally sensitized.

Sunday marked the 19th year that the Vancouver Symphony has given a summer evening concert in Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park, one of the best annual events to be held in that idyllic spot, and one of the symphony’s best concerts as well — and not just because it’s free, though this generosity is undeniably part of its beauty.

Sunday was the last official appearance by the VSO’s young assistant conductor, Kenneth Hsieh, who has been a wonderful addition to the orchestra. Hsieh soon moves on to a promising career in Asia, which includes conducting in Japan’s prefecture of Hyogo in a new three-theatre complex: large, middle-sized, and recital hall. “This is what I couldn’t believe when I went there to conduct,” he said some time before the concert. “They have 76,000 subscribers. And every concert has been sold out.”

Hsieh tells me that he’ll be back here in his home city to conduct his pet project, the amateur Metropolitan Orchestra, to which he remains committed.

“I strongly believe in music education.”

He hopes that the Metropolitan will someday be like one of the top professional training orchestras, like the Chicago Civic Orchestra or the New World Symphony, though his goal is to keep it a chamber-sized orchestra, playing “more of the neglected repertoire, which is really a good basis for orchestral training.”

Hsieh led a full professional orchestra through some great material that seems as if designed to be heard on a Sunday in the park.

Namely, Rachmaninov, whose dense chromatic harmonies suggested tree leaves drooping in the heat and a heart heavy with the inexpressible longings that summer seems to bring, especially when a clear, radiant period like the one we’ve been having relieves the normally dour, presbyterian climate of Vancouver.

There were two Rachmaninov selections. First the Vocalise, with violinist Joan Blackman standing in for the soprano who usually sings this great wordless aria. Blackman made her violin sing just as adeptly as any fine vocalist.

And then there was the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, featuring the young Malaysian-born pianist, Melody Quah, a recent winner of the Burnaby Clef Society and an Australian-trained musician.

This work of 1934 caught on immediately with the American public and takes a poet with titanium fingers to play it. She is one, and she has them.

By the 18th variation, the swoony love song, people could be seen to be under some kind of spell.

It was beautiful playing and the orchestra was right with her.

Selections from the first suite of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, (Morning, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King), Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia … these were as if written to be heard outdoors, especially the latter, which is plangent with spatial vistas and a mysterious droning pedal point.

Even the Star Wars theme sounded good and so did Michael Conway Baker’s Through the Lion’s Gate. It got more applause than the Rachmaninov — go figure.

There were two encores, the last one Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance. When Hsieh finally stepped down he looked exhausted. He was dripping wet. We’ll miss you, Ken.