GVYO Plays Beethoven's Fifth
Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra
János Sándor, conductor
Stephen Smith, conductor
University Centre Auditorium
February 17, 2007
By Deryk Barker
It is difficult, at this distant remove, to appreciate just how revolutionary Beethoven's Fifth Symphony
must have sounded at its first performance in 1808. But think of this: Haydn's last symphony had been
premiered scarcely a dozen years earlier and Mozart's final great trilogy was just two decades old. Among
the many iconoclastic aspects of the Fifth, its overall format created a new model for symphonic composers:
the "Triumph" Symphony, in which a minor-key work finally, possibly after much struggle, achieves a
major key conclusion. And the format proved very fruitful - with minor variants, such as Brahms's Third,
in which the major key conclusion is tranquil rather than triumphant - until Mahler's deconstruction in
his Sixth Symphony, whose finale attempts - three times - but ultimately fails to reach the major.
Yet even that did not exhaust the form, and it was arguably the format's very familiarity which enabled
Shostakovich to subvert it (thus saving both his career and, very possibly, his life) in several of his
However shocked and awed that 1808 audience was, then, they can have had little idea of just how significant
a work was this C minor symphony - originally billed as number six (with the "Pastoral" as five).
Stepping in at the eleventh hour to replace an unavailable Yariv Aloni, János Sándor directed a
superb performance of the Fifth symphony, which held the attention from those famous four opening notes to
what Robert Simpson calls "the fifty-odd chords of C major" at the work's close (Simpson goes
on to say of these chords that "anyone who does not feel their perfect punctuality has not yet
understood the possibilities of classical music").
Tempos were exquisitely chosen and all sections of the orchestra played exceptionally well. Admittedly there
were one or two minor glitches - occasionally mistuned wind chords and the like - but given the
non-professional nature of the orchestra and the circumstances of the performance itself, I was more than
Apparently this was the first time in their twenty-year history that the GVYO have played this most famous of
all symphonies. Nobody would have guessed. The evening opened with Vysehrad from Smetana's Má
Vlast. From its opening harp solo - flamboyantly played by Liang Lin - there was a great deal to enjoy in the
performance, including a marvellously solemn horn quartet and excellent strings. The orchestral tuttis were
full without being in the least bit overblown. Although one could argue that the string tremolandos which
open Sibelius's Karelia Suite were a little too loud, that would be virtually my only criticism of a very
fine performance - except for a brief hiccup in the ensemble in the middle movement, with the recalcitrant
players quickly waved back into line by Sándor. The delicious clarinets and bassoons at the opening of
the slow movement underlined just how much Sibelius was still in Tchaikovsky's debt in terms of
orchestration and I must mention Deborah Tin Tun's lovely English horn solo.
A surprise (for me anyway) item on the programme was the inclusion of Johann Strauss's Radetzky March in
a crisp and spirited performance directed by Stephen Smith, winner of a silent auction for the honour held
last year. In honour of the season Smith was attired in a handsome Chinese jacket (I don't believe this
affected the performance); he also employed an interesting circular stick technique and spent time training
the audience in their part (clapping, to be precise) - would that more conductors would do this.
Enjoyable though the opening half of the concert was, I mean no disrespect to Messrs. Smetana, Sibelius,
Strauss or Smith when I say that the Beethoven was the main event.