Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Month: March 2018

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Britten, Elgar, and Rachmaninov

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Andreas Brantelid (photo ESO)

Saturday, March 24, 2018
Winspear

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Rachmaninov: Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Andreas Brantelid (cello)
conducted by Alexander Prior

 

“Vengeance is mine, and I shall repay”, Rachmaninov wrote at the head of his first symphony, emulating Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Quite what the vengeance was for is not entirely clear (it almost certainly refers to the words of an Orthodox chant that probably inspired the opening theme of the work), but it was it was a prescient quote, considering that the symphony was excoriated on its first performance on March 27, 1897. Rachmaninov, then only 26, had to read a vicious demolition job by the one of the most celebrated critics of the day, the composer César Gui. Rachmaninov put the symphony aside (the autograph score has never been rediscovered), and the work wasn’t revived until 1945, after the Russian conductor Alexander Gauk had reconstructed the score from the surviving orchestral parts.

Fitting vengeance, though, Rachmaninov certainly had, in the scintillating performance Alexander Prior gave with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, March 24, at the Winspear. It’s a young composer’s symphony, and it benefited from not only the young conductor’s passionate enthusiasm for the work, but also his experience with the Russian symphonic repertoire. Prior’s approach (as we have learnt from his Tchaikovsky) is grittier, more driving, with more Russian tensions, than many western interpretations – here it reminded me at times of Svetlanov’s terrific Melodia recording.

From the very first notes you knew this was going to be a really good performance – it breathed energy and confidence, and it was soon clear the orchestra were really going to respond to the conducting. The first two movements are marvellously flawed – with the flaws of youthful composition – in that the ideas fall over each other, the interest in the moment greater than that of the whole. Here a tougher, more driving interpretation, not overtly sentimental, pays dividends, binding those ideas closer together. One could hear the touches of Tchaikovsky, but Prior also made moments in the first movement sound like Sibelius, Rachmaninov’s contemporary (as he did at the very close of the symphony). The third movement was wonderfully rich, like the glowing texture of polished burr walnut infused with dark streaks and swirls, and with some beautiful smooth woodwind playing. Prior drew out the dark brooding element in this movement, and there were moments that musically looked  forward to Rachmaninov’s orchestral masterpiece, The Isle of the Dead.

But  the final movement was, fittingly, the climax of the performance. What a movement it is, too! Rachmaninov seems to shake off the 19th century, and transform the whole thing into some of the most advanced writing of the period. Here one could hear, in the incorporation of more populist elements, echoes of Mahler. The movement, with its massed percussion, could also be seen as heralding so much of Shostakovich’s orchestral music, though Shostakovitch couldn’t possibly have heard it or studied it. In other words, it was not only on the cutting edge of its time, but it anticipated later Russian music, and Prior brought out those elements in a performance of fire and energy, one of the best I have heard from this orchestra. If the powers that be do arrange for the ESO to tour, then they should seriously consider taking this symphony with them.

Inevitably, such a performance left one wondering what might have been. After the failure of the premiere, Rachmaninov increasingly turned to works that were essentially much safer, a few works such as The Isle of the Dead and the marvellous Orthodox choral services apart. In spite of all their breathtaking and much-loved emotional affect, they never really reflected the tenor of their age, which includes the Russian revolution, Stalin’s horrors, both World Wars, and the Great Depression. What would Rachmaninov have followed that last movement with, if he had received praise instead of contempt?

The performance of the Elgar cello concerto – another work that had a fiasco of a premiere – was less successful. Written in 1919, this is Elgar’s great contemplative peon to the waste and horrors of the First World War, and, with such heartfelt sorrow combined with a feel of wistful memories,it  surely reflects something of the turbulent mixture of emotions that the survivors of the War felt. With the young Dane Andreas Brantelid as cellist, this performance never quite achieved the depth of emotion the concerto is capable of, and Prior seemed intent on breathing fresh approaches into the work – something that very rarely works with Elgar, as a number of conductors have found to their cost. Elgar is, above all, a composer of swell and fall, in the orchestral writing and in the melodic phrasing, and that was largely missing here. It was as if the whole work had been emotionally shifted sideways: the deep sorrow of the piece became just sadness, and the more playful moments became almost flippant. Having said that, Brantelid is clearly a very fine player, and I don’t want to exaggerate any sense of disappointment: if one had never heard the concerto before, this performance may well have been affecting. But the work has more to it than emerged on Saturday evening.

The concert had opened with a fine reading of the four sea interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. Prior set up contrast between a sharper, edgy sound (such as the strings in Dawn or the woodwind in Sunday Morning) and a misty, more subdued texture (the brass in Dawn or the horns in Storm), that was most effective, creating anticipation. The mawkishness of Sunday Morning really came across, and there were reminders at times of how close the idioms of  Britten and Shostakovitch could be at this period (1945). The suite is also an orchestral showpiece, and there were some splendid performances from the woodwind and from timpanist Barry Nemish, and a magical little trombone solo moment from John McPherson. The storm at the end was fast and furious, with an almost outrageous accelerando at the end, which orchestra and conductor pulled off with aplomb.

How well, too, the three works went together – a well-planned and wonderfully executed concert.

Now Hear This New Music Festival: Arnáez, Bellusci, and Kagel

Windrose (music by Arnáez, Bellusci, and Kagel)

Now Hear This New Music Festival
New Music Edmonton

Miguel Bellusci

Photo: http://musicaclasicaba.com.ar/musico/72/Bellusci_Miguel

Nicolás Arnáez:  Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo
Mauricio Kagel:  Die Stücke der Windrose: Norden
Mauricio Kagel:  Die Stücke der Windrose: Osten
Miguel Bellusci  “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca”

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Friday, March 23rd, 2018

The Kagelian Ensemble:
Chenoa Anderson, flutes
Don Ross, clarinets
Charles Stolte, narration
Mark Segger, percussion
Viktoria Reiswich-Dapp, keyboards
Haley Simons, keyboard
Jeff Johnson, bass
The Vaughan String Quartet:
Neda Yamach, violin
Mattia Berrini, violin
Fabiola Amorim, viola
Silvia Buttiglione, ‘cello

Conducted by Miguel Bellusci

 

The Now Hear This Festival of new music, put on by New Music Edmonton, has regularly featured a major composer of the last half-century or so – in 2014 it was R. Murray Schafer, in 2015 Ligeti (including an unforgettable performance of 100 metronomes), in 2017 the music of Pauline Oliveros. This year it was the turn of one of the doyens of the avant-garde movement, Mauricio Kagel, featured in a concert with a specially formed ensemble (The Kagelian Ensemble) on Friday March 23rd, in the Festival’s central venue, Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

The colourful and widely influential Argentinian composer, who was born in 1931 and died in 2008,  was somehow perceived, at the height of the avant-garde period in the 1960s and 70s, as not quite on the Olympian heights of fellow composers Xenakis, Ligeti, and especially Stockhausen, let alone easier-to-take composers such Penderecki. One of the reasons was Kagel’s sense of humour and of the absurd, which annoyed more serious critics.  Gradually, too, his work increasingly involved turning the concert hall into a place of music drama or theatre. Staatstheater (1967-1970), for example, included chamber pots as instruments, and famously in Match (1964), two table-tennis players – cellists – fight it out with a drummer as referee.

Nonetheless, there were central, cutting edge, and influential works: the electronic Musica para la torre (1953), Acustica (1968-1970), exploring experimental sound-makers and tape, and written on cards randomly distributed to the players, and the marvellous Improvisation ajouté (1961-1962), one of the earliest works to explore the extreme sounds a concert organ could make: extended technique for the organ.  His importance and his music have, since the 1980s, slowly undergone a wider appreciation, in part because so many of his then-outlandish elements – the dramatics, the absurd or ironic, the extended techniques, the use of unconventional instruments – are now part and parcel of contemporary composition.

He also continued to explore the varied elements of his style, recognizably based on those avant-garde roots, but extending his range into, for example, three expressive string quartets. A major work in that later period was Die Stücke der Windrose for nine musicians, a set of eight pieces started in 1988 and completed in 1994, each describing one of the points of the compass rose (which includes, for example, North-West as well as West – hence the eight). Friday’s concert was built around two of these, Osten (East), the first to be written, and Norden (North) the last.

Osten is in Kagel’s most entertaining vein, as if one was in a surrealistic nightclub in Turkey and the traditional band had been listening to too many Argentinian tangos. For, until near the end, the piece is built on echoes of dance rhythms, and a section echoing Jewish folk music, complete with accordion. Irony abounds – not the least the ‘orientalism’ of the whole thing (Edward Said in a bad dream) – and it is both catchy and entertaining. The longer Norden is very evocative descriptive music, echoing things like the crackling of ice using plastic sheeting as a clapperboard. High harmonics evoke ice fields, the whole thing also has a touch of the nightmarish, of the surrealistic, and there is a strong sense of strict rhythmic control and power. That reaches its fulfillment in a wonderful unexpected build-up in blocks (I had an image – again, surrealistic – of walruses on an Arctic beach), before the percussionist creates more shivering sounds with a branch with old autumnal leaves on it. It is, Kagel said, a northern landscape of his own imagination, having himself never been to the far north, and it is a world that seems to veer between clashing titans of ice flows and low hiss of sparkling frost.

Both pieces were very convincingly played by a group that included the Vaughan String Quartet, with their usual first violinist replaced for this concert by Neda Yamach, who plays with the Edmonton Symphony and is the violinist of  the Trio de Moda. The Kagel pieces – indeed all the concert – went well beyond the usual comfort level of the Quartet, and it was good to see them so effectively embracing a more extreme idiom. There was also some lovely clarinet playing from Don Ross, and the ensemble had the advantage of a conductor, the Argentinian composer and conductor Miguel Bellusci, who is steeped in Kagel’s idioms.

The concert opened with a piece by the Argentinian composer Nicolás Arnáez, who now lives in Edmonton. He specializes in soundscapes and sound installations (quite a lot of his music can be heard here). Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo (‘On How To Draw Over The Time’) , created in 2013, combines a string quartet (here the Vaughan) – with ” three-dimensional ambisonics cube sound spatialization, real-time processing, and Max MSP 6 patch” – or to put it in simpler terms, the music the quartet plays is recorded in real time and regularly played by in reverse or computer manipulated either on its own or in conjunction with the quartet playing further material. Essentially based on rhythms and textures, rather than melodic material (though eventually a melody of a kind does emerge out of the miasma), it was an alluring soundscape, a fitting prelude to the Kagel. However, it did go on too long – if it had finished just before the section when the computer-generated music played on its own, it would have been very satisfying, but there isn’t enough variety in the material to justify the longer length (an endemic problem with this kind of music).

The concert ended with a most entertaining drama piece with music by the conductor himself, Miguel Bellusci. The concept of “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca” for Lecturer and Instrumental Quartet is that we are now somewhere in the 4000s AD. A terrific cataclysm had overcome the world, raising sea levels so that the survivors had to rebuild civilization above the new sea levels. Consequently, to explore what the world must have been like pre-catastrophie, submarine archeology has taken place. Musical artifacts, including some printed ones, have been unearthed, and a professor (a spoken role played with enthusiastic satire by Charles Stolte) is trying in a lecture to unravel how the instruments were played and evolved. This leads to humorous misunderstandings, with a strong dig at the avant-garde period, where the kinds of sounds produced and their method of production would seem to be more ‘primitive’ – and thus archeologically earlier – than pre-avant-garde music. The concept that there might have been a second, earlier cataclysm, so that survivors of the second found the musical instruments of the first, and did not initially know how to play them, was a felicitous stroke, and the whole thing was illustrated by musical examples. Again, it was too long – it got a little repetitive by the end, and there were no new ideas to excite the imagination or progress the humour – but if Bellusci can cut it a to around 18-20 minutes he has a winner here, which would be great fun for a university ensemble to perform.

Overall, though, this was a really enjoyable concert, one of the most entertaining that I have attended at any Hear This Now Festival, and one played with commitment and authority by all involved, convincingly surmounting the considerable demands of some of the music.

 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Copland, Korngold, Sibelius, and Stravinsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

1907 self-portrait by Natalia Goncharova, who designed the original sets for L’Oiseau de feu

Copland: Orchestral Variations
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op.24
Sibelius: Kuolema, Op.44 No.1 – ‘Valse Triste’
Stravinsky: suite L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), 1945 version

Blake Pouliot (violin)

conducted by Jayce Ogren

Winspear
Friday, February 23rd, 2018

 

The especial interest in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Friday, February 23rd, was the ESO debut of the 23-year old Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, who was the Grand Prize winner of the 2016 Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Manulife Competition.

He brought to the Winspear the concerto with which he debuted with the Montréal Symphony, Korngold’s 1945 Violin Concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler and originally premiered by Jascha Heifetz. Korngold had, of course, by then long left behind the first flush of Austrian musical genius that had produced the seminal opera Die tote Stadt. After his move to Hollywood in 1934, he had transformed from a major opera composer into one of the most influential of all film composers, establishing the kind of essentially Romantic Hollywood film music genre that can be still heard in the scores of John Williams or Howard Shore.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto marked his return to concert music (he virtually retired from film music in 1947), but not any move away from the film idiom, as the whole concerto is based on themes from four of his film scores. Inevitably, perhaps, it has a touch of the sickly-sweet that hardly challenges the listener, but not only is it  an attractive work (and once Korngold’s most popular), but it is also well crafted, making in particular emotive demands of the soloist. The solo song completely predominates – the orchestral contribution is largely that of a backdrop to the violin lyricism, rather in the manner of the relationship between soloist and orchestra in Chopin’s piano concertos.

Blake Pouliot
Photo: Jeff Fasano Photography

Pouliot cuts a striking figure, and, with his light purple jacket and bad boy haircut, he reminded this listener of the British superstar violinist Nigel Kennedy in his younger days. Nor was the comparison too far-fetched musically, for here is clearly a young violinist of great promise, producing not only a lovely, mellow violin tone in the more contemplative first two movements, but also an exemplary sense of pacing and colour in, for example, the end of the second movement. Here was sentiment, not sentimentality, just what the concerto needs to avoid sounding too mawkish.

He was least convincing in the faster, more aggressive dancing passages of the opening of the last movement, where the shape was a little lost – though to be fair, it is the least convincing movement of the concerto, more self-conscious in its virtuoso writing.

It was also the opportunity to welcome the return of the American conductor Jayce Ogren, who so impressed in his ESO debut in 2016 (in a concert with the operatic bass-baritone Nathan Berg). Here in Korngold’s concerto he sensibly left the musical limelight to the soloist.

The rest of his program originated in the first half of the 20th century. He opened the concert with a very welcome first performance by the ESO of Copland’s Orchestral Variations, written for piano in 1911, and not orchestrated until 1958. You would never guess its keyboard origins if you didn’t know, so sure is the orchestral writing, and the music occupies an interesting place in Copland’s output. For in orchestral guise the overall sound has something of the more acerbic later Copland, yet the original piano version is more turbulent, more obviously modernist. That orchestration allows other elements of the music to emerge: its sheer Americanism in the combination of melodic shapes and colours, and in its moments of triumphalism; its echoes of Ives; and its affinities to the Bernstein of West Side Story. This performance was a worthy advocate of the work, even if it could at times have been a little crisper.

Some of the mournful ghostly soul – the dying swan mood – was missing from Sibelius’ celebrated Valse Triste, in part because if that mournfulness is to come out, it really does have to start at pp, and continue through the first pages at the marked pp – and even ppp – apart, of course, from the momentary lifts out of that dynamic. The ESO still has difficulty with such soft playing, and the result, though perfectly effective, was to make the piece more Vienna than Helsinki.

The concert finished with the 1945 Suite from Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu. This was a colourful performance, much enjoyed by the audience, that started really crisply – clearly one of Ogren’s strengths – but losing some of its intensity in the middle, like a spinning top loosing its momentum. If the orchestra at that moment sounded a little tired, it certainly threw that off when, as the big loud passages returned, it woke itself up – and perhaps the audience as well, for the hall did seem hotter than usual – for a  rousing conclusion to the evening.

Ogren is returning to the Winspear rostrum in the Fall, and I look forward to seeing how he tackles Vaughan Williams’ beautiful Pastoral Symphony (November 3). I do hope, too, that we’ll get the chance to hear Pouliot again – it will be interesting to see how his career develops.

 

 

 

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

iSoundtrack

Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Lords of the Rings
Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Fellowship of the Rings
Tchaikovsky: from suite Swan Lake (op. 20a): Act II, Scene I0
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op.36: Variation 1 (C.A.E.), Variation 9 (Nimrod)
John Williams (arr. Bob Cerulli): Themes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mascagni: ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria rusticana*
Ennio Morricone: Gabriel’s Oboe
Holst: from The Planets: ‘Mars’, ‘Venus’
John Williams: The Empire Strikes Back Medley

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Conductors: Danielle Lisboa, *Christina Sawchuck

 

Tegler Hall, Concordia University of Edmonton
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For the past few years, I  have regularly taught a Wednesday evening course at Concordia University of Edmonton, the former Lutheran College that looks down over Wayne Gretzky Bridge and the city’s river valley. Every so often, I have found myself unwittingly pausing from teaching Winnie-the-Pooh or The Hobbit, and the faces of the eager or not so eager students at the desks in front of me have momentarily blurred, as the strain of some familiar orchestral music filters through the door from far away, a snatch of Elgar, perhaps, a grander moment of Beethoven, or, recently, the unmistakable  movie themes from Lord of the Rings.

The source of this distant melodiousness is the Concordia Symphony Orchestra, which rehearses at precisely the same day and time that I teach my class. It was originally founded in 1988 Dr. Barry Bromley and the bassoonist Don Zoell for “well-trained amateurs and former professional musicians” to take part in an amateur, community orchestra. It is not quite the only orchestra of its kind – the Metropolitan Orchestra, another amateur body, was founded in 2015, and gave its most recent concert, a ‘Night at the Opera’, on February 17.

Indeed, the Concordia Symphony Orchestra has itself undergone a metamorphosis in the last year, perhaps reflecting Concordia’s own recent change from a College to a University. For the original Concordia Symphony Orchestra has morphed, under its conductor David Hoyt, into Edmonton’s third amateur orchestra, Orchestra Borealis. That group is now in its second season, and its next concert, at the South Pointe Community Centre on Sunday, April 22, includes Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2. This change provided the opportunity for a re-founding of the actual Concordia Symphony Orchestra.

Like Orchestra Borealis, the new Concordia Symphony Orchestra is an auditioned ensemble, its members drawn from both the community and from the staff and students of Concordia Edmonton University itself – at the moment, rather too few students, and given the university’s reputation for its music, one hopes that the orchestra will come to represent a real opportunity for musical students in the future.

Its conductor is Brazilian-born Danielle Lisboa, who worked with Orchestra Toronto and the Toronto Women’s Symphony Orchestra before moving to Edmonton in 2013 as Assistant Professor of Music at Concordia University of Edmonton. It rehearses and performs in the airy, glass-surrounded centre of the university’s Tegler Hall, which not only serves as the main student meeting area and the venue for such things as convocation, but makes quite an effective and pleasantly informal concert-hall, its various levels acting rather neatly as auditorium balconies. On Wednesday night (February 28) it was merrily festooned with paper ribbons and multi-coloured balloons for its latest concert, iSOUNDTRACK, a faced-paced and quite packed hour of orchestral film music.

An entertaining  and happy event it was, too, with many of the orchestra dressed for the occasion in costumes reflecting the films whose music they were playing – and if there weren’t any orcs, there was an excellent Princess Leia of a cellist, complete with double-bun hairdo and the white dress, and sundry other echoes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

For the selections themselves were quite eclectic, from film scores especially written for movies, to pre-existing music chosen for movies – which provided the excellent excuse to hear some Elgar (from the Enigma Variations), though Holst (from The Planets), to Tchaikovsky (from Swan Lake) – and if you were wondering which movies, think The Matrix, Gladiator, and Black Swan respectively.

Lisboa’s tempi were well judged, and if there were moments that reminded one that this is an amateur orchestra, they played with great enthusiasm and considerable conviction. The brass and the woodwind contrasted: the former were much happier playing in consort, less secure when more exposed (they reveled in ‘Mars’ from The Planets, after a slightly uneven start). The woodwind were more ragged when playing together, but included some very attractive solo work, notably the flute and piccolo in the Lord of the Rings selections. These were in the excellent arrangements by John Witney, the former music director of the Southern Tier Symphony in New York State, who died in 2014 – indeed, the selections made a viable and self-contained sort of Middle Earth overture to the whole proceedings.

The strings came into their own in Mascagni’s famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana (used in The Godfather, Part III, at the opera house), and produced the best intonation of the evening in Ennio Morricone’s well-known Gabriel’s Oboe from the movie The Mission. This was very ably conducted by a young Concordia student, Christina Sawchuk, and the oboe solo was played by Stephanie Wong, assured and idiomatic, if slightly thin-toned (though that may have in part been the acoustics).

The Harry Potter selection proved to be unexpected (and welcome), for John Williams’ own arrangement was based on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with music  that was largely devoid of the better-known themes from the movie series.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening, clearly enjoyed by the enthusiastic audience, and drawing in the occasional Concordia student who had wandered into their hall and wondered what the occasion was – a great way of introducing new audiences to classical music.

The Concordia Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is on Sunday, April 22nd, and includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Ping-Shan Liao), and the Alberta premiere of Canadian Kevin Lau’s Elemental, which includes parts for kaido drums (you can hear audio excerpts here).

That concert is at exactly the same time (3 pm) on exactly the same Sunday as the next concert by Orchestra Borealis, the offshoot of the former Concordia Symphony Orchestra. This seems, to put it mildly, a very unfortunate clash, especially as one would imagine that some of the potential audience would overlap. Since Orchestra Borealis’ publicity seems already quite far advanced, one wonders if there is the possibility of the Concordia forces changing their date, and each orchestra then encouraging their audiences and members to go to the other’s concert.