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: 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

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


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.