Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
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.
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.