Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton

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Sonya Shin (violin)
Gabrielle Després (violin)
Conductor: Lidia Khaner

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta

Mozart: Divertimento in B-flat major K. 137
Haydn: Violin Concerto in C major
Haydn Violin Concerto in G major
Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No.3

 

Lidia Khaner is familiar to Edmonton audiences as the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s excellent principal oboist. But she has long been harbouring a new venture, to create a chamber music orchestra that would fit between the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the various chamber groups and presenters in the city.

Lidia Khaner
photo by Stephen Joe

On April 22nd that ambition became fulfilled, as the new Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton gave its inaugural concert in the University’s Convocation Hall. It might be better named the Chamber String Orchestra of Edmonton, for it consists (for the moment, at least) of 15 string players, most of whom play with the ESO. It is a measure of the quality of the players whom Khaner has assembled, that they include the ESO’s Concertmaster, the Associate Concertmaster, and the Principal Cellist. So the faces will be familiar to Edmonton audiences (indeed, the ever-busy violinist Neda Yamach and violist Clayton Young seem to have been playing in almost every concert I have attended recently, from the New Music Festival to the Macmillan St. Luke Passion).

The COE plans to cover repertoire from the classical period to the 21st century (leaving earlier musics to ensembles like the Alberta Baroque Orchestra), and that range was encompassed in their inaugural concert.

It opened with Mozart’s well-known Divertimento in B-flat major K. 137, perhaps better known as the Salzburg Symphony No. 2, for, though for strings only, it follows the form of the Italian symphony rather than the customary divertimento pattern of five movements. It immediately showed the strengths of this new ensemble (who play standing, cellists and double bass excepted): a uniformity of colour and tone that comes from the familiarity of players long accustomed to playing with each other in various music settings in the city, a palpable confidence, and a pleasure in the music-making. The performance was perhaps a little too nice – it’s a young man’s work (Mozart was 16 when he wrote it), and it has some more dramatic elements, influenced by the Mannheim school, that didn’t fully come out here.

The Classical theme was continued two of Haydn’s three surviving violin concertos (no.2 is lost). Part of the orchestra’s mission is to provide opportunities for younger musicians, and the two soloists here were very talented Edmonton musicians  who have both attracted attention in Alberta and beyond. Sonya Shin, playing the first concerto in C major, is still a student at Strathcona High School; last year she participated in the National Arts Centre Young Artist Program. Gabrielle Després, who played the fourth concerto in G major, has been featured on Radio Canada, and last year won the senior division of the Northern Alberta Concerto Competition. She is about to go to university.

Haydn Hall, Esterházy
photo wien.info

Hadyn’s violin concertos stand at a cross-roads. On the one hand, they show the legacy of the kind of concerto popularized by Vivaldi and others, where the soloist is prima inter pares. On the other hand, they show elements of the virtuosic concerto that was to emerge in the late Classical period and be fully developed in the Romantic era – especially the virtuoso cadenzas. Indeed, they were written to show off the playing of Luigi Tomasini, the principal violin of Prince Esterházy’s court orchestra, which Haydn directed.

Sonya Shin

Gabrielle Després

This dichotomy was entirely shown by the contrast of the two soloists. Shin approached the first concerto very much as  virtuoso work, her big tone set in contrast to the orchestra, a little nervous at the start, but coming into her own in the first-movement cadenza. She lost her intonation a little in the final movement, but her approach played dividends in the slow movement with its pizzicato accompaniment, where her playing blossomed in an attractive performance.

Després’ approach to the fourth concerto was the exact opposite. She is the more assured player, more emotive in her idiomatic cadenza playing, but otherwise with a smaller tone that was clearly judged to complement, rather than contrast with, the orchestra. This worked equally well, so we had first a more concerto performance, and second a more chamber orchestra performance.

One somewhat unusual aspect of the concert was that, however much one likes the Mozart divertimento, both it and the two Haydn violin concertos were not really first ranking works, given the composers. The same might be said of the 20th Century offering in this concert. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances are pleasant enough, and very easy on the ear, but are hardly among his best (or indeed his most characteristic) works. Although they are based on earlier airs and tunes, their feel and format is much more Classical than pre-Classical – neo-classical works rather than neo-madrigale music.

What the third suite for strings alone did do, though, was allow this new orchestra to show off their range, with the kind of dramatic and impassioned playing that had been missing a little in the Mozart. A really full sound here, with some very effective contrasts in the second movement, all of which augers well for the future of this group.

Khaner was greatly encouraged to pursue this dream by her late husband, Timothy Khaner, who died last year. This concert was dedicated to him, and it closed with Ataraxia by Wayne Toews, with whom Khaner has studied conducting. This was originally written for Khaner to play on the oboe in memory of her husband, but Toews arranged it for string orchestra for this concert. Ataraxy is a “a state of serene calmness”, and this tonal work, with its mellow overlapping short rising phrases, was both elegiac and calming, and a moving way to end the concert.

This is already a very assured orchestra, and they definitely fill a gap in Edmonton’s music making. It’s wonderful to welcome them, and I look forward to hearing them in hopefully a little more challenging music in the near future.

Their next concert may well do that, for the orchestra will be joined on Sunday evening, June 10, at Convocation Hall by the harpist Nora Bumanis, in works by MacMillan, Debussy, and the Czech composer (and Dvořák‘s son-in-law) Joseph Suk.