Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Prior premiere

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Robert Hammerstiel: From the cycle ‘Winterreise’: The Crow, 1996 woodcut on paper, 100 x 70 cm, private collection: source

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Bruch: Romance for Viola in F major Op.85

Schubert, orchestrated Prior: Die Winterreise excerpts

[Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 Pastoral, not reviewed]


Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Alexander Prior

Winspear
Sunday, March 31, 2019


First, apologies for the delay in this review: your reviewer was indisposed with the cold-flu bug that has passed from student to student in his classes.


There is a very long tradition of arranging Schubert – everything from a capella choral arrangements to guitar to Liszt at the piano to jazz and harmonica. My favourite ‘arrangement’ is the haunting and powerful 1978 Schubert-Phantiase for Orchestra by the Austrian composer Dieter Schnebel, based on the Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894.

It was one of a series of re-imaginings by Schnebel of older works into a cycle called Arrangements, and what he wrote about that series could be transcribed word for word about the new orchestral arrangement of selections from Winterreise by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Alexander Prior, which was premiered in the Winspear on Sunday, March 31:

“The intent here of Arrangements” Schnebel wrote, “is not only to knock off the crust of convention but also to open up the potential of the past, to carve out, as it were, its perhaps still undiscovered possibilities – in other words, to penetrate to levels which could not possibly be experienced or even come to light before today.” (translation by John Patrick Thomas)

What Schnebel has done for a Schubert piano sonata, Prior has very much done for the Schubert cycle, for although their sound worlds have their differences, both composer have clearly been aware of the great tradition of Viennese music. The uncanny thing about both works is that the music can often sound, in these arrangements, like the work of later Viennese composers – Mahler in the case of Schnebel (the whole work is like some hallucinatory dream of Mahler’s music, without changing a note of the Schubert), Mahler and Strauss, and onward to the contemporary Viennese HK Gruber in the case of Prior. What they both, in their different ways, make one vividly realize is how consistently, how strongly, that Viennese line stretches back to Schubert himself.

What Prior has done is left the actual vocal lines of the Winterreise songs alone – and very well sung, they were, too, by the young award-winning American baritone John Brancy, who has certainly developed vocally since we saw him as Papageno in Edmonton Opera’s 2015 Magic Flute. Prior has concentrated in creating a contemporary, 21st-Century orchestral accompaniment to those vocal lines that both compliments them, and comments on them. One of the arrangements’ great virtues is how well they do match the import of the words.

Before going further, though, a confusion needs to be cleared up for those who are reading this and who attended the concert. The words were very usefully (and attractively) presented in a booklet insert. Unfortunately, five of the 12 poems  in the printed text (out of Schubert’s original 24) were not in fact arranged or sung, and others were done in a different order. Even worse, no-one told the audience, who were understandably bewildered, floundering around trying to find the right words, or giving up.

Here, for those who were there, are the seven songs in the order that they were played:

Gute Nacht (Goodnight)
Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree)
Wasserfluth (Torrent)
Die Krähe (The Crow)
Das Wirthshaus (The Tavern)
Die Nebensonnen (The Phantom Suns)
Der Leiermann  (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)

Prior uses a very large orchestra, including an on-stage piano, a big compliment of percussion, and the distinctive sound (half horn, half trombone) of the Wagner tuba. The work starts with a kind of dream-like nostalgic state (entirely appropriate for the wanderer going off into the winter’s night) of an off-stage out-of-tune piano. The feel of what is to come is created by the wide range of orchestral effects in that first poem, Gute Nacht, from the use of deep brass, through sense of a Russian march inside a toyshop, and some slightly incongruous clapping from members of the orchestra, to lovely orchestral stands on “Love loves to rove – God made it so”, and finally a Mahlerian whoop in the final verse, compellingly sung by Brancy. What was immediately obvious was how well judged the sheer sound of the orchestra, and the placement of its louder moments, were – Prior always allows the voice to be heard, the vocal line to ultimately be paramount.

Richard Strauss was the element of memory in Der Lindenbaum, complete with cow bells, and snatches of the main Schubert melody heard in Mahlerian phrases. Wasserfluth saw a prominent xylophone, a return to that toy shop and the clapping, and big build up before dying away, again with a sound Mahler would have recognized, for the final line. Die Krähe takes the fantasy world a stage further, with saw and flexitone, and a high G for the baritone, and planted itself firmly in the surrealistic topsy-turvy sound world of HK Gruber’s marvellous Frankenstein.

Das Wirthshaus is perhaps the mostly obviously Schubertian arrangement of the cycle, with a lovely opening, a gorgeous solo violin moment, and a slow, stately build-up until a snare-drum cuts in to link us with the more contemporary tone. Die Nebensonnen opens with a horn quartet, again evoking Mahler, and reinforcing the phantom sunset world of the poem.

Finally, and most effectively, is Der Leiermann, where the image of the old hurdy-gurdy man evokes something worldly but other-worldly. Prior evokes sleigh-bells, but then turns the vision into something more nightmarish, ending with an off-stage snare drum, beating out a death march into the distance to close the cycle (which was the right idea, but was a little too long to be perfectly judged for the effect).

What Prior has conjured up both pays homage to the Schubert song-cycle, while at the same time creating what is essentially a new work, a kind of musical evocation of, a commentary on, the original. It is startling, entertaining, questioning, in its own right, firmly of the 20th-Century while magicking a kind of musical Pensieve, drawing memories out of the bowl from past eras, and making them relive in the present.

I can see some purists hating it, but I loved it, first for giving  different depth and angle to Schubert’s settings, second for evoking those great Viennese traditions, and third for creating such a modern, multi-faceted, both reverend and at the same time a little outrageous, sound world.

Next will be Prior’s long anticipated violin concerto, commissioned by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It is to be premiered on Friday May 31 by Simone Porter, and will be repeated on Saturday June 1.

Finally, a word for the performance that preceded the Prior/Strauss. Bruch’s Romance for viola and orchestra is not exactly regular fare (it was here receiving its ESO premiere) but it deserves to be better known. It is a kind of hot dreamy lazy days by the river with strawberries and cream piece, reverie rather than nostalgia, and one point unexpectedly and effectively matches bassoon against the solo instrument. The ESO’s young violist, Clayton Leung, well deserved the opportunity – he is so energetically involved with Edmonton musical life – and he made the most of it, with a beautiful ending in the music, the solo playing, and the orchestral sound. Good choice all round!

 

 

Now Hear This New Music Festival

Now Hear This new music festival
New Music Edmonton
March 21 – 24, 2019

organetto (portative organ)


March 22
Holy Trinity Anglican Church

Anna Pidgornas Teach Your Daughters
Anna Pidgorna (voice), Roger Admiral (piano), Arlan Vriens (violin)

Holy Drone Travellers with Mustafa Rafiq Untitled
Mustafa Rafiq (guitar), Matt Meeker (bass, trombone, synth), Bhuyash Neupane (tablas, vocals)

Ryan Hemphill’s Duet for Electric Guitar and Electric Bass
Ryan M. Hemphill and Nico Arnáez

Reinhard von Berg Visions
Reinhard von Berg (organ)

Hypercube:  various works
Chris Graham (percussion), Andrea Lodge (piano), Erin Rogers (saxophones), Jay Sorce (classical & electric guitar)


March 23
Holy Trinity Anglican Church

Katelyn Clark: Song of Sibyls
Katelyn Clark (organetto with electronics)


This year’s four-day Now Hear This New Music Festival, put on by New Music Edmonton, opened on Thursday March 21 with what looked to be a very interesting concerts at the Theatre Lab, Allard Hall, MacEwan University, and which, alas, I could not attend. All the works were responses to real environments in some form or another. Sound artist Raylene Campbell’s Landing 23 used sample accordion textures, field recordings, and electronics to evoke the experience of the desert. The Olm: violinist Jeanna Turner and viola player Caitlin Richards are two recent mothers, and their works evoking the experience of early parenthood included echoes of real sounds, while Terri Hron’s 2017 work Nesting, reflects a long interest in the inspiration of birds. The suite of pieces, which I have heard on YouTube, integrates movement, sound, and video, bringing the wild life of the forest onto the stage, with an evocative mixture of live instrumental sounds and acoustic recordings.

I did, though, get to Friday evening’s concert in Holy Trinity Anglican Church – or at least part of it. We were warned in the intermission that the final section of the program, to be played by the New-York based group Hypercube, would include very loud sounds, and earplugs were offered to the audience. I decided long ago, after experiencing very loud rock concerts in smaller venues, and over-decibeled blasts through earphones, never to put my hearing at risk again if I could avoid it. I reckoned that if ear-plugs were being given out, discretion was the better part of being a music critic, and left before Hypercube started.

The highlight of the rest of the concert was Anna Pigorna’s moving Teach Your Daughters, for voice, prepared piano, and violin. Pigorna, now in her mid-30s, was born in the Ukraine, but raised in Canada, and much of her work has explored her Ukrainian heritage, both in her compositions and in the development of her folk-based singing style. Teach Your Daughters is one of a cycle of songs which she is currently working on, incorporating that folk tradition.

It was inspired by an uncanny parallel that she discovered when recording folk songs in the Ukraine. One of those folk songs, which turned out to be widely popular, described how a woman was raped, and then tied to a tree and burnt to death. While Pigorna was in Ukraine, an 18-year old, Oksana Makar, was raped, strangled, and burnt, and died three weeks later in hospital, in a case that attracted international attention and protest.

Teach Your Daughters was the first music I have heard by Pigorna, and, quite apart from its emotional impact, it suggests an original voice exploring new syntheses of influences. Her anger at the events lies mainly in the instruments, with a rather glassy, edgy sound to the prepared piano (played by Roger Admiral, who so often champions new music in Edmonton), and high harmonics in the violin (both were amplified), played by Arlan Vriens, who also at one point vocalizes. Pigorna herself sang the vocal part, with vocal lines very much in the folk tradition.

It was moving and effective, though it really would have been useful to have had some idea of the texts. The amplification was also unbalanced, to Pigorna’s disadvantage as she was sometimes drowned out by the two instrumentalists.

In the same concert, the trio Holy Drone Travellers were an interesting and enjoyable synthesis of east and west, with a piece titled Untitled that followed the pattern of classical Indian rāg, but with the timbres of synthesizer (providing, in part, the drone), and a trombone that initially sounded like Tibetan horns. Add a distorted guitar and table, and you have an interesting mix. Particularly impressive was at one point a very slow acceleration from Bhuyash Neupane on tabla, metronomically and microscopically accurate.

I also enjoyed Edmonton composer and organist Reinhard von Berg’s four movement organ piece, Visions, though its rather stark colours and (in the company it was keeping) its relative lack of contemporary effects would not have been everyone’s cup of tea.

Many years ago, von Berg was a boy in the 6th Edmonton Scout Group, who were charged with carrying the flag to the altar at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. While doing so, Onward Christian Soldiers was played on the organ, the first time that Berg had heard a pipe organ. He knew there and then he had to become an organist. And here he was, all those years later, not only playing it, but playing his own composition on it.

The organ was updated last year, with a new set of pipes above the entrance doors on the west end of the aisle (the other pipes are in the choir area), and von Berg’s piece was ideal for showing off the antiphonal possibilities. For the movements are each quodlibets, where two or more already defined tunes are combined in counterpoint. In Visions those tunes are based on the tunes from the Anglican Hymnal, and inevitably there were echoes (both intellectually and occasionally musically) of Ives, another composer who loved such hymn juxtapositions. Von Berg’s palette is generally sparse – often the second tune was given just in a single line, rather than harmonized, which worked well when given to one or other of the set of antiphonal pipes. There’s quite a wide variety of effect, if not colour: the high twittering of one hymn against bass stops for the other in the second movement, a little harmonic tower-building, and some anger in the third (shades of Messiaen here), harmonic overlapping effects (with the pulse and oscillation of overtones) and little decorations in the quiet, contemplative fourth movement, where the influence of Messiaen returned in bird calls.

The Saturday afternoon concert on March 23rd at Holy Trinity was a mixture of opposites. The one work was the Song of Sibyls created by Canadian keyboard player Katelyn Clark for the organetto, the small medieval portable organ that can be carried around by the player. It’s mixed with electronics and video, and the work is based on a medieval Catalan drama setting a prophecy describing the Apocalypse.

Opening and closing with the sound of tiny finger-bells, the music, with the organetto ranging from pipe sounds to extended harmonic effects, was generally slow, meditative, often rather beautiful, and certainly mesmerizing, especially in the peaceful surroundings of the church. I would have been quite happy just to have had that side of the multi-media presentation.

Unfortunately, it was combined with a video back-projected onto a big screen. The first 30 minutes or so was the most boring video I have ever seen. Apparently set in somewhere like Iceland (empty, blasted, dead grass landscapes with the occasional mountain and waterfall, and some broken down buildings), it was poorly shot, handheld, with very long takes, and washed out colour. There were two women. Then eventually there were three women. All looked around. Slowly. There was a moment of drama in the second 30 minutes when the three were seen skinny-dipping in a pool, but that seemed so out of place with the rest of the video that its significance was unclear. It then reverted to looking around slowly. And near the end, the woman with the hat actually took her hat off. This was a highlight.

Maybe I was jaundiced, since, as it turned out, I was coming down with the vicious cold that has delayed my posting this review. But I did so enjoy the aural side of this work, which had none of the amateur self-indulgence of the video. Readers can judge for themselves – the work can be seen on YouTube.

Alas, because of that cold, I had to miss the final concert on Sunday, March 24, which I very much wanted to hear. There were three world premiers – one by Pigorna, one by the distinguished Cuban composer Evelin Ramón, and one by Toronto-based Monica Pearce, whose work The Flag was recently chosen as winner for the Creative Women at the End of the First World War Composition Competition.

With new music one rightly expects quite a wide variety of quality – that inevitably on the cutting edge – but certainly the music I heard heard in this, the eighth Now Hear This Now Festival, was of a consistently higher quality than in some past Now Hear This festivals – and that does not include works I did not hear, but know, such as the powerful Love Songs by the Montreal-based Ana Sokolović, who won Classical Composition of the Year at the 2019 Junos, and which was performed by Helen Pridmore in the Saturday night concert.

New Music Edmonton is, one feels, getting the formula right, with a wide appeal for what they are putting on.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival concluded

Image result for Akseli Gallen Kallela Cloud Towers

Akseli Gallen-Kallela – Pilvi tornit (Cloud Towers, 1904)

Jean Sibelius

Tapiola, Op.112
The Tempest, Op.109
Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Saturday, March 9, 2019


The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival ended, as it should, not with the quiet glaze of a northern Finnish sun over icy wastes – that was left to the first half of the closing concert – but with the life-affirming splendour of the final chords of the Second Symphony. It was also the most consistently satisfying concert in a festival that has shown the orchestra and its Chief Conductor – and, no doubt, for many audience members, the composer – in a new light, and it was enthusiastically received.

The concert opened with Sibelius’ last tone-poem, Tapiola, written in 1926 when he was 60. Inspired by the story of the King of the Forest, Tapio, from the Kalevala, Sibelius gave no detailed explanation of any program, but just an indication of what it evokes:

“Wide-spread they stand, the Northland’s dusky forests, ancient, mysterious, brooding savage dreams; within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God, and wood-sprites in the gloom weave magic secrets.” (English version from the English language edition of the score)

This was a superlative performance, one of the best in the Festival, confirming that Prior is a Sibelius conductor to be reckoned with. Tapiola is very much music of shades and layers – regularly surging up from the leaf mould of the forest floor, with bass colours (such as that of the contra-bassoon) emphasized. This entirely suits Prior’s approach, as again he graduated the dynamics in sections of the orchestra to bring out those different layers (as he also did in the Symphony No.2 later in the concert). He treated it very much as a 20th-century work, with its fleeting touches of polytonality, in its unsettled harmonies, in the tense chatter of some of the massed violin writing – indeed, he found here the tension that was a bit subdued in the earlier concerts. His approach really works, and at the end I heard from the audience member behind me a fully deserved but involuntary sotto voce “Wow!”

It was followed by Prior’s own selection of 11 movements from the 19 in total found in the two Tempest suites, also written in 1926. He omitted the overture, and instead opened with the sparse Northern landscape painting of the ‘Oak Tree’ – here was decidedly a Tempest of a northern island, somewhere twixt the Faroes and the Åland Islands, without a vestige of a Caribbean surf, or indeed, a Mediterranean sun. Four more joyful movements followed, but even Caliban’s song is a kind of Hebridean dance with exotic tinges. Ariel’s song led us back to misty landscapes, and to the sense of resignation that somehow permeates the suite. The storm was next, but this is a storm of bitter cold winds and ice in the rigging, of fog horns in the brass – the kind of storm that one might associate more with Pullman’s Golden Compass than the start of Shakespeare’s play. Two more dance-like movements followed, culminating in an ending that reverted to the quiet northern landscape of the beginning. This, too, is music that looks towards the modern as much as back to the Romantics – Rautavaara is one of the inheritors, and there is even a Khachaturian-like moment in the Intrada that leads into the Berceuse (Suite No.1 VII). The performance was a winning one, with a tremendous but remorseless, controlled storm, and a very sensible placement of the harp right at the front and side of the stage, to allow the instrument to sing out in two of the movements.

These two late works both contrasted and complimented each other, and were a reminder that in the first Finnish performance of Tapiola it was paired with the overture to The Tempest, followed by Sibelius’ final symphony, the Seventh. Here, though, the Festival ended with his most popular symphony, the Second. The orchestra had clearly got the measure of what Prior was looking for in his interpretation, especially in those layered dynamics (this is where extra rehearsal pays such dividends). For he concentrated on the shape of the symphony, crisp and with no sentimentality in the opening movement, and a very slow build-up dynamically in the second movement. The virtues of this performance were the very deliberate and even tempi – those with a Romantic leaning might have wished for more flashy accelerandi, rallentandi, and crescendi, but that remorseless deliberation seemed to me to show the unfolding of the symphony a new, and very effective, light. It was almost as if the symphony were in one whole movement, rather than four. This makes sense, as those four movements share the organic growth of germ material, and similar contrasts of mood, and the difference in tone between them is not nearly as marked as in many symphonies. And to that committed playing from the orchestra – one marvelous cello moment from Rafael Hoekman, and wonderfully Russian-sounding trumpet tone from Robin Doyon, so appropriate for this work – and this was a compelling performance.

And so the isle was now empty of those sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. The thousand twangling instruments had ceased their humming, and the Festival was over.

Perhaps ‘Festival’ is a little too strong a word,  in spite of the various Finnish activities in the foyer. I do hope it is the progenitor of similar program planning, concentrating on one composer (or perhaps a particular country) in the future – certainly it seemed to go down well with the audiences. But if so, why not extend it to truly create a festival that could become a feature in this city of festivals? It wouldn’t take much to get together with the Edmonton Recital Society and the Chamber Music Society to have associated concerts during the festival period, nor would it take much to get some a contemporary art from the region concerned (an exhibition of contemporary Finnish art would have been really interesting here, and it’s not that difficult to tap into a country’s cultural affairs to arrange such things). And it wouldn’t take that much to organize an academic conference to go with it. The result would then be a true festival, and, what’s more, one that would give the orchestra and the city international attention in a cultural area that hasn’t yet received an international gaze.

To organize such a festival, a longer lead time is needed (two or three years), and co-operation between various organizations (such as the Art Gallery of Alberta and other musical organizations on the city, and a university for the conference). Both are possible, and to have such cross-organizational co-operation, rather than the rather cliquey solitudes we have at the moment, would make such a festival worthwhile even before the music started.

Let’s go for it.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival continued

Hannu Lukin: Taivas Aukeaa (The Sky will Open)
Hannu Lukin: Taivas Aukeaa (The Sky will Open)


Jean Sibelius:

·         Karelia Suite, Op.11
·         Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st movement – Allegro moderato

·         Kuolema, Op.44 

o   Valse triste

o   Scene with Cranes

·         Orchestral songs

o   Illalle’ (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6

o   ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’ (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5

o   Svarta rosor’ (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1

o   Se’n har jag ej frågat mera’ (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1

·         trad. Folk tune

·         Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117

·         Finlandia

Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano
Kokopelli and Òran Choirs
Richard Eaton Singers
Conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Thursday, February 28th, 2019


Jean Sibelius:

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Conducted by Alexander Prior
Winspear
Friday March 1st, 2019

After a stirring opening concert on Friday February 22nd (repeated the following evening), the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Sibelius Festival continued with another related pair of concerts on Thursday February 28 and on St. David’s Day (Wales’ national day, duly noted by conductor Alexander Prior in his opening remarks), Friday March 1.

One of the most notable elements of the two concerts was the contrast in audiences (relatively large for both evenings). The first, longer, concert, billed in the orchestra’s Lighter Classics series, started later (8 pm), and went on considerably longer. Its audience was older, and considerably noisier, more of which later on. Friday’s concert started earlier (7.30 pm), was shorter (around an hour with no intermission), with a much younger audience, one of the most attentive (and quiet) that I have experienced in the Winspear.

Now, Friday’s tickets were commendably cheap (the most expensive was $35), and there was the added bonus of a free drink with the ticket, as well as a Scotch tasting courtesy of Sherbrook Liquor (which, if you haven’t discovered it, is the place in Edmonton to buy craft beer, and has permanent discounts for seniors – and, no, I wasn’t paid for this endorsement!). Nonetheless, this new formula is clearly working – the ESO is drawing in a much younger audience, quite a few of whom will have been at their first ESO concert, so long may it continue.

The Lighter Classics concert reminded me of those late Victorian concert programs that had a little bit of everything, here including just the first movement of the Violin Concerto. This is a practice I personally dislike, even if the opening movement of the Sibelius is so wide-ranging it almost stands on its own. But only almost, and Sibelius didn’t write it to played on its own. That movement is about 17 minutes long – the other two combined are only about 15, so why not just play the whole thing?

One the other hand, the inclusion of four of Sibelius’ songs was an unexpected piece of programming. Op.17 No.1 was orchestrated by Sibelius himself (in 1903), but Op.35 No.5 and the famous ‘Black Roses’ (Op.36, No.1) had been, we were told, especially orchestrated for this concert by John Estacio. Very well orchestrated they were, too, with a sympathetic sense of colour and sweep, and unassumingly true to the Sibelius idiom. The little touch of harp and cymbals in the otherwise string orchestration of ‘Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote’, for example, was just right. The final song in the set (Op.17, No.1) wasn’t orchestrated by Sibelius, so I presume this was an Estacio orchestration, too.

What gorgeous songs they are! He is one of the best of the northern song writers, emotionally involved in the texts, veering more to the dramatic art song than lieder, and perhaps it is only the language demands (Swedish or Finnish) that prevents them being heard more often.

The young Edmonton soprano Whitney Leigh Sloan, who continues both to develop and to impress, started off a little subdued, but then really began to express the drama in the songs – she has an enviable range, full at the top when she opens out, and rich at the bottom – both exemplified in Op.37 No.5. She’s also understands how to phrase vocal lines that more follow patterns of speech, as here (making me wonder when she might tackle Janáček).

These attractive performances made me want more, and rather regret that Sibelius’s masterpiece in the genre, Luonnotar, wasn’t included in the festival. Thursday’s concert did, though, end with a very effective well-kept secret. Prior’s interpretation of Finlandia was as expected – strong, clear lines, a concentration on colour, clarity, and detail, and an orchestral placement that emphasized those virtues, with the horns and brass at opposite sides of the stage, playing across to each other, and the percussion centre back.

However, towards the end of the piece, in came from the back of the auditorium a large chorus, who stood in the aisles to join in – in Finnish and from memory – for the choral version of what is Finland’s national music. It was a rousing way to end the concert, and must have produced a lump in the throat and tears in the eyes for any Finn in the audience.

Also very welcome was a rare appearance of a very late Sibelius work, the Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117. This was Sibelius’ last orchestral work, and was requested by his American publisher. When that publisher rejected it, he wrote across the manuscript “Not to be published”, and it wasn’t performed until 1990.

It is an engaging and rather unexpected little suite, evoking the countryside in spring and summer, without the larger landscape canvas we associate with the composer. In the first two movements, the violin is essentially the first among equals, and the first (‘Country Scenery’) does indeed sound rather American, shades of Copland, perhaps, with its sense of dance. The second (‘Evening in Spring’) is rather lovely and whimsical, and could so easily be by an English composer (the chamber music of Bax springs to mind), reminding one of the close association (and mutual admiration) between Sibelius and some of the major contemporary English composers. The final movement, ‘In the Summer’, though, is quite simply Sibelius’ Flight of the Bumblebee, a virtuoso running dance on the violin with suitably pizzicato strings.

Ellen Thesleff ‘The Violin Player’ (1896)

The violinist was the Norwegian Ragnhild Hemsing, here making her Canadian debut. She is equally at home with a classical violin and a folk instrument, having studied both from early childhood. In Thursday’s concert she played some Norwegian folk music on a hardanger fiddle, the traditional Norwegian folk instrument. Beautifully decked in mother-of-pearl on the fingerboard and with a dragon’s head as the scroll at the top of the pegboard, the instrument has four sympathetic strings for resonance underneath the normal four playing strings.

Some of that folk knowledge coloured her interpretation of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, to good effect, especially in the main cadenza of the first movement. On the Thursday, her performance of that movement was a little soulless, but Friday’s – a performance of the complete concerto – was richer in hue, more emotionally involved.

Prior again secured clarity and layered dynamics from the ESO, and if there was the occasional glitch – there were a couple of moments when Hemsing was a little wayward in tempi, and the horns couldn’t quite play down to her very soft playing at the end of the second movement – that end of the second movement was magically peaceful, full of hope, and in the final movement Hemsing again brought out the folk connections in Sibelius’ writing.

Thursday’s concert included both Valse Triste and its accompanying movement (not nearly so often heard), ‘Scenes with Cranes’: together they make Kuolema, Op.44. I had written of the opening concert in the Festival that the orchestra had achieved some really soft playing, but I hadn’t then heard them in Valse Triste, for here Prior went for a performance of dynamic contrasts, with a ghostly tone rather than the more mawkish, frenzied build-up that is often heard. Wonderful soft playing, but it had to compete with a very noisy audience, whose shuffling and dropping of programs and other sundry noises around me were actually louder at one point than the music.

A very beautiful performance of ‘Scenes with Cranes’ was repeated on the Friday, where the silence and rapt attention of the audience allowed full rein to that quieter playing, complete with those atmospheric cries from the two clarinets.

For me, though, the highlight of the two concerts were the performances of the Karelia Suite, which opened both evenings. I have known and loved this work since my teens, and can safely say that if the ESO had recorded the performance of the opening Intermezzo, I would have instantly gone out and bought it, to top the many recordings of it I already have.

Thursday’s performance introduced the virtues of Prior’s interpretation. He took it a little slower than Barbirolli (a Sibelian master), with the result that it was both more lyrical and conversely more deliberate, with rollicking discipline from the orchestra. The Friday performance was not quite so deliberate, but the crescendo into the main march was ideal, and the tempi, again a little slower, made me think that this is how Sir Adrian Boult would have conducted it. At the same time the textures were cleaner, leaner, than in Karajan’s view (and I know Prior admires Karajan’s Sibelius). For me, this was the most ideal interpretation of this movement I have yet heard.

In the second movement, where on Thursday the orchestra again showed they can play a genuine ppp, the approach was lyrical, more atmospheric in Friday’s performance. The final movement was definitely more effective on the Friday, with Prior adopting what might be described as a sleigh-ride tempi (most appropriate to the Karelian landscape). Both performances showed the Edmonton Symphony at their best.

The Festival continues on Saturday, March 9. The first half consists of two late works, the incidental music to The Tempest, and the tone poem that comes closest to symphonic proportions, and to a savagery in the northern landscape, Tapiola. The Festival finishes with what is perhaps Sibelius’ most popular symphony, the Second in D major.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival

Sibelius in 1940

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra got its Sibelius mini-festival off to an authoritative start at the Winspear on Friday evening (February 22). For Mark Morris’ review of the concert, click here.

As it is very difficult to work out the full program of the Festival on the Winspear website, here is the program for the rest of the Festival. All concerts are in the Winspear, all the works are by Sibelius, and all are conducted by Alexander Prior:

Saturday February 23

  • Andante festive
  • Two Serious Melodies, Op.77
  • Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63
  • Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op.82

Thursday February 28 (8 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st mvmt – Allegro moderato
  • Kuolema, Op.44 (13’):  Valse triste and Scene with Cranes
  • Orchestral songs:
    “Illalle” (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6
    “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote” (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5
    “Svarta rosor” (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1
    “Se’n har jag ej frågat mera” (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1
  • trad. Folk tune
  • Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117
  • Finlandia

Friday, March 1 (7.30 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Saturday, March 9 (8 pm)

  • Suite The Tempest, Op.109
  • Tapiola, Op.112
  • Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Pop Goes the Opera: Puccini Suor Angelica

Puccini: Suor Angelica


Cast
Suor Angelica                   Cristina Weiheimer
La Zia Principessa          Krista Mulbery
Suor Genovieffe             Jill Hoogewoonink
The Abbess                       Stephanie Bent
The Monitor                     Jessie MacDonald
Mistress of Novices      Molly Danko
The Nursing Sister         Julia Grigaitis
Suor Dolcina                     Carrie-Ann Hubbard
Suor Osmina                     Lydia-Ann Levesque
The Alms Sisters             Jennifer O’Donnell, Kayla Willsey, Lydia-Ann                                                    Levesque,   Ruth Wong-Miller
The Lay Sisters                Elizabeth Grigaitis, Sable Chan
The Novice                        Christina O’Dell

 Director                           Glynis Price
 Musical Director          Spencer Kryzanowski

Holy Trinity Anglican Church (101 St and 84th Avenue)

Friday, February 15


Suor Angelica, first performed at the Met in 1918, is the most sentimental of all Puccini’s operas, guaranteed to tug at the audience’s heart-strings. Its combination of the naivete and innocence of nuns, the heroine who is doing penance for having a child out of wedlock, the reported death of that child, and the suicide of the mother, is potent stuff.

It’s worth remembering, though, that it is part of a triptych of short operas, each showing a different aspect of the human condition. The work is not quite so cloying when seen against the other two operas – indeed, Puccini himself got pretty angry about them being split up. Arguably, it is not as good either dramatically or as musically as its companions, the verismo masterpiece Il tabarro and one of the best comic operas ever written¸ Gianni Schicchi. However, that very sentimentality, that combination of quasi-spirituality and tragic penance, means that is has remained the most popular of the three among the general public.

Yet it is something of an ambivalent opera. First, it reflects Puccini’s life-long and sometimes uncomfortable obsession with women in unfortunate situations. Second, the very idea – in Italian Catholic terms of the time – of a nun (who is doing penance for having a child out-of-wedlock) being forgiven in a miracle by the Virgin Mary for the mortal sin of committing suicide has its theological problems.

But then underneath all that sentimentality and slightly self-indulgent passion is, surely partly intentionally, the suggestion of social commentary. There is an anti-clerical element – the nuns, after all, are a pretty silly lot, and there is that contradiction in the suicidal ending. The idea woven into the story and exemplified by the domineering figure of the Princess, Angelica’s Aunt, of a family ruined by the scandal of a bastard child, with the outcasting of the mother, does comment on Italian social mores, however much they were to change in the aftermath of the First World War. One can, indeed, imagine the nodding heads of the more severe American matrons in the audience at its premiere, pleased at the apparent message and missing the irony.

The reviews of the premiere were generally impressed by the music, but not always about the overall effect. Here’s W. J. Henderson in the Evening Sun on Suor Angelica:  “But it is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth. There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the nun’s veiling the concept.”

A little harsh, perhaps, but Forzano’s libretto does seem a little saccharine. Nonetheless, Suor Angelica has rightly proved to be popular with both younger singers, such as undergraduate groups, and semi-amateur companies (as I can attest, having directed productions with both).  The collection of nuns provides the opportunity for a number of smaller solo roles, and, while the two main roles of Angelica and the Princess have their challenges, they are not too taxing. The relatively short length (around an hour) helps with rehearsals, and the opera works equally well in simple or complex staging. And, of course, it provides lots of opportunities for women singers.

One such semi-amateur group is Edmonton’s enterprising Pop Goes the Opera, who presented the work in Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Friday, February 15th, and are repeating it at 2 pm on Sunday, February 17th. The company – from its sponsors to its singers – is very much a local one, with some faces familiar from the chorus of the Edmonton Opera. It has already established its credentials with Cavalleria Rusticana at the 2016 Fringe, and then an excellent Pagliacci at the 2017 Fringe. If their enterprising 2018 Fringe oratorio, McCune’s Y2K Black Death Oratorio, was less successful, that was down to the material rather than the enthusiasm of the company.

Glynis Price, who directed the Pagliacci, directs this Suor Angelica, and that production’s Nedda, Cristina Weiheimer, takes the lead role. Thankfully, production is sung in Italian, for although this inevitably produced some mixed standards of pronunciation, it sounds so much better in the original language, and the English surtitles are clear and comprehensive. What was missing were the orchestral colours, for the cast is accompanied by a single piano, played by Spencer Kryzanowski, who also conducted from the keyboard.

Price sensibly decided to keep the staging simple, and to make the most of the opportunities that the church offers, using almost everywhere from the back of the aisles to the altar. Setting Suor Angelica in a church is, of course, entirely appropriate, but it has its unexpected effects, particularly near the end. That ambivalence in the work comes across all the stronger, especially when Angelica sings about the mortal sin of suicide, and there is a slight sense of sacrilege, or at least dissonance, between her actions and the ecclesiastical surroundings.

The piano reduction was a very sparse one indeed. The original scoring, until the larger orchestral climaxes at the end, is admittedly very chamber-like, but it never sounds thin – Puccini goes for colour and timbre. Without much variety in those two musical elements, this piano version really needed a little more idiomatic life in the playing (and, whether it was an aural illusion or not, it seemed to be missing some obvious touches from the full score). This wasn’t entirely to the work’s disadvantage – it sounded rather 20th-century rather than late-Romantic, and it did allow any listener interested to experience the nuts and bolts of the score.

Suor Angelica is very much an ensemble opera, and the Pop Goes the Opera cast make the most of the opportunity. There are some neat little touches in the character acting among the nuns, and the singing overall is uniformly enjoyable. It is perhaps a bit invidious to single out any one particular nun from the group, but nonetheless Jill Hoogewoonink’s strong sense of character as Suor Genovieffe (she reminded me of Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) was noteworthy.

The Principessa is played most imperiously by Krista Mulbery, looking for all the world like a stern Victorian matron – one can well believe the strength of her unsympathetic convictions – and she has a mezzo-soprano to match. Soprano Christina Weiheimer as Angelica could, I felt, have used a stronger directorial hand: her reaction to hearing of her son’s death, for example, was very tame, and one doesn’t get the full sense of her anguish at the end. She also seems to pull back a little vocally on the higher notes and at climatic moments. Nonetheless, she does fit well into the overall ensemble – in some productions she can feel like a prima among pares, while here she is definitely one of the community. She has quite clearly served her penance, and is completely undeserving of her fate.

Pop Goes the Opera make the most of the limitations of scale, venue, and of a community organization such as theirs. The result was a most enjoyable evening, that may have lacked the full colours of Puccini’s score, but nonetheless captured the essence of the work, and at the same time – due to those very limitations – threw up some interesting viewpoints on the work. It’s well worth dropping down to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for the Sunday afternoon performance.

The company has also announced that it will be doing Gianni Schicchi – a work that should suite them admirably – at the 2019 Fringe, which is excellent news. I look forward to it!

Pro Coro New Year’s Eve Concert

Pro Coro with conductor Michael Zaugg in All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
(photo supplied by Pro Coro)

dPro Coro saw out the Old Year and (nearly) saw in the New Year in style at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral on Monday, December 30, with a wide-ranging concert of modern works (Morten Lauridson, Uģis Prauliņš, Joby Talbot, and Jordan Nobles) alongside some Mahler (arranged for a capella chorus), Vincent Youmans, Rossini, and a lesser-known but delightful song for the New Year by Arthur Sullivan, all ending up with conductor Michael Zaugg’s own arrangement of Auld Lang Syne.

For Mark Morris’ full review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Fringe: Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale

C’mon Chamber Music: Stravinsky The Soldier’s Tale

Picture

The Soldier: Oscar Derkx
The Devil: Andrea House
The Princess: Camille Ensminger
The Narrator: Davina Stewart

choreographed by Laura Krewski
directed by Farren Timoteo
C’mon Ensemble
conducted by Alexander Prior

August 17 – 25
King Edward School (Venue 5)

 

For Mark Morris’ Fringe review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

 

Edmonton Fringe: McCune, Y2K Black Death Oratorio

Pop Goes the Opera: Y2K Black Death Oratorio

Music Director:  Dr. Sara Brooks
Director:     Joyanne Rudiak
Repetiteur:  Spencer Kryzanowski

Cast

Arnold RJ Chambers
Lillian – Nansee Hughes
Martha Jane – Mairi-Irene McCormack
Keith – Dan Rowley
Elmer – Hans Forbrich
Minister – Gareth Bergstrom
Russell – Spencer Kryzanowski
Muse – Lydia-Ann Levesque

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
August 16 – August 26

For Mark Morris’ brief Fringe review in the Edmonton Journal, click here

Rafael Hoekman and Jeremy Spurgeon: Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Elgar, and César Franck

Photograph of Edward Elgar, scanned from The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 1917), Oxford University Press, p. 289

Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Le carnaval des animaux
Gabriel Fauré: Sicilienne Op.78
Gabriel Fauré: Élégie in C minor Op.24
Elgar: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op.85 (arranged for cello and piano by the composer)
César Franck: Cello Sonata in A major (arranged from the Violin Sonata in A major by Jules Delsart)

All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
Monday June 25, 2018

Rafael Hoekman (cello)
Jeremy Spurgeon (piano)


The 35 years or so between 1880 and the start of World War I is such an interesting and attractive period for classical music. Quite apart from the early beginnings of composers who were to revolutionize music – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, to name but three – there is, alongside powerhouses of Mahler and the Richard Strauss, a  kind of warm glow to the last embers of Romantic music (and, perhaps, a more innocent world), that expressed itself in some places in a pastoral nationalism, in others in a mystical symbolism, in others in Impressionism.

This was the period that cellist Rafael Hoekman and pianist Jeremy Spurgeon concentrated on in their enterprising concert at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral (where Spurgeon is the organist) on June 25. It was all the more welcome for being on an unusual day of the week for a concert in Edmonton – a Monday evening – and the surroundings of the Cathedral, with its warm brickwork, its tapestries and its stained-glass, suited this ambience well, and acoustically worked surprisingly effectively.

Hoekman is, of course, the Principal Cello of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and a considerable asset to that orchestra. The hallmarks of his playing are the richness of his tone, and the considerable emotional involvement in the music. His is, indeed, a Romantic style, happy to use vibrato emotively, and revelling in the phrasing and in the skills of changing colour and tone within a long phrase. Spurgeon, so often appearing in different musical roles in the city (as readers of these reviews will know), is a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist, but also a fine chamber musician, as he showed here.

The concert opened with a kind of prelude to that warm Romanticism of the evening: Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan’, written in 1886,  which set just the right tone for music on a very hot summer’s evening.

Jeremy Spurgeon
Jeremy Spurgeon

 Of the two Fauré’s selections that followed, his 1886 Sicilienne is, with its rippling opening piano, its musing yet singing cello lines, and its gentle fade way into inconclusiveness, quintessential idyll music of the period. His Élégie (1880) is better known (especially in the arrangement that Fauré made for cello and orchestra) and more stentorian. Both were beautifully played, with a notable moment in the Élégie when Spurgeon allowed the rhythmic line in the piano to free up and open out, and was then matched by Hoekman.

The central work in the concert, though, was composed when the innocence of that period had been shattered by the First World War. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, written in 1919, somehow manages to combine those rich Edwardian colours with a deep sense of regret and yearning, and it is almost impossible not to hear in it a lament for all those who had died. Elgar himself made the transcription for cello and piano a year after the full score was published. It’s a work that is daunting enough in its orchestral version (the cello is playing almost non-stop), but perhaps even more so when the cello is so exposed by being matched with piano alone. Of course there are moments when one misses the orchestra, but, to counteract that, the thinner textures means one can hear little unexpected details,  the unfolding of the structure really comes across, and the arrangement is particularly effective in the slow movement.

Hoekman’s playing was wonderfully fluid from the outset, with very long phrasing, a consistency of tone, and the passion that the piece demands. If he was not quite so strong in the fast passage work of the second movement, the demands are considerable, the third movement was beautifully played, and the tempi in the finale well judged. More important, this was an emotive performance, and to give the whole concerto in the context of an already weighty recital was a risk that was fully justified in the playing.

César Franck’s Cello Sonata is an arrangement, by the French cellist Jules Delsart and sanctioned by the composer, of the Violin Sonata in A major. The piano part remains exactly the same, though the cello part of necessity has some changes, and Franck’s publisher simply included the cello solo part in with the violin score. In its violin form, it is one of Franck’s most celebrated works, and in its cello form it is one of the staples of the cello repertoire. Indeed, it was the last work that Jacqueline du Pré, who was so responsible for popularizing the Elgar Cello Concerto, recorded in the studio.

In spite of its rather autumnal opening, and although the violin sonata was written in 1886 (as a wedding present for the violinist Ysaÿe), it belongs to an earlier era than the rest of the works in this concert, weightier in feel and sound in the way that Brahms is weightier than Dvořák, more Balzac than Proust. Grand in its scale and ambitions, it received a performance to match, the highlight the deep solemnity and weight of the playing (and the lyricism that followed) in the third movement.

Edward and Alice Elgar
Edward and Alice Elgar

The concert ended with another piece written as an engagement present, Elgar’s Salut d’amour, which he wrote in Seattle in 1888, and brought back for his fiancee Caroline Alice Roberts. Like the Franck, it was originally written for violin and piano, but when it was published (as Liebesgruss – ‘Love’s Greeting’) a year later there were versions for violin and piano, piano solo, cello and piano, and for small orchestra (now perhaps the version most often heard). It is the Edwardian salon piece par excellence, with its winning song-like tune, a touch of wistfulness, its hint of knowing sophistication – a perfect way to end this most enjoyable concert, not just for the music, but because it was also Rafael Hoekman’s wedding anniversary.

Husband and wife Rafael Hoekman and Meran Currie-Roberts
Husband and wife Rafael Hoekman and Meran Currie-Roberts