Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Adams, Nicole Lizée, and Elgar

Slick Sunset
photo by Louis Helbig from his series Beautiful Destruction
Muskeg River Mine, Fort McKay, Alberta

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Adams: Grand Pianola Music
Nicole Lizée: La terre a des maux
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme Op.36 (Enigma Variations)

Samian (rapper)
Lisa Dolinsky, Rachel Majorowicz, Jennifer McMillan (singers)
Michael Massey and Jeremy Spurgeon (pianos)

Conducted by Alexander Prior


Dreams of Steinway pianos hurtling down Interstate Route 5, visions of the earth crying out in pain, and affectionate portraits of a composer’s friends – this was the unexpected mix in one of conductor Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s most successful recent concerts, in the Winspear on Friday (November 29, repeated on Saturday November 30) .

It confirmed the great strides the orchestra has made. It confirmed that, yes, Edmonton audiences can take modern music alongside the old. And it confirmed that if you program imaginative contemporary works, you get a really healthy mix of younger generations in and among the regular audience of older patrons. It’s concerts like these that get new listeners coming to live classical music.

It opened with one of John Adams’ most powerful works, the 1981 Grand Pianola Music, inspired by a dream of seeing two limousines morph into two Steinway pianos on Interstate 5, which runs all the way up the US West Coast to the Canadian border. The ESO’s Assistant Principal double-bass, Maximilian Mauricio-Cardilli, introduced the work, and one could see his point when he said the music was like driving through the Rockies.

Indeed, there is something about the piece and the way it unfurls that recalls those road-trip poems of the West Coast beat poets, but even more – for all its minimalist modernism – there is something of the heritage of Ives about it. It’s there in some of the textures, in the way Adams utilizes popular elements just as Ives did, but in a contemporary context. The use of the three singers, like back-up singers in a soul group, makes such a link, as does the grand tune that seems so familiar (but is original) that emerges in Part II.

Adams is one of Prior’s favourite composers, and his approach to the piece was typical of his conducting style and concerns: an emphasis on coaxing very clear textures from the orchestra (this is one of his great strengths, and was evident throughout the concert), and a thoughtful and considered unfolding of the structure of the piece.

The very measured control of the opening extended crescendo exemplified this, and the whole of part one was notable for its detail of colour: the slow section of Part One really benefited, and was mesmerizingly beautiful and moving.

The downside was that ‘grand’ of the title became slightly subdued – this was a more nuanced interpretation than, say, Adams’ own more robust approach in his recording. The principal reason was, I think, that the two pianos, played by Jeremy Spurgeon and Michael Massey, were simply not loud enough. Placed in the centre of the orchestra, with no lids to direct the sound, they too often got lost, and so the sense of the music being built around them got lost, too.

I don’t want to exaggerate this – this was a performance that clearly deeply affected the audience, and one where Prior’s interpretation decisions were fully justified. However, the flaw in the performance of the work that followed, La terre a des maux (‘The Earth has Evils’), by the Canadian composer Nicole Lizée, was more serious.

A major component of the work is a rap performance by the Algonquin-Québecois rapper Samian, with words in Algonquin and French. Unfortunately, there were not only no texts, but absolutely nothing in the program to inform the audience what those words were about. Samian himself asked the audience how many spoke French: it was a decided minority, and it was unlikely that anyone spoke Algonquin.

Prior then asked Samian what the work was about, but all we got is that the text was about the earth talking to us, and was divided into four sections, earth, fire, wind, and water. That was simply not enough for a 31 minute spoken word rap, and the fact that much of the audience had no idea what was going on was a huge and unnecessary failing in this performance.

Lizée’s own otherwise interesting and informative program note didn’t help, for, apart from the general idea of a broken environment, there seemed to be no connection to the little that Samian had given us in his on-stage introduction.

Nicole Lizée with AKAI 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel tape recorder
photo Canadian Music Centre

From what I can piece together – and I cannot find any version of the text, in the original languages, or otherwise – Lizée wrote the music first. That music is inspired by the idea of vinyl LP turntables, and all the mixture of additive sounds vinyl sometimes produce in and among the music being played- hiss and pops and cracks, variations in pitch from a warped record, and so on. At the same time, she sees the turntable as, one suspects, a kind of noble machine, whose wanton destruction when the LP age came to an end is emblematic of the earth in a kind of mechanical trouble, “broken and malfunctioning”.

Samian then added the words, using a structure of the four elements. He has had this to say about his approach, in an interview with La Presse:

“The human being is at once the most intelligent and the most devastating beast on earth. This ferocious beast forgets how much it depends on the elements that make up its habitat. If these elements could speak, they might tell him what I wrote through these four different themes. “

The extraordinary thing about this work – and this performance – is that, although there was no way we could get the full impact without some knowledge of what was being rapped, it confirmed that in Nicole Lizée Canada has a composer of prodigious abilities and a completely distinctive voice. Indeed, if she imagined her music as being the backtrack to Samian’s rap, exactly the opposite happened if one didn’t know the meaning of the words. The rap because a kind of percussive verbal element to back the music, especially when Samian went into the much more rhythmically musical Algonquin.

And what music it is! The textures are extraordinarily dense – indeed, much of the time it seemed as if most of the orchestra was playing – and unfurl in a succession of shorter phases of texture, if that’s the right word. It’s all held together by a constant and almost miraculous underlying sense of rhythm, or rather rhythms, all of which seemed to revolve around that sense of the turntable spinning around, in all sorts of different guises and shapes and speeds.

It might seem a world spinning in chaos, but if that surface sounds chaotic, one quickly realizes the underlying currents are far from chaos, broken though they may be, exemplified by a marvellous moment where brass sounds almost literally seem to spiral off the spinning surface.

It’s not a work that – text or no text – one can fully grasp on a single listening, and I do hope someone records it soon, so that we can not only again experience its mastery of orchestral writing, but be able to understand and unravel it more. In the meantime, I suspect that Prior – with his talent for nudging out strands and textures in the orchestra, is an ideal conductor for the work. Certainly the ESO responded magnificently, and the amount of work the percussionists in particular must have put in – they are playing very complex parts almost continuously- beggars the imagination.

Prior had heard the first performance, given by the Montreal Symphony, and was determined to bring the work to Edmonton. I am very glad both that he did, and that the management and the orchestra backed the decision to program a work by a composer so unfamiliar to Edmonton audiences, and one with the unlikely addition of orchestral rap. It’s too early to say whether the piece is indeed a masterpiece – and one would need the text – but it certainly has the elements of it.

The concert ended with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This was another fascinating and enjoyable performance, a thoughtful, almost laid-back interpretation, sometimes ruminative, sometimes going for a chamber-like sound, that again contrasted with more robust approaches, but had its own rewards. Only perhaps in the finale did it stumble a little – Prior let it rip, but that rather contrasted with the more laid-back interpretation of what had gone before, instead of culminating it.

Prior got a very Elgarian sound from the orchestra, rich in colour and timbre (the words ‘gnarled walnut’ came to mind for the colours) and with just the right touch of nostalgia and almost regret – such an Elgar component – when needed. Some of the more Tchaikovskian moments (Dorabella, for example), could perhaps have had a little more sparkle, but Principal Cellist Rafael Hoekman’s little solos in the twelfth variation (B.G.N.) were as moving as I have ever heard them.

Highlights were the incisive seventh variation (Troyte), and a beautifully ghostly and mysterious thirteenth variation (Romanza ***). Notable, too was Nimrod, opening slow and restrained, with clear rich colours, under-emphasizing the first swelling climax, but leaving almost everything to that brief explosive moment at the end before subsiding again.

That may have had the effect of seeming very slow, but was in fact no slower than, say, Boult’s famous interpretations. It was, though, something of an alternative approach to such a famous piece, and, as seems to be happening quite often when Prior rethinks well known-works, produced its own thoughtful beauties, as did the whole performance.

All in all, words or no words, one of those concerts that one is glad to have been at.

C’Mon Music Festival

C’mon Music Festival

Tomas Honz: Clouds in Eastern Bohemia

Vincent Persichetti: Serenade No.6 Op.44 (1950)
Mozart: Allegro from Clarinet Quintet K.581
Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne (1994)
Alissa Cheung: +Anthem & Other Short Pieces (2019)
(+C’mon Festival commission)
Andy Akiho: Stop Speaking (2011)
Osvaldo Golijov: Mariel (1999)
Samuel Adler: Dance from A Klezmer fantasy for Clarinet solo (1997)
Prokofiev: Allegro and Andante molto – Vivace
from String Quartet No.1, Op 50
George Andrix: Sapphire from Shades of Blue

Friday, July 12th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Lukas Sommer: Coffee With Ennio M. (arr. Geoff Li) 
Linda Catlin Smith: Galanthus (2011)
Claude Debussy: Assez vif et bien rythmé from
                                String Quartet Op 10
John Cage: Living Room Music (1940)
Lilian Fuchs: Sonata pastorale (1956)
David Amram:  Fanfare for the 21st Century
Prokofiev: Andante cantabile II. Allegro from
                     Sonata for two violins, Op 56
Alexina Louie:  Cadenzas (1985)

Saturday, July 13th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Nicole Lizée: Another Living Soul (2016)
Komitas: Ampel
Dinuk Wijeratne: The Spirit and the Dust (2015)
Bohuslav Martinů: Madrigals (1947)
Alissa Cheung: Zwischentöne (2015)
Farhad Khosravi: Sleeping in Sorrow (2017)​
Johann Strauss Jr: The Beautiful Blue Danube (arr.Claude Lapalme)

Sunday, July 14th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Tim Borton (percussion)
Alissa Cheung (violin)
Farad Khosravi (santur)
Kathryn Macintosh (trombone)
Polyphonie String Quartet (Virginie Gagné & Ewald Cheung, violins; Clayton Leung, viola; Kathleen De Caen, cello)
Robert Spady (clarinet)


The C’Mon Festival – it stands for ‘chamber music old and new’ – moved house this year from the more outlying venues it has occupied for the last six years, to something much more central (and potentially more mainstream elitist): the Winspear Centre.

Outside the Winspear’s front doors, Churchill Square is hidden behind hoardings as yet again, as it is being refashioned (the last was the memorable move from trees and grass to concrete in 2004). To the north, the wading pond outside City Hall no longer rings with the happy cries of children, as it is being rebuilt (and, alas, is behind schedule). To the south is emerging a kind of giant grey Lego military tank, which is the new Stanley A. Milner Library building. It has recently had Calgarians laughing all the way to CBC’s chat lines, so poorly does it compare visually with Calgary’s own astounding new equivalent. And the car-park behind the Winspear is now also a building site, as the new – and much needed – smaller 600-seat auditorium starts construction.

This year’s C’mon Festival acted as a kind of precursor to show how useful that space will be, for it was housed not in the main Winspear auditorium, but in the rehearsal hall (known as ‘The Studio’), ideal for a small-scale chamber festivals such as this, and yet offering the Winspear’s bar services and what now seems to be a Winspear signature: popcorn. The festival’s loyal audience did not seem to mind the change either, for the hall was commendably full for all three concerts of the festival, which ran from Friday July 12th through Sunday July 14th. The building activity all around did make parking difficult, though, and there has to be concern about parking in the future- no problem in a modern city where there is safe, quick, regular, and suitable public transport, but a real problem in Edmonton, where that only applies if you live on a suitable LRT route.

The Festival itself followed the pattern it has now established of presenting a plethora of mainly shorter-length and mainly contemporary works, mixed with what one might call some ‘recent modern’ music (Persichetti, for example, or Cage, or Martinů), and some ‘oldies’ (Debussy and Mozart). Those older composers were represented by movements of work, rather than by complete works, a practice I don’t normally enjoy (as those works were usually conceived as a whole), but which fitted surprisingly well here, by maintaining the program construct of a larger variety of shorter works.

A second constraint on the festival is the instruments available, since the Festival is created around a festival ensemble, rather than bringing instrumentalists in for a particular work. This year the Festival had assembled a small team around a central core of the Polyphonie String Quartet (Edmonton Symphony Orchestra members Virginie Gagne and Ewald Cheung, violins, and Clayton Leung, viola; and Calgary Philharmonic member Kathleen De Caen, cello), which made its debut last March (with Kerry Kavalo then playing viola). Each of the members took either solo roles in other works, or played in other combinations (or both) – one greatly admired the work that must have been involved. 

They were joined by Kathryn Macintosh, the Festival’s founder and Assistant Principal trombone with the ESO; Alissa Cheung, a former ESO player but now violinst with Montréal’s famed Bozzini Quartet, specializing in contemporary music; Calgary based percussionist Timothy Borton; and Edmonton clarinettist Robert Spady, who currently is a member of the Royal Canadian Artillery Band. So the availability was three violinists, one viola player, one cellist, one clarinetist, one trombonist, and percussion (there was also a guest appearance of the Edmonton-based composer and santur player, Farad Khosravi). 

A second theme in the Festival was undoubtedly works by Canadian women composers, and the Festival had put together some powerful music that showed how strong this segment of current Canadian arts really is.

The matriarch of this group (if that’s the right word!) is Alexina Louie, and her Cadenzas for clarinet and percussion closed the second concert. It was the first work I ever heard of hers, back in the very late 80s, on a CBC Impact CD (CMCCD2786), and its four rather sinuous and often introverted movements remained as impressive here as they sounded then. It’s music that just seems right, in the way that (while one can still be surprised) notes and phrases unfold seem as if that’s the only way they could unfold, so often the hallmark of a fine composer. Clarinet and tuned percussion tonally complement each other well, and there are hints of bird calls – a swawking magpie family from the clarinet in the first movement, Messiaen-type brid calls in the second. There’s a touch of the oriental in the third, and minimalism in the fourth, but overall it’s music to dream a little by.

Alissa Cheung played a 2011 work for solo violin by Toronto-based Linda Catlin Smith, whose atmospheric music has been championed by the Bozzini Quartet. Galanthus (Snowdrop) was written for the Hibari project in support of victims of the Tsunami, an introverted, slightly haunting work.

More effective was Cheung’s own Zwischentöne for two violins, very evocative picture-painting inspired by forest birdsong. A quiet, high, held note underpins the piece, out of which emerge little, equally quiet chatters of bird song, swapped and doubled by the two violins. It’s meditative music that gradually evolves as those calls become more frequent and more dense.

This year’s Festival commission was another work by Cheung, +Anthem & Other Short Pieces, six miniatures for clarinet and trombone. This was the other side of Cheung’s musical personality, much more technically quirky, with what sounded like a 12-note tone-row to open and close, broad humour in the second miniature, and in the fourth only finger-tapping for the clarinet and breaths from the trombone.  

The Polyphonie Quartet presented an eight-minute composition by the most noteworthy of the young Canadian women composers, Nicole Lizée.  Another Living Soul was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet as part of its Fifty for the Future project of 50 new works, and weaves in children’s toys (whirling whistle-tubes and foot bells) and stamping feet with more conventional writing – indeed, there is a sense of both adult and child in the music. Those whirring tubes took a little time to get going (literally),and it’s an entertaining piece, if not a really memorable one (readers can decide for themselves, as recordings and scores of all the 50 new works are available on-line – the Lizée is in year 2 of the project). It was enterprising of the Polyphonie to tackle it, and represented a new and welcome element in the quartet’s short evolution. Indeed, throughout the festival the quartet built on what they had started back in March, playing here with more intensity, more emotion, which, combined with their technical skills, bodes really well for the future.

One of the Festival highlights came from the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her short Nocturne for solo violin sounds so Finnish: the meditative opening is a kind of northern seascape, and there are shades of Hardanger fiddle music in the middle, all within a contemporary mould (high harmonics, for example).  A piece well worth discovering (you can hear it here).

In contrast to the more meditative feel of so much of this music was the work that opened the festival, four selections from Perschietti’s 1950  Serenade  No.6 for the unusual combination of viola, cello, and trombone. It’s quirky – he referred to this side of his output as ‘gritty’ – and almost ingenuously simple in its opening. As soon as one thinks ‘beat poets’ (the influences from jazz are similar) it starts to make sense. It was followed by the opening movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, which featured gorgeously smooth lyrical playing from clarinetist Robert Spady.

Another side of American composing of the same period as the Perschietti was represented by John Cage’s  Living Room Music (1940), found living-room objects played (with gusto here) for their percussive abilities. Lukas Sommer’s Coffee With Ennio M., arranged for all the festival’s ensemble by Geoff Li, had a similar US West Coast urban feel, in spite of the Czech nationality of the composer.

Two other performances stood out. The first was  Mariel for marimba and cello by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The composer has described the genesis of the piece: “I wrote Mariel, for cello and marimba, when I learned of the death in an accident of my friend Mariel Stubrin. I attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life: a single moment frozen forever in one’s memory.”

It is both tuneful and haunting, a long lyrical lament without ever being sentimental or mawkish, and very well performed here by Kathleen de Caen (the best I have yet heard her play) and percussionist Timothy Borton.

The second was one of the older moderns, Bohuslav Martinů’s Madrigals for violin and viola. It was written in 1947 in New York -Martinů had fled Paris for the US just before the Nazis moved in, when they had already occupied his native Czechoslovakia. At this period after the War he was in a quandry whether to return to his homeland (he had been offered a professorship at the Prague Conservatory) or stay in the States (it was fairly clear that the Communists would eventually take power in Czechoslovakia, as they did a year after Madrigals, and Martinů never returned to live there, settling in Switzerland instead). Something of that quandary haunts the piece, a longing for home, a touch of Bohemia in the music, a hint of Hussite chorale: it’s a beautiful work, its constructions harking back to Renaissance ideas (hence the title), its textures so interweaving that sometimes it sounds so much larger than its two instruments would suggest. One would never know, though, that he had had a serious fall the year before, and was suffering from tinnitus and depression. It was played with passion and beauty by Virginie Gagne and Clayton Leung.

This was a really enjoyable festival, effectively programmed, enthusiastically performed, and constantly interesting in its variety. Off-beat, maybe; laid-back, yes; a little hokey in its Blue Danube-transmigrated-to-Edmonton closing singalong, perhaps; but just the right atmosphere, never overwealming, in which to experience unfamiliar new works (and the more familiar old), especially in its new venue.

 

 

 

 

 

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton: Grieg, Holst, McPherson, Wolf

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton


Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst walking in the Malvern Hills
photo by William Gillies Whittaker (1876-1944)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Holst: St. Paul’s Suite
John McPherson: Piece for oboe and strings
Hugo Wolf: Italian Serenade
Grieg: Holberg Suite

Conductor and oboe soloist, Lidia Khaner

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Sunday, July 8th, 2019


The Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton had been hoping that what was the final concert of any of the regular classical music groups in the city would be a celebration of summer, with a gentle, bees-buzzing-on-a-sunny afternoon kind of a program.

As it happened, the concert on a Sunday afternoon, July 8th, turned out to be in the middle of a miserable and extended patch of rain and cold more appropriate to mid-October than mid-July, so the concert, in the warming glow of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, turned into a welcome dose of musical comfort food.

The Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton is still, for the moment, the Edmonton String Chamber Orchestra, though conductor and founder Lidia Khaner took up the oboe for one piece, the premiere of John McPherson’s Piece for oboe and strings, an orchestration of a 2015 work for oboe and piano, written for Khaner. It was indeed something of a celebration of stepping out into a new world for her: not only was she completing the second season of the orchestra, but she was appearing in her first concert since she left the position of principal oboe of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (to concentrate on exactly the kind of work she was doing here in Holy Trinity). The audience gave her an enthusiastic ovation, echoed by the orchestra, many of whom are players with the ESO.

The concerto opened and closed with suites that hark back to models of Baroque dance, even if both remain firmly within their own eras. Holst wrote his St. Paul’s Suite in 1913 for the girls of St. Paul’s School in London, where he was the music teacher. It was a good choice to open the concert, with the initial jig having real energy and pace, and an effective use of dynamic phrasing. Lovely voila playing from Clayton Leung, too, in the third movement.

Indeed, one of the features throughout this concert is that the orchestra and its conductor seemed more free, less inclined to be over-careful than they had been in earlier concerts. That is, no doubt, in part because the orchestra is still a fledgling group feeling its way, but it is to the great advantage of the music.

There are still areas that will develop: the violins in that opening jig, for example, need to work towards being more of a single voice, while the Sarabande movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite could have been a bit sweeter. But real passion came across in the Andante Religioso fourth movement of the Grieg, and everyone reveled in the hornpipe-like final movement – and as if just to show that the orchestra is still evolving, they played it even better when they repeated it as an encore.

McPherson’s Piece was much more interesting than its rather reticent title might suggest (its subtitle is “Perfect dome of sky/covers the rolling prairie/there we sing and play”). I had enjoyed his 1994 work for string quartet …Whence Came the Scots when the Polyphonie String Quartet played it in March – it is less an exploration of the string quartet medium than an evocative and pictorial one-movement tone-poem for the quartet, and rather different in tone and evocation that some of his more recent work.

Piece turned out to have some similarities with that earlier work, especially the train-like sounds of syncopated rhythms – perhaps because both pieces evoke the landscape of the prairies. What was equally interesting was that the work sounds utterly different from its original version for oboe and piano. There the oboe line dominates, and the piano provides a rather clear-cut and musically stark pictorial background.

Here the concentration is on the sometimes thickly textured string orchestra, with the oboe merging, sometimes submerging, into the general sound. It also sounds a far more improvisatorially structured piece than the original, to its advantage. There were moments at the end that reminded me of the orchestral sections of the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past – it’s that kind of evocation.

Sometimes musical organizations are inclined to hype orchestrations of pre-existing pieces as ‘premieres’. Here I think to call this a MacPherson premiere is entirely justified, so different are the affects of the two works, and I hope Khaner programs this version for string orchestra again.

Khaner herself showed her development as a conductor in Wolf’s Italian Serenade, where she led with considerable zest, with a really effective build-up to the first main statement. Holy Trinity’s acoustics really suited this work, too, though she still couldn’t quite persuade this listener, long skeptical of the work’s merits: it seems rather an odd work, given its title. Perhaps it is a case here that the work, unlike McPherson’s, is actually more effective and more direct in its original chamber form (for string quartet).

Both a happy and an enjoyable concert, then, and definitely one further step in the development of this orchestra.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Rimsky-Korsakov

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Kay Nielsen: Scheherazade (late 1910s)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake Op. 20 (excerpts)
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganiini Op.43
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade Op.35

Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
Conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Friday June 14, 2019


The approach of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Alexander Prior to Russian music has by now become pretty clear. He does not subscribe to an overtly Romantic view of composers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, but instead looks for those elements in the music that the largely Romantic interpretations of conductors in the West have hidden.

This is, in part, a result of his St. Petersburg Conservatory training, with its residue of the more vital precision of such conductors as Mravinsky and Kondrashin. It has also meant that he has sought a more Russian style of brass playing – more open and brash – to this kind of music, one which really suits it, and the brass players have responded.

For someone like me, who usually finds, for example, Swan Lake a little too much to take, his style demands a reassessment of the music. So it was in the last of this season’s ESO Friday Master’s series concerts at the Winspear, on June 14, which featured his own selection from Swan Lake. As always, he elicited clear textures from the ESO – it is one of the great virtues of his conducting – and he didn’t let the music linger about, as in the Dance of the Little Swans (Act II, No.13, Part 4).

The kitsch elements of the Act I No. 5 Pas de deux finale were played for all their worth – Tchaikovsky letting his hair down – which completely dispelled any jaded view of the ballet. The seventh Dance of the Swans sounded almost like Dvořák, music for English gentlemen riders, their gallop getting more and more stately.

The Act IV Entr’act led into a very deliberate build-up, the brass and percussion highlighted in the Act IV Scene – indeed, the prominence of the percussion throughout the concert was emphasized by placing them rear centre on the stage. There was an epic swagger to the Act IV finale that followed on, very big and bold and brassy, almost raucous from the cymbals – this is indeed how the Russian State Symphony Orchestra play it, not afraid of being slightly over-the-top, as if presenting some Soviet-style epic.

This terrifically exciting ending to a performance that suggested a foretaste of modernism in the music, brought prolonged cheers from the audience, especially for the brass – perhaps the longest ovation I have yet heard for the ESO, and it was well deserved. And how appropriate that the concert should have started with Lidia Khaner playing that famous opening oboe phase, indeed her swan song with the ESO, as she is retiring for other activities at the end of this season.

Sara Davis Buechner

Sara Davis Buechner was the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. She is a flamboyant player, with flamboyant playing, attacking both the music and the Steinway, and she can produce a really big and emphatic sound. One’s reaction to her interpretation probably depends on how much one enjoys a performance where the pianist shows the magnificence of the pianistic arts rather than the mysteries of the music.

There’s lots to be said for such virtuosity, especially in a showcase piece like the Rachmaninov. The opening was slightly mawkish, steel-fingered, just right for a colourful approach. Much was fast and furious (with one stumble along the way that in no way interfered with the flow), with, for example, the Dies Irae really hammered out. The orchestra played to match (a wonderful kind of zombie tone from orchestra leader Robert Uchida in the solo just before the return of the Dies Irae).

Where Davis Buechner’s performance was less effective was when the music was more introspective – there was nothing delicate, for example, in the lovely Variation 18. Earlier, in those passages that suggest more of the mystical side of Rachmaninov, there was plenty of rippling colour, but little mystery (in contrast to the orchestral playing). Why that should be is not clear – she is certainly capable of playing with sensitivity (as she shows in her recordings of, for example, the music of Stephen Chapman, or the Mozart on her website). It is as if the demands of her more virtuosic, massive style (which requires precision, an element of rigidity) make it difficult for her to switch to a loosening of the strict tempi, a freeing up of the phrasing, to allow that delicate touch to appear. If she could find that touch in such music, the combination with the strength of the virtuosity would be formidable.

Audiences, of course, love such virtuosity, especially when combined with a little stage flamboyance, and her reception was a reminder of how much she is appreciated in Edmonton, where she is a frequent performer.

The concert ended with another war-horse, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Right from the beginning, Prior instilled rethinking into such a familiar piece: the opening was very slow (apart from one short-lived accelerando), creating a sense of drama, an intensity, an anticipation that really worked. Gradually that pent-up energy started to be released, in a big orchestral sound. In the second movement there was notable horn playing from the two principle horn players, as well as some fine massed violin sound in what is in its own way a showpiece for orchestra. Robert Uchida contributed with a very poignant violin solo in the final movement, where there was again a tension and drive. The whole thing almost persuaded me that the main theme doesn’t recur too many times, and that there isn’t enough variety in the tone of the four movements, but not quite: but it did mean it was a performance that this critic sat through with pleasure, rather than with mere fortitude at having to hear it yet again.

All in all, a powerful way to end the season.

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!