Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Category: Review (page 2 of 5)

Sir James Macmillan: St. Luke Passion

Da Camera Singers

Francisco de Zurbarán: Christ on the Cross and St. Luke

Macmillan: St. Luke Passion

All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
Sunday, March 25th, 2018

Da Camera Singers
Concordia Concert Choir
Ariose Women’s Choir
Da Camera Chamber Orchestra

conducted by John Brough

 

The prolific Scottish composer Sir James Macmillan (born 1959), whose works include symphonies and a widely praised opera based on the Welsh Mabigonion legends,  is probably best known for his exciting 1992 percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, written for the celebrated percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. But he is also the oldest of a group of British composers, including Bob Chilcott and Paul Mealor (Pro Coro’s former composer-in-residence), who have followed the lead of John Tavener (1944-2013) in reviving British religious choral music.

Macmillan is a practicing Catholic, and at the heart of his choral output are two great Passions that hark back to the Passion concepts of Bach’s time. The St. John Passion appeared in 2007, and the St. Luke Passion in 2015. A St. Mark Passion, a more intimate setting, is in progress, and Macmillan plans to write a St. Matthew Passion to complete the cycle.

The St. Luke Passion, given on March 25th in All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral in Edmonton by the Da Camera singers, joined by the Concordia Concert Choir and the Ariose Women’s Choir, does indeed cast a look over its shoulder at Bach (and even quotes a Bach chorale from the St. Matthew Passion at one point) but both the structure and the format are decidedly Macmillan. He sets Chapter 22 and 23 of St. Luke’s Gospel in its entirety, word for word (inevitably both extending events and being rather bound by the at times somewhat prosaic text). He also has a prologue and an epilogue, the former covering the Annunciation, the latter (from Acts), Christ’s resurrection, thus encompassing the whole Jesus story.

Then there are no soloists in this Passion. Instead, the words (the role, in Passion terms) of Christ are sung by a children’s chorus. An adult chorus sings the rest of Luke’s text and therefore takes the traditional role of the Evangelist. This rather surprising decision was intended to express the universality of Christ, and also emphasize his innocence. In practice, having a chorus singing these parts does de-individualize (I was tempted to write ‘dehumanize’) the central figure of the drama, not always to the work’s advantage. In this performance that feeling was underwritten by having not a children’s chorus but the adult women’s voices of the Concordia Concert Choir and the Ariose Women’s Choir. This practice has been sanctioned by the composer, but it does lose some of the original effect (John Brough, the conductor, told me that he had tried to get a children’s choir, but the performance was scheduled for the end of the school March break, making it difficult for choirs to commit).

Macmillan’s setting is strongly dramatic, with the characteristic Macmillan touches of fierce boldness against softer thoughtfulness. It is through-composed, rather than a numbers Passion (inevitable, given that every word of the two chapters in St. Luke is set). There are the occasional reminiscences of the Britten of the War Requiem (the standing chords near the beginning, and in some of the muted brass writing, or the high soprano choral writing in Chapter 23). The music is always ‘approachable’, never straying that far from a tonal origin, even in the interweaving polytonal strands of the end of Chapter 23.

None of the actual music jumps out as being instantly recognizable as Macmillan. For his style is dependent on the juxtaposition of ideas, and also a kind of continuous restlessness, rather than a highly individual idiom, and it is this combination that marks his music out. Here much of the choral writing is quite high, adding to the edginess. Among all the drama, there are virtually no moments of repose from the nervous flow of ideas at all, and I know I am not the only one who feels that eventually this kind of assailing of the senses outstays its welcome. It also is a surprisingly unspiritual work: just as the settings are of syllabic prose, unmixed with the poetry of a Bach passion, so the music, with its concentration on dramatic effect, feels theatrical rather than having the transcendental inspiration of, say, Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion.

There are, of course, some marvellous things in this Passion, for Macmillan is the master of choral moments.  The opening of Chapter 22 is very dramatic. Peter’s betrayal is quite poignant. There are some effective crowd effects, and a prominent organ part (played here by Jeremy Spurgeon). There is drama and darkness in the great outbursts of Chapter 23, but there is one passage that perhaps typifies the strengths and failings of the work. In the final prologue, there are some magical musical effects as the choir sing  a quasi-Gregorian chant against scurrying lower instruments in the orchestra (very well played and balanced here). Christ is risen, the work does almost reach a transcendental plane, one expects it to end, and then suddenly kind of Orientalism is heard in the orchestra, together with Hollywood type choral “aahs”. Any sense of the Divine is lost, as if Herod and his chief advisors had just wandered in to the wrong studio stage and taken over – all in less than six minutes.

This very large scale work, both in terms of forces and of length (some 75 minutes), and it was a bold decision by the Da Camera Singers and their conductor John Brough to present the work. They were joined by an effective and accomplished in-house orchestra, of Handel-esque size and composition, with many ESO players taking part. The resulting performance certainly made a brave stab at presenting the strengths of the work, but it has to be said first that wider contrasts in both dynamics and in tempi would have brought out even more the drama that is at the base of the music, and second that the choral singing could have been quite a lot tighter, especially in their entrances. That said, it was well worth tackling those difficulties, for in spite of those reservations, Macmillan’s music did come across, and this was a welcome opportunity to hear the work live.

It was certainly no fault of the performers that ultimately Macmillan’s work fails in its ambitions, music of theatrical effect rather than profound substance. The slip of a writer’s pen in the program booklet actually summed up the work: “Singers participating in tonight’s production.” You would never use that word of Bach.

 

This review was amended on April 24 with updated information about the children’s choir situation for this performance.

 

Now Hear This New Music Festival: Arnáez, Bellusci, and Kagel

Windrose (music by Arnáez, Bellusci, and Kagel)

Now Hear This New Music Festival
New Music Edmonton

Miguel Bellusci

Photo: http://musicaclasicaba.com.ar/musico/72/Bellusci_Miguel

Nicolás Arnáez:  Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo
Mauricio Kagel:  Die Stücke der Windrose: Norden
Mauricio Kagel:  Die Stücke der Windrose: Osten
Miguel Bellusci  “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca”

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Friday, March 23rd, 2018

The Kagelian Ensemble:
Chenoa Anderson, flutes
Don Ross, clarinets
Charles Stolte, narration
Mark Segger, percussion
Viktoria Reiswich-Dapp, keyboards
Haley Simons, keyboard
Jeff Johnson, bass
The Vaughan String Quartet:
Neda Yamach, violin
Mattia Berrini, violin
Fabiola Amorim, viola
Silvia Buttiglione, ‘cello

Conducted by Miguel Bellusci

 

The Now Hear This Festival of new music, put on by New Music Edmonton, has regularly featured a major composer of the last half-century or so – in 2014 it was R. Murray Schafer, in 2015 Ligeti (including an unforgettable performance of 100 metronomes), in 2017 the music of Pauline Oliveros. This year it was the turn of one of the doyens of the avant-garde movement, Mauricio Kagel, featured in a concert with a specially formed ensemble (The Kagelian Ensemble) on Friday March 23rd, in the Festival’s central venue, Holy Trinity Anglican Church.

The colourful and widely influential Argentinian composer, who was born in 1931 and died in 2008,  was somehow perceived, at the height of the avant-garde period in the 1960s and 70s, as not quite on the Olympian heights of fellow composers Xenakis, Ligeti, and especially Stockhausen, let alone easier-to-take composers such Penderecki. One of the reasons was Kagel’s sense of humour and of the absurd, which annoyed more serious critics.  Gradually, too, his work increasingly involved turning the concert hall into a place of music drama or theatre. Staatstheater (1967-1970), for example, included chamber pots as instruments, and famously in Match (1964), two table-tennis players – cellists – fight it out with a drummer as referee.

Nonetheless, there were central, cutting edge, and influential works: the electronic Musica para la torre (1953), Acustica (1968-1970), exploring experimental sound-makers and tape, and written on cards randomly distributed to the players, and the marvellous Improvisation ajouté (1961-1962), one of the earliest works to explore the extreme sounds a concert organ could make: extended technique for the organ.  His importance and his music have, since the 1980s, slowly undergone a wider appreciation, in part because so many of his then-outlandish elements – the dramatics, the absurd or ironic, the extended techniques, the use of unconventional instruments – are now part and parcel of contemporary composition.

He also continued to explore the varied elements of his style, recognizably based on those avant-garde roots, but extending his range into, for example, three expressive string quartets. A major work in that later period was Die Stücke der Windrose for nine musicians, a set of eight pieces started in 1988 and completed in 1994, each describing one of the points of the compass rose (which includes, for example, North-West as well as West – hence the eight). Friday’s concert was built around two of these, Osten (East), the first to be written, and Norden (North) the last.

Osten is in Kagel’s most entertaining vein, as if one was in a surrealistic nightclub in Turkey and the traditional band had been listening to too many Argentinian tangos. For, until near the end, the piece is built on echoes of dance rhythms, and a section echoing Jewish folk music, complete with accordion. Irony abounds – not the least the ‘orientalism’ of the whole thing (Edward Said in a bad dream) – and it is both catchy and entertaining. The longer Norden is very evocative descriptive music, echoing things like the crackling of ice using plastic sheeting as a clapperboard. High harmonics evoke ice fields, the whole thing also has a touch of the nightmarish, of the surrealistic, and there is a strong sense of strict rhythmic control and power. That reaches its fulfillment in a wonderful unexpected build-up in blocks (I had an image – again, surrealistic – of walruses on an Arctic beach), before the percussionist creates more shivering sounds with a branch with old autumnal leaves on it. It is, Kagel said, a northern landscape of his own imagination, having himself never been to the far north, and it is a world that seems to veer between clashing titans of ice flows and low hiss of sparkling frost.

Both pieces were very convincingly played by a group that included the Vaughan String Quartet, with their usual first violinist replaced for this concert by Neda Yamach, who plays with the Edmonton Symphony and is the violinist of  the Trio de Moda. The Kagel pieces – indeed all the concert – went well beyond the usual comfort level of the Quartet, and it was good to see them so effectively embracing a more extreme idiom. There was also some lovely clarinet playing from Don Ross, and the ensemble had the advantage of a conductor, the Argentinian composer and conductor Miguel Bellusci, who is steeped in Kagel’s idioms.

The concert opened with a piece by the Argentinian composer Nicolás Arnáez, who now lives in Edmonton. He specializes in soundscapes and sound installations (quite a lot of his music can be heard here). Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo (‘On How To Draw Over The Time’) , created in 2013, combines a string quartet (here the Vaughan) – with ” three-dimensional ambisonics cube sound spatialization, real-time processing, and Max MSP 6 patch” – or to put it in simpler terms, the music the quartet plays is recorded in real time and regularly played by in reverse or computer manipulated either on its own or in conjunction with the quartet playing further material. Essentially based on rhythms and textures, rather than melodic material (though eventually a melody of a kind does emerge out of the miasma), it was an alluring soundscape, a fitting prelude to the Kagel. However, it did go on too long – if it had finished just before the section when the computer-generated music played on its own, it would have been very satisfying, but there isn’t enough variety in the material to justify the longer length (an endemic problem with this kind of music).

The concert ended with a most entertaining drama piece with music by the conductor himself, Miguel Bellusci. The concept of “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca” for Lecturer and Instrumental Quartet is that we are now somewhere in the 4000s AD. A terrific cataclysm had overcome the world, raising sea levels so that the survivors had to rebuild civilization above the new sea levels. Consequently, to explore what the world must have been like pre-catastrophie, submarine archeology has taken place. Musical artifacts, including some printed ones, have been unearthed, and a professor (a spoken role played with enthusiastic satire by Charles Stolte) is trying in a lecture to unravel how the instruments were played and evolved. This leads to humorous misunderstandings, with a strong dig at the avant-garde period, where the kinds of sounds produced and their method of production would seem to be more ‘primitive’ – and thus archeologically earlier – than pre-avant-garde music. The concept that there might have been a second, earlier cataclysm, so that survivors of the second found the musical instruments of the first, and did not initially know how to play them, was a felicitous stroke, and the whole thing was illustrated by musical examples. Again, it was too long – it got a little repetitive by the end, and there were no new ideas to excite the imagination or progress the humour – but if Bellusci can cut it a to around 18-20 minutes he has a winner here, which would be great fun for a university ensemble to perform.

Overall, though, this was a really enjoyable concert, one of the most entertaining that I have attended at any Hear This Now Festival, and one played with commitment and authority by all involved, convincingly surmounting the considerable demands of some of the music.

 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Copland, Korngold, Sibelius, and Stravinsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

1907 self-portrait by Natalia Goncharova, who designed the original sets for L’Oiseau de feu

Copland: Orchestral Variations
Korngold: Violin Concerto in D major, Op.24
Sibelius: Kuolema, Op.44 No.1 – ‘Valse Triste’
Stravinsky: suite L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), 1945 version

Blake Pouliot (violin)

conducted by Jayce Ogren

Winspear
Friday, February 23rd, 2018

 

The especial interest in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Friday, February 23rd, was the ESO debut of the 23-year old Canadian violinist Blake Pouliot, who was the Grand Prize winner of the 2016 Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Manulife Competition.

He brought to the Winspear the concerto with which he debuted with the Montréal Symphony, Korngold’s 1945 Violin Concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler and originally premiered by Jascha Heifetz. Korngold had, of course, by then long left behind the first flush of Austrian musical genius that had produced the seminal opera Die tote Stadt. After his move to Hollywood in 1934, he had transformed from a major opera composer into one of the most influential of all film composers, establishing the kind of essentially Romantic Hollywood film music genre that can be still heard in the scores of John Williams or Howard Shore.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto marked his return to concert music (he virtually retired from film music in 1947), but not any move away from the film idiom, as the whole concerto is based on themes from four of his film scores. Inevitably, perhaps, it has a touch of the sickly-sweet that hardly challenges the listener, but not only is it  an attractive work (and once Korngold’s most popular), but it is also well crafted, making in particular emotive demands of the soloist. The solo song completely predominates – the orchestral contribution is largely that of a backdrop to the violin lyricism, rather in the manner of the relationship between soloist and orchestra in Chopin’s piano concertos.

Blake Pouliot
Photo: Jeff Fasano Photography

Pouliot cuts a striking figure, and, with his light purple jacket and bad boy haircut, he reminded this listener of the British superstar violinist Nigel Kennedy in his younger days. Nor was the comparison too far-fetched musically, for here is clearly a young violinist of great promise, producing not only a lovely, mellow violin tone in the more contemplative first two movements, but also an exemplary sense of pacing and colour in, for example, the end of the second movement. Here was sentiment, not sentimentality, just what the concerto needs to avoid sounding too mawkish.

He was least convincing in the faster, more aggressive dancing passages of the opening of the last movement, where the shape was a little lost – though to be fair, it is the least convincing movement of the concerto, more self-conscious in its virtuoso writing.

It was also the opportunity to welcome the return of the American conductor Jayce Ogren, who so impressed in his ESO debut in 2016 (in a concert with the operatic bass-baritone Nathan Berg). Here in Korngold’s concerto he sensibly left the musical limelight to the soloist.

The rest of his program originated in the first half of the 20th century. He opened the concert with a very welcome first performance by the ESO of Copland’s Orchestral Variations, written for piano in 1911, and not orchestrated until 1958. You would never guess its keyboard origins if you didn’t know, so sure is the orchestral writing, and the music occupies an interesting place in Copland’s output. For in orchestral guise the overall sound has something of the more acerbic later Copland, yet the original piano version is more turbulent, more obviously modernist. That orchestration allows other elements of the music to emerge: its sheer Americanism in the combination of melodic shapes and colours, and in its moments of triumphalism; its echoes of Ives; and its affinities to the Bernstein of West Side Story. This performance was a worthy advocate of the work, even if it could at times have been a little crisper.

Some of the mournful ghostly soul – the dying swan mood – was missing from Sibelius’ celebrated Valse Triste, in part because if that mournfulness is to come out, it really does have to start at pp, and continue through the first pages at the marked pp – and even ppp – apart, of course, from the momentary lifts out of that dynamic. The ESO still has difficulty with such soft playing, and the result, though perfectly effective, was to make the piece more Vienna than Helsinki.

The concert finished with the 1945 Suite from Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu. This was a colourful performance, much enjoyed by the audience, that started really crisply – clearly one of Ogren’s strengths – but losing some of its intensity in the middle, like a spinning top loosing its momentum. If the orchestra at that moment sounded a little tired, it certainly threw that off when, as the big loud passages returned, it woke itself up – and perhaps the audience as well, for the hall did seem hotter than usual – for a  rousing conclusion to the evening.

Ogren is returning to the Winspear rostrum in the Fall, and I look forward to seeing how he tackles Vaughan Williams’ beautiful Pastoral Symphony (November 3). I do hope, too, that we’ll get the chance to hear Pouliot again – it will be interesting to see how his career develops.

 

 

 

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

iSoundtrack

Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Lords of the Rings
Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Fellowship of the Rings
Tchaikovsky: from suite Swan Lake (op. 20a): Act II, Scene I0
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op.36: Variation 1 (C.A.E.), Variation 9 (Nimrod)
John Williams (arr. Bob Cerulli): Themes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mascagni: ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria rusticana*
Ennio Morricone: Gabriel’s Oboe
Holst: from The Planets: ‘Mars’, ‘Venus’
John Williams: The Empire Strikes Back Medley

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Conductors: Danielle Lisboa, *Christina Sawchuck

 

Tegler Hall, Concordia University of Edmonton
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For the past few years, I  have regularly taught a Wednesday evening course at Concordia University of Edmonton, the former Lutheran College that looks down over Wayne Gretzky Bridge and the city’s river valley. Every so often, I have found myself unwittingly pausing from teaching Winnie-the-Pooh or The Hobbit, and the faces of the eager or not so eager students at the desks in front of me have momentarily blurred, as the strain of some familiar orchestral music filters through the door from far away, a snatch of Elgar, perhaps, a grander moment of Beethoven, or, recently, the unmistakable  movie themes from Lord of the Rings.

The source of this distant melodiousness is the Concordia Symphony Orchestra, which rehearses at precisely the same day and time that I teach my class. It was originally founded in 1988 Dr. Barry Bromley and the bassoonist Don Zoell for “well-trained amateurs and former professional musicians” to take part in an amateur, community orchestra. It is not quite the only orchestra of its kind – the Metropolitan Orchestra, another amateur body, was founded in 2015, and gave its most recent concert, a ‘Night at the Opera’, on February 17.

Indeed, the Concordia Symphony Orchestra has itself undergone a metamorphosis in the last year, perhaps reflecting Concordia’s own recent change from a College to a University. For the original Concordia Symphony Orchestra has morphed, under its conductor David Hoyt, into Edmonton’s third amateur orchestra, Orchestra Borealis. That group is now in its second season, and its next concert, at the South Pointe Community Centre on Sunday, April 22, includes Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2. This change provided the opportunity for a re-founding of the actual Concordia Symphony Orchestra.

Like Orchestra Borealis, the new Concordia Symphony Orchestra is an auditioned ensemble, its members drawn from both the community and from the staff and students of Concordia Edmonton University itself – at the moment, rather too few students, and given the university’s reputation for its music, one hopes that the orchestra will come to represent a real opportunity for musical students in the future.

Its conductor is Brazilian-born Danielle Lisboa, who worked with Orchestra Toronto and the Toronto Women’s Symphony Orchestra before moving to Edmonton in 2013 as Assistant Professor of Music at Concordia University of Edmonton. It rehearses and performs in the airy, glass-surrounded centre of the university’s Tegler Hall, which not only serves as the main student meeting area and the venue for such things as convocation, but makes quite an effective and pleasantly informal concert-hall, its various levels acting rather neatly as auditorium balconies. On Wednesday night (February 28) it was merrily festooned with paper ribbons and multi-coloured balloons for its latest concert, iSOUNDTRACK, a faced-paced and quite packed hour of orchestral film music.

An entertaining  and happy event it was, too, with many of the orchestra dressed for the occasion in costumes reflecting the films whose music they were playing – and if there weren’t any orcs, there was an excellent Princess Leia of a cellist, complete with double-bun hairdo and the white dress, and sundry other echoes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

For the selections themselves were quite eclectic, from film scores especially written for movies, to pre-existing music chosen for movies – which provided the excellent excuse to hear some Elgar (from the Enigma Variations), though Holst (from The Planets), to Tchaikovsky (from Swan Lake) – and if you were wondering which movies, think The Matrix, Gladiator, and Black Swan respectively.

Lisboa’s tempi were well judged, and if there were moments that reminded one that this is an amateur orchestra, they played with great enthusiasm and considerable conviction. The brass and the woodwind contrasted: the former were much happier playing in consort, less secure when more exposed (they reveled in ‘Mars’ from The Planets, after a slightly uneven start). The woodwind were more ragged when playing together, but included some very attractive solo work, notably the flute and piccolo in the Lord of the Rings selections. These were in the excellent arrangements by John Witney, the former music director of the Southern Tier Symphony in New York State, who died in 2014 – indeed, the selections made a viable and self-contained sort of Middle Earth overture to the whole proceedings.

The strings came into their own in Mascagni’s famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana (used in The Godfather, Part III, at the opera house), and produced the best intonation of the evening in Ennio Morricone’s well-known Gabriel’s Oboe from the movie The Mission. This was very ably conducted by a young Concordia student, Christina Sawchuk, and the oboe solo was played by Stephanie Wong, assured and idiomatic, if slightly thin-toned (though that may have in part been the acoustics).

The Harry Potter selection proved to be unexpected (and welcome), for John Williams’ own arrangement was based on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with music  that was largely devoid of the better-known themes from the movie series.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening, clearly enjoyed by the enthusiastic audience, and drawing in the occasional Concordia student who had wandered into their hall and wondered what the occasion was – a great way of introducing new audiences to classical music.

The Concordia Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is on Sunday, April 22nd, and includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Ping-Shan Liao), and the Alberta premiere of Canadian Kevin Lau’s Elemental, which includes parts for kaido drums (you can hear audio excerpts here).

That concert is at exactly the same time (3 pm) on exactly the same Sunday as the next concert by Orchestra Borealis, the offshoot of the former Concordia Symphony Orchestra. This seems, to put it mildly, a very unfortunate clash, especially as one would imagine that some of the potential audience would overlap. Since Orchestra Borealis’ publicity seems already quite far advanced, one wonders if there is the possibility of the Concordia forces changing their date, and each orchestra then encouraging their audiences and members to go to the other’s concert.

 

Chamberfest Music Festival: Schubert: Winterreise. Review by Bill Rankin

Chamberfest Music Festival

Review by Bill Rankin

Jason Cutmore (photo by Bob Sasson)

Nils Neubert
photo supplied by Chamberfest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schubert: Winterreise

Nils Neubert (tenor)
Jason Cutmore (piano)

Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Februrary 24th 2018

The inaugural Alberta Chamberfest, a modest two-concert venture with a cabaret evening at a local bar and master classes on Sunday, had plenty of financial backing, based on the list of sponsors and patrons in the glossy program, but clearly the word didn’t get out that a new classical music opportunity was on offer. The vocal recital at Muttart Hall Saturday, not a particularly oppressive winter’s evening, must have made the performers feel much like the hurdy-gurdy man feels in the last song of the featured song cycle, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise:

“No one listens to him, No one notices him …”

The recital drew a measly 18 listeners, scattered about the 250-seat auditorium, including a couple of ticket-taking volunteers. Surely there are more than 18 people in Edmonton open to hearing a live performance of Schubert’s settings of Wilhelm Müller’s archly Romantic poem Winter Journey. The 24 songs tell the story of an itinerant loner trudging through a frigid winter landscape, bemoaning his lot as a lover whose wandering ways were rejected by his most recent conquest or her mother.

It could have been a mistake to listen to the legendary Deutsche Grammophon recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s rendition of Schubert’s 1828 composition, the second of Schubert’s three great song cycles, before attending Saturday’s concert. But the musicians performing gave a polished presentation of the work.

Tenor Nils Neubert, based in New York with several teaching affiliations, including the Manhattan and Juilliard schools, and pianist Jason Cutmore, founder of the Alberta Pianofest Society and artistic lead on this new project, presented a better than respectable rendition of this emotionally variegated vocal masterpiece.

Neubert began a bit tremulously; he did after all have a long, musical journey of his own ahead of him in this 80-minute piece. The tenor must negotiate a range of emotional effects, at times urgently relaying his depths of despair, his angst, even his anger, that he’s not getting all he wants with his over-wrought Romantic, unappreciated personality. The key to such a piece is to establish a convincing character for the storyteller, and given the small crowd, the invitation for intimacy was compelling.

Generally, Neubert captured the musical and thematic elements of each song assuredly, and he has a pleasant, if not particularly resonant, voice. He was most effective in the more introspective songs such as ‘Der Lindenbaum’, ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’), the quieter parts of ‘Frülingstraum’ (‘Dream of Spring’), the woeful ‘Der Greise Koft’ (‘The Old-Man’s Head’), and by the last third of the cycle, including the final, subdued ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’), his sound grew warmer and the performance more emphatically personal.

This kind of music calls for a technique that is closer to musical conversation (including some artful yelling), but there are moments when a little operatic touch may elevate the message of the moment, and Neubert constrained himself in such moments. I would have enjoyed a little more robust a sound in a few of the song endings, but clearly, Neubert sang with a plan.

Cutmore is clearly an experienced collaborator, and his touch in the more delicate and the more forceful writing, and in the fluid, sensitive support he brought to the quieter elements of the vocal journey had their own assured musical character and understanding of the singer’s needs.

This modest first mini-festival, which organizers expect to continue biennially, offers programming that lovers of vocal recitals should be alert to. I’m sure that by the time the venture returns in 2020, more people will hear about it and attend.

British cellist Robert Cohen in Edmonton

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of cellist Robert Cohen, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Respighi, McPherson, Haydn, Kabalevsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

John McPherson
(photo by Aaron Au)

Winspear
Friday January 13, 2017

Respighi:  Gli uccelli (The Birds)
Kabalevsky: Violin Concerto
Haydn: Symphony No.94 in G Major (Surprise)
John McPherson: Concerto for Two Horns Mountain Triptych (world premiere)

Eric Buchmann (violin)
Megan Evans (horn)
Allene Hackleman (horn)

Conducted by William Eddins

William Eddins, the ESO’s former Music Director, and now Music Director Emeritus, returned to Edmonton for the first of a number of concerts with the orchestra. For Mark Morris’ review of the concert in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Handel Messiah

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Handel: The Messiah, orchestrated by Sir Eugene Goossens

Winspear

Friday Dec 15, 2017

Claire de Sévigné (soprano)
Catherine Daniel (mezzo soprano)
Ryan Downey (tenor)
Anthony Schneider (bass)

Kokopelli and Òran Choirs

Jeremy Spurgeon (organ)

conducted by Alexander Prior

 

 

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

Pro Coro: David Lang – The Little Match Girl Passion

Members of Pro Coro

Charles H. Griffen  This Advent moon shines cold and clear
David Lang The Little Match Girl Passion
J.S. Bach  ‘Ich will Dich mit Fleiß bewahren’ from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, No.33

 

Jolaine Kerley (soprano, sleighbells, brake drum)
Adrienne Sitko (alto, crotales)
Caleb Nelson (tenor, glockenspiel)
Michael Kurschat (bass, bass drum, tubular bells)

Conducted by Michael Zaugg

Holy Trinity Anglican Church

December 10, 2017

It has become a tradition for Pro Coro to present a performance of the American composer David Lang’s haunting The Little Match Girl Passion during Advent. This year was the fifth in this tradition, with a change of venue to the intimate setting of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which, lit by candles and with the side aisles in darkness, had exactly that quality of a ritual space that suits the work.

For Lang’s 2007 work, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is ritualistic. It takes Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story The Little Match Girl not as a moral story or a quasi-fairy tale, but as – to use Lang’s own word – a ‘parable’, “drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang then created a structure which deliberately recalls the tradition of the musical passion, and specifically Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – and only the structure, as there is no reference to Bach’s music. Thus there are sections that essentially comment on the actual singing of the Andersen text, as in this passage:

From the sixth hour
From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land
until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour she cried
out:
Eli, Eli.

That 35-minute structure is a mirror structure, with material recognizably returning in the second half, mirroring the first. The four singers also discretely and at intervals play percussive instruments (drums, glockenspiel, tubular bells) that are connected with different elements in the story, notably the glockenspiel, associated directly with the match girl and her story. The music itself is primarily slow, quite strongly rhythmic, and very atmospheric – again, ritualistic in nature. The four voices regularly have what might be described as rolling overlapping (not quite counterpoint, nor quite round, closer to the medieval technique of hocket), and at other times there are shades of some of the vocal techniques of the avant-garde period, such as as a voice used percussively against the main line. Harmonies are generally slow-moving, occasionally setting up dissonances before moving into more concerted combinations or chords of great beauty. When combined with such a powerful and distressing story about a child, it is no wonder that the piece has regularly been performed all over the world.

The move to Holy Trinity, although atmospherically so effective, was, I suspect, the prime cause for what was a perfectly acceptable performance (the audience were clearly moved) being less successful than it perhaps might have been. A number of things seemed to have conspired together, and the first was probably the acoustics of the church blurring the sound. The second, and slightly inexplicably for Pro Coro, was the imbalance between the voices. The two women’s voices predominated, the two men’s voices regularly got lost, and there seemed to be a reluctance to bring one voice forward out of the quartet when needed (for example, the tenor’s “So the little girl…” in the second movement). Equally surprising was the lack of clear articulation – it was difficult (at times impossible) to hear the words, and while some of this might be down to the acoustics of the church, not all of it was. Last was the use of an old glockenspiel (on loan) that had decidedly seen better days – not only  were many of the notes tinny, but quite a few of them were not as pure as they should be. That uncomfortable sense of pitch insecurity was compounded by the quite heavy contralto vibrato and difficulty at times in the clarity of the men’s pitches.

The result was a performance that lacked both musical and verbal clarity and the beauty that comes from pitches and notes perfectly overlapping each other. I don’t want to exaggerate those failings, and I did wonder whether my ears, rather than Pro Coro, were simply having an off-night. So when I got home, with the performance I had just heard still singing around my head, I played the recording conducted by Paul Hillier, who had conducted the premiere in Carnegie Hall in 2007 (Harmonia Mundi HMU807496DI). Immediately it was as everything that had been slightly out of focus – the pitches, the balance, the clarity of the words – had suddenly snapped into sharp relief.

If you think that is an unfair comparison, in one sense it is, since Hillier’s was a studio recording with ideal conditions. But Pro Coro are the one classical music group in Edmonton about whom one can genuinely use that rather hackneyed phrase ‘world-class’, and can stand in comparison to their peers around the globe. The idea of performing The Little Match Girl Passion every year is a welcome one, and Holy Trinity Anglican Church such a worthy setting, that I do hope Pro Coro continues the tradition there, albeit perhaps with some adjustment for the acoustics of the building.

The performance of the Lang was book-ended by two short pieces, neatly filling out the evening. The first was a pleasant but unremarkable This Advent moon shines cold and clear by the St Paul/Minneapolis area choral composer (and former professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia) Charles Giffen – very much in the style of a Christmas song. The concert closed, appropriately, with a short chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the words echoing the spirit of the Little Match Girl:

…to you I shall depart,
with you I shall one day soar aloft
full of joy, beyond time
there in the other life.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Nielsen, Berg, Tchaikovsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Photograph by Mads Peter Iveresen

Nielsen: Rhapsody Overture “En fantasirejse til Faeroene”, FS 123

Berg: Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5

 

Robert Uchida (violin)

Alexander Prior (conductor)

 

Winspear

Friday, November 24, 2017

 

 

Nielsen’s picturesque and evocative rhapsody overture En fantasirejse til Faeroene might be better known to English-speaking audiences if only there could be a general agreement on how to translate it into English – it’s variously A Fantastic journey to the Faroe Islands, or An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands, or An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands, or… well, you get the idea.

The Faroe Islands (or Faeroe Islands) are a stunningly beautiful archipelago of rugged, Nordic islands about 320 kms dead north of Scotland, and have been under Danish (or Norwegian-Danish) control since the 14th century (for some stunning photographs of the Islands by the Danish photographer Mads Peter Iversen, click here).  Nielsen was commissioned to write the overture for the occasion of a visit by a Faroese delegation to Denmark, held in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He intended it as an overtly programmatic work, and at the first performance there was a list of the events depicted in the piece: the calm sea on the start of the voyage, seeing the land on arrival, the dancing and singing to welcome the visitors, the farewell as they leave, and the calm at sea again.

There are strong touches here of the other great Nordic tone poet, Sibelius, and perhaps even a nod right back to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is in essentially two moods or parts – the very evocative foggy start of the ocean journey, and the lively, folk dance mood of the celebrations (with a rambunctiousness that reminds one of Charles Ives in a similar mood). Nielsen weaves genuine Faroe folk-tunes into the work, including a gloriously noble long-breathed Sibelian theme, and, with its elliptical arch shape, the work is a most satisfying and evocative northern seascape painting.

That conductor Alexander Prior should chose to open the concert with this lesser-known work is a reflection of a personal touch that is already evident, only two months after the beginning of his inaugural season as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. Nielsen is one of his favourite composers, and if his music is not (yet) that well known to Edmonton audiences, it does seem so suitable for our northern winter city, with its rugged lyricism, its incisiveness, its combination of the emotional and the pragmatic. Two things are also emerging from Prior’s ascendance to the Winspear podium: his emphasis on colour and tone, be the the colour of an individual instrument, an orchestral section, or the whole orchestra, and his willingness to stamp a strong personal interpretation on a work.

The former came out in the lower string playing that opens the work, a kind of murmur of fog seeping up over the sea on the start of the voyage – emotive, quiet playing from an orchestra who have not in the past been noted for really quiet playing – and in his willingness to let individual instruments  go for a less obvious tone colour: the more raucous (and very effective) cry of a seagull on the clarinet, for example, in place of the more mellow romantic bird call usually heard. He is also (related to that idea of individual colour) requiring a precision, a crispness of playing that hasn’t always been as evident in the ESO’s sound in the past. That is making new demands on the orchestra, to which it is clearly responding (even if the playing was a little ragged after the first woodwind entry), and doubtless will continue to do so. Here Nielsen’s work emerged as  both rugged and alluring, and the performance must have won many in the audience over to its beauties.

The Berg Violin Concerto also makes considerable demands on both soloist and orchestra, and if again the orchestra had moments when they weren’t entirely comfortable in Berg’s idiom, first it hasn’t had many opportunities to play in that idiom, and second this is exactly the kind of music into which an orchestra grows as it becomes more familiar with playing it. Nor did such moments impeded a moving performance, for the solo playing of Robert Uchida (the concertmaster of the ESO) was gorgeous, at times beautifully understated, an equal among equals in the orchestra, at times gently whimsical, floating through the often chamber-like combination of instruments in Berg’s scoring, and throughout with pure and lovely tone, especially in the higher ranges of the solo writing. The end, that dying away sigh, was beautifully played by both soloist and orchestra.

Conservative managements have traditionally been wary of programming works like the Berg Violin Concerto, but this concert showed why they don’t need to be. First, it has been noticeable since the 25-year old Prior has become chief conductor that there are a lot of much younger people attending alongside the more familiar older faces. Indeed, one of my former pupils at the University of Alberta came up to me after the concert to re-introduce himself – it was the first time he had ever been to a symphony concert, and not only had he enjoyed it, but would be coming again.

All this is marvellous, and one hopes it continues, for it is the life-blood of the orchestra’s future. But younger audiences do expect more challenging experiences.  The Berg Violin Concerto was introduced at some length (perhaps just a little too long) and very effectively by Prior, Uchida, and the organist Jeremy Spurgeon, who played on the piano the Bach chorale on which some of the concerto’s material is based, and who had worked with Uchida for over a month preparing the performance.  This introduction was pitched just right, explaining – with musical illustrations – how the work is constructed, and its links both to previous musics and to the street life of Berg’s Vienna.  That this undoubtedly helped the audience was  demonstrated in the post-concert talk in the foyer, when one more elderly member of the audience explained how she had not been looking forward to the Berg. However, after that introduction she had listened to it, her eyes closed, and had clearly been very moved by its beauties.

Prior’s passion for thinking through a work – and re-thinking it if necessary – permeated the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 that closed the concert. Tchaikovsky is so often played, especially in the west,  as the arch-romantic, in performances that wallow in the poignancy of the themes, and highlight Tchaikovsky’s apparently self-indulgent longings and yearnings. There is of course a place for such approaches – Tchaikovsky’s popularity is based on that emotional indulgence – but there are those (myself included) who haven’t always been comfortable with his music because of that sentimental arch-Romanticism.

Prior’s approach – equally valid, and following a Russian conducting tradition – is, as he told us in his introduction to the work, to blow away those cobwebs and return the music to a much more direct, almost classical, interpretation, devoid of sentimentality. What a compelling performance this was, too. No big rallentandos (apart from one right at the end) or accelerandos here, no indulgently slow tempi, no quasi-portimento, no heavy vibrato. Instead, clean, rigid rhythms, the marches given with a kind of clockwork precision, crisp playing out of a Classical rather than a Romantic tradition (it made me think forward as much to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony as to the Shostakovitch Prior suggested in his introduction).

The result – especially in the first and last movements – was to present a harsher, harder, more sinuously anguished Tchaikovsky, one that could both appeal to those like me who are antithetical to the Romantic approach to composer, and provide a kind of revelation to those who only know the composer from such Romantic performances. The interpretation was perhaps a little too dry at the end of the second movement (it made me think that Prior could perhaps approach this section  with the same combination of harder sounds and evocation that he had secured in the Nielsen), but the waltz came across more ironically (especially well judged were the little brass snarls in the opening), and, most important, the music did indeed so clearly work with this approach.

This was one of those performances that can make one completely re-evaluate a work. To make it happen, the orchestra had to play it (perhaps, indeed, against their traditions and instincts) with absolute precision and crispness, and that’s exactly what they did. Solo sections from clarinet and horn were beautifully phrased (and played), pure legato, and the entire brass section played with an accuracy and verve they haven’t always displayed.

The enthusiasm and the wide age range of the (very full) audience, the passion of some of the orchestral playing, the willingness to present more challenging or lesser-known works, and a conductor who is clearly not only passionate about music, but can produce new insights into that music – all this augers well for where the ESO is going.

 

 

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