Edmonton Classical Music

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

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival: St. Lawrence String Quartet

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet
Photo: Marco Borggreve

‘String Quartets Rock!’


Excerpts from:
Haydn: String Quartets op.20 No.1 & No.4
Beethoven: String Quartets  Op.131 in C# major and Op.135 in F major
Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor Op.56 Voces intimae
Adams: Pavanne She’s So Fine
Dvořák: String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American)
R. Murray Schafer:  String Quartet No.3

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
Yellowhead Brewery, Edmonton


Haydn: Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2
John Adams: Second String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet Op.131 in C# Major

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
Knox Evangelical Free Church, Edmonton

Geoff Nuttall, violin
Owen Dalby, violin
Lesley Robertson, viola
Christopher Costanza, cello


Many years ago, when I was the music critic of the Banff Crag & Canyon and regularly reviewed events at the Banff Centre, I covered a concert in which three very famous (and very brilliant) international performers – at the Centre to give classes – played a Beethoven piano trio to an audience primarily composed of young student musicians. The performance was really pretty dreadful. At the end, much of the audience stood up in a standing ovation, but there was a significant block who remained seated, politely clapping without enthusiasm: French Canadian musicians, coming from a different culture and from a different musical education. As the audience filed out, one of them, a French Canadian violinist whom I had heard play but never met, came up to me.

“You’re the writer in the paper, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, rather astonished that she knew who I was.

“Tell it as is was!” she commanded, and hurried out.

I did.

I felt rather the same hearing the St. Lawrence String Quartet play two concerts at the Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival in Edmonton on June 19th and June 20th. Indeed, these performances made me wonder what had happened to the SLSQ. Were they just having a couple of bad days? Was it the heat (30oC outside), especially in the non-air-conditioned Knox Evangelical Free Church, affecting their performances? Or has the status of being one of Canada’s finest quartets led them to rest on their laurels?

The Quartet was last here in January, 2017, when the program was Haydn’s Op. 20 No.2, selections from John Adams’ Alleged Dances, and a Mendelssohn string quartet. Here, for the main concert at the Knox, they played Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20 No.2, John Adams’ Second String Quartet, and Beethoven’s Op.131 – a work which many in the audience will have known, and which was a substitute for the scheduled Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.3, which many in this festival audience won’t have known. As I wrote of the 2017 concert, their histrionics and their re-imaginings of Haydn are not for me, but I accept that’s largely a matter of taste; quality of playing is not.

That, on both these Summer Solstice Festival evenings, they received a standing ovation, is understandable. They do carry that reputation. They have an element of showmanship. Their qualities are those very ones that got them the first place in the 1992 Banff String Quartet Competition that started their international careers (albeit with two different members): energy and attack, especially from the first violin and cello, excellent intonation, spot-on unison, a kind of clockwork precision. Such things may be essential to a great string quartet, but in themselves are not the stuff of great music making.

The first problem was one of balance. Jeff Nuttall’s first violin dominated the proceedings, consistently louder than the other three members – both when the first violin is expected to dominate, but also when it isn’t. At the other end of the scale, I could hardly hear Lesley Robertson’s viola when playing in consort, in either venue (and I know I wasn’t the only one). And it wasn’t a question of acoustics, as, in the Dvořák piano quintet on Friday, the viola of Jean-Miguel Hernandez (ex-violist of the Fine Arts Quartet) could be heard quite clearly (and beautifully) as part of the ensemble – and I was sitting in exactly the same seat at the Knox Church for both concerts, and the two players were in identical places up front.

The second problem was one of ensemble colour and tone. Again, there was a noticeable difference between Nuttall’s first violin, and the other players. Time and again, the first violin was more rasping, more raucous (not something I remember from 2017, and certainly not evident in their recordings), made more noticeable by the general lack of vibrato that the quartet prefer. What was missing were those magical moments from a really good quartet when colour, tone, attack, from all the players all seem to coalesce as one – here it did seem, consistently, as if four individual players were playing, not one quartet. Indeed, while all the SLSQ’s energy was there, there was very little of the kind of subtlety or refinement (or, in one word, finesse) that one expects, the more experienced and older a quartet gets. I wrote back in 2017, “The ensemble is rock solid, as is the blending of sound across instruments” – rock solid they may still be, but there was very little blending of sound across the instruments in these two concerts. The third was surprising little softer playing – p, let alone pp. Again, this contrasted with their 2017 concert.

There was, of course, some attractive music-making, such as Christopher Costanza’s lovely, smooth, more introverted cello line at the beginning of second movement of Haydn Op.20 No.2 at the Knox, an effect immediately expunged by the incongruous and very loud attack when the first violin took over. The most successful of the Knox performances was Beethoven’s String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131, where their vigorous style came into its own in such passages as the Presto and the final Allegro – again, some lovely playing from Costanza.

The biggest disappointment of the Knox evening was their performance of Adams’ Second String Quartet, which was written for them and which draws on two of Beethoven’s piano works, the A flat major sonata Op 110 and the Diabelli Variations, for material. It’s not their fault that it is not one of Adams’ best works, but this performance hardly made out a good case, with a lack of shape and a rather scratchy tone. To hear them play an excerpt of this work much more convincingly, click here.

To make matters worse, their encore was a movement of a Haydn String Quartet that many of the audience had already heard them play at the Yellowhead Brewery the evening before. Surely, given their wide repertoire, they could have come up with something different?

The same might be said of that Yellowhead Brewery concert, which was MC’d with charisma by Nuttall, a kind of first violin equivalent to Simon Cowell. The title of the evening, ‘String Quartets Rock”, should really have been ‘Haydn and Beethoven String Quartets Rock’, since excepts from those two composers – including music the audience was to hear the next evening – dominated. Nothing here from, say, Bartok or Shostakovitch, let alone Schubert or Brahms. The Haydn, one of the Beethoven excepts, and the scherzo from Sibelius’ String Quartet were all taken at a breakneck speed, and even the Adams was raggedy, though with some effective bluesy cello playing – it was the pavanne She’s So Fine, which they had also included in their 2017 concert. They did, though, play an excerpt from R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3, but with nothing like the aplomb or the dash of their exciting 2013 YouTube performance.

Ironically, the most convincing and affecting performance of all was very much a Romantic one, of the slow movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American). It was rich, emotional, and colourful, with some lovely deep tones from Nuttall. The final piece, though was something of a flop: if you are going to play an arrangement of a 53-year old song, and want the audience to sing along heartily, it doesn’t take much to print out a few word sheets, or project the words, even if it is McCartney and Lennon’s Yesterday.

Quite frankly, a chamber music festival like this deserves a little more thought than the St. Lawrence String Quartet seems to have given to their headlining appearance.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Glinka, Chausson, Ravel, and Beethoven

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Ruslan Confronts the Head
by Nicolai Ge (1831-1894)

Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture
Chausson: Poème for Violin
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Laura Veeze  (violin)
Jeanne Amièle  (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
May 27, 2018

 

What a way for the The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to close this season’s series of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Winspear on May 27! For a packed and enthusiastic audience were given one of the fastest and most exciting performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that I have heard, experienced some superb violin playing in Chausson’s well-known Poème, and had Ravel’s most-loved piano concerto and Glinka’s best-known orchestral piece to add to the mix .

The question of Beethoven’s tempi is a thorny one, and the subject of much academic debate. Beethoven’s own metronome markings are, in the first eight symphonies, really pretty fast. The tradition has been to Romanticize these symphonies, by assuming that Beethoven got his metronome marking wrong (it was a relatively new piece of technology, and anyway Beethoven was deaf for the later symphonies). This seemed to be confirmed by the way Beethoven’s music seemed to respond to a Romantic hue when taken slower.

Two great conductors, father Eric Kleiber in the 1950s and son Carlos Kleiber in 1975, showed in their recordings how exciting this symphony could be if taken faster. However, it was the movement for authentic instruments – playing Beethoven with the size of forces and the type of instruments that Beethoven would have written for – that showed that perhaps Beethoven’s metronome markings were indeed correct, for the thinner sounds de-Romanticized the works, and the faster tempi made sense.

Some mainstream conductors, such as Paavo Järvi, have shown that such tempi can work with a modern larger-scale orchestra. Alexander Prior has already indicated that, while he is perfectly capable of eliciting Romantic pace and colour where appropriate, he dislikes the Romanticizing of works that might require a less sentimental approach – his Tchaikovsky is an obvious example.

Here he started the three most famous notes in music that open Beethoven’s fifth at a break-neck speed – too fast perhaps, as that phrase both got lost and some its nobility was hidden, in part because the marked pause was very short indeed. Indeed, one feared that the orchestra might not be able to maintain such a speed (and the horns at a couple of points did indeed have problems). Where more leisured readings allow that rather more mysterious passage leading up to the oboe’s adagio solo to breathe, to open up, Prior drove the music on, creating considerable tension. Indeed, he avoided the usually tendency to dwell at greater length on the quite large number of pauses marked in the score, and as the strings and the brass in particular responded to his onward rush, it became clear how this interpretation of the symphony was shaping.

For this was placing the music firmly in its time – not in the more Gothic reaches of mid-18th Century Romanticism, but in the much less sentimental, and pithier start of the century, when the European continent was plunged into the throes of the Napoleonic Wars (and Beethoven had changing views of Napoleon, initially hero-worshipping him). Thus the faster tempi for the more martial march in the second movement seemed just right, and the whole thing led up to a really exciting, vivid, and energetic finale – a triumphant symphony that in this interpretation did seem to reflect something of war at its most gripping, of continental strategies and political movements at their most commanding. Glory, rather than grandeur, that made sense of Beethoven’s place and concerns in 1804 to 1808, when he completed the symphony.

The concert had opened, after an informative (and entertaining) introduction from the conductor (though he might consider moderating some of his riskier ad-libs), with Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture, again fast and furious at the opening, with crisp playing and idiomatic phrasing from the orchestra, a nice light touch at the second theme, and overall a performance full of fun and zest.

Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra is, of course, very different in feel from either of these two works. It was written for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, and if you have ever heard past the crackle of the very early 78 rpm recordings that Ysaÿe made – or indeed, Ysaÿe‘s own violin music – you can understand how the more mournful and darker elements of Chausson’s music, and the rhapsodic feel, must have exactly suited the Belgian master.

Here at the Winspear the soloist was something of a revelation. While the Dutch-Canadian violinist Laura Veeze is now a familiar figure in the first violin section of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (she came to Edmonton with her husband, the ESO’s concertmaster Robert Uchida), and I had heard her take part in chamber music (notably in Elgar’s Piano Quintet last November), I had not heard her in a solo role before. Given this performance, one wondered why not.

Chausson’s work really is rhapsodic, for the violin solo part really seems to take very little notice of the orchestra, who indeed spend most of their time following or answering the solo line (for those unfamiliar with the work, there’s a similar effect in Vaughan Williams’ well-known Lark Ascending). This puts a lot of emphasis on the tone and colour of the solo line, and it’s a difficult piece to shape, as any shape comes from how the soloist unravels that rhapsody, rather than from anything more concrete.

Veese has the right kind of mellow, consistent tone, quite big and round when required, needed for music like this. It’s combined with the kind of delicacy that is needed here, especially in the very high writing near the end. She did indeed shape the Poème convincingly – she’s certainly not (at least on this evidence) a showy player, but rather a thoughtful one, and one couldn’t help but feel that Ysaÿe himself would have enjoyed this performance. I do hope the ESO plucks her out of the first violins more often.

The soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concert in G was the young Jeanne Amièle, who who won the Sheen Piano Competition here in Edmonton in 2016 and is now a doctoral student. She brims over with confidence and enthusiasm, clearly loved playing the concerto, and has one of those enviable techniques where the most difficult runs seem effortless. That youth, perhaps, showed in lack of subtlety and variation in colour in the main, more exposed dominant piano line that Ravel so often uses here – and the second movement could have been a bit more bluesy. But the performance was a reminder of what a remarkable work this piano concerto is, with its tinges of jazz and blue, and music that has magic and yet sends itself up at one and the same time, and it will be interesting to see how Amièle’s depth of interpretation develops.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Bach (arr. Prior), Stafylakis, Miller, and Prior

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra late night concert

Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Bach (arranged Alexander Prior): Fugue in G minor, from  The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, BWV 885
Harry Stafylakis: Never the Same River
Jared Miller: Palimpsest
Alexander Prior: The Banshee

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear

May 11, 2017

 

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the last Friday late-night concert of the ESO’s 2017/2018 season, click here. The concert featured the world premiere of a new work by the orchestra’s Chief Conductor, Alexander Prior, as well as recent works by two Canadian composers.

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton

Image result for chamber orchestra of Edmonton

 

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

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta

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

 

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

Lidia Khaner
photo by Stephen Joe

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

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

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

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

Haydn Hall, Esterházy
photo wien.info

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

Sonya Shin

Gabrielle Després

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

Edmonton Opera: Mozart Don Giovanni

Edmonton Opera

Max Slevogt - Der Sänger Francisco d'Andrade als Don Giovanni in Mozarts Oper - Google Art Project.jpg

Portrait of Francisco D’Andrade in the title role by Max Slevogt, 1912

Mozart: Don Giovanni

Jubilee, Friday April 14, Tuesday April 17, Friday April 20

Don Giovanni:   Phillip Addis

Leporello: Erik Anstine
Donna Anna: Michelle Capalbo
Donna Elvira: Cara McLeod
Don Ottavio: John Tessier
Zerlina: Whitney-Leigh Sloan
Masetto: Tyler Fitzgerald
Commendatore: Kirk Eichelberger

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Edmonton Opera Chorus
Conductor: Christopher Larkin

Director: Oriol Tomas
Set designer: Bretta Gerecke
Costume designer: Deanna Finnman
Lighting designer: Barry Steele

 

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the Edmonton Opera production of Don Giovanni, which combines some stunning sets, costumes, and lighting, with a generally strong younger cast, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Britten, Elgar, and Rachmaninov

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Andreas Brantelid (photo ESO)

Saturday, March 24, 2018
Winspear

Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Op.33a
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor Op.85
Rachmaninov: Symphony No.1 in D minor, Op.13

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Andreas Brantelid (cello)
conducted by Alexander Prior

 

“Vengeance is mine, and I shall repay”, Rachmaninov wrote at the head of his first symphony, emulating Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Quite what the vengeance was for is not entirely clear (it almost certainly refers to the words of an Orthodox chant that probably inspired the opening theme of the work), but it was it was a prescient quote, considering that the symphony was excoriated on its first performance on March 27, 1897. Rachmaninov, then only 26, had to read a vicious demolition job by the one of the most celebrated critics of the day, the composer César Gui. Rachmaninov put the symphony aside (the autograph score has never been rediscovered), and the work wasn’t revived until 1945, after the Russian conductor Alexander Gauk had reconstructed the score from the surviving orchestral parts.

Fitting vengeance, though, Rachmaninov certainly had, in the scintillating performance Alexander Prior gave with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Saturday, March 24, at the Winspear. It’s a young composer’s symphony, and it benefited from not only the young conductor’s passionate enthusiasm for the work, but also his experience with the Russian symphonic repertoire. Prior’s approach (as we have learnt from his Tchaikovsky) is grittier, more driving, with more Russian tensions, than many western interpretations – here it reminded me at times of Svetlanov’s terrific Melodia recording.

From the very first notes you knew this was going to be a really good performance – it breathed energy and confidence, and it was soon clear the orchestra were really going to respond to the conducting. The first two movements are marvellously flawed – with the flaws of youthful composition – in that the ideas fall over each other, the interest in the moment greater than that of the whole. Here a tougher, more driving interpretation, not overtly sentimental, pays dividends, binding those ideas closer together. One could hear the touches of Tchaikovsky, but Prior also made moments in the first movement sound like Sibelius, Rachmaninov’s contemporary (as he did at the very close of the symphony). The third movement was wonderfully rich, like the glowing texture of polished burr walnut infused with dark streaks and swirls, and with some beautiful smooth woodwind playing. Prior drew out the dark brooding element in this movement, and there were moments that musically looked  forward to Rachmaninov’s orchestral masterpiece, The Isle of the Dead.

But  the final movement was, fittingly, the climax of the performance. What a movement it is, too! Rachmaninov seems to shake off the 19th century, and transform the whole thing into some of the most advanced writing of the period. Here one could hear, in the incorporation of more populist elements, echoes of Mahler. The movement, with its massed percussion, could also be seen as heralding so much of Shostakovich’s orchestral music, though Shostakovitch couldn’t possibly have heard it or studied it. In other words, it was not only on the cutting edge of its time, but it anticipated later Russian music, and Prior brought out those elements in a performance of fire and energy, one of the best I have heard from this orchestra. If the powers that be do arrange for the ESO to tour, then they should seriously consider taking this symphony with them.

Inevitably, such a performance left one wondering what might have been. After the failure of the premiere, Rachmaninov increasingly turned to works that were essentially much safer, a few works such as The Isle of the Dead and the marvellous Orthodox choral services apart. In spite of all their breathtaking and much-loved emotional affect, they never really reflected the tenor of their age, which includes the Russian revolution, Stalin’s horrors, both World Wars, and the Great Depression. What would Rachmaninov have followed that last movement with, if he had received praise instead of contempt?

The performance of the Elgar cello concerto – another work that had a fiasco of a premiere – was less successful. Written in 1919, this is Elgar’s great contemplative peon to the waste and horrors of the First World War, and, with such heartfelt sorrow combined with a feel of wistful memories,it  surely reflects something of the turbulent mixture of emotions that the survivors of the War felt. With the young Dane Andreas Brantelid as cellist, this performance never quite achieved the depth of emotion the concerto is capable of, and Prior seemed intent on breathing fresh approaches into the work – something that very rarely works with Elgar, as a number of conductors have found to their cost. Elgar is, above all, a composer of swell and fall, in the orchestral writing and in the melodic phrasing, and that was largely missing here. It was as if the whole work had been emotionally shifted sideways: the deep sorrow of the piece became just sadness, and the more playful moments became almost flippant. Having said that, Brantelid is clearly a very fine player, and I don’t want to exaggerate any sense of disappointment: if one had never heard the concerto before, this performance may well have been affecting. But the work has more to it than emerged on Saturday evening.

The concert had opened with a fine reading of the four sea interludes from Britten’s Peter Grimes. Prior set up contrast between a sharper, edgy sound (such as the strings in Dawn or the woodwind in Sunday Morning) and a misty, more subdued texture (the brass in Dawn or the horns in Storm), that was most effective, creating anticipation. The mawkishness of Sunday Morning really came across, and there were reminders at times of how close the idioms of  Britten and Shostakovitch could be at this period (1945). The suite is also an orchestral showpiece, and there were some splendid performances from the woodwind and from timpanist Barry Nemish, and a magical little trombone solo moment from John McPherson. The storm at the end was fast and furious, with an almost outrageous accelerando at the end, which orchestra and conductor pulled off with aplomb.

How well, too, the three works went together – a well-planned and wonderfully executed concert.

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.

 

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