Reviews

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Adams, Nicole Lizée, and Elgar

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

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

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

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

Conducted by Alexander Prior


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESO Symphony for Kids Peter and the Wolf

Painting by Andrea Mueller (andrealikesart.com)

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Alan Menken: Suite from Aladdin

Paganini: variations for one string on the theme “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Rossini’s opera Mosè in Egitto

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

Stravinsky: ‘Infernal Dance’ from The Firebird


Jonah Hansen (cello)
Bridget Ryan (narrator)
conducted by Cosette Justo Valdés

Winspear
Saturday, November 23, 2019


The Winspear was packed to the rafters with kids and adults for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s series Symphony for Kids on Saturday afternoon.

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

Richard Eaton Singers: Ein deutsches Requiem

The Richard Eaton Singers

Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Leslie Ann Bradley (soprano)
Geoffrey Sirett
Richard Eaton Singers
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Leonard Ratzlaff

Winspear
Sunday November 10, 2019

For Mark Morris’ review of the Richard Eaton Singers’ performance of Brahms’ masterpiece, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Mazzoli, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich

Boris Giltburg, the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4
photo by Sasha Gusov

Chief Conductor Alexander Prior celebrated his first concert of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s new season with an epic performance of an epic symphony, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, with the orchestra once again showing how far it has come.

It was preceded by fine performances of Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4, with the ESO debut of pianist Boris Giltburg

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

Zemlinsky Quartet: Janáček, Novák, and Zemlinsky

 

 

 

The Czech Zemlinsky Quartet returned to the Muttart Hall on Sunday October 27, for an Edmonton recital Society concert with an unexpected and most attractive highlight: Vítězslav Novák’s Piano Quintet Op.12, where the quartet were joined by a young Canadian pianist, Adam Boeker.

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

Eddins and the ESO: Spanish influenced music

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Image result for Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Fauré: Le Pas Espagnol from the Dolly Suite
Corelli/Karl Jenkins: La Folia for marimba and string orchestra

Massenet: excerpts from the Act II ballet of El Cid
Rózsa: Love music from the soundtrack of El Cid
Tchaikovsky: Danse Espagnole from Swan Lake
Chabrier: España
Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnole
de Falla: Noches en los jardines de España

William Eddins (conductor)
Cosette Justo Valdés (conductor)
Eric Buchmann (violin)
Angela Cheng (piano)
Jacob Kryger (marimba)

Winspear
Thursday, October 10, 2019


Bill Eddins kicked the Robbins Lighter Classics concerts off on Thursday, October 10, at the Winspear, with a program of Spanish-influenced music.

To read Mark Morris’ review of the concert in the Edmonton Journal, click here.


 

Trio de Moda

Trio de Moda at the St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike

Trio de Moda
St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike
Sunday, October 6, 2019


Trio de Moda is still a relatively new chamber group, formed in 2017 by three young Edmonton string players: violinist Neda Yamach and viola player Clayton Leung, both of whom play with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and the cellist Kathleen de Caen.

The wonderfully named St. John Lutheran Church of Golden Spike is a relatively new chamber music venue. Golden Spike is the name of an area south of Spruce Grove: on the corner you turn into to get to the church is the old local Golden Spike general store, now a private home, and between it and the church is a little fenced-off graveyard marking the place of the original church (St. Paul Lutheran Church), that burnt down in the 1920s.

The church’s musical society, the Golden Spike Concert Society, put on its first concert only last year.

But all happily combined on a warm autumnal Sunday afternoon for an afternoon of mellow but enthusiastic chamber music.

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

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Symphony Under the Sky, Dvořák and Brahms

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Robert Bernhardt, conductor of Symphony Under the Sky. Photo by D.T. Baker

Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, From the New World, Op. 95, B. 178
Brahms: Violin Concerto in in D major, Op. 77

Blake Pouliot (violin)
conducted by Robert Bernhardt

Hawrelak Park
Friday, August 30, 2019

Friday night was classical music night at Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s mini festival Symphony Under the Sky, with rousing performances under the baton of Robert Bernhardt of Dvořák’s New World symphony, and with the exciting young violinist Blake Pouliot of Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

It also featured an experimental sound reinforcement system.

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

C’Mon Music Festival

C’mon Music Festival

Tomas Honz: Clouds in Eastern Bohemia

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

Friday, July 12th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

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

Saturday, July 13th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

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

Sunday, July 14th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton


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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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

Conductor and oboe soloist, Lidia Khaner

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Sunday, July 8th, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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