Edmonton Classical Music

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

Edmonton Opera: H.M.S. Pinafore

Gilbert and Sullivan: H.M.S. Pinafore

with new jazz arrangements by Ed Windels

 

Company of Edmonton Opera’s HMS Pinafore. Photo by Nanc Price

Jubilee Theatre
Saturday, February 3, Tuesday, February 6, Friday, February 9

Josephine: Vanessa Oude-Reimerink
Ralph Rackstraw: Adrian Kramer
Sir Joseph Porter, KCB: Glenn Nelson
Little Buttercup: Bridget Ryan

Director: Robert Herriot
Set Designer: Camellia Koo
Costumer Designer: Deanna Finnman

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

British cellist Robert Cohen in Edmonton

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

Edmonton Opera: H.M.S. Pinafore preview

for Mark Morris’ preview in the Edmonton Journal of the new Edmonton Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, click here

Edmonton Recital Society: Bergmann Piano Duo

The Bergmann  Duo

Bergmann Duo

Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann (pianos)

Edmonton Recital Society
Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Sunday, January 21st, 2017

Mozart, arranged Busoni: Overture to The Magic Flute
Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, original version for two pianos, Op.56b
Bernstein, arranged Marcel Bergmann: selections from West Side Story
Marcel Bergmann: Urban Pulse
Dave Brubeck, arranged M. Bergmann: Blue Rondo à la Turk
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Oblivion
Astor Piazzolla, arranged M. Bergmann: Libertango
Egberto Gismonti, arranged M. Bergmann: Infancia

 

It’s always enjoyable watching, as well as listening to, piano duos.  The rapport, concentration, and almost instinctive understanding needed is considerable, and to be able  see the facial interaction between the two players, ranged at opposite ends of two concert grands nestling into each other, can draw an audience in to the music making in a very particular way.

That musical and personal intimacy is even more intense when the duo are husband and wife, as are Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann. They have been performing as the Bergmann Piano Duo for well over two decades now, having originally met at the the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover in Germany (Marcel’s country of birth). For much of that time they were based in Calgary (Elizabeth was born in Medicine Hat), and they now live in White Rock, B.C., where they are artistic directors of the celebrated White Rock series of concerts. They have toured extensively in North America and  Europe, and in May will be playing a series of concerts in China. Their repertoire is very extensive, from classic two-piano works, through new compositions (including works by Marcel himself), to jazz and jazz-inspired arrangements. Their considerable discography reflects this – they have recorded, for example, minimalist works, piano versions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, and music by Debussy and Rachmaninov, and all Bolcolm’s music for two pianos. Their latest album, American Stories, features excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story arranged by Marcel, along with other arrangements of jazz-tinged South and North American music.

Their recital at Muttart Hall on Sunday January 21st, presented by the Edmonton Recital Society, was largely drawn from the repertoire on this CD, with a first half that added a couple of more obviously classical works. It began with Busoni’s masterful arrangement of the overture to The Magic Flute, immediately establishing the duo’s musical virtues: a penchant for rich textures, especially in the lower range, a sureness of touch, a clean clarity in the upper end of the keyboard. They were a little hampered by a slight mismatch in the pianos they had been supplied with, the Steinway being audibly superior to the Yamaha, with its rather more twangy upper range. That was in itself instructive, as Marcel  appeared to rather neatly compensate when playing the latter (the two regularly swapped pianos in the recital).

It was good, too, to hear the original two-piano version of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, so familiar in its orchestral guise. That original theme (not, incidentally, by Haydn but probably by Playel) sounds so Russian in the two-piano opening statement, and the second variation gave some credence to the stories that Brahms was supposed to have spend some of his teenage years playing piano in the bars of Hamburg – one could well imagine Marcel creating a jazzy version of this variation. That instinctive interaction between the two players was exemplified in the perfect unison of the rallentando in the final movement.

The highlight of the concert, though, was the music from Bernstein’s West Side Story, arranged for two pianos by Marcel. The music sits really well on the two keyboards; the arrangements are always at the service of the music, and never designed merely to show of the players or the two-piano format. Each of the movements played here had its strong pianist tone and atmosphere: smoky bar in ‘Maria’, a touch of Rachmaninov at the Hollywood Bowl in ‘Tonight’, a nod, indeed, to the world of the Haydn Variations in ‘One Hand, One Heart’, high drama in ‘The Rumble’, shades of Satie in ‘America’.

The arrangements evenly distribute the material between the two players, too, with a lot of handing over. Here the Bergmanns were a wonderful visual contrast: Marcel rather hunched over the piano, rather as if he was himself in some smoky Hamburg port-side dive, his left leg thrusting out from time to time, Elizabeth more upright, restrained, old-school Boston, perhaps. When they introduce works (which they do with humour and aplomb), their verbal overlapping is in itself a kind of musical counterpoint, as instinctive as their playing.

The second half opened with Urban Pulse, a work in three shortish movements by Marcel himself, commissioned in 2005 for the 10th Dranoff International Two Piano Competition. Although there are inevitably some elements designed for competition – such as the wide variety, from a bluesy walking bass to the fast and furious, in  the central movement, ‘Cerulean Beat’ (if you wondered, cerulean is a colour range in the blue spectrum) – the work stands well on its own, encompassing some of Marcel’s interests, from the influence of minimalism in the opening and close (the ‘urban pulse’ of the title), through jazz. (You can hear and see the Bergmann Duo playing the work here.)

The remainder of the works were arrangements by Marcel of music with jazz or dance influence. The audience loved them, and if I personally might have hoped for one more work drawn from the classical repertoire, it was all enormously entertaining, played with gusto and enthusiastic energy – another hallmark of the duo (indeed, I don’t think there was a pp, let alone a ppp, in the whole recital). Brubeck’s famous Blue Rondo à la Turk transfers well to two pianos (though I subconsciously kept expecting to hear brushes on cymbals), and the encore – an arrangement by Marcel of the jazz pianist Chick Corea’s Spanish pastiche, La fiesta – transported us to the land of flamenco.

Egberto Gismonti, who was born in Brazil 1947 of Sicilian and Lebanese parents and studied with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Barraqué, has performed with many groups, including a trio with the famed Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek. His Infancia (‘Childhood’) was attractive enough, influenced by Villa-Lobos. The highlight of this section, though, were two works by the foremost composer of tangos, the Argentinian Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). I had last heard some of his tangos played by the Vaughan String Quartet and the Italian-born Edmontonian accordionist Antonio Peruch, in a 2016 concert, and was rather disappointed. Not here. The Bergmanns created a rich-textured large-scale soundscape for Oblivion, and a real feel for the tango in Libertango, with a wonderful textured crescendo at its end, converting me to the merits of this attractive music.

The Bergmanns had not appeared in Edmonton for some years before this recital. I do hope it is not such quite a long gap until their next visit, and that perhaps we might have the opportunity sometime to hear at least one of Marcel’s major works for the duo, the Concerto for Two Pianos (which was premiered in 2014 in Red Deer) or the Concerto  for Piano Four-Hands and Chamber Ensemble, premiered at the White Rock Concerts last year.

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.

Pro Coro New Year’s Eve Concert

Pro Coro New Year’s Eve concert

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
December 31st, 2017

Photo by Topher Seguin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ēriks Ešenvalds: Stars

Ivo Antognini: Canticum Novum

Mendelssohn: from Sechs Sprüche Op.79

J.S. Bach: Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben BWV 147

Joby Talbot: ‘Santiago’ from Path of Miracles

Ann-Sofi Söderqvist: What is Life?

Thomas LaVoy The Same Stream

Rossini: ‘Toast pour le nouvel an’ (Les peches de vieillesse Vol.2 No.1)

Trad. Arranged Desmond Early: The Parting Glass

Mendelssohn: ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53

 

 

There are plenty of us who don’t particularly want to venture out into a wind-chill of -40C to watch Edmonton’s New Year’s fireworks, and are equally adverse to a noisy New Year’s Eve party where too much is drunk and you have to wait interminably for a taxi to get you home.

For us party-shirkers, Edmonton’s best choir, Pro Coro, had the perfect answer: a New Year’s concert in the humble, atmospheric surroundings of Holy Trinity Anglican Church. They started at 7.30 on New Year’s Eve, and finished exactly when they promised they would, as 9.30, allowing us plenty of time to toddle home while the roads were still quiet. To make sure we hadn’t, Scrooge-like, entirely eschewed the spirit of the season, prosecco and treats were served in the intermission, and sometime after nine, conductor Michael Zaugg announced that it had to be New Year that moment somewhere in the world. He promptly distributed sparkly pointed hats to all the choir, donning one himself (it greatly suited him). A miniature reflecting mirror ball mysteriously appeared, and was ceremoniously lowered to the traditional countdown, and then the choir and the audience sang Auld Lang Syne.

Before that was a more rarefied indulgence, as the choir sang a wide range of music. Most of it was strongly Christian – appropriate, given that we were in an Anglican Church and New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday – leavened with a couple of works with a strong philosophical bent, and two complete interlopers: Rossini musing on the sins of his old age in the delightful ‘Toast pour le nouvel an” to the poem by Émilien Pacini, and the 17th Century Scottish song The Parting Glass, lovingly sung by the choir and with a very good soloist in Caleb Nelson (the Scottish seem to have the genre of maudlin songs of parting after drinking sewn up, though some readers may know this song better in a version based on it by Bob Dylan, Restless Farewell).

The Christians had it over the philosophers, for the highlights were religious works by Mendelssohn and Joby Talbot. Mendelssohn wrote six short unaccompanied motets in Berlin between 1843 and 1846, to go with the Lutheran liturgy, to Biblical texts and each ending with the word ‘Hallelujah’.  Zaugg had chosen three, reordering them to make chronological sense. The first was No.5 ‘Im Advent’ celebrating that the redeemer is coming, then No 1, ‘Christmas’, and finally No.2 ‘Am Neujahrstage’ (‘On New Year’s Day’). What beautiful works they are, too, the lively counterpoint harking back to Palestrina, a breath of renaissance translated into a Romantic choral sound, the motet for New Year’s Day unexpectedly slow, like overlapping chords from some ethereal celestial organ.

‘Santiago’, by the British composer Joby Talbot (born 1971, and probably best known for his film and television music), is the last section of an extensive 2005 choral work in four parts, Path of Miracles, that follows the famous pilgrims path to the cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It’s a wonderful conception: each of the four parts represents one of the staging posts on the pilgrimage, and it combines texts from medieval sources, Catholic liturgy, and original words by the librettist Robert Dickinson. Languages used are Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German – in the final section, ‘Santiago’, words from the famed medieval Carmina Burana celebrate the coming of spring, alongside a wide variety of other texts. The music of this 22-minute section is equally varied: it opens with the effects of faster undulations against a slow moving backdrop, like the effect of the different distances of a landscape moving at different speeds as one travels. Then comes an evocation of a vista from the mountains, a view as one comes over the ridge, in the more unison second section. In the joyful arrival as Santiago is seen there is more than a touch of Carl Orff in the rhythms, turning into a march as the pilgrims arrive  to great shouts of the city’s name. It’s deeply involving and descriptive music (and texts), and clearly Pro Coro revel in it.

The shade of Orff also appeared in the lively Canticum Novum by Swiss composer Ivo Antognini (born 1963). It was written in 2016, sets the Roman Liturgy, and is well worth the hearing (there’s good performance by the Batavia Madrigal Singers at the 48th Tolosa Choral Contest 2016, Basque Country, Spain on YouTube). J.S Bach followed. English speakers would have recognized Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habeas as ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. In fact the words by Salomo Franck in the original German of the sixth and final section of the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147, 1723),  are different from Robert Bridges’ English version, which was incorrectly printed in the program booklet as a translation for the German sung here. Pro Coro went Swingle Singers, as various sections of the chorus jazzed the orchestral parts – fun to do (and in particular a feat of endurance from some of the sopranos), but personally I prefer that particular Bach straight.

The philosophers opened the second half. Ann-Sofi Söderqvist (born 1956) is a  Swedish composer (and trumpeter). Her What is Life? (2006) seemed to have identity problems, with hints of jazz and middle-eastern vocalization amongst more orthodox choral writing. Pro Coro equally seemed unclear how to tackle it – I wondered if it would have been more effective if they had let go a bit more. 27-year old American composer Thomas LaVoy studied at Aberdeen University with Paul Mealor, who was Pro Coro’s composer-in-residence last year. The Same Stream (2015) to a text by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore was pleasant enough, voices indeed emulating a stream tumbling along, but was stronger on technique than memorability.

The whole concert had opened with a pleasing effect. The choir occupied the stage but also the side aisles as they came in, and for Stars by the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds (born 1977), some played water-filled tuned wine-glasses, like a spread-out glass harmonica. The concert closed with Mendelssohn’s eight-part motet ‘Denn hat seinen Englein befohlen’ MWV B53. It is probably best known from its placement by the composer into Elijah, but it was actually written earlier, as an independent piece, in 1844. Here we had the original version (hence it being given in German), in spite of what the program booklet suggested. It was beautifully sung, as was the entire concert, just the occasional very minor lapse (such as  a lack of totally unison on harder sounding consonants) simply reminding one how good this choir is overall.

Zaugg has promised that this New Year’s Eve concert was the start of a new Pro Coro tradition. I do hope so, and judging by the enthusiasm of the packed Holy Trinity Anglican Church (I have never seen it so full), there are lots of others who also want an alternative way to spend New Year’s Eve.

 

 

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.

 

 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and National Arts Centre Orchestra: Estacio, Mozart, Dvořák

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra

Saturday, October 28th, 2017
Winspear

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

 

John Estacio: King Arthur Suite
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.3
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) 

Jessica Linnebach (violin)
Alexander Shelley (conductor)

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the joint concert of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, on tour from Ottawa, click here .

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