Reviews

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.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Simone Porter (violin) plays Prokofiev and Barber concertos

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, opus 19
Dvořák (arr. Brahms): Slavonic Dance No. 10 in E minor, Opus 72 No. 2 

Barber: Violin Concerto Op. 14

Simone Porter (violin)
conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
May 31, 2019


For Mark Morris’ review of the marvellous performances by Simone Porter and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra of the Prokofiev first and the Barber violin concertos (a concert where the new Prior violin concerto was due to be played, but was cancelled), click here.

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival: Ensemble Made in Canada

Ensemble Made in Canada

Frank Bridge

Mozart: Piano Quartet No.2 in E-flat major, K.493
Frank Bridge: Phantasy Piano Quartet in F-Sharp Minor
Fauré: Piano Quartet No.1 in C minor

Ensemble Made In Canada

First Baptist Church, Edmonton
June 18, 2019

 

For Mark Morris’ review of the opening concert in the 2019 Summer Solstice Chamber Music festival, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: The music of Harry Potter

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Robert Bernhardt, Master Wizard of the Edmonton Special Obliviators (ESO). Photo by Cheryl McCartney

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Music of Harry Potter

Winspear
June 23, 2019

Conductor: Robert Bernhardt

 

The  Daily Planet’s intrepid reporter went to the Winspear on Sunday afternoon, June 23, in disguise (using a Polyjuice Potion) as a music critic for the  Edmonton Journal.

Read his report on the proceedings here.

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

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Kay Nielsen: Scheherazade (late 1910s)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Sara Davis Buechner (piano)
Conducted by Alexander Prior

Winspear
Friday June 14, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sara Davis Buechner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Vivaldi The Four Seasons

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

 

Marc Chagall: detail from The Four Seasons, mosaic, 1974

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Robert Uchida (violin and leader)
Members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Winspear
May 6th, 2019

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra have continued their series of pairing music and beverages for shorter concerts with Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, in an unusual Monday concert. Billed as ‘Vivaldi and Vino’, and sponsored by The Italian Centre, it saw a very full Winspear, and an enthusiastic audience that cut across just about all the generations – the formula is clearly proving popular.

The  performance was a fine one, and you can read Mark Morris’ review for the Edmonton Journal here.

Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus: all Allan Bevan concert

All Allan Bevan choral concert

Allan Bevan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus
Concordia Symphony Orchestra
Conductors: Allan Bevan, Danielle Lisboa
Janet Smith (soprano)
Kimberley Denis (alto)
RJ Chambers (tenor)
Michael Kurschat (baritone)
Timothy J. Anderson and Dawn Sadoway (actors)

Winspear
Monday, April 15, 2019

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the concert, and of Allan Bevan’s new work, Ancient of Days, for four soloists, two actors, chorus and orchestra, and based on Blake texts, click here.