Reviews

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.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Prior premiere

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Robert Hammerstiel: From the cycle ‘Winterreise’: The Crow, 1996 woodcut on paper, 100 x 70 cm, private collection: source

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Bruch: Romance for Viola in F major Op.85

Schubert, orchestrated Prior: Die Winterreise excerpts

[Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 Pastoral, not reviewed]


Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conductor: Alexander Prior

Winspear
Sunday, March 31, 2019


First, apologies for the delay in this review: your reviewer was indisposed with the cold-flu bug that has passed from student to student in his classes.


There is a very long tradition of arranging Schubert – everything from a capella choral arrangements to guitar to Liszt at the piano to jazz and harmonica. My favourite ‘arrangement’ is the haunting and powerful 1978 Schubert-Phantiase for Orchestra by the Austrian composer Dieter Schnebel, based on the Piano Sonata in G major, D. 894.

It was one of a series of re-imaginings by Schnebel of older works into a cycle called Arrangements, and what he wrote about that series could be transcribed word for word about the new orchestral arrangement of selections from Winterreise by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Conductor Alexander Prior, which was premiered in the Winspear on Sunday, March 31:

“The intent here of Arrangements” Schnebel wrote, “is not only to knock off the crust of convention but also to open up the potential of the past, to carve out, as it were, its perhaps still undiscovered possibilities – in other words, to penetrate to levels which could not possibly be experienced or even come to light before today.” (translation by John Patrick Thomas)

What Schnebel has done for a Schubert piano sonata, Prior has very much done for the Schubert cycle, for although their sound worlds have their differences, both composer have clearly been aware of the great tradition of Viennese music. The uncanny thing about both works is that the music can often sound, in these arrangements, like the work of later Viennese composers – Mahler in the case of Schnebel (the whole work is like some hallucinatory dream of Mahler’s music, without changing a note of the Schubert), Mahler and Strauss, and onward to the contemporary Viennese HK Gruber in the case of Prior. What they both, in their different ways, make one vividly realize is how consistently, how strongly, that Viennese line stretches back to Schubert himself.

What Prior has done is left the actual vocal lines of the Winterreise songs alone – and very well sung, they were, too, by the young award-winning American baritone John Brancy, who has certainly developed vocally since we saw him as Papageno in Edmonton Opera’s 2015 Magic Flute. Prior has concentrated in creating a contemporary, 21st-Century orchestral accompaniment to those vocal lines that both compliments them, and comments on them. One of the arrangements’ great virtues is how well they do match the import of the words.

Before going further, though, a confusion needs to be cleared up for those who are reading this and who attended the concert. The words were very usefully (and attractively) presented in a booklet insert. Unfortunately, five of the 12 poems  in the printed text (out of Schubert’s original 24) were not in fact arranged or sung, and others were done in a different order. Even worse, no-one told the audience, who were understandably bewildered, floundering around trying to find the right words, or giving up.

Here, for those who were there, are the seven songs in the order that they were played:

Gute Nacht (Goodnight)
Der Lindenbaum (The Lime Tree)
Wasserfluth (Torrent)
Die Krähe (The Crow)
Das Wirthshaus (The Tavern)
Die Nebensonnen (The Phantom Suns)
Der Leiermann  (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)

Prior uses a very large orchestra, including an on-stage piano, a big compliment of percussion, and the distinctive sound (half horn, half trombone) of the Wagner tuba. The work starts with a kind of dream-like nostalgic state (entirely appropriate for the wanderer going off into the winter’s night) of an off-stage out-of-tune piano. The feel of what is to come is created by the wide range of orchestral effects in that first poem, Gute Nacht, from the use of deep brass, through sense of a Russian march inside a toyshop, and some slightly incongruous clapping from members of the orchestra, to lovely orchestral stands on “Love loves to rove – God made it so”, and finally a Mahlerian whoop in the final verse, compellingly sung by Brancy. What was immediately obvious was how well judged the sheer sound of the orchestra, and the placement of its louder moments, were – Prior always allows the voice to be heard, the vocal line to ultimately be paramount.

Richard Strauss was the element of memory in Der Lindenbaum, complete with cow bells, and snatches of the main Schubert melody heard in Mahlerian phrases. Wasserfluth saw a prominent xylophone, a return to that toy shop and the clapping, and big build up before dying away, again with a sound Mahler would have recognized, for the final line. Die Krähe takes the fantasy world a stage further, with saw and flexitone, and a high G for the baritone, and planted itself firmly in the surrealistic topsy-turvy sound world of HK Gruber’s marvellous Frankenstein.

Das Wirthshaus is perhaps the mostly obviously Schubertian arrangement of the cycle, with a lovely opening, a gorgeous solo violin moment, and a slow, stately build-up until a snare-drum cuts in to link us with the more contemporary tone. Die Nebensonnen opens with a horn quartet, again evoking Mahler, and reinforcing the phantom sunset world of the poem.

Finally, and most effectively, is Der Leiermann, where the image of the old hurdy-gurdy man evokes something worldly but other-worldly. Prior evokes sleigh-bells, but then turns the vision into something more nightmarish, ending with an off-stage snare drum, beating out a death march into the distance to close the cycle (which was the right idea, but was a little too long to be perfectly judged for the effect).

What Prior has conjured up both pays homage to the Schubert song-cycle, while at the same time creating what is essentially a new work, a kind of musical evocation of, a commentary on, the original. It is startling, entertaining, questioning, in its own right, firmly of the 20th-Century while magicking a kind of musical Pensieve, drawing memories out of the bowl from past eras, and making them relive in the present.

I can see some purists hating it, but I loved it, first for giving  different depth and angle to Schubert’s settings, second for evoking those great Viennese traditions, and third for creating such a modern, multi-faceted, both reverend and at the same time a little outrageous, sound world.

Next will be Prior’s long anticipated violin concerto, commissioned by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. It is to be premiered on Friday May 31 by Simone Porter, and will be repeated on Saturday June 1.

Finally, a word for the performance that preceded the Prior/Strauss. Bruch’s Romance for viola and orchestra is not exactly regular fare (it was here receiving its ESO premiere) but it deserves to be better known. It is a kind of hot dreamy lazy days by the river with strawberries and cream piece, reverie rather than nostalgia, and one point unexpectedly and effectively matches bassoon against the solo instrument. The ESO’s young violist, Clayton Leung, well deserved the opportunity – he is so energetically involved with Edmonton musical life – and he made the most of it, with a beautiful ending in the music, the solo playing, and the orchestral sound. Good choice all round!

 

 

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Tamsin Little in Szymanowksi’s second violin concerto

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Karol Symanowski

  • Beethoven:  Symphony No. 2
  • Mendelssohn:  The Fair Melusina Overtu
  • Szymanowksi: Violin Concerto No. 2
  • Forsyth: Atayoskewin The Dance

Tasmin Little (violin)
conducted by Rune Bergmann

Winspear
March 23, 2019


First, apologies for the delay in this review: your reviewer was indisposed with the cold-flu bug that has passed from student to student in his classes, and which he mistakenly thought he had avoided…


 


The last three weeks saw two major Edmonton Symphony Orchestra events in the Winspear. The first was the ESO debut of the mega-star violinist Tasmin Little on March 23rd. The second was the world premiere of Alexander Prior’s startling orchestral arrangement of a selection of songs from Schubert’s Winterreise a week later on March 31 (review to follow).

Tasmin Little has announced that she will be ‘stepping down’ from the concert platform for good in the summer of 2020, so Edmonton was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear her live in the last year of her concert career. She told me that her retirement (at 53-years old) is just from the concert stage: she wanted to leave while she is “at the top of her game”, and to free up time for teaching and other projects. She would particularly like to continue to create film documentaries about music – she did a documentary on one of her favourite composers, Delius, for the BBC, and has initiated other innovative projects, such as her free CD download The Naked Violin,  which won the 2008 Gramophone/Classic FM Award for Audience Innovation.

There was an element of audience innovation here in the Winspear, as Little brought with her one of the finer, but still lesser-known, violin concertos, the Violin Concerto No.2 by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. She has been exploring Szymanowski’s music recently, recording some of the chamber works and both the concertos for the Chandos label.

Written in 1933, it doesn’t have the exotic passionate ecstasy of the first violin concerto of 1915-1916, which is (for me, at least) an even finer work. Written at a time when he was continuing to explore Polish folk music, it doesn’t really belong to style of his final period, either, when in works like the Symphonie concertante (Symphony No.4, 1932) for piano and orchestra, he moved to a sparer, more neo-classical idiom.

Indeed, to call it a work imbued with folk-song would be both correct and misleading. For that would imply a concerto built on folk melodies and folk styles; instead, Szymanowski melds the folk inspiration (especially scales and rhythms) into his own brand of a rich, yearning exoticism. There are echoes in this concerto of his masterpiece, Karol Roger (King Roger, 1918-1926) and its mood has something of the mystical tone of that opera.

It’s a work that suits Little, for she has the rich tone to bring out that yearning expressiveness, knows the right amount of vibrato to make the cantabile lines soar with the sense of mystical ecstasy, and has the technique to make light of the considerable virtuoso difficulties. For the soloist plays almost continuously in what is an extended one-movement work, has to ride over often thick orchestral textures, and there’s some fiendish double-stopping in the cadenza.

However, it is definitely not a show-off technical fireworks work (perhaps one of the reasons it is less often heard), and there was absolutely nothing flashy about Little’s playing, just a submergence in the music: Szymanowski came first.

The ESO, under a conductor who himself works in Poland, Rune Bergmann, supported her well, but were not at their best, sounding at times a little insecure in the music and the idiom. Nonetheless, I am very glad to have heard Tasmin Little live, and especially in this concerto. It was an imaginative choice to bring to Edmonton, and she then delighted the audience in a showpiece Bartok encore.

The surprise in the concert was Malcolm Forsyth’s satirical The Dance from his suite Atoyoskewin (Cree for ‘Sacred Legends’). There’s quite a lot of Copland in it, and a little bit of Bernstein, but if it does have derivative elements, it is tremendous fun in its own right, with whirling-dervish woodwind writing, lots of drumming and other percussion, real drive, and sometimes a whooping bass. It is very effectively crafted, and the ESO made the most of it – a suitable prelude to the Szymanowski, especially as it has it own nod to country fiddling.

The concert ended with Beethoven. Bergmann’s interpretation of the Symphony No.2 is  bit like the conductor: genial and jovial, with some quite slow tempi, attractive and playing down any dramatic elements. Again, the orchestra were not quite as refined as they have been in some recent concerts. There were much more effective in Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusina Overture, Op.32, which opened the whole concert, and it was good to hear the work, with its delicate scoring, and lovely sinuous Rheingold-ish river music.  But I suspect it was Tasmin Little we had all come for, and the audience were not disappointed.