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.
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!
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.