Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton
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.