Rossini and Schoenberg: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra plays with an audience and their conductor after the long shut-down

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition, VII, 1913. The State Tretyakov Gallery

Rossini: String Sonata No.2 in A major, arranged for wind and strings
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9

members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Ewald Cheung – Violin 1
Aiyana Anderson – Violin 2
Rhonda Henshaw – Viola
Meran Currie-Roberts – Cello
Doug Ohashi – Double-Bass
Stephanie Morin – Flute
June Kim English – Oboe
Daniel Waldron – Horn
Dan Sutherland – E flat Clarinet
Julianne Scott – B flat Clarinet
David Quinn – Bass Clarinet
Bianca Chambul – Bassoon
Edie Stacey – Contrabassoon
Allene Hackleman – Horn 1
Megan Evans – Horn 2

Schoenberg conducted by Alexander Prior

Borden Park, Edmonton
Thursday, August 27, 2020
concert repeated Friday August 28, Saturday August 29, and Sunday August 30

The end of August has traditionally been the start of the Edmonton’s classical concert season, set in motion by Symphony under Sky, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s long weekend outdoor series of concerts in Hawrelak Park.

Covid-19 has, of course, put paid to that, and we are not much closer to a regular concert season yet. But members of the ESO have been remarkably active during the long shut down, individual instrumentalists in twos and threes playing chamber music by invitation at people’s homes, and raising money for the orchestra and its members – a brilliant system that has seen over 150 back yard concerts, that has kept musicians playing, and has so far raised over $100,000.

EESO playing in Borden amphitheatre
The ESO playing at the Borden amphitheatre. Photo: Konstantine Kurelias

And then on Thursday, August 27, the orchestra took a major step towards returning to playing as a larger group, live in front of an audience. The event took place in a venue that will be unfamiliar to many – one of Edmonton’s best-kept secrets, Borden Park.

At its centre is a performance area, with a sloping grass amphitheatre for the audience, and for the performers a concrete stage backed by small version of the Hollywood Bowl’s reflective quarter-sphere. The total numbers, audience and musicians, were limited to a total of 200 by Covid regulations. That audience, armed with a plethora of different lawn and garden chairs, wore masks and kept social distancing – there was even a ESO helper measuring out where needed. It is a real find as an outdoor venue.

The event was really well organized by horn-player Megan Evans. There was a potential hiccup when she was told wind players wouldn’t be allowed to perform, but kudos to Evans and the health authorities for arranging their performance as long as they were socially distanced from each other. And the main work, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, with its 15 players, had been chosen in part to allow that spacing and still have the feel of a large ensemble.

The geese of Hawrelak Park may have been missing, but a chickadee or two, and a squirrel chuck-chucking away when the Schoenberg started, made up for that.

You could feel the sense of pleasure and excitement that the event was happening. “How wonderful is it that we are at a real live concert?” asked Meran Currie-Roberts, cellist with the ESO and organizer of so many of those back-yard events over the summer. “We’ve craved the energy of you, the audience, at a real live concert.” That cuts both ways.

The concert also saw the return of the ebullient Chief Conductor of the ESO, Alexander Prior, replete in a face shield – his first conducting since the lockdown started. Most of the players were younger members of the ESO – part of the idea was to give them the chance to shine – and one of them, June Kim English, was playing her very first concert as the ESO’s new oboist.

The concert opened with the second of Rossini’s six string sonatas, all composed when he was twelve, and (so he claimed) in the space of three days. In its original form the Sonata No.2 in A major is for the rather unusual combination of two violins, cello, and double bass. It is often heard in an arrangement for wind, but here it was a hybrid – flute, bassoon, violin, and double bass.

Very effective the combination was, too, with a summer feel to it, suiting the very clear and gratifying acoustics of the venue. The instrumental combination also suggested the opera composer who was to come. The opening movement definitely had an operatic feel, especially with Stephanie Morin’s flute sounding almost like a bel canto vocal line. The second movement has a dark drama, operatic again in those repeated violin notes from violinist Ewald Cheung, and in the darker colours of the bassoon (Bianca Chambul) and double-bass (Doug Ohashi). The final movement has a Mozartian lightness to it – music for pure enjoyment, and of remarkable precocity.

It was a bold stroke to program Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1, written in 1906, and one of the seminal pieces of the early 20th century. It was one of the works in the famous 1913 “Scandal Concert”, where the audience rioted in reaction to the music of the Second Viennese School.

It was also a very apposite piece for our times. For it marks the final culmination of the Romantic era, where all the main concepts and techniques of that era are, in this piece, being torn apart, fragments of ideas spinning away, being truncated, connections apparently lost. Part of that unease comes less from any harmonic uncertainty, than a lyrical uncertainty, a lack of any obvious potential path of construction.

But we know we are at the end of that Romantic period, because (for example, at figs. 21 and 79 in the score) the kind of Romantic yearning lyricism that Schoenberg had mastered in Verkarlte Nacht insists on emerging through.

Yet in all that apparent chaotic fragmentation there is very much a scaffolding, a construction, perhaps clearer when listened to with the score, but still vaguely discernable without. It is in five sections (and overall in sonata form), and part of its lyrical uncertainty comes from a repeated use of fourths.

If it one of those works that is a bit baffling when first encountered (the Five Pieces for Orchestra, for example, are much easier listening, even though they are more harmonically daring), it is also one of those works that, however baffled you may have been, continues to resonate in the inner ear long after you have heard it, to powerful effect.

It is that sense of being at the end of an era, of being faced with familiar things falling apart, apparently chaotically, of indeed being baffled and apprehensive, that makes it, surely, such an appropriate musical equivalent of our own times. And those structural underpinnings, even if not immediately obvious, are surely those very things that will take us to a new and different worlds, just as they did musically in the early 20th century.

This performance started a little hesitantly, as well it might. It is extremely difficult to play, especially when the players have to keep such distances from each other. Indeed, the one disadvantage of this performance was that required physical distancing, stretching the players right across the stage. The result, especially in the opening section, was that the fragmentation was all the more marked – one can see why in the 1912 edition Schoenberg put a seating plan designed to keep the sound in a block, to provide acoustically an overall cohesion to all those fragments.

The players, though, soon settled in to the occasion, with some fine playing, especially from the two horns, who have such difficult passage work right to the very end. Now the setting came into its own, the acoustics helping the clarity, the setting sun lowering into the west behind the players, the pastoral surroundings dissipating too much angst. The idea of a riot was quite impossible.

I am so glad the ESO decided to program the Schoenberg, and congratulations to the mainly young players for taking it on. With such difficult music, repeat performances will inevitably get tighter and tighter, and I for one am going to try to get back and hear it again on Sunday.

We will all miss Symphony Under the Sky, but this was a happy and thoughtful way to end the summer, magical in its own way, and ushering in, we hope, the gradual return of concerts in front of a live audience.

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