Postscript to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Schoenberg in Borden Park

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
(for full details, see previous post)

Schoenberg conducted by Alexander Prior

Borden Park, Edmonton
Sunday August 30

On a very blustery day, the trees tossing everywhere, adding their own whooshing sounds, I did indeed return to Borden park on Sunday afternoon to hear the repeat of the concert I reviewed on the Thursday.

Fascinating it was, too, because by Sunday the players had three performances of the Chamber Symphony No.2 under their belt, and I was interested to hear how they had progressed (if at all!) with such difficult music.

I had enjoyed the Thursday performance, but this one was notably more assured. The players were less hesitant at the beginning, and seemed to have a more instinctive understanding of their instrument’s roles in the overall architecture. Indeed, the overall sound was more concerted, less fragmented.

Two main strengths emerged from this. First, the many instrumental solos (highlightings might be a better way of putting it) came across with considerably more assurance and idiomatic expression. Secondly, those lyrical aspects of the work that I wrote about in my original review were much more prominent here.

This was a fine performance, with some fine individual playing – I am glad I heard both, but it will be the sounds of the Sunday performance that will linger with me.

The Rossini, too, benefitted from performance familiarity, if not to the same extent as the Schoenberg. There was yet more sense of delight and fun in playing the youthful work. Just great for a windy late summer’s day.

Once again, kudos to everyone involved for getting us back to live orchestral – albeit small orchestral! – concerts with an audience, and for having the sense and courage to program the Schoenberg.

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.

Jeremy Spurgeon organ recital

Francis Jackson (b. 1917): Fanfare “Royale” (1956)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):
Fantasia in G major, BWV 572
Meine Seele erhebt den Herren, BWV 648
Fuga sopra il Magnificat, BWV 733
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582
Louis Vierne: Carillon de Longpont Op. 31 No. 21
Olivier Messiaen: “Les mages” from La Nativité du Seigneur
Louis Vierne: Berceuse Op. 31 No. 19
César Franck: Choral No. 3 in A minor
Igor Stravinsky, arranged Maurice Besly: Berceuse and Finale from The Firebird

Davis Concert Organ, Winspear
Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Jeremy Spurgeon is one of the mainstays of Edmonton’s classical music scene, whether hidden among the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, playing the piano or celeste or the organ, or as accompanist to solo recitals, or, of course, as the music director at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, a post he has held since 1980 – so he is now celebrating his 40th anniversary there.

He’s hardly been heard, though, in a solo recital, so his concert on the Winspear’s Davis organ on February 12, 2020, was a major event, put on by the Edmonton Recital Society, and very well attended. It was also beautifully presented, with atmospheric, colourful, and yet discrete lighting giving a sense of intimacy, of the performer playing for each individual member of the audience, in the giant space of the hall, backed by the magnificent cliff of pipes that is the Davis organ.

Two of his major teachers were Lionel Rogg, the famed Bach interpreter, and Gillian Weir, perhaps the finest of all the Messiaen organists, so it was hardly surprising that the first half should be largely devoted to Bach, and the second to Messiaen and his French precursors, Vierne and César Franck.

For Mark Morris’ full review of the recital in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Opera: The Marriage of Figaro

Simon Chalifoux (Figaro) and Caitlin Wood (Susanna)
photo Nanc Price

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Figaro: Simon Chalifoux
Susanna: Caitlin Wood
Count: Phillip Addis
Countess: Lara Ciekiewicz
Cherubino: Stephanie Tritchew

Director: Rachel Peake
Conductor: Peter Dala
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Saturday February 1, 2020

For Mark Morris’ review of Edmonton Opera’s new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Tracy Dahl recital

Tracy Dahl (soprano)
Shannon Hiebert (piano)

Muttart Hall
Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tracy Dahl brought an entertaining recital of songs about flowers and the seasons – and thus about love – to the Muttart Hall on Sunday January 26. For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Adams, Nicole Lizée, and Elgar

Slick Sunset
photo by Louis Helbig from his series Beautiful Destruction
Muskeg River Mine, Fort McKay, Alberta

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Adams: Grand Pianola Music
Nicole Lizée: La terre a des maux
Elgar: Variations on an Original Theme Op.36 (Enigma Variations)

Samian (rapper)
Lisa Dolinsky, Rachel Majorowicz, Jennifer McMillan (singers)
Michael Massey and Jeremy Spurgeon (pianos)

Conducted by Alexander Prior

Dreams of Steinway pianos hurtling down Interstate Route 5, visions of the earth crying out in pain, and affectionate portraits of a composer’s friends – this was the unexpected mix in one of conductor Alexander Prior and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s most successful recent concerts, in the Winspear on Friday (November 29, repeated on Saturday November 30) .

It confirmed the great strides the orchestra has made. It confirmed that, yes, Edmonton audiences can take modern music alongside the old. And it confirmed that if you program imaginative contemporary works, you get a really healthy mix of younger generations in and among the regular audience of older patrons. It’s concerts like these that get new listeners coming to live classical music.

It opened with one of John Adams’ most powerful works, the 1981 Grand Pianola Music, inspired by a dream of seeing two limousines morph into two Steinway pianos on Interstate 5, which runs all the way up the US West Coast to the Canadian border. The ESO’s Assistant Principal double-bass, Maximilian Mauricio-Cardilli, introduced the work, and one could see his point when he said the music was like driving through the Rockies.

Indeed, there is something about the piece and the way it unfurls that recalls those road-trip poems of the West Coast beat poets, but even more – for all its minimalist modernism – there is something of the heritage of Ives about it. It’s there in some of the textures, in the way Adams utilizes popular elements just as Ives did, but in a contemporary context. The use of the three singers, like back-up singers in a soul group, makes such a link, as does the grand tune that seems so familiar (but is original) that emerges in Part II.

Adams is one of Prior’s favourite composers, and his approach to the piece was typical of his conducting style and concerns: an emphasis on coaxing very clear textures from the orchestra (this is one of his great strengths, and was evident throughout the concert), and a thoughtful and considered unfolding of the structure of the piece.

The very measured control of the opening extended crescendo exemplified this, and the whole of part one was notable for its detail of colour: the slow section of Part One really benefited, and was mesmerizingly beautiful and moving.

The downside was that ‘grand’ of the title became slightly subdued – this was a more nuanced interpretation than, say, Adams’ own more robust approach in his recording. The principal reason was, I think, that the two pianos, played by Jeremy Spurgeon and Michael Massey, were simply not loud enough. Placed in the centre of the orchestra, with no lids to direct the sound, they too often got lost, and so the sense of the music being built around them got lost, too.

I don’t want to exaggerate this – this was a performance that clearly deeply affected the audience, and one where Prior’s interpretation decisions were fully justified. However, the flaw in the performance of the work that followed, La terre a des maux (‘The Earth has Evils’), by the Canadian composer Nicole Lizée, was more serious.

A major component of the work is a rap performance by the Algonquin-Québecois rapper Samian, with words in Algonquin and French. Unfortunately, there were not only no texts, but absolutely nothing in the program to inform the audience what those words were about. Samian himself asked the audience how many spoke French: it was a decided minority, and it was unlikely that anyone spoke Algonquin.

Prior then asked Samian what the work was about, but all we got is that the text was about the earth talking to us, and was divided into four sections, earth, fire, wind, and water. That was simply not enough for a 31 minute spoken word rap, and the fact that much of the audience had no idea what was going on was a huge and unnecessary failing in this performance.

Lizée’s own otherwise interesting and informative program note didn’t help, for, apart from the general idea of a broken environment, there seemed to be no connection to the little that Samian had given us in his on-stage introduction.

Nicole Lizée with AKAI 4000DS MkII reel-to-reel tape recorder
photo Canadian Music Centre

From what I can piece together – and I cannot find any version of the text, in the original languages, or otherwise – Lizée wrote the music first. That music is inspired by the idea of vinyl LP turntables, and all the mixture of additive sounds vinyl sometimes produce in and among the music being played- hiss and pops and cracks, variations in pitch from a warped record, and so on. At the same time, she sees the turntable as, one suspects, a kind of noble machine, whose wanton destruction when the LP age came to an end is emblematic of the earth in a kind of mechanical trouble, “broken and malfunctioning”.

Samian then added the words, using a structure of the four elements. He has had this to say about his approach, in an interview with La Presse:

“The human being is at once the most intelligent and the most devastating beast on earth. This ferocious beast forgets how much it depends on the elements that make up its habitat. If these elements could speak, they might tell him what I wrote through these four different themes. “

The extraordinary thing about this work – and this performance – is that, although there was no way we could get the full impact without some knowledge of what was being rapped, it confirmed that in Nicole Lizée Canada has a composer of prodigious abilities and a completely distinctive voice. Indeed, if she imagined her music as being the backtrack to Samian’s rap, exactly the opposite happened if one didn’t know the meaning of the words. The rap because a kind of percussive verbal element to back the music, especially when Samian went into the much more rhythmically musical Algonquin.

And what music it is! The textures are extraordinarily dense – indeed, much of the time it seemed as if most of the orchestra was playing – and unfurl in a succession of shorter phases of texture, if that’s the right word. It’s all held together by a constant and almost miraculous underlying sense of rhythm, or rather rhythms, all of which seemed to revolve around that sense of the turntable spinning around, in all sorts of different guises and shapes and speeds.

It might seem a world spinning in chaos, but if that surface sounds chaotic, one quickly realizes the underlying currents are far from chaos, broken though they may be, exemplified by a marvellous moment where brass sounds almost literally seem to spiral off the spinning surface.

It’s not a work that – text or no text – one can fully grasp on a single listening, and I do hope someone records it soon, so that we can not only again experience its mastery of orchestral writing, but be able to understand and unravel it more. In the meantime, I suspect that Prior – with his talent for nudging out strands and textures in the orchestra, is an ideal conductor for the work. Certainly the ESO responded magnificently, and the amount of work the percussionists in particular must have put in – they are playing very complex parts almost continuously- beggars the imagination.

Prior had heard the first performance, given by the Montreal Symphony, and was determined to bring the work to Edmonton. I am very glad both that he did, and that the management and the orchestra backed the decision to program a work by a composer so unfamiliar to Edmonton audiences, and one with the unlikely addition of orchestral rap. It’s too early to say whether the piece is indeed a masterpiece – and one would need the text – but it certainly has the elements of it.

The concert ended with Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This was another fascinating and enjoyable performance, a thoughtful, almost laid-back interpretation, sometimes ruminative, sometimes going for a chamber-like sound, that again contrasted with more robust approaches, but had its own rewards. Only perhaps in the finale did it stumble a little – Prior let it rip, but that rather contrasted with the more laid-back interpretation of what had gone before, instead of culminating it.

Prior got a very Elgarian sound from the orchestra, rich in colour and timbre (the words ‘gnarled walnut’ came to mind for the colours) and with just the right touch of nostalgia and almost regret – such an Elgar component – when needed. Some of the more Tchaikovskian moments (Dorabella, for example), could perhaps have had a little more sparkle, but Principal Cellist Rafael Hoekman’s little solos in the twelfth variation (B.G.N.) were as moving as I have ever heard them.

Highlights were the incisive seventh variation (Troyte), and a beautifully ghostly and mysterious thirteenth variation (Romanza ***). Notable, too was Nimrod, opening slow and restrained, with clear rich colours, under-emphasizing the first swelling climax, but leaving almost everything to that brief explosive moment at the end before subsiding again.

That may have had the effect of seeming very slow, but was in fact no slower than, say, Boult’s famous interpretations. It was, though, something of an alternative approach to such a famous piece, and, as seems to be happening quite often when Prior rethinks well known-works, produced its own thoughtful beauties, as did the whole performance.

All in all, words or no words, one of those concerts that one is glad to have been at.

ESO Symphony for Kids Peter and the Wolf

Painting by Andrea Mueller (

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Alan Menken: Suite from Aladdin

Paganini: variations for one string on the theme “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Rossini’s opera Mosè in Egitto

Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf

Stravinsky: ‘Infernal Dance’ from The Firebird

Jonah Hansen (cello)
Bridget Ryan (narrator)
conducted by Cosette Justo Valdés

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Winspear was packed to the rafters with kids and adults for Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s series Symphony for Kids on Saturday afternoon.

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Richard Eaton Singers: Ein deutsches Requiem

The Richard Eaton Singers

Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, Op. 45

Leslie Ann Bradley (soprano)
Geoffrey Sirett
Richard Eaton Singers
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Leonard Ratzlaff

Sunday November 10, 2019

For Mark Morris’ review of the Richard Eaton Singers’ performance of Brahms’ masterpiece, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Mazzoli, Rachmaninov, and Shostakovich

Boris Giltburg, the soloist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4
photo by Sasha Gusov

Chief Conductor Alexander Prior celebrated his first concert of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s new season with an epic performance of an epic symphony, Shostakovich’s Symphony No.11, with the orchestra once again showing how far it has come.

It was preceded by fine performances of Missy Mazzoli’s River Rouge Transfiguration and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.4, with the ESO debut of pianist Boris Giltburg

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Zemlinsky Quartet: Janáček, Novák, and Zemlinsky




The Czech Zemlinsky Quartet returned to the Muttart Hall on Sunday October 27, for an Edmonton recital Society concert with an unexpected and most attractive highlight: Vítězslav Novák’s Piano Quintet Op.12, where the quartet were joined by a young Canadian pianist, Adam Boeker.

For Mark Morris’s full review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.