A Sonic Celebration
Civic Orchestra of Victoria
Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra
Victoria Chamber Orchestra
Yariv Aloni, George Corwin, Norman Nelson: conductors
University Centre Auditorium
April 17, 2010
By Deryk Barker
“When you play music, when you are a musician, you have to realise that the great high of playing a wonderful piece with a full orchestra is temporary and so make the most of it at the time.”
I imagine that the members of the three orchestras who joined forces for Saturday evening’s “Sonic Celebration” would have agreed one hundred per cent with pianist, composer and conductor Lyle “Skitch” Henderson.
The sound of the Romantic orchestra in full flight is a glorious one but unfortunately, except for those within easy reach of a major city orchestra, is one which today can be enjoyed only in the form of recordings.
Which, as any member of Saturday’s audience could testify, is not the same thing at all.
Having followed all three orchestras for over a decade now, I was delighted when I first learnt of this project; it was an idea whose time had clearly come.
And yet, even with the high regard in which I have come to hold these musicians and their indefatigable conductors, I was still somewhat surprised at just how good they sounded together.
Yariv Aloni was first onto the podium and directed a beautifully paced and shaped performance of Tchaikovsky’s “fantasy overture” Romeo and Juliet – although, as Gordon Macpherson pointed out in his excellent programme notes, it is really a symphonic poem by any other name.
From the opening notes it was obvious that we were in for a sonic treat, with well-balanced (and well-tuned!) winds, a string sound that had both depth and weight, and powerful yet never strident brass – alas, I cannot tell who was the principal trumpet in this piece (either Dawn Hage or Julia Wakal) but whoever it was was absolutely stunning in the blazing climax.
Accustomed as we are to hearing Aloni conduct works on a smaller acoustic scale than this, it was wonderful (but no surprise) to hear his take on one of the archetypical popular romantic works. It was a full-blooded, no-holds-barred performance, a performance to remind one just why this music is so popular.
Moreover, despite the work’s enduring familiarity, Aloni still managed to convey details of the scoring which I had never noticed before – always, to my mind, a good sign.
The evening’s second work, Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.5, the “Egyptian” featured the Civic Orchestra alone – except, obviously for conductor and soloist.
Cary Chow was a sparkling soloist and George Corwin directed an accompaniment which matched him perfectly.
This is lighter music – in most senses – than the Tchaikovsky and the Civic provided appropriately airier textures while Chow weaved his delicate traceries around them.
The cod-orientalism of the slow movement was most appealing and here the orchestral sound was lush and exotic by turns. The finale was lively and often thrilling, with Chow’s hands a mere blur at the close.
I must confess that my enjoyment of Saint-Saëns’s music tends to be limited to the third (“organ”) symphony, the Carnaval of the Animals and some of the chamber works. The piano concertos are mostly (like the HST a year ago) not even on the radar.
Which made Saturday’s performance something of a revelation.
Finally a work which comprised one side of the very first classical LP I ever bought – more years ago than I care to contemplate – Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, in which the once-again combined forces were directed by Norman Nelson, who himself first performed the work under the legendary Sir Adrian Boult.
This was the work which made Elgar’s name and this was a performance to make the listener understand just why, from its carefully and affectionately shaped opening to the grandeur and nobility of the closing pages.
It is difficult, from such a fine performance, to single out highlights, nevertheless a few moments cannot be overlooked: the delicate winds of variation three, “R.B.T.”; the vigour of variation seven, “Troyte”, with excellent brass; the spinetingling beauty and emotional pull of variation nine, “Nimrod”, perhaps the most moving “testament of friendship” in all of music; Janette Chrysler’s fine solo cello in the variation twelve, “B.G.N”.
The final variation, “E.D.U.”, a self-portrait, brought the evening to a tumultuous close, its sweep and magnificent sound swelled and underpinned by the organ – I cannot tell you how pleased I was to see “Organ: Tony Booker” in the programme: the instrument may not be especially audible, but its presence is most definitely felt.
I have heard numerous “Enigmas” since I came to Victoria, but none to top this. Sir Adrian would, I think, have been impressed.
Although there were occasional infelicities, mistunings and less-than-perfect ensemble during the evening, they did nothing to detract from its success. At its best, which was most of the time, the combined orchestra provided a sound which Tchaikovsky and Elgar would certainly have expected; and, with no disrepect intended, an orchestra of fifty or so simply cannot produce the same fullness of tone as one of over one hundred and twenty – including eighty-five strings – can.
This event was surely intended as a one-off, but I, for one, would hope that even if logistics prevented its becoming an annual event, this will not be the last time.
Indeed, as one member of the orchestra and I discussed afterwards, there really should be another such concert in a year’s time, to include music by a composer who was born 150 years ago (July 7, 1860), died a century ago next year (May 18, 1911) and who wrote for huge forces – his name begins with “M” by the way.
But whether this is ever repeated or not, it was a wonderfully memorable occasion and one for which every single person on the stage can congratulate themselves.