Sunday, 1 April 2012

ESO introduces its new composer

The Edmonton Symphony program Saturday night drew a crowd that belied the notion that classical music is foundering on the rock of the aged. I've never seen so many people under 40 at an ESO concert. (Maybe I haven't gone to enough of them recently.) And what the full Winspear Centre, including about a quarter of the choir loft, heard was a little bit of new music untinged by notions that phrase "new music" often conjures, and a couple of chestnuts played engagingly under the direction of guest conductor Julian Kuerti, who was making his debut with the orchestra. His father, Anton, has played in Edmonton numerous times, and is a true friend of ESO. Julian will be invited back based on the leadership he gave the band his first time out.
After a seven-year hiatus since Allan Gilliland left, the ESO has a composer-in-residence again, and Robert Rival's first ESO commission, Achilles & Scamander, received its world premiere Saturday. Inspired by a scene in Homer's military epic The Illiad, Rival wrote an eight-minute programmatic work not surprisingly brimming with loads of brass and percussion. Rival has been praised for his taste for harmony that average listeners relate to, for his 'accessible' writing, and we got a work Saturday that inevitably explored aggressive ideas implicit in a war story, but his language isn't aggressive like some contemporary composers' medium. The audience seemed to like it.
The piece suggested John Williams' Star Wars music and Bernstein's Broadway sensibility in small ways, and I'm sure I heard a hint of music that sets up Wile E. Coyote getting flattened by a steamroller. What Rival doesn't do is stay on a allusiion so long that any of his possible influences sound derivative. Star Wars is an epic of its time, so why not borrow a little of contemporary musical epic flavour?
The scene Rival depicts involves Achilles as warmongering juggernaut, and Rival has a clear notion of how to convey juggernaut sonically. Full marks to timpanist Barry Nemish and the whole back row of brass players. In the several moments of lull in the martial frenzy, the bassoon, flute and harp gave moments of emotional relief nicely.
The ESO's past composers-in-residence have had an ear for music that doesn't attack the listener. Rival succeeds them in the spirit of music making that the Edmonton Symphony audiences have always appreciated. Make him work.
The feature artist, after Rival, of course, was cellist Shaun Rolston performing Dvořák's Cello Concerto. I was expecting Rolston to play her carbon fibre cello, but she came to blend and chose the wooden instrument like all the other string players played. Dvořák's concerto is not a battleground where orchestra and soloist compete for supremacy, and the ESO and Rolston demonstrated that collegial feature of the work powerfully and sensitively by turns.
The second movement in particular gives primacy to several wind and brass instruments (the short horn trio was pure and impeccable), and those exposed passages the ESO principals shone in their collaboration with Rolston. In fact, the whole night I heard no insecurity in places where soloistic matters could go awry.
The tempo of the second movement was exceptionally slow, but the choice worked to highlight Dvořák's unostentatious treatment of the concerto form.
The second half featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. It's in large, dramatic symphonic works that the ESO's size affects its effect. In fact, without the harp behind the violas, there was a gaping empty space that gave an unbalanced appearance to the ensemble, visually if not sonically: density (in a small way) to the left, sparce forces to the right.
Kuerti conducts without ostentation. There are sections of turmoil, especially in the final movement of No. 6,, and the conductor engaged the players with physical intensity without drawing the eye to himself.
The orchestra is a little more than a month away from its trip to Carnegie Hall. It's sounding like this concert, like the rest of the month's programming, was a dry run for the moment of international exposure on the horizon. Things are sounding good.

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