Saturday, 23 February 2013

Water music, near and far

   The Edmonton Symphony performed an eclectic program Friday evening, including a new 25-minute piece by its composer-in-residence Robert Rival entitled Symphony No. 2 "Water". They'll repeat the program Saturday night.
    The orchestra opened with Britten's Four Sea Interludes, collected from the composer's opera Peter Grimes. The small orchestra does "Moonlight" and "Dawn" with refinement and sensitivity, and "Sunday Morning" had the requisite urgency; the brass, woodwinds and timpani conjured the Storm effects, but the strings are always at a disadvantage when the music wants to make a grander, even menacing impression.
   Besides the world premiere of the Rival, the stars of the evening were a couple of violinists from Victoria, Nikki Chooi and his younger brother Timothy. Each had his moment to show off his virtuosity, Timothy with Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Nikki with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, but in the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor that followed the Britten, the young musicians displayed a taut, engaging talent for strong ensemble playing. The piece has no true primo and secundo violin structure. The two violinists and the orchestra in the two outer movements, especially, make music as an ensemble, and they made music with a real sense of together, under the direction of ESO music director Bill Eddins.
   In the slow middle movement the brothers showed they're more than pyrotechnicians, something they definitely demonstrated in the Saint-Saëns and the Saraste.
   Nikki plays a Stradivarius and Timothy a Del Gesu, borrowed from the Canada Council instrument bank, and in the slow movement of the Bach, the audience was treated to violin sound of the highest order. In an after-concert interview, Nikki characterized his instrument as the brighter-sounding, the more delicate of the two, but in the Bach, the effect was undifferentiated sweetness and light.
Robert Rival
   Rival's second symphony is vividly programmatic. The first movement shifts interestingly through a variety of moods; the notion of structure is secondary to the musical ideas that lead the piece to its quiet fade away. In between, Rival creates brief moments of stormy emotion, gentle passages of unanxious longing and short periods of dark, harsher brass and woodwind writing. None of the transitions feel forced; his strength is musical narrative.
The first and third movements also feature snippets of folk themes, the last one in a distinctly Celtic vein.
   The Second Movement suggested to me the caves of ice in Coleridge's Kubla Khan, casting a cool, remote glare on the world. In the middle of the movement Rival has written a small string quartet section where the rest of the orchestra withdraws into the background, mostly in silence. The overall mood of the movement is a blend of prayfulness and gratitude, perhaps. It finishes with subdued viola writing, subdued but not sad.
   The last movement is full of cheerful energy, a pastoral, a dancing day. The harp and horn figure prominently. Muted trumpet and snare together create an optimistic feel, and the echoic effects buzzing about the orchestra conjure images of happy, unself-conscious nature. Short stentorian brass and agitated strings episodes never really presage a descent into anything truly wild and dangerous. Overall, the water theme of the symphony never touches the monstrous aspects of the liquid medium. The last movement finishes with a kind of fanfare for a symphonic conclusion, upbeat and emphatically symphonic.
   Rival is a contemporary composer, in a line of other ESO composers-in-residence like Allan Gilliland and John Estacio, who resist antagonizing experiments in untested musical theories, preferring styles that audiences like to listen to, not music that imposes its experimental aesthetics on them.
   The audience on Friday saluted Rival for his considerate musical inclinations. Throughout the evening, the audience had no qualms about applauding individual movements, a healthy sign that classical music concerts can be occasions for spontaneous expressions of appreciation.  

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