Bill RankinThe Edmonton Symphony was in its element Saturday night in a program that the group's Francophile conductor Bill Eddins was clearly happy to direct.
The arc of the evening moved from deeply pleasurable, lyrical music, orchestral luxuriance focusing on conventional notions of musical beauty.
Ravel figured prominently in this concert, and the Ravel we got first is a friendly Ravel, full of musical ideas dedicated to melody and harmonic sweetness. The orchestra delivered all the Mother Goose Suite's charms; each tableau made its own lovely impression, but the final one, Le jardin féerique, was indeed enchanting.
Some of the music later in the program invites the concert hall standing ovation; this group of tableaux, when played as sensitively as the ESO played it Saturday, likely left listeners in spellbound reverie.
The suite was followed by Jean Françaix's Piano Concertino. Françaix has written music more challenging than the Concertino, but programming it after the enchanting Mother Goose Suite woke the audience from any dream it might have been in; the new mood was mood was still positive but more
The night's soloist was Christopher O'Riley, one of the world's most eclectic keyboardist. (Check out his collaboration with cellist Matt Haimovitz Shuffle, Play, Listen, which covers a spectrum of musical sensibilities that shows how classically trained musicians can play just about any kind of music and some, like O'Riley, do convincingly.)
The Françaix has a spirit that really suggests generous musical concord between soloist and orchestra, and the musical partners made friendly music delightfully.
| Photo by Wendy Lynch|
The opening movement begins darkly but not ominously, with the basses exploring their lower range in a tentative, neutral mood. Whatever allusions to the insanity of war may be in this concerto are on the horizon and not yet evoked.
The work is seamless; it doesn't have the typical three-movement divisions, giving the soloist and the orchestra an certain advantage in shaping the emotional frame of the music as a single developed statement.
The one-handed pianist may have an obvious physical impediment, but O'Riley made clear that feelings of defiance and even militaristic gestures in the late part of the piece aren't out of reach. Ravel gave the disadvantaged pianist opportunity to take out frustrations with emphatically pounding force, and he kindly left the pianist alone for most of his one-handed musical leadership, which O'Riley displayed exuberantly. The orchestra, for its part, delivered that edge and martial momentum that give the piece its symphonic stature.
O'Riley established his reputation as more than just another hot-shot concert hall soloist in the early eighties. I heard him play and hour and a half of his Radiohead piano arrangements in Royce Hall at UCLA in 2004, I think it was. He played it like a man on a mission. As an encore on Saturday, O'Riley played Radiohead's "You", giving the audience a taste of one other place he is musically.
It was O'Riley's first performance with ESO, and it was a great success.
In the second half, the orchestra played Sibelius's second symphony. The last time they played it, the guest conductor was the ESO's first music director, Brian Priestman. He could barely stand at the time, and directed it from a stool. Eddins had no such constraint.
This symphony has a through-composed aspect to it, revisiting repeatedly a theme introduced in the ebb-and-flow opening movement that begins with a kind of groping energy looking for a firmer musical footing.The symphony does finally find that footing and rises to a triumphal finale that Eddins and company delivered triumphally.
The audience clearly appreciated the big symphonic gesture that completed a very intelligently designed program that began in the world of idyllic dreaming and ended with an orchestral chestnut that screams confidence and strength.