Monday, April 22, 2013

HPO Fiesta Concert in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place

I was still buzzing the morning after hearing the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, under Maestro Jamie Sommerville in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place last night, Saturday, April 20.

It's been along time since we attended a full orchestra HPO concert. I'm not interested in Pops concerts or concerts that include 19th Century warhorses. But I'm not a typical concert goer. One can't fault the HPO or Sommerville for programming as they do. They have to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to put bums in the seats.

This concert was all 20th and 21st Century music by New World Composers. The older pieces are acknowledged masterpieces, a couple with which I am very familiar. The new pieces included a World Première and two modern orchestral showpieces.

They opened with Bernstein's Overture to Candide. The orchestration has undergone many editions but this must have been the 1982 "opera house" version for this 60 piece orchestra. Each time I hear it I am reminded of what an accomplished composer and brilliant orchestrator Bernstein was.

Leonard Bernstein

The performance was virtuosic. The woodwind playing throughout the concert was spectacular. In this piece, principal flute Leslie Newman deserves special mention. The Great Hall has wonderful acoustics for live unamplified music. There's a huge wooden curtain that is dropped behind the orchestra, in front of the stage, so the audience is in the same room as the players, as it should be. It's a shame Opera Hamilton can't afford to use this theatre because the acoustics for opera are excellent as well.

Great Hall of Hamilton Place

Sommerville requested a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon explosions (he's also principal horn of the Boston Symphony)  before beginning the next piece on the program. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to experience the moment, surrounded by 1500 very quiet people. He'd commenced conducting the almost inaudible opening measures of the suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring without my knowing it. The effect was magical. It's a long time since I've heard this piece and I'd forgotten, frankly,  how much more there is to it than Simple Gifts. Thank you, Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland

Michael Torke's Javelin came next. It was commissioned for an album of music celebrating the Atlanta Olympic Games. The composer weaves elements of jazz and popular music into a complex texture. The simultaneities (i.e the harmonies) of the piece at any given point are no more challenging to the listener than those in any piece of later tonal orchestral music (eg. Richard Strauss), but the music is not organized like earlier music. Themes are launched and followed by music which doesn't develop as one expects. I'd listened to a recording of this piece recently and really enjoyed it, but it was nothing to compared to this performance by this really good live orchestra.

Michael Torke

The second half opened with the familiar music of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. Clarinettist Stephen Pierre played the jazzy opening glissando nicely and followed it with a lot more exaggerated articulations. I'd never heard done quite this way, so I checked out the Whiteman 1930 recording and this is the way that clarinet solo was played then, with Gershwin at the piano. Brilliant.

Canadian Pianist Lucille Chung played the piano solo. She's a very fine player, with a fabulous bio. I found her demeanour overly dramatic and animated. It certainly didn't make her play any less well.

The Rhapsody in Blue is a pretty hard act to follow and HPO Composer in Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte got the call. She first spoke at length about her three movement piece, City Syntesthesia explaining the program of this piece which was inspired by images. I liked the piece a lot, as I did Downstream, her chamber orchestra piece that had been premièred a week before. The demands (and rewards) of writing for full orchestra are different than those of a chamber piece and I did enjoy the lush sound of 40 excellent string players. The piece fit well in this concert.

This composition (and the aforementioned Downstream) are programmatic works which draw on extra-musical sources (eg. stories or pictures). I question the wisdom of discussing the "program" in such detail as Ms. Richardson did before the concert, as well as in the printed notes and in a least two interviews of which I am aware. Speaking as a composer, I would hope the audience would be listening to the music for its own sake, rather than trying to identify the particular cues which the composer has used to structure the piece.

They wrapped up the concert with a spirited performance of Fiesta by Peruvian composer Jimmy López. The work was described in the program as "four pop dances" and there was certainly lots of appropriate rhythm and percussion but this was not just a latter day Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This piece, like Javelin, belongs within the mainstream of contemporary orchestral writing and employed the technique and sound of New Music.

Jimmy López

What a great concert! I'll be watching for the HPO to announce their 2013-2014 season. If there are more imaginative programs like this one, I'll be there.

For those of you with some time, here areYouTube performances of Javelin and Fiesta.

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