Sunday, February 16, 2014

Luminescence Concert at the HPO

Last night marked Maestro James Sommerville's last concert as the Principal Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. So far as I know he has had a very good relationship with the players of the orchestra and, if last night's prolonged applause at the concert's end is any indication, he is adored by concert goers. He will return as a guest conductor next season. He has also championed new music through the What Next Festival which will apparently be held in mid-May.

They began with the Symphony in D Major by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges presented, one must presume, in honour of Black History Month. He's a fascinating character, a champion fencer, violin virtuoso, conductor and colonel in the Legion-St. Georges fighting against Louis XV during the revolution. He was one of numerous composers writing in the International Style which was most most effectively employed by Mozart whom Saint-Georges may well have met in Paris.

I remembered, as the first movement began, learning about Sonata Form as a teenager because the music followed the formula clearly. That's not to say the music isn't charming and elegant but that it reminds me of the numerous early Haydn symphonies for similar forces (i.e. strings, and pairs of horns and oboes); very nice but not too deep.

They followed this with the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb Major by the aforementioned Mozart. The soloists were Leslie Newman, Flute, Graham Mackenzie, Oboe, Eric Hall, Bassoon and Ken Macdonald, Horn. All but Mackenzie are regulars in the orchestra. He is Principal in the Windsor and Niagara Symphonies and has freelanced with the HPO.

The piece was lost and rediscovered, rearranged for clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon by another hand, in the 1860s. Scholar Robert Levin "reconstructed' the piece, restoring the flute solo and rebuilding stretches of the orchestration which he thought questionable. This is the version which was performed last night.

It's a delightful piece and not at all like a classical concerto grosso, although the soloists do play without the orchestra some of the time. It is more like a piano concerto with the solo parts arranged for four winds, who are each given virtuosos turns and there is plenty of contrapuntal trading-off of phrases. It was entertaining to listen to the bassoon play parts which were every bit as intricate as those played by the flute. I thought I wouldn't have particularly wanted to be the horn player blowing this demanding part only a few feet from the principal horn of the Boston Symphony! All of the soloists were very impressive, reminding me of what skill and talent is found within the ranks of the players of this professional group.

After the break they played Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante Défunte. It must be, after the Bolero, his best known orchestral work. It is truly transcendent music. It seems timeless in the sense that time seems to stand still as the piece is played. The tempo is slow, but steady as a piece for dancing must be, yet it slows and stops, then starts again, and the movement doesn't stop, it is merely suspended. The strings sound was wonderful and Ken Macdonald shone again in the horn solos.

We were reminded, in Craig Coolin's excellent notes in the program, of Ravel's own words: "It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velasquez at the Spanish court."

Las Meninas

They finished with Francis Poulenc's Sinfonietta. It's a four movement symphony full of the peculiar stylistic traits that occur throughout his music like short enigmatic phrases, unique modernist harmonies and occasional stretches of surprisingly romantic music. The orchestra gave a precise and detailed reading of this complex and varied work. In particular, there was some beautifully nuanced playing from Principal Trumpet Michael Fedyshyn.

There was a good crowd for this concert although the Great Hall was hardly sold out. I encourage Hamiltonians to get out and support this first rate orchestra and keep it in the black.

Many try to consume local food and I hope you also consume, at least some, local culture. After spending more than two hours in the car and paying more than $20 for parking earlier in the week in order to see Un Ballo in Maschera in Toronto, last night I parked for free and was in the car for little more than 20 minutes all told and I don't live downtown!

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