Saturday, July 11, 2015

Berlioz etc. at the Brott Festival

We made the seven-minute drive to the McIntyre Theatre at the Mohawk College Fennel Campus yesterday evening (July 10) to hear the National Academy Orchestra, under Boris Brott and apprentice conductor Janna Sailor.

The program included the incomparable Valerie Tryon playing Rachmaninoff's rarely heard First Piano Concerto and, for lovers of the standard orchestral repertoire, Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

The hall was almost full in marked contrast to their Bruckner concert which I attended three weeks ago at the Burlington Centre for the Arts. Valerie Tryon is always a big draw for Brott Festival patrons but these Hamilton concerts are generally well attended.

They opened with Jordan Pal's Burn. Pal is an established Canadian composer, the Composer-in-Residence of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and has had works played by the MontrĂ©al, NAC and Vancouver Symphonies. This piece, rather like an overture, was marked by complex rhythms, numerous motives and very busy textures. If the piece gave the impression of being overly complex, it was in the nature of the composition rather than any fault of the conductor or performers. For all that, I found the piece relatively accessible (when compared to other works of New Music for Orchestra). I must again commend Maestro Brott for his commitment to promoting Canadian composers and new music.

I didn't think I'd ever have the opportunity to hear the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto in a live performance. He wrote it when he was 18 and revised it after he'd written his Third Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff loved it and couldn't understand why it wasn't much played. On the other hand, his Second and Third Concertos, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini are standard fare for pianists who can play them.

The work displays the pianistic pyrotechnics of his later music (he even simplified the piano writing when he revised it) but the musical ideas are those of a younger genius and virtuoso. He wasn't yet writing the long, ascending lyric phrases of his mature works. One can understand why the piece isn't nearly as popular as his later concerti.

Rachmaninoff was a large man with huge hands. Many who play his piano music employ considerable physical force in the numerous forte passages. Tryon's approach is more nuanced. She can bring the big crashing chords out of the piano when she chooses to but there is delicacy in her approach to playing all those notes that sometimes surprises.

As usual in a Brott/Tryon performance, the finale brought down the house.

After the break, the orchestra played Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator and very much into effects. He calls for four bassoons (as he does in Romeo and Juliet). One doesn't hear bassoon quartets very often. There are two tubas in addition to four trumpets and the standard three trombones and five horns. The opening of the slow movement is a dialogue between two oboes, one off-stage. There are two tympanists. I was concerned that all those wind players would overpower the strings of about the same number. But such wasn't that case. Much of the orchestration is surprisingly spare and the composer skillfully balances the forces.

I must confess to never having understood the popularity of this piece with audiences. It's more like a suite than a symphony. The first and third movements seem to meander. The second movement is a waltz which at least has a more apparent form. The fourth is the famous March to the Scaffold, the finale the Witches' Sabbath including statements of the plainsong Dies Irae. Premiered in 1830, it is early Romantic Period music, much more like Beethoven than anything else that comes to mind, but not a lot like him either. Berlioz voice is utterly unique. A Frenchman writing Germanic sounding music.

Janna Sailor took the orchestra through the first two movements. The first movement is, by its nature, bitty and shapeless but she got them through it without incident. She managed the rubato phrases in the second movement very nicely.

Brott took over for the last three movements. The March was appropriately stirring, the slow movement atmospheric and the finale impressive right up to the sustained brass chord that ends the work. Kudos to all the brass players who shone last night as they had in the Bruckner.

There was some very fine clarinet playing of very high and demanding parts by Juan Olivares. The exposed oboe parts were convincingly played by Aidan Dugan and Olivier Cowley.

There are lots more concerts in the Brott Festival program this year including popular ones and opera. Here's the link. The remaining purely orchestral concert is on July 30 and includes John Williams's Suite from Schindler's List, selections from Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Ginastera's Estancia, the Dancon Suite No. 2 and a movement from Alexander Brott's From Sea to Sea.

They finish up on August 13 with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Orff's Carmina Burana.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I am a musician who shares his experiences and conversations through writing. I make no pretence of following professional journalistic standards of practice.

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