Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alexandre Da Costa at the Brott Festival

We went last night (Thurs. July 20) to hear the National Academy Orchestra under Maestro Boris Brott, with violinist Alexandre Da Costa, at the McIntyre Performance Arts Centre at Mohawk College. I was there specifically to hear Debussy’s La Mer, which I only knew from an old recording, and the Rosenkavalier Waltzes which is a favourite of mine.

They opened with a big surprise for me, Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope. It’s a wonderfully varied 11 minute showpiece for orchestra. It sometimes sounds like modernist music, sometimes like film music with echos of Stravinsky. Remarkably, he wrote it when he was 20 years old and it was his first work for orchestra. If you have never heard it, it’s worth 11 minutes of your time.

It turned out the rest of the first half was violin showpieces, most of which are usually played as encores. 

Canadian composer Fréderic Chiasson is responsible for much of Da Costa’s music. He did all the orchestral arrangements for Stradivarius at the Opera, Da Costa’s album with the Vienna Philharmonic on Sony Classical. They played his Overture on a Theme of Vitali next.

I didn’t like the piece very much. It starts out with a splendid full string choir and this orchestra section does make a beautiful sound but from there the piece doesn’t develop much and is embellished with a lot of brilliant solo violin scales and arpeggios. It’s reminiscent of the many Respighi treatments of Baroque and Renaissance pieces for modern orchestra. But really, if you want to play Baroque music for solo violin and strings, I think Vivaldi wrote some.

Alexandre Da Costa

The Rosenkavlier Waltzes were not the piece I anticipated. This is a one movement presentation of the waltzes for solo violin and strings. Richard Strauss himself may have arranged it. It is interesting to hear the music played in the manner of the many 19th Century Viennese waltzes that were clearly Strauss’ inspiration, many of them composed by other guys named Strauss. After the initial shock, I really enjoyed the piece and performance. Da Costa is a tremendous violinist with a big sound and is an engaging performer. Brott led his mostly young orchestra in a nuanced and idiomatic interpretation.

Next came Massenet’s familiar Meditation from Thaïs and a spirited reading of De Falla’s La Vida Breve. They followed with an arrangement of Queen’s The Show Must Go On billed as Apertura: Lo spettacolo deve andare avanti. The less said about this the better, but it was an convincing demonstration of why pop songs, stripped of their lyrics, frequently serve so poorly as instrumental music. They closed off the first half with an encore, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, surely the only solo violin piece everybody can hum.

After the break came the Debussy. This composer’s pieces are really a test for orchestras. Although the ensemble is large (triple woodwinds with contrabassoon, trumpets and cornets etc.), the composer doesn’t use most of the instruments most of the time. The tuba player in Pelléas et Mélisande, famously, plays only about a dozen notes in a three hour opera. In this work there is a passage for cello choir and basses alone, for example. Brott must have spent a lot of time preparing to play this work and, while I wasn’t blown away as I had been during the Pictures at an Exhibition a couple of years back, I found it a convincing performance.

They finished with Ravel’s Bolero. It featured a couple of out-of-tune woodwind solos (not the ones Ravel detuned through orchestration) and two scoopy sax solos which I didn’t enjoy, although the rest of the audience clearly did, applauding loudly at the saxophonist’s solo bow. I do love two unison snare drums at the end.

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before in this blog. With a top price of $32 all these concerts at the Brott Festival are a steal. Young people and casual concert goers who perhaps haven’t heard the standard orchestral repertoire ought to be lined up for tickets but they aren’t. The crowd was so disappointing that Brott himself mentioned it in his comments. I suspect the festival is presenting concerts in Burlington and elsewhere as a result of crummy attendance in Hamilton just as Symphony on the Bay (previously Symphony Hamilton) has done.

For my part I’m an eight minute drive from Mohawk and ten minutes from the First Ontario Centre (previously Hamilton Place) and I’m only going to drive to the Burlington Centre for the Arts for something very special and different, and the two Beethoven programs of familiar music that come up next in this festival aren’t enought to persuade me.

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