Sunday, March 18, 2018

Beethoven and Ehnes at the HPO

We went last night (March 17, 2018) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play to a full house at First Ontario Centre aka the Great Hall at Hamilton Place. I didn’t look over the program or read Leonard’s piece in the Spec before the concert which was called Beethoven & James Ehnes. Perhaps a Leonora Overture, then the Beethoven Violin Concerto? Some substantial Beethoven symphony in the second half. A lot of Beethoven in one program but some people can’t get enough Beethoven; Ludwig van Beethoven. (Try the last four words in Sean Connery’s voice.)

So we got a program and I sat and I began to read. I was mistaken, seriously mistaken. I should have known that Gemma New wouldn’t have programmed the unimaginative concert that I had expected. First would come a Christos Hatzis curtain raiser, Zeitgeist. Then Ehnes would play the  Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. Finally, I got one right: Beethoven’s Third Symphony, The Eroica ie. "heroic symphony" would close the concert.

We began, as usual with Conductor Gemma New and Executive Director Diana Weir’s welcome and acknowledgements, Gemma in her conducting togs and Diana in appropriate green. The composer, Hatzis I mean, the others being long dead, would also speak and introduce his piece which he did mostly rephrasing things that he’d already written in the program.

Zeitgeist, written almost 20 years ago is, according to Hatzis, a musical commentary on Postmodernism. The work is written for string orchestra and references numerous musical styles, some more obviously than others. It featured solo duet passages played capably by Stephen Sitarski and Elizabeth Loewen Andrews. It begins with a convincing imitation of an 18th century French Overture and drifts from that into various avatars of Academic New Music. At times I was more interested in watching New’s extraordinarily clear conducting of the complex key signatures than the music. The piece was interesting, nonetheless, and deserved another listening, perhaps at the beginning of the second half as is done in some New Music series.

The Barber Violin Concert came up next. The première dates from 1941 and  was conducted by Toscanini, no less. It is fully blown neo-Romantic in style, a tour de force for the violinist and a very beautiful work. It is also featured on James Ehnes’s Grammy winning CD along with the Korngold and Walton concertos.

James Ehnes and Strad.

It really was a wonderful performance. I have heard several very fine violinists play solo concertos over the last couple of seasons, at the HPO and with the Brott orchestra, but Ehnes’s performance seemed the most mature. The orchestra rose to the occasion and played exquisitely. Clarinetist Dominic Desautels and oboist Graham Mackenzie both had substantial solos and played them adroitly. Mackenzie’s, at the opening of the second movement, was especially lovely.

Ehnes then played, as an encore, a little J.S. Bach from the solo violin sonatas.
It was fascinating to watch all the violinists, and New, watch him.

The concert concluded with Beethoven. It’s hard to explain to listeners without much experience of “classical music” just how revolutionary this piece was and how different it must have sounded to a contemporary audience at its première, from the international style music which they had heard before. It was long, for the time. Beethoven’s first two symphonies clock in at about 30 minutes. The Eroica takes 45 minutes or more depending on the tempos. It is also complex, as Beethoven’s music often is, constructed not so much of themes and melodies, as the motifs that make them up.

The orchestra, under conductor New, gave a rousing performance to end a very entertaining evening. The horns (David Quackenbush, Neil Spaulding and Mikhailo Babiak) played the trio in the scherzo with gusto. Flutist Leslie Newman stood out playing the short, thought spectacular solo in the finale which must surely be in the flute orchestral auditions excerpts book.

The audience went home, surely satisfied. More people must be reading my recounts than I thought since no one in the big crowd applauded between the movements...

The orchestra is back April 19th under James Sommerville with another diverse and imaginative program. Conrad Tao plays the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3. They open with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc and finish with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World.

It would be great if the orchestra could sell out this concert too. I encourage, implore, concert goers and potential concert goers, especially young people, to get out and support Hamilton's wonderful professional orchestra.

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