Friday, April 20, 2018

Ligetti, Bartòk and Dvořák at the HPO.

To make a connection between a concert of Eastern European orchestral music and Hamilton’s Black community’s history is a tenuous, but not impossible undertaking, as we learned last night at a concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro James Sommerville, the HPO’s former music director, returned to conduct the orchestra in music of Ligeti, Bartók and Dvořák. He had a highly successful tenure here and was greeting enthusiastically by the HPO audience.

James Sommerville

As we arrived in the lobby of the Great Hall we could hear the Stewart Memorial Church Choir singing spirituals in the Mezzanine. This was a surprise but not entirely unexpected as we'd been warned of something similar in a piece in the Hamilton Spectator.

The orchestra opened with György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. This piece was written in 1951 but not premièred until 20 years later due to Romanian government suppression. It is in four short movements and very approachable. This is early Ligeti, the folk influenced composer. The music is more akin to Bartók's than Ligeti’s later music written after working in the electronic music studio in Cologne alongside Stockhausen. That sort of Ligeti music is familiar to most people because Stanley Kubrick used some of it (Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna) in the 1968 film  2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a delightful and engaging performance. Concert Master Stephen Sitarski played the solos enthusiastically and I thought, several times, that he would rise from his seat and dance while playing them.

This was followed by a performance of the Bartók Third Piano Concerto played by American pianist, violinist, composer, and former child prodigy Conrad Tao. It is a really beautiful piece and much more accessible than his Concerto for Orchestra or Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which we heard earlier this season. It is framed in the conventional three movements and draws on the folk elements that are so prevalent in his much earlier works. Tao is a jaw-droppingly accomplished player and his rendition of this concerto The orchestra responded with an appropriately inspired accompaniment which included some glorious string choir sounds and He was dressed in black jeans, a black t-shirt and black jacket, which he removed and placed on the floor while he played his encore, Caténaires, an insanely wild and complex work by Elliot Carter. 

Conrad Tao

The second half was originally billed as the Dvořák 9th Symphony, From the New World  but, alas, that wasn’t exactly to be. Jamie Sommerville, who had already spoken at the beginning of the concert, went on at some length about Dvořák’s interest in Afro-American and Indigenous music and Hamilton’s role as a terminus of the Underground Railway.

He then introduced Charmaine Robinson, a.k.a. Queen Cee who sang an amplified a cappella and sotto voce rendition of Go Down Moses (Let my people go). This song has no connection to Dvořák or the symphony. 

The orchestra then played the first movement of the symphony. At its conclusion, Queen Cee returned to sing, with the strings of the orchestra, Goin’ Home, a song the words of which were composed to a melody from the second movement of the symphony in 1922.

The orchestra then played the concluding three movements of the symphony. It’s a favourite of Sommerville's, not surprising since it has prominent horn-led themes in the first and last movements and his other job is Principal Horn in the Boston Symphony. The New World Symphony seemed markedly old-fashioned after the first half and the performance lacked its energy and intensity. The slow movement, however, featured a splendid rendition of the above-mentioned melody by English hornist Elizabeth Eccleston.

This concert was billed (and sold) as a program of Eastern European orchestral pieces. We avoid pops concerts. The two songs weren’t mentioned in the subscription materials on which I base my choices.

Moreover, whatever credibility the orchestra’s leadership believes it gains by associating itself with local cultural organizations, such performances could be given, as the choir's was, in the lobby prior to the orchestra's performance. It would then not interfere with the flow of a major symphonic work.
On Saturday, May 12, Gemma New returns to conduct a Bernstein tribute concert featuring music by Copland, Royer, Maraquez and Bernstein's own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. 

No comments:

Post a Comment