Monday, May 14, 2018

Bernstein at the HPO: Guest Column

I attended the final concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra ’17-’18 season on Saturday May 12th. Upon entering the hall I was excited to see the First Ontario Concert Hall stage completely filled with chairs and stands, promising a big sound. 

The program of XXth and XXIst century music was in no way avant-garde nor challenging (not like the delightful surprise of an Elliot Carter encore from Conrad Tao on April 19th!) 

The opening piece, Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, includes the famous Hoedown. Using American folk tunes, Aaron Copland followed exactly the pre-existing Agnes De Mille choreography and omitted one section from the ballet when compiling the concert version into the form of a symphony. It is a Pops concert staple.

The centre piece of the evening was the world premiere of Ronald Royer’s Dances with Percussion for timpani, drum set and orchestra, commissioned by Ernest and Laura Porthouse and dedicated to long-time HPO timpanist Jean Norman Iadeluca to celebrate his 70th birthday. Porthouse and Iadeluca have played together for years, including 560 duo performances! Contemporary music is always an attraction for me, and I frequently wish any new piece would be played twice, to really hear it. 

This work was interesting, especially the melodic solo timpani passages, something rarely featured. Based as it is on dances, from the Baroque to the Afro-Cuban, and with clear sections, it is very approachable. The two soloists are virtuosic players; having them at the front of the stage displayed some of the technical aspects of their playing, such as Iadeluca using both feet to tune the timpani. Other things didn’t work as well, for example the nearly-inaudible bodhrán. Overall, I enjoyed it, as the composer never fell into gimmicks but respected the musicianship of both the soloists and the orchestra.

I have heard some of the Arturo Márquez Danzón series before; it is based on Mexican dances and quite approachable; the composer doesn’t stray very far from his vernacular inspiration. The No.2 has become very popular, with Gustavo Dudamel taking it on international tours; it is also featured in the web series Mozart in the Jungle.

As for the Bernstein, it is a perennial favourite for orchestras looking to bring a Pops audience in and perhaps  have them listen to more demanding repertoire. The Symphonic Dances really show that West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. Orchestrated by Ramin and Kostal, who had worked on the film version, they use all the capabilities of a full complement of symphonic players. I expect we’ll hear this piece a lot this year, it being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.

Expanded to 73 players, the orchestra’s playing was impressive and every bit as high-quality as the smaller versions have been. Lance Ouellette was concertmaster and had just enough solo passages to display his solid playing. Les Allt provided the beautiful first flute lines and Andrew Cho shone at first clarinet. The brass sections were also impressive. The strings created both expansive phrasing and energetic rhythmical playing 
under Gemma New’s usual crystal-clear and warm conducting. It seemed obvious the orchestra was in a celebratory mood!

All that dancy music had some people bopping around in their seats, which unfortunately meant that whole rows of the concert hall were vibrating, quite an annoyance.

This was an evening of light symphonic music, excellently played but no revelation. I would enjoy concerts that would feature perhaps one of these pieces in a program of deeper works. Next season’s line-up seems very interesting, as long as the HPO management doesn’t spring unannounced surprises on the audience, perhaps well-meant but very disruptive (like the pop singer at the aforementioned April 19th concert).

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