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. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Another Conversation with Gemma New

I spoke with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, Gemma New about the Intimate and Interactive concert which was to be presented that evening (April 5), planning concerts and the HPO’s 2018-19 season.

HPO Music Director Gemma New

DF: How did you choose the music for tonight’s concert?

GN: I look at many different factors like a jigsaw puzzle. Shaker Loops (John Adams) is a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve seen in performed in other places and I’ve seen how powerful it is. Throughout my life I’ve seen a ton of concerts and heard lots of music and I think, that was great and I want to bring this piece to Hamilton. And you have always to think, every city is different, has different needs, what sort of music the audience is going to be drawn to and appreciate. 

First off we’re playing String Sinfonietta by Vivian Fung. Then Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Both of those pieces are inspired by Balinese Gamelan music. The two halves of the concert come together in the fact that music inspires or creates an opportunity for the listener to transcend spiritually.

DF: I can see there are peculiar challenges here where you have an established audience of concert goers and you wish to interest a younger audience too. So you have two kinds of audiences.

GN: At least. Everyone reacts to music differently. You have to have an informed opinion of what you think is going to work. I sit in the audience a lot getting ideas. Shaker Loops was the beginning of this concert.

DF: How many concerts in the upcoming season?

GN: The same as this year. There are nine mainstage concerts and we have two Interactive and Immersive concerts in March and May, We have two family concerts, and then we have the Literary Recital series and the Gallery Series.

In November we have the Remembrance Day concert. We like to alternate it between a more classical concert and the next year we do a more pops related. This year we’re doing music of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Scott Joplin. The Bach-Elgar Choir will be doing some favourite tunes, remembering WW I and the Golden Era of Jazz that came right after it. We’ve got a great singer, Doug Labrecque, who has performed with many major orchestras in the U.S. He’s really phenomenal and he’s funny and his voice is so strong and beautiful and he knows this repertoire inside out. I am so pleased we were able to get him here.

In the Holiday Concert we’re going to do Abigail Richardson-Shulte’s The Hockey Sweater (with Roch Carrier narrating) and we will also have the HPO Youth Orchestra on-stage performing with the full HPO.

We have a Tribute to the Beatles: With Love. It’s going to be close to Valentine’s Day. Darcy Heppner is the conductor and he’s bringing some special guests along. The concert last time sold out weeks before so we were anxious to bring him back.

DF: Do you have themes for other concerts?

I try to have a unified idea. Our community is diverse and I would like that, if you don’t know a lot about music or if you know a ton about music, you can relate to the program in some way. I like to combine the theme and the styles of music and the pacing of the program. All three of those things must work well. 

The first two programs are about passion and drama in music. We have Beethoven and Mozart and Gluck and Elgar. They wanted drama and stories and this personal energy to come through in the music. So we’ve got the Leonora Overture #3 (Beethoven), the Elgar Cello Concerto (Cameron Crozman plays), and Brahm’s Symphony #1. 

And then the next program is GluckThe Furies from Orpheus ed Euridice which is a scene from the opera in which the Furies say,” No, you shall not come into the underworld.” and he’s (Orpheus) playing and singing this most beautiful tune and finally they listen. Beethoven was inspired by this to write the slow movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and we have André Laplante playing it. Straight after then we have Antinomie by Jacques Hétu which I don’t know very well but our guest conductor Jacques Lacombe has specifically chosen it to fit in this program and he has a special relationship with Hétu and his music. And then Mozart Jupiter Symphony, #41.

DF: Thanks so much!

This interview was edited for length and continuity.

Here are the listings for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Mainstage 2018-19 season. 

October 20, 2018
Beethoven & Mozart
Jacques Lacombe, Conductor
Andre Laplante, Piano
Gluck: Dance of the Furies from Orphée et Euridice
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Hétu: Antinomie
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter)

November 10, 2018
From Broadway to Tin Pan Alley
Gemma New, Conductor
Doug LaBrecque, Vocalist
Bach Elgar Choir, Guest Artist
Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Band, Guest Artist

December 15, 2018
Home for the Holidays: The Hockey Sweater
Gemma New, Conductor
Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Guest Artist
Roch Carrier, Narrator
Holiday Favourites

January 19, 2019
Glorious Bach
Ivars Taurins, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Lance Ouellette, Violin

Selections by J.S. Bach including Concerto for Violin, Orchestral Suite No. 3, and music from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

February 16, 2019
From The Beatles, With Love
Darcy Hepner, Conductor
Experience your favourite Beatles songs arranged for live orchestra in collaboration with Hamilton artists.

March 16, 2019
Debussy & Holst’s The Planets
Gemma New, Conductor
McMaster University Choir, Guest Artist
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Debussy: Nocturnes
Holst: The Planets

April 27, 2019
Ravel & Stravinsky
Nathan Brock, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Rossini: The Barber of Seville Overture
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky: Jeux de Cartes

May 11, 2019
Mahler’s Fifth 
Conductor: Gemma New
Vivier: Orion
Mahler: Symphony No. 5