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Review: PEI Symphony Orchestra

On Fire

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On October 21, the PEI Symphony Orchestra blazed into its 51st season with a performance entitled “Exquisite Fires,” under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. We heard good news immediately: For the first time in many years, the PEISO is out of debt, and that means that those dedicated and wonderful musicians have gotten a much-deserved raise. Bravo!

“Exquisite,” I thought, “is a bold promise.” But the PEISO did not disappoint. First up on the incendiary programme was Haydn’s Fire Symphony. Maestro Shapiro rhapsodized about the composer’s playful and creative mind and confessed that, were he to spend eternity with a single wit, it would be Haydn. This symphony is not the one nicknamed the Surprise Symphony — that would be No. 94 — but this Symphony No. 59 does not lack unexpected elements. Haydn had a few tricks up his sleeve, which included unanticipated notes, instrumentation and rests. The Fire Symphony is lovely and lively; Haydn’s surprises amuse and sharpen our ears throughout, a little like musical palate refreshers.  

Linda Bouchard’s “Exquisite Fires” made a striking contrast with the Haydn. And yet, as the Maestro noted, the compositions share “a certain luminosity of mind and narrative purpose.” Bouchard wrote the nine-movement suite as the first composer-in-residence for the National Arts Centre Orchestra in the early nineties. The composer has dedicated a great deal of effort to furthering the appreciation of what is called new music, an offshoot of the classical tradition that seeks non-traditional means of expanding its boundaries. Here’s how Bouchard describes her approach: “My work is often inspired by nature’s geometry, structure and textures. As if writing music could begin by staring with a magnifying glass at nature’s elements: water-gas-rock formations-chemical reactions, creating from these images a series of abstract landscapes. I seek to express emotional experiences in their most raw form, without a literal or narrative setting.” 

In her excellent Symphony Preview, violinist Margo Connors (Look her up on Facebook!) offers good advice for listeners unfamiliar with new music: “The trick… is to not listen for tunes, but to hear an overall effect… sit back and let yourself be affected.” I was not sitting back, however, but rather forward as the piece was so engaging. Bouchard says that she wrote inspired by Medieval Love Myths, and was happy to find a theme that supported the kind of excess she wanted to indulge in. As such, “Exquisite Fires” is imbued with romance, passion and a mystical quality. I was reminded, too, of the interplay of ambient sounds created in the world, both natural and human-made, the way they seem unconnected and yet, listened to in an open way, can present as a harmonious and beautiful whole. “Exquisite Fires” was fantastic.

The fiery theme of the programme was completed, post-intermission, with Dvorak’s ravishing Cello Concerto in B Minor. As much as I loved “Exquisite Fires” — and I loved it a lot — it’s the Cello Concerto on loop in my head today. Soloist Denise Djokic, who joined the PEISO for this performance, was amazing. Djokic is a powerful and passionate musician; every note and nuance was eloquent and her apparent immersion in the music was inspiring. Here’s a short list of Djokic’s accomplishments: She played Bach at the 2002 Grammy Awards and was named among the top 25 Canadians Who Are Changing Our World by Maclean’s Magazine. Elle Magazine included her in its list of Canada’s Most Powerful Women.

What can I say about the orchestra? There’s really only one way to put it: They were on fire. And the whole performance? “Exquisite” is not too strong a word. 

Lighthouse Willie

West Point Lighthouse is a spooky place

Paranormal by Ivy Wigmore

Illustration by Matthew HaughnThe West Point lighthouse boasts a number of distinctions. The tallest lighthouse on PEI, it’s a designated heritage site became the first working lighthouse to operate as an inn in 1987. It may be best known for another claim to fame, though. In 2017, Google Street View identified West Point lighthouse as one of the 10 spookiest sites in Canada.

The square-built structure was part of the second generation of lighthouses erected post-confederation. These were mandated when it was determined that the eight lighthouses on our 224-kilometer island were inadequate to protect and guide those at sea along the 1,760 kilometers of jagged coast surrounding it. Construction started at West Point in 1875 and William Anderson MacDonald, the original keeper, assumed his duties in 1876 when he lit the lamp for the first time.

“Lighthouse Willie,” his wife Mariah and their family lived just a couple of miles away. Every year when the ice cleared, the whole family moved to the lighthouse. Two of Willie and Mariah’s eight children were born there. For fifty years, Willie polished the lamp’s prisms and lenses on a daily basis, never failing to perform his duties throughout the navigation season. Willie’s successor, Benjamin MacIsaac, retired in 1963 when the lighthouse operations were automated.

However, it seems that Willie’s dedication to the lighthouse didn’t end with his retirement or that of his successor, nor automation of his tasks or even his own death. The keeper has been sighted throughout the years by volunteers, staff members and visitors to the inn. He’s appeared in the tower, in the keeper’s quarters and even the more recently added guest rooms, as well as the shore and the grounds surrounding the inn. People have felt inexplicable cold spots and heard disembodied voices, sometimes in conversation; lights have been turned off and on by some invisible hand.

Willie’s great-granddaughter, Carole Livingstone, was part of a volunteer group that oversaw the restoration of the historic lighthouse and the augmentation that would make it sustainable for the future. The building now includes a restaurant, museum and gift shop, and the keeper’s quarters have been restored to the elegant décor of Willie’s days. Mariah’s organ again presides over the parlour, where long ago she and her daughters played hymns to entertain visitors.

In the early years, volunteers would sometimes look after the inn overnight. If there were no visitors already checked in, they would wait until 9 pm to accommodate any stragglers that might come along. If none arrived by that time, the volunteer would lock up and head home. Checking the lighthouse before she left one night, Ms. Livingstone glimpsed a bearded man standing by a window. When she looked back, he had disappeared and she dismissed the sighting. It gave her pause, though, when she heard reports of a light in that room turning on repeatedly after being turned off.

It’s a poignant and melancholy image, the stalwart old lighthouse keeper still patrolling the grounds through the busy summer at the shore and maybe desolate winter, with none to witness the light shining over the frozen harbour.

Ah, but he may not be alone. Staff and visitors have reported strains of organ music echoing through the inn with no one there to play it. Is Mariah at the keyboard?

After Google included the lighthouse in its Top 10 list, paranormal groups investigated the site. And although Willie has generally been friendly, it seems he found that a trifle invasive. After one group had left, a researcher found the door to the vacant keeper’s quarters had been locked. From the inside.

Dancing Lessons

Essence of romance

Review by Ivy Wigmore

(Spoiler Alert)

It would be fair to say they got off on the wrong foot. Senga Quinn, played by Melissa Kramer, is in hiding from the aunt who raised her and also from a former fiance. Senga is a small-town girl who came to New York City to pursue a promising career in dance. As the play opens, we find her slumped on her couch, surrounded by the booze, pills and junk food she’s turned to after a car accident has all-but taken her dream away. Senga has been told that she will likely have to wear a full-leg brace for the rest of her life. She’s holed up in her apartment when a fateful knock comes on her door.  

Ever Montgomery, played by Jeff Schissler, is a professor of geophysics with Asperger’s syndrome. He has a problem — well, he has a few, but the most pressing one is that he’s being given an award at an upcoming gala. He fears he will be expected to dance, and dance he cannot. So Ever devises a plan: he does his research on the dancer downstairs and comes knocking on Senga’s door. When she finally lets him in, he offers her a huge sum of money to teach him to dance.

A fast song, and the faster the better. No slow songs, he insists, because he does not like to be touched. And so they begin, Senga all rhythm and sensuality and Ever all herky-jerky movement, but game. When she asks him to smile to indicate that he’s having a good time he assures her that he is not. Nevertheless, he bares his teeth and continues to fling his arms and legs according to no discernable pattern. 

Ever is relentlessly, irrepressibly honest, unsubtle and laser-focused while Senga is depressed, embittered and sarcastic. The two could hardly have less in common. And yet, as more is revealed about Senga’s past, enough boxes are ticked in Ever’s head that he asks her if she’s ever been tested for autism. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience silently ticking a box or two, reminded that we all carry little bits and pieces of various disorders.

Schissler was spot-on: we see Ever, despite being so physically and verbally awkward, driven to continue to flail on, trying to accomplish his goals. We feel his anguish at the failure to navigate social interactions and courtship rites that so-called neurotypicals take for granted. Kramer’s performance was necessarily subdued in comparison but she conveyed her character’s despair with a quiet power. 

Both characters are severely constrained by their individual circumstances: Ever by autism and Senga by her injuries. I must admit I wondered how the hell the play would ever strike a romantic spark out of these two particular sticks. They transition from dancing to a “practice” touching session to a not-very romantic romantic interlude.  

Somehow they get there, though — there are no wrong steps when Melissa and Ever take their final turn around the floor. In formal wear, the couple are the essence of romance: no limping, no awkwardness and no stumbles. Although there were a lot of great moments in the play that’s the one that stays with me, the revelation of that perfection as the characters were depicted free of the damage and baggage accumulated bumping up against life. 

Mark St. Germain’s Dancing Lessons is a bit of a marvel, mixing tragedy, humor and romance, while also delivering a good deal of information about autism and global warming — all with a light and deft touch that ensures all the pieces fit together convincingly and enjoyably. 

—On stage at Victoria Playhouse in Victoria-by-the-Sea to July 29, 2018.

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Super serenades

Review by Ivy Wigmore 

On April 15th, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Tenor, Horn and Strings” as the final performance of its 50th season. As we settled in, PEISO musical director Mark Shapiro asked for a show of hands to see how many of the audience had ever been serenaded or, conversely, had serenaded someone else. Not many, was the answer. That was about to change dramatically, however, as we all had back-to-back serenades in our immediate future.

There’s more than a little Mozart in the program. Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 rounds out the afternoon and the opening work, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” might be considered a serenade to the earlier composer, who he greatly admired. The first movement was intentionally written in the style of Mozart, if updated for congruence with 19th century style. Tchaikovsky wrote the Serenade virtually at the same time as his thunderous 1812 Overture in a wildly creative explosion of the writer's block he had previously suffered. The strings were ravishing, and strings we had aplenty. As Tchaikovsky noted in the score: “The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes.” I believe he would have been pleased.

Next up was the focal work of the performance. Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” made quite a striking contrast with the Tchaikovsky. We were serenaded first by Louis-Philippe Marsolais’ French horn solo, which perfectly established the tone and atmosphere for the song cycle, whose theme is sleep/dreams/night.

Among the pieces set to poems by Keats, Tennyson, Blake and others, the anonymous “Lyke Wake Dirge,” which has been traced back as far as the 1400s, was a standout. Britten arranged the cycle with unsettling central pieces bookended by gentler compositions to start and finish. The preceding “Elegy” was like a fearful vigil. Then, as “lyke” is Old English for corpse and "wake" for watch, we have the “Corpse Watch Dirge.” Britten’s setting of the poem has been called "manically terrifying." Dissonance created tension that then mounted to its extremities in the soaring tenor voice. Tenor Marcel d’Entremont sang with phenomenal power, control and nuance, and the orchestra's accompaniment enhanced the effect with great sensitivity. I was transfixed. In the Epilogue, the same horn solo closed the song cycle. It was delivered from offstage, seeming to sound from the distance and the effect was haunting. I’d love to listen to the Serenade performance again but haven’t found any recordings that equaled what we heard that afternoon, including one in which Britten conducted and Paul Pears, his lifelong partner, sang.

After intermission, we heard Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." This presentation of the famously sad and beautiful piece was dedicated to the late and much-lamented John Clement. The Adagio was a particular favorite of Clement, long-time music teacher and a founding member of the PEISO and the Singing Strings Youth Orchestra. How moving it was to see members of the youth orchestra join the PEISO for this performance.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 was written for a virtuoso, and fortunately we had one on hand in Marsolais. I'll turn to my husband here, who grew up listening to the Concerto: “Exquisite” was the word he used to describe Marsolais’ wonderful tone and superb playing. I’m struggling to find equivalent superlatives for Marsolais and d’Entremont, but words fail me. They were both simply amazing, and the orchestra was characteristically fabulous. The chatter around us as we filtered out was uniformly happy, with maybe just a few quibbles about what the best part was. We exited Zion well and truly serenaded.

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Dynamic direction

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On March 4, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Dvořák 8 and More” under the direction of guest conductor Dinuk Wijeratne.

I love watching how conductors interact with the orchestra and Wijeratne is particularly fun. Described by the NY Times as “exuberantly creative,” the multi-talented composer / performer / conductor was physically almost balletic in this role, maintaining a dynamic, kinetic communication with the musicians.

Just a few days before International Women’s Day, it was meaningful that the orchestra performed the work of a female composer. Violet Archer was a Canadian composer who created more than 330 pieces over a sixty-year career. She was also a teacher, pianist, organist and percussionist. What does a woman have to do to get a little attention in the classical music world? Everything, apparently. Considered neo-classic, Sinfonietta is representative of Archer’s synthesis of traditional and modern styles. The Norton-Grove Dictionary of Women Composers describes Archer’s music: “…on the one hand dissonantly contrapuntal yet on the other refreshingly folksy.” The second movement is especially compelling, quiet but with an emotional complexity that kept me listening attentively. Archer’s tenure as percussionist in the Montreal Women’s Symphony served her well here as the percussion, precise and directional, kept us hooked throughout the piece. Violet Archer became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983. The composer’s other honours include multiple honorary doctorates and having both a music library and an indie band (The Violet Archers) named for her.

Next up was a woman who might be considered to be in the early years of a very promising career but for the fact that she has been playing violin since the age of four. This year’s Suzanne Brenton Award winner, Sannu Lawt is a former member of the Singing Strings and currently a member of the Mount Allison Chamber Orchestra as well as a first violin with the PEISO. In a CBC interview with her musical family, the young musician spoke of the power of music to serve as a means of communication and an offering to the audience: “It’s a form of language, you can play for other people and you know it’s kind of like giving something back to them.” Lawt soloed brilliantly on Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, and it was clear from the audience response that message and gift were both rapturously received.

In the second half of the concert, the orchestra presented Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Dvořák’s eighth symphony stands out as the most sheer fun to listen to. Written in the composer’s native Bohemia, the work draws on folk music patterns and is considered to represent the buoyant nature of Bohemian culture. The trumpet fanfare heralding the finale might sound portentous but back in the day, Conductor Rafael Kubelik reassured the orchestra, “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle—they always call to the dance!”

Concertgoers were offered an added incentive to be in the audience on April 15, when the PEISO presents “Tenor, Horn & Strings” as the final performance of the orchestra’s 50th season. Recordings of November’s “Canada 150” concert will be distributed, free of charge, to attendees. That will make it possible for many of us to hear the “Cantata for Canada 150” in a way that wasn’t possible before. From where I stood, the cantata sounded fantastic. That said, I was in the midst of the choir and many in the audience complained that it was difficult to hear the choir and even the soloist. Come get your CD! Don’t miss the chance to (actually) hear this quite amazing cantata and the fabulous PEISO.

New perspective

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The Canada 150 performance had me seeing the PEI Symphony Orchestra from a whole new perspective—from behind, to be specific. In the second concert of the PEISO’s fiftieth season, the orchestra collaborated with many diverse elements. One was the Confederation Singers, of which I am a member.

Soooo…the choir has been working hard and I promised this review for the day after. And so it is with tremendous gratitude that I lean on my friend Margo Connors (violinist) and her excellent Symphony Preview for support.

The concert started with a new fanfare by Kati Agócs. Envisioned as a salute to those who have served the country in battle, A Hero’s Welcome infuses the formality of a military march with the spirituality of an Orthodox hymn.

I knew the Hey Cuzzins drum circle would be part of the presentation and was very happy to learn it would be while we are on stage. As Margo explained, “the idea of a drum circle is to share rhythm and get in tune with each other and oneself.” We should invite them to set us straight at the start of every performance.

After the drum circle, the Youth Chorus sang four folk songs, and as Margo pointed out, the adult choir did not. The kids—so many kids!—did a lovely job. We had one tune. It was pretty good.

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture was next up. This was Margo’s favorite part because, as she says, “It goes boom.” (The boom is cannon fire, which Maestro Shapiro alerted us would happen—while also assuring us that it would be simulated.) Although I was backstage during the Overture, I have it on excellent authority that the orchestra made it go boom and a half.

In the second half of the program, the Cantata for Canada 150 was brought to you by four composers, four student poets, four poet mentors, two choirs, two directors, one drum circle, one mezzo-soprano and one symphony orchestra. No partridges or pear trees, but there was one fairly unusual element. Maybe I will never again hear the conductor shout, “Is that the only chainsaw we’ve got?” during a rehearsal.

Don Fraser, the director of choral music for the Centre, worked with the choir through the fall and then Mark Shapiro helped us in the final few days. The Cantata is a stunning creation, coming together from many diverse sources, all starting with the winners of a poetry contest in Island schools. The first movement, My Canada, was composed by Kevin Morse, with lyrics based on a poem by Nicolas Dickieson, who was mentored by Deirdre Kessler. Leo Marchildon wrote Song of a Tree based on a poem by Madison Lockman, who worked with David Hickey. As I walk is the work of Richard Covey, based on a poem by Madelyn Iwankow, who was mentored by David Helwig. Andrew Staniland is the composer of the final movement, Haven on the Waves, which is based on a poem by Chloe Dockendorff, mentored by Hugh MacDonald.

My Canada worked through wounds of the past and present and hopes for the future. Hannah O’Donnell’s gorgeous voice led us through the rapturous melody in Song of a Tree, pre-chainsaw. As I walk celebrates diversity and universal commonalities. Haven on the Waves takes us through the history of the Island from the bliss of pre-colonial days, through conflict, to hopes for an inclusive future.  All those elements—yet the whole came together beautifully. By turns stirring, lyrical and elegiac, the Cantata is a brilliant collaboration, like the Canada we hope to see.

A packed house

PEI Symphony Orchestra with Ten Strings And A Goat Skin

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Sold out! Those are the words you want to hear about the first performance of a symphony orchestra’s 50th season—unless, of course, you were trying to get last-minute tickets for the PEISO’s October 15 concert, Beethoven ‘Eroica’ & Ten Strings And A Goat Skin, presented under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. The house was packed to the rafters with a high-spirited, attentive, all-ages crowd. “All-ages crowd” is another welcome phrase, of course, in the symphony orchestra world.

The maestro speculated that it might be the first symphony performance for many in the audience and informed newcomers that they’d started their introduction with a plunge into the deep end.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, also known as Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), is a highly significant work, considered to bridge the Classical and Romantic periods in music because the composer played with Classical conventions in terms of form, harmony and length (long). 

The symphony also presents more emotional content than had been the standard. In 1802, when Beethoven began work on the composition, he was becoming increasingly deaf. As Mark Shapiro suggested, it is not surprising that the symphony would be reflective of inner life when its composer was increasingly isolated from the external world by his hearing loss. Symphony No. 3 marked the entrance to the composer's middle period, in which he deals with themes of struggle and heroism. In his own life, Beethoven had retreated from society rather than suffer the indignity of being unable to hear what others were saying. For years, he contemplated suicide. And yet during those years of struggle, the composer created some of his most celebrated works.

 The PEISO performed brilliantly throughout, from the heroic acceptance of the first movement, through the despair of the second and the resurgence of spirit in the third, to the exuberant celebration of the finale.

In the second half of the performance, Ten Strings And A Goat Skin struck sparks off the stage—and not just with hobnail boots. The folk/fusion trio is Rowen Gallant, Jesse Périard and Caleb Gallant working with, respectively, violin, guitar and bodhran. Natalie Williams Calhoun created the subtle arrangements for the symphony’s collaboration. The trio brings a wild energy to traditional folk roots, a fierce and urgent intensity, particularly in Rowen’s fiddle. That spirit is nicely illustrated by “The night they moved the house,” a story song pulled from family history and co-written by Rowen and his uncle Lennie Gallant. The Gallants have Island roots about as deep as any but the Mi’kmaq, and this tale goes back to Lennie’s great-great-grandfather—for Rowen and Caleb you can tack on another “great.” Shortly after the GG-grandfather died, an unscrupulous neighbour discovered that the ancestor’s house was actually on the edge of his property. He planned to take possession ASAP, evicting the grieving widow from her home.

Ah, but the family has not prevailed by accident, rather through ingenuity, indomitability of spirit and the support of the community. Family and friends conspired to gather the night before the eviction was to take place. Under cover of darkness, they lifted the house and moved it over the frozen harbour to another property. And as cold and dark as it must have been out on the ice that night, I expect there was warmth and light—and music—in that house the next.

The performance left me thinking about the way that struggle and adversity sometimes yields triumph and great beauty; the way that in even the darkest times, the undaunted human spirit can swell the heart aloft, until it bursts through into joy.

Bleak house

Unexplained events in Gisborne House

by Ivy Wigmore

A house like this oneThere was not so much the feeling of a presence in the apartment as an absence—a hollow, echoey feeling. Lonesome but also forbidding, like this misery did not want company. You felt it as soon as you stepped inside, as if you were entering a different emotional zone.

The house had been built in the 1840s as part of the Warblington Estate down by the river on the land below Belvedere Avenue. Also known as Gisborne House, it had been our grandparents’ home. In the 1960s, the building was moved up to North River Road from its spot on the shore because a co-op development was planned for the land.

My sister Linda and I were renting the basement apartment in what was then our family home with our two young boys. She was working early mornings at the Garden Nursing Home and I was working late nights that stretched into early mornings waiting on tables at Cedars. We were both often there alone.

Although the old house fit all the requirements for a haunting, the basement was new and you’d think exempt. Nevertheless, strange things started happening immediately. Lights left on would be turned off, and vice versa. Linda and I always left the porch light on for each other but we still always had to make our way around to the back of the house in the dark.

One night when I was alone in the apartment I was woken around 3 am by a tremendous crash in the kitchen. I went in to find a huge glass jar of honey smashed in the middle of the floor, a good five or six feet away from the cupboard where it had been. Another time, I’d just wiped down the kitchen counter after washing the dishes and went into the living room to see if Linda wanted a cup of tea. When I went back in to put on the kettle, I saw a line of curry powder from one end of the counter to the other, despite the fact that the container hadn’t been opened in weeks and was still closed in the cupboard.

There was the usual trick of items disappearing and then turning up somewhere odd or somewhere that had already been checked. But our entity had a few quirks of his own, too. I really liked Bruce Cockburn’s Inner City Front album and played it fairly often. Without fail, when Bruce started into “The Coldest Night of the Year,” the needle would lift and the arm would return to the rest. There was no visible flaw in the vinyl, and the turntable played albums that did have visible flaws just fine. The album also played without any issue on all other turntables that we tried it on. I think our spirit must have just found that song too bleak.

Eventually we decided the cheap rent was no bargain when we factored in our invisible, non-paying roommate and we found a duplex to rent, a nice old place with a welcoming atmosphere. By the time we had finished cleaning up and were ready to leave the apartment, it was dark. We were so spooked that we walked together turning off the lights in each room and, finally, the lamp illuminating the porch. Linda and I were almost giddy to be out of there. About to celebrate with a cigarette, however, we realized we’d left the pack back at the apartment, and we returned. As we approached the house not five minutes from when we’d left, we saw that every light in the place was ablaze.

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