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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

At the first performance of the 2014-15 season of the PEI Symphony Orchestra, Director Mark Shapiro provided a brief tutorial on conducting music while two young volunteers made their way to the stage to assist with “O Canada.” The maestro got us to follow along as he demonstrated, moving his hands in the four cardinal directions. “Wave your hands around,” he said. “Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. When the orchestra stops, you’re done.” The tutorial completed, the national anthem sung (and conducted in fine style), and we settled in for the concert.

Pardon the cliché, but it must be said: The PEISO’s 2014-2015 season started with a bang. Literally. When Kelly-Marie Murphy was starting work on her first composition, the conductor Bramwell Tovey beseeched her repeatedly: “Please do not overuse the percussion.” What did Murphy return with? “From the Drum Comes a Thundering Beat,” which she wrote to represent the workings of catalyst and energy in the act of creation. It’s a thrilling piece, containing elements of mystery, uncertainty, excitement, doubt and jubilation. The composer was inspired by a Zuni legend in which the people sought new music. They consulted with elders and were shown music and dance that began with a drum beat so loud it shook the cave—which Murphy deemed a fair depiction of the creative process. It’s said that the piece boasts some of the fastest and loudest music in existence. Also? Really quite a lot of percussion—but not, I think, a single beat too much.

The Suzanne Brenton Award is given each year to an advanced music student, based on outstanding performance in the PEI Kiwanis Provincial Music Festival. One of the perks of the award is the opportunity to perform with the PEISO. This year’s winner, Lucas MacPhail, chose Pierre Max Dubois’ Saxophone Concerto. Lucas MacPhail loves the saxophone. The instrument seems like an extension of his body, and the young virtuoso clearly puts his entire body and soul into creating each note. What that translates to, music-wise, is phenomenally nuanced and expressive playing. I was quite transfixed, and I don’t think I was the only one.

The major work for the performance was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written in honour of Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. The 10 movements, each of which was inspired by one of Hartmann’s artworks, are linked by recurring variations on a promenade. The viewer/listener moves along through the exhibition, past “Gnome,” “The Old Castle,” “Hut on Fowl Legs” and “Catacombs,” among other pieces. Finally we reach “The Great Gate of Kiev,” described by writer Richard Whitehouse as the composition’s “spine-tingling apotheosis.” As we were exiting the theatre after “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the woman in front of me turned to say, “Was that Russian enough for you?” And it was: Intensely, passionately, romantically, ravishingly Russian.

Apotheosis, in a general sense, is the glorification of something to divinity. And so it was that we journeyed over the course of that afternoon from the beat so loud it shook the cave (and initiated the act of creation) through earthly woes and pleasures and, finally, transcendence to the divine. Where could you go from that point? Wisely, the orchestra decided to let it rest there. And Maestro Shapiro, consummate professional that he is, stopped waving his hands pretty much simultaneously. Bravo!

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