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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The premiere of a new composition is always exciting and for the second PEI Symphony Orchestra concert of this season, that thrill was doubled: To mark the sesquicentennial of the 1864 Charlottetown conference that started the ball rolling on Canada, the PEISO presented not one but two orchestral works created expressly for the occasion, the winners of a competition last January.

In his opening remarks, Director Mark Shapiro spoke of how moving he found the deep love Canadians have for their native land, how that love is inextricably connected to the natural world, the country’s vastness and the creatures inhabiting it. Each of the three very different presentations of November 23rd expressed that connection, that love.

Garret Krause is a Calgary-based composer and pianist who has won many awards at both the provincial and national levels. Krause’s “Where pines and maples grow” was created “as a tone poem that explores the great, expansive nation of Canada by incorporating melodies from its musical heritage.” The composition is a bit like a timeline, a series of stories extending from the days before European settlers through confederation and beyond the present day. First Nations, French and English are all well represented through snippets of folk songs interspersed with more modern music and the repeating O Canada motif.

We had been notified in advance that we’d be called upon for audience participation during Krause’s composition, and when the time came we were ready: We stood and sang “O Canada” as part of the presentation. After we’d done our patriotic duty and the piece was ended, Maestro Shapiro remarked that “Already we could go home satisfied, could we not?” Go home we did not, however, for there was yet a lot of music in our afternoon.

The other winner of the competition was Alice Ping Yee Ho, an acclaimed composer who said she had always wanted to write a piece about Canada. “Ocean Child” is the story of M’Whell, a young grey whale beached close to Vancouver, along the shore from a bird sanctuary. M’Whell’s story was sung exquisitely by soprano Charlotte Corwin, an accomplished performer of opera as well as concert repertoire. The operatic training stood Corwin in excellent stead as she sang from the young whale’s perspective through the four movements: Beach, Land, Deep and Rescue.

Throughout the sung story we hear references to the Canadian landscape, its waters and wildlife. We hear the discussion of rescuers. Even the CBC is referenced, as broadcasters report on the event.

A friend in the audience told me she’d had a nice little chat with the composer in the washroom during intermission and learned that the following week Ho would be in Taiwan for another world premiere. As my friend noted, that’s not the kind of encounter that you’d be apt to have during a symphony concert in larger centres.

After the intermission we went deeper, beyond Canada-centrism to PEI-centrism, when Catherine MacLellan took the stage. MacLellan’s music speaks directly to that same deep love of Canada and the physical environment. Her most recent release, The Raven’s Sun, deals with “life, death and transformation.”

MacLellan’s beautiful, warm voice comes straight from her heart and the lyrics come from those same roots, as she sings about “frost in the hollows” and her “little mountain home.” Speaking of roots, MacLellan sang father Gene’s much-loved “Snowbird” to finish the afternoon’s performance. How Canadian is that?

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