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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The PEISO opened its 48th season with a performance entitled “Symphonic Poetry,” under the direction of conductor Marc Shapiro.

Gustav Mahler’s Fourth symphony, presented as the first half of the performance, is often considered the most accessible of the composer’s symphonic works. That may be the case but nevertheless, the symphony is not without its complexities. The German composer is known for his expression of cognitive dissonance—that psychological discomfort that comes about because of holding inconsistent beliefs and attitudes and behaving in similarly discordant ways. The symphony is known popularly as “An Ode to Heavenly Joy,” but that’s not scratching the surface.

The symphony opens with sleigh bells and flutes, which are to be a recurring motif. These are intended to represent, according to various sources, something between childlike wonder and a fool’s bells. In the first and second movements in particular, Mahler contrasted lightness and lyricism with dark undercurrents. The lightness may represent a childlike view of the world, unsullied by conscious awareness of uncomfortable thoughts. The dark undercurrents, on the other hand, may represent the way those uncomfortable understandings refuse to stay completely repressed, the fact that the unconscious is churning away and the resultant unease.

The second movement, a scherzo, features a solo violin that is, as Maestro Shapiro remarked, tuned differently. Shapiro assured us in advance that the weird sound we might notice was created on purpose. The violin, at that point, represents Freund Hein, a German personification of death. According to Anna Mahler, the scherzo was inspired by a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin, “Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle.”

Our guest soloist, renowned soprano and Order of Canada recipient Suzie LeBlanc, performed the song that makes up the final movement, which is described as a child’s view of heaven. Again we have the juxtaposition of sunny simplicity and dark undercurrents. The orchestra began to play and then Ms. LeBlanc wandered into the church and through to the stage like a wide-eyed young girl looking around a strange environment.

Throughout the song she expressed a willful innocence compromised by internal struggle. In one part, Mahler’s German translates to: “John lets the lambkin out, and Herod the Butcher lies in wait for it. We lead a patient, an innocent, patient, dear little lamb to its death. Saint Luke slaughters the ox without any thought or concern.” There’s that cognitive dissonance again: Everything is perfect and all our desires are fulfilled but that requires the suffering and death of our fellow creatures, which we care for. The symphony ended by suddenly dissipating into the ether, like the pop of a bubble or a dream.

The second half of the program was “Four Songs on Poems by Elizabeth Bishop,” a setting of the poetry commissioned by Ms. LeBlanc and composed by Christopher Hatzis. Ms. LeBlanc’s voice is exquisite and her technique and dramatic presentation flawless but she was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra; although you could see that she was still singing, it wasn’t audible.

The particular poems represented are “I am in need of music,” “Insomnia (She is a daytime sleeper),” “The unbeliever” and “Anaphora,” and the styles ran the gamut from new-age to folk-tinged pop and classical. In accordance with Christopher Hatzis’ philosophy, the music was created to serve the poetry in terms of its tones, meaning, moods and rhythms: “My quest was to discover the song inside each poem by searching for symmetries behind the convoluted asymmetries of each poem’s surface…”

More conflict, unresolved, and yet it was a happy—if somewhat thoughtful—audience that dispersed out into the streets after the concert.

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