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Our Fantastic Symphony
Review by Ivy Wigmore

Confession: I come to symphony performances as a thrill-seeker. Yes, also because I’m going to review. But for my own requirements, well… I’m looking to be shaken and stirred. On November 22, the PEI Symphony Orchestra and special guests Paper Lions presented “Our Fantastic Symphony”—and they did not disappoint.

Conductor Mark Shapiro introduced the performance with reflections on the recent terrorist attacks and the refugee crisis and what it means that we choose, in these times, to come together for events like a symphony performance.

Hector Berlioz wrote “Symphonie Fantastique,” performed in the first half of the concert, for a single purpose: To woo Harriet Smithson, an Irish actress. The work’s five movements portray, according to various sources, either the composer’s self-portrait or a vision of the potential life the pair might have. In either case, the fact that his suit succeeded is somewhat fascinating. Throughout the first three movements, romantic themes are subverted by underlying frustration and dark despair, culminating in opium poisoning, murder and beheading in the fourth.

Maybe it was the cataclysmic passion and power of the final movement, “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” that convinced Smithson, despite fairly clear indications that their union would not be a peaceful one. Passion can be pretty compelling. The PEISO delivered, in spades—it was positively electrifying. I do love it when a symphony audience is moved to whoops and whistles, as this one was.

The second half of the concert opened with Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Fanfares have been used since the Middle Ages to signal important events, such as the arrival of royalty. This one marked a departure: Dan St. Amand, who left us last spring, was principle trumpeter with the PEISO and a pillar of the Island’s music community for many years. Known for his musicianship, his mentorship, his kindness and the elegant presence he brought to each performance, Dan is sorely missed. The fanfare was played in the round and in this context sounded haunting and elegiac: Call it a fanfare for an uncommon man.

Paper Lions hit the stage running, grabbed the audience and didn’t let go. Braydon Gautreau joined the band for “Traveller,” one of Paper Lion’s most popular and best-known songs. Had you been looking away, you would never guess that sound could come from a 12 year old. Braydon’s voice is husky, pure, evocative and nuanced. You could see jaws dropping in the audience; people appeared to be mesmerized. I only wished we might have heard him singing on his own a little longer than we did.

So, having admitted my preference for intensity in music, I’ll add this corollary: Pop isn’t my favorite flavour. Nevertheless, Paper Lions were a high-powered, infectious, rocking force for good. The group’s stated aim is no less lofty: They want to make us feel “fantastic.” Judging by the beaming faces of all ages, the clapping and singing along, it’s safe to say they hit their target. As did the PEISO: Thrills, delivered.

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