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Review of PEI Symphony
by Ivy Wigmore

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Zion Church so full, nor a crowd so clearly happy to be there. On February 7th, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Beethoven and Beyond,” under the direction of guest conductor Dinuk Wijeratne. The current resident conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia, Wijeratne has worked with the Gryphon Trio, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and Skratch Bastid, among many others. Wijeratne, who has been described by the New York Times as “exuberantly creative,” announced his delight with the eclectic choices for the afternoon’s performance.

First up was Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, which I had been promised would not be the least bit “churchy,” but would be thrilling. I was not led astray. The fact that the performance was at Zion meant that guest soloist Leo Marchildon had a pretty awesome instrument at his disposal and he pulled out all the stops, so to speak. The concerto is written as a continuum of seven contrasting movements, which Marchildon played with great virtuosity and gleeful energy. At some point through the concerto, I heard two women behind me exclaiming. From their (very quiet) conversation, I gathered that this was their first symphony performance and that they were duly impressed. It was a treat to be privy to their experience, to hear that they were enjoying the performance as much as I was. There was only one very brief passage that struck me as churchy—and that may have been an ironic reference. Anyway, why not? Poulenc threw in just about every other mood you could come up with—and then more often than not followed it up with its polar opposite. Good fun.

Next up was Emmanuel Séjourné’s Concerto for Marimba and Strings. Wijeratne had said the two works have in common that their composers are French—and nothing else. To my ear, though, they also had in common a great variability of mood. The marimba concerto is a more recent work—2006, in contrast with the organ concerto’s 1938—and has much more of a flow to the music. Manning the marimba was Branden Kelly, who graduates from UPEI with a Master of Percussion Performance degree. Kelly is the winner of the 2015 Suzanne Brenton prize and Rose Bowl award from the provincial music festival. I’d never heard a marimba concerto before and wondered how well the percussion instrument would work in that context: Beautifully, as it turns out. Kelly’s playing was masterful and the concerto itself is wonderful: romantic and lyrical, wild and stormy. The audience was almost literally on the edge of their seats. I saw people leaning forward, listening very intently; I found myself nodding in response to notes, as if receiving information. From behind me I heard, more than once, softly: “wow.”

The second half of the performance was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, which we had already gone beyond. The eighth symphony is his briefest—the composer referred to it as his “little symphony in F” —but there’s a lot of music packed into 30 minutes. At the time of its composition in 1812, Beethoven was mired in depression and suffering over a love that was not to be. Rather than indulging his gloomy mood, however, the composer created a work of escapism, full of joy and musical jokes right up to the parodically huge finish. Thank you, Beethoven.

As we left the church, I heard one of the women behind me say, “Well, now you’ve done it—I’m addicted.” Exactly. If you haven’t been to the symphony, come check it out. A delicious little addiction can be a very good thing.

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