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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Maestro Shapiro warned us. The PEI Symphony Orchestra director introduced the November performance, Vishtèn and Shostakovich, by informing us that if we thought the only purpose of music was to relax us, we were mistaken. He spoke of the power of music to communicate, and the authenticity of the voices we were to hear that afternoon.

We started not relaxing almost immediately. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5  was written in 1937 in the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge. Artists were highly suspect and those who produced works that were deemed not sufficiently Marxist were often sent to concentration camps, where many died. And so Shostakovich was faced with a pretty terrible dilemma: He could compose patriotic works and be safe or he could retain his artistic integrity and possibly die for it. Fortunately the composer found his means of expression and created a complex and subtle work that managed to satisfy the Stalinists, while subverting that simplicity with touches that were audible only to a more musically sophisticated audience. There were musical references to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, for example. The third movement is a requiem for loved ones who had died in the purge.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony was extraordinarily stirring, and spoke clearly of the composer’s almost unbearable environment. His own take: “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing…” Although the composer himself felt that his work suffered from the constraints imposed upon it, it may have been just those strictures that made the work so emotionally complex, subtle and powerful. I don’t know when I’ve been so completely absorbed by a performance, and I know I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat. A friend, afterwards, suggested I could write a one-word review: “Whew!”

Vishtèn took the stage after the intermission. Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc are twin sisters from the Evangeline region in western PEI, and Pascal Miousse from the Magdalen Island completes the trio of multitalented musicians. You can’t read about the group without coming across words like “high-voltage,” “high-octane” and  other variations on a theme of energy. I wish I could better characterize that energy because it really is something special, as wild and pure as fast water flowing by a rocky coast. All three were raised on traditional French music, into which they blend Celtic, folk and world music rhythms and their own exuberant presentation style. Some of the songs were sad—as Emmanuelle said, Acadian songs tend to end badly, in disaster and heartbreak—but they were all full of life, nevertheless.

Collaborations between a symphony orchestra and popular musicians are a little like improvisational cooking, throwing two unusual elements in a pot and seeing what happens. Sometimes the combination seems inspired and sometimes they just don’t go together. In this case, the arrangements with the orchestra amplified the themes of the group’s music, lending it a mythic, epic quality that seemed particularly appropriate for the well-rooted trio.

Vishtèn finished with an audience-mandated encore, as our journey with them reached its end. It was not a relaxed crowd that exited the Centre after the concert, exactly, but I think it was one enlivened and enriched by the performance. The concert was touted as the one not to miss this season (sure, I know, now I tell you)  and I’m so glad I didn’t. Relaxing? It’s overrated.

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