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Super serenades

Review by Ivy Wigmore 

On April 15th, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Tenor, Horn and Strings” as the final performance of its 50th season. As we settled in, PEISO musical director Mark Shapiro asked for a show of hands to see how many of the audience had ever been serenaded or, conversely, had serenaded someone else. Not many, was the answer. That was about to change dramatically, however, as we all had back-to-back serenades in our immediate future.

There’s more than a little Mozart in the program. Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 3 rounds out the afternoon and the opening work, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” might be considered a serenade to the earlier composer, who he greatly admired. The first movement was intentionally written in the style of Mozart, if updated for congruence with 19th century style. Tchaikovsky wrote the Serenade virtually at the same time as his thunderous 1812 Overture in a wildly creative explosion of the writer's block he had previously suffered. The strings were ravishing, and strings we had aplenty. As Tchaikovsky noted in the score: “The larger number of players in the string orchestra, the more this shall be in accordance with the author’s wishes.” I believe he would have been pleased.

Next up was the focal work of the performance. Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” made quite a striking contrast with the Tchaikovsky. We were serenaded first by Louis-Philippe Marsolais’ French horn solo, which perfectly established the tone and atmosphere for the song cycle, whose theme is sleep/dreams/night.

Among the pieces set to poems by Keats, Tennyson, Blake and others, the anonymous “Lyke Wake Dirge,” which has been traced back as far as the 1400s, was a standout. Britten arranged the cycle with unsettling central pieces bookended by gentler compositions to start and finish. The preceding “Elegy” was like a fearful vigil. Then, as “lyke” is Old English for corpse and "wake" for watch, we have the “Corpse Watch Dirge.” Britten’s setting of the poem has been called "manically terrifying." Dissonance created tension that then mounted to its extremities in the soaring tenor voice. Tenor Marcel d’Entremont sang with phenomenal power, control and nuance, and the orchestra's accompaniment enhanced the effect with great sensitivity. I was transfixed. In the Epilogue, the same horn solo closed the song cycle. It was delivered from offstage, seeming to sound from the distance and the effect was haunting. I’d love to listen to the Serenade performance again but haven’t found any recordings that equaled what we heard that afternoon, including one in which Britten conducted and Paul Pears, his lifelong partner, sang.

After intermission, we heard Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." This presentation of the famously sad and beautiful piece was dedicated to the late and much-lamented John Clement. The Adagio was a particular favorite of Clement, long-time music teacher and a founding member of the PEISO and the Singing Strings Youth Orchestra. How moving it was to see members of the youth orchestra join the PEISO for this performance.

Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 was written for a virtuoso, and fortunately we had one on hand in Marsolais. I'll turn to my husband here, who grew up listening to the Concerto: “Exquisite” was the word he used to describe Marsolais’ wonderful tone and superb playing. I’m struggling to find equivalent superlatives for Marsolais and d’Entremont, but words fail me. They were both simply amazing, and the orchestra was characteristically fabulous. The chatter around us as we filtered out was uniformly happy, with maybe just a few quibbles about what the best part was. We exited Zion well and truly serenaded.

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