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Stormy finale

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On April 10th, the PEISO celebrated the end of this season with “A walk with Brahms” under the direction of Mark Shapiro. A member of the orchestra said to me back in 2013 when he took the helm that it was “a bit of a miracle.” We’ve recently learned that Shapiro has signed on for a further five years as the orchestra’s musical director.

You may or may not have noticed that there was no weather report in my review of the February concert, since there was no snowstorm. (In February! On the day of a PEISO performance!) Guess what. It stormed April 10. In any case, you can blame my recidivism on Mark Shapiro, who must be quoted. He said that he had been puzzling for some time over two major questions: 1. What is the meaning of life? and, 2. What is Charlottetown like without snow? He said he had been making good progress toward an answer to the first question.

The program opened with Frederick Delius’ “A Walk to the Paradise Garden,” from the composer’s opera “A Village Romeo and Juliet,” which sets the tragic romance in a Swiss village. The piece was added to the opera as an interlude to cover lengthy costume changes, and the lyrical melodies do provide that kind of sweet respite, evoking Swiss landscapes.

Karem Simon was the featured performer for this concert. Simon has been a member of the UPEI Music Faculty and the PEISO since 1991; he is also a member of eklektikos, a PEI-based ensemble that presents contemporary chamber music. Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto, was written in 1928 for Aage Oxenvad, the clarinetist of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. Oxenvad was bi-polar and there is some suggestion that the radical and frequent key/mood shifts of the concerto represent that tension. Simon performed the notoriously difficult concerto with his customary quiet confidence and precision. 

The piece has been referred to as “a war between the tonalities of F major and E major.” And then there was the snare-drum clash, ringing out like the bell at a boxing match and signaling a key change whenever the music seemed to be reaching some kind of a resolution. Stirring things up again. As Simon commented prior to the concerto, you could easily imagine Jerry Seinfeld’s standup response: “What’s with the snare drum?” Well, tension of some sort, whether a reference to the moody Oxenvad, the composer’s own struggles finding an audience for his music or the pervasive low-grade tension affecting all of us wishing for a better world, as Shapiro suggested. The Clarinet Concerto was to be one a suite of five works, one for each member of the Copenhagen Wind Quintet. However only the works for clarinet and flute were completed when the composer died in 1963.

The major work for the afternoon was Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, sometimes called his Pastoral Symphony to reflect not only the composition’s character but also his reverence for Beethoven. Brahms wrote his second symphony during a visit to an Alpine village. Theodore Billroth, a friend of the composer, described the symphony as “all rippling streams, blue sky and cool, green shadows.” Brahms himself described it differently to his publisher: “so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” And although he was probably joking, there is a melancholy strain underlying the idyll, lending necessary depth. 

The symphony—and the symphony season—ended with an exuberant, and triumphant finale. With that, we exited the church to bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies, the snow clinging to bare trees already beginning to melt.

Above and beyond

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.

The thrill of it all

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.

Black plus white

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.

Is he here?

by Ivy Wigmore

The following is a true, if much condensed story. Names and a minor detail or two have been changed to respect the privacy of those involved…

Fiona knew the house was haunted. As she sat on the deck having tea with the widow, she heard unmistakable sounds of sawing and hammering from the workshop in the empty house. She knew who the ghost was and why he might linger. But having recently separated from the father of her two young girls, Fiona needed to find a new home and this one allowed them the comfort of staying in the same area.

From the time they moved in, Harold made his presence known. The atmosphere was heavy and they often felt eyes on them when no one was there. Items would disappear, nowhere to be found despite extensive searches and then suddenly turn up somewhere in plain sight. A door might rattle as if someone shook the handle from the other side or be locked when no one was there to turn the mechanism.

The house was cold, and turning up the thermostat couldn’t dispel the chill. In the living room, the cold became so intense each night that Fiona and the girls couldn’t stay to watch a movie, despite wrapping themselves in comforters. The chill would grow worse as the evening grew later, and felt willful, as if it were trying to force them from the room. They were often woken in the middle of the night by sounds of an argument, followed by a heavy tread down the stairs and the front door slamming.

Fiona and her daughters went on for some time sharing the house with the stubborn spirit. Then one night Fiona was in the bathroom preparing to go out for the evening, feeling lonely and sad, wishing she wasn’t on her own. Just then, she said, she felt arms go around her, hold her as if to provide comfort. It felt, Fiona said, just like a living person, there was warmth and pressure. But it also felt like a line had been crossed—physical contact was going too far.

Fiona brought in a medium to mediate with the spirit. She learned that Harold had been a diabetic who was not looking after himself, was flying into rages and was alienating his family. He had become increasingly despondent, unable to control his moods and hopeless about the future. He left the house around 3:00 one morning after a fight with his wife, drove around a few hours, came home and asphyxiated himself in the car. Suicide was the only way he could see out of his situation. The medium said he’d had a change of heart before he succumbed to the fumes. Harold had tried to get out of the car but the door handle came off in his hand as he breathed his last. The medium tried to convince Harold to cross over but it’s not clear whether he did.

One day ten years or so after she’d moved from the house, Fiona was walking to Timothy’s to meet me for coffee and tell me her story. She was unsure of the time and hoping she wasn’t late. A hand suddenly clasped her elbow, as if to urge her along. Startled, she looked to see who it was but there was no one there. Fiona saw me then, approaching from the opposite direction and we met as planned. Since that day, I’ve had occasional unexplained phenomena in my own house similar to what Fiona described, and I wonder: Has he moved on? Is he here now?

Awe inspiring

PEI Symphony Orchestra

by Ivy Wigmore

I like Professor Dacher Keltner’s definition of the word: “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world.” Recent studies have reported that, of all the positive emotions, the experience of awe has the most profound effect on our well-being. Nature is a good source—there’s the ocean, the night sky, mountains, lightning, the northern lights—and art is another, whether visual art, dance or music. Which brings me to the final PEI Symphony Orchestra performance of this season, “The Passion of Sibelius.”

In fact, the Finnish composer split the bill with Mozart, whose final symphony, No. 41, was first up. Mozart wrote the symphony nicknamed “the Jupiter” in a dark period near the end of his short life. His infant daughter had died unexpectedly; he was depressed and concerned about his own and his wife’s health. There were also considerable financial pressures, which explains why, at such a dark time, the composer knocked out three symphonies in 50 days. As Director Mark Shapiro remarked, Mozart needed the money. Nevertheless, the Jupiter doesn’t suffer for having been inspired by need. The symphony begins with a courtly and militaristic allegro vivace. The second movement may be our window to the composer’s emotional state: it’s very sad. The third movement evokes the ballroom and the symphony finishes spectacularly with a counterpoint involving five separate melodies—no walk in the park for any orchestra. There are those who believe the Jupiter comprises a summary of all symphonic music written previously. In any case, Mozart’s final symphony is complex and engaging and, ultimately, optimistic. It is not known whether the composer ever heard the symphony performed.

There is some debate about the theme of Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2. The composer himself called it “a struggle between death and salvation” and “a confession of the soul” while his biographer Karl Ekman called it “a song of praise to summer and the joy of living.” In Sibelius’ native Finland, the symphony was broadly felt to echo the people’s struggles under Russian rule and their hopes for freedom. Within the country, the work was sometimes known as the “Symphony of Independence.” That interpretation is easy to follow through a pastoral first movement evoking Finnish countryside, the two movements following expressing the struggle under tyranny, and the final, triumphant movement celebrating freedom.

Whatever Sibelius’ intention, the symphony moves from sunlit landscapes through dark territory, to emerge on the other side victorious. The music is dynamic, almost electrifying at times. In Zion Church, the venue for this concert, the sound was wonderful, the music reverberating through all the wood and air in such a way that we not only heard it but felt it too. In a way, I thought, the music plays us as we entrain to the rhythms, our heart rates and respiration changing as we listen to the sounds and feel the vibrations, feel our vibrations changing in response. After a live performance like that, you feel altered, uplifted by the experience in a way that can’t be achieved by listening to a recording.

Standing ovations are so common these days that they’ve lost currency, but you can still gauge audience response from the speed with which people rise. This performance produced a fast standing O, people clapped hard and there were even some shouts. After the extended applause finally died out, a friend sitting next to me turned to say, “My heart is just pounding!” There were tears in her eyes—and something else… I think you’d have to call it awe.

Symphonic Poems

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On the first day of February, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Celtic Landscapes” under the direction of guest conductor Dr. Karem Simon. No February symphony review would be complete without reference to the weather, so here you go: The temperature was brutal, the winds were fierce, the snow banks were mountainous and the sidewalks, where clear, were sheer ice. No matter. A near-capacity crowd was snugged up in the warmth of Zion church. Uncharacteristically, the traditional February concert weekend snowstorm had been content playing havoc with the rehearsal on Saturday, so that concert-goers only had to deal with hardship getting to the performance rather than the standard nigh-impossibility. Such is life here on Prince Edward Island at this time of year.

For this concert, Felix Mendelssohn, German composer of the early Romantic period, split the bill for the first part of the concert with Roy Johnstone, preeminent PEI fiddler (and more recently, composer) of the here and now.  The concert got underway with Mendelssohn’s Overture of the Hebrides, inspired by the composer’s visit to Fingal’s cave. The lyrical overture conjures for the listener the beauty of the cave and its lonely situation, the eternal rolling of the waves. 

Johnstone, in collaboration with Dr. Richard Covey, composed and orchestrated “Abeqweit: Symphony for an Island,” described as a symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is an orchestral composition that is designed to evoke something other than music, typically a narrative of some sort. In the case of “Abeqweit,” we have the story of the island formerly known by that name, which came from a Mi’kmaq word meaning “cradle (or cradled) on the waves.”  We seem to approach the Island from the sea, getting closer until we hear the waves softly lapping on the shore. The piece starts quietly, in the dead of winter, but then the air begins to shimmer and the frozen image comes to life. We hear, through the oboe, the voice of the First Peoples, an honour song that sounds like wisdom, grief and perseverance.  French voyageurs slip lively through the waters next; there’s foot clogging and Acadian dance music. The British military arrives. There’s a Scottish strathspey, an Irish jig and an Acadian lament. Symphonic devices connect the elements subtly so that the whole hangs together beautifully as a narrative rather than presenting as a sequence of bits and pieces. The piece finishes with the same representation of waves on the shore intended to evoke the name, Abeqweit. A reminder, according to Johnstone, of “the changeable beauty and fragility of the Island and its people.”

After intermission we settled in for the longer Mendelssohn composition. Symphony no. 3 in A minor, known as the Scottish, is another symphonic poem. This one was inspired by the composer’s 1829 visit to Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh and the abbey ruins there: “Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” The Scottish begins wistful and melancholy, moving through elements of Scottish music forms (including a bagpipe impression by solo clarinet) to a finale that borrows from Scottish folk dance forms set within a majestic theme. 

There’s another element of this performance that I’d be remiss in not mentioning: Joy. Dr. Simon conducted with superb assurance and professionalism, and the pleasure he took in this role was clear to see. Members of the orchestra were seen to beam spontaneously throughout; Johnstone and the audience seemed almost transported. Here, in this formidable frozen landscape, at least for an afternoon, we found an island of warmth. 

All Canada, All the Time

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

The premiere of a new composition is always exciting and for the second PEI Symphony Orchestra concert of this season, that thrill was doubled: To mark the sesquicentennial of the 1864 Charlottetown conference that started the ball rolling on Canada, the PEISO presented not one but two orchestral works created expressly for the occasion, the winners of a competition last January.

In his opening remarks, Director Mark Shapiro spoke of how moving he found the deep love Canadians have for their native land, how that love is inextricably connected to the natural world, the country’s vastness and the creatures inhabiting it. Each of the three very different presentations of November 23rd expressed that connection, that love.

Garret Krause is a Calgary-based composer and pianist who has won many awards at both the provincial and national levels. Krause’s “Where pines and maples grow” was created “as a tone poem that explores the great, expansive nation of Canada by incorporating melodies from its musical heritage.” The composition is a bit like a timeline, a series of stories extending from the days before European settlers through confederation and beyond the present day. First Nations, French and English are all well represented through snippets of folk songs interspersed with more modern music and the repeating O Canada motif.

We had been notified in advance that we’d be called upon for audience participation during Krause’s composition, and when the time came we were ready: We stood and sang “O Canada” as part of the presentation. After we’d done our patriotic duty and the piece was ended, Maestro Shapiro remarked that “Already we could go home satisfied, could we not?” Go home we did not, however, for there was yet a lot of music in our afternoon.

The other winner of the competition was Alice Ping Yee Ho, an acclaimed composer who said she had always wanted to write a piece about Canada. “Ocean Child” is the story of M’Whell, a young grey whale beached close to Vancouver, along the shore from a bird sanctuary. M’Whell’s story was sung exquisitely by soprano Charlotte Corwin, an accomplished performer of opera as well as concert repertoire. The operatic training stood Corwin in excellent stead as she sang from the young whale’s perspective through the four movements: Beach, Land, Deep and Rescue.

Throughout the sung story we hear references to the Canadian landscape, its waters and wildlife. We hear the discussion of rescuers. Even the CBC is referenced, as broadcasters report on the event.

A friend in the audience told me she’d had a nice little chat with the composer in the washroom during intermission and learned that the following week Ho would be in Taiwan for another world premiere. As my friend noted, that’s not the kind of encounter that you’d be apt to have during a symphony concert in larger centres.

After the intermission we went deeper, beyond Canada-centrism to PEI-centrism, when Catherine MacLellan took the stage. MacLellan’s music speaks directly to that same deep love of Canada and the physical environment. Her most recent release, The Raven’s Sun, deals with “life, death and transformation.”

MacLellan’s beautiful, warm voice comes straight from her heart and the lyrics come from those same roots, as she sings about “frost in the hollows” and her “little mountain home.” Speaking of roots, MacLellan sang father Gene’s much-loved “Snowbird” to finish the afternoon’s performance. How Canadian is that?

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