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Afternoon Apotheosis

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

At the first performance of the 2014-15 season of the PEI Symphony Orchestra, Director Mark Shapiro provided a brief tutorial on conducting music while two young volunteers made their way to the stage to assist with “O Canada.” The maestro got us to follow along as he demonstrated, moving his hands in the four cardinal directions. “Wave your hands around,” he said. “Sometimes faster, sometimes slower. When the orchestra stops, you’re done.” The tutorial completed, the national anthem sung (and conducted in fine style), and we settled in for the concert.

Pardon the cliché, but it must be said: The PEISO’s 2014-2015 season started with a bang. Literally. When Kelly-Marie Murphy was starting work on her first composition, the conductor Bramwell Tovey beseeched her repeatedly: “Please do not overuse the percussion.” What did Murphy return with? “From the Drum Comes a Thundering Beat,” which she wrote to represent the workings of catalyst and energy in the act of creation. It’s a thrilling piece, containing elements of mystery, uncertainty, excitement, doubt and jubilation. The composer was inspired by a Zuni legend in which the people sought new music. They consulted with elders and were shown music and dance that began with a drum beat so loud it shook the cave—which Murphy deemed a fair depiction of the creative process. It’s said that the piece boasts some of the fastest and loudest music in existence. Also? Really quite a lot of percussion—but not, I think, a single beat too much.

The Suzanne Brenton Award is given each year to an advanced music student, based on outstanding performance in the PEI Kiwanis Provincial Music Festival. One of the perks of the award is the opportunity to perform with the PEISO. This year’s winner, Lucas MacPhail, chose Pierre Max Dubois’ Saxophone Concerto. Lucas MacPhail loves the saxophone. The instrument seems like an extension of his body, and the young virtuoso clearly puts his entire body and soul into creating each note. What that translates to, music-wise, is phenomenally nuanced and expressive playing. I was quite transfixed, and I don’t think I was the only one.

The major work for the performance was Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written in honour of Mussorgsky’s friend Viktor Hartmann, an architect and artist. The 10 movements, each of which was inspired by one of Hartmann’s artworks, are linked by recurring variations on a promenade. The viewer/listener moves along through the exhibition, past “Gnome,” “The Old Castle,” “Hut on Fowl Legs” and “Catacombs,” among other pieces. Finally we reach “The Great Gate of Kiev,” described by writer Richard Whitehouse as the composition’s “spine-tingling apotheosis.” As we were exiting the theatre after “Pictures at an Exhibition,” the woman in front of me turned to say, “Was that Russian enough for you?” And it was: Intensely, passionately, romantically, ravishingly Russian.

Apotheosis, in a general sense, is the glorification of something to divinity. And so it was that we journeyed over the course of that afternoon from the beat so loud it shook the cave (and initiated the act of creation) through earthly woes and pleasures and, finally, transcendence to the divine. Where could you go from that point? Wisely, the orchestra decided to let it rest there. And Maestro Shapiro, consummate professional that he is, stopped waving his hands pretty much simultaneously. Bravo!

The Widow’s Spirit

by Ivy Wigmore

Frances Shelley

The Haviland Club is a beautiful Italianate mansion sitting on the corner of Water and Rochford Streets. At the time of its completion, it would have had an expansive harbour view. If ever a house fit the description of a haunted house, the Haviland Club does. And, indeed, one pre-dawn winter morning some years back, as I approached it I saw a deep blue light swoop up to a dark window—for all the world like someone eager to see who it was walking up the road. Others have reported inexplicable events as well -- on two recent occasions, for example, a visitor to the Club reported seeing a woman looking out the window of a second-story room, although there was no one up there.

When the Club was founded in 1997, it opened its doors to women as both members and guests.  However, for the first 40 years of its existence, the Officers’ Club previously housed in the building had been off-limits to women; it was not until 1983 that the Club admitted its first female officers, and even then female civilians were not served. Despite that long-standing restriction, however, the individuals who have left the strongest impressions on the building may be two remarkable women.

I was introduced to Esther Lowden and Frances Shelley Wees (pictured here) when I spoke to manager Jamie Larkin in the fall of 2013. We chatted in the boardroom, where Jamie told me a little bit about the two women. A little later, as he led me into a small chamber known as the bride’s room, I sensed someone rushing up to me in extreme high spirits, elated and volatile, perhaps verging on hysteria. The hair stood on the back of my neck; simultaneously, Jamie commented that people often pick up on happy, excited energy in that room.

Esther Lowden built what is now the Haviland Club in the late 1860s. Her husband, George Fish Crow Lowden, had at that point been dead for a few years. The Lowdens had been ship builders; after her husband’s death at the age of 40, Esther ran the business herself.

A medium brought into the Haviland a while back informed Jamie that there were three spirits inhabiting the club, one of whom was Esther. The ghost whisperer communicated with the widow and provided more detail on her story. It seemed that after Esther and her children had moved into their new home, she had fallen in love with a sea captain. She would watch out over the harbour from a widow’s walk, waiting for her lover’s return. One such watch finally proved fruitless, however, and it was learned that Esther’s love had been lost at sea when his ship went down. The medium reported that although the widow’s walk has since been removed, Esther now spends most of her time in the belvedere atop the building. And although the medium explained to Esther that there was no more reason for her to linger, that is where the widow chose to stay. 

Frances Shelly Wees was a prolific author who lived in Ontario for most of her life. From grandson Mark Belfry: “She was one of a group of "pioneer" women who did things like travel to China and Russia in the fifties when these things were much more difficult. Her last novel, The Last Concubine, traces the China trip.”  Her daughter Margarita Smith, who lived on the Island from 1991 until her death in 2004, painted the portrait, which she signed as “Darjee.”

Consider Frances’ image. How does she appear to you? When I first saw the portrait and heard Frances’ story from Jamie Larkin, the lady seemed to watch as we discussed her, and I was struck by her expression: extremely knowing, highly amused.  A few days later, I returned to the boardroom to do some work. It hardly seemed possible, but Frances’ expression that morning was subdued and sad. I kept looking back at the portrait, trying to see if there was any way her mood could be interpreted as “amused.” It was not possible.

I’ve visited Frances a number of times since, always gauging her changeable mood. Recently, she appeared to me fierce and challenging. I stood in the boardroom chatting with the women there for a few minutes, gazing back from time to time at Frances. After five minutes or so had passed, I was stunned to see that her mood had transmuted once again: Now she gazed back at me with an expression I could only see as pleading, beseeching. Frankly unnerved, I left the building, thinking about the implications. Is she attached to the portrait and communicating through it? As I walk away from the Haviland Club, I wonder what I can do for her.

Since the original article was published, I’ve had a lot of comments on the image. Here are just a few of the impressions of her expression: “She has that ‘come up and see me sometime’ look.” “She looks like she’s saying ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” “She has that ‘wanna party?’ look.” “She looks like she’s saying ‘Touch me and I’ll kick your ass.’” “She looks like she has an exciting secret.” “She looks like she has better things to do than sit for a portrait but is being indulgent.” “She looks indulgent and amused.” “Angry.” “She looks like she’s flirting with the photographer.” “In high spirits.” “She looks like she’s about to burst into tears.”

Several people reported that they had seen at least two conflicting expressions on her face. Reader, look again. Tell me: How does she appear to you?

Note: In the article published in the October Buzz (and previously in this page), Ivy accidentally conflated the stories of two women—a portrait of Frances Shelley Wees with a story about Esther Lowden. The preceding was written to set the record straight.

Not Too Bad

Island Summer Review

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Island Summer Review (photo: ©pixbylorne)On a recent summer Saturday night, my husband and I headed out of town to see Patrick Ledwell and Mark Haines’ Island Summer Review. Out on a clear July evening, 26 degrees, driving through velvety green and rolling hills, the promise of a full moon on the way home. Not too bad.

“Not too bad” is phrase that Ledwell explains as key to understanding Islanders. (As a native, I know full well that it can mean anything from “the most fun I ever had with my clothes on” to “I’m pioneer stock—I survive that kind of thing.” My own dad’s highest praise for a meal was “I’ve had worse.”)

What Ledwell and Haines have cooked up here is a presentation on Island culture. Islands are…special. They tend to be a little isolated because it’s harder to get to them—or away from them—than is the case with other places. That means that…well, we Islanders have our own ways. Consider the Island Summer Review a brief tutorial on the essential points of our specialness.

Ledwell’s presentation is simultaneously authentic, goofy and self-aware. In one mode, he shuffles up to the mike for a testosterone-heavy tune reminiscent of the blues classic “I’m a Man.” And totally sells it, along with a side of self-mockery—no extra charge.

He muses on the capacity of Islanders to enjoy some foods that aren’t classically beautiful. The large display features a lobster that looks particularly like some kind of bug and an oyster, which Ledwell describes as resembling nothing so much as a seal sneeze. A diagram appears to illustrate the fact that the part of our brain that processes visual input is really not close at all to the area responsible for taste. After a moment or two of thought he remarks that they can be used as a predictive tool for mate selection: “If you find someone who’s happy to slurp down a few of those, you’ve found someone who’s likely to overlook a few of your less attractive qualities.”

Another especially funny bit centred on an abysmally stupid and maniacally vicious gander on the family hobby farm, which terrorized Ledwell and his siblings. He describes—and imitates—Charlie the gander crouching, hissing, waiting in a ditch for a hapless kid to pass by. One winter, however, the Ledwell children had their revenge, devouring the Christmas goose with great gusto and merriment.

Mark Haines is an amazingly talented and versatile musician. He’s pretty funny too. He mentioned a recent competition for a song about the Island. “My song didn’t win,” he said. “I’m going to sing it for you anyway.” He was great!

Seriously, if you’re a tourist and you want to go home feeling like you’ve experienced the real spirit of the Island and have some insight into the culture, head for Harmony House to see Haines and Ledwell in performance. To my fellow Islanders: You’ll want to see it, too—it’s not too bad.

The World in Miniature

The Master’s Wife

Review by Ivy Wigmore

So here we are in 2014, 150 years since the fateful Charlottetown Conference and also the birth of Andrew Macphail. The 2014 hoopla we currently find ourselves immersed in and this happy congruence of events led to funding for The Master’s Wife: A Theatrical Celebration, a presentation of Sir Andrew’s memoir of growing up in Orwell. The “master” of the title was his father (a schoolmaster) and the master’s wife his mother. The character of both and the nature of their lives, the times and the place are resurrected in Macphail’s memoir; the theatrical presentation gives it flesh and blood.

Melissa Mullen and Rob MacLean, who portray Sir Andrew’s parents, appear first as themselves. When they were first courting, Rob took Melissa to see an old homestead left to its own devices out in what might be considered the precise middle of nowhere. Melissa speaks of her love of abandoned homes, the echoes still resonating of the lives of those who have passed through them over the years. The home, in this case, was the Macphail homestead, slowly being reclaimed by nature. When she learned of the site’s history, Mullen was aghast: Why is the government not looking after this place? In the years since, the Sir Andrew Macphail Foundation was formed to protect and preserve the homestead and 140 acres of the property. Nearby, Orwell Corner Historic Village is an interpretive site that offers visitors a more detailed demonstration of the Macphail era.

The script is largely drawn from the memoirs, which is only right. Presented faithfully, Sir Andrew’s text brings the era and the settlers to life in a way that we of that descent know in our bones. The presentation was managed with little in the way of props and virtually nothing in the way of stage set. Just the actors’ bodies and voices, the latter of which were often employed in song and sound effects. The small cast fluidly portrayed multiple characters with subtle shifts in facial expressions and mannerisms.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Mullen and MacLean in performance a number of times over the years. This was the first time I’ve seen Roy Johnstone act but I hope it’s not the last. He was mercurial, infusing each of several characters with an authentic and droll flavour, often simultaneously playing the fiddle. In a memorable sequence, Johnstone played a pair of dueling musicians—one a classical violinist and the other a fiddler—assisted by Mullen, who nimbly dogged his heels as he ducked, dodged and veered to change the cap on his head as a visual aid to which character was speaking.

The play, like the book, presents various areas of interest: household economy, nature, religion, music and sin. These areas are often spoken of as worlds, just as the Island is said to be not just an island but the world in miniature; The Master’s Wife provides an evocative and satisfying immersion into the world of rural PEI in the late nineteenth century.

Achingly Beautiful

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On April 6, the PEI Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro, presented their last concert of the season, featuring Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Wagner. Wagner was the winner in the first-ever audience choice contest, in which PEISO audience members and other interested parties were invited to cast votes to decide the afternoon’s opening act.

Wagner’s “Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg” achieved a clear win over Verdi’s “Overture to La Forza del Destino,” even despite a furious last-minute effort by desperate Verdi fans. It may have been the subject matter that secured the triumph—as the programme notes proclaimed, Wagner’s victory “proved that the ‘Divine Pursuit of musical excellence to win a future of love’ will always trump the ‘Dastardly Force of destiny.’” Really, what choice did voters have—which would you choose?

The first half of the performance concluded with Stravinsky’s “Jeu de Cartes” (card game), subtitled “a ballet in three deals.” The ballet is performed by the playing cards themselves. In lieu of visuals, however, Maestro Shapiro gave us the play-by-play so we could follow the action.

The final piece for the afternoon and season was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, known as the “Pathétique.” Although the composer never divulged precisely what the symphony represented, he said that there was a program behind it and acknowledged that the Pathétique was a something of a requiem. The Pathétique is dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s nephew, with whom he was in love. Despite success, the composer’s life was not a happy one. He did not feel free to live openly as a gay man and had a failed marriage, as well as failed relationships with both men and women. 

The first movement is ominous; a melody pattern known as the cross motive appears, generally associated with the crucifixion but one that Tchaikovsky identified with personally and also associated with star-crossed lovers, as in his ballet “Romeo and Juliet.”

The second movement of the Pathétique is a lovely melody, ostensibly a waltz but set to a 5/4 time signature, five beats to the measure rather than the more characteristic 3/4 waltz time. The second movement is sometimes referred to as a “limping waltz.” The time signature of subverts the melody—there’s a sense of being out of step with the ongoing dance,  feeling wrong-footed and disconnected.

Things turn around in the third movement, which ends on a triumphant note. In the fourth, however, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, as the sports commentators say. The final movement is mournful and wistful, full of longing and lamentation. It’s also achingly beautiful and very moving. As the audience drifted out into the street, I saw a lot of contemplative expressions and a few tears.

—Tchaikovsky died just a week after the premier of the Pathétique, the result of drinking a glass of water contaminated with cholera. He was 53. The speculation continues as to whether the composer’s death was a suicide or a tragic accident.

Zion Church has been a wonderful venue for the third and fourth performances of this season, warm and intimate. The PEISO returns to the newly renovated Homburg Theatre in the fall, for the 48th year that we have been lucky enough to have this spectacular orchestra right here in our little home town.

Highlights of next season include new compositions for a concert associated with PEI 2014 celebrations, Roy Johnstone performing a new work for fiddle and orchestra on Celtic themes, and orchestral works by Mussorgsky, Ravel, Mendelssohn and Sibelius. You won’t want to miss it.

Smiles All Round

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

If the PEI Symphony Orchestra ever cancels a performance, I will know that the apocalypse is surely at hand. That was the kind of thought rolling through my mind as I dodged plows and scrambled over snow banks through driving winds toward the PEISO’s third consecutive February performance in a blizzard. For the Orchestra has never cancelled: Forty-six years, Ladies and Gentlemen, and never a miss. This is, as you may gather, a testament to the dedication of the orchestra rather than the temperate nature of PEI winters.

The venue for this and the April performance is the lovely Zion Presbyterian church, as the Homburg Theatre undergoes renovations  (among other things, the addition of a centre aisle—huzzah!). Inside Zion, huge stained glass windows bathed the assembled in rich colours, while gleaming dark wood added warmth and that particularly evocative woodsy, antique scent that old churches always seem to have.

Director Mark Shapiro’s assistant conductor for “O Canada” on this occasion was Brian, a young man who conducted with great assurance and panache. Next on the programme was the premiere of New Brunswick composer Kevin Morse’s “Moth to Flame,” a beautiful piece that explores themes of attraction, anticipation and danger, all wedded to awareness of the inevitable outcome.

Cellist Julia MacLaine was the PEISO’s featured soloist, performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1. MacLaine, who began her musical training right here, is a very accomplished musician, performing a wide range of genres all over the world. Shostakovich, on the other hand, matured as a composer in Stalinist Russia. Pravda, the state-owned newspaper, panned Shostakovich’s 1936 opera because the dictator thought it was not sufficiently patriotic. Furthermore, in that environment, bad reviews were minor concerns: The composer had good reason to fear incarceration, or worse. At the same time, however, writing music to satisfy the state would mean that his works would be dismissed by more sophisticated critics. Rather than endanger himself or compromise his musical integrity, Shostakovich turned to irony, writing overtly patriotic music but consistently subverting it through exaggeration and other devices. The concerto requires complex musical expression and subtlety. MacLaine’s performance was wonderfully nuanced and emotionally resonant, and the PEISO was superb. We heard bombastic patriotism and the composer’s mockery, but also his sadness that such subterfuge was necessary in what was, after all, his native country.

For the second half of the concert, Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 was presented as a remedy for any unease lingering in the wake of Shostakovich. Despite its origin in some of Beethoven’s darkest days, the light and joyful work is known as the “Smiling Symphony.” That grin at times might stretch to a guffaw—according to musicologist Robert Greenburg, the fourth movement in particular is widely understood by those who understand these things to be a musical exploration of the composer’s chronic gastrointestinal problems. For example, the movement begins, Greenburg claims, with a hiccup, belch or flatulence—followed by a groan of pain.

As a result of their particular challenges, both Shostakovich and Beethoven suffered understandable depression; both contemplated suicide. And yet, as Maestro Shapiro informs us, the afternoon’s theme is not despair but humour. It’s humour, after all, that sees us through so many of life’s difficulties, whether those difficulties involve ill-advised attraction, an oppressive regime, or gastric distress. And, indeed, as the performance ended and we spilled out of the cozy church into our difficult weather, smiles and laughter prevailed. The Orchestra’s next performance is in April, when we might dare to hope there will not be a snowstorm. Barring the apocalypse, however, the show will go on.

My Messiah

Recollections and reflections of a chorister

by Ivy Wigmore

If this were a movie, we’d glide silently through a winter scene in a neigbourhood, softly falling snow visible in the glow of the streetlights, small houses and cars of the sixties setting the scene. At an upstairs window in a little pink house is a young girl in new flannelette PJs, watching the snow and the cars and the sky and gradually becoming  aware of the most amazing sound she’d ever heard.

I was seven or eight, I guess, and dubious about the existence of Santa, elves and other magical folk. And yet, that sound—I could identify it as singing but there was no possibility in my mind that humans could generate it. So, to my mind, there was only one thing it could be. I sat gazing out the window feeling awe and joy: It was almost Christmas, and I’d heard the angels sing.

It was some years before I heard such a sound again, put the pieces together and realized that my mother must have been listening to a Christmas broadcast of choral music. And then, it was still some decades before it ever occurred to me that I could possibly be part of a choir, singing that music.

I’ve never been a confident singer. In music class in school, I was one of those kids told to lip synch. Nevertheless, I’ve always enjoyed singing and kept right on doing it, out loud—especially if there was no one around to hear me. Why? Maybe because it makes me happy. According to a number of studies, singing reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and causes the release of endorphins, which create euphoria.

At any rate, whether it was the drugs or something else, I continued to sing around the house when no one could hear but the cats (who, sadly, are not fans). And then a few years back, I had a strong feeling that my voice wanted to get out and play with others. I took a few voice lessons and then I took the plunge and joined the Confederation Singers. Who will, it must be pointed out, take anybody.

The Messiah has been the defacto start to the festive season for me for some time now. I always tried to get to the performance, and we’d usually listen to the recording at least once over the holidays. Such an incredible, powerful work. I am not a Christian woman but when I sing The Messiah, I just about get religion. It’s like acting, in a way: To really do the work justice, it’s necessary to inhabit the role, to embody what you are singing and express it to the best of your ability. The result can be positively electrifying; you feel like a conduit for that holy energy. And, on those occasions when the entire choir is feeling it, I’m pretty sure the audience does too.

December fast approaches and we are preparing for another performance of The Messiah. There’s always a buzz in the rehearsal room when choir director Don Fraser hands out the scores and we begin our annual work on the familiar pieces. We are not all perfect singers. No, there are others in the choir that, like me, lack perfect pitch and can be a little challenged, time-wise. That’s why, as a fellow alto remarked, most of us are choristers and not soloists. And yet, sometimes when we all sing together, somehow the small individual errors fade away and the glory of the music rings out. Sometimes when the energy is just right, it’s the most amazing sound.

Emotional Experience

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what value can we put on a piece of music? Tolstoy maintained that music is “the shorthand of emotion.” Accordingly, we find ourselves responding, maybe hard-pressed to express precisely why we are, suddenly, nostalgic, elated, mournful or thrilled to our cores. On a foggy day deep in November, we experienced all of the above and more, when the PEI Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro, presented Echo Lau, Ravel, and Rose Cousins.

Nielsen’s fourth was written at the time of the First World War. At the time of its creation, the positivity and optimism of The Inextinguishable was a counter to a prevailing feeling that the end of the world was nigh. Nielsen’s native Danish name for the symphony translates to something like “life force.” In English, the symphony is called “The Inextinguishable,” and the theme of this stirring, powerful work is both together: the fire, the life force that cannot be put out, notwithstanding battles both real and metaphorical.

One of the challenges of reviewing is the need to process the experience as it unfolds, when sometimes you just want to sit back and listen, letting the music wash over you, forgetting all about the need to think about that experience and try to at least sketch it out in words. There were several moments like that through the performance, but the one that stands out is the adagio movement in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. The adagio is exquisite, and Lau, the winner of this year’s Suzanne Bretton award, played with sublime emotional maturity and nuance. The spare composition and the elegance of its performance reminded me of Mozart’s claim that music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them. The adagio was very moving. I sat there wondering if I was the only one with tears trickling down my face. I was reassured to learn that I had not been: The first words out of a friend I spoke to at intermission were “The adagio made me cry!”

The collaboration between Cousins and the PEISO, in the second half of the performance, made for a striking contrast with the one between Lennie Gallant and the orchestra in October. Something happened in the Gallant/PEISO synthesis, something that revealed the epic, heroic nature of the music’s themes that could never have been achieved by either Gallant or the orchestra separately.

As was the case with the previous concert, the PEISO enhanced Cousin’s simple songs. The arrangements and their performance were both wonderful. Nevertheless, on this occasion, the orchestra was clearly Rose Cousin’s back-up band. Because, really, the star of the second half was Cousin’s voice, its beautiful pureness and clarity, the way it soars and then softens to a smoky whisper.  Cousins has flawless vocal technique and phenomenal control but it all seems totally effortless and natural, as if the sound and emotion flowed directly from the singer’s soul. To quote another writer, Robert Browning this time: “Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.” We join a community of other people who are hearing this music or who have heard this music, the living and the dead, stretching back as long as humanity has existed, who have felt the emotions so eloquently and wordlessly evoked. I left the Homburg Theatre feeling, as I so often do after a PEI Symphony Orchestra performance, not just that I had been entertained: I’d had an experience.

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Some Upcoming Events

The Shack Wacky Review

With Patrick Ledwell and Mark Haines  February 2
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