PEI Symphony Orchestra
Review by Ivy Wigmore
On October 20, the PEI Symphony Orchestra launched its 46th season with a concert featuring Lennie Gallant and Gustav Mahler. Mahler was a Jewish Austrian composer of the late-Romantic period. He is, as was helpfully pointed out, no longer with us. Gallant, on the other hand is—a Rustico-native with Acadian roots whose music is very solidly in the roots/folk tradition. And, as was witnessed by a pretty full house, the man himself is definitely alive and kicking. The coupling seems an odd one, at first glance but commonalities and a theme emerged.
Mark Shapiro, the adorable new director of the PEISO, introduced “O Canada” as he did when he guest-conducted in February last year, inviting a young audience member to help with the national anthem. “Do you know ‘O Canada’?” he asked Gracie; Gracie said she did. And with that, we were off to a rousing—and impeccably conducted—start.
Maestro Shapiro is musical director of the Cecilia Chorus, which performs an annual series at Carnegie Hall; in the summers he directs the Conductor Preparation Program at the European Musical Alliance in Paris. And then here he is, directing our hometown symphony orchestra. It does seem, as one member of the orchestra described it, “a bit of a miracle.”
Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, nicknamed “Titan,” was written in 1888, when the composer was in his twenties. The journey portrayed in its four movements is, as described by Mahler, that of “a strong, heroic man, his life and sufferings, his battle and defeat at the hands of Fate.” The Titan begins with “Spring and no end,” a musical sojourn in a forest idyll that ends in laughter. In the second movement, “Set with full sails,” the hero has matured and is beginning to throw his weight around.
Throughout the third movement, Hunter’s Funeral, an ominous minor-key “Frère Jacques” (or “Bruder Martin” as Mahler knew it) repeats. Well, Shapiro did warn us that “something not so nice” would happen to Frère Jacques. The funeral ends and the final movement, “Dall'inferno al paradiso” (from the inferno to paradise), begins with a shriek. Mahler’s comment: “Both the Funeral March and the storm that breaks out immediately afterward strike me as burning accusations hurled at the Creator.” However, as foretold, we reach paradise by the end of the movement, signaled by a triumphant musical phrase borrowed from Handel’s Messiah: “And he shall reign forever and ever.” Shapiro and the orchestra were on fire throughout.
The collaboration between Gallant and the orchestra was a beautiful, synergistic kind of thing, one of the best such collaborations I’ve heard. Gallant’s songs are simple and direct, often evocative of his (our) roots and the particular joys and sorrows of living here. In his resonant baritone, Gallant sings about the demise of one family farm, the devastation of the fisheries in another. The latter, “Peter’s Dream” was selected by the CBC as one of the top 10 East Coast songs of all time. “Of. All. Time.” Gallant repeated, clearly chuffed. “Locked in. Doesn’t matter how good a song you write now…it’s not getting on that list.” Where Mahler’s Titan was heroic in the mythic sense, Gallant’s heroes are more like you and me, the people we know, living our lives, doing the everyday, necessary things, and occasionally rising up to perform some small and private act of heroism as we are all called to do, from time to time, throughout our own journeys.