PEI Symphony Orchestra
Review by Ivy Wigmore
The 43rd season of the PEI Symphony Orchestra got underway on Sunday, October 17 with a diverse programme collected as “Autumn Rising.” First up was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, featuring soloist Alan Klaus. Haydn was fond of writing surprises into his music. Here’s how he played with his audience’s expectations in the Concerto… Haydn’s friend Anton Weidinger had just invented the modern keyed trumpet and this was its debut. The natural trumpet was without valves and keys and only capable of high notes in a limited range. Haydn wrote the soloist’s entrance as something that would have been easily played on the old-school trumpet, so that the audience would think the new instrument little different. Thus they were lulled into false complacency—all the better to be blown away when the entrance led into work in the low register that would have been impossible for the natural trumpet. Throughout the piece, Haydn set off examples of the new trumpet’s capabilities with the characteristic fanfares of the old one.
Fast-forward a century and a half or so and we find ourselves plunged into Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” West Side Story is hailed as a turning point in American musical theatre, not only for its serious theme but also for the prominence of its sophisticated music and dance. The story itself is Romeo and Juliet, time-shifted to 1957. Gang warfare between the Puerto Rican Sharks and the working-class white Jets is heating up. When a Jet falls in love with the sister of the lead Shark, you just know this can’t end happily. On the other hand, though, the music is spectacular. We can hear the tension from the start, relieved by the poignancy and wistfulness of “Somewhere.” Then, the barely controlled violence of “Cool,” the inevitable rumble and tragic end. This isn’t a new story or new music but it was performed with the commitment and power to make it seem so. Both PEISO and audience were totally jazzed.
After intermission, we were treated to a historic piece, the overture to Joseph Quesnel’s opera Colas et Colinette. Created in 1789, Colas et Colinette was the first opera to be performed in Canada and, as far as we can know, the first written. Quesnel, a French sailor, had been captured by the British during the Revolutionary War, when his ship was delivering munitions to Americans. Quesnel was allowed to settle in Canada, rather than being imprisoned. His punishment was deprivation: The only music to be heard was “old drinking ditties” and “worn-out old motets.” Quesnel set about composing his opera to remedy that situation but was not happy with the performance because, after all, the available musicians were only used to playing said drinking ditties and tired motets. In The Gazette, Quesnel remarked that “It doubtless was very unpleasant for the gentlemen and ladies of Quebec that the music…was murdered so cruelly.” I hope that Quesnel was hovering somewhere nearby this afternoon to hear the overture sounding as delightful as he’d intended and to witness it honoured in the continuing tradition that he started in this country.
The finale for the afternoon was Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” Rachmaninoff is sometimes considered the last of the Romantic composers. The Symphonic Dances is like a summation of the composer’s works—as violinist Margo Connors comments, sort of a Coles Notes version. The symphony includes music inspired by Russian church music, a waltz and, finally, a juxtaposition of Dies Irae (Days of Wrath) and a resurrection theme. What better way to send us off, drifting through the streets like so many autumn leaves?