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Autumn Rising
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?

Tremendous Fun

Letters From Wingfield Farm

by Ivy Wigmore

Walt Wingfield has left his gig as a Bay Street stock broker. Disenchanted and seeking to simplify his life, he buys a farm in Persephone Township. As so often happens when we try to simplify, complications ensue. There’s an ironic and laconic strain of humour that seems to pervade rural areas. In Dan Needles’ Letters from Wingfield Farm, the ideological clash between our stock broker and the citizenry of Larkspur provides excellent fodder for that strain of comedy, as Walt and his new neighbours seek to understand each other.

Walt is enchanted with the orchard of old fruit trees he’s inherited and taken aback at the suggestion that a team of men with backhoes and bulldozers could eradicate them in a day, thus providing more acreage. “Oh no, I want to keep the trees.” “What for?” “Well, there must be some money in apples.” “Must be a lot—no one’s ever got any out of them yet.” When Walt makes a distress call about a sick duck that’s regressed from “the wobbles” to lying over on its side and kicking at the air, his neighbour consoles him: “You run back on down there. I expect you’ll find he’s quit that.”

The cast of characters includes Editor Ed, the wry editor who reads Walt’s reports. There’s Freddie, Walt’s nearest neighbour. Freddie divides his time among raising crops and livestock, small engine repair, auctioneering and real estate—essentially, what’s referred to in Larkspur as “mixed farming.” There’s Willy and Dave Haddock, Freddie’s nephews, two great, good-natured, lummoxes. There’s Jimmy the hired hand, so elderly and frail he’s mistaken for a corpse on first viewing but nevertheless capable of breaking horses through the sheer maniacal force of his will. In a cameo, we’ve got Ma Coots, a tiny, elderly woman, fey and slightly confused but firmly authoritative anyway.

This fairly extensive character list is played by a small but diverse cast, consisting of Rod Beattie. One can only assume that some 4,000 performances of the Wingfield plays have honed his skill. In any case, he was simply astonishing, conjuring up any of the multiple personalities in a twinkling and slipping seamlessly from one to another of the vivid characters. My date for the evening, who grew up on a farm, said that she knew each one of the characters in the play personally. The script and performance were terrific—not a second dragged. The whole thing was just tremendous fun. (More fun for you, of course, if you could have my mom with you, as I did, but you can’t have everything.)

As the play progresses, we find Walt’s neighbours coming to terms with his quixotic perspective. Take the wrap-up on Walt’s orchard: “You doctor up those old fruit trees—give you a place to run your ducks.”

As Walt signs off for the final time of this particular evening, his dreams have not been realized. Mounting bills and a lack of income have him considering a return to Bay Street. He’s keeping pigs. (I mean really keeping them—he can’t bear to take them to market and they’re eating him out of house and farm.) On the bright side, though, Freddie’s sister Maggie has made an appearance and there’s an apparent gleam in a certain career bachelor’s eye. Later plays in the series are Wingfield’s Progress, Wingfield's Folly, Wingfield Unbound, Wingfield on Ice, Wingfield’s Inferno and Wingfield Lost and Found. I’m hoping to see Wingfield’s Progress next year.


Comedy and Pathos

The Fixer-Upper

by Ivy Wigmore

Some months back, when Laurel Smyth was discussing plans for The Fixer-Upper, she said that she’d balked at playing Phyllis the Sexpot in addition to her major role of Aunt Tillie. Smyth, who says she has “just five years to go ‘til the pensions kick in,” felt that the character wasn’t a good match for her at this stage in her career. However, she soon thought of reconsidering. Without missing a beat, playwright Lorne Elliott had replied, “Oh fine then—I’ll play Phyllis myself.”

And so it was in a state of some anticipation that I set out to see The Fixer-Upper on a hot summer’s evening recently. I don’t usually like to quote myself, but I think in this case it’s relevant. Here’s the vision of Elliot I conjured for readers some years back: “Lorne Elliot is a funny guy. I mean, that hair! The lanky, wind-blown, storm-tossed look of the man, and the perennially baffled expression!”

Furthermore, as you may know, Elliott is approximately seven feet tall and not what anyone might call “androgynous,” let alone “pretty.” As you may imagine, Elliot’s physicality and posture lent a sort of deranged poignancy to the role of the Phyllis. Sheer genius. As was much of the rest of the performance.

Here’s the plot in the proverbial nutshell: Bruno MacIntyre has a shack he wants to rent out for the summer. He enlists the “help” of his Aunt Tillie (who has plans of her own) and comedy ensues.

Smyth’s son Will McFadden played the hapless nephew. To start things off, Bruno took us through a translation of common real estate terminology, from “starter home” (Read: kindling) to “fixer-upper” (Read: burner-downer). And then he just settled into the full-time occupation of falling into the intricate machinations of his aged relative.

Laurel Smyth is Aunt Tillie. And why not—it looked like a lot of fun. Aunt T carried meddling, misrepresentation and manipulation to new levels—she was positively Machiavellian. She was also snide, sarcastic and sharp as a tack, pushing poor Bruno through hoops and working her touchpad like an evil virtuoso. (There was also a lovely themed musical interlude in which Smyth accompanied Elliot’s guitar. Quite frankly, I have never heard anyone rock the touchtone phone any better.)

Lorne Elliott is always a pleasure to watch (and now I’m talking about his performances, not just his physical persona). There’s something very genial about his style, even as he displays the foibles of his characters at their most ridiculous. Whether it’s pompous Simon Beamish—the Torontonian writer who last year trashed PEI and is back for more ink for his poison pen—or the aforementioned ungainly cougar Phyllis (not coincidentally, Beamish’s estranged wife), Elliott plays up their flaws in a surprisingly sympathetic , if hilarious, manner. (And yes, you understood me correctly – Elliott portrays both man and wife.)

And if that sounds like an interesting ping-pong match to watch, you really have to see Will McFadden reproducing an argument between the two. McFadden is a superb physical comedian and seeing him back-and-forthing between accusatory Simon and affronted Phyllis had us laughing through our whiplash. Things got even more interesting as the heat of argument yielded to the smoldering passion between the two… Yes, I think you’ll just have to see it.

To some extent, the whole play is about expectations and perspective and the comedy and pathos that results when these clash with reality. Speaking of which, here are a few facts about PEI that Bruno shared: All the men look like Greek gods. The night-life rivals that of Las Vegas. There are no mosquitoes. There are, similarly, no jellyfish. Believe that? Great! I’ve got a fixer-upper I’d like to show you…

More Than Words

Spring Classics
PEI Symphony Orchestraby

by Ivy Wigmore

Classical music is not for sissies. In his introduction to the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of the season, Conductor James Marks announced that the concert would be a celebration of the power of music to express emotion. He went on to say that music, perhaps more than any other medium, has that capacity. I would argue further that classical music, perhaps more than any other genre, represents the extremes of human emotions at their purest, sometimes rawest. Ravishing romance, joy and transcendence but also grief, fear, and the almost overwhelming stirring, the coming to life and attendant pain that prompted T.S. Eliot to proclaim April “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

Music insinuates itself into the gaps in the insulation that keeps us at one remove and in doing so leaves us vulnerable to the intensity of full experience. Even words—for all their power—are blunt instruments in comparison to music, and have to take an oblique approach—through poetry, perhaps—to put into words (as another poet said) what can’t be expressed in words.

The performance began with Claude Debussy’s “Petite Suite,” four movements inspired by the poetry of Paul Verlaine, who had been the composer’s friend as a child. “En bateau,” the dreamy first movement evokes a twilight sail. Romance here, dreaming and scheming and disappointment, as the romance remains unfulfilled.

Next, the first of Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances wakes us from our reverie with a Furiant: high-voltage, fiery and passionate. Following were the Dumka (a pensive lament), the Polka and the Sousedska, a rural Austrian waltz that’s generally associated with the elderly. The composer said that his purpose for the Slavonic Dances was “to preserve, to translate into music, the spirit of a people distinct in their national melodies or folk-songs.”

Last on the program, the big event, was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. Brahms created the Symphony as a young artist—and also as a mature artist, because the composition was written over the period of a couple of decades. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of supporters, such as the composer Robert Schumann and his wife, never waned. The couple predicted that, when the Symphony was debuted, Brahms would be proclaimed the next Beethoven. Brahms is said to have sent a thank-you note of sorts at the beginning of the last movement, when a prominent horn call signalled a birthday greeting to Clara Schumann. The Symphony begins moody and melancholic in the first movement and moves on through the lyricism more typical of the composer in the second and third. The finale breaks through from minor to major, just as the PEISO put a decidedly triumphant flourish on the end of the piece, the concert and the season. All three were glorious.

By that point, we’d run much of the gamut of human emotion and, through the vehicle of music, revisited those highs and lows that make us feel keenly alive. That’s the paradox—the perceived fustiness that classical music has for some in contrast to the blissful, exhilarating, hair-raising, heart-breaking, delirious reality. We are so blessed to have the PEISO in our quiet little community. There we are, sedate, many of us frosty-haired, dressed-up and self-contained, while onstage the musicians give eloquent voice to our most transporting joys, our darkest fears, our deepest sorrows. We come to the performances and settle quietly into our seats, receptive, willing. To be stirred, sometimes, more than words can say.

Wows All Around

Mendelssohn Magic
PEI Symphony

by Ivy Wigmore

On November 22, the PEI Symphony Orchestra offered up “Mendelssohn Magic,” a performance celebrating young musicians. The title is a nod to the composer’s 200th birthday, being celebrated through the musical world this year.

The magic started with the overture to “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” which young Felix produced when he was just 17 (and-a-half, as his biography notes). The symphony became a sort of framework for Mendelssohn’s career: The composer completed incidental music, Opus 61, for a production of the play staged just a few years before his death in 1847. (Opus 61, by the way, includes one of the most familiar classical pieces in the Western world: the Wedding March.)

“Midsummer’s Night Dream” is lovely, sublimely imaginative, complete with braying Bottom and scampering fairies. (For those of you who couldn’t make it, fairies sound a bit like the insects — although, of course, more magical.) Just as in the play, when the fairies enter, things really get going. There was a great, buzzing sense of excitement and exuberant potential, a happy hubbub that was revisited throughout. And, also as in the play, the fairies have the final word before the dreamy, romantic ending.

From there we moved on to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, one of the most popular violin concertos in existence. The Concerto is often considered a rite of passage for any aspiring violinist and is known for both its lyricism and technical difficulty. Soloist Mark Djokic absolutely nailed it. He wowed the crowd and when he put down his bow, they returned the favour – I heard choruses of “Wow!” all around me.

After the intermission gave the audience a chance to catch their breath, the second half picked up with Elgar’s “Serenade for Strings.” The Serenade is a reworking of a suite that Elgar created in his youth, before he’d decided what he wanted to do when he grew up. The piece was first performed by the Worcester Ladies Orchestral Class. Violinist Rosa Burley, coming too late to hear that Elgar, their director, had composed the suite himself, remarked on “the profound impression its rather Mendelssohnian slow movement made on me.” Elgar’s other works include “Music for Powick Asylum,” created when he was bandmaster at that progressive institution, where the healing benefits of music were obviously taken quite seriously.

Brenton-Award-winner Matthew Rowsell soloed on Tomasi’s dramatic and atmospheric Trombone Concerto, next on the programme. The very talented Mr. Rowsell began his trombone studies in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. He graduated from UPEI last May and is currently working towards a Master of Music in Performance.

Last on the program for this performance was contemporary Canadian composer John Burge’s “Snowdrift.” Burge is Director of the School of Music at Queens University and is particularly well-known for his choral compositions, such as “Angels’ Voices,” which won the 2006 Outstanding New Choral Composition Award from the Association of Canadian Choral Conductors. “Snowdrift” is one of several Canadian-flavoured compositions written for The Thirteen Strings of Ottawa. Burge has also created a number of works setting poetry to music. Although “Snowdrift” is not one of these, it sounds as if it might be. The piece evoked snow in a way that we know in our Canadian souls but often forget: glorious, other-worldly and majestic. Exquisite, pristine snow swirled and shimmered; sparkling ice crystals floated all around, until the last delicious shiver of the afternoon signalled the end of another terrific performance.

The Full Spectrum

Autumn Colours
PEI Symphony with Paul Bernard

by Ivy Wigmore

The 42nd season of the PEI Symphony Orchestra got underway October 18th with “Autumn Colours.”

The afternoon kicked off with Aleksandr Glazunov’s Autumn. Autumn is the final tableau in The Seasons, an allegorical ballet. The first movement, Bacchanal, is a wild dance celebrating the year’s end. From that perspective, the music reviews winter, spring and summer. Revisiting the seasons amid Autumn seems particularly appropriate here, where on any given October day you might wake up to frost on the pumpkins and then, throughout the day, experience precipitation running the gamut from rain to sleet to snow. All of which is blown around, along with leaves of various colours, under threatening clouds and patches of blue. But every so often, the sun peeks through with just enough warmth to remind you that there was a summer. After the other seasons have been put to bed and the revelry completed, leaves fall, the skies darken and stars appear.

Paul Bernard was the guest soloist for Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The opening allegro con spirito is based on a traditional Spanish dance. Rodrigo described the concierto as “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds and the gushing of fountains.” It never fails to surprise me how much can be communicated through music. As violinist Margo Connors said in her performance preview notes, it was the first time she’d played a fragrance in her 29 years with the PEISO.

Bernard’s playing was so articulate that I found myself listening to it as if to a slightly-known language, as if a more careful listening would give me the story. The Orchestra provided a backdrop to this articulation in a lush watercolour wash, the swell of emotion behind the details of grief. Speculation is that this section of the concierto is a reflection of the death of Rodrigo’s infant son. In the last movement, there’s a feeling of renewal, life going forward—but not unchanged. Although the last movement is a dance, Rodrigo said it “should only be as strong as a butterfly.”

Next up is the overture to Carl Maria von Weber’s opera, Der Freishhutz (The Free Shooter). The opera is based on a German legend, in which Caspar and Max compete in a shooting match for the hand of Agatha. Caspar sells his soul to a demon, Samiel, for magic bullets and then—because, after all, what does he have to lose—he intends to trick Samiel into taking Max instead. Don’t worry, though—the demon was not born yesterday. Samiel is not fooled by Caspar’s scheme, whisks him away as planned and arranges the wedding of Max and Agatha.

Last item on the program was Aleksandr Borodin’s Symphony No. 2, written as a companion piece for Borodin’s unfinished opera, Prince Igor. War is the backdrop for the symphony, as preparations are made to fight the Tartars. Horses gallop, and soldiers march to the relentless marshalling beat of what sounds like grim determination, purpose and duty. What happens next, however, is that Igor falls for a Tartar maiden and all that grimness yields to the sweetness of romance.

Through this afternoon, there was love and romance, grief and persistence, duty and honour, deceit and skulduggery. And then at last, the return of love. The final movement is a celebration, which is, of course, where we came in.

Never a Dull Moment

Anne & Gilbert

by Ivy Wigmore

Last night as we were going into the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside, we ran into Campbell Webster, who was lurking outside. “We’re going to see Anne & Gilbert,” I said. (He probably could have worked that one out.) “I think you’ll enjoy it,” he responded. “I hope so!” said I. Webster, co-producer of the show, looked a little nonplussed so my husband helpfully explained that I was on assignment as a reviewer. Aha.

Well, just in case Campbell’s gnawing his fingernails to the quick in trepidation, I’ll get this right out of the way: Anne & Gilbert is terrific! Really, not a dull moment throughout, some snap to the music and lyrics. Funnily enough, it’s typically the music in musicals that often makes them all but unbearable for me. But this was compelling right from the opening number, “Mr. Blythe,” a paean to Gilbert (“the handsomest man on PEI”) performed by Josey Pye and the Girls of Avonlea. Well. It really was quite an amusing number. The Girls of Avonlea have got some moves. (I didn’t think that they had Much Music in Avonlea but apparently they must have. There were Josey and the Girls, gyrating like so many Lil’ Kims in pinafores.) This is a much sexier show than Anne of Green Gables. Although, of course, what isn’t?

Josey Pye and her posse were all swooning because Gilbert Blythe was slated (pun intended) to be their teacher this year. As it turned out, he nobly sacrificed that position so that Anne could have it and Josey’s hopes were dashed. Nevertheless, throughout much of the performance, Josey kept us amused with her constant attempts to lure Gilbert away from Anne—who, in any case, had no (conscious) intention of ever encouraging his suit. We watch as Anne repeatedly betrays her real emotions and then, lightning fast, denies them. Even those of us who know the story inside out may have been wondering, almost to the end, if she would or she wouldn’t. I’ll not tell.

The whole production was great, the writing, singing and dancing and acting totally professional. The set was somehow nostalgic and sweet at the same time as it was modular and functional. Everything just worked. We occasionally feel a bit over-Anned on PEI but Anne & Gilbert is enough of a departure from Avonlea tradition that it feels fresh.

 I’m very happy to report that I did, indeed, enjoy it.

Funny Farm

Charlie Farquharson and Them Udders

by Ivy Wigmore

A reviewer is supposed to go into a performance with an open mind but I have to admit that setting out to see Charlie Farquharson and Them Udders at Confederation Centre in Charlottetown, I didn’t. I could have started writing from the first time I saw the promotional image: Valerie Rosedale, imperious, haughty and astride a milk cow—the business end of which faces the onlooker—led by country cousin Charlie. As Charlie’s alter egos tend to be, the dowager is deadpan in whatever bizarre situation she finds herself, looking you fiercely in the eye and defying you to laugh. So, of course, you can’t help yourself.

Yes, I knew I was going to have fun, from the moment I decided to go and lined up my mom as my date. As it turned out, my brother had gotten tickets and also intended to take Mom but hadn’t informed her yet. Snooze, ya lose, as they say. Charlie Farquharson—even typing the name brings a smile to my face—is really a bit of a tradition in our family. I can still remember Dad guffawing as he watched Charlie on Hee Haw, or read one of his brilliant, corny books. Maybe his “Histry of Canada,” maybe his “Jogfree.” Dad was a lovely guffawer.

Two of the “Udders” onstage that night were David Warrack and Claudette. They were both charming and talented and also able to ham it up right along with the other Udders we’d be entertained by.

Warrack opened the show and introduced Claudette, who performed a parody of the traditional song “Alice Blue Gown.” Looking overmedicated and underattended, Claudette warbled “In my sweet little hospital gown,” about the trials and tribulations of meandering the corridors in a johnny shirt.

Don Harron ambled onstage in good time. Harron, of course, is more what Charlie would call an urbane fellow than a rurial one. You can hardly imagine him watching “Hee Haw,” let alone performing on it.

Harron said that after 57 years as a stand-up comic, he was now a sit-down comic. He chatted to the audience a bit, giving us some insight into where Charlie’s bemusement by the modern world and frustration with a lot of it comes from.

As I headed out to the performance that evening, I told my husband I’d probably be able to write a complete review on quotations from the show. And I’m sure I could have, despite the fact that you’d have to be superhuman to catch all Charlie and dem udders’ malapropisms, puns and brilliant, corny observations.

Here’s a little sample: When Claudette quizzed Charlie’s Scottish cousin as to whether anything was worn beneath the kilt he replied with gruff umbrage: “Certainly not! It’s all in first-class working condition!” We also learned, from Valerie Rosedale (who was very glad to be on our gentile island) that the Boston Tea Party—throwing tea into warm water—established the quality of tea brewing in America from that day forward.

My mom said she thought she caught about half of it. But she felt, as I did, that half was plenty. We did have fun. To my brother: Better luck next time!

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