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Pottery in the Park

The fall session of pottery classes at the PEI Potters Studio in Victoria Park, Charlottetown will b [ ... ]

A Course in Miracles

Every Friday evening at 7 pm a group meets for an in depth study and discussion of the text “A Cou [ ... ]


PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On April 23, the PEI Symphony Orchestra finished its 49th season in fine style. Well, “fine” is quite an understatement, really. I’m sure if I surveyed audience members as they exited, “fine” would not be a word chosen to describe the performance. “Amazing” would probably be the general consensus, with some variations along the lines of “astonishing” quite likely.

First up was “Voyageur,” by Andrew Staniland, commissioned for the Toronto Symphony’s 2007 Northern Residency tour. The New Yorker described his music as “alternately beautiful and terrifying.” (According to one violinist, that might depend on which side of the stage you were on.) By Staniland’s own admission, composers must embody the spirit of the early exploratory voyageur, “charting new courses of statement and expression,” to satisfy the human need to “reach out, go further, take risks and explore.”

Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 rounded out the first half. The popular symphony is also known as the Haffner for the family who commissioned it on the occasion of the son’s elevation to nobility, and the grand music befits the occasion. From the thrilling first movement, marked “allegro con spirito” (quick, with spirit), to the final “presto” (very fast) last, the Haffner is an exuberant piece of work. How fast is presto? As fast as possible, according to Mozart. By another definition, presto describes something brought about suddenly, possibly by magic. That works too.

In the second half of the performance, soloist Marc Djokic took the stage for Sibelius’ Violin Concerto — and did he take the stage. I’ve been thinking ever since of how to characterize the special quality of Djokic’s performance. The Concerto is famously difficult and it’s not that he made it seem easy, exactly, but there was a certain inevitable perfection to his playing, as if he could not make an error or fail to deliver a single nuance to a note. I could only think of what is commonly known as being in the zone, the point where skill and challenge find their fulcrum and magic enters performance of all sorts. Christopher Bergland, an ultrarunner, calls it superfluidity: “... a state of performing with zero friction, zero viscosity, and superconductivity — it is a state of absolute harmony and endless energy.” That’s the zone where Djokic was, stepping squarely into it each time he picked up his bow. And the orchestra was with him every step of the way. I think I’ve got to resort to “astonishing” to describe it. 

It never ceases to amaze me that we have this remarkable symphony orchestra here — in our own tiny province, our own little town — that we have had it now for almost half a century. The PEISO officially launched its 50th season May 1, dedicated to the memory of founder John Clement, who left us on April 13. In his honour, Clement’s widow Jenet joined the orchestra on piano for “Ashokan Farewell.” So soon after his death, the tribute must have cost her dearly but was, as PEISO member Margo Connors commented, “expressed the best way she knows, in her own language.” The language of music, that is, that the Clements had dedicated their lives to fostering here.

In his introduction, PEISO president Bruce Craig announced the creation of the “Send a kid to the symphony fund,” also dedicated to the memory of John Clement. The fund will be used to provide free symphony tickets for young people, in the interests of getting them to performances and thus helping to ensure the future of the PEISO. As a woman sitting nearby said, “all you have to do is get them here once. Then they’ll be hooked.”

The power of music

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Maestro Shapiro warned us. The PEI Symphony Orchestra director introduced the November performance, Vishtèn and Shostakovich, by informing us that if we thought the only purpose of music was to relax us, we were mistaken. He spoke of the power of music to communicate, and the authenticity of the voices we were to hear that afternoon.

We started not relaxing almost immediately. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5  was written in 1937 in the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge. Artists were highly suspect and those who produced works that were deemed not sufficiently Marxist were often sent to concentration camps, where many died. And so Shostakovich was faced with a pretty terrible dilemma: He could compose patriotic works and be safe or he could retain his artistic integrity and possibly die for it. Fortunately the composer found his means of expression and created a complex and subtle work that managed to satisfy the Stalinists, while subverting that simplicity with touches that were audible only to a more musically sophisticated audience. There were musical references to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, for example. The third movement is a requiem for loved ones who had died in the purge.

Shostakovich’s fifth symphony was extraordinarily stirring, and spoke clearly of the composer’s almost unbearable environment. His own take: “I think it is clear to everyone what happens in the Fifth. The rejoicing is forced, created under threat. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, “Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing…” Although the composer himself felt that his work suffered from the constraints imposed upon it, it may have been just those strictures that made the work so emotionally complex, subtle and powerful. I don’t know when I’ve been so completely absorbed by a performance, and I know I wasn’t the only one on the edge of my seat. A friend, afterwards, suggested I could write a one-word review: “Whew!”

Vishtèn took the stage after the intermission. Emmanuelle and Pastelle LeBlanc are twin sisters from the Evangeline region in western PEI, and Pascal Miousse from the Magdalen Island completes the trio of multitalented musicians. You can’t read about the group without coming across words like “high-voltage,” “high-octane” and  other variations on a theme of energy. I wish I could better characterize that energy because it really is something special, as wild and pure as fast water flowing by a rocky coast. All three were raised on traditional French music, into which they blend Celtic, folk and world music rhythms and their own exuberant presentation style. Some of the songs were sad—as Emmanuelle said, Acadian songs tend to end badly, in disaster and heartbreak—but they were all full of life, nevertheless.

Collaborations between a symphony orchestra and popular musicians are a little like improvisational cooking, throwing two unusual elements in a pot and seeing what happens. Sometimes the combination seems inspired and sometimes they just don’t go together. In this case, the arrangements with the orchestra amplified the themes of the group’s music, lending it a mythic, epic quality that seemed particularly appropriate for the well-rooted trio.

Vishtèn finished with an audience-mandated encore, as our journey with them reached its end. It was not a relaxed crowd that exited the Centre after the concert, exactly, but I think it was one enlivened and enriched by the performance. The concert was touted as the one not to miss this season (sure, I know, now I tell you)  and I’m so glad I didn’t. Relaxing? It’s overrated.

So much music

Elgar's Enigma

Review by Ivy Wigmore 

On October 16, the PEI Symphony Orchestra ushered in their 2016/2017 season with “Elgar’s Enigma,” under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. This season, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of our beloved hometown orchestra, opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” reflecting on two poems by Goethe.

One of the greatest pleasures, one of the biggest thrills of PEISO concerts is the presentation of new original works, in this case, Harry Stafylakis’ “Arc of Horizon.” Stafylakis is the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, a former metal musician from Montreal now based in New York. He creates contemporary classical music informed by his background in progressive metal and traditional Greek folk music. “Arc of Horizon” is a very personal work for the composer, the central problem and motivation for which, he says, was the conflict between his musical past and present.

The piece was commissioned by the Lake George Music Festival. Lake George, NY , half-way between Montreal and NYC, has always been a landmark for Stafylakis, signaling “departure from one place and imminent arrival at another.” The composer says that the transition always “evokes tangled and conflicting emotions of aspiration, longing, regret, fear and nostalgia.” All of which are made manifest in Arc of Horizon, a dynamic and compelling work. The New York Times described the composer’s “Brittle Fracture” as “dreamy but rhythmic” and Arc of Horizon could be similarly described. The performance was the Canadian premiere of Arc of Horizon, and it was simply spectacular.

Another great pleasure: Seeing a new generation of musicians rise up to take their places. Connie Yun is this year’s winner of the Suzanne Brenton award, given each year to a promising student. The award itself is made possible through the financial gift of a former PEISO cellist who only began to play at the age of 60. In contrast, Yun is 16 and has been playing violin for a decade, winning many awards and prizes for both violin and piano. For her star turn in this concert, Yun tackled Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, a piece often chosen to demonstrate virtuosity because it is fiendishly demanding. I’m happy to report that virtuosity was well demonstrated. Yun has been performing as an apprentice with the PEISO, so we may expect to hear more from her.

So much music! And that was only the first half. After intermission came the title piece, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, dedicated by the composer “to my friends pictured within.” Each of the fourteen variations is a brief musical sketch depicting someone known to the composer and one approach to solving the enigma of the title, a mystery that has never been identified. It’s unlikely that any of us in the audience could hazard a guess as to who Elgar’s friends were but Maestro Shapiro suggested we might be able to find resemblances to individuals within our own circles. That was an interesting exercise. The friends ran the gamut: playful, romantic, capricious, bellicose, whimsical, melancholy…oh yes, people can be like that.

Elgar himself was a violinist before he was a composer, and it was the Enigma Variations that brought him critical acclaim and success at the age of 42. Elgar was also one of the first major composers to make gramophone recordings of their music. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to listen to great music at home or work. But for my money? It just does not compare to the live performance, hearing the music as it is brought to life by the musicians, ringing throughout the performance space.

The room upstairs

A tale of haunting in Savage Harbour

by Ivy Wigmore

Artwork by Matthew HaughnThe house in Savage Harbour had a history. It was rented out for some years to people from the Confederation Centre and it was said that Gene MacLennan had written “Snowbird” in the livingroom. When Kim Bradford’s sister and her husband looked at the house, it was run-down and in need of considerable work. Oddly, a large upstairs bedroom was closed off, entrances from a smaller bedroom and the pantry staircase both boarded over.

Undaunted, the couple bought the house and opened the room up. The mystery deepened with the discovery of strange markings on the floor. In the small community, however, it wasn’t hard to research the house’s past. A white witch who’d once owned the house said that she had cast spells in that room. During one session “something” had been unloosed that she couldn’t send back, so she sealed the room with boards and incantations to at least contain it.

The newly-opened room had an eerie feel. And strange things started to happen. One morning, waking late, Kim thought she was alone in the house until she heard loud noises upstairs: things being dragged, banging, slamming, thumping and stomping around. Kim thought her sister was up there and furious—until she came in the door from the barn. Told about the disturbance, she was nonchalant: “Oh, that goes on a lot.”

One November night, Kim’s sister said she was going to put her upstairs in the big room with Mark, her nephew. It was a full moon night and her bed was under the high window; Kim was watching the moon come up. But she was freezing cold and just got colder and colder, her breath visible in the air. She put on all her clothes, piled all the available blankets on her bed and was still shaking—although across the room, her nephew, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, had kicked off all his blankets as if he were too warm.

He didn’t hear the voices when they started, either. The sounds of man and a woman arguing became louder and more violent as the fight escalated. “Oh great,” Kim thought. “I’m here too cold to sleep and have to listen to my sister and her husband fighting.” But then she heard a third voice, very deep and malevolent—and close. As Kim listened, she became aware that the three were speaking another language and that, to her terror, they were moving around in the bedroom where she lay as they fought.

There was no power on earth that could compel her to get out of the bed—she felt that if she moved among them the spirits would become aware of her. So for the entirety of that long, long night, Kim shook and shivered, reluctant witness to an argument that must have raged many years ago. Eventually, the sun came up, everything stopped and the world righted itself. Kim walked shakily downstairs. Her brother-in-law, sitting in the kitchen, took one look at her and asked, “What the hell happened to you?” She was as white as a sheet, with dark circles under her eyes. When her sister came down, she said that although the kids were never bothered, anyone else who slept in that room always had similar experiences.

That may have been the last night Kim spent in that house, and her sister and brother-in-law eventually moved. Some years later, Kim met a woman from the area who mentioned in the course of conversation that she lived in a haunted house. A house with a history, as it turned out, in Savage Harbour.

Blithe Spirit

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 1941, at least in part to serve as a distraction from the Second World War. Writing about first night, Coward noted that the audience “had to walk across planks laid over the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a light comedy about death.”

The play takes place in a parlour that seems straight out of Coward’s era, right down to the drinks trolley. In fact, the whole performance was faithful to the spirit of those times and that of the playwright. We might have been in 1941, and there was not a false step throughout to jar us out of our state of suspended disbelief, so we settled happily into it. Charles and Ruth Condomine are classic Coward characters, witty, urbane and upper class. Daniel Briere and Bryde MacLean (respectively) were perfect in the roles, delivering Coward’s sophisticated repartee without ever seeming overly superficial. Even in light comedy, we need to be able to relate to the characters and understand their struggles while we laugh at them. MacLean and Briere were both superb, their characters fully realized. Joshua Browne and Leah Pritchard performed ably as Doctor and Mrs. Bradman, Pritchard doing double duty as Edith: the gawky, awkward housemaid whose secret ability is eventually revealed.

Gracie Finley played Madame Arcati, a medium brought in on something less than good faith. Ostensibly engaged to contact the spirit world, she was really brought in to supply fodder for a book Charles is writing about the occult. He had hoped to catch Arcati using tricks of the trade that he could document. Finley played the spirit wrangler with fierce physicality, flinging herself into the part with gusto and embodying the medium with every moment, word and expression. All with total dedication and seriousness, no matter how outlandish her behaviour. Finley was clearly enjoying herself, and so were we—she was flat-out wonderful.

Madame Arcati had her triumphs as well: Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira (played by Suzanne Roberts Smith) came shimmering onto the stage as a product of the seance. Elvira was invisible to Ruth, which set the stage for comic misunderstandings as Charles’ comments to the former were taken by the latter to be intended for her.

Elvira flounced, flirted, flaunted herself and taunted Charles. Clearly she had been childish as an earthly being, and apparently had not matured appreciably in the spirit world. Roberts-Smith’s performance was over the top, which suited the part. Speaking of over the top, my husband—and no doubt other interested parties—watched attentively for a seemingly inevitable wardrobe malfunction. It never did happen, but Elvira’s face was well worth watching too. Blithe spirit she was, at some points, and at others scheming, gleeful, bored, maniacal, petulant, lustful and/or furious.

Blithe Spirit is longish but never drags. In the spirit of criticism, I’ll say that I prefer the David Lean ending—but that’s all I’ve got. It is, as Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph wrote “the outrageous frivolity with which Coward treats mortality that makes the piece so bracing.” Seventy-five years on, Blithe Spirit is as much a tonic as ever.

The Melville Boys

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Of all charming seaside villages, there can be few more charming than Victoria. When the Trans-Canada bypassed the then-thriving village, Victoria was automatically set apart and so it remains, just off the highway but clearly a special place. The Victoria Playhouse, built a century ago, first served as a community hall; the theatre, established in 1981, retains the yester-year atmosphere. It’s a lovely, comfortable and intimate space. On June 26, the Playhouse’s 35th season opened with The Melville Boys by Norm Foster. 

In a nutshell: The Melville brothers, Lee and Owen (played by Corey Turner and Jeremie Saunders), have arrived at their aunt’s remote cabin for a weekend of fishing, beer and bonding. Lee, the serious and steady elder brother, is hoping to have a heart-to-heart about serious stuff while the wild-and-crazy Owen is hoping to do nothing of the kind. What, as they say, could go wrong? In a word, girls: two sisters as dissimilar as the two brothers. Just as the boys settle an argument over whether or not beer and potato chips constitute a balanced breakfast, Owen spots a couple of girls—girls!—on the water. Undeterred by his upcoming nuptials, Owen lures the young women into the cottage and the fun begins. Lee and Mary (the serious sister, played by Helen Killorn) spend the night playing cards and exchanging confidences, while Owen and Loretta spend the night… well, what do you suppose Owen and Loretta might get up to? Hint: It’s not sleeping.

From one perspective, The Melville Boys is all about coping, the various methods we use to manage the hands we’ve been dealt. Lee, for reasons that become apparent, is of the realist school while Owen and Mary have been banking on avoidance and denial. Much of the play was quite funny. Rebecca Griffin’s Loretta, the one unconflicted character, is a good-time gal with stars in her eyes, dreaming about parlaying her acting career (two TV ads for a local used car dealer) into fame and fortune. In a live reenactment of one of the (two) commercials, Loretta explains and demonstrates the art of making love to the camera. 

Comedy is hard—ask any comedian—and adding drama/tragedy to the mix surely cannot make the playwright’s, director’s or actor’s task any easier. That aspect of the play didn’t work well for me. Extended comedic bits like Loretta’s reenactment of the commercial were effective but I didn’t feel that Foster’s humour had quite the edge required to work well with heavy material. The Melville Boys has been called a tragicomedy and a dramedy; we might need a new word—melodramedy—to characterize the cataclysmic final scene when the brothers finally have their talk, albeit at gunpoint. 

That said, though, I think I was in a distinct minority. The sell-out crowd clearly and audibly enjoyed the show and was hugely appreciative. After the performance, I walked past little groups of theatre-goers happily strolling through the streets of Victoria. Conversations I eavesdropped on were all positive: The Melville Boys is already looking like a hit. 

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.

Events Calendar

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Some Upcoming Events

Hip Hop at Holland College

Snak the Ripper and others at Florence Simmons September 22
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The Red Dirt Road

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Projections on the Plaza

Until September 29
Confederation Centre Plaza The public is invited to enjoy two outdoor film screen [ ... ]

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