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Music of the Americas
PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

For an event held indoors, the PEI Symphony’s “Music of the Americas” concert thrived on fresh air.

The “Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo” by Aaron Copeland were full of jaunty cowhand vigor. Many a TV western and movie theme owe their birth to this work and their echoes can be heard throughout this famous and familiar piece of music. Instead of long horn passages that would make it stately and imperial, the brass powered the first episode “Buckaroo Holiday” with short melodic bursts. The rest of the orchestra joined in to create the crisp, loping rhythm that has made this piece an audience favorite. The “Saturday Night Waltz” featured the traditional western lament “Old Paint” and used its melody as a tender and recurring theme. “Hoe-Down,” the final episode, was exuberant but never out of control.

This was distinctly American music: good humoured, bubbling with impatient energy and utterly self-confident. In depicting the American spirit as full of freewheeling fun and adventure, this music ranks with the joyful jazz of Louis Armstrong, the swinging marches of John Phillip Sousa and the irresistible harmonies of the Beach Boys.

The other unquestionable highlight of the concert was the “The St. Croix Island Suite” composed by Alasdair MacLean. I would be a booster of the windiest sort to say the Suite proved itself the equal of Copeland’s music. If and how this work endures is impossible to tell. But it deserves to be heard. The Suite was written especially for the New Brunswick Youth orchestra to commemorate the arrival of French settlers at St. Croix in 1604. It contains a mixture of original music, aboriginal melodies and French folk songs. Composers often promise music to evoke a specific place or sensation. It’s a promise rarely kept because the art of doing it is that hard. But composer MacLean has created four movements that are promises fulfilled. A stirring first movement announcing the arrival of French explorers shifts to hypnotic passages that conjure rivers and forests, and marshlands complete with the sounds of birds. Especially memorable was the beautiful “Passamaquoddy Canoe Song,” where the gliding rhythmic tug of the music put a paddle in the hands of every audience member.

“Prairie Dawn” written by Stephen Chatman, featured the solo clarinet of Karem Simon in a swirling exchange of sound with the orchestra. This piece was most effective in it early passages and less so in the harsher ascending sections.

“Sinfonia India” by Carlos Chavez was an intriguing mix of Mexican aboriginal melodies and percussion blended with original music. A clever piece of work that narrowly missed being musical clutter.

A ticket to the Sunday concert was also a ticket to ride on a Brazilian train. “O Trenzinho do Caipira” from “Bachianas Brasileiras” by Heitor Villa-Lobos depicted the sounds of an old train engine labouring down the tracks. The hiss of steam and the chug of the engine were accurately portrayed. Particularly notable was the moment the orchestra duplicated the rattles and screeches of metal on metal as this well-worn piece of machinery tried to finish one more trip.

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