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Serious Stones

Classic Albums Live—Sticky Fingers

Review by David Malahoff

Sticky Fingers (photo: ©pixbylorne)In the beginning, it felt like rock and roll church. The congregation gathered at the Confederation Centre. The ceremony was the Classic Albums Live performance of Sticky Fingers, the famous zipper album by the Rolling Stones.

The Classic Albums franchise puts together talented musicians and singers to perform famous albums, track by track, and near to note perfect as possible. It’s not sold as a tribute act or a clone band. It’s all about the music, and duplicating it. If the original recording had a bongo, bell or belch of feedback, then its been noted, charted and included in the live performance. At times, there were ten musicians on stage including cello, violin, piano and horn players, all working to recreate the exact sounds of the Sticky Fingers album. This was serious and studious attention to detail.

The trip through the Sticky Fingers song-list was fun, spirited and sometimes a little odd in its reverence. When the musicians first took the stage, there was no reaction from the audience. Just a slightly awkward silence. The musicians made straight for their instruments, there were some quick tuning strokes on the guitars, a quick nod to the vocalist and then they pounded out the famous one-two chord punch than opens Brown Sugar. They proceeded through each song on the album: Sway, Wild Horses, a roof-lifting version of Bitch, Sister Morphine, Dead Flowers and on it went. And after each song, when the applause died away, there would be a moment of silence in the hall and then the band would launch into its next song. This was not your usual concert interaction between audience and performer. It had its own etiquette.

But back to the music; high points were the gospel blues of You Gotta Move and the extended rock-samba jam on Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’. The first half of the show closed—as does the Sticky Fingers album—with the swirling, dreamy Moonlight Mile.

Church was clearly over when the musicians emerged for the second half of the show. They laughed. They spoke to the audience. They looked relaxed. Then with roaring versions of Satisfaction and Get Off My Cloud it was a changed atmosphere.

There was imagination and courage in the song choices. It would have been easy to stick with the big hits, the warhorses of the Stones catalog, but instead there were unexpected performances of Under My Thumb, She’s A Rainbow and 2000 Light Years From Home. And when it was time for a few songs from Exile on Main Street, they created the evening’s best moments playing Rocks Off, Shake Your Hips, Sweet Virginia, and a show-stopping version of Loving Cup featuring a duet between the lead and backup singers. Through it all they were faithful to the spirit of the original songs and to the spirit of the Rolling Stones but here, at this point in the show, there was a freedom and joy in their performance that was all their own. Even the bass player smiled.

Fresh and Alive

All Aboard: From Scotland to Vienna
PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

Many years ago during a visit to London, I had three hours to spare. So, in a moment of callow tourism, I decided to “see” the British Museum. Strolling past the Elgin Marbles and the Egyptian antiquities, I gave a passing nod to the Rosetta Stone before entering the Documents Room. Three hours later I was still there, moving from one glass case of memorable paper to another. I saw the diary containing the last words of doomed South Pole explorer Robert Scott. There was Shakespeare’s mortgage. There was a copy of the Magna Carta. Then my eye was drawn to a case that had papers with hundreds of dots and lines and swirls—these were the musical scores. Here, in their own hand, were original works by Beethoven, Mozart and other famous composers.

This memory of this was brought back to me at the final concert of the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s 40th-anniversary season. In that memory is the marvel that marks made on paper outlive their authors but still have the power to communicate with untold generations.

Here was the orchestra delivering a vibrant version of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides’ Overture,” written in 1832, and all but dripping in sea mist and roiling surf. Mozart wrote “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” in 1787 and it lives on in countless recordings and classical hits packages. But to hear it done live is to appreciate anew his distinctive layered melodies and arrangements.

When the featured guest performers, cellist Julia MacLaine and violinist Matia Gotman, performed Brahms Concerto in A Minor, Op.102 they played this piece (composed in 1887) as if it was written for them. Such was the freshness of the performance. Violin and cello traded musical phrases, finished each other’s lines and weaved together in rapid and intricate passages. In the second section—the Andante—they played the gentle melody so expertly and with such tenderness that it ranked as the most moving moment of the concert.

The power of words and music were uniquely demonstrated when Island poet Dr. Brent MacLaine read “Boat People.” Inspired by the water journeys of refugees who flee troubled homelands, Mr. MacLaine spoke unaccompanied until the last line of his poem. Then Ms. MacLaine and Mr. Gotman underlined the poem’s final words with the first notes of James Blachly’s “Boat People,” a composition inspired by the poem. Both poem and Blachly’s composition could have stood alone but here they were brought together in a glancing collision and both were stronger for it.

You’re wondering: Brent MacLaine. Julia MacLaine. Any relation? Yes. Father; daughter.

The concert ended with Beethoven’s “Symphony No.1”. This same piece was played by the PEI Symphony forty years ago in its first concert: There was nothing dusty about the work or its Sunday performance. The symphony uncoiled with the same riveting tension Beethoven intended when he first scratched those notes on paper more than two hundred years ago.

Big Band Music

PEI Symphony Orchestra with Chucky Danger

Review by David Malahoff

PEI Symphony Orchestra with Chucky Danger BandAn empty rock drum kit sits centre stage as conductor James Mark and the PEI Symphony Orchestra launch into “Overture to Gypsy,” from the musical based on the life of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. After dispatching enthusiastic snippets from Gypsy’s most famous song, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and sliding into convincing burlesque house musical raunchiness, the overture ends. Next, in somber contrast, comes a moving rendition of the hymn-like “Overture to Finladia” by Jean Sibelius.

As the applause ebbs, enter the four young men known as Chucky Danger. Their first two original songs are all fuzzy poetry and sketchy melodies, distinguished only by well-rehearsed and pleasing vocal harmonies and choruses. The orchestra is playing, but it’s hard to tell. When Chucky Danger play at full volume, other than a spikey blast of horns or a rumble of massed violins, it’s hard to hear the orchestra. But in softer passages, when the drums and electric guitar go quiet, one can hear how this partnership has potential. It’s fully realized when the band plays “Sweet Symphony.” Here is an effective arrangement that allows both rock and roll energy and orchestral subtlety to exist together. When the song enters an instrumental section, lead singer John MacPhee puts down his acoustic guitar and walks across the front of the stage to bass player Rob MacPhee who anticipates his arrival by pulling open the strap to his bass, allowing the singer to slip inside the loop. As the singer bends to take the bass, the bassist deftly backs out of the loop and steps over to the drums where David MacDonald has vacated the driver’s seat. The bass player grabs the sticks and takes up the beat from MacDonald who moves over to stand behind two small bongo drums. A well-choreographed bit of showmanship, for sure. But all these moves are done without the instrumental groove stopping or breaking down. Mr. MacDonald then beats out an increasingly frenetic pattern, pushing the song and the energy level in the room. Bongo solo over, the band members slip back to their original positions and together with the orchestra they deliver a pounding finish to the song.

After the intermission, Chucky Danger play unaccompanied on “I’m On Fire”. Built on a simple but catchy rock riff, this song is a high energy showcase for the band’s greatest strength—it’s punchy and pretty vocal harmonies and choruses. To close the set the band perform “Find Me.” Here the orchestra’s range of instruments and sounds are used to best effect giving the song a dreamy grace while the band sings a yearning chorus.

After the band exits, the energy level doesn’t slip as the orchestra performs “Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda, then a swinging version of Dave Brubeck’s “It’s About Time” with flutes and woodwinds playing the passage made famous by Paul Desmond’s saxophone solo. The concert closes with a joyous performance of “Seventy Six Trombones” from The Music Man.

All the Best Bits

Definitely the Opera

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

The late Paul Willis, comedy writer, once created a satire of a typical day of programming on CBC Radio. In it, a spokesman for the serious music channel reveals a new plan to boost ratings. "We’ll play classical music," he says, "but just the good bits."

"Definitely The Opera," the PEI Symphony Orchestra’s November concert, was a busy afternoon of bits. There were overtures, arias and ballet and waltz music, all sourced from well-known and not-so-well-known operas.

There were stirring bits like the triumphal "March" from Aida. It riveted the audience with magisterial horns and an unrelenting, stately melody. Attention was held another way by the "Overture to Mignon" by Ambroise Thomas. This was a shy overture, coaxed out with a tender violin passage and then gently nudged forward by soft notes from French horns. The result was a melancholy melody with a trace of sweetness. (It brought to mind the British TV series Reilly, Ace of Spies and it’s haunting theme based on a Dimitri Shostakovich melody).

The orchestra nimbly played its way through seven short pieces of ballet music from Faust by Charles Gounod. Not so nimble was the "Overture to Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss, Jr. Home to one of the most famous waltz melodies; it was a surprise to find the orchestra struggling here. Alternately plodding and effervescent, the orchestra did rally to find its playful spirit towards the end of the overture.

Opera is more than overtures. It’s famous for its songs and the voices that power those songs. Sally Dibblee, soprano, was the voice of this afternoon. She was impressive in the valleys and peaks of Mozart‘s "Bella mia fiamma addio" and Puccini’s "Che il bel sogno" from La Rondine. Leaving the classics, the orchestra accompanied her in a bracing performance of "There will be a storm tonight" from Filumena, a Canadian opera that’s only a few years old. Ms. Dibblee was a roll-up-your sleeves, get-the-job-done soprano. Whichever character she had to inhabit and whatever mood was demanded, she was at ease and happy in her work. Qualities appreciated by the audience who warmed to her instantly.

But the "wow" moment came in the second half with Ms. Dibblee’s confident and passionate performance of "Sempre libera" from La Traviata. She had to sing lines requiring full-voiced power that transformed into high notes and lyrics requiring delicate phrasing and control. At times her voice was in the forefront, at others it was a full-throated instrument trading sounds with the orchestra

Her final song of the afternoon was the famous aria "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicci by Puccini. In her introduction, Ms. Dibblee described how this piece of music had been overexposed in countless commercials, selling everything from shampoo to automobiles. Then she began to sing and, with each word, she lovingly reclaimed the aria from the thirty-second purgatories of modern advertising.

Passion Under Control

Gems of the Romantic Era
PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

Lord was the featured soloist in the first half and he delivered captivating music (with the not so captivating title of Concerto No. 4 in C Minor Op.44 for Piano and Orchestra) composed by Camille Saint-Saëns. This complex but musically fascinating concerto had Lord perform passages of melodic beauty highlighted by delicate finger strikes on the keyboard only to shift to vigourous call and answer sections with the orchestra. There were powerful and rapid ascending and descending runs and, at one memorable point, the muscular playing gave way to Lord cocking a single finger to pick out a melody before returning to more deft work from his two hands. Praise too for the exciting, crisp performance from the orchestra.

Lord returned to the stage to perform a solo piece by Louis Moreau Gottschalk a nearly forgotten American composer from the nineteenth century. But not so forgotten in recent years because of the work by Lord to keep the composer’s work alive. Lord played “The Banana Song”—one of Gottschalk’s most popular songs. It was driven by a catchy, almost spunky melody with echoes of New Orleans barrelhouse piano set against the classical piano tradition.

Christina Bouey made two dramatic entrances: Dressed in a deep blue, floor length gown, she was a striking visual image set against the semi-circle of black suited orchestra members. Then, with a quick nod from conductor James Mark, the orchestra began the frosty, opening musical passage from Concerto in D Minor Op. 47 for Violin and Orchestra by Jan Sibelius. Waiting a moment, Bouey then put bow to violin and the room melted with a moving, heartfelt string of notes. Through the course of this demanding concerto, Bouey gave a performance that was technically impressive and emotionally powerful.

The concert began with the PEI Symphony Orchestra playing the Overture to Euryanthe by Carol Maria Von Weber. This was the only point in the afternoon where I found myself drifting and unengaged by what I was hearing. The overture was a broken necklace of musical bits eventually threaded together by an energetic final section.

Contrast that with the opening number of the second half where the orchestra played Overture D. 590 in the Italian Style by Franz Schubert. The massed violins of the orchestra immediately created a pleasing, elegant melody and the whole thing was goosed along by pulsing horns and wind instruments.

The Great Indoors

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.

Pop Goes the Island

PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by David Malahoff

Symphony concert etiquette requires one not to applaud until all the movements of a piece are completed. But it would have taken 1000 pairs of handcuffs to prevent the capacity crowd at the Confederation Centre from reacting to Jamie Gatti’s riveting bass solo, and that was just the first crack in the etiquette wall. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

On Sunday February 11, the PEI Symphony Orchestra took the stage for its much anticipated Pops Goes The Island concert. Much anticipated because renowned jazz pianist Doug Riley and his Quartet were there to perform Mr. Riley’s “Prince Edward Island Suite.”

The skillful musicianship of the Quartet (Doug Riley, piano; Alan Dowling, drums; Jamie Gatti, bass; Chris Mitchell, saxophone) and some lush fills from the orchestra made the first two movements, “Dawn” and “Sunset”, intriguing atmospheric experiences.

But something special happened in the third movement, “Ceilidh.” The massed strings of the orchestra launched a spirited Celtic tune and then each member of the Quartet took turns to push the musicianship and energy level higher. When it was his turn, Jamie Gatti began making low droning notes on his stand-up bass mimicking a growling bagpipe. Then he was off. His fingers sliding up and down the bass delivering a memorable solo. Members of the orchestra could be seen craning their heads to trying to get a glimpse of his hands at work. When he finished the crowd answered with excited applause, even a few hoots and hollers. Mr. Riley and the orchestra then jumped back in for a high spirited finish. The audience elbowed aside symphony hall politesse again and gave the musicians a tremendous ovation.

In the final movement “Storm,” Mr. Riley’s piano was a powerful rhythmic engine always pushing the music forward with an irresistible swing. When the piece ended, the audience knew it had been witness to musicianship of the highest order. The “Prince Edward Island Suite” was the peak of the concert day.

The Quartet returned in the second half to play “Windows” by Chick Corea and Mr. Riley had the theatre bouncing with a solo number “Dr. Boogie,” a tribute to his first jazz piano heroes.

It wasn’t all jazz. Conductor James Mark had the orchestra open the concert impressively with the melody rich Slavonic Dances Op.46, Nos. 1­4 by Antonin Dvorak. Also on the program: “Bootleggers Tarantella” from Filumena by John Estacio; “Suite from the Charlottetown Festival” by John Fenwick, and the concert closed with “Raider’s March,” from “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” by John Williams.

The only criticism: this was a long concert and at least one of the non-jazz pieces could have been dropped with no loss of quality to the line-up. Otherwise, it was Suite.

A Pretty Funny Year

PEI Revue: Shack Happy

Review by David Malahoff

Remember the controversy over the death announcements being dropped from the radio? Now recall the news about the popular musical “Canada Rocks” not being produced this year. Using this as source material for one brilliant sketch, PEI Revue’s “ShackHappy” offered a new musical production for the Confederation Centre stage: Death Notices: The Musical.

Wearing a pelt-like wig of pony-tailed grey hair, Dennis Trainor confidently strolled out and introduced himself as “Terry Hatty, former singer of the Guess Who.” Then, in the funniest moment of the show, he proceeded to sing mock death notices to the tune of Guess Who songs: “American Woman” and “These Eyes.”

“ShackHappy”was a humourous look at people and events in the PEI news in 2006. The show ran for three nights in January and featured sketches, songs and monologues. Not all the material was the calibre of “Death Notices.” There were sketches that showed flashes of inspiration but staggered to limp endings and all the reoccurring segments reoccurred once too often. Still, there were enough laughs and memorable characters to make it a fun evening.

Lorne Elliott started the show. His ability to confide like a local and deliver a well-crafted monologue with off-the-cuff ease quickly revved up an audience that had come out on one of the soggiest Friday nights in memory.

For another highlight, enter Rob MacDonald wearing a black hat, black leather coat and wielding a cigarette holder. If you remember the Gestapo agent in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or Siegfried, the KAOS agent from “Get Smart” then MacDonald’s character would be a second cousin. Although his “zis und zat” accent sometimes drifted from the Axis to the Allied side and back again, the glint of delight in MacDonald’s eyes couldn’t disguise the fun he was having with the role. As an outsider hired to find doctors for PEI, he ends up delivering his only find, a Doctor of Medieval Studies.

“Nobody has nose hair like Lennie from the Wharf Road.” Just being able to say that line with the straight-faced sincerity she did would make Nancy McLure worthy of note. McLure has always done good kooky. But “ShackHappy” revealed a broader range. Put a housecoat on her and she was the slightly-defeated, always-hopeful wife of couch potato husband (Joey Weale). Stuff a pillow under her shirt and she was an endearing pregnant wife trying to gentle down a dunderhead husband (Dennis Trainor) venting his rage at a public meeting.

Bonnie-Jean MacEachern and Paul Whelan were solid as the news anchor team. Carly Martin showed good versatility. Joey Weale brought a quiet intensity to his characters revealing them as real people, not cartoons.

If the “ShackHappy” team decide to do this show next year, I’d be happy to shack up with them again.

Produced by Derek Martin and Jason Rogerson, with direction by Derek Martin, Lorne Elliott and Rob MacDonald. Ghislaine O’Hanley was stage manager. Select costumes were by Mindy Walker and Graham Putnam was the techie.

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