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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

Beethoven found himself in sweet and seductive feminine company recently, and not before time: Ludwig van B. was famously unlucky in love. Throughout his life, he seems to have pined for one woman after another, mostly unrequited. Much speculation ensued when a letter was found after the composer’s death in 1827, written—but never, apparently, sent—to his “immortal beloved.” The list of possible intended recipients that biographers and musicologists have considered since then is lengthy.

On March 5, under the able direction of Karem Simon, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Beethoven and Sirens” as the second-last performance of this season, their fiftieth. First up was Gioachino Antonio Rossini’s Overture to the opera “L’Italiana in Algeri (the Italian girl in Algiers).” Rossini, who lived from 1792–1868, is often considered the first composer to have achieved celebrity. Here’s something I hadn’t heard: Rossini was also a bit of a celebrity chef (although perhaps not in an official capacity), to the extent that restaurants still serve dishes prepared “alla Rossini.” The overture leans toward the comedic “opera buffa” style, with low-key stretches interrupted by surprise bursts at full volume, from the full orchestra. Created to introduce a comic opera about the battle of the sexes, the overture also served nicely as an amusing introduction to the major events of this concert.

Those events began with Sirens, who entered to enthusiastic applause. Sirens is an all-woman choir based in Charlottetown. The group has won multiple awards since their inception in 2012, including first place in the Choral Ensemble Class at the 2015 FCMF National Music Festival.

A reduced orchestra accompanied the group, very subtly, for their performance of Randall Thompson’s cantata, “Place of the Blest.” Thompson composed the cantata as a relatively uncomplicated setting of a number of poems for performance by a soprano and alto choir and chamber orchestra. Although the cantata is less multi-layered and not as richly textured as is commonly the case in choral works, Thompson added interest through beautiful melodies and  well-placed counterpoint to add depth and complexity.

The final movement of the cantata is “Alleluia,” Thompson’s biggest hit and a staple of choral concerts. Thompson likened the movement to the Book of Job and proclaimed that despite having no words other than “alleluia,” the music could never sound joyous. Perhaps not, but it was lovely.

Sirens took their name from the fabulous creatures of Greek mythology who lured sailors to their destruction with the power of their enchanting voices. At times, the interwoven voices of Sirens were so mesmerizing, you could imagine being drawn to the underwater realm. The ensemble held back just enough to keep us from total ruin during this performance, although I know for a fact that they moved more than one attendee to tears.

The second half of the concert was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A minor, one of the composer’s best-loved works. Beethoven himself conducted the premier of the symphony in 1813 in Vienna, during the Napoleonic Wars. The audience’s reception was rapturous, which they made known long before the final movement. The second movement, the Alegretto, compelled the listeners to demand an immediate encore. Learning that, I wondered if we might have had it again too, if we’d clammored. Continuing onward was no disappointment, though. The fourth movement has been described—aptly, I think—as a “crazy whirlwind of excitement and joy.” Not a bad way to end a symphony performance.

It occurred to me that if not for pesky impediments like being long-dead and even longer deaf, Beethoven would have been well pleased with the whole afternoon.

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