PEI Symphony Orchestra with Ten Strings And A Goat Skin
Review by Ivy Wigmore
Sold out! Those are the words you want to hear about the first performance of a symphony orchestra’s 50th season—unless, of course, you were trying to get last-minute tickets for the PEISO’s October 15 concert, Beethoven ‘Eroica’ & Ten Strings And A Goat Skin, presented under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro. The house was packed to the rafters with a high-spirited, attentive, all-ages crowd. “All-ages crowd” is another welcome phrase, of course, in the symphony orchestra world.
The maestro speculated that it might be the first symphony performance for many in the audience and informed newcomers that they’d started their introduction with a plunge into the deep end. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, also known as Sinfonia Eroica (Heroic Symphony), is a highly significant work, considered to bridge the Classical and Romantic periods in music because the composer played with Classical conventions in terms of form, harmony and length (long).
The symphony also presents more emotional content than had been the standard. In 1802, when Beethoven began work on the composition, he was becoming increasingly deaf. As Mark Shapiro suggested, it is not surprising that the symphony would be reflective of inner life when its composer was increasingly isolated from the external world by his hearing loss. Symphony No. 3 marked the entrance to the composer's middle period, in which he deals with themes of struggle and heroism. In his own life, Beethoven had retreated from society rather than suffer the indignity of being unable to hear what others were saying. For years, he contemplated suicide. And yet during those years of struggle, the composer created some of his most celebrated works.
The PEISO performed brilliantly throughout, from the heroic acceptance of the first movement, through the despair of the second and the resurgence of spirit in the third, to the exuberant celebration of the finale.
In the second half of the performance, Ten Strings And A Goat Skin struck sparks off the stage—and not just with hobnail boots. The folk/fusion trio is Rowen Gallant, Jesse Périard and Caleb Gallant working with, respectively, violin, guitar and bodhran. Natalie Williams Calhoun created the subtle arrangements for the symphony’s collaboration. The trio brings a wild energy to traditional folk roots, a fierce and urgent intensity, particularly in Rowen’s fiddle. That spirit is nicely illustrated by “The night they moved the house,” a story song pulled from family history and co-written by Rowen and his uncle Lennie Gallant. The Gallants have Island roots about as deep as any but the Mi’kmaq, and this tale goes back to Lennie’s great-great-grandfather—for Rowen and Caleb you can tack on another “great.” Shortly after the GG-grandfather died, an unscrupulous neighbour discovered that the ancestor’s house was actually on the edge of his property. He planned to take possession ASAP, evicting the grieving widow from her home.
Ah, but the family has not prevailed by accident, rather through ingenuity, indomitability of spirit and the support of the community. Family and friends conspired to gather the night before the eviction was to take place. Under cover of darkness, they lifted the house and moved it over the frozen harbour to another property. And as cold and dark as it must have been out on the ice that night, I expect there was warmth and light—and music—in that house the next.
The performance left me thinking about the way that struggle and adversity sometimes yields triumph and great beauty; the way that in even the darkest times, the undaunted human spirit can swell the heart aloft, until it bursts through into joy.