Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists

The TSO continued its season of mini-festivals with Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists.  The purpose of this one being to showcase how musicians who were contemporaries of each other produced quite different music.  The evening's program was "The Isle of the Dead" by Rachmaninoff, "Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra" by Debussy, Dukas "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", "Les offrandes oubliees" by Olivier Messien, a composer I had not heard of before, and concluded with Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini".  A perfect mix of music!

Gabriela Montero
The evening was already off to a wonderful start since I had a new companion to go with me who has real bona fide musical knowledge, unlike my limited repertoire, and who has played Debussy and Messiaen works before.  Unfortunately our seats were pretty bad for the type of concert.  Being off to the ride side when there's a piano piece scheduled is typically never a good thing, but the lid of the grand piano pretty much completely blocked guest soloist Gabriela Montero from view.  Additionally in the clarinet concerto, Maestro Peter Oundjian seemed to move the same way as soloist and TSO principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepenas, allowing for only quick glimpses of his finger work.

Maestro Oundjian began the concert with an audience chat as usual, and explained how Rachmaninoff had an obsession with the Dies irae (day of wrath) theme which showed up in both pieces of his on the program.  He then asked to borrow the fiddle of assistant concertmaster (David Bowlin, a guest, was sitting first chair) Mark Skazinetsky and played the theme.  I've never heard him play before!  I know he's doing Bach's Double Violin Concerto next season with Itzhak Perlman, so maybe he's starting to ease into performing again.  He played maybe 15 notes, and got a foot stomping ovation from the orchestra, quipping he'd pay for it later.

One of the interesting elements of "The Isle of the Dead" was the meter of 5/8.  Quite an different feel it gives to a very moody piece, but I really liked it.

Joaquin Valdepenas
Being an amateur clarinetist I really wanted to closely watch Mr. Valdepenas hands.  Alas as mentioned above, this didn't work out to well.  What I did see was inspiring, and his tone...sigh...wow!  I wish I had a smidgen of the talent.  During one run up a scale I audibly sighed, so smooth, so even, so perfect.  As for the piece as a whole, I wouldn't class Debussy as one of my favourites but there were lots of unexpected changes and it was 7 minutes of being completely entranced.  Even better he returned to his orchestra seat for the second half of the concert.  I would love to hear him do Mozart's Clarinet Concerto at some point.

The TSO should be getting good at "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" having played it at the Halloween concert (that review here) earlier this season.  However, it was quite different under the baton of Mr. Oundjian.  He had complete fun with it!  One advantage of my seat was a great view of the conductor.  He started it off very slowly, and the first hint at the main theme floated between the clarinet, oboe, and flute passing off so effortlessly that without seeing the musicians it would be hard to pinpoint who was playing.  At the start of what I'll call the second section, after the rapid bits and just before the bassoons take over with the full theme, Oundjian again took his time with the short segments.  They hung in the air moving the audience to the edge of their seats anticipating what was coming next.  The expression on his face showed he was having fun with it.  The bassoons (Michael Sweeney and Sam Banks) let loose on the theme with contrabassonist, Fraser Jackson, leaning onto the first intro note when the theme returns near the end giving added emphasis.  A wonderful, unhurried, rendition full of play and joyfulness.  The musicians seemed into the fun as well, I noticed Pat Krueger going wild with the triangle.  I was so swept up in the music that the visions of Mickey Mouse almost disappeared entirely :)

Following the intermission chat with Gary Kulesha (Composer in Residence) and Mark Skazinetsky about Rachmaninoff and his contempories came the somewhat dissonant "Les offrandes oubliees" (The Forgotten Offerings) by Messien.  The piece is in three parts beginning with what's labelled as "Very slow, pained, profoundly sad" and is meant to represent Christ's suffering on the cross.  Apparently most of Messien's works have religious connotations.  The middle section I can only describe as a cacopheny of sound.  I noticed principal trombone, Gordon Wolfe, reposition the sound blocker behind the contrabassoonist's head, and I understand why!  The description for this segment was "Fast, ferocious, desperate, panting".  The final part was strings only, and not even all of them played.  Much quieter and depicting "the Bread of Life and of Love" it was stirring and pretty but unfortunately I was starting to hit sensory overload, and found parts repetitive since I really didn't know what to listen for.  I can tell when I'm losing concentration because I notice audience noises.  I heard a lot of coughing and program shuffling in this last bit.  Unfortunate people can't be silent during the quiet parts.

Finally it was time for the showpiece of the evening, "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini".  I have great love for this piece and some history.  It was on the program of the first classical concert I ever went to.  The National Arts Centre Orchestra was playing "Symphonie Fantastique" which was the primary reason I went, and this was the other piece on the program.  I don't know who conducted, or who the soloist was, but I know exactly where I sat, who I went with, and that when they got to variation 18 the whole thing clicked as to why it sounded so familiar!  Well that and then realizing the dies irae theme was in both pieces explaining the combination in programming.  I was not disappointed by the TSO's version this evening either.  What I noticed was that I focused more on the orchestra part than the piano, probably because of the lack of visibility of the soloist (although principal violist, Teng Li and another musican who weren't playing the concert came and sat in front of us for this piece, so they must agree they're good orchestra watching seats).  Variation 18 was beautiful as it should be.

The audience provided a standing ovation and Gabriela Montero graciously acknowledged the orchestra before taking a seat for an encore.  A gifted improvisationalist she requested a theme from the audience and received Gershwin's "Summertime" as a reply.  After playing this a few times she completely twisted it into a rich texture providing only brief glimpses back to what it was at the beginning.  It was pretty jaw dropping.  Then she did it again.  Taking the theme of "Hockey Night in Canada" (she had requested something Canadian, and you KNOW that when that request is made "Hockey Night" is going to be thrown out there).  The person could not sing it though so one of the violinists played it for her, garnering another round of applause.  Ms. Montero ended up only taking a small snippet but that was again twisted and turned into a rich sound completely disguising the original material.

During the end of "Paganini" I noticed a gentleman in the front row taking notes (and here I thought I was the only one who did that).  Figuring he was a critic I googled for a concert review when I got home and indeed it was John Terauds of the Toronto Star.  For a more "educated" review, his can be found here.

There are now more happy memories to add to the history I have with the "Paganini Rhapsody".

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