Sunday, April 22, 2012

NAC Orchestra Fills Roy Thomson Hall

Continuing a 15 year tradition, last evening the National Arts Centre Orchestra from Ottawa returned to Roy Thomson Hall with a casual concert hosted by CBC personality Eric Friesen.  In a special treat, NACO music director Pinchas Zukerman was also a performer, featured on the viola in Telemann's "Concerto in G Major for Viola and Orchestra" and Bach's "6th Brandenburg Concerto".

Charles "Chip" Hamann
(Photo by Pat McGrath)
However, before being transported back to the era of Bach and Schubert we heard a piece by Quebec composer Jacques Hetu (1938-2010), commissioned by the NAC Orchestra in 1977.  Called "Antinomie", which is the opposition between one law or principle or rule.  It started with a lovely oboe solo by Chip Hamann introducing the theme and went downhill from there.  While I enjoyed it more than any of the pieces at this years New Creations Festival it still had a dissonant and "contemporary" sound at times.

Violin vs. Viola
In the chat before the Telemann Concerto, Eric Friesen asked Maestro Zukerman the difference between a violin and viola.  His response, "a viola burns longer".  I suppose he's heard them all.  Not dissuaded, Friesen asked again and about why the viola doesn't get more respect.  For the first time, I got an answer to the question I've had for ages.  For a long time it wasn't considered a solo instrument, in fact the Telemann is expected to be the first piece for the viola, and was composed around 1716-1721.  The viola also has different string tuning from a violin (C-G-D-A rather than G-D-A-E) making it a perfect 5th below the violin and a perfect octave above the cello, so it doesn't have the top of a violin or the bottom of a cello, making it a bit of an oddball, and the source of orchestra jokes.

Zukerman started playing the viola at 15, when at a summer camp his teacher said, "it'll be good for you".  He demonstrated different bowing techniques between how he'd play a violin vs. the viola.  Essentially the viola had longer strokes, and slower movements.

The actual piece, in 4 movements (I thought concertos were usually 3, but I suppose there are no rules) had its lively and slow sections.  It was neat that TSO cellist Winona Zelenka was sitting first chair and provided great support to Zukerman's viola solos which were almost like duets with the cello at times.  For years the TSO bassist was Joel Quarrington, who now plays with NACO, and they were chatting during the stage layout switches.  I wonder how much it actually feels like old times to be playing with someone you used to.

Principal NACO cello Amanda Forsyth joined for "Brandenburg Concerto No. 6", which is written for no violins.  Zukerman thought Friesen sounded too sad when he said that, rather than excited to not have the "screeching fiddles" (his term) around.  There were about 6 violas, 3 cellos, a bass and harpsichord.  I really liked the cello trio sound and the two violas chasing each other in a round, one started just a fraction of a beat after the other.  The violins were not missed as the typically lower, supporting instruments took centre stage with lively as well as darker sounds.

Christopher Millard
Franz Schubert wrote "Symphony No. 3 in D Major" at 18 years old in 1815!  It opens on a held single note, a D, similar to a Beethoven symphony where you aren't entirely sure what key you're going to be in.  However, the slow introduction gives way to a more lively allegro showcasing the wind section, specifically the clarinet, played beautifully by Kimball Sykes.  Actually the clarinet gets some great moments in duets with the oboe and bassoon.  Without lots of other things burying the sound, I was able to pick out Christopher Millard on the bassoon, I quite like the sound.

Being a casual concert there was a party in the lobby afterwards.  A few of the musicians were wandering around, I caught I glimpse of Zukerman, concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, associate Jessica Linnebach, and principal trumpet Karen Donnelly.  With Mr. Millard recently passing over the reins as host of the NACOcast I was hoping to see him and chat for a moment about it, but alas, no such luck.

Thanks for making another trip to Toronto NACO!  Looking forward to next year.

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