If the opening Masters concert is any indication, the Niagara Symphony’s 2009-2010 concert series promises to be the most fascinating array of performances ever. Anyone who loves orchestral music and appreciates the high drama surrounding the “Quest for the Podium” (linking beautifully with Canada’s Winter Olympics!) will not want to miss a single bar between now and next May. At that point, the combined input from the search committee, musicians and audience will provide the basis for the board of directors’ final decision as to who will next lead the Region’s oldest professional performing-arts organization.
Over that same period, JWR plans to hear all four candidates and offer its choice based exclusively on the musical merits of the contestants. (In 2009, it’s almost unheard of that artistic directors are hired exclusively on their primary skills; decades ago, the musicians had no say at all—it was generally left to the biggest cheque writers on the board, the general manager and wily artist management executives; some would opine that since the former system lost its hold to “democracy,” the level of excellence in our most revered musical institutions has declined in parallel.)
Judging by the cheers from the healthy-sized audience following Timothy Hankewich’s loud-and-lively finale of Tchaikovsky’s F Minor Symphony, the British Columbia native will score well in his first heat (all of the conductors appear twice: 1 Masters and 1 Pops each).
Indeed, there was no question that the “Allegro con fuoco” captivated the crowd (and kept the players engaged), but the preceding three movements couldn’t match the same degree of accomplishment.
Conducting for the first time in the varied program without the score (but not yet by heart), the affable maestro was frequently defeated by the long stretches of rhythmic tension and syncopation in the treacherous first frame.
Letting the brass dig into their fanfares at full blast sparked a certain amount of excitement but likely contributed to the number of miss-hits that flew out from the horns and trumpets even as the low brass overwhelmed the strings. Their collective decibel deficit and Hankewich’s penchant to more often observe than lead, sculpt and calibrate, prevented the music from settling convincingly into its magnificent skin.
Inconsistency of phrasing marred much of the poignant “Andantino.” Principal oboe Christie Goodwin provided a wonderfully shaped first statement (even over the distraction of the concession staff’s chatter and bottle clinking seeping under the doors—yet another reason why the new hall can’t come soon enough). However, Hankewich couldn’t coax similar reiterations (notably on the delicate repeating notes) as the haunting theme moved about the other sections.
The “Scherzo’s” cautious tempo and many wayward open strings prevented the Pizzicato ostinato from achieving its intended effect. Consequently, the ensuing Meno mosso came merely as relief rather than the unbridled exhilaration of woodwinds expressing happiness and joy.
Following a “Stratford-on-the-Welland-Canal” summons-to-seats brass fanfares (MATANAH is a fine miniature by Amrom Chodos that subliminally foreshadowed the symphony—the first go more secure than the encore) and a welcome-to-the-season by newly appointed executive director Jack Mills, the program began with the first of four performances of T. Patrick Carrabré’s Chase the Sun (the set “test” piece for all four applicants). A most welcome surprise came from the upper strings who (as they did all afternoon) played with more authority and unanimity than has been the case for some time (two notable exceptions were the visit by guest violist Rivka Golani and guest conductor Edward Serov—on both occasions we heard the orchestra as never before).
The work is a fine “road-poem” of colour, texture and rhythms that has many difficult ensemble curves that all conductors must navigate.
Hankewich’s love and understanding of Forsyth’s Siyajabula! We Rejoice! was apparent from the first measure. The multi-layered South African “Ode to Freedom” was given a gritty reading that very nearly solved the Charles Ivesian-like two-worlds-coexisting writing that was the perfect musical metaphor for the ravages of Apartheid.
Once the initial measures were behind her, violinist Xiaoling Li rewarded the attentive crowd with clean, crisp and clear performance of Mozart’s perpetually-sunny fourth concerto. The “Andante” was especially well-crafted; the cadenzas rang true with surety and an admirable variety of tone. Hankewich was a sympathetic accompanist, moving as one with soloist through the magical ebb and flow where only greater attention to the dynamics could have improved the balance and overall result. JWR