JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Conductor: Charles Olivieri-Munroe) - February 25, 2002

CBC Symphony Hall

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Northern radio reflections

What a great pleasure it was to hear today’s broadcast from Raffi Armenian Theatre of last November’s concert by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. It is good to know that the cause of fine music is being so admirably served and supported by both the K-W concert-going public and the CBC!

Guest conductor Charles Olivieri-Munroe began the program with the seldom heard “In Autumn” Concert Overture, Op. 11 by Edvard Grieg. It is always challenging to schedule relatively new “old” music rather than deliver a steady diet of the tried and true; the trick is to perform those neglected works with the same conviction and care as the standard repertoire. This reading had mixed results.

The brooding introduction—apart from the fine oboe that would be one of the entire concert’s greatest assets—seemed both aurally and emotionally distant, producing a somewhat anemic landscape. In fact, I felt the microphone placements left much to be desired: the orchestra never achieved the presence of last week’s beautifully recorded Thirteen Strings program. However, things improved considerably in the jolly “Allegro” that was deftly punctuated by very-present percussion and successfully achieved a wide dynamic range. In the recapitulation, the last lyrical statement was particularly well-handled, but overall I wished that Olivieri-Munroe would have let the musical leaves float down on their own rather than making them drop from the musical limbs on cue.

Next up was Mussorgsky’s luscious gem Prelude to Kovantchina - Dawn on the River Moscow. I was marvelling at the delicacy of the opening—I could scarcely hear a note—when an unscheduled extra burst of applause revealed an edit problem rather than dynamic variety. Surely all producers realize the need to review the air tape prior to broadcast!

Nonetheless, the viola section got the second début off securely as the first rays began to glimmer from the flute. Indeed, the entire woodwind section is the pride of the orchestra although the principal bassoon is occasionally too strident for the line as was the case following the far smoother clarinet. The BIG oboe solo was just short of liquid fluency; pedantically cushioned by diligent strings. While much was to be admired, the gentle flow so vital to this essay failed to take hold, causing the final waves to merely end, rather than mysteriously disappear.

Timothy Hutchins was the amiable soloist in R. Murray Schafer’s Concerto for Flute. It was fortunate that Hutchins has three lungs in order to physically navigate his way through the fiendish breath and note demands of the “Modo Perpetuo.” My clarinet-playing past was in awe of his total control and fantastic ability of always having something to say: never just playing the notes. At first, he too, sounded the victim of microphone misplacement and/or final mix, but as the music progressed the balance improved. The punchy percussion, conversations with the woodwinds and the presence of keyboards gave this concerto a similar feel to works such as Aaron Copland’s Music for the Theatre.

In many ways, the second movement was the best music-making of the entire concert. Hutchins glided in with great tact after the third statement and then artfully provided a convincing argument for the use of multiphonics. At no time did this device seem contrived or merely lacking the words. The orchestra responded in kind and became totally engaged, supporting and enhancing his lines with unobtrusive ostinatos and all manner of presentation effects and colours to produce a soundscape that allowed the soloist the freedom to speak his mind. Only the uneven pitch of violin’s “Mahler-entry” marred this admirable rendering.

The soloist-described “Swing” of the final movement kept everyone on their rhythmic toes. It seemed the performance was two rehearsals shy of being secure: many of the necessarily “tight” shifting pulse, homophonic lines were a tad messy and felt somewhat “hesitato.” The tuba’s solo was bang on and the final dash to the double bar was reached by all with skill and surety.

Soon to be at the half-century milestone myself, I have composers’ envy for Jean Sibelius who conducted the première of his Fifth Symphony on his 50th birthday in 1915. The K-W Symphony made a valiant attempt at plumbing the depths of this very dense and personal masterpiece.

Once again there was much to admire, but the overall structure and feeling of inevitability was oddly missing from this performance. The opening would have benefited from more forward direction and a much wider dynamic range. The score abounds with a plethora of dynamic and articulation indications whose combined effect make for a plane of sound that never rests. On several occasions, I felt that less bow from the strings would have added greatly to the cools and colours of the landscape.

Given the preponderance of inner-turmoil and its able companion, menace, lurking in the subtext, the transition to the “Allegro moderato” was technically fine but could have benefited from a commensurate change of character. Finally, the age-old problem of climax versus crisis (for example: the lead up to the Più Presto) might have been more thoroughly contemplated and then delivered by the conductor so that a true sense of arrival could have been achieved.

The “Andante” began well. The first true instance of harmonic pain needed more weight from the flute. Moments later, the quadruple piano was chilling and just right—more of this level of commitment and attention (less is more) would have brought this performance up many notches. In the back of the minds of all who know this symphony is the vision of unbridled joy that beckons in the last movement, which provides a much-desired tonic to the many dark thoughts already heard. If everything from the very first sound is focused on that hope to come, there is a chance that the music can burst the confines of its soundless bar-lines and become the amazing statement of humanity that Sibelius knew it to be. JWR

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Prelude to Kovantchina - Modeste Mussorgsky
Concerto for Flute - R. Murray Schafer
In Autumn - Edvard Grieg
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 82 - Jean Sibelius
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