JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Featured performer: Steve Amsel) - May 27, 2002

CBC Symphony Hall

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In search of lost joy

“I felt on seeing her that desire to live which is reborn in us whenever we become conscious anew of beauty and happiness.”

—Marcel Proust, from Place-Names, the Place

Replace “her” with art and the reason so many people attend concerts, go to galleries and the theatre becomes clear, for there is always the chance that coming near any form of artistic expression can release within the riddle of life.

And so I was filled with great expectations at the prospect of hearing the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s broadcast of three works that have the potential to rekindle that deeply personal feeling: I was not disappointed.

Hearing Handel’s Fireworks brought me back to the mid-‘80s when I conducted this work outdoors under an oyster-shaped canvas for hundreds of listeners whose attention was (understandably) often more drawn to the overhead firework display, which was ably directed by my assistant conductor—the Deep River fire chief, than to the music. Even Steven Spielberg’s computer magic can’t top that!

Hans Graf’s version of this perennial masterpiece came from the much safer confines of the Jack Singer Concert Hall and provided many colours of its own.

The stately “Overture” began with a full, heady sound but quickly became pedantic due to the incessant use of double-dotted notes, replacing majesty with jerkiness. I am well aware of the unending “notation discussions” from all manner of musicologists, conductors and original-instrument devotees, but I also believe that Handel was fully acquainted with balance, variety (rhythmic and tonal) and sturdiness of form and ideas. Unfortunately an eighth note couldn’t be bought in this reading. The allegro portions moved along pleasantly if somewhat vertically. The violins seemed more than content to have the slurs removed in the passagework but the brass—particularly the trumpets—acquitted themselves accurately.

The “Bourrée” was a model of contrasting colour and effective ornamentation, notably the oboe’s skillful roulades. Similarly, “La Paix’s” compelling lilt and variations of instrumentation added much interest. The final “Grand Cry” of the effectively layered “La Réjouissance“ was the highlight of this engaging performance. The alternating “Minuets” moved with steadiness and conviction right to the final bar. Special thanks must go to the CBC recording engineers for allowing us to enjoy the artistry of the harpsichordist whose contributions often go unheard in the hall.

CPO principal clarinetist Steve Amsel was the soloist for Mozart’s most sublime wind concerto. His stated desire for “the best reed you’ve ever had in your life” was very nearly met as he traversed this treacherous musical landscape with great success.

Amsel’s oily, flexible tone is closer to the school of Jack Brymer and Reginald Kell than the darker, rounder results of the approach taken by Robert Marcellus and James Morton. The thicker cane preferred by the later proponents can produce exceptional results but requires “chops” of steel.

The opening “Allegro” was supple and warm from Amsel’s first statement. At times his interpretation bordered on the melodramatic (Mozart slows things down more with lengthening note-values than unwritten ritardandi) and had a few “wild” results in the upper register, but the integrity of the delivery was never in doubt. Graf’s accompaniment was sympathetic if somewhat over-committed to short, hair-pin phrasing rather than allowing the occasional use of longer lines.

The magical slow movement took several measures for concurrence on tempo, but once found the seamless themes were beautifully presented and coloured. Oddly, in all the music in this broadcast, the rhythmically dotted notes (be they eighths, quarters, or halves) were often just shy of their full value, producing a number of ensemble problems. I only wished I could actually “see” to discover its physical source. The brief, but telling cadenza was nicely understated and brought us eloquently back to the most deeply-moving playing of the concerto.

As was the case throughout, the technical demands of the “Rondo” were tossed off with verve; Amsel seemed more secure than ever, risking more variety of articulation than in the earlier movements and brilliantly navigating the “higher roads” of the extreme register. The players seemed eager to support their colleague and added much zest in their statements—especially the transition to the minor episode. Everyone charged ahead to the finish and the audience and orchestra alike offered hearty approval to this outstanding work by one of their own.

Haydn’s last symphony has had a special place in my heart since first hearing, then conducting it many, many times before. I was fortunate enough to find a copy of the “autograph” score (a facsimile of the original—in Haydn’s hand) and edited my conductor’s part from that. It was instructive to see how many small details had been left out or assumed to be something else (e.g., a note that was actually a rest) by the editor of the modern score. How many errors are just so-published? Do we believe everything we read?

Graf’s “edition” of this wondrous work was a studied, detailed approach, revealing that his own homework had also been thorough. (Much of a conductor’s work is spent alone, with the score, trying to get into the “master’s” head; when the podium is reached the decisions should already have been made and then the work of bringing dozens of others to a singular point of view begins.) The introduction was all I had hoped: in time, in tune and with a quiet understanding that this drama would be brilliantly foiled in the ensuing “Allegro.” Not only foiled, but very nearly unwrapped as the ensemble skittered down the rails, the violas and cellos clinging for dear life as the eighth-note passages almost slipped the leash. It was exciting! Things settled down, but I found myself wishing for some revelation of the harmonic direction in order to add depth to the flurry of notes.

The “Andante” seemed one metronome marking too fast but Graf soon had me convinced of his choice, pressing on through the variations with purpose. The oboe was particularly fine in the coda where the French horns traversed their “farewell” with aplomb. (Another time, it might be interesting to try the repetition “stopped.”)

A spirited reading of the “Minuet” was nicely complemented by its “Trio” where the bassoon's melodic line stole the show. However, I couldn’t understand why the remaining woodwinds left their half-notes withering on the vine, leaving more holes than filling in this liquid-contrast to the sharp and short first section.

But it was the Finale that leapt off the page and took us to new heights. It had a punch that was reminiscent of George Szell (who understood Haydn’s humour better than anyone before or since) and HIS Cleveland Orchestra. Graf led a full-blooded, energetic chase that—happily— reminded me that, when all of the ingredients do come together, there’s nothing like an artistic experience to help us through the rest of life’s everyday muck.

And so, “Adieu” Hans Graf—not goodbye. May Steve Amsel and the rest of the CPO board be successful in finding a musician who happens to be a conductor to lead them into the future! JWR

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Conductor - Hans Graf
Featured performer - Steve Amsel
Music from the Fireworks Suite - George Frederic Handel
Concerto for Clarinet in A Major, K. 622 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No.104 in D Major - Franz Joseph Haydn
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