Kudos to executive producer Harold Gillis and his dedicated staff for bringing the “New” Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra back to the nation’s airwaves on this week’s Symphony Hall. With many other professional ensembles following the route of our flagship air carrier, it’s nice to have an example of an artistic resurrection—and just in time for Easter!
The conductor and driving force behind this successful reincarnation is Liverpool-born, Niagara resident Michael Reason. His program for this concert—recorded in December 2002—was entitled “City Landscapes,” the glue being urban soundscapes and rising perfect fourths.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony was the main event and provided a telling overview of the steel-town band and its director. (Later that day it was off to Buffalo for the composer's first large symphonic essay “A Sea Symphony” cross-reference below.)
The opening “Lento” revealed solid, in-tune lower strings and section violins that would appreciate having a few more desks to balance the foundation so as to have a chance to rise above the winds. Reason chose a thoughtful tempo, but fell into the trap of seeing more bar lines than phrases, resulting in considerably less flow than a depiction of the Thames' demands.
Once into the “Allegro,” the orchestra sounded grand at full throttle, managing to deliver the composer’s homage à Debussy with conviction and flair.
The eerie second movement suffered from the same truncation and lack of legato as the first—particularly in the strings, who should be encouraged to use all of their bows—but the solo woodwinds (the outstanding section) from the opening line of Nancy Nelson’s poignant cor anglais, convincingly demonstrated why this ensemble deserves national exposure.
The surprisingly cautious pace of the “Scherzo” produced a plodding, rehearsal read-through of the symphony’s best pages and it merely ended, rather than vanishing magically into the night. But the rhythm (unlike the “big” triplets of the opening), was tight and the jingling percussion kept the collisions to a minimum.
The “Finale” was the best of the bunch. Reason led with authority and handled the transitions with aplomb. The harp’s expert tolling of Big Ben brought us seamlessly to the shimmering “Epilogue” and calming close to a busy day in London town.
The program began with the world première of composer-in-residence Heather Schmidt’s Prelude for Hamilton. With the London Symphony to follow, I must confess that the opening motif brought my ear into the Beatles’ "Yesterday" but it wasn’t quoted long enough for a court challenge! Slightly thin strings and a marvellous trumpet predominated the sturdy, if somewhat drab opening section. Then, the solo winds—especially the bassoon in all its woody glory—added just the right amount of colourful contrast. Just when I was tiring of the homophonic palette, Schmidt responded with a nod towards counterpoint.
The shift to the quick-time section was not without incident, but once launched, the prelude moved forward with vigour. When the chimes began to strike (a double-link to local steel mills and Westminster), the work yielded its finest measures and showed it to be a welcome addition to Canadian repertoire. During the broadcast, descriptive titles were sought:“Forging and Fauna?”
Susan Hoeppner was the flute soloist and inspiration for Michael Baker’s thoughtful second concerto. She traversed the solo part with ease and technical authority—unforgettable in her “alone” opening statement and the cadenza. Reason was a sympathetic accompanist in the moody episodes, but couldn’t keep his pizzicato strings under tight-enough rein throughout the odd rhythms of the spicy, driving, speedier sections.
In many ways, Copland’s stark, pensive urban essay was the best music of the broadcast. Despite a stodgy tempo, the soloists (Mike Fedyshyn, trumpet; Nancy Nelson, English horn), Reason delivered the composer’s soliloquies and dialogues with style and care. Only taking a hair more time between the closing octave leaps—allowing the hall to finish the crescendo—could have improved this reading. JWR