JWR Articles: Radio Broadcast - CBC Symphony Hall (Conductor: Victor Sawa) - June 29, 2003
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CBC Symphony Hall

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Vickers saves the day

A number of years ago I was listening to a radio interview with Jon Vickers, arguably Canada’s finest musician ever. He was asked if he, like Luciano Pavarotti, would accept an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. There was a slight pause, then in an understated tone that nearly charred my speakers with its heat he replied, “Never, for sooner or later the art will laugh at you.”

How incredibly ironic that Vickers’ niece should be part of a broadcast where her uncle’s biting comments would, sadly, be proved in such a convincing manner.

I was astonished to hear the classical components of the Regina Symphony Orchestra’s April concert rendered with such consistently poor pitch, technique and interpretation. Based on the Overture and Symphony alone, the reported “Save Our Symphony” appeal to rescue Victor Sawa and his charges from financial oblivion should, perhaps, be restated as “Sink Our Symphony.” Performances such as those have no place in the concert hall much less on Canada’s national broadcaster.

In the portions of the Beethoven Overture that escaped the editor’s cutting room floor, the inner strings lacked pulse and rhythmic surety; the violins strayed with tonal abandon every time their parts ventured above the staff. All concerned should be sent to the practice woodshed and locked in until their errant notes have been mastered or union cards burned. The second bassoon appeared to be MIA and the booming tympanist decided an extra solo was required in the closing measures.

With the notable exception of the fine-toned clarinet section, Dvořák’s work was rendered with more bombast than spirit, absolutely no sense of harmonic direction (much less tension) and unflagging tempi that never risked a musical moment or thoughtful phrase. Climaxes were ploughed through, pushed with heavy boots and flesh-light pizzicati. A pleasant oboe solo—as the final double-bar neared—was like a mirage in the desert, then relief rather than exhilaration was felt when everyone had run out of notes.

Thank goodness for Catherine Vickers. Her performance of David McIntyre’s First Piano Concerto was by far and away the highlight of the day. From her opening notes, she led effectively and displayed an admirable variety of touch and tone. It was a great pleasure to realize that, almost alone amongst her colleagues, her technique was more than adequate for the challenges presented in the score.

McIntyre has fashioned a pleasant work, but one that’s unsure of itself. With so many sections and bits—the piano leading for a moment, then accompanying, then commenting—his score never has a chance to settle down, develop its threads and say something profound. A near-literal quote from the “Scherzo“ of Brahms’ B-flat Major Concerto—whether intentional or not—seemed too far out of context to be effective.

The middle movement revealed a flexibility of line in Vickers that I hope is contagious; her wonderful legato skills and finesse had me wishing to hear her again soon in a Rachmaninoff concerto.

The finale, laced with colours that evoked Poulenc’s Aubade and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra built to an impressive climax that had the large audience cheering the return and artistry of their native soloist.

McIntyre’s fanfare, which opened the proceedings, was a confident full-blown affair that showed off the low brass and horns to great effect and a fitting musical tribute to Regina’s centenary.

Following the concert, host Catherine Duncan interviewed Deborah Chandler who spoke of her recent study, “Soundings,” which examined the precarious state of orchestras in Canada. We heard that well-articulated “artistic vision” was required and that orchestra CEOs with an artistic background are best. However, although “excellence” was mentioned, the notion that the demise of quality as a major contributor to the current state of difficulty (partially the result of fewer rehearsals, smaller-sized complements, less discourse, and dwindling music programs in our schools) was set aside in favour of knowing “what product you’re really selling.”

As long as our orchestras are evaluated by their balance sheets rather than their ability to move the human spirit, the decline (save and except for movie, TV and house-band programs with Pop Stars) will continue. Sunday’s broadcast did little to help the cause. JWR

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Conductor - Victor Sawa
Repertoire:
Brass Fanfare - David McIntyre
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a - Ludwig van Beethoven
Piano Concerto - David McIntyre
Symphony No. 5 in F Major - Antonin Dvořák
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