With Pride week just over and Canada Day only hours away, the New Classical 96.3 FM kept the parties going by continuing its “Live From the Concert Lobby” series with a performance from the touring Manitoba Chamber Orchestra (cross-reference below) led by guest conductor Anne Manson.
The audience favourite was a spirited reading of Peter Heidrich’s Theme and Variations on Happy Birthday—a set of composer-inspired versions on the famous tune that young ones adore and their elders begrudgingly accept.
The 22-member ensemble (all strings on this outing which included performances in Ottawa) dug into the music with zest and enthusiasm. The Haydn “Menuetto” had just the right pulse, the homage to the “Father of the String Quartet” was individually secure and the freely lifted grace notes scampered into our ears and the microphones’ with “coyish” charm.
Typical drama, syncopations and a delectable minor ninth coloured the Beethoven episode. Long legato lines—but more “into the string” please—and marvellous harmonic shifts could well have come from Brahms (yet the inner voices seemed too stagnant by half); the steal away, sextet-borrowed adieu was especially fine. Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet framed the final master-based variant but the best was yet to come.
A delightful “Invitation to the Dance” sequence kicked off with a toe-tappin’ polka then morphed to a waltzer that couldn’t resist a cheesy harmonic at its close. A brooding ballad followed before a bit of ragtime applied its rhythmic hand to the melody but needed a much lighter bottom and back-beats to complete the transformation. No worries. The ensuing tango only lacked the proverbial rose to perfectly top off this adroit metamorphosis.
Then the bandanas flew while the tempo was gradually stoked into a red-hot frenzy as the gypsy schmaltz und drang blazed into a mighty Czardas that popped the cork and lit candles all around.
Happy birthday indeed!
Earlier, the program began with Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa, a work that showed off players and conductor alike.
It’s a kind of minimalist bolero; the repetitious cells moved steadily forward with near-perfect precision. The balance was admirable (the lobby has remarkably good acoustics, probably more by luck than design) and the mass of “insects” accompaniment added much to the intensity that had unintentionally eased during the cello solo.
The finale of Bartók’s treacherous Divertimento was delivered in a raw-and-ready fashion that afforded concertmaster Karl Stobbe the opportunity to further demonstrate his considerable technique and spot-on intonation; the violas were not as successful.
Observing Manson over the course of the concert, her devotion to the score and artistic integrity were never in doubt. However, her penchant to wield the baton as a small club rather than an extension of the index finger (and, accordingly, of herself) created some of the ensemble’s untidiness (notably the tutti pizzicati in the Bartók). The explosions of her left-hand fingers drew a vigourous response on occasion, but the possibility of those same digits sculpting tone and crafting phrase endings have yet to be fully plumbed.
This invigorating performance whets the appetite for more.
Winnipeggers are to be envied for having this band in their backyard; Torontonians (and their suburban music lovers) can look forward to a sampling of Manson’s opera abilities in next season’s Canadian Opera Company production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. JWR