marathon, noun: something (such as an event or activity) that lasts an extremely long time or that requires great effort
In performing the complete set of Beethoven piano concertos (along with a seldom-heard overture from the master of mood, texture and development) all concerned—orchestra, conductor, soloist and audience—were active participants in the Niagara Symphony Orchestra’s initial set of concerts in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. By journey’s end, everyone had expended considerable energy as this bounty of music was presented with varying degrees of success.
Playing these sublime works in numerical (if not chronological) order excited the mind as to the intriguing possibility that—similar to the Canadian Opera Company’s recent melding of three operas 400 years apart into one continuous whole—these works might also find some artistic glue to bind them together in a way that wouldn’t be otherwise possible if performed in the usual one-at-a-time format.
How might these concertos create a kind of super concerto? I conjured up a singular, simple description for each, then eagerly awaited the combined offerings:
- Ambitious (C major)
- Impish (B-flat major; the first concerto, in fact)
- Dramatic (C minor)
- Introspective (G major; does it begin in B major or C-flat major?)
- Majestic, then joyful (not forced excitement; E-flat major)
Taken as a whole, it was the third concerto that stood head and shoulders above the rest. For the very first time, in its opening measures, the fine acoustics of Cairns Recital Hall (alas, the construction trust for the hoped for Partridge Hall failed to cross their finish line on schedule—a marathon of a different sort) were superbly utilized. Prior to and frequently after those special moments, conductor Barley Thachuk wasn’t able to elicit a consistently short enough staccato from the orchestra to not only match that of the piano, but enable overall clarity so that both thematic lines and accompaniments would work themselves together into a crystal-clear whole. Far different (thankfully) than the previous home of the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre (more designed for lectures or theatre than music), the overall strategy for length of notes (printed page versus actual reverberation and “ring”) needs to be reimagined in order to unlock the possibilities of the new venue—finished, or not: the stage doors are still missing in action. Without doubt, once properly in the larger confines of Partridge Hall, yet another acoustic retooling will be required.
Taming the “soundscape” would also go a long way to improving the overall percentage of razor-sharp cadences and “returns” as the piano flies in and out of orchestral support. Overall the “hit” ratio was about 25%. (All this was foreshadowed from the very first note of the Consecration of the House overture, where the tympani’s first stroke came microseconds ahead of everyone else (yet all was forgiven with the exceptionally rendered tympani-piano dialogue with the piano C minor concerto’s near-mystic adieu of the “Allegro con brio”).
Having performed in many of the world’s finest concert halls, artist-in-residence Stewart Goodyear likely made the required adjustments instinctively, producing many, many moments of superb pianism and art. And like the “Dedication” concert held in the same space a few weeks ago (cross-reference below), the most memorable parts of the program came when Stewart was left to his own considerable devices, be those the cadenzas or extended solo passages. Since last hearing him in 2010 (cross-reference below—also Beethoven), Goodyear has come a considerable way, bringing a much more nuanced approach to his craft and an infectious passion for every bar that truly created pin dropping silences. All that remains is to avoid the penchant for racing through some parts of the outer frames—particualry the finales: the E-flat concerto, so similar in feeling to the last movement of the “Pastorale” symphony, needs more joy after the heroism and lyricism that proceed it than barn-burning heat.
Those who remained to cross the finish line (our numbers dwindled after each intermission; some patrons taken unawares that there would be a 4-hours+ runtime) had very reason to be pleased with themselves. The orchestra and Thachuk have positively blossomed since their partnership began; Goodyear is on the cusp of true greatness and Brock is most fortunate to have his services and talents for the coming years, and the devoted concertgoers—having put out their own great effort to savour the extra helpings of music—can look forward to the coming season with the promise of further excellence as the performers fathom the acoustic charms of their new space. JWR