At last, the Niagara Symphony Orchestra took to its expected venue in its new home at Partridge Hall (which was not quite ready for the Beethoven Marathon, cross-reference below).
Like the smaller Cairns Recital Hall, the stage walls aren’t fully finished, but the acoustics offer the hope of a superb result for Niagara’s devoted music lovers.
Never since attending these concerts (beginning in 2002), have I experienced such a degree of warmth from the collective ensemble. On many occasions the orchestra most positively glowed—but there are musical dangers in moving from a less-then-ideal hall to one that reveals all.
I can still recall the other NSO (Nepean Symphony Orchestra) in my conducting days when we happily departed Sir Robert Borden High School Auditorium (where Anon Kuerti had to ask a patron to move seats due to the squeaks with every weight shift) for the much more eloquent confines of Centrepointe Theatre in 1988.
During our initial rehearsals, I immediately realized that the orchestra felt far different as we prepared for—amongst other things—Rich Little’s version of Peter and the Wolf.
Ever curious, I asked the players to “keep going” while I dashed into the room to hear them from a distance.
I suddenly understood that less would most certainly produce more due to the wonderful acoustics (aided and abetted by a custom-made shell) providing more reverberation and ring than we’d ever had before (many church performances had a plethora of reverb where the joke was if a wrong note was made, there’d be time to fix it!).
Back on the podium, I asked for slightly less bow or “clips” (from the winds) for staccato markings, drier pizzicato and more support (left hand or diaphragm as the case may be) but less volume in the quieter sections. The results were astonishing: I had my first lesson in the very fine art of how to “play” a new performance space. Like my clarinet reeds, no two were the same—each requiring physical adjustments and a somewhat different approach to sound production.
And just what to do with a significant change in acoustics is the current challenge facing music director Bradley Thachuk and his talented crew as they settle into their new digs.
Kevin Lau’s Heroes and Angels quite literally set the tone as the inspired orchestration and thematic development brought a wonderful radiance to the first notes heard. His sense of dramatic balance made the music ebb and flow in a manner that kept the large crowd completely engaged from stem to stern.
The delicate string writing proved to be as calming as it was somewhat daunting: any pitch vagaries had nowhere to hide. And in the full-bore moments, it may well be time to consider reconfiguring the overall seating plan so that low strings and low brass coexist with one another rather than being on opposite side—the ensemble will most likely benefit. (Ditto the harp and percussion which were just short of unanimous in their shared lines.)
Without a doubt, the highlight of the afternoon was James Ehnes’ scintillating, heartfelt performance of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole.
Once the oddly tentative opening statements had passed, Ehnes dug far and deep into the score, tossing off the formidable technical challenges (including stellar artificial harmonics and a left-hand pizzicato for the ages) with deceptive ease. His golden legato soared into the hall, taking full advantage of the inherent soundpost that the architects and acousticians have readily put at his disposal.
Thachuk did his best, but could not quite match the melodic thrust and parry (especially during unison passages) of the “Allegro non troppo” and the pizzicati of the “Scherzando” would most certainly have benefitted, once again, from a less-is-more rendering.
Maddeningly for all, an unwanted alarm soiled the musical landscape towards the end of the second movement, but neither pleading looks from Ehnes or Thachuk to unseen building/house staff could shut it off: they soldiered on.
The concert concluded with the most bloodless—save and except for the last hurrah—performance of Ravel’s miracle of orchestration, Pictures at an Exhibition that I have ever witnessed. With virtually no intensity to sustain the ten portraits, these canvasses were decidedly pastel rather than painted with the full range of hues (I longed for a repeat of Roberto Minczuk’s spectacular reading where the entire orchestra did breathe as one, producing unanimity of attacks too seldom heard in concert halls anywhere—cross-reference below).
Fortunately, many of the solo contributions (notably Douglas Miller’s deftly nuanced alto saxophone and Karen Ages’ marvellously rich English horn) provided welcome relief.
Here’s hoping that the next NSO outing in Partridge Hall will play to its strengths and leave Sean O’Sullivan’s considerable weaknesses fading quickly to black. JWR