How very fortunate are Ottawans and visitors to the nation’s capital to have had the opportunity to savour two of France’s most beloved artists. At the National Gallery, The Bridges of Claude Monet recently completed its three and a half month run, then, just a day after that closed, the National Arts Centre Orchestra presented a program featuring a pair of works from Georges Bizet. (The day in-between brought the city to its knees with the snowstorm of the century, reminding one and all that Nature always has the last laugh.)
Despite being contemporaries, the output of both is worlds apart: Monet employing deliberately vague, deliciously blurry images that continue to draw viewers to his incredible canvases due to their brilliant “captures” and frequently calming effects. Bizet’s distinctive voice is far more immediate and direct. Soaring melodies, stark dynamic and dramatic contrasts along with a wonderful sense of happiness and joy are the ideal musical embodiment of the current wave of “sunny ways.”
Seeing a painting in a book or on the Internet provides a basic understanding of the creator’s intent, but standing in the same space with the original is, of course, a far richer experience—the length of that “performance” being up to the beholder. Marvellously, what is seen or felt may in some part depend on the venue’s lighting (natural or artificial) and—if not alone—the reactions or lack thereof from fellow viewers.
Similarly, hearing a CD, broadcast or all manner of digital downloads provides music lovers with a “fixed” version of the composer’s vision. Experiencing the same music live is an especially singular event as no two performances are ever exactly alike; nor any audiences the same.
In orchestral music, it is largely the role of the conductor to recreate the repertoire in a manner that would not be at odds with the composer’s ideas. Judging how successful that enterprise has been is a fine, subjective art indeed.
Observing conductor Alexander Shelley for the first time, it was immediately apparent that his approach to Bizet’s crowd-favourite Carmen Suite along with the exuberant, poignant and—at times—delightfully naïve Symphony in C (“Look what I can do!”) was entirely on the same page as the impressionistic landscapes of Monet.
Shelley’s gestures and body language resembled the painter’s brush, resulting in close but too often “untogether” attacks where crystal-clear crispness was wanted. The legato lines fared much better, yet the changes of register or harmonic excursions were never reinforced or subtlety shaped (the most welcome exception being Charles Hamann’s beautifully crafted solo in the symphony’s beguiling Adagio; here Shelley merely observed, relinquishing control to the detriment of perfectly placed pizzicati).
A very faint memory recalls Mario Bernardi’s visits to Symphony in C which were polar opposites: snap, crackle, pop to the extreme and tempi that were so fast as to induce excitement, but not for always for the right reasons. (Ah, where is George Szell when we need him?!) Still, if Shelley could encourage his talented charges to develop a “less is more” approach to staccati and punctuation, then the very wonderful acoustics of Southam Hall would readily fill in the “blanks.” This problem is not dissimilar to our just-opened arts centre in St. Catharines (cross-reference below), where resident musicians are still learning how to “play” their new acoustical settings.
The Canadian première of Nico Muhly’s Viola Concerto was in stark contrast to all that surrounded it. Nadia Sirota was a pleasure at every turn—from the bookend pizzicati through the emotionally driven flowing, at times dark statements and—most especially—the cadenza which dazzled and reflected in near-cinematic scope.
The orchestra was a model of support and interaction, if on several occasions overshadowing the intrepid protagonist. Overall, there was the distinct feeling that Muhly has written a worthy addition to the viola-orchestra repertoire, but that it had not—yet—been heard quite as imagined. JWR