Barely two weeks after hearing the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall (cross-reference below), I found myself in the National Arts Centre for the début appearance there of conductor Olari Elts. While the OCO most certainly could have benefitted from a competent maestro, for much of this concert, the expanded National Arts Centre Orchestra could probably have done service to the music on its own without the Estonian standing on the podium.
On some occasions wielding the baton (Busoni’s Lustspiel-Overture; the “Vivacissimo” from Sibelius’ heroic second symphony) or merely flailing his hands for most of the program (which included Gary Kulesha’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, featuring mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó), Elts contented himself with following the varied program rather than leading it. Sensing the dilemma, the NACO principals (most especially principal bass Joel Quarrington) put on a master class of leading under fire—all in service of the magnificent scores on offer.
Busoni’s seldom heard opener lacked centre, harmonic understanding and featured routine—rather than forward thinking—counterpoint.
Kulesha’s setting of six passages from Volume 5 of the famed author’s recollections could have been written in any language other than English and produced the same “what was that again?” effect. (Frequently the orchestrations covered the text and the house program offered no assistance.) For her part, Szabó was a model of control, providing a marvellous legato and exquisite change of register no matter what she was “saying”.
Having been weaned on Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 by Eugene Ormandy (recording) and Lorin Maazel (in person) when studying at Carnegie Mellon University in the early ‘80s, Elts had formidable predecessors to compare with and never came close to their storied league.
Like too many maestros these days, he seemed more content to follow the lines rather than weave them together. Ensemble was seldom secure and the frequent transitions became more of a scramble than savvy shift to the next spectacular climax. At those key moments, virtually 9 out of 10 very “not together.”
Nonetheless, principal oboe Charles Hamann and principal trumpet Karen Donnelly settled into their solos (notably in the “Andante”) with consummate skill and exquisite phrasing as Elts wisely left them to their own devices.
But despite some helpful interventions from the principals and heart-felt contributions from many of the players, those who began the evening with high expectations left Southam Hall wishing for what could have been rather than having to settle for what was. JWR