JWR Articles: Live Event - Masterworks Series (Conductor: Daniel Swift) - January 28, 2002

Masterworks Series

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An afternoon of firsts

Today’s matinée concert by the Niagara Symphony in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre at Brock University was a veritable feast of firsts:

  • The first time I have heard an “NSO” since my last concert as music director of the Nepean Symphony Orchestra in 1991;
  • My first experience of cultural life in the Niagara region since relocating to St. Catharines in early November;
  • My first “taste” of the acoustics in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre and
  • My first hearing of Rodney Sharman’s Scarlattiana (1999).

Let me say at the outset how fortunate the Niagara community is to have an orchestra of this calibre in its midst—all concerned are to be congratulated and the partnership with Brock University through the “Orchestra-in-Residence” should be continued. Imagine—two public organizations working together for their mutual benefit!

To the music.

Well, not quite.

My first disappointment was that the large audience had be given a commercial to thank the sponsors and a “here’s what to listen for” from music director, Daniel Swift. I pine for the days when the thank yous were in the programme and on the posters, and the audience could be trusted to form its own opinions about the music at hand. Surely Shimon Burstyn’s pre-concert talk would be enough for those in need of someone else’s ideas about the music to be played.

Thus the magic of a few tuning “A’s,” the quiet hush of the assembled, soundlessly accompanied by the dimming of the lights, the conductor’s bow and then the wordless start to the music was lost … and is it only Canadian works that require this “insider’s report?”

Scarlattiana (played twice: solo harpsichord; full orchestra) lacked rhythmic security as the common link between both versions. The harpsichord rendition improved as nerves steadied but the required ongoing, moving flow only appeared on the repeat of each section. The orchestral version was superior. The musicians responded admirably to Sharman’s layering and juxtapositions but the feeling at the end of each section was more “we got through it” than “there, we’ve played it.” Perhaps less knee-bending on the podium and more clarity from the baton would help a future performance.

Mark Fewer, violin and Thomas Wiebe, cello were the fearless and sensitive soloists in Brahms’ largest piano trio—the so-called "Double Concerto." This glorious work is more that of chamber music than symphony. The interactions, once the protagonists have been introduced, settle into a fascinating array of dialogues and discussions with the orchestra taking on the role of a very grand piano. Oh to have watched Brahms “play” his orchestra as he conducted the première over a century ago.

Fewer and Wiebe were a well-matched duo and their tone qualities also blended easily with the orchestra that, however, could use a financial benefactor to allow it to swell the ranks of its string section to the proportion that full-cry renditions of the Romantic era demand. What was puzzling and at times unsettling about the “Allegro” was Swift’s determination to beat it all in four-to-the-bar rather than the somewhat more dangerous (for ensemble and tempo modifications) two pulses per measure. As a result of the “too many beats” the feel of the dotted rhythms and the breadth of the “big triplets” were lost; much of the time the dark undercurrents of this magnificent movement failed to materialize. For their part, the soloists soldiered on steadily and provided many quality moments, particularly when interacting directly with each other.

The autumnal “Andante” fared much better. Its masterfully constructed theme is the stuff of which tears are made, and it was delivered with feeling and reverence. Here the tempo was just right, enabling the movement to proceed at a pace that revealed the insights and shading skills of both cello and violin. This was the afternoon’s highlight.

Everyone seemed to relax and enjoy the “Finale” with its sense of fun and considerable technical challenges tossed off with verve by the soloists, although the extreme registers were occasionally just a nickel short of perfect intonation. The orchestra responded in kind and the enthusiastic audience was justifiably appreciative.

It’s been nearly two decades since I last conducted what has been affectionately referred to as “Ode to the Chromatic Scale and BIG TUNE DELIGHT.” The Franck D Minor Symphony has considerable tests for orchestra and conductor alike. During the opening movement I reflected on the difficulties of playing in a hall as dry as the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre. Too often there was no resonance into the written silences causing the carefully built orchestral sound to suddenly collapse into a vacuum, sucking the drama right off the stage. I would encourage the strings to use more left-hand and be sure to vibrate al niente, thus challenging the winds to finish every phrase with their diaphragms. These “holes” became a major distraction; the attention of some of those around me begin to wane. However, all perked up when the BIG TUNE made its first appearance; the eternal chromaticism finally getting to its point!

The famous “Allegretto” was set up beautifully by the pizzicato strings and a somewhat over reverberant harp. The English horn solo was handled with great aplomb and the woodwinds as a whole were most supportive. 

In the agitated “Finale,” the brass were given free rein. At times, the strings could have been playing a completely different offering, but, due to their numbers, didn’t stand a chance. Nonetheless the brass added great punch and fire, propelling the rest of the orchestra along with them to a fullsome conclusion that was greeted with equal zest from the large crowd. JWR

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Conductor - Daniel Swift
Violin - Mark Fewer
Cello - Thomas Wiebe
Harpsichord - Cécile Desrosiers
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A Minor, Op. 102 - Johannes Brahms
Symphony in D Minor - César Franck
Scarlattiana - Rodney Sharman
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