No one left today’s final concert of this season’s Masters series without a smile on their face. With some of the finest playing I’ve heard from the orchestra to date, Daniel Swift put together a most rewarding afternoon of the neglected, the new and the well-known.
Chabrier’s Suite Pastorale is the perfect vehicle for this ensemble. The strings were right at home, producing a steady, focused tone. The woodwinds provided colour and contrast and even an extra note in the tarantella-like “Allegro vivo” that sprightly closed this delightful four movement work. Only a slight lack of onward direction in the “Sous-bois” marred the reading but perhaps that was due to the flickering stage light that distracted us all. Swift conducted it all with great authority and purpose.
Akasha (“Sky”) replaced the scheduled work by Canadian composer Glenn Buhr. Here the close-knit brass provided the foil to the dense polyrhythmic, polytonal offerings of the rest of the band. The bells, in a separate world of their own, effectively portrayed the endless constellations that fill our heavens. Brief and to the point, the architecture was sturdy enough to let our imaginations fill in the blanks.
Brent Adams was the heroic soloist in Vaughan Williams’ seldom performed Tuba Concerto. His reading was most eloquent and displayed his considerable technique—particularly the numerous trills—to great advantage. At times the orchestra covered his sound, making me wonder why he chose to sit with his bell turned into the stage rather than out to the hall. The first movement cadenza was presented with aplomb, navigating the depth and height of his range with surety and unerring sense of line.
Some moments of fatigue lessened the impact of the “Romanza” but the “Rondo all tedesca” happily leapt off the page and closed out this remarkable work convincingly. Swift and his charges provided steady support—always so nice to accompany “one of our own.” Niagara is fortunate to have such an accomplished tubist in its midst.
Following intermission we were treated to two performances from the highly successful Composer in the Classroom project. Two groups of local grade-school students, conducted by two of their number, collaborated with the symphony. Both young conductors learned the important lesson that just having a baton in your hand doesn’t ensure that all of your directions will be followed. Both soundscapes, using all manner of percussion, voice, and even chewing lips depicted various aspects of summer and fall. Most effective were the terrors of Halloween and the finger lickin’ good Thanksgiving. The near capacity crowd ate it all up! It is so good to see so many young minds listening to and participating with the region’s champion of fine music.
The final offering brought us Schumann’s Symphony in B-flat Major, truly a masterwork of ideas, expression and sound.
The performance had me gnashing my teeth then ecstatically cheering—sometimes simultaneously—as this wonderful score revealed all the things I love and can’t abide with this intrepid ensemble.
From the opening cry of the trumpet my hopes were high. The “Andante” moved steadily forward—the strings really digging in; the winds firm in their support. The transition to the Allegro was near perfect and my confidence grew. And just when I was losing patience with Swift for too many beats he switched to half time and beautifully drew the longer line so that the strings could chatter around it without interrupting its flow. Even the exposition repeat (so often omitted, destroying the structure) was observed. Marvellous!
Then, in the exposition, the first violins started having trouble in the upper positions and, while some lapses occur in every orchestra at every concert, these were longer sections, still requiring several more trips to the practice woodshed before being ready for public consumption.
Fuming quietly inside (and attracting a nervous glance from the couple beside me), I was stopped cold in my fury by the astonishingly beautiful legato section shaped so caringly by Swift in the coda. Everything was just right and the music led us to a successful close.
The “Larghetto” allowed the woodwinds to shine and with the exception of some uncharacteristic baubles from the flute pushed and pulled in a most satisfying manner. And the cellos—easily the strongest of the string section delivered their glorious melodic lines with a full throttled tone that flooded the room beautifully. The magical transition to the “Scherzo” was very nearly stunning. However, once started, all concerned should remind themselves that the up beat to the theme (in all its permutations) should have less weight than the downbeat. That, in part, was the reason for the continual rush to the start of each phrase robbing this sombre dance of its relentless solidity.
Trio I was fine. But full out stopping before Trio II, regrouping then “re-engaging” is surely the basis for a criminal prosecution! The forward motion and drive of the time signature switch, like killing the flame of a hot air balloon, was lost. Risks must be taken in art in order to permit the chance of creating something truly special. I have seen some of the finest conductors in the world (Georg Solti, Rafael Kubelik) take these dangerous sections and fight their way through them—they gamble: but even a small loss of ensemble far outweighs the chance of a musically spectacular moment.
The Finale, once on its way, proceeded well; the inner tension of this often underestimated movement was never far from the surface. Swift regained his calm authority and the results were impressive. The drama unfolded, the final cadence gradually coming into sight then the steady, confident outline of the tonic’s component part brought this heady performance to a stirring conclusion.
The Niagara Symphony and its music director have demonstrated conclusively that—when all of the elements are just right—they can compare favourably to any orchestra in the country. I look forward to hearing them next season and charting their success in rising to the challenge of preserving and presenting the timeless treasures of Western music to an ever-widening audience. JWR