More than fine music and energetic dance was available to those fortunate enough to attend Thursday’s “Music of Tchaikovsky” program. A pianist from the Canadian Mennonite University valiantly serenaded the early concertgoers with a mini-recital that included selections of Ravel and Hindemith accompanied by an ostinato of chatter, and clinking ice. All was spectacularly lit by the foyer’s stunning chandeliers (so apropos for “Les Miroirs”).
The walls were covered with goods for viewing and sale: finely woven Ukrainian kilim tapestries, colourful silk scarves; tables abounded with other delights: books (none better than David E. Walker’s “How to Listen to Modern Music”), chances to win a late-model car or $75,000 cash, tickets for next season. Little wonder Eaton’s has closed—how could they compete?!
Once safely though portal 8, I took my seat only to realize that the hustle, bustle and informality outside Centennial Hall spilled over into the dress code of the orchestra members who seemed relaxed and eager to offer up a carefully culled selection from the genius of Russia’s favourite son.
Marche Slave settled down quickly into a performance that was well-crafted and true to the score. Perhaps it was due to the “push back” of the orchestra from the front of the stage, but the snare drum seemed to have found the “g”-spot of the acoustics and his every utterance threatened to overwhelm the rest of the band. The violins, when playing à 2, produced a beautiful, full-bodied tone that gloriously soared to the heights.
In the “Scherzo” from Symphony No.4, which followed, the strings were clean and disciplined in their pizzicati (with just a few wayward open strings spoiling the effect). The winds responded with verve but it was left to the audience to decide whether Tchaikovsky was parodying drunks (as offered from the stage) or merely giving “out a rustic tune” (from the program notes).
Eight members of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s Professional Program took the stage for the immortal “Waltz” from Swan Lake.
The exuberance of these young performers more than made up for the slight nervousness and related hesitations that kept this rendition from really being “secure.” But special mention must be made of their unflinching attitude from opening position to final bow. Conductor Michael Hall was attentive to both the music and the choreography and provided ample breathing space for the successful delivery of music and movement.
Karl Stobbe’s solo violin was the highlight of the Theme and Variations. His rich sound was never forced and was matched by Hall’s sympathetic accompaniment. The entire orchestra took flight in the demanding finale, no doubt inspired by the near-balletic gyrations of its most adept tambourine master.
It was in the “Waltz” from the Serenade for Strings that Hall had a chance to demonstrate his considerable skill of leading with clarity. His gestures are economical—not the slave of mirror-image arms. The results were telling: controlled, accurate and generally well-paced. Yet, the passion lurks just beneath the surface, too seldom breaking through. Like the dancers before him, the hard work is evident, the desire undisputed but I wished for less bar lines and far more phrase—even if that might mean taking a few risks with ensemble. So what if all of the landings aren’t perfect—the art has a better chance of coming through if it is allowed rather than forced to speak. I would be very interested to hear this movement again conducted with only his left hand in play. There is more power and substance in that appendage than most maestros realize.
The return to the stage of Serena Sandford and Scott Andrew, now as soloists in the pas de deux, stole the show. The pair worked beautifully together and communicated a level of commitment to each other and the music that radiated throughout the hall. Clearly the next generation of professional dancers has some able practitioners and near artists in its ranks. All those responsible for the high standards of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School Professional Division are to be congratulated.
What else could have ended this “Greatest Hits” program than the 1812 Overture? The low strings started things off warmly and set the tone for a reading that was in tune, in time and on track. My only technical request would be for the entire string section to vibrate at the end of phrases—particularly those that are followed by sudden drops of volume. The brass (solid throughout with an exceptionally fine tuba) added great punch and kept everything moving. The chimes looked awfully busy and the cannon (despite a warning) failed to injure a single patron, which no doubt sparked the much-deserved standing ovation indicating the audience’s enjoyment of the well-executed program.
Overheard as I left: “Well Tom, we’re sure hearing what we’re familiar with tonight!”
This being my first chance to experience the orchestra in person, I must report how pleased I was to see so many young people in the crowd. Everyone is aware of the fragility of professional orchestras and how we must do everything possible to bring along the next generation. (The Montréal Symphony Orchestra’s current personnel squabbles through the media do nothing to help the greater cause.)
We’re told (in almost all facets of life) that marketing is the answer.
But let’s be careful.
If classical music is to continue to survive then those who are charged with that responsibility (conductors, musicians, management, sponsors, donors, governments) must not lose sight of the art. Future audiences will grow and return for more if the music moves them. However, if they are in their seats mostly because of the “hype” then when that goes stale those persons will move on to someone else’s hype.
Do keep in mind that many people come to a concert to escape the “real world” for a few hours. It’s a personal time for enrichment. Running a concert like a talk show (complete with a word from our sponsor and comments from the stage that produce cheap laughs and add nothing to the understanding of the art—e.g., what value does knowing a composer’s sexuality add to the enjoyment of his music?) defeats the purpose of concert going for many of our most devoted “fans.”
At the conference I was attending while in Winnipeg, Ms. Kathleen Richardson, one of Manitoba’s most distinguished champions of the performing arts, encouraged those assembled (several hundred members of the Canadian Association of Gift Planners) to “not give away the shop” when striking deals with sponsors. She allowed as how she was one of many who is getting tired of being “rubbed in the nose” with sponsorship acknowledgments that overshadow the art while simultaneously insulting those whose far more significant ongoing support does not demand public stroking.
Her thoughtful comments were the highlight of our three-day meeting. JWR