JWR Articles: Live Event - Lighter Than Air: Great Ballet Scores (Conductor: Daniel Swift) - January 27, 2003

Lighter Than Air: Great Ballet Scores

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Great, good and a hopeful future

Programming a symphony concert is never an easy task: the repertoire is vast, every ensemble has limits (in both size and skill) and an audience must be enticed to attend. For Sunday’s concert, music director Daniel Swift cobbled together a program of “Great Ballet Scores,” that drew a large audience to Sean O’Sullivan Theatre despite a fierce blizzard and Super Pigskin Day in the global sports arena.

The problem was there wasn’t a dancer in sight. Imagine having an opera evening with no singers, or hearing just the orchestral part of a piano concerto. Fortunately, in the best-known repertoire (Ponchielli, Tchaikovsky, Delibes and Stravinsky) our memories are awash with the best moments of ballets past; but with the unfamiliar (Sauguet and Glick) whose music—it must be said—is not of the same rank, a visual image becomes essential for full appreciation of the heady mix of melody and motion such as I was treated to during the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival (cross-reference below).

Ironically, we were honoured with the presence of Betty Oliphant, one of Canada’s fiercest advocates for excellence in dance who must also have wished that the stage could be slightly re-arranged for at least a pas de deux!

The opening notes of the “Dance of the Hours” sent me back to my high school days where we’d played this delightful score dozens of times under the direction of Henry Bonnenberg whose European training and experience oozed happily into every performance. He, in turn, had studied music with a great master who responded to Bonnenberg’s question of why he should play a Brahms phrase in such a way by replying “Why? Because that’s what Brahms told us.” Swift’s survey showed finesse and clarity, but never left the page with the subtext of poignancy and passion. However, Walt Disney filled the room with grateful recollections.

Sauguet’s La Nuit allowed many of the younger (and a few older) members of the audience to settle in for their afternoon naps. I kept waiting to “see” the “wall arise between the two lovers” but had to settle for several pastel sections that had me looking to the wings in hopes of a surprise entrance. Still, as would be the case in Swan Lake>, principal trumpet Timothy White’s solo lines were delivered with gusto and the first-desk strings added delectable shimmer.

Later, Glick’s Pan proved to be far more colourful but seemed to have been inserted more for Canadian content quota than musical value.

Co-principal oboist Rob D’Orante, despite being shackled with a tempo that couldn’t relax, provided the most sensitive melodic phrasing of the day in the opening “Scene” from the non-linear ordering of the Swan Lake suite. But then in the last half of the “Valse” and very nearly all of the “Mazurka,” Swift used less body and more, well, dance-like gestures and we were rewarded with the most comfortable and seamless music-making of the performance. That should be recorded, “bottled” and autographed.

That the enthusiastic members of the Niagara Youth Orchestra had been well prepared by music director, Michael Newnham for their side-by-side partnership with their senior colleagues was evident from the opening bar of the Delibes classic. What fun it was to hear the first and second violins soar to the rafters in their unison passages. Oh, if only economics and talent pools would combine to have this result regularly—just as the composers of these works for large orchestra had imagined. Now that the notes have been learned, an encore devoted to phrasing and the countless dynamic details would be welcome. NSO leadership must be glad to see so many “white-shirts” on the stage—they are the future.

Joshua Tong is a violinist who draws as much sound as his current instrument will yield and whose bow arm is clearly up to the rigours of technique, style and showmanship. Given that he was playing for the toughest audience (friends, family and peers), he slid through the only non-ballet work with skill, authority and with remarkable poise. His left hand only occasionally missed the mark and the swerve and sway of his young frame to the music nearly resulted in a dance on its own. With such potential for greatness, I only hope that a large diet of Bach and Mozart are on his plate so that the magic of sublime thought will be developed in tangent with technical wizardry.

And it so it fell to Stravinsky to have the last word in the ballet-buffet. Principal bassoon Darlene Jussila gave a most distinguished reading of the famous “Berceuse” solo with a tone that seems rooted in the French school. Then the Firebird took its arrhythmic wing and, cheered on by the punchy brass and bang-on drums, flew us back into the reality of January in Canada. JWR

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Conductor - Daniel Swift
Conductor - Michael Newnham
Oboe - Rod D'Orante
Bassoon - Darlene Jussila
Violin - Joshua Tong
La Nuit - Henri Sauguet
Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda - Amilcare Ponchielli
Suite from Swan Lake - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Coppélia (excerpts) - Léo Delibes
Havanaise, Op. 83 - Camille Saint-Saëns
The Firebird: Berceuse and Finale - Igor Stravinsky
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