The 57th season of Brock’s orchestra-in-residence got off to a resounding start with a program as varied as Niagara’s October foliage.
Venerable flautist Robert Aitken, one of Canada’s strongest components of new music, was the guest artist, but it was Domenico Cimarosa’s Concerto for Two Flutes (which was itself “new” music in the eighteenth century) that was clearly the favourite of the near-capacity crowd.
Aitken was joined on the Sean O’Sullivan stage by his sometime student and Niagara Symphony principal flute, Douglas Miller. Here was proof positive that when great minds think alike the art is ably served. Their tones were similar but not carbon copies, Aitken’s being somewhat more robust; articulation and breath control grew like peas in a pod; and, most importantly, they both brought an undisguised joy in bringing this slight work to life, resulting in a performance which reminded everyone that music is a shared human experience filled with emotion, intellect and fun.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Aitken-crafted cadenzas, chock-a-block full of Alberti basses (Miller revealing himself to be an able accompanist), a spot of comedy (“How does he hold on so long?” delivered in a glance by Aitken), and a magnificent merging of the “new” and old as their buzzing flutter-tongue line morphed timelessly back to solid gold.
Better still, their artistry was contagious. Daniel Swift led an invigorated band with enthusiasm and finesse, maintaining a fine balance and meeting the soloists at every turn in the score. Here was music written for an ensemble of this size and capability, producing some of the finest music-making yet heard in these concerts. Much, much more please!
Aitken was also the featured performer in Jacques Hétu’s Concerto for Flute. Here he led with authority, if just a couple of baubles in the treacherous technical landscape of the first movement. The lyrical contrasting material—note-for-note—was the same motif as the famous oboe solo of Brahms’ Violin Concerto (somewhat linking to the concert’s brief opener).
The “Largo” came across well, but the partnership with Swift more tentative than supportive. Nonetheless, the “Vivace” seared from stem to stern with Aitken’s fingers deftly flying through the passagework, popping in and out of the stratosphere with abandon.
Mendelssohn’s mighty “Scottish” Symphony was given a reading strong on colour but a tad light in pulse and shape. Most successful were the dark opening measures which beautifully set the stage for the coming drama. The violins, in particular, acquitted themselves admirably (only a few errant open strings marring the long unison lines), which bodes well for future performances.
Sadly, everyone on the stage fell into the trap of putting the 6/8 thematic emPHAsis more on the two eighths that lead off than their goal: the quarter—same story at the Assai animato where the sixteenths put Mendelssohn’s melodic architecture at risk, leaving an overall impression of uneasy puzzle instead of miraculous drive.
The “Vivace non troppo” was served up somewhat rough-and-ready (enhanced by Zoltán Kalman’s delectable clarinet), but further held back by the French horns whose pelting accompaniments more often covered than supported the heroic efforts of their colleagues; being on risers only exacerbated the problem.
The “Adagio”—more pleasant stroll rather than thoughtful walk—found the cellos needing reinforcements to truly soar above the winds. The Finale sauntered along with zest; Swift handled the calming transition with wonderful sensitivity. Then the rollicking maestoso (so similar in feeling to Beethoven’s hymn of thanks in the “Pastoral” Symphony), sent the enthusiastic audience into the brisk autumn air refreshed and renewed. JWR