JWR Articles: Live Event - Masterworks Series (Conductor: Daniel Swift) - November 29, 2004

Masterworks Series

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Watered-down presentations lack sustenance

Choosing concert music related to an anniversary is like applying to government agencies for a project grant: the parameters are fixed by others, (narrowing or expanding the usual range of activity) and the organization is at the mercy of a third party whose “agenda” may be at odds with the applicant’s. But, no matter, as long as the cheque doesn’t bounce, a little bit of “mission drift” won’t be noticed by the stakeholders.

The converse is another story: before accepting the commission to write a work in celebration of the “2,600 anniversary in style” of the Japanese Mikado dynasty from the British Council, Benjamin Britten wrote, “As long as it doesn’t have to be musical chauvinism.” The result was Sinfonia da Requiem, a masterpiece that remains in the standard choral repertoire even as the “anniversary” that sparked its creation has been long forgotten.

And so, in order to mark the 100th anniversary of the city of Niagara Falls, the Niagara Symphony’s Maid of the Mist water-fest content was, in the first instance, driven by the need to add an extra performance to the regular season and a few more dollars in the break-even band’s accounts.

Nine works, nearly all of which had some H20 component were cobbled together and slipped into the second Masters Concert of the Niagara Symphony’s 57th season. The exception being “Cortège” from Debussy’s Petite Suite, which was “included because I like it,” confessed music director Daniel Swift to the near-capacity crowd at the Sunday matinée performance. More about that later.

The program opened with Hamilton Harty’s version of the “Allegro deciso” from Handel’s Water Music Suite. The performance foreshadowed much of the remaining pieces. The brass hit more than they missed, but not enough to warrant praise and no serious music lover would mourn the permanent loss of the arrangement which, by adding many more colours than Handel imagined, rather like colourization of black-and-white films, distorted the original intention—all in the name of giving the clarinets (and others) something to play.

Featured instrumentalists Karen Ages (English horn) and principal cello Gordon Cleland acquitted themselves with great distinction in Sibelius’ “Swan.” Yet, until the unison string line near the conclusion, Swift’s accompaniment seemed curiously devoid of any inner tension, as if this river had succumbed to the countless toxins that are such an ongoing threat to modern waterways.

Not even the stellar work from clarinetist Zoltán Kalman and flautist Douglas Miller (whose phrasing surprised, but was, nonetheless convincingly rendered) could lift Mendelssohn’s Overture to the Hebrides above its soggy tuttis and stodgy tempi, the music collapsing over the finish line, rather than slipping away into the night.

Having just heard the Niagara première of Brock Music Chair Peter Landey’s Magnificat eighteen hours earlier (cross-reference below), I was happy to see two Canadian works—also written locally—as the finishers for both halves of the program.

Milton Barnes’ Maid of the Mist—nearly 30 years old—was created at a time when many composers were struggling with the need to say something “new” and still express their feelings. The very successful interventions from the piccolo and the harp only served to underline how static this waterscape was: too vertical by half.

On the other hand, Lucille Hilston’s Onghiara was an embarrassment of cliché, saccharine sentimentality, and Ted Petersen’s immature orchestration. “B” movie, computer-generated film scores would far outshine this musical tripe, which has no place in a “Masters” program. Where was “The Moldau” when needed?

Nor did Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko pass muster. Some works remain obscure for a reason. More composers should have the integrity of Brahms to throw out their learning efforts, making the remainder all the more precious.

Not surprisingly, the audience reaction to most of the concert was polite, “OK, what’s next?” applause. Few left the room basking in the glory of celebrating the casino capital of Ontario’s centenary; perhaps more left thinking their subscription tickets had been mixed up and they’d actually stumbled into a Pops concert.

For those still reading, I offer the following: With such a vast repertoire of masterworks, let’s vow to reward the faithful listeners with excellence rather than expediency. Trust your audience and, please, program more music “because I like it.” JWR

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Conductor - Daniel Swift
Flute - Douglas Miller
English horn - Karen Ages
Clarinet - Zoltán Kalman
Cello - Gordon Cleland
Water Music Suite: Allegro deciso - George Frederic Handel
The Swan of Tuonela - Jean Sibelius
Maid of the Mist: A Symphonic Poem - Milton Barnes
Overture to The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) - Felix Mendelssohn
Sea Songs (Quick March) - Ralph Vaughan Williams
Petite Suite: En Bateau; Cortège - Claude Debussy
The Banks of Green Willow: Idyll for Orchestra - George Butterworth
Onghiara - Lucille Hilston
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