If anyone doubted the ability of fine orchestral music to nourish the soul and warm the heart, then Sunday’s post-blizzard Niagara Symphony concert provided proof–positive of the value of genius. Having just returned from the annual California (desert-side—no mud slides there!) celebration of the newest and best in filmmaking (16th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, cross-reference below), your tireless scribe couldn’t wait to attend a cultural event that had no “second takes” or shameless meddling with the script.
Music director Daniel Swift selected an all “three-flat” menu, delighting the hearty souls (and the weary musicians) in the Sean O’Sullivan theatre with a program that, temporarily, pushed the snow, wind-chill and ice out of consciousness.
Pubescent Carl Maria von Weber kicked off the proceedings with a boyish, charm-filled overture to a never-performed opera. From the melodramatic dotted-rhythm ensembles to the woodwind-singing melodies, the exuberance of youth (fifteen when composed) was infectious. Especially from Swift, who thawed his baton arm on occasion, conducting the music rather than the beat. That foreshadowed much greatness to come. Hopefully his New Year’s resolve is to “play’ the music rather than delineate the bars.
Next up was Mozart’s third Concerto for French Horn. NS principal horn, Timothy Lockwood stepped onto the apron from his usual position in front of the acoustic baffles. These transitions are more difficult than they seem as orchestra journeymen spend most of their days fulfilling the wishes and aspirations of their maestros. On the other hand, soloists—secure in the fact that their fee is bigger and a return engagement is years off—shape the performance so that it complements their technique and skill.
Given his dual capacity (some would convincingly argue that the Beethoven symphony has more challenges than Mozart’s solo opus), Lockwood provided a commendable reading of this embouchure tester. The “Allegro” was all poise and refinement, marred only by some miss-hits in the wide-ranging cadenza. The following “Romanze” was the pick of the litter, allowing the soloist’s fluid tone and secure articulation to shine. After an icy-patch off the top, the famous finale perked along beautifully, justifying the heady applause that greeted its conclusion.
In both works, Swift loosened his grip on the beat, opting for “2 rather than 4 to the bar;” the difference was palpable, providing the finest measures of the first half. The more he trusts his colleagues to take care of the details, the better the music flows.
In the symphony, conductor and orchestra combined for some the most satisfying—musical and technical—moments of the season.
The first movement accentuated the con brio and moved at a clip that kept everyone alert and aware—all the more reason to take the exposition’s repeat so that the development actually is one.
That forward pulse didn’t work as well in the “Marcia funèbre,” which was a few metronome notches shy of pathos and passion. Still, the balance was wonderful and the clarion trumpets thrilling in their moment in the sun.
The “Scherzo” seemed like a work in progress, its jazzy rhythms bewildering, bedevilling and then—finally on the Da Capo repeat—bewitching.
Using less beats and more pulse, Swift brought the “Finale” home with zest and inner strength. With its drive and purposely rough-and-tumble edges, the C-Minor dotted variation ignited the room: marvellous! Then the coda seared to the double bar, sending the wintry crowd home renewed and refreshed; everyone revelling in the high art even as the thermometer plunged to the depths again. JWR