The Niagara Symphony’s 58th season kicked off in fine style at Sunday’s opening Masterworks concert. The near-capacity crowd was offered four helpings of Russian art: the obvious favourite being Rachmaninoff’s ever-pleasing Second Piano Concerto.
Valerie Tyron was the able and heroic soloist. Even with the lid left in the wings—incredibly, given that twice the string complement is required to fully flesh out the soaring and weeping lines—her nimble passagework and beautifully shaped phrases were too often submerged by Daniel Swift and his boisterous band. The orchestra shell, like Wilma thousands of kilometres south, seemed to push wave after wave of decibels over the piano’s bow, leaving the music tragically unbalanced.
Not surprisingly, then, the many tempo transitions took a few measures to settle down as soloist and conductor worked through the challenging score. First-desk contributions were equally tentative with Zoltán Kalman’s clarinet somewhat edgy (much more his usual creamy legato in the second-half symphony) and Tim Lockwood’s rendition of the famous horn solo cautiously refined.
The “Allegro scherzando” had much snap and crackle, but little pop. The drive to the double bar was too vertical by half; loud and brittle was rampant where full and sustained was wanted. Still, the audience responded with resounding approval of the exhilarating collaboration.
The concert began with an egg-timer snippet by Mussorgsky that featured more excitement than even Liadov could arrange and a tambourine that sputtered as if low on fuel.
Eckhardt-Gramatté’s Molto Sostenuto, with its intriguing shades of Strauss’ Metamorphosen was given a most sympathetic reading. Stellar were the basses, who provided a focussed and solid foundation for their colleagues. Unforgivable, like the burble of an errant wristwatch, were the unwritten open-string pizzicati which intruded when the violins were called on to remove their mutes—just as the element of total silence was meant to bring a personal moment of reflection.
Much of the most distinguished playing of the afternoon came from within Shostakovich’s cheeky symphony. Kudos to trombonist James Zimmerman for his saucy cadential interventions, Douglas Miller’s ever-dependable flute lines and bassoonist Darlene Jussila’s courageous journey into the “Presto’s” stratosphere. Swift deserves much credit for overseeing such a vivid and captivating performance.
A new feature in JWR, and in conjunction the Niagara Symphony Association, newcomers to the subscription series concerts are invited to attend a performance free of charge then offer their candid first-time opinion.
Our first new listener is a 40-something information technologist with a large company. He enjoys a variety of types of music, has a large record/CD collection and has attended many of Niagara’s chamber ensemble concerts.
JWR: How did this performance compare to your expectations?
CC: I hadn’t realized there would be a piano involved. That was a pleasant surprise, but the facilities and acoustics could have been better. Sometimes she was difficult to hear. I also noticed that the string section was off—like someone forgot to tune up. But mostly in the violins—there’s something that wasn’t right. Other than that everything was great—especially the brass.
JWR: Which selection did you enjoy most?
CC: The Rachmaninoff. I liked the feeling that she put in—what you could hear of it. She was drowned out at many points. I don’t know who to blame: the conductor, the piano, the acoustics?
JWR: And the least favourite composition?
CC: The Canadian piece didn’t appeal to me—it was too contemporary for my taste, but I’ve heard other contemporary stuff I’ve hated more than that!
JWR: Would you go back for another performance?
CC: Yes! For pure entertainment it’s a good experience. Another time I would check out the repertoire ahead of time—especially if I was bringing someone else along! JWR