I sincerely hope that the intrepid players of the Niagara Symphony have a day off to recover from the thorough pummelling they received during today’s Masters Concert under guest conductor Edward Serov’s leadership. For two glorious hours he jabbed, faded, faked and thrust his way through a Russian program that produced the most committed and intense playing I have heard to date from the peninsula’s largest musical ensemble.
Guest conductors are vital for the development of any orchestra’s skills and sound. An exclusive diet of one boss can result in apathy, routine outcomes and sleepy audience members—not dissimilar from our current Parliament and the Press Gallery.
Serov’s affection for the late Herbert von Karajan was obvious from the opening measures of the Overture to The Tsar’s Bride. Like his mentor (but much taller) he stands firm and uses his arms to convey all. The flickering baton (predominantly held clenched rather than as an extension of the index finger), literally stirred his charges into action, while his left hand attempted to gauge the dynamics with more traffic-cop gestures than flexed pushes and pulls. The orchestra, accordingly, was very often left to its own devices for phrasing and ensemble; not what they are used too. The Berlin Philharmonic, coaxed in this manner produced some memorable results; the orchestra responded with more enthusiasm than I can recall but, in the early going, were unable to consistently excel in their altered role as collaborators rather than supplicants.
Not surprisingly, principal flute Doug Miller soared above the band with his always-welcome solos and the brass added satisfying punch and verve to this seldom-played opener.
Borodin’s “Steppes” had a more uneven reading. Zoltán Kalman’s liquid clarinet tone and Karen Ages’ poignant contributions on the English horn were great pleasures, but the inability to maintain a true unison between the violins’ harmonics and the flute left a bitter taste.
Timothy White, most often seen leading the brass at these concerts, moved to the front of the stage as trumpet soloist in the seldom-heard Goedicke concerto. He brought his usual zest and professionalism to the part—only the occasional moment of forced sound production left anything to quibble about. This through-composed essay was interesting to experience, but its compositional merits paled in comparison to the gems with which it was surrounded.
If the concert had stopped here, I would have spoken more critically of Serov’s ability to keep his forces together and odd penchant for cueing voices (particularly the French horns) after their entries.
But following the interval, Serov pulled out all the stops.
Those in charge of the well-being of Brock’s physical plant would be well-advised to check the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre for cracks in the walls or splits in the foundation following this rendition that left embouchure’s sputtering and blood on the fingerboards!
Without the score and almost entirely by memory, Tchaikovsky’s energy, passion, drama and pathos were pulled out of the pages with conviction and gusto. The level of intensity from the players and rapt attention from the near-capacity audience combined to electrify the hall.
The first movement—“Andante – Allegro con anima”—was the best of the bunch with the clarinets almost doubly in tune in the famous opening theme. Once the first fortissimo was reached, the excitement was palpable: the few ensemble problems, uneven balance or missed entries mattered not, for the music was allowed—nay, encouraged—to lead the proceedings rather than just become a collection of bar lines with too many beats!
Despite a thoughtful presentation of the daunting solo by principal French horn Tim Lockwood, the haunting “Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza,” was the least successful movement. Serov’s intentional loose rein created more difficulties than magic, as would be the case, (although less frequently) in the Finale. He took the “Valse” at such a clip that I’m sure I saw smoke rising from the strings as they heroically assaulted the 16ths!
And the last movement, despite a spurious halt that destroyed the forward motion and the ineffective result of the French horns lifting their bells “up,” successfully whipped everyone from maestro to ushers into such a frenzy, that not even overtime in the national game being played in Edmonton a few hours hence could begin to match our satisfaction.
So far this season, the NS’s Master Series is the best ticket in town! JWR