The return of conductor Uri Mayer to St. Catharines produced a fascinating afternoon that was filled with hope, talent and frustration.
As the transition from Daniel Swift’s tenure to the appointment of the next music director continues, both orchestra and audience will be treated to a buffet of sounds and musical perspectives that will make every concert a must-hear event. Anyone who ever thought that conductors make little difference to the output of an established ensemble need only have heard the NSA’s first Pops (cross-reference below) and this season’s second Masterworks program to appreciate the remarkable differences.
No stranger to the ensemble (previously a guest conductor), Mayer knew what he might expect in advance. To their credit (and delight of the crowd) the players responded with a freshness and sense of purpose that offered hope that the excellence which has too long lurked just below the surface could soon break through and fill the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre with superb music making and nary an empty seat.
Following an at times angular then dreamy reading of Murray Adaskin’s jazzy soundscape (blemished with uncertain trumpets and untidy ensemble), an exceptional talent took the stage in the personage of bassoonist Eric Hall.
After a promising exposition (slightly tarnished with nervous forays into the upper reaches of the French horns) it became immediately apparent that Mayer’s tempo was a notch too slow for the technique-to-burn soloist. It required several measures for the minds to meet and the approaches coalesce. Mayer’s penchant to drift between 4- and 2-to-the-bar randomly without design kept the drama high, but for the wrong reasons. Too many jerky beats and too little phrase sculpting robbed Mozart of his intended result.
Fortunately, the cadenzas saved the day: Hall’s carefully focussed tone, emotional sincerity and compelling mastery of all ranges proved just how lucky the Canadian Opera Company is to have this fine musician in the first chair.
Surprisingly, on many occasions Mayer opted to relinquish his role as leader and let the music fall where it might—at times merely watching his players’ progress. In the poignant “Andante,” the strings bowed deep into the muted depths yet the lingering themes and subtle accompaniments came across more as “just so” rather than “here, now.” The a-rhythmical clicking of a management-sanctioned camera added yet another annoyance to the already “unsilent” physical plant—can’t bring on a proper auditorium for Niagara’s orchestral jewel soon enough!
The seldom performed Andante and Rondo Ungarese yielded a stronger collaboration. Hall delivered the sassy fun and near-melodramatic passages with an unbridled, catch-me-if-you-can bravura. Weber would have positively glowed.
Teenage Mendelssohn’s First Symphony (what were you doing at 15-years-old?) shows a compositional maturity that many other composers never found. In Mayer’s hands, the tempi were youthfully vigorous—with sharp cues aplenty—the harmonic subtext went missing-in-action (the chords of the augmented 6th played but not realized), the exposition repeats were dropped (all the quicker to savour the post-concert widely touted 60th anniversary birthday cake). The frustration of savouring how much better the band sounded with the prospect for artistic greatness just an arm’s reach away grew with every missed nuance.
Mayer’s difficult-to-see, side-swipe downbeat to the “Menuetto” guaranteed the rough-and-ready result. During the heady Finale, he opted to direct traffic, giving his eager collaborators free rein to scurry about the score on their own. Excitement abounded, but with nobody driving the high-octane vehicle this trip missed a few turns along Mendelssohn’s well-balanced journey yet, nonetheless, created an exuberant conclusion.
Like Rivka Golani a few years back (cross-reference below), Mayer ignited the orchestra, leaving the players enthused and the audience satisfied. But those who know what is still left to plumb and, consequently, demonstrate just what an excellent ensemble the Niagara Symphony could become, will have to hope that one of the coming contenders can unleash then control that untapped artistry to its full potential.
Can’t wait for January!
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
East Berlin's Schauspielhaus
As if on cue, WNED chose to rebroadcast Leonard Bernstein’s historic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony recorded/broadcast live on December 25, 1989 from East Berlin's Schauspielhaus (to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall) mere hours after today’s NSA concert. Here was a maestro who excelled in the conductor’s art of drawing from players his or her fully conceived vision of the music before them. In just a few rehearsals, the international orchestra and chorus drawn from the world’s finest ensembles, enraptured (and off-book unlike their elders) children’s chorus along with the quartet of soloists (June Anderson, soprano; Sarah Walker, mezzo-soprano; Klaus König, tenor; Jan-Hendrik Rootering, bass-baritone) came under Bernstein’s spell, lifting the imagination and spirit of the galvanized patrons as effectively then as now. Humphrey Burton’s knowing touch provided the direction for the filming.
Decades ago, in my formative years, I attended several performances with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and, initially, scorned the leaping, showboating chien chaud because his interpretations were miles from anything I would consider as the “truth.”
Eventually, I realized the error of my thinking: despite differing points of view, Bernstein both knew the repertoire inside and out (especially the harmonic architecture that eludes/baffles so many today) and was able to convince the artists under his care to perform the music with him, not under him.
An artistic epidemic of that rare ability into many, many more of today’s music directors would go a long way towards reinvigorating orchestral life around the globe. JWR