JWR Articles: Live Event - The Swan and the Eagle (Conductor: John Morris Russell) - April 6, 2009
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The Swan and the Eagle

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Beethoven eases the turmoil

The final Masters concert of the season provided an intriguing view of the current state-of-the-orchestra. Two thirds of the music was planned in the past. Because of the architect’s pre-season abrupt departure (cross-reference below), an equally sudden music director search committee was struck “prestissimo.”

John Morris Russell (now one of the four replacement hopefuls who will officially take their turns on the podium next year—the others are: Timothy Hankewich, Bradley Thachuk, and Diane Wittry) was engaged for this concert. Wisely, he scrapped the deservedly seldom-heard Kalinnikov symphony, replacing it with Beethoven’s mighty Fifth. Unfortunately, he let the remainder of the program stand.

Chan Ka Nin’s “Spring Dance” was heard out of context. The second of his Four Seasons Suite managed to raise the Canadian content flag, but needed its companions to be better appreciated (Would the “Scherzo” have been dropped from the symphony?). Nonetheless, the opening idyllic winds engaged the ear at once, preparing the way for the variety of moods and textures to come. Sadly, Russell rendered the brief movement in a dry, oddly lifeless manner. The final unanswered-question chord seemed entirely appropriate in this instance.

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor requires at least twice the string complement to realize the wondrously shimmering accompaniments that give this work a special place in ethereal heaven. Undoubtedly, contractual obligations (made long before Russell accepted the assignment) locked in this adventure in music.

Much of the time, it felt like soloist Catherine Manoukian was attempting this monstrously difficult, wonderfully sublime masterpiece “on the road” in the grand tradition of pre-Broadway tryouts. Her conviction, double-stop mastery and stratospheric harmonics provided many moments to admire, but couldn’t compete with pitch vagaries and let’s-just-settle-for-the-notes interpretation. (Years ago I was spoiled performing this concerto with Ida Haendel at the National Arts Centre during my clarinet-playing days—her magical understanding of this incredible music still lingers in memory.)

The “Finale” was not yet ready for public consumption. More than bow hair and baton were lost in one of the most “untogether” outings I have ever witnessed.

Thank goodness for Op. 67.

Russell’s two-fisted machinations drew a surfeit of energy from his highly charged players and soon washed away the musical turmoil that had just flooded the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre.

Curiously, the ensemble was better without the baton, yet the lack of a truly centred pulse left many transitions, passagework and full-cry climaxes teetering on the edge of the symphonic abyss.

At other times, the orchestra produced some of the finest sound yet heard at these concerts. The earlier anaemia of the violins was cured and the low strings dug deep and provided a solid foundation upon which to build layer upon layer of classical sound. A premature entry in the quick-tempo “Andante con moto” resulted in a couple of beats being lost to be saved for another day.

As one gentleman rhetorically declaimed to all within earshot in the early going, “It’s good, isn’t it!” The reply is most assuredly yes.

Now that the annus horribilis is largely over (Pops IV is set for May), it’s time to congratulate all concerned for the miracle season of Brock University’s orchestra in residence and look ahead to a year that will offer concertgoers an incredible array of music led by a quartet of maestros who hope to call Niagara home.

Let the games begin! JWR

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Repertoire:
Spring Dance from the Four Seasons Suite - Chan Ka Nin
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 - Jean Sibelius
Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 - Ludwig van Beethoven
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