Having flirted with bankruptcy just six years ago (cross-reference below), it is heartening to hear that the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s artistic balance sheet has strengthened to the point that its credits could soon predominate any debits and bring this fine ensemble into the masterpiece realm.
The dedication, determination and dollars of the thousands of individuals, corporations, foundations and governments have brought new life and vigour to what many erroneously dismiss as a stodgy, music-making artefact that should be tucked away into the Glenbow rather than flooding the Jack Singer stage with spine-tingling, heart-wrenching decibels of our most universal art several dozen times each year.
Just a few seasons back, the CPO had its share of blemishes—notably the frequently uncomfortable forays into the stratosphere by the violins and noticeable differences of opinion regarding style, tempo and ensemble. If the opening concert of this season’s Classics Showcase is an indicator of the new standard, then Calgarians should snap up every remaining seat and rediscover their orchestra.
Much of the improvement must be credited to music director Roberto Minczuk. Now in his third season, the honeymoon is over and the relationship has begun to mature. His reading of Tchaikovsky’s ever-sunny Capriccio Italien revealed much. In unison, the string tone has never been richer or more secure, giving the full-cry melodies an irresistible hue. When placed in the background, a supportive bed of pizzicato and legato lets the winds soar at will, yet a faster bow stroke from the cellos and basses would give a much-needed lift to the “bottom” as the gloriously Italianate melodies fly over top. The fabled brass-calls gleamed from the start, immediately warming the hall. Curiously, Minczuk erred on the side of caution, opting to subdivide his tidy beats which ensured a unanimous attack but robbed the triplet punctuation of spontaneity. As the trust builds, less beat, more pulse will add still another layer of excellence to an already engaging, clear result.
The evening’s featured soloist was violinist Cho-Liang Lin who offered a pair of works that, on the surface, couldn’t be farther apart yet had intriguing similarities in their depths. Wisely, the printed program was reversed and Ravel’s “tour-de-bow,” Tzigane came first. It’s hard to imagine a more impassioned rendering of the extended solo that sets the mood, style and tone for the dazzling colors and histrionics that follow once the band joined the fray. Lin coaxed an incredible volume of marvellously searing melodic lines—especially from the G string that ebbed and flowed into the ear with deceptive ease. A nickel shy of pitch-perfect, only purists would complain when the emotional level was so high. But once ignited— like a veritable gypsy bathed in a full moon—he led a very merry chase that challenged Minczuk and his charges to “catch me if you can.” Thanks in large part to concertmaster Cenek Vrba’s discreet but telling body language, soloist and orchestra hit far more than they missed.
Following the break, Lin returned to perform Tan Dun’s semi-autobiographical transition from China to his New World. The music’s exotic (to Western ears) percussion and frequent slides (unintentionally foreshadowing the coming Mussorgsky/Ravel) gave way to carefully prepared, angry climaxes whose turmoil always returned to “calmo.” Like his new country, the work is a seemingly disjointed quilt of textures, melodic snippets and effects—not least of which was a fleeting hint that Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was not unknown to the composer. Lin soared through the wide-ranging solo part with an authority that gave the performance a compelling sense of integrity that is too seldom heard in “new” music.
During intermission, patrons had the opportunity to admire a covey of pictures on exhibition. Once back in the hall they were treated to witnessing a spectacular music canvas being brought to life before their very ears. Minczuk dug deep into both the underlying architecture and incredibly varied palette of this masterwork of creativity (Mussorgsky) and orchestration (Ravel). Over time, he made a convincing case for brisk tempos (only tripped up as the woodwinds’ chicken ballet threatened to escape the coop) and used the magnificent acoustics to great advantage—the climaxes and their releases have seldom been better. When it was their turn to shine, the soloists responded with singular excellence—notably the alto saxophone (yet the low strings would be well-advised to lift their eighths and move forward, along with the sinewy line).
The percussion, as was the case all evening, provided more splash than needed for balance (a combination of stage placement and total string complement) but the rightfully enthusiastic audience cheered them on. Without a doubt, the most spectacular moment of the night—and the perfect metaphor for the future of Minczuk and his talented charges—came after a sudden silence: the whole orchestra (and not a few of us in the crowd) took a mighty collective breath and launched “The Great Gate of Kiev” with a unity of purpose and attack that reminded everyone why a trip to the symphony can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. JWR