Thursday, 19 October 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 1: O Brave New World

Note:  Although the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra has appointed its new Music Director, Andrei Feher, this appointment takes effect in the fall of 2018.  For this season, then, the Orchestra is performing its concerts under guest conductors, with Feher leading at least two of the eight main stage programmes.

"O Brave New World."  Now, there's a title that could conceivably lead in more than one direction -- for example, to Tchaikovsky's concert fantasia The Tempest or to the suite of incidental music for the same play composed by Sibelius (The Tempest being the source of that famous phrase).  But, no.  It is, as many will have guessed, a reference to the last of Antonin Dvorak's nine symphonies.

However, that came at the end of the concert.  Before that, there were intriguing and delightful works both classic and modern to be heard.

After the opening O Canada, conductor Mei-Ann Chen cheerfully congratulated the audience for joining in readily, and with full vocal tone.  She then introduced us to Edmonton composer Vivian Fung's tone poem, Aqua.  It's inspired by a modern skyscraper in Chicago, the Aqua Tower, whose sculptural exterior suggest rippling waves and pools of water (google it, and look at some pictures -- it really is eye-catching!).  Fung's music comprises two main sections, and she has found some striking and beautiful musical ideas and sounds to evoke the rippling outlines of the balconies and the blue glass "pools" on the building's exterior.  

Pianist Remi Geniet next came to the stage to join the orchestra and Chen in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K.503.  The opening movement was notable for a classical crispness of execution and even texture of sound.  Such moments as the almost martial fanfare at the end of the orchestral ritornello were kept in scale, with Chen and the players remembering that this was still the work of Mozart.  Geniet's performance of the piano part was neat and nimble on the keyboard, but somewhat blurred by what I felt to be over-much use of the sustaining pedal -- creating a more lush, almost Romantic sound that was slightly at odds with the style of the orchestra.

The slow movement is notably simple and sustained in style, and here the use of the pedal was much more to point.  The orchestral playing continued to be as rewarding.

The finale brought more over-use of the pedal, and also some overly-enthusiastic playing from the orchestra which momentarily ruined the balance with the piano at a few moments.  However, all was well in the final coda and the work drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

After the intermission, Chen again took the microphone to introduce Darren Fung's short work, Toboggan.  Obviously, many of us were wondering if Vivian Fung and Darren Fung were related!  To put it in Chen's own words, "They're both from Edmonton but they're not related.  Their mothers go to the same church, that's as close as it gets."  This brought an appreciative chuckle.

The ensuing piece was a two-minute breakneck ride for the orchestra, clearly illustrating the programme contained in the one-word title with immense verve and energy.  The piece ended amusingly, with a crashing chord for the "grand arrival" succeeded by a single plucked note from one cello.  Fung himself was present to receive the loud acclaim from the audience.

The concert then concluded with the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 "From the New World."  The exact wording of the title is significant.  It clearly tells us that the piece was written in the "new world" of the Americas (during Dvorak's time leading the new National Conservatory of Music in New York).  It was not, as some people suppose, meant as a tonal portrait of the new world, or (in other words) as a symphonic poem.  The influence of Longfellow's Hiawatha certainly underlay the second movement, but otherwise much of the music is as Czech as anything else the composer wrote -- once you stop listening for overt "Americanisms."

The real problem is for a performing artist to try to find something new or different to say in leading such a well-known, well-loved, frequently-heard repertoire warhorse.  Mei-Ann Chen solved the problem by the simple expedient of not trying.  She followed what the composer put in the score and let it speak for itself -- a very wise course of action.  But more on that in a minute.

As with his friend and promoter, Brahms, so with Dvorak: the horn choir of four players presents many of the symphony's most important moments.  Whether playing as a group, or in pairs, or with each one taking a solo part in turn, the security of the horn section is critical, as also is their balance within the group.  Apart from one false note in the first movement, the horn section's contribution throughout the symphony was beautiful, firm, balanced, and above all heart-tugging in the mysterious sequence of brass and wind chords which introduce the slow movement.

Sir Donald Tovey, one of my favourite writers on music, pointed out that those chords simply serve to take us from the E minor of the first movement to the D flat major of the second.  "But, as Dvorak is a man of genius, the explanation, like the conjuror's offer to show 'how it is done,' is more mysterious than the mystery itself."

The wind solos and duets which abound in all parts of the work were as beautifully played, with crisp articulation in the bouncing scherzo theme.  The slow movement's famous melody brought the most beguiling sounds from the cor anglais.  The flutes and clarinets were as lovely in the autumnal slow section before the final ferocious coda of the finale.

The strings produced firm tone in the outer movements and the most gentle, translucent sound in the Largo when playing with mutes.

Throughout the symphony, Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra with a clear beat, never over-conducting, and always keeping the through line of each movement firmly in view.  This was especially notable in the finale with its tempo shifts in the final pages.  I only wished that she had taken the Largo at a slightly slower speed, giving it a little more breathing room.  Her basic tempo was at the faster limit of what could fairly be considered a largo tempo, but it left me feeling that the whole movement was a bit rushed -- not that I would want to go to the opposite extreme and drag it out interminably either.  This was also the one movement where I felt a little more give and take in the basic tempo would have been helpful.

Make no mistake, though -- I would far rather hear such a clean, well-planned performance of the New World Symphony than one in which the conductor indulges in all sorts of "interpretative" excesses, solely for the sake of doing something different with it.