Perhaps I should preface this review, perhaps I should preface every review, with a disclaimer: I am no music expert. I’m not what PEISO violinist Margo Connors would call a music nerd. I’m fascinated but my knowledge is, to put it gently, limited. So, once again, I call on Ms. Connor’s excellent Symphony Spoof (look for it on Facebook!) to support me through this review.
One thing that’s always fascinated me is how classical musicians, playing from scores that tell them what to do and how to do it, can nevertheless infuse their playing with a quality that is unquestionably their own, all in the nuances of their technique. Similarly, the same piece of music can vary markedly depending on the conductor. Something that sounds fusty and dusty under the direction of one can be positively thrilling as directed by another. Our guest conductor for the February concert was Dina Gilbert, and she was a ball of fire: Intense, energetic, dynamic and playful. It was an absolute pleasure to watch her lead the symphony, and she definitely amped up the performance with her own infusion.
Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta,” the opening piece, is a bit of a sampler based on Hungarian folk dances. According to Margo, Kodály always maintained that music should be pleasurable, not just for the audience but for the musicians as well, even as they learn it. I only hope the orchestra had half as much fun as the rest of us.
Judy Yun, this year’s Suzanne Brenton award winner, selected Mozart’s violin concerto no.5 in collaboration with her teacher, in large part because of its challenging nature. As Yun commented, the biggest challenge of the energetic and melodic work is to manage its many difficult aspects while “creating the illusion of simplicity.” The sixteen-year-old played with calm assurance and wonderful subtlety, all challenges met. As is the case with most Brenton award winners and many of the musicians, Yun got her musical start in the school system. In these days where arts programs are imperilled, it’s so important to appreciate and support their inclusion. Well done, PEI!
After intermission was the Canadian premiere of Pierre Wissmer’s Symphony No. 1. The eclectic work illustrates a critic’s comment that his compositions embody “typical French clarity and Swiss precision, together with a very Italian taste for brilliance and just that touch of Slavic nonchalance.” That statement may lean a bit on stereotypes but it doesn’t seem off the mark.
Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1,” the final piece for the afternoon, was a showstopper in more ways than one. You and I have heard this suite, particularly the first and last movements, many times. They’ve been featured in cartoons, movies, commercials and video games – probably among other things.
The first movement, which evokes the most blissful morning of all creation, is often used for ironic effect, while the dramatic and gleeful menace of the third, “In the hall of the mountain king,” has frequently underlined the hair-raising peril of a situation to comedic effect. It must be a challenge to infuse such familiar music with fresh energy, so we hear it as it might have been heard before it picked up associations. This performance was the best I’ve heard, positively thrilling.
Here’s Margo’s description of what’s going on in the last movement: “Peer Gynt steals a bride at her wedding, gets chased, falls down, knocks himself out on a rock, and wakes up in the mountain surrounded by trolls. The angry trolls taunting him is the music getting louder each time the theme repeats and ends with him escaping. It is actually quite exciting for nerds.” At the final exhilarating note, a little “whoop” escaped my throat of its own volition. I apparently found it quite exciting — maybe I’m nerdier than I give myself credit for.