Review: PEI Symphony Orchestra

Tumultuous tunes

Review | by Ivy Wigmore

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On October 20th, the PEI Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Mark Shapiro, presented “The Gathering Storm,” a concert featuring Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 in A Minor and Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, along with John Estacio’s Trumpet Concerto.

The concert was dedicated to William (Bill) Bartlett, who left this world on September 14. Bartlett was a PEISO alumnus, a passionate and inspiring educator and an irreplaceable mainstay of the Island musical community.

The first two compositions were written/orchestrated in 1911, during the buildup towards the first World War, with the world seemingly in a tailspin. As Shapiro suggested in his introduction, the current cohort may be able to relate to the feelings of tumult and destabilization of those times.

Sibelius’ fourth symphony jumps directly into the deep end with what’s known as the “devil’s interval,” a dissonant tritone that immediately evokes dread and doom but also, as it repeats throughout the piece, serves as a unifying element providing “reassuring resolutions.” Abrupt endings throughout and at the finale evoke those sudden endings we all experience, not just deaths but disruptions to a way of life, after which things will never again be the same.

Despite not being generally considered user-friendly, I found the Symphony’s performance deeply compelling, really quite enthralling—even as parts of it stirred up dread or anxiety. The musical expression of these extreme, sometimes almost unendurable states serves to reassure, in a way, by reminding us that these are universal and timeless, an integral part of the ebb and flow of human emotion as we deal with the exigencies of our external and internal worlds.

It is suggested that Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite takes the opposite approach to that of Sibelius as a means of coping with the difficulty and pain of such turbulent times. Rather than expressing our difficult emotions in music, as Sibelius did, Ravel instead elopes with us off to La-La Land. The Suite opens the second half of the performance with a dream within a dream, a fairy tale within a fairy tale. As Sleeping Beauty slumbers, she dreams of three fairy tales which are represented through “pavanes, marches, waltzes and pseudo-oriental textures.” The whole was an exquisite, otherworldly escape.

If the two first pieces of the concert might be thought of as contrasting approaches to dealing with dark and difficult times, Estacio’s Trumpet Concerto is yet a third contrast, as the composer spoke of “a new piece that will speak to humanity today and tomorrow.” Guest soloist Paul Merkelo is renowned as one of the premiere trumpet players of his generation and the concerto was a perfect showcase for his spectacular musicianship. By turns dynamic and enthralling, lyrical and soothing, the Concerto served as the perfect counter to the Sibelius and Ravel, ending, as Shapiro remarked, “with a bang,” to assist our recovery from trauma.

As I write this review, it’s October 21, election day in Canada, and I wonder how our world will seem to us when the results are announced. We may, according to the results and our politics, feel more stable or more destabilized, more hopeful or more fearful. In either case, we will nevertheless continue to be in turbulent and anxious times. May we ever appreciate the power of music to give voice to our emotions as we do—and not least the challenging ones. And may we also appreciate the enormously talented and dedicated musicians of the PEISO and their guests who work so hard to master such challenging pieces of music to present these amazing performances for us. Bravo!

Ivy Wigmorereview
Ivy Wigmore

Local girl here – I live on North River Road in Charlottetown, a block or so from the old PEI hospital where I was born and a mile or so from the house where I grew up with my many siblings. I’ve been writing for The Buzz since the turn of the century and have contributed artist profiles, theatre and symphony reviews as well as brief examples of my current preoccupation, Island ghost stories for an upcoming (sometime!) book.