On March 1st, when the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “True North” under the direction of guest conductor Mélanie Léonard, the weather gods were apparently inspired by the theme: Gorgeous, fluffy snow drifted down artfully all day, draping tree branches and steeples and transforming Charlottetown into a veritable winter wonderland. Yes, we live in the True North.
Ms. Léonard, Music Director of the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, is particularly inspired by the way musicians and audiences connect to new musical repertoire. For this concert, she selected works by five living Canadian composers, three of whom are women. The conductor brought that sense of newness and discovery to each work; there was a feeling of embarkation for uncharted territory each time she raised the baton. It seemed very Canadian, the way sometimes in remote areas of this country, you feel that perhaps the air is untried, has never been breathed before.
Each composition presented was inspired by a particular source. First up on the programme was “Mar Atlantico,” a stunning composition by Peter Charles Allen inspired by the wildness, the beauty and the violence of the Atlantic. Jocelyn Morlock’s “Nostalgia,” next up, was inspired by the adagio movement of Bach’s Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, replete with bittersweet references to the past. Next, Sid Robinovitch’s delightful “Prairie Sketches” were inspired by Miriam Waddington’s poems about growing up in that part of the country.
Each year, a PEI Kiwanis Music Festival contestant of exceptional talent is selected for the Suzanne Brenton Award, the musician who “most merits an appearance as a soloist with the PEI Symphony Orchestra.” The winner is invited to perform with the orchestra, perhaps a movement or more of a piece or even a complete concerto. Justin Amador, this year’s Suzanne Brenton Award winner, was scheduled as horn soloist on Elizabeth Raum’s “Sherwood Legend,” which is said to provide “an exhilarating virtuoso challenge for the horn player.” We learned that, unfortunately, Amador slipped on ice a couple of weeks ago and sustained an injury requiring a cast on his hand, putting him out of commission for this concert. So it goes in the True North.
PEISO stalwart Darin MacBeth stepped in with two weeks’ notice and was flat-out amazing. Without divulging my source (as I promised I would not), I can tell you that a prominent figure in the PEI music scene heard a clip of MacBeth’s performance and said he was “dynamite.” He went on to say that MacBeth could have been a horn superstar. Judging by this performance, it may not be too late. Justin Amador will perform with the PEISO next year.
But back in Sherwood Forest, there’s a soundtrack playing, evoking a movie that has not been made. The horn soloist portrays the part of Robin Hood, taking us along on his adventures, with dazzling (and very-nearly continuous) work throughout “Swashbuckling Hero,” “Pensive Romantic” and “Unabashed Scoundrel.” Should the movie ever be made, there’s a wonderfully evocative soundtrack ready.
All things must end, and that goes for not only PEISO concerts but even winters, even on the Island. The last composition featured for the afternoon is Alice Ping Yee Ho’s “Jubilation of Spring,” which was inspired by a celebration dating back thousands of years commemorating triumph over “Nian,” “a ferocious monster who preyed on people at the end of every year.” As we leave the concert, it is in triumph: firecrackers and the beating of bamboo sticks and gongs have vanquished the monster once more and we wander home through snowy streets knowing that spring will likewise drive back winter – even here in the True North.