Saturday, September 19, 2009

Movie tunes at the ESO

Friday night was our first ESO concert of the season. This is our third year subscribing to the Masters Series. Thanks to my hyper time-awareness I was probably the first one to have their request in for tickets three years ago, so our seats are dead-centre of the first row on the Upper Circle. I like this spot because I enjoy watching the musicians at work (especially when the percussionists are busy) and the Upper Circle provides an excellent vantage point of the entire stage.

As always, I was pleased by the skill of the musicians in the ESO. On the program was music from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Red Violin, and Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, which was featured in a 1931 movie called Delicious (and is also apparently unavailable except for a few short clips on YouTube). The evening started with Oh Canada (as it was the first concert of the season) and a short organ and brass fanfare by Howard Shore. I phased out during this piece, absorbed with thoughts about The Cause and can't say much about it, except it ended in one massive wall of sound. There's something about the organ and the wafting, all encompassing sound it makes that can make a person feel like they're being pressed into their seat by the force of it.

The dynamics couldn't have changed more drastically than going from a huge pipe organ to a Chinese erhu, the featured instrument in the music from Crouching Tiger by Tan Dun. The erhu has such an interesting quality, ranging at times from the rich tones of a cello (which the music was original scored for) to unusual, bird-like chirping. The variety of musical sounds in Tan Dun's music is astonishing and I found myself watching over the orchestra as I searched for what instruments were involved in what I was hearing. Of the more unusual, some of the percussionists at one point ran rows along the edge of a suspended symbol creating a very ethereal sound. During another section, the string bass players heartily strummed their instruments then clapped their hand over the fingerboard in unison. During the second movement there was an impressive drum solo involving four percussionists, of which the audience seemed very appreciative. The erhu, played by George Gao was by far the star of the show and returned at the beginning of the second act to play a piece titled Galloping Horses. There was no mystery around how the piece got it's name. It was fast and furious and somewhat reminiscent of the William Tell Overture.

A few minutes before the end of the intermission two men took up the empty seats beside us. I have to admit that at first I was worried. They were not the typical symphony goers. They were both heavily tattooed (both wore dress shirts, but had the sleeves rolled up) and had, well, missed the entire first half. I was worried that they would talk during the performance, but aside from a few whispers they seemed to be genuinely appreciative of the music. I don't know if we will see them at future shows, but they would certainly be breaking a stereotype if they are new subscribers.

The second half of the concert was as equally enjoyable as the first, although I have far less to say about it. The music from The Red Violin is beautiful and haunting, although as pointed out during the after thoughts talk, it has been reworked and is relatively independent of the actual movie soundtrack. Martin Riseley, who normally takes the concert master position in the ESO, played the solo for this piece. He is taking the year off from the symphony to work on a project in New Zealand (where he is originally from) and so we are unlikely to see him for the rest of the season. I closed my eyes a couple of times during this piece, so I could just hear it. The theme is particularly enchanting and I felt I could enjoy it more fully by not watching the musicians.

The final piece was Gershwin's Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra. Close to the full complement of players were out on the stage for this final number, plus a solo pianist, Sara Davis Beuchner. The Second Rhapsody, as we were told, is rarely played and this was the first performance for the ESO. I thought there were clear hints of both Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris in this piece. I enjoyed it over all and Davis Beuchner's playing was excellent. We were told during the after thoughts that Gerswhin often tinkered with his pieces after they were published. At times, Bill Eddins (conductor and music director) would look over at the piano and wonder what Davis Beuchner was playing, as it wasn't in his score, but wasn't too concerned since he figured Gerswhin must have written it at some point.

Now we've got more than a month to wait for the next concert, which isn't until the end of November, with Beethoven on the program.



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