Monday, November 15, 2010

The violin delights at the ESO (and so does the oboe)

This past Friday night was our regular Master Series concert at the ESO. We'd experienced our first session with a personal trainer that afternoon, and so had to rush through dinner to get ourselves out the door in time to walk down to the Winspear. Thankfully the night was pleasant and clear, and we were able to walk rather than drive. We got there with ten or fifteen minutes to spare so we had plenty of time to settle in and peruse the ESO program book. While I'm sharing my thoughts, I'm going to throw out this: I'm not a big fan of the new format of the program book. I feel like there are too many colours, too many different fonts and too many graphics (or at least larger ones) in the write-ups of the features music--but that's just my opinion.

On to the music...

The first selection was Handel's Royal Fireworks music. What is there to say about the Fireworks? It's well...classic. Even the orchestra at W.C.I played it when I was in grade 11 (I think), not nearly as good as the ESO, of course. It's been sometime since I've heard the entire piece (although I'm sure I've heard it on the CBC) and found I was not as familiar with the short movements after the overture as I thought I was. The ESO sounded wonderful, rich and expressive as always. It was a pleasant start to the concert.

After the Fireworks came two contemporary selections written by living composers. The first was Requiem for the Victims of a War Torn World by Malcolm Forsyth. To be honest, I didn't care much for this selection, and not for the reasons I think other people might have not liked it. The write up in the program states: "The imagery is clearly on the opposites: foreboding, discord on the one hand--peace and hope on the other." I expected something really weird with clashing chords that were tough on the ears, and there was a little of that, but I found the repetitious quarter or eight notes (I'm not sure which) unimaginative. After performing Threnody by R. Murray Schafer, in high school, it just wasn't weird enough.

The second contemporary selection was Borealis by John Estacio. I felt that this piece lived up to my expectations more successfully than the previous one. I expected it to sound shimmery (as it was inspired by the Northern Lights) and it did. It also had four (maybe five?) xylophone-type instruments, which I thought rather interesting, and thus my attention was drawn toward the percussion section for pretty much the entire performance (there were also three gongs, tympani, and possibly some other drums, which I've forgotten about at this point). The composer used a technique called glissing, where the musician bends the note their holding up or down to the next one, rather than playing two distinct notes. When the orchestra did this en masse it sort of reminded me of the sound-check thing you get at the beginning of movies, but it was still an interesting effect.

The second half of the night featured two short pieces, one by Bach (Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor) and one by Mendelssohn (Violin Concerto in E minor). The former featured the principle oboist of the ESO, Lidia Khaner, and guest violinist, Elmer Oliviera. I love the oboe. I'm not sure why, I only learned the basics of the clarinet (being primarily a piano and string player), and I know some people equate the oboe's sound to a quacking duck, but I enjoy it all the same. The Bach piece was sort of a conversation between the oboe and the violin, with the rest of the orchestra just there to fill in the gaps. The program notes inform me that this piece was written as 'special occasion' music, meaning that it was commissioned by Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen for a specific event, unlikely to be performed again. Additionally, it's likely that this Concerto was used as the basis for another for two harpsichords, likewise composed for a single event. Regardless of how often it might have been heard during Bach's life time, this was a delightful piece that effectively showed off its two main instruments.

Finally, the Mendelssohn Concerto. This is one of those pieces I absolutely love, because of some mental block, I can never remember who wrote it or what it's called. Therefore, after hearing the first couple of bars I got excited when I realized what I was listening to. My fond memories of this piece stem back to a cassette tape that used to get played in my family's car on trips, called: Hooked on Classics. The tape included what was essentially a mashup of classical works put to a beat (I know, an absolutely dreadful idea, but this was the 80s). There's something about this wickedly complex piece and its jolly theme that just strikes a chord with me, but even if I wasn't already predisposed to enjoy this performance, the violinist, Oliveria, was extraordinary. For starters, he's the only American violinist to ever win the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia. If that doesn't suggest to you how good he was, I'm not sure I can describe it. As a second note, of the last three years Andrew and I have been subscribers to the ESO, he had the longest and loudest standing ovation I've ever seen for a guest musician. Yeah, that good.

As per usual for a Friday night, the performance concluded with an After Thoughts session with music director Bill Eddins, Estacio, Khaner, and Oliveria. Of particular interest was Oliveria's discussion of his violins. His primary instrument is a 1729/30 Guarneri del Gesu, but what he played for us on Friday was a three-year old Chinese made instrument. Apparently, Chinese workshops are becoming highly noted for their stringed instruments and Oliveria likes to play them along with other contemporary makers. I would never have guessed his violin was of Chinese descent. It sounded wonderfully rich, but then an outstanding violinist can make any instrument sound good.

As long as I've read my schedule correctly, this is our last ESO concert until the new year. Good thing as I don't know when we'd squeeze another one in anyway.



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