Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dramatic works at the ESO

Friday night was our first ESO concert of the new year. We'd initially purchased tickets to the Bugs Bunny and Friends show that took place last Saturday, but when I was asked if I wanted to go to the Cochrane Conference we had to exchange our tickets. Luckily, the ESO has an excellent exchange policy and we were able to switch our tickets to the show with Tom Allen (long time radio show host on CBC2) in May instead. At any rate, it had been several months since our last concert and so we (or at least I) was looking forward to this show.

The first thing we noticed when we took our seats was that the stage was filled to the brim with instruments. I don't know what it is, but I always get excited when I see so many instruments set up for a concert. Maybe it's that I'm happy that so many musicians are going to be employed for the evening; that I'm looking forward to the huge sound that so many musicians can produce; or that I'm curious to see what kind of music requires two harps, three pianos, a celesta, a small army of percussion instruments....and why is there a lone bass resting over there by the percussion section? Yeah, that was definitely one of my first questions upon sitting down--that extra bass sitting all by itself, what was it doing there? The answer to what kind of music required all those instruments was quickly answered when I saw that Leonard Berstein was on the program. Although I wasn't familiar with the piece The Age of Anxiety I could well imagine that Berstien's piece was going to be a complex and interesting symphony.

Conductor-in-residence Lucus Waldin took the podium for the first two pieces of the evening and began with a wonderfully majestic selection by Steven Stucky--which was actually an arrangement of the Henry Purcell piece, Funeral Music for Queen Mary. This arrangement called for only brass, woodwinds, and if I remember correctly timpani. Funeral Music, as you might expect was a fairly somber piece, yet it was taken at just the right tempo so it didn't drag on or feel oppressively mournful. It felt more like the music had a steady, purposeful drive like say, Bolero, or the opening bars of Also sparch Zarathustra. All-in-all, both Andrew and I rather liked it, and I'd be interested to hear the Purcell arrangement sometime.

The second piece of the evening was the Berstein, which called in the entire orchestra, plus Music Director Bill Eddins who took a seat at the grand piano positioned front and centre. There was much talk about The Age of Anxiety during the after thoughts session. In fact, I think there was very little said about either of the other selections on the bill. Where to start with this piece? Well, I suppose it should be noted that The Age of Anxiety was inspired by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poem written by W.H. Auden and was published in 1947. The basic premise (as I understand it, having not read the poem) is that it is a discussion between four people trying to determine what it means to be human. Yeah. Heavy stuff, but as pointed out, this poem was written just post-WWII, so many writers and poets were thinking heavy thoughts at that time.

The Age of Anxiety delivered what I'd expected, and so I liked. That is to say, it was different, it was challenging and complex. Andrew (who wasn't so keen) used the word frenetic to describe it, and I'd say that's reasonably apt. It felt as though the theme changed every few bars, which is in fact what it did. The first half of the symphony was meant to illustrate (through music) the discussion going on between the four characters: first a dicussion of the seven stages of aging (seven variations), then a discussion of the seven stages of development (another seven variations). This lack of consistency can make for more challenging listening, but as I've noted in previous posts, I like being challenged occasionally. As I listened; however, I did wonder if the musicians enjoyed playing this kind of music. Lucas indicated during the after thoughts talk that the first run through was difficult, and that they just had to grit their teeth and plow through. Finally, late in the performance the purpose of the extra bass was made apparent. One of the bassists walked (quiety) off stage, to return a few minutes later on the other side, by the percussionists. The second to last section of the symphony was written in a jazz-style, which called for a bass to keep the beat.

I could write a couple more paragraphs at least about The Age of Anxiety, but then I would never get this blog post done. One last thing I would like to acknowledge is that Bill Eddins is one of three people in the world who has both conducted and played the piano for this Berstein piece (one of the other two being Berstein himself). He also said that he had to play this piece from memory as was simply too busy--that he wouldn't have the time to turn the pages otherwise.

After the intermission the ESO performed Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica with Bill back on the conductors stand (conducting from memory, I might add). This symphony was initially dedicated to Napoleon; however, that dedication was revoked after Napoleon declared himself to be the Emperor of France. I enjoyed the Eroica for much the same reasons I enjoyed the Berstien. It was exactly as I expected it to be: dramatic and enchanting, it was over before I'd expected it to be--even though the play time is a whopping 48 minutes. It's funny to think after listening to The Age of Anxiety that when Beethoven's Third was first performed in 1805, it was deemed a 'danger to public morals,' and not performed again for another 40 years. I'd be willing to bet there are a number of rock songs that have also been termed 'dangerous' and haven't seen a similar ban.

As always the ESO delivered a delightful evening. Our next concert should be in March (better check my calander on that...) and our subscriber packages should be arriving in the mail soon as well. Can't wait.



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