Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Blind appreciation at the ESO

Friday night was our regular Masters Series concert at the ESO. We started out the evening with dinner at the Sugar Bowl, which we've been to before, but not for dinner. The Sugar Bowl appeals to Andrew and I because they have a huge selection of tasty beers (lots of imports and microbreweries) and their food is relatively inexpensive. We arrived around 5:30 (after finishing up at the gym) to find it relatively full, but managed to get a seat without a wait. Dinner started out with paprika popcorn (I love that they offer popcorn as an appetizer), which was super delicious, then moved onto main courses of curried chicken and vegetable stew for me, and poutine for Andrew. I love desert and rarely do we go to a restaurant without at least perusing the desert listings. We ended up ordering one a piece: banana cream pie, and chocolate cranberry oatmeal cookies (made fresh)--although as it turned out we would have been fine sharing either of them.

We had just enough time after dinner to make it over to Winspear and take a quick glance over their program before the performance began. Three pieces were planned for the evening. First, Tchal-Kouyrouk and the seventh side of the cube by a young Montreal composer, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Opus 18, and finally Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op.47.

The composer of Tchal-Kouyrouk, Nicolas Gilbert, was in the audience on Friday and had a little chat with the ESO's conductor-in-residence, Lucas Waldin, on stage prior to the performance. To be honest, I don't remember much of their conversation (I wasn't completely with it on Friday night, as you'll soon see), but what I do remember was the composer explaining that the theme of 'seven' played heavily in the piece. I tired to watch the conductor during the performance to see what kind of beat he was keeping--it seemed to be a four beat, followed by a three (which, yes, equals seven). I don't think I liked it exactly the piece, no doubt meant to be avant garde. It seemed like sections of the orchestra would play, then stop, while other sections took up the music, but they never played all at once. Other than that, no real lasting impression for this piece has stuck with me.

The second piece was the famous Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto. Even non-classical music fans have probably heard this piece. It's frequently used by figure skaters, and if you've seen Center Stage it's featured prominently at the end as the music for 'Jonathan's Ballet.' I have a recording of it myself, although I don't recall the recording pianist or orchestra. On Friday, the guest performer was Nobuyuki Tsujii, a blind pianist from Japan. Blind, you might ask? Yes. Was he any good, you might ask? He received an almost instantaneous standing ovation the second he stopped playing, so yes, he was very good. I can understand being able to play the piano while being blind (I recall being drilled in locating notes on the piano with a piece of cardboard covering my hands when I took lessons), what really boggles my mind is learning the music. Rachmaninoff's 2nd is no walk in the park (it's approximately 30 minutes in length). Did Mr. Tsujii learn it by ear? Is there some sort of computer program, or perhaps Braille music for blind pianist? I don't know. Regardless, he dazzled the audience and even came back out to play an encore.

Sadly, both Andrew and I were falling asleep during this performance. I don't remember ever having such a hard time staying awake at a concert before. Usually I sort out plot problems while I listen--something about the music seems to agree with my brain (I'm 99% sure studies have been conducted to determine the affects classical music has on the brain). On Friday, however, I felt so ridiculously tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open, and I definitely missed portions of the music. I couldn't even remain conscious for the Shostakovich symphony and it's a fairly lively selection (albeit 46 minutes in length).

For what of it I was awake, I enjoyed the Shostakovich. I generally prefer early 20th century Russian composers--I often feel they're music is more interesting and creative than many of the earlier classical composers (I've never been a big Mozart fan--is that sacrilegious to say so?). I particularly liked the forth movement (which I recognized once we got to it). It starts off big, with brass and drums--lots of fun. As explained in the programme notes, the 5th symphony was written after Shostakovich received heavy/damning criticism for his Macbeth opera from the official Soviet newspaper of the time, so it was meant to please his critics. It was reportedly successful in it's task, even bringing audience members to tears; however on Friday night I noticed some Edmonton audience members leaving during the first movement. Maybe they were tired like me, or maybe they didn't like it, I don't know. It was just a few people though, so hopefully it wasn't the material, just busy lives.

We have two more ESO concerts before the end of the season. The next (not a Master Series concert) features CBC radio host Tom Allen, which I'm very much looking forward to seeing/hearing.



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