Monday, May 23, 2011

Music and Company at the ESO

Last Thursday evening Andrew and I attended an extra ESO concert that wasn't apart of our normal Friday Night Master's series. It was a Robbin's Lighter Classics concert (the last one of the season, too), and the reason we attended was it was hosted by CBC radio announcer Tom Allen. I love Tom Allen (as a radio broadcast personality of course, I've never met him in person). He seems to read lots of interesting articles and of a wide scope (which he shares with he listeners), he seems thoughtful and most importantly, to love music. I initially came to know of him as the host of Music and Company, the early morning classical show that ran on CBC2 before the formatting change that hit the Corporation a couple of years ago. Afterward he was one of the few (the only?) hosts who stayed with the CBC first on Radio 2 Morning, then on the afternoon slot for the program Shift. Needless to say, I was quiet excited to see Tom live with the ESO.

The ESO concert was billed as: Tom Allen's Classical Goodtime Variety show and we certainly had a good time. The evening started off favourably with the orchestra striking up the theme to Tom's old show Scherzo for Stephen by Saul Honigman, during which Tom strode out onto stage to thunderous applause. I imagine that many of us in the audience have fond memories of listening to Music and Company, and the evening proceeded as if we were listening to a broadcast of the show. Tom provided commentary throughout the show of what we were listening, ran some of the features he used to, such as the popular: Cage Match. We laughed, cheered, and even occasionally booed. As much as I enjoy going to the ESO, I can't remember the last time I had so much fun at a concert.

The first feature of the evening was 'This Day in History' (May 19th), which happened to mark the 475th anniversary of the beheading of Anne Boleyn--certainly a cheerful way to start the evening. It was a mournful little piece featuring strings, a couple of woodwinds, and apparently it was the song Anne sung to comfort herself the night before she died. Yes, definitely cheerful, but rather pretty. Andrew wished there had been more to it. Then the tone of the concert flipped. I suppose in the hearts of some Canadians the next tune has an equally sad history, it's introduction certainly incurred jeers (because it's no longer heard on the CBC), it was the Hockey Night in Canada theme. After being encouraged to applaud and cheer if we felt so moved, we were then asked to participate in announcing the Cage Match. The percussionists had the staring role here. One of the players ran some kind of chain over a symbol, I think (we were a bit far away to tell exactly what was being used), then a second player pounded on a huge gong, and finally the audience was called upon to shout: 'CAGE MATCH'. The composers pitted against each other: Hayden's Symphony No. 104 in D major versus. Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture (more about this later).

The last selection before intermission was a series exerts from Bizet's Carmen, supplemented with commentary by Tom. As a figure skating nut, I've been familiar with the music of Carmen for years (Calgary 1988, Debbi Tomas versus Katarina Witt. Poor Debbi never really stood a chance against Katarina's drama). Andrew and I went to see the Opera a few years ago when the Edmonton Opera performed it (I think we went on our anniversary, actually). I enjoyed it, although Andrew wasn't so keen; however, he remarked when we got home on Thursday that he now actually felt more inclined to see it again. He confessed he'd found it difficult to follow the story when we saw it at the Opera (they do project subtitles over the stage, but it's a bit tricky to read and watch at the same time). Of course, when Tom read the story, he added his own storytelling flare, making it seem funnier, more light-hearted than it really is.

Moving along...after intermission we listened to Handel (Water music), Mozart (Horn Concerto No 1.) and Beethoven (Symphony No. 5)--how can you go wrong with a line-up like that? The Mozart featured the guest conductor James Sommerville on horn, meanwhile 'a la Bob Dillian', Tom displayed cue cards on which disparaging comments were written. The messages weren't directed at Mr. Sommerville or his playing, but were translations of what Mozart wrote on the original score for his pal Joseph Leutgeb (Leutgeb was a talented horn player and this concerto was written for him). In the tradition of close friendships, the messages could have been seen as incredibly insulting (there was something about Leutgeb being a pain in Mozart's balls...) but were really just poking good fun. The audience giggled throughout much of the performance.

Josef Mysliveček was the inspiration for the next section (I'm pretty sure I've heard Tom talk about this composer before on his shows). He was a Czech composer who essentially lived fast and died reasonably young (43 years old). He was famous in his time, inspired Mozart, and is all but forgotten now. Mysliveček wrote a pile of music (Wikipedia article here) including 26 operas, received commissions all over Europe, but spent his money as fast as he made it. Sadly he died destitute in 1781 (with no nose, to boot--it was burnt off by a doctor). Nonetheless, his music was beautiful and you could easily confuse it for Mozart if you didn't know any better. Of course, as Tom pointed out, it's not that Mysliveček sounds like Mozart, it's that Mozart sounds like Mysliveček. It's too bad his music isn't heard more often, I don't think I've ever heard it played anywhere else. The ESO performed Mysliveček's Symphony in A major: I. Allegro con brio and Symphony in G major: III. Presto assai.

Next, and without warning came: CAGE MATCH (Tom told us he would give the signal without precursor so the audience had to be ready--I only managed to join in halfway). Just like on his show, Tom took votes for what the audience wanted to hear. During intermission voting boxes were made available in the lobby, and we were encouraged to write a reason for why we made our choice on our ballets. I'm guessing several Winspear employees had to quicky sift through all the entries (around 900, I think) once the show recommenced to pick the ones they liked the best. Three were read out loud on stage, one for Hayden and two for Mendelssohn, which was representative of how the vote went. Approximately 300 votes were casted for Hayden, 600 for Mendelssohn (I'd voted for the former, but I like both just fine).

And that was pretty much the show. Delightful really. I'm hoping Tom will be back at his post on Shift this afternoon, since I'll be home to listen (I usually listen at work too). The last piece we heard for the evening was selected for being a big finish: Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major: IV. Allegro con spirito. It ended with lots of tympani, lots of brass and was an excellent way to cap off the show.

Only one more ESO concert to go for the year, the Master's series finale on June 17th,



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