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Charisma, Finesse, and Authority

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
11/12/2014 -  & November 13, 2014
Otto Nicolai: Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor”
Eric Wolgang Korngold: Suite from “Much Ado About Nothing”, Op. 11
Felix Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Op. 61

Colm Feore (actor), Maghan McPhee (soprano), Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano)
Cantiamo Girls Choir of Ottawa, Ensemble vocal senior De La Salle, Calixa-Lavalée Choir (ladies), University of Ottawa, Vocum (Canterbury High School), Laurence Ewashko (chorus master), National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)
Donna Feore (director), Tobi Hunt McCoy (stage manager)

A. Shelley & C. Feore (© Trevor Greenway/Metro)

Alexander Shelley, music director designate for The National Arts Centre Orchestra, guest conducted NACO this week in a program significant from a range of perspectives. Titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream the concert celebrated music composed for works of William Shakespeare, born 450 years ago this year. The evening further reflected Shelley’s keen interest in theatre music (he has previously guest conducted for Opera Lyra Ottawa). In addition to opera and other stage work, he conducted the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and violinist Daniel Hope for a recent Deutsche Grammophon CD, Escape to Paradise, featuring Hollywood related music.

Shelley briefly and graciously addressed the audience before starting the performance. Speaking in English and French, he commented that it was Shakespeare’s transcending the rigours of form which had prompted so many composers to do the same in work inspired by him. Confident, handsome and charming, Shelley appears on the fast track to major celebrity.

Prussian-born Otto Nicolai was a pioneering force during the first half of the nineteenth century (his dates, 1810-1849, coincide with those for Chopin). Nicolai is best remembered as founding conductor of The Vienna Philharmonic; his compositions, however, are imaginative and, not surprisingly, prefigure Johan Strauss. The Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at times suggests a Strauss Waltz in 4/4 time.

Korngold’s Suite from “Much Ado About Nothing”, first performed in Vienna circa 1920, not surprisingly is closer to Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler; the Overture’s luxuriant use of the celesta reminds listeners of the closing pages from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Other excerpts are variously lilting and seductive (The Maiden In The Bridal Chamber), jocular (Dogberry and Berges), and pastoral and lyrically sustained (Intermezzo garden scene).

Conducting from memory, Shelley brought authority, finesse and tight control to all of this music, demonstrating he is a musician who knows what he wants and knows how to get results from his players. His lithe, nimble figure and flowing arm directions suggest a dancer as much as a music conductor, all reflecting his intense concentration and keen focus and the orchestra responded consistently well throughout the Nicolai and Korngold works. Shelley’s charisma is as much internal as external.

After intermission, Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was presented in its entirety, encompassing not just the familiar orchestral excerpts, but the more seldom heard choral music, vocal parts, and readings from various characters brilliantly delivered by Colm Feore, a veteran of Canada’s Stratford Festival as well as film and television worldwide (more recently, Cardinal Della Rovere in The Borgias).

Again, Shelley drew outstanding clarity from the orchestra, especially the strings whose gossamer whispering develops the Overture’s opening and so beautifully launches the play’s supernal and overlapping stories. Winds and brass sometimes were problematic and, at best, disappointingly routine in the beautiful Nocturne, but the overall mood never wavered. Soprano Maghan McPhee and Mezzo Wallis Giunta, emerging Canadians, acquitted themselves brilliantly. Both have voices which are strong, technically solid and project well, and both showed genuine dramatic artistry. They were well paired for this performance, as well as well integrated with the orchestra, chorus and with Feore’s spoken work which, alternated in English and French with appropriately complementary surtitles.

This NACO performance was unusual in presenting repertoire that is not heard with great frequency, and in providing an encouraging, tantalizing hint of what we can expect when Alexander Shelley takes the reigns as the orchestra’s music director in September, 2015.

Charles Pope Jr.



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