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Mahler, sublime and magnificent

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
09/16/2015 -  & September 17, 2015
Edward Elgar: Suite No.1 from “The Wand of Youth”, Op. 1a
Zosha Di Castri: Dear Life
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 4 in G major

Erin Wall (soprano), Martha Henry (narrator, recorded voice)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)
Donna Feore (director)

A warm Indian summer day was ending with valediction from a Della Robbia pastel sky, as sold out throngs arrived at Southam Hall for the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s opening concert of the 2015-2016 season, its first under the baton of Alexander Shelley in his new job as music director. Shelley has appeared here before, of course, including two brilliant concerts with the NACO last season in November and May.

Expectations were high and were met impressively, head on. In Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, Shelley brought unwavering transparency to the entire work, almost putting the score under a tonality microscope, relishing every detail and consistently delivering a range of subtle, almost sybaritic dynamics, especially at quieter levels which, to say the least, is rare. The finesse Shelley brought to the Mahler was staggering, and something more commonly heard from a fine string quartet, or from a few legendary pianists from the past like Sviatoslav Richter or Vladimir Horowitz. Indeed, listening to Wednesday evening’s concert I was reminded of the noted British music critic Neville Cardus and his comment that Horowitz “distills the essence of a chord”. One could say something very similar about Shelley’s conducting.

It’s no surprise that the orchestra’s strings were playing at their best, and also the winds. This time, even brass were in top form and the huge climax toward the end of the sublime third movement was a pristine fortissimo.

Speaking briefly before the performance began, Shelley discussed the Mahler representing a “circle of life” and further mentioned the abstract quality of music. While few would likely disagree with him, his performance was marked as much by clarity as abstraction – every mordent and trill from various players had the Byronic aristocratic quality we might expect from yet another pianist, Canada’s Glenn Gould, in a Bach Partita or English Suite.

The Symphony’s final movement recycles a song from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, presenting a child’s vision of the afterlife. Soprano Erin Wall (Canadian born to American parents) has a wonderful voice for this music – a delicate timbre and very subtle vibrato --- though only her higher register projected well, even with backing as discreetly subtle as Shelley was providing.

The concert’s first half also showcased Shelley’s precision and clarity. Elgar’s Suite from “The Wand of Youth” was completed in 1907 when the composer was fifty years old, though based on early material, originating from childhood (the concert was titled Echoes of Childhood). The result is a unique set of four movements which seem more Russian than English. The Overture invokes Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony which, however, was composed a decade later. Orchestration for the remaining three movements is indebted to Tchaikovsky, particularly his score for The Nutcracker and parts of his symphonic oeuvre such as the scherzo from the Symphony No. 4 in F minor.

The concert’s first half concluded with the premiere of Dear Life, an ambitious multimedia work by the New York based Canadian composer, Zosha Di Castri, based on a short story by Alice Munro, with narration by veteran actress Martha Henry and vocal performance again by Erin Wall. Lasting about half an hour, the work was performed behind a gigantic sheer drapery and with a cyclorama at the stage’s rear. Both were used for an assortment of projections, everything from monochrome images which might be found at retrospective for The American Photo League, to shimmering lights which sometimes suggested Norman McLaren on LSD.

The text, an adaptation by Merilyn Simonds (also Canadian, like Munro), is a fragmentary memoir of a young woman’s early life on Canada’s Prairies, then elsewhere. It is bleak, sometimes brutal, and is clearly autobiographical. The point of view, however, lacks focus: is it a bittersweet memoir or a feminist polemic, or something in between? The music was often gruff and harsh – screeching birds were frequently invoked – though also often very quiet. Again, Shelley’s superb control was in strong evidence. As Dear Life progressed it was unclear when it might, or not, be ending. The vocals from Ms. Wall were too distant and quiet to have much impact, though it appeared they were intended more as background fragments.

Overall, Dear Life is a work which earns a solid ‘A for effort’, but leaves listeners wondering if it’s worth the effort (and the $200,000. price tag, recently reported).

But the evening was Alexander Shelley’s, first, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s, second. Their performance set the bar high indeed, though there’s every reason to expect it will stay there.

NACO’s website

Charles Pope Jr.



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