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The Royal Conservatory Orchestra struts its stuff

Koerner Hall
02/12/2010 -  
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 1, op. 25
Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor
Maurice Ravel: Shéhérazade
Igor Stravinsky: Firebird Suite (1945)

Wallis Giunta (Mezzo-soprano), Nicholas King, Lucas Porter (Piano)
Royal Conservatory Orchestra, Johannes Debus (Conductor)

W. Giunta (© Tobin Grimshaw)

The Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall continued its lively opening season with a concert by its own orchestra, featuring soloists from its student body or recent alumni chosen via competitions.

The Royal Conservatory Orchestra, with 81 members, is composed entirely of students, ranging in age from 17 to the mid-twenties. It’s Resident Conductor is Uri Mayer, but on this occasion the conductor was Johannes Debus, Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company. (The COC’s late General Director, Richard Bradshaw, established somewhat of a tradition by conducting a number of concerts by the RCM’s Orchestra.)

I was surprised to see that virtually the entire orchestra was used for Prokofiev’s Symphony Number One, considering its “classical” nickname and links with Haydn. It began with the slowest performance of the first movement I have ever heard, making me suspect that the large ensemble of relatively inexperienced players simply couldn’t be brought up to speed. The performance wasn’t plodding or lugubrious, and the overall intonation was fine; it was, however, very, very deliberate. It brought forth echoes of early Beethoven, as did the second (larghetto) movement which conjures up the Pastoral Symphony.

However, the final movement (molto vivace) was as fleet and airy as one would expect, proof I suppose that the stolid approach to the first movement was by choice and not circumstance. Perhaps this was Debus’s way of making us hear afresh this very frequently performed work. It certainly brought out elements I hadn’t noticed before - but still, it was one of the slowest allegro movements I have ever heard.

The second work was the Poulenc Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (FP 61). Two RCM students, Nicholas King (age 19, from Los Angeles) and Lucas Porter (age 18, from Nova Scotia) brought their parts off brilliantly. The typical concerto features a soloist playing intermittently along with a continuously sounding orchestra; in the Poulenc at least one piano is always playing while the orchestra takes on a non-continuous role. As a result, the piece also functions in a two-piano, orchestra-less version. In fact the same two pianists played it in this form a couple of months ago in Mazzoleni Hall (the RCM’s smaller concert venue). In this unaccompanied form one was even more aware of the spot-on collaboration of the duo. Orchestra and soloists brought forth the full measure of the work’s sparkle and mischief.

Mezzo Wallis Giunta then joined the orchestra for Ravel’s Shéhérazade. Ms. Giunta caused a sensation last year in the RCM’s student performance of Cosi fan Tutte as Dorabella. She was promptly accepted into the Canadian Opera Company’s Studio Ensemble, and will be performing the role of Cherubino in Opera Atelier’s upcoming Le Nozze di Figaro. She gave a glowing account of the three songs and, in addition to wonderful vocalizing, she inhabited each piece, giving a sense of wonderment to Asie and resigned melancholy to L’indifférent.

Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite of 1945 is the longest (about 30 minutes playing time) of the three suites the composer devised from his 1910 work, one of the many brilliant successes of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. There seems to be a trend of performing in concert the entire original score, as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra did under Kent Nagano in its January visit to Toronto. As respectful as this is to a composer’s original intentions, it contains too much workaday music designed to accompany mimed action. The astute 1945 suite clips 15 minutes of potential longueurs while still retaining the work’s variety of pacing. This was a model performance.

Both the Ravel and Stravinsky pieces demand bravura work from wind soloists, all of whom did a splendid job.

The capacity audience basically went wild for this concert. It’s a pity it was performed just once.

Michael Johnson



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