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The Glacier Musicians Triumphant

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
04/05/2022 -  & March 30 (Toronto), April 13, 14 (Ottawa), 2022
Nicole Lizée: Zeiss After Dark (U.S. Premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Symphony No. 9, Op. 70
Erich Wolfgang Korngold : Violin Concerto, Op. 35
Philip Glass: Symphony No. 13 (U.S. Premiere)

James Ehnes (Violin)
National Arts Center Orchestra of Canada, Alexander Shelley (Musical Director/Conductor)

J. Ehnes/A. Shelley

Korngold has so much talent that he could easily give us half - and still have enough left for himself!
Giacomo Puccini

One of Stalin’s favorite dances, the ‘Dance of the Bones’ is used in the last movement (of his Ninth Symphony). What was Shostakovich saying? The truth: that five million people died after the war of starvation, because of chaos, corruption and slow directives. People were being screwed again.
Vasily Petrenko

So how is it that an orchestra from Canada’s savage forests and impassable mountains, its villages precariously hugging the deathly glaciers, present a program that would put to shame us civilized Big Brothers in America? One was ready to cast out South Park‘s “Blame Canada” when listening to the National Arts Center Orchestra last night.

Here were two works from the 21st Century, two works from the ancient 20th Century, two American premieres, a splendid violin soloist with a magnificent Strad, and Alexander Shelley, a top-rate internationally acclaimed conductor and musical director.

And while one couldn’t hope for equal distinction from four distinctive works, not a single piece challenged the ears of Carnegie Hall’s almost full auditorium. No, this was not a Boulez-style contemporary concert, disappointing to the cognoscenti and the “serialist murderers”. Yet the vast majority was satisfied.

Actually one work was vaguely mysterious, but this opener lasted a mere two minutes. Nicole Lizée is virtually an icon for Canada, a latter-day Laurie Anderson for us. She is a “turntablist”, a “brilliant musical scientist”, and she explores themes like “malfunctions, reviving the obsolete and the harnessing of imperfections”, amongst other questionable accolades.

In Zeiss After Dark: Sesquie for Canada’s 150th, the title was a bit misleading. Unlike a Zeiss lens, one could not become really focused. Without strings, the half-century-old National Arts Center Orchestra gave her replica (rendition?) of Stanley Kubrick’s miraculous candlelit scene from Barry Lyndon. The magic was in the camera, yet these two minutes with mallets and winds parading together was–at most–a musical bagatelle.

Conductor Shelley offered a graphic explanation–yet I was hoping these 120 seconds could be repeated.

Instead, the orchestra launched into one of the two Russian homages to classicism. Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony are both rapid-fire no-hold-barred homages to Joseph Haydn. Yet, where the former is a dance of the pyrotechnical, the Shostakovich played here last night embraced both fire and–at times during the fourth movement–a desolation, almost a hopelessness which Haydn would never explore.

Mr. Shelley started and finished with sardonic joy, never pushing the jesting. But if nothing else, this showcased the fine first-chair playing of trumpeter Karen Donnelly, trombonist Donald Renshaw (who endlessly flawlessly repeated his two notes), the flute/piccolo Joanna G’froerer and those great timpani solos.

Yet it was the Largo, the dark core of the work, where Mr. Shelley kept his orchestra on a chain–one would like to say the chain of the doomed in an Inquisition dungeon–where the composer perhaps let out his heart.

This was an emotional performance, and the conductor’s signal for every player to take a single bow and remain standing was like a fugue.

Erich Korngold did not “escape” Nazi Germany, though he doubtless would have. He came to Hollywood, loved doing music for the Warner Brothers movies, and changed film music forever. None of those ersatz Tchaikovsky themes of Steiner and Tiomkin, this ultra wunderkind made his music gallop with Errol Flynn, and slash through duels with Basil Rathbone. He once said that he was as serious with film music as his operas.

The first time I heard the Korngold Concerto (I believe it was Joshua Bell), I was entranced with the music. This time the music seemed third-rate, but James Ehnes had exactly the right lush, romantic and meticulously-fingered cadenzas on his Strad to make it sing.

P. Glass, A. Shelley at rehearsal (© Dominick Mastrangelo)

The link between Philip Glass and Canada is threefold. He lives much of the year in Nova Scotia, the National Arts Center Orchestra has impressed him. And in Symphony No. 13 commissioned by the orchestra, the dedication was to the late Canadian-American newscaster Peter Jennings and the theme of the concert “Truth in Our Time”. Mr. Glass labels himself a “theatrical composer”, and while his spectrum is far wider, one still revels at his operas and film incidental music.

Here, in this three‑movement 20‑minute work, he doesn’t break any of his “Glass Ceilings”. Unlike Shostakovich, from whom every work was a challenge, an alteration, a different universe, Mr. Glass has retained his earliest patterns. The cascading chords, his glowering brass, his quasi‑modal themes. Was this about speech freedom? Peter Jennings? Of course in his ever prolific mind, Mr. Glass would hear it this way. And of course it worked. The opening was stirring when the brass joined in. The rest sounded like...well, like Philip Glass, who greeted the cheering audience. For the music was exciting, almost exalting. And played by this orchestra with heartfelt enthusiasm.

Harry Rolnick



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