OSO Concert: Take the Fifth

I enjoyed the Okanagan Symphony's most recent concert on Saturday, September 11, primarily because of the finale on the program, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The concert, mysteriously titled Date With Destiny, included Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Roccoco Theme featuring cellist Paul Marleyn. The concert also featured Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus, not Murphy's Colour of My Dreams as listed on the program.

Rautavaara's piece opened the concert. The composition is notable for its combination of recorded birdsong of migratory Arctic Circle birds in Finland, along with live orchestral accompaniment. The recorded passages have a haunting quality. Accompanying woodwind and brass play complements the birdsong. The lush strings play to create the landscape underlying the cacophony. The piece is a bit self-indulgent, lean on melody, but heavy on mood and colour. The performance was marred, not by the live performers, but by the sound engineers who could not eliminate a distracting hum from their playback of the recording. This was especially annoying during the piece's quiet passages.

Tchaikovsky's Variations were a disappointment. Marleyn performed capably, with only a couple of small misstrokes. The demanding passages requiring Marleyn's left hand to shoot down the finger board nearly to the bridge were performed cleanly and skillfully. But the piece did not move me, and for this I blame Tchaikovsky, not Marleyn and the orchestra.

After the intermission, the orchestra roared back with Symphony No. 5. Introduced by the familiar four note Fate motif, the first movement did not let up in intensity or pace. Following Beethoven's weak second movement, the symphony resumes its verve in the third, then proceeds directly into the fourth movement without a break. Midway through the fourth movement, the trombones make their first appearance, not only in this symphony but in any symphony. Their round, full sound announces their presence dramatically. Beethoven also introduced the piccolo and the double bassoon in this work.

Beethoven was a relentless innovator. As we learned during Maestro Sanford's pre-concert lecture, Beethoven's--and possibly all of classical music's--most familiar symphony overwhelmed his contemporaries. The piece, however, was not dismissed as Sanford suggested. Critic ETA Hoffman was effusive with his praise:
Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing -- a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope, and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full-voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on and are captivated beholders of the spirits.

Beethoven's contemporary Jean Francois Le Sueur was also overwhelmed: "It's incredible! Marvelous! It has so upset and bewildered me that when I wanted to put on my hat, I could not find my head."

Maestro Sanford also commented on "new music" and the importance of integrating challenging, modern pieces into an orchestra's program. Beethoven's innovative symphony would have been shut out of the concert hall if today's attitudes about new music prevailed at the time. Sanford raised a caution about integrating technology into orchestral performances as in Cantus Arcticus, saying that sometimes such attempts can distract from and undermine the classical players. Indeed, we saw that on Saturday as a technical gaffe spoiled a performance. The Kansas City Symphony is experimenting with a PDA called a Concert Companion that provides real time information about a piece as it's performed. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has also integrated video screens into its performances, showing close-ups of conductor Bramwell Tovey, members of the orchestra, or soloists. Speaking of his friend and technology in the concert hall, Maestro Sanford quipped, "I don't think it's bringing people closer to classical music. I think it's bringing classical music closer to football."

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