The media give us interfaces with the arts. Yes, we can go see plays, concerts & operas in person. But what are the credentials of those voices on TV, radio, in newspapers and elsewhere? We’ve all heard that line “those who can’t do, teach”. And do those who can’t teach criticize?
Don’t answer that….
Of course sometimes the question is answered decisively, as we encounter famous people in those roles. Tenor Ben Heppner is the new host of CBC’s “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera”, after having turned up regularly in operas broadcast in that timeslot. The name of drama critic Richard Ouzounian regularly turns up in programs, his work on both sides of the footlights. No one questions Randy Bachman’s credentials as an expert host for his CBC program “Vinyl Tap“.
This preamble is subtext for three CDs I’ve listened to recently, conducted by another media figure. If you listen to Kerry Stratton on CFMZ there’s no mistaking the authority in the voice, anecdotes from a life as a conductor, from a thorough knowledge of music & composers. For what it’s worth, Stratton has one of the most beautiful speaking voices I’ve ever heard.
The three CDs I’ve been listening to establish his credentials. I wonder sometimes how one gets to be a successful Canadian conductor. I know of few in this rather tiny fraternity (and yes there are probably women, but I don’t know of any who hold steady jobs, aka “successful”). I’ve dropped names such as Peter Oundjian, David Fallis, Derek Bate & David Warrack, along with many others who weren’t actually born in Canada.
While I have not yet heard Maestro Stratton conduct in person, the recordings are enough of a demo for me.
Two of the CDs represent music that I didn’t know.
First let’s talk about a CD titled “Music for String Orchestra” with compositions by Jean Françaix, a composer I’d never heard of. Having listened incessantly to this recording by the Sir Georg Solti Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Stratton, I wonder how I missed hearing of Françaix, an authentic and unique composer from the 20th Century. I wasn’t surprised to discover mention of Ravel & Poulenc in the Wikipedia article I just read, given what I’d heard. This is a sure antidote to February & March, which is to say, positive & energetic, and nothing to encourage a surrender to the darkness of winter.
The CD includes the four movement Symphonie d’Archets, the Ode to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and music for the pantomime DieKamelien. Stratton has done a huge service in bringing two world premiere recordings before the public. The luscious sound of this string ensemble serves Françaix very well indeed.
Why has this composer somehow managed to be under the radar, unknown, largely unrecorded? The CD’s liner notes suggest indirectly why he’s not known: because he was so busy writing. Where some composers busy themselves with their legacy, others are so consumed with creation that they neglect this other crucial task. Not to sound critical, but I read somewhere that Sibelius spent the last decades of his life composing very little, and it’s the same with Rossini, who became a very wealthy man from a very prolific youth. The music –electric & at times very witty—suggests something very sane about his preoccupations: that he lived in the present.
The second of the three CDs is someone a bit more familiar to me, namely Alan Hovhaness. I’d heard a little bit of his music long ago and was, I confess, unimpressed by his late romantic sound. Have I changed? Probably. Or maybe I heard the wrong compositions before.
This time it’s the Slovak Radio Orchestra that’s led by Stratton, in a recording titled “Celestial Fantasy”, aptly named for one of the pieces on the disc, considering that most of the disc has a spiritual or religious focus. But the music seems to reflect an eastern religion, reflecting Hovhaness’s Armenian heritage. This God is glimpsed dimly from afar, a being of mystery and gentle inspiration.
The third disc is much closer to the mainstream, containing three marvellous pieces from Anton Dvorák performed by the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. It begins with the Czech Suite, followed by “Songs My Mother Taught Me” in an arrangement for violin & orchestra. Yes these sound authentic, readings that stay in my head. I was pleased to be serenaded internally during a dentist appointment today, by recollections of these haunting melodies. The third item is one of my favourite pieces by Dvorak—or any composer come to think of it—namely the wonderfully inventive Serenade for Winds.
All three can be found on this website.
Stratton leads a performance of Brundibar by Hans Krasa next weekend on March 29th at BMTM Secondary School. Click here for further information.