Truth in our Time—NACO

It’s an ambitious package, this National Arts Centre Orchestra Tour. There’s a world premiere of a Philip Glass symphony, commissioned by the family of newsman Peter Jennings, and three other works collected around the idea of “truth in our time”, as a reflection of a great Canadian journalist.

• Nicole Lizée’s brief Zeiss After Dark
• Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony #9
• Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s violin concerto
• Philip Glass’s symphony #13.

They played to a mostly full Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto tonight (it’s great to see such a big audience) before they go to Carnegie Hall in April. They’re coming home for a pair of concerts in Southam Hall. Tours serve many purposes, building community, confidence, perhaps serving notice abroad and at home that in some sense they’ve arrived at a new level, the best yet.

Almost everything was played with great polish and precision. While there was one moment when every soul in the orchestra cringed for the unfortunate fluff by the soloist, no worries, Toronto is the practice concert. Presumably they’ll get it right at Carnegie Hall.

In every other respect it was an impressive outing.

Shelley led a crystal clear reading of Zeiss After Dark, especially compared to the version I heard in Toronto.

Blake Pouliot was soloist in the Korngold Violin Concerto, undertaken with panache and energy. It was almost as much fun watching him listen to the orchestra when he wasn’t playing, a thoroughly committed performance. His cadenzas were edgy, yet when he needed it the young soloist effortlessly soared over the ensemble. Shelley helped keep the orchestra out of Pouliot’s way, offering support and a luscious sound from the strings, using softness to slowly build to real climaxes, extorting us into an eruption of applause with the final phrases in the opening movement of the concerto.

Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony is a relatively short but demanding piece full of solos. It’s like a Mahler Symphony turned inside out, with its wacky opening and closing movement, with the tender feelings in the inner movements: in other words, the opposite of what Mahler does in his 9th Symphony. I’ve heard several explanations for what the composer was doing. I think I hear him showing us the blunt power-structure that commands artists to perform like trained monkeys, as in that strange sequence of the trombones playing a kind of fanfare with the percussion (suggesting the military to me), followed by what might be the chained artists dancing at the end of their chains, taking up that darkly merry tune.

In 1945 the Korngold concerto was composed, and the Shostakovich 9th Symphony premiered. Korngold was a refugee from Nazi Germany, coming to USA in 1935, while Shostakovich endured Stalin’s oppressive regime, including periods when some of his music—such as this symphony—were banned.

After the concerto, Pouliot played an encore, a short piece accompanied by the orchestra that was announced as a piece by Yuri Shevchenko, based on the Ukrainian anthem; if you search on YouTube for Yuri Shevchenko you’ll find two versions of the piece. It’s a beautiful melody and timely.

I admit that I am not sure I understood the Glass Symphony. It does several things that seem original, unlike other music. While we have some of his usual tendencies, such as the patterns of quavers, the repetition, the stable peaceful groups of notes, the abrupt endings, this composition does things I haven’t encountered before in Glass: although –who knows—these tendencies may be typical of other symphonies. There are some passages that are hard to anticipate, places where the brass seems to conflict with what the strings are doing: yet without the usual understanding of the word “dissonance”.

For what it’s worth, the audience went wild for Glass’s piece, as he likely will be a big draw throughout the tour.

It didn’t move me, speaking as someone who admires much of Glass’s output. I would qualify this by mentioning that Glass is known especially for his operas and his film & theatre music. I’m a big fan of those compositions, although in this case, I find his music admirable in the abstract sense –where I can hear that the players executed it well. I want to hear it again.

That being said, it’s an impressive concert. In any performance, there is a simpler path doing reliable repertoire or the more challenging and adventurous route. Doing a new piece of music is risky, even if the work is brilliant. Some will not understand, some may resist. Without ambition the arts would be impoverished, reduced to the banal and the predictable.

I’m glad to encounter programming that pushes the boundaries, as in this concert.

That’s vitally important.

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2 Responses to Truth in our Time—NACO

  1. You clearly know more than I do about music! (In two reviews now I’ve read comments about the flub, but I didn’t notice it! So embarrassing.) I really enjoyed your post. I was at the concert too and took a different tack with my review. Thought you might be interested. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

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