April 23, 2018
Community orchestra, Orchestra Borealis, dazzles in Sunday performance
If anyone worried whether orchestral music is alive and well in Edmonton – or thought orchestral music simply meant the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – then the three orchestral concerts on Sunday should have dispelled such doubts.
For in the evening there was the inaugural concert of the new Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton, studded with ESO players. Earlier, two orchestras composed largely of amateur community musicians vied for the afternoon spot, with a rather unfortunate clash of their respective concerts starting at exactly the same time.
Those two community orchestras have a common origin. Orchestra Borealis, whom I heard on Sunday afternoon at the South Pointe Community Centre, was formed out of the old Concordia Symphony Orchestra two years ago. Almost all the musicians decided to leave and form the new group following major structural changes when Concordia transformed itself from a college into Concordia University of Edmonton.
Concordia itself then re-formed the Concordia Symphony Orchestra with mostly new amateur community musicians. I heard them in March in an entertaining concert of music written or chosen for movie sound tracks, with enthusiasm making up for any lack of experience.
Orchestra Borealis, meanwhile, has in its first two seasons been adventurous in its repertoire: it presents three concerts a season, and has already given Nielsen’s 4th Symphony and Mahler’s 1st, as well as contemporary music. It is also presenting a very professional front, with its exemplary website and its simple but striking poster design.
The pleasure of music-making
Their conductor, David Hoyt, was for many years Principal Horn of the ESO, and has been Assistant Conductor of the ESO and of the Canadian Opera Company. The orchestral players are chosen by audition, and currently range from those in their 20s to those in their 70s.
It is an amateur orchestra, rehearsing once a week, and playing for the pleasure of music-making. There are, though, some familiar faces from other areas of Edmonton musical life, including the Concert Master Valerie Sim (who divides life between being a medical scientist at the University of Alberta and being a solo violinist) or Josephine van Lier (the president of Early Music Alberta).
Sunday’s concert was dominated by Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2. It’s probably the most popular of his three symphonies, with its soaring lyrical tunes, its easy-to-follow construction, and its Romantic optimism.
It was an interesting choice of the orchestra – for it is the players themselves who chose the repertoire — particularly since the Sunday performance complemented Alexander Prior’s vivid interpretation of the first symphony with the ESO at the Winspear on March 24.
The second is a more old-fashioned work, relying far more on string colour and tone, but it’s also quite a challenge for an amateur orchestra to tackle, both in the skills needed and in its considerable length.
The orchestra rose to that challenge splendidly. The strings, in particular – and it is string intonation that is so often the bane of amateur orchestras – regularly produced an idiomatic Romantic colour, with a lovely expansive tone when the big tune finally emerged in the first movement.
The orchestra also has some fine principal players, notably on bassoon, and in the horns – indeed, the entire horn section knows exactly how to make an entry spot-on. The long clarinet solo in the Adagio was just right: well-shaped, and with a smooth beguiling tone as if one of those soft-focus lenses had been used to romantic effect.
A most enjoyable performance
Hoyt paced the work well, and got well-disciplined, tight, and dynamically responsive playing from the orchestra. The more hectic passages in the second movement, and in particular the Allegro vivace, were perhaps understandably taken a little too carefully. One felt that it might have been worth the risk to allow the orchestra to let go a little more in that final movement, but that did not detract from a most enjoyable performance.
The concert had opened with popular and colourful Spanish music: first, three dances from de Falla’s ballet The Three Cornered Hat, and then the Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo. After a slightly hesitant start, there was again some fine playing, especially from the wind sections. The timpani were perhaps a little dominant – less the fault of the timpanist, than being placed right at the very front of the stage, instead of the more customary place to the rear of the orchestra – but these were also entertaining performances, the orchestra clearly showing their enthusiasm.
That enthusiasm – music-making for the sake of music-making – spread to the intermission, too, as the players happily mingled with the audience. Certainly, any regular at the ESO who is attracted by the repertoire of an Orchestra Borealis concert need not hesitate: they may not be the ESO (nor would they claim to be), but their standards are high, and their enjoyment infectious.
The orchestra’s 2018-2019 season opens in Edmonton on Oct. 28, with a concert that includes Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.2 (The London). The season continues to provide adventurous programming, with performances of Mahler’s fifth symphony (Feb. 10, 2019) and Debussy’s La mer (April 28, 2019). Auditions for those interested in playing with the orchestra are held at the end of August.