Prowling through Facebook tonight I discovered the news that Hans Werner Henze has died today. It always gives me pause when a prestigious composer passes away, especially one whose music has touched you. To be truthful I don't know a lot of Henze's music. I know of him more by reputation than anything else. That being said what music I have heard has stayed with me most of all his opera Venus und Adonis. Trish and I saw it in 2001 performed by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. It was one of those events that stays with you for the rest of your life. I couldn't relate the plot to you, but the music, visuals and costumes were astounding. The actors/dancers on stilts portraying the mating stag and doe are but one example. While it sounds outlandish in print it was mesmerizing and beautiful to see. Total theatre. Trish still talks about the performance to this day.
Trish and I headed out to hear the opening concert of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra back on Saturday, September 22. It has taken me this long to get to a review because Trish came down with that horrible cold that is making the rounds and working and taking care of two kids keeps one away from these kinds of pursuits. I hope I recall what I want to because I came out of the show with some very strong opinions.
The concert was billed as Ode to Joy, Ode to Kitchener in celebration of the city's centennial, and in honour of the region's German heritage a good dose of classic Beethoven was in order. The Symphony No. 9 was the second half of the bill and the first half was taken up by two recent compositions; Stewart Goodyear's Count Up and John Estacio's Brio. When I choose which concerts to attend throughout the season I always lean towards the ones that programme some new music. This concert was unique in that it had two new pieces. While neither was a premiere, it is a little different to have two on the bill. While John Estacio is no stranger to K-W audiences, Stewart Goodyear as a composer would be. He is a well known concert pianist but has just started a composing career. The rationale for these two pieces being on the programme was their connection to Ontario and John Estacio being a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier's music program. I found it a bit peculiar that with all the talent in the region that no money was found for a centennial commission from a local composer.
I'll begin with the Beethoven since that is what most of the audience was there to hear. It was well done but in a typical manner. The choir was outstanding. It was a joining of forces from the Menno Singers, Da Capo Chamber Choir and the Grand Philharmonic. The diction was superb and sound impeccable. They were the true stars of the night. I'm not sure what the soloists were up to though. The gentlemen were ok but the soprano and alto? I'm not sure what concert they thought they were at. At times the trio sounded like complete mush. A great disappointment. Maestro Outwater's tempo choices at the finale were interesting to say the least. I got the impression he wanted the concert to be over so as to get the soloists off the stage. The finale was so rushed I could hardly catch my breath let alone the choir. Maybe he thinks fast means exciting? It is interesting to compare this finale to the one he conducted of the Seventh Symphony at the end of last year. In that performance he rocketed through the finale at break neck speed. I was wondering if he was trying some one-upmanship with Gustavo Dudamel and his recording with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. Now that's fast but invigorating! (here's a youtube clip of them performing the Allegro of the Shostakovich Tenth)
Goodyear's Count Up! opened the concert. It was written for an anniversary of the Cleveland Symphony. The title alludes to the counting ahead of a fireworks display. It was suitably celebratory in that American orchestral fanfare way: brassy, tonal, lots of percussion with a wink to some abstraction. All in all not a bad piece but nothing to make me too interested in his compositional career.
Which brings me to John Estacio's Brio. Estacio is one of Canada's most performed composers. He leads a successful career and has spent much of the past years working on operas that have had some nice success. He writes in a very comfortable and populist style and orchestrates very colourfully. In introducing the piece Maestro Outwater referred to him as "one of Canada's leading composers." If that is so, this piece is a severs let down. Now, I've sat through many bad pieces in my lifetime. As a student you become enured to it. But to hear a piece at this level, by this experienced a composer, be so derivative and cliche ridden it becomes embarrassing. Estacio has always gone for the emotional jugular, but when he tells you in the program notes that the slow section was written after news of the death of a friend and mentor we know we are walking on suspicious ground. I don't want to take anything away from his true sentiments, but when you are told what to feel when you hear something your honest reaction to the music is being subverted. Was it a mournful section? Maybe. I wonder how many people thought to themselves "This must be the section when his friend died." Boy that's deep. The rest of the music telegraphed every phrase turn and section ending so far in advance it became tedious. From the the swirling strings on the diminished chord leading into the slow section, to the big brassy finish with timpani and triangle (the ringing triangle at the end put the nail in the coffin.) My wife agreed with me that the ending sounded like something written for a community concert band. I know, I've played in one. If I sound really spiteful, it is due to the fact that I've never had a reaction like this at a KWS concert before. I like John Estacio. I've met him a couple of times and he's a great guy. I've never been a fan of his music but was not expecting this. I know he can do better than this and that the KWS can program better than this.
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