Review: Impressive and eclectic concerto premiered for appreciative Calgary audience

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Despite the considerable amount of activity on the current classical music scene as it concerns new compositions, it is still not common for the CPO to have the opportunity to perform the premiere performance of a major new work by a modern composer of international prominence. However, such was the case last Friday and Saturday as the CPO, under its regular conductor Rune Bergmann, performed a newly composed violin concerto by Errollyn Wallen. The soloist was Russian-American Phillipe Quint.

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While Wallen is a new name to most Calgarians, she is by no means a new composer. A long-time resident of England, the Belize-born Wallen has an impressive, and highly eclectic, catalogue of published works; her music has won a great many prizes. She is also known for being reclusive while composing, her work done in a lighthouse facing the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland.

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Wallen has also recently written a book about her compositional journey, one in which she attests to the wide range of influences in her work, ranging from modern English music to Latin American popular styles. She is also a singer. Very generally, her style is eclectic in the sense that her music fuses different style types. She also frequently includes quotations from well-known works to provide a way to centre the listener’s engagement with her music. In all this, she is very much a composer of today, the modern tradition engaged but extended in a way to provide a synthesis of different expressive music centres, including popular music of all types.

Known for her operas (she has composed over 20), Wallen has also composed a substantial body of instrumental and vocal music, ranging from songs (such as “Are you worried about the rising cost of funerals?”) to various chamber works, a piano concerto, and a cello concerto. These works include several that feature the violin, a point that specifically interested Quint.

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Quint was last heard in Calgary a few years ago in a program that featured Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. It was in the context of this concert that the idea emerged of a commission for a new violin concerto premiered by Rune Bergmann and the CPO. It was Quint who approached Wallen to write it.

Three years in gestation, the concerto was finally brought to completion this year and first performed on Friday, with the composer in attendance. Speaking about the piece beforehand, Wallen explained the circumstances of the commission and spoke about the work. While her on-stage comments about the piece were interesting, no one will forget her impressive red/pink shoes and beach glasses. Wallen speaks with a refined English accent, but she presents herself as less than conventional, a good image for her work generally, and this concerto in particular.

Less lyrical and more spikey in hits harmony than her earlier cello concerto or piano concerto, the new violin concerto lasts about 25 minutes and is in one extended movement. It contains a wide range of sounds from short melodic ideas, often treated contrapuntally, to more bracing, modernist harmonies and energetic rhythms. Generally, the work is more dramatic than lyrical, with the violin soloist always at the forefront of the action. This aspect of the work gave Quint many excellent opportunities to demonstrate his very considerable talents and the wide range of things a violin can do.

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The score is replete with many special effects for the soloist and challenging passages to play. Quint showed himself to be fully equal to the considerable demands of the piece, performing by memory (no mean feat here) and with remarkable fluency.

Suffused with drama and energy, the concerto held the attention of the audience; they were fascinated with the original sounds and textures with which the concerto abounds. In one hearing it is impossible to predict what will be its wider reception. However, the concerto will be performed with several other orchestras, and Quint will be a persuasive and committed champion of the new work.

At the very least, because of Wallen’s prominence on the current scene, the concerto will have the opportunity to make its way into the modern violin repertory. Whether or not it will find a permanent place is difficult to say given the plethora of new works these days. It is, however, an effective piece — modern in style, but with many elements with which a regular audience can engage and find interesting and rewarding. Wallen’s experience in scoring for orchestra is evident in the effective orchestral writing and the handling of orchestral textures. Much effort went into the composition of this fascinating new concerto, and one can only hope it receives the notice and attention it deserves.

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The concert opened with a Caribbean-tinged work called Fordant composed for the Northern Sinfonia in Scotland, where the composer now works. Both this short, attractive work and the new concerto have some similar style elements and they made good companion pieces.

The second half of the concert consisted of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. For many years, this was the most-performed of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, not just because of its magnificent slow movement but also because of its overall saturation in rich melody. If one is unmoved by this symphony, one must have a heart of stone.

On this occasion, the audience was clearly moved, and the applause at the end was extended and sincere. Bergmann clearly enjoyed himself in this great work and guided the orchestra with well-judged tempos and a fine sense for shaping the climaxes of the musical paragraphs. The symphony abounds in extended solo writing, especially for the woodwinds. These solos were all delivered with assurance and expressive, accurate playing. But special mention must be made of the superb playing of Nikolette LaBonte, the orchestra’s principal horn, in the famous slow movement. Shaping the phrases gracefully, with a warm tone and always expressive, her playing was crucial to the effect of the music, this movement containing one of the most cathartic climaxes in the symphonic repertoire. The initial sense of impending tragedy was well captured in the dark, richly textured opening movement, and the victory over tragedy in the final movement carried all before it into a blazing climax.

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It is a given that symphony orchestras should play symphonies. However, this idea can, potentially, become a bit stale, and orchestra managers look for different ways to present programs. This year, however, the CPO has regularly included major symphonies by front-and-centre symphony composers, including Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mahler, among others. Every time it has been these works — the great war horses of the repertoire, one might call them — that have captured the imagination of the audience. In a sense, the old has become new. with audiences not raised on these works encountering them for the wonderful musical achievement they are.

Yet another important symphony (Schubert’s Ninth Symphony) will be offered this coming week in a program featuring Stephen Hough in his own piano concerto — yet another imaginative programming decision. The CPO is in fine fettle at the moment, and it is a fine time to come and immerse oneself in the beautiful sounds only a well-tuned orchestra can offer.

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