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Frothy Bizet… exotic Viola Concerto

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
02/17/2016 -  and February 18*, 2016
Georges Bizet: Suite No. 1 from “Carmen” – Symphony in C major;
Nico Muhly: Viola Concerto

Nadia Sirota (viola)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)

The National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) has been performing Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C major since its earliest days. Written in 1855 when the composer was 17, the work was not published by Bizet and was discovered only in 1933, when it swiftly catapulted to the forefront of standard symphonic repertoire. By 1950 it had been choreographed by George Balanchine, and was being performed and recorded by conductors including Leopold Stokowski and Sir Thomas Beecham. For some years Stokowski’s 1952 recording, released by RCA in America and EMI in Europe, was arguably benchmark for its frothy energy, precision and rhythmic grip, and was not eclipsed even by Stokowski’s stereo retake in 1977, one of his final sessions.

Alexander Shelley’s reading of the Bizet Symphony with NACO this week may be the first time I’ve heard a live performance which stands easy comparison with that venerable Stokowski LP. (Yes, it’s one with which this reviewer grew up.) Shelley achieved a perfect balance between Bizet’s classically light, sometimes transparent scoring and the composer’s deft rhythmic punctuation via percussion and brass sections. And he clearly has the confidence that comes with such understanding. As soon as Shelley mounted the podium for the concert’s second half, he launched straight into the work – there was no collecting of thoughts or pausing to gather energy. Shelley knew what he wanted and knew his players could and would deliver.

The only minor problem in the entire performance was the horn chords which open the lyrical second movement; these were not quite in unison, and intonation also was imperfect. However once the exquisite oboe solo (Charles Hamann in top form) was launched this was a dim memory. The subsequent section with achingly exquisite strings constantly climbing to higher tonalities was like a young lover’s quest for perfection being finally rewarded. (It doesn’t take great imagination to understand why Balanchine was eager to turn the music into a ballet.)

Shelley’s approach to the third and fourth movements – both, marked Allergro vivace – was consistently, brisk, pristine and focused. He brought warmth to the performance when needed, but was never sentimental or saccharine and he also found moments of humor, especially in the third movement’s rustic middle section with its possibly Scottish drone bass.

In short, this was a stupendous performance and yet another in which Alexander Shelley demonstrated he is an aggressive perfectionist in technical and artistic terms.

The evening had opened with Bizet’s Suite No. 1 from Carmen. Again, Shelley conducted with the keen dramatic and rhythmic sense which must have left many listeners hoping he will eventually conduct the complete opera. First violins were particularly superb in the Aragonaise – even a sweetly crying baby among the audience seemed to approve.

The evening’s other major work was the Viola Concerto by the young American composer, Nico Muhly, with guest soloist Nadia Sirota. Overall, this Concerto has a decidedly mid-twentieth century sound and feel to it. It’s no surprise to discover both composer and violist (for whom the work was written) have the names ‘Juilliard’ and ‘New York’ almost omnipresent in their resumés The work was co-commissioned by the Spanish National Orchestra (premiere conducted in February, 2015, by John Nelson, also a Juilliard alumnus), the Festival of Saint-Denis near Paris, the Detroit Symphony, and NACO.

The Concerto is in three movements and the first two connect directly. While this suggests a formal, classical structure, the work’s main strength is the hugely imaginative, often exotic orchestration which seems an ongoing dialogue of singing, chirping birds. There are even stretches which echo Richard Strauss’ mammoth Alpine Symphony. The viola solos and the gypsy-like third movement cadenza seem more like a continuo than the more standard showy Concerto, though this likely is deliberate. From this perspective, I was reminded of Mark Neikrug’s Bassoon Concerto, performed here by NACO in early January, 2015. The kaleidoscope orchestration also has clear parallels with Starling: Triple Concerto by Toronto’s wunderkind composer, Jordan Pal, also performed by NACO during May of last year.

Alexander Shelley again did a fine job of unifying his players and guest soloist in a work which was complex and demanding, yet also proved highly entertaining.

This was another very fine evening of music under his baton.

Charles Pope Jr.



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