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‘Program’ music concepts revisited

Southam Hall, National Arts Centre
03/30/2016 -  & March 31 (Ottawa), April 2 (Toronto), 2016
Richard Strauss: Don Juan, Op. 20 – Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Ana Sokolovic: Ringelspiel

Gabriela Montero (piano)
National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelley (conductor)

This was a program which music reviewers, past and continuing, like to call ‘a mixed bag’. In fact, there were significant unifying factors for an evening which used two early tone poems by Richard Strauss to bookend a late Mozart Piano Concerto and a recent work by Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolovic whose choral opus, Golden slumbers kiss your eyes..., had its world premiere here by the National Arts Centre Orchestra (NACO) last November. The orchestra’s music director Alexander Shelley briefly spoke to the audience, discussing the intensely personal nature of the two Strauss works, as well as parallel descriptive and pictorial qualities of Ms. Sokolovic’s Ringelspiel, which had its world premiere here in 2013 and is presented in a revised version for this week’s subscription concert pair. While Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 could not be categorized as program music, it is conspicuously a precursor of Beethoven’s and Chopin’s such works, which collectively were created only a few decades later. In a printed program note, Shelley mentions the Mozart’s “brooding” and “dark associations”.

With Strauss’ Don Juan the concert commenced with the Solti-like transparency and verve which have become trademark for Alexander Shelley, and there was excellent work from brass and winds during slower development stretches. There were also some arguably muddy segments and one sensed that history’s most infamous Lothario perhaps had gotten short shrift during rehearsal. Overall this was a brisk, driven reading though what didn’t come across was the nature and essence of the work. Don Juan, when all is said and done, is more about energy than about love, romance, or even sex – the music is so hopped up and almost non-stop in its pre-psychedelic passion, listeners today might be inclined to rename it Don Juan on Speed, LSD and Viagra.

Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, which closed the evening, fared better. It was composed about a year after Don Juan and it’s clear Strauss had really come to grips with his ideology in structural and technical terms. In a series of ‘chapters’ Death and Transfiguration unfolds like a novel: the grim opening with second violins, violas and (initially) light percussion leads to winds almost piercing the atmosphere, like the white light reported by those who’ve had near-death experiences. Lasting almost half an hour, the performance was constantly taut and tight, rich in contrasts and definition, and quite possibly Alexander Shelley’s best work here since his reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 last September.

Earlier, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 had good moments but, like Don Juan, could have benefitted from more rehearsal. The soloist, Venezuela born Gabriela Montero, projected well and played more lyrical sections with admiral poise and sensitivity. However, like Jeremy Denk who performed the same work here with Pinchas Zukerman in 2014, she tends to rush more elaborate passages and it was evident Shelley was challenged to keep up with her. Montero, a former prodigy who was improvising from early childhood and also composes, wrote her own cadenzas which were admirable in terms of respecting Mozart’s materials while adding textures and melodic and harmonic turns which reflect more recent times. This was not a great performance of Mozart, however an interesting and often engaging one.

Ana Sokolovic’s Ringelspiel is intended to depict recollections of childhood (the title is German for merry-go-round) and the composer inundates listeners with brilliantly inventive orchestration and effects which are quite wonderful to hear though, as with like Strauss’ Don Juan, I found myself wondering if people listening to it without knowing the program’s details would guess what it’s all about. Ringelspiel nonetheless is brilliantly evocative and often stunningly imaginative. There are echoes of familiar twentieth century composers, however it is never derivative – Ringelspiel stands strongly on its own and is the work of a creative mind to be reckoned with. On the podium, Alexander Shelley did a superb job of revealing and uniting a work so rich in detail.

Charles Pope Jr.



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