Friday, December 9, 2011

Review - A Birthday Concert to Remember - Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

From Sound and Noise -  University of Alberta Music Students on Music

What happens when a respected, regional orchestra presents its 60th season? The organization celebrates in style. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, our city’s professional full-sized orchestra, is unashamedly (and rightfully so) promoting its trip to Carnegie Hall on May 8, 2012 to ring in 60 years of music making. The orchestra played its first concert on November 30, 1952 (yes, that makes it 59 years old but this is officially its 60th season), and I was lucky to witness a captivating concert on November 30, 2011. There was even one audience member, named Hope, who led the second violins in that first performance 59 years ago. The crowd and the orchestra showed her their admiration at the beginning of the second half.

Conducted by Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the evening was fittingly named “Berlioz, Respighi & Elgar.” I admit that some of my colleagues in the ESO mentioned that Mr. Zeitouni was an inspiring conductor, which only heightened my excitement for the first gesture of his baton. Beginning with Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano, Zeitouni demonstrated deeply sensitive and exuberant conducting that never overshadowed the work of each orchestra member. Respighi’s music always creates an evocatively vivid picture and, as you may have gotten from the title, Zeitouni chose a work that Respighi based on three paintings by Botticelli (whose real name was Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi). The orchestra’s string players earned their keep in the first movement, “La Primavera” (Spring), a joyously shimmering piece that required measure after measure of trills from the strings. As winter settles in Edmonton, this first movement only made me think of how excited I will be to see the first leaves appear in April. Zeitouni’s captivating conducting and the orchestra’s assured playing continued throughout the second and final movements, “L’adorazione dei Magi” (The Adoration of the Magi) and “La nascita de Venere” (The Birth of Venus). Next up was mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel to join the orchestra for Hector Berlioz’s immortal Les nuits d’été.

Lebel walked out with a generous smile that put the whole audience at ease. She looked great. She had a nice voice. Her French was good. There was something strange, though. She seemed, at first, slightly unprepared. For such a famous (and beautiful) song cycle, she seemed to be looking at the music often in the first movement. I was surprised she was using her music at all. Nothing was horribly wrong, but I was unfortunately distracted by her hand gestures that seemed unmotivated. However, without missing a beat, Lebel quickly calmed my fears in the second movement by not once looking at the music and allowing a truly gorgeous instrument and nuanced sense of acting to come through. This movement, “Le spectre de la rose” (The Ghost of the Rose), is the ultimate example of rich, colourful and lugubrious French music of the 19th century, and Lebel perfectly captured every aspect of the piece. “Phew,” I thought. When she was not glued to her score, she was as beautiful to listen to as to watch. Her performance of the fourth movement, “Absence,” was the highlight of the entire work for me. The ESO responded well to her warm voice, playing with its own warm colour that supported Lebel throughout. After a brief intermission, the audience returned to the concert hall of the Winspear Centre in anticipation of a beloved standard in the orchestral repertoire.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations is always a favourite of classical music lovers. The depth of colours and the incomparable fame of the “Nimrod” variation make the entire work difficult to fault. All that really needs to be said about the ESO’s performance on Wednesday evening is that it was some of the best playing I had ever heard from the ensemble. With maestro Zeitouni at the helm, each musician held nothing back in creating a captivating performance that rang with endless brilliance from start to finish.

Wednesday night’s concert has left me hoping several things. I hope that the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra will survive the decline of classical music appreciation and stick around for another 60 years, that Jean-Marie Zeitouni will return to conduct the ensemble in the future, and that all classical music concerts will be as engaging and accessible as this one was so that my first wish has a hope of coming true.

Learn more about the ESO’s trip to Carnegie Hall and other upcoming events at their website,

-Mark Wilkinson

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