blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Northern music

The new "Staircase" at the NAC
It has been a good season for concerts; all those I've attended have had something to do with The North. The first was the Doors Open For Music concert at Southminster church on September 27th: A Salute to Finland, a celebration of Nordic culture featuring songs and instrumentals by Alfvén, Grieg, Merikanto, Sibelius and Sjöberg, honouring Finland's 100th anniversary.  The tenor Trygve John Ringereide (formerly the principal of a secondary school and music teacher / lecturer) sang solos by those Scandinavian composers, with Cecilia Ignatieff at the piano, and Jan Jarvlepp playing the cello.

This week, I was at three more, exceptional concerts, all of them held at the newly renovated National Arts Centre downtown. Two of these events were free, taking place at noon by the "Staircase" where an impromptu audience can sit on the stairs --- as on a bleacher at a sports field --- watching and listening to the performance on the floor below.

On Wednesday the performers were members of the New Orford String Quartet. First, the two violinists Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow gave us Prokofiev's Sonata for two violins written in 1932, with its lovely Commodo third movement. (Apparently Prokofiev had heard a similar work by another composer and decided he could do better.) Then the violist came in with a substitute cellist from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; all four musicians had been learning a challenging work, Glenn Gould's String Quartet (No. 1, he called it, but there was never a No. 2), which, when they played it to us, turned out to be absolutely tremendous music. Mr. Crow said that the musicians had detected strains of JS Bach, Beethoven (the Groe Fuge) and Schönberg in it. To me, it did sound like another version of Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, but fancy this being composed by a Canadian! Extraordinary! Why don't we hear this work more often? I didn't even know it existed. All the people sitting on the stairs were bowled over by it.

The other free lunchtime event I caught was yesterday, a concert by the Cantiamo Girls' Choir of Ottawa conducted by their competent director, Jackie Hawley. She told us something about the choir's recent exchange trip to Iqaluit* where the choir girls had stayed with, performed with and made friends with their Inuit counterparts, two of whom had now come to Ottawa to join in the performance. During the programme they demonstrated their throat-singing skills and one of them later played the drum, but what touched me most was that they joined in the singing of the choir, having learned some of the repertoire along with the Ottawa girls. We heard them perform an arrangement of Qaujimavunga Kinaummangaarma, all singing in Inuktitut, and we as audience were encouraged to join in the mournful refrain "Ay-ay-ay-a" which was easier to pronounce and remember.

* The Gryphon Trio was also part of this collaboration.

The last concert I want to mention in this post also happened to be a free one because I had picked up vouchers for two complimentary tickets for it, at a talk about the NAC which I'll describe in a separate blogpost. Chris couldn't make it, so Barbara came with me; we found we had quite good seats, near the front. The NACO's director Alexander Shelley was sitting near us on the same row; the auditorium was packed. The music was Finnish and Canadian, since this was part of Mr. Shelley's Ideas of North Festival that's happening just now; this performance was being conducted by an energetic Finn, Hannu Lintu. We heard The Oceanides by Sibelius (which I didn't know), an impressionist piece of music that lasted 10 minutes, Sibelius' answer to Debussy's La Mer, perhaps, with its evocation of the surging high seas, and, after the intermission, his 2nd Symphony (which I did know, very well, having wallowed in it in my youth), such exciting stuff, especially where he goes triumphantly into the major in the Finale, trumpets, trombones and tuba blazing away and all the string sections swaying along.

However, the most interesting part of the concert was the long piece for piano and orchestra premièred just before the intermission, by a Canadian composer who admittedly lives in Finland, a musician called Matthew Whittall. He and the conductor are both close associates of Ottawa's most famous pianist, Angela Hewitt, who has written a "Reflection" about the première we attended:
I went [to Kittilä in Lapland, north of the Arctic Circle] not just to [...] see this remarkable landscape, but also to learn the new piano concerto of Matthew Whittall, "Nameless Seas". 
The wooden house where I was staying was built especially for the small Fazioli grand piano that sits in its very centre, surrounded by glass windows through which you can see nothing but trees and undergrowth. A magnificent lake is only a few steps away. There is nobody else around for miles. The setting is perfect for the concentration needed; the inspiration from the surroundings similar to that which has inspired its composer. 
Although Matthew was born and raised here in Canada, he has made Finland his home for the past sixteen years. When I realised that Canada and Finland were both celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017, and that Finnish Radio already had the idea of asking him to write a piano concerto, it seemed the logical thing to have it also performed here. I am thrilled that it has finally come to fruition and that our mutual friend, Hannu Lintu, is conducting.
The music was experimental and amazingly evocative of waves breaking against rocks or the sparkle of the water and the wind on the shores. The percussion section had the use of a wind machine; the woodwind produced special glissando effects on their instruments like bird cries dying away. The piano often played a single line of notes, echoed by notes at the same pitch on steel drums or the xylophone. In the last section "...the piano is progressively engulfed by a series of ever-taller waves, ultimately dissolving into a tolling, rippling continuum of sound."

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