Review: Calgary Philharmonic and Guests Deliver High Level Performances

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After the energetic performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a week ago, the Calgary Philharmonic opened its Curated Series on Friday evening with a program devoted to music from the opulent era – the period just before World War I.

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There is nothing like the sound of a full symphony orchestra. On this occasion, the stage was filled to the brim with all kinds of instruments, including two harps, a celesta, a set of percussion instruments, while the regular orchestra was expanded to eight horns, among others. All this made for a very impressive sound, not only because of the sheer volume – and there was plenty of it at the end of the night – but above all the color gamut that is possible with such a large source.

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To lead the expanded forces, conductor Karen Kamensek was in (I think) her first appearance with the orchestra. American-born Kamensek has had a very distinguished career in Europe, one that now includes England and the United States. These performances included appearances in Philip Glass’s music at the Metropolitan Opera, for which she won a Grammy Award.

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Her competence and skill in dealing with great forces and music of considerable complexity was impressive. The program opened with Debussy’s Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, a difficult piece to conduct with many tempo and tempo changes often in between the beats. I’ve heard quite a few professional conductors over the years who just couldn’t conduct this piece. But not this time. With a clear, if soft, underlying pulse, Kamensek led the orchestra through a sinuous, smooth handling of this great orchestral work, setting the stage for even more impressive things to come. Sara Hahn-Scinocco, the orchestra’s first flute, performed the extended solo part confidently.

Kamensek was even more impressive in her conducting of the last work on the program: Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. The size of the orchestra needed and the sheer complexity of the score have made this piece a rare item on concert programs. And it was the complexity of the work, especially in the rhythm – handling its seething quality so it doesn’t degenerate into rhythmic mush – that made this such a beautiful performance. Worth mentioning is the contribution of the extensive horn section and especially the powerful trumpet solos of Adam Zinatelli, rock solid in everything he had to play.

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Despite the unfamiliarity and complexity, the performance was so moving that there was a spontaneous standing ovation at the end. The orchestra also liked to express its appreciation for Kamensek’s conductors, who led them through many musical shallows with clarity, precision and with a great climax. Kamensek, a complete professional in everything, was very impressive.

Internationally renowned violinist Karen Gomyo was a featured performer with Calgary Philharmonic on September 16.
Internationally renowned violinist Karen Gomyo was a featured performer with Calgary Philharmonic on September 16. jpg

The other Karen of the evening was Karen Gomyo, whom I remember well from her earlier, very enjoyable performance with the orchestra. On this occasion, she presented two works: a new violin concerto by the Montréal composer Samy Moussa and Ernest Chausson’s Poème. As before, her soft stage presence and lush playing were captivating.

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Samy Moussa is a name that is hardly known here, but like Kamensek he has had a great career in Europe, not only as a composer but also as a conductor. He composed a considerable amount of music for large and smaller ensembles, as well as operas and oratorios. All of this is a testament to the challenge of modern Canadian composers to get their music out to the public.

In this case, the audience was presented with his recent violin concerto, subtitled Adrano. The subtitle refers to an ancient Sicilian fire god, represented in the three-part concerto by a slow, evocative opening movement (perhaps the spirit of the fire god), a central cadence movement (perhaps his person as the god of fire), and a rhythmic finale (perhaps the energy and dynamism of the god). The three linked parts are all neo-romantic composed, with a strong tonal underpinning in the harmony, but also with more modern figures.

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The work made a very positive impression on the audience, especially in the excellent performance of Gomyo, with the CPO as a supporting partner. Gomyo has a particularly appealing violin tone, and even if the music is slow (and a lot of it in this piece), you’ll be drawn to the tone of the instrument, even if you could enjoy some superbly cooked French sauce. And there was a lot of zip in the last part.

Gomyo’s persona also fitted well with the Chausson Poème that could be heard in the second half of the concert. The cadenzas in particular were beautifully done and the orchestral accompaniment was supportive, but not overwhelming. The poetry of the music, the flexible narrative, was handled superbly, with melodic moments richly presented.

All in all, this was an evening of very refined music. For the orchestra, this is very different from playing the Beethoven of a week ago. It was a joy to hear the orchestra respond to such different musical challenges, on this occasion a success enhanced by the two visiting Karens, who are both welcome.

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