Saturday evening was the first concert of the year for Wilfrid Laurier’s Symphony Orchestra. The atmosphere in the Maureen Forrester Recital Hall was relaxed and convivial with most of the audience made up of people under the age of thirty.
The first piece on the program was the overture to Gioacchino Rossini’s opera Semiramide, premiered in Venice in 1823. In Rossini’s time, overtures were essentially highlight reels of the music to come in the opera and served a functional purpose of letting audiences know that the show was about to begin and they should stop gossiping about the people in the next box.
Fortunately, Saturday evening’s audience was very well mannered and refrained from catching up on the week’s events while the orchestra was playing. From the first notes, it was obvious that this is a group that plays very well together, an encouraging sign considering the school year is just five weeks old.
After a little bit of furniture shuffling, soloist Wil Herzog made his way to the front of the stage to perform the last two movements of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. A patron seated in the row behind remarked to her companion, “It’s supposed to be corny because everyone plays it but I don’t care. I love it anyway.” She is right, this is likely the most well-known concerto in the violin repertoire, perhaps even in all of music. Whether that in itself makes it corny or not is a matter of personal opinion.
What is not up for debate is Mr. Herzog’s abilities as a violinist. He is currently as second year student, which means he won the Concerto Competition in his first year, no mean feat in itself. Mr Herzog played with the assurance of a man who is used to performing. The slow movement was nicely shaped, if a little rushed in place and he displayed some very fine technical skill in the third movement octave passages. Although he let the tempo get away from him on occasion, Mr. Herzog is certainly a player to watch.
A more major set change was required to set up for the piano concerto. Soloist Matthew Walton cut quite the figure with his poet’s beard, bright red turtleneck and matching pocket square. His omnipresent smile made no bones about the fact that he was thoroughly enjoying the performance. Mr Walton’s mood and more importantly his relaxed and confident playing suited Prokofiev’s 1st Piano Concerto perfectly. Despite conductor Paul Pulford’s best efforts, balance was inevitably a problem in the full tuttis. Even at full stick, Mr Walton was no match for nearly 60 musicians with fortissimo marked in their parts.
The Recital Hall is a fantastic venue for chamber ensembles, choir and solo recital performances. The atmosphere is pleasantly intimate and the hall’s warm resonance makes any sound come instantly alive.
When a full symphony orchestra takes the stage however, the qualities that work so well for small ensemble concerts become liabilities. The intimacy becomes suffocating and the hall’s natural resonance often means that it is difficult for all involved to control the overall dynamic level. The orchestra plays beautifully at full volume, well in tune and full of energy but in the end it is just too much for the space.
The limitations of the hall became a bigger problem in the final piece of the concert, Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E flat major. Beethoven was fond of writing thickly textured music and this symphony is no exception. Mr. Pulford and the orchestra put a great deal of effort into shaping phrases and emphasizing the different layers but most of the nuances were lost in the massive wall of sound.
By far the highlight of the symphony was the last movement, mostly because the texture is not so thick, so all the shading was audible. The opening was spot on and lead to a very well-executed fugal section, where, despite being vastly outnumbered, the violas held their own. Mr. Pulford built the tension until the whole thing felt like a stewpot threatening to boil over until finally the horns erupted into the moment they had been waiting for the entire movement. An emphatic final cadential sequence, short by Beethovenian standards, brought the concert to a triumphal close.
Unavoidable balance issues aside, this concert showed off the quality of Laurier’s orchestra program. In a from-the-stage announcement, Mr. Pulford mentioned that everyone in the orchestra could easily have won the Concerto Competition. In most cases, this is an empty superlative but not this time. The orchestra showed tremendous depth in the strings and a solid core group of wind players, particularly bassoons and oboes. If they’re this good after five weeks together, imagine how they’ll sound after another 6?
The next WLU Symphony Orchestra concert is on 24th and 25th November features Paul Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber as well as two more Concerto Competition winners.