Review: Orchestra@Waterloo

Orchestra@Waterloo 29/11/07 in today’s Record

The Humanities Theatre at the University of Waterloo was packed last night with mathematicians, scientists and all manner of engineers. As 8:00 pm drew near, the crowd grew quiet in anticipation of the evening’s events only this time it wasn’t a discussion on quantum physics they were waiting to hear but the University Orchestra.

Started in the fall of 2004, Orchestra@Waterloo is a made up of players from all over the University. A wide variety of faculties and subject areas are represented and while the majority of the players are undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty and alumni are also part of the group. The main difference between this orchestra and its counterpart at Wilfrid Laurier is that it is not affiliated with the Music Department and the players don’t receive academic credit for participating.

First on the program was a piece for brass ensemble called Designs for Brass by Vaclav Nelhybel (1919-1996), an American composer of Czech extraction who wrote primarily for small groups of winds or brass as well as full band. Nelhybel’s affinity for rhythmic complexity complemented the ensemble’s strengths well.

The stage was chock full of players for the second piece of the evening, with conductor Erna Van Daele having to wade through a sea of violins to take her place on the podium. The sensual reverie of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, is always a delight. The piece begins with what is perhaps the most famous of all orchestral flute solos, played brilliantly by Martin Walker. In last night’s version, the Faun was perhaps chasing the ladies at a pace more leisurely than is customary but Van Daele had the big picture in mind and delivered a reading that was true to the work’s evocative mood.

2007 marks the 50th anniversary of the University of Waterloo and to mark the occasion, associate professor Carol Ann Weaver composed Water. The piece is through composed, meaning there are no formally separated movements but it is divided into three definite sections. The first part began with the principal string players using wine glasses filled with water to make a ringing sound. Long a favourite (and inevitably irritating) party trick of children at weddings, in this context the technique was used beautifully along with gurgling winds to evoke the ethereal nature of flowing water.

Meditative took a back seat in the second movement in favour of a gently rollicking Rain Dance. As the parts became more complicated, the principal players were not able to carry their section and intonation and rhythmic integrity suffered.

Watersong, the third part, featured vocalist Rebecca Campbell in a sort of folksy hymn to the metaphorical cleansing power of water. Campbell’s interpretation was the perfect mix of plaintive and hopeful, imbuing the text with far more meaning than it possessed on its own. The improvisatory potential of the melody combined with Campbell’s skills as a vocalist made me wonder if the section would have been stronger with no text at all.

Danse Macabre Op. 40 was a success at its premiere in 1875 and is still a mainstay on concert programs, particularly around Hallowe’en. The piece features an extended solo for the concertmaster, ably played by 2nd year computer engineering student Wallace Wu. Camille Saint-Saëns, the composer, cleverly uses scordatura (alternate tuning) to transform the pure perfect fifth between the A and E strings of the violin to a tritone (A to Eb), which is also known as the Devil’s Interval.

The final piece on the program, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, was a bite or two more than the orchestra could comfortably chew. While taking on a challenge is the only way to improve skills, in this case the bar was out of reach. The chromatic, constantly modulating parts were too difficult for all but the first desks of strings, and the general effect was of 70 people playing simultaneously but not necessarily together.

That being said, there were some successful moments, particularly when the principal wind players had their respective turns in the spotlight. The texture in the second movement is divided into three distinct parts and it was here that the ensemble was strongest. Franck, like Bruckner, was skilled in the art of delayed gratification and the orchestra coped well with the protracted wind-up to the last movement’s final climax.

In Europe, music and another profession co-exist quite happily and it is not uncommon for a person to continue to play to quite a high standard while working in another field. In Canada the tendency is to choose music or another profession, making the Orchestra@Waterloo quite a unique ensemble. That its members still find time for weekly rehearsal and individual practicing while managing legendary amounts of coursework makes it all the more remarkable.

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