Review: Kitchener Waterloo Symphony

Mortivesary (n): the anniversary of a person’s death.

Unless the event was unusually tragic (JFK, Kurt Cobain, Elvis et al) mortiversaries aren’t something people usually keep track of. Some may make a small note in their planner in reference to a loved one but organizing a year-long extravaganza involving the majority of the world’s opera companies, choirs and orchestras would, by most standards, be considered extreme.

Unless you’re into classical music.

In a world where the epithet nerd is worn as a badge of honour, celebrating the idea of a mortiversary is not the least bit unusual. In fact, for concert programmers, it’s practically de rigeur to plan seasons around this idea. Not just any composer qualifies though. There is a strict formula: the number of years a composer has been dead must be a multiple of 50. Last year, it was Vaughan Williams (1958) and this year Handel (1759) has to share the spotlight with Haydn (1809).

Wednesday evening at First United Church in Waterloo, the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony did its part and presented a program of music for string orchestra by Handel and Elgar.

The evening began with the overture to Handel’s opera Alcina, followed by one of the many concerti grossi he wrote. (HWV 325, for sticklers) Scored for strings and continuo, these small pieces showcased the orchestra’s ability to make warm, full sound, however conductor Stephen Sitarski struggled to successfully communicate his sense of pulse, which resulted in tentative beginnings and ragged transitions.

Handel’s Harp Concerto (HW 294) is constructed the same way Chopin’s two piano concerti are: soloist plus orchestra, instead of the usual soloist and orchestra. ( [soloist] + [orchestra] vs. [soloist and orchestra] ) In this case, Handel kept the two sides from mingling to make sure the harp wasn’t overshadowed.

In orchestra, harpists spend the time between rests playing rising arpeggios and glisses meant to evoke magic, heaven or the sun bouncing off the water. On its own, unencumbered by other colours, the instrument is in a class all its own. It is, and I mean this in the best possible way, an aural dose of Xanax. Handel’s score gave Principal Harpist Lori Gemmell ample opportunity to display her skills and she took full advantage. The sound was so utterly transfixing I was only sorry that it ended.

bremen-string-quartetElgar and I have a love/hate relationship with 95% of my energy devoted to the latter dynamic. With that in mind, I took my seat after intermission with some trepidation. The first two pieces, Serenade in E minor Op 20 and Sospiri Op 70, were as expected. Well-played but forgettable the minute they finished.

The opening bars of Introduction and Allegro Op. 47 caught me by surprise in that they represented original, well-developed ideas requiring passionate interpretation instead of shapeless, vaguely pastoral washed of sound.

Introduction is scored for string orchestra and string quartet. Rather than use the principal players, the Symphony was joined by the newly-formed Bremen String quartet.

This piece is far more technically difficult than the rest of the program and leaps and bounds more interesting. The orchestra played with an energy and enthusiasm I haven’t heard for quite some time. There were a few disagreements as to the exact placement of notes in the upper positions but it hardly mattered; the impossible had been achieved. For fifteen minutes, I liked Elgar.

P.S.: Lest you think classical music can only be enjoyed by people who are weirdly obsessed with death, we do birthdays too. This year it’s Mendelssohn (1809) and Purcell (1659). Next year you can get your fill of Chopin (1810), Schumann (1810) and Samuel Barber (1910).

Concert repeats:
Friday, April 3rd at Harcourt United Church, Guelph
Saturday, April 4th at Central Presbyterian, Cambridge
Tickets $32

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