Review: Kitchener Waterloo Symphony

In The Record – 15th May 2009

WATERLOO — On Feb. 24, 1607, Members of the Mantuan Accademia degl’Invaghiti witnessed the most dramatic musical invention since harmony: opera. The next invention to so fundamentally change the status quo was probably the electric guitar. L’Orfeo, favola in musica, by Claudio Monteverdi is generally recognized as the first opera. Before its premiere, the idea of actors singing their all of their lines had been tried here and there but had not really caught on.

What made Monteverdi’s effort so different? Quite simply, the music is stunning. It may be over 400 years old but its just as fresh as it was that first night in 1607.

Wednesday evening in at the First United Church in Waterloo, the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony opened their final Back To Baroque concert of the season with the Sinfonia from L’Orfeo.

The three short pieces are an overture of sorts for the opera and Monteverdi starts as he means to continue: they are a little slice of heaven. Every phrase is packed full of drama. So much so that I could have happily listened to this music for another two hours even without staging.

Artistic Director Stephen Sitarski chose the rather weak theme of having each composer’s surname begin with the letter m and sticking to it. It resulted in a disappointingly uneven program.

This superb opening composition set the bar extraordinarily high and inevitably, the rest of the program didn’t measure up. An instantly forgettable concerto grosso by Benedetto Marcello followed and while it was pleasant enough, there was nothing about it that merited its selection from the vast amount of Baroque repertoire available. In his introduction, Sitarski admitted that it was “not absolutely top drawer stuff.”

Themes are fine when used imaginatively, but if there aren’t enough quality pieces to fit, then perhaps it isn’t the best choice.

Following the Marcello was Postcards from the Sky by Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich. Again, it was pretty but forgettable and reminded me of the aural anesthesia favoured by commercial classical music stations.

Hearing this kind of music is frustrating because there are so many more interesting selections available.

Things improved slightly in the second half with an early Divertimento by Mozart (K138). It was still light music, meant for a party or other such social gathering, but the lines were expertly wrought and in places there were flashes of Mozart’s more mature work.

The final piece on concert was a delight. From the very first notes, Sinfonia No. 7 by 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn was cooking with gas. Music doesn’t have to be complicated to be interesting. The young Mendelssohn was heavily under the influence of the Sturm und Drang style (early 19th-century emo), as championed by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emmanuel. The highly emotional esthetic is a perfect match for a budding teenager and while the results are a little uneven, the Sinfonia No. 7 is a piece of juvenilia that can stand on equal footing with Mendelssohn’s more mature works.

It’s not often that I devote so much space to discussing just the programming but in this case, two poor choices watered down what could have been a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Exploring avenues outside the usual neighbourhoods is admirable, necessary and occasionally rewarding. There are some gems hidden at the edges of the standard orchestral canon but in most cases, pieces are forgotten for a reason. Why start with one hand tied behind your back?

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