Review: Kitchener Waterloo Symphony – Italian Journey

Overture + concerto + symphony = boring. Not the music as such, but the format. Orchestra concerts haven’t always been structured this way however these days it is by far the most common way to program a concert. Practically, it works but artistically the format is restrictive and discourages all but the most facile links between pieces. Although it often appears to be advancing like January molasses, change is in the air here in Kitchener and in the larger orchestral world.

KW Symphony Music Director Edwin Outwater has made no bones about his desire to add some new pages to the playbook. Orchestra concerts are as ritualized as any liturgy and while that can be a beautiful thing, remaining obstinately stagnant is a one-way ticket to irrelevance. That Outwater is making headway at all speaks volumes about his ability to get people on board and the KW Symphony’s willingness to try out ideas that may not yet be clear winners.

While the theme on Friday night, An Italian Journey, is as ho-hum as they come, the content more than compensated. Like a carefully prepared mezze or tapas, the program was a genuinely interesting mix of colour and flavour.

Monteverdi’s Vespers is one of those rare gems that sounds as fresh 400 years after the fact as it must have done at its premiere. The full setting is rarely performed, so even a little taste is a treat worth ferreting out. Sancta Maria: ora pro nobis, sung by the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir, was just such an amuse bouche.

A more focused sound would have helped the choir soar above the orchestra in the final sections but there was something rather touching about their unaffected timbre. Larry Larson and Daniel Warren captured wonderfully the light, bright sensibility of natural trumpets.

It was an absolute pleasure to hear a non-seasonal Vivaldi selection; a short sonata that flipped deliciously between major and minor. The smoothness of the upper strings was well complemented by a growling double bass, although a poorly placed harpsichord meant the texture didn’t achieve optimal crunchiness.

When the trip through Italy stopped at Verdi’s ballet music for Macbeth, the acoustic limitations of 52 players were a problem. In the more densely orchestrated sections, there simply weren’t enough strings to balance the winds and brass. An extra two or three desks of upper strings and a double complement of cellos and basses would transform the sound significantly.

In Rossini’s William Tell Overture, the always excellent Faith Levene outdid herself on English horn with exquisite phrasing and superhuman breath control. The orchestra may have been aiming for a serious depiction of battle in the final section but a quick look around was all I needed to be sure that the Lone Ranger was riding again in the mind of many a middle-aged concert patron.

The filigree of Mendelssohn’s fourth symphony is a much better match for the KWS configuration than Verdi and the winds did a brilliant job of negotiating passages that routinely end up on orchestral excerpt lists. Criticizing Mendelssohn for being too pretty makes as much sense as having a go at a carrot for being orange. Even so, in the fourth movement especially, I wished for more of the abandon promised by the manic dance that supposedly inspired the composer.

1 comment

  1. I’ve heard this a lot lately about the tired old overture/concerto/symphony routine, but like the best liturgies, it survives because it works. I’ve attended about 12 Boston Symphony concerts in the last 2 years and can honestly say I wish I’d heard more ovt/cto/symph concerts. Most recent was Beethoven Symph 4/Beethoven Symph 3. I love both, but it felt like an unbalanced evening. A brisk, lively overture really is a great way to start a show, and serves the practical purpose of making the inevitable latecomers arrival less distracting. Maybe it seems cliche, but it’s a nice way to get one wanting more. Concertos obviously serve the purpose of helping to sell a concert due to flashy soloist, but they also provide a different kind of musical energy and focus that also makes the big second half symphony a welcome change; whereas it would just be impractical to alternate orchestral works with chamber pieces (why leave all those paid musicians on the sidelines?), a concerto does provide a different kind of balance and dialogue that, in most cases, still takes advantage of the full orchestra. Etc.

    Other BSO deviations from the norm that I could have done without: preceding Carmina burana with an entire first half of a small a cappella men’s singing group (outstanding singers, by the way) performing the medieval settings of the same texts. They were fine, but too small for Symphony Hall and, quite frankly, not what I’m paying for when I go hear the BSO. (I’d like to hear the orchestra, please.) It’s the kind of idea that sounds nice and innovative, but at the end of the day leaves me wishing for more of that very tried-and-true formula.

    Another recent “deviation”: preceding the Mozart Requiem with Symphony of Psalms. Even more than the Beethoven Doubleheader, this was just too much intensity, but I’m sure it looked more interesting and concept-y on paper.

    I could easily go on. It’s true that I’ve chosen this package of concerts, and if I don’t like it, I can pick something else, but it’s honestly been something of a surprise to me how much I’ve longed for a good ‘ol evening of Rossini-Chopin-Tchaikovsky. Themes are fine in concept, and sometimes wonderful in effect, but I think balance is generally more important – or, at least, underrated right now.

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