Sinfonia receives resounding applause

Jean Snook
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Saturday evening’s Sinfonia concert of 18th-century music had the D.F. Cook Recital Hall filled to near capacity.

Violist Clayton Leung, Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.
—Photo by Greg Locke for the NSO

The audience was greeted in the lobby by life-size silk-screen panels of three of the orchestra members: yet another application of Greg Locke’s inspired photographs that were featured in The Telegram in the summer, that grace the program booklets for the 2013/2014 season, and that won Locke The Telegram’s Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Volunteer.

Locke’s idea of photographing the musicians with their instruments outside the concert hall, in colour, in the community and by the sea, helps put the faces to the names of individual players, while emphasizing that Newfoundland now has a symphony orchestra of which we can be very proud.

The Telegram also bestows an annual Award of Excellence for Outstanding Contribution by a Musician, and this year’s recipient is Theo Weber, who has been the principal cellist of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) for the past 20 years. He has blossomed where he was planted.

The program began with the first of George Frideric Handel’s 12 “Concerti Grossi, Opus 6.” All 12, for which there were 100 subscribers, were composed in England “between the end of September and the last week of October 1739” (Basil Lam in “Handel: A Symposium”). At once derivative and brilliantly innovative, the collection constitutes one of “the finest examples of Baroque orchestral music” (Landon).

The “Concertino” or solo group in this performance consisted of guest concertmaster Nancy Dahn, principal Violin 2 Nancy Case-Oates, harpsichordist Mary O’Keefe, and principal cello Theo Weber.

Conductor Marc David, who has his doctorate in new music conducting, made this concerto grosso as fresh as if it had just been composed, with great dynamic contrasts, riveting changes in tempo, a sudden stop before a cadenza, and overarching tensile phrasing.

By coincidence, I happened to hear an interview with Canadian violinist James Ehnes on CBC radio on Friday evening in which he said his infant daughter Caroline listens to him play the violin the same way she listens to him talk, thereby reminding him that music is all about communication.

We could not have had a more communicative soloist for the next work than Clayton Leung, who performed Carl Philipp Stamitz’s “Concerto for Viola, Opus 1,” in D major.

Leung was principal violist of the NSO from 2011 to 2013, and is now second viola with the Edmonton Symphony. As a soloist, Leung has a pleasing stage presence; he is relaxed and makes no extraneous motions. All his energy is channelled directly into the music.

It seemed to me near the beginning that two rapidly rising runs went a little awry, but the rest of his playing was dazzlingly perfect. Leung draws a mellow tone from his instrument at all times, not just in melodious phrases, but also in virtuosic sequences, in double-stopping, and in slow and fast plucking.

His extended cadenzas before the orchestral conclusions of all three movements were neither those written by Clemens Meyer for the International Music Edition, nor those played by Tabea Zimmermann in her recording with the European Community Chamber Orchestra, nor his own. They were sent to Leung by a friend on Fulbright Scholarship in Germany, so questions remain as to who wrote them and when.

In playing the cadenzas, Leung made them his own, pausing as if extemporizing, going into his own mental space before ushering the orchestra back in again.

I hope Leung will have the opportunity to perform this beautiful concerto in the Mannheim Castle, which is also the University. When I was a student there, I was also the pianist with the Collegium Musicum, which specialized in works by composers of the Mannheim School and by their contemporaries, including Joseph Haydn.

The Mannheim School was founded by Carl Philipp Stamitz’s father, Johann Stamitz (1717-1757), and flourished under the patronage of Prince Karl Theodor, the Elector Palatine at Mannheim, who reigned from 1743 to 1778. Stamitz’s name is now a household word in Mannheim. He and his followers made many improvements to orchestral performance. For example, they established the convention of having all the string players bow in the same direction.

Carl Philipp Stamitz (1745-1801) was second violin in the Court Orchestra until 1770. For pictures of the castle’s elegant Baroque Rittersaal, where the Court Orchestra performs, see http://www.schloss-Mannheim.de.

The final work on the program was Joseph Haydn’s “Symphony No. 45” in the unusual key of F# minor, also known as the “Farewell Symphony.”

David’s comments are always concise and engaging. He explained that the final movement was Haydn’s way of letting his patron, Prince Nicolaus, know that the musicians had had a long stay at his summer castle Esterháza and wished to return to their families in Eisenstadt.

It is a magnificent symphony, and for those who wish to read more about it, the Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis includes a 400-page book by James Webster (1991) entitled “Haydn’s ‘Farewell Symphony’ and the Idea of Classical Style.” Its content goes well beyond the scope of a performance review.

On Saturday evening, after the rousing triadic first movement, the violins played more beautifully in the second movement, the Adagio, than I have ever heard them play before.

In the fourth movement, the Finale, the house lights were gradually dimmed, and one by one, on the off-beat, the musicians turned off the lamps on their music stands and quietly left the stage. At the end, only the two solo violins were left: Nancy Dahn and Nancy Case-Oates, and when they had played their last notes and turned off their lamps, the hall was plunged into blackness, and utter silence. Then there was resounding applause.

Organizations: Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, Mannheim School, Edmonton Symphony Court Orchestra European Community Chamber Orchestra Cambridge Studies

Geographic location: Newfoundland, England, Mannheim Germany Eisenstadt.It

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