NSO’s ‘Spring Comes Dancing,’ like warm weather, melts audience

Published on March 10, 2014
Timpanist Rob Power (left) shakes hands with organist Stephen Candow after their performance of Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings” in G minor with the NSO’s Sinfonia Friday night. — Photo by Jean Snook/Special to The Telegram

Spring came dancing on Saturday in a number of ways. More than a year ago, Marc David, music director of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, drew up a Sinfonia program for March 8 entitled “Spring Comes Dancing.”

Right on cue, the outside temperature rose by 15 C, the wind dropped, the ice in the harbour showed signs of melting, and the snow held off until midnight. That, in itself, was enough to raise our spirits.

David’s title, though, was derived from the first work on the program, Canadian composer Stewart Grant’s 13-minute “Spring Came Dancing” for String Orchestra, op. 26 (1994).

It, in turn, was inspired by a poem by the Indian yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), which cannot be quoted here because it is copyright protected.

Grant’s introspective composition, with its past tense title, traced the arrival of spring from its tentative, almost imperceptible beginnings.

A soft single note sustained by the violins was gradually joined by dissonant notes bowed and plucked by the other strings, as if different parts of nature were waking up independently.

The cellos introduced more movement, and were joined by the violas for a gentle canter that then settled into a dotted rhythm, the dance. This built to a fortissimo chord that was cut off abruptly.

Then, almost nine minutes into the piece, the music became major and melodious, creating a feeling of relief, a sense of relaxation in the warmth of the sun. The violins soared higher and higher, and the work ended with a short statement in a minor key that harkened back to the beginning.

Spring came dancing in the next work as well, in that it was organist Stephen Candow’s first public performance of Francis Poulenc’s “Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings” in G minor (1938).

Candow first studied organ here in St. John’s with Don Cook and Kai Adams. He then went on to study in England, Ireland, Sweden, and most recently with John Tuttle in Toronto. Candow has obviously taken the best of what each teacher had to offer and has made it his own.

He knows exactly what he wants to do. He instantly captured the essence of each of the seven contrasting sections of this highly variegated concerto that is written as one continuous movement.

“Recognizably a product of ‘Janus-Poulenc,’ it leads the solo instrument from Bach’s G minor Fantasia to the fairground and back again. Poulenc placed it ‘on the outskirts’ of his religious music” (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).

The concerto was commissioned by and is “dédié très respectueusement à la Princesse Edmond de Polignac,” née Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune (Benjamin Ivry).

She asked Poulenc to write it for her Cavaillé-Coll organ, and not being an organist himself, he sought advice about the instrument from Maurice Duruflé, who then premièred the work.

In comparison to Michael Murray’s recording of the concerto with Robert Shaw conducting, that glides along from beginning to end, I found the stark contrasts in Stephen Candow’s performance, with Marc David conducting, absolutely riveting.

Like a conscientious caretaker guiding us through a baroque castle, Candow alternated the opulent and bombastic with the hidden spiral staircases, adding entertaining colourful narratives, and leading to an ultimate sense of calm that seemed to reach back in time, followed by a pause, before concluding with an abrupt five-bar tutti fortissimo that rhythmically echoed the opening.

The venue was changed from the D.F. Cook Recital Hall, where there was a problem with the organ, to Cochrane Street United Church with its four-manual Casavant organ.

The church was a more suitable venue for this concerto, since Poulenc had returned to Roman Catholicism in 1935, following the gruesome death of a colleague in a car accident.

He then worked on the organ concerto from 1936 to 1938, even as war was unmistakably brewing again in Europe.

On the one hand, reflecting that grim political reality, the concerto has a deadly serious section that conveys a sense of real menace, of inexorable machine-like chugging, as the organ has all stops pulled out, the violins saw away at measured tremolo, and the timpani leads into a fortissimo drum roll that dies down to nothing, only to rise rapidly to maximum volume again before everything comes to a dry cut-off at the end of the second section.

On the other hand, the concerto displays infectious insouciance in the light-hearted penultimate section when the organ skips along in alternating legato and staccato rising four-note phrases that start on the off-beat. This is the childlike side of Poulenc.

During the war, from 1940-45, he chose to work on “L’Histoire de Babar,” Babar the Elephant, for reciter and piano. “The immortal Babar drawings by de Brunhoff epitomized Poulenc’s often infantile approach to adult matters” (Ivry).

The Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings is a model of clear, economical composition. It sounds like full orchestra because the organ uses flute, clarinet, horn, cornet, and oboe stops, and the ample deployment of timpani is just what is needed to punctuate and anchor the sustained sounds of the organ and strings.

The NSO’s principal percussionist, Rob Power, infused electrifying energy into the performance, with drumsticks flying.

Spring came dancing in a fourth way after the intermission. Contrary to my low expectations of the piece, from attempting to play it years ago in a public school orchestra, and from listening to recordings recently, the Sinfonia’s performance of Schubert’s “Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485” revealed it as the masterpiece it is, with all the effervescence of the healthy 19-year-old who composed it from September to October 3rd in 1816. Can it be that Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is just now coming into his own?

Suzannah Clark’s insightful academic monograph, “Analyzing Schubert” (2011), suggests that Schubert has until now been viewed through the wrong glasses and that he was, in fact, opening up tonal space: “Indeed, Schubert’s music seems to offer us the opportunity to explode many assumptions about the normative and prescriptive pretentions of music theory. In short, while Beethoven’s music was certainly the vehicle through which much tonal theory was shaped, it seems that his contemporary, Schubert, is the ideal vehicle through which it can be questioned” (p. 271).

Saturday night’s Sinfonia performance of Schubert’s 5th Symphony was certainly on the leading edge of interpretation. The first movement, Allegro, was light and bright, like springtime.

David used short, small conducting gestures, taking the movement as fast as artistically possible, and the players responded with the utmost precision.

It sizzled with energy, and there was a decrescendo on a rising cadence that seemed to elevate the whole audience.

The second movement, Andante con moto, was graceful and charming, with very expressive solo flute playing by Grace Dunsmore.

The third movement, a Minuet and Trio, had tremendous momentum and dynamic contrasts, with smooth violin playing in the Trio.

The fourth movement, Allegro Vivace, had a quick and quiet beginning, like the first movement, and David appeared to be floating over the podium. He had everyone playing together as one unit, perfectly capturing the spirit of the music, of Schubert at his best.

The problem with my initial exposure to this symphony was the problem encountered by any entirely amateur orchestra; it was the blind leading the blind, and stumbling over all kinds of technical difficulties.

Any entirely professional orchestra can develop the opposite problem; the playing can become perfunctory.

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra achieves its synergy from being semi-professional. The students find themselves playing better than they could ever have imagined as they rise to the level of the core of professional musicians.

Spring comes dancing in the palpable input of young energy into the orchestra, in the Suncor scholarship students, among others, who are overjoyed to be there. And the excitement and immediacy are maintained because of the “telescopic” rehearsal schedule, a term I learned from Doug Dunsmore.

Nothing is overpractised. The orchestra doesn’t get the sheet music until several weeks before the concert, then works on it intensively. This system works.

And finally, spring came … no, you’re tired of that, so I’m going to vary the theme. The lady sitting behind me, Dr. S. Doyle, commented that she had decided to come to the concert rather than accompany her husband and children to the hockey game because there’s no substitute for a live concert.

I agree, of course, but why exactly is that? Glenn Gould opted for the pristine privacy of the recording studio, although, as we know from his second, filmed recording of the Goldberg Variations shortly before his death, he was as hard on himself in the studio as is any performer on stage. There were no retakes.

So what did the live performance on Saturday have to offer that a good recording of the program wouldn’t have? We got to see someone who wasn’t playing an instrument.

He was playing the orchestra, his orchestra performing his program, which was very challenging. Those seemingly effortless, elegant gestures were navigating perilous ground.

In the Poulenc the time signature often changes in every bar, e.g. from 3/4 to 4/4 to 3/8 to 5/4 to 2/4 to 4/4 — Marc David came dancing.