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Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra alumnus returns to ACC stage

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and Rafael Hoekman, under the direction of Jeffrey Rink, rehearse at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre Wednesday evening.
The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and Rafael Hoekman, under the direction of Jeffrey Rink, rehearse at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre Wednesday evening. - Juanita Mercer

Cellist Rafael Hoekman headlining an all-Russian program

If cellists could be rock stars, Rafael Hoekman would be it.

As he feverishly plucks out the notoriously difficult Cello Concerto No. 1 by Dmitri Shostakovich, his eyes roll toward the ceiling, his head jolts this way and that – like the classical version of head-banging – and his fingers tremble.

Hoekman is rehearsing onstage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, along with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, for tonight’s “Ra, Ra, Rafael” concert.

Yes, that is a play on Boney M’s “Ra, Ra, Rasputin” – the program features only Russian pieces.

“We have way too much fun sitting down in the spring and summer coming up with these names,” laughed NSO CEO Hugh Donnan, adding that the audience can also enjoy a white Russian, the concert’s signature drink, while they enjoy the show.

Other than the Shostakovich piece, Hoekman, backed by the NSO and its Philharmonic Choir, will also perform Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar Overture” and Borodin’s “Symphony No. 2” and “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor.”

For audiences, it’s a diverse program that guarantees to have something for everyone – a symphony, a concerto, an overture and the choir singing the “Polovtsian Dances.”

Hoekman grew up in St. John’s, but today he’s the principal cellist with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Friday night’s concert is like a homecoming for him.

“Music was always a big part of my life here, and the fact that Newfoundland has such a rich musical community is absolutely, 100 per cent the reason why I’m able to be a professional musician and do what I love for a living. So, it’s great to come back and share with everybody,” he said.

Hoekman played with the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and every other orchestra that he possibly could when he lived here, such as Prepratory Strings and the Junior Youth Orchestra, and he was a member of the Suzuki community.

For the show, the NSO has brought in American guest conductor Jeffrey Rink, who has conducted orchestras around the world.

“When (Hoekman) was 17, he played in this orchestra as a student, but professionally as well, and see where it got him?” said Rink, commenting on how impressed he was with the skill of the NSO.

“They're very good, and it's a real interesting mix because you have a lot of students here. For students, this is such a rare and invaluable experience that they can play with a professional orchestra, and gain this experience, and play all this repertoire right here in St. John's.”

For Hoekman, the program is close to his heart, most especially the demanding “Cello Concerto No. 1.”

“I started learning this piece when I was a teenager,” he recalls backstage while the NSO warms up for the rehearsal.

“I remember the first time I heard it, I was a student at Memorial University. … I discovered this LP in the library of this piece played by the person it was written for, Rostropovich, and nothing was ever the same for me after that.

“I had this motivation to play the cello as well as I could to be able to play this piece, because it was just the coolest thing I had ever heard in my whole life.”

Hoekman’s admiration for the music is clear in his performance during rehearsal. At times, he has a far-off look in his eye and one wonders if he’s back in that library, discovering it for the first time all over again.

“It’s an extremely cathartic piece,” he says passionately. “Very physical.”

He adds: “It’s loud, let’s say that,” and roars with laughter, as he grabs his cello and jaunts back out to take his place at the front of the stage.

Loud. Physical. Feverish.

Hoekman is a rock star.

Tickets to “Ra, Ra, Rafael,” onstage at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 16, can be purchased online or at the box office. Tickets will also be available at the door at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre.
Twitter: @juanitamercer_

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