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PGSO Creates Russian Fantasies

The mainstage season opener of the Prince George Symphony Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season was held this past Saturday, the start of year two of our local orchestra’s multi-year plan to re-claim its natural leadership position within the classical music scene in northern BC.

Last season – Maestro Michael Hall’s first with the orchestra – was labelled “A New Beginning” and this year’s theme is “For People Like You”.

Even for people like me?

Seems like a dare, but in fact the performance proved to be a near flawless start to what should be a continued upward ascent in performance quality and community engagement for the foreseeable future.

The season opener’s title was “Russian Fantasies” and provided the near-capacity audience at Vanier Hall with a lively, often emotive, aural smorgasbord of Slavic fare.

The soloist for the evening was guest pianist Andrew Staupe who delivered a magical performance of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto in F minor. I promised myself that I wouldn’t complain too much about the fact that Chopin was a native of Poland who became a French citizen and whose music has little or no connection to Russia whatsoever. So, I’ll just leave that to the Fantasies component of the program, which opened with a lovely rendition of the “Vocalise” by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Originally composed as a song for a high voice, without lyrics, Rachmaninoff himself orchestrated the piece and it has remained a staple of light orchestral fare for the past century. The musicians of the PGSO gave a warm and sincere interpretation and it was an excellent warm-up for the sumptuous piano concerto to follow.

Chopin’s F Minor Concerto is the first of two that he composed, but it was published in reverse sequence. Chopin himself premiered the piece, written when he was just 20 years old.

Both of Chopin’s concerti are staples of the concert hall – and international piano competition circuit. At the opening of the first movement I was slightly concerned by what I perceived to be an overly cautious and measured tempo selected by the orchestra, but as soon as Staupe commenced playing, an entirely different mood flooded the stage, one of confidence and a profound comprehension of the languid and sensual compositional style of Chopin. In fact, it became evident to this listener that Maestro Hall and Andrew Staupe have a musical affinity for one other, and a very real and personable musical relationship between the two men became evident on stage. In fact, this specific performance was very much a conversation between conductor and soloist, with both solidly supported throughout by the proficiency of the orchestral musicians.

There are certain passages in the Chopin second piano concerto that are inspired – harmonic progressions and melodic flourishes that enter one’s consciousness upon first hearing, and that never really leave you. For me, there are some phrases in this piece that I know will be part of my personal vernacular till my final days, and which became moments in Staupe’s performance that were simply electrifying. Staupe’s technical and interpretative command of Chopin’s language was superb and I have not heard a pianist make the aged Bechstein piano of Vanier Hall soar and sing like that in a long time. Particularly noteworthy was the gorgeous interplay between piano and bassoon, performed by one of Canada’s most illustrious woodwind soloists Nadina Mackie Jackson, which added a rich and generously loving moment to the on-stage romance playing out in front of us during the second movement. It was a first-class throughout, and folks who skipped this concert really missed something special, with this highly personal and intimate performance.

The evening concluded with toe-tapping fun via Tchaikovsky’s “Suite from Swan Lake”. Having worked in the world of ballet when I was a youngster and having hacked my way through this balletic score literally hundreds of times on honky-tonk keyboards in Toronto rehearsal studios, I have to admit I expected to be counting the moments till the conclusion of the program, but in fact, I was really charged-up by the PGSO’s rousing and invigorating performance. I am going to nit-pick here by noting the absence of a real harp on stage– it’s just such an expected centrepiece of late 19th century dramatic orchestration and it does affect that overall visual experience in a live concert setting. But as I predicted last season, PGSO concerts clearly are the must-attend events this season. Even competing with a busy social schedule this past Saturday night, including election parties, the 100 or so audience members who stayed around for the post-concert, on-stage chat was evidence that the PGSO organization is taking its challenge of “for people like you” seriously, delivering live classical music events that are resonating with local audiences and sustaining an economy for our local professional musicians.