Monday, October 7, 2013

Young Orchestra

Whenever I feel gloomy about the state of the world, a sure antidote is to hear young musicians play great music. Such was the case last Saturday evening, when this year’s University of British Columbia Symphony Orchestra made its debut concert under music director Jonathan Girard.  It was an exciting evening of great music played with great enthusiasm and polish.

The concert, featuring the music of Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky, opened with Ravel’s beautiful Pavane pour une Infante Défunte. Ravel claimed to have chosen the title purely for its alliterative appeal – that there was no dead princess.

Although beautifully played (especially the haunting theme played by the French horn), I felt that the performance laced a sense of forward motion, perhaps as a result of the tempo chosen by the conductor. We should probably remember Ravel’s comment to Charles Oulmont, who played the Pavane for the composer too slowly: “Watch out, little one, it’s not a Pavane défunte pour une infant”, said the amused composer – it is not the Pavane that is dead!

Also on the programme was the same composer’s Ma mère l’oye, or Mother Goose. Both the Pavane and Ma mère l’oye exist in versions for orchestra and piano, but Ravel’s mastery as a composer was such that both works sound equally idiomatic and beautiful in both guises. Mr. Girard led the young musicians in a performance of great panache, combining the delicacy and sparkle the work demands.

Of greatest interest in the evening concert was perhaps the sole work after intermission – Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary Le Sacre du primtemps (The Rite of Spring). The work is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and orchestras all over the world are performing the piece to mark the occasion. To our 21st century ear, accustomed to far greater dissonances and disorder in the music of the last century, Stravinsky’s watershed work sound positively tame today. This does not, however, take away any of the work’s originality and greatness. It is a piece that poses superhuman challenge to both individual players as well as the orchestra as an ensemble. It was indeed brave of Mr. Girard to have programmed the work in the first concert of year, with a new ensemble of relatively inexperienced young musicians.

As soon as the performance began with its now-famous bassoon solo, all my worries faded away. Mr. Girard, who clearly has a rapport with the young musicians, led them through this music with great confidence, at times almost reveling in the sound made by his players. There was never a moment that one worries about whether the players would “make it” through the many minefields scattered throughout the complex score.

During the well-deserved ovation following the performance, Mr. Girard raised the score in front of the audience, drawing our attention to this miraculous work and the genius that created it.

It was very touching to watch the young musicians as they played this music, with total dedication and commitment. For me, the concert certainly marks the beginning of a very good year for the UBC Symphony Orchestra.

I thank the young musicians for the hard work and their dedication, and eagerly await future performances by this talented ensemble.

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