THUNDER BAY, ON ---- February 16, 2010 ----- Last Thursday the TBSO played another brilliant masterworks concert. This year it seems each masterworks concert has brought us a different conductor, and this season was deliberately designed to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidate conductors for our very own Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra. The program was set by our last maestro, Geoffrey Moull and the three works on the program, Symphony #3 by Gary Kulesha, the piano concerto #2 op. 22 by Camille Saint Saëns, and the Brahms Serenade for Orchestra are all works that would challenge a candidate conductor. Two of the pieces are part of mainstream classics especially in Europe, but in North America the Brahms and Saint Saëns are less heard. Certainly American born Scott Speck would not likely have conducted a symphony by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha before.
This means that the candidate conductor would have to work hard to bring all this music up to performance standards with a group of professional musicians he has not worked with before, this is quite a challenge, and from my point of view sitting in the audience I thought everything worked very well indeed. The nice thing about living composers is you can phone them if you have questions about the piece. I am sure there were several long phone conversations between Gary and Scott, and the result was a good opening piece for this concert.
This piece by Kulesha was commissioned by Pinchas Zuckerman for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and unlike his previous two symphonies is scaled more for an orchestra the size of the TBSO. Kulesha not only wrote this music with a classical sized symphony in mind he also used the classical framework to hang his notes on, it follows the sonata form of composition and I am told the piece pays homage to Beethoven. Having recently hear Beethoven’s great B flat Major op 130 quartet played by the Penderecki String Quartet, I can say that Kulesha’s piece might be an homage to Beethoven, it certainly is not Beethoven. It is interesting that Johannes Brahms always wrote with the ghost of Beethoven looking over his shoulder. Perhaps feeling that his Serenade No.1 in D for Orchestra was not worthy to be called a Symphony by Beethoven standards, he gave it the lesser title of Serenade. Compared to Kulesha’s three movement work it is a substantial piece for orchestra with six full movements. Three movements or six, both pieces were convincingly laid out by the orchestra under the baton of Scott Speck.
The great romantic piano concerto of Camille Saint Saëns came to life on the stage of Thunder Bay’s Community Auditorium. Thirty years ago one could name all the great living pianists and still have a few fingers and toes left over. Not today, so the performance by Katherine Chi was not only astounding but a pleasant surprise as well. Playing from memory the sound simply cascaded from the auditorium’s great Steinway concert grand. I was reminded of the old vinyl recording of Van Cliburn and others that I wore out in my youth, but when I opened my eyes it was not these legendary piano players, but Katherine Chi.
As the concerto continued another thought passed my mind, whoever donated that piano to the Community Auditorium did this city a very big favour. The large Steinway has the strength and power to convincingly play this concerto and at the same time it is well regulated and can with sensitivity when the music requires it. Geoffrey Moull knew that this piece would be a great centerpiece for the program if the conductor, the orchestra, the piano and the pianist were all equal to the task. Sure enough the performance earned a long and hearty standing ovation.
The next Masterworks concert will be Thursday March 11th at the Community Auditorium. All the masterworks concerts have presented Thunder Bay audiences with great music. The Olympics will be over by then and the Stanley Cup play-offs will not have begun so I encourage you to abandon the old 42 inch television for a day bring a friend and go enjoy some entertainment without commercial breaks.
Arts Editor: LakeSuperiorNews.com