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Alastair Willis meets the Test

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THUNDER BAY, ON - January 21, 2010 - I always look forward to the TBSO masterwork Alastair Willisconcerts, they are such a joy. Last Thursday I was introduced to some music that was new to me, Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations Op. 78. Writing variations is perhaps the oldest form of composition. It is like writing a song, change the words and you have a second verse and so on until you tell your story. Doing this instrumentally presents a challenge for any composer, partly because orchestra’s don’t sing words, so the story has to be aided by your imagination, and the different tones and colours that the orchestra is able to produce. Antonin Dvorak was able to create 27 variations from his long and beautiful Slavic melody, and I was keenly listening to each variation as the piece rolled along one after another the joy of Dvorak’s creative mind being re-crafted by the musicians on stage that night.

It was not until well into the piece that I noticed that yes we have another conductor on stage this night, that in itself is perhaps the best compliment I can give a conductor, because Dvorak variations are about the music and not the show.  Indeed the ghost of past conductor, Geoffrey Moull is still with us. The programming we hear this season is the result of his efforts, and this year he selected works that would present a challenge to each candidate conductor, as well as reward the audience with great music. If variations are a challenge to a composer, they are also an effort for conductors. This piece is not common in the repertoire and is not easy to even pick up a good recording. The candidate is left with the task of using the resources of the orchestra to play out the musical tale of the 27 variations. I was not disappointed and was happy to now know a new work.

The second piece that was new to me was Bartok’s Viola Concerto. The musical language of Bartok is far removed from the lush romantic tones of Dvorak, and this required the orchestra and Alistair Willis to shift gears completely to play this work.

Catherine JillingsThe TBSO’s Catherine Jillings performed this work with such passion and courage that on this night she was the pride of the TBSO. She rightfully deserved the standing ovation at the end of its performance.

In programming this work for a candidate conductor, Geoffrey Moull knew that the conductor can be placed in a very difficult position, for on the one hand he has to follow the soloist closely as a pianist would accompany but at the same time he has to give his cues quick enough to keep the orchestra in step with the soloist. Naturally Bartok’s writing for solo viola makes this a challenge for all but the best of conductor candidates.

The orchestra was enlarged for this evening’s performance and it is a treat to heart 38 professional musicians on stage. The last piece on the program was Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. In a word it was simply great. I was thinking that we could have used the added gravitas of the tuba (heard in the Bartok) for this piece, but four trombones seemed to do the trick fairly well.

The trials are not over for Mr. Willis as he must yet conduct a family concert on Sunday. I am not into the game of guessing who will be our next conductor and music director, but I do enjoy great music. In Thunder Bay we can hear some of the brightest and the best right on our own stage.

Bert Rowson
Arts Editor: LakeSuperiorNews.com

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