Natasha Gauthier review: A little Woke music from NACO

Angélica Negrón. Photo: Quique Cabanillas

By Natasha Gauthier

In her video introduction to her 2008 piece What Keeps Me Awake, Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón describes how the New York classical music establishment made people like her feel unwelcome. She describes the piece as a kind of exorcism for the negative thoughts haunting her sleep at the time, especially about finding her place as a Latina composer of large symphonic works.   

Alexander Shelley and the National Arts Centre Orchestra performed the Canadian premiere of What Keeps Me Awake to open their Saturday night livestream. It’s a subtle, intimate, luxuriously coloured piece, with nocturnal patterns in the low strings and brass murmuring over a hypnotic pulse. The mood gradually shifts and lightens, midnight worry giving way to daybreak optimism. The piece ends with delicate, tinkling chords for the glockenspiel and harp, like the chiming of a cell phone alarm clock. A composer of Negrón’s quiet originality should never have been made to feel excluded, but then again up until recently, systemic racism in classical music has been a feature, not a bug. 

NACO has been featuring young artists on the CBC’s 2020 list of 30 hot classical musicians under 30. Saturday’s soloists were percussionist Bryn Lutek and cellist Olivia Yelim Cho. 

Lutek, who, at just 28, was named principal percussionist of the Orchestre symphonique de Québec, performed Canadian composer Michael Oesterle’s Kaluza Klein. The work is a compact, spiky concerto for vibraphone and strings, nerdily inspired by a physics theory of gravity and electromagnetism. Lutek’s playing was relaxed and efficient, with mathematically precise control of dynamics. 

Cho is just 20, an undergrad at the University of Michigan. Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations were a perfect vehicle for her ravishing tone and organically felt phrasing. She plays with sincerity, wonderful taste, and a mature aplomb beyond her years. Shelley and the orchestra sounded particularly attuned to Cho’s playfully romantic sensibility; some string soloists just seem to connect like they’re part of the ensemble, and Cho is one of these. 

Barbara Pentland

Born in Winnipeg in 1912, Barbara Pentland was one of Canada’s most important and prolific post war composers. Pentland had no interest in “making nice” with attractive melodies and safe, neo-classical forms. She was unapologetically avant-garde, but her career paid a price and she was often ridiculed for daring to write atonal, “difficult” music — i.e., in a style dominated by men. Pentland died in 2000 and her uncompromising music, once dismissed, has finally been receiving its due. NACO put not one but two of her compositions on Saturday’s program: the prickly, pointillistic Symphony for 10 parts, and the astonishing Ricercar for Strings, a five-minute masterpiece of austere lyricism and absolute structural mastery. 

Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 tied in nicely with the Mozart-visits-St. Petersburg nostalgia of the Rococo Variations.  I felt Shelley’s interpretation was a little superficial and straightforward; it needed more biting irony, for example in the mincing, snide second theme of the first movement. Even the mad gallop of the last movement felt too reined-in. Given the reliable virtuosity of NACO’s woodwinds, Shelley could have taken a bigger risk, with more thrilling results.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.