Natasha Gauthier reviews: In person and an out of body musical experience

Kelly-Marie Murphy. Photo: Alan Dean Photography

By Natasha Gauthier

I’m not going to lie: sitting in a concert hall for the first time in eight months was weird. Maybe not as weird as Jonas Kaufmann’s new cover of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, released earlier this week, which sounds like the operatic tenor was blindfolded, drugged and locked in a recording studio for an hour with a Salvation Army band, a case of tequila, and a lot of pot.

But after months of online concerts, it was a strange experience to sit in a nearly empty Southam Hall with a handful of other masked patrons, watching a performance by similarly masked and carefully distanced NACO musicians and guest artists. 

There were upsides to being part of  Saturday night’s limited, invitation-only audience: no persistent coughers, late arrivals, ringing cell phones  or crinkly lozenge wrappers; no wait  for the ladies’ room; no clouds of Rugged Jungle body pray; no tall people or updos to block one’s view. If hell is other people, some version of heaven must include having a vast concert venue almost to yourself. 

NACO all masked up and physically distanced. Photo: Fred Cattroll

In addition to the in-person audience of 50 or so, more than 1,000 people went online Saturday night for NACO’s third livestreamed concert. This program was as diverse as the first two, opening with the wonderful Ballade for Orchestra by the bi-racial, Anglo-African composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor — he was named after the famous poet — died in 1912 at the heartbreakingly early age of 37. The works he left behind, including his Three Cantatas on Longfellow’s epic poem Song of Hiawatha, show his gifts for melody and sophisticated narration. His Ballade is in three sections, with sweeping, nautical-sounding outer movements framing a more lyrical, leisurely centre. There’s wonderful writing for the low winds and brass; certainly Coleridge-Taylor deserves more regular performances than lesser efforts by his contemporaries. I’d trade a good deal of Stanford and Parry’s secular music for more Coleridge-Taylor. 

Alexander Shelley and the orchestra have been taking advantage of their livestream format to introduce some of the young musicians on the CBC’s 30 under 30 list to wider audiences. Saturday night’s guest artists were 29-year-old Victoria violinist Elizabeth Skinner, and 17-year-old pianist Jessica Yuma, from Toronto.

Playing Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, Yuma displayed enormous technical facility, with some nice jeu perlé effects in the right hand. However, her left hand could not always be heard and overall I felt the performance lacked spontaneity and the sense of exciting élan the title suggests. Yuma is clearly a gifted musician, and I have no doubt more self-assurance and expressive risk-taking will come with experience and maturity.

With more than a decade on Yuma, it’s not surprising that Skinner came across as the more relaxed and confident performer. She made the tricky rhythms and slippery mood shifts of François Dompierre’s playful Les Diableries sound easy. Skinner has a lovely, soft, pale gold tone, and can produce power to spare without aggression or harshness. Alexander Shelley and the orchestra had a lot of fun with the pop and folk influences of Dompierre’s music.

Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy wrote Curiosity, Genius and the Search for Petula Clark for the Toronto Symphony in 2017 as part of the Canada 150 commissions. Murphy was inspired by an anecdote Glenn Gould told of flipping radio stations while driving in Northern Ontario to hear his favourite pop singer Petula Clark. There isn’t much in the way of Canadian Shield contemplation, station-hopping or ’60s Brit-pop to be heard; instead, the piece is positively spiky with brass flourishes and furious, battering percussion. It’s loud and fast and more than a little chaotic, the virtuosity zipping past like trees or telephone poles on the side of a highway, a blur that leaves no lingering memory or emotion. 

The 90-minute, intermission-less concert ended with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony. Shelley enjoyed playing up the contrasts, for example between the expansive, philosophical second movement and the boisterous, rustic Rondo. The galaxy-brain counterpoint and majestic fanfares of the finale were deftly executed.

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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.