Love was decidedly in the air at this week’s Casual Friday concert at NACO. Valentine’s Day meant lots of cute couples and families on dates, lots of audience members decked out in glam red and pink and lots of women carrying roses from their sweethearts, or possibly from their “Galentine” girl squads.
The program wasn’t overtly romantic, but it did feature a love letter of sorts, from one Canadian virtuoso to another. Stewart Goodyear is best known as a concert pianist, but he’s been composing since his teens. He’s also been friends with NACO principal cellist Rachel Mercer since they were both kids, and Goodyear wrote Mercer a cello concerto that received its world premiere on Friday.
The piece is in a single movement broken up into several sections, with two main recurring themes: one mournful and hollow, the other more sensuous, filigreed, and almost Andalusian in flavour. The concerto begins with Mercer playing soft arpeggios sul ponticello, accompanied only by spooky, gruff, rumbling patterns in the double basses. Goodyear gives her plenty of opportunities to show off her powerful technique, with several extended, bravura solo cadenzas, and Mercer absolutely killed it.
Goodyear’s style is quirky and playful, but also erratic. Goodyear bounces quickly — often too quickly — from one idea to the next. The concerto suffers overall from a kind of manic ADD. Sometimes I would hear a beguiling effect or theme in the brass or woodwinds, but then we were hurried along to the next thing and I wished he had lingered in those moments, developing them further. Goodyear says he was inspired in part by Mercer’s love of rock music, but this came through only weakly, through a couple brief drum solos. The concerto’s structure isn’t clear either. I heard several more distinct sections or breaks than Goodyear’s own notes describe. Despite these shortcomings, I think it’s an interesting concerto that shows off Mercer’s impressive gifts and it would be worth seeing performed again, or at least recorded.
The rest of the program showcased composers from our neighbours south of the border. Conductor Alexander Shelley noted in his remarks to the audience that NACO, with its mandate to advance Canadian music, rarely plays American composers.
A Serenata in beguine rhythm by melody king Leroy Anderson was performed with an abundance of Fred-and-Ginger panache and gliding charm. Barber’s Adagio for Strings never fails to pack a gut-punch; Shelley pushed the tempo a little more than is standard — performances of this work can often sound like a funeral dirge. Here the added sense of forward movement created an atmosphere that was less doleful, but more intense and emotionally fraught.
I’m not sure why NACO programmed Robert Russell Bennett’s second-rate arrangement of selections from Porgy and Bess, instead of Gershwin’s own excellent Catfish Row Suite. I had no issues with Shelley or the orchestra’s performance, but Bennett’s glib, precious writing is much less dynamic and imaginative than Gershwin’s, and the score fell flat for me. The wisdom of picking a white composer’s arrangement of an opera with a complicated and still controversial racial history during Black History Month is a whole other conversation.
The concert ended with a beautifully executed performance of four excerpts from Aaron Copland’s music for Agnes de Mille’s visionary 1942 ballet Rodeo. It was everything we associate with Copland: expansive, optimistic, steeped in American vernacular, evocative of wide-open prairie skies and rollicking cowboy lore, with the brass rising up like Monument Valley at sunrise. I’d love to hear NACO play Copland’s Billy the Kid Suite or his symphonies (hoping for the Lincoln Portrait at a Canadian orchestra is a pipe dream, I know).