Review: NACO at 50 concerts allow its stars to shine brightly

NACO celebrates its 50th. Photo: John Kealey

Many orchestras choose to mark landmark anniversaries by inviting world renowned soloists to perform with them. NACO has gone a different route, celebrating their 50th birthday this week by turning the spotlight on the stars in its own ranks. 

Two concerts this week followed a similar format of virtuoso contemporary piece, classical-era concerto and 20th-century orchestral power workout. Both programs were designed to flatter the tutti, the sections, and all the principals to the greatest extent possible. The one I was able to attend, on Thursday night, succeeded on all fronts.

On Tuesday, principal guest conductor John Storgårds led the orchestra in a Prelude for brass by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen; Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante featuring NACO concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, principal cello Rachel Mercer, principal oboe Chip Hamann and principal bassoon Chris Millard; and Lutoslawski’s meaty Concerto for Orchestra. 

Alexander Shelley. Photo: Rémi Thériault

On Thursday, Alexander Shelley conducted Canadian Kevin Lau’s new suite version of his dynamic 2017 ballet score Dark Angels, a NACO commission; a concerto for oboe and flute by Salieri featuring Hamann and his longtime stand neighbour, principal flute Joanna G’froerer; and another monumental concerto for orchestra, this time the more famous one by Bartok.

Lau’s growling, sepulchral composition made a favourable impression on its first hearing more than two years ago. A second outing, this time on stage instead of in the pit, provided even more to admire. The piece stands perfectly well on its own. In fact, without needing to compete for attention with Guillaume Côté’s daring choreography, Lau’s gifts for structure, subtle thematic development and rich, atmospheric orchestration were brought into clearer focus. A highlight is still the extended cello solo, played with gripping urgency of expression by Mercer — for whom Lau has written a concerto of her very own.

Salieri’s double concerto is by no means a first-rate composition. But while it lacks depth, originality, its gracile charm suited G’froerer and Hamann’s amiable playing. The pair’s musical partnership and personal friendship goes back three decades, when they met as baby wind players at the Interlochen summer music camp. You can’t fake that kind of relationship, and their natural ease and familiarity with each other allowed them to play with in-the-moment spontaneity, while sounding like a single instrument

Bartok’s 1943 Concerto for Orchestra remains a real test of an orchestra’s mettle, with each section given its opportunity to shine. But on Thursday evening, the musicians were held back by Shelley’s conducting.

Fluent, alert and comfortable in the Lau, he started off looking tense in the Bartok and took some time to settle. This was a careful, even subdued concerto until the last two movements.

The opening movement sounded more tentative than mysterious, and the fires powering the gradual, juggernaut accelerando from Andante to Allegro were not properly stoked.

I liked Shelley’ lively tempo choice for the famous second movement, which was brilliantly executed by all the featured players (the central brass chorale was like molten gold). But the third movement lost impulsion, with some limp transitions and scoopy, uncertain string entries.

Shelley finally seemed to relax and find his groove for the last two movements; the rocket-powered finale in particular was flavoured with plenty of Hungarian passion and spice. 

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, www.talesfromtheredchair.com. Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.