Review: NACO gives Earworms a fast, funny and meaty performance

NACO performed Vivian Fung's Earworms Thursday night. Photo: Charles Boudreau

Orchestra marketers will often turn themselves inside out to come up with catchy concert themes.  But Thursday’s NACO performance with Alexander Shelley proved that sometimes the most interesting programs happen naturally, when the audience enjoys an evening of musical works with no obvious connection other than the excellence of the execution.

Vivian Fung’s Earworms received its world premiere. Fung’s writing is highly organized and technically accomplished, but its immediate appeal is in its hip humour and unapologetic, in-your-face virtuosity. Earworms does quote some sticky melodies–Ravel’s La Valse, The Wheels on the Bus, the sustained opening chords from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, even snippets of Lady Gaga. But the piece is less about jukeboxing and more about recreating that frantic, anxious, OCD feeling of lying awake at 2 a.m. with some annoying musical phrase turning over and over in your brain like an aural .gif file. Familiar tunes get grotesquely distorted and amplified. It’s fast, fun, and gives the orchestra plenty of meat to chew (the brass section gleefully went to town).

Next came Boris Giltburg’s fast-talking rendition of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The 34-year-old Israeli approached the music with lighthearted aplomb — I’ve heard too many pianists try to turn this deliberately jolly, straightforward work into something dark and sneering, and it never works. Giltburg played with crystalline articulation and a jaunty, rubbery bounce to his phrasing. Shelley and the orchestra were in high-spirited cahoots. Only in the tutti climax just before the first movement cadenza did their enthusiasm overwhelm the piano’s sound.  

After the intermission, Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 provided a more serious, expansive contrast to the lively chatter of the first half. Shelley arranged the orchestra with divided first and second violins and violas to his left, resulting in a luscious, deep colour. His conducting radiated warmth and affection, accentuating the work’s intricate counterpoint while allowing those endless, majestic phrases to soar.

The first movement glowed with dignity and grace, the diminuendos disappearing into gossamer nothingness. The shift into minor-key triplets toward the end of the second movement had a particular dramatic urgency. The last movement tiptoed in on velvety cat paws, building gradually to a rapturous finale. Principal horn Larry Vine produced solo after gleaming solo, and I loved Chris Millard’s confiding inflection in that lovely recurring, upwardly striving bassoon line in the second movement.  An earworm of the best sort.

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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, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.