Review: Not enough tree in Howard Shore’s The Forest

Milos played Howard Shore's guitar composition The Forest in Southam Hall.

Like Erich Korngold before him, Howard Shore is a composer of beloved film scores who also produces works for the concert hall. Shore was in Ottawa last night to attend the world premiere of his new concerto for guitar and orchestra, commissioned by NACO.

The Forest was written for the virtuoso Montenegrin classical guitarist Milos Karadaglic (the premiere had originally been scheduled for this time last year, but was postponed when Milos, as he likes to be called, developed an injury and had to take a performance break).

Shore has written some of the most memorable, ambitious film music of all time, but The Forest does not hold up to that standard. Timid, underdeveloped, forgettable, the concerto may have been intended as a kind of Tombeau de Rodrigo, but instead comes across as a pale, slavishly derivative imitation. Shore has planted his Forest with direct, un-ironic quotes from the Spanish composer’s Concierto de Aranjuez, including the famous three-note motif Rodrigo used throughout the second movement of his concerto.

It’s telling that Forest’s most memorable theme is not Shore’s own. There are vaguely Andalusian flourishes here and there, but overall the material feels narrow and insubstantial. The work’s fragmented, episodic structure makes it sound like a movie score in search of an El Cid remake. Shore never fully exploits the guitar’s full expressive range either, while his orchestration — studded with brass, tubular bells, and celesta — often overpowered the soloist, even with Milos playing mic’d. The execution was just as underwhelming, with Milos and the orchestra often becoming disunited and out of synch.

Brahms’ First Symphony offered more satisfaction: firm rhythms, marvellously clear, balanced counterpoint; finely calibrated dramatic tension (the sustained, gradual ascent of the introduction to the first movement sounded particularly impressive) and lavish Germanic colour, with great wingspans of brass and beautiful call-and-response from the woodwinds.

The concert opened with Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s Overture in C, her only known orchestral composition. Shelley led with sympathetic affinity for Mendelssohn-Hensel’s mix — so like her brother’s — of worldly charm and earnest idealism.

The concert repeats Thursday evening.

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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.