Review: Ottawa Symphony adjusts to new musical home in Dominion-Chalmers

Ottawa Symphony made its Dominion-Chalmers debut Monday night.

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra gave its first concert in its new permanent home at Dominion-Chalmers on Monday night. The church was recently taken over by Carleton University as a concert hall and has been undergoing upgrades. Monday’s concert revealed the fully extended stage stretching almost a third of the way up the building to accommodate 100 musicians, which included members of the University of Ottawa student orchestra.

Dominion-Chalmers will certainly provide the OSO with a sustainable, central, permanent home. But just as NACO had to get used to the new Southam Hall, this ensemble is going to need time to adjust. Blend and intonation were two casualties of the relocation. From my vantage point in the balcony, I could hear too many individual string players, and, while the sound was powerful, the colour seemed flat and thin.  

This was especially glaring in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, which made up the second half. I’ve heard this orchestra produce a marvellous, opulent, Germanic sound in Southam Hall so I know they have it in them. But here the violins were reedy and pale, the woodwinds anemic, the brass under-pitch (especially the quartet of Wagnerian tubas). The lower strings sounded richer; I’ve heard this with other groups; there’s something about this new setup that seems to feed and flatter the bass register. 

Alain Trudel’s conducting emphasized the symphony’s solemn, majestic qualities, painting in broad strokes and stately measure. But I felt he didn’t always allow the dramatic tension to build and release. 

The first half of the evening featured the debut of soprano Elizabeth Polese, winner of the OSO’s second annual Sénécal Mozart concerto prize. Polese sang Mozart’s glittering solo motet, Exsultate, Jubilate. Polese has a fresh, pretty, quick-spinning timbre that opened up more and more through the work’s three movements. But her interpretive choices were designed to dazzle rather than communicate emotion, and she winked, chirped and flirted her way through her coloratura runs and trills as if she were tossing off one of the bravura arias from Seraglio. 

Ottawa composer Kelly-Marie Murphy’s A Thousand Natural Shocks from 2000 opened the concert. It’s a taut, compact work, all sinew and muscle, with two virtuosic, percussion-driven sections bookending a more introspective, vulnerable middle. I liked its pleasing balance of angles and curves and its generous writing for soloists. 

OSO’s next concert at Dominion-Chalmers is Feb. 25, when they’ll perform a tribute to the Proms, including Rachmaninoff`s Symphonic Dances and the Chopin Second Concerto with the young Quebec pianist Maxim Bernard. Let’s hope they can keep honing their sound to better fit their new home.

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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.