Classical Notes: A noble start to the Okanagan Symphony season

Sunday’s season opener for the Okanagan Symphony was the fall reunion after the long, hot summer.

Sunday’s season opener for the Okanagan Symphony was the fall reunion after the long, hot summer. In the busy pre-show crowd, friends greeted friends, enjoying the ambiance.

Onstage, conductor and music director Rosemary Thomson started strongly with Rossini’s overture from his opera William Tell.  Describing it as “a small symphony,” she listed four clearly defined sections.

Perhaps initially unfamiliar, it opened with brooding basses and cellos, leading to a thoughtful hymn-like passage. A dramatic storm followed, then a flute and horn duet.

Finally the bit we’d waited for:  the trumpet heralded the “Lone Ranger” theme, pinched from Rossini’s daring charge of William  Tell’s cavalry.  The audience just loved it – good bang for their bucks. Thomson’s comment was “That’s too much fun!”

Often the second piece chosen is a concerto, with a symphony occupying the second half. But this time the order was reversed since we only had half a symphony.

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony was actually one of several he wrote, ranging from un-developed sketches to his seventh symphony, composed but never orchestrated.

On Sunday we heard his most famous incomplete work. The first two movements were completed, with only partly orchestrated sketches for a third movement.

This had been a difficult time for Schubert. Not only had he contracted syphilis, he was undergoing a major change in direction. The piece illustrates these stressful circumstances, yet despite his inability to complete it, this became his most respected work.

He abandoned the project.  And even though he lived for another six years, apparently it was never resumed.  He regarded the finished sections a suitable gift for a friend to pass along to his brother Anselm.

But instead of scheduling a performance, Anselm kept it to himself, possibly out of jealousy.  It was another 43 years before it received its premiere.

Even as only two movements, audiences consider it one of Schubert’s most cherished compositions, although tradition argues that symphonies should always finish in the same key as for the first movement.

I’ve never seen a concerto for violin and cello. As it turns out, there are many in the classical repertoire, but the Brahms’ Double Concerto is rated the best. It was his final work, and he wrote it for his old friend, violinist Joseph Joachim. He gave the manuscript to him with the dedication “To him for whom it was written.”

Many reacted unfavorably, considering it “not brilliant for the instruments” and “one of Brahms’ most inapproachable and joyless compositions.” (He had already outlined a second double concerto but destroyed his notes after this cool reception.) It has always been dogged by the need for two brilliant soloists.

Booking a “normal” concerto soloist might be compared to putting a single man on Everest, but now there would be two. And here on Sunday, Thomson gave us the perfect pairing: Dale Barltrop (violin) and Joseph Johnson (cello).

Continuing in the tradition of Brahms’ other concerti, the first movement introduced the theme.  The solo cello opening was spartan.

But the violin entered, and here’s the clue to the success of this concerto:  the cello-violin combination had a massive tonal range. And when the cello played high and the violin played low (as happened many times) the combination was fascinating.

With the two playing a single line of notes (one instrument alternating with the other) you had to see it to believe it. With my eyes shut I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started.

The second movement was unusual, with both instruments often playing in unison.  (Again taking advantage of this unusual combination).  Thomson’s description of this movement as “Noble Grandeur” resulted in her theme title for the whole concert.

The third exploded into life.  Frequently the violin provided the spark to revive the whole orchestra, ending the piece with one of Brahms’ typically Hungarian gypsy motifs that he so often used for his other major scores.

Jim Elderton is a freelance writer who reviews the Okanagan Symphony season for The Morning Star.