A record-breaking 130 musicians perform on stage at the Performing Arts Centre for the Okanagan Symphony’s Fireworks concert

A record-breaking 130 musicians perform on stage at the Performing Arts Centre for the Okanagan Symphony’s Fireworks concert

Classical Notes: Concert goes off with a bang

Okanagan Symphony crowds the stage at Performing Arts Centre for rousing performance of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks.

How many more times can the Okanagan Symphony raise the bar, continuing to delight its ever-increasing audience?

On Sunday, we heard three major treats, in addition to Haydn’s excellently rendered Symphony #45.

Music director and conductor Rosemary Thomson commenced with Toronto-born Gary Kulesha’s Fireworks and Procession, composed in 2005 for a northern Ontario tour by the Toronto Symphony.

At the Performing Arts Centre, we experienced Imax-like sound, with brass chords coming from the boxes above.  The music was unusually powerful –– and all around us –– a dramatic piece suggesting a vast visual event.

The Haydn symphony was in the classic four movement structure, with a brisk and purposeful opening.

However, the piece began to reflect the circumstances of its composing –– when Haydn’s musicians needed to return home after an over-long summer retreat. So he composed the symphony so as to give his client a hint that it was time to leave.

So much so that in the fourth movement, after each musician had played his final notes, he walked off the stage. Finally, only two were left. Even Thomson left the podium, with Denis Letourneau and Imant Raminsh being the last two playing, drowned by applause.

Hardly surprising, then, that this became known as the Farewell Symphony.

After intermission, the stage was dramatically different. The Performing Arts Centre normally uses black drapes (“legs”) to mask the wings, and for once these were  removed, the only way to make the stage wide enough for four separate orchestras performing together.

Amidst a sea of 130 chairs, a mere seven musicians at centre stage performed Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #6. These six concerti, widely regarded as among the finest compositions of the baroque era, were written for the Prussian town of Brandenburg, and each uses a different arrangement of musicians.

The soloists for #6 play the lower-pitched string instruments, and without violins.  Here two violas and a cello took the leads, with bass, cello and harpsichord (played by Thomson) providing continuo.

Basso continuo, almost universal in the baroque era, provide the harmonic structure of the music, and the instrumentalists playing this backing are called the continuo group.

Bach has often been labelled “the father of jazz.” Certainly here, the musical division between front line and back line was clear, and it was wonderful to see one of these famous pieces played live.

The usual three movement structure started with a beautifully layered opening, followed by a traditional adagio. It finished with a spectacular multi-layered gallop in 12/8 time, earning a standing ovation.

Finally, la pièce de résistance: While wave after wave of musicians came on stage, Thomson introduced us to The Carriage House Orchestra (music directors Bev Martens and  Morna Howie), the Night Owl Community Orchestra (music director Sheila French), the Youth Symphony of the Okanagan (music directors Imant Raminsh and Dennis Colpitts), and finally the Okanagan Symphony orchestra.

Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was commissioned in England for the staging of a royal extravaganza in celebration of the declaration of peace after the Austrian War of Succession.

And the British treasury spared no expense. A renowned fireworks specialist was imported from Paris to stage the display in Green Park adjoining Buckingham Palace.

Unfortunately, the event was a disaster.  It started with bad weather, then as the evening unfolded, the fireworks went off at the wrong times, and part of the scaffolding built to erect one of the displays caught fire. But the piece survived its doomed launch and remains “one of the most skillfully crafted and enjoyable of all scores written for ceremonial occasions.”

Starting with the overture, a grand opening piece, this was almost like an extended trumpet fanfare backed by the entire orchestra.

Throughout the piece, we had this gloriously rich sound again and again, which with 130 musicians, must surely be a record both for Okanagan Symphony and the Performing Arts Centre.

–– Freelance reviewer Jim Elderton is a filmmaker and classical music enthusiast living in Armstrong.