Ariel Barnes

Classical Notes: Okanagan Symphony brings out the beauty in November

Review of the OSO’s Classic Beauty concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday, Nov. 22.

Rosemary Thomson, music director of Okanagan Symphony, brought light to this drab month with the OSO’s Classic Beauty concert at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre Sunday, Nov. 22.

Starting with two ballet sections from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Eurodice, the orchestra opened with Dance of the Furies, maintaining a stunning pace with perfectly separated 1/16 notes.

Most OSO concerts include a modern piece, and this month’s was from Calgary composer Brent Lee. His Luminous Night was an evocative call from nature, conveying the colours of sunset, moonlight, Northern Lights, and the rising sun.

The symphony chosen was by Mozart. His Symphony No. 40, written only three years before his death, was the middle of his last three symphonies, all composed within six weeks. At K number 550, his final tally of 626 shows,  he maintained this prodigious output right to the end. (His last, Requiem, was never finished.)

For the soloist piece, Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, was the closest Tchaikovsky had come to writing a cello concerto.

The potential problem for this could have been monotony between variations, which would probably have ruined the piece.  But thanks to his musical skill, Tchaikovsky avoided that trap.

However, one difficulty is that the eight sections follow one another continuously.  Without orchestral links between solo sections, the cellist has no chance to rest. And he also needs to play much in the high register.

Soloist Ariel Barnes, principal cellist with the Vancouver Symphony, did brilliantly on both counts.

Tchaikovsky wrote it in collaboration with cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (fellow-professor at the Moscow Conservatory) who also performed the premiere. But after that first performance, he thought he would go one step better, and altered the order of variations Tchaikovsky had planned.  For the next 60 years it was no longer played in the original form.

Fitzenhagen had in fact taken considerable liberties with the structure.

Music critic Michael Steinberg said, “Much of the detail in the solo part is his, and was actually written by him into Tchaikovsky’s autograph.”

More importantly, he dropped one variation and changed the order of the others, necessitating more cuts and links.  Tchaikovsky scholars maintain that the original seventh variation had reached “the real peak of the piece,” after which the eighth (deleted by Fitzenhagen) would take listeners back to the starting point.

Tchaikovsky had indeed asked Fitzenhagen to work on the piece, but didn’t inform his publisher!

In the autographed score the majority of the solo part is actually in Fitzenhagen’s hand, however, Tchaikovsky allowed the alterations to remain.

Apparently, when asked if he would restore his original structure, he replied, “Oh, the hell with it! Let it stay the way it is.”

The Variations were performed using the new arrangement until 1941 when Russian cellist Victor Kubatsky examined the original score. X-rays showed that Tchaikovsky’s notations had indeed been altered.

The original version was published and recorded, however, most orchestras (including the OSO this week) continued to perform the altered one.

Ed note: Guest conducted by Dennis Colpitts, the OSO presents its annual Christmas concert, with guest crooner Robert Fine singing all of your seasonal favourites, Dec. 20 at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre.

Classical music enthusiast Jim Elderton reviews the OSO concert season for The Morning Star.

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