Classical Notes: OSO delivers a Valentine’s treat

Conductor and musical director Rosemary Thomson dedicated the OSO's Valentine’s Day concert to the heroes and heroines of classical music.

Okanagan Symphony’s conductor and musical director Rosemary Thomson dedicated the OSO’s Valentine’s Day concert to the heroes and heroines of classical music.

The orchestra opened with Leonore Overture No. 3, from the opera Fidelio by Beethoven – certainly one of music’s heroes.

Here Leonore, disguised as a prison guard, rescues her husband from death in a political prison – a story of personal sacrifice and heroism.

Next on stage was the internationally renowned clarinetist James Campbell, and, with his Order of Canada, deservedly a Canadian hero.

His first piece was the Clarinet Concerto No. 2 by Carl Maria Von Weber, one of the first significant composers of the romantic school.

Not surprisingly, Campbell’s virtuoso performance earned a standing ovation. But the audience could have waited.

The second half started with Dreaming of the Masters 1: a Jazz Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Allan Gilliland, a piece commissioned specifically for Campbell by the Edmonton Symphony.

It’s in the usual three movements, each dedicated to a famous clarinetist. Unusually, each movement allows for jazz improvisation.

The opening fast movement, Benny’s Bounce, is a big-band tribute to Benny Goodman, but it begins with the famous glissando from the start of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (first played as a joke during rehearsal by bandleader Paul Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist, Ross Gorman).

The second (slow) movement, Stranger on the Prairie, was dedicated to Britain’s Acker Bilk, who played the hit single Stranger on the Shore. However, Gilliland went way beyond Bilk’s interpretation, a gorgeously romantic fantasy, perhaps suggesting lovers walking in moonlight.

Hollywood couldn’t have done it better.

The last movement, decidedly up-tempo, was Rhythm Buddy, inspired by clarinetist Buddy deFranco of the bebop era.

This jazz is characterized by fast tempos, musical virtuosity, and improvisation based more on harmonic structure than melody. Developed in the 1940s, it became known as modern jazz, which eliminated the need for musicians always to stick to the tune.

This time the standing ovation was instantaneous.

For the finale, the stage was drastically expanded to accommodate 120 musicians playing George Gershwin’s An American in Paris for the annual “side-by-side” performance, with the Okanagan Symphony Youth Orchestra alongside the OSO.

The jazz-influenced symphonic poem that evokes Paris in the 1920s was written after Gershwin spent time there in 1928.

“My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere,” said Gershwin.

It’s become his best-known composition after Rhapsody in Blue. He completed the orchestration less than four weeks before the world premiere at Carnegie Hall, and even supplied the necessary taxi horns he’d obtained in Paris.

However, Gershwin is said to have disliked the conductor’s interpretation. During a matinée, the slow tempo caused him to walk out, insisting, “It’s not a Beethoven Symphony, you know… It’s a humorous piece, nothing solemn about it. It’s not intended to draw tears. If it pleases symphony audiences as a light, jolly piece, a series of impressions musically expressed, it succeeds.”

The first recording was made a year later by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gershwin was there to “supervise”, but the conductor eventually asked him to leave.

Sunday’s rendition was highly spirited (including pitched taxi horns), a great example of Thomson’s ability to mount such a large project.

The film musical An American in Paris, featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, was released 65 years ago by MGM, winning the Oscar for Best Picture. The film featured Gershwin’s music, concluding with an elaborate and expensive dance sequence. You can watch it on You Tube, as well as the entire piece in concert.

Jim Elderton reviews the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra season for The Morning Star.

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