Classical Notes: OSO in Transformation

On Sunday, the Okanagan Symphony opened their 53nd season with 53 performers on stage.

On Sunday, the Okanagan Symphony opened their 53nd season with 53 performers on stage.

Beethoven’s 6th (Pastoral) Symphony, described by the OSO’s program notes writer Don Anderson as “the grandest of all his hymns to nature,” was six years in composition.

He had scored the piece while battling with advancing deafness, attributed by some to his habit of plunging his head into cold water to stay awake.

By constructing a symphony in five movements Beethoven broke new ground. And he instructed that the last three should be played without breaks.

Many first heard the 6th in Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, which devoted 20 minutes to a world of unicorns, centaurs, cupids and fauns from classical mythology. The gathering for a festival is interrupted when Zeus creates a storm and throws lightning bolts at the revellers.

I must confess I’ve always found the Pastoral a rather bland piece. While much of Beethoven’s music is described as “heroic,” the 6th isn’t one of these. The movements are titled Awakening of Cheerful Thoughts Upon Arriving in the Country, Scene by the Brook, Merry Gathering of Country Folk, Storm, and Shepherds’ Song of Thanksgiving.

The OSO certainly played beautifully, and the storm in the fourth (Allegro) movement was spectacular. And in the final movement the glorious closing section has been described as “arguably the finest music of the whole symphony.”

The concert began with a 2002 composition, Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms by Randolph Peters. He also drew on nature for inspiration, but this was darker and richer by far. A lone butterfly (solo flute), wafted by a gentle wind (strings), is joined by others as once again a storm approaches.

The writing and performance gradually revealed the unleashed power of nature to a deafening crescendo. Then emptiness. Finally the butterfly returns. The piece closed as quietly as it started, and the audience held its breath before rapturous applause.

The composer states: “the extremely tiny disturbances caused by the flight of a butterfly could be multiplied over months and years and eventually result in a tropical storm is the basis for a whole new area of science. Chaos science emerged from this breakthrough discovery that was first observed by mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz. He called it the Butterfly Effect.”

This was followed by Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, sung by lyric soprano Alexandra Kosachukova Babbel.

Rosemary Thomson, OSO conductor and musical director, describing the piece as “the final transformation between life and death,” insisted that if ever stranded on a desert island with only one piece of music, this would be her choice.

Strauss, always inspiring, variously rich, dark, brooding and beautiful, was wonderfully rendered by the orchestra. As an operatic performance, however, it was sometimes marred as the voice couldn’t always be heard against the orchestra.

This OSO’s 53rd season will end with The Last Night of the Proms, inspired by the annual and massively popular closing concert at the Albert Hall in London. During this concert it’s traditional for the audience to go crazy. Stay tuned!

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