Classical Notes: Splendour at the symphony

Okanagan Symphony's Winter Splendour featured Borodin's Prince Igor, Raminsh's Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6.

Prince Igor, an opera composed by Borodin during his last 20 years, was unfinished when he died, and when completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov, the overture needed total reconstruction.

This was the opening piece played by the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra at its Winter Splendour concert Sunday.

Glazunov composed Prince Igor according to Borodin’s plan, compiling themes from the opera, altering some sections, and adding a new ending. Some of the music from Prince Igor was later adapted for the U.S. musical Kismet.

The special piece of the evening was  Imant Raminsh’s Violin Concerto.

Born in Latvia (a former Soviet republic), Raminsh came to Canada when he was five years old. The longtime Coldstream resident’s music has been performed all over the world. He founded the Prince George Symphony, the Youth Symphony of the Okanagan, and the AURA Chamber Choir.

His Violin Concerto was commissioned 20 years ago by the Vancouver Symphony and the CBC, and this was its first Okanagan performance.

For Raminsh, the concerto was daunting.

“I went through a certain period of trepidation and anxiety, thinking about the great historic precedent in whose shadow I would be following.”

Writing the piece, in the usual three movements, Raminsh had to consider the now obligatory cadenza.

“My musical instincts have always rebelled against cadenzas, which represent a break of indeterminate length in the flow of the music during which the soloist simply wanders off on a tangent, loses his way for awhile, and then finally announces his impending return with a frill,” he said.

But knowing that no serious soloist would consider performing a concerto without one, Raminsh met the challenge, seamlessly, welding the first and second movements. At that point, a textural voice was added. Soprano Eeva-Marie Kopp, originally from Finland, here sitting in the cello section, blended beautifully with the violin. The violinist was Melissa Wilmot, now based in Houston, who lived in Kelowna as a child and was tutored by Raminsh.

Then came the perfect piece for people who’ve never attended a classical concert – Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, The Pathétique.

The symphony’s subtitle causes endless speculation. The Russian title means “passionate” or “emotional,” not self pity. Musicologist David Brown suggested that it depicts the power of fate in life and death.

Tchaikovsky’s life was dominated by depression and personal crises: leaving home for boarding school, his mother’s early death, and his disastrous marriage, the latter of which lasted only two-and-a half months before Tchaikovsky was left emotionally overwhelmed and unable to write.

And his homosexuality is considered a major factor. The upcoming Russian film Tchaikovsky is controversial because his sexuality was deleted from the script in order to secure funding.

The symphony is also seen as a suicide note.

Richard Taruskin stated:  “Suicide theories were much stimulated, with its lugubrious finale (ending morendo, ‘dying away’), and above all its easily misread subtitle. When the symphony was done again a couple of weeks later, in memoriam and with subtitle in place, everyone listened hard for portents, and that is how the symphony became a transparent suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. Homosexual tragedy came later.”

Musically, it is breathtaking, with an enormous dynamic range. It is the only symphony by Tchaikovsky to end in a minor key.

Rosemary Thomson (OSO conductor and music director) told us that the second movement had an interesting “three-plus-two” rhythm. The entire movement is in 5/4 time (five beats instead of four), so Dave Brubeck, with his famous Take Five, was not the first to do this.

Jim Elderton is a Vernon-based freelance writer and filmmaker, who reviews the Okanagan Symphony season for The Morning Star.