CLASSICAL NOTES: Symphony embraces summer’s dawn

Okanagan Symphony welcomes Roger Cole, principal oboist of the Vancouver Symphony, to perform Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss.

At an Okanagan Symphony reception in Kelowna’s Black Box Theatre, in between rehearsals for Sunday’s Spring Breezes concert, into the room walked a man looking remarkably like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

He turned out to be the featured soloist, Roger Cole, principal oboist of the Vancouver Symphony for 37 years, here to rehearse the Oboe Concerto by Richard Strauss.

Strauss (not to be confused with the waltz king Johan) is probably best known for the iconic opening music used by Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey – actually the opening movement of Also Sprach Zarathustra. (This is a gorgeous piece, well worth listening to.)

The oboe concerto, written in 1945, was one of his last works during what biographers describe as his “Indian summer.”  Strauss dedicated it to his friend John de Lancie who become principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In three interconnected movements, this piece, like Zarathustra, has a wonderful richness of tone. (With this composer, lack of familiarity need not be a deterrent!)

Interestingly, Cole had been a tutor to Lauris Davis, the OSO’s principal oboist.

During the deserved standing ovation, Cole was, as usual, presented with a rose. Instead of the little girl’s rapid escape from the stage, the two held hands for the final bow.

The evening was principally devoted to Mozart, started with his Serenade for Wind Octet. Intended for intimate gatherings rather than concert halls, it was composed for two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and two French horns. (The OSO horn players duly challenged their description as “wind” players.In four movements, this was an elegantly woven tapestry, and performed without the conductor.  The leadership shifted depending on who carried the prominent line — mostly the oboe or clarinet.

The highlight for me was Arthur Honegger’s Pastorale d’été – a short tone poem translated as “I embrace the summer’s dawn.”  Beautifully restrained, cellos and horns suggested the early morning sun pushing through the mist, with gentle breezes wafting in and out from the violins, sometimes the flute, sometimes the clarinet.

OSO maestra Rosemary Thomson didn’t use a baton for this, and her expressive arm movements reminded me of a Tai Chi master.

Finally, for Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, a major stage rearrangement. Thomson used the antiphonal seating (sometimes known as the Toscanini arrangement) with the second violins on the opposite side of the stage.

The cellists go to the middle, the basses upstage from the first violins, and the timpani on the opposite side.

The intention is to improve the sound.  However, the challenge is for the second violins to be loud enough since their f-holes point away from the audience! But it certainly sounded good to me.

As usual in four movements, this was a robust and assertive delivery, the fourth movement finishing at a gallop.

Jim Elderton is a freelance writer who reviews the Okanagan Symphony’s season for The Mornring Star.