Friday Masters: Two Violins
Company: Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: William Eddins
Featuring: Nikki and Timothy Chooi
When: Friday night (repeats Saturday at 8 p.m.)
Where: Winspear Centre
EDMONTON - The Edmonton Symphony’s enjoyable and varied concert in the Friday Masters series at the Winspear – to be repeated on Saturday — was a kind of double-edged sword.
It was billed as Two Violins, for it featured Canadian brothers Nikki and Timothy Chooi, both violinists, both multiple prize winners, and both starting out on international solo careers. But it could also have been billed as Symphonic Premiere – that of a new symphony, the second by ESO’s resident composer, Robert Rival.
The three pieces the violinists chose to play showed off technique, rather than demanding much depth of emotional interpretation.
The first, Bach’s well-known D minor concerto for two violins is very much a concertante piece, requiring close interplay between the two soloists and the orchestral strings.
It does, though, require beauty of colour and tone, and the Chooi brothers certainly provided that, the elder playing a 1700 Stradivarius, the younger a 1729 Guarneri. Conductor Bill Eddins, too, loves his Bach, and knows how well the music responds to energy and vivacity where needed. The results, especially with the clear rapport between the two soloists, were just what one might ask for.
Nikki Chooi chose to play a famous virtuoso piece, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, which gave him the opportunity to show off his gorgeous violin tone, especially in the middle of the range. Indeed, he milked the gypsy sentiment of the piece for all it was worth — too much so for my taste, though that is partly the fault of the piece – before launching into the technical fireworks with aplomb and total security.
The audience loved it, and I hope I get the opportunity in the future to hear him play in more emotionally demanding music, for he is clearly a violinist to watch.
His 19-year old brother has not (yet) achieved the same depth of violin colour, but his virtues showed in Saint-Saëns’ famous Introduction and Rondo capriccioso: rock steady technique in this difficult showcase piece, the kind of virtuosic playing that delights audiences, aided by Eddins’ sympathetic tempi.
Robert Rival has regularly been inspired by the nature around him. His recent orchestral piece Whirlwind (to be heard again this September in ESO’s Symphony Under the Sky series) was, for example, inspired by the movement of a flock of waxwings, while his first Symphony came out of a visit to the Rockies.
His Second Symphony is subtitled Water, and was commissioned by the ESO.
Its three movements draw their inspiration from the water sounds: the roar of the ocean on the Pacific west coast, the rain serenely falling in an old growth forest, the cascade of Helmcken Falls in Wells Gray Provincial Park, B.C.
The symphony will give pleasure to many, and offend no-one.
But a symphony is, by its very nature, a statement that a composer is aligning himself to the most profound orchestral expression of a very particular tradition. In other words, it should say something about that form, and, ideally, illuminate in an abstract way something of the human condition.
Rival’s new symphony does not, on first hearing (and I would like to hear it again), have such ambitions. I wondered whether expectations would have been more fulfilled if it had been cast as three linked tone poems rather than as a symphony.
Certainly the symphonic structure is fairly clear, but whether the material of that structure is of sufficient weight for the form is more questionable.
For above all this new symphony paints moods — but seemingly moods observed rather than emotions felt, even in the storm-like section of the final movement. The opening movement plants itself firmly in the American 20th-century symphonic tradition, its longer, noble theme, more colour than melody, reminiscent of, say, Hanson — and all firmly tonal.
Similarly, the dance-like opening of the final movement recalls Copland, and one has to wonder whether such frankly old-fashioned music can really reflect the urgencies or indeed the joys of our contemporary world. Such are the risk one runs in writing a new symphony.
The second movement, the most successful, is initially more harmonically adventurous, but the appearance of a languid theme on the first violin seems almost copybook. The movement concentrates on texture and colour, and as such is effective and appealing, with lovely effects at the end, as the rain drops whisper into nothing.
The symphony did, though, fit well with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, which opened the concert. These beautiful pieces, alternately plaintive and powerful in their anguish, are famously revealing of an orchestra.
This was a fine performance, the Slavonic sounding brass especially notable in the second piece, reminding one of Britten’s links with Shostakovich. Only a lack of the sense of the up-swell of the waves in the third reminded us that the Winspear is, after all, a very long way from the ocean.
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