Wednesday, October 28, 2009

First Pops concert of the season a mixed bag for Niagara Symphony

This past weekend, as I noted in my last posting, the Niagara Symphony got their Pops! season underway with a concert of mixed blessings featuring the second of four young conductors vying for the podium this season. Toronto-born Bradley Thachuk lead the orchestra through their paces Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon in performances that included quite a few highs and a few lows.

First, let's look at the lows. Saturday evening, the orchestra just didn't sound 'together' for some reason; their playing was at times ragged and uneven. On a few occasions they all came together as one, but for a lot of the time it seemed like conductor pitted against the orchestra. The programming, while at times imaginative, such as with the clever Beatles medley "Love Is All You Need" and a fine interpretation of Freddie Mercury's "Bohemian Rhapsody", arranged by Thachuk himself, was also often lost on some of the older members of the audience, I found, who likely had no idea who Sting or The Police were. But Thachuk did go out of his way to explain the music, comparing popular versions of classical themes with snippets of the modern-day recordings before allowing the orchestra to play the original classical theme.

The most unfortunate part of Saturday evening's performance proved to be the opening to the second half, when Thachuk, clad in jeans and a casual shirt, strode onstage with his electric guitar to lead the orchestra in Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze". The only problem was, the amplifier refused to co-operate, leaving Thachuk fuming and leaving the stage to rid himself of the guitar while the orchestra kept playing the music. That of course, raised the age-old question often posed by musicians themselves, I gather: if we are playing fine while the conductor is temporarily unavailable, do we really need a conductor to begin with? I remember the classic line from Garrison Keillor's "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra" where the first violins felt the loss of the conductor would simply give the audience an unobstructed view of the musicians! Anway, both conductor and orchestra recovered from the incident and made a go of it in the second half of the program.

On Sunday afternoon, always the better attended concert in the Pops! series, the orchestra sounded much more together and Thachuk seemed more at ease on the podium than the previous evening, providing us with a much more satisfying musical experience. The performance was still not letter-perfect; the guitar solo on "Purple Haze" went off without a hitch this time but was just a bit too loud for this listener, for example. But overall, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves more on Sunday, and that included the audience, which very enthusiastically applauded at the end of the performance. It was clear Thachuk had made a good impression on this occasion, and I suspect many could see him fronting the orchestra on an ongoing basis.

The orchestra was particularly strong in the two Rachmaninoff pieces on the program, both given a lot of love and care by Maestro Thachuk. The orchestra responded with very strong performances of the Adagio from the Symphony No. 2 and the Adagio from the Second Piano Concerto, featuring Niagara Falls' own Blair Salter as the piano soloist. She is all of 22 years of age, but handled the work with a lot of sensitivity, making for a satisfying performance of the famously romantic movement.

As for me, well, I may be in the minority when I say this, but even with the good response from the audiences on the weekend, I personally feel we need someone with a bit more 'seasoning' if you will, than Thachuk currently provides. He proved to be an engaging personality with a desire to please, but the orchestra's inability to come together on Saturday evening worries me. Had he earned the respect of the musicians or not? We just don't know. Don't get me wrong, he is a good guy who knows his music and plays a mean guitar, and he might very well win the competition at the end of the season, but I want to see what they other candidates bring to the table first before I endorse Bradley. The fact he is Toronto-born is obviously going to play in his favour, as it has been many years since we had a Canadian-born conductor lead the orchestra for any length of time, but that should not be the only criteria. His credentials are a little thin in my opinion, having been Associate Conductor of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic and Music Director of the Fort Wayne Youth Symphony. Enthusiasm is definitely an asset, but more experience won't be a bad thing, either.

Next up, Masters 2 will see the return of John Morris Russell, who conducted the finale last season, in a program titled "Hot Cross Buns - English Style". Music will be by William Boyce, Vaughan Williams, Johann Christian Bach, and Haydn. The performance will be on Sunday, November 29th, and tickets are available by calling the Brock box office at 905-688-5550, ext. 3257.

October 28th, 2009.

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