Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So far so good for the Niagara Symphony this season

In my last entry on the weeknd, I wrote of the start of the new season for the Niagara Symphony; their 62nd. I mentioned it showed great promise and the interest generated by the search for a new Music Director was certainly a good thing at this point in time.

Now that I've been to the first Masters concert of the season, I think we can safely assume the orchestra has already found safer ground and is sounding pretty darn good, thank you very much. The first of the four conductors vying for the podium this season is Timothy Hankewich, who hails from British Columbia and presently is Music Director of the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra. He had the enviable task of kicking off the season and making an early mark in the hearts and minds of symphony patrons, many of whom will be influencing the final decision on who will lead the orchestra next season.

The program began with a piece all four candidates will conduct at their Masters concert this year: Chase the Sun by T. Patrick Carrabre. This acts as a sort of comparision piece for the audience, although I think most will not really notice the subtle nuances each conductor will bring to the piece over the course of the season. Up next was a jubilant work by Hankewich's mentor, Malcolm Forsyth, titled Siyajabula! We Rejoice! It is full of colour and interesting influences from Forstyth's native South Africa. The solo piece on the program featured the Niagara Symphony's associate concertmaster, Xiaoling Li performing the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218. Like all of Mozart's five violin concertos, this one is melodic and easy on the ears, with interesting cadenzas and a generally sunny disposition. Too bad Mozart didn't appear to like the violin concertos himself. Li was quite enjoyable, although clearly she was not used to the spotlight, not knowing quite what to do afterwards when the obligatory flower bouquet was presented to her.

After intermission, Hankewich took the gloves off and led the orchestra through a pretty bombastic interpretation of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. It is not easy to not present Tchaikovsky with a certain amount of bombast, frankly, and this interpretation was particularly noisy, which seemed to meet with the general approval of the audience on Sunday afternoon. Hankewich clearly took command of the orchestra and they appeared to enjoy the workout; I have not often heard them play so cohesively before, and that made for a fairly rewarding afternoon of music making. Hankewich showed he wants this job, and it is now up to the remaining three conductors to unseat the early favourite for the post.

So, where do we stand after this first weekend? Well, I can safely say the conductor search this time round is much more interesting than the last time we went down this road several years ago when Michael Reason won out over a generally lacklustre bunch of conductors that time out. I think we're in for a very interesting season with many more pleasant surprises from the candidates. Hankewich doesn't appear again until December when he conducts the second Pops! concert of the season, the ever-popular Holiday Pops concert. That presents a double-edged sword for this candidate, I think, as he makes his mark early and now it will be up to the others to erase his early lead; however, the season runs to next May, and like a movie that has 'Oscar' written all over it when it first comes out in say, May, could be forgotten when the voting actually takes place for the Academy Awards the following winter. We'll see how things go, but so far, Hankewich has made quite a positive impression his first time out.

Next up, Bradley Thachuk leads the orchestra in the first of the Pops! performances this season, titled Classic Rock, and playing the Sean O'Sullivan Theatre October 24 and 25. Should be quite a fun afternoon or evening down at Brock!

October 7th, 2009.

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