SCRUTINY | There Was More To NACO’s Concert Than A Philip Glass Premiere

By Arthur Kaptainis on March 31, 2022

NACO conducted by Alexander Shelley with violin soloist Blake Pouliot (Photo: Jag Gundu)
NACO conducted by Alexander Shelley with violin soloist Blake Pouliot (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Truth in Our Time; National Arts Centre Orchestra, Alexander Shelly conducting. Wednesday, March 30, 2022, Roy Thomson Hall

Good concert in Roy Thomson Hall Wednesday night by the visiting National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alexander Shelley. It would be nice to start by reporting on the positive elements, but the imperatives of journalism require us to deal first with the Symphony No. 13 of Philip Glass.

To call this world premiere (the second and third performances will be in New York and Ottawa) a disappointment is not strictly accurate, given its conformity to expectations. Three movements, 20 minutes, nonstop pulsing with mostly short melodic cells superimposed, sudden harmonic transitions that manage to be surprising and exasperating at once, expert use of the orchestra to make amends for the lack of thematic fibre.

It is a relatively understated work. Timpani are used as melodic instruments in the first movement, and while the bass drum is sometimes required to thump unimaginatively, percussion is mercifully restrained.

A past master of his own style, Glass wisely started the second movement with strings after engaging the brass repeatedly in the first. At one point, a long line for violins offered the ear something to follow. Yet this melody was devoid of phrasing. The strategy, it seemed, was to leave the listener sated and undernourished at once.

This symphony (not his most recent, the 14th already having been recorded) was commissioned by the NACO with the help of the family of the ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, to whose memory the work is dedicated. Glass, in his own program note, struggled to link his music with “Truth in Our Time,” the stated theme of the concert. Conducting from memory, Shelley kept matters tidy. There were some nice dips and lifts in volume. Applause by the otherwise enthusiastic crowd was polite. The composer was not present.

NACO conducted by Alexander Shelley (Photo: Jag Gundu)
NACO conducted by Alexander Shelley (Photo: Jag Gundu)

There is an aura of ironic truth-telling surrounding Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9, a score of 1945 that was supposed to celebrate with suitable grandeur the triumph of Soviet forces over Nazism but in fact returned to classical values in a puckish manner that some hear as anti-establishment defiance. The 65 players of the midsize NACO (including many extras) were nicely tailored to this nimble music, in which wind solos are plentiful. Sometimes palming his long baton and leading with the left hand, Shelley evoked a rich atmosphere in the Moderato movement, deftly capturing the melancholy of its odd waltz beat. While the NACO strings are essentially bright in tone, they can cast shadows where shadows are needed.

Between Shostakovich and Glass came Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, a frankly cinematic work, also from 1945, that has lately acquired popularity after decades of disregard as a relic of too-late romanticism. Our soloist was the 28-year-old Canadian Blake Pouliot, a who projects his sweet sound more through precision than bow pressure. Yet, even at its most chamberlike, his playing was ample in expression.

Shelley and his musicians offered a detailed accompaniment, which rose in the finale to concerto-for-orchestra levels of engagement. Pouliot’s elastic stage deportment reminded us of his professional history as an actor. He adopted a calmer style in We do exist!, a solemn tribute to Ukraine by Yuri Shevchenko based on the beleaguered country’s anthem, presented as an encore.

The concert began with Nicole Lizée’s Zeiss After Dark, a brief overture combining flute-and-mallet glitter with clapping hands. Strings were silent. Next came an unannounced recitation by the Canadian poet Yao. The words were intense and evocative — “absurd absurdity” was the refrain — but the relevance of the performance was unclear.

Masks were the norm, on stage and off, at this Toronto Symphony Orchestra presentation. The concert in Ottawa on April 14 will be livestreamed and available until May 5.

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