Jane Enkin reviews Robinovitch work
From WinnipgJewishReview.com, by Jane Enkin, 25 January 2016
A delighted audience responded with great happiness to Sid Robinovitch’s invigorating new Concerto for Percussion and Strings. Soloist Victoria Sparks played marimba and vibraphone, with assurance and fluency. She communicated warmly with both audience and orchestra, sharing her sense of fun and her inspiring energy.
Robinovitch is a treasured member of Winnipeg’s Jewish community. His compositions have been performed widely by orchestras and choirs in Canada, the United States and Israel. Many of his pieces incorporate traditional texts or folk material, including his compositions drawing on the psalms, klezmer music and Judeo-Spanish songs. In this new piece, I heard the sounds of Spain and Latin America.
The whole piece was warm and filled with joy. It was fabulous visually — Sparks danced as she moved back and forth from high pitches to low on her long instruments. Guest conductor Alain Trudel was dancing too.
This new work followed the classical form of the concertos by Leopold Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach which preceded it in the program, with a fast movement, a slow, mellow one, and then an even faster third movement to close.
The first movement of Robinovitch’s concerto offered a lush sound from the very start with sweeping, rich lines from the strings. The soloist and the strings played wonderfully singable melodies, not surprising, I suppose, from a composer who so frequently writes for choirs. I was glad that many of the musical themes were repeated throughout the movement. As with the Bach concerto heard earlier in the evening, we had the chance to drink in a melody and then enjoy hearing it again, something to savour.
This first movement was a journey, often at a bright, fun pace, but with many dreamy pauses for contemplation. We heard slow, full phrases, taking advantage of the lyrical playing of the strings, including the sound of the two bass players Theodore Chan and Paul Nagelberg, who played an instrument adapted to provide extra low notes.
After this journey, the second movement arrived somewhere gentle and intriguing. Sparks switched from the earthy sounds of the marimba to the more shimmering vibraphone. Along with her beautiful melodies, we heard other significant voices – monologues by Desiree Abbey on the cello, intense dialogues between Sparks and the violin of Concert Master Karl Stobbes.
Both of these movements, with the varied rhythms on marimba, vibraphone and shaker played by Sparks and the repeated rhythmic figures by the strings, as well as the rich, heartfelt melodies, reminded me of the works of 20th century composers who drew on traditional Spanish folk music, such as Maurice Ravel, Joaquin Rodrigo and Manuel de Falla.
The third movement thrilled with the bustling, urban energy you hear in a piece by Bernstein or Gershwin. Our location now was resolutely new world. Perhaps the Spanish rhythms were echoed by a bit of Cuban or Latin American sound, but mostly we heard driving energy, with flashy arpeggios on the marimba over strong percussive rhythms from the strings. Viola player Daniel Scholz’s lyrical melody provided a brief interlude, and then the intense pulse resumed. Yet somehow the music was still relaxed, building not in tension but in celebration.
Such a celebration that after Sparks, Robinovitch and the MCO took their bows, they were called back to repeat the third movement, again to happy applause.
Victoria Sparks teaches percussion at Brandon University, University of Manitoba and Canadian Mennonite University, and performs regularly with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and other ensembles.
The concerto was commissioned by the Manitoba Arts Council.
It was conducted, as was the whole evening, by Alain Trudel, who has conducted every major orchestra in Canada and many beyond our borders, and works frequently with ensembles of young musicians.
The evening opened with the Concerto for Two Horns in E-Flat Major by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father. I was not familiar with this work, but it was easy to take in and quite lovely. The concerto featured Patricia Evans, Principal Horn of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Ken McDonald, Associate Principal Horn of the WSO, both frequent soloists with a variety of orchestras and ensembles.
There was an especially warm communication between the two accomplished French horn players. The orchestra began the music in a gentle, formal tone, then the horns joined them playing in unison. Occasionally, one horn sustained a simple line while the other played flourishes. The score treated all the musicians as a unified ensemble.
The second movement was in a much darker mood, still gentle and low energy. The horns played rich harmonies, melodic and mellow.
In the third movement everyone on stage began to have fun. We heard a stately yet lively dance, the kind of music the gentry might have danced to on their country estates. Then the horns left the ballroom and called the hunt, in short blasts and ringing melodies. I loved hearing loud phrases followed by the soft, distant echoes of the same melody. And I loved the triumph on the horn players’ faces, actually the triumph expressed by the whole orchestra, as the work approached its energetic conclusion.
The second work of the evening was one I really love, the gorgeous Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. Many people hear Handel’s Messiah at least once a year — I found myself thinking that hearing this concerto once a year would not be too much for me. I know the themes well (especially the first and second of the three movements) but it is such a rich and fulfilling experience to be in the room with the musicians and hear this nuanced score in person.
In the Bach Double Concerto the soloists take centre stage. Kerry DuWors, who has played solos around the world, is Professor of Violin at Brandon University. Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster of the MCO, much in demand as soloist and ensemble player, is an award-winning recording artist.
Bach’s score stands in contrast to the Leopold Mozart piece, where the orchestra played as a unified ensemble, and even the horn players often blended in. In addition to the brilliant soloing of DuWors and Stobbe, many individual voices were prominent in the Bach work, especially Desiree Abbey’s cello lines and the powerful, urgent bass of Theodore Chan.
There was an aggressive leap into the music from the first note – you don’t dip in your toe with this concerto, you’re immersed from the beginning. I tried to think of a metaphor for this movement that would not be anachronistic, and pictured a ride on a swift horse up hills and down through valleys, always moving forward.
The second, slow movement is rich with swooning sounds. A small number of breathtakingly beautiful melodies are repeated many times in delays, echoes and variations. It was during this movement that I heard the clear distinctions between the two violinists — first the velvet of DuWors and then the crystal of Stobbe. As for the melodies themselves, are they love songs? Prayers? Surely they carry the depth and expressive power of both.
The third movement was energetic, exciting and beautifully played, but after the standing ovation the melodies from slow movement lingered in my mind.
The next work of the evening was the Lyric Suite by Alban Berg, a student of Arnold Schoenberg. It was written in 1925 as a string quartet, then arranged by the composer for string orchestra.
I’m not sure what I would have thought of this unfamiliar piece without the extensive program notes and the amusing, fascinating introduction by conductor Alain Trudel. In Berg’s lifetime, the piece was presented simply as music, without any special meaning. In the 1970s, however, musicologists looked at the annotated copy that Berg gave to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the married woman with whom he shared a secret, hopeless love. It turned out that the entire piece was composed with this passion in mind.
Because of Berg’s association with Schoenberg and terms such as “atonality” and “serialism,” I expected to find the music challenging. It turned out to be as accessible as any other piece of the evening — after all, this music was “modern” a century ago. All the abrupt breaks in phrases, leaps in pitch, sudden changes in rhythm and tone, and other features of this style have become part of the regular musical vocabulary of composers who write film scores.
Although it was hard to pick up most of the specific details Trudel described — melodies based on the notes that correspond to the two lovers’ initials, for example, which the conductor sang for us in his introduction — the pain expressed in the music was clear. Very quiet passages built uncomfortable levels of tension. It seemed to me this angst-filled music was focussed more on the composer’s despair than on yearning for the one he loved. The music took me places I didn’t really want to go; it’s not a piece I feel the need to hear again.
I’m so glad that the evening ended in a joyful, beautiful way, buoyed up by the lovely music of Sid Robinovitch.
A note about upcoming concerts: There are many programs still to come in the MCO calendar. Of special interest to WJR readers is the June 9, 2016 performance by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian of Roberto Sierra’s Songs from the Diaspora, settings of Sephardi songs of longing and exile.
Jane Enkin / janeenkinmusic.com