WFP Stafford, Lussier review

Masters serve up treats with MCO

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Two revered elders of Winnipeg’s music community shared the stage Tuesday night when the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra presented an eclectic program of all things strings.

Conductor/pianist Earl Stafford is perhaps best known for his tenure as the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s music director/principal conductor between 1984-2009. He continues to guest-conduct and teach internationally, including leading the Saskatoon Symphony until 2010.

However, MCO fans might also well remember him for saving the day in March 2013, stepping in on scant notice for an ailing music director Anne Manson to lead the players in Stravinsky’s baton-defying L’Histoire Du Soldate (The Soldier’s Tale). This time, Stafford led another work — and balletic, to boot — by the same composer: Stravinsky’s Neo-Classical Apollo (Apollon musagète).

It is arguably difficult to listen to this quasi-programmatic ballet score composed in 1927-28, and (eventually) choreographed by the brilliant George Balanchine without seeing dancers onstage for whom it was intended. Nevertheless, Stafford led the musicians through the episodic work’s fascinating twists and turns with gusto — that became a revelation in itself for falling on the heels of the riot-inspiring The Rite of Spring composed a mere 15 years prior.

Eric Lussier likewise is perhaps best known as the founding artistic director/conductor of Winnipeg’s MusikBarock Ensemble, which partners with other musical ensembles in lieu of producing its own regular concert series. Lussier’s close ties with the MCO also run deep, having donated his collection of scores to the organization in 2012, a gift that promises to yield much Baroque fruit for years to come.

One of those is J.S. Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A Major (BWV 1055). A beaming Lussier took the stage as soloist while also conducting the players from his harpsichord placed centre stage throughout its three movements.

After first setting a more relaxed tempo, Lussier quickly displayed his renowned florid ornamentation and quicksilver runs in the opening Allegro. The scaled-down orchestra responded to his every nod, shoulder shrug and graceful hand gesture that created genuine intimacy. He also kept things moving during the Larghetto with its delicate filigree textures until the exuberant Allegro ma non tanto. The audience of 520 cheered and stomped its feet for the players, clearly relishing seeing the white-bearded Lussier in his natural element that led to two curtain calls.

Nino Rota is one composer whose music we don’t hear nearly often enough. His Concerto for Strings, penned in 1964-65 for Italian chamber ensemble I Musici, is a compact four-movement work that bursts with vibrant colour and life. Once again, Stafford passionately led the musicians throughout the estimated 15-minute work, with its rollicking, circus-life Finale an enthralling highlight. He wisely allowed the Prelude to breathe on its with a flexible approach that was just right. The Scherzo unfolds as its own psychodrama, including a lushly rendered short violin solo by MCO concertmaster Karl Stobbe. Aria rises to its shrieking mid-point climax before plummeting to the depths. This proved to be one of the most satisfying works heard on any stage to date.

The program closed with Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, Op. 29, No. 2 — one of those venerable pieces this orchestra does so well. Kudos again to Stobbe for his exotic, Algerian-flavoured solo during the Intermezzo that eventually yields to the folksy Finale.

In an age that celebrates youth above all else, it’s gratifying to see senior artists with their decades of invaluable experience given their just due. Hopefully, we will see these two musical statesmen back again — and soon.

Winnipeg Free Press, 15 January 2015
Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Westminster United Church
Tuesday, 13 January 2015
Attendance: 520
3.5 stars out of 5