Victoria Sparks, James Sommerville, and the MCO
At this concert, the MCO is very pleased to premiere a percussion concerto originally slated for March 2020: Alexina Louie’s Waking the Lion. The JUNO-winning Louie is “one of Canada’s most highly regarded and most often performed composers” (Canadian Music Centre) while Victoria Sparks—who premieres this major new work – is among Canada’s best known and most celebrated percussionists. An active solo, orchestral and chamber percussionist, Victoria is also a professor at Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba and a regular player with the MCO. This is the second percussion concerto we’ve commissioned for this cherished Manitoba musician, and it’s conducted by prominent young Canadian conductor Naomi Woo.
We also have a second featured musician this concert: the virtuosic French hornist James Sommerville. In corroboration of the historian’s hunch that outstanding trajectories are often set in motion by flukes, James encountered his instrument only by chance in high school. Audiences profit from this accident as much as him. We can’t wait to be among that audience when the Boston Symphony Orchestra principal French hornist performs and introduces excerpts from the Mozart Horn Concerto and the new piece written for him by Canadian composer, Kati Agócs, of which the MCO is a co-commissioning orchestra. Kati is “one of the brightest stars in her generation of composers” (Audiophile Audition), and her concerto was written for James Sommerville as a companion to the Mozart concerto. James was kind enough to record this footage for us in Boston earlier this spring.
Jumping forward from the Mozart nearly two centuries, the MCO strings perform William Grant Still’s Mother and Child. Sometimes called the “Dean of African-American Composers” for his formative influence in African American classical music, Still composed some two hundred works including numerous symphonies and operas. His work Mother and Child remains among his most popular and apparently one of his personal favourites. The brilliant Canadian composer John Burge is an audience-favourite at the MCO, and we can’t wait to present a world premiere of his work Because Forgiveness Needs Another Word at this concert. This premiere is also conducted by Naomi Woo.
This is the fourth concert in our 2021 Spring and Summer Festival, and it’s been a joy to reconnect with you. We hope to connect with you at this eclectic concert as well.
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Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
Anne Manson, Music Director
Karl Stobbe, Concertmaster
10 June 2021 through 24 June 2021
Naomi Woo, conductor
James Sommerville, French horn
Victoria Sparks, percussion
Béla Bartók (1881-1945)
Romanian Folk Dances (tr.Arthur Wilner)
- Stick Dance
- Sash Dance
- In One Spot
- Horn Dance
- Rumanian Polka
- Fast Dance
- Fast Dance
William Grant Still (1895-1978)
Mother and Child
Kati Agócs (b. 1975)
Mr. Sommerville introduces and performs excerpts from this piece, of which the MCO is a co-commissioning orchestra
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major, K. 447
Mr. Sommerville performs a brief excerpt from this piece
John Burge (b. 1961)
Because Forgiveness Needs Another Word
World premiere performance, commissioned with support from the Canada Council for the Arts
Alexina Louie (b. 1949)
Waking the Lion, concerto for percussion & string orchestra
World premiere performance, commissioned with support from the Canada Council for the Arts
MCO at Home sponsor / Christianson Wealth Advisors, National Bank Financial
Naomi Woo is a prominent young Canadian conductor, recognized by CBC and Flare Magazine as a rising star on the Canadian classical music scene and advocate for social change in the classical music world. Currently, Naomi is Assistant Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Sistema Winnipeg’s first-ever Music Director. A commitment to using music to imaginatively transform the world runs through all of her work, including her recently-completed PhD thesis, The Practicality of the Impossible.
In 2018, she was one of only 12 conductors accepted onto the first training course for women conductors at the National Opera Studio in the United Kingdom. Her passion for new work and artistic creation has also led to trainings and residencies at the renowned Darmstädter Ferienkurse, the International Ensemble Modern Academy at Klangspuren Schwaz, Nida Art Colony (Vilnius Academy of the Arts), the Cortona Sessions for New Music, and more.
Known for her collaborative approach and natural command for storytelling and language, she has created new operatic works with Sasha Amaya and Catherine Kontz (A Certain Sense of Order, Tête á Tête Opera Festival 2017), Sophie Seita (Beethoven was a Lesbian, Tête á Tête Opera Festival 2020), and Alex Ho/Julia Cheng (UNTOLD, Snape Maltings 2019). As an assistant, she has worked with conductors including Jac Van Steen, Sir Mark Elder, Matias Bamert, Jessica Cottis, and Jane Glover. Naomi holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she was a Gates Cambridge Scholar.
Winnipeg-based Victoria Sparks is an active solo, orchestral and chamber percussionist. She completed bachelor’s degrees in Music and Education after studying with Rob Gardner and Jauvon Gilliam (University of Manitoba) and her master’s in Percussion Performance with Jon Crabiel (Butler University). Active as a soloist in a variety of chamber music series in Winnipeg, Victoria also performs regularly with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. She is principal Timpani/Percussion with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and works with other local arts organizations including the Brandon Chamber Players, GroundSwell, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and The Winnipeg Singers. In 2016 she had the honour of premiering Sid Robinovitch’s Concerto for Percussion and Strings with the MCO. Victoria works closely with clarinettist Cathy Wood in their collaborative project Viđarneistí. This duo has commissioned works for their unique instrumentation and they perform regularly in Manitoba and at conferences and festivals throughout Canada and internationally.
In 2018, Sparks was delighted to join the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba teaching percussion and directing the percussion ensemble. Previously, she was the Coordinator of Percussion Studies at Brandon University (from 2010). She is the founder and director of the MBA Prairie Percussion Workshop (since 2012), an education- and performance-based event for percussion students in middle and high school. She also maintains an active schedule as an adjudicator and clinician in Manitoba and Saskatchewan through various organizations and festivals.
James Sommerville joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as principal horn in January 1998, and joined the New England Conservatory faculty that fall. At the BSO he occupies the Helen Sagoff Slosberg/Edna S. Kalman chair. He is also Music Director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. At NEC, Sommerville made his first appearance conducting the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in February 2013.
The winner of the highest prizes at the Munich, Toulon, and CBC competitions, Sommerville has pursued a solo career that has spanned 25 years, and has brought critically acclaimed appearances with major orchestras throughout North America and Europe. His disc of the Mozart Horn Concertos with the CBC Vancouver Orchestra won the Juno Award for Best Classical Recording in Canada. Other award-winning CBC recordings include the Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings and Britten's Canticle. Sommerville has recorded chamber music for the Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, CBC, Summit, and Marquis labels. He is a member of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, with whom he tours and records regularly.
Sommerville has been a member of the Toronto and Montreal Symphony Orchestras, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Symphony Nova Scotia, and was acting solo horn of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. He has toured and recorded extensively as an orchestral player. He is heard regularly on the CBC network, and has recorded all the standard solo horn repertoire for broadcast.
As a guest artist and faculty member, Sommerville has performed at many chamber music festivals, throughout Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Recent solo performances of note include the world premiere of Christos Hatzis' Winter Solstice, in Yellowknife, NWT.; the North American premiere of Ligeti's Hamburg Concerto with the BSO; and the John Williams Horn Concerto. In recent seasons, Sommerville has appeared as a soloist in London (with the Academy of St. Martin's in the Fields), and in Costa Rica, Holland, Quebec, Ottawa, and Italy. In 2007, he performed the world premiere of Elliott Carter's Horn Concerto, commissioned for him by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Sommerville also tours as a member of Osvaldo Golijov's Andalucian Dogs. In April, 2010, he stepped in on 48 hours' notice to perform Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2 with Bernard Haitink and the BSO.
“One of the brightest stars in her generation of composers” (Audiophile Audition), Kati Agócs writes music that delivers visceral power and otherworldly lyricism with soulful directness. Her diverse and growing body of works has often been praised for its elegance and emotion and is performed by leading musicians worldwide. The Boston Globe has called it “music of fluidity and austere beauty…with a visceral intensity of expression.” The New York Times has characterized it as “striking…her vocal music has an almost nineteenth-century naturalness.” Kati Agócs is a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the lifetime achievement award in music composition from The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her music is commissioned and performed by many premier organizations including the Toronto Symphony, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Minnesota Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Aspen Music Festival, New World Symphony, Ensemble Reconsil Vienna, Lontano (U.K.), National Arts Centre Orchestra, Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal, Eighth Blackbird. She was nominated for a Juno Award (Classical Composition of the Year) for The Debrecen Passion, the title track on her vocal/orchestral album with Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The Boston Globe named the album one of its Top Ten Classical Recordings of 2016. Gramophone Magazine praised the “penetrating individuality” of the music on the album, calling the title track "an iridescent wonder.” Born in Windsor, Ontario of Hungarian and American parents, Kati Agócs earned doctoral and master's degrees from Juilliard, studying with Milton Babbitt. She serves on the New England Conservatory’s composition faculty and maintains a studio in Flatrock, Newfoundland.
Dr. John Burge holds degrees in Composition and Theory from the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia. Since 1987 he has been teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario where he currently holds the position of Full Professor. He has composed a large body of choral, chamber and orchestral compositions but is particularly well known for his music for strings. The recording of his string orchestra work, Flanders Fields Reflections, by Sinfonia Toronto on the Marquis Classics label, received the 2009 Juno Award for the Best Canadian Classical Composition. His Piano Quartet, for piano, violin, viola and cello, as recorded by the Ensemble Made in Canada for Centredisc, was nominated for the same prize in 2016. A passionate advocate for Canadian music he was a member of the Executive of the Canadian League of Composers from 1993-2007, serving as President from 1998-2006. Since 2009, he has been a board member of the SOCAN Foundation. In recognition of his work as a composer and leadership in the arts in Canada, he received one of the Queen’s University’s 2013 Awards for Excellence in Research and in 2014 he was inducted as a Fellow in the Royal Society of Canada’s Humanities and Arts Division.
Alexina Louie is one of Canada’s most highly regarded and most performed composers. Her desire for self-expression, as well as her explorations of Asian art and philosophy, have contributed to the development of her unique musical voice. Louie’s communicative and highly dramatic work pushes the boundaries of convention and tradition. Performed and broadcast internationally, her commissioned works range across all musical genres, including ballet and opera. She has been commissioned by Canada’s leading arts organizations including The National Ballet of Canada, The Canadian Opera Company, The Montreal Symphony, The Toronto Symphony, and The National Arts Centre Orchestra among many others.
Renowned soloists such as James Ehnes and Jon Kimura Parker have also commissioned works from her. Her vocal and operatic works have been sung by celebrated singers, including Barbara Hannigan, Russell Braun, Daniel Okulitch, and John Relyea. Burnt Toast as well as Toothpaste, her groundbreaking awarding-winning made-for-TV mini comedic operas, have been broadcast around the world. In 2006 Burnt Toast, in competition with 147 films, won the prestigious International Golden Prague Grand Prix.
Among her many awards and distinctions, she has twice won the JUNO Award for Best Classical Composition. In 2002, Louie received an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary. She has also received the National Arts Centre Composers Award, Jules Léger Prize (chamber music), Chalmer’s Award (musical composition), and the Louis Applebaum Award for Excellence in Film Music Composition. In 2002, Alexina Louie was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Louie has recently been awarded the prestigious 2019 Canada Council Molson Prize in the Arts. The award celebrates outstanding achievement in all the artistic disciplines. In addition, in 2019 groups in Vancouver, Calgary, and Cork, Ireland have presented concerts devoted entirely to her solo and chamber music compositions. Alexina Louie’s extensive catalogue can be found at alexinalouie.ca.
Rumanian Folk Dances
Béla Bartók (tr. Arthur Wilner)
Bartok collected the traditional fiddle tunes that make up this delightful suite in the province of Transylvania. This border region, home to legendary Count Dracula the vampire, has at various times been part of Hungary or Rumania. Bartók transcribed the melodies first for solo piano in 1915, then for small orchestra two years later. Czech composer Arthur Willner prepared the highly effective version for string orchestra that you will hear at this concert.
The suite is probably Bartók’s most frequently performed work. His approach here is a straightforward presentation of the tunes, without changing or developing them in any way. The suite has seven brief, strongly contrasted sections: a stately Stick Dance; Sash Dance, a lighter, moderately paced number; the melancholy In One Spot; a moderately paced Horn Dance; a hearty, heavily accented Rumanian Polka; and two rousing Fast Dances.
Mother and Child
William Grant Still
Still became the first African-American composer to have a symphony performed by a major orchestra when the Rochester (NY) Philharmonic Orchestra gave the première of his first symphony in 1931. He was also the first African-American to have an opera produced by a major company (Troubled Island, New York City Opera, 1949); and the first to receive commissions and performances from top-level American orchestras, including New York, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.
He began his musical activities by conducting and arranging for the band and string quartet at Wilberforce College in Ohio. After leaving that school in 1915, he earned a living playing in jazz bands and writing arrangements for them. He continued his formal studies at Oberlin College, then moved to New York in 1919 at the invitation of the celebrated band leader, W.C. Handy.
He worked freelance as an arranger for Broadway shows and popular music artists, and played oboe in theatre pit bands. All the while he continued to build a reputation for his original concert works, and continued his education with noted composers such as the conservative American, George Chadwick, and the avant-garde Frenchman, Edgard Varèse. In 1934, he moved to Los Angeles, where he devoted himself primarily to composing concert and theatre works. Over the years, his catalogue came to include eight operas, five symphonies, ballets, concert suites, incidental music for plays, choral music, and songs.
He composed Mother and Child in 1943. Initially conceived as the central movement of the three-movement Suite for violin and piano, he later prepared this version for string orchestra. A painting or sculpture by American artist Sargent Johnson (1887-1967) provided inspiration for all three movements. The gentle, heartfelt Mother and Child bespeaks a warm, loving relationship between the two characters.
The composer has provided the following note:
My Horn Concerto was written in 2020 for James Sommerville. The concerto’s instrumentation of solo horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, and strings mirrors that of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto K 447. My piece extends the range lower with the addition of Bass Clarinet and Contrabassoon doublings, adding rich, dark woodwind colours to the sonic palette. Sixteen minutes in duration, cast in three movements, my concerto highlights the lyrical properties of the horn and also provides opportunities for the wind and string players in the orchestra to shine. This piece was co-commissioned by an international consortium of five orchestras in the US and Canada for premiere in the 2020-2021 concert season: Symphony Nova Scotia, Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and Prince Edward Island Symphony Orchestra.
Horn Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major, K. 447
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart composed all or part of six horn concertos. Only three of them have survived in their full, original forms, and the rest of the materials exist in various incomplete states. Most of them came into being because of his friendship with the horn player Joseph (Ignaz) Leutgeb. He and Mozart had known each other since the time Leutgeb played in the court orchestra in Mozart’s home town, Salzburg. He became one of the closest friends Mozart had during his formative years. When Mozart and his father Leopold traveled to Italy in 1772/73, Leutgeb went with them, and caused a sensation with his spectacular and sensitive playing.
Leutgeb settled in Vienna in 1777. His name is listed as first horn for that city’s court and national theatre orchestras. Unable to make a living through his playing alone, he took over his father-in-law’s tiny cheese shop with money borrowed from Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father. His retail income allowed him to continue making solo appearances. He was slow in paying back the loan, however, a situation from which Mozart was obliged to rescue him. “Please have a little patience with poor Leutgeb,” Mozart wrote to his father. “If you knew his circumstances and saw how he has to muddle along, you would certainly feel sorry for him. I shall have a word with him and I feel sure that he will pay you, at any rate by installments.”
Mozart and Leutgeb must have shared a pointed sense of humour, since the manuscripts of the horn concertos are laced with affectionate insults aimed at the soloist. For example, Mozart prefaced the score of the concerto, K. 417, with the following words: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has taken pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool, in Vienna on May 27, 1783.” And in the finale of the Concerto in D Major, the orchestra part is marked Allegro (fast), the soloist’s, Adagio (slow), a comment on Leutgeb’s habit of playing behind the beat. Mozart’s inscriptions continue with “Take it easy – for you, Signor Ass – come on – good for you – get it over with – how flat you play – catch your breath – finished? Thank heavens! – enough, enough!” Caustic comments aside, Mozart’s horn concertos are heavenly pieces. They demonstrate that Leutgeb must have been an agile and poetic performer.
Leutgeb asked Mozart for a concerto as early as 1777, but the first fragment of one to appear was a single movement, the cheerful Rondeau, K. 371. Mozart composed it in March 1781. The probable date of composition of the piece published as Concerto No. 3 (the fifth of the six, in order of composition), is 1787. The slow second movement Romanze is exceptionally lyrical, and the bounding concluding rondo inevitably brings echoes of the hunt.
Because Forgiveness Needs Another Word
The composer has provided the following note:
Because Forgiveness Needs Another Word, a single movement work for a string orchestra with pairs of oboes and French horns, was commissioned by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra through funding provided by the Canada Council. There are a number of baroque and early-classical compositions scored for this instrumentation and the broader purpose of this commission was to provide a modern composition for the same complement of instruments.
This work’s title is borrowed from a line from a poem by the Canadian poet and novelist, Ann Michaels. Titled, To Write, this exquisite poem captures both the power of the written word and the driving force behind why writers put pen to paper, especially as an act of defiance. Virtually every line or stanza begins with the word, “because,” and its many strengths can be found in the shifting perspective from the intimate to the expansive. To quote Michaels, it is a poem that recognizes that all poetry at its heart is defiantly “…against oppression, dispossession, indifference and amnesia of every sort.” There is a short stanza from this poem that has stayed with me for many years as follows: “because forgiveness is not about/the past but the future/and needs another word.” In a nutshell, these fourteen words encapsulate so many of society’s large problems in which injustices and past wrongs resonate with so much despair and distrust that it is impossible to move forward towards a resolution and a brighter future. Equally, the words are applicable on the personal level in which it is easy to imagine moments in our own lives, when we have nursed personal grievances for too long without realizing that working towards reconciliation sooner would have been much more beneficial.
Listening to music, especially in a concert setting, is always a moment for reflection. By giving this composition a title of such emotional weight, the composer is simply attempting to engage the listener’s attention on issues where it could be productive to replace the word “forgiveness” with something more forward-looking. In a very abstract way, the composition unfolds with melodic fragments of deep emotional weight in the oboes and French horns that are buried by the very aggressive string writing. Eventually the main thematic material is presented in a more flowing fashion but this melody is often interrupted by moments of anguish until the music settles into an extended cadence that points towards a more optimistic future.
Waking The Lion, concerto for percussion & string orchestra
Although percussion instruments have been integral to my musical voice throughout my compositional career, Waking The Lion is my first percussion concerto.
Each of the two connected movements begins with the ritualistic striking of a large temple bowl. At the outset of the first movement, quiet rustlings in the string orchestra provide an unusual background for the subtle entry of the percussion soloist. Eventually the percussionist continues soft drumming with the fingers. Mallets are taken up as the momentum grows into a short, striking, virtuosic solo passage for the performer. The movement shifts orchestral colours from the skins of the drum heads to predominantly metallic instruments with the closing section of the first movement providing contrast from resonant instruments such as brass wind chimes, vibraphone, crotales, gongs, cymbals, and tam-tams.
The second movement reveals additional versatility from the percussionist with its focus on rapid marimba passages. Waking The Lion ends with lively interactions between the string orchestra and exuberant passages on Asian instruments—the cheng-chengs and Chinese opera gongs.
Maya de Forest