Concert review: 12 February 2020

Canadian cellist delivers drama, pathos at MCO concert

by Holly Harris

Cellist Ariel Barnes, one of Canada’s top classical artists, treated the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra audience Wednesday night to two wildly diverse works that showed off his dazzling artistry.

With his bow firmly planted in both traditional and cutting-edge contemporary music worlds, Barnes has also garnered two Western Canadian Music Awards and a Juno nomination for his critically acclaimed recordings.

The concert at Westminster United Church also welcomed back guest conductor Earl Stafford to the podium; the 67-year-old leads with the same gusto and dramatic flair whether leading a full-scale orchestra or a more intimate string ensemble, with the players clearly in tune with his dynamic approach.

It’s always humbling to try imagine how many times an artist has performed a cornerstone work for their chosen instrument. Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, an unfolding series of increasingly difficult variations based on a theme in the rococo style, is one such piece, with Barnes tackling the work with all the freshness of new discovery.

He immediately infused its opening theme with eloquent grace and lyrical phrasing before displaying his technical prowess, including agile figuration of his triplet figures during the second variation, tossing off relentless 32nd notes as easily as child’s play during the fourth section, and gleefully rendering his buzzing trills, including skating up and down his entire range during the fifth.

But he also revealed the work’s beating heart and Russian soul during its more sombre sections. A highlight was its melancholic sixth variation, in which his solo voice seemed to bleed out of the orchestra, with his cadenza in particular soaked in world-weary pathos. Thankfully, these darker shadows were given relief during his bow-blazing finale fuelled by plenty of multiple stops and rapid-fire arpeggios that — as expected — led to a rousing standing ovation, with cheers of “Bravo!” from his rapt listeners.

The program also featured the world première of award-winning Vancouver-based composer Marcus Goddard’s Cello Concerto, an innocuously titled work that provides little hint at what’s to come. The work is the latest in the MCO’s admirable “New Concerto Project,” with Goddard — who also serves as associate principal trumpet for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra as well as Victoria Symphony’s composer-in-residence — in attendance.

Once again, Barnes immediately got down to the task at hand, with the opening movement, Top Groove, driving forward with jagged angularity, as the cellist ripped off a rogue’s gallery of strident chords, polyrhythms, shifting metres, snap pizzicatos, woozy pitch bends and careening glissandi. Stafford and his equally fearless players kept well apace, bolstered by Victoria Sparks’ rat-a-tat snare drum and percussive strikes on her tom-toms.

The second movement, Other Worlds, provided welcomed repose from the previous section, and was at its best during more sparsely orchestrated moments that allowed this juggernaut to catch its breath — even more would have created better balance.

The finale, Hyperkinetic, lived up to its moniker, while also serving to further showcase Barnes’ fierce bravura with virtually non-stop playing, leading to another thundering standing ovation. Kudos to Barnes, Stafford and the intrepid MCO players — and, naturally, to Goddard — for bringing to life this cello concerto on steroids that one hopes will be heard again.

The evening also included Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra in C Major, Op. 48, closely entwined with the legacy of legendary American ballet choreographer George Balanchine, who based his signature work, Serenade, on its soaring string score.

Tempo is always a matter of taste, and Stafford chose a brisker pace for its first movement — perhaps still breathless from the Goddard work — that defused some of the sweetness in the shimmering strings. The Waltz fared better, given lilt and grace, as did the subsequent Elegie, with each lyrical phrase cresting onto sonorous shores. Finally, the Temo Russo teemed with sprightly dancelike rhythms before leading to the re-statement of its sweeping theme, which never fails to leave a lump in the throat.

When most soloists rightfully rest — or recover — backstage after performances, it’s noteworthy that Barnes slipped into the house to hear this work. He could be spied wholly engaged with the music as if he were still onstage with the orchestra — in the generous spirit of renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma, who once took a seat with Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra players following his solo appearance many years ago.

Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite, Op. 29, No. 2 rounded out the program as a charming confection, so quintessentially British that famous English folk song Greensleeves even makes a cameo appearance. It was an ideal work to provide more genteel balance and ballast for the night’s passionate storms.

Manitoba Chamber Orchestra
with cellist Ariel Barnes
Westminster United Church
Wednesday, Feb. 12
Four and a half stars out of five
Attendance: 624