On Friday, March 11th, 2016, I attended the Calgary Philharmonic performance with special guest Jonathan Biss for Beethoven’s piano concerto no. 2 in b-flat major, op. 19. In addition, the Calgary Philharmonic would be performing both a piece by Kernis; A Whisper, Echo, A Cry and Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 by Rachmaninoff.
I chose this program specifically because of my love of Beethoven. I was surprised to learn that in order to retain the performing rights for this piece, Beethoven delayed the publication until 1801. The program flyer itself described both the Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Symphonic Dances, yet there was no explanation of the piece by Kernis.
I was able to identify the various sections of the orchestra. Seeing brass and strings together, woodwinds (including oboe and bassoons) alongside the center stage piano was a real treat. The beauty of music is the interchangeability of various instruments to create a whole new level of sound. The venue itself is set up very similar to the Segram Center for the Arts in Los Angeles. What I saw at the Arts Commons in Calgary was a full pipe organ that I sorely wished was a part of the performance. The acoustics of this venue would best be experienced from the upper circle; I choose this time to sit left stage, front row. It felt as if I was in the orchestra. From my vantage, the percussion section of bass drum, crash cymbals, and kettle drums were more pronounced; as was the third string section of violins. I was also privileged to observe a professional harpist for this performance, in previous concerts I’ve attended, the harp was drowned out, leaving much to be desired.
The program opened with a piece that I am unfamiliar with. Written in 2014 by Kernis; Whisper, Echo, A Cry felt as if it was being performed by a high school orchestra at a sight reading competition. Honestly, I felt that I had been cheated out of my hard earned money. The timing of the piece felt so off, that it actually hurt my ears trying to listen to it. Six minutes of hell ensued as I watched conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing strain to keep it together. It felt as if the orchestra was objecting to the guest conductor’s choice in music. Not that I blame them, I would be too if I was using them to showcase someone else’s work.
My concern was quickly dispelled as they began the Concerto No. 2. The solid opening was enough to keep me glued to the seat for the remainder of the performance. It was clear this was a group of well-seasoned professionals, I felt they knew this piece by heart.
The program described the Concerto No. 2 as having ‘An arresting call to attention, followed by a vigorous first theme and a relaxed second.’ I’m not sure where they get describing this piece like that, it feels to me like two people in the midst of the “we need to talk” conversation. A back and forth describing the beauty of the relationship, the good times they shared; the delicate moments that make worthwhile connections in life.
The soloist, Jonathan Biss played the entirely from memory. The time, effort and dedication required to memorize such a complex piece was absolutely mesmerizing. It was apparent that the orchestra, conductor, and soloist were in sync; harmoniously translating a two dimensional musical score into a palatable meal for the senses.
The intermission filled the lobby with patrons and the opportunity to purchase music, as well as meet Mr. Biss. I took the opportunity to speak with the patron to my left about the first piece (Kern), she said she enjoyed it. Perhaps my ears need a tune up. As the throws of the masses departed for socializing, I chose instead to explore the upper crust of the venue. The view is spectacular, I would like to see the nutcracker on my next visit here.
The Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 has several movements that don’t fit together in my opinion. It feels like several unfinished pieces threaded together. The program explains the first opening of the piece was with an orchestra that was unfamiliar with it, causing Sergei Rachmaninoff to be crushed by the negative reviews. While the first time may not lead to success, the program explains ‘the last 25 years have witnessed a strong growth in appreciation of this moody, many-layered and spectacularly orchestrated work, as testified by numerous live performances and recordings.’
To me, that quote says we need more musicians to challenge the norm and open more venues for the arts. Classical music is a dying art, and the appreciation from this educational adventure has reminded me that the beauty in sound is best enjoyed in person, in harmony with the flow of life.