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The opening of the CPO’s new concert season brought a full house to Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall. To give the concert some musical zip, the program featured not only Mussorgsky’s colourful Pictures at an Exhibition, but also a newly commissioned choral work by Alberta composer John Estacio.
The program began with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, always a crowd pleaser, which was performed cleanly and crisply, and with a commanding surge of energy at the conclusion. Rune Bergmann, the orchestra’s music director led the way, pacing the music well and avoiding the temptation to rush the exciting ending. The string playing was especially beautiful here, with the phrases gracefully shaped and a rich, full string tone.
The Beethoven overture was followed by the newly commissioned choral piece by John Estacio. Estacio chose the poem High Flight by the 19-year-old Second World War training pilot John Gillespie Magee as his text. The poem expresses in effulgent language the experience of flying, the sonnet’s images also serving metaphorically to convey the happy emotions surrounding the 60th anniversary of the CPO’s Chorus, the occasion for the commission of the work.
Suitable to the sentiments of the text, Estacio’s new work is filled with exultation and joy, the elevated phrases of the text conveyed with bold, declamatory writing for the chorus leavened with vivid orchestral colours and rhythms. This is a work that needs a large chorus for its full effect, one that can make bold, striking statements for the harmonies, sometimes intense, sometimes blended to make their mark. The chorus, responding well to the new work and (for them) a new style, delivered the goods, showing why the chorus has developed its reputation for fine choral performances.
Estacio’s music always has a strong sense of harmonic progression, driving forward to convey a sense of cumulation at the end of the musical paragraphs. This quality was much in evidence here, as was the strong melodic lines that underscore specific images and words. Much enjoyed by the audience, this new work reinforced the impression of Estacio as one of Canada’s most successful and talented composers. And he is an Albertan to boot.
The title work for the program, occupying more than half the time, was Mussorgsky’s much-loved Pictures at an Exhibition. Heard in the familiar Ravel orchestration, this is grateful music for the orchestra to play, with many solo spots, including one for the saxophone. It concludes with a splashy, noisy finish.
Tucking into music it clearly likes to play, the CPO gave a strongly focused, well-executed account of the music, Bergmann evidently enjoying himself at the podium. The applause at the conclusion was loud and long. Playing to the energy of the audience, Bergmann, the Norwegian Albertan now sporting a cowboy hat, offered the Hoe-down movement from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo as an encore, the audience responding to the western motif with rhythmic clapping and hoots from the floor.
The concert, part traditional classical, part homespun, walked the tightrope between classical and pop styles, suggesting that the CPO serves a wide range of listeners with different tastes in music. The season as whole offers a remarkably wide range of events and styles, ranging from Serene Ryder’s and Brett Kissel’s appearances over the next two months, to the first Calgary performance of the very modern Piano Concerto by Witold Lutoslawski’s with pianist Ramon Rabinovich, to Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony in November. The CPO’s marketing message could not be clearer: Come one, come all.