Neither the flu, nor rain, nor Halloween kept a near full-house crowd from attending the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s Of Paintings, Prayers and Plays concert on Saturday night.
And the loyalty paid off with an interesting musical evening at the Red Deer College Arts Centre — with some curious moments.
The concert started out with a vivid RDSO performance of Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano.
As each movement, inspired by a different Botticelli painting, was played by the slightly reduced orchestra, an image of the corresponding artwork was projected onto a screen. This clever touch allowed the audience to directly compare the composition with its muse.
Spring seemed to be ushered in by processional music, as the painting, La Primavera, was projected above the orchestra. Like the artwork, which depicts Mother Nature sowing flowers and the Three Graces doing a graceful reel, the Respighi music similarly conjured abundant nature and warm breezes.
The music turned more mysterious and Middle Eastern in the second movement, based on the painting, Adoration of the Magi. There was a more regal air and gravity to the melody line that was beautifully carried by the woodwind section.
The Birth of Venus, which famously depicts a naked Venus stepping out of a clamshell, inspired a majestic final movement, with its restless musical strains suggesting gusting winds.
The image-laden Respighi piece was a crowd-pleaser — as was the composition that followed it, Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord.
Neil Cockburn, the English-born guest harpsichordist from Calgary, performed the piece with the RSDO’s string section and the effect was languorous and beautiful.
While the Oxford University undergrad, who also studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, U.K., specializes in organ music, he coaxed exquisite notes from the harpsichord, which to some modern ears can sound thin and tinny. Cockburn created crisp, crystalline sounds, whether the ornamental melody was slow and steady, or dance-like. And the result was simply gorgeous.
That would not be the word to describe his second piece — an early 20th-century harpsichord composition by Spain’s Manuel de Falla, who must have been a very unusual man.
As he grew older, de Falla’s devotion to God grew stronger, causing him to abandon earlier folkloric flourishes in his compositions to focus on purity of sound.
His difficult Concerto for Harpsichord, which was well played played by Cockburn and five RDSO musicians, is a complete curiosity — it sounded like Stravinsky in a Baroque wig.
Conductor Claude Lapalme called it “schizophrenic” music, because it’s at once colourful, as well as harsh and dischordant. Parts would fit my young daughter’s definition of “monster music” because of its ominous, tense feel — so perhaps the de Falla piece was a good choice for Halloween night.
But I suspect few listeners were sorry it was only 13 minutes long.
The evening’s final composition, Divertissement, by French composer Jacques Ibert, was played by a reduced orchestra and brought more odd-ball moments.
Originally written, in part, to score a 1920s silent French movie called The Italian Straw Hat, the music parodies, among other things, The Wedding March, the waltz, and parade music. It also contains a Bugs Bunny-worthy chase sequence that ends with prolonged blasts of a whistle — which Lapalme called an “unusual percussive instrument.”
Divertissement is proof that challenging instrumental music doesn’t have to be serious.