It was a big, cymbals-crashing, kettle drum-booming finish for the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s season on Friday night at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.
You’ve got to hand it to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky for really knowing how to wrap up a composition — in this case with his famous, grandiose Great Gate of Kiev theme from his Pictures at an Exhibition.
You’ve also got to credit the RDSO for knowing how to make a grand, end-of-season exit. About 80 musicians, both from the RDSO and guest musicians from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, crowded onto the stage to create some colourful noise with Mussorgsky’s great work, which describes an 1874 posthumous exhibit of pictures by visual artist Viktor Hartmann.
With this monumental piece, Mussorgsky proved it’s possible to describe visual art with music — even though it’s kind of like dancing about architecture.
The combined orchestras performed Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano composition and created a vivid listening experience. It started with an overture depicting people walking through a gallery, continuing with a sinister passage describing Hartmann’s sketch of a gnome-shaped nutcracker.
A famous saxophone melody took listeners into Hartmann’s picture of a troubadour singing at a castle. More scenes were aurally painted: of lively play in the Tuileries gardens in Paris; of a Polish oxcart rolling along to the sound of a tuba; of a chirpy ballet featuring whimsical chicks still in their shells.
Midway through, a more dramatic tone was set by the string section, contrasting portraits of a rich Jewish man and a poor one.
The composition became stormier and gloomier, describing a marketplace dispute and a walk through the Roman catacombs. Then it turned into a grotesque march, reflecting Hartmann’s drawing of a Slavic folkloric witch.
Mussorgsky’s piece concluded in triumphal, percussive tones that describe Hartmann’s grand design for a city gate that was never built. Cue the gongs, the drums, the cymbals, the horns — and ultimately an ovation for the orchestras’ expressive rendering of a unique work.
Although the RDSO audience was somewhat depleted, those who didn’t choose to instead watch the Red Deer Rebels play a Memorial Cup game, were up on their feet applauding.
The concert started in less imposing, but no less descriptive style. RDSO music director Claude Lapalme premiered his original composition, Under the Domes of San Marco, performed by RDSO musicians.
Lapalme imagined all the great music performed in this Venice landmark, from the Renaissance to the late Baroque period. His piece references — or as Lapalme put it “generously pilfers” — from the works of several composers, especially one of his favourites, Claudio Monteverdi.
Chimes reminiscent of church bells started the piece. Snippets of various melodies faded in and out — almost as if someone walking though St. Mark’s Basilica heard ghostly echoes of music from various eras. Sometimes these tunes collided and created dissonance. The composition slowed and nearly faded away, until a fragment of familiar violin melody was faintly heard once again.
Although this work required more of listeners than most of Lapalme’s more melodious arrangements, the compelling composition received a warm audience reception.
The descriptive theme was carried on through a third piece on the program — French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion excerpts. Lapalme said these were “written to delight.” The stately overture, gracious ballets, a sedate minuet and a lively tambourin, certainly delivered on this aim.
With such a memorable season-closing show, RDSO listeners will eagerly anticipate the seven concerts lined up for 2016-17.