The Red Deer Symphony Orchestra started the season with an electrifying jolt of tension by sandwiching a provocative Stalinist-era cello concerto between two more palatable confections.
Dmitri Shostakovich powerfully evocative Cello Concerto No. 1 was preceded by Benjamin Britten’s Simple Symphony and followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s effusive (Paris) Symphony No. 31 at Saturday’s rousing Continental Cello concert at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.
This makes the anxiety-provoking Shostakovich composition the meat of the program.
And it was impressively served up by solo cellist Winona Zelenka and a slightly pared down orchestra, striking the perfect balance between intellectual and emotional music.
The piece from 1959 was written as the composer looked back at being out of favour with the ruthless Communist government. “There’s a sense of having nowhere to escape . . . there’s the desire to flee, but you feel the walls are closing in on you,” the RDSO’s music director, Claude Lapalme told the audience.
The concerto began with a heart-stopping chase theme that sounded like the sinister soundtrack of a film noir that stokes anxiety through the use of cliff-hanger notes.
Zelenka, an Ontario musician who often performs with the Toronto Symphony, is known for her emotional vibrancy and control. She was the cello soloist on film scores, such as Atom Egoyan’s Adoration, Istvan Szabo’s Being Julia, and the IMAX film Under the Sea.
With the RDSO, she beautifully captured the Shostakovich concerto’s paranoid, Kafkaesque mood.
Sawing across her cello strings with short, speedy bow strokes, Zelenka created an incessant, insect-like buzzing sound that was only interrupted by occasional instrumental ‘shrieks.’
The sense of relentless tension didn’t ease until the quieter second movement. Gradually, Zelenka and the orchestra turned its theme of mournful loneliness into rising apprehension. A lone trumpet blared out warnings, while the celeste (best known for creating the bell-like tones in the score of Harry Potter movies) sounded more forlorn than magical here.
The same shudder-inducing sensation was provoked as being watched by unknown eyes, or being followed by someone creeping along a darkened sidewalk.
The third movement for cello alone spoke of emptiness and despair. The final movement returned to a chase, with the woodwinds helping Zelenka ratchet up the tension. The fearful soundscape was also accentuated by the ominous thump of timpani drums.
This concerto helps us understand, in a visceral way, the terrifying era Shostakovich and millions of others lived through. Saturday’s performance was an extraordinary tour de force that resurrected the kind of anxiety Canadians will hopefully never experience.
Although Zelenka so capably captured negative emotions, the cellist also figured in a more positive story that drew some audience chuckles. Lapalme recalled that Zelenka was a teenage neighbour of his while he was a young musician in Toronto, and he would drive her home after both finished up late practices at the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Once another cellist was leaving at the same time as Zelenka, and Lapalme asked if she wanted a ride too — and she turned out to be his future wife, RDSO cellist Janet Kuschak.
Lapalme joked that he’s been driving around with her ever since.
The two other works on the program were also stress-busters.
Britten’s Simple Symphony, made up of juvenalia the English composer wrote between ages 10 and 13, was a whimsical delight. Its four movements with alliterative titles such as Boisterous Bourée and Sentimental Seraband, were so colourful they could have scored animation.
The playful, fast first movement turned into a dance-like second. This slower melody was achieved by some interesting string plucking, first from the violins, then cellos. An emotional third movement was followed by a mischievious Frolicsome Finale.
Mozart’s Paris Symphony was written to be a real crowd-pleaser and still is.
The composer was in his early 20s when he penned the symphony, and apparently didn’t think much of the French audience. He filled this symphony’s three movements with tuneful, earwormish melodies that are regularly interspersed with loud drum beats (presumably to awaken anybody nodding off).
The RDSO’s rendition of the familiar symphony was by turns bombastic, imposing, and sweetly lyrical. In other words, Mozart — who once wrote to his father “I hope even those donkeys (Parisians) will find something in it to like” — would certainly have approved.