A beautiful and peaceful antidote to the busy clamour of the holiday season was delivered Saturday night by the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra.
The Seasonal Strings concert at the Red Deer College Arts Centre was planned as a respite from the “bombardment” of Christmas music, said the RDSO’s music director Claude Lapalme.
“At this time we are assaulted with music. And those are two words I don’t like to see together,” he added.
This year, Lapalme thought he’d try a more low-key approach to planning the holiday concert — and it was welcomed by a full-house crowd, made up (I suspect) of many other people who’d spent much of Saturday immersed in the commercial side of the season.
Bring on the peace, I mused. We’re more than ready for a little tranquility. And you couldn’t get much lovelier, or more restful, than Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in E major “Il riposo — per il Natale,” a baroque melody played on muted instruments.
A reduced orchestra of only RDSO strings musicians performed this intimate concerto that started with first violinist Naomi Delafield playing a wavering solo. The second movement was almost like a slow dance, with its trilling, intricate melody picking up steam before eventually finding its way back to peaceful.
This one was an audience favourite.
Next up were six short movements from German composer Johann Christoph Pez’s Pastoral Christmas Concerto. Pez wrote music in the lilting French style, said Lapalme — with Italian flourishes, since there are pipe-like sounds representing the shepherds who visit Baby Jesus in the nativity.
The RDSO strings musicians used long bow strokes to create a measured melody that became more vigorous in the second movement — although not energetic enough to make any musician break a sweat.
The third movement was stately and, again, calm. But this baroque concerto became quicker and more joyous before swinging back to restive. In the latter movements, Delafield carried on an interesting melodic duet with fellow violinist Diane Lane, and the two were accompanied by Janet Kuschak on cello.
The melody line soared, ending on a happy note.
The second half of the concert start with selections from Louis-Claude Daquin’s Le livre d’orgue. This (third) baroque work was originally written for organ, a hugely popular instrument in the 17th century (“today it’s a bit different, cache for organists has somehow withered,” noted Lapalme). It was later adapted for a strings orchestra.
While the Daquin piece worked well enough for the audience, some poor strings musicians had to perpetually play one note to mimic the organ’s drone. While the cellos, violins and bass traded off between providing the endless droning sound and variations on a sprightly melody, the musicians’ one-note duty seemed immensely ponderous.
I could have done without the drone entirely if it meant not having to feel sorry for anyone.
The energy level on stage went up several notches with the entry of the Red Deer Youth and Community Orchestra, which doubled the number of strings musicians to about 50.
These talented 12-year-old to adult musicians, under the direction of Louise Stuppard, the RDSO’s second violinist, created a wonderful, auditorium-filling sound while performing mostly Christmas music with the symphony orchestra.
Tranquility was again the theme to pieces, such as the gorgeous O Magnum Mysterium by U.S. composer Morten Lauridsen. This choral work, performed sans choir, gave the audience a chance to appreciate the power of the music unadorned by voices. It was so emotional and moving it gave me the shivers.
Another show-stopper was the traditional O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This soulful melody really showed the aural splendour of 50 string musicians playing together.
One unseasonal work, Reverie by James Corigliano, was also performed, but fit the requirements of being quiet and contemplative. Otherwise, two livelier works were also on the bill — Deck The Halls, which was played with a drum kit and still managed to sound laid-back, and Percy Faith’s charming Brazilian Sleigh Bells, which featured jingly percussion.
This piece prompted Lapalme to muse about which rainforest animal could be substituted for reindeer. “Maybe you could (attach a sleigh) to those giant spiders . . . who ever wrote this would have to be fanciful . . . ”
The collaborative concert between the RDSO and the Red Deer Youth and Community Orchestra ended with a well-deserved standing ovation. It was a wonderful time-out from all the bluster and business of the season.
“My wish is that you not only find joy, but find peace,” said Lapalme.
The RDSO certainly gave us a push in the right direction with its splendid, relaxed Seasonal Strings concert.