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Malcolm Forsyth
Malcolm Forsyth

Music: Concert review

At the NAC, feel-good Beethoven and a composer's lyrical ode to Canada Add to ...

Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy'

  • National Arts Centre Orchestra
  • Pinchas Zukerman, conductor
  • Arianna Zukerman, soprano
  • Heather Johnson, mezzo-soprano
  • At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Thursday

Performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony are generally feel-good affairs. The phenomenal scope of the work, the rafter-shaking intensity of the deaf composer's musical imagination and the goose-pimple-inducing awesomeness of the final movement's choral invocations all viscerally seize the listener. Captivated by the musical moment, we are easily thrilled, moved, even elated by a compositional craft so incontrovertible that even in the hands of inexperienced youth orchestras, it habitually succeeds in bringing down the house.

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Thursday evening's entirely professional performance by the National Arts Centre Orchestra was no exception. Backed by a phalanx of local choral groups (the Ottawa Choral Society, Cantata Singers of Ottawa) and fronted by an able quartet of young vocal soloists, the orchestra competently navigated their way through this familiar but demanding score.

At the helm was Pinchas Zukerman, a world-class violinist who sometimes appears to be playing second fiddle on the conductor's podium. Zukerman allows his musicians to play and doesn't seem too caught up with imposing a forceful interpretational stamp. Such an approach certainly demonstrates his respect for the members of his orchestra, but it can also lead to performances in which subtle musical details like phrasing, nuance and balance seem insufficiently refined.

This was especially true in the first three movements of the symphony, during which the differentiation between melodic and accompanying forces was not always effectively rendered, thus creating textures that lacked sufficient relief. For example, the second-movement scherzo, which ideally should bounce with a kind of obsessive agility, suffered from being a tad earth-bound as a result of over-emphasis in the winds and brass.

The famous fourth movement, which contains Beethoven's setting of Friedrich Schiller's poem Ode to Joy, began in fine form, with Joel Quarrington leading his double bass section through the solo recitatives with impressive intensity and aplomb. The volume steadily ramped up from there, causing the relatively short interventions of the vocal soloists to feel periodically strained under the weight of the orchestra.

Throughout this movement, which one music historian has called a symphony within a symphony, the chorus efficiently fulfilled their role: Disciplined and loud, their cries to the "shining spark of God" competed with an aural onslaught of drums and cymbals to ultimately bring the public roaring to its feet.

The first half of the concert featured the world premiere of A Ballad of Canada by Edmonton composer Malcolm Forsyth. Written for full orchestra and chorus, Forsyth's personal reading of the Canadian experience is constructed around a selection of five poems by Ralph Gustafson, John McCrae, E. J. Pratt and Carl Hare. The work is in three parts; a central episode, entitled "Canada in Time of Trial," begins with a musical rendition of In Flanders Fields. This is followed by Pratt's The Toll of the Bells and concludes with Hare's On the Waverly Road Bridge, a poem that evokes the "Highway of Heroes" between Trenton and Toronto, and, by extension, Canada's ongoing mission in Afghanistan. The outer movements, both entitled "The Land," are musical renditions of Gustafson's In the Yukon and Pratt's Newfoundland.

Forsyth opts for an unambiguously realist interpretation of his chosen poems. For example, each sung stanza of In Flanders Fields is separated by a musical depiction of live gunfire; then, when the choir sings the line "scarce heard amid the guns below," the dull vibration of a bass drum evokes the thud of a bomb exploding in the distance. Similar concessions to musical realism abound in The Toll of the Bells during which we hear bells, band music when a "band" is evoked, and trumpets at the mention of a "trumpet-blast." Accessible in style, discreetly lyrical and colourfully orchestrated, Forsyth's Ballad offers a unique musical perspective on the South African-born composer's adopted homeland, both in wartime and at peace.

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