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Edmonton Symphony triumphs in dry run for Carnegie Hall

William Eddins is in his seventh season as Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

Michael Woolley

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Winspear Centre in Edmonton on Friday

The Edmonton Symphony hasn't been out of Alberta since 1994. This week it's going to Carnegie Hall.

The ESO is the only Canadian orchestra invited to play in the second Spring for Music Festival in New York May 7 to 12. The ESO plays on Tuesday night. On Friday at Edmonton's Winspear Centre, the ESO presented the program it will play in New York, one of two weekend dry runs for Edmonton audiences.

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Carnegie Hall selects participating orchestras partly on the basis of their proposed repertoire. Where it sees gaps, it makes suggestions. As a result of its advice, the ESO's new composer in residence, Robert Rival, wrote a relatively tranquil piece to contrast with the several other pieces on the ESO program that lean toward the more brassy and percussive.

Rival's Lullaby, inspired by the birth of his first child last summer, conjures moods that certainly beckon sleep, although Rival eschews a conventional triple meter like Brahms used, choosing instead a kind of narrative arc suggesting fleeting stages of consciousness drifting away. Those stages are as likely to feel anxiously propulsive as pleasantly soporific, and the effect is engaging.

Besides Rival, the ESO is also introducing its New York audience to two former ESO composers in residence.

The program reprises John Estacio's Triple Concerto, written for the opening of the Winspear Centre in September 1997. Three Canadian soloists have been enlisted to perform the piece; two of whom – pianist Angela Cheng and violinist Juliette Kang – grew up in Edmonton. Cellist Denise Djokic has performed with the ESO many times.

The Triple Concerto gives each soloist sufficient time in the spotlight, but the orchestral writing is a dominant force. Estacio has written loads of orchestral music and is adept with string writing, but his solo writing in the first movement suggests he may have a violin concerto in him. Kang's performance was strong.

Djokic's tone and intonation were captivating, reinforcing the beauty of Estacio's most lyrical ideas, and his orchestration gave the cellist plenty of space to be heard. The concerto develops more like a through-composed musical narrative than as three discrete movements, and in retrospect reveals the Estacio in the late 1990s was on the cusp of developing into becoming one of the country's most accomplished opera composers.

Dreaming of the Masters III for Trumpet is part of a series of jazz-flavoured concertos Allan Gilliland has written for the ESO, reflecting the composer's early influences as a young trumpet player. Gilliland wrote Dreaming III for his long-time friend and collaborator trumpet virtuoso Edmonton-born Jens Lindemann.

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All three Dreaming pieces are classic pops concert showpieces, and the work the ESO is bringing to New York is probably the flashiest of the three. Lindemann got to play sultry blues with ample scope for some of the crazy sounds a great brass player can coax from the instrument. Lindemann showed his complete control of the softer side of brass in the middle movement featuring flugelhorn, and the final bust out brimmed with Latin flair. Gilliland writes great pops charts, and some of the ESO's bone fide jazz musicians, including drummer Brian Thurgood, bassist John Taylor, and trombonist John McPherson, help deliver the goods.

In the second half, the ESO left homegrown repertoire for the periphery of the 20th-century orchestral canon. Music director Bill Eddins chose Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu's Symphony No. 1, a piece that allows an ensemble as relatively small as the ESO to show off its musical nimbleness. Friday's performance definitely conveyed these strengths.

Eddins is an animated conductor. The Martinu, with its often amorphous, swirling streams of sound, and frequent syncopation and tricky cross rhythms gave Eddins and the orchestra plenty of scope to show how well they communicate with one another, and in the final movement, especially, Eddins showed his penchant for physically exuberant direction. The Martinu will surely impress the Carnegie Hall audience, which will include 1,000 folks from Edmonton travelling to support their band.

The ESO Carnegie Hall performance will be broadcast live on Tuesday at 7:30 ET on WQXR Radio.

Special to the Globe and Mail

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