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Review: PEI Symphony Orchestra

by Ivy Wigmore

On February 10, approximately a day-and-a-half into a two-day snowstorm, the PEI Symphony Orchestra continued this year’s theme with “Celebrate New Directions.” The first new direction was that of guest conductor Mark Shapiro taking over, for this performance, from PEISO musical director James Mark, who will be retiring at the end of this season. The New York Times has praised Shapiro’s performances for their “virtuosity and assurance” and “uncommon polish.” Closer to home, here’s what a couple of the musicians had to say: “Maestro Shapiro is a dream come true and it was an honour to work with him…” and “…damn awesome. My gawd, he is incredible to watch.” He was affable and amusing from the start, first trying to boost the PEISO’s annual citrus sale by instigating a scurvy scare and then by inviting a young audience member (Zella, I think, was her name) up to help conduct “Oh Canada.” (Which, by the way, he proclaimed a far superior national anthem to that of the US.)

The performance got underway with the world premiere of “Arise,” a new composition by Richard Covey. Dr. Covey, who was in attendance, writes: “It is only fitting that Arise receive its world premier during the month of February. During one of the coldest and darkest times of year, this piece seeks to awaken, motivate and inspire.” It was successful on all counts, in my opinion. I enjoyed “Arise” immensely. Covey, who teaches music theory, composition and counterpoint at UPEI, won the PEISO’s Call for Scores competition. Next was Max Bruch’s Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra in G Minor with guest soloist Adrian Irvine, winner of the 2012 Suzanne Brenton and Indian River Festival awards. The 18-year-old Irvine played with a great deal of maturity and wonderful nuance. Were you to close your eyes, you’d think the performer a virtuoso at the height of his career rather than a young musician just starting out.

The major piece of the afternoon, the long and lovely second half (yes, some halves are bigger than others) was Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, often described as one of the most romantic pieces of music in the world. Shapiro, who selected the symphony for this performance, said that a couple of musicians had suggested it. However, he went on to say that when he arrived and actually spoke to the musicians, they roundly denied that any of their ranks had ever suggested any such thing or would ever have suggested any such thing. For Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 is also described as “a truly massive piece of music.” Even then, the conditions of the performance weekend were not known. As it turned out, of course, Saturday’s five-hour practice was at the height of the blizzard, which also continued through Sunday and their final practice. How musicians and instruments made it is anyone’s guess, but none would hazard that it was by chauffeured limousine, as it should have been.

In any case, the performance was blissful, absolutely ravishing. I believe Maestro Shapiro levitated a few times, and the Orchestra was amazing—but have no illusions that it was effortless. Let me present as evidence more comments from the musicians: “By the end of it, I could not have played another note” but also “You cannot destroy me, Rachmaninoff!” No, not vanquished but it was indeed a fatigued-looking PEISO that stood before us as we stood before them, the well-deserved standing ovation in response to that massively romantic—and just massive in general—performance. Let’s celebrate not only new directions but also our own PEISO.

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