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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On April 14, the PEI Symphony Orchestra wrapped up the season with a performance entitled “Celebrate Mozart & More.” The major “more” being celebrated was Dr. James Mark’s twelve years as Musical Director. Dr. Mark retires this year to serve as Director Emeritus, while Mark Shapiro, who directed February’s performance, takes over the active role next season.

Also in the category of “More” was the world premiere of Jim O’Leary’s “Choose Other Routes,” written for and featuring jazz trumpet master Paul Tynan, and dedicated to James Mark. With the encouragement of that title, I’m going to start there—at the middle of the concert, rather than the beginning—and work my way from there to either end. I’ve been anticipating O’Leary’s new composition with some interest, as I have each new work since the first one I heard the PEISO perform. In the intermission preceding its presentation, I had a look at O’Leary’s program notes to see if I could get a heads-up. Here’s the entirety, a quotation from Witold Lutoslawski: “The only honest attitude of an artist is to express himself, to bring something in which one really believes. Because to follow the tastes of other people, to try to please them, it’s a false direction.” Okay, I thought, fair warning.

“Choose Other Routes” starts light, lyrical and romantic but that theme is soon subverted by ominous low notes and drones. From the back of the theatre, a bluesy trumpet sounds and Tynan slowly makes his way to stage, playing all the while. From there, he continues to captivate the audience with two horns and a selection of mutes, while the orchestra behind him continues to return to the romantic theme and subversion of same. Although “accessible” is not the first adjective that springs to mind, “Choose Other Routes” was very engaging. One hates to say it was interesting—as we often say of art we fail to fully comprehend—but it was, really, quite fascinating, and quite well-received by the audience.

The afternoon ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, variously described as possessing “Grecian lightness and grace,” by Robert Schumann and “a work of passion, violence, and grief,” more recently, by Charles Rosen. Open to interpretation, although the current consensus leans toward Rosen’s take on it. In any case, Symphony No. 40 is unquestionably a masterwork, and it was masterfully performed by the PEISO.

And so, having taking the scenic route, we find ourselves back at the beginning of the concert: Carnival of the Animals, by Camille Saint-Saëns, featuring piano soloists Frances McBurnie and Dr. Frances Gray and narrated by Patrick Ledwell. Saint-Saëns created Carnival of the Animals as a party piece, never really intending it for public performance. The composition consists of fourteen short movements, each featuring a particular animal. In 1949, Odgen Nash composed humourous verse to accompany the music for a recording. Ledwell read these, all the while steadfastly suppressing his inner Odgen. Lines like “the kangaroo can jump incredible; he has to jump because he’s edible” brought out twitches and grimaces. As a woman behind me said, the funniest part of his performance was his facial expressions. Nevertheless, Ledwell rallied at the end to add a verse: the James Mark, who had, as he said, “more mojo than Mozart.”

Mojo? Maybe that’s it. I’ve been trying to characterize the quality that Mark’s direction elicits from the orchestra. Here’s what I’ve come up with: a certain dynamic energy coupled with an intensity of expression. Mark has led the PEISO through twelve seasons of amazing performances. Mojo can mean magic or expertise—either way, that could work.

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