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PEI Symphony Orchestra

Review by Ivy Wigmore

On the first day of February, the PEI Symphony Orchestra presented “Celtic Landscapes” under the direction of guest conductor Dr. Karem Simon. No February symphony review would be complete without reference to the weather, so here you go: The temperature was brutal, the winds were fierce, the snow banks were mountainous and the sidewalks, where clear, were sheer ice. No matter. A near-capacity crowd was snugged up in the warmth of Zion church. Uncharacteristically, the traditional February concert weekend snowstorm had been content playing havoc with the rehearsal on Saturday, so that concert-goers only had to deal with hardship getting to the performance rather than the standard nigh-impossibility. Such is life here on Prince Edward Island at this time of year.

For this concert, Felix Mendelssohn, German composer of the early Romantic period, split the bill for the first part of the concert with Roy Johnstone, preeminent PEI fiddler (and more recently, composer) of the here and now.  The concert got underway with Mendelssohn’s Overture of the Hebrides, inspired by the composer’s visit to Fingal’s cave. The lyrical overture conjures for the listener the beauty of the cave and its lonely situation, the eternal rolling of the waves. 

Johnstone, in collaboration with Dr. Richard Covey, composed and orchestrated “Abeqweit: Symphony for an Island,” described as a symphonic poem. A symphonic poem is an orchestral composition that is designed to evoke something other than music, typically a narrative of some sort. In the case of “Abeqweit,” we have the story of the island formerly known by that name, which came from a Mi’kmaq word meaning “cradle (or cradled) on the waves.”  We seem to approach the Island from the sea, getting closer until we hear the waves softly lapping on the shore. The piece starts quietly, in the dead of winter, but then the air begins to shimmer and the frozen image comes to life.  We hear, through the oboe, the voice of the First Peoples, an honour song that sounds like wisdom, grief and perseverance. French voyageurs slip lively through the waters next; there’s foot clogging and Acadian dance music. The British military arrives. There’s a Scottish strathspey, an Irish jig and an Acadian lament. Symphonic devices connect the elements subtly so that the whole hangs together beautifully as a narrative rather than presenting as a sequence of bits and pieces. The piece finishes with the same representation of waves on the shore intended to evoke the name, Abeqweit. A reminder, according to Johnstone, of “the changeable beauty and fragility of the Island and its people.”

After intermission we settled in for the longer Mendelssohn composition. Symphony no. 3 in A minor, known as the Scottish, is another symphonic poem. This one was inspired by the composer’s 1829 visit to Holyrood Castle in Edinburgh and the abbey ruins there: “Everything around is broken and moldering and the bright sky shines in. I believe I have found today in that old chapel the beginning of my Scottish symphony.” The Scottish begins wistful and melancholy, moving through elements of Scottish music forms (including a bagpipe impression by solo clarinet) to a finale that borrows from Scottish folk dance forms set within a majestic theme. 

There’s another element of this performance that I’d be remiss in not mentioning: Joy. Dr. Simon conducted with superb assurance and professionalism, and the pleasure he took in this role was clear to see. Members of the orchestra were seen to beam spontaneously throughout; Johnstone and the audience seemed almost transported. Here, in this formidable frozen landscape, at least for an afternoon, we found an island of warmth. 

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