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Review: Symphony show a great way to kick off new season in Cowichan

What a concert it was!
Conductor Tania Miller guided the symphony through a celestial concert on Sept. 24, 2022. (Submitted photo)

By Mike Mills

After a long COVID-enforced wait there was a live concert in Duncan on Sept. 24 brought to us by the Cowichan Symphony Society and The Victoria Symphony Orchestra (VSO) under Maestra Tania Miller.

What a concert it was! It opened with Debussy’s dreamy ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’. It was originally written as music to a poem by Mallarme of the same name. The highlight of the piece was the flute solo brilliantly played by the principal flutist. Miller, in her first return to Duncan since she ended her tenure with the VSO, directed the music and the faun to a peaceful sleep on a gentle summer afternoon.

The dreamy sleep of the faun was shattered by the next piece of music ‘Aurora Triptych’ composed by John Estacio, a much awarded Canadian composer. This is a unique piece, a collaboration with astronomer Dr. Jose Salgado. Together they have blended music and science to create a sometimes startling piece of music.

The first movement called ‘Solaris’ is accompanied by the pictures chosen by Salgado but taken by NASA. The sun is shown in close up with multiple corona flares, showing the awesome power of the sun in a way that only scientists have seen it. Estacio’s music rose to the occasion and matched the power of the sun. We had been told in the pre-concert warm up that the length of the piece was very significant. It must take exactly eight minutes and 20 seconds because that is the time it takes a photon of light to get from the sun to earth. Miller was equal to the challenge and took eight minutes and 18.92 according to my stop watch. After watching the moving pictures and listening to the music I could not help thinking that we humans were arrogant to think that we could do anything about global warming if the sun did not want us to!

The next two movements ‘Borealis and Wondrous Light’ was set to pictures of the northern lights taken by Salgado in the Northwest Territories of Canada. As the music matched the flowing movements of the aurora borealis and was altogether less intrusive than ‘Solaris’.

We had been told that the whole purpose of this conjunction of music and art was intended to encourage further exploration of science and art. It is the work of K265 a non-profit science and art education organization co-founded by Salgado. K265 was picked because although Mozart wrote the 12 variations to a French nursery song in English it is known as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’. The music that we heard has been played to nearly half a billion people.

As a bonus this was followed by Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, another to which Salgado had attached pictures of the moonlight over many well-known places, such as Paris, Prague, the Bay of Fundy and even the BC Legislative Assembly in Victoria. The beautiful gentle music of Debussy was well matched by the dream like quality of the pictures. This was another offering by K265.

This was the first time I had seen this work and I must confess that rather than stimulate me to want to delve further into science and art I found the pictures distracted me from the music!

After the intermission we came to what, for me, was the major part of the entire concert, the great Dvorak’s 7th Symphony. Written in four movements: ‘Allegro’, ‘Andante’, ‘Scherzo’ and ‘Allegro’.

The opening ‘Allegro’ taken at a brisk pace featured strong playing by the violins and sparkling solos from the flute and great entries from the brass section.

The second slower ‘Andante’, which was labelled “poco andante”, a little slower, was written shortly after the death of his mother and Dvorak added a footnote “From the Sad Years”. The movement starts with intense calm and peace but as it progresses there are the first signs of the turmoil that the Czechs were going through as they struggled to create their nation. These were where the brass players had the chance to shine.

The third movement was taken at a cracking pace and had Miller dancing all over the podium. Sometimes it looked from her arm movements as if she were dancing with a partner that only she could see, but of course the partner was the whole orchestra.

The final fourth movement was influenced by the struggles the Czech people were going through. Dvorak said he wanted to portray the power of the people to overcome their difficulties. The music was indeed powerful, particularly from the violins and violas, but I thought that the cellos and the bases just did not come through strongly enough. The four cellos and three basses were simply overpowered by the 21 other strings. Again in this movement the woodwinds and brass had major parts and the principal players of each section came through strongly. I was particularly impressed by the strong playing of the flute.

Altogether a great way to kick off a new season and I look forward to the next four concerts. They start with a Christmas concert at the Cowichan Performing Arts Centre on Dec. 9 which will feature the American folk and country singer Brooke Adams and the VSO under its principal Pops conductor Sean O’Loughlin. Come along and enjoy the music of Christmas.

Mike Mills is a Cowichan Symphony Society board member.

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