Underwhelming Overture

If it had ended after the first piece, it would have been spectacular. Unfortunately, it went on.

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, approximately 700 people attended Westminster United Church, an ornate Gothic cathedral in Winnipeg’s Wolseley area, which had been declared a Manitoba Provincial Heritage site in 1992, to hear Evelyn Glennie appear for the third time with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra as the MCO opened its 2009-10 season.

The mere attendance at Westminster United with its numerous stained glass windows and imposing pipe organ is enough to inspire a sense of devotion. When accompanied by a performance by the barefoot Dame Evelyn Glennie, the result is absolutely exalting.
The reason why a bastion of tuxedos and patent leather allows itself to be invaded by this barefoot contessa is that she is deaf. This hasn’t stopped her, however, from becoming the world’s first percussion soloist. This shoeless state permits her to “hear” the orchestra with which she is performing as she feels the vibrations of the orchestra through her feet.

Unfortunately, for some reason, it’s as if the printer of this night’s program printed the titles of the pieces in reverse order.

And for some reason, perhaps because it was already there in black and white, the newly hired musical director and conductor, Anne Manson, who had either suffered a severe back injury resulting in her vertebrae being fused together or who exhibited as much personality during her conducting as a rock, determined to follow that order.

The program began with Vivaldi’s “Piccolo Concerto in C Major (RV 443)” with the vibraphone being substituted for the piccolo. Manson led the diminutive Dame Evelyn Glennie onto the stage. She wore a grey and black patterned outfit that matched the color of her shoulder-length hair and was reminiscent of a medieval knight’s mail armour, delts and biceps bulging beneath the tight-fitting garment.

No lady-in-waiting, this was a gladiator ready to do battle. During the first, allegro, movement, her hands became hummingbirds — a blur of motion as the tremolo of her mallets burnished the vibraphone keys. Changing mallets as the composition entered its second, largo, movement, the lady returned with a delicacy of touch barely brushing the keys, a caress releasing sighs from both the metal and the audience. She returned to the attack for the final, Allegro molto, movement. This was a piece that demanded a standing ovation — but no one is about to stand when two further pieces fill out the first half, when Glennie is destined to return in two further pieces in the program.

The Vivaldi was followed by José Evangelista’s “Airs D’Espagne,” a light filler piece performed by orchestra alone. Glennie then returned to perform Joe Duddell’s Snowbird. She expanded her repertoire by including concert marimba, crotales and temple blocks. This piece demonstrated Glennie’s amazing ability to successfully merge with the orchestra. The principal violin, viola and cello were also featured.

The second half opened with Christos Hatzis’ Mirage?, Hatzis being present. The program notes informed those present that Hatzis is “currently enjoying a growing international reputation as one of the most important composers writing today.” You wouldn’t know it from this composition. What opened as an amazing dissonant soundscape quickly devolved into the lush romanticism reminiscent of the 1920s Paul Whiteman Orchestra at its abysmal worst. It did recover at the end back to its earlier excitement, but it left you wondering which part was the mirage?

The audience gave this piece a standing ovation not, probably, in recognition of the piece itself but more the fact that this was the last piece in which Glennie would appear. They had been waiting since the Vivaldi to show her how much they appreciated and admired her talent and this was the final chance.

The final piece, Shostakovich’s “Chamber Symphony, op. 118a,” originally scored as a string quartet, would have been fabulous if allowed to open the concert. As it was, although handled more than competently by the orchestra, it was anti-climatic. Prior to its commencement, Manson finally acknowledged the audience by addressing us to explain the piece as solemn and despondent — just the note on which you want a concert to end. It didn’t help matters that she couldn’t get the microphone out of its stand.

For the most part, the music was great. The soloist was great. The orchestra was great. The only piece missing from this greatness was the conductor and musical director who had arranged this abysmal affair — Anne Manson. Let’s hope that in future she learns to relax and to arrange better-structured concerts.