Power Concert – Review by Michael Sobota

Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra
Mainstage Concert at Thunder Bay Community Auditorium
Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Review by Michael Sobota

A symphony concert with Beethoven and Mahler, two orchestral giants, on the same program, is a rare event. Certainly rare in Thunder Bay. And that is what the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO) gave us last Thursday evening.

This “Power Concert” – their title – opened with a more modest composition. Rameau’s Entree de Polymnie is sort of a prelude to Act Four of his last opera, Les Boreades. Composed in 1763, the entire Opera is rarely performed. This part of it, the Entree de Polymnie, is a stately, sorrowful piece, lasting just five minutes. In this program, it served to let us, the audience, gently adjust our attitudes and ears to delicate sounds and slow us down. Featuring rich layers of the TBSO strings, their violins, violas, cellos and bass sounds were so beautifully resonant in our great hall. As well, the TBSO basoon players (Harold Wevers and Iraj Tamadon Nejad), strengthened this haunting, gentle composition. The entire string ensemble within the larger orchestra would especially shine in this entire program. It was a perfect entry into what would prove to be an outstanding evening of orchestral splendour.

Then, musically leaping ahead a century and a half but staying with at gentle focus, we heard five Gustav Mahler songs, composed in 1901-1902. They are single, stand alone songs rather than a song cycle. Yet, sung by featured soloist Miriam Khalil (soprano) they held an inner integrity, both musically and emotionally. Ms. Khalil’s interpretation of these songs was beautifully nuanced. She was sensuous, strong, confident and always intentional. At full voice, soaring above Mahler’s symphonic orchestration, her voice pushed the melody to its climax. More often, the songs allowed her to show us her softer, more delicate, clear interpretation of the lyrics. With conductor Paul Haas confidently guiding the TBSO musicians through this Mahler landscape, this was gorgeous music masterfully executed.

The second half of this program was taken up entirely by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3. In his opening remarks to the work, Maestro Haas revealed that this would be the first time he was conducting this symphony, and he was both excited and nervous in doing so. He deferred to the orchestra, telling us all he had to do was “get them started” and they would take it from there. Of course that wasn’t the case. The TBSO has excelled throughout its 57 years at performing Beethoven. Yet this performance was so fresh it was as if we were hearing it for the first time. Each movement was intelligently planned and executed. Each section of the orchestra shone with shimmering colours (significant contributions from Colleen Kennedy and Gwen Buttemer, Oboes, the entire French Horn section (Janelle Wiebe and Damian Rivers Moore and an additional anonymous horn player, and exquisite subtle accenting and bombastic punctuation from timpanist Jean-Francois Breton). Haas, again in his opening remarks, described Beethoven’s Third as a “turning point” in the composer’s career, almost as though he was starting anew. In this performance, Haas brought all his skills to the service of showing us that magnificent music. He guided the orchestra with mature intelligence, energy and focus. He is so good at delivering smooth entries, clear stops and crisp endings. The music comes alive from the score with genuine energy and life. The work is not a hundred yard dash but rather a marathon. And by the time we reached its great chromatic climax, everyone, both on stage and in the audience was deeply engaged. The performance received a justly deserved prolonged ovation, bringing Haas back to the stage three times.