NACO fêtes Roaring '20s not with jazz, but with passionate concertos

Johannes Moser
Ottawa Citizen

People call it the “Jazz Age”: the hooch-guzzling, Charleston-dancing, moveable-feasting 1920s. But the turbulent postwar years that gave us George Gershwin and Duke Ellington also saw immense upheavals on the classical front. The revolution that began in 1913 with the cannon shot of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had, by the following decade, led to a definitive schism between composers who continued in the Romantic tradition and their rebellious colleagues who questioned every established rule of harmony, melody and rhythm.

Alexander Shelley, the NAC Orchestra’s inquisitive new music director, is exploring these opposing creative forces in a five-concert “Roaring ’20s” mini-festival. It’s a smart move: it lets the orchestra dust off some big, toothsome, technically challenging 20th-century repertoire, while giving marketing an excuse to plaster the new conductor’s art deco-sleek image all over town.

The festival opened Thursday night with a look back to music produced just prior to the 1920s, much of it in the late or post-Romantic vein. The highlight was Elgar’s Cello Concerto, written in 1919 as a doleful farewell to the golden days of Empire.

German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser gave a passionate performance of stupendous virtuosity. His sinewy, intense, aggressive playing conveyed the bone-tired bitterness behind Elgar’s deceptively simple themes. The range of Moser’s sound is almost operatic, from deep, husky growls to floating, white pianissimos stripped of vibrato. With more sentimental musicians, the adagio movement can veer into schmaltz, but Moser and Shelley gave it the serene, full-moon cast of a Chopin nocturne.

NACO’s brass section continues to impress under Shelley, who has rearranged the back row set-up to show off the musicians to their best advantage. The positive changes showed in Sibelius’ Symphony No. 5, with glossy, bell-like effects from the horns and trombones. In the first movement, Shelley crafted a hypnotic swell that was oceanic in its grandeur.

Friday night was an all-Russian program, with two “little suites” by Stravinsky, as well as Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 (“Classical”), Third Piano Concerto and First Violin Concerto.

The “Prok 3” is perhaps not as demonic as the composer’s second piano concerto, but it’s still astoundingly difficult. It’s also sly, playful, a little jazzy, and Russian to its marrow. Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski was a child prodigy on drums, gigging at the Village Vanguard at age nine, and his jazz cred served him well in this relentlessly driving piece. His performance had a crisp, percussive snap, impeccable precision and creative dexterity.

The Prokofiev Symphony was prettily played, but lacked the sting of irony. The Stravinsky was more successful, the distinct character of each short movement well planned-out and executed. Principal bassoon Christopher Millard and principal clarinet Kimball Sykes had the lion’s share of notable solos.
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