New music director Mark Shapiro, soloist Lennie Gallant show their strengths
This past Sunday was a special day for the P.E.I. Symphony Orchestra as several occasions coalesced into one afternoon.
The first concert of the 2013-2014 season, a feature performance with the PEISO by Lennie Gallant, and the very first P.E.I. symphonic direction by new music director, Mark Shapiro.
Maestro Shapiro hails from New York, and is one of just a small number of artistic leaders in North America to have won the prestigious ASCAP programming award four times — as he can often be found directing ensembles such as the Cecilia Chorus of New York, and Cantori of New York, at venues like the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.
When I initially heard that Shapiro would be the P.E.I. Symphony’s new director, I was both impressed and excited for PEISO. And now that I have seen the man in action, I can certainly say that I am all the more thrilled for our Island classical music community that will surely be enhanced by the experience, versatility and enthusiasm of this passionate director.
To give you an example of these kinds of qualities right away, I’ll tell you about how Sunday afternoon’s concert at the Homburg Theatre began: With Shaprio giving a non-miked, highly engaging mini-lecture introduction to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, which was performed by the symphony for the first half of the program — but not before Shapiro called up a volunteer to help him direct the playing of O Canada, who turned out to be a little girl in a beautiful blue dress, who stood next to Shaprio and glided her hand in time with his as the orchestra followed along and the audience sang along in beaming smiles.
The delicate sound of unison pianissimo sustained notes on the strings then commenced the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, setting the mood to serene-but-kinetic for this journey-through-life symphonic masterpiece that we were about to enjoy.
And throughout its four movements — as it moved from pastoral and compelling, to kaleidoscopic in texture, to filled-with-fervor, to dark and haunting (particularly in the minor “Frère-Jacques-quoting” section), to chaotically intense, until it returned to its initial peace — it was a delight to observe the sharply-filed orchestra and Shaprio in their intertwined union of sound creation.
As one of the most animated and physically-expressive conductors I’ve ever seen at work, Shapiro did say that he often feels entirely exhausted after a performance — and in observing his energy output and unwavering musical absorption, it is plain to see why — and indeed, what a difference this kind of energy can make in a symphony’s performance.
It was such a treat to then see the smiling face of 15-time ECMA winning/three-time Juno Award winning/pride of P.E.I. Lennie Gallant — as his two nephews, Jeremy and Jonathan Gallant (on piano and cajón drum) were already poised to play alongside the orchestra — and as he walked out to the stage with Maestro Shapiro to begin the second half.
Beginning with Which Way Does the River Run, what a sound it was that surged around him, as the orchestra grew in chordal swells to powerfully accompany Gallant’s 1994 hit that began his nine-song set that afternoon.
Continuing with well-arranged songs like Emily’s Letters, La Tempete, a new song called God’s Reply, Life Line, and of course Peter’s Dream (which was thoroughly spine-chilling) and The Band’s Still Playing (which completely rocked the house), Gallant, his nephews, and the P.E.I. Symphony Orchestra were a well-oiled machine of music.
And after an exuberant standing ovation by the audience, and an encore of the heart-string-tugging lament for the family farm, Island Clay, Gallant sent us home well-soothed, full of contemplation, and truly marveling, evermore, at the remarkable gifts of his musicianship.
A sensational start to the new season it definitely was for the PEISO; and your next chance to catch a performance will be on November 17, featuring Rose Cousins and Echo Lau.
Next week: Farewell to The Irish Rovers at Harbourfront Theatre tomorrow night.
Todd MacLean is a local freelance writer and musician. If you have a comment or suggestion for a review, you can get in touch with him at email@example.com or at 626-1242. But he won’t be offended if you don’t.
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