The Manitoba Chamber Orchestra's third concert of its season offered a closer look at one of the unsung heroes of the orchestra: the french horn. Wednesday's program led by guest conductor/virtuoso horn player James Sommerville featured the acclaimed musician performing with his former pupil, longtime MCO principal horn Patricia Evans, who leads the section for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Besides being principal horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Sommerville has also served as Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra's music director since 2007. The affable musician has appeared as soloist with major orchestras throughout the world during his 25-year career and last performed with the MCO in 1999.
Beethoven's early Sextet in E-flat for Two Horns and Strings, Op. 81b provided the first taste of the two horn players' artistry, as well as a fascinating compendium of what the horn can do.
The pair took turns during the Allegro con brio, trading cascading figuration, rising declamatory themes and quick-tongued ornamentation, along with showcasing the instrument's wide dynamic palette. The Adagio highlighted Sommerville's renowned mellow tone and ability to spin legato phrases. The finale Rondo: Allegro began with Evans' off-and-running hunting-horn theme, picked up by her partner's buoyant work that also included forceful accents and leaping octaves.
Sommerville performed/conducted Mozart's Horn Concerto in E-flat Major, K370b/371 with the Wunderkind's skeletal, incomplete score reconstructed a scant 25 years ago by arranger Robert D. Levin. This allowed another opportunity to hear the gifted musician in action, as well as multi-tasking abilities that saw him crisply cuing the orchestra between his own solo sections.
The MCO has an enviable track record commissioning new music from an astonishing stable of Canadian composers. The world premiere of Manitoban Karen Sunabacka's Never to Return builds on her earlier autobiographical work, Born by the River, performed by the MCO last season.
Paying homage to her Scottish-born great-great-grandmother Mathilda, the one-movement string orchestra work reflects her ancestor's physical and emotional journey after settling in the province with her Canadian husband. After descending into harrowing madness, she ultimately became committed to an asylum in the late 1880s, where she spent the rest of her days.
Sunabacka's sensitive writing evokes the wide-open space of the Prairies. Fragments of three Scottish folk melodies are woven throughout the piece like threads in a kilt, infusing it with a sense of authenticity. However, at times, the composer's (mostly) sparse orchestration became too much of a good thing, with the piece increasingly losing momentum, despite shrieking tone clusters played by the violins. Its most effective moments were near the end, when the players came together in a more harmonically compelling fusion of sonorities.
Every concert has its own rhythm, and admittedly, it felt jarring to hear an altered program order. Sandwiching Lutoslawski's powerful, yet utterly desolate Musique funèbre (Music of Mourning) between the sprightly Mozart concerto and Joseph Boulogne's Symphony in D Major, Op. 11 No. 2 played havoc with the evening's energy. It would have been much better to leave well enough alone.