The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in all its might roared back to life Saturday night, making the inaugural concert in its (A)bsolute Classics series feel both a jubilant celebration of “new normal” music-making and joyful reunion in which 910 audience members fist-bumped and greeted each other like conquering heroes just prior to the 90-minute program (also offered via livestream) led by Daniel Raiskin.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in all its might roared back to life Saturday night, making the inaugural concert in its (A)bsolute Classics series feel both a jubilant celebration of "new normal" music-making and joyful reunion in which 910 audience members fist-bumped and greeted each other like conquering heroes just prior to the 90-minute program (also offered via livestream) led by Daniel Raiskin.

"We really, really are back," declared WSO executive director Angela Birdsell from the stage during her opening remarks with a clearly moved Raiskin adding "this is a very special and significant moment for us," referring to the first time a full cohort of 60 (masked) musicians would take the stage after last season’s series of COVID-19 friendly smaller chamber ensembles.

The aptly-titled program Stewart Goodyear and Grieg also notably featured the WSO’s first non-local guest artist since March 2020, with Canadian dynamo pianist Stewart Goodyear performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, a perennial audience-pleaser likely chosen to help lure listeners back to the Centennial Concert Hall.

It’s one of life’s mysteries why it’s taken 13 years to see this artist, hailed "a phenomenon" (Los Angeles Times) and "one of the best pianists of his generation" (Philadelphia Inquirer), grace this stage again, having last performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat major, K. 482 here in November 2008 at a concert led by Swiss guest conductor Matthias Bamert. The acclaimed pianist/composer/improviser marked his WSO debut notably performing the same fiery Grieg work back in March 2007, and will be releasing his latest album Phoenix later this month.

After the opening movement’s famous timpani roll, the soloist marked his first entrance, his fortissimo chords cracking like a whip before thundering down the full range of his keyboard with laser-cut octaves. His fierce artistry shone particularly bright during his solo cadenza that plumbed the sonic depths of his instrument, with Raiskin ensuring tightly synchronized orchestral cues throughout.

Goodyear is undeniably one of the cleanest pianists one could ever hope to hear, who leaves no note unturned with each one carefully placed as an integral piece of a larger musical jigsaw puzzle. However more ebb and flow at times would have provided greater fluidity, particularly at the ends of his phrases that would have instilled greater romanticism. One wishes to hear the longing of dreams in this Nordic showstopper, not carefully orchestrated action plans.

Nonetheless, the central movement "Adagio" offered greater repose, with the pianist now rendering his thematic lines with gossamer lightness and suspended tones, fully projecting his sound at all times before punching out syncopated rhythms with the brusque vigour of a village peasant dance during the finale. This led to the night’s first standing ovation with three curtain calls for the artist beaming a kilowatt smile, giving his own fist-bump to concertmaster Gwen Hoebig after embracing a (masked) Raiskin accompanied by more cheers.

The program (no intermission) also included Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, with the four-movement work dated 1877 more pastoral in nature than his first. Once again, Raiskin kept a taut rein on the orchestra throughout the 40-minute work that includes overtones of the composer’s famous Wiegenlied (lullaby) theme heard in the lower strings of the first movement.

A few balance issues between the horns — at first not adequately projecting during the opening "Allegro non troppo" movement, and then proving too much of a good thing during the second, "Adagio non troppo" in which they threatened to subsume the winds — might have resulted from ubiquitous bell covers still used by all brass players, with the now fuller sized orchestra requiring a recalibration of sections.

Kudos to principal oboist Beverly Wang for her fluid solo passages over pizzicato celli during the third movement, "Allegretto grazioso," flawlessly executed with nerves of steel leading to nimble passagework by the strings.

This ultimately led to the exuberant finale, "Allegro con spirito" with a newly re-energized orchestra and their maestro’s joy at sharing their music with in-person listeners again palpable, leading to another ovation with the house lights turned up revealing an enthused COVID-19 capacity crowd of mostly older, physically-distanced listeners.

The evening opened with the WSO première of Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C as further proof of just how good this elder sister to composer brother Felix, albeit relegated to living in his shadows as a woman artist, really was — yet more wistful evidence of what might have been.

For livestream tickets or further information, visit: https://wso.ca

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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