In so many ways, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s de facto final concert of the 2020/21 season, Mozart and Brahms, following the COVID-19 related cancellation of next weekend’s Pops show, became a microcosm of what we’ve gone through this past year.
Saturday night’s program streamed live from the Centennial Concert Hall offered moments of transcendent beauty and joy; aching poignancy and heartfelt tributes to those no longer with us, performed by an indomitable orchestra forced to re-invent itself multiple times throughout this historic season.
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Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Mozart & Brahms
Livestream from the Centennial Concert Hall
Saturday, May 8
★★★★½ out of five
Notably, the one-hour plus evening also welcomed back Daniel Raiskin to the podium, who — surprise, surprise — introduced the WSO’s new 2021/21 season just prior to the show’s digital curtain. The admittedly surreal, "business as usual" launch detailed a full line-up of upcoming, local, national and international guest artists beginning with a "Summer Special" on June 29th, as highlighted by Raiskin, Associate Conductor Julian Pellicano and RBC Assistant Conductor Naomi Woo mere hours before the province locked down — again — with tighter COVID-19 restrictions for the umpteenth time since March 2020.
How perfectly fitting that this season featuring the WSO’s own stellar artists should bookend itself with a second solo appearance by world-class concertmaster Gwen Hoebig, also showcased during the season-opener early October (notably the WSO’s last concert with live audience). Principal violist Daniel Scholz joined her onstage for Mozart’s sublime "Sinfonia concertante in E-flat, K. 364," as a balm for pandemic-weary souls.
The two string players who perform regularly together in the Clearwater Quartet, among other local chamber groups immediately displayed their simpatico artistry and palpable rapport during the "Allegro maestoso," with Raiskin (a violist, himself) leading the orchestra with relish. Masked, physically distanced, and essentially communicating only with their eyes and bows, the duo created a cohesive, well-balanced ensemble with their individual lines melding as one. A few stray viola notes lacking bull’s-eye intonation did not detract from their otherwise gorgeously lyrical performance, with both musicians infusing the central movement "Andante" with operatic intensity, before treating listeners to an ebullient "Presto" finale.
The evening also featured a trombone quartet in an arrangement of Bruckner’s sacred motet "Locus Iste," dedicated to the WSO’s late stage supervisor Stuart Bremner whose unexpected death sent shockwaves throughout the orchestra and music community at large. Bremner, who first joined the organization in 2018, played a pivotal role in helping create and launch the WSO livestream shows this season, whose lasting legacy will be felt for years to come.
Last but not least, the program ended with Brahms’ "Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16," composed in 1859 during his mid-20s, and hailed as the late Romantic composer’s first true orchestral work with its unusual scoring omitting the violins. Raiskin also dedicated this particular performance to Bremner’s memory, paying homage to the "WSO’s friend and colleague, and above all, someone who really loved music."
After a lighter approach, and even some initial hesitancy during the opening "Allegro moderato" that nonetheless allowed its sparser textures to breath, the five-movement work’s darkly hewn sonorities brightened considerably with the more percussive, rhythmically active "Scherzo." Finally, the "Rondo" rounded out the performance, and the entire evening with the high spirits and sunny optimism of youth.
In what will surely be regarded the most challenging season of the orchestra’s 74-year history, bravo to maestro Raiskin and the entire WSO organization for, frankly, its courage, fortitude and creativity in navigating a crushing global pandemic while still bringing beauty into our homes on a nearly weekly basis. When other groups have simply hung up their bows or put concerts on ice, Manitobans should be rightfully proud of "our Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra," as we now dare to begin contemplating a forever altered, new arts season this fall.
The livestream concert will be available through Tuesday, May 11. For tickets or further information, visit: https://wso.ca/