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Two thundering works were heard onstage Friday night — one older classic that longs for the past, and another, hot-off-the-press première riddled with foreboding for the coming passages of life — as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra launched its (B)eyond Classics series with Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances.

Friday night’s concert led by Daniel Raiskin, however, first began with a deeply moving tribute to WSO violinist Meredith McCallum, whose unexpected death last month sent shockwaves throughout the orchestra and local music community at large. After the maestro placed a single white rose on her empty chair, the players performed Rachmaninoff’s "Vocalise," each delicate phrase evoking the fragility of life itself.

Harry Stafylakis</p>

Harry Stafylakis

The program featured the world première of Into Oblivion by WSO Composer-in-Residence Harry Stafylakis, showcasing French-Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly. The acclaimed singer garnered first prize in the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montreal, among other awards and also performed the composer’s prior work, The Keats Cycle, as a trusted muse.

The highly introspective, three-part orchestral song cycle based on D. H. Lawrence’s harrowing poem of 1929, "The Ship of Death" in which the dying writer wrestled with his own mortality became its own ideal vessel for Stafylakis' take-no-prisoners compositional style, daring to pull back the curtain on the darkest shadows of life.

But the epic work four years in gestation also highlights the versatility of his compelling artistry, alternatively fuelled by his own head-banging "metal" ethos as witnessed during his last WSO première, Weighted at the 2019 Winnipeg New Music Festival featuring American progressive metal trio Animals as Leaders, and his ability to spin spiderwebs of gossamer light instrumental textures.

Raiskin — another musical chameleon — kept the New York City-based composer’s latest creation well in hand, superbly leading the players while displaying his full commitment to the often-densely written, high octane orchestration.

After a gripping introduction that immediately plunged the crowd of 1,053 into Stafylakis’ visceral sound world, Sly immediately set the tone for the 40-minute piece with fierce intensity and noble gravitas requisite for carrying the weighty work dealing with life and death to its ultimate shores.

His robust vocals soared on his thoughtful phrasing and confident projection, while bringing operatic intensity to several sections in particular, such as his repeatedly intoning "oblivion" like a dirge-like chant; a wise choice that added overall cohesion to the work as well heightening its dramatic punch.

At times, the singer seemed to compete with Stafylakis' often volcanic orchestration of blockbuster chords and knotty polyrhythms, however effective interludes including word painting laced throughout and serving as commentary for its 10 sections provided both relief and release, while creating better balance between disparate forces. It also became a struggle at times to hear some of Sly’s text in his lowest register, with his voice subsumed into the orchestra's sonic depths.

Less is also often more, and the soloist’s simple and all-too-brief vocalization on "ah" and later humming evoked the keening wail for the dead that packed an emotional wallop. More of this lyricism, plus a wider palette of vocal effects, such as the singsong of Sprechstimme or hissed stage whispers might arguably have injected even more drama and countered some of Lawrence’s syllabic text, in the expressionistic spirit of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire.

The climax that comes with the word "oblivion" sung a cappella in the wake of lugubrious, muted brass — including Sly throwing his head backwards that risked melodrama but thankfully escaped that peril — resonated with a sense of fatalism. His final decree to listeners to "build your ship of death… For the voyage of oblivion awaits you," delivered with spine-tingling intensity chilled to the bone, leading to a well-deserved standing ovation and cheers from the audience, with the beaming composer taking the stage for his bow with Sly.

The entire second half of the solemn program featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, composed in 1940 and infused with yearning for Motherland Russia the composer had left behind, as well as being steeped in the influence of his musical hero, the quintessentially Russian composer Tchaikovsky.

The Russian-born maestro with this music in his blood led the players with passionate zeal throughout the three-movement work, building its sweeping waves of sound during opening movement, "Non allegro," based on its three-note figure, that also includes quotes from Rachmaninoff's First Symphony.

The second movement, "Tempo di Valse," conjuring Czarist ballrooms of the past unfolded with elegant grace that grows increasingly frantic, with the third movement "Lento Assai" driven by the always powerful "Dies Irae" theme extracted from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead, and a coda inspired by Russian Orthodox chant leading to a crashing finale — and the night’s second ovation.

Special mention goes to Winnipeg’s own Allen Harrington, who made his alto saxophone sing during his brief, unusually scored solo passage during the first movement, as well as the horn section led by principal player Patricia Evans that became a brassy backbone for the entire work.

POST NOTE: This concert also featured the maiden voyage of "EnCue," a real-time program notes/commentary app synchronized with the live performance, with the WSO notably the first Canadian orchestra to embrace this technology. After Raiskin, appearing like a kid in a candy shop, told listeners to "turn on their cellphones," and charmingly snapped his own selfie with the audience as background, it was game on. And yes, I did go there and took the app for a test drive. Stay tuned for some thoughts and personal musings on this bold new venture in a future Music Matters column.

The concert repeats Saturday night, 7:30 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.