The first concert from Winnipeg’s classical music institutions this season was served by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra (MCO) at Westminster United Church on Wednesday, Sept. 12. Celebrating their 46th season, they featured British cellist Colin Carr in one of the most iconic concertos of the 20th century and a pair of light European folk suites.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Charterhouse Suite, a set of six movements full of old folk colours from the British landscape, started the program.
The bucolic romp tumbles like a brisk wind over rolling hills and through shady woods, then rings with traces of medieval harmonies and centuries-old dances. Simple melodies and motives are passed around the strings and framed in velvety harmonies. Interspersed with moments of romantic lyricism, the suite is sweet but not saccharine
Though it took a moment for the ensemble to warm up, the light English vibe suits the MCO beautifully. The ebb and flow of that brisk wind occasionally tumbled apart in moments director Anne Manson reined in the pulse and the tuning of some bigger jumps was shy of centred. The lyrical momentum was buoyant as a rule, but stalled in the slow fourth movement before picking back up in the fifth and bubbled through the finale.
A last-minute change in program order served another suite of short works based on folk sounds – of Czech origin, this time – straight away. Leoš Janáček’s late-19th century Idyll is full of rhythmic snap and rustic timbres, but the structural similarities made the first half feel a bit homogenous.
Ornamental gestures inspired by virtuosic Slavic fiddling lacked clarity, and tuning remained an issue. Settling into the third and fourth movements, the orchestra really began to sink their collective teeth into that rustic Bohemian palate. The remainder of the suite, however, felt more scattered than spirited.
Colin Carr joined the ensemble for Dmitri Shostakovich’s hyper-dramatic first cello concerto. Setting off with a signature four-note theme, the raucous first movement is full of bright contrast, dense chromaticism and some of the most delightfully threatening wind writing in the history of western art music.
The simple folk-inspired melodies in the second movement, as potent as they are contained, are suspended in a dissonant ether. An exposed and dynamic solo movement stretches the ears before leading into the aggressive and whirling final movement, recalling that four-note earworm from the first movement with even more angst and grit.
The ensemble, most notably the wind section, played with ferocity. Carr has exceptional tone. His technical ability ranks him among the best cellists alive, and their collaborative interpretation was well-played and beautifully resonant. It is an impressive work whichever way you slice it, but it felt out of character in the same way hearing James Joyce’s words read with a Russian accent might.
To represent a work constructed by someone other than its interpreters with authenticity, a connection must be made, not just to the notes and rhythms, but to the energies that live within them. Someone’s reality lives these works. They are the sounds of a composer’s experiences informed by the cultural rhythm in which they are steeped and the schools of thought to which they prescribe.
These windows into an artist’s mind are most clearly projected when an ensemble, whether an orchestral one or a rock band, can fully invest into a collaborative consciousness. Last week, the MCO and Colin Carr demonstrated their proficiency. What flickered in and out was polish and depth.