Culture  McGill Symphony Orchestra kicks off new season

Opening concert sets tone for a diversity of performances this year

Music is a universal language. It is also a temporary flight from reality, where your imagination can take you almost anywhere. Last Friday night, conductor Alexis Hauser and the McGill Symphony Orchestra (MGSO), along with a special guest, talented violinist Alexander Read, opened their doors to the first concert of the season and a fantastic musical soirée.

The evening’s program included Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, Op 77, Brahms’ Tragic Overture, Op. 81, Overture to Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz, and Brahms’ Der Rosenkavalier Suite. It was important to Hauser to convey a specific set of emotions through the music. “The idea of this program was the journey from the most dark and tragic to the happier, more joyful things in life,” he said. It was an apt description of the evening – what the audience witnessed was a gradual progression from the somber to the sweet.

The program began with Tragic Overture. To Hauser, the work symbolizes “the happening of an immense catastrophe and the immediate reaction thereafter. [There is] a lot of despair and anger in this work.” As they were preparing for the concert, Hauser told his musicians to imagine the terrifying events of 9/11 in order to create the appropriate mindset for interpreting music on the program.

Tragic Overture was followed by Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1, with Alexander Read playing the solo sections. The first movement, entitled “Nocturne,” began quietly. Hauser saw this as parallel to the day after the tragic events, “the slow and fragile efforts of how to build a life.” He characterized the remainder of the piece, from the second movement through the last, as a depiction of “quotidian living with a huge wildness of human emotions, including sarcasm, humour, but profound feelings as well.” The different emotions lead to the “grotesque circus music of the finale.”

After the intermission, the musicians played two operatic pieces, Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini and Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. According to Hauser, these pieces “lead up to more joyful moments of life, with dance, love, joie de vivre.”

Led by Hauser, the young orchestra played an outstanding performance. The music that emerged from the instruments was like fireworks; energy filled the room. Read’s passionate performance also added much excitement to the night.

The violinist, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in Music at Yale, has a Bachelor of Music with honours from McGill. He was, in fact, the concertmaster of the MGSO last year. Ee has won numerous prizes for his performances, and has appeared in masterclasses with the likes of Zakhar Bron, Joseph Silverstein, and Pamela Frank.

The audience reacted enthusiastically as Read played his violin with confidence and ease. In Shostakovich’s piece, he started with a soft and melancholic tone, which grew more emphatic as the music erupted into intensely emotional melodies. Read played both the delicate and dramatic parts of the score effortlessly. He has the delicacy as well as the energy to be able to play both extremes.

It was clear that Violin Concerto No. 1 was of special importance to Read. According to Hauser, their shared enthusiasm for the piece was the inspiration for the night’s program. Hauser characterized their work with Shostakovich as “nothing but a labour of love.”

The MGSO’s concert season continues through April 2010, with discounts available for McGill students. Hauser said there will be “various and contrasting styles of all epochs, with vocal and instrumental soloists and performances from the early classics to the most contemporary.” If Friday’s concert was any indication, Hauser’s gift for integrating diverse styles will make for a continually interesting season.