Last week was a banner moment for Canadian music in Calgary. On Friday and Saturday, there was a two-day symposium at The University of Calgary devoted to the music and career of Malcolm Forsyth, one of Alberta’s most esteemed composers, with a concert of his music on Friday night at the Rozsa Centre. And that same evening, and also Saturday evening, there was a Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra concert of Forsyth’s music that included his cello concerto Electra Rising, with Amanda Forsyth (the composer’s daughter) as the cello soloist.
On Sunday, there was a concert of choral music by Luminous Voices that prominently featured Canadian composers, including a major choral work by Forsyth, as well as a new commissioned work by Scott Ross-Molyneux.
The CPO concert was also something of a homecoming event: Amanda Forsyth was for some years the principal cellist of the orchestra, and the conductor for the concert was Hans Graf, a much-loved figure from the orchestra’s recent past.
The concert had something of a festive air, all the music of a positive, uplifting kind. The program opened with Paul Hindemith’s Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass, a work I don’t believe I have heard the orchestra play before. This piece, composed for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony, contains much music to showcase the CPO’s estimable brass section. Led in a forthright, direct way by Graf, the players tucked into this well-composed piece with energy, presenting a rhythmically alive, vigorous account of the music, the balance between brass and strings finely gauged. We could well do with hearing more of Hindemith’s orchestra music in Calgary.
The featured work was, of course, the cello concerto by Malcolm Forsyth. Amanda Forsyth has played this work with the orchestra before, near the time of its composition, and has performed it elsewhere on numerous occasions. Always a strong, convincing soloist, Forsyth was clearly comfortable in playing a piece written for her. Scarcely looking at the score, she tossed off the fearsomely difficult cadenzas with aplomb, and in the inward passages in the first movement brought a rich, expressive tone to the music. There was much playful fun in the bright middle movement as well.
Thoroughly comfortable with the rhapsodic elements in the music, Forsyth offered an impressive performance of the music that relished the wide varieties of themes and textures the piece contains. Graf, always a sensitive accompanist, kept the orchestra fully engaged and did not allow it to overwhelm the soloist, often a problem with cello concertos. The energetic final movement had a marvellous brio and panache — in all, as fine a performance of this fine piece as one could hope for.
The program concluded with Brahms’s Third Symphony, a work in the Viennese mainstream and the style of music most associated with Graf. As with the wonderful previous performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 heard previously, Graf offered a memorable, sensitively conceived interpretation of this great symphony.
The orchestra has changed considerably in its membership since Graf was the regular conductor here. Here and there it was evident that the level of precision in matters of balance, specificity in dynamics, and phrasing were more and different from what the orchestra is usually asked to do. While the wind and brass sections rose to Graf’s demands with admirable concentration and precise tuning, there were a fair number of small slips in the strings, especially the violins.
When Graf conducts, everyone has to pay full attention all the time: for him there is no comfortable orchestral pew. And the Brahms symphonies, when fully understood, place a very high level of musical demand on the players in terms of tonal sensitivity and dynamic shading. In general, the symphony got better and better as it went along, the final movement, taken at a crisp pace, producing a remarkable climax and sense of cumulative power, before softening to a beautiful, peaceful end. The magical third movement, with its expressive, memorable melody, made the impact that it can — the soul of Brahms, as it were.
A remarkable element here was the level of concentration that could be felt from the audience, the kind of concentration that comes when one is in the hands of a master storyteller. Musically speaking, Graf clearly tells great stories.
In all, this was a much enjoyed program, the conductor recalled many times at the conclusion of the program — a sure sign that the music making was convincing and moving.