Coming off a hugely successful concerto celebration (yes, I was there, and no, I didn’t write about it, but yes, I was amazed!), the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony entered the weekend of May 13th with one bombastic smorgasbord of a Pops Series finale on their hands. Not only did the show feature sprinklings from every single facet of orchestral music, from big band to film score to musical theatre and modernist orchestral composition, it also spotlighted a slew of local guests from around the Waterloo Region, from vocalists to dance companies and a guest conductor with a TON of character. The show I attended Saturday night was seriously packed with music, so I’ll similarly pack this review full of as much as I can cover; let’s go!
The night opened with selections from West Side Story, which for someone who has just come off a series of shows performing percussion in a rather busy band suite of the same music was a real pleasure. The arrangement was certainly less hectic than what I played, but the energy and character of the production shone through each area of the orchestra. Some wonderful soaring string lines and brass swagger punctuated with stellar, precise percussion was just wonderful. Suites can be a bit of a risk, since if they’re not done well they can fall rather flat, but this certainly avoided that pitfall, as did all of the crafty musical amalgamations throughout the night. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?
Speaking of percussion, I had the most ideal view a percussionist could ever ask for; just look at the fancy picture I snapped from my vantage point, right above and behind the percussion section. I was able to observe Lori West, Ron Brown, Brennan Connolly and the rest of the guest percussionists as they did their work with precision and a few shared laughs. It was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of my perspective since my regular KWS attendance began five years ago; incredible!
A second suite followed West Side Story, this time titled A Salute to the Big Bands, appropriately featuring the proficiency of the brass section. The horns, trumpets and trombones ripped through the swung collection of staple band pieces with serious precision and power. It was as good as one could hope for, slipping the flavour of the 40s and 50s into an evening that might have been stuck in a rotation of film and musical theatre numbers (not that there would have been anything wrong with that!).
The first of several guests percolated the next piece of music, a choral number titled Sailing. The Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus filled the hall with a richness and strength that can only be produced by a well-rehearsed men’s choir. I’m having an interesting time finding the words to describe the quality of this piece, because it possesses a soul that is as much bright and hopeful as it is yearning and melancholy. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, something that worked brilliantly to break up the big band suite and the absolutely iconic waltz which followed.
Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube, or An Der Schönen Blauen Donau, is a staple of 19th-century waltz music, with a melody that nearly everyone has heard at some point in their lives. It is fitting that this staple was given somewhat of a twist: it was performed in its most historically-popular arrangement, featuring the male chorus. The choir adds its rich body to an otherwise light and floating melody, grounding it appropriately but without weighing it down. It’s amazing how nimble a group of darkly-characterized men’s voices can be when swinging and whirling through a waltz!
Guest vocalist Laura Larson provided two brilliant pieces of music throughout the evening, from both Les Miserables (I Dreamed a Dream) and the Wizard of Oz (Somewhere Over the Rainbow – what else!). In both cases, a very Kristin Chenoweth-esque sound emanated from her vocal cords, not something I was expecting. It’s a very distinctive sound, and certainly one that demonstrates the effort and training that went into cultivating her vocal skills. The timbre was captivating and unique, qualities which helped give these iconic songs significant communicative ability.
Of course, it would be a disservice if I didn’t mention the talents of the Carousel Dance Company ballet troupe, a talented group of young dancers that twirled their way across the stage and into the hearts of the audience. Dancing through several numbers throughout the night, including Debussy’s Clair De Lune and a fantastic cowgirl-inspired encore, the dancers showed poise, discipline, and flair through their performance. I’m by no means a dance expert, but I have an innate sense of rhythm and timing, something that makes watching dance an occasional headache when that rhythmic precision is lost, but this troupe was simply fantastic. Their internal clocks were consistently ticking to the same pulse as the orchestra, exactly as it should be.
Along with a brilliant assembly of Hollywood film music, containing melodic soundbites of over 15 different pieces of film music, the highlight (or lowlight, depending on either your taste or that of your children…) of the first half was the music from Frozen. It’s music that everyone with kids knows by now, and to see it live was simply a far different experience than hearing the record repeated over and over. The Grand Philharmonic Choir Youth Chorus was featured singing bits from the film, including Olaf the snowman’s solo In Summer and the powerful Let It Go. Once the piano melody struck the first melodic phrase of Let It Go, shivers ran down my spine; regardless of how you feel about the film, it is one moving piece of musical composition. Lori West deserves commendation for her incredible marimba chops in this piece, tackling the fast runs that the original gives to the piano with precision and emotion, giving a fresh perspective on the figure. My jaw dropped and slowly turned into a massive grin after that incredible display of percussive proficiency – amazing!
The highlight of the second half, for me, was McMozart’s Eine Kleine Bricht Moonlicht Nicht Musik. This brilliant fusion of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with Scottish folk melodies, making me feel as though I’d reached a brilliant precipice of two of my personal favourite music genres (if one can classify these as genres). Scottish folk has been a constant for me since childhood fascination with pipe bands, and frankly the only missing piece with this innovative hybrid was a pipe snare or two!
Guest conductor Lucas Waldin wasn’t just a witty voice to entertain the bright-faced crowd between pieces; he also plays a mean flute! He chose to stick Mancini’s theme from Pink Panther on the program, and did an elegant, witty job of performing the main melody on flute from his elevated conductor’s plinth. It was very Catingub-esque of him (KWS frequenters will know what I’m talking about!), but it added a level of engagement to the show that I’ve rarely experienced while a conductor is doing something other than waving his hands. Great choice, Mr. Waldin.
The Waterloo Regional Police Male Chorus returned to sing an incredible dedication to those working so hard in Fort McMurray to tame the blazing wildfire and evacuate those in its path. Song for the Unsung Hero was a moving piece that contained Canadianized interpolations of God Save The Queen, continuing the unstated theme of suites and interrelations in the program. It certainly caught me up in its wash of emotion and melodic brilliance.
By audience request (measured by a high-tech Db meter recording crowd cheers that topped out at 98.9Db), the John Williams piece of the evening was the brilliantly composed, moving Theme from Schindler’s List, showcasing concertmaster Benedicte Lauzierre’s incredible versatility and expressiveness on the instrument. Sadly, this rendition of the piece didn’t captivate me the way I hoped; it was simply too fast. It was as if the night was coming to a close and the orchestra had to push the final tempos to get out on time. Regardless of the reasoning, a slower, more intimate and expressive performance would have made this piece an incredible choice. And yes, I absolutely love the music of Schindler’s List, so I’ve certainly no bias against the choice! Oh, and I suppose I’m obligated to mention the other choices were the Star Wars Suite for Orchestra and the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Suite.
The evening concluded with Tchaikovsky’s bombastic 1812 Overture, which again started out at too lively a tempo. But hey, maybe that’s just me. Once the tempo picks up around 5 minutes in, it was simply brilliant. The symphony even went as far as having cannon blasts sound throughout the hall via the massive PA stacks having above the stage, which added an element of authenticity. Besides, who doesn’t love some good old massive cannon blasts with their orchestral music? Exactly.
A jam packed evening of music and performance left the Pops subscribers in a satisfied state heading into the long summer break. The musical selections and local guests made the evening a real tour-de-force – a triple-threat, if you will. The KWS did an incredible job once again; it was a brilliant way to close out the Pops series of 2015/2016.