The N.A.O & “Rousing Russians” Reply

Review by Tony Kilgannon
“Rousing Russians” was the theme of the Brott Music Festival event at Mohawk College’s McIntyre Theatre, and the program (obviously) emphasized works by Russian composers. The series’ namesake was not present, but he left the helm of his National Academy Orchestra in the good hands of Guest Conductor Martin MacDonald, with help from apprentice Brendan Hagan.

What a night, and what an orchestra it was! The sound was rich, clear, precise and confident. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing these musicians in two very different venues, and in both situations been impressed with their power and range.The program began with a new piece, Achilles and Scamander by Robert Rival, based on the violent conflict from Homer’s Iliad. This sometimes eccentric tone poem served as a great tune-up for the concert-goer’s ear, with its heavy rhythms, great dynamic shifts, and hugely contrasting sections. I found the sonic blasts from the percussion instruments absolutely riveting throughout, referencing powerful Russian masterpieces like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

The featured soloist of the evening was Alexei Gulenco, who I was delighted to find is presently a Hamilton resident. His rendition of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat brought the house to its feet. This familiar concerto offers plenty of room for a virtuoso to strut. There are sweet spots on every instrument, which when just enough power is applied; reward the player with a cornucopia of sound. Think of the warm tones of an overdriven sax, or an electric guitar taken just to the edge. Gulenco repeatedly pushed his Steingraeber & Sohne grand deep into that territory, provoking geysers of beautiful tone, almost overdriving it, and yet moments later produced sweet, delicate, glassy notes that tugged on a completely different set of heartstrings.

The National Academy Orchestra was consistent, responsive, and alert, returning every volley, and supporting every excursion, as the piano powered through to the conclusion. My only complaint and perhaps an unfair one, concerns a technical issue. The auditorium has a set of video screens, already mounted in place and operational. It would seem relatively easy to mount a fixed camera overhead above the pianist, so that the whole audience could watch his hands.  There may well be a technical or traditional reason why this wasn’t done, but Mohawk College would seem to be the ideal place to bring technology into the concert experience.

After the intermission, Brendan Hagan conducted the first part of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, handing the baton to Martin MacDonald mid-piece. Petrushka has a distinctly modern feel, which is a bit ironic, given that it was written over a hundred years ago,- the version which we heard is more than half a century old. It is a tour-de-force for the orchestra, Maestro MacDonald told us; this writer thought it was also very much like a sampler plate of instrumental tones.  Driven by rhythm, it features many solos from within the orchestra, giving these young players a powerful challenge to which they rose with aplomb. At times it was hard to isolate the source of the music; at one point a sound which evoked a hurdy-gurdy emanated from the wind section, so spooky and unexpected that my brain told me to look for an organ or electronic keyboard. This playful, expository tone poem was a delightful and fitting end to a thoroughly satisfying evening of music.

If I knew how to say “Cheers” in Russian, I would say it here

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