Conductor’s Debut Makes Statement With Daring Music

Alexander Prior leading the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in his inaugural concert
(Photo by Dale MacMillan)
By Bill Rankin

EDMONTON — Alexander Prior, a 24-year-old British-born, Russian-trained composer and conductor, officially took over the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 15 with a short, late-night concert that made a statement about the kind of music Edmontonians can expect to hear for the next five years.

The Late Night programming was introduced a few years ago to try to make symphony concerts cool and to attract a younger crowd. Reports are that attendance hasn’t generally been robust, but the Winspear Centre had about 1,000 in attendance (as many plus-60s as under-40s) for Prior’s debut, and the young conductor gave them music never before heard in Edmonton: Xenakis’ Jalons and John Adams’ sprawling, propulsive Harmonielehre, with a significantly beefed-up contingent of musicians.

Alexander Prior (Dale MacMillan)

The Edmonton Symphony’s core is just 56, but there were more than 70 onstage to play the Adams, and to great effect. Like conductors before him, Prior will agitate to add musicians so that he can present composers like Adams, and perhaps more Wagner, Bruckner, and Strauss than William Eddins, his predecessor, had a taste for. I’d bet he gets a few more players.

Prior was named chief conductor last fall, succeeding Buffalo native Eddins, who will maintain the title of music director emeritus and will continue to appear occasionally with the orchestra he led for 12 years. In fact he’s conducting some Haydn and playing Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat with Sara Davis Buechner in October.

Edmonton audiences were used to hearing Eddins introduce pieces at concerts, and Prior will be fine in that role, as well. He set up the context for the Xenakis and the Adams helpfully. With Xenakis’ Jalons, in particular, Prior assured the audience they were in for no treat, but he urged them to listen open-mindedly and hate the gnarly, tuneless work if they liked. His empathy drew big laughs. Prior has an affinity for cacophonous adventures as a composer; he led the ESO in one of his own pieces last season, a noisy, percussively grating work that left the audience bewildered and underwhelmed.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) was a Greek mathematician, architect, and composer. He saw a relationship between architecture and music, and applied mathematical models in his compositions. In Jalons, Xenakis used conventional instruments to project the “otherness” of his compositional conceptions, as one critic has labeled his aesthetic. A former chair of the University of Alberta told me he listened carefully to this Xenakis chamber work “and found no musical patterns.” Even open-minded listeners might find this limitation daunting or be incredulous that it is, in fact, music, but the Friday audience did better than bear the Xenakis. They seemed to say in their response that the new conductor can bring them music they would never seek out themselves, and they’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; they’ll trust him, at least for now.

Adams’ 1985 Harmonielehre begins with what is now familiar minimalist repetition, and much of the first, unnamed movement’s material is revisited in the final movement, which Adams called “Meister Eckhart and Quackie” (a nickname for his infant daughter). The style of the beginning of both the first and last movement could be mistaken for classic Glass. In the middle  movement, though, called “Anfortas Wound,” Adams presents a subtler, amorphous orchestral palette of strings, high winds, quiet brass, and mallet percussion in its drift and coloration. The puckish title of the piece, alluding to Schoenberg’s book on harmonic theory, offers no discernible gloss on what Adams attempts in this symphonic work. The allusion seems gratuitous, for the Adams effect is harmonically warm and accessible, if repetitive, compared to Schoenberg’s subversive notions of harmony and composition.  

The orchestra played the Adams both on Sept. 15 and 16 with obvious relish, and Prior directed traffic with a clear beat. His technique looks very formal, but it is hardly just metronomic. When he slashed each beat of a big bass-drum statement, the gesture might have been taken as redundant, but I read it as an expression of solidarity with the musician. In the final movement of Harmonielehre, the conductor leaned in with a buoyant physicality totally in keeping with the music he was encouraging from the players, and the effect was both understandable and emotionally satisfying.

Katherine Chi, soloist in the Grieg Piano Concerto (Chris Sanchez)

Saturday’s Masters Series concert excluded the Xenakis, but also had Janàček’s Taras Bulba and Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, featuring Katherine Chi. Except for the Grieg, the ESO had never played the other pieces before, likely a sign of things to come as Prior establishes himself in his new musical community.

Taras Bulba, inspired by Gogol’s novel, is a frequently shifting, episodic “rhapsody,” as Janàček called it, requiring deft coordination from the podium, and Prior gave the orchestra all the help they needed to make those quick changes in mood and direction. The brass section especially distinguished itself throughout the evening, and the flourish of brass and organ at the end drew an unhesitant standing ovation.

Chi’s rendition of the Grieg was poised and powerful. The Canadian pianist, trained at Curtis and the New England Conservatory and winner of the 2000 Honens Competition, hasn’t broken into the top-tier concert circuit, but her performance of the Grieg was top-notch, both in its delicacy and its pianistic heroics. Again, Prior was an overt collaborator in this performance, attentively checking with the pianist at every turn, but keeping his focus on the orchestra without any grandstanding.

After more than a decade of Eddins’ jazzy American and early 20th-century French repertoire, Prior will give Edmonton Symphony fans a new palette of classical music colors. In the spring, he conducted the ESO in three performances of Strauss’ Elektra with a reduced instrumentation of about 70 musicians. One way or another, the new maestro will put his stamp on a group that is in a rejuvenating phase as veterans retire. Prior’s youthful fearlessness has already suggested a winning formula for success.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.