Premiere, Sibelius Point Up Canada’s Twin Celebrations

Angela Hewitt brought consummate virtuosity and clarity to the premiere of Matthew Whittall’s ‘Nameless Seas.’
(Photo by Ole Christiansen)
By Richard Todd

OTTAWA — Against the backdrop of the modern nation of Canada’s 150th birthday, the Ottawa National Arts Centre is celebrating its 50th year of existence. To mark the latter, the Centre has undergone a major architectural remake, with improved acoustics and seating in Southam Hall, its major performance space. And the NAC Orchestra is taking part in a multi-disciplinary festival of concerts called Ideas of North (a phrase coined by Ontario native Glenn Gould), which continues through Oct. 14; its “Canada 150 Tour” continues through year end, with engagements in eight cities in Western Canada up next.

Composer Matthew Whittall (Maarit Kytöharju)

The Oct. 5 program, one of four Sibelius-heavy programs the NACO is presenting, featured an important premiere by Canadian composer Matthew Whittall, one of two commissioned for the festival. A concerto-like work called Nameless Seas, it was performed by the redoubtable pianist Angela Hewitt (an Ottawa native) under the direction of the equally formidable Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu.

The piece was irresistible despite its abstract harmonic vocabulary and the absence of tunes or any conventional species of melody. Indeed, it shimmered, sparkled, and even glittered now and then. The overwhelmingly intricate interplay between the piano and orchestra, especially the winds and percussion, must have taken many hours of meticulous preparation.

Hewitt played with the consummate virtuosity for which she’s known, but virtuosity was not the end, according to the composer, only a means. Whittall has said that instead of melodic development, the score suggests a series of evolving moods. Yet it was impossible not to be impressed with the clarity Hewitt brought to the demanding score, and conductor Lintu led the orchestra in a worthy accompaniment. Equally impressive was the range of sonority and effect, from crystalline through thunderous. The “sound effects” —  waves, bird cries, and so on — were never overstated but woven into the fabric of the score.

Hannu Lintu: Sibelius superstar. (Veikko Kähkönen)

Two pieces by Sibelius completed the program. Lintu is a superstar in the Sibelius world these days. His video recordings of all seven of the composer’s symphonies with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra can be seen and heard on cable television and elsewhere. Still, his rendition of the Symphony No. 2 in D with the NACO demonstrated the truism that even the best recordings pale beside the experience of a good live performance.

Beginning with the sunny pulsing of the strings and the cheery tune from the winds, this interpretation went from one muscular beauty to the next. The entire first movement projected a luscious glow which coexisted nicely with the music’s considerable drama. One of the finest aspects of the performance was the flawless blend and commanding power of the brass ensemble, especially in the passages without support from the rest of the orchestra.

The more solemn second movement was utterly convincing, anticipating the bracing gales of the finale, but also providing a firm, welloriented grounding for the symphony’s evolving atmosphere. As for the finale, yes, it was eloquent in its suggestion of windy desolation but even more in its resolution of rugged triumph.

None of this would have worked so well if it were not for the quality of the orchestral playing, the finest the NACO has produced in some time.

The program opened with The Oceanides, a tone poem that isn’t heard too often but is gaining in popularity. It’s concise, running the typical Sibelian gamut between the austere and the playful. The Ideas of North Festival is multifaceted, taking in lectures, pop events, exhibits, and cuisine. The main focus, though, is classical music, presented mainly by the NACO, but also with John Storgårds conducting the Lapland Chamber Orchestra on Oct. 12.

Richard Todd is a semi-retired music commentator whose 35-year career included 21 years as the principal English-language critic in Ottawa, writing for the Ottawa Citizen. He is also a fine-art photographer.