2 Canadian Orchestras Combine In Symphony Honoring WWII French

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Alexander Shelley led two orchestras and a choir in rare performances of Jacques Hétu’s Symphony No. 5 in three Canadian cities. (Photos by Curtis Perry)

TORONTO — It was a special occasion on March 2 that brought together an orchestra from Quebec City, another orchestra from Ottawa, and a choir from Toronto at Roy Thomson Hall. The occasion was a rare performance of a major work by Jacques Hétu, a Canadian composer who studied with Dutilleux and Messiaen and died in 2010. Hétu’s Symphony No. 5 shared a program with a recent piece by another Canadian composer, Kelly-Marie Murphy, and Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2 with 18-year-old Kevin Chen as soloist. The concert, led by Alexander Shelley, music director of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, promised substance and excitement, and it delivered.

Alexander Shelley

Hétu’s Symphony No. 5 was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony, which gave the work’s first performance in 2010 with Peter Oundjian conducting. Unfortunately, the composer died just three weeks before the premiere of what turned out to be his last work. The piece is modeled after Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in several respects. Both symphonies use a chorus in the final movement, and both have a text with an inspirational message.

In Beethoven’s case, it was Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” and a plea for brotherhood and peace. On the occasion of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Leonard Bernstein changed the word “Freude” (joy) to “Freiheit” (freedom), and it seemed to fit perfectly well as an interpretation of Beethoven’s spirit and message. The last movement of Hétu’s Symphony No. 5 is a setting of a poem by Paul Éluard that also conveys a message of freedom.

Hétu’s symphony has four movements titled “Prologue (Paris Before World War II),” “The Invasion (The War),” “The Occupation (The German Occupation),” and “Liberty (The Hope for Liberation).” Éluard (1895-1952) was a surrealist poet who had fought in World War I. During World War II, he was part of the French resistance and wrote a great deal of poetry in support of it. His poem “Liberté,” the one set by Hétu, was an important rallying cry for the French people: In 1942, copies were dropped all over France by the RAF.

Hétu’s music is diatonic and melodic, and often moving and powerful in its expression of emotion. The third movement, an Adagio, is described by the composer as “a sort of funeral march.” We hear the march rhythm in the percussion, and the mood is almost unrelentingly grim. Éluard’s poem in the last movement is made up of 18 short stanzas, most of which end with the words “J’ecris ton nom” (I write your name) as in:

On absence without desire

On the steps of death

On barren solitude

I write your name

At long last, at the very end of the movement, the word “Liberté” is written and sung fortissimo in the hair-raising final bars.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed Hétu’s Symphony No. 5 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa and the Orchestre symphonique de Québec.

Hétu’s symphony is clearly a tribute to the suffering and perseverance of the French people during the Nazi occupation, but like all exceptional works of art, it has near universal relevance, too. All countries that have been invaded and occupied — it is not hard to think of several in our own time — can easily relate to it.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa and the Orchestre symphonique de Québec are both large chamber orchestras. Bringing them together created an orchestra of just the right size for Hétu’s Symphony No. 5. Shelley knew the music well and conducted a performance that was gripping from beginning to end. In his conducting style, Shelley managed to somehow combine grace and suppleness with forcefulness and precision. He had absolute control over both the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and the combined orchestras, and the playing and the singing were on the highest possible level. I suspect the composer would have been proud to hear such a performance.

Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy was applauded after the performance of her recent work ‘Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe.’

The concert began with a work by Murphy composed last year under a commission from the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Murphy seems very fond of fanciful titles for her compositions. This one is called Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe. In a note, the composer says the piece is a response to Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, composed in 1888. For inspiration, Murphy looked at what else was happening around that time. She noticed that Van Gogh painted his famous Starry Night in 1889 and that the Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888.

So Fleming’s “extraordinary life became the subject of my tone poem.” Murphy goes on to state that her piece depicts “questioning, searching and curiosity, perseverance and determination.” Unfortunately, as is so often the case in my experience of Murphy’s music, I was left bewildered about the connection between the composer’s words and the music. It seems to me that Murphy might be better off letting the music speak for itself. In this case, Dark Nights, Bright Stars, Vast Universe is expertly orchestrated and both colorful and entertaining. Did I notice a near quotation from the end of Strauss’s Don Juan at the end of Murphy’s piece?

Kevin Chen was the exceptional soloist in Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

Although still in his teens, Kevin Chen already plays like a seasoned virtuoso. He was born in Taiwan but has lived in Canada most of his life. He has already won numerous prizes in competitions both in North America and Europe. He is currently studying in Germany. Chen captured very well the improvisational character of the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 2.

He went on to show us the playfulness of the Scherzo and was absolutely fearless in a breakneck tempo through the technical demands of the finale. Shelley and the orchestra were with him every step of the way. To say that Chen wowed the Roy Thomson Hall audience would be putting it mildly. He dazzled them still further with Liszt’s La campanella as an encore.

All in all this was a richly rewarding evening of music-making. Appropriately, the same concert was given in Quebec City, Toronto, and Ottawa on successive evenings. Symphony programs these days can often seem predictable and boring. The usual formula is: new work (no more than 10 minutes), warhorse concerto, and a big warhorse symphony.

But here we had a refreshing variation: new work, warhorse concerto with a gifted newcomer, and a symphony that was certainly big — it lasts about 45 minutes — but was anything but a warhorse. In fact, it took courage to devote the entire second half of a concert to a work by a Canadian composer — any Canadian composer. Great credit is due to the person or persons who came up with this idea and even more credit to those who not only made the concert happen but made it happen in three cities.