summerhill orchestra presents ‘rachmaninoff and the lark’; plus an interview with conductor sarah john

l-r: Emma Walker and Ian Werker of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

l-r: Emma Walker and Ian Werker of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

newly formed Summerhill Orchestra is a community ensemble playing out of The Church of the Messiah, and this past monday was the last production of their 2018/2019 season as they presented a program titled Rachmaninoff and the Lark. the three-part program opened with the overture of mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, thereafter a brief intermission separated ralph vaughan williamsThe Lark Ascending and sergei rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

although i am a priori bound to enjoy such initiatives to use church space for secular purposes, i did nevertheless suffer several flashbacks to many a church sundays: hands-clasped, knees-bent affairs in search of the sacred and profound. but Summerhill Orchestra’s performance on monday evening placed all of its emphasis on the community it was bringing together than on the space it occupied. the light behind the stained-glass iconography was dimmed as the church--at full capacity--chatted noisily and freely with glasses of shiraz in hand while the orchestra warmed up. the diversity of the audience reflected that of the orchestra---whose sartorial diversity also matched that of the audience---and whose 45 members were composed of women and men of different ages and ethnicities.

it’s the end of their second season and the orchestra’s presentation is that of a casual, work-in-progress aesthetic---the program, a bi-folded unstapled mini-booklet, looks more like the result of sharpies and crayola than savvy photoshop. i hope it stays that way for as long as possible while the orchestra continues to grow, because community orchestras offer something unique in a city’s classical music scene. namely the intimacy of a shared communal experience. the evening began with the announcement that ‘someone has lost a pair of glasses’, and (holding up said pair of black rectangle specs) added ‘come find me if it belongs to you.’ there’s something about an audience of a smaller size that makes composers like mozart and rachmaninoff less distant and epochal, more personal... something that is happening to us rather than another re-hatch for the sake and pleasure of generations of culture-vultures, for whom the classical canon seems has the greatest relevance.

as for the performance, i’m happy to say that the artistic director, sarah john, has her musical instincts very finely tuned. that the performance of any program is successful owes largely to the structure and compatibility of the items on the program; to that extent few things in orchestral music go better together than mozart and the month of may. the evening began with the sprightly overture to his Abduction from the Seraglio, the opera that was for mozart a coming of age and a growing out of his persona of boy-wonder and into that of a mature composer capable of the full range of romantic intrigues that animated the titans of venetian culture such as  antonio salieri and giacomo casanova. a great choice at the top of the program as it set the contours  of the evening: a grand and cheerful entrance followed by solemn contemplation, ending with intellectual subtlety and daunting complexity.

the orchestra performed the overture with clarity and alacrity, the percussion section, led by a clap-happy daniel monich on cymbals, made a strong impression that would last well into the final rachmaninoff section. the more bombastic sections of the overture were more believable and accurately executed than the slower mini-sections; all throughout, conductor john managed to keep in front of the raucous locomotion and successfully delivered what was a short and boisterous affair to begin the evening.

Faranak Honarvar of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

Faranak Honarvar of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

next was the title section of the evening, ralph vaughan williams’ magnum opus The Lark Ascending, a tone poem inspired by george meredith’s poem by the same name:

For singing till his heaven fills,

’Tis love of earth that he instils,

And ever winging up and up,

Our valley is his golden cup,

And he the wine which overflows

To lift us with him as he goes…Till lost on his aërial rings

In light, and then the fancy sings.

”” excerpt from The Lark Ascending, george meredith

it’s one of my favourite pieces on violin, the english equivalent of sibelius’s Violin Concerto, only that it somehow reaches a greater altitude, the air is thinner, and yet more breathable. williams originally wrote the piece for solo violin and piano in 1914, but six years later removed the piano (the most terrestrial of instruments!) and added an orchestra. every time i’ve heard this piece performed the same makeshift proverb returns to mind without fail: if you want to travel fast, go alone, and if you want to travel far---bring others with you. the tone poem opens with the an airy string section, like mild and pillowy clouds drifting up into the tall distance, perforated by ribbons of light. in the midst of this slow rising we hear the lark-—or in this case, soloist victoria yeh---elevating at its own obstinate velocity, bringing the crowd of clouds along. eventually we arrive at that famous altitude when the lark breaks free of its company: the whole orchestra, indeed all of the occupants of The Church of the Messiah, is in a hush as the lark sings its high and solitary song. yeh absolutely nails it, without the rush of over-anticipation nor the lag of the too-cautious, she holds the extended cadenza with that sense of presence that belongs more to genuine feeling than muscle memory. the lark descends back to the orchestra and the second half of the piece is as cheerfully executed as the mozart overture before it.

next and last on the list was the aforementioned Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a piano concertante (concerto in one movement) of 24 variations of the last of niccolo paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin---a dense and cerebral work, relying less on the inherent logic of a melody and more on the concatenation of interpretations on a single theme. for those of us not familiar with the paganini original, this theme isn’t easy to identity especially when rachmaninoff shirks the obvious route of placing the theme at the beginning of the concertante (instead introduces the first variation before he does the theme). whatever is made of soloist kathleen chang’s performance on the piano, it must in the same breath be said how much the genre is in need of performers like her and her combination of skill and showmanship (show-womanship?). if only to abbreviate the fresh and free voice that she brings to her performance, one could refer to her bio write-up in the program, one section reads:

First, she became part of a punk/reggae/ska band where they played many successful and fun shows around Toronto. And second, she founded the Greater Toronto Philharmonic Orchestra ( with a bunch of colleagues who had no idea what the hell they were doing. The punk band broke up 3 years later due to too many drugs, but the GTPO just had their 10th successful season last year, where she performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue piano solo with orchestra to celebrate. “” Kathleen Chang’s bio, Summerhill Orchestra program  

conductor sarah john’s prowess was at the forefront of the orchestra’s success through this piece, even when everything is going well the orchestra still needs an attentive conductor at the helm to wade through the thicket of such sudden explosions from the percussion section and meandering contortions on the principal violin (victoria yeh is again outstanding). but when the soloist trips over one of the many tortuous variations, the conductor’s role shines through all the more. indeed, just past the halfway-point of the piece, chang fumbles on a couple of notes and the orchestra is thrown off it’s count for a couple bars. calmly, instinctively, john jumps in and directs the soloist to go over the piece again. reflecting on her thought process in an interview (full interview below), she comments: “Getting the Rhapsody back on track was a very quick decision to make and it seemed best to have Kathleen take us into the next part from her extended solo section. I think it helped ground us all so we all knew exactly where we were. I think it worked very well!

it did work, and more than that it showed us something extra: not just performers unravelling a package they’ve practised time and again, but musicians so attuned to the logic of a complex work that they can, in real time, bring it back on track when things go briefly off the rails. the audience appreciates that extra dimension of musicianship, and we should be impressed that an orchestra that meets only once a week is able to successfully deliver a program that is as cheerful in its Classical installationS as it is capable in taking of the complexities of late Romantic composers.

(Q and A with conductor sarah john)

what was your main inspiration for the founding of this orchestra? what in your opinion is the unique role that orchestras of this size can play in a community?

conductor Sarah John of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

conductor Sarah John of the Summerhill Orchestra; photo by Trevor Hesselink

My  reasons for starting this ensemble were two-fold. I wanted to bring all this amazing art to the people in my community not just as listeners but as players. The other reason is that I want to continue my education as a musician and conductor.  It is incredibly difficult for conductors to get actual experience in front of ensembles of this size. It takes a while to find your rehearsal skills and having a group to work with every week is really essential.

We've performed 5 concerts over two seasons now and I feel I have learned so much from these generous musicians. Regarding size, we are building the group up bit by bit but we are a bit limited by the intimate venue... the smaller venue means it's a more intimate experience for the audience. The players have also said that they like the excitement in the room with a close audience.  We've talked about going to a larger venue in the neighborhood but we have kind of grown attached to the intimacy in The Church of the Messiah. The acoustic is just live enough that it enhances us. As we grow, and I hope we do, we will have to consider a larger space to fill with music. My musical tastes tend to lean toward the late romantics which have very large ensembles so we shall see!  

are there any major themes in the selection of the programs for the 2019/2020 season? what are some of your hopes for growth for the orchestra in the immediate future?

I don't really deal in themes much with concerts, I find them too limiting.  I prefer to find music I am very excited about that I want to have my group experience.  We both have to love it enough that we are willing to devote many hours of work to prepare it.  Life is too short for spending time on music that doesn't inspire. :)

For the near future I am hoping to continue with our trend of performing wonderful music with our friends. We love the intimacy of The Church of the Messiah as a venue but at some point I would like to have us do some playing in Koerner Hall or other concert hall in our neighbourhood.

during the rachmaninoff section there was a bit of a fumble on the piano that you were very quick to correct, you chose to do the section over again. in your experience as a conductor, is it ever an option to just skip forward to another section after a movement is interrupted? what is your mindset when it comes to getting the orchestra back on track?

Getting the Rhapsody back on track was a very quick decision to make and it seemed best to have Kathleen take us into the next part from her extended solo section. I think it helped ground us all so we all knew exactly where we were.  I think it worked very well!

visit the Summerhill Orchestra’s website for concert announcements, auditions and donations. many many thanks to sarah john for her participation is this interview!!