The ESO briefly returned to live music in front of a reduced audience, before Covid-19 restrictions shut the Winspear down again.

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in the Winspear in pre-Covid days
photo: ESO

review by Georgia Englot

This article was initially meant to explain the precautions the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the Winspear Centre have taken and admire the quality of music they can produce in a pandemic.

Unfortunately, since then, the Winspear has had to close once more due to the rise in Covid cases, which continues to touch many lives, including my own. Since initially writing this article, my whole family, including myself, has been diagnosed with Covid-19. I hope this article gives you a reminder of the joy of music that I’m sure we’re all anticipating more and
more as the days go by.

Driving down to the Winspear Centre felt surreal. The last time I was at the Winspear was March 8th, and I almost forgot the route I take to get there. Before Covid-19, I was there often a few times a month, both as an audience member and as a performer.

Concerts are definitely different than before; even just getting to your seat was different. I was greeted at the door and
asked to use hand sanitizer, led by a greeter to my door and then led by an usher to my seat. The audience was spread out throughout the First level, with several rows in between cohorts. There were only 100 tickets sold for each concert, and only four people allowed per group.

I attended the Italia Romantica concert on October 25th, the first performance of that program. It was Alexander Prior, the Chief Conductor’s, first performance since March. All concerts were an hour long with no intermission, making it challenging to perform longer pieces like symphonies. The program was all music by Italian composers and on the shorter side.

The shorter pieces definitely worked in favour of the ESO because they could keep the program flowing and feature different musicians. I loved the fact that six different soloists from within the ESO were featured.

The first piece, and one of my favourites, was Giovanni Bottesini’s Elegy No. 1 in D Major, featuring double bass player Max Cardilli in his solo debut with the ESO. Double Bass music is usually relegated to the rhythmic bass line, but this piece sparkles. Cardilli played dazzling arpeggios, going from the lowest note on the instrument to higher than I thought possible on the bass. His vibrato was beautifully rich and steady on even the highest notes.

Also featured were violinist Laura Veeze performing the Love Theme from the film Cinema Paradiso by Ennio Morricone. And violinist Eric Buchmann performing the iconic (if perhaps overplayed) Czárdás by Vittorio Monti.

The ESO also has a new principal oboist, June Kim, who made her solo debut with the ESO playing ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’ from the film The Mission, arranged by Robert Longfield. Kim seemed to be quite nervous but played with a beautiful tone. I look forward to hearing her in future performances.

Most of the pieces performed were arranged for string orchestra; however, partway through the concert, we got to see some winds and brass featured. My favourite piece of the evening was Toccata by Giovanni Battista Martini, a triumphant piece for organ and trumpet. The concert hall was so silent you could hear the hum of the organ as it started up. Robin Doyon,
the principal trumpet player, played bright, shining notes that were impressively clear above the
resonant organ chords played by Jeremy Spurgeon.

After that, there were two short works for winds by Giovanni Gabrieli, arranged for modern instruments. The first was arranged for woodwinds, and the second for brass. I loved the small groups, and hearing winds without strings
is a rare treat.

The program was beautiful. The romantic tones of the pieces and the uplifting nature of the concert were what I needed. The program was quintessential despite all the differences from normal years. It was a perfect return to concerts.

One of the first pieces they performed was the fourth movement of Respighi’s Second Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances. This piece was especially impactful for me as the last piece I performed with my youth orchestra before the lockdown was Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and I found myself almost in tears.

With such a small audience, the acoustics were super sensitive, and you could hear everything, including other audience members. I was a bit surprised at Prior’s outfit, departing from the traditional concert black with a white, blue, red and black almost splatter paint style shirt. Prior almost skipped a piece (until the soloist caught his attention), and the orchestra at
times was not quite perfectly together, but overall the return to the Winspear was successful.

While this season and year is nothing like those before, the ESO continues to shine, and I look forward to when they can return for regular performances.

Alexander Prior conducts his arrangement of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ with the ESO

Although the Winspear is currently closed, and there can be no in-person holiday concerts, the ESO has released special videos for the 12 days of Christmas. You can find out more and watch videos here:

They’re also offering music appreciation courses in the new year, which make an excellent gift for the music
lover in your life.