A World Premiere for the TBSO

By Kyle Poluyko

Thursday, March 31 was a remarkable occasion in the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra’s 2015/2016 season as the fourth Masterworks concert, The Transcendent Spirit, presented the world premiere of the first two movements in Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Ecstasy. Joined by multi-faceted Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, who collaborated with Hatzis on Ecstasy’s orchestral and song cycle rhapsody, the evening was a luminous triumph.

The programme began with Mendelssohn’s Overture for A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Op. 21, originally composed as a stand-alone concert piece when Mendelssohn was just 17 years old. It commenced with the delicate sigh of the woodwinds and spritely strains of the strings before the full orchestra enraptured the auditorium with almost serenade-like fulfillment, aptly conjuring Shakespeare’s imagery of fairies and lovers. Singular and arresting instrumental effects by the gifted orchestra – particularly the bass, woodwinds and harp – further elevated the piece to an almost rich and magical sonance. Wondrous, haunting and lilting, the Overture was majestic.

Ecstasy’s first movement, Love, saw a barefoot Sarah Slean, radiant and glistening in a blue gown, enthusiastically bound onto the stage. Love’s lyrics – harmonies and melodies from her own poetry – were hypnotically and elegantly vocalized by Slean. Lost in the imagery she envisioned with Hatzis, Slean’s lyrics and vocal skill bounced between longing in darkness, seemingly riding sky winds on high in a storm cloud, then returning to the lightness of love as she echoed “Love is looking for you.” Her text and Hatzis’ composition were perfectly paired as the orchestra expertly hummed the composition.

The second Logos movement, with Slean’s poetic lyrics inspired by an artist’s creative process, was more dramatic. Hatzis described Logos as a song that “bounces constantly between serenity and calculation… deep awareness and mind games.” Again, Slean sang with beguiling passion as the orchestra danced between gentle strains and resonant crescendos, all complementing a visual style the artists created. It was an entrancing experience to see Slean thoroughly enjoying herself, enraptured in the dance of storytelling as the orchestra expertly underscored dreamlike, inspiring phrases. With Hatzis’ third Bhakti movement unfinished, Slean return to the stage, joining the orchestra to perform on grand piano an entrancing performance of “The Right Words” from her 2011 Land & Sea album.

The TBSO Chorus took to the stage following intermission for Brahms’ Schicksalslied, a choral interpretation of a poem by Friedrich Holderlin. Considered to be one of Brahms’ signature choral pieces and, in fact, his shortest, it was performed beautifully in three movements with orotund performance primarily by the brass and woodwinds of the orchestra. The orchestra then sublimely rendered Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5, a resonant and well-known piece in cinema soundtracks. It is regarded as a sad piece though its true origin is love as Mahler composed it for his wife, Alma. Resonant, too, was a second rise of the chorus with their richly sonant performance of Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region, it’s text taken from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  The chorus and the orchestra magnificently sang out in accord in jubilant conclusion.

The Transcendent Spirit, conducted by Arthur Post, featured the world premiere of Christos Hatzis Ecstasy in collaboration with Sarah Slean, was performed by the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, March 31 at the Community Auditorium.