Concert Review: Autumn Enchantment

12 Nov 2014, Posted by admin in Guest Blog, News

The PSO welcomes “guest blogger” and journalist, Karen Hicks with a concert review of Saturday’s season premiere concert, Autumn Enchantment.


It was snowing the morning of the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra’s first concert of the year but as the warm notes of Christine Donkin’s second Autumn Scene washed over us, all that was missing was a cup of cocoa!

The PSO’s first concert of the 2014-15 season was billed Autumn Enchantment and it opened with the Alberta composer’s Three Autumn Scenes. At intermission I chatted with a friend who said she didn’t always enjoy the “Canadian content” portion of the program, but we agreed the Three Autumn Scenes was a delightful and pleasant surprise! Taken together, it is truly a beautiful, beautiful piece of music, very finely expressed by the PSO.

The three movements are evocatively titled Leaves in Wind, Migration and First Snowfall. The first uses rhythm and lovely warm brass and winds to paint the story of how autumn changes the landscape. Credit for the success of the second piece, Migration, must be given to Chris Brown for the soulful and haunting English horn solo, so descriptive of soaring geese.

Conductor Michael Newnham in his pre-concert talk told us Snowfall, with its strong brass notes, reminds him of Salvation Army band concerts, and hence Christmas. Its heft feel made me think more of the rumbling of snowplows and traffic jams that come at the start of winter weather. Beautiful, nonetheless.

Concert goers, regardless of how they vote, are conservative in their tastes; we like the familiar. It is truly an art to create a program that stretches the comfort of the listener, and yet continues to hold us near. Thank you for introducing us to Christine Donkin!

Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello concerto No. 1 was performed spectacularly by soloist Zuzanna Chomicka-Newnham, principal cellist of the orchestra and spouse of the conductor. Oddly enough, in 25 years, this was the first time Michael had conducted Zuzanna as a soloist, which give the evening a little extra spark.

There is a great deal going on in this complex piece of music written in a single movement in 1872. The soloist gave us masterful playing, wonderful dexterity and richly warm cello tones within the complex shifting rhythms.

The piece does give us an interesting interplay between the soloist and the orchestra, with a complex score for the orchestra, at times contrasting with the singing, lilting melody of the soloist.

Although it must be a challenge for the conductor to keep it all in hand, overall, complex material was made to appear effortlessly performed. Which I am sure is not the case!

Zuzanna Chomicka-Newnham thrilled the audience with her mastery of the complex score, as expressed in very enthusiastic applause and cheers!

In the pre-concert talk, which, by the way, I would certainly encourage every concertgoer to take in as it definitely adds to the enjoyment of the music, Michael Newnham told us

that he “fell in love “ with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, when he first heard it in Massey Hall when he was a student at University of Toronto. The music is “sheer heaven,” and it remains a favourite to this day.

He described how Schumann who would now be considered bipolar, named and described the two aspects of his personality and how he used them to play off each other in the symphony – the strong and forceful contrasting with the lyrical and melodic.

Significantly, it was written in 1844 in the key of C Major (which the CBC Radio 2 Signature Series describes as: a signature so innocent that she “finds happiness doing almost anything!”) and the work is seen as Schumann’s triumph after more than a year of being institutionalized for his illness.

It was wonderful to have the large number of players back on the stage (it was a smaller ensemble for the cello piece) for the first movement, which is such a bright, sunny, cheerful and very lively piece.

Love of the piece was reflected in the conductor’s obvious pleasure at conducting the second movement as he danced and moved about to the rhythms on the podium

I really, really enjoyed the third movement. In the C Minor chord, the mood was much more pensive, the tempo slower. The woodwinds were hauntingly beautiful and the music was very rich, thoughtful and meditative. The conductor pointed to the section particularly at the end of the piece, recognition which was well deserved.

The mood of triumph over adversity was boldly restated in the sweeping final movement, once again in C Major. The theme was meaningful, but not heavy; some compare it to Beethoven, and the sound was very rich. The way the conductor threw himself into the final movement again evinced his great fondness of the music.

It was a very satisfying evening with an interesting and challenging program and a wonderful kick off for the PSO’s 2014-15 season. I look forward to what the symphony will bring us next!

PSO Concert Review, November 8

Karen Hicks