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REVIEW: Okanagan Symphony Orchestra dazzles

Retired musician Karen Krout relays the sights and sounds from Kelowna concert, duplicated in Penticton
Retired musician Karen Krout reviews an Okanagan Symphony Orchestra concert in Kelowna on Jan. 20, 2023. (Submitted photo).

Karen Krout

Special to Black Press Media

The Okanagan Symphony Orchestra presented a wonderful concert entitled Round Dance Jan. 20 in Kelowna, with a variety of musical styles that pushed the boundaries of classical music. Classically trained cellist and composer Cris Derksen (of Cree and Mennonite heritage) gave riveting performances of her own music. She has received numerous honors, including a DORA award for Best Sound Design for Theatre and a Banff Centre for the Arts String Quartet Residency for White Man’s Cattle in addition to many commissions. It’s a privilege to see and hear creativity in action and she has created a new genre by taking the cello and experimenting with it, using it as a drum, setting up a mic and using special effects to create music that is unlike anything else. It’s refreshing that in classical music today space is being made for new voices and experimentation.

The concert in Kelowna, with another performance in Penticton on Saturday evening, was a perfect example of how music can strengthen friendship and understanding between our cultures. The audience rose to their feet for the Syilx/Okanagan national anthem The Okanagan Song sung by Cori Derickson.

First Winter by Dinuk Wijeratne, a Sri Lankan/Canadian composer, opened the concert. It is a nine minute tone poem placing the dichotomy of ‘nature’ and ‘humankind’ in the context of when the first humans set foot on Canadian soil, more than 12,000 years ago. In a tone poem technical knowledge of music is not important, rather the imagination roams as one listens, perhaps with closed eyes. This music explores range of the emotions that a human might experience upon seeing a new land for the first time with fear, excitement, trepidation.

The French composer Albert Roussel’s ballet The Spider’s Feast was commissioned in 1912 by Jacques Rouchè, a Parisian impresario. Set in a corner of a garden in summer, one hears various creatures escape the spider’s web before a butterfly, then a mayfly fall into the trap. The woodwinds, later joined by the strings (as marching ants) introduced by the snare drum, create a lovely soundscape of insects.

Overture to the Spiderbeing, composed and performed by Derkson, also has a spider as a main character, this time in a Cree creation story, where the sky people ask the Spiderbeing to lower them down to earth and of course, being people they couldn’t obey the rule to not look around as they descended, which caused some chaos. War Cry was introduced by the soloist as having been written during a painful time in her life when she felt disenfranchised by the Canadian government. Visceral pain was evident in her singing and playing, moving the audience to an emotional response and a standing ovation.

The second half of the concert opened with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, op. 46, based on a play that Henrik Ibsen wrote in 1867. The title character is a wild, selfish young man whose fantastic adventures lead to his becoming a caring human being. Lovely alternating solos by flautist Heather Beaty and oboist Lauris Davis set the scene in the first movement Morning Mood. The full string section mourned with Peer Gynt for his mother in Aase’s Death and danced in Anitra’s Dance, with a delicate and textured beauty of sound. In the final movement, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Peer Gynt trys to avoid attracting the attention of the trolls in the mountain, but ends up running for his life as the powerful brass and percussion portray the frightening trolls chasing him.

Blackfoot Sunrise by Sonny-Ray Day Rider was evocative in its spaciousness, evoking visions of the prairies. The composer and pianist is from the Kana Blood Tribe and is currently pursuing advanced studies in music composition at the University of Lethbridge. He currently has a seat on the Indigenous Advisory Circle to the Library and Archives Canada and is past faculty alumni to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

The program ended with two more pieces by Derksen, Buffalo Girls End, a musical description of how “brown girls get gone” as the soloist put it, and Round Dance, which was significant as the name of the concert as well as for the final piece on the program because it refers to the Round Dance or Circle of Friendship that has been a central focus of gatherings created for socialization and community building for thousands of years. This concert demonstrated how music speaks to the heart motivating humans throughout the ages to make music together.

Another standing ovation earned an encore, New Heya. Derksen called our attention to the fact that performing the piece required the orchestra and the soloist to listen carefully to each other “kinda like reconciliation.” Is this how it starts?

Karen Krout is a retired musician and violin teacher who is grateful to be living, hiking and playing music with friends in the unceded traditional territory of the Syilx/Okanagan people.

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