Acclaim
HPO’s new music director makes her debut — and it was worth waiting for

Let it be heard loud and clear: Gemma New delivered the goods in her long-awaited mainstage debut as the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra's new music director on Saturday night in front of a very large Hamilton Place audience.

Her choice of works certainly wasn't your typical, everyday fare.

No perky overture followed by a dainty concerto with some heroic warhorse symphony after intermission on this night.

Rather, the New Zealand-born New was out to make an impact from the giddy-up, and a forceful one at that.

You needn't have looked any further than the title of the opening piece, "A Thousand Natural Shocks," by Ottawa-based composer Kelly-Marie Murphy.

The work was commissioned by the CBC at the request of Bramwell Tovey to celebrate his debut as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's music director in 2000. And it was completed, according to Murphy's introductory comments to the audience, just as she went into labour to give birth to her daughter.

In her program notes, Murphy wrote: "The idea behind the piece is that change and new beginnings can be shocking and stressful, but also full of fantastic challenges that are ultimately as rewarding as they are necessary.

"The fear and tension of a new experience can quickly melt into thrilling course of action.

"Whereas Shakespeare had Hamlet wondering what to do when faced with 'outrageous fortune,' Machiavelli proposed that, 'Fortune favours the impetuous.'"

It could have been impetuousness. And it could have been the fear and tension of a new experience. But whatever the cause, New was unable to get Stefan Kitai at the bass drum and timpanist Jean-Norman Iadeluca to play the work's first notes together.

So, instead of a simultaneous boom from the two percussionists, we got a ba-boom instead.

In spite of that opening glitch, Murphy's piece made its desired impact.

Highlights included a thundering timpani solo, the HPO trumpet section blowing quasi-ceremonial calls on conch shells provided by Murphy, a soothing harp solo by Erica Goodman, and Leslie Newman's offstage flute solo that echoed Lief Mosbaugh's onstage oboe solo.

The top highlight of the first half, though, was Katherine Chi who dazzled in Sergei Prokofiev's "Third Piano Concerto."

Performing on a Steinway grand brought in from the Toronto area, Chi, winner of the 2000 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary, tossed off Prokofiev's fiendishly difficult part as if it were child's play.

While none of the quicker tempos agreed on by New and Chi could be classified as "going for broke" — and that included the concerto's final pages — New nonetheless proved herself a capable accompanist and collaborator, knitting together all of the seemingly disparate musical ideas in Prokofiev's score. The standing ovation was justly deserved.

In the second half, New gave a compelling reading of Dmitri Shostakovich's "First Symphony."

She and the HPO captured the moods and flavours of Shostakovich's chef d'oeuvre — from the Punch and Judy-like music of the first movement to the second movement's frantic sections to the harmonic richness and quasi-military fanfares of the third movement to the finale's stresses and storms.

The symphony is dotted with solos throughout, most of which were wonderfully taken by various HPO principals, including concertmaster Stephen Sitarski, cellist Jack Mendelsohn, clarinetist Stephen Pierre, trumpeter Mike Fedyshyn, the aforementioned Messrs. Iadeluca and Mosbaugh, and others.

However, one wonders why Hamilton Place's mediocre grand piano rather than the aforementioned first-rate Steinway was used for the symphony. Perhaps then, Arlene Wright's piano playing wouldn't have sounded so reticent, at one point in the second movement slightly slowing up the proceedings.

An exciting night — which was capped with a standing ovation from most of the crowd, and quite a few whoops of delight directed at New and her crew.


Leonard Turnevicius writes on classical music for The Hamilton Spectator.

Leonard Turnevicius, The Hamilton Spectator
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