Review: Classics for Skeptics

Busy week for me. Tuesday I was out to Dehli 2 Dublin at the Exchange. Wednesday I caught Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Artesian. Friday it was Descalso and a bit of These Estates at O’Hanlon’s Pub. Then last night I was at Conexus Arts Centre for this masterworks concert by the Regina Symphony Orchestra.

Over the last 20 years or so, like arts organizations across the board, from galleries and museums to theatre and dance companies, the RSO has bent over backwards to break down barriers, actual and perceived, to people from outside their core arts constituency accessing their programming.

They’ve introduced pre-show chats to provide audiences with background info on the composers and compositions that are being performed. They’ve also created a Pops Series that showcases classically-themed scores from hit Hollywood movies and collaborations with talented musicians from outside the classical community. In early January, for instance, local folk rockers Jason Plumb & the Willing are playing with the RSO.

Classics for Skeptics is another example. As the title implies, it was geared to people who typically wouldn’t consider themselves classical fans. I wouldn’t put myself in that category. Not that I consider myself a fan. But as an arts writer I’ve had ample opportunity over the years to listen to live and recorded classical music at various concerts, dance performances and whatnot.

 When I was contemplating attending this event I did wonder if the RSO was perhaps belabouring the extent to which classical music is marginalized in contemporary society. Stereotypes related to classical music being stuffy and elitist, in my mind, have long ago been shattered by the progressive outreach the RSO and other symphonies have done. Still, it’s probably true that the RSO’s audience does skew toward an older demographic. And as those people either pass away, or lose their ability to get out to concerts, the symphony’s long-term viability could be imperilled.

It’s also true that people have a stronger connection to classical music than they probably realize. Movies, cartoons, even TV commericals, all borrow liberally from the classical canon. And concert hall decorum is considerably more relaxed than it once was. Yes, at last night’s concert there were men and women in formal wear. But more than a few Rider jerseys were in evidence, along with sweaters, jeans, and even one guy (me) in a Supersuckers hoodie.

In the ’70s I remember a series of albums being marketed called Hooked on Classics that offered disco mash-ups of classical “hits”. This concert didn’t pander to the public to the same extent. True, of the nine composers on the program, at least four (Rossini, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky) were famous. Edvard Grieg, Erik Satie, Jean Sibelius and Johann Pachelbel (pictured above) were also familiar to me. The only unfamiliar name was Bedrich Smetana.

As well, the pieces performed were all generally short (by classical standards, if not pop ones), spirited and fast-paced — so the odds of anyone dozing off (as the joke sometimes goes with classical music) were slight.  Not every composition was instantly recognizable (to me, anyway) as a masterwork, but several were. Foremost among them was Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major which maestro Victor Sawa described in his introduction as perhaps the most beloved  in the classical canon. Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite also ranks high, as does Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (which the RSO plays each August at the end of its free outdoor concert in Wascana Park).

A Hungarian Dance from Brahms and a Slavonic Dance by Dvorak also held strong appeal. And the witty introductions provided by Sawa helped enhance the audience’s appreciation. With Smetana’s The Moldau, for instance, he explained how the Moldau was a major river in the Czech Republic and that the different stages of the composition represented its origin as a trickling brook in the mountains that grew into a mighty river that flowed through dark and mysterious woods to lands where hunters rode and peasants farmed to its ultimate arrival in the bustling city of Prague.

Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic response throughout, this concert appealed to RSO rookies and veterans alike. Going in, that was the goal. So mission accomplished.

Author: Gregory Beatty

Greg Beatty is a crime-fighting shapeshifter who hatched from a mutagenic egg many decades ago. He likes sunny days, puppies and antique shoes. His favourite colour is not visible to your puny human eyes. He refuses to write a bio for this website and if that means Whitworth writes one for him, so be it.