If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting Canada, you’ll surely know what a lovely country it is, with its breath-taking scenery, vibrant cities, and unique combination of English and French cultures, as you journey from Vancouver on the west coast, to Québec on the east.
But, despite its massive size, it very much seems to keep to itself on the international scene, and while it has certainly distinguished itself in many fields, from its varied cuisine to its prowess in winter-sports, especially ice hockey and skating, I expect most people might find it challenging to name more than five or so things that are indelibly linked to the country – perhaps the Mounted Police, the Rockies, Maple Syrup, and, if you’ve been to Québec City, the ubiquitous dish of French fries, cheese curds and gravy, known locally as Poutine.
One of the very finest players in the world today
Prior to the latest Guildhall visit of Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), while I had, of course, heard of international violinist James Ehnes, arguably one of the very finest players in the world today, I hadn’t realised that he was, in fact, Canadian, and hailed from Manitoba province which is virtually in the middle of the country, with Winnipeg as its capital. While there are many top international artists from ‘The Land of Maple Leaf’, as it is affectionately known, the only other name I could give with any certainly is the late Oscar Peterson – jazz-pianist extraordinaire, born in Montréal, and one of my all-time idols.
BSO often presents themed concerts, which they will perform at various venues along the south coast. On this occasion, the programme was entitled ‘Mighty Brahms’, and had already been enjoyed by audiences in Poole and Portsmouth, before making the somewhat more arduous journey to the Guildhall, the following night. In my detailed review (link below), I bemoan the fact that Plymouth surely deserves a more generous bite of the cherry, in terms of the number of times BSO visits each of its regular venues annually. Yes, Plymouth is indeed blessed with one of the best amateur orchestras around, who do a superb job in filling the gap. But, and with the best will in the world, PSO and BSO can never be quite the same entities.
Weber’s much-loved Overture to ‘Der Freischütz’, proved an excellent opening gambit, distinguished by some fine playing from the horns, and where young Polish conductor, Anna Sułkowska-Migoń, really got the very best out of her players, in a scintillating performance that somehow managed to create, in such a relatively short time-space, the very quintessence of Weber’s eponymous three-act opera.
The orchestra was then joined by James Ehnes in a spectacularly flawless performance of Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 2, where, in my humble opinion, the Canadian virtuoso produced a most glorious tone throughout, and frankly one that eclipsed all the many top-ranking players I have had the privilege to review over many years. But not only was his tone one to simply die for, his phenomenal articulation and dynamic control were equally just as mind-blowingly impressive, with Maestra Sułkowska-Migoń making an equally-telling contribution, to ensure a perfect ensemble throughout. And, while the concerto performance would have been well worth the admission price on its own, James Ehnes eventually gave into the vociferous demands of the audience, by treating them to a generous encore, in the shape of Paganini’s virtuosic Caprice No 16 for solo violin.
After all this, all that remained was for BSO to comply with the title of the programme, with an equally superb performance of Brahms’s First Symphony, where, despite the conductor’s age, she produced a reading that was at once erudite, yet romantically compelling throughout, something which would normally require a good many more years’ life experience to bring off with such confidence and abundant panache.
However, in closing, I would just like to refer back to something I’d previously included in my detailed review at Seen and Heard International.
‘Le Devoir’ is a French-language newspaper published in Montréal and distributed in Québec and throughout Canada. Founded back in 1910, it remains one of the few independent large-circulation newspapers in the province. In an article by Christophe Huss, dated March 7, 2022, it referred to Anna Sułkowska-Migoń, on winning the second ‘La Maestra’ competition at the Philharmonie de Paris, reserved for female conductors, as someone who ‘dominated the semi-final and final with her intelligence and sensitivity’. It goes on to suggest that the young Kraków-born conductor – just twenty-six at the time – will be ‘the new name to remember in the expanding galaxy of female conductors’.
I can in all honesty say that I had not read this article until sometime after BSO’s visit, but certainly did think, at the time, that here was indeed a special, prodigious talent, and definitely a name to look out for in the years to come.
This reminded me of my first term at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where all first-years – irrespective of their principal study – took part in a large-scale choral work, together with senior students as soloists, and accompanied by the RCM Orchestra.
I still remember the point in ‘Messiah’ when the soloist struck up with ‘Behold, I Tell You a Mystery / The Trumpet Shall Sound’, and I immediately turned to my friend in the basses, and said, ‘What a fantastic voice – I’m sure we’ll be hearing a great deal more from him in the future’. Fortunately, my prophesy came true with a vengeance, and that same student went on to become an international star of opera and oratorio – I’m sure most of you will have heard of baritone, Sir Thomas Allen, who stood down as Chancellor of Durham University only last July – a role that very much celebrated his birthplace in Seaham, a seaside town in County Durham, some thirteen miles east of Durham.
I really felt that same buzz here, decades later, while watching Anna Sułkowska-Migoń as she bonded so well with orchestra and violin soloist, and even more so when I had the privilege to talk to her afterwards.
On behalf of all those in the audience on the night, I would very much like to thank BSO for including Plymouth in its travels this time, and sincerely hope that future schedules might include the occasional typo, whereby ‘Portsmouth Guildhall’ is transposed to ‘Plymouth Guildhall’.
You will always be very welcome, and hopefully encounter a much-deserved Full House notice – as long, of course, that news trickles all the way down from Bournemouth to Plymouth, and local classical-music lovers get to hear about it. Sadly I feel this isn’t always the case, where this isolated cultural outpost of ours in the far south west is concerned.
You can read my detailed review here at Seen and Heard International.
Philip R Buttall