SEPTEMBER 17 2023
KLUXEN – PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION
One of Victoria Symphony music director Christian Kluxen’s many strengths is his ability to compose a great concert program. It’s about balancing a selection of ingredients, he says, comparing his curatorial process to the way a Michelin-starred chef might go about assembling a tasting menu. Ideally there would be both complementary and contrasting flavours, but beyond that there should also be a unifying theme—seasonality, perhaps, or some kind of musicological context.
For the opening concert in the orchestra’s 2023-24 season, however, Kluxen has momentarily stepped away from grand gestures or hidden threads. In this program of works by Modest Mussorgsky, Richard Strauss, and Jean Sibelius, all he needs is a strong soloist, a full complement of musicians, and the scores themselves.
“This is not a program where there is a thread or a theme,” he confirms, adding that for a season opener what’s more important is that there should be “a lot of power and sparkle and fun things to do for the orchestra.”
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition certainly fits the bill. Rather surprisingly for such a feast of orchestral colour, it was originally conceived as a piano suite, and only later adapted for a full ensemble. But the musician who made that adaptation was none other than Maurice Ravel, and the work’s signature combination of Slavic swagger and Parisian sophistication makes for an unbeatable season-opener.
There are depths here, too. For all of its bombast, Mussorgsky’s original composition was an extended elegy for his late friend Victor Hartmann, in the form of a programmatic walk through an imaginary gallery where the latter’s drawings and watercolours were on display. Much of Hartmann’s work was lost or destroyed during the tumult of the 20th century, but surviving examples suggest an imagination that was at times poignant, at times mysterious, and at times utterly surreal. (Bird-headed children, anyone?) Mussorgsky’s piano score followed suit, but both the suite and its symphonic variation also stress Mussorgsky’s penchant for truly memorable melodies.
“Pictures at an Exhibition requires a big orchestra,” Kluxen points out, “and it’s an orchestral showpiece. So when you have these forces available, why not do another orchestral showpiece?” In this case, that’s Strauss’s Don Juan, another bold adventure in storytelling from a composer Maestro Kluxen loves dearly. Rounding out the concert is a work that’s less narratively driven and more abstract but no less of a knockout, Sibelius’s Violin Concerto in D minor, with Jonathan Crow as soloist.
Crow’s love for both the Violin Concerto and his hosts should add an extra layer of warmth to the opening-night festivities. Although he now resides in Ontario, where he teaches at the University of Toronto and serves as the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, the Prince George–born musician made his professional debut while studying with the late Sydney Humphreys at the Victoria Conservatory.
“Coming back is always special,” Crow confides. “Sydney Humphreys was a huge part of my musical growth, and he knew the conductor of the Victoria Symphony, Peter McCoppin, very well. He introduced us, and that set up a long relationship for me. I had a number of opportunities to perform with McCoppin, and actually went on tour with the orchestra when I was 16 and did the Brahms concerto with them 10 times in a row!”
As for the notoriously demanding Sibelius concerto, Crow says that he’s known it since his student days but it’s only now, in his 40s, that he feels ready to do it justice. “I actually played it for the first time three or four years ago, maybe in 2019, with the Toronto Symphony and a bunch of times with smaller orchestras around Toronto—and I really enjoyed it.
“One of the things I really love about the piece is the story behind it,” he adds, addressing the notion that Sibelius, a good but not great violinist, wrote it as a kind of wish-fulfillment exercise, imagining that it was how he would sound if only he could. “And then the premiere was just such a disaster. The violin player was not very good, and nobody liked the piece… I think Sibelius was quite hurt by that.”
Rather than abandon ship, however, the Finnish composer went home, rewrote his concerto, and emerged with a masterpiece.
“It’s got all of the things, right?” Crow says. “You’ve got the violin, which starts on this beautiful, soaring tune on the E string, and then it’s got passagework which is phenomenally virtuosic. Then you’ve got the same tune on the G string…Sibelius knew how to use the registers of the violin and make it sound its best, and he knew how to write a great tune. He a very good composer at the height of his craft, writing for the instrument that he knew best.”
The violinist adds that while some passages of the Violin Concerto in D minor are undeniably angst-ridden, Sibelius’s instrumental alter ego draws on this darkness to effect a startling transformation. “Yes, there is doubt in this piece, and then he comes to the conclusion that it’s not all dark,” he says. “It ends in a very bright way, and the light kind of emerges triumphant.”
So perhaps there is a hidden theme to this gala event, after all: the return of music, in a big way, after the privations of the pandemic years.
Notes by Alex Varty