Review: Schumann visits Kingston

Saturday night with National Arts Centre Orchestra

NAC’s new music director, Alexander Shelley, conducting the orchestra.
Supplied by Fred Cattroll

When I was seven, I slept through my first symphony orchestra performance.

Whether it was the late hour of the concert or the soothing classical music, what put me out is unknown. Now that I’m older and have developed a more mature sleep schedule, I was prepared to sit through two hours of orchestral music.

On Saturday night, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts welcomed the National Arts Centre (NAC) Orchestra as they performed a selection of works by German symphonist Robert Schumann. Conducted by NAC’s new Music Director, Alexander Shelley, the orchestra performed two symphonies by the composer. Shelley was quick to compliment the Isabel on the acoustics in the building’s auditorium. 

I’d never given much thought to the space’s sound quality as I don’t find myself there very often but the impressive, yet intimate, venue never ceases to amaze me.

At the beginning of the performance, Shelley took a few minutes to introduce the orchestra and answer the question, “Why Schumann?” He explained that the composer “brought something special” into the symphony genre.

He was the “vessel” that carried out a new phase of symphonies, following Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental achievements in the musical trajectory.

While I’m not a classical music expert, I’ve taken advantage of the genre while studying and on longer car rides. But I’d never encountered Schumann on any of these occasions. Even as someone with no prior knowledge of Schumann and his symphonies, the performance swept me away from Shelley’s introduction to his final bow.

Though the music was technically the focus of the night, I found there was much to marvel at visually. The orchestra worked together as a single unit, the musicians seeming to move their bows and even breathe in sync — almost like the individual instrument sections were in conversation with one another.

Due to high demand for tickets, the only seats available to me were directly above the stage, facing the main audience area. As it turned out, this seat gave me an unobstructed view of Shelley as he conducted the orchestra.

The conductor’s enthusiasm, his facial expressions and gestures, during the concert were almost a performance in themselves. From where I was sitting, I could see his energy circulate around the room.

During more lively sections of music, smiles would spread among audience members and occasionally his musicians.

Schumann was known to have been plagued by mental illness throughout the last two decades of his life, which Shelley mentioned briefly during his introduction.

During the slower, more melancholy portions of the performance, I wondered whether the composer’s personal struggles were coming through in his music.

Shelley’s love for Schumann and his compositions were evident to the audience through his energetic performance.

Listening to an orchestra in a campus building makes for an unusual Saturday night, but it was one that I left feeling like I’d learned something. I was glad to experience what I could of Schumann, even if it was through only a small sample of his work. Now that I have a newfound appreciation for the composer, perhaps he’ll provide the soundtrack to my next day confined to Stauffer.

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