Forsyth’s Electra Rising Electric / by Xi Wang

Audience gets up close with musicians on large screen

The Chronicle Herald


Looking every bit the Greek goddess with her golden hair and the Mediterranean brightness of her flowing sapphire blue gown, Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth played Electra Rising at the final concert of Symphony Nova Scotia’s current season in the Cohn on Tuesday night.

No one knows this work better than Forsyth, and not just because it leapt out of her own gene pool, having been written for her by her father Malcolm Forsyth. But she has performed it so many times it flows out of her fingers and her bow as if it had a voice of its own.

The basic gesture of the music is a flowing melody broken up by agitated scrubbings on the lower strings and played against a feather light accompaniment of tiny music from strings, woodwinds and harp.

Interrupting this texture with shocking violence, trumpets, horns and trombones blaze out from time to time with regal, dissonant conflagrations. The first and third movements are extended, accompanied cadenzas, the second is paced by marimba and temple blocks with a strict rhythm inspired by, but not imitative of, African drumming. The final movement is a long hymn of praise.

In its lyrical wanderings, Electra Rising is a melodic stream of consciousness. The writing for orchestra is virtuosic and colourful, but there is more flash than substance in the work, despite Forsyth’s exquisite, elegant and soulful playing.

Three TV cameras and a large screen suspended above and just in front of the back row of woodwinds, inaugurated a new idea for giving symphony audiences intimate close-ups of the musicians and their instruments.

The jury is out on this technical innovation, an attempt by music director and conductor Bernhard Gueller to enhance performances with a visual component. Ultimately he hopes to attract a younger audience.

Some of the older patrons in the audience Tuesday night said they found it distracting, as did I.

But I also found it interesting, particularly because of the detailed close-ups of Forsyth’s arms, bow and fingers.

It was also interesting for me, a one-time symphony musician myself, to watch Gueller from the viewpoint of the musicians. That was a revelation. He conducts as much with his eyes as with his arms, and frequently the tip of his baton controls with minimalist flickers the precise execution of accompanying motifs.

I also found the huge screen useful to catch playing details, such as the action of the percussion players upstage right in pacing and colouring motion of the music.

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave), Gueller and the orchestra hitting just the right tones of lightness, colour and drama in this sunlight-dappled score.

The final work on the program, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, sounded warmer and also fresher than expected of one of the most over-played works in the classical symphonic repertoire.

The admirable clarity of the playing, the dramatic pacing of such infamously difficult passages as the basses and cellos scrambling to all get out the door at the same time in the trio of the Scherzo movement, was combined with a softness and warmth in the playing which balanced Beethoven’s insistence on glory and nobility, a gesture which often (but not on this occasion) sounds heavy-handed.