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Review: The SSO revisits the roaring twenties with class and style (Feb. 10th/2024)

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Isaac/Julie Isaac Photography

This past Saturday, February 10th, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed selections of 1920's music with class and style with an aptly titled “Roaring 20’s” concert program. Featuring the urban flavoured urgency of Gershwin’s programmatic “An American In Paris” coupled with the virtuosic jazzy longings of “Rhapsody in Blue” in the first half, this show was firing on all cylinders from the very opening notes. Piano soloist Daniel Clarke Bouchard was featured during the famed rhapsody with Maestra Mélanie Léonard at the helm throughout the evening. The concert proved to be a fun, entertaining, and extremely accessible affair for all in attendance.  William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) rounded out the night in the second half.

Léonard’s conducting was truly a sight to behold as soon as the orchestra kicked into the opening of “An American In Paris”. She swayed elegantly back and forth across the full breadth of her podium as if the music itself was her dance partner. Her emotive work with the baton in turn enabled the SSO to dig deeply into the piece. The car horn mimicry coupled with the very specific melodic nuances that Gershwin stitched into the very heartbeat of the piece made for some very vivid imagery. 

After a brief pause in the proceedings for Léonard to make some remarks on Gershwin,  Bouchard made his entrance to resounding applause. Leonard, stepping back onto the podium, provided the preparatory cue to SSO principal clarinetist Margaret Wilson who would deliver a spot on interpretation of the famed rhapsody’s glissando. As the piece wore on, Bouchard interceded here and there with Gershwin’s solo cadenzas. Bouchard’s touch on the piano was equal parts served up with the most delicate rubato as well as thunderously percussive energy as he caressed the keys and invested fully into the very essence of Gershwin’s most well known opus. Bouchard was essentially brilliant; quite the treat for the good folks in Saskatoon to see a musician of his caliber. In fact, the audience was so appreciative of Bouchard’s efforts, he came out for an encore and played an immaculate rendition of Gershwin’s Prelude No. 1. The prelude's technical acrobatics and borderline tongue in cheek humour was lapped up by the crowd enthusiastically. It was a definite highlight.

After the intermission, the orchestra returned to play William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1.  Léonard provided some very thorough background to the piece prior to the downbeat dropping. Essentially, this symphony, as it turns out, is a bit of a hidden gem. At one time a very frequently played symphonic work by a renowned American composer, in the modern era it arguably has sort of dropped off the radar which is unfortunate given Still’s unofficial title of “the Dean of African American composers”. No matter, though, as the SSO played through it very admirably. It’s more of a bluesy, soulful four movement piece; quite enjoyable and a rewarding listening experience contrasting the jazziness of the Gershwin works. 

On the whole, the SSO continues to provide very rewarding concert experiences. This “Roaring Twenties” presentation was magnificent. The next concert of the season, on Saturday, March 2nd, should prove to be equally fascinating with world class clarinetist Kinan Azmeh scheduled to perform the “Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra”. Conductor Cosette Justo Valdés will return to the podium for the first time since working with the SSO on Handel’s Messiah back in December. Get your tickets for this show HERE.

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