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“We want people to see what we need them to hear” - Stray thoughts on the Saskatoon Symphony’s streamed presentation of their Kinan Azmeh Concert

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Isaac/Julie Isaac Photography

Okay so normally I wouldn't write a review in the first person like this. It’s sort of a hard line stance that I take but, for this review in particular, I feel like speaking to you, the reader, on a more personal level is warranted given the “wrath of God, dogs and cats living together” snowstorm we faced this past weekend. The elements outside indeed were harsh but the music being performed within the four walls of TCU Place by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO), alongside guest clarinetist/composer Kinan Azmeh and guest conductor Cosette Justo Valdés, had an inspiring warmth all their own. Unfortunately for myself and my family, we were unable to see it in person. to the rescue!

So, once I downloaded it onto my phone, in general I found the app really easy to navigate. The SSO has many past concerts available for purchase which is cool. The Kinan Azmeh concert was waiting in the “Library” section with a corresponding countdown to when the performance would begin. So far so good. I was a little concerned in terms of what the camerawork and also sound quality would be like. These concerns would be alleviated once the festivities started.

At this point I will say that my equipment for viewing is pretty decent. We have a 55 inch screen on our TV and a Sony surround sound system hooked up. The surround sound system is a little old but does the trick with five speakers and a subwoofer. It’s not quite as good as if you were actually there, but I’d say it’s the next best thing. The point I’m making here is that if you’re going to watch a concert on your TV, make sure you’ve got the equipment to do the job. At least sonically, that is. Don’t be running your stuff through your TV’s internal speakers or a laptop's internal speakers (yikes) and expect some sort of miraculous sounding experience. It won't happen. Also of note, in terms of the streaming device itself, I run things through a “Chromecast”. 

Once the countdown on my phone ended I commenced “casting” onto our TV from my iPhone. The concert begins with the usual speech from SSO Executive Director Mark Turner as well as one from guest conductor Cosette Justo Valdés and then music starts (the SSO was also presented with an award but, to be honest, I forgot to write down what it was and also who presented it. Apologies for the shoddy journalism there). The night’s entertainment begins with Kelly-Marie Murphy’s incredibly inventive “Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark”. The piece, beginning with the haunting flute and oboe melodies, would strongly feature the entirety of the SSO’s woodwind section throughout. At the same time everything slowly transformed and evolved poly rhythmically and atonally with the strings and brass. There was a lot to unpack in this piece. It was very reminiscent, at least to my ears, of a Stravinsky ballet in terms of harmonics, overall motion and dynamics. At any rate,  it was evident from the get go that the orchestra, as a whole, was in fine form. 

A quick note about the livestream now. The camera angles were quite spectacular. In fact, they were so up close and personal that it made you feel like you were a part of the orchestra yourself. I’ve since been talking with Mark Turner and he said that the de facto motto of his streaming team is “we want people to see what we need them to hear”. Upon watching this performance, I'd say it’s a very accurate assessment. The shots included closeups of many of the musicians when they were prominently featured in the corresponding pieces. There also was what our family affectionately referred to as the “harp cam” as there was an extreme closeup of the harp player's hands whilst she was playing every now and again. So close that you could even read her sheet music. The shots of Maestra Valdés’ conducting from the musician’s perspective were also really neat. You could tell that she was a very inspiring conductor from her gestures and facial expressions. She emoted the piece to the members of the orchestra very very well and they responded in kind with a very honest and moving performance this night.

Next up was a slight change in the concert order with Erno Donanyi’s “Symphonic Minutes”. Wonderfully expressive and once again putting the woodwinds through their paces, the audience lapped up the superior musicianship on display from Valdés and the orchestra. The piece, for the most part, was entertaining, energetic and fun, taking those present through a journey of emotions. 

After a brief intermission, the orchestra returned to perform Gabriel Faure’s “Pelléas and Mélisande”. As Maestra Valdés explained, the piece was originally penned to be the incidental music to a theatrical production of the same name. It was predominantly a lyrical piece in tone featuring an overall sense of tragic longing. It was ethereal, otherworldly… 

Finally, the main event of the evening took the stage. The sensational clarinet soloist Kinan Azmeh came out to resounding applause from the live audience with a spring in his step. Azmeh has a very inviting and engaging personality. As he explained the stories behind each of the movements of his “Suite For Improvisor and Orchestra” the audience became more and more invested in what was about to go down and I’m telling you, as each movement came and went, although I was not there in person, I could tell from the palpable energy, that he had everyone, including myself at home on the edges of our seats. Love on 139th Street in D had a fun vibe to it whilst “November 22nd” was hauntingly beautiful in nature. It was thoughtful, mournful and questioning. The final movement entitled “Wedding” was vibrant and celebratory. The piece collectively was an experience and one those in attendance and those at home will not soon forget.

Azmeh is a world class player and an extremely inventive improvisor. That was very obvious throughout. He could play his clarinet very softly and smoothly. He could scream and squeal. He could play with a sense of melodic acrobatics that only a master of his instrument can. He knew the tricks of his instrument like how to use alternate fingerings as an effective tool during soloing. Indeed, he poured his very heart and soul into what he was doing in the moment. Valdés to her credit kept pace and helped lead the orchestra through something that, although structured to a degree, still had an unpredictability to it that many orchestral players don’t experience much of, arguably, during their playing careers. 

The communication between Azmeh and different members of the orchestra was quite amazing to see, too. Oh, and also the sense of wonderment that the orchestra had just watching Azmeh do his thing. I mean, it’s hard to put it all into words. Just let me say that if you haven’t seen it yet, you still can. The SSO makes these performances available for purchase on their ConcertStream app and I’d say it’s well worth it if you have a good home set-up. Anyways, with all this being said, the SSO continues to put on an absolutely stunning season. Keep your eyes peeled to their website because they aren’t done yet. More amazing music is coming soon!

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