“Oh, to be in England / Now that April’s there”
– Home-Thoughts, From Abroad by Robert Browning
On Saturday, April 6th, the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra (PSO) presents “Oh, to be in England!” at Showplace Performance Centre, performing works by Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams and featuring violinist and PSO concertmaster Phoebe Tsang and soprano and local star Melody Thomas. The concert is sponsored by Scotiabank.
Experience the traditions of Elizabethan court through Britten’s “Gloriana” Suite. Then walk the land back to early 20th-century England guided by the heartrending sounds of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending featuring PSO Concertmaster Phoebe Tsang, and his Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral” featuring soprano Melody Thomas.
Based on Lytton Strachey’s 1928 book Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, the opera Gloriana depicts the tempestuous relationship between “Gloriana” — the name given by the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser to his character representing Queen Elizabeth I in his poem “The Faerie Queene” — and the charming and ambitious Earl of Essex, who was finally ordered executed by the queen for treason.
Evoking the rhythms and harmonies of court and dance music of the late 1500s and early 1600s, the “Gloriana” Suite is brisk and exhilarating, evocative, melodic, and fully dramatic in its final Gloriana Moritura.
It is “brilliantly theatrical music,” says PSO Music Director and Conductor Michael Newnham.
Complementing the theatrical flavour of the Suite are two beautifully reflective works by Vaughan Williams. Inspired by George Meredith’s 122-line poem of the same name, Maestro Newnham describes Vaughan Williams’ poignant The Lark Ascending as “a lyrical poem in music for violin (the lark) and orchestra (the human observer).
“It is where two beings which share our world, but are fundamentally different from one another, very briefly share a moment of dialogue, but then continue on their different paths. Written on the eve of war in 1914, the music seems to encapsulate rural England, on the verge of disappearing forever, as like the lark into the cloudless sky.”
“I am very excited to have PSO Concertmaster Phoebe Tsang as our soloist for this timeless work,” he adds.
Phoebe Tsang is a British-Canadian violinist, poet, author, composer and librettist whose artistic practice focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration, and improvisation as a vehicle for composition and performance.
Her libretti have been commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Canadian Sinfonietta, Talisker Players, and Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.
This is Phoebe’s second season as Concertmaster with the PSO.
In The Lark Ascending, a symphonic poem (or tone poem), Vaughan Williams takes the extra step of supplementing the title’s image of a bird ascending skyward by writing on the flyleaf of the score excerpts from the Meredith poem.
When asked about the kind of considerations given to the excerpts when performing the piece, Phoebe states: “The beauty and lyricism of the music resonates so wonderfully with the poetry. It’s impossible not to be inspired by the relationship between words and music here. One need look no further than the music itself to appreciate its meaning — in the words of the composer himself: ‘Of course music has a meaning, but I think that can only be expressed in terms of music.'”
After his service in World War I, Vaughan Williams composed his “Pastoral” Symphony, which Maestro Newnham describes as one of the greatest symphonies of the 20th century.
“I am very happy and honoured to be given the chance to present this work with the PSO,” he says.
While titled “Pastoral,” this piece reinterprets the bucolic ideal. Williams himself described it as thus: “It’s really wartime music — a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night in the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset. It’s not really lambkins frisking at all, as most people take for granted.”
This is clearly referenced in the long trumpet cadenza in the second movement, inspired by the sound of a bugler who played in that evening landscape.
“This music was composed in memory to the many victims and casualties of war,” Maestro Newnham says. “It is an eloquent and profound ode to peace.”
Soprano Melody Thomas joins the PSO for this work in a small but very significant role: singing a wordless vocal that frames the final movement.
Melody has an Honours Bachelor of Music from the University of Toronto and an Opera Diploma from Wilfrid Laurier University. She currently teaches voice lessons at Lakefield College School. Having sung numerous times with the PSO she is excited to be back and singing in this piece.
“My opera debut was singing Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea,” says Melody, “and here I am getting the opportunity to learn more beautiful Vaughan Williams!”
Concert ticket holders are invited to attend “Meet the Maestro,” a popular ‘behind-the-music’ pre-concert talk with Maestro Newnham at 6:40 p.m. in the Showplace theatre.
Concert tickets for “Oh, to be in England!” are $49, $39, or $20 for adults, and $10 for students. Tickets are available at the Showplace box office (290 George St. N, Peterborough), by phone at 705-742-7469, or online at showplace.org.
VIDEO: “The Lark Ascending” – violinist Janine Jansen with the BBC Symphony Orchestra