Percussionist Beverley Johnston will join the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra for ‘This is Italy!’ on April 13

Concert at Showplace Performance Centre will feature works by Ottorino Respighi, Christos Hatzis, Antonio Vivaldi, and Felix Mendelssohn

Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston is internationally recognized for her dynamic performances on marimba and percussion. Her exciting performances have been distinguished as unconventional, effectively combining classical transcriptions, contemporary music, and a touch of theatre. She has captivated audiences across North America and overseas with her personal charm and her unique style. Her performances and recordings have been broadcast on radio networks all over the world. She has released seven solo CDs, and can also be heard as soloist or chamber musician on numerous other recordings. (Photo: Bo Huang)
Canadian percussionist Beverley Johnston is internationally recognized for her dynamic performances on marimba and percussion. Her exciting performances have been distinguished as unconventional, effectively combining classical transcriptions, contemporary music, and a touch of theatre. She has captivated audiences across North America and overseas with her personal charm and her unique style. Her performances and recordings have been broadcast on radio networks all over the world. She has released seven solo CDs, and can also be heard as soloist or chamber musician on numerous other recordings. (Photo: Bo Huang)

The Peterborough Symphony Orchestra (PSO) will be welcoming spring with the atmosphere of Italy at Showplace Performance Centre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th for the penultimate concert of the orchestra’s 2023-24 season.

“This Is Italy!” features works by Italian composers or composers who have been inspired by Italy or are connected in some way to the Mediterranean, including Ottorino Respighi, Christos Hatzis, Antonio Vivaldi, and Felix Mendelssohn.

The concert also features guest artist Beverley Johnston, an internationally recognized Canadian percussionist who will be performing on vibraphone on two of the evening’s selections — including one written by her composer husband.

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“Beverley Johnston is one of Canada’s premier percussion soloists,” Michael Newnham, the PSO’s music director and conductor, tells kawarthaNOW. “She has had a stellar career, commissioning and performing many great works from contemporary composers in Canada and beyond. I have been very lucky to have known Beverley since our student days and I am thrilled to have her join us at the PSO as soloist for the first time.”

The evening’s program begins with 20th-century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s 1928 work Gli uccelli (The Birds), a five-movement suite for small orchestra that represents an attempt to transcribe birdsong into musical notation and to musically illustrate bird actions, such as fluttering wings or scratching feet.

“The Birds is a very special piece,” Newnham says. “Respighi was one of the most complete of all musicians in the early part of the 20th century. Not content to just occupy himself with writing huge showpieces like the Pines of Rome, he was always fascinated by the music of forgotten Italian and French composers from the 16th and 17th centuries.”

Ottorino Respighi in 1927, the year before he wrote "Gli uccelli" (The Birds), a five-movement suite for small orchestra that represents an attempt to transcribe birdsong into musical notation and to musically illustrate bird actions, such as fluttering wings or scratching feet. Born in Bologna in 1879, Respighi learned violin and piano at an early age and began his musical career as a violinist and violist, performing and studying for years in Russia before he accepted a teaching position at a music conservatory in Rome where he focused on composition. (Public domain photo by Marie Boehm / Becker & Maass
Ottorino Respighi in 1927, the year before he wrote “Gli uccelli” (The Birds), a five-movement suite for small orchestra that represents an attempt to transcribe birdsong into musical notation and to musically illustrate bird actions, such as fluttering wings or scratching feet. Born in Bologna in 1879, Respighi learned violin and piano at an early age and began his musical career as a violinist and violist, performing and studying for years in Russia before he accepted a teaching position at a music conservatory in Rome where he focused on composition. (Public domain photo by Marie Boehm / Becker & Maass

Respighi’s opening prelude is followed by movements respectively referencing the dove, the hen and the rooster, the nightingale, and the cuckoo.

“The fact that he found a linking idea of birdsong in these five pieces from 200 years previously and then reclothed them with his brilliant skill as an orchestrator is what brings me back to this piece over and over,” Newnham adds.

“It has freshness and vigour and, like most of the music on this concert, says ‘spring’ in huge letters.”

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The next work in the evening’s program is a more contemporary piece by Juno Award-winning Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis — who happens to be guest artist Beverley Johnston’s husband. Mirage?, commissioned by the CBC for Dame Evelyn Glennie and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra in 2009, was written for vibraphone, cloud gongs (one soloist), and string orchestra. Johnston will join the PSO to perform on vibraphone and cloud gongs.

According to Hatzis, he wrote the piece during a dark period when the world was entering an economic downturn “preceded by years of greed, selfishness, political and economic opportunism and plain disregard for basic human rights all over the world.” The title asks if the wealth accumulated by residents of developed nations at the expense of others is actually a “sweet, lovely and seductive” mirage.

“The music of Mirage? is permeated by a sense of sadness, and at one point, of despair,” Hatziz writes. “It is lamenting the loss of something pleasurable that could not be held on to: of a way of living that less fortunate generations in our post-apocalyptic future may find hard to believe as possible and relegate instead to the domains of myth and legend.”

Christos Hatzisis was born in Volos, Greece in 1953 and received his early music instruction at the Volos branch of the Hellenic Conservatory. He continued his musical studies in the United States in the late 1970s and immigrated to Canada in 1982, where he became a citizen in 1985. In addition to composing and teaching, Hatzis has written extensively about composition and contemporary music. Many of his compositions are performed internationally, and he is a professor at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. He has won three Juno Awards for his compositions. (Photo: Bo Huang)
Christos Hatzisis was born in Volos, Greece in 1953 and received his early music instruction at the Volos branch of the Hellenic Conservatory. He continued his musical studies in the United States in the late 1970s and immigrated to Canada in 1982, where he became a citizen in 1985. In addition to composing and teaching, Hatzis has written extensively about composition and contemporary music. Many of his compositions are performed internationally, and he is a professor at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. He has won three Juno Awards for his compositions. (Photo: Bo Huang)

Following an intermission, the evening’s program will continue with a performance of 18th-century Italian composer and violinist Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, Op. 3 No. 6. The concerto was published in 1711 as one of 12 for string instruments in L’estro armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration), which became enormously popular and inspired other composers including Bach. While the piece remains a staple of young violin student everywhere, it will find new life at the hands of guest artist Beverley Johnston on vibraphone.

The final piece of the evening is 19th-century German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s four-movement Symphony No. 4 in A Major Op. 90, commonly known as the “Italian” symphony. Mendelssohn began working on the composition while he was touring Europe from 1829 to 1831, inspired by the colour and atmosphere of Italy. In a letter written to his father, Mendelssohn uses the phrase that gives the PSO’s concert its name.

“This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought … to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.”

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While Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of the Italian symphony at a London Philharmonic Society concert in 1833, he remained dissatisfied with it. Although he completed revisions to the work in 1834, he did not allow the score to be published during his lifetime.

“Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony is a piece of music that makes you think of a place in your mind that is absolutely ideal,” Newnham says. “From the very start, there is a feeling of electricity and excitement as you arrive at your destination.”

“There is music of longing, tenderness, and of almost religious devotion, as you discover the culture of the place where you have arrived. And it’s capped off by a breathtaking ‘saltarello’, like a tarantella — the ancient furious dance from Taranto in the heel of the Italian boot, which traditionally drives away evil spirits and fills us with life.”

VIDEO: Excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 – Berliner Philharmoniker

With IG Wealth Management as the guest artist sponsor, “This Is Italy!” begins at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 13th at Showplace Performance Centre at 290 George Street North in downtown Peterborough.

A pre-concert “Meet the Maestro” talk takes place at 6:45 p.m., where Newnham takes the Showplace stage for an intimate chat about the evening’s program.

Tickets for the concert, which are selling fast, are $33, $48, or $55, depending on the seat you choose, with student tickets costing $12 for all seats. Tickets are available in person at the Showplace Box Office from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, and one hour before the concert, or online anytime at showplace.org.