By contributor Kelly Whiteside

The Vancouver Island Symphony (VIS) revealed their new mini-series, Symphony SoundBites, on Thursday, October 27. This series contains two shows (one of which was in October, the other in March) that give the audience a more intimate experience with only 11 core musicians present. Continuing with the theme of their symphony season, Lifting the Human Spirit, the first SoundBite performance was based on the French spirit. Featuring composers Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and VIS artistic director Pierre Simard, the performance focused on impressionism in music.

The VIS opened with excerpts of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, based off poems from Aloysius Bertrand’s Gaspard de la Nuit, fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot. The first movement, “Ondine,” tells the tale of a water nymph seducing men. With my eyes closed, the music led me to a calm river, where I could hear the water run over smooth rocks and see beautiful nymphs bathing themselves. I became one of the men they were tempting, the music slowly turning dark as they dragged me under, sending shivers up my spine. The second part, “Le Gibet,” describes a corpse hanging from a noose in a desert. The VIS not only captured that image, but they projected it onto the audience, once again spreading shivers. Simard’s arrangement for this challenging piano piece was hauntingly beautiful, and was a strong start to the hour-long performance. Continuing with Ravel, the VIS introduced guest singer Catherine Fern Lewis for Deux mélodies hébraïques. Accompanied by the orchestra, Lewis sung both parts, “Kaddisch” and “L’Énigme Éternelle,” in French, slowly filling the theatre with her powerful soprano voice. Ravel was considered France’s greatest living composer during the 1920s and 1930s, so beginning the show with some of his works was a good choice in showcasing the French spirit.

Moving on from Ravel, the VIS introduced us to Stravinsky’s lesser-known work Pribaoutki. Though it has no direct translation to English, many have given it titles along the lines of Nonsense Rhymes, which, after hearing Simard’s English translations, I must agree is a suiting title. Pribaoutki consists of four movements, yet it only takes about four minutes to perform all of them. After the evocative music of Ravel, these strange, short rhymes sung by Lewis lightened the air with laughter—something not often heard at a symphony. Despite Pribaoutki first being performed in Paris, this song did not fit with the theme of the performance at all. It was written by a Russian composer who, at the time, lived in Sweden, and, though considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, was not considered an impressionist.

Simard then introduced his own work, Two Songs, which brought us back to the theme of death. The first movement, “Le dernier rendez-vous,” was inspired Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s poem under the same name, which talked of her lover’s death. The second movement, “La mer pour le présence,” was inspired by a book of poems about the author’s dad dying. With these two songs, Simard took the audience through every emotion one would feel after the death of someone close to the heart. It was a moving performance by Nanaimo’s own French composer.

The VIS chose to bookmark the performance with another leading figure in impressionism, Claude Debussy, and his well-known work Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. It was a peaceful end to the night, and certainly spoke to the French spirit while setting us up for the next performance that focuses on the romantic spirit.

The SoundBite series is a great addition to the symphony’s season, as it showcases challenging arrangements for the core musicians and allows for a more intimate, experimental performance. Also, who doesn’t love free food? This hour-long performance left me wanting more, but was still greatly satisfying, and I can’t wait for the next show.

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