The line outside Hawrelak Park’s Heritage Amphitheatre starts more than an hour before the concert. As strangers stand in line exchanging chit-chat, the line moves and ticket-takers start snapping tickets.
Passers-by may assume the typical 2,000 or so concertgoers are attending a rock concert, but they’re actually in for a different experience.
The magnet is Symphony Under the Sky, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s most popular weekend of the year. For the past few years, the four-day festival has boasted a sell-out.
Music lovers that shy away from the stereotypical image of a stuffy concert hall, gravitate in droves to this outdoor adventure that includes jazz, classical, movie themes, Broadway hits, light opera and ballet.
Running Thursday, Aug. 31 to Sunday, Sept. 3, the four-day festival also delivers a multi-media light display accompanying music spanning several centuries.
Helmed under the baton of special guest conductor Bob Bernhardt, now conducting his 12th Symphony Under the Sky, it has grown into one of the most respected musical weekend destinations in the province.
Bernhardt believes that although the 55 plus symphony’s musicians are top-tier, the amphitheatre’s casual ambience – blue jeans and sandals welcome – is equally inviting, particularly for families with young children.
“This is a wonderful first concert for children, especially the movie night concert. They can wiggle and run around on the grass and be more free,” said Bernhardt, principal pops conductor for the Louisville Orchestra, Grand Rapids Symphony and the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera.
Together with Rob McAlear, ESO artistic administrator, Bernhardt has designed four diverse programs aimed to attract a mix of music fans. They include The Nat ‘King’ Cole Songbook, the majesty of Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bruch, A Night of Hollywood, and Alberta Rising, an afternoon concert of emerging stars.
The Nat ‘King’ Cole Songbook
Thursday, Aug. 31
The symphony brings back Denzal Sinclaire, a familiar face at the Winspear, to sing some of Nat ‘King’ Cole’s major hits such as Mona Lisa, Smile, Route 66 and Unforgettable.
McAlear first met Sinclaire 25 years ago in Montreal at a celebrity fundraiser with guest conductor Zubin Mehta. At the time, McAlear was the Canadian director of promotions for Decca Records and it was his job to attend all major music functions.
“After the concert there was a gala dinner. I walked into the room and I could hear a big band. Onstage there was a man and I wondered why they were playing Nat King Cole records and a man was mouthing the words. He wasn’t. Denzal sounded exactly like Nat ‘King’ Cole and I took his name,” said McAlear.
Now comfortably ensconced at the Winspear Centre, McAlear included Sinclaire in various programs such as a Christmas concert, a pop series and a jazz concert.
“Denzal has a smooth voice. It’s velvety and it’s like when you listen to Nat ‘King’ Cole, you relax. And Denzal is incredibly musical. Like Nat, he can put across a song. He pays attention to the lyrics, to the phrasing. He’s a master of his craft, ”McAlear noted.
Tchaikovsky, Wagner and Bruch
Friday, Sept. 1
The evening’s featured repertoire is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Overture and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.
Tchaikovsky wrote Symphony No. 4 during a period of depression. The tone is urgent and supercharged, and shifts from anguish and melancholy swelling to poignancy and optimism.
“It’s an orchestral tour de force and it’s a great romantic symphony,” said Bernhardt.
On the other hand, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman is a haunting masterpiece punctuated by the sounds of the sea.
“It’s a major overture with all its drama, but it’s a beautiful drama.”
And Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, one of the most popular in the violin repertoire, contains dazzling passages and beautiful, heart-breaking themes.
“It’s very fast, very dramatic and very evocative. The second movement is gorgeous and the finale is one of the most famous.”
Violinist Andrew Wan, a native Edmontonian, returns to his roots as a special guest for the evening. The Julliard-trained artist enjoys global success as soloist, chamber musician and concertmaster.
A Night in Hollywood
Saturday, Sept. 2
Bernhardt capitalizes on his enjoyment of composer John Williams to conduct themes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Jurassic Park II: the Lost World, Harry Potter and Big Friendly Giant, a fantasy adventure adapted from a Roald Dahl book.
The night will also be sprinkled with melodies from Braveheart, Ben-Hur and An American in Paris. Cantilon Choir will join the orchestra adding a diverse texture to the music.
“It will be a night of movie magic.”
Sunday, Sept. 3
Alberta Rising is dedicated to emerging young musical stars that grew up in the area or contributed to our regional landscape.
First and foremost high school student Greg Parth, a composer cited for the ESO’s Young Composer program, is hosting the world premiere of his composition Fragments.
“It’s very dramatic. The fragments refer to several sections that are united at the end. It’s a charming piece, a great first piece. It’s wonderful,” Bernhardt said.
St. Albert’s own Caitlin Wood, fresh from performing one of the evil stepsisters in the Edmonton Opera’s Cinderella and a one-month stint with the Bicycle Opera Project, returns to her roots to sing two arias: Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro and Leonard Bernstein’s wicked Glitter and Be Gay.
“Caitlyn is a professional singer and she’s hired by people who are judicious,” McAlear explained adding he has yet to see her perform. “I just thought it would be fun to give her something like Glitter and Be Gay – something outrageous and showy that would be perfect for Symphony Under the Sky.”
Other rising stars include accordionist Michael Bridge, violinist Jack Forestier and pianist Kevin Chen. Dancers from the Edmonton School of Ballet also perform the Sleeping Beauty Waltz.
ESO musicians that just returned from 10 weeks holidays have learned a 48-piece score for the festival. Included in these world-class musicians are St. Albert violinist Neda Yamach, cellist Rhonda Metszies and assistant principal double bass John Taylor.
McAlear closes by saying, “You have to take care to put together a program that flows well and is pleasing to the audience. With four diverse concerts, it’s been a real challenge. But one of the things I’ve noticed about audiences is that they like to come out, spread a blanket on the grass and accept everything that comes to them. What it communicates to me is that classical music concerts are not what people might think they are.”