With Prince Charles in attendance, over 110 musicians from Ottawa's National Arts Center Orchestra and London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra united their harmonies and nuances during a concert in the British capital. Directed by Pinchas Zucherman, the concert marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War.
For three months running, over 800,000 ceramic poppies — one for each soldier of the British Empire killed during the war of 1914-1918 — have been pouring out of a window at the Tower of London, thus creating a river of purple at the foot of the old fortress' walls.
Throughout their ongoing tour of the United Kingdom, the NAC musicians echo this international conflict, and Monday night's stop at London's Southbank Center was a part of this commemorative tour.
Following a polite interpretation of Bach's Erbarme Dich by the RPO musicians, their Canadian counterparts from the NAC expressed the deep sensitivity of the late Canadian composer Malcolm Forsyth by their interpretation of his piece "A Ballad of Canada."
Inspired by poems written during the WWI, this piece presents a succession of contrasts that evoke the horrors of war and the rare few moments of brightness. It opens on a light note reminiscent of nature before becoming ominous and once more breezy summery, only to return to a suspenseful overcast, total chaos, a soothing softness and, finally, a hymn to victory.
Alongside the energetic and nuanced musicians, the singers of the London Philharmonic Choir seemed to struggle to keep pace, especially the female section, which sadly offered spectators a few false notes.
A Thundering Finale
Following that performance, the spectators were treated to the much anticipated reunion of both orchestras, quite the musical challenge, as Canadian violinist Jeremy Mastrangelo explained before the concert.
"There is always a real potential for disaster in this type of meeting, since every orchestra has its unique personality and colour, but with much listening and sensitivity, we found common ground. It wasn’t that obvious during our first rehearsal, yesterday, but everything gelled during today’s rehearsal at the Southbank Center."
For this occasion, the two orchestras and the choir interpreted Beethoven's 9th Symphony. While some remarked on the irony of celebrating the union of nations during WWI by playing a piece by a German composer, most simply enjoyed the night’s pièce de résistance.
At once powerful and epic, yet sweet and enticing, the first two movements of this symphony allowed the string section to shine through its cohesion while the brass section and the bassoons seemed to struggle to achieve the same level of coordination.
However, during the legendary last movement known as the "Ode to Joy," concertgoers were treated to long moments of perfect harmony. Led with maestria by a contingent of 20 double bassists and cellists, the astounding finale literally gave goose bumps to the hundreds of people in attendance.
Winnie the Pooh and the War
Earlier in the day, a handful of members from the NAC met with Lindsay Mattick, the great-granddaughter of Harry Colebourn, the Canadian soldier behind Winnie the Pooh. After being bought from a poacher in White River by veterinary lieutenant Colebourn, the animal changed the course of history by being shipped overseas as entertainment for the Canadian troops stationed in England. At the end of the War, Winnie was then given to the London Zoo and went on to inspire the stories imagined by author A. A. Milne, stories that still endure today, generations later.
This story, the stuff of legends, is one that Lindsay Mattick steadfastly wishes to keep alive. “It is very special to know that stories that are so beloved by millions is based on such a beautiful and significant historical fact. As sad as an event les WWI was, one can also single out this beautiful adventure that inspired so many people. Harry had no idea of the joy he would bring to soldiers by adopting this bear cub. It goes to show how a small gesture can have a huge impact, even a century later.”
Next week, the young woman — who named her son Cole in honour of his ancestor — will open an exhibition of Harry Colebourn’s personal diaries, photographs and veterinary equipment at Toronto’s Ryerson University, and next year, she plans on releasing a book titled Finding Winnie, an illustrated book retelling the incredible story of this bear cub.
On this unusually sunny day, the dark page of History that is World War I was also commemorated at the Canada Memorial in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace. A brass quartet played O Canada, God Save the Queen, In Flanders Fields and Beethoven’s The Heavens before a crowd of approximately 200 people.
Among the dignitaries, passers-by and tourists in attendance were nine music lovers who've decided to follow the NAC Orchestra's tour in London and Salisbury. "I wouldn't go as far as saying we are groupies, but we are passionate about classical music," enthused Deborah Dempsey. "We’ve lived in Ottawa for 15 years now, and we just love the orchestra, so we decided to follow them on tour, which has allowed us to discover parts of England."
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