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Stephen Brown: Reviews

Sidney Classical Orchestra
Joyce Ellwood, Laura Backstrom, cellos
Stephen Brown, conductor
St. Elizabeth's Church, Sidney
May 19, 2017

The first half of the concert close with the evening's premiere: Stephen Brown's own concerto for two cellos, "The Big Twin" — neither in his programme note nor in person did he explain this — written for and after hearing the orchestra's own cellists, Joyce Ellwood and Laura Backstrom, playing the concerto for two cellos by — who else? — Vivaldi.

This music alone would have been more than worth the trek up the Pat Bay Highway.
The concerto is cast in three movements, quick slow and quick, which sounds conventional enough, although the tempo marking for the outer movements, Allegro mysterioso, did give me some pause for thought: was this a deliberate misspelling of "misterioso" or simply a typo?

But the music itself was far too engaging and involving to be distracted by mere questions of spelling. The opening built the tension nicely until the initial, almost aggressive solo entries. The music proceeded with a driving momentum, until a slower, more lyrical episode intervened, in which the duetting cellos' gorgeous harmonies summoned forth memories of the wonderful second subject of Schubert's great string quintet, before resuming what Brown himself described as a "wild ride”.

The adagio featured an ethereal introduction, the soloists playing over deep pizzicatos in what sounded like a nod to Vivaldi. This movement was really lovely and the duo cadenza really rather moving, which is not something one necessarily expects from a cadenza.

The finale opens in similar style to the first movement and segues into a lively gig in a style somewhat reminiscent of Percy Grainger. The music here was especially catchy and mine was far from the only foot tapping in time. The cadenza, with its overtone of a sarabande from a Bach suite, was delectable, although perhaps just a little too long in this context, the bounce back the speedy coda was excellent and the final chords brought storms of well-deserved applause.

Ellwood and Backstrom played superbly throughout, as did their accompanists, even though some of the music was clearly far from easy.

This was a most enjoyable work, which I would certainly be pleased to hear again. I have never understood why Stephen Brown is not a better-known composer; I can think of several with international reputations who are far less interesting, have far less to say and far lesser means of saying it. He really is something of a local treasure.

Every time I hear the Sidney Classical Orchestra I ask myself why I don't attend their concerts more frequently.
I'm still wondering.
Deryk Barker - Music in Victoria (May 19, 2017)
Lady in the East, Solo Cello Suites 1 -3
Hannah Addario-Berry, solo cello

Affectionately self-described as ‘beasts’ and written in a tonally elegant, homespun style analogous to furniture makers who never repeat a design, with deeply satisfying beauty at every turn, Stephen Brown’s Solo Cello Suites Nos 1-3 (Nos 4-6 have been composed but are yet to be recorded) could make a powerful evening’s concert for enterprising cellists. The three works began in 2003 as a five-minute piece for solo flute to be played at a memorial service in sight of a spectacular falls in the Canadian Rockies. With the close collaboration of cellist Hannah Addario-Berry, Brown arranged Takakkaw Falls for solo cello, tapping into both the elemental forces of nature and Canadian musical sources; the piece was premiered in Victoria, British Columbia, the following year.

Fire followed in 2005, influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Procol Harum, Cream, the Stones and the Eagles; as in the two accompanying suites, Bachian references and devices played an important but clearly secondary, non-derivative role. In the third suite, There Was a Lady in the East, Brown returned to weaving folk songs and fiddle tunes, both direct and implied, into his wandering musical fabric. Whether folk or rock, it is the integrity and strength of the materials Brown draws on, such as the Newfoundland outport song ‘Who is at my window weeping’, which sets the musical tone and its simple focus on humanity.

The recording in St Stephen’s Anglican Church, the oldest in British Columbia, has an honest, intimate sound that makes you feel as if Addario-Berry were in the room, speaking to you with her cello.
Gramophone talks to Hannah Addario-Berry on recording Stephen Brown’s folk-and rock-infused solo cello suites

The first suite, Takakkaw Falls, was originally written for flute…

I’ve known Stephen since he was my pre-college theory teacher, and I’d always thought it would be wonderful if he wrote something for solo cello. Back in 2003, I was home in Victoria, British Columbia, for Christmas and I heard this piece for solo flute, which Stephen had been commissioned to write for a memorial service at Takakkaw Falls in the Canadian Rockies. It’s such lyrical, vocal writing and I felt that it could work on any single-voice instrument that had a singing quality.

How much did it need to be changed?

That Christmas, Stephen and I played around with different keys to find those that best used the open strings and resonance of the cello, and there might have been some switching of octaves, but mostly it worked really well as it was. What I love about working with Stephen is how open he is to the performer’s input – there were no dynamics and very few articulations so we worked those things out together. He really gave me freedom to find my own voice.

Both this suite and the third, There Was a Lady in the East, are inspired by folk music…

Most of it is from the East Coast – Nova Scotia, Newfoundland – and when Stephen explained to me about the genesis of this music, I found out all I could about it and listened to many recordings. When you’re playing vocal music, it’s really helpful to know what the words are and where the emphases fall.

What’s the appeal of folk music on the cello?

Folk music goes beyond any instrument in a way, but of course the fiddle is used so much in this music and, although certain techniques are easier on the violin because of how it’s held, some of those do translate to the cello – the open fifth, for example, that produces that droning sound so typical in folk music.

You’re a Canadian living in California…

Whenever I play Canadian music in the States, I definitely feel like a Canadian ambassador – it feels really important and meaningful to me. But when I play music infused by Canadian folksong, it does feel like I’m truly representing Canada. You can imagine the cold winds on the rocky cliffs…I do miss it if I’m away too long.

The second suite, Fire, is very different…

I don’t have a rock background so Stephen was a good coach in that way – we had a lot of fun throughout the whole process. The second movement that uses bits from Jimi Hendrix is really the ‘Fire’ of the piece and definitely brings out my wild side!
There Was a Lady in the East Paul Kiffner - solo cello, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. "The highlight of the afternoon was arguably the least sophisticated and modern, at least in terms of technology and musical structure: Stephen Brown's "There was a Lady in the East - Third Suite for Solo Cello". Solo cello suites will of course always get compared to the six masterpieces by Bach. Brown has found a solution that on the one hand pays homage to the master, while at the same time creates something entirely his own. The homage to Bach is to be found in the dance forms, but where Bach employed sarabandes and bourrees, Brown sets reels and hornpipes, using folk tunes from Atlantic Canada (notably Newfoundland) as a melodic foundation. The cellist Paula Kiffner was her usual brilliant self - her tone, phrasing, and dedication to the music was entirely convincing. On the fast movements, such as the closing jig, she was sharp and energetic, and the third movement's opening lament was achingly beautiful. The suite was enormously effective - I struggle to find the words to express how charmed I was by this music and Kiffner's performance."
Shadow of a Leaf: Talisker Players, Jennifer Enns Modolo - mezzo soprano, Tim Francom - marimba, Toronto, Ontario. "The first half of the evening’s high point was Victoria composer Stephen Brown’s Shadow of a Leaf, which tautly stretched gorgeously wrought melodic arcs over a cleverly undulating and pulsing accompaniment on marimba, expertly executed by Tim Francom."
John Terauds - Toronto Star (Feb 1, 2011)
MAXWELL, Larry Douglas: Talisker Players, Jennie Such - soprano, Toronto, Ontario. "Stephen Brown's Maxwell, Larry Douglas, a setting, word for word, of the obituary in a Toronto newspaper of the composer's dear friend. Brown's simple, but heartfelt, style, working against the conventional prose of a newspaper death notice, created a quite powerful impression, and Such sang the text with real emotion."
Robert Harris - Globe and Mail, Toronto
MAXWELL, Larry Douglas: Victoria, B.C. Victoria Conservatory of Music Orchestra, Danielle Meunier soprano, Composer conductor, "sung with great feeling... Brown directed a heartfelt performance that left the audience temporarily silenced, mute testimony to the power of music and friendship"
Deryk Barker - Times Colonist, Victoria, BC
Sunrise Serenade: Sidney, BC, St. Cecilia Orchestra, composer conductor. "A delight... Brown has created a work with its feet in both centuries, from its lively and stately (typically French) opening to the nobimente close. The work has a number of tricky changes of tempo and metre (particularly in the second movement) which were generally handled very well, as well as some wonderfully idiomatic string writing. For example, the passage in the passacaglia which is played initially on the double bass and divsi cellos, which is them joined by the violas, shows a genuine feel for the potential of the lower strings."
Deryk Barker - Times Colonist, Victoria, British Columbia
"Stephen Brown has written a cracking good piano concerto with lots of drive and invention." Robin Wood, Principal Emeritus, Victoria Conservatory of Music.
Robin Wood
"Stephen Brown's piano concerto is a powerful work with many remarkable moments. The emerging strong allegro from the shimmering vibrant opening of the first movement contrast with the warn string melody and impressionistic colours of the piano in the second movement. The almost barbarous duet between the piano and percussion in the third movement leaves the listener breathless as the piece rushes to an exhilarating climax." Janos Sandor, Permanent Guest Conductor - Hungarian State Opera, Music Director of the University of Victoria Orchestra and Chorus.
Janos Sandor
The premiere performance of Eulogy for Meghan Reid - string orchestra and piano version - was not reviewed by the press. However, immediately after the performance and in emails following I received many heartfelt comments. Below are some of them.

- The eulogy was simply exquisite and clearly felt as such by all who were stunned before responding. Clapping seemed almost to be an insult of exuberance after such a sublime experience.
Lynne Walker

- I know it must have been difficult to compose such a piece of such great sadness, but you have done a brilliant job. It was astonishing! Bravo Steve, you've taken the darkest theme and made a wonderful resurrection of a tragic loss of life.
Kim Hollingsworth - artist and teacher

- I just wanted to say once again what a privilege it was to see you conduct, and to hear the Eulogy for Meghan Reid performed.  It was incredibly moving. I can only imagine that the Reid family is touched and honoured by such a beautiful and powerful piece of music.
Margaret Baker

- We were extremely moved by your eulogy, and felt very fortunate to have been there this evening. It's difficult to find words to express my feelings about the  piece. It was immensely expressive, running the gamut of emotions, while beautifully constructed.
Tony Baker - management consultant

- I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated the Eulogy for Meghan Reid.  I lost my mother in an auto accident many years ago and I recognized many of the emotions you so ably wrote into the music. It is a truly fine piece, I am so glad I heard it.
Linda Stobbe - piano teacher

 - Stephen, I just went through your quartet - recording and score. It is hauntingly beautiful. Riveting. From the opening chiming of the piano to the final D major resolution, it grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Gorgeous.
David Clenman - composer and harmony professor

- First of all, thank you for sending me that beautiful recording.  What a wonderful piece!  I'm always a little bit overwhelmed when I get a truly thoughtful reading or performance such as this. 
Ed Marcus - composer

- You have this extraordinary gift to translate simple notes into a remarkable piece. You allowed yourself to search the soul and created something inherently beautiful. Your performance on Friday evening evoked great emotions and allowed all of us to tap within ourselves in deep and mysterious ways. A remarkable performance. Thank you. Thank you.
Dr. Johanne Brodeur
Audience (Nov 5, 2010)
Stephen Brown and the Bastion Band. "When it comes to jazz, I feel the same way that S.J. Perelman felt about medicine: I don't know much about it, but I know what I like.

Unfortunately, among the much that I don't know about is New Orleans-style traditional jazz, which must make me almost uniquely unqualified to review the second part of Saturday's recital, in which tubaist (is there really such a word?) Eugene Dowling celebrated his first half-century of playing one of music's ungainliest (in the purely physical sense) instruments.

Still, as far as I know, I was the only person clutching a notebook and pen in the hall on Saturday and so my opinions, uninformed as they are, will, faute de mieux, have to do...

After the interval Dowling was joined by (or, looked at another way, he joined) the Bastion Jazz Band for almost an hour of spirited and enjoyable music.

I was slightly disconcerted to realise that I was familiar with just over a third of the music they played - I'm really not that old. Nor, as noted above, am I really qualified to make more than a few general observations about their "set".

The first such is to remark that Dowling fit right in to the band - and I do know a little about playing in a band - and clearly feels completely at ease in their very different idiom. His bass lines were perfect and his soloing most impressive.

The band themselves, whom I had not heard before, are no slouches either. Their ensemble is marvelous and achieved with very few obvious signals, as one would expect from a group that has been together for almost three decades.

Highlights of the set included the transformation of the standard 3/4 of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" into a rousing 4/4 stomp, the a capella vocal chorusing of "This Little Light of Mine" and Aaron Watson's remarkable soloing on the saw in "Out in the Cold Again"; for once, it would actually be appropriate to refer to it as the "musical saw". And I cannot forbear to mention what looked rather like a Lurex Nehru jacket worn by Stephen Brown. Very "showbiz".

A most enjoyable celebration indeed."
Sidney Classical Orchestra
Bradford Werner, Michael Dias, guitar
Russell Bajer, oboe
Joyce Ellwood, Laura Backstrom, cello
Eugene Dowling, tuba
Stephen Brown, conductor
St. Elizabeth's Catholic Church, Sidney, British Columbia

"To conclude the concert, Brown had asked for ideas how the soloists - the two guitars, the two cellos, the oboe and the tuba - might be brought together to play a piece with the orchestra. Dowling suggested his tuba adaptation of Morricone's main theme Gabriel's Oboe from the 1986 movie The Mission. The oboe and the cellos were found to fit right in, and as a substitute for the original harp, Brown wrote an arrangement for two guitars. During the first half of the theme, the tuba and the oboe alternated beautifully, while in the second half they came together in harmonic perfection. One would have to be tone-deaf not to appreciate the mournful beauty of the theme. It earned a standing ovation from the audience and prompted the orchestra to offer the second half as an encore."