Sleeping Giant offers beauty and dissonance

What: Victoria Symphony (Signature Series): Rachmaninoff 2 & Tchaikovsky 5.
When/where: Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. at the Royal Theatre.
Tickets: $30 to $80. Call 250-6515 or 250-386-6121; online at rmts.bc.ca; in person at the Royal Theatre Box Office or the Victoria Symphony (610-620 View St.).

One evening in 2010, taking my seat at a Victoria Symphony concert, I noticed, next to me, a stereotypical nice old lady frowning at her program. The concert was to be taken up mostly with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1, but she had spotted trouble: Preceding the Rachmaninoff was something identified only as “World Première.” “Oh dear,” she said, to no one in particular, “I hope it’s not dissonant.”

A veteran concertgoer about to wallow for 80 minutes in some of the most hackneyed music in the classical canon was alarmed at the prospect of first spending a few minutes listening to something she had never heard before. Her orchestra would briefly be a living thing rather than a museum, and she felt threatened.

Perhaps that long-suffering lady will be in the audience this weekend to hear the orchestra’s first Signature Series concert of the season. If so, she will face another epic psychological struggle: Again, she will get to hear Rach 2 paired with a Tchaikovsky symphony (No. 5), but again, she will first have to contend briefly with something unfamiliar, this time The Sleeping Giant, by the esteemed Canadian composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte.

The concert will feature two Victoria Symphony debuts: the young Ukrainian pianist Anna Fedorova and the Austrian-born conductor David Danzmayr, a rising star who currently directs orchestras in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio, and next fall will become chief conductor of the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fedorova and Rach 2 are already closely linked, incidentally. Her recording of the concerto was recently released on a Piano Classics CD, and an ardent, robust performance she gave of it in 2013 at the Concertgebouw, in Amsterdam, has been viewed more than 41⁄2 million times on YouTube.

Richardson-Schulte, 39, was born in Oxford, England, but her family resettled in Canada when she was still a child. She holds degrees in composition from the University of Calgary and the University of Toronto, and lives in Dundas, Ont. Since 2009, she has been artistic director (with her husband, violinist Michael Schulte) of Chamber Music Hamilton, and since 2012 has been the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s composer-in-residence.

Richardson-Schulte’s impressive body of work includes 10 commissioned orchestral pieces, among them The Hockey Sweater, her immensely popular setting of Roch Carrier’s beloved story, which the Victoria Symphony performed last year in its Concerts for Kids series, with Carrier narrating. She is currently working on a commission for the Victoria Symphony, a score for part of Buster Keaton’s great silent comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr. (This grew out of a film-music workshop she participated in here.)

The Sleeping Giant, from 2007, was commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for its Northern Residency in Thunder Bay. It is based on an Ojibwe legend from that region, about the giant Nanabosho, who is the son of the West Wind and the hero who saved the Ojibwe from the Sioux.

Scratching a rock one day, Nanabosho discovers silver, but, fearing the white man will take over the land if this becomes known, he buries the silver and swears his tribe to secrecy. One of the chieftains steals some silver to make weapons, however, and when he is subsequently killed by the Sioux the secret is revealed. Sioux are soon spotted leading white men toward the silver, but Nanabosho raises a storm and kills them. This angers the Great Spirit, who punishes Nanabosho by turning him to stone and thus he “sleeps” for all time, watching over his secret silver.

The Sleeping Giant is explicitly programmatic. Indeed, Richardson-Schulte often uses it as a demonstration piece in storytelling workshops and other public-outreach events. Narrative details are noted within the score — “scratches a rock,” “burying silver,” “Chieftain fights Sioux,” and so on — and there are passages that register less as music than as sound effects.

The music is tonal and often lushly beautiful, but, alas, there’s some dissonance, too. The nice old lady will just have to tough it out for six minutes until all that reassuring Russian Romanticism kicks in.

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