Music Talk with Adam Johnson

Maestro Adam Johnson was the very first guest on the SSO’s Music Talk from McNally – that was 7 years ago!
We’re thrilled to have him back leading this very important concert featuring the music of Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Haydn.


The French Mozart

Many of the eighteenth-century composers whose names are still familiar today came from Vienna, Europe’s cultural capital at that time. It is therefore ironic the François Devienne (1759-1803), whose last name literally translates as ‘from Vienna’ was in fact a fabulous classical composer from Joinville, France. Devienne is famous, not only as a composer, but also as a virtuoso player on both the flute and the bassoon – naturally, many of his concertos feature these two instruments. His virtuosity in conjunction with his dramatic compositional style has led some contemporary scholars to nickname him “The French Mozart.” 


Little is known for certain about Devienne’s early musical life. There has been some speculation that he studied music with his elder brother in the town of Deux Ponts, but perhaps this theory is a bridge too far! The earliest detail known for certain is that, by 1779, he was playing with the Paris Opéra orchestra as the last chair bassoonist. During this period, he was also studying the flute with the orchestra’s principal flautist, Félix Rault. Devienne remained with the opera for only one year, after which he entered the service of a private patron, Cardinal de Rohan. Following his entry into the freemason fraternity, he became a member of the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a masonic orchestra led by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. 


Many of Devienne’s early compositions received their public debut at the Concert Spirituel, one of the earliest public concert series. In 1782, Devienne appeared there as a soloist, performing a flute concerto that was likely his Flute Concerto No. 1. He went on to perform at the series at least seventeen more times, often playing virtuosic works of his own composition that featured either the flute or the bassoon. 


At age 31, Devienne joined the military band of the Paris National Guard, a decision that would eventually help him transition from a struggling artist to a central figure in Parisian musical circles. In this role, he began teaching at the Free School of Music of the National Guard, an establishment for the musical education of the children of soldiers. This institution would later be renamed the National Institute of Music and eventually go on to become the Paris Conservatoire, one of the most prolific music schools in Western musical history, producing future icons like Nadia Boulanger and Claude Debussy. Devienne was amongst the Conservatoire’s original faculty and was its first Professor of Flute. 


Though Devienne’s music was enthusiastically received in his own time, his status was eventually eclipsed by the Western world’s obsession with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. It wasn’t until the 1960s that his music was revived by Jean-Pierre Rampal who succeeded in inspiring later generations of flute players to take up these wonderfully virtuosic works. The SSO is overjoyed to have its very own principal flautist, Allison Miller, rise to the challenge of Devienne’s music with a stunning performance of his most famous piece, his Flute Concerto No. 7.


While the concerto fits the standard model of three movements in a fast, slow, fast configuration, the music itself is anything but standard with its quick mood changes and fabulous demonstrations of the flute’s extensive range of capabilities. The concerto is also one of only three that Devienne wrote in the darker minor mode. The first movement loosely establishes two thematic centres, one melodramatic to the max, the other more lyrical and understated. The incredible balance that Devienne finds between these two themes keeps the listener engaged and on the edge of their seat. Movement two, while being more pastoral in temperament, still manages to have some weight to the music, augmented by Devienne’s imaginative ornamental writing and the not one but two extended cadenza sections for the soloist. The third movement is a rondo form with its repeated theme displaying a mischievous energy, interspersed by a carnival of magnificent musical colours and moods that run the gambit from idyllic to triumphant. If you’re looking for a uniquely exhilarating musical experience, Devienne’s Flute Concerto No. 7 is certain to deliver!


Written by Kieran Foss

A Little Knight Music

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) was one of the most distinguished musicians and composers of late-eighteenth century France. Born in 1745 to a French aristocratic father and his African slave mistress, Nanon, Saint-Georges’ mixed heritage was cause for both intrigue and prejudice among the French elite. One of the more repulsive anecdotes from his life involved his rejection as music director of the Paris Opéra at the behest of its four leading ladies on overtly bigoted grounds. Despite this and similar setbacks, Saint-Georges was able to establish himself at the heart of French musical life, first as a virtuoso violinist, and later as a conductor and composer.


Saint-Georges’ early life was focused not on music, but on the art of fencing. He studied with master or arms Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière until graduating at age 19, whereupon he was named a Gendarme de la Garde du Roi (Man of Arms of the King’s Guard) and earned the moniker ‘Chevalier’ (Knight). Following his 1766 sparring duel with famed Italian fencer, Giuseppe Faldoni, Faldoni named Saint-Georges the finest swordsmen in all Europe. With this in mind, it is amusing to consider the audience’s reaction when, in 1769, this renowned swordsman took to the stage as a violinist with Le Concert des Amateurs. 


Saint-Georges’ musical training is subject to some debate. François-Joseph Gossec and Antonio Lolli both composed pieces dedicated to Saint-Georges, suggesting that they may had been his musical mentors. There is also a claim that Saint-Georges studied with the famed violinist, Jean-Marie Leclair, but this has never been proven. This dearth of information means that Saint-Georges’ 1769 appearance is the first moment of his musical career to which we can point with any clarity. 


Saint-Georges’ early works span the spectrum of fashionable genres in pre-revolutionary France. He wrote numerous instrumental works, including Violin Concerti, Symphonie Concertantes, String Quartets, and Sonatas. However, opera would eventually become his true passion. Following the debut of his first Comédie-Italienne (a genre of French comic opera with Italian influences), entitled Ernestine, he focused almost entirely on stage works, leaving behind his earlier interest in instrumental music genres. 


While Saint-Georges was by no means naïve to the symphony genre (he famously commissioned and conducted Franz Joseph Haydn’s Paris Symphonies), he appears to have mostly avoided symphonic compositions, favouring the more French Symphonie Concertante genre. Symphony No. 2 was published in 1799 (the year of his death) alongside Symphony No. 1. These were the only symphonies he ever wrote, and Symphony No. 2 is actually a repurposing of the overture from his most successful Comédie-Italienne, L’Amant Anonyme.


Symphony No. 2 differs from modern symphony expectations as it contains only three movements in contrast to the now standard four. Nevertheless, the opening movement does start with the expected two themes of a sonata form. The first theme harkens back to the galante style of the early eighteenth-century, favouring a directness and simplicity that welcomes the audience into the piece. This contrasts with the second theme that mimics the empfindsamkeit style, which responded to the galante’s simplicity with a complex sensitivity. While these two themes are intriguing imitations of earlier classical styles, it is in the following development section that Saint-George shows off his artistic prowess. Here, he invokes the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) artistic movement that flourished in the late-eighteenth century, introducing a depth and anxiety that would later spur the music of composers like Ludwig van Beethoven to the heights of compositional stardom. 


The second movement appears to emulate an earlier baroque style, but also connects to the sensitivity of movement one’s second theme. The second movement, unlike the first, maintains the same emotional quality throughout – a standard procedure in baroque music. It’s quiet melancholy finally gives way to the exuberant opening of the third movement, which initially promises a quick and bombastic closing to the symphony. This expectation is dashed by the introduction of a second section, that consisting of two themes that follow an ABA structure. Only with the return of the movement’s opening music can the audience share in the true moment of triumph. Saint-Georges leaves us with an excited sense of homecoming, certain to leave everyone with a sense of utter satisfaction!


Written by Kieran Foss

Joseph Boulonge the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Audiences today don’t know enough Joseph Bolonge, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and we need to change that because he was an important figure in music history who’s music is making a major comeback.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris. Born in the French colony of Guadeloupe, he was the son of George Bologne de Saint-Georges, a wealthy married planter, and Anne dite Nanon, his wife’s African slave.

His father took him to France when he was young, and he was educated there, also becoming a champion fencer. During the French Revolution, the younger Saint-Georges served as a colonel of the Légion St.-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. He fought on the side of the Republic. Today the Chevalier de Saint-Georges is best remembered as the first known classical composer who was of African ancestry; he composed numerous string quartets and other instrumental music, and opera.

The Chevalier played a key role in the aristocratic life of Paris in late 1700s, with close ties to the Palace of Versailles. The Chevalier often found himself the guest at the private musicales salons of Marie Antoinette at Versailles…with Chevalier playing his violin sonatas, with the Queen accompanying on the forte-piano.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music was the toast of Paris and Versailles. During the 1780s, Saint-Georges’ star continued to get brighter and brighter. His output during this time was swift – operas, concertos, sonatas – but he also shaped the music that Paris was hearing. We have Saint-Georges’ to thank for the commissioning of Haydn’s Paris Symphonies, which the Chevalier conducted upon their premieres.

Beethoven 5

It had to be one of the most amazing concerts of all time: December 22, 1808. Beethoven had been given the free use of the Theater-an-der-Wien for a concert of his own. The event, lasting some five hours in an unheated theater, offered a marathon parade of new works to an audience that remained spellbound (though tested on a Herculean scale) for the evening of “new music.” The program featured premieres of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, followed by the aria Ah! Perfido, two movements from the Mass in C Major, the fourth piano concerto, Symphony No. 5, and the entire Choral Fantasy. An unrehearsed orchestra, a soprano trembling with stage fright and freezing temperatures could not dampen the wonder of the music.

Beethoven worked on several works simultaneously, and as it happened, all of these were at the starting gate. It was the fifth symphony that jolted the audience to attention with its shockingly wild drive and tension incorporated in unrelenting vehemence. Reviewers, however, gave relatively short shrift to No. 5. The poet Goethe said that “it is merely astounding, grandiose.” A year later, the romantic novelist E. T. A. Hoffman, in Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, hoisted the flag and gave his florid viewpoint: “Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing — a longing in which every pleasure that rose up amid jubilant tones sinks and succumbs. Only through this pain, which, while consuming but not destroying love, hope and joy, tries to burst our breasts with a full voiced general cry from all the passions, do we live on as captivated beholders of the spirits.”

The fifth symphony was completed in 1808, although sketches appear as early as 1800 and more frequently in the composer’s notebooks between 1804-1806. After completion, Beethoven wrote to his patron, Count Franz von Oppersdorff, “Your symphony is, at last, ready, but in case you do not want it, let me know … I am not well, and I am being treated for an injured finger. Things are going badly with me. The cost is 300 florins and the balance is due.”

1808 was a terrible time for Beethoven. Impending deafness frightened him to the core, the Emperor Napoleon was marching over his homeland, and his brother had married a wretched woman whom he called “Queen of the Night.” Money was short. Music alone made life bearable, and through music, he became a master of his destiny. That journey is reflected in the iconic fifth. And through this, Beethoven comprehensively speaks for and to us all.

The opening begins with a thunderclap: the famous four-note motto theme, three quick Gs and a long E flat, proclaimed fortissimo. Momentum generated by the repetition of the first three notes is dramatically halted in an extended fourth tone. The composer holds us breathless and then insistently repeats the three notes on a lower tone and again holds us tight on the fourth. After this unbelievable introduction, Beethoven unleashes a movement unlike any other in his time. From the opening kernel, he developed a symphonic masterpiece, demonstrating a new symphonic principal: the potential of a single gesture to generate an enormous piece. Rhythms are torrential, but the single focus on the motto insists upon that underlying idea. Sometimes the idea screams, sometimes whispers or pants in the depths of the orchestra, but it is unstoppable. A lyrical second theme introduced by French horn is beautiful but overwhelmed by the rage and insistence of the opening grip. A turbulent development continues the obsession with the opening motto, not uttered in tight integration. Within a traditional recapitulation, Beethoven stops the action with an expressive oboe cadenza, and then he moves us into a long coda, hammering the motto again and again into our soul. “This is one of the most powerfully integrated movements in all symphonic literature.” (Edward Downes)

His second movement, Andante con moto, spins a series of four variations on two main ideas. Violas and cellos first sing a richly declaimed song before clarinets, flute and bassoons chant a sturdier, more assertive idea. Although writing double variations on these two ideas, Beethoven cannot resist allowing rhythmic allusions to the opening cell to persist.

The third movement, Allegro, is a scherzo rather than a traditional minuet and trio. Ominously, hushed cellos and basses restlessly stir the first musical ideas before French horns emerge with a strong theme, again referencing the opening idea. Themes spar back and forth. A dramatic pianissimo section, underscored by muttering timpani, charges the atmosphere before an extended crescendo moves directly to the brilliant finale.

The fourth movement ratchets up instrumental color by the addition of piccolo, contrabassoon and three trombones. (This was the first time trombones appeared in a symphony orchestra.) A panoply of themes occupies the enlarged canvas and palette. Trombones are invoked to lead the extroverted march-like theme, which sets the stage for the greater dimensions. While the contrabassoon adds depth, the piccolo provides glitter. Within the exuberant mood, Beethoven leads us to his triumphant coda, now stressing the light of C Major for 54 measures. Michael Steinberg has written, “This victory symphony was a new kind of symphony, and Beethoven’s invention here of a path from strife to triumph became a model for symphonic writing to the present day.”

The fifth spoke a musical language no one had heard before. Paul Bekker noted, “In Beethoven, a composer arose who completely understood the possibilities of the art. He knew the secret forces of his spiritual kingdom…. He was artist enough to enforce his will.” The musical mission lay far beyond entertainment. We are also provided a window into what was yet to come from the Beethoven sound, as well as his conviction that music was a critical and elevating force for life. “Beethoven broke all the rules and turned out pieces of breathtaking rightness. He had the real goods, the stuff from Heaven, the power to make you feel at the finish: Something is right with the world.” (Leonard Bernstein)


For a chance to look at musical ideas and development of the 5th, check out:

Beethoven 5
Beethoven Everywhere

Jader Baum Spricht by Iman Habibi

Our performance with Maestro Nicolas Ellis includes the Canadian premiere of Iman Habibi’s work Jader Baum Spricht. The piece was recently performed at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nezet-Seguin.

The Canadian-Iranian composer had this to say of this incredible new piece:

“Commissioned in celebration of the 250thanniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Jeder Baum spricht is an unsettling rhapsodic reflection on the climate catastrophe, and is written in dialogue with Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies. The piece shifts focus rapidly, and attempts to achieve its goal time and time again through different means, only to be faced with similar obstacles. Like much of Beethoven’s music, this piece accompanies an unspecific narrative and imagery, and ends with a sense of resolve, one that I hope can drive our collective will towards immediate impactful change.

Beethoven perceived nature as an image of the divine, if not divinity itself. Jeder Baum spricht durch dich (every tree speaks through you) is a phrase I encountered in his writings, leading me to wonder how Beethoven, clearly an activist himself, would have responded to today’s environmental crisis.

Given that both the 5th and 6th symphonies were likely, at least in some capacity, inspired by nature, I am hoping that Jeder Baum spricht can allow us to listen to these monumental works with a renewed perspective: that is, in light of the climate crisis we live in, and the havoc we continue to wreak on the nature that inspired these classic masterpieces.”

~Iman Habibi

Jerry Hu and the Shurniak Concerto Competition

The SSO has long partnered with the Saskatchewan Music Festival Association and the Regina Symphony Orchestra on a provincial competition that see young artists strive to win a chance to perform with the province’s two orchestras.

Jerry Hu, who joins the SSO for Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto, was the 2021 winner of the Shurniak Concerto Competition – and his performance with his hometown orchestra marks his orchestral debut!

The competition has been supported by William (Bill) Shurniak since 2013 – and while Jerry is the most recent winner, previous winners have included artists such as the SSO’s very own Oxana Ossiptshouk, pianists Thomas Yu, Yuli Chen, Samuel Deason, and Godwin Friesen, violinists William Boan, Raymond Ko, and Samuel Milner, and saxophonist Gerard Weber.

In February 2022 the SSO is excited to be joined by the 2019 Shurniak Concerto Competition winner Jonathan Craig Penner – Penner was originally to make his SSO debut in spring of 2021…but we’re thrilled to have him joining us to perform Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

The Saskatchewan Music Festival Association is one of the oldest organizations of its kind in Canada. It’s festivals, sprinkled across the province, have provided stepping stone performance opportunities and scholarships to countless young musicians in Saskatchewan. Some of those musicians have gone on to be internationally acclaimed concert artists and all the others have gone on to be remarkable members of their communities.

Experiencing the Music Together & Safely

We have an incredible track record here at the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. There has not been a single Covid-19 related incident at the SSO since the start of the pandemic. We are also one of the only orchestras who were able to perform all of our planned concerts in the last year. (Minus the one canceled due to a snowstorm!) That is no accident. It is thanks to careful planning and precautions agreed to by all of our people that we have been able to continue our artistry and livelihood safely.

Now that we have an audience in the room it’s more important to us than ever that we keep our events covid free. Since Opening Night we’ve required that everyone, and we mean everyone, interacting with your orchestra is fully vaccinated. All our musicians, guest artists, staff, and volunteers have proven their vaccination status. Before your ticket is scanned there is a wonderful volunteer checking your vaccine status. Everyone in the room is wearing masks and we’ve encouraged you to spread out in our concert spaces to your comfort level.

As much as possible we have eliminated intermissions from our concerts to minimize mingling so most shows run just over an hour. All of our venues have great air circulation and we improve that on stage with fans as several studies have shown increased air circulation is important to stop the potential spread of the virus. These are just some of the steps we take every time we are gathered in a performance space to create a safe and Covid-19 free environment.

Not every concert is able to be live-streamed this season for various reasons, but we are planning to have our audience present for every single performance. Having you in the room with us is a magical experience. The energy improves performances and there’s nothing quite like the thunderous applause we’ve been fortunate to receive after our first few events. It really is quite something to be in the room as the music happens.

Keeping you safe, keeping all of us safe, is the only way we can continue. We mainly rely on ticket sales and donations to keep this organization going and in return, we offer innovative and moving performances, meaningful connections, and countless unforgettable moments.

We laugh, we cry, we experience the music together. Most of all we continue to keep everyone safe so we can make it to 100 years of the SSO, and many years beyond that, all the while enjoying the incredible performances along the way.

[Uncertain] Four Seasons

by Damon Gameau, January 2021

When audiences first heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in the early 18th century, it was a sensation. It gave audiences something they’d never experienced before. It communicated more than music. It painted a scene. It told a story. It was an attempted translation of the language of nature.

But the natural world that Vivaldi drew his inspiration from was about to dramatically change. The Industrial Revolution was still 150 years away but already enclosures were taking place across Europe. Forests, rivers and rich pastures were being fenced off and privatized, orchards and crops that allowed subsistence lifestyles were being torched to force people into labour, and colonisation in all its forms was plundering distant lands to build the new decadence at home.

Europe was also in the midst of a scientific revolution. And amongst the exciting discoveries, a new ontology was being ushered in and solidified. Humans were increasingly seeing themselves as separate and superior to nature and nature itself was being stripped of any remaining soul or sentience that the animist cultures had long espoused. This view suited both the Church and the emerging capitalists at the time.. because without meaning or value, nature was a lot easier to commodify.

“We must hound nature and put her in constraints” said Francis Bacon, the ‘father of modern science’. “We must enter and penetrate her every hole and corner.” Bacon’s aim was to transform nature from nurturing mother to what he called ‘a common harlot’.

As we know too well, this mindset was soon to arrive on our own shores decimating a 60,000 year ontology of custodianship and reverence for the land.

Vivaldi was creatively spoilt with the abundance of nature that surrounded him. Since his writing our pursuit of endless growth and expansion has destroyed half the planet’s rainforests, 68% of all animal life and has seen a 40% increase of carbon and a 150% increase of methane in our atmosphere, rising our global temperature by 1.3 degrees.

But Vivaldi’s work contains a stunning lesson for our predicaments today. He articulates the HUMAN experience of the four seasons. The farmer who shakes his fists at the heavens as a wild storm ravishes his crops.

In recent decades, the reality of our ecological threats has been approached largely through a rational, scientific lens. An endless barrage of graphs, data and lifeless statistics have been used as frontline soldiers in the climate wars. But our species has evolved to tell stories, to be stirred into action by music, by art and by the liminal. Our scientists desperately need the help of artists because art disseminate the complexity, the lingo, the jargon and translates it into a language of the soul. A language that is disappearing as quickly as our forests and precious animals.

What you can expect to hear is a Four Seasons written for a new ecological possibility. It’s a collaboration between musicians, computer developers and climate scientists, to take the themes and ideas from Vivaldi’s original score, and recompose them as if he’d written them in the year 2050.

In this new variation, our now warmer air holds more moisture increasing the intensity of our storms, our degraded lands and denuded forests have stolen the dwellings of our cohabitors and rising seas have altered the lifestyles and festivities of all communities.

The Uncertain Four Seasons project has rescored Vivaldi’s work for every city in the world. Every variation is different. Each one jarringly altered from the harmony of Vivaldi’s original. Orchestras everywhere are being encouraged to perform their version in the lead up to the next pivotal meeting of nations to discuss climate change in November of this year.

But as you listen, know that all is not lost. Let the music help you to ponder or mourn what has gone but also allow it to free up the space required to join the billions of people who are not accepting our current trajectory and are actively pursuing the restoration of so many of our interconnected systems.

These are the humans who are rewilding landscapes, returning microbial life to the soils, deacidifying our oceans, re-introducing native species and embracing indigenous wisdom.

Climate Change and all of our ecological dilemmas are not scientific problems, they are human problems. It’s easy to forget that we humans are a keystone species and keystone species are capable of regenerating and defining entire ecosystems. If you listen carefully, there is a new song emerging. A new concerto is being written by a growing community that believes we can once again inhabit a world that Vivaldi so beautifully articulated 300 years ago.

But we all have a note to play.