“You hear the saying ‘if you love something, let it go,’ and this is what we’re doing in the hopes it can grow. With other people coming in and taking over the reins, it can happen.” ~ Victor Cheng
General ($20) / Student, Child ($15) at BeMused Network
Illumination is the newest Sneak Peek Orchestra concert, taking place at 4pm on June 1st at the St. Gabriel Passionist Parish. The group’s final show with co-founder, co-artistic director, and composer Kevin Lau, this concert will highlight the orchestra’s accomplishments and mission, including a work by the orchestra’s youngest ever member – and Kevin’s student – 13-year-old Ian Chan.
The origins of SPO lie in a violin concerto Kevin was commissioned to write in 2007 for a young, Boston-based violinist who was putting together an orchestra. But the commission fell through when the violinist was unable to put together the group, and the premiere never took place.
“I remember feeling a little bit frustrated at the time, because when you have a big piece that’s about to be played and it doesn’t come together, it can sting a little bit.” says Kevin.
The situation spurred a conversation between Kevin and Victor Cheng, a fellow U of T Master’s student with a related challenge: Victor had experience conducting choral groups, but wanted to transition into orchestral conducting – something for which few opportunities exist outside of full-scale professional orchestras.
“We thought, would it be possible to bring together a group of people who are university level, aren’t necessarily professional, but are aiming to be professionals, get together an orchestra, and actually try to put this on, and also try to program some other repertoire Victor would be interested in conducting,” says Kevin.
Because of the nature of the concerto the two knew they had to go big from the start – so they gathered some 50 musicians for the group’s debut performance.
“When we thought of it as being orchestral, we knew from the start it’d have to be a fairly large group. Also, for that first concert, we were programming things like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, which is a very large, standard piece for the orchestral repertoire, and you really can’t do a piece like that with too few instruments,” explains Kevin.
The first concert was meant to be a one-off with a possibility for more if things went well. They certainly did – Victor says the name “Trifecta,” a triple victory, was very appropriate.
“It was my debut as a conductor, it was the debut for Alexa Wilks, the violinist who was performing the concerto, and it was the debut of the orchestra,” he says.
Illumination can be seen as a nostalgic return to those debuts, says Victor. The concert features Kevin’s composition of the same name, commissioned by pianist Mary Kenedi. Due to a family emergency, Kenedi had to cancel, leaving the concerto without a soloist.
“It was a bit hair-raising at first, because all of this happened very recently. Victor basically learned this concerto in five days, which you’re really not supposed to do. You would normally have weeks and even months to get it under your fingers,” Kevin says.
“But what’s really cool is that due to this situation, we ended up collaborating. Now I’m conducting the piece, and I don’t usually conduct. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone, and Victor is doing something he’s never done before, which is play piano with the orchestra. So now that we’ve gotten to grips with the emergency, we’re actually really excited about it.”
The second commission to be performed is Elizabeth Raum’s violin concerto, with her daughter, accomplished soloist and teacher Erika Raum as the soloist.
“Elizabeth was hoping to have her violin concerto performed, and we jumped on the opportunity to work with Erika on this, because it’s a great appeal for the orchestra to work with a soloist of Erika’s calibre. I think we started with that piece and built the concert around it,” Kevin says.
To the backbone of the two commissions the program adds William Rowson’s Aria. Rowson, who has guest conducted the Orchestra before, is also an excellent composer, says Kevin.
“The orchestra loves him; he’s a really great leader and also a very good composer. I think we wanted to explore some of his own music with the Aria.”
The Ian Chan piece, Valse D’un Enfant, is a late addition to the program. “We’ve been literally printing off parts just last week. It’s really quite fresh off the page,” says Kevin.
“When I saw that he could professionally put together an orchestral piece of music, we had a talk and I said, I think you should aim to have it finished so we could perform it. And that’s a huge bulk of the learning experience for a composer, to hear your own piece being performed. You can talk a lot about theory in a lesson, when it comes down to actually knowing what you’re doing, hearing what it sounds like is a completely invaluable experience.”
Closing the performance is Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture – an unusual position for what is normally an opening piece intended to set the mood for a concert.
Victor, who is staying on until a new artistic director can be found, explains, “We thought, nothing really ends with a big bang. All of these pieces are either very heavy and dark and emotional, or they’re light and fluffy. They don’t have a large, fanfare-type ending. And this concert is very special for us, and I think going out with a bang is something we definitely need to do, seeing how it’s Kevin’s – and possibly mine – last concert. So we thought, what better way to end it than Candide? We’re closing with it only for the reason that it’s a very celebratory, triumphant piece and it’s going to really excite the crowd.”
Another way to look at the choice to end on an overture is that Candide does mark a beginning for Sneak Peek. While the founding director duo is stepping aside, Victor and Kevin say they’re excited to see where new leadership will take the group.
And I guess the underlying implication there is that this is not the end, there’s more to come.
“You hear the saying ‘if you love something, let it go,’ and this is exactly what we’re doing right now, in the hopes it can grow,” says Victor.
“I think with other people coming in and taking over the reins, it can happen. I think the message for the audience to take away is to stay tuned to see what we’re capable of.”
To witness the end of one successful stage in Sneak Peek Orchestra’s journey and – hopefully – the beginning of another, come to the June 1st concert at 4pm, at the St. Gabriel Passionist Parish. Advance tickets ($20/$15) are available from BeMused Network.