Symphony Under the Sky: Cannons in the park

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Like rock ‘n’ roll, classical music is measured by weight: Heavy or light.

Unlike rock ‘n’ roll, almost all classical musicians aspire to perform the heaviest music they can get their hands on and still get paid for it. That’s what all that training and sacrifice was for – to play the heavyweights. Mainstream classical audiences, however, seem to prefer lighter classics, which means that if an average city symphony orchestra performed nothing but the heaviest classical music, its musicians would soon be out of work and forced to play light rock, or heavy metal, depending.

OK, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but the pull between heavy and light goes on all the time in the classical music world. Symphony Under the Sky at Hawrelak Park this weekend should give the public opportunity to experience both. Think of it as an entire Edmonton Symphony Orchestra season boiled down to four days.

“There’s nothing in any of the concerts that we don’t do at the Winspear Centre in the regular season,” says ESO spokesman D.T. Baker. “We do classics, we do pops, we do everything. We’re trying to show how diverse the orchestra is.”

One is never going to please everybody all the time, he adds, but one tries. Why? Because that’s what you do when you’re the community symphony orchestra, Baker says, “you serve the community.”

Let’s take a closer look at the bill o’ fare at this year’s festival. Mr. Baker has helpfully rated each concert according to weight: 1 being the heaviest – Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” say – and 10 being the lightest, like the Boston Pops playing Lady Gaga. Not sure why he picked 1 for heavy and 10 for light. Must be a classical thing.

Friday, Aug. 31, 7 p.m.: Mozart, Rossini & Tchaikovsky – As heavy as it gets at this festival, “About a 3,” Baker says, though the first piece will be from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” which many should recognize as the music to which Bugs Bunny cut Elmer Fudd’s hair. “There isn’t a single piece on the program that a fan of the orchestra won’t know extremely well,” Baker says.

Saturday, Sept 1, 2 p.m.: Orchestral Showcase – Shorter pieces, 10-12 works, showcasing individual members of the orchestra, “very much like a lighter classics show, 5 out of 10.”

Saturday, Sept 1, 7 p.m.: The Hollywood Sound – Just like it says, music from the movies, “always our biggest seller,” says Baker. “People love music from the movies, there is no end of great movie soundtracks … 6 out of 10.”

Sunday, Sept 2, 2 p.m.: Family Matinee: We Love Music! – Especially for kids, intimate and interactive, behind the scenes look at elements of the ESO, “to let the musicians show their human side, and the whole thing is done in an hour … 6 or 7 out of 10.”

Sunday, Sept 2, 7 p.m.: Louise Pitre’s Broadway Showstoppers – Baker gives this show an 8 out of 10, the highest, er, lightest rating of the concerts this weekend. Pitre happens to be a Tony-nominated Broadway star, and will prove why with a selection of everything from My Fair Lady to Mamma Mia! Yes, the ESO plays ABBA.

Monday, Sept 3, 2 p.m.: Boléro: Great Symphonic Dances – Solid 6 out of 10. Funny story: Back in the day when Baker was doing ads for the ESO, he came up with a slogan to advertise “The Bolero,” the Maurice Ravel piece made famous by the 1979 film “10,” starring Bo Derek: “Spend 17 minutes in 16 bars,” which is funny if you know that the piece lasts 17 minutes and cycles through the same 16-bar pattern over and over again.

“I thought it was so clever,” Baker says, “But it wasn’t selling, so I changed it to ‘The Bolero’ and we sold out. I learned everything about marketing right there.”

This concert will also feature one of the only tap dancing concertos ever written, along with the traditional closer, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” accompanied by the Royal Canadian Artillery, under direction of the ESO’s percussionist, who gets to take a break from the kettle drums and cue the cannons. Heavy enough for you?