Ballad of Alberta: Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony prepare for Moving Mahler

Ballad of Alberta: Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony prepare for Moving Mahler

By Micha Oostenbrink and Simon MacLeod

In the summer of 1980, CBC produced Tones of Two Cities — a special project that saw the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra travel to Edmonton to rehearse and record with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. Both orchestras produced the audio for a TV special commemorating the province of Alberta’s 75th birthday. Immediately after, both orchestras were transported to Jasper, where the Orchestras played outdoors for broadcast cameras, synching video with the recorded sound.

Both orchestras have also previously collaborated by performing Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (The Symphony of a Thousand) at each other's concert hall openings. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was in Calgary for the opening of Jack Singer Concert Hall in 1985, led by Calgary Phil Conductor Laureate Mario Bernardi, and the Calgary Phil returned the favour during Winspearation — the 10-day festival which opened the Winspear Centre in 1997, led by ESO Music Director Grzegorz Novak — the last time the two orchestras performed on stage together.

In March 2020, 32 musicians from both orchestras came together from a distance to virtually record a video performance of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod Variation IX from the Enigma Variations — a joint effort to wish health and care to the people of Alberta, and around the world.

Now, after more than 25 years, the province’s two largest orchestras will unite to perform together on stage at Alberta In Harmony: Moving Mahler, a thrilling program featuring Gustav Mahler’s epic Symphony No. 3, led by Calgary Phil Music Director Rune Bergmann with the magnificent voices of mezzo-soprano Susan Platts, the Calgary Philharmonic Chorus, and Calgary Girls Choir. The orchestras will perform in Calgary at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Friday 10 November, as well as the following evening at the Winspear Centre in Edmonton.

“Annemarie Petrov, who runs the Winspear Centre and Edmonton Symphony, has been a mentor, friend, and inspiration since I arrived in Canada nine years ago,” says Marc Stevens, President + CEO of the Calgary Phil. “When I came to Calgary two years ago, we were determined to find a collaboration for our brilliant musicians, who are so excited to be working together again after such a long time.”

“It’s been wonderful to work with Marc and the Calgary Phil on this collaboration, and we’re thrilled to see it come to life,” says Annemarie Petrov, President and CEO of the Winspear Centre and ESO. “Much to my surprise, our orchestra has never performed Mahler's Third. It is a work of music for the ages and one of the most ambitious symphonies ever written. When you listen to it, you'll hear Mahler's influence on Hollywood film composers like John Williams. The last movement alone is one of the most exquisite in symphonic music — you’ll feel that you are floating.”

With two orchestras performing on stage together, it becomes a little more crowded than the musicians are used to. In preparation for these two concerts, the production teams at each hall need to work with extra diligence to ensure everything runs smoothly behind the scenes. Mike Patton, Head of Stage Management at the Winspear Centre and Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, shares there can be some challenges with having double the number of musicians he normally works with. “The production team has very detailed maps as to where everyone will sit. We also needed to think about details like a new emergency plan to accommodate for the large number of performers on stage.”

The rehearsals are just as important as the performances, for both the stage management teams and the musicians. This collaboration gives the opportunity for colleagues to connect (or in some cases, reconnect) and sit alongside each other while they perform one of orchestral music’s greatest symphonies.

While the two orchestras have experienced playing Mahler together in the past, the Third Symphony will be new territory for the tandem. With the number of musicians required to perform Symphony No. 3, a collaboration between orchestras is the perfect way to present such a challenging and monumental work. “This symphony requires large forces — eight French horns, a children’s chorus, adult chorus, and a soloist — the magnificent Canadian mezzo soprano Susan Platts,” says Annemarie. “All this to say, opportunities like this are rare and very special, and a greater occasion to bring our community and our province together.”

With the Calgary Phil and ESO considered medium-sized orchestras (around 60 permanent members, compared to 100+ musician orchestras like the Berlin Philharmonic), Marc Stevens says it works well for both orchestras to join forces for large works like Mahler's Third Symphony.

“We’re far enough away from each other that we don’t compete for audiences, yet close enough for a partnership like this to work beautifully,” says Marc. “We see this as an opportunity to bring our cities closer, to celebrate the ties that bind us, and for our musicians to enjoy making incredible music together.”

Enjoy an engaging conversation, as CJSR Host and ESO violinist Joanna Ciapka-Sangster sits down with special guests from the ESO and Calgary Phil to explore the magic behind Moving Mahler, offering insights and captivating anecdotes about these special concerts.