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Stravinsky’s The Firebird and the Heinz Unger Award

By Ramiro Bustamante Torres, December 2 2022

Fairy tales do come true on stage and on November 26, stories and dreams were made real for the audience and associate conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO), Karl Hirzer. Before the night’s programming began, a CPO supporter, Mary Rozsa de Coquet, had come on stage to announce Hirzer as the recipient of the 2022 Heinz Unger award for Canada’s most promising emerging conductor. This recognition is awarded by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) with an $8,000 prize biennially to Canadian emerging conductors.

“Karl has a unique and compelling vision to make classical music relevant to new audiences. He is doing outstanding work with contemporary music, and he has a very engaging conducting style. He has clear potential for an excellent career,” said a statement from the OAC read out by Rozsa de Coquet explaining why they chose Hirzer to join the list of laureates. 

He has advocated for more contemporary pieces in the CPO’s programs since he started in 2016, as evidenced by the night’s programming including composers Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, Manuel de Falla and Erik Satie. Hirzer was also named one of Avenue Calgary’s Top 40 Under 40 earlier this year, recognizing his efforts to increase the younger generation’s education about classical music such as the An Orchestra Adventure

For the night’s performance, it started with Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat Suite) and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (The Tomb of Couperin), the first work accompanied by students from the Alberta Ballet School on stage. The performance for the first suite was well executed, a shorter form of the complete ballet composed by the Falla himself. The young dancers rushed on stage with appropriate outfits for the ballet and demonstrated their skills to the audience. Ravel’s piece served as a love letter to the French Baroque harpsichord style, hence Couperin’s name in the title. However, the work is not solely dedicated to Couperin but to two of his friends who had died during the First World War. The piece is light-hearted and still strong with the neoclassical composition styles of the early 20th century which the audience was treated to.

For the second half of the night, Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite were performed alongside the students from the Alberta Ballet School. The dancers returned for Satie’s gnossiennes and the concert hall had taken a certain blue and red shades as the performance went. This work did not have an original choreography but was added by Edmund Stripe, choreographer of the Alberta Ballet School. The piano solo was performed by Rolf Bertsch and the ballet students had weaved across the stage with enigmatic movements that had even surprised Hirzer when he first saw them. 

The final and main performance of the night went amazingly, as Hirzer had hoped and mentioned earlier in the week it was well received by students who watched it as part of the education programs offered by the CPO. The Firebird Suite is also a shortened form of Stravinsky’s ballet. However, the main elements were present for the audience to enjoy both the talents of the musicians and the dancers. This ballet was the breakthrough ballet from Stravinsky that launched his career and settled the Ballets Russes in Paris at the start of the 1900s. This piece is based on two Russian folk stories and has heavy influence from Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Starting with the orchestra, the exaltation of the exoticism themes that follow the titular firebird was impressive; if there were no performers on stage, I believe the audience would be able to imagine a magical being had joined the story based solely on the music. But there were performers and the students had shown their impressive skill set as this ballet has some demanding moves. The students had shown resilience and strength as their performance didn’t waver after an entire night of only a few performing most of the night. 

Those who were able to attend this night of ballet were treated to seeing the music come alive as new talents are growing, like the Alberta Ballet School students, and succeeding, like Hirzer. To find out more about the CPO’s upcoming shows for their 2022–2023 season, visit their website here.

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