THERE was a full moon last Thursday night. Soft focused, overcast, ethereal.

And then something wonderful happened.

The first concert of the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra (TBSO) Northern Lights filled the Italian Culture Centre with bright sounds and shining, shivering musical colours.

Conductor Paul Haas began the program with another of his own arrangements of Monteverdi - he had previously opened the TBSO Masterworks Concert series with a similar excerpt. Haas’s Monteverdi transformations are splendid. This serene explorations of meditative, heart - opening music. In this particular piece, if you closed your eyes, and I did, you could imagine you were seeing the Northern Lights shimmering above and around us.

All of the other orchestral works in this evening’s program displayed an eclectic, mostly exuberant range of short classical compositions. They ranged from a crisp, clickety, fun tango by Geraldo Matos Rodriguez, to an even faster paced trio of folk dances by Bela Bartok, to the splendid overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

There were some slower, somber pieces as well. What held this all together was Maestro Haas’ appreciation for each individual work, his careful attention to details and the visual energy he brought to guiding the musicians through this repertoire. The TBSO was up to their usual high standards, with superior ensemble playing and featured contributions from Penelope Clarke (flute), Colleen Kennedy (oboe), and Mathilde Bernard (viola).

The featured guests were The Martin Blanchet Quintet, giving us their Café Paris renditions of wonderful French music you might hear on the boulevard or at the movies.

The Quintet is led by Martin Blanchet, principal bass for the TBSO, who, in this configuration, cuts free and easy with his bass and passionate vocals. Katie Stevens (violin) soars and whines and soothes these tunes. Kyle Milton Shushack (guitar), threads a basic musical core and when appropriate, kicks into some steely, clicking licks that are amazing. Dino Pepe, (various saxophones) blends and weaves and thrills with featured solos that inevitably push a specific song higher. Jean-Francois Breton (percussion and vocals) is the groups interior metronome, but so much more. His tight snare drumming is enhanced by brushing, shivering cymbals, all the while contributing a rhythmic, under laying heart beat. Individually, each of these are superb musical artists. Together they are a smashing, dancey, emotional ensemble. Their music ranged from Jacques Brel to Edith Piaf. For me, their most winning piece has become their signature rendition of the bar music from the Mos Esley Cantina in the original Star Wars. Who would have thought alien musicians in an outer space bar were French? No one performs this better.

All of them - all of the performers in this program, both the symphony musicians, Maestro Haas and the featured Quintet - are Northern Lights. The concert repeated on Friday.

Michael Sobota reviews the symphony orchestra for The Chronicle-Journal.

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