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Review: La Nef a hit with Cowichan symphony audience despite sound issues

La Nef is a group from Montreal who perform sea shanties
La Nef, who sang sea shanties with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra on March 22 in Duncan, were enthusiastically applauded. (Submitted photo)

By Mike Mills

Friday, March 22 was the last concert of the 2023/24 season and featured an experimental performance with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, a 14 man choir and the guest artists La Nef.

La Nef is a group from Montreal who perform sea shanties, those rhythmic songs designed to encourage sailors in the old days of sail to pull harder and together on anchor lines and halyards. Not the normal kind of music for a symphony concert!

The orchestra, slightly smaller than usual, was conducted by Maestro Giuseppe Pietraroia, the associate conductor of the VSO, who has in the past brought many good pops concerts to the Cowichan Valley. The choir was made up from members of the Pacific Opera Chorus, the Victoria Choral Society and members of the Arion Male Voice Choir. The La Nef folk ensemble was made up of seven performers: three very powerful singers and four instrumentalists led Seán Dagher. Seán played the cittern and sang but, more importantly he had arranged all the La Nef pieces for the performance.

The concert opened with an orchestral piece, ‘Sea Songs’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a good start for a concert of sea shanties. It featured strong playing on flute and piccolo by the principal flute, Arin Sarkissian. This was fitting as both instruments are associated with the sea because they are so portable.

Then we were treated to three traditional shanties by La Nef and the choir. Unfortunately the arrangement on the stage was problematic, as was the work by the sound technicians. The choir was behind the orchestra and La Nef in front. I could see that the choir was singing but could not hear them at all. Even La Nef in front was drowned by the volume of the orchestra despite the three singers having very strong voices and singing into microphones. I was surprised to see that the orchestra had microphones as well! I am sure this contributed to the problem of sound balancing.

This was followed by the theme tune from Pirates of the Caribbean played by the orchestra without La Nef who had left the stage.

La Nef returned and performed two well-known sea shanties, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘Randy Dandy’, but again, they were very difficult to hear over the orchestra.

The second half of the concert opened with an orchestral suite from the 1992 movie Far and Away. Although not specifically a sea song the story did feature two Irish people (played by Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) sailing to the new world to escape from poverty in Ireland in the 1890s. As always, with John Williams, the score was well crafted to feature most sections of the orchestra but in this case the percussionist and the tuba stood out for me.

The rest of the concert consisted of five sea shanties one of which, ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ was sung by Kate, the only woman in La Nef. This half of the concert was much better because the sound technician had turned down the volume which helped the overall balance. The orchestra no longer completely drowned out the singers in the choir behind the orchestra, and La Nef could be better understood. However the orchestra was still too loud for Kate to be heard, even though she was signalling to the Maestro to lower the orchestra’s volume. Another shanty was, ‘Padstow Farewell’ and Seán Dagher introduced one of the choristers that came from a village in Cornwell only five miles from Padstow, home of many sea shanties.

Then the orchestra played ‘The Irish Washerwoman’ arranged by Leroy Anderson, which was followed by probably the best known sea shanty ‘Leave Her Johnny’. This windlass sea shanty is traditionally sung at the end of a voyage as the last lines are hauled in and the crew disembark. It dates back to the 1860s and has become a ubiquitous folksong the world over. This was the only song that I could hear the audience singing along to.

The loud and enthusiastic applause from the audience brought back La Nef for an encore, when they sang ‘The Hangman’ or as it is sometimes known, ‘Hangin’ Johnny’. Seán Dagher told us that this was the world premiere of La Nef singing with a full orchestra. Judging from the applause, this collaboration was well received, the audience clearly judging it a successful evening apart from the sound issues, which I am sure will be resolved when the concert is played in Victoria.

As this was the last concert of the season it is worth looking forward to the 2024/25 season which will bring us four great performances:

Oct. 5 Jon Kimura Parker: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.

Dec. 6 the Canadian Brass: Christmas Concert

Jan. 19 Victoria Baroque at Brentwood College

April 12 Angela Hewitt plays Mozart

When the Canadian Brass was here 30 years ago it was a sell-out. Our season tickets will be available for sale before single ticket sales will be released to the public. So subscribe to our season and guarantee yourself a good seat for the Canadian Brass at a discount!

Mike Mills is a Cowichan Symphony Society board member.