(Ernest) John Robertson (21 October, 1943) is a New Zealand composer and long time resident of Canada who now lives in Kingston, Ontario. He has written works in most genres including opera. Robertson was born into a non-musical family but had always been fascinated by ‘classical’ music and was lucky enough to attend a secondary school (Mana College, Porirua, New Zealand) where music was available as a full subject and acquired a grounding in the subject. Upon leaving school he went into the insurance business. After immigrating to Canada in 1967 he stayed in the insurance business while continuing to compose. In the mid-70’s he took a three year course of private study with Dr. Sam Dolin at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto which included counterpoint instruction. In 1987 his entry in a Composers’ Contest in Nepean (a suburb of Ottawa) provided him with his first major public performance. Using this as a base he soon began to receive other performances including three with the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop held in the late 80’s and early 90’s, one of which was chosen to be included in their gala concert.
In 2014 the Rusé Philharmonic Orchestra, Bulgaria, gave two concerts of his works, recording them as well, and subsequently asked him to write an opera for them. “Orpheus – a masque” was premiered in June 2015, revived in February 2016 and June 2017, and was chosen as a test piece for the 2017 Blue Danube Opera Conductors Competition. His compositions have been heard in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides many shorter pieces his portfolio includes 3 symphonies. His first album, Vallarta Suite was released in August 2017 on the Navona Records; it includes his 2nd symphony.
In 1987 Robertson had his first major piece Variations Op. 14 performed as the result of entering a composers’ competition, which is included in this album. The following year he boldly entered a symphony to the composer’s competition, calling for a larger orchestra then that being provided, and not preparing players’ parts. The piece was not accepted! It lay unperformed until 2014 when it was heard in Rusé, Bulgaria. The somewhat somber work is in three movements with cadenzas linking these sections (clarinet I– II, violin II – III). A slow introduction immediately gives us both the motto theme (lower strings) and a series of sharp chords that will appear greatly transformed at the end of the work. The “Allegro” that follows is almost entirely fugal with the motto theme appearing from time to time; after the climax of the movement the clarinet leads us into the slow movement which treats the motto theme fully. Another lyrical theme appears on the oboe and is then developed to a climax at which point the motto theme reappears quietly on solo strings. The violin cadenza takes us into the finale, although it first seems as if it is a scherzo, however a lyrical section and development make us realize this is the final movement. The coda is slow, even grim, with the chords from the first movement now spread throughout the string section, but by the end the trumpets gently show us there is hope and give us a blessing in a clear C major.
In 2010 the London Gay Symphony Orchestra (UK) issued a call for scores and Robertson submitted his Suite for Orchestra Op. 46. The work was accepted and the performance took place in July 2010 at the Shaw Theatre in London. Various movements had been played before but this was the premiere of the complete work. The first part is an introductory “Fanfare” mainly for the brass section, the second a slightly melancholy “Waltz” with a memorable main tune. The “Elegy” that follows starts with the string section highlighted, the winds and brass being added as the movement moves to a stirring climax. The final March is a fully developed symphonic specimen of that genre with a lyrical second theme. Brass are prominent, but everyone gets to join in the fun.
As mentioned, the Variations Op. 14 were a result of an entry in the Nepean Symphony’s call for scores in 1986 and subsequently revised slightly. The theme is a graceful melody in A major and the variations that follow form themselves into a kind of symphony: the first 3 retain the tempo of the theme (the clarinet getting a workout in Variation I!), number IV then forming the slow section. The theme is presented by the wind with a background of high strings and then the strings contribute a soaring countermelody while the wind continue to play the theme. In place of a scherzo we now have a “Tango,” the strings’ seductive gliding interrupted by a middle section that is much more aggressive. Then the wind join the strings, adding counterpoints to their dance. A pert “Waltz” now follows leading to the Finale where we hear snippets of earlier variations before the theme seizes centre stage in the trumpets. The composer saw an audience member writing notes characterizing this as a “Hollywood” ending.
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