Friday, 31 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 11: Unaccountable

On Thursday night the program was titled "Seasons of Beethoven".  It included just two works, one fairly early and one very late.  You could easily convince yourself that they were composed by two different people.

The Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 5, Op. 24, the so-called "Spring" Sonata, was presented first by violinist Moshe Hammer and pianist Glen Montgomery.  Although predominantly in a style which can easily be related to Haydn and Mozart, this sonata does contain a few quirky features -- such as the brief, almost epigrammatic scherzo and trio -- which foreshadow the mature Beethoven to come.  It's a lovely piece, the tone of the music amply justifying the popular name, and these artists played it with a light, clear scale of tone that suited the work perfectly.  Montgomery did a great job of keeping the rapidly repeated chords of the finale lightweight, unlike some pianists who begin playing here as if they were in a piano concerto!

I'm devoting the bulk of this article to the String Quartet in C Sharp Minor, Op. 131.  As soon as you mention "the 131" to many music lovers, they get a distinct look of awe in their faces.  This is one of those rare works of art which come along every century or so, whether in music, literature, theatre, painting or sculpture, which appear to have sprung out of nowhere.  The mere existence of these earth-shaking artistic creations is totally unaccountable.  Even their creators may have trouble explaining where these works came from! 

Beethoven was famous for his ability to ignore the rules of classical structure and form which he inherited.  One story, perhaps apocryphal, relates that an "expert" took Beethoven to task for using consecutive fifths in a work, a procedure not allowed in classical harmonic practice.  Beethoven's angry response was, "I allow them!"  Well, breaking the rules is one thing.  After all, rules are made to be broken.  Many people refer to the finale of the Choral Symphony as an example, but that work is conventionality itself next to the C Sharp Minor Quartet.  Putting a choir and vocal soloists into a symphony unquestionably stretched the rules of symphonic form.  Beethoven's Opus 131 doesn't just stretch the bounds of the classical string quartet; it blasts them wide open on every side. 

In a way, it's not surprising that no other artist (with the possible exception of Schubert in his G Major Quartet) ever really followed the example of Beethoven's Opus 131 -- the universe of uncertainty and vast potential that it opens up is almost too frightening to acknowledge.  I'm referring to the uncertainty in the art of composition.  There's no uncertainty whatsoever about the music itself.

The uncanny nature of Op. 131 begins with its unprecedented structure: no less than seven movements of varying lengths, all to be played without any interruption from start to finish -- a total playing time of about 45 minutes, give or take a bit.  Then, instead of the conventional key relationships sanctioned by custom and usage -- mainly revolving around tonic, subdominant and dominant keys, or relative minors and majors, you get the really off-the-wall collision -- and it does have that impact -- between the C sharp minor of the first movement and the sunny D major of the second movement.  The variations of the A major fourth movement are light-years away from the simple structure common in the variation movements written by the young Beethoven.  The third and sixth movements are so brief that they really function only as transitions and introductions to the more substantial following movements.  The work opens in adagio time with a sad fugue on a most unsettling progression of notes:  G sharp, B sharp, C sharp and down to A natural.  It ends with two of the most vehement fast movements ever written by its creator, separated only by the short sixth movement adagio.  The finale stays in C sharp minor almost down to its final bar, only switching into the major at the very end.

This is either the third or fourth time I have heard the work played live at the Festival.  Each time it has left me in a state between exhaustion and exhilaration.  I'm quite sure it's a wearingly intense experience for the players too -- you can tell that just by watching them!

The Penderecki Quartet gave us a splendid reading of this amazing masterpiece.  Tempi were well chosen throughout and sat well in relationship to each other.  Playing remained crisp and clear even in the most helter-skelter passages (such as the final coda).  The opening fugue was sombre and melancholy, yet with a luminous quality in the playing that kept it from descending into dreariness.  In the D major second movement the players really captured the dance-like feel of the music.  The variation movement (No. 4) was particularly fine, with the individual character of each variation highlighted without losing the overall sense of forward motion within the movement.

For me, the performance of this work always stands or falls by the execution of the last three movements.  Those two wild fast movements, the scherzo and the final allegro, were both cleanly played yet with no lack of energy.  The final pages of the whole work built to a coda of truly wild ferocity, a moment in which the music must seem to be on the verge of going out of control without actually coming apart at the seams.  The Penderecki Quartet's reading certainly achieved that result!

I've always regarded Op. 131 as Beethoven's most revolutionary work -- as did such great composers as Schubert, by the way.  This performance captured that quality very well while still keeping all the diverse elements of the piece firmly linked to each other.  Again, a well-deserved ovation!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 10: The Future of Music

One of the most interesting events in each year's Festival is the afternoon concert given over to the year's RBC Stockey Young Artist.  As Jim Campbell said before this afternoon's event, it's a much-needed opportunity to allow a young artist to appear before an audience made up of many interested, knowledgeable, and sophisticated music lovers -- precisely the sort of audiences they can expect to encounter more often if and as they pursue professional musical careers.

Since the program began twelve years ago, the participants have included different kinds of musicians from string quartets to last year's piano/cello duo, but the predominant "species" have been pianists.  This raises interesting possibilities, since the majority of amateur musicians have had at least some training on the piano.  Certainly, any piano recital at the Festival will draw a big audience of the interested, knowledgeable and sophisticated!

This year's RBC Stockey Young Artist, Annie Zhou, is a pianist.  She decided to dedicate the entire programme of her hour-long recital to the music of Chopin.  Since he was, without a doubt, the most iconic of all piano composers, and the one central to everybody's piano training, this is a decision guaranteed to draw the audience, but also to draw a crowd where everyone has their opinion about how the music should be played.  A risky choice, to be sure.

To be completely clear, there is absolutely no doubt about Zhou's pianistic credentials.  Even by the standards of the many wunderkinder who have crossed this stage previously, her technique was formidable to say the least -- and I could say a great deal more.  When it comes to such well-known works as the Ballade No. 1 or the Sonata No. 3, any wrong notes will be glaringly obvious, but I heard none.  Add to that searing accuracy her amazing control of individual fingers which allows her to highlight any voice within the music at her choosing, and it's obvious that she is a pianist to be reckoned with, in no uncertain terms.

However, in a situation not only common but totally normal considering her age (17), I found that the artistic interpretation of her programme was more convincing in some places than others.  Again, to be quite clear, I have heard other pianists -- some older by a good margin -- who had bags of technique but no sense of the art of the music at all.  Zhou is already clearly embarked on the discovery of the inner artist whose sensibility combines with the powerhouse technique to create real music.  So with that in mind, here are some thoughts.

The difficulty can best be summed up by referring to the Italian term tempo rubato, which describes the practice of building in flexibility of tempo within a line or phrase.  It's an absolute must to use it in the interpretation of Chopin, but how far should one go?  Ask that question in a gathering of ten pianists and I guarantee you at least 12 answers, if not 20!  When I think about it, though, I always recall an incident I've read about when Liszt played some of Chopin's music for Chopin.  (Wouldn't that have been a great time to be a fly on the wall?)  Chopin was definitely not pleased at Liszt's interpretive excesses, and angrily said, "Play my music as I wrote it or don't play it at all!"  I've always taken that statement as a guide to keep the rubato within reasonably restrictive limits.

The opening Ballade No. 1, Op. 23, gives a great overview of the problem.  The four Chopin Ballades are big works, using multiple themes and styles within a single piece, and following a kind of progressive or  "narrative" construction in which the music always ends in quite a different style than the one in which bit started.  Plainly, a piece of this discursive nature calls for much more flexibility of rubato than some other types (see below).  I did feel, though, that Zhou made a little too free with Chopin's music -- especially in two spots where she took a short but clear silent pause within a single section that is certainly not indicated in the score.

No such qualms about the three succeeding Mazurkas, Op. 56.  These triple-time dances are sadly neglected by many artists, perhaps because they are relatively short and some seem rather simple next to the bigger Chopin works, but I always enjoy hearing them and was pleased that Zhou decided to include them.  This particular set was written late in Chopin's life, in 1844.  In the first two of the set she kept to a much more regular tempo, with much slighter and subtler variations, entirely appropriate where the entire piece is short and all in one basic tempo and style.  The third in C minor, which is more wayward and exploratory in its nature, she aptly treated with more freedom.

And so we came to the centrepiece, the great Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 68 -- also written in 1844.  The restraint of Zhou's technique was most obvious when she did not overplay the march-like opening as many pianists are likely to do.  Clear articulation at a mezzo-forte gave the music all the weight it needed.  The scherzo flew by in an almost Mendelssohnian lightness of touch.  Zhou found a lovely legato singing tone for the melodious third-movement largo.

For me, though, every performance of this Sonata stands or falls by the dramatic finale.  It's a demonic moto perpetuo, in almost a tarantella rhythm, and strikes me as having a distinct family resemblance to the finale of Schubert's Sonata in C Minor, D.958.  I wonder if Chopin was familiar with the Schubert work?  That seems unlikely.  And yet, this powerful movement -- unlike so many of Chopin's more sectional constructions -- basically rolls along nonstop from first to last in a single unbroken span of high-speed music, with an unending stream of triplets in the bass underpinning the structure.  And that is pretty much a perfect description of the Schubert as well.  The one exception is the march-like second theme, but even though the triplets are in abeyance the basic tempo doesn't really vary here.

This is music where any application of the rubato is likely to be fatal to the cumulative effect.  At first Zhou avoided any sign of tempo modification.  By the time she reached the third statement of the main theme, though, the rubato was beginning to slip in, although not to any great extent.  Personally, I would have been happier if she had simply let the music roll on over all obstacles, as Chopin wrote it.

But that, as they say, is one person's opinion.  And it's nitpicking to go after this or that detail.  Plainly, Annie Zhou is an artist of great gifts and -- as I said before -- formidable technique and intelligence.  As with many of the other Stockey Young Artists, I am especially intrigued by the idea that some time, twenty years or so down the road, I might hear this programme from her again, and compare notes with myself to see how her developing artistry has manifested itself after than passage of time. 

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 9: Travelling With Music

Those who know me well also know that I love my music when travelling. I listen to recordings in the car, and elsewhere I make good use of my sound-cancelling headphones. In fact, as I write this I'm listening to some lovely flute music in my hotel room, using the headphones so I don't wake up my neighbours at 5:30 in the morning!

Wednesday at the Festival turned into a broad ranging musical tour of a fair part of the world, after the historic Concert at Cafe Zimmermann in the morning (see previous post).

The afternoon concert brought the welcome return of the Cheng²Duo, the brother and sister duo on cello and piano who made such a big impression on the Parry Sound audience last summer -- and on me. (read about last year's concert here: Performers or Musicians? )

This year the Cheng²Duo raised the stakes considerably with a neatly-planned programme making effective use of multimedia projections and voice-overs to narrate through the years. The theme was French music. The programme opened with a five-movement sonata by François Francoeur, a court composer to King Louis XV. This was a good example of French Baroque virtuoso style, neatly played and pleasant to the ear. Bryan Cheng took a moment to demonstrate effectively the difference between the playing style that would have been used in a royal salon of the seventeenth century and the playing style used in a concert hall today. The piece was then presented in a twenty-first century style of performance, and very effectively.

They followed on with a group of three pieces by Gabriel Fauré, one of the truly great composers of the French Romantic era. Après un rève was an effective transcription of one of Faure's most famous art songs. Sicilienne is a lovely lyrical movement, a dance as the title indicates, written as part of a suite of pieces for a performance of Maeterlinck's play Pelleas et Melisande. Originally for cello and orchestra, it makes also a fine effect with the orchestral part arranged for piano, as here. The third piece was the lovely Elegie, the one work in the group originally composed for the cello and piano (but later orchestrated). It reminds me of other works going by this title, especially Parry's Elegy for Brahms, in the way it presents not only the sadness of mourning but also some of the anger which can be so much a part of the experience of coping with death.

In all these pieces, the key requirement is clarity of line -- an aspect of music much promoted by Fauré in his teaching -- and both Bryan and Silvie Cheng certainly understood this, fully re-creating the long singing lines so characteristic of the music of Fauré. 

The main part of the programme was given over to the monumental Sonata in A Major by César Franck. Strictly speaking, Franck was Belgian by birth but since he became Parisian by residence the description of his music as "French" can certainly stand. This Sonata is one of the truly great monuments of the chamber music repertoire. Originally composed for violin and piano, it was later arranged for cello by the cellist Jules Delsart -- with the approval of Franck himself.

The Cheng²Duo played most effectively in the first movement, whose harmonies could be by no other composer but Franck. Bryan Cheng's legato in the long winding cello melodies was beautifully presented, while Silvie Cheng at the piano did fine work with the rippling accompanying figures. The stormy central allegro challenged both to virtuoso fireworks, with the need to simultaneously maintain the forward line and momentum of the music. 

The third movement, a sometimes cryptic Recitativo-Fantasia brought beautiful, quiet lyricism from both artists, not least in the gentle recall of the opening moments of the work, before leading on to a nicely paced account of the canonic finale. Here the balance of the two players is of the essence in order for both cello and piano to be clearly heard in the playing of the long melody of the canon. It's interesting that the piano leads the canon in four of its five occurrences. The cello leads only in the third appearance of the theme. In each case, piano and cello were ideally balanced in relation to each other, particularly challenging at moments when Franck's piano writing gets dense. The original for violin gave the solo instrument a much more natural advantage since the solo tone would ride out on top of the piano sound at such places, where the cello is more at risk of becoming buried in the centre of Franck's rich harmonies. Certainly there was no such problem with this performance.

Indeed, I can only recall one moment when the piano overwhelmed the cello -- in the first movement -- and that only lasted for a second or two before Silvie Cheng re-adjusted her scale of tone.

This Sonata is played by artists of all ages, but it is after all the work of a very mature composer and has about it something of that air. Definitely it's not a composition by a young man, all flash and dash and little or no depth. Silvie and Bryan Cheng already seem to grasp some of that wisdom of age in their reading of the piece. It will be fascinating to hear the additional depth and insight that will undoubtedly emerge as they continue to live with this music in future years.

The Duo added a substantial and challenging encore at this point, a complete performance of the ten-minute Sonata for Cello and Piano by Debussy. This is one of the composer's later works, and often strikes listeners as rather thorny -- particularly if they come expecting the lyrical style of the earlier Debussy. But this work was composed in 1915 and Debussy certainly did not remain unaffected by the terrific winds of change blowing through the musical world at that time, even though he responded in his own characteristic style to those storms. This piece makes particularly nasty demands on the cellist who has to -- quite frankly -- beat up on his instrument a little in order to achieve the strange, almost savage sounds the composer requires. The contrast from the smooth lyricism of Franck and Fauré could hardly be greater, but again the Cheng²Duo mastered the work's challenges, seemingly without great effort or difficulty.  The enthusiastic standing ovation after this intriguing recital was well-earned indeed!

In the evening, our musical travels continued with a programme entitled Songs and Dances of the Americas -- conceived as a tribute to the Pan Am Games in Toronto.  This programme included music by composers from the U.S.A., Canada, Mexico, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, and back to Argentina -- in that order.  The musical styles ranged from the aggressive modernisms of Lowell Liebermann's Gargoyles for solo piano (played with furious efficiency by Annie Zhou) to the dance-based inspirations of Astor Piazzola, with many other styles in between.

Much as I'd love to detail every single piece in this concert, there are simply too many to cover, so I'm going to have to do it with highlights.

The Cheng²Duo appeared again to play Two Pieces for Cello and Piano, composed especially for them by Canadian composer Alexina Louie.  These pieces explored in modern style many of the sound possibilities of the two instruments -- everything from sliding glissandi on the cello to mass string-strumming on the piano, and much else.  It was fascinating considered as a soundscape, considerably abetted by the well-chosen multimedia slides displayed at the same time. 

I guess I'm getting old-fashioned (or maybe I always have been!) but I find this kind of music, basically a succession of sounds and sound effects with little or no sense of a larger form or purpose, begins to wear out very quickly for me.  In a way, it strikes me as a musical equivalent of the "found poetry" so popular in the last century, in that the listener has to struggle to try to impose some sort of order or meaning on what he or she is hearing.  As fine as the performance was -- and as challenging as it became for the players -- this would not be on my short list of music to live with.

Guy Few brought the house down with his high speed rendition of Mexican trumpeter Rafael Mendez' arrangement of the Dance of the Comedians by Smetana.  He also powered his way forcefully through another Mendez arrangement of the traditional matador's song La Virgen de la Macarena.

The second half belonged to guitarist Daniel Bolshoy, whose virtuoso fingerwork and thoughtful interpretation played a part in every work heard after the intermission.  Especially intriguing was the suite La Catedral for solo guitar by Paraguayan composer Agustin Barrios Mangore.  This composer was completely unknown to me, but his music merges a clear melodic sense with some rather quirky harmonic choices that add undoubted spice to the mixture without overpowering it.

Leslie Fagan returned to the stage for a lovely performance of the famous Aria from the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.  This piece, originally for soprano with the unusually rich sound of eight cellos (a sound the composer greatly favoured and used frequently), was given here with a simple guitar accompaniment.  Fagan's voice soared, apparently without effort, in the vocalise that opens the piece, and sustained the long monotone lines of the central narration very well.  Especially moving was the shortened return of the vocalise as a quiet hum, a daunting challenge to bring off while making yourself heard in a hall of any size.  What truly impressed me was Fagan's absolutely rock-steady pitch while humming, in a passage which brings on the wobbles in recordings by some of the world's most distinguished sopranos.  Definitely a desert-island performance, even without the cellos.

The conclusion of the concert was Piazzola's Libertango, a piece which has been presented a few times at the Festival in various guises.  I don't think I've ever heard it given by more than 3 or 4 musicians at a time, but for this grand finale there were twelve!  The arrangement was made by Graham Campbell, and included parts for 3 violins, viola, 2 cellos, clarinet, flute, trumpet, guitar, soprano and piano!  In the 5-minute course of the piece, Campbell contrived to give each performer a distinct part and a clear solo moment, and then brought all the forces together for a rousing, high-energy conclusion.

And what encore could you possibly find for an ensemble of this unique mix of artists?  Nothing else for it, but to repeat the closing pages of the Libertango.  I'm sure no one in the audience was complaining about hearing it again!

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 8: A Baroque Feast

Tuesday was "Baroque Day" at the Festival -- one of the many delightful traditions which has evolved through the years.  Like all Festival traditions, it's flexible -- sometimes it spreads over more than one day (as this year).  Sometimes it's only one concert, sometimes it grows to four or more.

The blockbuster of the day came first, leaving us free afterwards to enjoy music that was not less skillful (either in composition or performance) but definitely was less intense in its demands on audience attention.

The day began at 12:45 with pianist Leopoldo Erice giving a pre-concert talk about the structure of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the work which he was about to play.  Erice's descriptions of the layout of the work were very informative and helpful.  When he started talking about the numerological religious symbolism, I began to detect waves of disbelief coming from some quarters of the hall.

It's been an ongoing debate for decades whether the numerologists are really finding what Bach intentionally wrote into his music, or whether they are just blowing moonshine about.  I lean towards a "yes" vote on the numerology, but I know many will disagree.

For that matter, the whole issue of how to perform the Goldberg Variations is a debate in itself.  There are those who insist that only a harpsichord is acceptable.  The true advantage of the harpsichord is the use of two keyboards, which is specifically indicated for 14 of the 31 variations.  On the other hand, such instruments as the modern piano, the pipe organ, even a string orchestra, have much greater expressive possibilities.

On two points I definitely agree with Erice.  One is that it's foolish to use a modern piano and not take advantage of those expressive possibilities.  For this music, carefully structured as it is, remains above all music, and expressivness is built into its every bar.  The other is the importance of playing all the repeats, in both halves of each variation.

So, to the performance.  Erice amply demonstrated the value of the repetitions by changing such things as dynamics, emphasis on certain lines, and the ornamentation, from first to second halves.  His playing, while not confined to a harpsichord scale of tone, certainly remained crisp and clear at all times.

It's an amazing experience to watch a pianist playing this music from the vantage point of a nearby seat.  The incredible hand-crossings in such variations as # 11 are clearly seen (on a harpsichord the two hands would be on the two separate keyboards).

From Variation 20 onwards, the tone changed.  From this point, almost all the variations are for two keyboards, and Erice's interpretation took on increased weight and power.  Plainly he got the bit between his teeth as the bigger passages began to sound like the Romanticism of Franz Liszt, which we heard on Friday!  The final two variations were played with immense authority and almost organ-like tone, and I could readily imagine an organist pulling out all of the biggest, heaviest stops at this point.

The reappearance of the Aria (the original theme) at the end is one of the supreme moments of music, its relative simplicity contrasting strongly with the complexities of the final variations.  Erice's performance highlighted this contrast by dropping from the fortissimo of the final Quodlibet back down to a pianissimo for the entrance of the Aria.

Take it as a whole, this was a hugely impressive performance, and rightly earned an instant and prolonged standing ovation.  It was very "unauthentic", but definitely true to Erice's own stylistic vision.  Overall, I would class it as a truly thrilling account to hear once in a concert -- but it was not a performance I would want to live with for repeated hearings in a recording.

After this impressive start, we migrated up the hill to St. Andrew's Church for the next concert.  Because of the heat, Jim Campbell began his pre-concert remarks thus: "Welcome to the good old days."  Those of us who've been attending the Festival since before 2000 certainly knew what that meant.  I didn't hear any train horns while we were listening, but there was no lack of traffic noise from outside, including some spectacularly loud motorcycle engines!

Inside, though, there was a whole different world of quiet and serenity.  I'd been looking forward to this event, as Suzanne Shulman (flute) is one of my favourites among the recurring artists of the Festival.  She was joined by guitarist Daniel Bolshoy for a recital of Baroque music arranged for this combination of instruments.

This program included solo Bach selections by Shulman, two sonatas by Scarlatti arranged from the harpsichord originals by Bolshoy, and works by Telemann, C. P. E. Bach, and J. S. Bach for both together.  Hearing the Telemann reminded me, as I've often thought in the past, that his music is well worth exploring in more depth.

The C. P. E. Bach was revealing in another way.  Although the instrumentation was unchanged from the Telemann, there was now a definite hint of the world of Haydn and Mozart in the music.  It was a reminder that J. S. Bach was working at the very end of the Baroque era, in a style which was already rapidly becoming old-fashioned.  It's said that his sons jokingly referred to him as "the old wig", and in C.P.E. Bach's "Hamburger" Sonata you could hear the new style moving in.  The name, by the way, refers to the city of Hamburg, where C. P. E. hoped to secure a post.  That didn't stop Shulmann from referring to it as a piece that needs to be played with relish!

The conclusion was the E minor sonata for flute and continuo by J. S. Bach, BWV1034.  It's a fine example of J. S. Bach's best style, and sounded both delightful and commanding in this version.  A wonderful recital all around.

The evening concert brought together an ensemble of a dozen players and soprano Leslie Fagan under the collective name of "Festival Baroque".

The program opened with a Sinfonia (or Concerto) for strings subtitled Alla rustica.  It's a typical and truly delightful example of Vivaldi's compositional genius.  This was followed by two arias sung by Fagan, which were "attributed" to Pergolesi.  Giovanni Battista Pergolesi became immensely popular during his lifetime, which ended untimely with his death from tuberculosis at age 26.  Certainly, it was a paying business for publishers to issue works by other hands while printing Pergolesi's name on the cover!  Today, much of the music which used to be attributed to Pergolesi has been definitely shown to be by other hands.

These two delightful arias are examples.  Fagan chose these two in particular because they were used by Stravinsky as two sections of his 1920s ballet score Pulcinella, segments of which were later reworked by Stravinsky into the Suite italienne for violin and piano (which followed the arias in this concert).  Thus we had two arias by "?", attributed to Pergolesi, which were later arranged by Stravinsky who later rearranged his own arrangement -- did you get all that?

All that music history is just so much water under the bridge as soon as Leslie Fagan walks onto the stage.  She brings with her a lovely sense of fun, particularly when dealing with eminently comical material like this, and loves to enter fully into her characters, even in a concert setting.  Not only that, but her spoken introductions are always entertaining and amusing too (a sample is given below).  Her agile voice is very well-suited to this type of repertoire, making light of the fast runs and high notes, and helping to convey the amusing texts of the funnier arias.

The succeeding Stravinsky Suite italienne basically took the Baroque originals and, as violinist Moshe Hammer put it, "added some odd rhythms and some wrong notes."  He and his pianist, Glen Montgomery, played with a delightful sense of the style and the somewhat jokey character of the music.  Alas, that two movements were omitted including my favourite, the penultimate scherzino (which in the orchestral version features a hilarious duet for trombone and string bass).

After the intermission, James Mason took centre stage for an excellent performance of an oboe concerto in G minor by Handel.  The grave introduction was taken at a nicely upbeat tempo, setting the scene for the brisk allegro to follow.  The central Sarabande moved smoothly forward while maintaining a gentle contrasting character, and the final allegro wrapped things up in a vigorous manner.

Next, Leslie Fagan returned to give two of Cleopatra's arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare.  The first was deeply tragic in tone, but the second was a piece of rip-roaring Handelian rejoicing -- which Fagan introduced between numbers with an off-hand "Get ready, folks, here we go!".  This rapid fire aria came with all the flashy runs and ornaments for which Handel is renowned, and Fagan tossed it all off with style and skill to spare.  Very impressive singing indeed!

The grand finale was Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, with the full ensemble of strings, trumpet, flute, oboe and violin, and continue.  This was a spirited performance, filled with energy and beautiful playing by all concerned, and brought the concert to a rousing conclusion thanks to the high-speed virtuoso performances of the entire quartet of soloists.

The Baroque "Day" really ended on Wednesday morning with the special "Concert at Cafe Zimmermann", an additional event held at the Seguin Valley Golf Club.  The Cafe Zimmermann In Leipzig was a notable musical hangout where Telemann (and later J. S. Bach) organized musical events.  These concerts were the only times women could be admitted to Cafe Zimmermann.

(And as Suzanne Shulman's husband quipped at this point:  "Who made the coffee?")

In fact, the Seguin Valley club had laid out a notable spread of desserts, muffins, fruit and coffee and tea for us to enjoy.  We also thoroughly enjoyed all the music in the warm acoustic of their log-cabin hall with it's high-pitched roof and hardwood floor.

The concert was a feast of Baroque music such as might have been heard at such an event, and included works by Telemann and three Bachs:  Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Christian Bach and daddy himself, Johann Sebastian Bach.  Indeed, it was J. S. Bach's splendid Concerto in C Minor for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060R, which closed the program in exuberant fashion.  Along the way we heard a duet for flute and violin solo, a piece for solo oboe, an interesting Sinfonia (Telemann) with a martial trumpet part added to the strings and continuo, and more.

All of it was magnificently played, but alas, all of it paled in comparison with Leslie Fagan's performance of two arias from J. S. Bach's infamous Coffee Cantata, using a hilarious English translation by Daniel Lichti.  Of course, as noted above, Fagan's cheery performance style of the aria about how much she loved her coffee, and the text together with it, were enough to set the audience chuckling.  And that's when trumpeter Guy Few got in on the act.  He came slowly walking down the aisle, matching perfectly P. G. Wodehouse's description of Beach the butler at Blandings Castle:  "...a dignified procession of one."  In one hand he held aloft a china cup and saucer, in the other a Tim Hortons take out cup.  Ever so slowly, he went down on one knee in front of Fagan, still holding the cups high, while the whole audience dissolved into helpless shouts of laughter.

How any of the musicians managed to keep going, I do not know.  Fagan herself let out a hoot of mirth, but then carried on.  I couldn't have done it.  I would have been helpless from the giggles and unable to sing!  She took the china cup, took a dignified sip from it, and handed it back (during the instrumental ritornello, of course), and then finished the aria while Few ever so slowly rose to his feet and backed out.

As if that weren't bad enough, he repeated the stunt during her second aria about the wonderful man she would now marry.  This time he came down the aisle holding aloft a wedding ring, placed it on her finger, and then remained beside her, hamming mercilessly.  It was all Fagan could do to keep going, between laughs, and at one point she even turned to him and said, "Get out of here!"  But keep going she did and finished the aria, still in excellent voice.

Poor James Mason had to come forward to introduce the next number amid a total uproar of hilarity.  All he could say was, "How do you follow that?"  (For the answer, see above, the Bach Concerto).

Every summer there always have to be one or two moments when the whole affair goes completely nutty like this, and they're always among my favourite memories.  I think it's marvellous that a group of serious musicians aren't afraid to play the fool in public, at the same time as they keep playing and singing the music so well!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 7: Hail and Farewell

Okay, maybe I am reaching a bit with that title.  But not too much.  Friday saw the final appearances for this year's Festival of several key artists who have become integral parts of our Festival experience: the New Zealand String Quartet and cellist Yegor Dyachkov.  Looking back at the wide assortment of music played during the last 7 days by these five artists is almost enough to make my head spin!

We found out it was time to say goodbye when the Quartet's violist, Gillian Ansell, announced the fact during the afternoon concert.  And there were a lot of goodbyes being said out in the lobby afterwards.  That informal front-of-house interaction between artists and audiences is one of the most endearing, and most unusual, features of this Festival.

At any rate, the farewell concert for these fine musicians consisted of two string sextets.  The first, Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B Flat Major, Hob.I.105, was originally written in 1792 for an orchestra with a concertante group of four soloists: violin, cello, oboe and bassoon.  We heard it on this occasion in an arrangement for string sextet by Mordecai Rechtman.

As with so many of the mature Haydn works, this one was full of high spirits and attractive melodies.  It follows a standard three-movement (fast-slow-fast) plan, and the ensemble certainly paid due heed to the direction in the final movement: allegro con spirito.  It was indeed a spirited performance, crisp, lively, and beautifully shaped with it.

The second work, coming from the same period, was entitled Grande Sestetto Concertante, K.364 and this proved to be a sextet arrangement of Mozart's well-loved Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola, and orchestra.  I didn't have time to check the details ahead of time, so I had the intriguing and amusing experience of hearing melodies which were definitely familiar, but didn't sound quite "right" somehow.  In part, this is because the musical materials are divided evenly amongst the six players -- the "solo" distinction of violin and viola in the original is not used here.  The arrangement was published in 1808, not long after Mozart's death, with no credit given to the arranger.  Hmmm.

At any rate, aside from the familiarity factor (or lack thereof) the group gave a fine performance of this piece as well.  I particularly admired the singing tone in the andante, while the presto finale demonstrated great energy without becoming overly hectic -- some performances make a bit too much of the presto direction and become breathless as a result.

The evening concert was entirely given over to a piano recital by Andre Laplante.  As one of the most distinguished of Canadian pianists, Laplante has a sizable following among music lovers, and many people planned their visits to the Festival specifically around this concert.  I'm sure none of them were disappointed in the slightest!

Laplante opened his program with Busoni's arrangement of Bach's Adagio in A Minor.  This piece originated as the middle movement of the unusual Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, BWV 564 for organ.  It's a stately, gravely beautiful procession in slow time, somewhat funereal in tone, with the bass line walking up and down through an endless chain of open octaves to set the slow walking tempo.  Busoni's arrangement includes a definite danger point, which he inherited from Liszt: his tendency to include the fifth note of the chord in many of the bass octaves.  This use of the tonic and dominant together, so low in the keyboard, can create a very congested sound.  Laplante skilfully lightened the dominant note in each case so that it was audible, but only just, and the music then could continue to expand freely.

Laplante continued with Mozart's Sonata in B-Flat Major, K.281.  There's an appropriate scale of tone for playing Mozart on a modern pianoforte, when his music was written for the much lighter-weight fortepiano of his own day.  The possibilities range all the way from heavy-weight semi-Beethoven right down to what some reviewers refer to as "the gentle clink of Dresden china."  I felt Laplante steered the middle course admirably, not avoiding a bigger sound when the music became lively, but also keeping restraint in the quieter passages.  The central andante amoroso had a fine light touch, and the lively allegro finale took on a bigger tone as its more dramatic passages demanded.

We then were treated (and "treated" is indeed the right word) to the first three of the six Moments Musicaux, D.780 by Schubert.  In these pieces, so close in character to the Mendelssohnian idea of "songs without words", a clear singing tone and almost vocal sense of communication is needed.  This Laplante certainly gave us, without any undue emphasis or overdone "interpretation".  It was lovely Schubertian playing of a high order.

Then came the Beethoven Sonata No. 26 in E-Flat Major, Op. 81a.  This is the sonata usually known by the French subtitle les Adieux.  The three movements, however, are titled in German Das Lebewohl, Die Abwesenheit, and Das Wiedersehen (respectively "The Farewell", "The Absence", and "The Return").  Laplante conveyed a real air of mystery in the slow introduction, and then launched with great energy into the turbulent first theme of the allegro.  He then found a lovely contrasting tone for the more lyrical second theme.  His portrayal of the somewhat gloomy slow movement and the joyfully exuberant finale were similarly noteworthy.

I particularly enjoyed Laplante's well-judged use of the sustaining pedal throughout this work.  It was a pleasure to be able to hear all the notes, when so many pianists today seem to choose impossibly fast tempi in Beethoven and then make liberal use of the pedal to cover any consequent errors.  Make no mistake, Laplante's Vivacissimamente in the finale was as fast as anyone could want, but completely crisp and clear at the same time.

All of that was only the first half of his generously full recital!  The second half was given over to the Sonata in B Minor by Liszt, one of the greatest landmarks of the Romantic piano.  Laplante took several minutes beforehand to talk about the unique structure of the work, and to briefly highlight the key musical motifs from the keyboard.  This is certainly helpful for anyone not familiar with the Sonata, as the cyclical structure of the single extended movement is not easy to grasp at first hearing.

By the time of Liszt, of course, the grand piano (as we know it) was firmly ensconced in music, and so the use of a bigger, bolder tone and stronger attack is entirely to the point.  Laplante's assertion that the work is in fact written in the spirit of Romantic opera plainly underlay every minute of his interpretation, which was formidable in every way.  Never before have I felt the half-hour work to be coming to its end before I was ready for it to be over! 

The intense fast passages roared with fury.  The slower moments sang sweetly.  Every element took its due place, and the whole came fully together as greater than the sum of its parts.  The furious fugal passage near the end was a hair-raising highlight, and the succeeding long quiet epilogue was paced out with the greatest deliberation.  Laplante made the conclusion both moving and inevitable, with the last rumbles of the rapid repeated notes quietly played -- as if in memory -- and the final beautiful chords of the gentle cadence as perfectly placed as the last single quiet bass note.

Laplante then treated us to a fine encore, unannounced. which (alas) was not familiar to me, but was just as significant and as well-played as all the rest of this remarkable recital.  We certainly received full measure and the enthusiastic cheers and applause were proof of that.

And yet, just once, I found myself wishing that we might have suspended the custom of applause and cheers so that we could have left the hall, in silence, with those final breathtaking bars of the Sonata echoing in our ears and our memories.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 6: The Thursday Musical Buffet

Every year, the Festival manages to throw in a couple of days where there is no particular theme except for "Let's throw together a whole pile of pieces that we just feel like playing."  Thursday of the first week was it.  And within that Thursday, the first afternoon concert was really a musical buffet.  Under the loose title Music for Friends we got five different works by five very different composers shared around six musicians!

Haydn's Trio No. 1 in C Major for flute, clarinet, and cello was completely unknown to me.  But it definitely was Haydn and no other composer, readily identified by its genial, cheerful air.  Suzanne Shulman, James Campbell, and Rolf Gjelsten did the honours with the requisite wit and style.

Next up was a Duo for viola, cello and two obbligato eyeglasses by Beethoven.  No word of a lie, that is what he actually called it!  The "joke" in this case was the composer's thought that the players would need the eyeglasses to puzzle out all the complexities of the score.  To me it did not come out sounding especially complex, so I think perhaps Beethoven was pulling someone's chain with that title, in more ways than one.  Definitely fun to hear, though, with Ron Ephrat and Rolf Gjelsten sharing the musical entertainment as well as the funny business with eyeglasses beforehand.

Then we came to Three Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano, Op. 83 by Max Bruch.  These comprised two slow movements, the latter a hauntingly beautiful Nachtgesang ("Night Song"), framing a faster Allegro vivace.  All of this was written in Bruch's ripest romantic style, and made for rewarding listening.  The combination of clarinet and viola created a warm, almost plush sound which suited the Nachtgesang in particular.

The Sonata for Flute and Piano, which came next, could be recognized as the work of Francis Poulenc within the first three or four measures.  It contained all of his signature ironic wit, merged (as ever) with melodic lyricism and unique key sense in equal parts.  Suzanne Shulman gave this piece exactly the kind of catchy, perky performance needed in the outer movements, with a gravely beautiful long-breathed line in the central Cantilena slow movement.  Peter Longworth's piano part cherished all the spicy little harmonic barbs while still keeping the piece in a light, almost Haydnesque scale of tone, very apt.

The showpiece finale was the Tarantella in A Minor Op. 6 by Saint-Saens, played by Shulman and Campbell with Longworth at the piano.  This piece is plainly written with the intention of showing off the skill of the players.  It starts out deceptively simple, with the pianist picking out a single line of ostinato bass, and then keeps adding on more and more and more layers of notes until the stage is practically spinning.  And of course, since it is a tarantella, there can be no letup in the moto perpetuo character of the music until the final chords.

The musical buffet continued in the afternoon's second concert, with the Cecilia Quartet (in their only Festival appearance this year) bringing us a Haydn quartet and a Mendelssohn quartet.  In presenting the Haydn, his Op. 17 No. 4 in C Minor, Hob.III.28, violinist Sarah Nematallah remarked that this is not one of the "nicknamed" Haydn quartets, and then offered the quartet's suggestion that it might be nicknamed "The Cat" -- which certainly struck me as apposite, since the work contains some slithering chromaticisms that do resemble the cat's meowing.  On the subject of the Mendelssohn, she speculated humorously on what kind of honeymoon Mendelssohn must have been having to have written such a turbulent, dramatic work during his months-long Grand Tour with his wife!

The Haydn work was genial and sunshiny in the classic Haydn manner, and the players relished that bright, positive quality in the music.  Again, Haydn was playing jokes on his audience: the Menuetto had a melody line which seemed over at 8 bars, then unexpectedly kept going for 4 more, and then tacked on an extra two just for the fun of it.  The quartet pointed up this double joke nicely each time it occurred without over-emphasizing it.  The trio similarly had a 10-bar melody instead of the expected eight, and again this was subtly noted.  The long, singing lines of the slow movement perfectly realized the direction Adagio cantabile, and the players ended the work with a great burst of energy in the allegro finale.

The Mendelssohn Quartet No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 44 is a sterner kind of piece altogether.  It would be easy to play it with a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and no doubt some critics with highly tilted noses think that there is nothing more than that in it.  But take it on its own terms -- and the Cecilia Quartet certainly did that -- and its intensity and energy are a match for almost anything in the repertoire, just achieved in different terms.  The first and last movements, dramatic and turbulent, both develop a terrific head of steam, rolling headlong forward, and the performance gained just that kind of momentum.  The scherzo at first sounds like another of Mendelssohn's masterly feather-light fairy scherzos, but soon develops a darker and heavier sound, and the quartet managed this transition very well too.  Again, we were treated to beautiful sustained legato in the slow movement.

The Thursday evening concert brought what I might term the "main course" of the musical buffet.  First we heard Beethoven's Piano Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 16.  Right from the outset, it was plain that this was the early Beethoven, still finding his wings as a composer.  The opening movement sounds very Haydnesque to me, while the lyrical side of Mozart isn't far away in the second movement andante cantabile.  It's in the finale that the genuine voice of Beethoven begins to emerge at last.

Given these observations, it's plain that you mustn't play this work with the same kind of weight and power you would bring to late Beethoven!  Renowned Canadian pianist Andre Laplante brought a fine combination of lightweight playing and a fine scale of tone to the larger moments without overpowering his colleagues.  The strings developed a good increase in the weight of playing in that finale, bringing the work right into the style of the mature Beethoven in the closing pages.

After the intermission, we heard the magnificent Cello Quintet in C Major, D.956 by Schubert.  This is one of the many miraculous masterpieces which Schubert composed during the last year of his life.  It stands alongside the three great piano sonatas, the last great quartets, numerous songs, and the Fantasy in F Minor for piano 4-hands as proof positive of an indomitable human spirit.  There's no question that Schubert was a driven man during that year, driven forward by the unappeasable creative spirit within him.  That struggle with himself, with his own illness and weakness, comes to the fore in one way or another in each of those final works, and this one is no exception.

But it is still the music of Schubert, and so the performers must allow full play to the lyrical gift, the melodious creation of which Schubert was the supreme exponent.  Also, both performers and audience must expand their sense of scale of time as Schubert again expands his ideas to what have rightly been called "heavenly lengths" -- never more heavenly than in the second movement of this work, where time itself seems to stand still.

As on the last occasion I heard this work at the Festival, this performance was preceded by a detailed talk with musical examples.  This is particularly helpful in a piece where so much of the structure is dominated by small figures, and by unusual modulations, rather than by long melodic statements which can be easily described in words.

This performance was given by an ensemble of players from different points of the compass.  This is a particular practice of this Festival, and one which gives plenty of scope for artists to meet and work with colleagues from other places.  It also gives the audience, on occasion, some of the most memorable performances.

In this case, we had violinists Gil Sharon and Doug Beilman, Ron Ephrat on viola, and Rolf Gjelsen and Yegor Dyachkov playing the two cello parts.  In some ways, the cellists are the key to this work as it is the warm, rich tone of the two cellos that tilts the entire piece away from the brighter, lighter sound of the violins so characteristic of much chamber music.

A key part of Gjelsen's pre-performance talk, by the way, was a demonstration of the way that the two cellos play very different roles in various parts of the work, one playing melodically while the other supplies the bass line.  Equally, though, there are other places -- the glorious second theme of the opening movement the supreme example -- where the cellos play together in 2-part harmony.

Every movement of this performance was full of moments of beauty, and each player found the glories inherent in his part.  As always, the entire performance stands or falls by the interpretation of the second movement.  Here, the slow, gentle dialogue between Sharon and Dyachkov at the opening was played in the gentlest of half-tones, no more than audible, and inexpressibly moving.  Schubert's "heavenly lengths" have never sounded finer.

One of the nastiest technical challenges ever set for musicians by Schubert is the sudden eruption of energy in the middle of that celestial slow movement.  The demonic cross-rhythms at this point are damn near impossible to nail right off the mark, and this case was no exception -- although the performance quickly gelled again within about 2 bars.

The rustic, rumbustious scherzo unleashed plenty of the energy so carefully harnessed and reserved in the preceding slow movement, and the two cellos made the most of the bagpipe-like drone effect in the opening bars of the main theme on each occurrence.  Indeed, this music gains if that drone is given with an edge of savagery and that was how it came across.

The final allegretto in a loose rondo form pulled all the threads together in the most satisfying way, and the final standing ovation was entirely merited.

In a way, I'm glad that this sublime masterwork doesn't get performed too often.  It unfolds a vision of such a rarefied universe all its own -- and I fear that too much familiarity would breed contempt.  For me, it is best left as an occasional encounter, one in which we are brought face to face with the clear wisdom of the ages and all the force of life-affirming energy -- as we certainly were last night.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 5: A Day in the Life

His music constitutes one of the central pillars of the classical chamber music repertoire.  After similar days in previous seasons devoted to featuring the music of such composers as Schumann and Mendelssohn, it was only natural that the Festival should program a day devoted to the music of Brahms.  Having decided to do that, it then made perfectly logical sense to divide the music across the three concerts into the early Brahms, the mature Brahms, and the final Brahms.

Anyone who thinks that the music of Brahms is staid and stodgy needs to experience some more of the composer's young works.  Without ever being precisely "showy", certainly never as flashy as, say, Liszt, Brahms composed works for the piano which taxed the player to the limit and presented plenty for the audience to chew on as well.  The same was true of his early excursions into chamber music.

In the first afternoon concert, violinist Helene Pohl and pianist Peter Longworth played the intense scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata.  This composite work was created in 1853 as a gift to the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim by Schumann, Brahms, and Albert Dietrich.  Schumann assigned the scherzo movement to the 20-year-old Brahms largely on the basis of Brahms' powerful E flat minor scherzo for piano.  The kinship between that piece and the F-A-E Scherzo is undeniable, the musical materials being handled in a similar style and worked up to an equally abrupt conclusion.  Pohl and Longworth gave a fiery virtuoso reading of this early work.

Next, Longworth was joined by Ron Ephrat in Joachim's Hebrew Melodies for viola and orchestra.  As a composer, Joachim was overshadowed by his colleagues and by his own reputation as the violinist of the age, but some of his music has more recently emerged from the shades.  This group of pieces was interesting, as all three were in slow, lyrical style.  Key switches from minor to major and back again were frequent.  None of the music required especial virtuosity, but it was all both pleasing to the ear and well worth further acquaintance.  Perhaps we could have more of Joachim's music in future festivals.

The main item in this first concert was Brahms' first Piano Trio, his Opus 8 in B major, composed in 1854.  If the young Brahms had a fault, it was that his musical structures sometimes spread themselves too broadly.  The concision of the mature Brahms was slow to develop.  Longworth, in his introductory comments, pointed out that the Trio was originally longer -- and more wayward -- before the mature Brahms returned in 1889 to the scene of his youthful indiscretions and curbed the worst excesses, cutting down the first movement by a substantial amount and toning down the overtly-tragic original ending.  As soon as I heard that, my instinctive first thought was to get hold of a recording of the original version so I could compare it to the final results!

Gil Sharon (violin) and Yegor Dyachkov (cello) joined Longworth in the Trio, and gave a masterly performance which held all the parts firmly together.  For the most part, the three remained well-balanced.  The key challenge in Brahms' chamber music with piano is to prevent the piano part from swamping the others.  Brahms was apt to forget that he was writing a work for piano with instruments and start writing as if he was creating for solo piano, with the result that some of his densest, heaviest piano writing occurs in some of his early chamber music!  In this piece, Longworth certainly kept in scale, and his colleagues were able to match him with strong yet well-rounded sound.

The second afternoon concert opened with the Cello Sonata No. 2 in F Major, Op. 99.  Yegor Dyachkov gave a convincing account of the solo part in this work which sometimes strikes me as being one of Brahms' more cryptic utterances.  The catch here was that the heavier piano writing sometimes overwhelmed him.  This is certainly not entirely Peter Longworth's fault -- it's a built-in hazard, as noted above, but especially dangerous when the piano writing runs high as the cello part drops into its lower register.

Then the New Zealand Quartet took the stage, with Ron Ephrat, for the Viola Quintet in G Major, Op. 111.  In spite of the opus number, this is the last work Brahms wrote during the period of his maturity.  Indeed, he announced to his publisher that we was retiring after submitting this one!

It's a lovely piece, among the finest string writing Brahms ever created, and was played here with plenty of energy by all concerned.  The intertwining of the two viola lines was a particular delight in several key spots where they are featured.

The man most responsible for the evening concert's program of late Brahms was Richard Mühlfeld.  The year after the Opus 111 was published, Brahms heard Mühlfeld's playing on the clarinet and was inspired to produce a whole string of great masterpieces: a clarinet quintet, a clarinet trio, and two clarinet sonatas, all for Mühlfeld.  Nor was that all.  Brahms then went on to compose still more works, many of which are ranked among his finest achievements: the Four Serious Songs, eleven Chorale Preludes for the organ, and the piano pieces Opp. 116, 117, 118 and 119.

The evening's concert opened with an extraordinary audio recording of an interview with a pianist who had known Brahms and had heard him play the late piano pieces.

Peter Longworth then took centre stage in the cycle of six pieces, Op. 118.  These inspired works contrast many emotions in a small space.  The music moves, by turns, through moods of reflection, remembrance, anger, resignation, majesty, sadness, and many more.  The pieces require the utmost in thoughtful interpretation; this is very inward music and requires deep thought of the artist.  Longworth gave us all of that and more, in a reading of stature and immense intensity.  In several of the pieces he selected a tempo a little slower than the speed many pianists would choose, but he sustained his choices beautifully through his thoughtful playing.  In some of the slower pieces I would have wished for a little less sustained pedaling.  The resonant acoustic of the Stockey Centre can do a lot of the work in that area!  Conversely, Longworth used much less pedal than many artists in the fast Ballade in G Minor (no. 3) and in the stormy central section of the final Intermezzo in E Flat Minor.  That crispness certainly enhanced the power of the playing in those pieces.

The intensity was beautifully sustained after the intermission when the New Zealand Quartet again appeared with James Campbell to play the lovely autumnal Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115.  This is one of the most frequently requested and played works in the history of this Festival, and I have heard Campbell play it on several previous occasions.  What, then, was it about this particular performance than made me feel as if I were truly hearing the work for the first time?

Was it Campbell's introductory comments, with musical examples, highlighting the signposts along the journey?  Was it his assertion that it takes a lifetime of living with this music to truly be able to appreciate it, whether as performer or as listener?  Was it the music's position, coming at the end of a day's exploration of the musical career of a giant among composers?  Perhaps it was the special je ne sais quoi of the quite remarkable working relationship among this team of artists.  Or it may have been my own realization that I am now older than Brahms was when he composed it -- and that my own life experiences have prepared the ground, as never before, for me to deeply respond to this music.

All I can say is that every minute of this reading struck me as being prepared with utmost care, and presented within the almost circular structure of the entire work with a perfect accumulation of the musical meaning.  When the final variation movement reached the point where the nostalgic return of the first movement's main theme ushers in the final coda, the emotional intensity was incredible for me.  I may hear this work played better some day (although I have my doubts) but I don't suppose it will ever make quite such a huge impact on me as it did in this concert.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 4: The Celestial City

All my life I've been seeing cartoons portraying heaven as a place where people in white robes walk around on clouds carrying or playing harps.

Well, we didn't get the white robes, but the four musicians all playing harps yesterday at the Festival brought me as close to that vision of heaven as I've ever gotten.

A harp quartet is an interesting idea, to put it mildly.  In my personal experience, I only know of two works of music that call for this many harps at a time.  One is the Celtic Symphony for strings and six harps by British composer Granville Bantock.  The other is Arnold Schoenberg's massive late-romantic cantata Gurrelieder which requires four harps.  Otherwise, two is usually the limit.

So, the repertoire for a harp quartet necessarily has to consist of arrangements, until more original works are composed for this unique type of ensemble.

The more adventurous of yesterday's two harp concerts was in the afternoon, a recital by harpist Caroline Leonardelli, with various other instruments joining her in certain numbers.  Leonardelli included in her program works by two composers who had never come to my attention before, as both specialized in music for harp:  Marcel Grandjany and Felix Godefroid.  The works by these composers were intriguing and pleasing to the ear, with Grandjany's Rhapsodie the more harmonically advanced since he lived in the twentieth century.  Godefroid was active at the height of the nineteenth century Romantic era, and his music had an interesting near-Brahmsian sound.

As well, Leonardelli played a Fantasia for violin and harp by Saint-Saens (with violinist Gil Sharon) and a Canto for cello and harp by Villa-Lobos (with Yegor Dyachkov).  This latter piece was paired with an arrangement of the ever-serene Swan from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, also for harp and cello.

The highlight of the concert was Debussy's late Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.  In this rather enigmatic three-movement work, Leonardelli was joined by flautist Suzanne Shulman and violist Ron Ephrat.  I first heard this work at the Festival many years ago, and found it a tough nut to crack.  In contrast to many of the more popular works of Debussy's oeuvre, this one lacks long sweeping lyrical melodies.  Instead, we get fragments of melody interlaced with rapid little flourishes and some sustained chording.  Of the three players, the violist seems to get the lion's share of the challenging bits and pieces.  All three musicians gave of their best, yet the Sonata remains for me a work to admire and respect, but not truly music to love or live with.

In the evening, we had the full harp quartet consisting of Leonardelli, Lori Gemmell, Jennifer Swartz, and Caroline Lizotte.  Their concert, with spoken introductions by CBC Radio host Tom Allen, consisted of arrangements of three classical staples.

First up was one of the nearly 600 keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti.  As many concert pianists know, these sonatas make ideal curtain raisers to a recital as they are each a single movement lasting around 5 minutes.  The transcription by Caroline Lizotte showed that the original harpsichord writing could transfer very well to this new medium.

Next was another Lizotte transcription, this time of Mozart's String Quartet in B Flat Major, K. 589.  This work revealed interesting new lights on some of the inner parts which may be hidden from view on strings, while at the same time reminding us of  what we missed in normal violin and cello tone especially.  It was a draw between gains and losses for me.  The playing throughout was exemplary and the music came across very clearly.

All the same I couldn't help laughing at the irony.  More than one source I have read claimed that Mozart hated the harp!  It is a certain fact that he only ever wrote one work for the instrument, the Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, and never even received his full fee for that commission.  If in fact Mozart hated the instrument, you'd never know it from the Concerto, one of the most beautiful pieces he ever wrote.  The whole idea of Mozart-on-harps still makes me chuckle anyway!

The main event, after the intermission, was a complete performance of Vivaldi's famous concerto cycle, Le quattro stagione ("The Four Seasons"), in a transcription for four harps credited to the Venice Harp Quartet.  In these famous works, as originally written, there are parts for a solo violin alternating with sections for the full orchestra.  The four harpists each took the solo part in one of the four concerti:  Leonardelli in Spring, Gemmell in Summer, Swartz in Autumn, and Lizotte in Winter.

It was also at this point that Tom Allen's contribution became important, as he read -- with exaggerated comic emphasis -- the sonnets written to illustrate the programme or story behind each concerto.  It's interesting that in all the years I have known this work, I have only ever known of one recording that included the sonnets in the programme notes.  That LP indeed included reproductions of the illustrated sonnet texts from the original editions as well as translations!

One of the interesting aspects of this performance was the way it highlighted the differences in playing style among the four harpists.  Leonardelli's work in Spring was notable for emphatic playing at certain key moments.  I found Gemmell the most mellifluous of the four.  Swartz seemed to personify the playful aspect, an important feature in Autumn which focuses more on people and their entertaining activities than on nature.  Lizotte unquestionably had the toughest assignment as the soloist in the flying finale of Winter, and came through with flying colours.

I also found it fascinating, from my seat by the edge of the stage, to get such a clear close-up view of harp technique, in which I could watch closely the work both of the hands and of the feet on the pedals which control the use of sharps and flats.

Listening to such well-known music in such unfamiliar yet lovely guise is a fascinating experience, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who gets the chance!

All the same, I can't help wishing that the Festival would take a chance on discovering some of the other masterpieces among the numerous concerti that Vivaldi composed.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 3: In Memoriam, Times Two

Sunday at the Festival was a day for remembering, not with sadness but with great gratitude.  Both concerts on this day were memorial tributes to old friends, gone but a while since, yet treasured in memory -- the one for contributions to the Festival in particular, and the other for contributions to the art of choral music across Canada.

The afternoon concert was a memorial to Charles W. Stockey, the lead donor whose generous contribution led to the construction of the magnificent hall which the Festival now uses.

This concert was given by the New Zealand String Quartet, making their twelfth annual appearance at the Festival.  For anyone who loves good chamber music, this Quartet should be a do-not-miss on your musical bucket list.  There's a special quality of unanimity, a special kind of energy, and a uniquely high level of innate musicality which informs their every performance.  As I have observed in past years, this is due in no small measure to the fact that they play standing, with the cellist seated on a riser to bring him up to his colleagues' eye level. Thus, they can and do get closer to each other than would be the case if all were seated.

We're very fortunate indeed that this remarkable ensemble chooses to spend a full week in Parry Sound every summer, allowing us multiple opportunities to enjoy the full power of their artistry.

On this occasion, they led off with Haydn's String Quartet in C Major, Hob.III:57.  Haydn played just as big a role in the evolution of the quartet form as he did in the parallel evolution of the symphony, and completed 67 quartets in all.  As with his 104 symphonies, so (I suspect) the same will be true here, that there isn't a suspicion of routine or a hint of tedium in any of them.

In the case of this C Major work, the originality comes in the form of phrases with unusual and asymmetrical phrase lengths.  And then there's the finale, which leads off in a slow tempo.  This automatically raises expectations of a short introduction to a conventionally fast movement.  However, this slow, singing, almost hymn-like theme is developed at great length.  When the fast tempo finally does come, it proves to be very short -- barely a minute long at a guess -- and the slow tempo then returns to bring the quartet to a placid yet elevated conclusion.

In all of this music, the New Zealand Quartet gave a fine performance in their best Haydn style -- not eschewing drama where it was needed, yet always remembering the smile on Haydn's face and in his music, most of which maintains a genial temper.

They followed this with a favourite masterpiece of the Romantic era, the famous Andante cantabile from Tchaikovsky' String Quartet No. 1.  This beautiful singing tune with its contrasting middle theme is given throughout with the strings using their sordines (mutes), and thus playing with an inward, almost withdrawn tone that contrasted neatly with the open-air briskness and joyfulness of the Haydn.

After a pause, they were joined by clarinetist (and Festival Artistic Director) James Campbell for the perennially popular Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K.581 by Mozart.  Campbell gave a spoken introduction to the work, highlighting with musical examples from the players, before performing the entire work.  I've always loved this piece, but it always feels funny to me to hear it in the full flow of summer.  That's because of the finale, a theme and variations.  Near the end, this drops into a slow tempo and the clarinet melody which carries that variation always has a kind of autumnal feeling for me, a feeling that it would sound best with coloured leaves swirling in the wind outside and a good big mug of warmed cider at my elbow in front of a roaring fire -- or something of that kind.

At any rate, these five musicians -- who play together year in and out -- gave a sprightly reading of this evergreen work, highlighting all contrasts within a fine overall view of the structure.  Lovely music making in the classical chamber repertoire which is this Festival's central repertoire.

On Sunday evening, the Elmer Iseler Singers took the stage with their Music Director Lydia Adams and the Canadian Brass in a concert designed as a tribute to Elmer Iseler, the man long known as "the Dean of Canadian choral conductors."

The programme was selected to include favourites of Elmer's, works which he edited for publication, works which he commissioned, and a few more recent works which Adams felt reflected his tastes in music.  That last concept made my eyebrows go up slightly because of my own awareness of how we wish certain tastes and attitudes on people from our past, and may do so erroneously.  But in this case I felt that her guesses were more than likely on target.

Out of such a long program of over 20 selections, I can only take the time to comment on a few which particularly moved me.  The three excerpts from Eleanor Daley's Requiem certainly fell into that category.  I remember attending the work's premiere at the Festival many years ago, and finding it enjoyable, but it didn't create a strong impression on me at that time.  Rehearing three sections of it now, I find that it is wearing better than I might have expected and certainly creating a stronger and more favourable impression with the passing of the years.

The Baroque selections with brass were all splendid, and the sound expanded well in the Stockey Centre's high-pitched roof space.  The two spirituals were excellent too, with crisp diction ensuring that all the text, no matter how rapidly delivered, came across clearly.

In a category by itself was Hussein Janmohamed's Nur: Reflections on Light.  This work was written for this choir.  The eighteen singers dispersed themselves around the hall.  As conductor Adams swept her hand in a slow circle around the space, voice by voice they joined in with their individual parts which they then repeated ad lib until the conductorial hand swept around again, indicating a shift to the next section.  The text consisted solely of the word "Nur" ("Light"), and the resulting waves of sound enveloped the audience in a shimmering cloud of sound that indeed seemed to pulse and glow with light.  As the music reached its climax I became more aware of two individual voices closest to my seat on one side of the hall but they faded back into the general sound again as the volume dropped back down.  A seat in the exact centre of the hall would have been a huge advantage for this piece!  But I definitely found it engrossing and somehow very gripping, even though this description may not sound so.

The second half began with a short panel discussion of memories of Elmer including Adams, James Campbell, Chuck Daellenbach, and Jessie Iseler (Elmer's widow).  I was sorry that Adams confined herself to moderating the discussion as I'm sure her long professional association with Elmer would have given her insights shared by no one else present.  But the others all spoke entertainingly and with point and purpose.

This is a good time to mention that the large overhead screen displayed a lengthy slide show of Elmer Iseler's career and performances throughout the evening.  I once had the privilege of singing under his direction for one year in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and this slide show, including faces familiar and places familiar, greatly heightened the impact of the evening for me.  It was a remarkable trip down memory lane, and there were undoubtedly others in the audience who shared that journey with me.  I know it was a journey shared by many of  the performers, who were sneaking glances at the screen throughout the evening whenever they were not actually playing or singing!

The musical selections in the second half included a number of British and Celtic folk song arrangements.  These are always fun to sing but I find them less interesting to listen to as the melody's the thing in folk music, and it has a way of vanishing in the parts of any choral arrangement.

But no complaints about the concert's finale.  The full forces joined in The Hour Has Come by Srul Irving Glick.  This gripping piece was originally composed as the finale of a thirty-minute choral symphony of the same name, commissioned by Elmer and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and first performed by them (and published) in 1985.  I have never heard of any performance of the full work since then, but the final movement has taken on a continuing life of its own and with good reason.  Even in the authorized reduced version for choir, piano and brass quintet (and with an added clarinet part for the long solo line at the introduction), it made a huge impact.  The poem, by Carole Leckner, sings of "brothers and sisters... sisters and brothers" and finishes with the affirmation that "The hour has come for love."

There are two moments in the music when the choir, singing in monotone, suddenly blossoms into eight parts fortissimo, a stunning and exhilarating effect.  This is particularly true the second time when the brass join in.  The total wave of sound at this point grew so powerful that I almost looked around the hall to see where the extra voices were coming from!

This final work also gave me food for thought in another direction.  This programme included two works, one by a Jewish Canadian composer, and one by a Muslim Canadian composer, which in their different ways stepped over or set aside sectarian boundaries and differences.  I don't know if Glick and Janmohamed, two men from very different generations and backgrounds, could have been comfortable to shake hands and greet each other in person, but somehow I think that they have managed to do just that in their music.  That was a powerful and uplifting thought to carry with me as I left the hall at the end of an amazing evening.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 2: Glory, Grandeur and Goofiness

In the music world, small ensembles tend to have a limited lifespan.  Your average quartet or quintet group will not stay in business for more than a few decades, sometimes less, as individual members move on to pursue other interests and other projects.  Those individuals may be replaced, but the group as a whole will tend to sound different, enough so that the members may then decide to wrap it up for good.  It's rare today, therefore, to find a chamber ensemble taking the stage at the Festival of the Sound which has been around longer than the Festival itself (which is 36 years old this summer). 

The more remarkable, therefore, that the group which presented the Gala Opening Concert on Saturday has been in business for 45 years (since 1970).  What's even more remarkable is that the current membership of the world-famous Canadian Brass actually includes one of the 1970 charter members: tuba player Chuck Daellenbach, who has been with the group continuously throughout its active performing life.  Remarkable -- and ironic, since it seems plain (from appearances) that none of his current colleagues were even born when the Canadian Brass gave its first performances!

I suspect one of the key reasons for the longevity of the Canadian Brass is precisely the air of general irreverence, genial fun, even subversive mockery, which highlights their performances.  To go to a concert featuring the Canadian Brass is to be entertained, and to come away laughing.

You're also guaranteed to come away admiring the virtuoso artistry of the group, since every player gets key solo moments and pieces highlighting his instrument.

The group entered through the audience, playing a light-hearted march which was only identified as "our encore -- we play it before the programme proper begins, just in case."  They were dressed in classic Canadian Brass attire: black evening suits, white tennis shoes, and wildly checkered socks.

The repertoire was a fine mix of classical, jazz, and pop, all cleverly arranged for the ensemble of 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba.  Bach's Fugue in G Minor (a long-time signature item) was crisp and clean.  A Gabrieli selection was played appropriately with the players scattered around the house -- and with audience members asked to hold the electronic pads that displayed the music.  I've heard of artists pursuing this new trend in performance parts, but this is the first time I have seen an entire ensemble using electronic scores.  I don't think my eyes could read them, though!

For me, the arrangements of Schumann and Brahms were less successful.  These rather densely-written piano works sounded somewhat chaotic or congested on brass instruments.

The performances of Fats Waller's Handful of Keys and the Beale Street Blues were much better, with a light-hearted and light-toned approach that suited the music to perfection.

An emotional highlight, and one of the most effective arrangements on the programme, was the Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber (arranged by Stephen McNeff).  Here the sound was brought right down to the quiet level needed for the opening and closing bars by having the trumpets and trombone turn to face away from the audience, allowing the quiet horn solos to be clearly heard.

My first impression was that the comic shtick had been considerably toned down in the decades since I had last attended a live CB performance.  Various members took turns making introductions at the microphone, and those introductions were laced with clever verbal humour.  I remarked to a few people at intermission that the wildly physical antics of yore seemed to have been toned down.

Well, I spoke too soon!  The programme wrapped up with a Tribute to the Ballet in which all the members indulged in various ridiculous "choreographic" absurdities while playing arrangements of everything from Swan Lake and The Nutcracker to the Dance of the Hours.  I won't even begin to describe everything that happened during those insane 10 minutes, but the well-filled house was rocking in a continual uproar of laughter throughout.  As demanded by Canadian Brass tradition, the musical values were well-respected throughout this insanity too.

All in all, this was a grand opening event in every sense.  With fine playing, entertaining humour, and a nice mix of musical styles and eras, the Canadian Brass did a good job of touching all the keynotes for which the Festival of the Sound is so well-known.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Festival of the Sound 2015 # 1: Off and Running!

It's that time of year again!  For the next two weeks (minus a day or two) I am "in residence" in a forest-shrouded hotel at Parry Sound, and wallowing in hours and hours of beautiful classical music at the annual Festival of the Sound -- for the 22nd season in a row.

For those not familiar, the Festival is now 36 years old.  It runs for three and a half weeks every summer from mid-July to mid August.  The main venue is the beautiful concert hall of the Charles W. Stockey Centre on the Parry Sound waterfront.  The hall has absolutely splendid acoustics, as I can attest, having sat in seats in every part of the space in the past.  Outside, a broad patio with plenty of tables and chairs gives a grandstand view of the sailing school and the comings and goings of the Island Queen and Chippewa cruise boats during the daytime, and spectacular Georgian Bay sunsets in the evening.

Not only that, but the entire hall can be quickly and easily cleared and brought to a flat-floor configuration for banquets and other events, as will be seen below.

It's all a far cry from the early days in the 1980s when concerts took place in the sweltering heat of the high school's small gym, with train horns at the nearby level crossings intruding with absolutely awful regularity and bad timing whenever there was an especially quiet passage in the music!

Every year the Festival throws a couple of special parties as fund-raisers.  This year, the main dinner party also served as the launch event for the Festival.  The entire event, a three course dinner interleaved with three short concerts, took place on the main floor of the hall last night.  By tonight, the hall will be back to its standard raked configuration with upholstered seating and all in place, and the stage ready to go for the standard Gala Opening Concert.  All of the performers were old favourites of the Festival's audiences.  And all of them donated their services for the evening, which says much for their affection for Parry Sound and the Festival.

The event began with a meet-and-greet in the lobby, with cheese and fruit trays, and a cash bar.  At 6:30 we moved into the hall, found our reserved tables and immediately set to work on the first course, a chilled soup with heirloom tomato and buffalo mozzarella salad alongside.

The first concert was the wonderful Gryphon Trio, in their only Festival appearance this year.  Beethoven's Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1 No. 3 made an apt beginning to the Festival, as Jamie Parker (pianist) pointed out, since it was in the first group of works Beethoven chose to publish.  No question about it, Beethoven definitely began as he meant to go on.  The dramatic and energetic fireworks in the first and last movements frame a slow movement theme and variations of apparently artless simplicity, and a scherzo whose main theme runs to the peculiar length of 13 bars of music -- an odd feature in a time when symmetry was a highly valued quality in all compositions!  The Gryphons delivered a crisp, sparkling reading full of the youthful high spirits demanded by this score.  That lovely slow movement was played with a gentle touch that really highlighted the contrast to the dramatic opening.  If the finale got a big blurry in spots, especially in the piano part, well, that's what happens when Beethoven puts several dozen notes into each bar and then marks the music prestissimo (perhaps best translated as "play it like a bat out of hell!") 

The main course of dinner followed, a pan-seared sea bass with baby bok choy, beans and carrots, and polenta.  Then came the second concert.  The duo pianists Anagnoson and Kinton took the stage with a group of pieces for piano duo (that is 4 hands at 1 piano).  First came Schubert's famous Marche Militaire, which -- in spite of its imposing name -- actually works best when played with a light touch and a spring in its step.  This we certainly heard!  Then came two Hungarian Dances by Brahms, and finally two of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances.  Anagnoson and Kinton are well-known for their ability to play lightly and cleanly, yet with plenty of energy, and the moments of crescendo and emphasis in their performances were carefully judged and beautifully executed.  Since I have played many of these pieces with my sister Kathie, it's always a special delight and lesson in style to hear such consummate artists perform the same works.  This segment ended with Carolyn Maule and Guy Few joining in an arrangement of Sarasate's famous violin piece Zigeunerweisen for trumpet and piano.  Great fun, and a wonderful showpiece for Few's skill -- but I really prefer the original which makes the violin sound like a human voice singing.

The dessert was a sinfully rich -- well, the menu said crème brulee but it actually was mousse brulee, a swirl of white and dark chocolate mousses with the brulee crust and garnished with fresh fruit.  To crown an evening like that, you'd better arrange something spectacular and that was what we got when internationally-renowned baritone Russell Braun took the stage with wife Carolyn Maule (a Parry Sound hometowner) as accompanist.  He sang Ford's revenge aria from Falstaff by Verdi, and followed that with the spectacular fireworks of Figaro's Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville by Rossini.  Braun sang magnificently in both arias, but certainly couldn't (and shouldn't) restrain his urge to do some comic business involving members of the audience during the Rossini!  Great music making and great fun in equal measure!  He then sang a romantic Noel Coward ballad, with a trumpet obbligato by Guy Few.  That left it to Carolyn and Guy to close the evening with one of Coward's showstopper comic patter songs.  Since Guy Few is also a splendid singer (albeit with a lighter voice) and a first-rate stand-up comedian, this ending perfectly wrapped up the evening with a bang and a flash and lots of great big laughs.  However, Few and Maule did add one final footnote, with the gentle poetry of Leroy Anderson's Trumpeter's Lullaby to wind everything back down again for a quiet conclusion.

I'm going to be back on here at regular intervals for the next two weeks, updating my faithful readers about all the incredible music to be heard here, and all for a fraction of the cost of concert-going in most major cities.