Archive for July, 2008

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest ’08 Diary, July 30-31

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Omar Daniel’s “The Flaying of Marsyas,” was performed in the comfort of the new Canadian Museum of Civilization. Marsyas, played by the composer, hung upside down suspended half naked by his ankles inside a metal frame and wired with electrodes connecting him to an electronic effects machine run by Mark Nerenberg. All the while, and for a good long while, Erica Raum, barefoot, circled Marsyas as he writhed in agony, and played Daniel’s ritualized score on her electrified violin. Hard to take, and unforgettable. This performance piece in which the composer is a willing victim says a lot about the commitment of an artist to his work. It may help to know something about the story Daniel’s work is based on.

There are many versions of the story known from Antiquity as “The Flaying of Marsyas.” The one I prefer sees Marsyas, a satyr who is expert in the double-piped reed flute, as an artist great enough to arouse the jealousy of a god. It is the lyre-playing god Apollo who challenges and defeats Marsyas by a ruse and condemns Marsyas to have the living hairy hide flayed off his body. The tears shed by those who mourned Marsyas created a river that flows to this day in the part of Greece formerly known as Phrygia.

While we are on the topic of music and pain, bass-baritone Daniel Lichti gave a wonderful recital of Schubert’s cycle of Lieder, “Die Winterreise,” accompanied by his colleague Leslie De’ Ath. Twenty-four beautiful songs tell the story of a lover condemned to live out a loveless life as if he were a street musician barefoot in the wintry city. This seasoned pair of recitalists have performed “Winterreise” worldwide for many years and do it smooth and genuine as silk. Analekta has just issued a most welcome recording of this hour-long work that I look forward to hearing.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, July 29-30, 2008.

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Tuesday, July 29, 2008. Ottawa

The Keller Quartet of Budapest did an awesome performance of Gyorgi Ligeti’s sixteen movement “String Quartet No. 1, ‘Metamorphoses Nocturnes’”, a work of dizzying complexity and power, followed by a brilliant soother, Tchaikovsky’s “String Sextet in D Minor, Op. 70, ‘Souvenir de Florence’”, assisted in this by violinist Douglas McNab and Cellist Denise Djokic. The Keller’s opening piece, Bartok’s first string quartet in A minor inspired me to gather a few words on details.

The opening bars, a double canon, sound like a mournful sigh, expressing the torn heart of the twenty-something composer who had come to the painful end of his first serious love affair. Out of this lost love, and out of Bartok’s ongoing artistic struggle to break away from the prevailing ‘German cultural outlook’ and to find his own voice, his opening sigh rises through rhythmic figures of great intensity to a fiery outcry in the low register from Zoltan Gal’s viola that is calmed by a quiet quasi parental dialogue between first violin and cello. One is struck by Bartok’s total vulnerability in this movement. The Allegretto builds on motifs from the first movement and includes a lovely waltz like melody, a rhythmic pizzicato passage in the Judit Szabo’s cello, and some rustic music with a folk flavour. The finale is where Bartok finally manages to introduce, rather forcefully, some real Hungarian folk-dance elements, and it is as if the sighing lover of the first movement here fully returns to life.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008. Ottawa.

The Gryphon Trio gave a noonday concert to premiere Heather Schmidt’s “Lunar Reflections”. This totally attractive piece is built on the idea of five kinds of moon: a Blue (once in a while) Moon; a Pink (April flowers) Moon; a dark hungry December Wolf Moon; a lovely February Snow Moon; and the Thunder Moon of July. The performance was an unequivocal success with the audience, oneself being no exception. It would be wonderful to hear this piece again and give it more consideration.

Paul Marlyn, the cellist, joined Stéphane Lemelin at the piano in a moving meditation by Ernest Bloch well known as “Hebrew Meditations.”  The program moved from strength to strength, concluding with the NAC Winds and with Lemelin’s delightful performance of Beethoven’s “Quintet in E-flat Major for Winds and Piano.”  Inspired by Mozart’s “Quintet in E-flat (K.452)”, Beethoven’s highly successful work opens in a slow and dignified fashion, moving into a relaxed and playful Allegro light in mood. Lemelin introduces the long-phrased melody of the second movement that is taken up by the winds and ornamented in a minor key. The concluding Rondo, which contains a short piano cadenza, is high-spirited— a good ending to this noonday concert for those music lovers who are going back to work, as well as those of us lucky enough to grab a bite of lunch and stroll over to the next concert venue of the afternoon.

Some Notes on Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) the centenary of whose birth is being celebrated at Chamberfest ’08 in a series of three concerts

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008. Ottawa.

Olivier Messiaen described his musical leanings in these four words: theologian, rhythmist, colourist, and bird lover.
– Messiaen was a strong Catholic and lifelong organist at Trinité Church in Paris. His compositions for organ fill half a dozen CD’s.
– Messiaen regarded rhythm as a topic almost separate from music and spent much time studying the intricacies of Hindu rhythmic patterns.
– Messiaen learned to notate and recognize some 500 bird songs that he incorporated into his music.
– Messiaen was synaesthetic: he naturally visualized colours while listening to or reading music. While enduring life as a POW in a German prisoner-of-war camp at Gorlitz, Silesia from 1940-42 he regularly dreamed of sound colours that he put into his music.
-His seminal “Quartet for the End of Time” was composed in Gorlitz as a way of surviving the “cruelty and horrors of the camp.” It was premiered on January 14, 1941 in Stalag V111-A before an audience of 5000 prisoners. Messiaen commented later, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

The following notes on the eight movements are partly based on Messiaen’s descriptions.

I. Predawn and the awakening of the birds; a thrush (one of the most vocally talented of birds) improvises, amid notes of shining sound and a halo of trills that lose themselves in the trees…The piano [Jamie Parker] provides a rhythmic ostinato based on unequal augmentations and diminutions—the clarinet [James Campbell] unfolds a bird song.
II. From the piano, soft cascades of blue-orange chords, the plainchant-like recitativo of violin [Annalee Patipatanakoon] and cello [Roman Borys].
III    “Clarinet solo [James Campbell]. The abyss of time, with its sadness and tediums. The birds are the opposite of time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows and for jubilant outpourings of song! There is a great contrast between the desolation of time…and the joy of bird-songs.
IV    Scherzo. Of a more outgoing character than the other movements.
V    A long phrase, infinitely slow, by the cello…with love and reverence…majestically the melody unfolds itself at a distance both intimate and awesome.
VI    Dance of Fury. Rhythmically the most idiosyncratic movement of the set. The four instruments in unison give the effect of gongs and trumpets…Use of extended note values [and] augmented or diminished rhythmic patterns. Music of stone, formidable sonority; movement as irresistible as steel, as huge blocks of livid fury or ice like frenzy….
VII    In my dreamings I hear and see ordered melodies and chords, familiar hues and forms: then following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and submit ecstatically to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colours…rivers of blue-orange lava, these sudden stars…behold the rainbows.
VIII    Expansive violin solo [Annalee Patipatanakoon] balancing the cello solo [Roman Borys] of the fifth movement. Glorification of total love…a slow rising to a supreme point [of human life]—the ascension toward [the ultimate beyond all striving.]\

New Zealand String Quartet at Chamberfest ’08 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008, First Baptist, Ottawa.

The “Quartet in G minor, Op. 10,” a seminal work of the “gay 90’s” by Debussy, is free in its form and structure, varied in tonalities that grow through flexible melodies and intricate rhythms. At times plaintive and diffuse, at times passionate and assertive, like a theatrical procession on parade, all these effects are nicely controlled by the New Zealand String Quartet. I particularly appreciated their ability to soften the edges of modulations allowing them to flow into an impressionistic texture.

The second movement alternated charmingly bouncy pizzicatos with lyrical passages in which Gillian Ansell’s viola produced an interestingly juicy sound. The third had a duet between Ansell and Douglas Beilman’s second violin that fell slowly as the syllables in Keats’ “Ode to Melancholy” (‘No, no, go not to Lethe’ etc), suspending the audience in a tranquil reverence. The final movement, based on the first’s germinal motif, develops through an animated fugue carried by Rolf Gjeltsen’s cello towards an exciting conclusion.

The NZQ is renowned for its support of native talent. They offered a short piece by John Psathas. Entitled “From Kartsigar”, it recollects Psathas’ childhood impressions of Greek folk music played by his parents. These he transforms from the original forms for voice and clarino that employ quartertones into an arrangement for string quartet that bends notes in a bluesy way, strings share the job of sounding like talking drums. This was a very refreshing experience.

Schubert’s 15th and last quartet, the “G Major, Op.161, D 887”, was the afternoon’s highlight. The NZQ playing showed the gentle, subtle, intimate Schubert, dying of syphilis and working at a fever pitch characteristic of phases of the disease. The composer’s loving, poetic side is juxtaposed with ferocious moods that fuel incredible orchestral textures that vye for space with dances, songs both rapturous and intimate, and wildly comic theatrical passages. If the playing in the second movement seemed a bit overly laid-back, the third was rightly sprightly with just the lightest touch to sustain buoyancy, while the ensemble’s characteristic laid-back style worked perfectly to control the impetuous shifts of the final rondo.

Shanghai String Quartet at Chamberfest ’08 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Sunday, July 27, 2008.Chalmers United, Ottawa.

From the energetic, buoyant theme introduced solo by the first violin and in duet with the cello, we have no idea why this Beethoven String Quartet in B Flat Major Op. 18, No.6 is subtitled “La Malinconia (Melancholy)”. The second theme, restricted to a few repeated notes, hints at the awareness of grief Beethoven will pour out in the late Quartets twenty years hence. From the start, we are also aware of the fine flowing sound, the controlled and tender touch of these superb players from Shanghai. The exceptional collaboration of first violin and cello is also notable in the ‘Adagio’ during the third presentation of the austere theme. Shanghai’s playing of the rhythmically complex ‘Scherzo’ is unified, and energetic without undue force, and its conclusion, though abrupt, is gentle.

It is the fourth movement from which the composition takes its name. The Shanghai play it, as Beethoven directed, “with the greatest delicacy.”  The opening tones sound as if they are played by a distant horn. The funereal tones that develop could be bagpipes that impart the downward pull of gravity, an effect enhanced by the cello. What is most notable about this movement is the frequent alternation of gloomy passages and sudden upswings of mood in the gaiety of waltz time. This alternation is perhaps the signature of Beethoven’s “Malincolia”.

Cellist Nicholas Tzavaras introduced the Canadian premiere of Chen Yi’s “Path of Beauty” commissioned by the quartet. Originally a seven movement piece for male choir and string quartet, the four movements here are based successively on: 1.Chinese gibberish. 2. Pizzicato allusions to inflections of various Chinese languages. 3. A secluded melody. 4. A very challenging score with the enigmatic title  “The Dancing Ink.”  With one exception, the music seemed built on Chinese principles that communicate by silences, stacatto-slidey passages, and cacophony, a sense of multi-dimensional human space. The third movement balanced a recognizable melody on violins with an accompanying harmonic line almost fugal in character in the lower strings, all played slowly and building a richly textured sense of the fullness of joy.

Brahms’ second string quartet, the “A Minor, Op.51, No. 2”, closed out the evening with its outstanding polyphonic homage to Bach. The arc-like opening theme, which includes three notes of the composer’s musical motto (F-A-E), is a long, diffuse, varied and richly textured line played as if in the tones of an organ. The second movement has the first violin singing a lyrical theme, wavy and amorphous, floating like a series of delicate brushstrokes over the insistent urging of the lower strings. The total effect is heart-rending. The most distinctive theme is in the “Finale”. Here Brahms indulges his fondness for Hungarian Gypsy dance rhythms, pregnant pauses, playful harmonics, and melting transitions, which accelerate to a wild, celebratory conclusion.

There was a standing ovation rewarded by an encore, the second movement of Ravel’s “Quartet.”

André Laplante and the Shanghai String Quartet at Chamberfest ’08 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008, Chalmers United, Ottawa.

André Laplante solo gave a distinctively thoughtful account of two Chopin compositions, the “Nocturne in F major, Op. 15.1″ and the “Fantasie in F major Op.49″. Both works alternate passages of sweetly melancholic notes that drop softly as tears, with passages where streams of turbulent passion burst their banks. Laplante’s deliberation in suspending the flow of the notes during the ruminative passages produced a limpid, tranquil effect that mastered the audience.  Particularly during the “Fantasie”, the more mature work, the hall was hushed, seemingly absorbed in a reverential mood.

Laplante vocalizes in a startling way when he launches into a forceful passage. His keyboard technique is astonishing, but I found his use of force, especially from the left hand, produced excessive vibrations, and an overly dramatic mood. His three sections from Liszt’s “Années de pélerinage, première année: Suisse”, were very exciting. He produced an incredible variety of textures, some very grainy, almost tweedy, where he used force. However, in this work, the force seemed to be used in concert with the deliberately thoughtful limpidity of his right hand.

André Laplante teamed up with the impeccable Shanghai Quartet for Robert Schumann’s groundbreaking and much played chamber composition, the “Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op.44.” The piano part, played at its premiere by Felix Mendelssohn, is very prominent, almost counterbalancing all four strings. This night, the force of the piano was beautifully absorbed during the opening ‘tutti’ by the lower strings, especially Nicholas Tzavaras’ cello which vibrated a sonority that at times verged on the erotic. The haunting arrangement of voices during the mournful march was punctuated by the constant popping of plastic water bottles that really should not be allowed into a concert hall.

In the “finale”, Laplante gave rein to the heavily accented muscularity of his style backed up by a storm of repeated notes from the strings. The movement concludes with a triumphant coda distinguished by a three-voice double fugue that pulsed like a living thing. For an encore, the ensemble replayed the glorious, high-powered “Scherzo”.