Archive for August, 2008

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, Friday, August 8

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Noon, Friday, August 8, Ottawa  Chamberfest ’08

Our final day at Chamberfest opened wonderfully with a vocal recital by prizewinning soprano Martha Guth accompanied on piano by Erika Switzer and an ensemble of nine splendid chamber musicians. She warmed up with Ernest Chausson’s beautiful piano quintet “Chanson Perpétuelle, opus 37 (1898),” a declaration of love by an abandoned woman to her absent lover.  Guth’s singing was fluent and easy, her tone warm and rich in quality, so you became sensitive to her passion, and she possesses a lightness and control that prevents the feeling from cloying.

Shifting the mood from the melancholy to the magnificent, Ms. Guth, accompanied by the sensuous keyboard attack of Erika Switzer, gave us three songs by Debussy that exude in their undulating lines an exuberant, pagan, eroticism. “Chansons de Biltis” has as its subject the ‘Sapphic’ love of women and girls in which the hero, Bilitis undertakes an amatory journey with a faun that leads her to the ‘Tomb of the Naiads’ where she has a transcendent experience.  Ms. Guth seemed to be empowered by this music, taking us on a smooth ride to the tops of her remarkable range, leaving no doubt of her control, and just hinting at the awesome power she keeps in reserve.

Moving back into the darker mood, Ms. Guth selected a much admired work by the late American composer Earl Kim (1920-1998),  “Where Grief Slumbers,” that she performed largely a capella, sometimes assisted by a harp and string octet. Throughout this atonal suite based on poems by Rimbaud and Apollinaire, we heard contrasting and emotionally powerful songs sung in a voice in which deep emotion flowed like crystal water from a spring.

Martha Guth brought this recital to a joyful close accompanied by Ms. Switzer with Olivier Messiaen’s intensely lyrical paean to his wife and child “Chants de Terre et de Ciel.” Thundering ovation, particularly from our resident visiting Messiaen expert, Harry Halbreich.

5 pm, Friday, August 8, Ottawa  Chamberfest ’08

I Furiosi Baroque Ensemble is four of Canada’s leading early music specialists. Two of them, violinists Julia Wedman and Aislinn Nosky, are core members of Tafelmusik. Soprano Gabrielle McLaughlin and cellist/gambist Felix Deak are also connected to Tafelmusik. Feisty and humorous, I Furiosi have shed classical music’s image of bow-tie and starched suit in favour of their default Dominatrix gear. This evening they appear in hospital garb, –bandages and straightjackets and dollies–to perform a program from their new album “Crazy”– more than a dozen Baroque pieces “about craziness, by
crazy people and from the perspective of insane people”, including an out of period piece, “Suzanne,” by Leonard Cohen. Individually they play well, though I found Ms. McLaughlin’s singing on the shrill side. The asylum costuming and antics were mostly a distraction. I was touched by Mr. Deak’s solos, and the few bars that introduce “Suzanne”(which was beautifully done as an instrumental) always get me.

8 pm, Friday, August 8, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08.

This evening, and this Festival, ended for us on the highest possible note: superstar pianist Louise Bessette performing an entire programme of Messiaen, assisted by Robert Cram on flute, Estelle Lemire on Ondes Martenot, Benjamin Bowman and Donnie Deacon, violins, Theresa Rudolph,viola , and Timothy McCoy,cello.

Mme. Bessette performed the solo piano works “Prelude (1964)”, and “La fauvette des jardins (1970)”. She was joined by the string quartet for “Pièce for Piano and String Quartet (1991),” by Robert Cram for “La Merle Noir (1951),” and by Estelle Lemire for “Four Unpublished Works for Piano and Ondes Martenot.”

I had decided to relax for this concert and just let the music take me, away from my notepad, wherever it would lead. My memory is of an unbroken flow of of crystalline forms radiant with colour, rising like icebergs, calving like glaciers, palatial forms of luminous architecture manifesting from space and dissolving back into it, the creative process itself seen and heard as a co-emergent display beyond science and religion both.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, Thursday, August 7: Part Two

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

7:30 pm, Thursday, August 7, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08.

Many connoisseurs assert that the Leipzig String Quartet is the among the best in the world.  Well, why not!  Anything I have ever heard them play, no matter how familiar, turns out to be a surprise gift. This night began with a surprise: they have a new first violin. Andreas Seidel has left the quartet he founded 20 years ago with three other principals of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Seidel’s successor as ‘primarius’, also a former Gewandhaus principal, is the violinist Stefan Arzberger pictured here to the left of Tilman Buning [Click on the photo for an enlargement].

The middle item on their program was the “String Quartet in A minor, opus 13,“ by Felix Mendelssohn who became the Gewandhaus’ Musical Director in 1835 at the age of 24, about 4 years after he composed this quartet.  The A minor is Mendelssohn’s extended love song to a mysterious romantic attachment he formed before he was 20. By relying on the technical complexity that the formidable Beethoven was demonstrating in his later quartets, Mendelssohn succeeded in producing a work in which youthful romantic ideas achieved expression in mature classical forms with an effortless that brought the composer instant success with publishers and the public alike. These Leipzigers lit up to Mendelssohn’s lyrical flow bringing out an awesome range of colour and texture, while maintaining a meticulous edge of precision and balance.

Beethoven’s “opus 95”, nicknamed ‘Serioso’ had the impact of a musical news flash. It is the shortest and tightest of his quartets, but possesses a kind of monumental grandeur. The Leipzigers played with such clean intonation, keeping their entrances surgically precise, particularly in passages containing mysterious silences and seemingly off-the-wall eruptions, with the result that the musical lines glowed like the a night photo of an active volcano.

Saving the best for last was the performance that gave me the greatest high of this year’s Chamberfest, the “Piano Quintet in G minor, opus 57”, by Dmitri Shostakovich. For clarity and classical balance there is the ‘Prelude,’ that runs through gamut of moods from solemnity through gaiety to intense drama.  For profundity that could move you to tears, there is the ‘Adagio: fugue’ introduced by Arzberger’s melancholy violin as a folk motif that arches in an unbroken line, builds to a heated climax and subsides into silence.

For fire and fury, there is the ‘Scherzo’ that Stéphane Lemelin introduces with a feisty two-phrase piano ditty. This evokes a raucous, barely friendly, dissonant response from the strings that resolves into a folkdance whose wildness re-ignites the fire and fury of the opening. The ‘Intermezzo’ walks a staccato line through a gallery of tone colours until Lemelin’s piano leads it into a kind of Russian ‘Bring in the Clowns’ dance/march that whirls us into the hectic flush of Carnival high spirits, then settles us on quiet ground, in a kind of sobering dawn of realization.

This kind of all out, high contrast, full-hearted but grounded intelligence we heard in this performance is the signature of The Leipzig String Quartet.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, Thursday, August 7, 2008: Part One

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

Noon, Wednesday, August 7, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08

The concert had a headliner and a special attraction. The headliner was the 2006 Honen’s First Laureate pianist Minsoo Sohn. The special attraction was Mark Nerenberg (1973)[click on the photo], a composer from Edmonton who enjoyed  a world première of his composition for cello and piano entitled “I Thirst”. Mr. Nerenberg was  familiar to most of the Chamberfest audience for an amazing tape he made and played daily of conversations that happened among dedicated concert-goers during the long lineups(up to 4 hours, rain or shine) outside concert venues. What a delightful surprise it was to hear a powerful performance of his thoughtful “I Thirst”, a moving work for piano and cello based on one of the seven last words of Christ.

Minsoo Sohn[click on the photo] has a Gouldian presence at the keyboard. His body moves fluidly as he is stirred by his passion for the music, and indeed, for the instrument which he seems at times to be embracing. His hands are poetic, caressing the keys lightly or striking them with great force, but always precisely, and always bringing out subtlety in the phrasing that individualizes the character and feeling of the music. Despite these natural theatrics, Minsoo Sohn did not overplay the music and kept the sensitivity of his playing well controlled.

Minsoo Sohn accompanied on cello by Rachel Mercer[click on the photo] gave Mark Nerenberg his première, but focused their recital on two major works by Beethoven, the “Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, opus 102, No.2”, and the earlier “ Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, opus 69, No 3.” Beethoven completed the A major in 1808 during his productive middle period, the leap into the Romantic ideal that accounted for the Fifth Symphony, the Violin Concerto and the Apassionnata.

The D major, composed in 1815, is transitional to the great late string quartets and bears the marks of Beethoven’s increasing freedom of expression with structure. This Sonata has only three movements; it produces a disjointed feeling, the melodic line is austere, and without warning it takes unexpected changes in tempo and mood. The third movement ‘Allegro fugato’ has the reputation of being extremely daunting to play. Given too, that the cello sonata is know to be a difficult medium because low notes of the lower strings on both instruments tend to cover each making the question of balance an elusive one, this impromptu but excellent duo of Sohn and Mercer gave a convincing account of all three works. I have already remarked on the qualities of Sohn’s playing. Rachel Mercer showed that her technique is solid and that she can awaken her instrument to sing full-throated yet sweet tones even in the most demanding passages.

PS Here is a view of a typical Chamberfest lineup outside the venue where this concert took place. Here is the link to hear Mark Nerenburg’s interactive tape entitled “LINES” You can also listen online to some pieces of his music.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, August 6, 2008:Part Two

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

2 PM, Wednesday, August 6, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08.

Beethoven’s sparkling “Sonata for Piano and Violin in E-flat major, Op. 12, No.3” is among the first of this genre Beethoven wrote in 1799 at the age of 27. It is dedicated to his ‘professor’ Antonio Salieri, and is full of Beethoven’s originality. Duo Concertante’s Nancy Dahn and Timothy Steeves played it transparently, with ease, allowing the lyric elements of the piece unhindered flow. I was especially touched by the expressive Adagio second movement, and the richly energetic surge of the final movement that brought the audience to its feet.

The next work maintained the effervescent mood and even raised it a notch or two. This triple tour de force of originality entitled “Late in a slow time” offered five really good poems by Governor General’s Award Nominee Carole Glasser Langille set to music by Chan Ka Nin (1949-), sung by the charismatic soprano Caroline Schiller backed by Duo Concertante.

The photo on the left [click on the photo to see an enlarged image] shows Ms. Schiller’s dramatic recitation of the first of five pieces. It begins with these words: “In Vermeer’s paintings, / we look through half-opened doors/ to distant rooms, anticipating/ illumination.” Ms. Langille’s language is immediately convincing. It is the real stuff that takes you into her ‘private room’. Chan Ka Nin’s music is appropriate and beautiful. [To see an image of the poet and the composer enjoying an ovation, please click HERE].

After intermission the young and all female quartet–Made in Canada–(with Ben Bowman sitting in for Judy Kang) continued the afternoon’s experience of great satisfaction with the “Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25”, the first and the most popular of the three quartets for piano and strings written by Johannes Brahms during the 1860’s. This work earned Brahms the label “Beethoven’s heir.” This afternoon’s group of players named after a label did justice to the expansive, wistful, expressive, and boisterous gypsy qualities of this music that ended the afternoon’s concert like a charm.

The evening is a classical feast given by the Vienna Piano Trio playing trios by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. This is the third year I have heard Vienna’s well-honed ensemble at Chamberfest, and it never fails that their playing is full of energy, anticipation and excitement, like young players, while also displaying the polish and power of long acquaintance. One has learned to expect detail balanced with expressive purpose, free of any mannerism, music-making that breathes the beauty of the moment.

Haydn’s “Piano Trio in G major, Hob. 25” is balanced in spreading responsibilities among piano and strings. The Vienna makes the most of the colourful final Rondo, keeping it lucid, allowing the grace and lightness of Haydn to show through while allowing the flamboyant gypsy themes to whip up the audience.

Pianist Stefan Mendl opened Beethoven’s “Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.1, No. 1″ with a virtuosically brilliant roman candle of chords before the ensemble settled into a quiet, step-wise exchange of views on the three repeated notes that make up the second subject. The players enliven the Adagio with a spread of harmonic and rhythmic surprises. In the Scherzo, Mendl again speeds like a thoroughbred among the long and subtle lines woven with melting beauty by violinist Redik and cellist Grindler. The finale balances irresistible good humour with a finely calibrated building of sound that conveys, more than anything, a sense of ‘no worries.’ The charm of Vienna.

Schubert’s “Trio No.1 in B flat major, Op. Post. 99, D. 898”, never performed in his lifetime, opens with Redik on violin playing a dignified theme that is answered by a rhythmically tense swaggering figure from the piano. There follows a lovely singing melody up in the higher range of Grindler’s cello. The final coda, is short and quiet, but ends abruptly with two loud chords. In their playing here, the Vienna Piano Trio encapsulate the definitive sense of the balance between effortless lyricism and dramatic surprise that is the essence of Schubert, a composer who knew how to love the fragrance of the flower that blooms in the morning and fades by noon. This posthumous opus, like this wonderful day of music, came to a vivacious close on this joyful note.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, August 6, 2008: Part One

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

Wednesday, August 6, Ottawa Chamberfest, ’08.

Chamberfest is all about choices. At noon today, we gave up an opportunity to hear the stellar Leipzig String Quartet (they would be around for a while) playing Beethoven and Halfter to take in a not-to-be-repeated appearance of Canadians: bass Robert Pomakov and the Ottawa Baroque Consort with guest soloist John Abberger of Tafelmusik. [Please click on the photo to see an enlarged image].

The opening piece was Bach’s Cantata BWV 52 written in C minor for bass soloist, solo oboe, strings, and basso continuo. It is dark in tone and spare in execution. “Ich habe genug” is one of the bleakest of Bach’s cantatas. The message is terminal: “With joy I greet my death.”

The work is organized as an alternation of aria and recitative. The slow, sad opening aria has Abberger keening an obbligato oboe above the strings and the anguished bass below. The central aria, the famous “Schlummert ein” has a tender melody in the strings to comfort the sighing, disconsolate bass. This was the point where Pomakov’s voice came out of strain mode and became touching. The closing aria is an almost cheerful dance of death. As you may be able to see from this candid photo of an audience member, dismal Bach at noon is not an altogether bad idea. [Please click on her photo to see an enlarged image].

The middle part of the program focused on Pomakov and showed him at his powerful and heartfelt best [Click on photo] singing ‘Russian romances’—“Lullaby”, and “Doubt” by Mikhail Glinka, and three fine and familiar Tchaikovsky compositions – “None but the lonely heart, Opus 6. No. 6,” “Night,” and “The stars look tenderly upon us, Opus 60. No 12.” We listened with great satisfaction to Pomakov’s singing, accompanied by the Gryphon Trio’s ubiquitous cellist Roman Borys and the impeccable pianist Jamie Parker.

The finale was a rare treat–Samuel Barber’s setting of the text of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” sung in English richly accompanied by the outstanding violins of Ben Bowman and Donnie Deacon, with Theresa Rudolph on viola and Timothy McCoy on cello. Considering that most of the music concerned death, loneliness, and isolation, we left the concert hall feeling very uplifted and ready for a quick bite of lunch before the 2 pm concert.

Stanley Fefferman’s Chamberfest Diary, August 5, 2008:Part Two

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Tuesday, August 5, Ottawa Chamberfest ’08

This Tuesday feast of music continued with concerts at 4 pm, 5 pm, and 8 pm. The first concert was part of a continuing tribute to Olivier Messiaen, with the dual pianos of Stéphane Lemelin [pictured here] and Andrew Tunis offering his amazing seven part “Visions de l’Amen.” This inspiring work was originally performed in 1943 by the duo of the composer himself, his hand damaged by cold during confinement in a Nazi prison camp, and his student/muse and wife-soon-to-be, Yvonne Loriod. The twin pianos depict first the creation, then the orbiting planets and their flirtatious interaction swelling through Messiaen’s signature choirs of songbird/angels toward majestic consummation.

The 5 pm concert was the fifth in the series:MUSIC OF OUR TIME. Pianist Jacynthe Riverin made herself quite at home with the East Indian musical current underlying the sonata by Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1982) entitled “Quattro Illustrazioni,” which depicts four metamorphoses of the Hindu Deity Vishnu. The four movements show Vishnu asleep as the body of the universe, as a wild boar on a destructive rampage through the world, as the majestic Rama, and as the meditative Krishna. Throughout, Riverin keeps pace with the subtlety and force of rhythms that emerge from ostinato notes, build into chords that erupt like sonic volcanic eruptions that gradually subside into a sea of celestial harmonies.

What stands out most in my mind of the subsequent pieces by 6 composers performed by as many musicians is the work of Rebecca Danard on clarinet. Her tone remained pure throughout a vigorous journey in a wide range of registers, and her control was as polished as anything I’ve heard. Ms. Danard performed a work that she commissioned from Ottawa composer Evan Ware (1977), entitled “Leaving”, and gave a world premiere to “TECO-TECO” by Silvia Rickard (1937). She was accompanied by pianist Frédéric Lacroix on “Dark Fire” by Elma Miller (1954), an original artist who combines composition with typography, and is, incidentally, a winner of the R. Murray Schaffer Prize.

Most notable among the 6 compositions was “Milosz Songs” by Pulitzer prize winning composer John Harbison (1938) with text by the eponymous Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. This gripping piece was given an impressive performance by soprano Carolyn Schiller accompanied by Timothy Steeves on the piano. The last piece we enjoyed as evening fell was Gary Kulesha’s poetic “…and dark flowed by her like a river…” performed by Angela Park on piano and Ben Bowman on violin.

If this day was a musical feast, the ending of it was like a session with the finest imaginable brandy—namely, a concert by the Vienna Piano Trio. I was so looking forward to it that I left my camera and notebook at home and allowed myself the pleasure of just listening and enjoying the flow of music and stillness. (The photo here is of the VPTrio at a previous Chamberfest. Please click on it for a larger image.) . Nonetheless, I have a few things of value to add to this record, in the spirit of a happy diner would share the menu of a fabulous meal with friends.

The first half of the concert consisted of an even dozen pieces by contemporary composers, some of whom will be familiar to you, and if not, by all means make their acquaintance—look them up on the internet and check out their music. The composers are: Cristobal Halfter (1930), Harrisson Birdwhistle (1934). Georg Friedrick Hass (1953), Jay Schwartz (1965), Saed Haddad (1972), David Sawer (172), Johannes Maria Staud (1974), Friedrich Cerha (1926), Mauricio Sotelo (1961), Arvo Part (1935), Gyorgy Kurtag (1926-), and saving the best for last, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and his unsurpassed “Trio in A minor for Violin Cello and Piano.” The second half of the concert was entirely devoted to an even more beautiful piece (if comparisons are at all possible)—the “Trio No.2 in E minor, Op. 67″ by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975).