In a Bayrakdarian concert there are many moments that melt the heart and take away the breath, but none are more compelling than moments when it appears her song is riding the currents of her husband, Serouj Kradjian’s, sensitive piano.
Their program had plenty of variety—28 songs from cycles by 7 composers including Obradors, Heggie, Ravel, Bellini, Poulenc, Berlioz, and Gomidas, the tragic founder of 20th Century Armenian classical music whose songs bring thoughts “Too deep for tears.” Mr. Kradjian orchestrated and recently recorded 19 modal songs by Gomidas with Ms. Bayrakdarian. The Gomidas Songs seem to issue from a place in their hearts vast and deep as the memory of a lost homeland. Ms. Bayrakdarian herself has said, “In many ways, when I sing them … they come from a part of me that is very different from when I sing any other repertoire.”
Highlights of the ‘other repetoire’ this afternoon include stay-in-the-mind performances of Bellini’s “Vaga Luna”, sublime in its submissiveness to love, the more lively seductive postures of Bellini’s “Per Pietà”, and the thrilling “La Ricordanza.” You could imagine gossamer gown, tangled hair and garlands floating slowly on the etherial stream during their performance of “Mort d’Ophelie” by Berlioz. We enjoyed wit and carefree moments in the elegant passages of Poulenc’s “Banalités”; Ravel’s extraverted “Five Greek Folksongs”, which Ms. Bayrakdarian sang in Greek conveyed the unabashed self-delight of country folk. The passion and drama of a cycle of melismatic Spanish songs by Obrador ended the afternoon on a wakeful note.
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The question about Shostakovich that everyone asks, including R.H. Thomson who introduced this evening, is—“Did he sell out to the Communist Party (that twice suppressed his music) as the price of staying at the top of the Soviet musical heap?”
The multimedia portrait that Andrew Burashko directs surely gets it right. Burashko takes a pass on the ‘did he or didn’t he?’ hype of political conjecture, and gets down to emotional truth in the music. Shostakovich always stayed alive by laughing to keep from crying. In other words, Shostakovich had the blues.
Although Shostakovich rose to be top musical dog under Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, his music was always about staying alive through hard times. This night we enjoyed Shostakovich’s 2nd Piano Trio (1944), dedicated to the memory of his recently deceased best friend and champion, Ivan Sollertinsky. To help himself get through the loss of his friend, Shostakovich built the final movement of his Trio out of Jewish Klezmer music.
We also enjoyed Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet (1960) which contains a record of his feelings about the fiery holocaust the Allies brought down on the German city of Dresden as payback for the Nazi holocaust. The second movement reprises the Jewish themes Shostakovich first introduced in the 2nd Piano Trio. In both compositions, in order to stay alive by joining his personal misery with humanity’s misery and making them both dance in his music, Shostakovich identifies with the musical language of the seriously oppressed in his culture: like Gershwin went to the Blues, Shostakovich went to the Jews.
The opening fugue of the 8th String Quartet, based on the composer’s four-note signature, is disorderly, dissonant, emotionally searing. It is followed by three lyrical sections, each sustained and disturbed by a static, obsessive drone. The second movement scherzo offers the loud, brutal hammering of quarter notes and sforzando chords over the obsessive ostinati of Shostakovich’s four-note signature. These figures collide with the hurtling broken chords of the ‘freygish’ Jewish theme quoted from the 2nd Piano Trio that are cut short as the demonic waltz of the third movement begins to cut its brutal, sardonic figures, making a mockery of suffering and compassion alike, morphing into a muted, keening cloud of high notes that hangs like a plague over the end of the movement.
A single high note on the Stephen Sitarski’s first violin carries over into the fourth movement like the whine of high flying aircraft loaded with bombs that will explode in three-note bursts until the section where the music imitates a chorus singing a Russian folksong whose title translates as “ Tormented by Harsh Captivity.” The fifth and final movement is a slow fugue that completes the Shostakovich signature introduced at the start of the first movement and eventually the evening’s tension fades into a quiet resolution. The magic of the music is that this grotesquerie always skirts the verges of humour.
One might well ask, at this point, why the audience last night, oneself included, was exalted by the performance of what has become known worldwide as Shostakovich’s most popular quartet? Without hesitation I answer it is because the music is so obviously honest that it demands to be heard, and because the players gave everything they had to it. Stephen Sitarski and Ben Bowman on violins, Stephen Dann on viola, and Rachel Mercer on cello are simply the best in the business: they served it up raw, down in the nasty, and so sweet, as Shostakovich wrote it, and they made it come alive for us.
Andrew Burashko joined his piano to the strings of Bowman, Dann and Mercer for a rendition of the 2nd Piano Trio that was compelling in its naked portrayal of grief, violence, and sad beauty. Andrea Nann went after similar qualities in her sombre, solo dance that shared the stage with the Trio and a video/live-image mix by Peter Mettler.
The program wisely placed a chamber ensemble of thirteen stellar musicians performing Shostakovich’s first Jazz Suite between the two ‘serious’ works, highlighting the humour and virtuosity present in much of the composer’s work. All the magic of music-making popped up in one cabaret moment of the “Foxtrot” when Don Rooke’s steel guitar sang Hawaiian tones and the heads of the other musicians on the stage turned towards him and grinned as if they had never heard anything so irresistible before. That’s it.
THE ART OF TIME ENSEMBLE
R.H. Thomson–Introduction, Peter Mettler–Film, Andrea Nann–Dance, Andrew Burashko–Piano, Andy Ballantyne–Sax, Benjamin Bowman–Violin, James Brown–Guitar, Steven Dann–Viola, Robin Engelman–Conductor, John Johnson–Sax, Al Kay–Trombone, Anita McAlister–Trumpet, Rachel Mercer–Cello, Paul Otway–Trumpet, Joe Phillip–Bass, Rob Piltch–Guitar, Don Rooke–Steel Guitar, Ryan Scott–Percussion, Stephen Sitarski–Violin, Perry White–Sax
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Friday, February 4, 2010. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.
Actor Colin Fox scripted The Schumann Letters in the form of a Shakespearean comedy like The Tempest. 17 year old Robert Schumann’s plan to study law is wrecked when he attends a public piano recital by the 8 year old Clara Weick : Robert abandons his legal career and enters the Wieck home to study piano with Clara’s father. Their long and difficult courtship culminates in a series of legal trials, which Frederich Weick initiates to prevent Schumann from taking Clara away from him. In 1840, Clara turns 21, and Colin Fox ends his narration on a happy note for the couple and for the audience, accompanied by Michael Kim at the piano and soprano Susan Gilmour Bailey performing the music Robert wrote as a wedding gift for Clara.
The evening opens with Michael Kim spotlighted at the piano playing the exquisite“Traumerei” from Kinderszenen at a slower tempo than I’ve ever heard—Lang Lang’s version excepted. About a minute into it, the spotlight moves across the stage to Colin Fox at the podium telling the story of Schumann’s failed suicide attempt, brought on by tertiary syphilitic psychosis in the 14th year of his marriage to Clara. This episode creates a dark background for the glorious story of the springtime of their love, and is not mentioned again. Rather, what the audience remembers is Soprano Susan Gilmour Bailey’s vibrant “Er, der Herrlichste von allen (‘He, the Noblest of All’)” from Frauenliebe und Leben, the eight poem cycle Schumann set in their marriage year, 1840, telling the woman’s story of first meeting her love, through their marriage, to his death.
The 40 minute script, drawn from the complete correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann which runs to nearly 600 pages, proves that absence makes the heart grow fond. The Schumann Letters—a music-as-theatre project that is shared creatively by the three presenters with their manager Andrew Kwan—will continue to tour Canada for the rest of this year and beyond. Likely it will continue creating a fondness in audiences for the wonderful music that came out the Schumann’s inspiring love story.
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