Amici Chamber Ensemble 2010 Season Opener reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 17, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

The three Amici opened this season with Trails of Gravity and Grace, a commissioned piece by Allan Gordon Bell (1953-). The five brief movements are a kind of tone poem on the flight of hawks riding thermals on a perfect day in Saskatchewan. Some of the sonic patterns refer to natural sounds in a minimalist way (as Ann Southam does in her Pond Life), especially Serouj Kradjian’s contemplative raindroppy piano sounds in the third movement about “rain that does not reach the ground.” Throughout the piece, Bell’s score drew novel thrums, flutters, and drones from David Hetherington’s cello, as well as a surprisingly nice double-stopped melancholy tune in the first movement. The second movement opened with a cascade of notes falling from Joaquin Valdepeñas’ clarinet like small birds. The finale, played ‘energetico’ was the least cryptic section and gave the most pleasure with its novel sonorities and harmonies of 32nd note foot-tapping runs  showcased by the perfect timing and crystal articulation of these three Amici’s.

Happily, the Amici’s dug up a unique arrangement for piano, violin and cello of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9, written originally for solo piano and subsequently arranged by flautist Franz Doppler and revised by Liszt himself who was then in the process of learning how to arrange his piano compositions for larger ensembles. No. 9 was a knees-up crowd-pleaser with its high-spirited gypsy romping stomping dance-rhythms played with very obviously tongue-in-cheek rubato by violinist Benjamin Bowman who sat in for Valdepeñas.

After intermission, this lucky audience was treated to a one hour session of transcendingly beautiful music—Schubert’s Octet in F, D.803. The ensemble was joined by five players—all principals in leading orchestras. They made music that brought out in Schubert’s natural singing voice the sweetness of Mozart and the drama of Beethoven. Schubert composed this work while he was enduring a suicidal depression because of a terminal health diagnosis and the collapse of his hopes for musical success;but what appears in the music is cheerful classical order enlightened by lyrical flights of song and lightfooted dance tempos. However, as in Mozart, the attentive ear can tune into the river of tears that flows politely beneath the surface. This is nowhere more clear than in the clarinet passage that introduces the second, adagio, movement. Since the work was commissioned by a Count Von Troyer, who played the clarinet, many of the more plaintive or ‘personal’  sounding passages are written for this instrument.

The fourth movement is interesting because its main theme which is developed through seven variations sounds like an aria of light opera music, which it is—being from one of Schubert’s several operas that were never really performed. The point of interest is that in these variations what we hear is not complaint, but rather how Schubert makes his ‘failures’ dance.  Also in the finale, which Schubert opens like a symphonic drama over the tremolo rumble of bass and cello, he has the clarinet and bassoon subsequently introduce a jolly opera buffa theme that somehow looks ahead to the improbable world of Gilbert and Sullivan. The movement ends with a brief backward glance to the darkness at the beginning, before a headlong rush into a final resolution.

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