Saturday, 11 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 6: The Grand Finale

Saturday, February 11 was the final day of the Festival.  The pattern continued right up to the end of modern works mixing and mingling with rarities and familiar classics.

The afternoon concert opened with a delightful rarity, Beethoven's Duo for Viola, Cello, and Obbligato Eyeglasses.  (Don't ask about the title, it's a long story).  Although as carefully constructed as anything the master wrote, this piece is definitely light-hearted by Beethoven standards.  Gillian Ansell and Matthew Barley exactly captured the sense of fun and play in this lovable little piece.

Cavernous Ruins, by Edward Ware, for string quartet and marimba proved to be a remarkable chain of three movements all linked together.  While the first made use of very modern textures and dissonances, the second broke out into much more active rhythms, and ended in what the composer's note called "an open and fully improvised marimba solo."  In another time and place it might have been called a "cadenza"!  This bridged the way into the solemn, almost mournful lyricism of the final movement.  Ian Rosenbaum's marimba solo was perfectly scaled for its function in the work, and both he and the New Zealand String Quartet played beautifully in that final slow section.

Andrew Joyce concluded the afternoon by taking the stage with Dénes Varjon for the last (of the five), Beethoven's Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Major, Op. 102/2.  As he has all week, Varjon gave a performance of the piano part full dramatic contrasts and considerable power.  Joyce more than matched him in weight while still keeping a fine singing tone in the slow movement, and plenty of power in the fugal section of the finale.  I'm sorry I didn't arrive in Nelson in time to hear the first two steps of the complete cycle.

The Grand Finale concert in the Cathedral on Saturday night consisted of four works.  I'm going to take them out of order so that I can drop the bad news shoe first.

The second work up was another work by Andy Akiho, LIgNEouS Suite for percussion and strings.  Ian Rosenbaum performed along with the Goldner Quartet.  While Akiho's work is certainly "mold-breaking", as described by the New York Times, I must disagree vehemently with the Times' critic who went on to describe his work as "dramatic... and vital..."  It's loud, indeed noisy, full of a great assortment of odd sounds aggressively wrenched out of the instruments.  It's also tedious and boring almost beyond belief.  

Yes, I'm being blunt.  My great bugbear in contemporary music is music that drops a sound, lets it lie there, then drops another sound, and so on, with absolutely no sense of direction, purpose (except for making sounds one after another), or form.  The effect here could just as easily have been a mass improvisation for five performers in which the sounds continued to be generated one after another until someone gave the agreed-upon signal to stop.  The tedium was greatly aggravated by the ceaseless repetition of the same sounds over and over and over, with no change, no variety, no letup in the volume.  I'm just thankful that the performance consisted of only two movements of the Suite.

The rest of the concert was on a completely different level, and the contrast couldn't have been greater when the New Zealand Quartet and James Campbell turned next to Brahms and the autumnal Clarinet Quintet.  This late work is a familiar friend.  I've heard Campbell play it live at least five times, including one previous occasion with the NZSQ.  Their performance on this occasion expanded beautifully in the rich acoustic of the Cathedral, without losing the essential feeling of a conversation among friends.  Where a prima donna clarinetist might demand to be heard at all times (in what isn't really a solo role), Campbell's sound blends in and out of the ensemble with great subtlety throughout the work.  

For the first time in my six days of this Festival, the Quartet were able to adopt their signature standing position, which does so much for the unanimity and integrity of their playing.  Compared to the last time I heard these artists perform the work, I sensed a more extrovert approach to the third and fourth movements.  That worked very well, preparing the way for the almost heartbreaking moment when the opening melody of the whole Quintet returns suddenly out of the fifth variation.  The players then allowed the poetic ending all the time in the world to breathe its last sigh.  

After the intermission, Rosenbaum returned with cellist Matthew Barley to perform Osvaldo Golijov's Duo for Marimba and Cello: Mariel.  Even without the programme notes, I think I would have sensed as this work unfolded that it was a memorial piece.  The marimba part was largely made up of three unrelated chords which were each sustained through varying lengths of time, and then repeated in sequence.  Once this sequence was established, the cello entered with a quietly sustained note which gradually unfolded into a slow, dark melody.  Meanwhile, the marimba part began to "breathe" -- the sequence of sustained chords began moving a little faster, then a little slower, at different points of time.  It became a living backcloth to the melody line of the cello.  A beautiful performance of a modern work well worth hearing again.

The wrap-up to the whole Festival came with the three Festival Quartets (Goldner, New Zealand, and Troubadours) joined by double bass player Joan Perarnau Garriga in Dvorak's cheerful Serenade for Strings, Op. 22.  Dvorak also wrote an equally-charming Serenade for winds, and I've finally decided that my favourite of the two is whichever one I happen to be listening to at the moment.

One of the special charms of this work is the element of contrast within four of the five movements (the relatively short first movement excepted).  Each of the second through fifth movements has contrasting sections so different in character that they almost seem like independent movements in their own right.  At the end of the work, then, it's easy to feel that you've been taken on a really long and varied tour of the musical world when you've really been right at home the whole time.

The thirteen players relished these contrasts in full, making much of the stylistic variation between sections especially in the second movement -- an indolent waltz which then gives way to two high-energy scherzando interludes.  That waltz was as light and casual as you could want.

And so it went.  Each movement in turn unfolded its own beauties in full measure.  Right from the get-go, the smiling lyrical theme which opens the piece drew us right into the composer's sound world at once.  The slow movement larghetto gave a point of relative repose before the high-speed Allegro vivace finale, which certainly was full of life as the direction requires.  The tricky moment in the finale when the tempo slows right down to admit a return of the original lyrical theme of the opening was handled very neatly, so that it seemed integral and not a stuck-on effect.  The breathless acceleration back to the finale tempo and then even faster into the coda put a remarkable period onto a fine performance, and a truly exciting Festival.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 5: Cellissimo!

Hands down, one of the most unusual days of music I've ever experienced.  This Festival actually assembled a team of no less than thirteen (count 'em!) cellos.

A shortage of cellists broke out all over New Zealand, as the players gathered up their instruments and flocked to Nelson for this unique event.  (Okay, it wasn't really quite that bad!)

Ask music lovers to name a work written for large numbers of cellos, and most will probably mention the famous Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, which was composed for soprano voice and an orchestra of eight cellos.  Well, we certainly heard that, along with a great deal of music arranged for cello ensembles of varying sizes and even a couple of other works composed for cello orchestras.

All of this raises the question: why cellos?  Why not -- well, name any instrument of your choice -- say, the piano?  There certainly have been -- and are -- "monster piano concerts".  The cello, though, is unique.  Many people say that it is the closest sound any instrument can make to approximating the human voice (I have trouble making that connection myself).  The instrument certainly does make a warm, user-friendly sound.  And when played en masse, and legato, the warmth and comfort level of the sound gets multiplied by some quantum factor.

So, it was a pleasure to listen frequently through the day to works which made use of that warm, legato tone.  The afternoon concert was formally entitled Cellissimo!  This programme featured eleven of the cellists, but never more than five on the stage of the Cathedral at any one time.  Some works ranged as low as two cellos.  That variety of scale of tone certainly kept the day from becoming boring.

I apologize that I can't credit individual cellists with individual performances.  I still haven't succeeded in sorting out who played what!

The Bach selections which opened the concert worked beautifully.  Indeed, Bach's music often does make the transition very well from instrument to instrument, simply because the master of Leipzig was so often more preoccupied with composition than with instrumentation.  That said, the sonata which was written originally for viola da gamba didn't have too far to jump since the viola da gamba was a stringed instrument played in a similar manner to a modern cello.  The adagio movement from an organ toccata was a serene highlight of this first group.

Silent Woods by Dvorak is a long-time favourite of the cello repertoire, although written originally for piano 4-hands.  The singing lyrical melodies certainly favour a string instrument.  The use of a small ensemble of cellos to carry the accompaniment enhanced the melodic line beautifully.  The piece ends with a short coda, and there was a special something in the playing of those final few notes that made my eyes suddenly moist.

Next up were Bartok's Rumanian Dances, originally also for piano.  I've played a couple of these pieces in a violin/piano arrangement, and found the numerous discords painful indeed to the ears.  Yet when the music transfers to an ensemble of cellos, the clashing notes are smoothed out by the less percussive quality of the sound, and the folk inspiration behind the six short pieces comes through far more clearly.  This arrangement was definitely all gain, for me.

The afternoon concert concluded with Rachmaninoff's beautiful and tear-laden Vocalise.  The cello ensemble certainly brought out the emotion behind this famous melody while keeping it from deteriorating into melodramatic schmaltz.  A lovely balancing act on this final number.

The evening concert, Cellos by Candlelight, suffered from an element of uncertainty brought on by unclear programme information.  As an example, the programme notes explained about the four sections that make up the Overture to "William Tell" by Rossini.  The list of works simply said "William Tell".  The ensemble played the slow dawn prelude which opens the overture, and then stopped -- so abruptly that even the leader appeared surprised.  The audience, on the other hand, were all expecting the March of the Swiss Soldiers final section (which we all know from The Lone Ranger!), and many had no idea what they'd just heard.

Enough on that theme.  The concert opened with the well-loved Canon by Pachelbel.  Although this is usually played on three violins, it works very well with the cellos.  One cellist played the all-important bass line (the foundation of the entire work) on the bow, another played the bass chords as arpeggios, pizzicato in the manner of Paillard's classic recording.  The other three of course played the three intertwined melodic lines to beautiful effect.

The short-short version of William Tell followed, with beautiful, poetic sound in the dawn prelude.

The three movements of the Bachianas Brasileiras # 1, by turns lively, melodic, and ending with an energetic fugue, were probably new to most listeners and presented with plenty of energy.

Next came the slow, mournful Song of the Birds, a traditional Catalan song which Pablo Casals played for many years as an encore to protest the suppression of his homeland by dictator Franco.  It opens with the twittering sound of birds played high up by several cellos, followed by the slow, sad melody, played with immense feeling.  At the end, the bird songs are repeated twice, fading away into silence -- and my eyes started getting wet again.  You didn't have to know any of the history behind this song to sense that you were hearing a lament transcending all time and all borders.

The first half then ended with Casals' own composition, Sardana, again inspired by a Catalan style of dance.  This was another piece actually composed for an orchestra of cellos.

After the intermission came the piece for cellos that everyone knows.  The ensemble of eight cellists were joined by soprano Jenny Wollerman.  I've heard some very fine sopranos sing the Aria movement of the Bachianas Brasileiras # 5, and they've done very well indeed by the music.  But never, never, have I heard it sung with such a clear, steady tone from start to finish -- and that includes the notorious and challenging humming reprise at the end.  This is where many singers will start to exhibit a little bit of wobble but not a hint of that from Wollerman.  The ensemble played crisply in the rapid pizzicato lines, and the melodic legato was also lovely.  But why, why, WHY will no one ever go on to the lively Dança movement that ends the work?  It's not only fun to listen to, but it also colours your feeling of the piece as a whole when the balancing conclusion is added.  Sigh.  If it weren't for that loss, I'd be calling this a "definitive" performance.

An ensemble of five cellos next played Manuel de Falla's Popular Spanish Songs.  We're more accustomed nowadays to hear these given by a soprano with piano or ensemble, but for years they were played on cello by Jacqueline du Pre.  The movements were divided up so that each of the five cellists, in turn, acted as the "singer" for one or more numbers.  The contrast in tone colour and playing style among the five was such that I really didn't miss the human voice at all.

After some concentrated stage re-setting, the entire ensemble of thirteen cellists took the stage all at once for three final pieces.  These were a lively arrangement of the world-famous Libertango by Astor Piazzola, followed by his more langorous Oblivion, and finally Klengel's Hymnus for 12 cellos, composed in 1920.  The tangos were strongly contrasted but both living firmly in the rhythmic world of tango.  The Hymnus, although beautifully played, was composed in the very height of post-Romantic fervour and could be not be prevented by the players from descending into schmaltz -- all the way.

I can understand that the 12 cellos all at once made a celebratory end to an event which really did carry a Festival air -- bringing together as it did cellists from all over New Zealand.  But if it were up to me, I'd probably want to wrap the concert up with the Bachianas Brasileiras # 5, followed by that haunting lament in the Song of the Birds.

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It seems unfair to confine this event to a P.S., but it simply doesn't fit into the main theme of my post.

One of the features of this Festival is the presence of the Troubadours, a standard string quartet of skilled young musicians just starting out on their careers.  That name refers to the way they've been giving little "pop-up" concerts in various locations around the community during the last week and a half.  Last night, they gave their own performance in the Cathedral an hour before the main concert.

They performed one of my all-time favourites, the beautiful String Quartet in A Minor, D.804 by Schubert.  Among Schubert's late masterpieces for the string quartet, the "Great Three", this one is pre-eminently the melodic quartet.  Drama is not entirely avoided, as the A minor key suggests, but always yields place fairly quickly to the next outpouring of beautiful melody -- a Schubert specialty.

These young musicians won my heart by playing the quartet for its melodic value.  They certainly didn't fall into the trap of overloading the music with dramatic Sturm und drang.  Even in the final movement where a more dramatic style does appear, the impulse to over-characterize it was well controlled.  The first violinist, Arna Morton, had a lot to do with that as she has to carry the lion's share of the melodic lines, especially in the first two movements.  The quartet as a whole presented the work with a certain air of serenity, with phrasing beautifully shaped, and dynamics curving in the most organic way from soft to loud and back again.  All four seemed very much at home with the lyricism Schubert brought to bear on this beautiful creation.

Heartfelt thanks to Morton, and to violinist Rebecca Wang, violist Elyse Dalabakis, and cellist Anna-Marie Alloway, for this fine performance of one of chamber music's greatest inspirations.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 4: A Day at the Improv, A Night of Love

I have always lived in awe of people who can improvise.  I am not very good at it.  Translation: "Theatre improv: barely competent.  Musical improv: forget it!"

Although I can't do it myself, I am always fascinated by watching or listening as someone else does it.  So, yesterday at the Festival we had two events featuring improvisation by musicians, and for me this was a really special day as a result.

In the afternoon, cellist Matthew Barley gave an hour-long solo recital at the Cathedral.  He began as a cellist is expected to begin, with one of Bach's Suites for unaccompanied cello -- the first and best-known one.  But even before that, he gave an impromptu lesson on how Bach's apparently simple prelude to the suite is built right from the ground up on the natural harmonic series of the keynote.  As part of his demonstration he had the entire audience singing the note of D, the dominant of the suite's G major key, while he played the last half of the prelude.  This allowed everyone to hear and to feel the exact manner in which Bach built and resolved tension in the final bars of the prelude.  It was a fascinating experience, and I'm sure many listened to the succeeding complete performance of the suite with newly opened ears.  Barley treated this well-known music to a thoughtful reading which neither descended into boredom nor indulged in superfluous interpretation details.

It was the second half of his recital that was even more fascinating.  Here, Barley performed three widely contrasted contemporary cello works and strung them together with improvised bridges lasting for several minutes each.  In the second bridge he poised his bow, began to lower it onto the string, and then made a sudden decision to switch to a pizzicato motive with which he proceeded to shape the entire improvisation!

The three works, in the order played, were the sombre, meditative Threnos of Sir John Tavener, the half-folklike, half classic Appalachia Waltz by Mark O'Connor, and the vehement Lamentatio by Giovanni Sollima.  Barley contrasted the moods of each piece strongly.  He made the Tavener sound like a musical portrait of stillness.  The rich double-stopped harmonies of the Waltz  came across with all notes clear and present.  Sollima's musical portrait of fury, including vocalization from the soloist, brought the recital to a hair-raising conclusion.  

The improvising resumed in a special hour-long late concert at 9:00 pm.  I had a ticket but ended up not going as battle fatigue was catching up with me.  But I'm willing to bet that, with 5 musicians doing improvs based on themes and works heard through the Festival, it was probably an exciting event.

In between those two improv events, the standard evening concert was moved forward to 6:30.  This programme, entitled Love Triangle, presented one work from each of three composers whose lives were interwoven by love and music and the love of music: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms.

First, we heard the Three Romances, Op. 22 for violin and piano by Clara Schumann.  This is skillful, accomplished music, and its very sophistication is neatly concealed behind a façade of artless simplicity.  Violinist Helene Pohl spun out the endless chains of melody with the smoothest legato, especially in the first Romance, while pianist Dénes Varjon accompanied with lightness and sensitivity in a work which contains nothing in the way of romantic sturm und drang.

Next, we heard tenor Andrew Goodwin, accompanied by pianist Isabella Simon, in Robert Schumann's song cycle Dichterliebe ("A Poet's Love").  This cycle, setting 18 poems by Heinrich Heine, takes us through a story of love felt and then lost.  The structure is unusual.  The first half dozen songs are short, epigrammatic, at times even enigmatic in their concision.  From # 7 onwards, the songs gradually expand in terms of the length of verses set in each song, but also in the length of the music and in the diversity of musical styles and means employed.  If the early songs sometimes display a certain quality of wit, this gradually vanishes as the later songs turn deadly serious.

Goodwin's finely controlled voice presented the texts clearly, with always-beautiful tone, but in all honesty I felt that he was skating over the surface of some of the songs.  The initial half dozen definitely needed to be characterized more positively.  Beginning at # 7 he started to dig deeper, but even then the necessary involvement in the music seemed to elude him in some numbers.  All the same, his control of breath and diction were impressive throughout, nowhere more so than in the final song.  Simon's accompaniments covered the turf, but also to better effect in some songs than in others.  The final piano epilogue after the end of the last song, beautifully sustained, created a most necessary air of regret and loss.  There were a few passages where Goodwin was having to force tone on an uncomfortably low note, and still getting drowned out by the heavy playing of the accompaniment.

After the intermission, it was time for one of the supreme masterpieces of the chamber music repertoire, the Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 by Brahms.  I'm not committing myself to an impossible-to-prove assertion here -- after all, this blog is all about my opinions!  More so than any other of Brahms' major chamber works with piano, this one is all too easy for the pianist to overload and that did happen in some of the louder moments.

The New Zealand String Quartet and Dénes Varjon gave what was certainly the most dynamic, ferocious account of this score that I have ever heard.  While it was definitely exciting, this work also exposed the acoustic shortcomings of the Theatre Royal.  From my seat, the sound in louder passages seemed forced, becoming harsh, ugly, two-dimensional, even clangorous.  The problem certainly didn't apply in quieter music, nor (according to a friend) was it a problem from a different seat location.

The slow movement was the best of this performance for me, soft-grained and poetic, and particularly fine in the gently-rocking triplet cross-rhythms.  The succeeding scherzo was nearly as good, benefitting from a solidly anchored rhythmic pulse that kept the entire movement driving steadily forward without breaking the speed limit.

As a whole, it was a very exciting performance, if not perhaps the ideal one to come back to multiple times.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 3: Diversity in Music

Concerts on my third day covered an extraordinary range of different styles of music.

The afternoon concert included two contemporary works, and two Romantic masterpieces, and the evening was given over to the greatest of Baroque masters, J. S. Bach.

The afternoon concert opened with Andy Akiko's Kakakurenai ("Foreign Crimson"), originally written for steel pan and here re-arranged for marimbas and vibraphone, performed by Ian Rosenbaum and Naoto Segawa.  I got the distinct impression that this was written under the influence of the "minimalist" movement in music, as a small number of rhythmic patterns were repeated ad infinitum throughout almost the entire length of the piece, while contrasting melodies in apparently a completely different time signature were overlaid on top of the rhythmic patterns -- again ad infinitum.  The structural impulse behind this was fascinating, but as listening material I found it rather tedious after a couple of minutes.

Next up were cellist Rolf Gjelsten and pianist Dénes Varjon in Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4, Op. 102 No. 1.  It's a classic example of late Beethoven, combining diverse and even conflicting elements within a single piece, and stretching the limits of accepted musical structure to the breaking point.  This performance captured that diversity in all the sections.  The anger in the allegro of the first movement rose to a real pitch of fury in the final pages, while the sense of questioning and seeking in the slow introduction of the second movement was movingly conveyed by both players -- it's not everyone who can make this music sound so tentative and unsure of itself.  Then, the faster second section broke out into a joyful game of tossing themes around and delighting in the sheer joy of Beethoven's vision.

Violist (and Festival co-artistic director) Gillian Ansell and Varjon followed with Schumann's Märchenbilder ("Fairy Tale Pictures") -- a real rarity in that this is one of the few Romantic works written for the viola.  The four movements carry no descriptive titles, but Ansell explained beforehand that Schumann's journals revealed his intentions.  The first two movements depict contrasting moments from the story of Rapunzel.  The love-laden first movement is notably simple and lyrical, with Ansell's viola sounding for all the world like a human voice singing.  Varjon's accompaniment was nicely scaled to keep in the background.  Both players relished the galloping rhythms of the second piece.  The third, inspired by the story of the evil imp Rumpelstiltskin, danced and chortled along in a vivid portrait of the character.  The final picture, Sleeping Beauty, was as gentle, serene, and restful as you could possibly want.

The final piece, Fire in the Belly by New Zealand composer Jack Body, was composed for NZTrio who performed it here.  It's a very energetic, highly-charged piece, but minimalism was again to the fore throughout half of the work.  This was particularly true of the violin whose part consisted of endless rapid rhythmic repetitions of one note.  Both violin and cello had to play notes whose pitch wavered between the true pitch and the high harmonics.  By the time the music finally shifted its ground and the enervating single-note repetitions ended, I had lost interest.  I admired the energy and involvement which NZTrio brought to their performance, but would not want to hear this one again.

Over lunch, I had an interesting conversation with two friends about contemporary music.  All of us had plainly had experiences which were bad ones in the past.  We also agreed that many contemporary composers today are again writing in a more approachable style, using the considerable untapped powers of melody, harmony, and rhythm.  The contemporary pieces I've heard this week have certainly ranged across the gamut.  I welcome the challenge of encountering varying voices in the music of our time, but sometimes have to reserve the right to say, "Thanks, but no thanks."   That, in any case, is precisely what I have always done with music of all ages, and why should today's music be  treated any differently?

The evening concert returned us to the Cathedral for an evening of "Bach by Candlelight".  The programme was a delightful assortment of arias from the master's church cantatas, along with several instrumental works.

The cantata arias are an interesting field of study, and I plainly have not studied them very much!  In the diverse group of four which we heard, I was not familiar with any.  All four were sung by a tenor voice.  One had an obbligato for two violins, two had obbligato for a single violin, and one had an obbligato played on cello which might well have been originally played on the viola da gamba.  Any or all of the four might have been adapted from some previous use -- a frequent habit with this composer.  None of the music seemed in any way to be related to the text at hand.  That is, there was no accord of mood between music and words, nor any particular symbolism in the music as far as I could detect.  A detailed study including numerology might turn up some thoughts, but they are not immediately apparent on the surface.

However, all of the music is fascinating and a treat to the ear.  I think of Bach's own words, that the only purpose of music was the glorification of God and the recreation of the soul.

Tenor Andrew Goodwin has a strong, clear voice which some might feel was a bit too stentorian for this kind of repertoire.  I found his singing near to ideal: flexible with clear tone across the entire range, immaculate diction, no excess of vibrato, and great precision in the runs and leaps.  The shifting instrumental ensembles accompanying him in each aria matched him in precision and clarity, although some purists again might be put off by the use of a too-modern string vibrato in Baroque music.  It didn't trouble me at all.  Kudos to Goodwin, and to the Festival, for going beyond the expected or well-known Bach in programming this selection of arias.

The instrumental selections were a bit more of a mixed bag.  Ian Rosenbaum appeared again with his marimba to give a transcription of the Suite No. 5 for solo cello.  I wonder why he didn't choose to create the sustained notes of the slow introduction movement by using rapidly repeated strikes on the bars of the marimba.  The single notes he did use fell silent quickly, leaving an uncomfortable gap before the next note in many cases.  Once he got into the faster dance movements of the suite, the transcription worked much better.  In any case, it was a real virtuoso workout for the artist!

Violinist Monique Lapins led the ensemble in the Concerto for Violin in A Minor, a repertoire favourite.  Her playing was most energetic throughout the first movement.  She then created a lovely sense of repose in the slow movement.  But the finale was treated to what can only be called a fire-eating performance, one that I know had my mouth falling open -- not because of the speed, but because of the intensity with which she leaned into the music.  It was an intensity fully matched by her colleagues and the concerto wound up to a thrilling conclusion.

That was the last piece before the intermission, and frankly I wish it had been the last piece at the end of the concert.  What we did end with was the Brandenburg Concerto No. 6.  This is the concerto that has as its leading voices two violas.  The accompanying ensemble, too, was pared right down to just five players including the harpsichord.  Gillian Ansell and Justine Cormack gave a lovely performance of the solo parts and the small ensemble matched them in every way.  It's just a question of the nature of the music.  Brandenburg No. 6 has a warm, lived-in kind of air to it, perhaps because the brighter, more energetic style of violin writing in its stablemates is in abeyance.  It always strikes me as being a musical portrait of warm fuzzies -- delightful and even comforting to listen to, as technically challenging as anything Bach wrote, but it just doesn't have the "fireworks" effect of many others pieces, like that A Minor Violin Concerto.  Maybe I'm getting too picky.

The whole day was a remarkable tour of many corners of the musical universe, and offered plenty of challenge to performers and audience alike at every turn.  That's what I call a great day at a festival!

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 2: Virtuoso Fireworks

Second day of the six days I'm spending at the Festival.  Of course, the music I heard today wasn't all virtuoso fireworks, but there were certainly some striking examples on the programme, as well as some well-loved romantic masterpieces.

The day actually began in the afternoon at the Cathedral with one of the latter.  There's nothing wildly showy about Borodin's famous String Quartet No. 2.  Anyone familiar with the Broadway musical Kismet will be on familiar ground here, especially in the famous Nocturne third movement.  In a way, it's  not at all surprising that Borodin's music with its lush and beautiful sound should have been adapted for such a purpose.  The Goldner String Quartet did a fine job of bringing out the contrasts in the score.  The long melodic lines of the first movement sang beautifully.  The second movement Scherzo bubbled and fizzed almost like the best champagne of Offenbach, and the little pizzicato joke at the end was beautifully placed.  The Nocturne had a lovely sense of ebb and flow to it, the gentle kind of breathing in the tempo that makes music come alive.  The Goldners wound up the finale to a joyful conclusion in which the first violin has to sustain a high D while the others work out the final chords -- an almost operatic effect if you can imagine that violin as a high soprano instead!

The Goldner Quartet were then joined by clarinetist James Campbell for the Clarinet Quintet by Jean Françaix.  Any encounter with this composer's music is apt to bring on some discussion of how the composer's name should be pronounced.  Campbell certainly made the audience chuckle when he recounted a story of the composer saying, "It should be pronounced 'Frahn-sex' -- but with a smile."

This is first and foremost very witty music.  It's the only word for it.  Françaix lived from 1912 to 1997, but his music doesn't pay much attention to the surging currents of experimentation roaring through the musical world during those decades.  It's eminently civilized, fun to listen to, and in many places definitely written with tongue in cheek.  Purists and cutting-edge innovators would no doubt sneer, but I see no reason why we shouldn't relax and enjoy the fun!

This performance definitely was given in that spirit.  Sound was balanced nicely among the five players, articulation was crisp and clear throughout, and the various solo highlights were all allowed to shine without overwhelming.  The first movement in particular started out rather solemnly, but when the allegro suddenly took off the effect was very like the popping of a champagne cork.  The scherzo followed with more bubbling, light-hearted music.  The slow movement contrasted beautifully with the others, a moment more to relax and savour than to fire ahead -- and the finale did that soon enough anyway.  Lest I give the impression that this is second-rate music, be assured that Campbell and the Goldners had to call on their considerable skills as musicians to bring it fully to life for us.  The making of souffles and fine champagne requires great care and precision, and is not a task for unskilled amateurs!

For the evening concert, we moved to the Theatre Royal (my first visit).  The move has upsides and downsides -- but the big # 1 downside is that the acoustics are inferior to the Cathedral.  I was grateful to be seated in the front row where I could see and hear everything clearly.

The first work was a Canadian composition -- you get no bonus points for guessing which musician presented this one!  Alexina Louie's Cadenzas II for clarinet and marimba was written in 1985.  That date made my eyes pop a bit.  I've become so used to Louie as a significant voice in the Canadian musical landscape that I'd forgotten just how long she has been composing!

The title intrigued me.  The Italian word cadenza ("cadence") is usually used to describe a point in a concerto where the orchestra begins a cadence, then pauses and allows the soloist to improvise upon the themes until an agreed-upon signal gesture (usually a long trill) brings the orchestra back in to complete the cadence and carry the piece to its conclusion.  While cadenzas may be written out, and sometimes are even by the composer him/herself, they always maintain that improvisatory quality.

Well, Louie's music certainly did that!  Given the respective nature of the two instruments, it's not surprising that James Campbell on clarinet had the lion's share of the improvisatory melodic material.  Ian Rosenbaum on marimbas (he used three instruments in all) was more often tasked with complex ostinato figures involving three- and four-note chords.  But the marimba part, too, gets a share of the virtuoso acrobatics.  And make no mistake, this is a virtuoso showpiece.  It would be tedious to count up, but I'm willing to bet that Campbell played more notes in this than in all other pieces I've heard from him so far combined.  And not just notes -- the lines often require the player to rocket up and down between the clarinet's high and low ranges.  Rosenbaum was by no means left in the shade -- he used all the different shades of tone that he could command on his instruments, very tellingly.

Next up was Beethoven's Sonata No. 3 for Cello and Piano in A Major, Op. 69.  This is an energetic work, even boisterous at times, full of light and shade.  It gives scant hint that the composer was going through the crisis in which his deafness was becoming increasingly profound.

The best evidence of any darkness in Beethoven's soul is found in the nasty technical trap which afflicts this cello sonata in particular.  The cello part, especially in the first movement, is often written deep down for the instrument's lower strings.  Well, what of it?  Only this: that the piano part is often very heavily written, in a manner forecasting the dense piano writing of Brahms in much of his chamber music (coming up), and great care is needed to ensure that the cellist doesn't vanish altogether.

There are several ways to approach this problem.  Cellist Matthew Barley chose to play those deep passages flat out, with an insistently savage attack that kept him fully in the bigger sound picture at all times.  Pretty it was not, but definitely an exciting approach.  It had the benefit of freeing pianist Dénes Varjon to lean right into Beethoven's writing without having to pull back noticeably.  Result: a dynamic, thrilling performance which still found the contrasts of the quieter passages with clear, limpid lyricism.

After the intermission, Varjon joined with violinist Helene Pohl and cellist Rolf Gjelsten for the Piano Trio Op. 8 by Brahms.  Again there is the balance issue to contend with, as the young, enthusiastic Brahms sometimes forgets his two string colleagues in the joy of writing his signature complex chords and polyphonic lines for his beloved piano.  Another interesting detail is the very rare fact that this work, which begins in the major, ends in a minor key!  Yet the ending is certainly not tragic -- we aren't yet looking at the final darkness of Tchaikovsky or Mahler!  Rather, it is filled with all the drama of a stormy day.

No worries in this performance.  This was a deeply-felt reading of Brahms' early masterpiece, and the balance and musicality throughout were equally impressive.  Particularly gripping were the fire and propulsive quality of the Scherzo, a young Brahmsian giant.  The slow movement followed on with serenity and poise from all.  The darkly dramatic finale set the seal on a powerful performance of a powerful work, the final coda cranking up the intensity right to the final notes.

You know it's an impressive performance when the audience takes a moment to catch their breath before the cheers and applause erupt.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Nelson International Chamber Music Festival # 1: Bold Strokes

After a very lengthy multi-stage trip I've arrived safely in the city of Nelson, on New Zealand's South Island.  For six days I'm going to indulge myself in a regular summer habit and take in multiple concerts at a chamber music festival.  I hasten to add that I had to miss the first few days of this festival because of already having tickets to hear Russell Braun singing in Toronto (see previous post).  But anyway, I am here now and the fun has begun.

This biennial Festival mainly is using two unique venues: the Anglican Cathedral which has an unusual slant on traditional Gothic cathedral architecture, and the Royal Theatre which dates back to the 1800s but has just finished a multi-year renovation within the original all-wood structure.  There are a few special events in other locations, but all the concerts I am attending are in one of these two buildings.

So, let's get down to business: the first concert I attended, several hours after landing in Nelson, which was held in the cathedral.

This programme, entitled "Bold Strokes," highlighted -- in no uncertain terms -- the Festival's commitment to contemporary music.  The entire first half consisted of works written in the last fifteen years, with two of them being commissioned from New Zealand composers to be premiered at this year's Festival.  As I so often do with new music, I found myself wishing I could hear all three works again so I could grasp them a bit more thoroughly.

The evening began with And Legions Will Rise for violin, clarinet and marimba by American composer Kevin Puts (written in 2001).  As written, the trio sounded almost like a quintet since Puts exploited the dramatic difference in tone colour between high and low notes on the violin and clarinet.  The work opened with long sustained passages played very quietly, and later became almost playful in tone.  There then followed a dramatic, high energy extended passage which seemed to exemplify the title best.  The work ended with a return to the slower, quieter opening music.  Dimity Hall on violin and James Campbell on clarinet played with impressive control in the slower passages and with fire in the faster parts.  Ian Rosenbaum on marimba had the busiest part of the three, covering all the complexities of the music with flair.

Second work was Quartet for Clarinet, Violin, Viola, and Cello by  Natalie Hunt.  In the programme notes, Hunt stated that her work was coloured by the experience of the major earthquake that struck the area southeast of Nelson three months ago.  The light-hearted classical/jazz fusion piece she had originally intended vanished, to be replaced by this more sombre work.  The music again begins quietly, and although it develops more energy as it proceeds it remains predominantly serious.  In several spots she incorporated the sound of sighing by having the clarinetist breathe through the instrument without sounding any pitch.  This piece appealed to me because of the heartfelt depth of emotion contained in the notes, and conveyed by all the performers.

Gareth Farr's String Octet impressed as an unusual take on what is itself an unusual genre of chamber music.  This work was commissioned for the Goldner and New Zealand String Quartets, and both of these ensembles have worked frequently with Farr in the past.  Farr's programme note identified the octet as a form that sits right on the cusp of orchestral and chamber music -- very true.  In this work, he adapted that contrast of scale of tone to a work which used two dramatically contrasted styles of writing.  The first main idea, a lyrically melodious section, brought out those qualities from all eight players.  In the second, almost jazzy section, the cellos evolved into a percussion section, using plucked notes, notes struck with the wood of the bow, and gentle slapping of the body of the instrument.  This material generated a kind of moto perpetuo energy which carried the music strongly forward until the next return of the lyrical material.  The work ended with the same kind of musical joke found in the scherzo of Beethoven's 9th symphony: the rhythm section started up again, but only for a few seconds before the work ended with a single hefty pizzicato chord.

After the intermission, the concert closed with Mozart's String Quintet in C Major, K.515.  Like Mozart's other quintets, this work uses a viola as the extra instrument.  For reasons not known, the work was published with the Minuet before the Andante, rather than in the more conventional Andante-Minuet order.  It was performed on this occasion in the published order.

Considering that it is a chamber work, using only strings, the first movement is strikingly dramatic, even operatic in scope.  As instrument answers to instrument, the whole unfolds like a dialogue scene in an opera.  The five players vividly created the impression of characters in conversation throughout the movement.  In the Minuet they created an almost rustic tone, with the moments of chromaticism suggesting a dance almost more of a landler than a courtly Minuet.

The Andante then brought a soaring, lyrical aria shared between violinist Dimity Hall and violist Gillian Ansell, with the other three aptly creating the feel of a richly-harmonized orchestral accompaniment to the almost bel canto duet of the two leads.  The lively finale gave an up-tempo conclusion to a concert full of different kinds of music, from thoughtful to playful and from restless to sublime.  A fascinating evening of music indeed -- I'm eagerly awaiting the next five days of wonderful music here in New Zealand!

Friday, 3 February 2017

Going Gentle Into That Good Night

While Dylan Thomas, in one of his most famous poems, urges the reader to "Do not go gentle into that good night, / Rage, rage, against the dying of the light," not everyone agrees.  But at the focus of last night's Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert lay a remarkable choral/orchestral work which blesses the coming of death to such an extent that it was described by its creator as a "lullaby of death."  

Now, if that's a difficult concept, then consider that we also heard a very late work from a composer who had decided to retire, and then changed his mind and shared with us his final thoughts -- a man whose final words to the world stressed the importance of love.  And we heard it combined with the thoughts of a composer of our time who successfully got inside the idiom of his much older colleague.  And the first work of the program was a very subtle, even gentle, tone poem for orchestra and organ -- and how many people would have dared predict "subtle" as an appropriate descriptor for those forces?

Now, let's take those three performances in the opposite order -- the order in which they were actually performed.

The concert opened with Canadian composer Samy Moussa's remarkable work, A Globe Itself Infolding.  I was struck by the remarkable way in which the sounds (mostly quiet) of organ and orchestra are blended together with such finesse that the listener can have trouble telling where one leaves off and the other begins.  The title makes it plain that this is the composer's intention.  I was only able to be sure part of the time, and only because I'm familiar with the sound of the Roy Thomson Hall organ.  

The music itself is very slow-moving and hypnotic in quality -- and the comparison with Olivier Messiaen springs readily to mind.  But Moussa's tonal palette is more apt to light on unambiguous common chords rather than Messiaen's strange modal tonalities -- and none the worse for that.  The real beauty of this work is the way that it invites you to submerge yourself as listener in the uniquely lovely sound world that orchestra and organist create between them.  Organist Jean-Willy Kunz mastered the sometimes-cranky swell-box of the instrument and created the most magical effects.  

The second work I have no trouble acclaiming as a masterpiece in its own right.  That's a risky call because Detlev Glanert's work consists of a prelude, three interludes, and a short postlude shaped around his own orchestration of the Vier Ernste Gesange ("Four Serious Songs") by Brahms.  These were Brahms' penultimate compositions, and were written for low voice and piano.  He never orchestrated them.

Glanert has taken up the challenge and provided the songs with orchestration that aptly recalls the style of the master in many particulars.  The songs flow smoothly into and out of Glanert's own compositions of prelude and interludes.  The result is a single overarching tone poem for orchestra and voice.  I was especially struck in the prelude and the first interlude by a clear sense that if Brahms had lived a decade and a half longer, he might well have responded to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with just such a song-symphony as this.  Because, in effect, a song-symphony is exactly what Detlev Glanert has given us.

As the work went on, I was hoping he would not try to follow the quiet end of the final song in any way.  But he did, and the ending was as near perfect as one could hope.  The strings quietly sustained the final chord of the song ad infinitum while the winds gently uttered fragments of melody recalling the singer's lines, until the music at last died away.

The orchestra's playing throughout this work was poetic, beautifully shaped, and marked out by many lovely touches of phrasing and shaping.  As for soloist Russell Braun, I need only say that this great Canadian baritone is absolutely at the peak of his powers -- and proved it beyond any question in every phrase of the four songs.

The second half of the concert was given over to Gabriel Faure's Requiem, his "lullaby of death".  In approaching this score, you have to toss aside all thoughts of the dramatics employed by Mozart, Berlioz, and Verdi,  Faure's gorgeous music uses a rich Romantic tonal vocabulary in a predominantly quiet, gentle setting of the text of the Mass for the Dead.  

The programme informed us that we were hearing the composer's original 1893 version for chamber orchestra and chorus.  In fact, no score of that version has survived.  It has been painstakingly reconstructed from various source documents.  The key differences are the use of a much smaller string section headed by the violas, the absence of wind instruments, and the use of a single solo violin in the Sanctus instead of the massed violins of the 1901 full orchestra version.  

At first blush, the 100 voices of the Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers (both directed by Dr. Lydia Adams) might be thought too large for such a performance.  In practice, the sound was -- if anything -- too weak at times.  I have never heard any choir do so much singing at such a low level of volume in my life.  The gentle, soothing, reflective quality of the sound -- in effect, the "lullaby of death" -- was noteworthy.  Sadly, there were a few passages when the french horns cranked up their dynamic level and the choir didn't quite pull along to match -- thereby momentarily vanishing.  But in the main this was a marvellous performance that truly captured the spirit of Faure's inspiration.

Russell Braun again provided the baritone solos, and did so in a more restrained style perfectly in keeping with the work of the choir.  That left the world-famous Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin in the ethereal Pie Jesu.  With a heftier choral complement her contribution would have been just right, but in this company her voice was altogether too strong, too earthy, for the ethereal choral sound which dominated the work as a whole.  Even so, the steadiness of her voice was impressive in this high and difficult solo.  

(By the way, I was spoiled for life on this movement by my childhood acquaintance with a 1968 King's College recording featuring boy treble Robert Chilcott -- an artist whose performance is praised right down to this day for its quiet precision and purity of tone.)

Also notable was the gentle sound of Associate Concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky, floating his violin solo gently down from the organ loft in the Sanctus.  Organist Jean-Willy Kunz returned, and filled his major role in the score with understanding and sympathy for the composer's aims.

With that, I want to close with the highest commendation for guest conductor Stephane Deneve, who planned this unique and fascinating programme and led the orchestra, organist, and singers throughout with panache, with clarity, and most of all with empathy for all of the music.  More than anything, this is the reason this concert will stick in my memory for a long time to come.