blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

And finally ... J.S. Bach

Music and Beyond's performance of the B-minor Mass on July 16th was the climax of the festival, and we had didn't need to pay to get in! It was a Festival-Plus concert, which means that I ought to have paid extra, and Chris was ready to buy his own ticket. But the organisers had given me (and other disappointed patrons) two complimentary tickets for the Bach, to compensate for the cancellation of Wednesday's lecture.

I knew this concert would be tremendous, because we had also been at the St. Matthew Passion performance on Good Friday, a few months ago, which had thrilled me then and for a long time afterwards. The soloist who had taken the part of Jesus in the oratorio was now singing the bass arias in the mass, so we knew the standard of singing would be high, as indeed it was, very, and we were to have the same able conductor at the podium, Kevin Mallon. We had many of the same instumentalists too (the Thirteen Strings plus their friends from the NACO -- its lead flute, oboe, trumpet, horn) including Julian Armour again, taking responsibility for the continuo part on his cello. The choir singing the great choruses of the mass, highly competent and well rehearsed, as we could see, since we sat near them, was from the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal. We particularly admired the stamina of the first sopranos!

It is impossible to describe Bach's music in words. "The culmination of the Baroque!" my school notes used to say, but that is only a text book phrase. Perhaps a painting would do better justice to it, using all the colours. I have sung the B-minor Mass ... when I was 19, as one of the 2nd sopranos in London's Imperial College Choir, an experience that gave me a very good idea of what "in Heaven" means. Even though that performance wasn't half as good as what we heard in Ottawa, I remember how the last half hour of it was like flying through a night sky full of stars, making all my self-centred little worries null and void. Probably my mother once felt the same, because she has told me that she'd like a recording of the Sanctus from Bach's B-minor Mass played at her funeral.

Mum came up with another simile too; she once said that singing the Sanctus was like being on a big ship sailing the high seas.

I have found this blogpost about Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his more detailed response to the Bach mass, worth reading if you're interested.

Bach's greatness wasn't as obvious to his contemporaries at it is to us, and it wasn't until Mendelssohn's day, over a hundred years later, that he acquired his stature as a great composer. The 1720s clergymen at Leipzig had thought his St. Matthew Passion far too long and over-dramatic so hadn't given it a good reception. In a fit of pique, perhaps --- although this is undocumented speculation --- Bach decided to offer his large scale choral music to the court at Dresden instead, after that, setting Catholic Latin texts, what's more.

In Ottawa, the following day (July 17th) I went to visit the Syrian family I've befriended, who have a new baby, and coming home through the city in the afternoon I realised that I'd have time to attend one further concert, a performance of Bach's The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge) on period instruments (or replicas?), viols of different sizes and timbres, all held vertically, by a consort of four instrumentalists known as Les Voix Humaines. Not looking them up beforehand, I must confess I'd supposed that a group calling itself Les Voix Humaines would be singers, and so did others of the rather large audience, and so we were taken by surprise.

Again, it was very warm and humid that day, so it was essential to sit still in the non airconditioned church to hear this rather same-ish, soft music, lightly played, and the lack of resonance in these instruments so lulling that many of us had a hard time keeping awake. Sad to say, the nave wasn't half so full after the intermission because many of the audience had made their escape. I was sitting with Jingnan and Lee from my Chinese class during this concert, and we were among the few who remained. Jingnan told me that the word for 'soporific' in Chinese is cuīmián (催眠). During the break I walked up to the podium to take a closer look at the viols that had been left there. They constituted a visual work of art, too, each one decorated with a plume of coloured ribbons, as were their music stands.

The music sounds serious, intellectual, to us but the chief viol player (Susie Napper), who introduced everything, claimed that Bach himself saw the composition of the Art of Fugue pieces more as an after-dinner pastime and she informed us that Bach had a sense of fun, as well as a great liking for wine. She apologised for "the lack of seriousness in this performance", although actually I failed to identify any humorous moments in what followed. The fugues and canons were composed, maybe as a challenge from one of his family or friends, during the last ten years of Bach's life, in 2, 3 and 4 parts: Contrapunctus I, Contrapunctus II, Contrapunctus III, etc., all the way to Contrapunctus XVIII.

In complete contrast, the encore the instrumentalists gave us was an arrangement of Gershwin's Summertime for viols with the song part played on the recorder by Mélisande Corriveau.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Czech musicians and composers

In the second week of the Music and Beyond festival we had the good fortune to welcome the Bennewitz Quartet to town, who are from Prague.

Photo: ©Kamil Ghaisption
I went to two of their concerts, the first one with Chris. This was held at the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne Park, but I don't think Music and Beyond concerts ought to be held there next year, because, despite the pleasant nearby surroundings, it wasn't the best venue. The underground parking is expensive and inside the hall, the intrusively loud hum from the airconditioners, working at full revs, compromised our appreciation and must have been quite off-putting for the musicians themselves. It was also very hot and humid in there.

Carping aside, the concert was still wonderful. If he were writing this blogpost, my husband would doubtless observe that the viola player in particular attracted my attention (as does the German actor Henry Arnold or the President of France for that matter, with their similar good looks).

Enough of that; let's concentrate on the music, which in this concert was all Czech. The Ambassador of the Czech Republic said a few words from the front row, the second violinist made the rest of the introductions, and the first piece we heard was Dussek's Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 60. Dussek (1760-1812) is better known for his piano music, but he also created a large output of other chamber music, including three string quartets. This was the last of these. We were encouraged to listen for the classical and romantic elements in this piece which can be classified as "pre-romantic".

Here's the Scherzo:

Janacek and his wife when young
A very different piece followed, Janacek's Intimate Letters (his String Quartet No. 2, 1928, written at the end of his life). This is programme music, or music as a secret code. The amorous feelings the elderly Janacek was attempting to convey were for a certain Kamila Stösslova, 38 years younger than he! They apparently exchanged about 700 real letters as well. Janacek's wife, unsurprisingly disgusted, obliterated his verbal references to the various intimacies in the original manuscript with a thick black pen, so performers simply have to guess at what he meant. These four performers made a most passionate job of it and deserved their break in the cooler fresh air during the intermission.

They had played so well that Chris and I decided to stay for the second half of the concert despite that noisy competition from the air conditioners. This time we heard Smetena's From My Life (Z mého života) Quartet, the work that first attracted my husband to chamber music. Czechs always feel that Smetana expresses their soul better than does Dvorak; especially when they hear his most patriotic, symphonic work Ma Vlast, Smetana is the Czech composer. Both Ma Vlast and From My Life were late works from the 1870s, after he had lost his hearing. The quartet expresses a personal turmoil, Smetana trying to come to terms with his tragic memories of the 1850s when three of his children and then his wife died. Although mostly in the minor, it is not unhappy music. The second movement is a Polka, the Czech (not Polish) national dance, and the gentle Largo was written in memory of his wife. The Vivace at the end first expresses his sense of triumph at having succeeded as a composer, but then comes the sudden long note, the harmonic high E on the violin that signifies the tinnitus he heard as he began to go deaf. Touchingly, the previous movement's wife-theme returns as a consolation after this fateful shock, and so the quartet ends, resolving gently into the major, on a soft pizzicato.

As the second violinist said, "It's a very beautiful music!"

Of course, the following day I was back in town to hear the Bennewitz Quartet perform again. At this event they offered only two pieces of music: Schubert's great Death and the Maiden Quartet followed by a quartet by Dvorak after the intermission. What sets professionals such as these apart is their mastery of pianissimo playing. I also noted their utter subservience to the music and their respect for one another. If you are going to do this properly, there is no room for egotism. A good lesson for all those in the public eye, if you ask me.

Once more, the second violinist stood up to tell us about the music. This Quartet in D minor, no. 14, was one of the last things Schubert ever wrote, knowing (in 1824, at the age of 27) that his life would soon come to an end, or so people claim. That's debatable, although he did know he had syphilis, but the solemnity and the emotion is certainly there, especially in the way the Bennewitz Quartet handled it. This piece of music is 40 minutes long. I have heard it several times before played live, but this was the best performance I've heard to date. The Andante movement is the one based on Schubert's song of seven years earlier, with five variations of that theme.

Dvorak's Quartet in G, Op. 106, No. 13, may also have been written with death in mind, or at least Dvorak thought of his end when he heard it rehearsed for the first time because on that occasion he abruptly left the hall during its Adagio movement in which all four strings are given highly melodic lines. When someone went out to find out what was the matter, and whether the instrumentalists had upset him with their interpretation, Dvorak was found standing by the river in an emotional state, and he said, "I just realised that I'll probably never write anything so beautiful again!"

We were told a little more about the composer. He had come from a a "gloomy, impoverished background" and music had been his escape. He became internationally famous, especially when asked by New York City to move there to direct its new Conservatory of Music. Travelling back and forth Dvorak also used to write his music aboard transatlantic steamships, including this and his previous (Op. 105) quartet. During the time he spent living in America he was also invited to visit a Czech settlement in Iowa constructed in the style of a Bohemian village, and wrote some of his "most enjoyed pieces" there, as Stepan Jezek of the Bennewitz Quartet put it.

Incidentally, in his last few years, Dvorak succeeded Antonin Bennewitz (for whom the ensemble is named) as director of the Prague Conservatory.

A Canadian selection (continued)

This was the fourth of the 150 Years of Music in Canada series in the Music and Beyond festival. I came along that day (July 13th) because Paul Marleyn and Frédéric Lecroix were going to play, and I like those two U of O musicians.

For the first half of the concert, though, Elaine Keillor was on stage, a lady now in her late seventies who has been a pianist all her life, researching and specialising in Canadian music, and who has been awarded the Order of Canada for her work at the university and elsewhere. She played a series of derivative, light classical pieces by 19th century and early 20th century Canadian composers, some of which reminded me of the music my uncle Frank (1915-2010) used to compose. He used to be a good pianist, too!

Each piece was a dance. The first one, called Yvonne, was a waltz written in 1903 by Alexis Contant. Ms. Keillor spoke to us about the composers and mentioned that that Contant was a student of the man who'd composed Canada's National Anthem, Calixa Lavallée. (O Canada was originally written to be sung in French on Quebec's Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, you know.) Then came the Chanticleer March & Two Step (1910) by a woman, Jeanne Delmar, of the Delmar music publishers' family. The next composer featured on the programme, Wesley Octavius Forsyth (d. 1937), used to preface his pieces with a poem he'd written. This one was entitled In the Vale of Shadowland --- I'm afraid I don't remember anything about it, but can recall the following piece, by a friend of Forsyth's, Clarence Lucas, born on the Six Nations Reserve managed by his Methodist father. Lucas junior composed no fewer than 300 works, said Ms. Keillor, and this one was a Chopin-like Mazurka (No. 2, 1890). Goodness knows what the natives would have thought of it, sounding nothing like their own music. Finally we heard a lively gavotte, Conversazione, composed by Joseph Vézina (d. 1924), leader of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, again composed in the popular style of those days.

With the appearance of Paul Marleyn, who (I think) looks remarkably like the British singer Ian Bostridge, the mood and style of the concert changed, and my interest perked up. Now we were into more serious compositions by contemporary composers, first a piece for solo cello by Chan Ka Nin, called Soulmate (1995) dedicated to the composer's wife who, said Mr. Merlyn, is also a composer. "Good music!" I noted. There was fire and intensity in this. For the next item the cellist was accompanied by his friend Mr. Lacroix to play Still Time (1987) by John Burge, a tribute to his wife. Again, an intense piece, abstract and atonal, but I can't find a reference to it on his website. They then played an extra piece, not listed on the programme, by a female composer whose name I didn't catch. Anyway this one, by contrast, was "extremely tonal" and Mr. Marleyn apologised for this!

The final item in this noon hour concert was for Frédéric Lacroix alone, a piano suite he had composed himself. The same age as my daughter, he studied at the University of Montreal, and this composition stems from those days. He wrote it in a light-hearted way in response to the pigeons who had so much disturbed his post-graduate studies of Couperin on the 8th floor of the music faculty by their coo-ing (roucoulement, he said, unable to think of the English word for it!) that he tried had to recreate this sound on the piano. Apart from the trills, there were many references to Couperin's music in the five sections of Lacroix' Le Club du Jardin (1999), each headed by the name of a different creature: Le blaireau ... La castor ... le lievre ...le pigeon ... l'écureuil. Therefore it was most enjoyable to listen to and we applauded with enthusiasm at the end.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Music enhancing art, and vice versa

Last year's Music and Beyond soirée at the National Gallery was a hard act to follow, but this year, on July 11th, they repeated that venture, on all three levels of the building. I had been at the Vienna Piano Trio's concert in the afternoon (as described in my previous post) and had walked to the University after that to hear a lecture on Bach's B-minor Mass (cancelled, but it had entailed a detour on my way home), so was too tired to stay at the museum all evening; however, it was worth being there and I enjoyed the chance to take photos. This event also gave me the chance to take a look, for free, at the refurbished galleries of Canadian art in this 150th year of Canada's history. Hearing complementary pieces of music brought the artworks more to life than if I'd merely been looking. Likewise the music seemed to take on an extra dimension when juxtaposed with what was in the background. The exact location of each mini-concert had been chosen with care; it was fun searching for the connections between the music and the visual art on show at each spot, some links being more obvious than others.

In one of the contemporary galleries, a song and dance performance was beginning as I walked in. This was a bizarre, avant garde piece –– the singer/dancer (Heather Sita Black) lying flat on the floor beside the drummer to start her wordless, wailing music, and the long haired cellist-composer (Raphael Weinroth-Browne, increasingly familiar to Ottawa audiences), throwing his head forward and back as he extemporised an accompaniment –– apparently inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, as was the artwork his partner danced around.

Individuals, families and groups of friends at the event could wander about at will; I explored further. I'm sorry to have accidentally missed the throat-singing performances in the Inuit Galleries. A brass ensemble was playing Baroque music to a large audience in the Rideau Chapel and, wearing costumes appropriate for the 17th century, dancers and musicians enacted another short programme in the Baroque hall. Meanwhile, 18th century British duets were being played by a violinist and cellist in the gallery displaying 18th century British art.

In the Baroque hall
In the impressionists' gallery a young man in a black suit was playing French music on a harp. Walking across the upper floor, I glimpsed members of the Capital Chamber Music Choir, all dressed alike, taking a rest between performances in front of Barnett Newman's famous "Voice of Fire" (1967), some of them sitting or sprawling on the floor, since there are no seats in that space. The choir sang there later, but by then I had moved on.

Downstairs, in another 20th century gallery, I came across someone playing classical guitar music among the abstract art, while a different guitarist serenaded hollow, 3 dimensional sarcophogi. A saxophonist held a group of people spellbound in front of the triptych by Riopelle, performing modern, abstract music. The theramin player, the Dutchman Thorwald Jorgensen, a regular contributor to the festival, had his spot on the middle floor in front of Claude Tousignant's op-art painting of concentric circles, Chromatic Accelerator, creating magical effects with his other-worldly instrument.

Back into the past, demonstrating music that the flute player on Antoine Plamadon's canvas would have played --- on the same kind of wooden transverse flute and wearing the same kind of clothes --- was a live flautist of today, making an eerie comparison to that 150 year old oil painting! Likewise, sea shanties were being sung by a folk singer in a checked shirt, with a guitar, in the maritime section of the Canadian galleries, just what the sailors on the ships depicted there might have heard in their day.

Julian Armour, Director of the Music and Beyond festival, was introducing his quartet for the evening (he plays the cello) in a gallery of 19th century Canadian art (plus an indigenous birchbark canoe).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Concerts 8 and 9: Schubert and more Schubert!

The Vienna Piano Trio was back in town for our Music and Beyond festival, and the 8th and 9th times I made use of my festival pass this year were to hear them play Schubert. It is good not only to hear these three friends again but to see them again, too, so well do they co-operate on stage. On Monday, July 10th, Chris came with me to Dominion Chalmers United Church for the afternoon concert, because he had a day off work. The young man doing the introductions before the performers came on stage warned us that we'd "only hear one song" [sic] during this concert, which goes to show to what extent iTunes has infiltrated our culture. It was rather a long song, though: Schubert's Opus 100, the E-flat major trio in four movements, some 50 minutes long, so Chris felt he had got his money's worth from his entrance ticket. The allegro moderato movement at the end (not quite a sonata form movement and not quite a rondo) cleverly reprises the main theme from the second movement ...

which makes me realise by how far this composer was ahead of his time, and reminds me yet again how much I love this tune! Schubert himself must have loved it. It was among the last of his own compositions that he heard performed before his death, by the way.

The performers in the video clip above ARE the Vienna Piano Trio! I was thrilled to find this online, as a momento of our experience.

The following day, they performed in another afternoon concert at Dominion Chalmers, and once again it was An Afternoon of Schubert. Chris was stuck at work this time, so I went alone, making sure I had a seat where I could watch the facial expressions of Stefan Mendl, the ultra-musical pianist and leader / founder of the group, who feels every note intensely. I wonder if one of his ancestors centuries ago was also an ancestor of Mendelssohn, but maybe that's too far-fetched a thought. I noticed that he hardly ever looks up at his sheet music, only having it there for occasional reference, although he always employs a page turner.

There were three items on the programme this time, the first two being sonatas rather than trios, the first being the Arpeggione for cello and piano (D.821) followed by the Fantasy in C for violin and piano (D.934). Matthias Gredler is also worth watching in action, and as for the music, Schubert never ceases to awe me. "Genius = surprises and caprice," I noted in the margin, remembering how my music teacher at school (i.e. my dad) had once got me to write an essay on Humour in Music, and thinking how I could perhaps have used the Arpeggione as an example in it. There were Mozartian touches in the Adagio movement. The Fantasy, seven sections long, appealed to me too with its third section quoting one of Schubert's LiederSei mir gegrüßt, developing it into exciting variations. David McCarroll from California, seems to have become thoroughly Viennese since he became the indispensible third member of the Vienna Piano Trio, replacing their former violinist.

After the intermission the whole trio returned to play Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat, op. 99. Here, Schubert composed yet another unforgettable second movement derived from a melody on the cello: 10 minutes of bliss, once more.

Such concerts have a physical effect on me, propelling me so easily along on my walk home afterwards that I feel as if I'm floating.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Music at the cemetery

Music and Beyond's afternoon concert on Sunday, July 9th, was a special event that took place in the Sacred Space, the 9-sided assembly hall of the National Military Cemetery of Canada, at Beechwood Cemetery. The cemetery covers 160 acres of woodland, and, an hour before the music was due to start, the event began with a tour of the graves, but I have already been on such a tour, so waited in the gardens until we concert-goers were invited to take our seats.

During the introduction, with sunshine pouring through the dome at the centre of the hall, we were reminded that the Sacred Space offers "a welcome to Canadians of every religious background", which is good, because Canadians for every religious background have been honoured here. There's a large boulder, a Sacred Stone, so to speak, in the centre of the hall, around which a dozen people walked at its inauguration, each one representing a different faith; this must have been an extraordinary moment.

The exact same concert as the one we heard (A WWI Memorial in Song, also available as a CD or on iTunes) has done the rounds of North America, also performed at Carnegie Hall, at various national military memorials of the United States, etc. Interestingly, the programme chosen by the two young men (John Brancy and Peter Dugan) who have created it can hardly be interpreted as an apology for war, or a nostalgic look back at wartime, since much of it is angry music or the setting of angry words. Performed without a preface, the first song, Channel Firing by Gerald Finzi, was the 1949 setting of a prophetic poem written in 1914. "Good poem!" I had scribbled on my programme, before discovering that Thomas Hardy was the poet.

The singer and pianist thereafter took turns to come to the lectern and talk about the music they were about to perform. Each section of the programme was headed by the name of a different part of the world (England, Germany, France, North America) from which 1st World War soldiers had come.

George Butterworth, a British Lieutenant killed in the Battle of the Somme, had been a promising composer, and is particularly well remembered for the Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (Housman's poems) that he wrote before going off to war. Since I know these songs note-for-note, I was interested in their interpretation and impressed by the lovely soft start to Loveliest of Trees and Is My Team Ploughing? --- the first and last songs in the cycle. Mr. Brancy took the famous one about The Lads In Their Hundreds at a slow tempo that my husband would find challenging, because of the amount of breath required for each phrase. Brancy was very good at articulation, making the most of the consonants ("the horses trrrrample ...") and putting expressive crescendos / decrescendos on the long vowels (as in "easy" or  "sweetheart").

Ivor Gurney
The next song, by Ivor Gurney, incapacitated by a gas attack, was actually written in the trenches: In Flanders expresses the poet's longing for the Cotswolds and Malvern Hills: "my hills." The other song by Gurney, By a Bierside turned out to be another emotional song, one line being: "It is most grand to die, most grand!" which is one of those terrible delusions of the 1st World War. A very British vocabulary and musical style.

To balance all this, the next four songs we heard, composed between 1919 and 1922, were by Carl Orff (1895-1982) who also served in World War I when young, on the other side; he was wounded when a trench collapsed on him. Der Gute Mensch was a bitterly ironic hymn describing a cruel officer in the German army; the following three songs were love songs, One was the setting of a poem by Nietzsche, another, "the confession of a tortured soul" as the singer described it to us. Orff was clearly influenced by the late-romantic early compositions of Schönberg.

France. Since reading Michel Bernard's novel, Les Forêts de RavelI knew that Maurice Ravel, in his 40s, had served as an ambulance driver on the battlefields of the 1st World War, and had composed Le Tombeau de Couperin at this time. We heard the Prélude and Toccata from this suite, each movement of which was composed in memory of a fallen friend, as well as Ravel's song Trois Beaux Oiseaux du Paradis, about imaginary birds carrying a last message to the loved ones of three men who have died in the trenches.

The performers tried to relieve our sombre state of mind by making a little joke about Ravel's Toccata: "That was a lot of notes for a small piano."

I had not known that the composer Francis Poulenc had also served in that war, in fact in both world wars. One of the songs we heard by him was the setting of a poem by Apollinaire, entitled Bleuet, meaning cornflower, which was a nickname for the French soldiers in their blue hats. The other song was aptly entitled Priez pour Paix. Here is John Brancy singing it in November 2014, with Peter Dugan accompanying:

Debussy did not directly take part in the war, being too old, but wrote a fast and angry song which was a setting of his own words, called Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maisons: Christmas for the children who no longer have homes.

The music of Charles Ives from the USA didn't lighten the audience's mood either with their rendition of three war songs by Charles Ives (1874-1954), written during the month America entered the 1st World War. One of them was a setting of McCrae's In Flanders Fields, the war poem best known to Canadians, that's recited here every November 11th.

The final section of the concert was a performance of four of the popular songs of those days, which the ordinary English-speaking soldiers would have known and sung along to: Keep the Home Fires Burning, My Buddy, God Be With Our Boys Tonight and Danny Boy. What was novel about this was that the pianist, Peter Dugan, had composed his own accompaniment for these songs, so that we heard echoes of pianistic gunfire in the background, evocative indeed. Like the rest of the songs on the programme, they were very well sung by John Brancy.

This was a concert that gave rise to many thoughts, so that I wanted to be by myself for a while at the end of it, and slipped away rather than stay for the refreshments. A day or so later, I read the Hardy poem to my mother, who appreciated it. She'll be 98 this month, conceived at the end of the 1st World War.

Friday, July 21, 2017

A Canadian selection

This year's Music and Beyond festival advertised five events at which exclusively Canadian music was performed, entitled 150 Years of Music in Canada, i.e. since 1867; I went to two of these.

On the afternoon of Saturday July 8th, the concert at the First Baptist Church began with four Canadian pieces sung by Hélene Brunet, the soprano who had made such a good impression on me last year (we'd also heard her sing most beautifully in Bach's St. Matthew Passion this year, on Good Friday), accompanied here by Valerie Dueck. The first was Le Jeu des Citations, miniatures of just a few bars duration, each a setting of a single phrase in French by Denis Gougeon of Quebec. There followed Alea by the same composer, sung in Latin! Then a setting of the translation of a 9th century Chinese poem about two souls Weaving Love-Knots, by Sarah Quartel. The fourth item was in Latin again: Amore by Jocelyn Morlock, the words meaning "There is nothing more tame ... nor wild ... than love!"

Reporting this 13 days later, I confess I find it hard to remember how this new music sounded, exactly, but have found a recording to share:

However, the next item, added to the programme, made a more lasting impression, partly because the composer was sitting a couple of rows in front of me with his family: a shy looking, extraordinarily gifted 17 year old, Philip Przybylo. He had composed an atonal piece for solo saxophone called Spectres ErrantsAmazing! I wonder what his music teacher had made of it. The young man seemed pleased with our applause.

Then we had a Vocalise by Carole Portelance, which had the singer going O - ah -- ee -- oo and clapping intermittantly.

The saxophonist came back on stage to be joined by the Quatuor Despax siblings of Gatineau, plus an extra cellist, a guitar player, and Hélene Brunet once more. Together they performed Fly So Far From Me. The composer Roddy Elias was on stage; he was the guitarist. Hélene Brunet was then replaced by the versatile jazz singer Kellylee Evans, and the ensemble minus the string quartet gave us I've Been Where The Water Is Deeper And Darker. Both songs are from a jazzy "chamber opera for puppets" to be performed in its entirety next year, because this is a work in progress, telling the story of a homeless man and his interaction with the social workers. Read more about it here.

During the second half of the concert, the Quatuor Despax also performed a Fantaisie composed by their own father, Emmanuel Despax, in 2005. "He wrote it for our mum!" (and for them, of course). I very much like watching this proud and musical family in action. They are good role models besides; they have helped tutor the children of the Orkidstra.

The other two items on the programme were compositions by Marjan Mozetich, currently based in Newfoundland, who was also in the church to hear our applause, and who talked about his music. The first one was El Dorado, a piece written for string orchestra and adapted here for the quartet plus harp and double bass. The composer admitted that he wrote this "minimalist" piece under the influence of Philip Glass, so it had many repetitive motifs as in Glass' music. This style doesn't appeal to me very much, I'm afraid. The last item on the programme was more appealing, Mozetich coming to the microphone to announce "It's me again!" and to introduce his Angels In Flight for flute, clarinet, harp and strings in three movements which he called a Tryptych --- "not movements, but panels", where the middle section, Song of the Eternal began with lovely arpeggios on the clarinet and viola with the cello playing in the background. And yes, Mozetich said it was inspired by Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for the same combination of instruments.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Haydn, Bartok, Brahms

The Friday evening Music and Beyond concert that Chris and I attended on July 7th was one of the best in the festival. It was the Auryn Quartet's third appearance during their visit to Ottawa and the title of the concert was Hungary! La Hongrie! because there was a link to Hungary in all three of the quartets that they played.

In the case of the first one, Haydn's B minor quartet, Op. 33, No. 1, the link was somewhat tenuous, and not explained at the event, but if you look him up you'll find that for a long time (1766-90) Haydn was the chief musician in residence at the Esterháza Palace, which is in Hungary, near the Austrian border. It is satisfying music, during which you can follow the composer's serene train of thought, especially if you have access to a score:

A musical friend of ours once prophesied good things in life for our young son George (also musical) because "He's a Haydn man!"

After this, the second piece on the Auryn Quartet programme came as a shock: Béla Bartók's Quartet No. 2 in A minor. This composer was definitely Hungarian, and far less serene than Haydn. He was inspired to write this one during the 1st World War; it was angry, mournful and intense and not easy listening. My husband Chris was bowled over by it. As you can imagine, the musicians grew very warm, playing this, and must have needed large glasses of water to restore themselves after the standing ovation we gave them before the intermission.

For the remainder of the concert the quartet was joined by Kimball Sykes, first clarinet player in Canada's NACO, to perform Brahms' Clarinet Quintet. The Adagio movement incorporates Hungarian gypsy-style flourishes. I remember learning about that in my music lessons at school. No surprises during this music, because Chris and I know every note of it. We were sitting close enough to observe how Mr. Sykes fought to keep his clarinet in tune in the hot and humid atmosphere (he managed to do so).

Here's the Bennewitz Quartet (whom we were to admire in the second week of the Music and Beyond festival) playing the first movement with a 14 year-old Korean prodigy, seven years ago:

Opera, the ultimate art: Monteverdi to Bernstein

Having heard the Yukon singers in the morning of July 6th, as described in my previous post, I went to something very different in the afternoon, at the First Baptist Church, further west along Laurier Avenue, having munched at a homemade sandwich half way there, on a bench by the fountains outside Ottawa's City Hall.

* My sketch
This Music and Beyond concert was entitled 400 Years Of Opera and was repeated at an evening performance on that same date. Four young and professional opera singers took part, accompanied by Maxime Dubé-Malenfant at the piano and hosted by the animateur, the musicologist Pierre Vachon. They had all dressed up for the occasion, looking glamorous. I sat near the front and sketched them *, during the performance. They were all excellent singers, but I thought the baritone, Max van Wyck, had a particularly lovely voice.

Monsieur Vachon was francophone, but for the benefit of the Ottawa audience spoke mostly in English. He called opera "the ultimate art" and commented that the big "opera voice" was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the singers had to make themselves heard in big halls unassisted by microphones. The introductory item was a rendition of Verdi's very familiar Libiamo quartet from La Traviata and indeed the four voices were so loudly resonant that perhaps I should have chosen a pew further back.

Then we started on a potted History of Opera. The first two examples, from the 17th century, were a baritone aria from Orfeo and a love duet from L'Incoronazione de Poppea by Monteverdi (1642). Thrilling music! The animateur said that the message of Orfeus, who lost his girl in the Underworld, was that "the way to overcome obstacles is to sing," a notion I heartily agree with. The Italians called opera musica favole (legends in music) and the castrati employed by the opera companies "were the Céline Dions of their day" --- adored pop stars.

Two 18th century arias followed, first a virtuoso performance of Vivaldi's florid Agitata da due venti from La Giselda (1735) sung by the mezzo-soprano, Marjorie Maltais, libretto by Boccaccio. Later in that century came Mozart (Gluck was mentioned as being the link composer between the Baroque and Classical style) and we heard as an example of his achievements one of Donna Anna's arias (sung by the soprano Myriam Leblanc) from Don Giovanni, where she pleads with the noble Don Ottavio to wait a while before they get wed, because she is still in mourning for her murdered father. When I hear this one, I always think that it's really because she has a subconscious yearning for the attractive murderer, Don Giovanni, but that's just my reading of it. Anyhow it is subtle music. We heard how Mozart's intention was to "bring real life into opera" and how subversive that was, in those days.

Some more Bel canto: we heard a Rossini aria from La Cenerentola (i.e. Cinderella), Rossini being the composer who brought a sense of fun into music (according to Pierre Vachon) followed by another Verdi quartet, this one from Rigoletto, so skillfully portraying the feelings of all four characters simultaneously. "Verdi wanted to be a musical psychologist." The facial expressions and gestures of the performers fitted their roles.

After this, a much needed Intermission. The performance continued with three further 19th century items, the first being Bizet's famous La fleur que tu m'avais jetée from Carmen, emotionally sung by the tenor, Danny Leclerc. The two female singers then gave us the equally famous duet, Belle nuit, o nuit d'amour by Offenbach: girls in a gondola on Venice's Grand Canal. By contrast, we then heard O du mein holder Abendstern, very well performed by the baritone, from Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845), a 13th century Germanic tale. We learned about Wagner's ambition to create Gesamtkunstwerke in his operas and about his use of the Leitmotiv. It seems Wagner included more than 100 Leitmotive in his works.

For the last section of the programme we had a series of lighter, 20th century music that stuck in my head for several days afterwards, so much did I enjoy it. Summertime from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess is always easy on the ear, but M. Vachon made a mistake in telling us, to a sharp intake of breath from the audience, that Porgy and Bess was the more acceptable face of racism. He apologised immediately for this embarrassing slip. Myriam Leblanc made the most of her moment by wandering up and down the aisle during her Summertime and holding a beautiful high pp note at the end. (I have tried that myself, and admire singers who can do it.) Finally we heard the tenor singing Maria from Bernstein's West Side Story (1957), lyrics by Sondheim --- which, when you come to think of it, is a sort of opera --- and finally an adaptation of the full-company number, Tonight, Tonight, which comes at the climactic mid-point of the original show, by all four singers, together with their hard-working accompanist. Brilliantly composed music! I heard a lecture about it once, long ago, on BBC Radio 3. This also brought back memories of an ambitious performance that we once attended at the Croesyceiliog Comprehensive in Cwmbran, Wales, with my son as lead cellist in their orchestra and his school friends singing on stage, their music teacher Mr Appleby conducting. Full of nostalgia when I got home, I wasted time watching YouTube clips from West Side Story, and singing along.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Songs from the Yukon

Barbara Chamberlin of Whitehorse
(Music and Beyond, continued)

At the Tabaret Hall on July 6th, singers from the Yukon were showing what they could do; the first three songs were sung unaccompanied by a ladies' choir calling themselves The Persephones. They were directed by a forceful woman called Barbara Chamberlin who had also arranged or composed some of the items. At the lectern, to educate us about the Whitehorse region and Yukon culture, she introduced the songs and announced the many deviations from the published programme.

The actual order of items was as follows:

1. A part song entitled The Northern Lights.
2. Hudson Bay Boys, a cheeky 4-part number supposedly sung by the 1st Nation women to the gold diggers, who used to look forward to their arrival. "Where's the Hudson Bay boys?" went the chorus. "I'm getting older for you!" Or at least, I think that was what they sang.
3. Then came a song about a badly behaved husky: Dog of Shame. I think Ms. Chamberlin wrote the words as well as the music, which incorporated dog noises. She told us that in Whitehorse, there are more (sled) dogs than people. Anyway, "...they had to muzzle him."

For the remainder of the programme, three men came on stage, plus a few extra women, to join (or replace some of) The Persephones. This was the 8-part Whitehorse Chamber Choir, a more experienced group of 14 singers; with their arrival the standard of performance went up.

4. Gabi Gabi, a South African song.
5. Song For A Winter's Night, pianissimo, in close harmony, ending with humming in all the parts.
6. Cold Snap, a song with eccentric words, such as "I want to be a winter person..."
7. After the Gold Rush, a setting for choir of a Neil Young song.
8. Ms. Chamberlin introduced the 8th item by telling us, "Summer in the Yukon isn't very long, only about twelve days" so the next item was a spoof version of The Twelve Days of ChristmasThe Twelve Days of Summer. The choir themselves had helped to compose the words, so (as well as I could make out) we had
12 Yukon drummers
11 moose a-rutting
10 Can-Can dancers
9 wolves a-howling
8 broken windshields (?!)
7 salmon swimming
6 ravens (doing something I couldn't catch)
5 gold claims
4 mosquito bites
3 blackflies
2 cariboo
and a bearcub in a pine tree
9. Baba Yetu, another South African song
10. An arrangement of the the late Leonard Cohen's ubiquitous Hallelujah, that people praise so highly. I shall now make myself extremely unpopular by adding that I don't like this song very much, neither the words nor the music, sorry.
11. High Wind. This was a song with piano accompaniment expressing Yukoners' longing for the north wind and "the midnight sky on fire" whenever they're away from the Yukon.
12. The last item was Ned's Lament composed and sung in gospel style, the story of a paddlewheeler that ran aground on the River Yukon. Ned was its Captain. Here's a recording of the performance I watched:

I wrote in the margin of my programme that concerts* allow you to stare at people without seeming rude. On the front row for this one, I'd been able to stare to my heart's content.

* The same applies in cinemas and at the theatre, of course.

Arensky, Beethoven and Schubert

As a Festival Pass holder at this year's Music and Beyond in Ottawa, I have 15 concerts to report! It feels like a long time since the first one I attended at midday on July 5th, a concert of music by the Russian composer Arensky, who died in 1906. "Tragic death," I scribbled on the programme, but forgot why. (According to the Wikipedia Arensky died of TB at the age of 44, in Finland.)

Each of the two pieces was written in memory of another musician, the first, a quartet for violin, viola and (unusually) two cellos, in three movements (Op. 35, No.2), composed as a tribute to Tchaikovsky. The music being balanced towards a low pitch made it sound funereal in places, the first movement like a sacred chant. "Deep Russian sonority," I noted. The middle movement was a series of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky, Russian folksy in style, and the Finale began in a low register again, on all four instruments, andante sostenuto, leading to a fugue.

The second piece, Arensky's first piano trio in four movements, Op. 32, written in memory of a cellist friend, was somewhat lighter by comparison, with a romantic, Dvorak-like opening movement with a fast, bouncy Scherzo and a muted Elegia following.

I jumped on a bus and went straight from that concert to the 2pm concert at Southminster United: the Auryn Quartet playing Beethoven and Schubert, not to be missed! They played Beethoven's C-sharp minor Opus 131, with no breaks between the movements. I'm not sure whether the Ottawa audience is quite ready for Beethoven's Late Quartets -- some of the audience seemed to find it a hard slog -- but knowing what to expect, I was swept along with this monumental music. After the intermission, the German group performed Schubert's G major quartet D. 887, and that was Beethovenesque too, with its sudden major-minor changes, and delighted me with a long and lovely melody on the cello in the slow movement. The Auryn Quartet is adept at pianissimo playing: that's what distinguishes the professionals from the amateurs. These men have been playing together for more than 30 years, still the original members of the quartet, like a marriage. They are currently based in Detmold, Germany.