Music Niagara’s Opening Gala served emphatic notice that the 12-year-old festival has moved beyond being a conglomeration of interesting concerts for the loyal few and become a major player in the Region’s cultural tourism strategy. With the coincidental news that Project Niagara (a proposed summer festival featuring the Toronto Symphony and National Arts Centre Orchestra) has been scrapped, the timing of this renaissance couldn’t be better. World class music-making is very much alive and well in Niagara, Now, let’s spread the word and support it like never before.
Where previous years’ openers ranged from conducted chamber orchestras to wunderkind soloists and world premières (cross-reference below), the 2010 edition, under the guise of important anniversaries—Chopin and Schumann in this instance, but do we ever need an excuse to celebrate genius?—finally fulfilled its recast name (formerly the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival), consisting of some of the repertoire’s most magnificent creations performed by five skilled and dedicated interpreters.
To mark the occasion and thanks to infrastructure stimulus spending of an artistic nature, St. Mark’s Anglican Church has been fitted with a moveable stage (vastly improving the acoustics thanks to a pocket of reverberant air below decks enhancing the sound production—yet not quite deep enough to keep the valiant page turner out of harm’s way: twice, concerned onlookers repositioned her chair back from the abyss) and a retooled lighting design. As well, specially commissioned, extra-high-back chairs from Sarie Marais seated the Gould String Quartet but might be rethought as the thrusts and parries of the more active performers were arhythmically mirrored far above their shoulders. Finally, the viola position (stage left, outside) might beneficially be switched with the cello, creating the chance for all players to be heard equally.
After the required, thankfully brief political speeches were concluded, André Laplante took the stage with a few unexpected comments of his own. For completely understandable personal reasons, the two expected Nocturnes were replaced by Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of the “Adagio” from J.S. Bach’s C Major Toccata. No complaints here. How entirely appropriate to begin the era of renewed excellence with an exquisitely voiced rendering of the baroque master’s most intimate thoughts.
Without a break (no spontaneous applause greeted the marvellous evaporation of the final bar) the Fantasy in F Minor was launched, filling the room with copious waves of Chopin’s mystical, brooding poetry crafted with consummate skill—especially the perfectly weighted legato lines—by Laplante. The program could have ended here and no one would have gone home unsatisfied.
The B-flat Minor Sonata was notable for the pianist’s acute sense of drama, balance and ability to see then share the entire canvas as a whole rather than four distinct movements. More used to the instrument as time went on, the top register truly rang, making the “Scherzo’s” technical histrionics especially memorable. The famous “Marche funèbre” was ideally understated, conjuring up our most recent hearing as a Chilean military band blurted out the sombre theme while the likes of Augusto Pinochet attended the funeral of President Allende’s aide (cross-reference below).
After the break, Laplante readily made the shift from recitalist to chamber musician as he and the Gould Quartet offered a vivid reading of Schumann’s brilliantly constructed, musically economic masterpiece.
The “Allegro brilliante” flew into the air with passion and verve that only lacked an ounce of “relax” to achieve perfection. This funeral march was also another gem of subtlety and blessed with an ideal tempo. A slight “buzz” from Natasha Sharko’s viola seemed curiously at one with the atmosphere. Following Laplante’s lead, violinists Atis Bankas and Tanya Charles drove through the treacherous “Scherzo” at a breakneck clip, daring their colleagues to keep up and they did, with cellist Luke Pomorski eager to continue the heat. Perhaps a hair more exciting than Schumann intended, that searing movement deftly prepared the way for the ever-warm “Allegro ma non troppo.” With Bankas clearly leading the way, establishing the nuances of phrase to which his colleagues responded in kind, the concert came to a resounding conclusion—everyone looking forward to the 33 performances yet to come. JWR
Schumann: Piano Quintet, Op. 44
Columbia Masterworks (D3S 806)
More often remembered as an extraordinary conductor and composer, Leonard Bernstein’s piano skills are at one with his joie de vivre and respect for fellow musicians and composers. Joined in this late 1960s recording by the Julliard Quartet at the peak of their powers, it’s hard to imagine a better combination.
The ensemble’s collective looseness belies the many challenges of Schumann’s masterpiece of invention and emotion. What a rare pleasure to hear and feel the harmonic weight and ability of everyone to play the many repeated phrases in ever-so-slightly different, more meaningful ways. Adding an ounce of rugged determination to the recapitulation of the “Allegro brilliante” is just one example of the art leading the way.
The dry chill of the “In modo d’una marcia” (the strings’ arid approach favours substance over sound) is beautifully rewarded by the liquid hope which follows. The group is so “as one” that the music sounds more like a single instrument than five disparate parts.
Truly at the centre of it all is the “Scherzo,” which redefines the notion of playful. To be sure, the ensemble is on the edge of danger as the scale-infused passages fly by, but that only adds to the palpable excitement and exquisitely balanced back-and-forth. Being preceded by an ethereal ending of the slow movement (happily, pitch is never in doubt) to be followed by a “Finale” that manages to make its counterpoint come across as jolly and, with perfectly matched piano and pizzicato, the quintet finishes off on a positive note. Schumann’s life-to-come would face many difficulties but taken on its own, this work is a marvel of confidence and skill that is savoured and lovingly shared by these performers. JWR