Back to Ottawa after a three-year hiatus, happy to report that the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival is still in good hands artistically and administratively.
This season’s theme, “Viva Voce: Inspired by Song,” is an entirely appropriate moniker for today’s programs: there’s much to sing about with very few false notes (on both sides of the footlights) along the way.
The two main venues couldn’t be more different.
The ever-stately Dominion-Chalmers United Church continues to look better than it sounds. Even a few feet forward or back on the pulpit-zone stage can affect the reverberation—without extensive rehearsals—which most festivals, necessarily, can’t offer. Much of the acoustical fine tuning has to happen (or not) during the performance: all the more reason to observe exposition repeats! Seat cushions are still a must to “support” extended musical offerings in the wooden pews; the welcome air conditioning can’t seem to make its mind up between too hot or too cold, causing two nearby patrons to unfurl their fans and flap away—arhythmically—around the beat.
Just a short walk from the central hotel district, the theatre of Canada’s National Gallery-played host to several concerts. With no acoustic shell for support and film friendly black curtains soaking up the sound, players faced an uphill battle of a different sort.
There, the seats are more comfortable but have reached the age where most cheek-to-cheek shifts by their inhabitants don’t go by unnoticed. No matter, that mild annoyance pales in comparison to the plastic wrap crinkles which frequently interrupted the ebb and flow of the marvellous artistry emerging from the curtain-surrounded stage, where over-reverberation was never in evidence.
These acoustical challenges are mentioned in light of JWR’s five-week stint at the 2010 edition of the Lucerne Summer Festival (cross-reference below) where the venues were almost entirely (save and except for the casino) as highly regarded as the artists who plied their considerable skills in the various locales. If the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival (self-described as “The world’s largest”) can move up to those sorts of first-class sites, then global aficionados will soon beat a path to Ottawa.
To the music.
On its own (Haydn String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3), the Tiberius Quartet (this being its inaugural performance at these concerts) took several moments to adjust to a room full of attentive, noontime patrons.
As time went on, the players adapted, adding more wait, allowing the cadences to clear before pressing on to the next section. Curiously, a touch more of the other weight (to the pulse) would have tidied up the ensemble, lifting it from good to great.
The “Minuet” was blessed with an ideal tempo, but it took Haydn’s own “rests” to—finally—allow the music to breathe ahead of the “Trio” and after the last, delectable bar.
The “Poco Adagio” aptly showed the collective promise of these musicians whose overall warm, engaging tone—once the ensemble consistently finds its centre—will be as welcome as sold-out events at festivals everywhere.
With the addition of James Parker for Schumann’s magnificent Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, the artistic heat rose immediately (the fanning femmes never fluttered again once riveted to the music).
Parker lured his intrepid colleagues into his singular world of exquisite phrasing but could find no takers in the opening’s first lyrical subject (change of register being such an important feature of the heavenly line).
At first, “In Modo d’una Marcia” was too disjointed (too many rests were heard rather than felt) until violist József Molnár raised the bar with his open heroics in the return to darkness.
For the “Scherzo,” Parker took charge with a catch-me-if-you-can tempo and—this time—they did, which brought back wonderful memories of Leonard Bernstein’s sizzling interpretation along with The Julliard Quartet. The scampering da capo —Parker turning the temperature up one more incredible notch—was the most breathtaking sequence of the entire day. Naturally, spontaneously the room burst into applause with the “Allegro ma no troppo” still to come. These demonstrations of sudden appreciation, we know, were relatively common back in the masters’ day where vrai encores led to fulfillment of the aristocrats’ demand for the just-heard movement to be repeated on the spot (instant social media with nary a tweet or like required).
Just hours later, “Contrasts” took on extra meaning thanks to the Ottawa début of the Zodiac Trio. (Click below for the second part of this review). JWR