Having first been happily astonished by discovering The Gallery Players of Niagara in my new backyard during 2002 (cross-reference below), I’ve been a frequent attendee ever since.
Alas, ever-increasing travel to various out-of-town events and festivals has left precious little time for checking up on the progress-to-date for many local arts organizations.
How fortunate indeed, then, that the final concert of GPN’s 20th season coincided with an open date, so I made my way to yet another venue (Silver Spire United Church in St. Catharines) to see and hear two favourite works.
Beethoven’s Op. 70, No. 2—generally outshone by No. 1, “The Ghost” in concert programming—immediately revealed that the performers (Julie Baumgartel, violin; Margaret Gay, cello and David Louie, piano), like a fine VQA wine, have further matured and blended into a first-rate ensemble that would be the envy of any major metropolis, let alone the less populace Region of Niagara.
From the very first note of the “Poco sostenuto,” a pensive, thoughtful mood was established that accurately heralded many more superb moments to come.
Once the first “Allegro” began, there was a surety and cohesiveness from all three performers that readily forgave any blemishes that might arise (only the very occasional lack of unanimity with a few attacks caused concern).
Naturally, the piano tended to slightly overpower the strings, but that balance improved immeasurably as the performance went on and was more a function of architecture/acoustics than anything else.
The following “Allegretto” was filled with easygoing joy alongside darker, dramatic contrasts as the episodic segments took their turn. Particularly effective was Gay’s magical pizzicati and unerring triplets from the ensemble that most certainly were not duples.
Ideally “ma non troppo,” the third movement was the musical epitome of “entre amis.” Baumgartel’s lines soared as required and were deftly matched by her colleagues. Perhaps not so Schubertian (as this music is often described) due to its harmonic “escapades,” there is, however, a marvellous foreshadowing in the piano of the Austrian master’s Impromptu No. 4 in A-flat Major, D. 899 (cross-reference below).
Louie singlehandedly lit the fire for the finale’s exuberant—at times frolicking—race to the double bar. Once reached, everyone present realized what an extraordinary gift they’d just received.
After intermission, the season concluded with Dvořák’s “Dumky” trio. This work has been a constant companion of mine for decades—and likely my first initiation to the piano trios without clarinet (once—courageously, perhaps foolishly?—I performed the clarinet trios of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms all in one sitting!). To be honest, I came across this disc due to a 99¢ sale in the remainders bin at Sam the Record Man. I bought it wondering just what Brahms might do with a piano quartet (I was 16 at the time) that had caught my eye. How absolutely coincidental that the very first Gallery Players concert I reviewed (cross-reference below) also featured the C minor quartet on the program. And beyond New World Symphony, Dvořák’s compositions were virtually unknown to me then. But as soon as I flipped the disc and dropped the needle on my Thorens turntable (and Advent speakers), it was love at first “sight” for this bohemian masterpiece.
All these decades later, this was the very first live performance I’ve managed to hear.
Not quite as successful as the Beethoven, this reading still had much to admire: passionate melodic lines, near-orchestral energy and a wide variety of tone, texture and touch that kept the ear mightily engaged.
Merci mille fois! And here’s to the next 20 years of exquisite chamber music.
Mere blocks away is the well-underway First Ontario Performing Arts Centre (and in between the shuttered Towne Cinemas and also the Niagara Arts Centre), scheduled to open this fall. What a pity indeed if economics keeps the Gallery Players’ devoted audience shifting uncomfortably in wooden pews rather than squeak-proof, plush seats—and no more motorcycle engines revving up and spoiling the mix.
Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90, “Dumky”
DGG 138966, 1959
Three minds as one
In just the eighth year of concert life (with another 31 to go before disbandment), the Suk Trio (lead by rightly famed violinist Joseph Suk along with cellist Milos Sádlo and pianist Jan Panenka) render a performance for the ages. It seems that musicians lo those many years ago weren’t in as much of a rush as quite a number are today: on many occasions the music is lovingly lingered over, keeping listeners entranced or at the edge of their seats speculating on just how long the sound can still be heard as the land of niente is approached.
The only quibble is the penchant—as was the norm in the ‘50s; happily a rarity these days—for extra-juicy portamenti. Still, both Suk and Sádlo matched each other’s approach slide for slide when exchanging lines. The former also puts on a master class of bowing technique: unforgettable is his truly dry staccato, then spiccato. Both string players absolutely radiate during their respective forays into the stratosphere; the pitch-perfect results are spellbinding.
Panenka binds everything artfully together with ideal tempi and the ability to push and pull his colleagues along to spectacular effect (none better than the extra-delicate feeling of the “Andante moderato (quasi tempo di marcia).”
Sure, the recording techniques are no match for today’s standards, but the musicality is second to none. JWR