The best thing about going to concerts is “the chance-factor.” At every performance an assortment of artists convene at a specific location to share the best moments of their individual and collective rehearsals of a—usually—pre-set repertoire. Audiences, drawn from family and friends (of the artists and the music), passersby and diligent local-media sleuths, assemble in expectation of a couple of well-spent hours. Occasionally, there is the chance that their participation will be rewarded with an exceptional musical experience.
Today’s program by the Gallery Players of Niagara at Rodman Hall (to be repeated in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Amherst, New York) was just such an extraordinary event.
Since scouring the Niagara Peninsula for excellence in the professional performing-arts scene for almost a year (far removed from Alberta’s “dry cold” and bickering or near-bankrupt orchestras), I have never had such a satisfying outing.
Thanks to all concerned, but particularly music director, Margaret Gay, for bringing together the component parts.
OK, then; what was so special?
As has been reported elsewhere in these pages, Douglas Miller (the pride of the Niagara Symphony’s woodwinds) is a musician of exceptional skill and talent. His dulcet, full-bodied tone was a constant delight in the Mozart quartet. His string colleagues tried to keep up, but couldn’t quite match his phrasing and nuance. However, everyone would be well-advised to let each movement decay and briefly settle after the double bar so that the flapping of their page turns doesn’t cause attentive listeners mild indigestion.
Miller’s sympathetic accompanist in the too-seldom heard Copland duo that followed was David Louie. Here was a meeting of minds and hearts that responded convincingly (despite a piano that is in need of more surgery than OHIP and private-clinics combined could provide) to Copland’s brilliant juxtaposition of childlike simplicity with rhythmic and structural complexity. The performance was a true partnership that completely obliterated the distant chatter of some gallery-goers who had come more to gab than absorb.
“Imagine a man who is just about to shoot himself, and who sees no way out,” Brahms wrote of the most sublime piano quartet in the repertoire. We can only be thankful for his turmoil and, as Louie concluded in his preceding remarks, “Brahms also informed his publisher that the C-minor Quartet would turn the bluest sky grey.”
Those patrons who let a little Canadian slush keep them at home watching Sunday football missed a performance that threatened to lift the oil off the surrounding canvasses.
The first movement, “Allegro ma non troppo,” was the best of the bunch. From Louie’s opening clarion-call, he set the tone and challenged his colleagues to dig deep. In striking contrast to the Mozart, they responded with conviction and aplomb, successfully managing to ignore the bar lines and just “let it play.”
Julie Baumgartel threw caution to the wind and weighed into the string, using all of her bow to produce themes and lines that wonderfully declaimed Brahms’ angst. Very occasionally the result was a tad strident, but no matter: its integrity was gripping. Violist Patrick Jordan, likewise, threw off his self-described “tipsy” Mozart intervention, adding warmth and depth to the inner voices. Now, if only he would keep his bow’s velocity even when winding down a phrase we would, again, reach a new plane of excellence.
Far more often than not, the ensemble was compelling: The more they risked, the greater the reward. Louie tossed off the technical challenges with breathtaking surety, yet stayed riveted in the subtext as Brahms revealed more of his inner-turmoil than words ever could. Even if we’d all gone home after the first movement, no one could have left unmoved.
However, perhaps the success of the first was too much to sustain. The driving “Scherzo” (closer to Beethoven than anything in the so-called “Beethoven’s 10th” C-minor Symphony) started well but lost steam and tension in the second subject. To lift this performance to the heavens, a group re-think of the breadth of “Brahms’ Triplets,”—especially by the strings—would do wonders for maintaining its balance and drive.
Margaret Gay, once she’d settled into the solo line of the “Andante,” delivered a rich warm tone that inspired her colleagues to follow suit.
Time and again, the “Finale” brought moments of brilliance and passion that can never be found on recordings. The push and pull, the tossing about of ideas and inspiration kept everything forging ahead. The coda’s tension was palpable and when the modality finally resolved to the life-affirming major, there wasn’t a person in the hall that wouldn’t agree how fortunate we’d been to have shared it all together. JWR