The Niagara International Chamber Music Festival is off to an impressive start. With daily concerts until the August 20 Final Gala, there’s still lots of fine music left to enjoy.
I’ve attended three so far.
In the first of four programs from the Glenn Gould and Chamber Music Series (), works by J.S. Bach, Arnold Schönberg and Richard Wagner were included.
Revered as a Bach specialist, Glenn Gould’s recordings continue to find homes in the basic collections of music lovers around the globe. Russian-born pianist, Vadim Serebryany delivered a reading of the baroque master’s 15 Sinfonias, BWV 787-801, for solo keyboard that seemed more intent on affectation and “give” than metric surety or harmonic drive and inevitability. The added challenge of having to turn his own pages added needless drama and distracted from the thoughtful breaths that let one idea sink in even as another prepares to take flight.
Yosuke Kawasaki joined Serebryany for the most successful music-making of the night in a marvellous performance of Schönberg’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano. Written in 1949 and premièred on the composer’s 75th birthday, this dense and emotional essay sounds less and less “modern” as decades pass. From its opening measures, Kawasaki responded to the music’s technical challenges with near-perfect precision and demonstrated a bow arm that pulled, pushed and cajoled the soaring melodic lines and huge dynamic range at will. His able accompanist never faltered, providing discreet support throughout. The large audience, whose attention didn’t wane for an instant, rewarded the duo with generous applause.
Bach’s triple concerto for piano (harpsichordist Wieslawa Renata Todros), flute (Douglas Miller), violin (NICMF artistic director Atis Bankas) and strings (Pro Arte Ensemble) took advantage of the excellent acoustics of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, which enables every voice to be heard. The outer movements abounded in rhythm and drive but never seemed to settle, always dashing rather than moving with quiet confidence to the double bar. The three soloists interacted well with only the keyboard at risk of leaving the rails. Left to themselves in the unaccompanied “Affettuoso,” there was a palpable change in intensity where all concerned simply let the music play and find its own way home. Beautifully done.
Bankas relinquished his bow in favour of the baton to conduct Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, in a performance that featured one string player per part and the solid contributions from the Niagara Symphony’s wind section. Prior to the downbeat, first violin Terry Holowach provided personal anecdotes from his 1982 recording session of the same work where Glenn Gould also abandoned his usual role as solo performer for the more collaborative enterprise of directing others.
Gould’s stodgy result (still available in the Sony catalogue) confirmed his status as an exceptional pianist. Bankas was content with keeping his charges on track but with precious little rehearsal time—the bane of “cost-efficient” art everywhere—failed to delve into the rich harmonic depths of this most intimate score. Still, it was a great pleasure to hear the minor masterpiece in its original “music-in-the-home” form.
Three days later the “Wine and Music” series () began with an engaging survey of flute sonatas from the Baroque era, featuring Niagara’s ever-capable flautist, Douglas Miller. The Château des Charmes winery provided a pleasant venue where only the heavy carpet of the second storey’s chamber gallery prevented Cécile Desrosiers’ tinkling harpsichord from resonating as successfully as her colleague’s rich, flexible sound.
Highlights of this truly international offering included the tempo-perfect, lilt-rich Gigue from the German master, Johann Joachim Quantz; the magnificent control and change-of-register colourings from Miller as he brought Italian Giovanni-Benedetto Platti’s Adagio movement to life; Miller’s demonstration of the far mellower, yet equally less resonant tone when he performed a Telemann Sonata on his six-holed Irish wooden instrument; the bonus of three dances by Englishman William Byrd tossed off with verve by Desrosiers.
The capacity audience was delighted with the entire afternoon.
The Shaw and Music programs () promised to be a compelling mixture of the playwright’s music criticism illustrated by repertoire from the composers of his day. But this first Brahms vs. Wagner battle turned out to be as unpredictable and uneven as its component parts.
The Shaw’s Denis Johnston stepped in at the last minute to deliver the wry, opinionated commentaries (“Brahms was a baby”; “editors cannot edit”—oops that one will never get by!). Soprano Marie Fischer did appear, but took two of Brahms’ songs to hit her stride; three others were cut. Narelle Martinez was absolutely convincing in her Wagner arias; Canadian-baritone Wayne Line tried a pair as well, but wasn’t up to the task. (Note to programmers: Wagner opera excerpts, even with just piano accompaniment have no place in a chamber music festival.)
Next up was violinist Almita Vamos who—with the indefatigable pianist, Vadim Serebryany—presented an extraordinarily sunny and energetic reading of Brahms’ A-major Sonata with a bouncy Scherzo for dessert, differing again from the announced menu.
Much great music (planned or not!) still lies ahead—see you at the Festival. JWR