The Gallery Players of Niagara continues to be the region’s most consistently laudable ensemble, bringing together artists of repute and repertoire that effectively combine the familiar with the unusual—and its commitment to Canadian content goes far beyond the 10% solution that government funders often demand. It is heartening to see attendance increase (as with Sunday afternoon’s performance in Brock University’s Rodman Hall) to the point that extra chairs had to be found in order to seat the appreciative crowd.
With the 10th season looming on the horizon, it would be a fitting tribute to the artistic integrity and dedication of its musicians and organizers if the aging Steinway—that more appropriately should be put out to pasture in a museum (isn’t there a mandatory retirement clause that might be invoked?)—was given a complete refit, or—preferably—replaced with an instrument that is worthy of its practitioners.
Nevertheless, it was to guest pianist Karen Enns’ credit that she was able to draw more hits than misses from the dowager instrument in this program, which provided more springtime warmth than the elements could muster.
With cellist and music director Margaret Gay, the pair served up a commendable reading of Mendelssohn’s Second Cello Sonata, completed in 1843. Gay set the tone from the outset, providing a lyrical and poised approach that was largely supported by her attentive collaborator. There were times that the “half-stick” setting for the piano’s lid might have improved the balance, but likely at great cost to the already murky tone of its middle register.
The charming “Allegretto scherzando” was a delight, its teasing grace notes tossed back and forth with aplomb. Following the beautifully shaped trio, there were a few moments where the duo threatened to fall off-the-rails, but no major harm was done.
Enns took the lead in the dramatic, near-heroic opening of the “Adagio,” unravelling the chords with grace and commitment where only a touch more weight (and wait) in the left hand could have improved the result. Gay’s contributions were first-rate, using her lush tone and sensitive phrasing to declaim Mendelssohn’s blissful lines then adding quiet finesse to the haunting pedal tone as this, the most successful movement of the four, drifted away.
Suddenly, like a pair of nervous rabbits the week before Easter, the “Vivace” burst forward and, with sprinkles of the “Italian” Symphony added to the mix, raced on to the double bar with exuberance and fun.
Flautist Douglas Miller joined his colleagues for Larysa Kuzmenko’s 1997 Suite of Dances. The styles employed were as varied as the instrumentation. Enns was totally on her own for “Diabolic Dance,” which featured a stuttering main idea balanced by a childlike subject in the melodramatic opener. Miller launched the “Melancholy Waltz” with his customary skill then soared effortlessly over the piano’s Satie-like accompaniments. It fell to Gay to deliver the humour of the self-described “comic romp” of the “Tarantella,” whose zesty fun and fingerboard slides did amuse but posed no threat to Saint-Saëns’ mastery of the musical banishment of spiders.
“Dance of the Midnight Spirits” was the most successful offering of the afternoon. Finally, with all three musicians engaged, its modal hue, morphing easily into the blues then giving way to bare fifths was marvellously evocative—the perfect soundscape for a film noir, or musical counterpart to A. Sheridan’s Donna, Mary Jane, Margarita, which hung intriguingly in the gallery.
“Not a Jig” fulfilled its promise and, with the obligatory nod to counterpoint completed, scampered breathlessly to its animated conclusion.
The program finished up with Franck’s 1886 Violin Sonata in a version for flute. Like last concert’s “Spring” Sonata (cross-reference below), the musicality was never in doubt, but with one of Canada’s finest instrumentalists in our midst, surely a new work could be commissioned to celebrate Miller’s remarkable talent. Any takers? JWR