Now in its highly successful seventh season, the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival, led by the indefatigable artistic director Atis Bankas, has responded to the need to stay fresh by experimenting with format, content and venues. Given the three events attended last week, his courage to change has produced largely positive results.
Preludes to the Play may well be the Festival’s best-kept secret. Starting at the somewhat unusual, cocktail-practical hour of 5:15 p.m., these one-set wonders are designed to be the musical transition for the Shaw Festival’s matinée idlers in search of a change of artistic pace before the evening’s main event. Like the more formal Shaw and Music series, these programs take place on the ground floor of the Court House Theatre. Now, if only the Shaw marketers would return the favour and apprise their legion of fans by mentioning these musical mini-treats in the house program.
Wednesday’s offering (repeated August 10) was Igor Stravinsky’s deal-with-the-devil parable L’histoire du Soldat (original text by C.F. Ramuz, arranged by Daniel Friedman). Here was collaboration that belies the “silo” mentality of too many arts organizations. Providing the saucy, rhythmically challenging music were Bankas (violin), Julian Milkis (clarinet) and Nina Kogan (piano). Perching opposite were three of the Shaw’s finest actors: Christopher Newton (who also directed), Robert Benson (devilishly savvy in any guise) and Blair Williams (the hapless soldier—prone to manipulation by others—demonstrated conclusively that “No one can have it all”).
The performance was a study in contrasts ranging from Milkis’ stratospheric cries that could peel paint, to Newton’s seamless transitions from scene to scene, to Bankas’ ever-dependable brilliance (aided by a magical bow arm) as he filled the hall with unerring style and engaging verve. This Tale should be told frequently, albeit with the more-often-heard, colour-rich, budget-devouring septet orchestration ().
Two days later the venue shifted down the Niagara Parkway (and back a couple of times: fool-proof signage would be of assistance to crotchety critics and neophyte attendees alike) to The School of Restoration Arts at Willowbank. This magnificent 1834 heritage-designated house, being painstakingly renovated as volunteer time and finances permit, served as the perfect work-in-progress metaphor for the potential of the new Art and Music series.
For his subject, lecturer/pianist Vadim Serebryany chose Europe in the 19th Century - The Age of the Revolution. This first installment was billed as “Lecture - Recital with Slide Presentation.” Ambitious to a fault, such a huge topic could be explored every day of the three-week festival and still leave much unsaid—and more unheard.
There is no question that festival audiences are increasingly sophisticated and often eager to have historical background and cross-discipline context to add further meaning to their musical experience. For the inaugural attempt, Serebryany was unable to convincingly connect the dots between his comments and the truncated musical selections. The carousel slides were more notable for the whirr of the fan and teetering equipment than their “aha!” revelations. Still, new initiatives must start somewhere—let’s not abandon the concept but take the notion to Port Weller for an off-season refit.
Musically, the Beethoven C Minor Piano Trio movement was the pick of the litter. Bankas (assisted by cellist Gordon Cleland and pianist Karin DiBella) led with authority and his sweet, vibrant tone resonated beautifully in the high-ceiling ballroom, which has the potential to become a true chamber for small ensemble music. Toronto Symphony violinist Jin-Shan Dai, with Serebryany providing impressive support, brought his considerable orchestral acumen to the opening frame of the “Kreutzer” Sonata. Now he needs to throw caution to wind, take more chances and dig deeper into the string—yet another gem in the making.
DiBella’s solo contribution (the opening “Allegro” from Schumann’s Carnavale de Vienne) never settled into its skin. The concluding work—Debussy’s Cello Sonata given in its entirety!—featured expressive phrasing by Cleland and a middle movement that clowned around happily ().
Jazz After 10—also new in 2005—is a series with legs. Saturday’s first set at The Buttery featured the Doug Mundy Trio. Mundy held court from his Roland keyboard (the only fully-electronic instrument heard so far at the Festival was in stark contrast to the mighty Yamaha resting a block away after Robert Silverman’s stellar workout earlier that night). Clark Johnston made his double bass both sing through the upper-extension solos and slap down the firmament with aplomb; James Gay (tenor sax and vocals) hosted the session with brief intros and melodic ingenuity.
Both young and old alike savoured their improvisational skills, notably Johnston in “My Funny Valentine” and Mundy in “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.” Given the vision and daring of Bankas, his flexible musicians and tireless volunteers, the Duke Ellington standard could well become Niagara Chamber Fest’s motto. () JWR