A day in the life of the “worldrsquo;s largest chamber music festival” is an adventure that no one should miss. Now in its twelfth year, patrons far and wide are familiar with the drill: come early, bring port-a-chairs for pre-concert lineups, bum cushions for faith-based venues and savour an array of artistry and enthusiasm that belies classical music's dour persona.
First stop was Dominion Chalmers United Church for a Coffee Concert with a single offering: Dvořák’s String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97.
Once the sea of silver-hair devotees (your reporter included) settled into their pews and the obligatory/bilingual announcements had been dispensed with, the musicians plied their craft and filled the chamber with a reading that had much to admire.
The opening “Allegro” was engagingly frantic, full of vim and vigour, suffering only from a few early-morning, low-side pitches and the occasional slippage from duple to treble of the incessant dotted rhythms. All was forgiven with the ethereal closing bars that successfully defied an errant clap from the assembly.
The spectacularly controlled “Vivo/meno” danced and lilted with happy abandon. The slightly forced viola solo line sang out clearly before being taken up and pushed to artistic greatness by Stephen Sitarski whose tone was sweet enough to tame any strength of coffee—the addition of a drip of tasty portamento added still further flavour.
The low strings, aided harmonically by Mark Fewer as required, produced a beautifully blended bed of tone and colour that set the stage for a superb “Larghetto.” Sitarskirsquo;s over-riding obbligato was a constant pleasure, matched in intensity and verve by Margaret Munro Tobolowska as she first zipped in and around her colleagues then delivered melodic contributions with an unerring sense of drama and shape. Notable too was a pianissimo that drew the music closer to all.
The impish joie de vivre of the “Finale” (with its unmistakable echo of the composer's famous Humoresque) featured marvellous balance (especially tune/pizzicati) but, similar to many of Rafael Kubelikrsquo;s finest performances, nearly fell off the rails, adding real-time excitement to the mix. But the secret is to adopt the late maestro's mantra: let the music play, rather than worry about “note perfection”
The squeaky-clean final measures—surprising harmonic shifts and all—deservedly drew cheers, raised arms and thumping feet from the crowd who'd been treated to a “good to the last drop” performance.
Two hours later the setting was one-fan-no-waiting Tabaret Hall for a program by the Casal Quartet.
From Andreas Fleck's first statement of the “Prayer,” all present reveled in his lyric sincere musicianship and relaxed into the slight work's architecture (cross-reference below).
The dark, caramel tone of the first violin (belying the hue of her instrument) added considerable panache to the proceedings. The communication level of the quartet was as extraordinary as the manner in which they drew, rather than forced, sounds with their bows.
“Simchas Torah” was much more optimistic through Blochrsquo;s considerable mastery of string colour than full utilization of the wonder of counterpoint. The players rose to the occasion with only a few suspect pitches in the stratosphere marring the result.
“... good for a string player if the composer knows what he's doing.” Armed with this chatty insight, Marcus Fleck, with his facile control and ability to lift the music far off the page—notably his seamless change of registers—proved an able proponent of Ulrich Stranz’s ideas. The somewhat fragmented picture alternated between thoughtful legato lines and frequent sharp, strident interventions, leaving more questions than answers in its fascinating wake.
“... we might wake you up again ... a piece that asks a lot of the players.” Dieter Ammann’s “Burst” movement turned out to be an encyclopedia of “modern” string techniques on both sides of the bridge and all over the fingerboards. It was rendered with much energy and enthusiasm—yikes, even a scale motif!—but never became the sum of its frenzied parts.
The day’s second helping of Dvořák was like meeting an old friend. The violinists switched chairs to the slight detriment of the first part, which felt slightly mute compared with her colleague. Similarly the viola, although nimble and accurate would benefit from more weight. Nonetheless, the cello “took stage” with aplomb and timbre that projected even above the thirsty carpet (especially fine in the “Lento” which proved itself the best of the bunch).
A harmonic-light reading—particularly missing the import of mode shifts—and a surprisingly rocky “Molto Vivace,” didn't prevent the capacity audience from going our into the sun happy and content.
With the festival's programming an embarrassment of riches, I opted for appetizers rather full menu for the evening's fare. Stéphane Lemelin held court at the Church of St. John the Evangelist. The heat of the first half (Beethoven's Sonata in F Major, Op. 10, No. 2 and Schumann’s heavenly Waldszenen Op. 82) was confined to the dank, humid air.
The sonata began promisingly, Lemelin clearly enjoying the delight of the thematic chase ahead, but was unable to relax into the music. The tempo of the “Allegretto” was perfect, yet it too lacked breath until a member of audience managed the “perfect” cough to accompany the miraculous transition home. The “Presto” was rendered with Glen Gould-like dryness if a tad rough-and-ready at that.
Overall, the Schumann cried out for a more resonant, balanced instrument and extra weight into the keys. The rich legato lines and incredible evolution of theme and colours were largely pastel where more primary tones were wanted.
Most likely the Fauré and Debussy slated to follow received a better outing.
Full circle to Dominion Chalmers.
The Emerson Quartet was just starting the “Menuetto” of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, when I slipped into the back pew. David Finckel’s cello tone was pure gold and a model of discretion, setting a new standard for all others to emulate.
His standing colleagues (Eugene Drucker, Philip Seltzer, Lawrence Dutton) weaved and bobbed at will, in time and tune with the score, but failed to gel into another world where bar lines evaporate and expression leads all.
Like their colleagues nearly 12 hours earlier, the “Finale” was engagingly frantic, with much aggression in the inner voices. The gypsy-like portamenti from Drucker added spice and the Italian Symphony overtones brought smiles everywhere. The flourish of the powerful ending was greedily lapped up by the attentive crowd. Rather than remain for the monumental Beethoven—even critics must be careful not to over do it—time needed to be spent reflecting on this remarkable day.
Between the concerts, your scribe and seven other panelists (Julian Armour, James Campbell, Colin Eatock, Jill LaForty, Allan Pulker, Richard Todd, Rian de Waal, ably moderated by Suzanne King) put our respective experiences, opinions and predictions forward as to “The Future of Classical Music.” As could only be expected—and a healthy sign at that—unanimous consensus on most of the issues was rare (e.g., Should musicians “chat” with their audience during a performance?). The exception was the point that Western music is blessed with a rich, magnificent repertoire that all of us—in varying ways—must steward, share and pass down to the generations who will follow.
Not surprisingly, too, our “house” was the smallest of the day. The savvy patrons of the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival would rather rest up for another evening of spectacular performances and a variety of repertoire that is second to none than hear some of its practitioners and critics pontificate. Voilà. There's the answer: the music is strong enough to survive even the predictors of its doom!
Merci mille fois aux auditeurs. JWR