Coincidence continues to be one of life’s greatest source of the marvellously unexpected. Just days ago, I had occasion to interview James Campbell, artistic director of the Festival of the Sound (cross-reference below). On the eve of the 29th edition of Muskoka’s longest-running summer music banquet, he spoke of the need to utilize a chamber orchestra for certain repertoire—notably, concertos. Now, by formalizing the previous years’ ad hoc arrangement, the Festival Chamber Orchestra was born. But make no mistake, no conductors will be engaged to lead the music—with such a high calibre of seasoned chamber musicians filling the orchestral ranks, their superior ears will solve all challenges of ensemble without need for a time beater.
Hours before this concert, JWR’s rapidly-diminishing backlog of films/DVDs, CDs and books was happily reduced with the review of Astor Piazzolla’s July 4, 1984 appearance at the Montréal Jazz Festival (cross-reference below). And what an exceptionally fine recording it is. With just four years to live, the master of tango, colour and modulations-that-fit was at the height of his career. The quartet of musicians who shared the stage were more than up to the task, causing the capacity crowd to cheer every chart with affection, admiration and love. Performances don’t get much better than that.
Incredibly, both of those recent experiences came into play at the Gala Opening of the 10th Niagara International Chamber Music Festival (hereafter referred to by its freshly minted brand: Music Niagara).
The program began (after congratulatory speeches that are best left for the following reception) with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins, Op. 3, No. 10. Like their avowed colleagues in cottage country, the music was presented without a baton wielder, which largely explained the close-but-no-cigar precision and cohesion between the valiant soloists and the string band accompaniment. This robbed the performance of crackling cadences and consistent phrasing in the many serene, reflective sections. Atis Bankas led the soli with customary authority, co-soloist Sheih-Jian Tsai’s interventions were especially pleasing, but it will forever remain a mystery why the keyboard continuo (Craig Winters) had to be plugged in rather than plucked out.
Next up was Four for Tango. The guest quartet (“Philharmonic” as in Buffalo) dug into the scintillating score and collaborated effectively, bringing the Argentinean master’s infectious dance to life. The frequent throw-away slides were appropriately loose and saucy—the ideal salon piece for Mrs. Warren and her hedonistic customers currently in residence at the nearby Festival Theatre.
The Canadian première of Raykhelson’s Elegy for Violin and Strings showed Bankas at his best: the dark, easy-flowing tone and unwavering commitment to making every line speak honestly, even as the emotional depths were plumbed reminded all present how fortunate Niagara-on-the-Lake is to have an artist of this skill as a resident. So intent on the beautifully crafted solo part, it wasn’t surprising that the bed of strings below had a few moments of uncertainty in the writing that, necessarily, demands copious amounts of intentional vagueness.
In many ways, Tiefenbach’s Night Music for String Quartet was the highlight of the evening. Once the sleepy opening woke up, the Gould String Quartet latched onto the Prokofiev-like drive and injected the soundscape with palpable energy. This “night” was one to remember: the discreet unanimity of the last-gasp pizzicato closed off the work with fleshy finesse.
Mendelssohn’s Octet is one of the best-loved, most challenging works in the twin-quartet repertoire. The “Allegro moderato con fuoco” began with promise but lacked consensus in the dotted rhythms—only a breath away from brilliance. The “Andante” took a few measures to find its tonal centre, then slipped into a perfect tempo and flow that was only marred by a few lapses of intonation in the melodic lines. Special kudos to cellists Feng Hew and Teimour Sadykhov for laying down such a solid foundation above which their colleagues could build with confidence.
More playful than even teenage Mendelssohn could have imagined, the “Scherzo” concluded with an unforgettable adieu. The resin flew fast and furious in the unstoppable finale where only a harmonic plan could have lifted this rendition from great to superb.
What now? In Niagara, an accomplished orchestral musician eschews conductors yet programmed music that might have improved with a competent baton twirler. A few hours’ drive away, a celebrated chamber musician bans maestros from the podium and puts his trust in largely non-orchestral players …What will serve the music best?
No worries. There’s plenty more tango ahead. JWR