The annual miracle of mid-summer music has once again come to the Peninsula. Until August 15, 45 concerts—performed in Niagara-on-the-Lake at a variety of venues—will be presented by the Niagara International Chamber Music Festival. Now in its ninth season, artistic sirector, Atis Bankas seems more determined than ever to offer a wide variety of styles and genres that should appeal to everyone.
Nearly 90 guest artists ranging from accordionist James Hiscott, through flautist Douglas Miller, to pianist extraordinaire, Anton Kuerti will present programs that begin as early as “Musical Mornings With Mozart” (11 a.m. July 28, August 4, August 11, Peller Estates) and continue late into the night (Friday and Saturday evenings, 10:15 p.m. at the Epicurean). Most programs begin at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard in St. Mark's Anglican Church, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, the Court House, Market Square and the Loyalist Room, Queen’s Landing Hotel.
Finally, for listeners interested in hearing future stars, there are three Monday noontime, presentations by "Young Virtuosos," also at the Court House.
Chamber music ensembles come in all shapes and sizes. Four string quartets (Gould, CanAmerata, Philharmonic, and Bravo) will perform traditional fare, including Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 1 and, possibly the best-loved quartet of all time, Schubert's “Death and the Maiden”. These talented instrumentalists will also put their skills to work with contemporary compositions by Philip Glass, Peter Tiefenbach (Night Music) and composers-in-residence, Barbara Croall (New Work for String Quartet Native Flutes and Narrator—one of NICMF’s specially commissioned pieces) and Raymond Luedeke (Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower).
Other groups offer repertoire far removed from the classical mainstream. Special to the festival is the appearance of the Azerbaijani Folk Ensemble ("A Stop on the Silk Road"—August 14); the Alistair Robertson Jazz Ensemble, Doug Mundy Trio and the Warren Stirtzinger Trio will fire up the proceedings with their jazz stylings. Even opera and dance fans have been included as the Niagara Pocket Opera and Cabaret present Madame Butterfly (July 27, 29) and an evening of “Tango Cabaret” (August 3)—be sure to bring your own rose.
Theatre buffs can take themselves to an encore presentation of 2005’s highly successful A Soldier’s Tale (July 30, August 13), which features actors from the Shaw Festival. Also from The Shaw, and narrated by Christopher Newton, will be “Shaw on Elgar: Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the British Composer’s Birth.” Another festive occasion brings the curtain down on August 15 as Glen Gould’s birthday is celebrated with a pair of Bach Brandenburg Concertos and Johannes Brahms’ magnificent Piano Quintet in F Minor.
Phew! And those are only the highlights.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Monday’s Opening Gala. Happily the church was packed—not even the steady drizzle could dampen any spirits or enthusiasm. Wisely, the federal and provincial government representatives kept their greetings politics-free and brief. Surprisingly, neither the municipality nor the region sent an envoy to welcome the throng.
No worries. Let the music begin!
The program consisted of a world première (James Hiscott’s Beating Heart Double Concerto for Violin, Button Accordion and Orchestra—funded through a commission from the Manitoba Arts Council), a showcase for the emerging talents of violinist Bora Kim and pianist Angel Zhou (Felix Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra) and a classical/jazz confection featuring Julian Milkis’ ever-nimble clarinet skills (Igor Raykhelson’s Concerto for Clarinet, Jazz Trio and Strings). Niagara Symphony music director Daniel Swift was on hand to coerce the so-called Orchestra of St. Mark’s into keeping up with the soloists and was largely successful. However, too often the violins’ forays into the heavenly reaches were mired by poor intonation.
Hiscott’s fresh opus isn’t likely to have a long shelf life. Memorable was Bankas’ contribution—particularly his liquid, soaring legato in the cadenza. The “March” was all tuned up with nowhere to go (and the drum curiously inaudible). The audience was soon as restless as the players—even the closing “Reels” failed to ignite the assemblage into happiness and joy.
Mendelssohn’s youthful work had admirable protagonists in Kim and Zhou, but both fell into the trap of too many notes for no apparent reason. Finding the phrases within the mounds of technical fireworks should be the next goal of their promising careers.
Sadly, not a bar of chamber music could be found in the opening round of this remarkable chamber fest. Just days before, NICMF’s Ottawa counterpart began its 14th edition with a gala feast of works for piano and cello. Chamber music indeed.
What does it matter if art is presented beyond the scope of the self-described mandate? After all, The Shaw still manages a pair of plays from its namesake each year. Still, after years missing from the promotional marquee, the Bard’s name (and an increase in his offerings) has been slipped back into the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Perhaps the new artistic trust took the famous line “What’s in a name?” to heart. JWR