The Gala Opening of Music Niagara’s 11th season was filled with a wide variety of forms and styles that, with the possible exception of the many jazz concerts to come, musically foreshadowed the 34 programs left in 2009.
Mendelssohn’s invigorating Concerto for Violin in D Minor effectively demonstrated the important role the festival plays in developing tomorrow’s performers and celebrating minor masterpieces from the past. Three years older than the composer when he wrote it, sixteen-year-old Bora Kim immediately dug into the “Allegro molto appassionato” and put on a nimble bow and tone production display that dazzled the capacity crowd. Led by artistic director Atis Bankas, the Festival Ensemble easily kept pace and provided exemplary support. Once Kim and her mentor master the art of slipping in a breath or two—even as the legions of notes swirl around—the music will coat itself with a more convincing ebb and flow, improving the already considerable sense of drama.
Similarly in the “Andante,” the old adage “less is more” (violinist/conductor Joseph Silverstein proved on many occasions how a faster bow with less pressure could exquisitely shape a delicate phrase), the courage to drop the dynamic range and create the special moment of sharing a secret will allow the long legato lines to entrance and hold future audiences until the double bar.
The technical pyrotechnics of the finale were tossed off with aplomb, much to the crowd’s delight. If Kim is an example of the coming generation then the future looks especially bright.
Octet for Strings, Peter Tiefenbach’s self-described “homage to the Romantic era” and “sorbet,” inspired by unbearable heat, most certainly lived up to its advanced billing. The moody vignettes, effectively balanced using full-bore legato against solo interventions (the contributions from violists Natasha Sharko and Anna Antropova were a great pleasure) teetered on the precipice of abandoning their Tchaikovsky-esque garb and wallow in the melodramatic world of B-movie film scores. Happily, the writing drew back from the saccharine abyss just in time. Receiving its world première, the Octet is an excellent example as to how new music gets a proper hearing in Niagara-on-the-Lake and the chance to find its way into the repertoire.
The only disappointment of the night came with J.S. Bach’s ever-radiant “Wedding” Cantata. Having just reviewed a magnificent performance of Handel’s Ariodante (cross-reference below), it would have been difficult for any performance from the Baroque period to impress. On this occasion it appeared that soprano Marie Fischer and conductor Bankas were on two different planets (perhaps one of which might have permitted more rehearsal time). Dynamics seemed to be left to the composer, resulting in a frequently bass-heavy ensemble; the Craig Winters’ harpsichord interventions were content to roll out the chords rather than occasionally “speak” to the proceedings; insult to injury came when the reproduced cello part balked at turning a new leaf. Fischer valiantly kept her poise but had to leave subtle artistry for another day. Here’s to greater attention to detail in the Vivaldi Underground series to come.
Almost singlehandedly, pianist Ellen Annor-Adjei lit the fire under her talented colleagues and dared the rest to keep up (and they did!) as St. Mark’s Anglican Church was blissfully drenched with a most welcome shower of a near-continuous cascade of notes and magnificent reading of Mendelssohn’s Sextet. (Just two years had elapsed since the D Minor Concerto, yet the teenage genius was already creating works that many other “senior” musicians could only hope to emulate; employing a pair of violas and double bass in the orchestration being just one example of his unbounded creativity: Happy 200th birthday indeed!)
Chamber music of this high order is what Music Niagara does best. The larger ensemble pieces add a certain air of festivity to opening celebrations, but the quality and intensity of the music-making ratchets up several notches when Bankas and his colleagues engage in one-player-per-part compositions.
On to the next! JWR