C’Mon Music Festival

C’mon Music Festival
Tomas Honz: Clouds in Eastern Bohemia

Vincent Persichetti: Serenade No.6 Op.44 (1950)
Mozart: Allegro from Clarinet Quintet K.581
Kaija Saariaho: Nocturne (1994)
Alissa Cheung: +Anthem & Other Short Pieces (2019)
(+C’mon Festival commission)
Andy Akiho: Stop Speaking (2011)
Osvaldo Golijov: Mariel (1999)
Samuel Adler: Dance from A Klezmer fantasy for Clarinet solo (1997)
Prokofiev: Allegro and Andante molto – Vivace
from String Quartet No.1, Op 50
George Andrix: Sapphire from Shades of Blue

Friday, July 12th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Lukas Sommer: Coffee With Ennio M. (arr. Geoff Li) 
Linda Catlin Smith: Galanthus (2011)
Claude Debussy: Assez vif et bien rythmé from
                                String Quartet Op 10
John Cage: Living Room Music (1940)
Lilian Fuchs: Sonata pastorale (1956)
David Amram:  Fanfare for the 21st Century
Prokofiev: Andante cantabile II. Allegro from
                     Sonata for two violins, Op 56
Alexina Louie:  Cadenzas (1985)

Saturday, July 13th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Nicole Lizée: Another Living Soul (2016)
Komitas: Ampel
Dinuk Wijeratne: The Spirit and the Dust (2015)
Bohuslav Martinů: Madrigals (1947)
Alissa Cheung: Zwischentöne (2015)
Farhad Khosravi: Sleeping in Sorrow (2017)​
Johann Strauss Jr: The Beautiful Blue Danube (arr.Claude Lapalme)

Sunday, July 14th, 2019
The Studio, Winspear

Tim Borton (percussion)
Alissa Cheung (violin)
Farad Khosravi (santur)
Kathryn Macintosh (trombone)
Polyphonie String Quartet (Virginie Gagné & Ewald Cheung, violins; Clayton Leung, viola; Kathleen De Caen, cello)
Robert Spady (clarinet)


The C’Mon Festival – it stands for ‘chamber music old and new’ – moved house this year from the more outlying venues it has occupied for the last six years, to something much more central (and potentially more mainstream elitist): the Winspear Centre.

Outside the Winspear’s front doors, Churchill Square is hidden behind hoardings as yet again, as it is being refashioned (the last was the memorable move from trees and grass to concrete in 2004). To the north, the wading pond outside City Hall no longer rings with the happy cries of children, as it is being rebuilt (and, alas, is behind schedule). To the south is emerging a kind of giant grey Lego military tank, which is the new Stanley A. Milner Library building. It has recently had Calgarians laughing all the way to CBC’s chat lines, so poorly does it compare visually with Calgary’s own astounding new equivalent. And the car-park behind the Winspear is now also a building site, as the new – and much needed – smaller 600-seat auditorium starts construction.

This year’s C’mon Festival acted as a kind of precursor to show how useful that space will be, for it was housed not in the main Winspear auditorium, but in the rehearsal hall (known as ‘The Studio’), ideal for a small-scale chamber festivals such as this, and yet offering the Winspear’s bar services and what now seems to be a Winspear signature: popcorn. The festival’s loyal audience did not seem to mind the change either, for the hall was commendably full for all three concerts of the festival, which ran from Friday July 12th through Sunday July 14th. The building activity all around did make parking difficult, though, and there has to be concern about parking in the future- no problem in a modern city where there is safe, quick, regular, and suitable public transport, but a real problem in Edmonton, where that only applies if you live on a suitable LRT route.

The Festival itself followed the pattern it has now established of presenting a plethora of mainly shorter-length and mainly contemporary works, mixed with what one might call some ‘recent modern’ music (Persichetti, for example, or Cage, or Martinů), and some ‘oldies’ (Debussy and Mozart). Those older composers were represented by movements of work, rather than by complete works, a practice I don’t normally enjoy (as those works were usually conceived as a whole), but which fitted surprisingly well here, by maintaining the program construct of a larger variety of shorter works.

A second constraint on the festival is the instruments available, since the Festival is created around a festival ensemble, rather than bringing instrumentalists in for a particular work. This year the Festival had assembled a small team around a central core of the Polyphonie String Quartet (Edmonton Symphony Orchestra members Virginie Gagne and Ewald Cheung, violins, and Clayton Leung, viola; and Calgary Philharmonic member Kathleen De Caen, cello), which made its debut last March (with Kerry Kavalo then playing viola). Each of the members took either solo roles in other works, or played in other combinations (or both) – one greatly admired the work that must have been involved. 

They were joined by Kathryn Macintosh, the Festival’s founder and Assistant Principal trombone with the ESO; Alissa Cheung, a former ESO player but now violinst with Montréal’s famed Bozzini Quartet, specializing in contemporary music; Calgary based percussionist Timothy Borton; and Edmonton clarinettist Robert Spady, who currently is a member of the Royal Canadian Artillery Band. So the availability was three violinists, one viola player, one cellist, one clarinetist, one trombonist, and percussion (there was also a guest appearance of the Edmonton-based composer and santur player, Farad Khosravi). 

A second theme in the Festival was undoubtedly works by Canadian women composers, and the Festival had put together some powerful music that showed how strong this segment of current Canadian arts really is.

The matriarch of this group (if that’s the right word!) is Alexina Louie, and her Cadenzas for clarinet and percussion closed the second concert. It was the first work I ever heard of hers, back in the very late 80s, on a CBC Impact CD (CMCCD2786), and its four rather sinuous and often introverted movements remained as impressive here as they sounded then. It’s music that just seems right, in the way that (while one can still be surprised) notes and phrases unfold seem as if that’s the only way they could unfold, so often the hallmark of a fine composer. Clarinet and tuned percussion tonally complement each other well, and there are hints of bird calls – a swawking magpie family from the clarinet in the first movement, Messiaen-type brid calls in the second. There’s a touch of the oriental in the third, and minimalism in the fourth, but overall it’s music to dream a little by.

Alissa Cheung played a 2011 work for solo violin by Toronto-based Linda Catlin Smith, whose atmospheric music has been championed by the Bozzini Quartet. Galanthus (Snowdrop) was written for the Hibari project in support of victims of the Tsunami, an introverted, slightly haunting work.

More effective was Cheung’s own Zwischentöne for two violins, very evocative picture-painting inspired by forest birdsong. A quiet, high, held note underpins the piece, out of which emerge little, equally quiet chatters of bird song, swapped and doubled by the two violins. It’s meditative music that gradually evolves as those calls become more frequent and more dense.

This year’s Festival commission was another work by Cheung, +Anthem & Other Short Pieces, six miniatures for clarinet and trombone. This was the other side of Cheung’s musical personality, much more technically quirky, with what sounded like a 12-note tone-row to open and close, broad humour in the second miniature, and in the fourth only finger-tapping for the clarinet and breaths from the trombone.  

The Polyphonie Quartet presented an eight-minute composition by the most noteworthy of the young Canadian women composers, Nicole Lizée.  Another Living Soul was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet as part of its Fifty for the Future project of 50 new works, and weaves in children’s toys (whirling whistle-tubes and foot bells) and stamping feet with more conventional writing – indeed, there is a sense of both adult and child in the music. Those whirring tubes took a little time to get going (literally),and it’s an entertaining piece, if not a really memorable one (readers can decide for themselves, as recordings and scores of all the 50 new works are available on-line – the Lizée is in year 2 of the project). It was enterprising of the Polyphonie to tackle it, and represented a new and welcome element in the quartet’s short evolution. Indeed, throughout the festival the quartet built on what they had started back in March, playing here with more intensity, more emotion, which, combined with their technical skills, bodes really well for the future.

One of the Festival highlights came from the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her short Nocturne for solo violin sounds so Finnish: the meditative opening is a kind of northern seascape, and there are shades of Hardanger fiddle music in the middle, all within a contemporary mould (high harmonics, for example).  A piece well worth discovering (you can hear it here).

In contrast to the more meditative feel of so much of this music was the work that opened the festival, four selections from Perschietti’s 1950  Serenade  No.6 for the unusual combination of viola, cello, and trombone. It’s quirky – he referred to this side of his output as ‘gritty’ – and almost ingenuously simple in its opening. As soon as one thinks ‘beat poets’ (the influences from jazz are similar) it starts to make sense. It was followed by the opening movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, which featured gorgeously smooth lyrical playing from clarinetist Robert Spady.

Another side of American composing of the same period as the Perschietti was represented by John Cage’s  Living Room Music (1940), found living-room objects played (with gusto here) for their percussive abilities. Lukas Sommer’s Coffee With Ennio M., arranged for all the festival’s ensemble by Geoff Li, had a similar US West Coast urban feel, in spite of the Czech nationality of the composer.

Two other performances stood out. The first was  Mariel for marimba and cello by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The composer has described the genesis of the piece: “I wrote Mariel, for cello and marimba, when I learned of the death in an accident of my friend Mariel Stubrin. I attempted to capture that short instant before grief, in which one learns of the sudden death of a friend who was full of life: a single moment frozen forever in one’s memory.”

It is both tuneful and haunting, a long lyrical lament without ever being sentimental or mawkish, and very well performed here by Kathleen de Caen (the best I have yet heard her play) and percussionist Timothy Borton.

The second was one of the older moderns, Bohuslav Martinů’s Madrigals for violin and viola. It was written in 1947 in New York -Martinů had fled Paris for the US just before the Nazis moved in, when they had already occupied his native Czechoslovakia. At this period after the War he was in a quandry whether to return to his homeland (he had been offered a professorship at the Prague Conservatory) or stay in the States (it was fairly clear that the Communists would eventually take power in Czechoslovakia, as they did a year after Madrigals, and Martinů never returned to live there, settling in Switzerland instead). Something of that quandary haunts the piece, a longing for home, a touch of Bohemia in the music, a hint of Hussite chorale: it’s a beautiful work, its constructions harking back to Renaissance ideas (hence the title), its textures so interweaving that sometimes it sounds so much larger than its two instruments would suggest. One would never know, though, that he had had a serious fall the year before, and was suffering from tinnitus and depression. It was played with passion and beauty by Virginie Gagne and Clayton Leung.

This was a really enjoyable festival, effectively programmed, enthusiastically performed, and constantly interesting in its variety. Off-beat, maybe; laid-back, yes; a little hokey in its Blue Danube-transmigrated-to-Edmonton closing singalong, perhaps; but just the right atmosphere, never overwealming, in which to experience unfamiliar new works (and the more familiar old), especially in its new venue.

 

 

 

 

 

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