Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Category: Review (page 1 of 5)

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Sibelius Festival

Sibelius in 1940

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra got its Sibelius mini-festival off to an authoritative start at the Winspear on Friday evening (February 22). For Mark Morris’ review of the concert, click here.

As it is very difficult to work out the full program of the Festival on the Winspear website, here is the program for the rest of the Festival. All concerts are in the Winspear, all the works are by Sibelius, and all are conducted by Alexander Prior:

Saturday February 23

  • Andante festive
  • Two Serious Melodies, Op.77
  • Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op.63
  • Symphony No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op.82

Thursday February 28 (8 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin
Whitney Leigh Sloan, soprano

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47: 1st mvmt – Allegro moderato
  • Kuolema, Op.44 (13’):  Valse triste and Scene with Cranes
  • Orchestral songs:
    “Illalle” (“To Evening”), Op.17 No. 6
    “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote” (“The girl returned from meeting her lover”), Op.37 No. 5
    “Svarta rosor” (“Black Roses”), Op.36 No. 1
    “Se’n har jag ej frågat mera” (“Then I questioned no further”), Op.17 No. 1
  • trad. Folk tune
  • Suite for Violin and Strings, Op.117
  • Finlandia

Friday, March 1 (7.30 pm)
Ragnhild Hemsing, violin

  • Karelia Suite, Op.11
  • Kuolema, Op.44 No. 2: Scene with Cranes
  • Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Saturday, March 9 (8 pm)

  • Suite The Tempest, Op.109
  • Tapiola, Op.112
  • Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op.43

Pop Goes the Opera: Puccini Suor Angelica

Puccini: Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica                   Cristina Weiheimer
La Zia Principessa          Krista Mulbery
Suor Genovieffe             Jill Hoogewoonink
The Abbess                       Stephanie Bent
The Monitor                     Jessie MacDonald
Mistress of Novices      Molly Danko
The Nursing Sister         Julia Grigaitis
Suor Dolcina                     Carrie-Ann Hubbard
Suor Osmina                     Lydia-Ann Levesque
The Alms Sisters             Jennifer O’Donnell, Kayla Willsey, Lydia-Ann                                                    Levesque,   Ruth Wong-Miller
The Lay Sisters                Elizabeth Grigaitis, Sable Chan
The Novice                        Christina O’Dell

 Director                           Glynis Price
 Musical Director          Spencer Kryzanowski

Holy Trinity Anglican Church (101 St and 84th Avenue)

Friday, February 15

Suor Angelica, first performed at the Met in 1918, is the most sentimental of all Puccini’s operas, guaranteed to tug at the audience’s heart-strings. Its combination of the naivete and innocence of nuns, the heroine who is doing penance for having a child out of wedlock, the reported death of that child, and the suicide of the mother, is potent stuff.

It’s worth remembering, though, that it is part of a triptych of short operas, each showing a different aspect of the human condition. The work is not quite so cloying when seen against the other two operas – indeed, Puccini himself got pretty angry about them being split up. Arguably, it is not as good either dramatically or as musically as its companions, the verismo masterpiece Il tabarro and one of the best comic operas ever written¸ Gianni Schicchi. However, that very sentimentality, that combination of quasi-spirituality and tragic penance, means that is has remained the most popular of the three among the general public.

Yet it is something of an ambivalent opera. First, it reflects Puccini’s life-long and sometimes uncomfortable obsession with women in unfortunate situations. Second, the very idea – in Italian Catholic terms of the time – of a nun (who is doing penance for having a child out-of-wedlock) being forgiven in a miracle by the Virgin Mary for the mortal sin of committing suicide has its theological problems.

But then underneath all that sentimentality and slightly self-indulgent passion is, surely partly intentionally, the suggestion of social commentary. There is an anti-clerical element – the nuns, after all, are a pretty silly lot, and there is that contradiction in the suicidal ending. The idea woven into the story and exemplified by the domineering figure of the Princess, Angelica’s Aunt, of a family ruined by the scandal of a bastard child, with the outcasting of the mother, does comment on Italian social mores, however much they were to change in the aftermath of the First World War. One can, indeed, imagine the nodding heads of the more severe American matrons in the audience at its premiere, pleased at the apparent message and missing the irony.

The reviews of the premiere were generally impressed by the music, but not always about the overall effect. Here’s W. J. Henderson in the Evening Sun on Suor Angelica:  “But it is almost always metronomic, dull, drilling upon its theme with the persistence of a dentist at a tooth. There is no blood or bone to it, no strength to uphold the nun’s veiling the concept.”

A little harsh, perhaps, but Forzano’s libretto does seem a little saccharine. Nonetheless, Suor Angelica has rightly proved to be popular with both younger singers, such as undergraduate groups, and semi-amateur companies (as I can attest, having directed productions with both).  The collection of nuns provides the opportunity for a number of smaller solo roles, and, while the two main roles of Angelica and the Princess have their challenges, they are not too taxing. The relatively short length (around an hour) helps with rehearsals, and the opera works equally well in simple or complex staging. And, of course, it provides lots of opportunities for women singers.

One such semi-amateur group is Edmonton’s enterprising Pop Goes the Opera, who presented the work in Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Friday, February 15th, and are repeating it at 2 pm on Sunday, February 17th. The company – from its sponsors to its singers – is very much a local one, with some faces familiar from the chorus of the Edmonton Opera. It has already established its credentials with Cavalleria Rusticana at the 2016 Fringe, and then an excellent Pagliacci at the 2017 Fringe. If their enterprising 2018 Fringe oratorio, McCune’s Y2K Black Death Oratorio, was less successful, that was down to the material rather than the enthusiasm of the company.

Glynis Price, who directed the Pagliacci, directs this Suor Angelica, and that production’s Nedda, Cristina Weiheimer, takes the lead role. Thankfully, production is sung in Italian, for although this inevitably produced some mixed standards of pronunciation, it sounds so much better in the original language, and the English surtitles are clear and comprehensive. What was missing were the orchestral colours, for the cast is accompanied by a single piano, played by Spencer Kryzanowski, who also conducted from the keyboard.

Price sensibly decided to keep the staging simple, and to make the most of the opportunities that the church offers, using almost everywhere from the back of the aisles to the altar. Setting Suor Angelica in a church is, of course, entirely appropriate, but it has its unexpected effects, particularly near the end. That ambivalence in the work comes across all the stronger, especially when Angelica sings about the mortal sin of suicide, and there is a slight sense of sacrilege, or at least dissonance, between her actions and the ecclesiastical surroundings.

The piano reduction was a very sparse one indeed. The original scoring, until the larger orchestral climaxes at the end, is admittedly very chamber-like, but it never sounds thin – Puccini goes for colour and timbre. Without much variety in those two musical elements, this piano version really needed a little more idiomatic life in the playing (and, whether it was an aural illusion or not, it seemed to be missing some obvious touches from the full score). This wasn’t entirely to the work’s disadvantage – it sounded rather 20th-century rather than late-Romantic, and it did allow any listener interested to experience the nuts and bolts of the score.

Suor Angelica is very much an ensemble opera, and the Pop Goes the Opera cast make the most of the opportunity. There are some neat little touches in the character acting among the nuns, and the singing overall is uniformly enjoyable. It is perhaps a bit invidious to single out any one particular nun from the group, but nonetheless Jill Hoogewoonink’s strong sense of character as Suor Genovieffe (she reminded me of Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) was noteworthy.

The Principessa is played most imperiously by Krista Mulbery, looking for all the world like a stern Victorian matron – one can well believe the strength of her unsympathetic convictions – and she has a mezzo-soprano to match. Soprano Christina Weiheimer as Angelica could, I felt, have used a stronger directorial hand: her reaction to hearing of her son’s death, for example, was very tame, and one doesn’t get the full sense of her anguish at the end. She also seems to pull back a little vocally on the higher notes and at climatic moments. Nonetheless, she does fit well into the overall ensemble – in some productions she can feel like a prima among pares, while here she is definitely one of the community. She has quite clearly served her penance, and is completely undeserving of her fate.

Pop Goes the Opera make the most of the limitations of scale, venue, and of a community organization such as theirs. The result was a most enjoyable evening, that may have lacked the full colours of Puccini’s score, but nonetheless captured the essence of the work, and at the same time – due to those very limitations – threw up some interesting viewpoints on the work. It’s well worth dropping down to Holy Trinity Anglican Church for the Sunday afternoon performance.

The company has also announced that it will be doing Gianni Schicchi – a work that should suite them admirably – at the 2019 Fringe, which is excellent news. I look forward to it!

Pro Coro New Year’s Eve Concert

Pro Coro with conductor Michael Zaugg in All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
(photo supplied by Pro Coro)

dPro Coro saw out the Old Year and (nearly) saw in the New Year in style at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral on Monday, December 30, with a wide-ranging concert of modern works (Morten Lauridson, Uģis Prauliņš, Joby Talbot, and Jordan Nobles) alongside some Mahler (arranged for a capella chorus), Vincent Youmans, Rossini, and a lesser-known but delightful song for the New Year by Arthur Sullivan, all ending up with conductor Michael Zaugg’s own arrangement of Auld Lang Syne.

For Mark Morris’ full review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Fringe: Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale

C’mon Chamber Music: Stravinsky The Soldier’s Tale


The Soldier: Oscar Derkx
The Devil: Andrea House
The Princess: Camille Ensminger
The Narrator: Davina Stewart

choreographed by Laura Krewski
directed by Farren Timoteo
C’mon Ensemble
conducted by Alexander Prior

August 17 – 25
King Edward School (Venue 5)


For Mark Morris’ Fringe review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.


Edmonton Fringe: McCune, Y2K Black Death Oratorio

Pop Goes the Opera: Y2K Black Death Oratorio

Music Director:  Dr. Sara Brooks
Director:     Joyanne Rudiak
Repetiteur:  Spencer Kryzanowski


Arnold RJ Chambers
Lillian – Nansee Hughes
Martha Jane – Mairi-Irene McCormack
Keith – Dan Rowley
Elmer – Hans Forbrich
Minister – Gareth Bergstrom
Russell – Spencer Kryzanowski
Muse – Lydia-Ann Levesque

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
August 16 – August 26

For Mark Morris’ brief Fringe review in the Edmonton Journal, click here

Rafael Hoekman and Jeremy Spurgeon: Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Elgar, and César Franck

Photograph of Edward Elgar, scanned from The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2 (April 1917), Oxford University Press, p. 289

Saint-Saëns: ‘The Swan’ from Le carnaval des animaux
Gabriel Fauré: Sicilienne Op.78
Gabriel Fauré: Élégie in C minor Op.24
Elgar: Cello Concerto in e minor, Op.85 (arranged for cello and piano by the composer)
César Franck: Cello Sonata in A major (arranged from the Violin Sonata in A major by Jules Delsart)

All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral
Monday June 25, 2018

Rafael Hoekman (cello)
Jeremy Spurgeon (piano)

The 35 years or so between 1880 and the start of World War I is such an interesting and attractive period for classical music. Quite apart from the early beginnings of composers who were to revolutionize music – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ives, to name but three – there is, alongside powerhouses of Mahler and the Richard Strauss, a  kind of warm glow to the last embers of Romantic music (and, perhaps, a more innocent world), that expressed itself in some places in a pastoral nationalism, in others in a mystical symbolism, in others in Impressionism.

This was the period that cellist Rafael Hoekman and pianist Jeremy Spurgeon concentrated on in their enterprising concert at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral (where Spurgeon is the organist) on June 25. It was all the more welcome for being on an unusual day of the week for a concert in Edmonton – a Monday evening – and the surroundings of the Cathedral, with its warm brickwork, its tapestries and its stained-glass, suited this ambience well, and acoustically worked surprisingly effectively.

Hoekman is, of course, the Principal Cello of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and a considerable asset to that orchestra. The hallmarks of his playing are the richness of his tone, and the considerable emotional involvement in the music. His is, indeed, a Romantic style, happy to use vibrato emotively, and revelling in the phrasing and in the skills of changing colour and tone within a long phrase. Spurgeon, so often appearing in different musical roles in the city (as readers of these reviews will know), is a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist, but also a fine chamber musician, as he showed here.

The concert opened with a kind of prelude to that warm Romanticism of the evening: Saint-Saëns’ ‘The Swan’, written in 1886,  which set just the right tone for music on a very hot summer’s evening.

Jeremy Spurgeon

Jeremy Spurgeon

 Of the two Fauré’s selections that followed, his 1886 Sicilienne is, with its rippling opening piano, its musing yet singing cello lines, and its gentle fade way into inconclusiveness, quintessential idyll music of the period. His Élégie (1880) is better known (especially in the arrangement that Fauré made for cello and orchestra) and more stentorian. Both were beautifully played, with a notable moment in the Élégie when Spurgeon allowed the rhythmic line in the piano to free up and open out, and was then matched by Hoekman.

The central work in the concert, though, was composed when the innocence of that period had been shattered by the First World War. Elgar’s Cello Concerto, written in 1919, somehow manages to combine those rich Edwardian colours with a deep sense of regret and yearning, and it is almost impossible not to hear in it a lament for all those who had died. Elgar himself made the transcription for cello and piano a year after the full score was published. It’s a work that is daunting enough in its orchestral version (the cello is playing almost non-stop), but perhaps even more so when the cello is so exposed by being matched with piano alone. Of course there are moments when one misses the orchestra, but, to counteract that, the thinner textures means one can hear little unexpected details,  the unfolding of the structure really comes across, and the arrangement is particularly effective in the slow movement.

Hoekman’s playing was wonderfully fluid from the outset, with very long phrasing, a consistency of tone, and the passion that the piece demands. If he was not quite so strong in the fast passage work of the second movement, the demands are considerable, the third movement was beautifully played, and the tempi in the finale well judged. More important, this was an emotive performance, and to give the whole concerto in the context of an already weighty recital was a risk that was fully justified in the playing.

César Franck’s Cello Sonata is an arrangement, by the French cellist Jules Delsart and sanctioned by the composer, of the Violin Sonata in A major. The piano part remains exactly the same, though the cello part of necessity has some changes, and Franck’s publisher simply included the cello solo part in with the violin score. In its violin form, it is one of Franck’s most celebrated works, and in its cello form it is one of the staples of the cello repertoire. Indeed, it was the last work that Jacqueline du Pré, who was so responsible for popularizing the Elgar Cello Concerto, recorded in the studio.

In spite of its rather autumnal opening, and although the violin sonata was written in 1886 (as a wedding present for the violinist Ysaÿe), it belongs to an earlier era than the rest of the works in this concert, weightier in feel and sound in the way that Brahms is weightier than Dvořák, more Balzac than Proust. Grand in its scale and ambitions, it received a performance to match, the highlight the deep solemnity and weight of the playing (and the lyricism that followed) in the third movement.

Edward and Alice Elgar

Edward and Alice Elgar

The concert ended with another piece written as an engagement present, Elgar’s Salut d’amour, which he wrote in Seattle in 1888, and brought back for his fiancee Caroline Alice Roberts. Like the Franck, it was originally written for violin and piano, but when it was published (as Liebesgruss – ‘Love’s Greeting’) a year later there were versions for violin and piano, piano solo, cello and piano, and for small orchestra (now perhaps the version most often heard). It is the Edwardian salon piece par excellence, with its winning song-like tune, a touch of wistfulness, its hint of knowing sophistication – a perfect way to end this most enjoyable concert, not just for the music, but because it was also Rafael Hoekman’s wedding anniversary.

Husband and wife Rafael Hoekman and Meran Currie-Roberts

Husband and wife Rafael Hoekman and Meran Currie-Roberts


Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival: Loeffler, Brahms, Coletti, and Dvořák

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival final concert

Thomas Cole: View on the Catskill -Early Autumn 1837

Charles Loeffler:  Two Rhapsodies for Oboe, Viola, and Piano (‘L’Étang’  and ‘La Cornmuse’)
Brahms: Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for viola and piano
Paul Coletti: ‘From My Heart’ from Three Pieces for Viola and Piano
Dvořák: Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81


Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola
Patricia Tao, piano
Lidia Khaner, oboe
Robert Uchida, violin
Ewald Cheung, violin
Rafael Hoekman, cello

Knox Evangelical Free Church
Friday, June 22nd, 2018

The Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival, put on by the Edmonton Chamber Music Society, closed on Friday, June 22nd, with a concert given by mainly Edmonton-based musicians that entirely banished the disappointments of the Festival’s headliners, the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

Patricia Tao, Artistic Director of the Festival, had gathered together some of Edmonton’s finest musicians, ESO’s Principal Oboist, Lidia Khaner, the orchestra’s Concert Master, Robert Uchida, and Principal Cellist Rafael Hoekman – if nothing else, the concert was a reminder of how accomplished these three are. She added the ESO’s latest addition to the first violins, the young Ewald Cheung, who has just returned to his home city of Edmonton. Then she matched them with the Canadian violist, now living and teaching in London, U.K., Juan-Miguel Hernandez, with whom Tao had played with when he was violist with the Fine Arts Quartet (review here). Finally, she herself appeared as pianist.

The concert opened with exactly the kind of rarity that should be heard in a festival: two Rhapsodies by the American late-Romantic/Symbolist composer Charles Loeffler (1861-1935) for the unusual combination of oboe, viola, and piano. They were written in 1901, and are reworkings of two songs he had composed in 1898 to poems by the French poet Maurice Rollinat, a follower of Baudelaire (whom Loeffler also set). Thus the trio versions have an underlying programmatic content, though they stand perfectly well without knowledge of those programs.

The poems themselves are mysterious: the first, ‘L’Étang’ (‘The Pond’), is descriptive and sinister – thunder clouds over the pond, spectral figures, even the reflection of the moon as a death’s head. The second, ‘La Cornmuse’, describes the screeching of the bagpipes – the bagpiper is dead – and the poem ends, “I hear his bagpipes moaning, as before” (French texts at the end of this review). In this trio version, though, Loeffler’s evocation is pretty tame compared to the original poetry, certainly rhapsodic, and reminding me less of such Symbolist nightmares than musical visions that parallel the Hudson River landscapists (as in the Thomas Cole painting at the beginning of this review).

The first Rhapsody showed how effective the pairing of the oboe and viola is, especially when Loeffler opens with piano writing that starts in the same range as the two other instruments, before launching off into a more rhapsodic right hand. The whole thing builds up to a grand climax, rhapsodic piano and all, and then goes to an almost jaunty, jovial singing passage, before a lovely, quiet, crepuscular close following an uplifting – in all senses – oboe line.

The second is more influenced by the impressionists (initially at least), slower and sadder, the bagpipes (definitely more Northumbrian than Scottish) emerging from the music in the second half; again the close is quiet. These are rich, flowing tone-poems, here winningly played, and enhanced in particular by Hernandez’s equally rich viola tone.

The idea of reworking earlier music continued with the Brahms. The Sonata in F minor, Op.120 No.1 is perhaps better known as the Clarinet Sonata Op.120, No.1, which Brahms wrote in 1894 for the clarinetist  Richard Mühlfeld. Brahms turned the two sonatas that formed Op.120 into viola sonatas a little later, and the printed score states ‘for Clarinet (or Viola) and Piano’ with a separate solo voila part that reflects the small adjustments Brahms made for the different instrument.

Inevitably, there are moments when one can sense that the music would work a little better on the clarinet – as in the Allegretto grazioso third movement – but to counter this there are passages where it would be difficult for a clarinet to summon the insistent energy available to the viola, as in the first movement. It also helps to have the kind of opulent viola tone that is Hernandez’s hallmark.

Paul Coletti’s From My Heart benefits from being written by a composer who is himself a considerable violist, and was one of Hernandez’s teachers  (you can hear the two play together here). The first of Three Pieces for viola and piano, it is a tribute to the composer’s late father, and uses snippets of his father’s favourite music as the motivitic material. The result is a kind of jazzy and bluesy salon piece with a serious purpose. Hernandez played it with obvious affection, as he does in a 2009 performance that you can hear on YouTube – but how much fuller and richer is his playing nine years later!

Emil Filla (Czech, 1882-1953), Landscape, c.1906

The concert and the Festival closed with a performance of Dvořák’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 81. I admit to an immediate bias – it is one of my favourite works, with  a faultless structure and an almost perfect balance between the movements, affecting in its colours and sentiments, with inspiration dipping – but just by a little – only in the final movement. It’s not a work that plumbs the depths of the human condition: rather it is one that says a lot about the magic of the nature of music, about the natural world that music inhabits. Indeed, like so much Czech music, it is imbued with a sense of nature, and is perhaps a work for those who love landscape painting – and as such made a most fitting book-end to the Loeffler with which the concert had started.

It was also an inspired performance, passionate, with rich string colours and a sense of homogeneity that, if not always faultless, was remarkable given that this was an ad-hoc group. The first movement was a totally convincing interpretation, one of the best I have heard, with lovely cello playing form Hoekman in the opening, and purity of tone from Uchida. The players had clearly decided to emphasize the contrasts between the weightier moments – playing with considerable drive, bite, attack, and energy – and the song-like moments of more repose. This juxtaposition was accentuated far more than is usual in performances of this work, but the music really responds to such an approach, and it made me rethink the movement.

If Tao could perhaps have afforded a little more expressiveness in the second movement (she occasionally does not allow her piano playing to take the emotional lead when it usefully could to shape a movement), she more than made up for it in her expressive playing in the Scherzo. Particularly beguiling was the quintet’s playing in the tranquillo ruminative sections just before the close of the last movement, to end a performance that showed all the virtues of fine chamber music-making, and was a splendid way to finish the Festival. It made one wish that Tao could reform this group for another year’s Summer Solstice.

Maurice Rollinat

Plein de très vieux poissons frappés de cécité,
L’étang, sous un ciel bas roulant de sourds tonnerres,
Étale entre ses joncs plusieurs fois centenaires
La clapotante horreur de son opacité.

Là-bas, des farfadets servent de luminaires
À plus d’un marais noir, sinistre et redouté ;
Mais lui ne se révèle en ce lieu déserté
Que par ses bruits affreux de crapauds poitrinaires.

Or, la lune qui point tout juste en ce moment,
Semble s’y regarder si fantastiquement,
Que l’on dirait, à voir sa spectrale figure,

Son nez plat et le vague étrange de ses dents,
Une tête de mort éclairée en dedans
Qui viendrait se mirer dans une glace obscure.


La Cornemuse
Maurice Rollinart

Sa cornemuse dans les bois
Geignait comme le vent qui brame
Et jamais le cerf aux abois,
Jamais le saule ni la rame,
N’ont pleuré comme cette voix.

Ces sons de flûte et de hautbois
Semblaient râlés par une femme.
Oh ! près du carrefour des croix,
Sa cornemuse !

Il est mort. Mais, sous les cieux froids,
Aussitôt que la nuit se trame,
Toujours, tout au fond de mon âme,
Là, dans le coin des vieux effrois,
J’entends gémir, comme autrefois,
Sa cornemuse.

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival: St. Lawrence String Quartet

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet
Photo: Marco Borggreve

‘String Quartets Rock!’

Excerpts from:
Haydn: String Quartets op.20 No.1 & No.4
Beethoven: String Quartets  Op.131 in C# major and Op.135 in F major
Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor Op.56 Voces intimae
Adams: Pavanne She’s So Fine
Dvořák: String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American)
R. Murray Schafer:  String Quartet No.3

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
Yellowhead Brewery, Edmonton

Haydn: Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2
John Adams: Second String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet Op.131 in C# Major

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018
Knox Evangelical Free Church, Edmonton

Geoff Nuttall, violin
Owen Dalby, violin
Lesley Robertson, viola
Christopher Costanza, cello

Many years ago, when I was the music critic of the Banff Crag & Canyon and regularly reviewed events at the Banff Centre, I covered a concert in which three very famous (and very brilliant) international performers – at the Centre to give classes – played a Beethoven piano trio to an audience primarily composed of young student musicians. The performance was really pretty dreadful. At the end, much of the audience stood up in a standing ovation, but there was a significant block who remained seated, politely clapping without enthusiasm: French Canadian musicians, coming from a different culture and from a different musical education. As the audience filed out, one of them, a French Canadian violinist whom I had heard play but never met, came up to me.

“You’re the writer in the paper, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, rather astonished that she knew who I was.

“Tell it as is was!” she commanded, and hurried out.

I did.

I felt rather the same hearing the St. Lawrence String Quartet play two concerts at the Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival in Edmonton on June 19th and June 20th. Indeed, these performances made me wonder what had happened to the SLSQ. Were they just having a couple of bad days? Was it the heat (30oC outside), especially in the non-air-conditioned Knox Evangelical Free Church, affecting their performances? Or has the status of being one of Canada’s finest quartets led them to rest on their laurels?

The Quartet was last here in January, 2017, when the program was Haydn’s Op. 20 No.2, selections from John Adams’ Alleged Dances, and a Mendelssohn string quartet. Here, for the main concert at the Knox, they played Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20 No.2, John Adams’ Second String Quartet, and Beethoven’s Op.131 – a work which many in the audience will have known, and which was a substitute for the scheduled Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.3, which many in this festival audience won’t have known. As I wrote of the 2017 concert, their histrionics and their re-imaginings of Haydn are not for me, but I accept that’s largely a matter of taste; quality of playing is not.

That, on both these Summer Solstice Festival evenings, they received a standing ovation, is understandable. They do carry that reputation. They have an element of showmanship. Their qualities are those very ones that got them the first place in the 1992 Banff String Quartet Competition that started their international careers (albeit with two different members): energy and attack, especially from the first violin and cello, excellent intonation, spot-on unison, a kind of clockwork precision. Such things may be essential to a great string quartet, but in themselves are not the stuff of great music making.

The first problem was one of balance. Jeff Nuttall’s first violin dominated the proceedings, consistently louder than the other three members – both when the first violin is expected to dominate, but also when it isn’t. At the other end of the scale, I could hardly hear Lesley Robertson’s viola when playing in consort, in either venue (and I know I wasn’t the only one). And it wasn’t a question of acoustics, as, in the Dvořák piano quintet on Friday, the viola of Jean-Miguel Hernandez (ex-violist of the Fine Arts Quartet) could be heard quite clearly (and beautifully) as part of the ensemble – and I was sitting in exactly the same seat at the Knox Church for both concerts, and the two players were in identical places up front.

The second problem was one of ensemble colour and tone. Again, there was a noticeable difference between Nuttall’s first violin, and the other players. Time and again, the first violin was more rasping, more raucous (not something I remember from 2017, and certainly not evident in their recordings), made more noticeable by the general lack of vibrato that the quartet prefer. What was missing were those magical moments from a really good quartet when colour, tone, attack, from all the players all seem to coalesce as one – here it did seem, consistently, as if four individual players were playing, not one quartet. Indeed, while all the SLSQ’s energy was there, there was very little of the kind of subtlety or refinement (or, in one word, finesse) that one expects, the more experienced and older a quartet gets. I wrote back in 2017, “The ensemble is rock solid, as is the blending of sound across instruments” – rock solid they may still be, but there was very little blending of sound across the instruments in these two concerts. The third was surprising little softer playing – p, let alone pp. Again, this contrasted with their 2017 concert.

There was, of course, some attractive music-making, such as Christopher Costanza’s lovely, smooth, more introverted cello line at the beginning of second movement of Haydn Op.20 No.2 at the Knox, an effect immediately expunged by the incongruous and very loud attack when the first violin took over. The most successful of the Knox performances was Beethoven’s String Quartet in C# minor, Op. 131, where their vigorous style came into its own in such passages as the Presto and the final Allegro – again, some lovely playing from Costanza.

The biggest disappointment of the Knox evening was their performance of Adams’ Second String Quartet, which was written for them and which draws on two of Beethoven’s piano works, the A flat major sonata Op 110 and the Diabelli Variations, for material. It’s not their fault that it is not one of Adams’ best works, but this performance hardly made out a good case, with a lack of shape and a rather scratchy tone. To hear them play an excerpt of this work much more convincingly, click here.

To make matters worse, their encore was a movement of a Haydn String Quartet that many of the audience had already heard them play at the Yellowhead Brewery the evening before. Surely, given their wide repertoire, they could have come up with something different?

The same might be said of that Yellowhead Brewery concert, which was MC’d with charisma by Nuttall, a kind of first violin equivalent to Simon Cowell. The title of the evening, ‘String Quartets Rock”, should really have been ‘Haydn and Beethoven String Quartets Rock’, since excepts from those two composers – including music the audience was to hear the next evening – dominated. Nothing here from, say, Bartok or Shostakovitch, let alone Schubert or Brahms. The Haydn, one of the Beethoven excepts, and the scherzo from Sibelius’ String Quartet were all taken at a breakneck speed, and even the Adams was raggedy, though with some effective bluesy cello playing – it was the pavanne She’s So Fine, which they had also included in their 2017 concert. They did, though, play an excerpt from R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3, but with nothing like the aplomb or the dash of their exciting 2013 YouTube performance.

Ironically, the most convincing and affecting performance of all was very much a Romantic one, of the slow movement of Dvořák’s String Quartet in F Major Op.96 (American). It was rich, emotional, and colourful, with some lovely deep tones from Nuttall. The final piece, though was something of a flop: if you are going to play an arrangement of a 53-year old song, and want the audience to sing along heartily, it doesn’t take much to print out a few word sheets, or project the words, even if it is McCartney and Lennon’s Yesterday.

Quite frankly, a chamber music festival like this deserves a little more thought than the St. Lawrence String Quartet seems to have given to their headlining appearance.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Glinka, Chausson, Ravel, and Beethoven

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Ruslan Confronts the Head
by Nicolai Ge (1831-1894)

Glinka: Russlan and Ludmilla: Overture
Chausson: Poème for Violin
Ravel: Piano Concerto in G
Beethoven: Symphony No.5

Laura Veeze  (violin)
Jeanne Amièle  (piano)

Conducted by Alexander Prior

May 27, 2018


What a way for the The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra to close this season’s series of Sunday afternoon concerts at the Winspear on May 27! For a packed and enthusiastic audience were given one of the fastest and most exciting performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 that I have heard, experienced some superb violin playing in Chausson’s well-known Poème, and had Ravel’s most-loved piano concerto and Glinka’s best-known orchestral piece to add to the mix .

The question of Beethoven’s tempi is a thorny one, and the subject of much academic debate. Beethoven’s own metronome markings are, in the first eight symphonies, really pretty fast. The tradition has been to Romanticize these symphonies, by assuming that Beethoven got his metronome marking wrong (it was a relatively new piece of technology, and anyway Beethoven was deaf for the later symphonies). This seemed to be confirmed by the way Beethoven’s music seemed to respond to a Romantic hue when taken slower.

Two great conductors, father Eric Kleiber in the 1950s and son Carlos Kleiber in 1975, showed in their recordings how exciting this symphony could be if taken faster. However, it was the movement for authentic instruments – playing Beethoven with the size of forces and the type of instruments that Beethoven would have written for – that showed that perhaps Beethoven’s metronome markings were indeed correct, for the thinner sounds de-Romanticized the works, and the faster tempi made sense.

Some mainstream conductors, such as Paavo Järvi, have shown that such tempi can work with a modern larger-scale orchestra. Alexander Prior has already indicated that, while he is perfectly capable of eliciting Romantic pace and colour where appropriate, he dislikes the Romanticizing of works that might require a less sentimental approach – his Tchaikovsky is an obvious example.

Here he started the three most famous notes in music that open Beethoven’s fifth at a break-neck speed – too fast perhaps, as that phrase both got lost and some its nobility was hidden, in part because the marked pause was very short indeed. Indeed, one feared that the orchestra might not be able to maintain such a speed (and the horns at a couple of points did indeed have problems). Where more leisured readings allow that rather more mysterious passage leading up to the oboe’s adagio solo to breathe, to open up, Prior drove the music on, creating considerable tension. Indeed, he avoided the usually tendency to dwell at greater length on the quite large number of pauses marked in the score, and as the strings and the brass in particular responded to his onward rush, it became clear how this interpretation of the symphony was shaping.

For this was placing the music firmly in its time – not in the more Gothic reaches of mid-18th Century Romanticism, but in the much less sentimental, and pithier start of the century, when the European continent was plunged into the throes of the Napoleonic Wars (and Beethoven had changing views of Napoleon, initially hero-worshipping him). Thus the faster tempi for the more martial march in the second movement seemed just right, and the whole thing led up to a really exciting, vivid, and energetic finale – a triumphant symphony that in this interpretation did seem to reflect something of war at its most gripping, of continental strategies and political movements at their most commanding. Glory, rather than grandeur, that made sense of Beethoven’s place and concerns in 1804 to 1808, when he completed the symphony.

The concert had opened, after an informative (and entertaining) introduction from the conductor (though he might consider moderating some of his riskier ad-libs), with Glinka’s Russlan and Ludmilla overture, again fast and furious at the opening, with crisp playing and idiomatic phrasing from the orchestra, a nice light touch at the second theme, and overall a performance full of fun and zest.

Chausson’s Poème for violin and orchestra is, of course, very different in feel from either of these two works. It was written for the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, and if you have ever heard past the crackle of the very early 78 rpm recordings that Ysaÿe made – or indeed, Ysaÿe‘s own violin music – you can understand how the more mournful and darker elements of Chausson’s music, and the rhapsodic feel, must have exactly suited the Belgian master.

Here at the Winspear the soloist was something of a revelation. While the Dutch-Canadian violinist Laura Veeze is now a familiar figure in the first violin section of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (she came to Edmonton with her husband, the ESO’s concertmaster Robert Uchida), and I had heard her take part in chamber music (notably in Elgar’s Piano Quintet last November), I had not heard her in a solo role before. Given this performance, one wondered why not.

Chausson’s work really is rhapsodic, for the violin solo part really seems to take very little notice of the orchestra, who indeed spend most of their time following or answering the solo line (for those unfamiliar with the work, there’s a similar effect in Vaughan Williams’ well-known Lark Ascending). This puts a lot of emphasis on the tone and colour of the solo line, and it’s a difficult piece to shape, as any shape comes from how the soloist unravels that rhapsody, rather than from anything more concrete.

Veese has the right kind of mellow, consistent tone, quite big and round when required, needed for music like this. It’s combined with the kind of delicacy that is needed here, especially in the very high writing near the end. She did indeed shape the Poème convincingly – she’s certainly not (at least on this evidence) a showy player, but rather a thoughtful one, and one couldn’t help but feel that Ysaÿe himself would have enjoyed this performance. I do hope the ESO plucks her out of the first violins more often.

The soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concert in G was the young Jeanne Amièle, who who won the Sheen Piano Competition here in Edmonton in 2016 and is now a doctoral student. She brims over with confidence and enthusiasm, clearly loved playing the concerto, and has one of those enviable techniques where the most difficult runs seem effortless. That youth, perhaps, showed in lack of subtlety and variation in colour in the main, more exposed dominant piano line that Ravel so often uses here – and the second movement could have been a bit more bluesy. But the performance was a reminder of what a remarkable work this piano concerto is, with its tinges of jazz and blue, and music that has magic and yet sends itself up at one and the same time, and it will be interesting to see how Amièle’s depth of interpretation develops.

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton

Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton

Image result for chamber orchestra of Edmonton


Sonya Shin (violin)
Gabrielle Després (violin)
Conductor: Lidia Khaner

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta

Mozart: Divertimento in B-flat major K. 137
Haydn: Violin Concerto in C major
Haydn Violin Concerto in G major
Respighi: Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No.3


Lidia Khaner is familiar to Edmonton audiences as the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s excellent principal oboist. But she has long been harbouring a new venture, to create a chamber music orchestra that would fit between the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the various chamber groups and presenters in the city.

Lidia Khaner
photo by Stephen Joe

On April 22nd that ambition became fulfilled, as the new Chamber Orchestra of Edmonton gave its inaugural concert in the University’s Convocation Hall. It might be better named the Chamber String Orchestra of Edmonton, for it consists (for the moment, at least) of 15 string players, most of whom play with the ESO. It is a measure of the quality of the players whom Khaner has assembled, that they include the ESO’s Concertmaster, the Associate Concertmaster, and the Principal Cellist. So the faces will be familiar to Edmonton audiences (indeed, the ever-busy violinist Neda Yamach and violist Clayton Young seem to have been playing in almost every concert I have attended recently, from the New Music Festival to the Macmillan St. Luke Passion).

The COE plans to cover repertoire from the classical period to the 21st century (leaving earlier musics to ensembles like the Alberta Baroque Orchestra), and that range was encompassed in their inaugural concert.

It opened with Mozart’s well-known Divertimento in B-flat major K. 137, perhaps better known as the Salzburg Symphony No. 2, for, though for strings only, it follows the form of the Italian symphony rather than the customary divertimento pattern of five movements. It immediately showed the strengths of this new ensemble (who play standing, cellists and double bass excepted): a uniformity of colour and tone that comes from the familiarity of players long accustomed to playing with each other in various music settings in the city, a palpable confidence, and a pleasure in the music-making. The performance was perhaps a little too nice – it’s a young man’s work (Mozart was 16 when he wrote it), and it has some more dramatic elements, influenced by the Mannheim school, that didn’t fully come out here.

The Classical theme was continued two of Haydn’s three surviving violin concertos (no.2 is lost). Part of the orchestra’s mission is to provide opportunities for younger musicians, and the two soloists here were very talented Edmonton musicians  who have both attracted attention in Alberta and beyond. Sonya Shin, playing the first concerto in C major, is still a student at Strathcona High School; last year she participated in the National Arts Centre Young Artist Program. Gabrielle Després, who played the fourth concerto in G major, has been featured on Radio Canada, and last year won the senior division of the Northern Alberta Concerto Competition. She is about to go to university.

Haydn Hall, Esterházy
photo wien.info

Hadyn’s violin concertos stand at a cross-roads. On the one hand, they show the legacy of the kind of concerto popularized by Vivaldi and others, where the soloist is prima inter pares. On the other hand, they show elements of the virtuosic concerto that was to emerge in the late Classical period and be fully developed in the Romantic era – especially the virtuoso cadenzas. Indeed, they were written to show off the playing of Luigi Tomasini, the principal violin of Prince Esterházy’s court orchestra, which Haydn directed.

Sonya Shin

Gabrielle Després

This dichotomy was entirely shown by the contrast of the two soloists. Shin approached the first concerto very much as  virtuoso work, her big tone set in contrast to the orchestra, a little nervous at the start, but coming into her own in the first-movement cadenza. She lost her intonation a little in the final movement, but her approach played dividends in the slow movement with its pizzicato accompaniment, where her playing blossomed in an attractive performance.

Després’ approach to the fourth concerto was the exact opposite. She is the more assured player, more emotive in her idiomatic cadenza playing, but otherwise with a smaller tone that was clearly judged to complement, rather than contrast with, the orchestra. This worked equally well, so we had first a more concerto performance, and second a more chamber orchestra performance.

One somewhat unusual aspect of the concert was that, however much one likes the Mozart divertimento, both it and the two Haydn violin concertos were not really first ranking works, given the composers. The same might be said of the 20th Century offering in this concert. Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances are pleasant enough, and very easy on the ear, but are hardly among his best (or indeed his most characteristic) works. Although they are based on earlier airs and tunes, their feel and format is much more Classical than pre-Classical – neo-classical works rather than neo-madrigale music.

What the third suite for strings alone did do, though, was allow this new orchestra to show off their range, with the kind of dramatic and impassioned playing that had been missing a little in the Mozart. A really full sound here, with some very effective contrasts in the second movement, all of which augers well for the future of this group.

Khaner was greatly encouraged to pursue this dream by her late husband, Timothy Khaner, who died last year. This concert was dedicated to him, and it closed with Ataraxia by Wayne Toews, with whom Khaner has studied conducting. This was originally written for Khaner to play on the oboe in memory of her husband, but Toews arranged it for string orchestra for this concert. Ataraxy is a “a state of serene calmness”, and this tonal work, with its mellow overlapping short rising phrases, was both elegiac and calming, and a moving way to end the concert.

This is already a very assured orchestra, and they definitely fill a gap in Edmonton’s music making. It’s wonderful to welcome them, and I look forward to hearing them in hopefully a little more challenging music in the near future.

Their next concert may well do that, for the orchestra will be joined on Sunday evening, June 10, at Convocation Hall by the harpist Nora Bumanis, in works by MacMillan, Debussy, and the Czech composer (and Dvořák‘s son-in-law) Joseph Suk.



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