Edmonton Classical Music

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

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Review: Pro Coro: Stockhausen: Stimmung

For Mark Morris’ Edmonton Journal review of the Pro Coro’s New Music Edmonton concert of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, click here.

The concert – presenting one of the seminal works of the 20th Century – is being repeated on Saturday, May 6, at 7.30 pm in  Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Upper Hall), 10037 84th Ave, Edmonton

Early Music Festival preview

For Mark Morris’ Edmonton Journal preview of this year’s Early Music Festival, presented by Early Music Alberta from Friday May 5 to Sunday May 7, click here.

Details at the Early Music Alberta website.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra new season, 2017-2018

Alexander Prior photo by Buffy Goodman

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has announced its 2017-2018 season, its first under its new Chief Conductor, Alexander Prior.

To read Mark Morris’ summary of the season and its highlights in the Edmonton Journal, click here.


Interesting repertoire includes:


Beethoven:         Violin Concerto                 Andrew Wan (violin)         Nov 8

Berg:                     Violin Concerto                 Robert Uchida                   Nov 24

Bruch:                   Violin Concerto No.1       Andrew Wan (violin)       Sept 1

Dvorak:                 Cello Concerto                  Daniel Hass (cello)           Mar 18

Elgar:                     Cello Concerto                  Andreas Brantelid (cello) Mar 23

Estacio:                 Trumpet Concerto           Robin Doyon                      Mar 18

Grieg:                    Piano Concerto                 Katherine Chi (piano)      Sept 16

Kabalevsky:        Violin Concerto                 Eric Buchmann (violin)   Jan 13

Korngold:            Violin Concerto                 Blake Pouliot (violin)       Feb 24

Mozart:                Concerto for Two Pianos                                               Oct 11
Sara Davis Buechner, Williams Eddins (pianos)

Prokofiev:           Piano Concerto No. 1      Ilya Yakushev                     April 28

Prokofiev:           Piano Concerto No. 3      Luca Buratto (piano)       Nov 5

Ravel:                    Piano Concerto in G        Angela Chang                   Jan 26

Saint-Saëns:       Cello Concerto No.1        Stéphane Tétrault            Sept 29


Beethoven:          Symphony No.9                                                               Jun 1

Dvorak:                Symphony No.9 New World                                         Oct 28

Glazunov:            Symphony No.4 The Lyrical                                         Sept 29

Haydn:                  ‘Surprise’ Symphony                                                      Jan 13

Hindemith:          Mathis der Maler symphony                                       Nov 24

Rachmaninov:     Symphony No.1                                                              Mar 23

Vaughan Williams:    Symphony No.8                                                      Mar 10


Adams:                 Harmonielehre                                                               Sept 16

Britten:                 Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes                   Mar 23

Janacek:               Taras Bulba                                                                    Sept 16

Liadov:                  The Enchanted Lake                                                    Jan 26


Details and brochure: edmontonsymphony.com

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Estacio, Tchaikovsky, Popper, Prokofiev, Chopin, and Wagner

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by Alain Trudel
Dasol Kim (piano)
Rafael Hoekman (cello)

Winspear Centre, Edmonton
Sunday, April 23, 2017


John Estacio: Spring’s Promise – Orchestral Fanfare
Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, Opus 33
Mussorgsky: Saint John’s Night on the Bare Mountain (Orchestrated by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Opus 10
Chopin: Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante in E-flat major, Opus 22
Wagner: Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Dasol Kim
photo: Christian Steiner

What better way to open a concert on a snowy, windy Sunday Edmonton afternoon, than with a work written in the depths of winter by an Edmonton composer looking forward to the blessings of spring?

John Estacio’s ‘Orchestral Fanfare’ Spring’s Promise, which opened the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Sunday, April 23, was just that – though it has to be said that on the same day in April 2004, the year it was written, the temperature in Edmonton was a balmy 19oC, not a snow-ridden -2 oC.

An enjoyable and atmospheric work it is, too, a kind of little orchestral showpiece rather than a fanfare, with a tinkling opening like the last of the snow sparkles, and an eventual movement towards the break out of a big tune (the dawn of spring) before the return of the opening. The tone is largely derivative rather than strongly personal – there are echoes of Respighi and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe, and the central brass fanfares reminded me of those in Britten’s War Requiem – but it is very neatly and clearly laid out, and the touch of having the wind and brass scattered around the Winspear added to the atmosphere and the spatial sense. It well deserved its hearing, and conductor Alain Trudel secured some crisp and enthusiastic playing for the orchestra.

It started what was, for a number of reasons, rather an odd-ball of a concert, if an enjoyable one. It was followed by the ESO’s principle cellist, Rafael Hoekman, making his debut as a soloist with the ESO with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. I have to confess that I have tried, for decades, to like this celebrated work, but without success, but Hoekman half-persuaded me with his warm cello colours, though he could perhaps have allowed himself to be a little more expressive in what is quite an emotive work.

He then played an unusual encore with the orchestra that taxed all his virtuoso skills: David Popper’s Elfentanz, Opus 39. Popper was a late 19th-century Bohemian cellist and composer, who wrote a number of virtuoso cello works. The Dance of the Elves lived up to its name, with some fiendishly fast scurrying up and down the cello by the elvish bow (including quite a lot of very high playing). It is a kind of Fritz Kreisler showpiece for the cello, with the orchestra providing the hall-of-the-mountain-king landscape backdrop to the cello playing. Hoekman played it with enormous enthusiasm, rightly shared by the audience, and to considerable effect.

The first half ended with conductor Trudel – and the orchestra – shining in a fine performance of another Russian favourite, Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Saint John’s Night on the Bare Mountain. It had really tight discipline and control, the shading of diminuendos and crescendos at the beginning particularly effective, and there was some notable clarinet playing.

The second half featured the Korean pianist Dasol Kim, winner of the 2015 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, among other competitions. He opened with Prokofiev’s marvelous, exuberant, youthful Piano Concerto No.1, whose plethora of notes might seem entirely suited to Kim’s technique. For that technique is staggering, every note absolutely perfect, the intervals between the notes metronomic, the runs immaculate, a kind of blueprint of the score on the keyboard. In fact, everything to bring the house down for those who want their pianists to be the equivalents of technically-perfect Olympic gymnasts.

The problem was that there are three kinds of great gymnasts: those who confound by their sheer technical perfection; those whose artistry is so spell-binding one forgives the occasional imperfection; and the all-so-rare Nadia Comănecis who manage to provide both. In pianist terms, Kim belongs to the first, and this is the only time I have heard this concerto live and been left cold. Prokofiev’s passion, fire, the enfant terrible winning the Rubenstein Prize playing this concerto as Glazunov walked out, hands over his ears – none of that was here, just picture-perfect note playing.

Two examples will suffice. At figure 23, in the Andante, the right hands starts typically impish little upward runs. They are both sparkling delight and mildly ironic commentary: they are also quite important in the overall structure (they are later doubled in the orchestra). Here they were mere decorations, perfectly played without emotional expression, the marked pp exactly pp against the exact mf of the middle voice and the exact pp of the base line, as the score specifies, and were completely without any meaning. Later, the crashing accented chords of the opening of the allegro scherzando, punctuating the rapid forward movement of the piano, are passionate cries, not without touches of anger, anticipating, right at the start of his career, Prokofiev’s late piano sonatas. Here they were part of the pianistic, not the emotional, texture.

Much the same might be said of the Chopin Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante that followed – the inner voices perfect, the nuances and the emotions absent. I am sure many really enjoyed these performances for their sheer technicality and literalness; and the competitions all over the world have now ensured that the technical standards of younger players have rarely been equalled in such numbers. Perhaps that, too, is what audiences now want, but give me musicality over technicality any time, substance over style, or even better, combine both (as in Richter and Kondrashin’s marvellous 1952 performance of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No.1 – here those right hand runs in the andante are magical, never actually pp, and continue into the structure).

The concert ended rather incongruously with Wagner’s Prelude to Act I of Meistersinger – incongruously, because, memorable though it is, this is the most solidly bourgeois of Wagner’s opera preludes, and it seemed rather out of place after the dancing elves, the Witches’ Sabbath of the Mussorgsky, or even the yearning of the Polish revolutionary Chopin. Not to mention the promise of spring, which inevitably came to mind as we went out into the snow of a grey Edmonton Sunday evening in April, that cruelest month.





Review Charles Richard-Hamelin

review by Isis Tse



Kilburn Memorial Concert

Charles Richard-Hamelin (piano)

Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
Tuesday, April 4

Mozart: Fantasy in D minor K. 397
F. Chopin: Quatre Impromptus:
No. 1 in A flat major op. 29
No. 2 in F sharp major op. 36
No. 3 in G flat major op. 51
No. 4 in C sharp minor Fantaisie-Impromptu Op.posth. 6
Chopin: Polonaise in A flat major op. 53 “Héroïque
Schumann: Cinq Feuillets d’album (tiré de “Bunte Blätter” op. 99)
Schumann: Piano Sonata no. 1 in F sharp minor, op. 11

 Photo : Elizabeth Delage

Photo : Elizabeth Delage

The featured artist of this year’s Kilburn Memorial Concert at Convocation Hall on Tuesday evening (April 4) was pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, the silver medalist of the International Chopin Piano Competition in 2015. The 28-year-old musician is the first Canadian to finish in the top three of this prestigious competition. He studied at McGill University, the Yale School of Music, and the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal – since winning the competition two years ago, his international career has taken off. He recently appeared with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in October 2016, performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor.

The Kilburn Memorial Concert is an annual event put on by the University of Alberta that boasts free admission; online RSVP was required and the concert was shown as sold out on the website. However, Convocation Hall was only about two-thirds full. Given the calibre of this performance, it unfortunate that spots were unavailable for those who would have wanted to attend.

The program opened with Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3, but Richard-Hamelin immediately confirmed his reputation for Chopin with his use of “melody delay” – letting the right hand trail behind the left hand accompaniment – and delicate rubato. The remaining first half of the program was devoted to works of Chopin. His performance of the Chopin Impromptus showed his ability for dramatic contrasts and superb lyricism. In the second and third Impromptus, in particular, he let the music speak for itself. Dissonance, harmonic colours, and register changes were brought out with poise. His version of the Fantasie-Impromptu was compelling and musical, while not falling into the trap of self-indulgence. The “Heroic” Polonaise, too, lived up to its nickname, but the fortissimos were joyous without being aggressive.

The second half of the program featured early Schumann works, which are certainly less well-known pieces than the Chopin selections. The first of the selections was five short pieces from Bunte Blätter (‘Coloured Leaves’), each of them no longer than two and a half minutes. Given the relative obscurity of Bunte Blätter, the audience was unprepared for the ending and did not manage to applaud before he immediately launched into the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 1, Op.11. Richard-Hamelin plays for the music rather than the audience. At times, his performance is so intimate that one feels as if one is intruding by listening.

The sonata was Schumann’s first venture into the form; it suffers somewhat from a lack of structural cohesion. However, Richard-Hamelin brought out the passion in the first and last movements, the emotional fragility of the Aria, and the classical poise of the Scherzo contrasted with Chopin-inspired Intermezzo.

Charles Richard-Hamelin is not a showy performer, and his greatest strength is his unpretentious approach. He is physically reserved and almost crouches over the piano. His playing, rather than being a carefully planned performance, is a genuine interpretation of an artist who is emotionally present in the moment. His technical ability is impeccable but never stands in the way of musical sensitivity. The young pianist shows maturity and insight beyond his years. It is refreshing to see such honest, heartfelt music-making.

His first recording, featuring late works by Chopin, was released on the Canadian Analekta label; a second album, released in the fall of 2016, was recorded live at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City with music by Beethoven, Enescu and Chopin. I look forward to hearing more from this exceptional young artist.

Preview: Trio de Moda








Neda Yamach (Violin), Kathleen de Caen (cello), and Clayton Leung (viola)

Holy Trinity Anglican Church (10037 84 Ave)
Sunday, April 9, 2 p.m.
Admission by donation


Beethoven: String Trio in G major, Op. 9, No. 1
Penderecki: String Trio
Dohnànyi: Serenade in C major for String Trio, Op. 10


Chamber music is very much alive and well in Edmonton. We are fortunate to have both the Edmonton Chamber Music Society and the Edmonton Recital Society bringing in chamber musicians of international calibre. The Solstice chamber music festival celebrates its tenth anniversary this June. The Vaughan String Quartet has now established itself as Edmonton’s main string quartet, offering a full season of concerts each year.

What Edmonton has not had recently is a home-grown professional string trio – until now. For two members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, violinist Neda Yamach and violist Clayton Leung, have joined together with cellist Kathleen de Caen to form the Trio de Moda, and they will give their inaugural concert this Sunday.

All three players are young, enthusiastic, and excited about the possibilities for a string trio in the city. Neda Yamach grew up in St. Alberta, and started playing the violin at 5. She studied in New York and at McGill, returned to Alberta in 2010 to play with the Alberta Baroque Orchestra and Kent Sangster’s Obsessions Octet, and joined the ESO in 2011.

Clayton Leung was born and raised in Vancouver – where he and his brothers all played string instruments – and also studied in the States, at the Cleveland Institute of Music, as well as at the University of Victoria. Originally a violinist, he switched to the viola, and after his studies joined the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (he also plays the guitar and the ukulele). In 2013 he moved to Edmonton to join the ESO.

Kathleen de Caen grew up in Edmonton, and did her masters in Montréal, where she also studied the El Sistema project, a method of teaching children to play classical music instruments, especially disadvantaged children. When the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra started the YONA-Sistema project in the city, she returned to join the staff, and is the project’s cello teacher (both Leung and Yamach are ESO ambassadors for the project).

De Caen – whose father had himself played in a string trio – had originally met Leung at a Toronto music festival, and the three players became friends in Edmonton. “I had always wanted to work with Neda and Kathleen,” says Leung.

De Caen explained the genesis of the trio. “The three of us enjoyed playing together. We started slowly, and we worked towards giving a performance. Then we decided in the Fall we would like to form a permanent trio.”

“We all love chamber music,” says Yamach, “and we wanted to do more of it.”

They already have another couple of concerts in the works after this inaugural one, and their new web site should be up this week. Their program on Sunday will mix the familiar with the more adventurous. They’ll be playing Dohnànyi’s genial and lyrical Serenade, a regular staple for string trios, and Beethoven’s rather grand but energetic G major trio, Op. 9, No. 1.

They will also be playing Penderecki’s masterful little String Trio. It was completed in 1991, in a period when Penderecki was beginning to ingrate some of the more avant-garde techniques of his earliest works with the neo-Romantic style he had cultivated over the previous two decades. The String Trio, though, is harmonically largely tonal, and it’s a gritty work, managing to combine a dramatic thrust with more lyrical writing, providing plenty of opportunities to for solo playing among the trio, and with a fugue weaving through the end of its powerful 13 minutes.

“It’s a program,” says De Caen, “built around things we really wanted to play.”

The concert admission is by donation, and takes place at Holy Trinity Anglian Church this Sunday (April 9) at 2 p.m.


The New Orford String Quartet

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the New Orford String Quartet, presented by the Edmonton Chamber Music Society in the Robertson-Wesley United Church on Saturday April 1, click here.

Richard Eaton Singers Haydn Creation review

Richard Eaton Singers
Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Ratzlaff (conductor)
Leslie Ann Bradley (soprano), Alexander Hajek (baritone), John Tessier (tenor)Winspear, March 31

Haydn: The Creation (sing in English)

It’s always good to hear Haydn’s The Creation. It may not now have quite the popularity it commanded half a century ago, but it’s difficult not to be stirred when that great C major chord announces God has let the light go forth, or to appreciate the creation of birds and animals as Haydn echoes their songs in the orchestra, or to respond to Adam and Eve singing their duet of love and marvel. The work is untrammelled by the events in the Garden of Eden, which we may know are coming, but which Haydn carefully avoids. It is ultimately about the joy and wonder of the world around us.

It’s not just an appealing work, but it’s also interesting musically. When Haydn completed it in 1798, Vienna had just been in panic at a possible invasion by the Turks, Mozart was already dead (so Haydn had had the chance to hear all his main operas), and Beethoven had started on his successful compositional and performance career – it’s all to easy to forget how long Haydn lived, as we usually think of him as the precursor to both those composers.

Consequently, The Creation has its feet in quite a number of musical antecedents. The very idea of an oratorio was essentially passé in continental Europe by 1798, though not in England, where the tradition of Handel was still very much alive (and appreciated by Mozart, who arranged a ‘modernized’ version of The Messiah) – and, of course, it was a tradition that that England would continue to champion throughout the 19th Century, commissioning works from composers like Mendelsohn and Dvořák.

That tradition provides the more traditional elements, such as the recitatives. But there’s something of the spirit of Goethe’s new Romanitism in the opening, with touches of the Mannheim Sturm und Drang musical style. And the shade of Mozart can also be heard, with echoes of Cosi fan Tutte in the orchestral setting of the trio (No.18) describing the wonders of the fifth day of creation, or in the trio (25a), as the Lord feeds each living soul. The wonderful duet between Adam and Eve is pure Haydn, showing he had lost none of his original genius.

The subject, too, rather breaks away from the oratorio tradition, for it is less a musical realization of Biblical events than a kind of pastoral, a celebration of nature as much as God, through the events of the Creation in the words of the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. There’s really very little in the oratorio repertoire with this kind of tone during the 19th century – not until Mahler and Gurre-lieder does that kind of big choral appreciation of nature reappear.

The Richard Eaton Singers’ performance at the Winspear on Friday evening (March 31), with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conducted by the choir’s Musical Director of 35 years, Leonard Ratzlaff, also had a traditional base. The choir is a very large one, in the tradition of the symphonic choirs of both the 19th and 20th centuries. The result is a very big sound, emphasized here by the orchestra: although Haydn uses an orchestra that is large for a classical work, the presence here of five double-bases gave a bass-heavy colour, and the over-amplification of the harpsichord continuo added to the sense that a lower overall colour had been chosen, a little at the expense of the detail of the higher instruments, such as the woodwind (which included some fine flute playing here).

Ratzlaff’s interpretation, too, belongs to an older tradition, with rather slow, emphatic tempi, that in part reflects the very large chorus (inevitably less flexible than a smaller group), but is in contrast to modern practices that take music of the pre-Romantic era at faster tempi.

The result is perhaps a matter of taste. The virtue of such an approach is the scale of the sound, especially in the grander moments; the downside is that some detail is lost, and passages sometimes cry out for a more sprightly approach. The choir, though, do revel in the overall concept, and their precision and discipline in this performance was commendable – they are a tighter choir than when I last heard them last year. Occasionally, in spite of their size, the sheer volume is not quite as great as might be expected in the grandest passages, but the more I hear choirs in the Winspear, the more I am convinced that this is a result of the hall’s acoustics rather than any lack of power in the choir. This was a committed performance.

The trio of soloists (joined by one of the choir, Janet Smith, for the final quartet) was an illustrious one. Canadian baritone Alexander Hajek (the Baron in Edmonton Opera’s recent production of The Merry Widow) has the kind of powerful lower range that is ideal for Raphael (and Adam), exemplary diction –this performance was sung in English – and an operatic approach that brought out some of the dramatic elements. What was less successful were his humorous gestures, that elicited laughs from the audience, such as his clawing when singing of the lion, as if he were Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, showing how well he would do in the part of the lion.

I can understand the impulse, but it was inappropriate. The Creation is not a comedy. Haydn celebrates all creation in this work – it is one of its great achievements – and Hajek’s actions rather denigrated some of that creation, in an age when we are beginning to recognize that all creation deserves our respect and honour.

Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley brought a rich, darker soprano to the work, that entirely suited it. But in this performance there was a lack of a smooth progression through the range, that hampered the overall effect, and the clarity of her diction did not match her fellow soloists.

How lucky we are, though, that John Tessier has curtailed his international career to spend more family time in Edmonton – the opera houses of the world’s loss is our gain. There is something very special about his tenor voice: there is a colour, a kind of tiny musical accent, to his sound that is entirely his. John Vickers and Jussi Björling had something similar, with the result that their voices are instantly recognizable. His tenor is also attractively lyrical, and his performance here was a pleasure to listen to, both in terms of interpreting the piece, and for the sheer pleasure of listening to lovely singing.

The Richard Eaton Singers are due to tour the UK later this year, and their next concert, at the McDougall Church on Saturday, June 10, features some of the music (including Canadian works) that they will be singing in cathedrals in Edinburgh, Durham, York, and Oxford.

In the meantime, what a pleasure that they reminded us how good Haydn’s Creation is.


Bozzini String Quartet review

New Music Edmonton
Bozzini Quartet
Holy Trinity Anglican Church Friday, March 17

Alissa Cheung: Nyanse (first performance)
Ian Crutchley: String Quartet
Cassandra Miller: Warblework
Jürg Frey: String Quartet No.3



Photo: Michael Slobodian

Bozzini Quartet and Gerry Morita
Holy Trinity Anglican Church Sunday, March 19

The artists-in-residence at this year’s Now Hear This music festival, put on by New Music Edmonton from Tuesday March 14 to Sunday March 19, were Montréal’s marvellous Bozzini Quartet. Founded in 1999, they concentrate almost exclusively on new music – they have now commissioned over 180 works, and premiered some 300: quite a record. They regularly tour all over Canada and abroad, and work with young composers to encourage new composition.

I wasn’t able to attend their Thursday (March 16) mid-day performance at City Hall, where they joined with Edmonton musicians, including another string quartet, the Vaughan, to perform James Tenney’s extensive soundscape, In a Large Open Space. It’s a work they have performed before, and for those who weren’t lucky enough to get to City Hall, or are curious what the work sounds like, there is an good YouTube video of their 2016 Montréal performance.

The Quartet’s main conventional concert was on Friday evening (March 17) in Holy Trinity Church. It was a formidable program, too, much of the proceedings including long stretches of slow music with long held notes that required perfect intonation – one of the most taxing tests of a string quartet, and one in which the Bozzini excel.

The concert opened with the premiere of a new work by the quartet’s second violin, Alissa Cheung, who grew up in Edmonton, studied at the University of Alberta, and played with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, before joining the Bozzini in 2015. Titled Nyanse (Norwegian for nuance), it reflects a particular trend in contemporary music for slow-moving, largely atmospheric and meditative music that avoids overt demonstration. It is built on a series of quiet held notes centered on D. Gradually there are variations of intensity and departures in micro-tones (for example, eight tones and quarter tones) from that central D, sometimes with an individual instrument coming to the fore. These slight variations and mismatches in pitch are mesmerizing, especially when harmonic overtones start sounding from the combination of instruments.

Needless to say, Nyanse requires not only pitch-perfect playing (I gather the quartet uses pitch meters that show the microtonal variations), but also a uniformity of tonal colour to allow those overtones to appear. That’s exactly what the Bozzini achieved in this world premiere of a spell-binding piece which was an ideal opening to this concert.

For the Bozzini clearly has an affinity for these kinds of swathes of atmospheric, meditative sounds. The concert ended with the substantial 31-minute String Quartet No. 3 by Jürg Frey. Frey, now 64, is a member of the Wandelweiser group of composers, whose hallmarks are exactly those kinds of sounds: quiet music (the third string quartet is marked pp or ppp throughout), often simply textured, with silences as an integral part of the whole. The Bozzini has recorded all his quartets, on the Wandelweiser label.

At first sight, the String Quartet No 3, written for the Bozzini, seems to occupy pretty much the same sound world as String Quartet No.2. It starts with slow quiet chordal sound blocks interspersed with silence (for a visual equivalent, think Mondrian’s 1917 painting Composition with Color Planes), that gradually get fused into extended blocks as the silences fade away. The edifice starts to move in step-like blocks – all the instruments still moving together – until individual lines appear, as if the strands that made up the block chords were being extruded.

What makes this different from the String Quartet No. 2 are the harmonies. Nathan Thomas, writing for the UK webzine Fluid Radio, commented that “the chords sometimes fall into patterns that draw on cadences and sequences so common to Western classical music that they could have been lifted from a piece by Beethoven or Schubert — a tendency perhaps often latent in Frey’s music, but never so explicit (as far as I’ve heard) than here.”

What I was reminded of strongly during the performance was the first part of Dieter Schnebel’s 1978 Viennese orchestral masterpiece Schubert-Phantasie, which has similar slow moving block chords, and a very similar harmonic scheme – for the piece is based on the notes and harmonies of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G major D.894. What Schnebel wrote about that piece could aptly describe the harmonies of this string quartet: “forms take on a vague shape, ramble off into the distance, approach again, dissolve into figuration…thin out into wisps.” And yet Frey toys with those harmonies: at the end, the expected resolution is deliberately left hanging in the ear by the last note dropping a tone.

The result, because of the combination of those half-tonal, half-recognized harmonies, and the huge sound vistas the slow-moving swathes of music create, is enormously attractive, and one can well understand why the String Quartet No. 3 has become something of a cult piece. This was a marvellous performance and clearly a definitive interpretation – indeed, I felt it was better than the Bozzini’s recorded version (Edition Wandelweiser Records EWR 1507), as the tonal colours were slightly richer. Compelling music, compellingly played.

Another enjoyable surprise was Ian Crutchley’s 2009 String Quartet. Crutchley is the president of New Music Edmonton, and his string quartet comes from a very different tradition. It might be described as post-post-Webern, with the constituent elements – pitch, tone, rhythm – broken down in the smallest constituents (it opens with expressive little fragments that are kernels of pitch material, joined by kernels of repeated rhythmic patterns). It was also effectively eclectic, in distinct and clear sections, with occasionally suggestions of other musics: a jig-like idea in a violin solo near the end, distant memories of whale calls earlier, in a slower section that linked, in its quieter held notes and silences, to both the Cheung piece that preceded it, and the Frey piece later. This is a difficult quartet to describe, because its effect is created by the accumulation of small ideas in a post-Webern setting, and I suspect some of its undoubted effectiveness is received essentially subconsciously (for example, there seemed to be previous material at times coming back a little more organized than on first appearance).

The other piece in this concert was again a change of tone. Canadian composer Cassandra Miller’s Warblework (2011) is a four-movement work based on recordings of bird-song slowed down to the pitch of the human voice (or a string quartet). The three East Coast birds featured (if that’s the right word) are the Swainson’s Thrush, the Hermit Thrush, and the Veery. It’s a very attractive work (much appreciated by the audience), often with the kind of sounds associated with electronic music – indeed, the song-like Hermit Thrush section might well be described as The Lark Ascending put through a ring-modulator, with some lovely choral combinations. The final Veery movement, with a very different, rather ghostly low song, saw some wonderful colours created by the Bozzini, entirely in keeping with this really excellent concert.

A few days later, On Sunday March 19, the Bozzini joined with the Edmonton dancer Gerry Morita for a very different kind of concert. During the Cheung piece on the Friday I had been fleetingly reminded of the sixties avant-garde, in the exploration of slow moving tonal blocks (Ligeti is an obvious example), but here I was pitched right back into those heady avant-garde days of the late 60s and 70s, when ‘happenings’ were all the rage. Like those happenings, here everything was improvised, and, again like so many of those happenings, the audience sat around a central space, looking slightly uncomfortable and eyeing each other.

However, there was an evident general structure, with Morita interacting with the members of the quartet, one by one, each with a slightly different tone in the dancing. Morita’s use of being silhouetted on the windowsill of an opaque window, and then half-sliding off a table like Gollum crawling down a rock, and a final interaction with Cheung, were particularly effective. The music was generally of the slow atmospheric type, but with lots of interesting extended effects using bridges, bows, and instruments in unusual ways.

However, like most happenings, it went on too long. There was a moment, at about 40 minutes, when to have ended would have been ideal – Morita had traversed all the four players, and nothing substantial in effect was subsequently added. The most ‘happening’ moment after that was – for reasons that were not clear – when Morita placed a strawberry on Clemens Merkel’s violin and he ate it. It couldn’t have been more late 60s.

It was an interesting way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and I admired Morita’s dancing, but ultimately it just made me glad that those days of improvised happenings were largely buried with the 70s. And the Bozzini had already shown what an enterprising and fine quartet they are.

Edmonton Opera Elektra review

For Mark Morris’s Edmonton Journal review of the Edmonton Opera production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, click here.

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