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 Classical Guitar Society: Judicaël Perroy

Edmonton Classical Guitar Society
Judicaël Perroy (guitar)

Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Friday, March 3

Fernando Sor: Fantaisie élégiaque
Heitor Villa-Lobos: Suite Populaire brésilienne
Johannes Dubez: Fantaisie sur des motifs hongrois
J.S. Bach: Second Lute Suite, BWV 997
Agustin Barrios: Choro de Saudade
Isaac Albeniz: Cataluna and Sevilla

The Edmonton Classical Guitar Society has an enviable record of bringing both Canadian and international classical guitarists to Edmonton. They are, for the most part, familiar names to the guitar aficionados who form the majority of the Society’s regular audiences, but not, I think, to a wider general public.

I have long thought that their concerts would be enjoyed by a much wider musical audience (such is the nature of the instrument), but here, I suspect, there is something of a disconnect. That lack of name recognition amongst a wider public perhaps works against their attending. If so, they should not worry: I haven’t yet been to a Society concert that hasn’t met its high standards, and provided an enjoyable musical evening.

Last Friday (March 3) Alberta College’s Muttart Hall saw the return of the French guitarist Judicaël Perroy. Now in his 40s, he was a child prodigy, and came to international attention when he won the 1997 Guitar Foundation of America Competition. He has been subsequently celebrated both as a recitalist and as a teacher (five of his pupils have been first prize winners at the GFA competition). He has done that teaching in France, but only two days before this concert, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music announced that he has been appointed to their faculty, starting his own studio there this Fall.

His style is generally introverted, thoughtful, almost with a sense of isolation. The colours are softer – there was virtually no bright attack or edge in this concert. The clarity in passages demanding different simultaneous voices – often of different colours and shades – is outstanding, and a real pleasure to listen to. At times – and well before the Bach – I was reminded of the sound of the lute.

He opened with Sor’s well-known Fantaisie élégiaque, a ruminative performance until the fuller broken chords near the end, much less bold than some I have heard, but very persuasive, especially in the lovely tone in the bass line.

Johannes Dubez’s Fantaisie sur des motifs hongrois (Fantasy on Hungarian Themes) is less well-known. Dubez was a 19th-century Austrian virtuoso on both the guitar and harp, and the Fantaisie includes music based on a piano work by Benjamin Egressy, the well-known Hunyadi-March (from the opera Hunyady László (1844) by Ferenc Erkel), and the equally recognizable Rákóci March. It’s a kind of guitar-recital-meets-salon music, pleasant enough, but unremarkable, though I can see its variety will appeal to performers.

I’ve always felt, too, and perhaps unfairly, that guitar of the Paragyuan virtuoso and composer Agustin Barrios, currently popular in guitar recitals, appeals more to performers and guitar players than to general audiences, and this performance of his Choro de Saudade, while authoritative (and pleasant enough) didn’t alter my bias.

With Bach’s Suite, BWV 997, originally written sometime before 1741 as the Partita in C minor for lute, the recital moved into a different musical world. It is a substantial work, with a powerful da capo fugue for the second movement, with the opening 48 bars reprised after a middle section. This was a compelling performance, with translucent voicing in the fugue, and an effective variety of colours and tones in the closing Double.

Two popular Albeniz works closed the recital, and the only slight disappointment was Perroy’s performance of Villa-Lobos’ Suite Populaire brésilienne. Written between 1908 and 1912, this suite reflects Villa-Lobos’ own experience of playing the guitar with Rio street musicians. Here Perroy’s rather laid-back, introverted style was a disadvantage, for while these little works have an appealing simplicity, they nonetheless need a little more colour and a little more sense of the dance to have their full effect.

The Edmonton Classical Guitar Society’s next recital on Friday, April 7th features another French guitarist. Thibaut Garcia won the 2015 Guitar Foundation of America International Artist Competition, and his recital is part of the North America tour, one of the GFA competition prizes.

Opera Nuova: H.M.S. Pinafore

Gilbert and Sullivan, arranged by Kevin Hocking: H.M.S. Pinafore

Opera Nuova

Directed by Kim Mattice Wanat
Musical Direction by Simon-Marc de Freitas

Ralph: Cam Kneteman
Josephine: Isabel Davis
Sir Joseph Porter: Evan Westfal
Captain Corcoran: Ian Fundytus
Dick Deadeye: Josh Thayer
Buttercup: Robert Herriot

Capitol Theatre, Ford Edmonton Park
Sunday, February 26, 2017

Last week Opera Nuova, at the suggestion of Ford Edmonton Park, added a winter production to its annual activities with a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at the Park’s Capitol Theatre (February 22 – February 26).

Opera Nuova is, of course, best known for its extensive spring/summer program for young opera professionals just starting their careers. Central to that are the productions (four this May and June) in which those young singers take part, and recently the venues have included Fort Edmonton Park.

It was a bold move to add a production in February, but Fort Edmonton’s instincts were right. The production was so successful that Opera Nuova added an extra matinee to accommodate the demand.

It helps, of course, that Gilbert and Sullivan is always popular, and H.M.S. Pinafore especially so. This production, though, wasn’t entirely Gilbert and Sullivan (or, for that matter, entirely H.M.S. Pinafore), because director Kim Mattice Wanat decided to use a very successful adaptation of the opera by the Australian publishing company Essgee Entertainment. Its 1994 version of The Pirates of Penzance was a huge hit, and the top-selling music video in Australian history. It then produced The Mikado in 1996, and H.M.S. Pinafore a year later.

The changes are quite extensive: new dialogue, re-orchestration for a small band, the addition of a couple of well-known songs from other G&S operas, and the considerable development of the character of Dick Deadeye.

Evan Westfal (Sir Joseph Porter), Isabel Davis (Josephine), and Ian Fundytus (Captain Corcoran).
Photo by Nanc Price

Absolute purists may baulk, but much of this works pretty well. It has become customary to use G&S dialogue to make contemporary comments – here including a couple of well-aimed Trump digs – and that makes sense, especially as that’s exactly what Gilbert was doing in the original. The couple of favourite songs from other G&S operas that were inserted into the music were judiciously chosen. Sullivan’s score arranges very easily, and the orchestration here – for a more modern sounding band of piano, keyboards, double bass, and drum kit – didn’t really interfere with the enjoyment of the music. The fairly constant cymbal beat may have got a little wearisome, but only once did the arrangements seem forced: in the 1940s swing style close to Act 1, that seemed to diverge both from the rest of the music, and from the production.

The expansion of the role of Deadeye Dick was more problematic. Essgee’s original purpose was to provide a starring role for a popular Australian actor, and one can see the reasoning. However here, in what was very much an ensemble production, the role seemed incongruous. Baritone Josh Thayer made a brave attempt at carrying off the part, almost if he had strayed from the Pirates of the Caribbean, but he seemed slightly uncertain of the role’s relationship with both the ordinary sailors and the officers, and he was vocally outmatched in this cast.

Almost all that cast were young alumni of Opera Nuova’s training program, and were consistently entertaining, without a weak link. At the Sunday matinee I attended, soprano Isabel Davis perhaps took the vocal honours for a smooth and confident performance, and the most surprising musical moment was the duet between Captain Corcoran, played with a nice touch of bluff naivete by baritone Ian Fundytus, and Buttercup.

For Buttercup was played by Robert Herriot, better known as an opera stage director who has regularly worked for both Opera Nuova and Edmonton Opera. It’s certainly not the first time that the role has been played as a cross-dressing one, but quite why Buttercup should be Captain Corcoran’s brother, and needed to be disguised as a woman, wasn’t really clear, especially as the original works well enough. I can see that in the Australia of the 1990s there might have been a certain frisson in having a kind of Dame Edna of Gilbert and Sullivan, but without any overt gender-bending commentary (or indeed jokes), it did seem a bit odd.

Nonetheless, to hear the Corcoran-Buttercup duet with two male voices was surprisingly effective, and overall Herriot enthusiastically entered into the spirit of the role. The same might be said of the whole production, for it was enormous fun. Mattice Wanat’s direction was fast-paced, making neat use of the relatively small stage (she also designed the simple but effective set), and the chorus, again of mainly local, mainly young singers, was excellent. They also carried off some quite complex dancing, skillfully choreographed by Marie Nychka.

Overall, then, this Opera Nuova production happily met its goals, providing opportunities for local young singers, and a most enjoyable winter’s entertainment for the audiences. Let’s hope this becomes a regular fixture in the Edmonton calendar.
In the meantime, Opera Nuova will be back at Fort Edmonton in the summer with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (directed by Herriot), and G&S purists do not have to wait too long to hear a version of H.M.S. Pinafore that will presumably be closer to the original, for Edmonton Opera are presenting it next year, again directed by Herriot.