Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival roundup review

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival
Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
Yellowhead Brewery
June 21-25, 2017

Attacca Quartet (photo by Shervin Lainez)







Programs included:

Krzysztof Jablonski (piano)
Debussy: Children’s Corner
Ravel: Jeux d’eau, Gaspard de la Nuit
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
June 21

Attacca Quartet
Kelly-Marie Murphy: Dark Energy
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131
Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
June 23
Yellowhead Brewery
June 22

Robert Uchida (violin)
Timothy Chooi (violin)
Marcin Swoboda (viola)
Brian Yoon (cello)
Patricia Tao (piano)
Vitali: Chaconne for Violin and Piano
Alexina Louie: Bringing the Tiger Down from the Mountain II
Grieg: Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano in C minor, Op. 45
Schumann: Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44
Convocation Hall, University of Alberta
June 25

The Summer Solstice Music Festival, presented by the Edmonton Chamber Music Society, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. The Festival used to concentrate almost exclusively on local musicians, but last year changed its format, bringing in a leading pianist (Charles Richard-Hamelin), and featuring one of the world’s great string quartets (the Fine Arts), alongside concerts by Edmonton’s most distinguished musicians.

This year, then, had quite an act to follow, and the Festival stuck to the new formula. The Polish-Canadian pianist Krzysztof Jablonski gave a major recital, while the Festival closed with a concert by more local musicians from Alberta and British Columbia. In between, the featured quartet was, in many ways, the antithesis of the Fine Arts, for in contrast to that venerable institution, the Attacca represent the millennial generation of highly accomplished younger string quartets.

Outside the main concerts, the Festival continued its tradition of encouraging young local musicians in pre-concert recitals, and in outreach and masterclass events spread across the city, from Callingwood Farmers’ Market to the CBC Centre Stage in the City Mall. However, it is perhaps worth pointing out that, in terms of chamber music, this was a strings and piano festival (including the young performers) with not a wind instrument in sight, except for the large Solstice Festival banner showing a cartoon clarinetist. This (apart from a couple of vocal recitals) was true of last year’s festival, too; perhaps the Festival might consider a little wind leaven in the future.

The Attacca Quartet was formed at the Julliard in 2003, though only two of the original members remain. All the current members are in their early 30s, but already the quartet has achieved a considerable reputation. They have recorded the complete string quartet works of John Adams, played all 68 of the Haydn string quartets, and are currently engaged in a complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets, paired with works by contemporary composers inspired by Beethoven. Their repertoire is happily eclectic, including contemporary string quartet repertoire and cross-overs from other genres, as one might expect from millennials.

As their name suggests (attacca, the Italian for attack, means to move to the next section or movement instantly, without pausing), the Quartet’s chief characteristic is exuberant energy. At the same time, they are wonderfully disciplined and homogeneous, their technique exemplified by the way they can, in absolute unison, glide into the first note of a phrase as if conjuring it up from some ghostly ether.

While it is perhaps invidious to pick out any of the players, nonetheless the quartet is built on the marvellous playing of the first violin, Amy Schroeder – what gorgeous tone, for example, in both the second and the final movement of the Mendelssohn String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13 that they played at Convocation Hall on June 23. The emotional lodestone of the Quartet, however, seems to be cellist Andrew Yee, who wears those emotions all through his body language as well as through his bow. There were some really effective little touches in his playing – as in the little shivering phrases in that Mendelssohn, which made the whole ambiance of the piece seem fresh and new. This was a very effective performance, constantly illuminating the work.

The Quartet had preceded it with a Canadian work, for the Festival was keen to include Canadian music to reflect Canada’s 150th anniversary. They chose Ottawa-based Kelly-Marie Murphy’s Dark Matter, inspired by the astronomical concept first postulated by Einstein. It was written in 2007 for the Banff International String Quartet competition, and it did rather sound like a competition piece. While never offending, it never really excited either, apart from the fairly obvious elements designed to show a string quartet’s worth. It’s in two halves, the first starting with hushed music suitable for a space movie sound-track and continuing in rather a cinematographic fashion, the second being much more rhythmic and energetic. I couldn’t help feeling that there had to be more arresting Canadian pieces to play – perhaps the far more striking and adventurous String Quartet No.3 (also written for Banff) by the Edmonton-born Juno-winning composer Vivian Fung, which I know is in the Attacca’s repertoire.

The Attacca closed their Convocation Hall concert with a performance of one of the most complex of Beethoven’s late works, his String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131. Interestingly, this was the work that featured centrally in the critically-acclaimed 2012 Yaron Zilberman movie A Late Quartet, and the Attacca’s second violin, Keiko Tokunaga, worked on that film, coaching actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It was a fine performance, played with reverence and affection, but it didn’t quite have the impact that they had achieved with the Mendelssohn. Perhaps significantly, they were at the most effective in the presto, where their youthful brio and energy enlivened the music. Otherwise they weren’t really intense enough, and I did wonder whether this most difficult of music to interpret simply does need the life-wisdom of long experience, the kind of area where the Fine Arts, for example, has always excelled.

The day before (June 22) they had given the Festival’s traditional concert in the relaxed and informal surroundings of the Yellowhead Brewery, complete with beer on tap and excellent pub food. The Attacca obviously thrive in this kind of setting. They opened with John Adams, all energy, and they gloried in the first movement of Haydn’s Op.76 No.5 (they played the minuetto as an encore at Convocation Hall) – this is music they clearly love. In the second half (which I alas, couldn’t stay for) they played one of their party pieces, an arrangement of Star Wars music. And they gave the audience a splash of contemporary music in the first half.

That contemporary music suggested that the quartet prefer music with a largely tonal base, strong rhythmic activity, and a touch of minimalism (all of which, of course, characterize the music of John Adams). They premiered a new work (there were no program notes, so I don’t know its title, other than it contained the words dreams) by first-violin Amy Schroeder, written the week before, that had more than a nod to Michael Nyman, a fluent and attractive work apart from the ending, which seemed to rather peter out. A piece by cellist Andrew Yee evolved into rather a beautiful passage that appeared to be based on (or inspired by) Mahler. Michael Ippollito’s Smoke Rings (in the version for quartet) is initially built on a pulsing repeated note that returns at the end – an atmospheric, almost visual work, that was quite striking. The Attaca described the music of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Caroline Shaw as a ‘game-changer’ – highly debatable, inventive and attractive though her music is (and her cross-over into popular music is hardly a new idea). Valencia (named after the orange), with its minimalist elements and rhythms and glissandi, entirely suited the Attacca.

It was an enterprising move for the Solstice Festival to bring in this quartet, especially as many of the audience had probably never heard of them. It worked, bringing a real enthusiasm to the core of the festival.

The Festival opened with a recital by the Polish-Canadian pianist Krzysztof Jablonski, and for me this was rather the odd concert out. For a start, it had no Canadian content (which, in the context of the Festival, was a pity), and even though the program consisted of four of the masterpieces of the repertoire – and visually picturesque ones at that – there was something inherently predictable about the playing. Jablonski’s technique is not in question (all the works included bell passages, and in all four cases these were wonderfully played), but these were very laid-back, undemonstrative performances played from memory, Jablonski contemplating the inner working of the piano rather than the audience.

That might have worked for some repertoire, but not for this. Debussy’s Children’s Corner missed its playfulness, and even the elephant was a very shambling one. There was really no subtlety of touch in the Ravel (Jeux d’eau and Gaspard de la Nuit), and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition really only came to vigorous life in the louder and bigger passages, and in the ‘Great Gate at Kiev’, where one could sense the antecedents of Prokofiev’s piano writing.

The closing concert featured a clutch of more local musicians. The young and up-and-coming Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi played that arch-Romantic piece masquerading as a Baroque composition, Vitali’s Chaconne, and the third Grieg Violin Sonata (in C minor, Op.45). Some may remember his appearance with his older brother Nikki in an ESO concert in 2013. I wrote then: “has not (yet) achieved the same depth of violin colour [as his brother], but his virtues showed…: rock steady technique … the kind of virtuosic playing that delights audiences”. That violin colour has definitely deepened since then (a kind of lovely burnished walnut in the opening of the Grieg); just occasionally his technique faltered in the Grieg, where perhaps pianist Patricia Tao could have afforded to let the music breath a little more, but then one remembered he is still studying. Like his bother, he is a violinist to watch.

Cellist Brian Yoon, who joined the ESO this February, gave a rather haunting short work by one of Canada’s best composers, Alexina Louie, Bringing the Tiger Down from the Mountain II for cello and piano. The title is derived from a Tai-Chi position, and it is a virtuoso work, including sensa misura elements (no bar lines, so the cellist can choose the shape) and double-stop glissandi. It is mostly wistful, but breaks out into more rhythmic energy, largely lyrical (at times using step-like progressions in the solo line like constellations in the sky), and the performance by Yoon and Tao was a convincing one.

The concert closed with the ESO’s concertmaster, Robert Uchida, and the Assistant Principal Viola of the Calgary Philharmonic, Marcin Swoboda, joining Chooi, Tao, and Yoon, for what was a scintillating performance of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44. The colours of the string player were remarkably matched, and one would have thought they had been playing for years together, instead of being grouped jut for this festival.

Chooi had suggested to the audience that it was a very varied concert, and on paper, maybe. But what was interesting was how much the pieces – apart from the Louie – had in common. They were all essentially salon works, a particular kind of 19th-Century Romanticism, and the concert conjured up those wonderful heavy velvet curtains, the deep colours of rich wall-paper, the ornate oil lamps with their tall glass chimneys, of the mid-19th Century urban salon. With such a passionate and convincing performance of the Schumann, this was a rousing way to end a most enjoyable Festival.

Opera Nuova song recital review/personal column: traditional (arr. MacMillan), Nichols, and Moore

Saturday, June 17th, Robertson-Wesley United Church


Tsimshian traditional, arranged by Sir Ernest MacMillan
Three Songs from the West Coast
Ken Nichols         Letters from Home
Ben Moore         Dear Theo


Chris Donleavy (tenor)
Michael Eusebio (tenor)
Ross Mortimer (tenor)
Brittany Rae (soprano)

Francis Armstrong (piano)
Julian Evenshen (cello)
Marie Krejcar (violin)
Christie Park (violin)
Jenna Sabolsky (viola)

Ken Nichols (photo Manitoba Arts Council)

For reasons that will become clear, this is less a review than a kind of personal column. For Opera Nuovo’s recital of song cycles at Robertson-Wesley United Church on Saturday June 9th was so interesting, and so uniformly entertaining, that it deserved more than just a mention.

Opera Nuova, of course, is the Edmonton-based company that, every summer from May through June, operates a training program, admired across Canada, for young singers just starting on – or about to start on – an operatic career (59 of them this year).

As part of that program, Opera Nuova puts on a series of events in a Summer Musical Theatre Festival, where the participants in the program have the opportunity to perform. This year there have been a series of song recitals deliberately reflecting the diversity of Canadian immigration for Canada’s 150th anniversary, and two main-stage productions (Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience, and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin), with two more still to come: Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel (June 23-30, at Festival Place, Sherwood Park).

Saturday’s concert was titled ‘Letters Home’, and was built around a new song-cycle of the same name by Manitoban composer Ken Nichols, who celebrated his 80th birthday last year – the song cycle was commissioned to celebrate that anniversary, and was premiered in Brandon last July.

That’s where the personal column comes in, for I wrote the words for this song cycle – some 30 years ago. I had met Ken when we were both taking part in the Banff Centre’s Music Theatre program (we wrote a one-act opera together there), and he had taken me down to the area around Picher Creek in Southern Alberta where he grew up.

It is, for those of you who don’t know it, one of the most beautiful places in Canada – the rolling undulations of the Rocky Mountain foothills, with the massive mountains slicing up perpendicular so close on the west, the flat endlessness of the prairies to the east, Waterton National Park and Montana to the South, and the Oldman River winding through it. It’s so beautiful that Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) bought a ranch there in 1919 (and regularly visited it before selling it in 1962).

It was, and still is, ranching country – cattle ranching, and Nichols’ relatives told me stories of how, when sent to move some cattle from one place to another, he was so often forgetful, as he was usually daydreaming up some music. He himself told me ranching stories, of, for example, riding alone over a ridge, and looking down and seeing grizzlies and their cubs romping among the stubby little trees, or sitting as a boy listening when an Elder from the nearby indigenous reservation called by.

I loved the country, and, new to Canada, I was fascinated in particular by the history of the early immigrants – of whom the Southern Alberta ranchers were among the very first. While at Banff, I read as much as I could find, from historians to original accounts. I drew on this – or rather, I was inspired by this – for the set of prose poems for Ken Nichols that are the text of his song cycle. I handed them over, and then promptly forgot about them, and he said them aside, as it turned out, for three decades.

It’s a very strange thing, hearing settings of your words from 30 years ago. I can’t remember virtually any of the actual words of the many operas and texts for composers I have written over the years – it’s a blank area for me, though I can always remember the general feel of a piece, the ethos, and often the structure. And I couldn’t remember a single word from this one.

So in writing about it here, I am writing as if a stranger to my own past. The basic premise is simple: a series of letters written to home by very differing immigrants starting out life in southern Alberta at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. There’s a wife of a pioneer who has taken possession of, and is breaking, his section – she has joined him, and is appalled at the pioneer living conditions and the mud and turf hut that is their first home. There’s an Italian immigrant, writing to his mother to tell her to stop asking him to return, as for him this new land is the land of opportunity. There’s the rancher’s wife, rich enough to order her dresses from fashionable city couturiers. There’s an RCMP officer, who came out west with the force, and is now about to retire from it. And, in a duet, there is a homesteader couple, singing with thanksgiving of their new life.

These have been hauntingly set by Nichols, for soprano and tenor with a string quartet and piano (in the Brandon premiere Nichols added a double bass), and in a generally tonal idiom. The solo lines are based on patterns of speech, dramatic, almost operatic when needed. The sophisticated and evocative writing for the instrumental forces is in darker minor keys, with shades of modal scales. I was reminded of the similar combination of human and natural environment, and similar forces, in Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Warlock’s The Curlew. Letters Home comes out of the same general tradition, a kind of Prairie equivalent, with at times something of the austerity of both those earlier cycles.

Particularly arresting – and beautiful – is the duet between the two homesteaders that ends the cycle. The performance was semi-staged rather effectively by Opera Nuova’s Directing Intern, Martin Galba, with suitable items regularly emerging from a central travelling trunk, a reminder of immigration itself, the journeys across the sea, and the fleeting nature of human existence. It was also well sung by tenor Ross Mortimer and especially soprano Brittany Rae, whose natural acting utilized both voice and stage presence.

To rediscover my words after 30 years (I was abroad, alas, for the Brandon premiere) in such wonderful settings was more than I could possibly have expected. Thank you, Ken, and thank you Opera Nuova.

In this I am, of course, biased, but for the rest of the concert I can put on my critic’s hat. It opened with Three Songs from the West Coast, arranged by the father of Canadian composition, Sir Ernest MacMillan. In 1927 he travelled to the West Coast with the folklorist Marius Barbeau, and transcribed over 70 traditional songs of the Tsimshian People. He arranged three of the songs for high voice and piano, which some will know from the Jon Vickers recording – the vocal lines are entirely Tsimshian, as MacMillan didn’t change a note of his transcriptions, merely adding the piano accompaniment.

The three songs – the first the celebration of a new chief’s first dance, the second a lullaby, the third in which the singer chastises idle gossipers – are, for me, some of the most memorable Canadian music ever written. But these days, of course, there is a contentious aspect to them, as the question of appropriation raises its head. Opera Nuova came up with the perfect solution, which was to sing the songs in their original language, and not in the English translation that Vickers largely uses. This respected both the origins of the songs (and the songs themselves), and they were very effectively sung by Chris Donlevy, whose strong, slightly dark toned tenor suited them admirably – and somehow he managed to create the aural effect that he was singing in the outdoors, which again entirely worked.

MacMillan himself wrote of these songs, in his rather reticent 1920s language, that “if my arrangements do no more than bring to the attention of our musical public music of an interesting type which would probably not be otherwise heard, they will not be entirely abortive.”

Quite – and the same might be said of Opera Nuova’s revival of them, a celebration of an indigenous Canadian music joining hands with the classical tradition – the kind of bridge the world could sure use now.

The final work in the concert was equally intriguing, and was by a composer I had not come across before. American Ben Moore was born in 1960, and is primarily a composer of vocal music (there are two operas). His Dear Theo is a brilliant conception: a setting of a judicious choice of Van Gogh’s revealing letters to his brother Theo (it also exists in a version for chorus).

Fascinating, too, was the portrait of the painter that emerges, from his fears, to his pride in what he is painting, from his thoughts on children, to the poignant ending (“I must leave a souvenir”). In works of this kind the music really comes second to the words, but here the settings achieve exactly what they set out to do, giving the singer a wide range of sometimes dramatic emotion, and it was very convincingly sung by tenor Michael Eusebio – not the least in his excellent diction, allowing us to hear those remarkable writings.

The entire concert was clearly greatly appreciated by the audience – and rightly so, for this was just what a festival should be doing: introducing three works, all fascinating in their own ways, that the audience would probably never otherwise hear, and doing so in style.

Summer Solstice Chamber Music Festival preview

The Edmonton Chamber Music Society’s summer festival, the Summer Solstice Festival, runs from Thursday June 21 through Sunday June 25. Artists include the

Attacca Quartet (photo by Shervin Lainez)

exciting young American string quartet, the Accatta Quartet, pianist Krzysztof Jablonski, Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi, and the ESO’s concertmaster, Robert Uchida. The festival includes many Canadian compositions, for Canada’s 150th anniversary, and masterclasses and outreach events.

To read Mark Morris’ full preview for the Edmonton Journal, click here.

For full details of the festival, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Carmina Burana review

Bill Eddins (photo courtesy of ESO)

Performances on Friday June 16 and Saturday June 17 of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana marked the final concert of Bill Eddins’ 12-year tenure as Music Director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.

The ESO was joined by a whole raft of choirs – creating a chorus of well over 200 – and Orff’s most popular work was preceded by evocative compositions by two former composers-in-residence with the orchestra, Robert Rival’s Northwest Passage Variations and Estacio’s new Trumpet Concerto.


You can read Mark Morris’ full review in the Edmonton Journal here.