Opera Nuova: The Arctic Flute and Into the Woods

Opera Nuova
Into the Woods
from left to right: Emily Ready (Cinderella), Kael Wynn (Steward), and John Carr Cook (Prince)
Nanc Price Photography

Mozart, reimagined by Michael Cavanagh: The Arctic Flute, based on The Magic Flute
June 23rd, 2018
Festival Place, Sherwood Park

Sondheim: Into the Woods
June 24th, 2018
Festival Place, Sherwood Park

Opera Nuova’s mainstage productions from its 2018 Opera and Music Theatre Festival run until Saturday June 30th. The Arctic Flute, directed by Michael Cavanagh, is not quite as expected – the Arctic element is minimal – but is done in a very entertaining vaudeville style, with strong singing-acting, and is great fun if you are not expecting something more serious. Into the Woods, directed by Brian Deedrick, is more straightforward, and will appeal to those who enjoy Sondheim’s musical or who are curious as to what it is like.

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

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.