Chamberfest Ottawa: No Longer Just Canada’s Secret

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By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

An esteemed, incorrigibly witty Canadian colleague of mine likes to compare the relationship Canada has with the United States with that of a mouse and an elephant.  The mouse always notices the presence of the elephant, whereas the elephant is rarely aware of the mouse.

That says it perfectly.  We in the U.S. hardly ever hear a word about events in Canada – our next-door neighbor with about a ninth of our population but a larger land mass – in the mainstream media.  For example, I don’t recall hearing a peep about the results of the May Canadian Parliamentary elections on the evening news; you had to go to the fringes of Cableland on C-SPAN to catch a CBC feed of election night.  SImilarly in the music field, Canada has contributed a large share of brilliance to the world in many idioms, but they remain unknown to us until they make it onto the stages of the States, or record for American labels.

So when word came of a major chamber music festival in the Canadian capital city, Ottawa – whose population of about 812,000 easily exceeds that of the District of Columbia – I had to admit that I’d never heard of it, and I wasn’t alone. And it’s hardly a mouse of a festival either.  Spanning exactly two weeks, Chamberfest Ottawa just completed its 18th season, with a staggering 94 events (down from a high of somewhere in the low 100s) often in overlapping concerts so that no one can possibly hear it all. Roman Borys, the cellist of the Gryphon Trio, has been the artistic director the last few years, and he is trying to put more of an international slant on the programming, obviously to draw attention from the outside world.  The emphasis remains mostly upon Canadian performers but the range of idioms is burgeoning outward, expanding into jazz, tango, Asian and mariachi music, street events, and more.

From the evidence of a four-day visit, Chamberfest Ottawa is certainly well-run – the events start on time, the stagehands do their jobs efficiently, and free shuttle buses run regularly between the events east and west of the Rideau Canal bisecting the city.  You do get the feeling of a real festival, where everyone is in it together roaming from one locale to another, developing a special temporary community.

The performance spaces, though, are not ideal.  It would have been a natural idea to use the National Arts Centre, but it was booked solid with a run of “The Lion King” at festival time – and in any case, it’s a union hall with high rental fees, as is the auditorium of the National Gallery.  Most, but not all, of the action takes place in a trio of churches – The Church of St. John the Evangelist near downtown, the nearby Dominion-Chalmers United Church, and the Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts across the canal – which is a “de-sanctified” former Irish Catholic church, but try as you might, you could not avert your eyes from its austere dank Gothic arches and bloody figure of Jesus on the cross right next to the stage. Of these, Dominion-Chalmers is easily the most satisfactory space – and the only one with air-conditioning, which is definitely necessary during the hot, humid Ottawa summer. Climate control was the biggest obstacle that a festival-goer faced – the punishing heat in St. John’s and St. Brigid’s lingered all afternoon and evening, making wilted concertgoers think they were doing penance for some sin from the past, imagined or not.

Happily, very often the performances were worth putting up with the sweatbox conditions.  You did have to plan your evenings carefully, though, because the 7 p.m. concerts in Dominion-Chalmers and 8 p.m. performances in St. Brigid’s required some decision-making – what to miss, when to bail from one church to the other.

In one special case, Marc-André Hamelin’s recital on July 31 at Dominion-Chalmers, a carefully-made plan went by the boards because his ongoing performance was cresting the heights.  The pianist was on fire, stitching together a brilliantly conceived program where Berg’s early Piano Sonata led to Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX, then Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit.”  Hamelin’s playing was of such staggering virtuosity and barely-controlled passion, with each piece cunningly structured for maximum impact, that I chose to alter my plans and skip the first part of NEXUS’s 40th anniversary concert at St. Brigid’s in order to see what Hamelin could do with the huge Liszt Piano Sonata in B Minor.  He did an impressive turn on that monster as well, mowing down everything in his path – no doubt aiming to wow the Liszt scholars in the audience who had just wrapped up a concurrent Liszt symposium that afternoon – and added Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” as an encore.  Hamelin sounded like one of the current giants of the piano on this night – which I did not expect even after exposure to his excellent Hyperion recordings and an impressive race through the Shostakovich concertos live in L.A. in 2006.

Quickly catching the shuttle bus for St. Brigid’s, I was lucky enough to have caught up with NEXUS just as they were starting up Steve Reich’s new Mallet Quartet –pleasing enough, though hardly a ground-breaker for Reich, who sticks with his usual fast-slow-fast three-movement template.  Much later during the 10:30 p.m. nightcap, NEXUS and their young heirs-apparent, the TorQ Percussion Ensemble, rattled off Reich’s still-astonishing phasing classic “Drumming” – which couldn’t have been easy due to St. Brigid’s strange slapback echo, but they managed to ignore the unwanted extra beats and carry on with rigor and vigor.

Aside from that, there is a healthy quota of new music at Chamberfest – mainly concentrated in a pair of new music marathons Aug. 1 and 2 at noon in St. Brigid’s where for one admission price, you got three concerts on each afternoon.  The host of New Music Now, composer Gary Kulesha from the University of Toronto, is one of the most effective guides in the business; he’s thoughtful, non-condescending, very articulate, commenting before and most crucially, after each piece is played.  Pieces by composers largely unknown even to new music buffs in the States were set in context with some from past luminaries of the avant-garde, John Cage in particular.  The most striking and winning piece came from New Zealander Jack Body, whose Three Transcriptions for string quartet could evoke the Far East in pentatonic harmonics, rain lovely pizzicatos in a diatonic idiom, and finally stomp all over the place with a hoot of a hoedown.

Elsewhere, there were two programs that burrowed into some of the less-well-lit chambers of Liszt’s huge output. One at St. John’s Jul. 29 offered a rare hearing of his visionary melodrama “Der traurige Monch” (“The Sad Monk”) where Liszt basically abandons key centers and embraces the whole-tone scale. Another, “The Hidden Liszt” at Dominion-Chalmers Jul. 30, found the excellent Ottawa Bach Choir surveying the composer’s little-known religious choral music, including a nearly-50-minute oratorio “Via Crucis (The 14 Stations of The Cross)” whose strange dramatically-charged moments were eventually eclipsed by its longueurs.

In a packed CBC 75th anniversary concert at Dominion-Chalmers Aug. 1, violinist James Ehnes and pianist Jan Lisiecki came up with an unusual format – each performed alternating solo pieces and only at the end did they combine forces for a razzle-dazzle finale of Saint-Saens’s Violin Sonata No. 1 and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances.  They did not disappoint, but three nights earlier, pianist Simone Dinnerstein did with a pedal-smeared, drifting, banged-out Schumann “Fantasiestücke” and a Bach Partita No. 2 that laid there in a rhythm-less, molten clump.  It is one of the mysteries of modern music criticism why her playing has not attracted much controversy so far.

Yet for this visitor from the southwest, the most interesting and involving event was a relatively new feature at ChamberFest, the Waterway SoundFaire – a free-floating Saturday afternoon event down by the Rideau Canal where the TorQ and a number of other groups held forth.  Often they did so simultaneously, creating a Charles Ives effect of wonderfully clashing sounds out in the open.  One young lady presided over a bizarre instrument composed of rows of old-fashioned, three-inch, tuned floppy disks suspended on a rack; you shine a flashlight at a disk and it produces a musical note through a computer. There was even an irresistible opportunity to join in the fun – the percussion team Cube Jesse Stewart and Associates invited all passers-by to play on its contraption of plastic tubs and metal pans as they kept a basic beat going.

Since 2012 marks the Cage centennial, how about this idea for for next summer’s SoundFaire – a genuine Cage “Musicircus,” where groups of any and all persuasions play at once in durations determined by the I Ching.  From the terraced canal locks near the Ottawa River, under the Pont Plaza Bridge, and onto one of the nicest urban green spaces on the continent, it ought to make a glorious racket.