The Ottawa Institute, July 29 – August 1, 2011

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(c) Fran Kaufman

Marc-André Hamelin in New York City

“A critic is someone who watches the battle from the sidelines and then, when the battle is over and the smoke has cleared, comes down onto the field to shoot the wounded.”  This joke was quoted by William Littler in a tribute to the late Ottawa critic Jacob Siskind in the souvenir program booklet of this year’s Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, or “Chamberfest”. (Siskind died last year at the age of 82.) I don’t think members of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) shot any of this year’s performers, but we did have a great deal of fun during the last weekend of July in Ottawa.

About a dozen MCANA members met in Ottawa to take in chamber music, attend Carleton University’s symposium , “Liszt’s Legacies” (to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth), and to broil in the sweltering heat and humidity. (The concerts, to keep costs down, were held largely in unconditioned venues, so I built my concert-going program around the mercifully air-conditioned  Dominion-Chalmers United Church, where the Liszt symposium was also held.)  Added to this, Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer generously looked after administrative arrangements and chaired three MCANA meetings.

“Liszt’s Legacies” gathered about two dozen academic “Lisztians” from around the world to present formal papers (which will be published) on myriad aspects of Liszt’s life and work.  Although a few were dry, most were informative and entertaining.  I learned, for example, that Liszt’s hands resembled those of a toad; that he considered the pipe organ the “pope” of instruments; that his church music owed a great deal to Gregorian chant; that the American popular music magazine, “The Etude” (1883-1957), was for most musically-minded rural Americans the musical experience, as few had the opportunity of going to concerts; that Liszt and Chopin taught many of the 5000 or so Americans and Canadians who studied in Europe around the mid-nineteenth century; and that “graphomania” is someone who suffers from the compulsion to write!

I discovered the music of some of Liszt’s pupils, such as Gobbi and Mihalovich; Genelli’s etchings and drawings for the Dante Symphony; films featuring Liszt’s music, such as The Loves of Liszt (Russia, 1970), Träumerei (Germany? date?), Lola Montes (France, 1955) and Kompozitor Glinka (Russia, 1952); and the many composers he influenced, among others Wagner, Debussy, Frank, early Saint-Säens, Vincent d’Indy and Messiaen; and that of his more than 1000 compositions the majority are in variation form!

Due to time restraints I attended “only” seven concerts during three days (Chamberfest lasts two weeks and this year presented close to 100 concerts). Of these seven, two were first rate. On Friday afternoon, in the sweltering heat of The Church of St. John the Evangelist, The Four Nations Ensemble and soprano Ann Monoyios performed Baroque works based on the theme of Orpheus. These included works by Jean-Marie Leclair, Robert Johnson (apparently Shakespeare’s favourite composer), Anthoine Francisque, Purcell, Handel, Thomas Chilcott, Telemann and Louis-Nicolas Clérambault. It was a long program, and they would have done well to omit Telemann. But the works were lovingly played—with elegant balance and rapport among the performers. Monoyios sang with warmth, sincerity and confidence, including Clérambault’s Orphée, a long and difficult work in the extremely rare key of D sharp minor.

On Sunday evening, Marc-André Hamelin gave a recital of works by Berg , Stockhausen, Ravel and Liszt that was almost transcendental. His interpretation of Berg’s Sonata was spell-binding. Hamelin can change moods from poetic to rapturous with ease. I found that the first and last movements of Gaspard du nuit were taken too fast, and the middle movement too slow, almost to the point of losing concentration; but the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor was virtually flawless in execution. Those sitting close to him were privileged to witness the depth of his concentration and his palpable love of the music.

Other concerts included two with the Cecilia String Quartet whose cellist needed more muscle in her playing; her technique and execution were fine but one had to strain to hear her.

The program entitled “The Hidden Liszt”, featuring little-heard church music, was a mite dull. The Ottawa Bach Choir, at times accompanied by a harp, timpani and the church organ (unable to deliver much colour) had good balance and blended nicely, despite a few ragged entries. Lisette Canton has done a fine job building this choir founded in 2002.  Mezzo-soprano Julie Nesrallah sang a mere four lines in the bleak, ponderous Via Crucis. In the second half of the concert mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo sang Psalm 137 – An den Wassern zu Babylon, S. 17. She performed beautifully and tossed off her soaring lines with ease. The program notes carried the Latin text for the Via Crucis, but no English or French, while texts for the psalms were given in all three languages. (For most concerts I attended the program booklets had run out, even though the performances were not sold out. A concert index in the souvenir program book would also have been helpful.)

Another exclusively Liszt concert proposed songs, a narrative piece and a few piano compositions performed by soprano Monica Wicher, bass-baritone/narrator Robert Gleadow and Mauro Bertoli, a young pianist on staff at the University of Ottawa. Bertoli’s tempos were uneven. Wicher sang with a soaring, clear robust line. The capable Gleadow read the German text in English (although the German original was in the program).

The Canadian Oboe Trio gave it’s premiere performance on July 30. Charles Hamann of the National Arts Centre Orchestra,  Bebe Hanley of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Cary Ebli, also of the Toronto Symphony, played works by Josef Triebensee, the Canadian Gary Kulesha (b.1954) and Beethoven. The interpretations were graceful, nimble and at times profound. I cannot see myself attending too many oboe trio concerts but if they give one or two in a different city each year they will have served a useful purpose.

I wish to thank all the organizers who did more than necessary to make our weekend so delightful, including Karen Squires of Ottawa Tourism, as well as Megan Ross, Lisa, Caroline and of course the irrepressible, irreplaceable J.J.

Bisous à tous et à toutes!