Les Violons du Roy Take Regal Sound To Canadian West

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Les Violons du Roy, based in Québec City, is making an eight-concert tour of Canada.  (CamirandPhoto)
Les Violons du Roy, based in Quebec City, is making an eight-concert tour of Canada.
(CamirandPhoto)
By Bill Rankin

EDMONTON, Alberta — The Edmonton Chamber Music Society is 60 years old this year, and during those decades the organization has hosted the world’s most renowned classical music soloists and small ensembles. The typical program features groups no larger than a quartet, and sometimes just a soloist — a lute player or a pianist, perhaps. It’s unusual, then, to hear an ensemble the size of Les Violons du Roy on an ECMS series. The renowned Quebec City-based chamber orchestra has fifteen core members.

Mathieu Lussier is Les Violons' associate conductor.
Mathieu Lussier is Les Violons’ associate conductor.

Les Violons’ Nov. 11 appearance in Edmonton began an eight-stop Western Canada tour. Edmonton was the group’s only Alberta appearance; the rest of the concerts, through Nov. 20, were scheduled for small British Columbia towns, including Vernon, Penticton and Trail. The Edmonton concert came on a holiday for most Albertans: It was Remembrance Day, a commemoration of Canadians who have died fighting for their country. Many among the 400-plus audience members at the University of Alberta’s Convocation Hall were old enough to recall World War II, and are long past differentiating between work days and holidays; the average age was probably closer to 70 than 60.

The concert was led by Mathieu Lussier, the chamber orchestra’s associate conductor. Titled “The Dawn of Romanticism,” the program gave a nod to the romantic era’s roots in the classical period with some Haydn, but was primarily early romantic in flavor.

Les Violons du Roy
Les Violons du Roy played with engagement and clarity.

A centerpiece of the program was Lussier’s chamber-orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (Death and the Maiden). Adding forces to the original four instruments Schubert used does add opportunities for lushness and a different kind of drama, but the tautness of a quartet’s unique attack can be diffused by the larger sound. Portions of the arrangement leave all but a quartet and the single bass playing, and in these moments, hints of the original were revealed, though these felt more like accents than full-fledged quartet writing in the spotlight.

The additional eleven instruments gave the music an open quality, and when a gradual diminuendo was called for — just before the end the opening Allegro, for example — the effect was different from a string quartet’s but still controlled and focused. The benefits and debatable results of such an arrangement may have been revealed best in the theme and variations Andante con moto movement. The stately opening and ending had a heightened sense of somber reflection with the larger sound, as did the group’s accompaniment of co-principal violin Pascale Giguère’s soloing in the second variation, but the more tense, intricate interplay of instruments in the variation with more equal roles wasn’t as edgy as the more exposed quartet can be.

Violinist Pascale Giguère
Violinist Pascale Giguère

The playing, though, was generally top notch. Giguère, a member since 1995, showed herself to be a confident leader and soloist in her own right. Her periodic emergence as commanding first violin in the quartet context was welcome, and her performance style was assured but unostentatious; she always seemed part of the larger team despite her spotlight.

The night’s featured artist was Louis-Philippe Marsolais, a French-Canadian horn player, who opened the concert with Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 2 in D major and also performed Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70. The orchestra commonly invites a guest along on its tours. Its recent sojourn in Europe, which ended on Oct. 24 in Paris, featured French pianist Alexandre Tharaud; in March, the group will begin a North American tour, also led by Lussier, with concerts in Kingston, Ont., and Ottawa, March 7 and 8, and performances in eight American cities, beginning in Troy, N.Y., on March 10 and ending in Santa Fe on March 27. That tour will feature Canadian-born pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

The Haydn concerto offers the soloist opportunity to shape lyrical legato lines and demonstrate commanding technique, particularly in steep leaps from mid-range to the bottom of the instrument’s register. The string players needed no warmup for their role in the evening’s repertoire, but Marsolais struggled with the challenges in Haydn’s score. At times, his tone in the lower register was muddy and the large intervals sounded awkward.

French-Canadian hornist Louis-Philippe Marsolais was soloist in works by Haydn and Schumann.
Hornist Louis-Philippe Marsolais was the soloist in Schumann.

The string players performed with engagement and clarity from the first note of the night. The first movement of the Haydn, marked Allegro moderato, showed them in a jaunty frame; in the second, an Adagio, they played the background accompanists to their soloing colleague demurely. The final movement gave Marsolais some scope to show off a little, and by that point he seemed more comfortable, creating an attractive, robust sound where the music called for more horn-friendly forte passages.

The two tempos of Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro gave the horn player chances to sing with his instrument and grandstand as well, and by this point, he was up for both challenges. He demonstrated some serious technique in the speedy Allegro, without a lapse in execution — not a guaranteed result with the horn — and the audience loved it.

Les Violons also performed one of Mendelssohn’s twelve String Symphonies, No. 10 in B minor. One notion of “dawn” in the title of the program was revealed in this selection, a piece the composer wrote when he was only 12. The opening Adagio of the three-part work is short and reverential, making the burst into the middle section all the more exciting. The musicians played with a real sense of urgency and were clearly in their element with this piece. Mendelssohn’s transition between sections is seamless, making the explosive shift in mode and tempo all the more dramatic. The headlong drive to the finish had a special coherence that a more delineated notion of movements doesn’t permit.

In June, Les Violons announced that its founder, conductor Bernard Labadie, would take a leave of absence. And on the day the ensemble played Edmonton, the organization announced that Labadie plans to return for the 2015-16 season.

In the interim, Lussier and Reinhard Goebel will oversee the three programs Labadie was to have led from January through June 2015. Goebel is replacing the previously scheduled Christopher Hogwood, who died in September, for a program in Quebec City and Montreal in late February.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.

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