By Charles Pope, Jr.
OTTAWA, Ontario — With two decades under its belt, Ottawa’s International Chamber Music Festival, better known as Chamberfest, keeps getting bigger and bigger — and better. The festival continues to present generous amounts of fine chamber music performed by stellar players from Canada and elsewhere. Recent seasons, however, have also featured solo pianists, including Janina Fialkowska, Angela Hewitt, and Marc-André Hamelin, and emerging opera stars, such as Sondra Radvanovsky, in recital. The more ambitious and larger scale events scheduled for the 2015 season include a staging of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas on July 27 during a program that also will include a contemporary masque, Aeneas and Dido, by Toronto composer James Rolfe and librettist André Alexis.
For sheer dynamic and overall heft, however, it’s unlikely that anything this summer will eclipse Chamberfest’s opening concert by the Canadian National Brass Project on July 23 at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, an early 20th-century Byzantine structure whose grandiosity well suits fine music. The ensemble, led by artistic director and Boston Symphony principal horn James Sommerville, is new, comprising first desk players plus two percussionists from major Canadian orchestras. The Ottawa concert marked its debut after just a few days’ preparation. While there were occasional rough edges and not always the level of dynamic and tonal subtlety listeners might have expected, the performance certainly packed a sonic wallop. This of course could be expected when the program’s two big items were Symphonic Dances from Bernstein’s West Side Story and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man was a perfect choice to initiate the concert. The players tackled this brief, ceremonial classic with high-decibel intensity, taut percussion, and a sound that communicated genuine warmth. They seemed to be letting everyone know they were performing for the audience as much as themselves.
Next, we traveled back almost four centuries to hear two canzone by Gabrielli, lively brass works derived from Netherlandish chansons. Again, the players delivered warmth, though not the dynamic or tonal range many would have anticipated. Intonation was far from flawless and unison entrance chords were not always together. There was a big improvement with the early 20th-century Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas’ Sensemayá, originally an orchestral work depicting ritual sacrifice; the performance encompassed far greater definition than the two preceding items. Morning Song, by Toronto composer Scott Irvine, demonstrated appropriate lyricism and warmth, but was simply too loud.
Then it was West Side Story, beloved, familiar music that will please just about everyone. The players dug in and excavated nearly every detail to be found in this stunningly inventive arrangement — even snapping fingers during the episodic prologue — and brought to life a score that projects high energy, lust, and youthful brilliance, even fifty-eight years after its premiere. This was a far cry from more conventional chamber music, but the audience loved it.
After intermission, the Brass Project offered a premiere, How to Fake Your Own Death, by Montreal composer Nicole Lizée. Overall, this 15-minute work is a kind of perpetuum mobile, with the players clapping and stomping feet when not playing their instruments. It’s an almost cinematic, psychedelic exercise in 60s retro satire. Any listener will need to hear it more than just once to figure it out further, but it’s a piece that’s definitely fun along the way, until a snare drum flourish apparently signals the successful faking of death.
The mood shifted drastically with an arrangement of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, best known in its more familiar choral incarnations. The players handled the change with aplomb and the work’s exquisitely sustained harmonics became the evening’s oasis.
The grand finale was Pictures at an Exhibition in a spectacularly ingenious arrangement by Elgar Howarth. The musicians at times scarcely sounded like brass players, thanks to an array of mutes as well as less regularly used instruments such as pocket trumpets and flugelhorns. Mussorgsky composed the work for piano solo and intended to orchestrate it. Maurice Ravel subsequently created an orchestral version that has remained popular, and some pianists, notably Vladimir Horowitz, have even rewritten the original keyboard score. For all its invention, the composition is first and foremost a showpiece and as such may be adapted for many forms and formats, with little risk of compromise. It proved a fitting vehicle for the Canadian National Brass Project and a thrilling climax for their debut performance. The audience’s stomping, standing ovation was closer to what one might expect at a rock concert than a chamber one.
Chamberfest’s two-week schedule continues its namesake tradition with an imposing roster of artists. On July 24, local performers included the brother-sister team of cellist Bryan Cheng and pianist Silvie Cheng in a noon program of sonatas by Francoeur, Franck, and Debussy. Trio Céleste, visiting from California, performed trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn as well as Paul Schoenfield’s 1987 Café Music, while violinist Augustin Dumay and pianist Jean-Claude Vanden Eynden presented sonatas by Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy, and Ravel’s Tzigane — all still on July 24. That day ended with a 10 p.m. appearance by Grammy-nominated jazz violinist Drew Jurecka, accompanied by pianist Mark Kieswetter and bassist Clark Johnston.
The festival continues with appearances by the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross (performance at Beechwood Cemetery), then later a program of Haydn quartets and a new work by rising Canadian composer Jordan Pal; violinist Alexandre DaCosta and a guest quartet presenting string arrangements of popular opera arias; cellist Yegor Dyachkov and pianist Jean Saulnier in works of Bach and Shostakovich; the Calidore String Quartet joined by pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who will also play solo works including Chopin mazurkas and Schumann’s epic Fantasy in C major; Quatuor Danel performing Beethoven, Weinberg, and Shostakovich; Nexus Percussion, joined by vocalist Sepideh Raissada; the Israeli Chamber Project presenting Schubert, Schumann, Bartók, and Khachaturian; the Danish String Quartet playing Beethoven, Schnittke, and Nielsen, then a separate program of contemporary work. Chamberfest 2015 will close with a joint performance by the California Guitar Trio and the Montreal Guitar Trio in traditional, jazz, and popular repertoire.
For gala events, the festival also presents the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, conducted by U.K. maestro Michael Francis. The Youth Orchestra’s performance is one of several from the festival’s Siskind Concert Series honoring the late Jacob Siskind (1928-2010), Canada’s preeminent music writer and critic, who bequeathed a substantial portion of his estate to the Ottawa International Chamber Festival.
Further details about the festival are available here.
Charles Pope Jr. is a Canadian arts reviewer and novelist. He is Ottawa correspondent for ConcertoNet.com.