In The Stillness Of June, A Festival’s Bright Trio Serves Up Intimate Fare

Pianist Stewart Goodyear, cellist Bryan Cheng, and violinist Kerson Leong performed Dvořák’s Piano Trio Op. 90 (‘Dumky’) at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival. (Photos by Luc Lauzière)

MONTREAL — Denis Brott, cellist, professor at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, and artistic director of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, has been carrying coals to Newcastle for many years. After inaugurating the festival here in 1995 as an event in September before the concert season started in earnest, he settled eventually on the fallow period of June, using mostly 463-seat Bourgie Hall, the central renovated church that functions, for most of the year, as the very active principal chamber venue of the city.

Of course, finding the calendar sweet spot is not enough. Brott has shown considerable aptitude for organizing programs of interest to Montrealers who have had their fill of concerts. He succeeded June 8 by bringing together three stellar young (or in one case, youngish) Canadians who had never performed together before.

The evening began with a solo set by Stewart Goodyear, 45, the Toronto pianist who has made a name for himself by not only recording Beethoven’s 32 Sonatas but also playing them in a single day. His selection on this occasion was Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight), an interesting case of a work that is so well known it is not often heard in concert.

Violinist Kerson Leong and cellist Bryan Cheng played Zoltán Kodály’s Duo, Op. 7.

Goodyear brought plenty of agitation to the finale, where a little more lingering on those fortissimo fermatas might not have been amiss. Beethoven was wise to give his listeners a few chances to catch their breath. In any case, the highlight was the famous Adagio sostenuto first movement, which Goodyear took relatively quickly, drawing fresh attention to the songful legato lines that follow the signature dotted rhythm.

A busy composer himself, Goodyear preceded the Beethoven with his own Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, a virtuoso diptych touched by Ravel in the first part and high-energy jazz in the second. Here was a case of essentially tonal music that rarely permitted a consonant chord to enter the debate. The effect was exhausting.

After Goodyear, we heard violinist Kerson Leong and cellist Bryan Cheng, both 26, address themselves to Zoltán Kodály’s Duo, Op. 7, a three-movement, 26-minute tour de force that delivers more creative musical detail and pure passion than many string quartets. The players were perfectly aligned in the warm, big-hearted sound they produced and their expert negotiation of Kodály’s many deployments of pizzicato. Rumbles from the cello and high-position cries from the violin at the beginning of the Adagio were characteristic of both the high degree of invention the composer brought to this 1914 score and the panache of the performance.

The players wore matching black and gray outfits. One respect in which they differed was in the music on the stand: Cheng used a tablet with a foot-operated page-turning switch, while Leong opted for old-fashioned sheet music.

Violinist Kerson Leong, pianist Stewart Goodyear, and cellist Bryan Cheng taking bows after a performance of Dvořák’s Piano Trio Op. 90 (Dumky)

After intermission, Goodyear joined the two string players in Dvořák’s Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 90 (Dumky), a six-movement compendium of merry and melancholy folkish tunes that leaves the listener walking out of the hall with several whistling options. Touches of rubato from all three musicians nicely fit the expressive needs of the music. As in the Kodály, projection was robust. My only reservation concerned a Steinway that sounded bright in the treble range even in quiet passages.

Among those present was the philanthropist Roger Dubois, president of the Canimex industrial firm, who pursues an admirable sideline in collecting valuable instruments and lending them to deserving Canadian musicians. Leong plays the c. 1729 “ex Bohrer, Baumgartner” Guarneri del Gesu. Cheng uses the 1699 “Dubois” Stradivarius. Brott himself has a nice loaner from the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank, a 1706 cello by the German-born Roman maker David Tecchler.

The festival continues to June 18. Notable among this year’s offerings was a farewell-to-Canada concert by the Emerson String Quartet, which on June 6 played quintets with Brott (Schubert) and pianist Jan Lisiecki (Dvořák’s Op. 81). The penultimate program June 17 features the Isidore Quartet, winners of the 2022 Banff International String Quartet Competition, in Haydn (Op. 20, No. 2), Dinuk Wijeratne (The Disappearance of Lisa Gherardini), and Franck (Piano Quintet, with Philip Chiu).