Monday, 2 September 2013

'100 Masters' at the Winnipeg Art Gallery: A Retrospective

The 100 Masters exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery ended today. As a sort of commemoration of what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the city's cultural scene this summer, I've put together a collection of a few works that particularly stood out for me, both for aesthetic and emotional reasons. '

(These are only a handful of the more than one hundred pieces featured in the exhibition, so I'm sure other people will have favourites that are entirely different from mine. Anyone who happens to come across this blog is free to leave a comment including some of their own favourites.)

Bertram Brooker, Sounds Assembling (1928)
Sounds Assembling's dynamic use of colour and lines almost seems like sensory overload at first, but once one gets accustomed to the work's unique aesthetics, the oddly luxurious hues of Brooker's work are quite inspiring. They give Sounds Assembling a depth that may not be immediately apparent for such an abstract piece of art. 

Ocean Limited, Alex Colville (1962)
As technically the last work in the second-to-last gallery of the exhibit, Colville's work felt like an encapsulation of the emotions many of the artists in the previous galleries had worked to convey and capture. There are so many brilliant details in Ocean Limited that contribute to its sense of palpable tension, from the half-still, half-moving field of grain to the three-part structure, all of which are brought out further by the juxtaposition of words in the painting's name.

Robert Harris, The Local Stars (1888)
The Local Stars perfectly captures a moment in time both entirely specific and remarkably universal. Having been in several choirs, both professional and amateur, over the years, I could identify the specific parts (musical and archetypal) played by each figure in Harris' work. More than that, though, I loved The Local Stars for its gentle humour -- that title practically demands to be used for a Garrison Keillor short story -- and keen observational eye. Harris originally planned for the male soloist to be comically hunched over his choir book; that the painter chose in the end to go with a more nuanced but still humorous pose demonstrates Harris' affection for these characters.

Lucius O'Brien, Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880)
There were many outstanding depictions of landscapes among the works in the 100 Masters exhibit, but few affected me like Sunrise on the Saguenay did. The towering, mist-wreathed cliffs and beautiful reflection of sun on water are the focal points of O'Brien's landscape, but the way each object in Sunrise seems suffused with light is what makes the painting truly come alive.

Michiel Sweerts, Self-Portrait with Skull (ca. 1661)
Self-Portrait with Skull was the work most prominently featured in the WAG's promotion for 100 Masters, so one could presume that the original painting itself might have lost some of its emotional resonance in the process. This was not the case. How Sweerts uses shadow and light to bring out the tragicomic elements of his composition - there's a staged, self-conscious aspect to the painting, but also a very real melancholy present - gives Self-Portrait with Skull an enduring power. 

Monday, 26 August 2013

Best of Winnipeg Arts 2012-13 Season, Part Two: Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre

This is the second half of a look back at the best of Winnipeg’s 2012-13 arts season. The first post, which looked at the best classical music concerts in the city, can be read here.

As I noted in the first part of this series, Winnipeg is such a culturally-rich city that it's impossible to see everything - and, in rare cases, this doesn't apply to specific events, but to the kind of event you plan to go to. 

When I had the idea for these two posts back in January, I knew that one would probably be about  classical music, and I thought the other might be about theatre. It soon became clear, however, that I hadn't seen enough theatre, from enough companies, to make a comprehensive "best-of" list. I'd enjoyed the plays I'd seen at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, though, so I decided to create a retrospective of the plays at the RMTC's John Hirsch Mainstage and Tom Hendry Warehouse over the 2012-13 season. 

As this is a personal list looking at an individual theatre company, I've labeled each category as "Most Outstanding" instead of "Best". I've also put plays and musicals together under Most Outstanding Production, purely for convenience's sake. As well, Assassins and Ride the Cyclone: A Musical both had ensemble casts, so actors and actresses from those two plays have been included in the Supporting categories. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actress

5. Sarah Constible - Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Gone With the Wind) and Odysseus/Narcissa (The Penelopiad)
In Gone With the Wind, Sarah Constible fully embraced playwright Niki Landau's daring interpretation of notoriously flimsy Melanie Hamilton Wilkes and made her a fully-realized human being just as strong as her friend Scarlett. In The Penelopiad, Constible was one of the highlights of an all-female cast that took on male roles when required in Margaret Atwood's retelling of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. Her performance as Odysseus was both an illuminating take on the character, and, when in disguise during the archery competition to win the hand of Odysseus' wife Penelope, a welcome source of comic relief. 

4. Lora Brovold - Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway (A Few Good Men)
While Joanne Galloway was the lone female character in A Few Good Men's otherwise all-male cast, playwright Aaron Sorkin and actress Lora Brovold made it clear that Galloway was not simply present to provide an additional perspective on the play's events. Brovold's assured, intelligent and nuanced portrayal of Galloway made for one of the most captivating and memorable performances in what was an impressive start to RMTC's 2012-13 season. 

3. Rielle Braid - Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical) 
Of the six teenaged characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, blonde overachiever Ocean O'Connell Rosenberg may have felt the most familiar to audiences, and therefore perhaps the easiest, or most irresistible, to caricature. Rielle Braid and the musical's writers, Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond, certainly poked fun at the character's most Tracy Flick-like mannerisms (Ocean's solo number was an uptempo litany of her myriad accomplishments), and her interactions with The Amazing Karnack, the snarky fortune-telling machine that served as the musical's narrator, provided some of Ride the Cyclone's biggest laughs. However, Braid never lost sight of the genuine compassion just beneath Ocean's competitive outlook, which made the character's final decision as to the fates of her fellow choristers even more emotionally resonant. 

2. Kelly Sue Hudson - Constance Blackwood (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
If it's possible for musicals to have "breakout characters," I feel like Ride the Cyclone's would be Constance Blackwood, due largely in part to Kelly Sue Hudson's powerful performance. Constance, burdened with the title of "nicest girl in town", second fiddle to her supportive but driven friend Ocean, seemingly destined to stay in Uranium City for the rest of her life, was among Ride the Cyclone's most complex characters. Constance's number "Sugar Cloud", which showed off Hudson's incredible pipes, was a high point in a musical filled with memorable numbers and performances. Hudson greatly impressed me the first time I saw the musical with a theatre full of people in their 20s and 30s, but when I saw Ride the Cyclone again, this time with an older audience, I was able to further appreciate the subtlety and dignity Hudson brought to the imbued the role.

1. Miche Braden - Mammy (Gone With the Wind)
It's not every day that an actor or actress gets to do a previously one-dimensional character justice. Miche Braden's dignified, independent Mammy lived up to Niki Landau's thrillingly and refreshingly complex interpretation of the character. Mammy's opening scene with young Miss O'Hara set the tone for the character's powerful arc, and her speech prior to leaving Scarlett in Act III made more than one audience member's eyes fill with tears. Braden's performance may have been the most compelling indication of Gone With the Wind's success as an adaptation and as an individual piece of theatre. 

Most Outstanding Supporting Actor

5. Steve Ross - Charles Guiteau (Assassins)
Steve Ross' portrayal of Charles Guiteau, Andrew Garfield's killer, was one of Assassins' most satisfying performances. In a musical where dialogue mattered as much as lyrics, Guiteau's constant, aggressive declarations of his own importance were genuinely hilarious, even as they hinted at the troubled soul within. This approach culminated in the number depicting Guiteau's death, in which the fervently religious man sang "I Am Going to the Lordy" as every muscle and fibre in his body pulled him both toward and away from the steps leading up to the scaffold where his noose waited. 

4. Kholby Wardell - Noel Gruber (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
As with several other characters in Ride the Cyclone's cast, Noel Gruber - an artistic gay teenager who feels like an outcast in the society he lives in, here the rural wasteland of Uranium City, Saskatchewan - had many familiar characteristics, but these were traits that Kholby Wardell and the musical's writers took great pleasure in turning on their heads. His rousing cabaret-esque solo number, a fantasy about living as a prostitute named Monique in 19th-century France, brought down the house both nights, but Wardell also hit quieter notes that echoed Gruber's own development over the course of the musical. 

3. Elliott Loran - Ricky Potts (Ride the Cyclone: A Musical)
Ricky Potts was probably Ride the Cyclone's most ambitious character: a imaginative boy born with cystic fibrosis who, in the afterlife, is finally able to voice his dreams of being a "Space Age Bachelor Man." Ricky's gently self-deprecating nature was a pleasant surprise, and his love of comic books and video games appealed to the geeks in the audience; more than that, though, Loran masterfully conveyed Ricky's quiet realization that his newfound voice might not get to be heard by anyone in the land of the living. 

2. Graham Abbey - Sam Byck (Assassins)
Of all the assassins in Stephen Sondheim and John Weiden's musical, Sam Byck, played by Graham Abbey, was probably most representative of the darkly comedic mood which ran throughout the musical. Abbey's sarcastic rendition of "Tonight" from West Side Story was hysterically funny, as was his blubbering impersonation of Richard Nixon, the president Byck tried to assassinate by flying a plane into the White House. What made Abbey's performance truly stand out among a universally excellent ensemble cast, however, was his chilling speech about the distinctions we create between good and evil - and how these categories may be more fluid than one might want to admit. 

1. Paul Essiembre - Col. Nathan Jessep (A Few Good Men) and William Coles (Other People's Money)
Paul Essiembre's performance as the domineering, intimidating Col. Jessep in A Few Good Men alone would have earned him a place on this list. Essiembre's role as the more subdued middle manager William Coles in Other People's Money, however, demonstrated a impressive range that proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. Coles, arguably the 'hero' of Jerry Sterner's script - although, in the world of Other People's Money, there may be no explicit good or bad, only context - was, personality-wise, worlds away from Jessup, but both men were grounded in a sense that their actions were ultimately for the best. 

Head below the break for the Most Outstanding Lead Actresses, Lead Actors and Productions.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Recent Book Reviews

I've written two book reviews for the Winnipeg Free Press recently, and as with my previous reviews, I've collected them into a single post for ease of access. I'm actually rather proud of these two pieces; of the five reviews I've written so far this year, these are among my favorites.

One is a review of Vancouver playwright Mark Leiren-Young's memoir Free Magic Secrets Revealed. It's the tale of Leiren-Young's teenaged self in 1980 trying to impress a girl he has a crush on by creating a magic show with his friends. It's witty, compelling, and an ideal summer read. You can read my review here.

The other review is of American writer Stephen P. Kiernan's debut novel The Curiosity, about a man born in 1868 and frozen inside a glacier in the Arctic Ocean for more than a century. It's not particularly well-written, but the issues it explores are interesting and important in themselves. I expect a movie will be made of it in the near future. You can read my review here.

Here now are two short concerts, by artists I love, that I've found while browsing YouTube lately.

The first is a brilliant and energetic concert for by David Byrne and Annie Clark of St. Vincent from a tour supporting Love This Giant, the collaborative record they released last year (an album that ended up #2 on my best-albums-of-2012 list).

The second is a short but wonderful set by Eleanor Friedberger, frontwoman of the indie band The Fiery Furnaces. Friedberger released a solo album called Personal Record a month or so ago. It's a record full of summery, gorgeous pop songs, and has quickly become one of my favorite albums this year.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Best of Winnipeg Arts 2012-13 Season: Part One - Classical Music

This is the first half of a look back at the best of Winnipeg’s 2012-13 arts season, focusing on classical music concerts in the city. The second half will list the most outstanding plays and individual performances at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

This was an exceptional year for classical music in Winnipeg, with a blend of internationally-acclaimed artists and homegrown talent that, in my opinion, very few places in Canada can offer. Winnipeg is such a culturally-rich city that it’s impossible to see everything, but I still managed to attend quite a few concerts, the best of which are listed below.

Best Solo & Duo Concerts

4. Brian Yoon, cello (Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg, Nov. 25th 2012)
Yoon – one of Canada’s most promising young cellists – came to Winnipeg as winner of the 35th Eckhardt-Grammaté National Music Competition, and presented a collection of contemporary pieces performed with remarkable maturity and sensitivity. Of particular note was his mesmeric performance of Stigmata, a work by Vincent Ho, Composer-in-Residence to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, who was present at the concert. See my review here.

3. Chris Donnelly and Kornel Wolak, piano and clarinet (Women’s Musical Club, April 7th 2013)
One of the most enjoyable concerts I went to this year. The overall tone was buoyant and a little bit sly, but grounded in impeccable musicianship: take, for instance, the duo’s rendition of Allegro assai from Bach’s Violin Sonata No. 3 in C major with Wolak on clarinet and Donnelly on spoons. I also liked Donnelly’s solo piece Henry’s Song and Dance, about a real-life jazz club owner who booked Donnelly for a gig, went bankrupt and then disappeared.

2. Sonia Chan, piano (Virtuosi Concerts, March 2nd 2013)
I always look forward to solo piano concerts, but Chan’s performance was extraordinary, perhaps even near-transcendent at times. She took pieces already charged with emotion, such as Chopin’s Ballade no. 1 and Schubert’s Sonata in G major, and made them her own with passionate interpretations that spellbound all in attendance. See my review here.
1. Suzie LeBlanc and Daniel Taylor, soprano and countertenor (Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, May 14th 2013)
LeBlanc and Taylor are two of the most in-demand Canadian vocalists here and abroad, and the duo’s performances of arias, both alone and together, were stunning from the concert’s start. However, it was Taylor’s riveting interpretation of Barbaro traditor (Barbaric traitor), sung by the titular hero of Vivaldi’s Il Tamerlano, which brought the evening to an entirely new level. From then on, each performance raised the bar a little higher. LeBlanc gave a lovely rendition of the bright Qual candido fiore (What white flower) from Vivaldi’s Farnace, and was perfect as the despairing Padmina in Handel’s Magic Flute; Taylor showcased his versatility with the peaceful Ombra mai fu (A shade there never was) from Handel’s Serse. The two singers’ final piece was the tender love duet Se il cor ti perde (If my heart should lose you) from Handel’s Tolomeo, but after a fifteen-minute standing ovation, Taylor and LeBlanc sang a continuation of Handel’s aria, complete with a farewell kiss and tossing their bouquets to the audience. A truly magical evening.

Head below the break for the Best Trio, Quartet, Choral Ensemble and Orchestra Concerts.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Recent Book Review & Miscellany

Anyone who's stumbled across my blog over the past few weeks can see that I haven't been posting new content for a while now - my last post was over a month ago, and consisted of a March 24th concert review I had forgotten to put on here.

I've been writing a book review and working on a Best of Winnipeg Arts 2012-13 Season series of posts; the latter project has become particularly demanding. Not to mention that, after six months of winter, warm 20-degrees-Celsius-plus weather has finally arrived, and most days it's often far more appealing to spend time outdoors, especially when a torrential rainstorm could be right around the corner.

So, here are some things I wanted to get up on the blog, but haven't had the time:

I reviewed The Restoration Artist by Canadian writer and painter Lewis DeSoto for the Winnipeg Free Press. It's a novel with a compelling plot and is set in a very picturesque location - an island off the coast of Normandy. McNally Robinson Grant Park has almost an entire shelf of their New Fiction section dedicated to this book, so I'd say it's worth giving a look if you're interested in art, loss and memory. You can read my review online here. 

Online pop culture magazine PopMatters has begun a series of essays examining Liz Phair's landmark 1993 album Exile in Guyville, song-by-song, in commemoration of the record's 20th anniversary. The essays are being written by Joe Vallese, who was a primary contributors to PopMatters' superb Performer Spotlight on Tori Amos last year, and I'm extremely impressed by what he's written so far. Even if you're unfamiliar with Phair's music (or not a fan), these essays are worth reading for their intelligence and insight into the creative process. The first article in the series is here.

Also on PopMatters is a piece by Zach Schoenfeld that talks about Eleanor Friedberger's brilliant, heartbreaking song "Other Boys," off her fantastic new album Personal Record. Both the album and "Other Boys" are serious contenders for my best-music-of-2013 lists. You can read the article here.

Finally, jazz/world music collective Pink Martini has put the first teaser trailer for their upcoming album Get Happy, due to be released on Sept. 24th, online. I'm looking forward to the record - it seems as though it may be a return to form for the band, whose 2007 album Hey Eugene! was one of my best albums of the 2000s.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Live Review: Canzona - St. John Passion (March 24th 2013)

St. John Passion
Westminster United Church
March 24th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

Canzona’s 2012-13 season came to a satisfying close with a powerful performance of J. S. Bach’s St. John Passion at Westminster United Church. The Passion, an apt selection for a concert on Palm Sunday, featured an impressive cast of soloists alongside the MusikBarock Ensemble, all ably conducted by Canzona’s Artistic Director Henry Engbrecht.

The Passion depicts the events leading up to the death of Jesus Christ as narrated by an Evangelist, here portrayed by promising young tenor Jan van der Hooft. Baritones Mel Braun, Kris Kornelson and Stephen Haiko – as Jesus, Pontius Pilate and Simon Peter respectively – rounded out the main cast. While Bach’s work was written in German, the program included an extensive translation of the text, which greatly enhanced audience members’ appreciation of the piece.

Van der Hooft’s performance was the highlight of the evening; he conveyed intense and often harrowing emotions with near-perfect diction and impeccable tone.  Braun’s sonorous voice and authoritative presence made him well-suited to the role of Christ.

An ambitious undertaking, the concert featured many of Canzona’s members at their finest. Sarah Kirsch was captivating as a young believer with “I follow thee also,” her joyous soprano soaring to the rafters of Westminster Church. Kornelson was particularly strong as Pilate, his expansive and versatile rendition perfectly capturing the character’s constant emotional dilemmas. Alto Kirsten Schellenberg’s voice was gorgeously-shaded and heavy with feeling as she echoed Christ’s final words, “It is accomplished.”
Marni Enns had perhaps the most poignant aria of the night; over delicate flute and oboe, she imbued a proclamation of Christ’s death, “Dissolve then, heart, in floods of tears,” with exquisite and heartbreaking sorrow. The MusikBarock Ensemble, featuring some of the finest chamber musicians in the city, provided masterful support for the vocalists.

The audience was invited to participate in the performance during two sections of the work. Coached before the concert by Engbrecht, those present were able to display their vocal skills and express the words of the Passion in its original language. The joined voices of the chorus and a remarkably capable congregation resonated throughout the venue and allowed one to connect with Bach’s masterpiece on a more intimate and personal level.

Live Review: Shanghai Quartet (April 6th 2013)

Shanghai Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
April 6th 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

There are few better ways to end a season of a chamber music concert series than with a captivating performance by the Shanghai Quartet. The internationally-renowned string ensemble’s recital capped off Virtuosi Concerts’ 2012-13 season and also marked the Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary since its formation in 1983. The series’ Artistic Director Harry Strub noted that Virtuosi had spent the past ten years in a process to get the ensemble to perform in Winnipeg, making the evening feel even more celebratory. The Quartet – Weigang Lei and Yi-Wen Jiang on violin, Honggang Li on viola, and Nicholas Tsavaras on cello – thrilled a packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall with a display of flawless musicianship paired with a delightful sense of humour.

The Quartet opened with Haydn’s jubilant Quartet No. 53 in D major, Op. 64, No. 5, a piece frequently referred to as “The Lark Quartet” for its light and easygoing nature. Opening movement Allegro moderato’s smooth, effortless harmonies immediately won over the audience, with the sweet and golden-hued tones of Adagio cantabile and Menuetto allegretto only further enchanting listeners. Lei’s versatile violin and Tzavaras’ sonorous cello were particularly impressive in the passionate Finale vivace, where the four performers’ strokes and plucks created a thrilling mosaic.

Shostakovich’s dramatic Quartet No. 6 in G major, Op. 101 further confirmed the Quartet’s musical gifts in a more emotionally-varied piece. Li showed great sensitivity during the subdued, waltz-like Moderato con moto, and the ensemble’s skillful navigation of Lento – Allegretto’s hairpin shifts in mood and tempo was superb.

Dvorák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105 tied together a subtle theme of the evening – namely, a journey through several centuries of violin music, from ‘grandfather’ Haydn to his modern successors. Adagio ma non troppo – Allegreo appassionato featured Jiang’s deft, expressive bow work as well as gorgeous pizzicato by Tzavaras. The romantic Lento e molto cantabile was also a highlight, a change in pace prior to the demanding and energetic Allegro ma non troppo, which grew in intensity before culminating in one final, triumphant flourish.

It seemed as if the Quartet had finished for the evening, but after a sustained standing ovation and plenty of cheers from a smitten audience, the ensemble returned to the stage to express their appreciation with a truly special encore: an arrangement by Jiang of a Chinese folk song about a shepherd searching for his lost love. The wistful and highly evocative piece, inspired by the vast steppes of China’s northern provinces, was more than one could ask for.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Live Review: Reiner Trio (March 30th 2013)

Reiner Trio
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
March 30th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

On Saturday night, the Montreal-based Reiner Trio – violinist Laurence Kayaleh, cellist Elizabeth Dolin and pianist Paul Stewart – gave Virtuosi Concerts patrons the opportunity to hear some rarely-heard pieces, all by Slavic composers. The evening was just what the doctor ordered for a seemingly interminable winter in which the trio’s performances, so full of energy and life, were enthusiastically welcomed by the Winnipeg audience.

Stewart introduced Rachmaninoff’s Trio elegiaque No. 1 in G minor, a dramatic and emotional start to what would prove to be an immensely satisfying program, with a nod to the work’s elusive origins – the piece was written in the last decade of the 19th century and went virtually unnoticed until 1947, when its first edition was finally published.

Needless to say, it was a thrill to hear. Kayaleh and Dolin’s urgent strings played both with and against Stewart’s versatile piano, which navigated the piece’s countless twists and turns with flair and ease. Each artist alone seemed to be an organic extension of their instrument; together, the musicians’ chemistry was magical.    

The intelligently-structured program gave each artist the chance to showcase their abilities both individually and within the context of a trio. Stewart and Dolin came together on Chopin’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65, which the composers collaborated on with, and dedicated the piece to, cellist Auguste Franchomme. The opening Allegro moderato established a dialogue between the two instruments, Stewart’s nimble piano lines rising to meet Dolin’s dulcet cello tones as the two began an exquisitely-composed courtship. Scherzo – allegro con brio, which incorporated elements of a mazurka – a nod to Chopin’s Polish heritage – featured beautifully complex and full-bodied work from Dolin, who captured the uniquely modern style and spirit of the movement.

Largo, a love duet between two instruments, was romantic and delightful; Stewart’s melodious piano played the part of a shy gentleman resolved to win the heart of the headstrong woman embodied by Dolin’s cello, a quest fulfilled in the movement’s final, gorgeous, faded notes. No sooner had the audience caught their breath than the duo surged forward into the lively Finale – Allegro, in which dazzling bow-work and richly-hued piano built toward a triumphant and ovation-worthy finish.

Kayaleh joined Stewart for an exceptional rendition of Dvorák’s Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 75. These “four little jewels,” as the violinist described them in an introduction, demonstrated Kayaleh’s impressive range and intuitive command of her instrument. She made the agile and powerful rhythms of Allegro maestoso come alive, mesmerized the audience during the extraordinary Allegro appassionato a movement that concluded with a dazzling display of pizzicato – and, over Stewart’s fluid piano, brought the intricate melancholy of Larghetto to a place of pure emotion.

The trio came together once more for Anton Arensky’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 32. Stewart noted that the Russian composer wrote the piece two years after his pupil Rachmaninoff’s death and dedicated it to the memory of cellist Karl Davydov. Arensky’s work fittingly contained a breadth of moods and textures representative of a lifetime. Scherzo – Allegro molto featured a ‘music box’ texture, a light, playful feel and brisk tempo, whereas Elegia – Adagio, an elegy for Davydov, was mournful and touching. All this led to the energetic Finale – Allegro non troppo, where violin and cello sang together as the three players raced forward to the piece’s – and the evening’s – stunning close. Regrettably, no encore was offered.  

Update 14/06/13: You can listen to CBC Radio 2's recording of this concert here.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #4 - #1

4. Frank Ocean, Channel Orange 
Don't let its smooth aesthetic fool you: Channel Orange is an incredibly complex record, both a highly personal chronicle and a series of vignettes about a disparate group of individuals in Southern California. Ocean has made a wholly satisfying work that rewards repeat listens, if only for songs like "Sweet Life" and "Thinkin Bout You" that feel timeless and current at once without really trying.
3. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil
Theatre is Evil could be seen as one of the year's most important, and most notable, albums for the way Palmer's raising $1.2 million dollars via Kickstarter to fund the record kindled a fervent discussion about the future of the music industry and the meaning of artistry in general. But such a title wouldn’t mean a thing if she didn’t have the songs to back it up. Running the gamut from the blissful pop of "Melody Dean" and "Want It Back" to the intimacy of "Trout Heart Replica" and "The Bed Song", Theatre is Evil is so unabashedly emotional that it's a wonder it doesn't burst open at the seams. Palmer and her Grant Theft Orchestra compatriots Michael McQuilkin, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff create a album full of thrilling twists and turns anchored by impeccable musicianship. If there ever was a 'feel-everything' record, it's this one.
2. David Byrne & St. Vincent, Love This Giant
The first thing one notices about Love This Giant is how unpretentious and fun it sounds. The second thing one notices is how intricate and intellectual its lyrics and arrangements are. The album takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem of the same name, and the album resonates with many of Whitman’s themes – the power of nature, the complexity of relationships, and the constant presence of humanity. Byrne and Clark walk a delicate tightrope between accessible and avant-garde, and while the care they put into Love This Giant alongside the sheer joy of collaborating may not be wholly apparent at first, the more one listens to the record, the more one takes away from it, and the more one falls in love.
1. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Idler Wheel sounds like nothing else I listened to this year - and, at the risk of making a broad statement - nothing else I've ever heard, from the hiss of steam pipes that propels “Jonathan” to the incisive metaphors of "Werewolf" and the delirious bliss of album closer "Hot Knife." Apple has created a singular and visceral work of genius that drags the listener into its emotionally uncompromising world, making one feel as if they're witnessing the act of the album's creation every time they press repeat.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Live Review: Sonia Chan (March 2nd 2013)

Sonia Chan
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
March 2nd 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

It’s always a treat to hear the pure sound of the piano unaccompanied by strings or woodwinds. On March 2nd, Canadian pianist Sonia Chan reminded an enraptured audience at the Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall of her instrument’s potent ability. With a style at once polished and genuine, Chan took emotional pieces and made them her own.

The evening began with Bach-Busoni’s Wachet auf, ruft unds die Stimme, BWV645, which began quietly and then blossomed into a more lively middle section filled with dazzling high register runs and leaps from one octave to another. Chan’s passionate interpretation and technical virtuosity were immediately apparent. After the last notes of the Bach-Busoni, Chan leapt uninterrupted into Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat major, Hob. XVI:51, which featured spellbinding passages in the Allegro before settling into a more contemplative mood with the melodic Adagio and finishing off with a nimble and delightful Finale – Presto.

Her next selections, Chopin’s first two Impromptus – No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 and No. 2 in F-sharp major, Op. 36, were a joy to hear. Chan’s love for the Polish composer showed in the way she made the pieces’ dark, powerful melodies her own. Chan then treated the audience to a fiery performance of Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, a selection added to the program in place of the final two Impromptus.

Chan noted after the concert that her inclusion of the Ballade was a personal choice inspired by ‘stormy’ feelings and the piece’s defiant, courageous tone. The change made the evening feel like an intensely personal and intimate encounter, a conversation between artist, composer and audience.

This relationship was strengthened during Schubert’s Sonata in G major, Op. 78, D.894. The exquisite Molto moderate e cantabile felt like poetry in motion with its smooth, lyrical passages interspersed with delicate waltzes. Andante was heartfelt and dynamic; Chan pulled off fiery cadenzas and feather-light interludes with style, a deftness that carried over into the showstopping Menuetto – Allegro moderato, bringing joy and sorrow together in a heady combination, and the spellbinding Allegretto as finale.
The audience rewarded Chan with a sustained standing ovation and many rapturous calls for an encore. In gratitude, she offered the gorgeous Von fremden Ländern und Menschen -"Of Foreign Lands and Peoples"- from Schumann's Kinderszenen. The gentle lullaby served as both a contrast to the dramatic Schubert and a wonderful end to a spectacular concert.

Update 08/05/13: You can listen to CBC Radio 2's recording of this amazing concert here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Recent Book and Music Reviews

I've had several book and concert reviews published in print and on the web in the last few weeks. I figured that it would be best to link to all of them in a single post for ease of access.

I reviewed Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe by Budapest-based American writer M. Henderson Ellis for the Winnipeg Free Press. Keeping Bedlam at Bay is currently a featured book at McNally Robinson Grant Park and displayed alongside some literary heavy hitters (Richard Ford, for instance).You can read my review online here.

I also reviewed Wise Men by Stuart Nadler, an up-and-coming U.S. literary talent, for the Free Press. Despite its placid cover, the book is a great read and recommended for anyone interested in '60s and '70s America and the tumultuous events that were occuring at the time. You can read my review online here.

Image from

I was delighted and incredibly honoured to learn that my review of the closing night of this year's New Music Festival has been added to the websites of Composer-in-Residence for the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Vincent Ho, and legendary Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie.

Ho and Glennie collaborated on a highly emotional piece, "From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey," that premiered during the concert. The work, inspired by a friend of Ho's recent battle with cancer, was one of the most moving and powerful pieces I've ever heard.  The Festival as a whole this year was spectacular, and I'm already looking forward to next year.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Saturday Spotlight: Slow Club

As seems to be the case with many of my favorite artists, I came across Slow Club entirely by accident. Slow Club, an English indie folk-rock duo comprised of Rebecca Taylor and Charles Watson, has been compared to Fleetwood Mac and The White Stripes - the latter comparison has emerged from the fact that Taylor frequently plays drums and Watson frequently plays guitar. (They're not romantically involved, as far as I know, which seems to add to their chemistry rather than detract from it.)

In spring of last year, I was watching a live performance by British band The Clientele on the YouTube channel Bandstand Busking and, once the video was over, clicked on one of the links on the side. It led to this video from the same series, a performance of Slow Club's song "It Doesn't Have To Be Beautiful."

Recorded in 2009, the video led me to seek out the band's debut record, Yeah So, released that same year. I really enjoyed the album; everything that I'd liked about the video I watched - the duo's energy, their catchy melodies and lyrics that were charming but not overly sentimental - Yeah So had in spades. My first impressions of the band were reaffirmed as soon as I heard the album's opening track, the wonderful "When I Go."

Slow Club also put out a Christmas EP in 2009 called Christmas, Thanks for Nothing. Despite its pessimistic title, the record featured some festive covers and excellent originals, the best of which was the lovely "Christmas TV."

I then checked out the group's second album Paradise, released only the year before, and what had been a minor infatuation became a serious crush. Slow Club seemed to have grown by leaps and bounds within the short span of two years. "Where I'm Waking" in particular paired one of the best lyrical come-ons in recent memory - "I can see you looking at me / You've got the brains, I've got the body" with an infectious chorus and joyous instrumentation.

If I had come across the band earlier, Paradise would have been a definite contender for my top 10 records of 2011. I felt like Paradise transcended Slow Club's 'indie folk-rock' label with its incorporation of many unusual sonic elements, the burst of saxophone halfway through "Hackney Marsh" and the handclaps and electronic beats in "You, Earth or Ash" among them.

It appears that Taylor and Watson are in the process of recording a new album, and I can honestly say it's one of my most anticipated releases of 2013. How I came across Slow Club is a testament, I think, to the important role the internet plays in discovering bands and musicians one probably wouldn't have come across any other way.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #5

5. Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas

Few artists had more to prove this year than did Leonard Cohen. Old Ideas comes after a three-year world tour during which Cohen's songs became as popular as ever and "Hallelujah" grew to be the de rigeur song for everything from awards shows to funerals. When a new album was announced, it seemed a great deal more people were interested than there would have been four or five years ago.
Old Ideas takes all this into consideration while deftly dodging the label of "victory lap record" that seems inevitable for someone of Cohen's age. Wry, moving and at times unexpectedly funny, it's a record that reaffirms Cohen's brilliance as a songwriter while standing as a great record in its own right. 

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Live Review: New Music Festival (February 2nd 2013)

New Music Festival
Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
Centennial Concert Hall
February 2nd 2013
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The 2013 New Music Festival, honouring minimalist composer Steve Reich, ended on a triumphant note with a concert of passionate, transformative music reaffirming the importance and vitality of life.

The evening began with the world premiere of Vincent Ho’s From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey, a piece written for legendary Scottish percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie. The unveiling of From Darkness to Light marked the second time the Composer-in-Residence for the WSO and Glennie have collaborated on a world premiere of his work, and expectations were accordingly high. Ho, Glennie and the WSO, conducted masterfully by Alexander Micklethwaite, did not disappoint.

Ho was inspired to write the highly emotional piece after the death of his friend, artist Luc Leestemaker. During his introduction Saturday night, Ho noted that several months after Leestemaker’s death from cancer, the composer and his wife welcomed a baby daughter into the world, and this movement from death to birth, from sadness to hope, mirrored the work’s emotional arc.

From Darkness to Light began quietly and calmly with gentle lead-in by Glennie, who, surrounded by a variety of drums and other percussion instruments, created a focal point on the stage. Her drums and xylophones softly and steadily grew in intensity and tempo until a moment where, amid the orchestra’s persistent rustling of sheet music and high string notes, Glennie let out a single anguished cry of “No!”

Ho’s technique brilliantly evoked the moment when a cancer patient first learns of their diagnosis and finds themselves unable to accept their condition. Glennie and the orchestra then leapt into a visceral, dramatic section, mesmerizing the audience with their impassioned and dynamic playing.

As the piece came towards its conclusion, paintings by Leestemaker began to appear on a screen at the back of the stage, accompanied by the hopeful and stirring voices of cellos and violins. Glennie stepped forward to a marimba and, bathed in a silvery glow, began to play her own meditative composition, “A Little Prayer.”

As she paused to let the last few vibrations of the instrument dissolve, it seemed as if the entire packed concert hall was engaged in one single, potent moment of silence shared with her.

The New Music Festival audience rewarded the artists with a sustained and heartfelt standing ovation as many listeners fought back tears, overwhelmed by the powerful emotions of the piece.

Coming after the unqualified success of Ho’s work, it seemed almost impossible that Reich’s The Desert Music, performed in collaboration with The Winnipeg Singers, could have half the same impact – and yet the piece, inspired by the American poet William Carlos Williams, was equally as riveting and emotionally intense.

A group of string players, forming a half-circle around Micklethwaite’s podium, began the composition with a comforting, folk-influenced motif. The Winnipeg Singers soon joined in, delivering excerpts from Williams’ poetry in beautiful and crystal-clear tones; the recurring statement “man must change or perish” gave the choir’s melodies a dark, even chilling undercurrent.

Despite having been written in the 1980s, Reich’s work felt deeply moving and remarkably prescient. The WSO’s choice to perform this particular piece proved a fitting and timely reflection on humanity’s most acute dilemmas in the 21st century. Their masterful rendition of the piece met with the approval of its composer, who came up on stage to receive enthusiastic accolades from the audience.
As the closing piece of the concert series, The Desert Music was a brilliant reminder of the relevant, challenging and inspirational role the festival plays in the artistic life of our city.

Live Review: Magellan Ensemble (January 5th 2013)

Magellan Ensemble
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
January 5th 2013
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

January 5th saw Virtuosi Concerts present to its audience the much-anticipated Magellan Ensemble. The Montreal-based quartet – Olivier Thouin on violin, Yukari Cousineau on viola, Yegor Dyachkov on cello and Jean Saulnier on piano – brought a singular level of intensity and passion to the Eckhardt-Grammate Hall.

Schubert’s Allegro from the String Trio in B-flat major, D. 471, performed by Thouin, Cousineau and Dyachkov, provided a light and wonderful prelude to the works presented by the full quartet; it immediately demonstrated the strings’ deft touch and remarkable synchronization.

Saulnier joined his colleagues for Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 3 in C minor, Op. 60, a four-movement work inspired in part by the composer’s unrequited love for Clara Schumann. The Allegro non troppo began with a mournful swell of strings backed by a constant atonal backdrop of the piano before it swept the audience away in its sheer passion and intensity and ending on a quiet, desolate note. Scherzo – Allegro was romantic and insistent, with sparkling piano riffs by Saulnier and intricate work by Cousineau. The following Andante had each player demonstrating their individual skill before coming together in a divine blend of moods and textures accented by gentle pizzicato.

The spell cast over the audience continued into the Finale – Allegro comodo, where one could hear a pin drop as a series of rounds quietly rose and fell then broke into a frenzied rhythm. Saulnier’s flowing piano work urged his fellow players on towards the piece’s triumphant final notes, after which the audience rewarded the quartet with the first sustained ovation of the night.

Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, Op. 45 took an already memorable event to a new level. Where Brahms’ piece had worked in contrasts, Faure’s piece developed a single musical idea over the course of its four movements. Allegro molto moderato opened with fiery piano chords before settling into a more romantic middle section accentuated by brief tense flashes of viola. Allegro molto demonstrated Saulnier’s masterful technique, navigating a series of high register scales with ease. Allegro non troppo was quieter and even more beautiful; Saulnier’s piano, backed by lush strings, brought to mind the church bells of a faraway village. The movement concluded with gentle fingerwork that led into the powerful opening notes of the Allegro molto, in which the quartet, led on by Thouin’s violin, grew in intensity and speed before a dazzling, fiery round of pizzicato brought the piece to a close and the audience to their feet. Unfortunately, despite the standing ovation, no encore was offered. One more piece, no matter how short, would have made an already marvelous program even more satisfying.

Dyachkov’s enlightening comments during the performance enriched the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the program. The concert was recorded by CBC Radio 2 to be broadcast as part of their classical music offering. Virtuosi Concerts has once again succeeded in bringing to their patrons a truly superb degree of artistry.

Update 14/06/13: You can listen to CBC Radio 2's recording of this concert here.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Live Review: Brian Yoon (November 25th 2012)

Brian Yoon
Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Art Gallery
November 25th 2012

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch
On Sunday, Nov. 25th, the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg presented a recital by cellist Brian Yoon, winner of the 35th annual Eckhardt-Grammaté National Music Competition. Yoon, accompanied by Eliza Ching on piano, introduced the audience at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium to a dramatic collection of contemporary pieces as part of a 2012 E-Gré sponsored national tour.

The afternoon began with String Theory by John Burge, the work specially composed for this year’s Competition. From its hypnotic initial notes onwards, the piece demonstrated Yoon’s outstanding musical skills. The long, sustained strokes of the opening bars gave way to the stirring tremolos and glissandos of the middle section, with Yoon and Ching both impressing the audience with their masterful finale. Ching in particular handled a demanding piano pizzicato interlude with aplomb, and the superb quality of the duo’s first selection set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

Yoon introduced the next piece, Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 143 by Francis Poulenc, as particularly notable for its wide emotional and technical range. The work, comprised of four movements – “Tempo di Marcia,” “Cavatine,” “Ballabile,” and “Finale” – featured lively, playful and romantic tones coupled with a highly rhythmic and invigorating structure. Poulenc’s gorgeously shaded piece, highlighting Yoon and Ching’s perfect synchronicity, ended with a single lighthearted pluck of Yoon’s cello strings.

The following selection, Prayer and Dance of Praise by Elizabeth Raum – written for the 1997 E-Gré Music Competition – lent a satisfying sense of continuity to the concert’s program. The piece, imbued with a sense of longing and deep spirituality, drew its inspiration from Middle Eastern folk melodies that the composer heard as a child at her Syrian grandmother’s family gatherings. Prayer and Dance of Praise featured an impressive array of dynamics, allowing Yoon and Ching to shine as they both deftly navigated the piece’s rapid changes in tempo and tone.

The most anticipated work of the event was perhaps Stigmata by Vincent Ho, Composer-in-Residence to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, who was also present at the concert. Commenting on the selection, Yoon noted that mastering the work, performed without accompaniment, has made him a more confident and mature player.
Charged with a sense of loneliness and anguish, the work was originally written for cellist Jakub Omsky after tragic events in the lives of both the dedicatee and the composer. Stigmata juxtaposed expressive strokes that sounded remarkably like a human voice with periods of frenetic, evocative fingerwork and concluded with a prayer-like section featuring gentle harmonic tremolos. The audience was spellbound.

The last piece of the program, “…and dark time flowed by her like a river…” by Gary Kulesha, inspired by a novel by Thomas Wolfe, featured the best piano work of the afternoon. Ching provided both a roiling undercurrent to Yoon’s darkly rhapsodic tones and exquisite solos of her own. Piano and cello seemed to race each other to the final exhilarating notes of the concert, earning a standing ovation from the enraptured audience.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Live Review: Kyung and Michael Kim (December 9th 2012)

Baroque and Beyond: The Evolution of Romanticism
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
December 9th 2012

On December 9th, Virtuosi Concerts welcomed pianists Kyung and Michael Kim to their stage. Together with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players, the couple treated audience members to a charming ‘potpourri’ of romantic music. Michael Kim served as emcee, and his thoughtful comments on each of the offerings proved to be entertaining and educational, particularly for the many young concert patrons in attendance.

Virtuosi Artistic Director Harry Strub introduced the event, noting that the performance was taking place during the holiday season, and the event had an ambiance appropriately filled with festive cheer. Many of the chosen pieces by Schumann, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn seemed inspired by hopefulness and love.

The afternoon began with Kyung Kim’s solo rendition of Haydn’s Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI/20, a lively piece that set the tone for the remainder of the concert. The Chamber Players then joined Michael Kim on stage to perform Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard and Strings in F minor, which featured a gorgeous pizzicato interlude from the WSO violins. The Chamber Players accompanied the Kims throughout the concert, and their rendition of the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concert No. 1 in E. minor, Op. 11 with Michael Kim was particularly outstanding.

Both pianists were able to demonstrate their unique talents during the program. Kyung Kim offered a pure and flawless interpretation of a selection from Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words: Op. 19, No. 1 in E major. Michael Kim’s solo performance of Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto was similarly superb.

As a finale, the Kims performed Rossini’s Overture to Barber of Seville, with four hands, on the piano. The piece, well-known from the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit of Seville, was a crowd-pleaser, and made for a joyous finale to a lovely afternoon of music imbued with humour, happiness and romance.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Live Review: Canzona (October 28th 2012)

Concert I – Zelenka and Bach
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church
October 28th 2012
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

On October 28th, Winnipeg’s Canzona treated an audience at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church to an evening of warmth, light, and wonderful music. Accompanied by the MusikBarock Ensemble under the baton of Eric Lussier, the choral ensemble performed Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa votiva ZWV 18 and Bach’s Cantata BWV 80 Ein feste Burg, or A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Crescent Fort Rouge United, with its intimate setting, served as a refuge from the cold October weather and was the perfect venue for this performance.

The evening began with Zelenka’s Missa votiva. Zelenka, a seventeenth-century Czech composer, wrote the piece as a form of gratitude to God after recovering from a lengthy and near-lethal illness. The music, “offered as a special intention," felt accordingly charged with energy and devotion. The piece was comprised of five parts, with the Kyrie and Gloria opening the concert and the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei performed after intermission. 

The first half of the Missa featured several solo performances, with soprano Marni Enns’ lovely, shaded take on “Qui tollis peccata mundi” and bass Paul Wiens’ subtle rendition of “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” as highlights. A “Kyrie eleison” quartet, comprised of alto Kim Brown, tenor Doug Pankratz, bass Kris Kornelson and soprano Sara Clefstad – who shone in her debut as a soloist with the ensemble – provided a further showcase of Canzona’s vocal abilities. The Gloria felt lively and spirited, with the vivacious melodies of “Gratias agimus” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo” bringing to mind the folk dances of Zelenka’s homeland.

The Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei sections of Zelenka’s work captivated the audience with a feeling of spiritual depth and sincerity. Soprano Zohreh Gervais expressed the devotional nature of the Sanctus with her beautiful interpretation of “Benedictus."

While dividing Zelenka’s work into two sections may have seemed unusual, the choice was a wise one, allowing for a stunning ending to the concert. The Credo in particular was exuberant and energetic, with its last words, “Et vita ventum saeculi,” rising to the rafters in a thrilling crescendo of intricate harmonies and passionate bow-work.

Bach’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the second selection of the program, found the ensemble taking full advantage of the unique atmosphere of the venue. Soprano Sarah Kirsch impressed in her aria “Komm in meines Herzenshaus," while, in a personal and thoughtful touch, the listeners were invited to sing along with the chorus during “Und wenn die welt voll Teufel wär." Coached by Eric Lussier prior to the performance, the surprisingly adept and boisterous audience did a fantastic job, lending a festive ambiance to the concert.

The evening was an artistically superb and emotionally resonant event. Speaking after the concert, Artistic Director Henry Engbrecht commented that the Missa votiva’s power reflected Zelenka’s sheer joy at being alive and able to continue his artistic vocation. The vitality of the ensemble’s performance was a perfect fit for the composer’s intention.

It’s a shame that Canzona has only one other performance this concert season, but if this evening is any indication, it will be another highlight of Winnipeg’s classical music scene.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Live Review: New Orford String Quartet (October 13th 2012)

 Photo by Alain Lefort.
New Orford String Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
October 13th 2012
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch
On October 13th, Virtuosi Concerts was delighted to present the New Orford String Quartet, a Canadian ensemble comprised of Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan on violin, Eric Nowlin on viola and Brian Manker on cello. The New Orford takes its name from the legendary Orford String Quartet, a chamber music institution that grew to be an integral part of Canada’s musical community over its twenty-six-year career. Since its debut three years ago, the New Orford String Quartet has been the recipient of critical acclaim and rave reviews across the world.
The evening began with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 20, a piece whose diverse array of moods and textures proved a fitting introduction to the Quartet’s musical dexterity. The Allegro di Molto was lively and captivating, while the Un poco Adagio Affettuoso, featuring Wan’s violin, sounded melancholy and smooth as silk. The vibrant Allegretto alla zingarese – “in gypsy style” – gave Manker’s cello a chance to shine with dazzling bow work. Presto scherzando – “light and playful” – was wonderfully dramatic, with its frequent shifts in tempo masterfully executed by the four musicians.
The program continued with String Quartet No. 1, Op. 19 by Quebecois composer Jacques Hétu, one of the most esteemed figures in modern Canadian classical music. Nowlin introduced the work, noting that it was originally written for the Orford String Quartet, setting high expectations for the piece. The Allegro, built around a canon, showcased the Quartet’s fluidity as the movement’s central melody was passed seamlessly from one player to the next. The Andante started out as smooth and lyrical, but soon built to a furious climax that left one breathless. The stunning third movement, the Vivace, was a truly thrilling demonstration of both the Quartet’s skill and Hétu’s compositional ingenuity; introduced as a scherzo, it featured ponticello, a technique involving playing close to the bridge, which creates an icy, glassy sound in the process. The concluding Allegro brought together the themes in the form of a fugue, ending with one sustained and spellbinding note. 

In the last piece of the program, Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51,  Crow took the lead, steering the Quartet through a multi-textured, shaded Allegro and the soothing Allegretto, which, with its simple, repetitive motif, brought to mind the lullabies Brahms is most famous for. The piece featured a more assertive cello part than those written by Haydn and Hétu, allowing for the use of some unexpected percussive effects. Manker took full advantage of the lovely, sweet Romanze poco adagio, where his strumming of the cello provided enchanting baroque-style flourishes. Following a standing ovation, the Quartet returned to the stage for a spirited rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op.59.

Those in the packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall seemed especially taken by the truly imaginative, fresh sound of the Quartet. In particular, the artists’ choice of repertoire and their use of many inventive techniques were major contributions to their captivating performance. Speaking after the concert, Nowlin noted that the quartet actively seeks to ensure that each piece “exists in its own sonic space." The ensemble’s contemporary sound is accomplished in part by the artists’ “restrained use of traditional long strokes and vibrato," an approach seen most clearly in their classical selections. The Virtuosi audience appeared to have enthusiastically approved of these stylistic choices. New Orford’s powerful and intricate sound makes one feel that the Quartet’s musical predecessors would have been equally as delighted and impressed.