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.

Best Trio & Quartet Concerts

4. Magellan Ensemble, strings and piano (Virtuosi, January 5th 2013)
This Montreal-based ensemble’s performance was the perfect start to the second half of Virtuosi’s season. Their rendition of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in G minor, with its blend of atmospheric piano and fiery bow-work, was marvelous. See my review here.

3. Reiner Trio, strings and piano (Virtuosi, October 13th 2013)
A wonderful evening, with a program devoted entirely to the works of Slavic composers. Pianist Paul Stewart and cellist Elizabeth Dolin’s performance of Chopin’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano was full of life and character, and violinist Laurence Kayaleh dazzled the audience during Dvorák’s Four Romantic Pieces for Violin and Piano. The perfect cure for an interminable winter. See my review here.

2. New Orford String Quartet, strings (Virtuosi, March 30th 2013)
The New Orford Quartet’s cohesion, fluidity, and musical dexterity made for one of the most rewarding concerts of the 2012-13 season. Jacques Hétu’s String Quartet No. 1 was particularly impressive: a piece full of twists and turns the four musicians navigated with aplomb. See my review here.

1. Shanghai Quartet, strings (Virtuosi, April 6th 2013)
The Shanghai Quartet’s appearance in Winnipeg was ten years in the making, and this concert was a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. A phenomenal way to end Virtuosi’s season, complete with a beautiful arrangement by violinist Yi-Wen Jiang of a Chinese folk song about a shepherd searching for his lost love. See my review here.

Best Choral Ensemble & Orchestra Concerts

5. Symphonie fantastique (Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, March 15th 2013)
While the centrepiece of this concert’s program was a mesmerizing and magnificent performance of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a work inspired by Berlioz’s burning passion for a woman he never actually met, the evening’s two other pieces were equally as remarkable. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin was sinewy and assured, and Associate Concertmaster Karl Stobbe was spellbinding as the featured soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concert No. 1 in D major.

4. Elijah (Winnipeg Philharmonic Choir, February 24th 2013)
The Winnipeg Philharmonic ended their 90th anniversary season with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Elijah, an oratorio inspired by the life of the titular Biblical prophet. Elijah featured an all-star cast of soloists led by baritone Gregory Dahl as Elijah, with soprano Tracy Dahl, tenor Kurt Lehmann and alto Kirsten Schellenberg in supporting roles, as well as accompaniment from members of the WSO. Mendelssohn’s dramatic narrative, combined with the incredible talent of all involved, made for a truly spectacular event.

3. Manitoba Chamber Orchestra & The Winnipeg Singers 40th Anniversary Concert (MCO & TWS, February 6th 2013)

Two of Winnipeg’s oldest classical music groups came together to celebrate their joint 40th anniversary, and the result was an evening full of unforgettable performances. The evening’s theme allowed for a remarkable variety of pieces, including three completely different settings of the Latin mass – Vivaldi’s Credo, Arvo Pärt’s Berliner Messe and Winnipeg composer Glenn Buhr’s Ritchot Mass – and a showstopping performance of Thomas Tallis’ Spem in alium. Buhr’s Mass was particularly impressive for its ending, in which the chorus ran their fingers around the rims of toned water goblets to emulate the music of the spheres.

2. Canzona – Zelenka and Bach (Canzona, October 28th 2012)
Choral ensemble Canzona presented two works at the opening concert of their season: Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa votiva and Bach’s A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Zelenka’s piece, “offered as a special intention,” was charged with energy and devotion, and it was fantastic to hear the work of such a rarely-heard composer. Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, with its cozy interior, was the perfect venue for this uplifting and intimate performance. Any concert that includes a singalong is a winner in my books. See my review here.

1. 2013 New Music Festival Closing Concert (WSO, February 2nd 2013)
The closing night of this year’s New Music Festival – which honoured composer Steve Reich – began with From Darkness to Light: A Spiritual Journey, a piece written by WSO Composer-in-Residence Vincent Ho in collaboration with legendary percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and inspired by the loss of one of Ho’s friends to cancer. From Darkness to Light was a truly singular and wholly transcendental masterpiece, daring in its instrumentation and uncompromising in its raw emotional resonance. Reich’s The Desert Music never quite reached the same heights From Darkness to Light did (and I’m not sure if any piece coming after Ho’s work could), but was the perfect end to a festival, and evening, that amply demonstrated the power of contemporary music. See my review here.

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