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Concert Review

Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival


Music and Beyond, 2018

Ottawa, Various Venues, 4-16 July 2018

Ottawa chamber music summers have become quite famous and now attract throngs of music lovers to the shores of the Rideau River. This musical activity dates back to 1994 when Julian Armour, an Ottawa cellist, founded the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival soon to become a major summer event. By 2010 Armour started another festival, Music and Beyond, which was to present a wide range of concerts and events going "beyond traditional chamber music and trying to explore the links between classical music and other genres and art forms, such as the visual arts, theatre and dance".

The Music and Beyond Festival this year began on July 4 with a wonderful semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas. Based on Virgil's Aeneid the story is about Dido, the legendary queen of Carthage and Aeneas, the Trojan hero she loves and by whom she is later abandoned leading to her tragic death.

Wallis Gunta, an Ottawa native who now lives and works in Leipzig, Germany, sang the part of the tragic queen brilliantly. Her voice has mellowed over the years and is now praised internationally. This year she has been named "Young singer of the year" in the International Opera Awards. The opera also featured the talented counter-tenor Daniel Taylor as the Sorceress and conductor of his Theatre of Early Music Ensemble. Minor roles were well sung by Geoffrey Sirett as Aeneas and Larissa Koniuk as Belinda.

On July 5 Pablo Ziegler, the Argentinian-born former collaborator of Astor Piazzolla, now known as the maestro of Nuevo tango, gave a concert with Ottawa's Thirteen Strings. The variety of South American composers heard showed why the Grammy-award winning pianist/composer has been acknowledged as the artist who shaped the modern tango.

The enormously popular Gregory Charles performed a wide range of music from jazz to classical on July 9. An audience favourite from past years, Gregory Charles interactively played music for the years proposed to him by the audience.

On July 10 the Violins du Roy gave an all-Vivaldi concert called Vivaldissimo in Ottawa's Notre Dame Cathedral. The program featured five Vivaldi concerti, two sinfonias and a cello sonata.

One of the great joys of the festival was the music played on rare instruments. Most unusual was the theremin, an early electronic instrument developed by the Russian physicist Léon Theremin. On top of a small cabinet, two antennas are at work, a vertical controlling pitch, a round one the volume. The player uses hand gestures in the magnetic field to create the eery sound without touching the instrument.

In the 1950's the instrument became popular in science fiction films and was used to great effect for the sound of the invaders from space and the ethereal thrum of approaching flying saucers. Arthur Hitchcock made use of it very successfully in the film Spellbound (1945) and it was also a feature in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). On July 11 the Dutch theremin player Thorwald Jorgensen showed Ottawa audiences how such an instrument works in a concert called Air, Strings and Keys.

For me, the most interesting event was the July 12 concert by the German baritone Holger Falk and Steffen Schleiermacher on piano. The program featured songs of the relatively unknown German composer Hans Eisler (and Franz Schubert).  German lieder are not a common festival offering and it is, therefore, all the more interesting to hear them performed so well. Holgar Falk and his pianist were awarded the German Record Critic Award in 2017 and were nominated for the International Music Award in 2018.

Hans Eisler is not a household word in North America but in German music his role is similar to that of Berthold Brecht in German literature. The two men worked together for nearly thirty years. Eisler first studied with Arnold Schoenberg in the early 1920's but eventually rebelled at the new 12-tone music direction. In 1925 he therefore left Vienna for Berlin where he remained until Hitler's rise to power in 1933, making his greatest impact with his vocal music. His collaboration and friendship with Brecht began in 1930, lasted throughout their exile in Hollywood and later in East Germany until Brecht's death in 1956.

The third phase of Eisler's life, the California exile years (1940-48) ended quite suddenly when he was called up by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, blacklisted in Hollywood and, in 1948, deported to East Germany where he remained until his death, staunchly defending the working class. 

Eisler's songs have had their devotees. The earliest was the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Diskau and, more recently, Matthias Goerne. But after hearing Holger Falk in this recital we have discovered another Eisler specialist. In the first half of the program we heard three Eisler songs with lyrics by Brecht from the years leading up to the Nazi takeover. These were followed by six songs from the exile days in the USA, five from the Hollywood Elegien (1943) with Brecht lyrics and ending with a number from his final days in the DDR.

The Vienna Piano Trio with their excellent new violinist, David McCarrroll, brought us some real chamber music on July 14. They played Beethoven's Piano Trio in G major, opus 1 #2. Praised by Haydn, the three trios which form opus 1 were among Beethoven's most popular works during his lifetime. This was followed by Schumann's Piano Trio no.1 in D minor, opus 63. dedicated to his wife Clara.  Of great interest was the middle piece Fremde Szene by Wolfgang Rihm. The three essays for the piano trio no.1, of which the Trio played the first, have similarly become classics of the new chamber music since their premiere in the early 1980's.

On July 15 and 16 we heard John Rutter, one of the great choral composers and conductors of our time perform a variety of pieces sung by the Elmer Isler Singers, the Capital Chamber Choir, the Ottawa Children's Choir and Thirteen Strings. The most exciting part of the evening was the Canadian premier of Visions, a piece for solo violin, strings, harp and choir composed for the 2016 Menuhin competition in London and premiered by Kerson Leong, winner of the 2010 Junior Menuhin Prize. 

Beginning in early July and lasting for about two weeks, music was literally everywhere in Ottawa. When the magic dissolved I felt like Cinderella after the ball. But in 2019 the enchantment will return to the National Capital Region when Ottawa springs to life again to the sounds of chamber music . Come and hear for yourselves!

Copyright © 2018, Elizabeth Schotten Merklinger