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music reviews by

Nancy Snipper


Arion Baroque Orchestra was founded in 1981. It is the only early music orchestra performing on period instruments in Quebec. The clarity and freshness of Arion’s interpretations have been remarked upon since its first concerts; the delicacy of its readings of well-chosen and varied works has never wavered. Constant attention to detail has earned the orchestra, led by the enlightened artistic vision of flutist Claire Guimond, a place among the most renowned early music ensembles in North America and throughout the world.



Arion Opens Its 2012 Season with Genius Violinist

Violinist, Stefano Montanari performs with such passion and flamboyance that elation fills your soul. With finesse and flare he brought joy to every Baroque composition he performed (October 13th) inside Bourgie Hall. So many times, this large space seemed to transform into a divine spot of rapturous intimacy.

Arion was outstanding in timing and expressiveness. Now in its 32nd year, Arion showed off the brilliant unified talent of its 17 members -- performing with supreme polish and zeal in this concert.

The program fittingly titled Hidden Treasures of Italy, featured the violin concerto works of these lesser known but brilliant Baroque composers: Lidari, Sirmen, Nardini, Razetti and Montanari (most composing in the 18th century). Collectively, each composition offered movements that sparkled with liveliness, softened slowly into sweetness and dazzled prestissimo. Mr. Montanari’s sensitivity to the music incorporated his entire body. He moved at almost every nuance, even stomped his feet to mark strident beginnings and accents. His grace, warmth and enviable command of the violin shouted confidence. His performance freed baroque music; he played it as the composers intended the music to be: vigorous, exuberant, sensual and sorrowful. During the fast movements, he made us want to get up and dance. In fact he seemed to dance around the stage in his own little spot at various times. I loved those boots that he put to good use to do some of that nimble foot and leg work. Nothing compared to his bowing!

The violin became an extension of his body. He spilled over with musicality. No one was aware of technique; and that is how a performance should be. But make no mistake, his virtuosity enables him to highlight every little nuance, every trill, every diminuendo and crescendo. His speed was exciting. Arion and this awesome musician connected so closely and with such spirited playing that smiles often broke out on everyone’s face as they were all performing. It was a festive, remarkable concert that made me want to dig deep into the lives of these composers, many whom have been overshadowed by their mentors, Vivaldi and Corelli. It also made me want Arion and Mr. Montanari play their encore over and over again -- a Chaconne by Vivaldi. Such heartfelt playing was sublime beyond words.


A Journey of Musical Joy Performed with Mastery

Inside the beautiful Bourgie Hall the audience traveled back in time as music from the 17th and 18th centuries focused on the lively compositions performed in Spain and Italy. The spirited music celebrated the festivities and pleasures of the people. This music highlighted the pursuit of daytime and nocturnal entertainment to stimulate imagination and levity in an often difficult political climate. The program’s title, Commedia dell’art, captured the liveliness and intricate musical compositions of these times. Composers featured were Boccherine, Heinichen, Vivaldi and Pergolesi.

The string ensemble seemed to grow as horns, oboes and flutes and bassoon were added to various concertos during the evening. Indeed, Arion created a rich musical tapestry, and the centrepiece of the entire evening was the star Russian violinist Dmitry Sinkovsky. His astounding dexterity and expressiveness were augmented with his rapid-fire ascensions, turns, double stringing and pianissimos performed on his centuries-old violin. No part of the instrument lay dormant during this wondrous evening of musical elation. We were even treated to string strumming, held in his hand like a guitar. In fact, the other four players joined him, even the two cellists (including the featured guest cellist – more to come on that) during the first Boccerhini concerto, “la Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid.”

A charismatic virtuoso who vividly applied his remarkable technique and passion to the Vivaldi concertos, Sinkovsky was replacing Elizabeth Wallfisch who became ill. He did a remarkable job, despite some rushing, making tempo a tad uneven. Still, his force and obvious genius made his solos during the concertos so exciting.

In contrast to Sinkovsky’s vitality and flamboyance was the great and subtle anchoring of the guest conductor of the ensemble, the world-renown cellist Jaap ter Linden. A pioneer of early music, Linden has virtually brought baroque music into every part of the world. He was not only principal cellist of Musica Antigua Koln, but has been the leading ensemble conductor for over a dozen world class period orchestras from Japan to New York. His calm playing displayed a confidence that needed no bravura. The Arion baroque orchestra recently released a double CD of Bach’s Saint John’s Passion which I am listening to as I am writing this. It does not disappoint.


Music Most Stimulating at Zimmerman Coffee House Concert

If only we had been present to sip coffee at Leipzig’s legendary Zimmerman Coffee House back in 1702 when the Collegium Musicum’s musical talents may well have been the topic of conversation. Founded by Philipp Telemann, this musical club of bright university talented students (Telemann was studying law there) endured long after the great Baroque composer left the city three years later, but his group swelled to 40 members. In 1729, Bach became the Collegium’s director and he remained with these students until 1741 (with intermittent gaps).

One can imagine these keen young musicians together with their beloved maestro Bach sitting inside Gottfried Zimmerman’s café, staying long after they performed there. Creating more buzz, bubbling with enthusiasm, they would discuss their concert over multiple cups of coffee that greatly heightened their banter and senses though the music had stopped –- for a moment, anyway. In fact, the Zimmerman Coffee House was the hub for the artistic community rich and poor alike. Even Bach himself drew inspiration there, pouring his own gifts into this remarkable place: his famous ‘Coffee Cantata BWV211’ attests to the musical zest at Zimmerman’s.

Rachel PodgerThis exciting ambiance was recreated at Arion’s stellar concert program brought to life inside the Bourgie Hall. At the centre of the ensemble was featured guest artist, the remarkable Rachel Podger, a supremely engaging violinist of international acclaim. Having toured Europe and the USA, Ms. Podger holds a series of illustrious positions along with several prestigious awards for her Bach recordings. She presently teaches at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, holding the Jane Hodge Foundation International Chair in Baroque Violin, and is Visiting Professor of Baroque Violin and Fellow of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama -- to mention only a few of her professional European posts. Her new ensemble, Brecon Baroque along with the newly created Michaela Comberti Chair for Baroque Violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London, amply demonstrates the dynamic energy of this zealous violinist.

The music performed during this concert has been called table music; when played in the early eighteenth, it was composed with a specific purpose -- to conjure up images of a gathering of friend sampling the pastries and coffees inside a coffee house, or it could involve guests enjoying a lovely meal at a host’s house. Then again, the image of offerings presented at a banquet appeared in the mind upon listening to the ornate beauty of certain pieces.

The music we were treated to during this rich concert vividly displayed the prodigious vitality of Ms. Podger who so engagingly led the 13 other Arion musicians, all of whom but two were women. This feminine flavouring evoked the setting at Zimmerman’s once again, as it was one of the few places which allowed women entry and access to a table. During the concert, Arion’s musicians performed standing up except the harpsichordist and two cellists. No matter what they played, pristine beauty to the ear and eye greeted us during each of the four selections.

The composers featured two works by Telemann and two by Bach. The first piece by Telemann (Concerto in A Major, TWV53:A2) transported us to an outdoor grand picnic -- at least in my mind. The Baroque flute together with the violin (Rachel Podger) answered each other, and then joined each other in perfect phrasing, creating delicious spritely harmonies. At times the flute part -- effortlessly played by Arion’s own artistic director, Claire Guimond, conjured up a bird flittering and twittering around the violin which responded in kind. The trio was completed with cellist Kate Haynes, who was seated between them, playing lower melody lines that balanced out the fun. Let’s not forget, this was a concerto: the rest of the strings provided appropriate fullness when the trio took moments of respite. I felt I was sitting in a lush expansive meadow under tall trees of stunning foliage, enjoying my edible feast in the company of little colourful birds who perhaps wanted to steal some of my goodies. There was such playfulness in this final Allegro movement; as lively as it was equally tender was the Gratioso (third movement). Likewise, the third selection -- in another concerto (F Major TWV:53:F1) by Telemann featured a supremely sparkling composition for three violins. Each phrase was entered with punch in precision timing. Could it get any better than this? The two Bach concertos were outstanding. I particularly favoured the famous E Major Concerto (BWV 1042). The gentleness of the Adagio (second movement) contrasted to the magnificent and final Allegro Assai that left no room for anyone to ingest too much of a good thing.

Indeed, the four compositions for the evening left one feeling completely fulfilled; all was right with the world. The only thing missing was the opportunity to have a coffee at Zimmerman’s, though coffee along with little cookies (compliments from another café) were freely served during intermission. What a savoury concert!


Gaudin Delivers Diva Passion in Handel Arias

Karina Gauvin performed eleven moving arias from several of Handel's operas in the final concert of Arion's season of outstanding Baroque music. This particular concert featured the Karina Gauvinfemale as formidable heroine (Zenobia) and long suffering victim (Alcina). Love has been lost -- replaced by the solitude of ageing and angst. The drama of betrayal, losing your lover and your looks shone most brilliantly when Gauvin assumed the role of Alcina, a strong woman abandoned by her lover, Ruggiero. We were treated to three excerpts from that opera which garnered great applause.

Gauvin's energy, dramatic power, rich voice and virtuoso mastery of perfect pitch encompass a wide range of soprano demands; her polished accomplishments of range, richness and raw emotion seem to defy the impossible. What amazes us about her is her dedication to character development as an emotive challenge regardless of the fact she is always singing alone -- not a prop, person or costume to aid her. Although there was no other singer with her, the pristine backing of Arion's fine ensemble of masterful musicians obviously contributed to her vocal warmth, musicality and desire to throw herself into each character she portrayed. Indeed, one must point out the impeccable direction of Alexander Weimann whose harpsichord playing matched the rapidity of Gauvin's lengthy vocal runs. This harmonious pairing of quartet and opera singer was pure joy. He magically steered the orchestra and Gauvin into feats of excellence.

It is interesting to note that Handel had found his vocal muse in Maria Strada del Po whom he recruited to sing a debut London performance of his new opera, Lotario. Interestingly, about this December concert (1729), Handel's neighbour and admirer, a certain Mrs. Pendarves commented: "Strada's voice is without exception fine, her manner perfection, but her person is very bad and she makes frightful mouths." One can only say about Karina Gauvin that every postion she made with her mouth regardless of appearance brought forth the sounds of immeasurable greatness. One must conclude that the angst, anguish, and anger of Handel's women resonate into the present day. This great composer coupled with Gauvin was definitely on the side of the firey female. But her fate may mean facing life alone.


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