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Vol. 12, No. 2, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
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Nancy Snipper
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music reviews by

Nancy Snipper




Denis Brott, the great cellist and founder of the festival which is now in its eighteenth year knows how to make the music we love a beloved mainstay feature of Montreal’s cultural life that includes many prestigious and internationally recognized concert events. His remarkable team, which not surprisingly includes great doers, such as renowned classical guitarist Davis Joachim – now the administrator for the festival - guarantees the best in chamber music.

Performing the great masters are artists of exceptional acclaim – including Mr. Brott himself and master cellist Colin Carr. Pianists Jean Phillippe Collard and Oliver Jones are only a few of the many artists taking part in this grand festival which features such stellar ensembles as The Emerson Quartet, The Boston Chamber Music Society, The Swingle Singers, the Cecilia String Quartet, The Fine Arts Quartet and many more remarkable ensembles. Jazz and classical styles fill the program which includes Bach’s entire Brandenberg Concertos! A number of period instruments -- one valued in the millions -- will be played by the winners of the 2012 Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank These musicians are sure to wow you as they bring Bach’s complete violin concertos to your ears.

Enjoy the sound and the beauty of these century-old works of incomparably crafted instrumental art. The Montreal Chamber Music Festival is a rare treasure whose gifts sparkle and delight. It comes around only once a year, so be sure to attend. The festival runs from May 9 to June 1. For programming information and reservations, go to:



These amazing guitarists -- Odair and Sergio Assad -- gave us the classiest and most colourful cross-cultural sound tour of South America. Their pieces joyously resonated far beyond Latino borders. We heard the subtle yet highly intricate duo guitar playing of the Assad Brothers - two guitar gods whose brilliance brought us the lovely sounds of Brazil, Cuba and more. We gushed over their Argentine pieces, stepped to the beat of “Afro” – an original composition composed by Señor D’Rivera, and when they performed their own composition that combined their dual heritage (Lebanese and Brazilian), we traveled into rhythms, sounds and keys weaving a melody of exotic excellence. Their Astor Piazzolla sent cries of joy from the audience, but the cries of ecstasy hit an even higher pitch after they performed Aaron Copeland’s Hoedown.

We were in the company of musicians who know no limits to their creativity and technical wizardry. Paquito joined them after the first two guitar songs were played. This Cuban legend plays clarinet with such ease, beauty and confidence. He’s been doing it since he was a kid; his dad was a clarinettist. The sounds he can make from his clarinet are truly amazing. His roaring rapid runs are thrilling to hear. What speed. He totally engaged us with his humour, telling us that the sheet music on his stand was for show only, “To impress as I can’t read music.” He said it with clever Cuban wit and sincerity. What a joker.

Hombre. Can he ever warm up an audience. He joked about so many things, and when he played the clarinet, he even made funny faces while playing. He was stand-up clarinet comedian. We couldn’t stop laughing. He talked about not remembering pieces, but as long as he and the Assads started on time and ended in time -- on the right note, all was fine. Let me tell you, the man’s humour matches the humility of his musician partners. They laughed along and had to do a lot of finger/guitar licking stuff to go along with Paquito’s improvisational playing.

Paquito clearly loves the stage and the people watching him. He got us to sing “salt peanuts” when the phrases ended to his Dizzy Gillespie piece. I have never heard the clarinet played that way; likewise the Assad Brothers were mesmerizing. Each could alternate from lead to rhythm in a nanosecond. The dexterity of their playing is dauntless. They can do anything on their guitars; the most complex of passages were polished off with great skill, and their timing is second to none. They were always in sync.

They have collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Gidon Kremer and Dawn Upshaw. In February of 2011 Odair performed his first solo guitar concert tour in North America. Sérgio Assad composed the concerto, Phases, which the duo premiered with the Seattle Symphony. His composition, Interchange received a nomination for a Latin Grammy in the Best Classical Category. This astounding piece was written for the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and the Delaware Symphony, Likewise, his Maracaipe, written for the Beijing Guitar Duo, also garnered a Latin Grammy nomination.

This May 31st concert was a premiere performance; it was the first time all three artists played together in Montreal -- sharing the stage in front of a Montreal crowd who eagerly and quickly snapped up their CDs. They were sold out within five minutes -- long before the intermission ended.



Last night’s exhilarating concert (May 29th) featured the music of these great French composers: Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Collectively, the flavour was impressionistic as the music created a myriad of moods and images that transported us into a realm of ethereal beauty and fiery flare. Indeed, the remarkable artistry of the concert’s stellar performers revealed the genius of these iconic composers.

Jean-Philippe Collard who performed in each of the program’s four works exemplified this excellence. An extraordinary pianist with over 30 recordings to his credit, he is not only © www.interscena.comrenowned for his interpretation of composers from the French school -- as we heard in this concert -- but he is equally at ease when playing Mozart, Beethoven, Bartók, Brahms, Liszt, even Gershwin. Having garnered several prestigious awards, including the Grand Prix du Concours National des Artistes Soloistes, and the Prix Gabriel Fauré, he was named Chevalier de la Légion d’ honneur in 2003. In 2011, he was on the jury for the Montreal International Musical Competition. In short, he belongs in the pantheon of the world’s great pianists.

It was a privilege to hear him play as he joined other astonishing artists of international acclaim. The performers were: world-renown cellist -- not to mention -- Montreal’s favourite one, Denis Brott (who is also the Founder and Artistic Director of the festival); virtuoso violinist, Giora Schmidt who studied with the likes of Pinkas Zukerman and Itzak Perlman. He also taught as Mr. Perlman’s assistant at the Julliard School of Music; and finally in this rostrum of VIPs was violist, Marcus Thompson whose performances of the viola concertos by John Harbison and Penderecki garnered international acclaim. He has played with the world’s greatest orchestras and chamber music ensembles, including the Muir, Orion, Shanghai, Cleveland and Emerson Quartets.

The program opened with Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor (1915). The pairing of Mr. Collard with Mr. Brott created a harmonious match that was spellbinding. Together, they sonorously conveyed both the sadness and anguish in this work. After all, Debussy was suffering from cancer, and WW I was rapidly escalating. Hence, one could hear the tempest raging within both the composer and in the world at large.

In the music, there are sharp-edged belligerent bursts of agitation, dramatic defiance, as well as gentleness and haunting heart-wrenching passages that suggest glimmers of peace, even resignation. All these moods were stunningly expressed in masterful playing that flawlessly surpassed all rigorous challenges. Rapid tempo and tonal changes, rhythmic twists in atonal lines and a multitude of expressive variations ranging from ever-growing fury to soothing beauty demanded great emotional depth on the part of both performers -- along with supreme technical assiduity. There were explosive pizzicatos, plaintiff legatos and rapid staccatos, often framed within syncopated passages accented with impeccable timing. Mr. Collard’s playing created a kaleidoscope of colours that ingeniously added textured balance to the cello’s seemingly spontaneous statements. Debussy’s surmounting desperation was revealed as instrumental solidity and sensitivity converged. Mr. Brott’s passion was so impressive; it never wavered whether applying long bowing, or snapping the strings with his fingers -- as he did to open the second movement’s Sérénade. A host of tonal sounds, and varying themes -- including a macabre-like dance captivated my interest in this exciting part. I also heard similarities to Debussy’s piano piece, “Jumbo’s Lullaby” from the Children’s Corner collection. The Finale, joined to the Sérénade, alternated between fluid and agitated passages. What a phenomenal piece. These artists were emotionally attuned to the composer they were playing. What feeling!

This sonata deviates from Debussy’s usual evocation of beguiling images steeped in lyrically pleasing melodies that delight and enchant. I appreciated hearing this unique work; it showed a darker side of Debussy who died less than three years after writing this complex piece.

Next on the program was Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano (first performed in 1927). Mr. Collard and Giora Schmidt redirected the mood away from the dark intensity of the preceding Debussy piece. Both artists clearly articulated violin and piano parts that sometimes soloed on their own and then suddenly joined together. Technical agility and nuanced sophistication was showcased; timing was essential. Mr. Schmidt left us spellbound with his great passion. He put his whole body into his playing. The variety of plucking and bowing applications, including fast string quivering effects, and a slew of tonal changes -- for both instrumentalists -- was exhilarating -- both to the eye and ear!

There were several rapid key changes between the piano and violin that seemed to intentionally clash and compete with each other in distinct ways. In one part, the violin seemed to just fly away on its own, leaving the piano in its wake. In all the work exemplified Ravel’s thoughts about these instruments which he believed to be incongruous partners. In writing about this sonata, he said he wanted to focus on “these two instruments’ irreconcilability through their independence” -- to create music that highlighted their differences. “I assumed the task of not trying to bring their differences into equilibrium but the opposite.” Ironically, by polarizing them, a rich interweaving effect was created that was not without atonal passages.

Jazz and blues rhythms and melody lines changed the musical flavour in the second movement’s Blues: Moderato. It alluded to the blues scene sweeping through Parisian clubs in the l920’s which Ravel often frequented. It really was entertaining and current in sound. I loved the syncopated moments.

The last movement was sheer virtuosity. Only a gifted violinist of great technical prowess could handle the faster-than-lightning speed that led to a dazzling conclusion. Wow!

This excitement continued in Ravel’s Tzigane. It conjured up a world of gypsies,such was the performance vivacity and magnificent musicality communicated by Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Collard. There I was in Hungary laughing and hearing stories from these gypsies. The music’s many colours, rhythms and textures awakened gypsy feelings in me. A frenetic festive dance ended the piece in the movement fittingly titled, Perpetuum mobile. What a showstopper! Only a virtuosic violinist with a gypsy soul could pull this off with dazzling panache, exuberance and believability; and Mr. Schmidt did it in spades. He put so much passion into his playing that at several points, some of his bow strings broke. He would tear them off. This, along with his fierce and furious plucking of the strings, led to a cut on his finger, yet never did the music suffer. I was sitting in the second aisle of pews, so I saw it all. One can truly say he gave his blood to the piece.

Finally, the concluding Quartet #1 in C Minor for Piano and Strings by Fauré was lush and rich in sound variety with fluid legato introducing the melody in the first part. Each instrument took up the minor key one at a time but responded in harmony. This alternated with the strings playing in unison. It was elegant and created a feeling of anticipation -- apt for this Allegro molto moderato. For me, it created a visual dialogue of aqueous images of undulating water, sometimes swelling high -- as the music reached a crescendo -- and at other times, rippling in quiet tranquility.

The Scherzo: Allegro vivo followed. It featured lots of ornamentation of the piano and turns that Mr. Collard polished off with expressive ease. The movements had pockets of playfulness. We knew we were in for a treat right from the start when the finger plucking on the strings captured everyone’s attention.

By far, the most beautiful music of the evening took place in the Adagio that followed the lively Scherzo. Utterly sad, it was pure sorrow. A poignant sentimentality with nuances of nostalgia kept building in intensity. The strings sang out as the piano mellifluously and vulnerably enhanced the emotion. As the piece neared the end with all emotions spent, the gradual dying hush of the strings left me weeping.

The Finale had Mr. Collard scuttling all over the keys so rapidly and lightly; his dexterity musically demonstrated that the hand is indeed faster than the eye. Formidable chords contrasted to the general playfulness and capriciousness that the music suggested. The ending was ravishing as the quartet loudly picked up the momentum that took us to the finishing line in a breathless state. Bravo!


The SWINGLE SINGERS -- Sure to Dazzle with Celebratory Concert

It’s this unique singing group’s 50th anniversary, so the mood must have been festive, during their May 18th concert. According to the program, the concert featured the old Swingle Singersand new of great composers and entertainers with only an intermission to divide the two distinct time line periods – first the classical jazzed up, followed by contemporary/pop. Therefore, the first half of the concert presented pieces by Bach, Vivaldi, Corelli, Donizetti, Saint-Saëns, even Manuel de Falla and more. The second half of the concert was dedicated to contemporary singer/songwriters: Lennon, Beyonce, Mumford & Sons, Astor Piazolla, but Debussy and Bach popped up with Poor Wayfaring Stranger, a traditional song, and the ethereal and eternally beautiful Clair de Lune by Debussy. These two numbers, along with several more, have been arranged by the Swingle Singers. They are renowned for their delivery of these arrangements. Their harmonious voices always leave an indelible impression on the listener, as they did when I attended their concert in London several years ago.

Every expression of vocals is utilized to replicate, for the most part, an entire orchestral piece. It’s amazing the myriad of sounds, pitches, and types of notes the vocal instrument can produce, especially when it comes from the mouths of the Swingle Singers.

The 50th Anniversary Celebration May 18th concert took place at 8:00pm inside Église St.George, corner of Peel and de la Gauchetière Streets in Montreal. For all festival concerts, email: or call (514) 489-7444.


SAINT-SAËNS-RENAISSANCE MAN PART: Part II -- A concert of singular greatness

Frequently, there’s one segment of a concert or spectacle where an audience breaks out into coughs or yawns; it’s just the way it goes. But in the case of this wondrous chamber music festival, such indications of boredom never happen. Here’s why: Denis Brott and his festival confrères (the likes of which include the brilliant guitarist and uber- administrator, Davis Joachim) have assembled world class musicians in a call to perform highly complex music composed by the world’s greatest musical minds in this internationally acclaimed festival. Of course, let’s not forget there is plenty of live jazz offered as well – on Fridays.

Last night, the audience was treated to the incomparable playing of the Fine Arts Quartet whose gifted musicality and technical expertise ably took on works by Saint-Saëns - not an easy feat for those with a passionate heart because this composer created music described by Mr. Brott as embodying "mind over heart."

© Third Coast Daily

He, along with Richard Turp and Sabina Teller, provided an invaluable context during an illuminating pre-concert talk. It helped the audience understand this composer who defied the trends of the time, bucking romanticism and staying the course, composing in the traditional French classical style where the confines of tried and true structure superseded emotional intent. Indeed, he was cerebral in his approach to music, making form and symmetry the object of his imagination. Yet because of the remarkable sensitivities exerted passionately by the Fine Arts Quartet, even some of the more melodic moments - such as in the Septet’s in E-flat major’s opening bars of the Intermède where viola and cello plaintively reply to one another in a heart wrenching theme – we had the impression that we were listening to Beethoven at his most reflective

Of course, the consummate playing of pianist Cristina Ortiz enhanced several passages of drama where solid striking of the keys and her powerful chords mixed with fast harsh bowing of the Quartet created exciting sforzandos. The point is although Saint-Saëns did compose within the confines of conservative structures, opting to reject Debussy and Impressionistic composition, this man did have a heart and every so often it reaches wild heights of emotion that we could palpably feel in the compositions performed during this May 16th concert. From the get-go, the composer’s String Quartet #2 in G major, Opus 153, ushered in images of leaves rustling in the wind in a green forest full of divergent paths. The music was light and airy, meandering and gentle. Yet the final Allegretto con moto along with other parts in the four previous movements offered moments of unbridled passion whose unexpected outbreaks were dashing in effect.

One must say that this composer did let his emotions fly at the tail end of several of his final movements we heard this evening, such as in the Allegro of the Piano Quartet in B-flat Major, Opus 41. Piano and strings created such a rapid collision of excitement I instantly felt that Saint-Saëns was a man bursting to let go but only when he knew nothing more was going to be follow. He was a man who - like all of us - was not without contradictions and they do manifest themselves in his music – a moment of melodic quietness and then a sudden turn into atonal © Trumpet Guilddissonance and fury. Bravo to the members of the Fine Arts Quartet whose impeccable phrasing, timing and unbeatable interpretation of each piece vividly expressed all the miniscule and big moments of musical nuances residing in Saint-Saëns creative imagination.

The second performance of the evening titled, Fantasy in E-flat Major was composed for trumpet and piano. Paul Merkelo’s shiny silver trumpet playing offered clarity and a multitude of various articulations that made me think his embouchure is omnipotent, such was the delight he brought to the Fantasy.

Pianist, Qiao Yi Miao Mu – a student of the great André Laplante was utterly impressive. How nice it was to hear the ease at which both pianists for the evening - Ms. Miao Mu and Ms. Ortiz - displayed superb playing, with Ms. Ortiz well renown around the world, and the very young Ms. Miao Mu on her meteoric rise. Music knows no age boundaries when in the hands of such consummate performers.

Finally, I would like to mention all the evenings’ artists, for like Saint-Saëns, their names belong in the category of ‘musical genius.’ The Fine Arts Quartet members are: violinists, Ralph Evans and Efim Boico (who have been playing together for 35 years); violist, Juan-Miguel Hernandez; cellist, Robert Cohen with bassist Ali Yazanfar joining the quartet for the Septet in E-flat Major. Pianists, Qiao Yi Miao Mu and Cristina Ortiz are singular forces of phenomenal brilliance.


A STUNNING SHOWCASE OF RARE TALENT (May 15th at Église St. George).

What a delight. It isn’t often three young people take to the piano and produce miraculous sounds, performing some of the most difficult pieces ever written in the ninetieth century.

Let’s start with 14-year-old Annie Zhou who lives in Toronto. Her masterful playing of Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, opus 54 not only produced prodigious display of virtuosic talent and technique, but it was utterly inspiring to note the profound passion this gifted pianist brought to every phrase, every trill, every chord. Her strength was notable in her crescendos and staccatos in various passages that demanded great dexterity and passion. Zhou was a force of nature, and when she returned to join the Fine Arts Quartet in Saint-Saëns’s amusing and highly entertaining Carnival des Animaux, we were once more treated to her great proficiency at the keys. Despite her youth, she was not upstaged by the older members making those animals come to life. It was a great way to finish the evening.

But let us not leave out the exquisite lightness and dexterity with expressive control that yet another young pianist brought to the podium -- 12-year-old Daniel Clarke Bouchard. He cautiously yet elegantly performed Schumann’s © Mamoru Kobayakawademanding Variations sur le nom “Abeggopus. He was able to change from nimble scooting over the keys to heavy chording with passages that demanded cross-over hands playing. He was really lovely to listen to, and one knows this young delightful poised and highly relaxed talent will hit meteoric heights as maturity sets in.

Most impressive was the powerful and highly confident Isabelle David. She performed the almost impossible to play Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt. The sheer strength of her opening sforzando chords, her striking power and arpeggio ascensions were mesmerizing. She is a brilliant performer and is only in her early twenties. Her teacher is the great André Laplante. Her expression and passion did not take a back seat to the technique needed to allow the piece to make its impressive impact.

The Fines Arts Quartet beautifully played Schubert’s Trout Quintet in A major. As an ensemble they are pros, and their Carnival was a hoot.

Denis Brott, Founder and Artistic Director of this wonderful festival -- now in its 18th year, said, “The festival wants to do its best to identify and promote young talent.”

This evening’s concert did it in spades!



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2013 Montreal Chamber Music Festival
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