Women’s Musical Club of Toronto: Ensemble Made in Canada at Walter Hall, May 7, 2015.
[Editor’s Note: Robin Elliott is the co-ordinator of the Tuning Your Mind series of pre-concert lectures for the WMCT.]
Quick – how many professional piano quartet ensembles can you name? Not many, right? Well add Ensemble Made in Canada to that list right now. It is not the snappiest of names, and the acronym (EMIC) is not much better, but you forget all about that when listening to the beautiful playing from this group. Formed about ten years ago, EMIC is currently in residence at Western University and performed in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto on Thursday afternoon, May 7th for the final concert of the 117th season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto.
It was a homecoming of sorts for three of the EMIC members: pianist Angela Park, violinist Elissa Lee, and cellist Rachel Mercer all won scholarships from the WMCT early in their career, as the violist, Sharon Wei, pointed out in brief spoken comments before the recital began. The program included an early work by Beethoven, a new composition by the Canadian composer Christopher Mayo, and the second of Brahms’s three piano quartets.
The recital opened with Beethoven’s Piano Quartet in C Major, WoO 36, no. 3. It was one of the first important works for piano quartet, and though it was written when Beethoven was just 14 years old, it was not published until after his death. It is really quite a stunning work on its own terms, never mind that it was written by a teenager. Though it lacks the structural depth that marks the mature idiom of Beethoven, it is a dazzling work on the surface, with at times quite spectacular writing for the piano (beautifully performed by Angela Park). The violin and viola take their turn in the limelight as well on occasion, whereas the cello mainly plays a supportive role. EMIC gave the work an assured performance that highlighted the work’s many strengths and deftly covered up its few shortcomings.
It was a homecoming of sorts also for Christopher Mayo, who was born in Toronto in 1980 and completed a degree in composition at the University of Toronto before moving to London for advanced studies in music in 2003. After nearly 12 years in London, he recently moved back to his native city. His “Twentieth Century Ikon” for piano quartet was commissioned by the WMCT for EMIC to premiere in this concert. It was a nice touch, as the composer’s father, John Mayo, provides the excellent program notes for the WMCT.
Before the recital Chrisopher Mayo gave an informative talk about his music, playing excerpts from two of his works dating from 2010: “Brothers”, written for the Vancouver SO during the Olympic festivities, and “Binding the Quiet”, written for Ensemble contemporain de Montréal +. His music is process oriented, with a large, overarching trajectory that is planned out meticulously; each parameter (dynamics, pitch, harmonies, etc) is treated somewhat independently but all work towards the same long-range goal. The new work for piano quartet was inspired by a group of nine minimalist pencil sketches by the British artist Bob Law. Though not minimalist in musical idiom, “Twentieth Century Ikon” did thoroughly mine the expressive possibilities of a few recurring musical gestures that gave the work a coherent shape. The sound palette was very imaginative and sophisticated, ranging from sharp, stabbing vertical sonorities to whispered tremolo figures. The work was given a compelling, committed performance by EMIC.
After the intermission the Brahms A-major piano quartet, Op. 26, was clearly a work that EMIC has in its collective bones. In chamber music playing of such depth and refinement it would be invidious to single out individual players, so I won’t. Suffice it to say that all four members of EMIC are outstanding performers in their own right, and blend their talents beautifully to create a truly homogenous and rich sound. The Brahms performance was greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Those who were not there in person will still get the chance to hear the recital, as it was recorded by the CBC for future broadcast.