String Extravaganza with violinists Nikki Chooi and Andrew Wan, violist Steven Dann and cellists Joseph Johnson and Desmond Hoebig. Toronto Summer Music Festival. Walter Hall. July 28.
Chamber music recitals have a special place in the hearts of so many lovers of classical music because they place the musicians’ abilities as technicians and artists as well as the details of the pieces they are interpreting into a sort of hyper focus. The auditorium is usually intimate, and each line of music can be clearly heard. When everything comes together, the effect is pure magic. When the forces present don’t fully gel, the flaws somehow feel more evident.
Friday night’s installment of the Toronto Summer Music Festival’s professional concerts was billed as a String Extravaganza. It certainly was an extravaganza for the names invited to participate: Nikki Chooi, last season’s concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Andrew Wan, concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; Canadian star violist Steven Dann; Toronto Symphony Orchestra principal cello Joseph Johnson; and distinguished cello veteran Desmond Hoebig.
They were all together on stage for Franz Schubert’s C Major String Quintet (D956) to close the evening. It was a passionate performance that left the full house enthusiastically on its feet. This is a fabulous piece of music, beloved of musicians and listeners alike, displaying Schubert’s characteristic interplay between light and dark moods. The assembled stars shaped musical lines well while delivering a sharply articulated reading. My only quibble was the balance between instruments: Hoebig’s second cello part was frequently too prominent, and I could see Dann playing, but could discern very little viola in the louder passages.
The surprise treat of the evening was a youthful trio for violin, viola and cello by Toronto composer Gary Kulesha, performed by Chooi, Dann and Johnson. Kulesha’s Trio is laid out in classic sonata form, with a slow finale following a hard-driving third movement. The style sits at the intersection of tonality and atonality, slipping smoothly and easily between the two. It is an accomplished piece of writing that alternates between seriousness and humour (especially a pizzicato-dance trio sandwiched into the third movement). That Kulesha wrote this at age 16 in the early 1970s, before he had any formal composition training is even more remarkable. I was thankful that whoever laid out the evening’s program chose to revive this satisfying, 15-minute work.
Kulesha’s Trio was a fine companion to Maurice Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello from 1922. It is a difficult, four-movement piece, because it places a lot of technical demands on the players, but also must sound as if it casually slipped off the musicians’ bows.
The interplay between the instruments happens on many levels, including timbre. Here was the first problem, for me: Wan’s clear, thin-voiced violin and Hoebig’s especially dusky-sounding cello made for a poor aural partnership. Their interpretation also frequently lacked the extra layer of grace and finesse that would have raised it from commendable to excellent. Their interpretation was a perpetual reminder of Ravel’s challenging score instead of a showcase of how to make difficult music sound beautiful.
Because the experience of chamber music puts a premium on details, it is the extra layer of fussing details in each interpretation that makes the biggest difference.
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