César Franck: Sonata in A major for violin and piano; Selections from Shiksa. Lara St. John, violin; Matt Herskowitz, piano. Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Walter Hall, Oct. 5, 2017.
The 120th (how’s that for longevity) Season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto opened in grand style on October 5, with a recital given by two virtuosi extraordinaire, violinist Lara St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz.
It took place at the usual WMCT venue, Walter Hall, in the basement of the Edward Johnson Building. The theatre was gratifyingly full, underscoring the fiercely loyal following of the WMCT members. I wrote a piece last March about the history of this group so I won’t rehash it here, except to say that WMCT is justly proud of its record of over a century of uninterrupted concert presentations. It started with only women members. Today, 13% of its membership are men.
There was a large contingent of music students, who are given free tickets, sponsored by the WMCT Foundation, and more specifically by WMCT member Dianne Henderson for her support of their Student Outreach Program. The students were sitting on the other side from me, but I could see on their young faces how engrossed they were in the performance. As a country, we don’t teach the arts enough in our schools. How are the young people going to get exposed to the fine arts. I say “Bravo!” to this initiative.
The first half of the concert was César Franck’s Sonata in A major for violin and piano. It is one of the composer’s best-known pieces. I’ve heard this piece live only a couple of times, but thankfully there’s no shortage of videos available on the internet — just go to Youtube and you can have your fill. Some performances are introspective, mellow, and reflective, while others are extroverted and flamboyant. How does the St.John/Herskowitz performance compare?
In the two slow moments, they played with melting lyricism. By the second movement, the Allegro, it was dynamite! The final movement, Allegretto poco mosso, was a huge virtuosic display. Talk about theatricality and drama! Their playing was like flooring the gas pedal pianistically and violinistically speaking, forgive me if I’ve just made up a word. And they have the requisite bravura technique to make it happen. I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for the “Cesar Franck on Steroids” approach, but gradually I found myself seduced by its flamboyant, heart-on-sleeve style. The playing by Herskowitz in particular, wasn’t exactly subtle, but it was totally thrilling.
As I was listening to the selections from their Shiksa album in the second half, it all made sense to me. The super-theatricality and drama of the Franck complemented beautifully the second half of six selections from Shiksa. Lara St. John spoke extensively about the genesis of the album. The first one, Ah Ya Zayn is a gorgeous lullaby arranged by John Kameel Farah, a U of T graduate, who was in the audience — a lovely, evocative beginning. This was followed by Cocek, a Mecedonian circle dance, full of energy and spirit. The third was Sari Siroun Yar, an Armenian ballad from the mountains, arranged by Lebanese-born Canadian-Armenian pianist Serouj Kradjian, a member of the Amici Ensemble. He captures the ethereal quality of this piece beautifully, one tinged with melancholia. The fourth one made a particularly strong impression on me, based on a famous Jewish melody. Matt Herskowitz calls this Nagilara. His arrangement is just amazing — angular, edgy, frenetic, and completely arresting.
The fifth included a video presentation. My memory is a bit fuzzy now, but I think it is called Adanaco, which includes 17 musical styles, among them Classical, Celtic, Bluegrass, Klezmer, Tango, and Jazz. A striking musical journey in just a few minutes, all based on O Canada. The final piece was one that I had hoped they would play — the Czardashian Rhapsody.
A video of this won an award for the Best Music Video at the Toronto Independent Film Festival. By then, the two artists had the audience eating out of their hands. Repeated standing ovations, fully deserved. They were rewarded with a famous encore the name of which I, unfortunately, have forgotten! An auspicious beginning to the WMCT 2017-18 season.
Correction: In an earlier version of this article, the musical theme of the fifth work, a video presentation, was attributed to Gershwin’s Fascinating Rhythm. It was actually O Canada.