Mireille Asselin, soprano; Joaquin Valdepeñas, clarinet; David Hetherington, cello; Serouj Kradjian, piano. Mazzoleni Hall, Sunday.
In a year of celebrating all things Canadian, the Amici Chamber Ensemble joins in the fun with the release of a new disc, Inspired By Canada/Notre Pays on the Marquis Records label. It’s an eclectic mix of pieces from the pop and folk genres that captures the spirit of Canada.
Meticulous research was carried out by Amici, together with their guest soprano Mireille Asselin, to assemble the music that best defines Canada as a nation. Several of the pieces are very well known, such as the traditional “Red River Valley” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” while others are less familiar but totally worthy of inclusion. All received new arrangements by the superb pianist Serouj Kradjian of Amici.
The launch concert took place last Sunday afternoon at Mazzoleni Hall, an intimate 237-seat space. While not sold out, it was very well attended by an enthusiastic audience, vocal fans, friends and supporters of Amici. In addition to performing the content of the CD, two other works were added. The concert opened with Inferno, an interesting piece by Aidan Sheedy, a student composer from Amici’s Young Composers Program at Earl Haig School. In the audience was the young Mr. Sheedy, who was given warm applause.
The second work, Little Minuet and Sad Waltz, was composed by the late George Crum (1926-2007), who was for many years the principal conductor of the National Ballet of Canada. He dedicated this work to the retired Canadian mezzo Joan Hall, who was also in the audience. Ms. Hall sang with the Canadian Opera Company as early as 1951, as Suzuki in the COC first production of Madama Butterfly — that’s 66 years, folks! This marked the first public performance of this beautiful 4-minute piece, very bluesy and tinged with melancholy, wonderfully played by Kradjian.
The rest of the concert was devoted to the 17 songs on the new disc, with introductions by the artist. Many recognizable tunes, with several from French Canada, such as Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon Pays” or Antoine Gérin-Lajoie’s “Un Canadien Errant,” sung with great style by Mireille Asselin, who is Acadian from New Brunswick. It was a pleasant surprise to find her singing this repertoire so idiomatically. Or should I say fearlessly, such as in Claude Léveillée’s “Le Vieux Piano.” Written for Edith Piaf, parts of it are very low and require a sort of parlando, out of the comfort zone for a high soprano. No matter, Ms. Asselin dispatched it all with aplomb.
The choice of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” would raise some eyebrows, except that Kradjian cleverly Canadianized it by melding it with “Maple Leaf Forever” to create the “Maple Leaf Forever Rag!” The remarkably multi-faceted Kradjian proved that he could play a mean jazz piano! In all honesty, the musical versatility of the whole Amici Chamber Ensemble continues to astound. There was another piece written by a non-Canadian, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “49th Parallel Prelude.” Since it was Remembrance Day weekend, this piece served as a reminder of the many men and women who served our country.
A highlight for me was Kradjian introducing his arrangement of the “Underground Railroad Songs.” This is the historical reference to the African American slaves escaping from bondage with the help of a secret network of abolitionists, to the Northern States or to Canada. Kradjian, an ethnic Armenian from Lebanon, understandably finds a special resonance in these songs. He told the audience that exactly 30 years ago Sunday, his own family left the conflicts in war-torn Lebanon for a new life in Canada. I had a lump in my throat. It was a very special, heartfelt moment.
One of the most recognizable tunes is the “Red River Valley,” sung by Mireille Asselin, who dedicated it to her fiancée, tenor and Manitoba-native Chris Enns, who was in the audience. The soprano also spoke fondly of the song “Un Canadien Errant” and what it meant to her, as an Acadian from the Maritimes. The concert ended, perhaps predictably, with that blockbuster, the iconic Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.” The appreciative audience gave the performers a rousing ovation, completely deserved. It was a concert worth savouring. If you missed it, you can get the CD and we can all relive it. It’s available starting Nov. 12.