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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Remarkable Cello Extravaganza Closes WMCT 120th Anniversary Season

By Joseph So on May 4, 2018

Simon Fryer (Photo: Lindsay Lozon)
Simon Fryer (Photo: Lindsay Lozon)

Works by Jean Barriere, Krzystof Penderecki, Jocelyn Morlock, J.S. Bach, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Queen, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Cellists Simon Fryer, Ariel Barnes, Minna Rose Chung, David Hetherington, Alice Kim, Paul Marleyn, Paul Widner, Thomas Wiebe; Shannon Mercer, soprano; Gordon Gerrard, piano. 1:30 p.m. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, May 3, 2018.

The 120th-season of the venerable Women’s Musical Club of Toronto (WMCT) drew to a successful close this afternoon in front of a packed audience at Walter Hall. Despite the slightly inclement weather, the loyal WMCT members were out in force. They were joined by 22 New Canadians there thanks to the Cultural Access Pass (CAP) program. As well there was a large group of cello students there.

Billed as Cellodrama, it certainly lived up to its name in more ways than one. As WMCT Artistic Director Simon Fryer explained, there was drama onstage and off. Sarah Slean, the soloist in the Villa-Lobos, had to withdraw some weeks earlier. Then four days before the concert, cellist Katie Schlaikjer cancelled due to a family illness. Thankfully, excellent replacements were found, in soprano Shannon Mercer and cellist Alice Kim respectively.

There was also drama — of the welcomed kind — on stage, in a program that spans three centuries, impressively performed by the ten artists (eight cellists, a pianist and a soprano). There were pieces for solo, two, four and eight cellos. Chamber works are typically composed of different instrument combinations designed to achieve a contrast of tone colours. All-cello pieces are rare. Known for his dry British humour, the inimitable Simon Fryer quipped — and I’m paraphrasing: “(all-cello pieces) are meant for the private confines of consenting adults!”

The concert opened with Sonata for 2 cellos by Jean Barriere (1707-1747), very much in the Baroque tradition, played by Fryer and Ariel Barnes. By contrast, it was followed by a modern piece, Capriccio per Siegfried Palm, a solo work by Penderecki (b. 1933), played beautifully by Fryer. This composer is known for his extended technique for bowed string instruments, fully on display in this piece, offering a striking stylistic juxtaposition to the earlier piece. Perhaps a bit jarring but also interesting and strangely beautiful.

Jocelyn Morlock’s (b. 1969) The Violet Hour followed.  According to the program notes, Morlock was inspired by the colours of the sky at dawn in her composition. The first half ended on familiar ground with a twist, Bach’s Chaconne for Violin, a very lovely work, here arranged for four cellos by Lazlo Varga. To my ears, perhaps the cello is pitched so much lower than the violin, the stately rhythm and atmosphere of the Baroque dance is enhanced with the instrument switch. I enjoyed it a lot.

The first piece after intermission was very memorable — Coffee Will Be Served in the Living Room, a WMCT-commission by Kelly Marie Murphy (b. 1964).  I didn’t time it, but I think it lasted no more than six very intense minutes, filled with strange sonorities. According to the program notes, it explores an ugly drunken episode in the life of American painter/known alcoholic Jackson Pollock. Not an easy work for the listener, but understanding its context makes a world of difference.  In its climax, much of the scoring for the eight cellos is angry, tense, and aggressive.  Out of the blue came some faint, decidedly non-cello sounds of what seemed like tiny bells.

I looked everywhere on stage, but couldn’t figure out where the sounds were coming from. Was it pre-recorded and played somewhere off stage?  I was wracking my brains to decipher what I was hearing. By a stroke of luck, the composer was sitting directly in front of me and I was able to ask her. It turned out the sounds came from two tiny music boxes hidden and played by cellists Alice Kim and Minna Rose Chung. To my ears, the contrast of sounds underscores the struggle between Pollock’s rage, and his wife Lee Krasner’s attempt to maintain normalcy in a social situation. The effect is otherworldly.  It brings home to me the notion that music, whether it’s beautiful, ugly, or somewhere, anywhere in between, is rendered more important if it makes a statement.

After this heaviness, the audience was treated to Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, arranged by Nick Byrne for four cellos plus keyboard. I am afraid I can’t say much about this piece.  At the risk of embarrassing myself by showing my ignorance, I confess that I never went through the pop-rock phase growing up, preferring to occupy my brain with all things classical/operatic. So it’s with irony that I read in the program notes that this song, composed in 1975, was part of the album A Night at the Opera, a satire on the operatic artform. Perhaps it was just as well that I didn’t know it.

The final work was Heitor Villa-Lobos’s iconic Bachianas brasileiras No. 5 for soprano and 8 celli, the piece that brought me to this concert in the first place. I cut my musical teeth with the old Angel LP with the composer conducting and the voice of Spanish soprano Victoria de los Angeles. It was one of the first records I bought which I still own, scratches and all.  Villa-Lobos’s best-known composition, its name reflects the felicitous melding of the styles of Brazilian folk tunes with the Baroque sensibilities of J. S. Bach, especially in the Aria proper. The second movement, the Dance, is more traditionally Brazilian.

All eight cellists participated, led by Fryer. Mercer sang beautifully with rich tone and the requisite legato. The Aria is a wordless vocalise on the ‘o’ vowel, with the Da Capo section hummed. Mercer followed that tradition, except for the final high note. The Aria (first movement) is often performed alone, sparing the singer the challenging Portuguese pitter-patter of the second movement, the Dance. Here the work was performed complete. Mercer acquitted herself very well in the Dance, singing with energy and verve, all the way up to a briefly touched C at the end.  All the artists received well-deserved ovations, and the audience was rewarded with “The Cello Song” by Steven Sharp Nelson, an arrangement of the Prelude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. A wonderful way to spend two hours indoors on a rainy afternoon.

[Note: My thanks to Professor Robin Elliot for the information on the second cellist in the Barriere piece, and the information on the encore.]

Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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