Toronto Summer Music Festival: Adam Barnett-Hart, violin; Danbi Um, violin; Pierre Lapointe, viola; Brook Speltz, cello. Koerner Hall, 7:30 p.m., July 12, 2018.
Let’s be honest, the scourge in the life of a music lover is the dreaded cancellation. We look forward to a performance by a favourite performer for months, and then comes the bad news — “Mr or Ms XYZ is indisposed and will be replaced by…” Lest we forget, artists are only human, and they can get sick like the rest of us.
When I received the press release that due to an illness of one of its members, the venerable Borodin Quartet has cancelled the opening night of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, my sorrow was only fleeting. The compensation was a chance to hear an up-and-coming chamber ensemble, the Escher String Quartet, in its Toronto debut.
If the 73-year old Borodin Quartet is a senior citizen, the New York-based Escher, founded in 2005, is still a teenager. But it has already garnered critical acclaim at home and abroad. Among its many accolades, the Ensemble was a BBC New Generation Artist in 2010-2012. It’s no stranger to Canada, having served as Quartet in Residence at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
The Escher Quartet was a fitting replacement for the Borodin because Russian works feature prominently in its repertoire. The opening night program consisted of a felicitous mix of pieces by Schumann, Tchaikovsky, and Shostakovich. Appearing with the Ensemble in Toronto was violinist Danbi Um, the newest member of the Escher String Quartet. (Sadly, she had a previous engagement and had to miss the following concert with pianist Lukas Geniusas, but luckily Jonathan Crow deputized.)
While Torontonians are known to escape the city for the summer, especially when it’s as scorching as the one we’re experiencing, the loyal TSMF fans were out in force. And they were rewarded with a gem of a concert. The Schumann String Quartet No. 1 was marked by warm, mellifluous, singing tone and exemplary precision, particularly the exquisite Adagio (Third Movement). I particularly loved the tone of the two violins; and while the viola isn’t my favourite string instrument, Pierre Lapointe almost changed my mind.
For a change of pace, the Schumann was followed by the Shostakovich No. 9, which isn’t performed all that often. Cellist Brook Speltz introduced the piece to the audience, saying how it’s overshadowed by the more popular No. 8. To my ears, the most attractive part of No. 9 is the Allegretto with its folk-like melodies and rhythms; also striking is the final movement, the Allegro, brimming with energy but without the heaviness, nicely interpreted by the Escher Quartet.
The second half was devoted to a perennial favourite, the Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1, one of Borodin Quartet’s signature pieces. Any chamber fan will know the meltingly beautiful themes in the Andante cantabile, several minutes’ worth of continuous lyrical outpouring that brought a smile to one’s face. I remember sitting there Thursday, consciously thinking to myself how lucky we are to have such magnificent music in our lives, thanks to the genius of Tchaikovsky. The Escher Quartet did it full justice, perhaps not quite the mellow tone of Borodin, but gorgeous just the same.
The audience gave the musicians a very warm reception, with plenty of bravos, most likely from the TSMF Academy fellows, as young musicians are wont to do. In honour of the group it replaced, the Escher rewarded the audience with Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, with its seemingly endless flow of sublime melodies. And everyone went home happy.