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SCRUTINY | Toronto Summer Music Festival Wraps Up In A Show Of Intense Music And Audience Love

By John Terauds on August 4, 2018

2018 Toronto Summer Music Festival. Philip Chiu, Barry Schiffman, David Hetherington, Miles Jacques (Photo: John Terauds)
(l-r) Philip Chiu, Barry Shiffman, David Hetherington, Miles Jacques (Photo: John Terauds)

Toronto Summer Music Festival: Brahms Sextet. Walter Hall. August 3.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival and similar events such as Ottawa’s ChamberFest are proving that the best way to sell chamber music today is to present it in an intense, festival-type atmosphere: limited time span, multiple concerts per day, a mixture of free and paid, and a broad spectrum of repertoire from the canon as well as new music and works from other genres.

On Friday night, at the final paid, professional concert of the festival at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall, about 400 audience members jumped noisily, enthusiastically to their feet at the end of the recital. It was a scene that had been repeated over and over since the festival’s opening night on July 12.

Here, was a core group of about 350 music lovers who had come out day after day to take in the familiar as well as the unfamiliar, to commune with Toronto’s star instrumentalists and to experience the youthful energy of up-and-comers from all parts of the world.

So enthusiastic were these fans that each recital would get a standing ovation, no matter the content or the merits of the interpretation. This is how audiences have long reacted at performances of musical theatre and popular music, and it’s increasingly common in the classical concert hall.

As a critic, I cringe at the prospect of every concert and recital being rewarded with unreserved cheering. But as a music lover — and as an advocate for the multifaceted charms of art music in particular — it warms my heart to see this kind of support, especially in the dog days of summer.

Early in the festival, I overheard one audience member behind me say, “I was going to pace myself, but this is my third concert today.” The continent’s regular-season chamber music programmers would turn chartreuse with envy at the prospect of such devoted listening.

The cause of such audience loyalty is not a fluke. Toronto Summer Music Festival artistic director, Jonathan Crow, and his immediate predecessor, Douglas McNabney, have programmed Canada’s finest artists alongside great players from other parts of the world and talented young musicians in repertoire that consistently satisfies and gently challenges in equal measure.

There are valuable behind-the-scenes lessons such as masterclasses and film screenings. There are multiple opportunities to interact with the musicians. In the process, the festival each year creates a strong sense of community for all involved. In a world filled with anxiety, and in a big city cursed by senseless acts of violence, this kind of community becomes an invaluable source of comfort and strength — both consciously and unconsciously.

So, as a critic, should I spoil the fun and say that a particular interpretation or piece of music was less than fully satisfying? Or do I declare that a good time was had by all and call it a festival?

As you have probably guessed by now, gentle reader, my job isn’t done until I’ve done what I’m paid to do.

Friday night’s closing recital’s title piece was the first of two string sextets written by Johannes Brahms in his late 20s. It is Romantic writing at its best, depicting a range of emotions as well as delivering beautiful melodies lovingly shared between the players as they intertwine.

Brahms’ music may be easy to listen to, but it is complex contrapuntally and forces the interpreters to make some tough choices on how to pace the buildup and release of tension through phrasing.

The main criticism teachers level at young musicians who tackle this music is that they bring too much intensity to the piece. Without modulation, this intensity becomes tiresome. It takes hours and hours of rehearsal to create the necessary flow and nuance. This is something that ensembles who play and tour together over many years can get right over time. And this is something that people who have come together for one night don’t always achieve.

Violinists Alexander Kerr and Aaron Schwebel, violists Stephen Dann and Eric Nowlin, and cellists David Hetherington and Ani Aznavoorian are fabulous musicians. But their Brahms was over-intense, often shrill. There was so little detail work in their interpretation that the music came across like a painting rendered in primary colours rather than in a range of carefully blended tones.

But the Sextet No. 1 is such a beautiful piece that even a gaudy rendering didn’t diminish its Romantic embrace.

The first half of the recital was more astringent: Leoš Janácek’s edgy Violin Sonata given a bracing interpretation by Kerr and pianist Philip Chiu; and Toronto composer Chan Ka Nin’s Our Finest Hour, given an intense reading by violinist Barry Shiffman, clarinetist Miles Jacques, Hetherington and Chiu.

Both pieces spoke to this year’s festival theme of “Reflections of Wartime” in different ways. We don’t hear Janácek’s music all that often, but its spare gestures convey so much meaning — meaning filled with longing, heartache and anxiety that continues to resonate a century later.

Kerr dug deep for his magnetic, engaged interpretation. Chiu’s expressive range is remarkable, as is his ability to be a like-minded partner. The two artists played as if they were of one mind, which was a treat.

Chan’s piece, which is now almost 20 years old, is a reflection on the 20th-century, especially its world-shaking conflicts. Our Finest Hour begins in a sort of scattered dissonance that slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, coalesces into a common musical purpose that culminates in a much more tonal catharsis. Perhaps we can call this the tone poetry of history.

The quartet of interpreters did a beautiful job of building and modulating their intensity, making a fine case for why this piece deserves the be performed again. Chan includes the thunderous noise of cannon fire on a CD played through loudspeakers, followed by a wartime speech by Winston Churchill (hence the title “Our Finest Hour”). The live music is so well written, however, that the cannon fire is unnecessary. Churchill’s words, spoken over the instruments playing at high volume, were unintelligible to my ears.

Chan should have had the confidence to realise that his music would be enough to convey the meaning and message.

And maybe the Brahms was such a hit because the Sextet allowed us to return to a simpler musical time when a broken heart was the limit of human suffering.

The audience demanded an encore, which delivered the evening’s big surprise. Instead of performing it on cello, Hetherington emerged on stage with a saw to play Le Chant des oiseaux by Pablo Casals in an arrangement where the original piano accompaniment was replaced by a string quartet.

I don’t know that a saw, carefully bowed and flexed, has ever sounded more beautiful or haunting.

Correction [August 4, 3:00 p.m.]: We regret that a previous version incorrectly spelt Barry Shiffman’s name.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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