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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Folksy Dvorák From New-look Juilliard, With Help From Hamelin

By Arthur Kaptainis on February 15, 2019

Juilliard Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin (Photo: Arthur Kaptainis)
The Juilliard String Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin send a valentine to Toronto with an intimate recital at Jane Mallett Theatre (Photo: Arthur Kaptainis)

Juilliard String Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin (piano). At Jane Mallett Theatre. Feb. 14. 

No, this was not the local debut of the Juilliard String Quartet, founded in 1946. The concert Thursday in the Jane Mallett Theatre did, however, mark the first visit to Music Toronto of the storied American ensemble in its current formation as well as the second appearance of the season by pianist Marc-André Hamelin. Pleasures, as one might expect, were multiple.

Best known in the 20th century for 20th-century repertoire, the Juilliards started the evening with Beethoven’s good-natured Op. 18 No. 3. Areta Zhulla, first violin as of last year, could hardly have sounded warmer or more melodious in the opening movement, which was an Allegro in name only.

A sense of hearing Zhulla (who is in her early 30s) as first among not-so-equals persisted in the Andante con moto, though not to the detriment of the lyricism of the music. Stresses were smartly placed in the third movement, and the finale, starting with a solo challenge by the first violin, promptly became a democratic and joyous sword fight. The witty pianissimo conclusion delighted the substantial crowd.

This would not have been a true Juilliard concert without a contemporary score, supplied on this occasion by New York-based Lembit Beecher (b. 1980), who flew to Toronto for the performance. One Hundred Years Grows Shorter Over Time (2018) is not the first attempt in music to represent the paradoxes of memory and time — and not the first to give the impression nevertheless of being essentially a sequential piece of work.

There was a general trajectory from more complex to less, the agitated fragments of the start eventually giving way to a more accessible rhetoric, largely tonal though with room for glissandi and harmonics. Not to mention bursts of frenetic activity, one of which the composer described in an on-stage interview as his favourite part of the piece.

Beecher wrote solos for all, including the husky-sounding cellist Astrid Schween, a Juilliard member since 2016. She was also required, in the last of three movements, to do a lot of plucking. Veteran second violin Ronald Copes (who joined in 1997) had his turn to be eloquent but the most distinctive solo, at the very end, was the deliberately understated rendition by viola Roger Tapping (2013) of a tune invented by the composer’s now-elderly Estonian granduncle. Interesting that Tapping, despite the antiquarian overtones of his assignment, was the only player to read from a computer tablet and turn pages with a pedal mechanism.

After intermission, we heard Dvorák’s Piano Quintet Op. 81, a familiar masterpiece, but one that can still feel spontaneous. Hamelin elicited crystalline sounds from the Steinway at all volumes and revelled in the rippling passagework (of which in this score there is a fair amount). Chiaroscuro resided more in the strings. Tapping reminded us in the Dumka movement that Dvorák was a violist. Everyone had a feel for the folksy heart of the music. The playful final pages were great fun.

There was a reception afterwards in the lobby that gave the enthusiastic crowd a chance to meet the heroes. No wonder Music Toronto enjoys a loyal subscriber base.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

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