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SCRUTINY | Music Toronto’s Celebration Of Small Ensembles: Polished Music Making With A Relaxed Vibe

By Albert Wong on April 8, 2024

The Obsidiana Duo perform at Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)
The Obsidiana Duo perform at Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)

Music Toronto: Celebration of Small Ensembles. SHHH!! Ensemble and the Obsidiana Duo, April 6, 2024. The Aperture Room, Toronto. Two more concerts in the series May 4 & June 1; tickets here.

This past Saturday afternoon, I found my way to the Aperture Room to attend Music Toronto’s first concert of Celebration of Small Ensembles (COSE) series. It’s a series aimed at presenting chamber music in a different way. At the venue, snacks and beverages are available for purchase, and a few high-top tables were arranged at the back. It was a very relaxed affair, but make no mistake, the music making was professional.

Two ensembles, which both happen to be duos, presented beautiful and thoughtfully curated programs. The SHHHH!! Ensemble, consisting of percussionist Zac Pulak and pianist Edana Higham, performed first with a program that explored the celestial cosmos. The Obsidiana Duo, consisting of pianist Yolanda Tapia and singer Camila Montefusco, performed after intermission with a program that explored the human experience. It was a perfect pairing.

The SHHH!! Ensemble perform at Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)
The SHHH!! Ensemble perform at Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)

SHHHH!! Ensemble assembled a reasonably small number of percussion instruments that nonetheless made a vast array of sounds. Except for one piece, the music presented was composed specifically for SHHHH!! Ensemble; three in particular stood out for me. In Jocelyn Morlock’s Spirit Gradient, pointillistic sparkling sounds evolved into different textures and patterns. Monica Pearce’s rem musically evoked the scientific circadian rhythms of sleep interspersed with lullaby-like moments. Pulak invited the audience to get up close for Paolo Griffin’s Resonant Bodies in Space. In this piece, Higham placed an e-bow on the strings of the piano that created a constant drone that had a very pure sound. Then Pulak and Higham each bowed a cymbal at different speeds and pressures that created a dynamic spectrum of sounds. Controlling the resonance gave the music forward motion. This duo performed with clarity and cohesion, with great attention to the musical effect of the soundscape.

Obsidiana Duo’s presentation was more than just a recital of songs. In effect, with the addition of costumes and choreography, it was a theatrical piece that was delivered with operatic intensity and depth. Pre-recorded audio elements served as interludes between sections, and helped seamlessly tie the entire presentation together. The performance musically described the personal stories of Montefusco and Tapia.

Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)
Music Toronto’s Celebration of Small Ensembles (Photo: Andrew Ascenzo)

The program started from Canada with songs by Alice Ho and Ian Cusson, and traveled back in time to connect with their respective grandmothers from Ibero-America, with songs by Xavier Montsalvatge and Alberto Ginastera. From the franticness of Canto Negro to the tenderness of Canción de cuna para dormir a un negrito, Montefusco demonstrated great dexterity in how she uses her rich mezzo-soprano voice. Tapia, an equal partner at the piano, also lent her voice at certain times which created a beautiful effect.

My only quibble was that the text of the songs was not provided. Sadly, my 219 days of Duolingo Spanish was insufficient to cipher the intricacies of text. Nonetheless, their performance conveyed the theme and essence of the songs.

These two creative ensembles are at just the start of their careers, and I will keep an ear out for their next musical endeavors.

Music Toronto has two more concerts in this year’s edition of COSE on May 4 and June 1; each concert features two different ensembles and repertoire. Details here.

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Albert Wong
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