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Amici Ensemble - A Legacy of Inspiration on its 30th Anniversary!

On Friday evening, in partnership with TheRoyal Conservatory, Canada’s famed, Juno-award winning Amici Chamber Ensemble closed out its 30th concert season at the Telus Centre for Performance and Learning, Koerner Hall, with a program that felt as celebratory as the occasion demanded but also deeply respectful of the life-changing events of the past week in Toronto.  In the words of RCM President Dr. Peter Simon:

“On behalf of everyone at The Royal Conservatory of Music, I extend my deepest condolences to all those affected by the senseless attack earlier this week and applaud the calm professionalism of first responders. [Tonight] in Koerner Hall, The Royal Conservatory will honour all those who lost their lives by dedicating the performance of the Amici Chamber Ensemble to their memories.”

​Artistic Directors clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas, cellist David Hetherington and pianist Serouj Kradjian welcomed internationally renowned Armenian-Canadian operatic soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, acclaimed Israeli violinist Yehonatan Berick, students of the Glenn Gould School and members of the TSO wind section in a spellbinding evening of passionate chamber repertoire that was as eclectic as their audiences have come to expect. 

The program opened with Respighi’s Il Tramonto for Voice and String Quartet, P. 101. The quartet consisted of Yehonatan Berick, violin 1, Katya Poplyansky, violin 2, Steven Dann, viola and David Hetherington, cello.  The beginning is intense, with unison, high-pitched strings creating a feeling of furious emotion that as quickly fades to Bayrakdarian’s rich mezzo-soprano entry.  For the rest of this exquisite vocal tone poem (based on the poetry of Shelley), there are lush, moving harmonies, moments of undulating passion that come at the listener in waves. The strings can be heard shimmering beneath the soaring vocal lines that build and release tension many times. Bayrakdarian’s singing was, of course, wonderful, and the quartet behind her was well-balanced, with each voice played with clarity yet sensitivity to one another. The piece dissolved into a beautiful silence at the end that the audience allowed to linger for many seconds, and that was extraordinary.

Dohnányi’s Sextet in C Major, op. 37 followed, a work written in 1935 that perhaps goes unnoticed in the modernist era shuffle.  However, it is a brilliantly tonal work that deserves to be heard more than it is. Scored for two violins, cello, clarinet, French Horn and piano, a unique soundscape is created with this instrumentation, and the musicians played with great passion and brilliant dynamics. The initial allegro movement reminded this listener of a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. The horn playing of Gabriel Radford was particularly exhilarating, and with the virtuosic piano playing of Serouj Kradjian anchoring things, the effect was often symphonic. The Adagio 2nd movement featured lush harmonies and major chord modulations that suddenly transitioned into a militaristic form of tone painting.  The Allegro and Finale movements that followed were playful, dramatic, soaring music, well performed, bringing the first half to a most satisfying conclusion.

The second half of the concert was introduced by pianist Kradjian, who had been a member of the Glenn Gould School Chamber Music Competition jury panel.  He noted that 20 chamber groups had initially competed, and six groups had been selected to perform in the finals, which took place on Thursday, April 26th at Koerner Hall.  He then introduced the winning quartet - The Fioritura String Quartet -  made up of Danielle Greene, violin 1, Hong You, violin 2, Samuel Choi, viola and Kimberly Miyoung, cello.  They performed Hayden’s String Quartet No. 1 in G major, op. 76, and they were outstanding. Part of the Amici Chamber Ensemble’s mission has always been to nurture and promote young talent, and this quartet of young musicians has a bright future ahead of them.

The remainder of the program was a tribute to the timeless music of Leonard Bernstein, with the Amici String Quartet and Isabel Bayrakdarian returning to the stage to perform a most entertaining and pleasing selection of songs. Included were “A Simple Song” from Mass, “A Julia de Burgos” from Songfest, “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town and “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town. The latter two songs allowed Bayrakdarian to indulge her inner Broadway showgirl, let her hair down and just have fun.

This was followed by the Clarinet Sonata, said to be Bernstein’s “first acknowledged composition”.  The masterful Valdepeñas and Kradjian performed the work with exuberance and sensitivity, blending seamlessly those moments of mystery with sudden burst of energy that are typical of Bernstein’s style. As always, Valdepeñas’ breath control and clarity of tone is other worldly.

The three Artistic Directors spoke to the audience ahead of the final piece, reminiscing about their musical journey of the past 30 years.  Valdepeñas reaffirmed their commitment through the years of promoting young talent, while Hetherington paid homage to the ensemble’s original pianist, Patricia Parr, who had been with them for the first 20 years and was in attendance. Kradjian closed the address by citing friendship as the reason for the group’s lasting success. He then quoted Bernstein, saying that “to achieve great things, two things are needed - a plan and not quite enough time!” From there, he introduced his wonderful new medley of West Side Story tunes.  Scored for two violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet, percussion and piano, this was a WSS medley unlike any other that this listener had ever heard.  Brilliant in conception and spectacular in performance, Kradjian’s arrangement and this iteration of the Amici Chamber Ensemble brought the house down, reminding us amidst the heartache of the past week how the beauty of music and sublime artistry of gifted musicians can uplift our collective sense of humanity. 

Pianist Serouj Kradjian, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas,
and cellist David Hetherington

​​Review by Jeff Mitchell

Toronto ON April 28th 2018