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Revelations, Shakers, and a devil: TSO soloists play Copland, Stravinsky, and Messiaen at the Toronto Summer Music Festival

Chamber music with emotional war stories attached at the Toronto Summer Music Festival​

The Gesualdo Six; Photo credit: Ash Mills

​​Review by Paul Merkley FRSC

Toronto ON July 20th 2018

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON August 2nd 2018

Aaron Schwebel, David Hetherington and Steven Dann; Photo credit: James Ireland

All the preceding music of the concert set up the audience for Ravel’s masterpiece, his Piano Trio in A minor. Written just prior to Ravel trying to enlist in the French Army at the outset of WWI, it took the concert and perhaps the entire festival of concerts to a climax. Alexander Kerr, Ani Aznavoorian and Philip Chiu were brilliant. Themes passed back and forth between violin and cello with melodies performed two octaves apart providing a haunting sound. The third movement gave a sense of real despair beginning in the piano and ending with the piano alone. I was moved beyond belief by the three performers and by the sheer emotion packed into the music. It was as if Ravel knew that he would be refused admission to the army. 

Alexander Kerr, Philip Chiu and Ani Aznavoorian; Photo credit: James Ireland

Barry Shiffman and his “Brooklin Strad”
​Photo credit: James Ireland

There are three main-stage concerts remaining: A Big Band Celebration on Thursday, August 2nd at Koerner Hall, Brahms’ Sextet on Friday, August 3rd at Walter Hall, and the Finale on Saturday August 4th. All three concerts begin at 7:30pm.

Attending several concerts of theToronto Summer Music Festival, I have observed that each concert takes on a character of its own much like the movements of a symphony. And like a great symphony, the concerts take the audience through emotional highs and lows. Within the overall theme of Reflections on Wartime Artistic Director Jonathan Crow has curated concerts that left one filled with joy, and others that were a necessary diversion from the penetrating theme. 

Last night’s concert at Walter Hall turned up the festival’s theme to full-throttle. It was a heart-moving experience of hearing the music  from a Nazi concentration camp, a Warsaw ghetto, the film Schindler’s List and climaxing with Ravel’s incredibly intense Piano Trio in A minor written at the outbreak of WWI. It didn’t hurt that chamber musicians of an incredible pedigree contributed to the concert. It would be hard to find any who could have surpassed the expressive talents of violinists Aaron Schwebel, Alexander Kerr, and Barry Shiffman; violist Steven Dann; cellists Ani Aznavoorian and David Hetherington; and pianist Philip Chiu.

The program opened with Suite for Two Violins by the Polish female composer Grażyna Bacewicz, a little known (in this part of the world) violinist, pianist and composer who had toured western Europe before the war but was confined to a Warsaw ghetto during WWII. She nevertheless continued to compose, and gave underground secret concerts (premiering her Suite for Two Violins). It is said of her large output of music that she “wrote for strings and piano as a singer might write for their own voice: as someone who knows the instruments’ capabilities inside out, knows how to harness their particular resonances and make each instrument speak naturally and eloquently. Shiffman and Schwebel performed the sometimes whimsical and clever seven-movement suite with moments of profound joy and melancholy.

What followed was Gideon Klein’s String Trio. Klein was just 22 when he was taken to a Nazi concentration camp in Terezin where he remained for three years actively composing, performing and teaching. He was the camp’s musical leader before being shipped off to Auschwitz and his death in Fürstengrube. His music reflects his Moravian routes reminiscent of Bartok in places. The strong rhythms  of the opening movement, the perpetual motion of the finale and especially the evocative Lento movement with its sense of longing and loss in the solo sections were all cohesively performed by Schwebel, Dann and Hetherington. In speaking to Dann and Hetherington during the subsequent intermission, I realized how tremendously moved they were by both the composer’s story and his heart-wrenching music, his last work written just weeks before his death.

Following intermission, Barry Shiffman and Philp Chiu performed a medley of music from John Williams’ score for the film Schindler’s List. The beautiful melodies were emotionally delivered by Shiffman who told the story of his violin which, fittingly as he put it, was fabricated by a Haulocaust survivor in Brooklin New York. He called the violin his “Brooklin Strad”. 

The young a cappella group The Gesualdo Six from Trinity College, Cambridge, gave a praiseworthy performance tonight at Music Niagara. This festival is in its twentieth season and the events are well worth taking in. The quality of the music is very high and there is a good variety of events. A visit to these performances at Niagara on the Lake can easily be combined with a matinée at the Shaw Festival.

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