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Violinist Yolanda Bruno and pianist Isabelle David have released their debut album, and WOW! What a Christmas gift of virtuosity, imagination and purpose. Not content to produce yet another Kreutzer Sonata or facsimile, these daring young Canadian artists who have been chamber music partners for ten years since meeting up as first year undergrads, searched out nineteen distinct selections from eleven different composers, each with a story of its own. The inspiration of the stories fills the imagination with colourful sound pictures. The eleven composers are women whose work deserves the recognition that has traditionally been given to the work of the male gender. 

Music has not been immune to historically discriminatory practices against women. One need only go as far as YouTube to see some of the world’s top-ranked orchestras of just a few years ago without any women. And Canadians need not be smug here to think that because there were a few token women in its professional orchestras as early as the 1960s, discriminatory practices have long passed. Only in the last ten years have women taken to the podium with any sort of regularity. Nowhere in the classical music world is discrimination more obvious than when looking at the world’s great composers of the past.

Opera Canada in its latest publication devotes an article by Catherine Kustanczy entitled “Bending opera’s gender bias”. In it she says, “For too long, composers like Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Florence Price, Cécile Chaminade, and Pauline Viardot were more likely to be encountered in textbooks rather than on concert bills." Violinist Yolanda Bruno and pianist Isabelle David are helping to change the course with their new CD, The Wild Swans.

Yolanda Bruno and Isabelle David fill their debut album with extraordinary music played with imagination and brilliance!​

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON December 28th 2019

Bruno is a newly hired violinist in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and together with pianist-partner David, an award-winning pianist currently pursuing a doctorate at l’Université de Montréal, they are making a valiant attempt to bring female composers to the forefront. One of the duo's musical visions is to continue designing programs that promote gender parity. Their just-released album, The Wild Swans, groups together the music of eleven  composers who deserve to be household names. Included are compositions by Lili Boulanger, the first female winner of the Prix de Rome, Jennifer Higdon, a Pulitzer Prize winning American and Elena Kats-Chermin, an Uzbekistan-born Australian composer of six operas and the ballet whose name has been borrowed for the album title.

The album is more than an attempt to give exposure to deserving  composers. It began almost three years ago when Bruno and David began the tireless task of finding interesting and seldom if ever heard music by lesser-known composers, including works by Georges Enescu and Louise Farrenc. They've also been premiering  and commissioning new works, including a recent commission in 2018  by The Isabel Bader Centre with a piece named Celebration! ​written for them by Michel Szczesniak. They wanted to make an album that would inspire the imagination and be fuelled by story. The folktales, poetry and spiritual texts that have inspired each composition on the album have inspired music that stirs the imagination of the listener as well.

The album title, The Wild Swans is taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of the same name in which a princess rescues her 11 brothers from a spell cast by an evil queen who has turned them into swans. It wouldn’t be fair to extend the analogy to say that eleven composers are being rescued from the darkness of the public’s obliviousness because each of them is well-established internationally and each has been making significant contributions to our musical landscape. The inspiration for the album, according to Bruno, was to play the music of great composers “breathing music that is relevant to our time, telling the story of today".

The music has an eclectic assortment of styles and a wide range of expression with contributions from around the world and different eras. In addition to the composers mentioned above, Kala Ramnath, Roxanna Paufnik, Hildegard von Bingen, Alexina Louie, Pauline Viardot, Kelly-Marie Murphy, Lera Auerbach and Elena Langer are also included. You are not alone if you do not recognize most of these names. Although most are contemporary, included in the list is the French operatic diva of the 19th century, Pauline Viardot and the German composer from the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen. Von Bingen’s work, a Gregorian chant, was arranged by Bruno to include an oud performed by Nazih Borish and a kanun performed by Didem Basar. Two Canadians are represented in the album: Alexina Louie and Kelly-Marie Murphy. Murphy’s The Swan Parapraxis was commissioned by Bruno and her sister, cellist Carmen Bruno, who joins her in its performance.

Alexina Louie’s Beyond Time is what Isabelle David calls the central work on the album. Commissioned by James Ehnes in 2014, it is as David describes, “filled with fantasy, overflows with otherworldly sounds, and its three substantial and contrasting movements (with the evocative titles ‘Celestial’, ‘Eternal’, and ‘Perpetual’) take you on a journey. Louie reflects on the concept of time and her work captures how meaningful moments of our lives invariably linger on within our memories long after the original moment has passed.”

The entire album takes one through a journey of myriad moods and feelings. Lili Boulanger has two works on the album that the duo found in a Paris music shop: Cortège, a short, whimsical and tuneful piece and D’un matin du printemps, an impressionistic piece that has all the colours of spring. Echo Dash by Jennifer Higdon offers a high energy romp with jazzy inflections. Elena Kats-Chermin’s ‘Eliza Aria’ from her ballet Wild Swans conjures images of the princess Eliza working on the sweaters to free her brothers. East meets west in the first work, Aalap and Tarana by Kala Ramnath, a hauntingly reflective piece originally commissioned by Hilary Hahn. I particularly enjoyed the rollicking Bohémienne by Viardot, a virtuosic tumble-down encore piece.

The CD is available for download online on iTunes, Amazon Music, and Bandcamp. It can be streamed on Spotify, Soundcloud, and for free on YouTube. Click here for a physical copy of the album including the liner notes. 

CD Cover; Photo credit: Fabio Jock

Violinist Yolanda Bruno and pianist Isabelle David
Photo credit: Helen Tansey