Wow! What a joyous escape into a world of great music! Heading to Heliconian Hall at noon today, I had no idea that there would be such a musical treat. It was an Academy Lunch Concert of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Over thirty aspiring chamber music artists on the cusp of exceptional careers are performing in concerts throughout the twenty-four-day festival already in progress. On today’s program were two chamber music groups: a violin and harp duo plus a piano quintet.


First to perform was the duo of violinist Katya Poplyansky and harpist Sonia Bize. Both came with outstanding credentials, not to mention that to achieve a place in the Festival required a video audition submitted in February and music assigned in mid-April to be prepared and ready for their first rehearsal last week. I have heard first-hand Katya Poplyansky’s exquisite playing on several occasions. She has been on the CBC list of “the 30 hottest classical musicians under the age of thirty” and has already studied at Curtis, Guildhall and the Glenn Gould School. In the fall, she will be a “Rebanks Fellow” at GGS. Sonia Bize hails from France. She is a former “Rebanks Fellow” at GGS and plans to attend the Manhatten School of Music this fall studying with Mariko Anraku, Assoiaate Principal Harp of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

The Poplyansky/Bize Duo performed Fantasie for Violin and Harp, Op. 124 by Camille Saint-Saëns. Indeed, the music carried me away into fantastical imaginings as the rich sombre tones of the violin’s g-string escaped to the nether regions of high harmonics with harp glissandos and brilliant arpeggios making the ride extraordinarily exciting. Saint-Saëns played with our emotions by taking us through moods of joy, sorrow, playfulness and full-spirited ecstasy with moments of rhythmic intensity and others of lyrical beauty. The confident playing belied the fact the duo had not played together before last week. 

Steve Sang Koh, violin, Julia Mirzoev, violin, Alexey Pudinov, piano, Julia Swain, viola, John Belk, cello

Tomorrow’s Academy Lunch Concert with feature two works: Britten’s String Quartet No. 2 performed by Sara Yang, Heng-Han Hou, Mazime Despax and Emma Schmiedecke, and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 performed by Jenny Joo, Timothy Park and April Sun. Arrive early if you want a seat. 

​​Review by David Richards

Toronto ON July 19th 2018

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Steve Sang Koh, violin, Julia Swain, viola, Alexey Pudinov, piano, 
​John Belk, cello, Julia Mirzoev, violin

Sonia Bize, harp and Katya Poplyansky, violin

Toronto Summer Music Festival: Joyous Lunchtime Music!

In the second part of the program, a piano quintet stepped up to the challenge of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat Major, Op. 44. Violinists Steve Sang Koh and Julia Mirzoev, violist Julia Swain, cellist John Belk, and pianist Alexey Pudinov brought both high energy and solid cohesiveness to their playing. From the first four opening chords it was evident that this group understood the brilliant energy required as well as the lyrical beauty of the sensitive moments. I love what I call the ‘love theme’ that recurs several times in the first movement, soaring through the cello and viola as though they were one instrument. They nailed it!


​​I shouldn’t have been surprised with the quality of playing. Steve Sang Koh holds a doctorate in violin performance; Alexey Pudinov has come from Russia via Germany; John Belk is a Masters student at Rice University; Julia Mirzoev, a student of Jonathan Crow, has been called on to perform with the Toronto Symphony; and Julia Swain has come from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings in Macon, Georgia. Each is a promising virtuoso. They all had to be.

Schumann’s passion and bi-polar personality were evident in the playing of each movement of the thirty-minute work. The sweet harmonics in the concluding notes of the funeral march had a fragility so fitting with a side of Schumann. However, the buoyancy of the ascending scales flying up the keyboard and fingerboards as the third movement began changed the mood instantly. The intensity of the fugal conclusion in the finale combining the first movement theme and that of the final movement was some of the finest music this listener can imagine. Today it was played with dazzling brilliance.