George Enescu Festival: Family and friends come together for great music!

​​by David Richards
T
oronto ON September 15th 2019

Conrad Chow, Barry Shiffman, Nuné Melik, David Hetherington and Michael Berkovsky; Photo credit: Iuliana Pacso

I had a sense last night that George Enescu would have loved the concert, the second of three in Toronto’s inaugural George Enescu Festival. Joe Ringhofer, in his pre-concert chat, quoted George Enescu who once said, “The sacred mission of music is to bring souls together”. Enescu would have enjoyed the variety of great music bringing together family, friends and community, much as he did as a violinist, conductor and composer.


Last night, families with young children throughout the audience were more evident than usual for a typical chamber music concert in the packed Eglinton-St. George’s United Church. The children were no doubt piano and violin students for the most part sitting or dozing off beside parents and grandparents hoping the inspiration of the performers on stage would rub off. The many friends meeting and chatting with one another before the concert and again at intermission created a happy buzz. The performers consisted of five of Canada’s finest chamber musicians who were friends and associates as well as world-class performers. The program did indeed bring souls together.

Bill Vu, age 12, gave a brilliant performance of Paul Constantinescu’s impossibly difficult Toccata.  The prodigious pianist, a student of Michael Berkovsky at the Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists at the Royal Conservatory of Music, represented a young Enescu, who was a violin prodigy and composer himself by the age of six.

In the remainder of the first half, the dazzling piano trio made up of pianist Michael Berkovsky, violinist Conrad Chow, and cellist David Hetherington performed music by Enescu and two rarely heard works with distinct jazz influences. Enescu would have heartily approved the eclectic choices.

Berkovsky and Chow, both on the Faculty of the Phil and Eli Academy, are world-class performers who also teach. It was a Berkovsky student who won the senior division of the Canadian Chopin Piano Competition just last month. Chow, a member of the Emerson Quartet, has performed to great acclaim around the world. David Hetherington, former assistant principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony, is also on the Faculty of the Phil and Eli Academy as well as the Glenn Gould School and is no stranger to chamber music as a founding member of the award-winning Amici Trio.

The music was engaging and uplifting. George Enescu’s Sérénade lointaine was a lyrically sensuous work that seemed to express Enescu’s longing for his homeland. The contrast with the following two works was striking. Israeli composer Ilan Rechtman in his selections from Jazzicals for Piano Trio and American composer Paul Schoenfeld in his Café Music transported the audience to a New Orleans music hall with its dixieland, blues and ragtime music. For these classically trained musicians, this was music of a different world. The trio responded as though it was as much in their DNA as Chopin, Bach or Brahms. The lightning speed and intricate syncopations were toe-tappingly exhilarating.

The second half of the program saw the trio become a quintet with the addition of two extraordinary musicians for the evening’s main event. Violist Barry Shiffman is very familiar to Toronto audiences as a chamber musician, Dean of the Phil and Eli Academy, Associate Dean of the Glenn Gould School and Artistic Director of the Rockport Summer Music Festival in Massachusetts.  Nuné Melik, from Montreal and originally from Siberia, performs throughout the world as a soloist and chamber musician and  advocates for her family roots through Armenian music.

The quintet performed Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a mammoth work for even established string quartets. For this group to come together and perform at such a high level with sensitivity to each other’s phrasing is a testament to the experience, and commitment of each performer. From the opening familiar unison theme, the balance and tonal beauty was evident. The ensuing vibrancy, first in the piano and then followed by the strings was brilliantly exciting. Sitting up close to the quintet, it almost felt like I was a part of it at times. (I can only imagine such a possibility.) The warm acoustics of the church sanctuary added to the rich tones of the ensemble. There was a fiery energy in the playing. I was particularly struck by pianist Michael Berkovsky, whom I had not heard before last night and whose playing is truly magical. The phrasing and interplay between the strings and piano was heavenly in the second movement, ‘Andante, un poco adagio’. The finale built to an explosive climax at the conclusion of the forty minutes of intense music-making.The mark of a successful concert is that it leaves one wishing there was more. Indeed, this has been the case for both concerts of this first George Enescu Festival in Canada. The Toronto chapter of the Festival will wind up with a concert at the Glenn Gould Studio of the CBC on Sunday, September 22nd at 7:00pm with a pre-concert chat by Joe Ringhofer at 6:15pm. Romanian violinist Alexandru Tomescu will team up with bandoneon player Omar Massa in another wide-ranging program of great music. For tickets, go to enescufestival.ca

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