Fisher Center, Bard College, Fall Events 2014
Skip to Content

Five Memorable Evenings at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival

 

St. George's Anglican Church, Montreal. Photo 2014 Michael Miller.

St. George’s Anglican Church, Montreal. Photo 2014 Michael Miller.

I’ve never visited Montreal without feeling sorry to leave it or longing for the next opportunity to go back. While the excellent Montreal Chamber Music Festival was the centerpiece of two short stays on successive weeks, the days were filled with encounters with the city’s rich cultural life—wherever our interests might take us, just as if we were in London, Paris, or New York—inquisitive walks along the streets, some very good food, and some mediocre food as well. (It’s best to consult a restaurant guide and plan ahead rather than to trust one’s luck. It’s just as easy to spend a lot of money on a bad meal in Montreal is it is in any of the aforementioned cities. Somehow we didn’t have time for that.) High points were, at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, an exhibition of period books about the new cities constructed after the Second World War and the second installment of the CCA’s research project, the Archeology of the Digital, and a magnificent retrospective of the projection installations of Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon at the Museum of Fine Arts (part of Montreal’s Digital Arts Biennial), where the rooms of modern Inuit art and Dutch painting especially appealed, along with some fine recent aquisitions of Romantic European paintings.

The Montreal Chamber Music Festival offers an irresistable combination of weekend jazz with weekday classical concerts. Within this the Festival organizers, principally the founder and director, Denis Brott, a professor at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, construct the programs around a few themes, including lunchtime Bach concerts, great Canadian pianists, and the Israel Connection, which brings young Israeli musicians to Montreal. For logistical reasons, I had to concentrate on the classics and the latter two categories. For me it was time for Beethoven and Schubert, and I was also attracted by the participation of a brilliant young violinist, Giora Schmidt, who made a strong impression on me at the Bard Music Festival. On that occasion he managed to display his impressive technical abilities as well as to make Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasie interesting and amusing—not without a certain winning archness. (Anne-Sophie Mutter failed in this challenge a few weeks later at Tanglewood.) I was not disappointed to hear him in a broad range of repertoire in Montreal. His playing is not only brilliant, but also both stylish and profound, and several of the young colleagues he brought with him played on the same level. Mr. Schmidt also plays a role in programming the Festival, at least Connexion Israel.

Denis Brott in St. George's Church

Denis Brott in St. George’s Church

Mr. Brott, an outstanding cellist, well-respected in Canada, founded the Montreal Chamber Music Festival in 1995. The mission has been from the beginning:

…the promotion of chamber music in all of its forms and the association of music with other art forms such as dance, theatre, cinema and the visual arts.  He has always strived to present the finest internationally renowned artists and young up-and-coming future stars and, as often as possible, together on the same stage at the same time.  He also insists on making chamber music accessible to as broad a public as possible while favoring innovation and putting forward the full cultural richness and superb heritage of Montreal.  He also wants the Festival to promote Montreal as a cultural capital in North America and to welcome music lovers from Quebec and other provinces as well as from the United States. None of these intentions have changed over the past 17 years and we continue to maintain our mandate as expressed in 1995.

Its first season took place on the Chalet du Mont-Royal, built in 1932 atop Mont-Royal with a commanding view of the city. Today it takes place in St. George’s Episcopal Church in the business center of Montreal. Its main entrance faces the the splendid Windsor Station, built in a Richardsonian style in the late 1880s by the American architect, Bruce Price. The present St. George’s opened in 1870, a Gothic Revival design by Montreal architect William Tutin Thomas, on the site of an early Jewish cemetery. The acoustics, as modified by a proscenium and panels erected for the festival, is warm, mellow, and beautifully balanced. (Emmanuel Music, Boston, take note! Emmanuel Church desperately needs acoustical treatment, if chamber music is to be played there.) The Festival’s Steinway piano has a gratifying warm sound there. The Festival itself projects warmth. Very much a community event, it brings together chamber music lovers from all over the city, both English and French speakers. The pleasant staff and volunteers made this out-of-towner feel equally welcome.

In fact, outside St. George’s, in and around the Bell Center, pandemonium reigned, as the Canadiens defeated the Boston Bruins. None of this racket penetrated the church, and when we emerged after the concert, we entered a different world, as crowds marched or staggered through the streets, celebrating the victory.

Giora Schmidt. Photo Dave Getzschman.

Giora Schmidt. Photo Dave Getzschman.

SCHUBERTIADE I
With the support of the Fondation Azrieli, the Consulate General of Israel and the Sir Jack Lyons Charitable Trust

Franz Schubert

Sonatina for Piano and Violin in A Minor, D. 385 (1816)

Sonata for Piano in A Major, D 959 (1828)

Trio for piano, violin, and cello in B Flat, Op. 99 (1827)
Giora Schmidt, violin
Denis Brott, cello
Inon Barnatan, piano

The pair of concerts I heard during the first week were both Schubertiades, combining light early works with some of the masterpieces of the composer’s final years. The first began with one of the Sonatinas for Piano and Violin of 1816, the A Minor, not the G Minor, as previously announced, because Giora Schmidt and pianist Inon Barnatan were in the mood to play that one, and the policy of the Festival is for the musicians to have fun. The work itself, even with its minor mode ballast, is essentially salon music, and Schubert’s individual temperament shone through only occasionally. He had progressed further in his Lieder. Barnatan and Schmidt approached it with charm and taste, floating over powerful reserves of technique and musical perception. Nothing was wasted in this little Sonatina.

Inon Barnatan alone next turned to one of Schubert’s greatest achievements, his Sonata in A Major of 1828. This ambitious, previously unannounced choice was most welcome to me, with magnificent performances of the B Flat and G Major sonatas by Stephen Porter and Mitsuko Uchida still fresh in my memory. Here was a third, entirely different, but equally powerful approach to Schubert’s peak as a keyboard composer. Stephen Porter, who also performs this repertoire on the fortepiano, clarified and enriched the textures of the B Flat with his sensitivity to the different registers of the 100-year-old Grotrian-Steinweg he played, maintaining a solid but meditative pace and a clear eye for structure and a feeling for dramatic transitions. Uchida used her personal color palette, built on the contrast of brilliant, clearly articulated sound, with heavily pedalled sfumato, eloquently conveying the dreamy Fantasie in the work. Inon Barnatan made his own, entirely convincing and moving statement with a vast command of color and attack. His interpretation of the A Major, while not really losing a sense of the overall structure of the work, came alive in the moment. He gave each section of each movement, each melody, its own appropriate combinations of tempo, color and highly articulated phrasing, and then proceeded on to another psychic world. The overall form didn’t suffer, but, unlike Brendel’s classic performances, his reading seemed more personal, even ephemeral. If I found anything lacking, and only slightly so, it was in the last movement. Barnatan’s way of living in the moment sacrificed some of the tension and energy that builds up over the course of an interpretation that puts architecture in the foreground, like Brendel’s. This is a perfect example of structure as an expressive element in music. The exuberant, joyous conclusion of the finale needs to gather cumulative energy on a solid support, in which every mood change takes place in its own time, at its own right moment. I came away with the impression that another of Mr. Barnatan’s traversals of the work might be quite different. I’d certainly be eager to hear it. But this observation perhaps has more to do with my own life with the sonata and  should not detract from what was an exciting and powerful experience. What could be better than to discover such an original and probing new insight into this great repertoire?

Pianist Inon Barnatan.

Pianist Inon Barnatan.

The program closed with another of Schubert’s masterpieces, the Trio in B Flat. For this, Denis Brott joined Barnatan and Schmidt. They made a fascinating combination of strong, colorful personalities, who, although they don’t play together all the time as an ongoing entity, came together in a thoroughly convincing and satisfying ensemble. Schmidt and Brott have quite a different approach to intonation. As one can expect from a younger musician, his pitch is precisely centered virtually all the time, and his vibrato is often restrained, luxuriating in richer vibrato when he feels it is called for. Brott on the other hand produces a light, glowing, but very warm sound with a more consistently wide vibrato and, accordingly, pitch. The difference between them was quite noticeable at first, but by the recapitulation of the first movement they achieved a unified tone in a most beautiful way. It is difficult to focus on particular events in the performance of the trio, because their approach was so very natural. Their playing was most expressive, but they never seemed to be “doing” anything to the music, remaining free from affected phrasing. Barnatan restrained his intense, colorful playing so as not to overwhelm his colleagues. Schubert’s great trio seemed totally open, so that one enter into it with a full heart. The superb quality of their musicianship was balanced by a sympathy for Schubert’s often heart-breaking expression.

SCHUBERTIADE II
With the support of the Fondation Azrieli, the Consulate General of Israel and the Sir Jack Lyons Charitable Trust

Franz Schubert

Trio for Strings No. 2 in B Flat Major (1817)

Giora Schmidt, violin
Mark Holloway, viola
Denis Brott, cello

Rondo in A Major, Op. 107, D. 951 (1828)
Inon Barnatan, Qiao Yi Miao Mu, piano

Quintet for Piano in A Major “The Trout” Op. 114 (1819)
Inon Barnatan, piano
Giora Schmidt, violin
Mark Holloway, viola
Denis Brott, cello
Ali Yazdanfar, double bass

The Schubertiade of the following evening began with another early work, the Haydnesque Trio in B Flat Major of 1817. In fact there was more Haydn than Schubert in the work. Schubert’s musical personality was less well defined in this work than in the violin duo played the previous evening. The three superb string players brought out every drop of musical character they could in the work without the intention of making it sound more mature than it actually is. The result was most enjoyable. Inon Barnatan then played the rich, late Rondo in A Major for piano four hands with all the color, strong rhythm and phrasing that made his performance of the sonata so exceptional. Qiao Yi Miao Mu joined him with all the charm and energy one could want, and they made a sympathetic duo.

The Trout Quintet, as popular as it is, can be problematic. The persistent charm and high spirits can become cloying, not to mention the octaves in the piano, which can sound undifferentiated and bland on a modern instrument. This is one piece that sounds much more satisfying on period instruments, among which the fortepiano octaves have a more varied sound and can blend in a more varied way with the strings. The players seemed aware of these pitfalls and wisely decided to let the piano to recede somewhat into the ensemble. They could in this way bring out the longer phrases and shapes in the music. Ali Yazdanfar contributed a clearly articulated and prominent double bass part, giving the ensemble a strong, dark foundation on which to play, and Mark Holloway added a dark, resinous viola sound to fill out the lower instruments. Their performance as a whole was exceptionally coherent and emotionally rewarding, with full attention to the darker, more melancholy aspects of the music, as if it were a constantly shifting landscape of layered moods that a bored guest at an overzealously cheerful party might contemplate with pleasure.

This was an unforgettable time for Schubertians in Montreal. I’ve never heard richer or better played interpretations of the B Flat Trio or the Trout Quintet, and Mr. Barnatan’s A Major Sonata was brilliant. The slighter early pieces set off the more familiar works in the context of Schubert’s brief, but rich and rapidly developing career. I would never think of a pair of Schubert concerts as conservative programming in any case, but the excitement of such amazing new talent in this group erased any hint of such thoughts.

Angela Cheng

Angela Cheng

Great Canadian Pianists
VIENNESE EVENING

Joseph Haydn – Keyboard Sonata No. 50 in C Major, Hob. XVI/50, L. 60 (1794)
Franz Schubert – Piano Sonata in A Major, Op. 120 (1819)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Keyboard Sonata in D Major, K. 576 (1789)
Ludwig van Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A Flat Major, Op. 110 (1821)
Angela Cheng, piano

I returned to Montreal five days later for a piano recital (“Great Canadian Pianists”), a Viennese Evening, by Angela Cheng—not more than an expansion of the Schubertian theme of the previous week, and even including some Schubert, his “little” A Major Sonata.

Ms. Cheng, who has been called a “Canadian national treasure,” is best known to general audiences as the tour partner of Pinchas Zukerman. She has been a professor at Oberlin for many years, only a swim across Lake Erie from her home country.

She produced a brilliant, unified sound from the Festival Steinway, an eloquent vehicle for her flexible phrasing and the forward thrust of her expression. She began her recital with an unsurpassable performance of Haydn’s grand C Major Sonata. She didn’t let the wide range of color generated by the work’s fortepiano origins distract us from the drama and flow of Haydn’s sonata writing. Her timing, absolutely essential in the exposed lines of the music, with its telling rests, was impeccable, as was her sense of both the wit and the grandeur of Haydn’s conception. Any musician who can play Haydn this well can do no wrong, as far as I am concerned. And she did no wrong in the Schubert, although her performance seemed a little off in my opinion. The pace and flow which was so close to perfection in the Haydn was not quite right. Perhaps that is just the impression left on a listener who knows the work well and has developed a particular idea of it through years of listening. A wrong note and/or memory lapse in the final movement pushed her performance further out of kilter, so that the movement lost some of its dramatic “build,” not all that much less elaborate than that of the “big” A Major Sonata of the week before. However, Ms. Cheng gave both the Haydn and the Schubert the large-scale conception they call for. There is nothing small about the Schubert, unless one compares it to its sibling. After the break, she was back in full form for the Mozart and the Beethoven. K. 576, from its genial opening traversal of D Major arpeggios moves on into deeper waters in its Adagio, with contrasting pensive major and melancholy minor passages. Cheng made this the centerpiece of her interpretation, giving it its due weight and breadth, before launching into the concluding Allegretto, which also has its mood swings, even a pervasive ambivalence of tonality. Mozart breathes an entirely different air from Haydn, and she was wise to separate the two works by the interval. In fact the pairing of the selections was in itself enlightening. The intellectual Haydn followed by the lyrical, but ultimately exuberant Schubert, and a lyrical, bittersweet Mozart followed by Beethoven’s at first engaging, then meditative, but ultimately epic late sonata. She maintained a steady forward pace in this, avoiding indulgent lingering in the moment. The final fugue started off at a flowing, almost rapid pace, but she gave the music plenty of room to breathe and dwell on significant details. Cheng’s Opus 110 was supremely musical and finely balanced reading, bringing her deeply satisfying recital to a close.

 

Connexion Israël
VIRTUOSO VIOLINS
With the support of the Fondation Azrieli, the Consulate General of Israel and the Sir Jack Lyons Charitable Trust

Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764) – Sonata No 5 for Two Violins in E Minor, Op. 3 (1730)
Giora Schmidt, Itamar Zorman, violins

Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) – Suite for Two Violins and Piano in G Minor, Op. 71 (1903)
Giora Schmidt, Itamar Zorman, violins, Suzanne Blondin, piano

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) – Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 (1932)
Giora Schmidt, Itamar Zorman, violins

Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) - Navarra, Op. 33 (1889)
Giora Schmidt, Itamar Zorman, violins, Suzanne Blondin, piano

For the next concert, Giora Schmidt, after scaling the heights of Schubert, returned to the kind of music he so impressed me with at the Bard Music Festival—his own urbane take on music that is written to show off a virtuoso player’s skills to best advantage and to capture the attention of a casual audience. In Schmidt’s hands this doesn’t sideline us serious folk either. His irony, elegance, and impressive virtuosity exerts its Orphic charm on everybody. As he and Itamar Zorman, his Israeli import walked on stage, they inspired a non-musical response. One elderly gent declared in a loud voice, “now there’s two good-lookin’ guys!” The Leclair is a brilliantly virtuosic confection for two solo violins, and a very nicely constructed one, as we might expect from the composer. Moszkowski’s Suite is pure salon music, almost cloying in its intent to ingratiate itself to its audience, and the “good lookin’ guys” had great fun with it. The Prokofiev Sonata for two violins, unaccompanied, was the most substantial work on the program, essentially a display piece, but one enriched with some more inward states of mind and the requisite modulations. Sarasate’s Navarra brought the same vapid delights as his Carmen Fantasie, but with an added manic dimension inspired by the second violin. In the case of Sarasate more is not necessarily better, but it is certainly crazier. The 1970s must have been the great age of rediscovering musical kitsch. That was a long time ago, and it is cheering to find a Renaissance of such a sophisticated and intelligent irony. Itamar Zorman, still very early in his career, played virtuosically and with a game, genial temperament. Suzanne Blondin provided an energetic and throughly charming accompaniment in the Moszkowski and Sarasate.

Matt Haimovitz

Matt Haimovitz

 

BRAVO BEETHOVEN

Ludwig van Beethoven

Sonata for piano and violin in F Major, “The Spring,” Op. 24 (1801)
Giora Schmidt, violin
Angela Cheng, piano

String Trio No. 3 in G Major, Op. 9 (1797-98)
Giora Schmidt, violin
Marcus Thompson, viola
Matt Haimovitz, cello

Trio for piano, violin, and cello in B Flat Major, “The Archduke,” Op. 97 (1811)
Giora Schmidt, violin
Matt Haimovitz, cello
Angela Cheng, piano

My last evening at the Festival was an all-Beethoven program, consisting entirely of masterpieces: the “Spring” Sonata, one of the Opus 9 string trios, and—greatest of all—the “Archduke” Trio. Angela Cheng played the piano to Giora Schmidt’s violin. Marcus Thompson played the viola in the early trio. Sadly, Denis Brott was indisposed, but he was replaced by none other than the extraordinary Matt Haimovitz—a impressive testimony of what can happen in the collegial world of Montreal musicians. In considering Cheng and Schmidt as a duo, it is well to remember that he studied with Pinchas Zukerman (among others, including Itzhak Perlman). Although Schmidt already has his own distinct personality, one can hear the connection in his full-bodied tone and singing line—not to mention the mutual sympathy with which he and Cheng played together. The “Spring” Sonata gave him ample scope to identify himself in a staple of the repertory, beloved to many. Both Schmidt and Cheng project much human warmth in their playing, and that, tempered by Schmidt’s elegant phrasing, made this an especially fulfilling performance. After the engaging first movement, they gave the slow movement, Adagio molto espressivo, its full breadth and feeling, meeting Beethoven’s music at its own very high level. They maintained their concentration through an energetic scherzo and the final, expansive Allegro ma non troppo. I think everyone realized that we were privileged to be present at an unforgettable occasion. I’ve never heard the “Spring” more fully realized.

Schmidt, Thompson, and Haimovitz gave and energetic reading of the early string trio that was robust in tone and brilliant in execution. I was listening to Matt Haimovitz’s playing with special interest, since I’d never heard him in the “standard” repertoire before. He played with both a healthy vibrato and precise intonation, fully engaged in the genial atmosphere of late-eighteenth century chamber music, although it was clear enough that he approaches this basic classical style as one of many idioms he has mastered. The young Beethoven managed to combine the good manners of a noble salon with his own fiery temperament and brilliance, as well as an ambition to encompass something more serious in expression. The musicians were attentive to all of this.

The “Archduke” Trio, surpassed in Beethoven’s oeuvre only by the Razumovsky and late quartets, fulfilled the promise of the “Spring” Sonata. There is no point in attempting a play-by-play account of this performance. It was simply a great performance, a total realization of the full range of expression available to the mature Beethoven. The thought that stayed with me throughout the performance was awe that a human being could have imagined this music. The players’ communication was that direct and comprehensive. Even at the most high-profile festivals and venues with world-renowned names on the program performances rarely come up to this level. And when musicians achieve this, as I have observed already, there is no room for comments on “conservative repertory” and the like. We heard the greatest music by the greatest composers in great performances. That needs no further justification. Bravo M. Brott, and gratitude for this outstanding festival.

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L'Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.
Richard M Harrington liked this post
  • Loved the article. have been attending the Festival for several years and it gets better and better.
    Just one thing I was intrigued by. Your statement that the church was built on the site of a Jewish cemetery. What is your source of information for this?
    Regards, David

    • The Editor Profile

      Thank you, David. I’m delighted you like my article. I hope to do more in Montreal in the future.

      I got the information about the Jewish cemetery from a historical plaque which is posted on the fence on Peel, if I remember correctly. There’s a lot of interesting information about the excavations going on across the street as well.