The Toronto Summer Music Festival presented a mixed program of Ernst von Dohnányi, Felix Mendelssohn and a selection of songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Stefano Donaudy, Gerald Finzi and Franz Schubert.
Dohnánya: Piano Quintet No.1 in C minor, Op.1
Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Adagio, quasi andante
Hahn: À Chloris; L’énamourée
Donaudy: O del mio amato ben
Finzi: O Mistress of Mine
Schubert: Wohin?; Am Feierabend
Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20
Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo
saturday night was the third night of The Toronto Music (TSM) Festival and delivered a combination of vocal and chamber works from a diverse selection of six composers, with an underlying theme of ‘Youthful Brilliance’--which is perhaps the more publishable alternative to ‘Genius teenagers that’ll make you feel bad about yourself’. that was apparently one of the curatorial factors that went into putting together this program, showcasing the early works of inexplicably precocious young composers by up-and-coming virtuosos (all Fellows of the TSM Academy). the other factor, also a consistent theme throughout this month-long festival, is the diversity of performers onstage. the TSM’s international recruitment for the 2019 Art of Song Program brought thirty-three musicians from six countries, fifteen of which participated in this program. although there were standouts, all of the performances were carried out with a clarity of vision and refinement of musical sensibilities to call into question their categorization by the TSM as being on the ‘verge’ of professional careers.
in the introductory speech to the first item in the program, pianist jialiang zhu (hainan, china)brought our attention on the often less-than-obvious barrier that the program was addressing: age. indeed, all of the musicians are between the ages of 18-35; the dohnányi quartet was written when the composer was eighteen years old and the Octet in E-Flat was composed by mendelssohn at the green and golden age of sixteen. the effectiveness of a musical-moment, however, is independent of how young the composer was at its inception, or how old the piece is today; and that is the attitude exemplified by the performers as they brought to each piece a freshness and enthusiasm that made these works feel relevant.
opening with dohnányi’s Piano Quintet No.1, the program took a very slight deviation from the previous night of the festival (an all-quartet program with the New Orford Quartet). the piece opens with the main subject on piano--zhu never loses her handle as the lead throughout--dohnányi returns to this subject again in the closing coda of the piece. the first movement is a frenzy of phrases adopted and shortly abandoned by the string instruments: there are repeated segments of the violin responding to phrases suggested on cello, at times pizzicato on cello pitches the viola into a speaking melody. it’s the kind of pace one expects of a budding composer sounding out their technical knobs and yanking their creative levers, headlong and uncomfortable with any stretch of quiet. this back-and-forth volley continues into the second movement to make for some very satisfying interruptions of one stringed instrument by another, all the while the piano accompaniment is running steady circles around the quartet.the slumber-inducing third movement, Adagio quasi andante, is as well an opportunity for highlights on the viola, creating a warm and muted sigh in the hands of matthews eeuwes (stouffville, ontario). the fourth movement opens with a jolt as the tempo speeds up to Allegro and the quintet takes on several gallivanting rhythms, pausing briefly for a duet between viola and cello (played by the New Orford Quartet’s brian manker in his role as a guest artist). the rest of the movement is a shuffle of Schubertian lyricism (in the charging style of Erlkonig). the piano has a several asides with pizzicato strings and after a couple false finishes, zhu hammers that opening theme to bring the movement to a close.
next in the jukebox, and the highlight of the evening for me, were two pairs of piano/singer duos, performing arias of the unrequited-love variety. soprano yunji shim (seoul, south korea), seconded by Julliard pianist (by way of calgary, alberta) bronwyn schuman---the pair cranked up the heat with a sizzling combination of shim’s piercing wails and schuman’s expressive phrasing. shim is a fine and promising actor on stage, her gestures extended naturally from the visuals of the libretto, and despite her french accent that is perhaps still a couple lessons away from believable, she believed in the words she was singing and that enough was convincing. sailing through two songs by french-venezuelan composer reynaldo hahn, shim is at full mast when she takes on stefano donaudy’s O del mio amato ben (Oh lost enchantment of my love), raising eyebrows left and right.
keep an eye out for toronto baritone clarence frazer, his stage-presence means business and he’s got the voice to back it up. alongside pianist julie choi (seoul, south korea)--whose metronomic composure paired well with frazer--the two took on british composer gerald finzi’s O Mistress of Mine and Let us Garlands Bring as well as two arias from franz schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. frazer’s best moment was during The Miller’s Daughter from the latter collection---with his performance one forgets of the singer and sees instead the tired longings of the factory worker schubert had in mind.
the last item on the program is a double-quartet, mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20. it is splashed all throughout with premonitions of the cosmic sprawls of the violin concerto he was yet to write. as something of a mantra: whatever can be done, is always better done standing up---you can tell, for example, that the person on the other end of a phone conversation is standing or sitting, their voice and word choices relay more vertical instincts. by that (ambitious) logic it’s fair to say musicians sound better standing up (save for obvious exceptions, pianists, cellists etc); Tafelmusik is my case-and-point. it was a beautiful scene to see the eight musicians standing huddled is a loose arc, symmetrically divided with the cellos in the middle. with guest artist andrew wan (also of the New Orford Quartet) at the helm of the violins, this long and complex piece--with its valiant screaming subjects and furious cello cadenzas--was cheerfully and technically well executed. the standout in the group for me was cellist jaeyoung chong (daegu, south korea) who was captivating to watch, a musician absolutely in love with his instrument, nimble and forceful enough to create a sound that is both strong and supple.
thus ended a program that was filled with a good amount of variety and played by performers who--like the young composers’ works they brought us--were a balance of technical prowess mixed with the giddy realization that they’re actually doing that thing they trained so hard for.
the Toronto Summer Music festival runs from july 11th to august 3rd.