Toronto Summer Music Festival (Part 6): Europe and the New World

Jonathan Crow (violin) and Philip Chiu (piano). Photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

Jonathan Crow (violin) and Philip Chiu (piano). Photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

The Toronto Summer Music festival presented a mixed program of sonatas for violin and piano by Brahms, Franck, Gershwin and Corigliano; performed by Jonathan Crow (violin) and Philip Chiu (piano) on July 29th at Walter Hall. 

1) Johannes Brahms: Scherzo in C minor, WoO 2 from “F-A-E” Sonata for violin and piano 

2) César Franck: Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major

  • Allegretto ben moderato (moderately fast)

  • Allegro (faster than allegro)

  • Recitativo-Fantasia: Ben moderato 

  • Allegretto poco mosso 

3) George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess (selections arranged by Jascha Heifetz)

  • “Summertime”/”A woman is a Sometime Thing”

  • “My Man’s Gone Now”

  • “Bess You is My Woman Now” 

  • “It Ain’t Necessarily So”

4) John Corigliano: Sonata for Violin and Piano 

  • Allegro

  • Andantino (slower than andante)

  • Lento (between Largo and Andante)

  • Allegro 

Philip Chiu; photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

Philip Chiu; photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

it’s been so real covering this year’s Toronto Summer Music (TSM) festival: even after fourteen hours of music over seven events, i still wanted more of the encore given by jonathan crow and his accompanying pianist phil chiu last night. the program, titled ‘Europe and the New World’, was a brief tour through germany, france and the USA via the vector of  piano/violin sonatas native to those countries. the festival’s underlying theme has been the various combinations of composers and performers that exemplify the belief in music as an experience that goes ‘Beyond Borders’. the program on monday evening was constructed by crow (also the festival’s artistic director) with this theme at the top of mind, the by-product of which was an eclectic collection of four sets of compositions that give a brilliant survey of the contradistinctive styles by which two instruments can interact with each other in sonata-form. beginning with just the Scherzo from the “F-A-E Sonata for violin and piano”, a gift for the celebrated violinist joseph joachim, the program moved onwards to the full stretch of césar franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major. next on the list were a selection of songs recomposed by jascha heifetz, another celebrated violinist, who reworked for piano and violin some arias from george gershwin’s prolific opera Porgy and Bess. the evening closed with a composer that’s in a very unusual category---still alive, that is---john corigliano’s 1963 Sonata for Violin and Piano; a work that, in the inventiveness of its last movement, verges almost on the territory of experimental noise-making. all in all in all, the heat waves of july have been a little bit more tolerable with the advent of a few hours of some superlatively performed chamber music that displayed the at times sublime and at times surreal intensities of string instruments. this is where i get off the TSM locomotive, though the festival continues through to august 3rd. 

crow and chiu made for some entertaining stage banter, providing an ample amount of context and at times comedic commentary to pad the nearly 2-hour program. awe, and even disbelief, are quite appropriate reactions to watching crow perform; but even in-between performances, in the manner with which he speaks about music, the breadth and corresponding depth of his knowledge and love for the art---it is apparent that the man is himself a musical institution of sorts. just a little bit over a week separated his all-consuming role as concertmaster and occasional soloist to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and his current role as artistic director and frequent performer during the TSM festival. he craft is in a tier above the usual violinist, above the technical virtuosity of mastering a particular instrument, and has become something of a de-facto historian of the genre, cultivating a delightful obsession with the minutiae surrounding a wide array of compositions and their composers. 

Jonathan Crow. Photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

Jonathan Crow. Photo by James Ireland for the Toronto Summer Music festival

the crow-show was besided by philip chiu, a montreal-based pianist ‘with a serious weakness for poutine’ who next to crow was just as entertaining to watch as he was to listen to. he is one of this festival’s standout performers for me (alongside violinist katya poplyansky, cellist jaeyoung chong and baritone clarence flazer) all of who make are able to make the best of every aspect of their time on stage. chiu takes it a bit further, embodying the score’s dynamic markings as a sort of call to action (playing his fortissimo as if with a pair of 9lb hammers) and his acting skills vividly convey the tempo markings, the levitating steadiness with which he delivers the Andantino of the corigliano Sonata for example. the two of them put on a show of engaging stage-presence for a long program that, in less confident hands, would have verged on tedium. 

beginning with a Scherzo written by brahms as a gift for the consummate violinist of his time, joseph joachim---with whom he workshopped much of his Violin Concerto in D Major---and was the third movement of a sonata written in collaboration with robert schumann and albert dietrich. the work is comprised mostly of recitation, with slight variations, of a three-note subject, bowed with bouncing alacrity by crow above a charging piano accompaniment by chiu. those three notes, F-A-E, are the abbreviation of the Romantic motto ‘Free but lonely’ (‘Frei aber einsam’ in german) that joachim identified with.

next on the docket was yet another gift to a violinist, this time from césar franck to eugène ysayë on the latter’s wedding day. the Sonata for Violin and Piano in A Major is constructed in a cyclical form, beginning and ending in Allegretto. the first movement features the aforementioned fortissimo fiesta by chiu, a pounding round on keyboards. the second movement speeds up to Allegro, with intricately laced figurations on the violin, laboriously and impeccable rendered by crow, and concludes in a crashing finale. a free-flowing Fantasia for the third movement placed crow in the foreground with all his attendant showmanship, thereafter striking a lighter tone for the closing Allegretto. 

i had a bit of a revelation during the chiu’s introduction to heifetz’s recomposition, for piano and violin, of selected arias from gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; unbeknownst to me, sidney bechet’s ‘Summertime’---one of my favourite jazz numbers---has the aforementioned opera as its basis. it’s a neat little exercise trying to identify the phrases that were transposed into bechet’s soprano saxophone and teddy bunn’s guitar accompaniment from this heifetz distillation, which is altogether a feistier, more headlong version. quite the opposite to bechet’s reclining and sultry Summertime.

the program concluded with a blistering performance of john corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano; composed in 1963 and was apparently a vestige of some daddy issues (his father was the stage-frightened concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic for a quarter of a century) combined with the young composer’s urgency to showcase his arsenal of ideas for the instrument. the first movement, a galloping Allegro, is a very muscular stretch of music on both instruments. crow, as usual, flicked each of the innumerable notes with surgical precision, sending notes ricocheting all over Walter Hall. so replete is this sonata with a stomping, jousting energy that even the Andantino is a reluctantly-slow procession, as if struggling with the very idea of tranquility: beneath chiu’s susurrus pianissimo, the violin part still maintains the anxious crackling energy of the preceding Allegro, the combination of which was like a duvet being wrestled by a restless child. this brief attempt at slumber is upended by an exclamatory introduction in the third movement, which gives way to a streak of shrill high notes and features a craggly cadenza that crow made an absolute meal of. 

the optimistic bent in the frantic energy of the 1st and 4th movements is perhaps the only ‘American’ thing about the work---inasmuch as optimism was that country’s primary export at that time on its history. returning again to Allegro, the irregular galloping rhythm sharpen its incline with a dramatic tone that seems intent on catastrophic collision. as an instrument, the violin is more or less a thing that shoots music out of an excruciating  angle; crow, in this fourth movement, never runs out of ammunition and chiu is almost unbelievable.

thus ends my coverage of the 2019 TSM festival; i remain very very grateful to jonathan crow and the TSM team for the amazing opportunity to participate in this festival; till next summer!