Toronto Summer Music Festival audience members who experienced Friday night’s performance of Brahms’ Sextet No. 2 and Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence by some of Canada’s leading musicians were no doubt left in awe.
Featuring Scott St. John and Mark Fewer on violin, Steven Dann, Sharon Wei and Douglas McNabney on viola, and Shauna Rolston and Mathias Gredler (an honourary Canadian for the night) on cello, these accomplished musicians showed great chemistry despite playing as an ad hoc ensemble.
Brahms and Tchaikovsky, two great Romantic composers, are known for writing music that takes the audience on an emotional ride filled with rousing passions and tender longing. The orchestral colours of Brahms and the influence of Russian folk tunes on Tchaikovsky could easily be heard in their sextets.
When playing in a group that is rather like a mini string orchestra, the performers have to switch expertly between ensemble and solo playing. Each performer carries distinct lines of music and cannot afford to falter.
The group’s focus was somewhat distracted by audience movements in the intimate Walter Hall, but by the end of the first movement of the Brahms they had found their groove.
Despite good intentions in the packed venue, the sound did not resonate enough to pick up the musical ebb and flow that Brahms is known for. Subtle interplays between the instruments gradually built to climaxes that lacked presence.
On rare occasions, it was also difficult to discern the musical lines and hear their relation to each other.
Fortunately, everything changed from the sound of the first note in the Tchaikovsky. Any un-met expectations Brahms devotees might have had were surely forgotten.
The evening’s second half demonstrated the effects of different leadership styles, as St. John and Rolston took over the first violin and cello positions, and festival artistic director Douglas McNabney replaced Sharon Wei on viola.
The ensemble’s dynamic range expanded dramatically, while the comparatively clearer texture of the Souvenir de Florence allowed each performer to shine.
If not for the sheer force of convention and tradition, there was no doubt the audience would have raised their hands in applause at the conclusion of the brilliant first movement. Instead we heard a collective gasp of amazement.
The inspired solos and breathtaking rendition of majestic Russian passages brought the house to its feet in appreciation for some incredible music-making, and lots of pride in our Canadian talent.
Margaret Lam is a music researcher and writer. You can find her on margism.com.