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If Tuesday’s concert at Mazzoleni Hall was any indication, Sunday’s audience at Wigmore Hall in London is in for a treat from seven members of the ARC Ensemble, the elite squad of professional performers from Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.
They presented an evening of beautiful music gorgeously played.
That, in itself, is nothing extraordinary. What takes the ARC Ensemble and its artistic director Simon Wynberg from the great to the specially noteworthy is how they are reintroducing the world to music that has otherwise been forgotten or overlooked.
It isn’t a matter of scraping up dusty second-rate sheets stuck to the bottom shelves of obscure libraries, but shining a bright light on music that deserves a place in the first rank of Western compositions.
We heard two pieces from 1945: a Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Soviet composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), and a Piano Quartet on Popular Polish Themes by Szymon Laks (1901-1983). There was also a reconstruction of a Violin Sonata movement by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and a Piano Quartet in C minor by Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984) from 1921.
You’re forgiven for not having heard of anyone but Mendelssohn.
Even under the best of circumstances, the vast majority of music disappears with its times. This return to ash and dust is exacerbated during wars, genocides and other tumultuous times, the most tumultuous of all having been the Holocaust and World War II. After that time, a need to purge so much that led to the conflict in the first place essentially eliminated even more pre-war music from the repertoire.
Fortunately, as Wynberg writes in the concert’s extensive programme notes (which will also be read in London over the weekend), “a return to tonality has created a giant smorgasbord of musical options, for both the creator and listener,” — including a new appreciation for some of the fine composers tossed aside by German and Soviet politics of the 1930s and ’40s.
Weinberg, a protégé of Dmitri Shostakovich’s, showed off a deft blend of the lyrical and angular in his Sonata, which paired clarinettist Joaquin Valdepeñas with pianist Dianne Werner in a very elegant interpretation. The final movement was the most interesting; it kept wanting to make a big statement that was subverted by restlessness and anxiety — before finally subsiding into a semblance of calm or acceptance.
The four-movement Piano Quintet by Laks turned out to be a robust affair, played with a lot of verve by Werner, violinists Erika Raum and Benjamin Bowman, violist Steven Dann and cellist Bryan Epperson. The third-movement Vivace, which worked as a classical scherzo, began with clever and lively pizzicato work and had an overall sound and structure that was timelessly modern.
The evening’s two highlights were the last two pieces. For these, Werner was replaced by pianist David Louie, who had assembled his own reconstruction of some teenage musical ideas of Mendelssohn’s into a virtuosic showpiece for himself and Bowman. I can’t imagine a serious solo violinist who would not want to sink his or her bow into this exuberant music.
The programme was capped by Ben-Haim’s Piano Quartet, written when the future father of Israeli art music was still German composer Paul Frankenberger. It is a late-Romantic treat that, like so much chamber music of that style, wants to bust its chamber-music boundaries and become something much larger and more symphonic.
Louie, Bowman, Dann and Epperson dug into this thick, rich, fertile musical soil with gusto, making for a memorable performance of a work that has probably never been heard in concert in North America before. The progamme notes tell Londoners that the piece has not been heard in Europe since a German radio broadcast in 1932.
This and the other pieces deserve to be heard and enjoyed many more times. The stories of their composers need to be re-told. And all Torontonians should be especially proud that such a fine group of artists from our city has taken it upon itself to do this work.
The ARC Ensemble recorded a full album of Ben-Haim’s work at Koerner Hall in January, which should be released by British label Chandos this summer.