By Paul Shore
The Westman region is fortunate to have a world-class music festival right in its backyard: the Clear Lake Chamber Music Festival, buy held each year in Onanole, an hour north of Brandon, features artists with national and international reputations. This year’s festival ran from August 23 through 28, with musical offerings that ranged from the serious to the inspiring to the just plain fun. This reviewer was at four of the performances.
James Ehnes, a Brandon native and violin virtuoso who has performed all over the world, performed on opening night with the distinguished pianist Alexander Tselyakov, professor of music at Brandon University. Well-known composers such as Grieg and Prokofiev shared billing with the Belgian Eugene Ysaye, and the Soviet and Russian composer of movie soundtracks Alfred Schnittke. As an encore Ehnes performed the Fritz Kreisler crowd pleaser “Liebesleid” (“Love’s Sorrow”).
Although not constructed specifically with chamber music in mind, the community center in Onanola was a pleasant surprise for concertgoers: its acoustics are excellent and the building is spacious enough to accommodate the items offered in a silent auction during intermissions.
The offerings the second night were eclectic and more ultimately demanding of the audience (and perhaps of the performers as well). After a rendering of the beloved Bach Partita no. 3 and a James Ehnes, again with Alexander Tselyakov his partner on piano gave another performance of Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” along with its more upbeat bookend “Liebesfreude.” Haydn’s popular Piano Trio No 39 in G major, or “Gypsy Trio,” played by Ehnes on violin Tselyakov on piano, with Rafael Hoekman on cello: the third movement, marked “Rondo a l’Ongarese: Presto” features Roma or “Gypsy” inspired passages, perhaps a result of the many years the composer spent in Hungary. The evening concluded with an impressive performance of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Trio No. 2 in E minor, opus 67, featuring performers Ehnes, Daniel Tselyakov, and Hoekman. Written during the Second World War, and dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s friend Ivan Sollertinsky, this work with its mournful references to the fate of European Jewry, is both technically and emotionally demanding for the performers, who rose to the challenge and rendered both its more somber and lighter passages with power. Cellist Rafael Hoekman’s bowing and tone quality were especially memorable.
This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Hungarian composer, pianist and ladies’ man Franz Liszt, and one of the convert evening was devoted to his works. Subtitled “Salut d’Amour” (Love’s greeting”), and narrated by Brandon University musicologist Colette Simonot, the evening’s entertainment included some seldom performed Liszt songs, sung in German and French by soprano Naomi Forman. Forman demonstrated great versatility, from romantic ardor in “Oh, quand je dors” to a mixture of allure and danger in “Der Fischerknabe.”
An ensemble of Daniel Tselyakov, piano; Joyce Lai, violin; Rafael Hoekman, cello and Catherine Wood, clarinet performed an unusual arrangement of one of Liszt’s most famous pieces, “Liebestraum” while Joyce Lai, violin; Tomomi Brennan, violin; Ian Clarke, viola; Rafael Hoekman, cello and Crystal Tait, double bass performed a transcribed excerpt from Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage. Daniel Tselyakov, a student at Brandon University, concluded the concert with a rendition of the devilish “Mephisto Waltz” played with fire and technical brilliance.
One evening of the festival was dedicated to the proposition that chamber music doesn’t have to be serious. And what’s more, it doesn’t even have to be only about humans! Poet Ogden Nash wrote a series of very short verses about our furry and feathered friends that composer Anthony Plog set to music and entitled “Animal Ditties.”
Most of the audience (including this reviewer) did not know that they might be in for. Plog’s approach is to have a narrator (Naomi Forman, accompanied by Kara Dixon on piano and Joel Brennan on trumpet) read the poem while various solo instruments created quirky musical portraits of the creature in question, as when Ms. Forman declaimed
The song of canaries never varies
And when they’re molting,
They’re pretty revolting.
This was a chance for a number of the chamber musicians to show their unconventional and humorous sides, demonstrated in each case with considerable virtuosity.
Naomi Foreman, accompanied by Kara Dixion on the piano, later demonstrated both her vocal skills and her comic timing in solo pieces with names such as “The Latte Boy” and “The Alto’s Lament” (in which we heard some surprising alto melody lines sung to well known Broadway show tune lyrics).
Later in the evening Wolfgang Schröder’s “Eine kleine Lachmusik” (A Little Laugh Music”) for String Quartet was entertaining in a completely different way. The quartet segued—sometimes violently- from one well-known classical theme to another, the joke building on the audience’s knowledge of each piece and the incongruity of one theme piled right on top of another. And frankly this was an opportunity for audience members to show how knowledgeable they were—a sort of higher brow version of P. D. Q. Bach’s classical pastiches.
In addition to these performances, the Festival also featured a cruise jazz concert and an all jazz evening, featuring Greg Gatien, saxophone, Michael Cain, piano and Eric Platz on percussion.
One of the beauties of this festival is the coming together of seasoned and renowned performers and gifted younger musicians advancing in their careers. The chance to hear both familiar and unfamiliar works in a setting intimate enough to watch the interactions among the performers is another considerable plus. But most important of all, the entire concept of “chamber music” is stretched and taken in new directions by these musicians. And this is a good thing, lest we should end up imagining chamber music as an acquired and rarified taste, and something to be found only in our largest cities.
The Clear Lake Chamber Music Festival plans to return next August to Onanole.