by Anthony Kershaw
May 2, 2013. Koerner Hall, Toronto, ON — A change of venue for the The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto Recital Series final gala concert — Walter Hall of the University of Toronto was replaced by larger Koerner Hall, the Telus sponsored concert space of the Royal Conservatory of Music. And what a splendid hall it is. Handsome, with wonderful acoustics.
It served as a perfect venue for what seemed like a Canadian ‘All Star’ concert; luxuriantly, in mid afternoon, mid week. James Ehnes, violin, Russell Braun, baritone and Carolyn Maule, piano are no strangers to Canadian classical music fans. In fact, I’d consider the fabulous Ehnes to be the Michael Bublé of classical (now, there’s a quote. Not!). There seemed to be a good number of young violin fans in addition to the venerable subscription audience. Lots of influential musicians, too, including a few international conductors.
Good looks and engaging stage presence apart, Ehnes is a brilliant musician and must now be considered among the top handful of stellar fiddlers. It has been a pleasure hearing this man grow from virtuoso to artist.
Baritone Russell Braun is Toronto trained and also resident. He is one of the international vocal stars that Canada seems to be able to produce at will. Must be the clean air, water and good Canadian living. Braun sings leading baritone roles at all the great opera houses and festivals, including New York’s Met, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Salzburg Festival, not forgetting right here in Toronto’s own vastly improved Canadian Opera Company.
Performing the accompanying duties for today’s concert was the well known pianist, Carolyn Maule. She is the wife of Russell Braun.
The program was eclectic but was performed so well, that musical hopscotch — a dash of Bach to a Beethoven song cycle to a smidgen of Paganini to a commissioned work by John Estacio and a series of idyllic English songs — did not seem to matter. The playing/singing was so wonderful that this listener could sit back and enjoy the show. Be gone musical and thematic connections. Just enjoy music for music’s sake.
The top and tail of the concert required all three performers, and they were a happy musical trio — beautiful blend and chamber music making of the highest quality.
It was the solo repertoire where both Ehnes and Braun showed why they are among the best at what they do. Ehnes held the audience spellbound during his two solo turns — the mighty Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 and three of Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin. I’ve heard Ricci and Midori play Pag as brilliantly, although Ehnes’ left hand pizzicato in No. 24 was brilliant AND musical. I’ve not heard the heartbreaking Chaconne played better. It was magnificent. Every complex line made sense, the tuning was flawless, and the myriad of timbres he produced on the ex-Marsick Stradivarius (1715) spellbinding, until the final heartbreaking note. A note of such depth, beautiful tone, and drawn out to the most minute, controlled pianissimo. It transported the audience from concert hall to somewhere celestial.
‘Who the hell could follow that’, I thought.
Braun did, and within a few bars of Beethoven’s exquisite song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’, Op. 98, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. I did not know the cycle and I’m not the biggest fan of Beethoven’s vocal music, but these six connected songs are worthy of Schubert. Once more, the idea of a ‘Distant Beloved’ in Beethoven’s life served as sublime inspiration. In these, and the final works of the afternoon, songs inspired by the poetry of Cambridge Don, A.E. Houseman, Braun delighted in the musical line and in producing a wide range of emotion. Whether singing quietly (and so sweetly) in his highest tessitura or plumbing the depths with power, Braun’s voice was expressive and in service to each song’s story. It was interesting that in his few introductory words about songs, Braun mentioned how inspired he was by the great Ehnes’ playing. I was thinking Ehnes must have felt the same way about Braun’s singing.
Early in their careers, Ehnes and Braun were the recipients of study grants from the outreach programs of the Womens’ Musical Club of Toronto (WMCT). In celebration of these great musicians on this final gala concert of its 115th season, the WMCT commissioned a new work for baritone, violin and piano by the Edmonton - based composer John Estacio (b. 1966). He was hitherto unknown to me. A lady sitting in the next seat was very enthusiastic in telling me all about him. We had some violin groupies attending, but for a modern classical composer? Estacio was sitting a few rows over. The lady kept looking to see his reactions to the superb performance. I assume Estacio was happy. His song cycle ‘Away and Awake in the Night’ was melodic and passionate and much more than an audience pleaser. More inspiration about the pursuit of a ‘beloved’. Estacio has a singular musical voice. But completely accessible, inspiring and enjoyable. Certainly not what James Galway calls ’squeaky gate music’. I’m looking forward to hearing more of his music.
It was warm, the sun was shining and patrons were milling in and around Koerner Hall after the concert. As I walked to the subway, I realized how lucky I was to be in the city after hearing such quality music making at what was basically a lunchtime concert. This afternoon delight will rank very high in a season of wonderful music making in the ever improving musical Toronto.
Hier, in meines Vaters Stätte from Cantata No. 32, BWV 32
Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muss from Cantata No. 117, BWV 117
Chaconne for solo violin from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98
Caprices for solo violin
No. 9 - Allegretto in E major “The Hunt”
No. 16 - Presto in G minor
No. 24 - Tema–Quasi Presto–Variazioni–Finale
in A minor
Song cycle “Away and Awake in the Night” for baritone, violin, and piano
Butterworth, Vaughan-Williams and Samuel Barber
A Shropshire Lad: English Songs based on the poetry by A.E. Housman