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article imageReview: Summer music festival bridges old and new worlds Special

By Cate Kustanczy     Jul 23, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - The Toronto Summer Festival kicked off its ninth season Tuesday night at Toronto's Koerner Hall with a bravura performance by the Grammy award-winning Emerson String Quartet.
Now in its ninth year, the Festival has chosen to highlight early 20th century works this season, underlining connections between that era and our own. With a program full of varied works (including a tango night) by a range of composers (including Dvorak, Prokofiev, Brahms, Haydn, Strauss, Kodaly, and Schoenberg) and some stellar guests (including Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and the New York-based Orion String Quartet), the program offers bold choices and brave pairings in its musical selections, something Artistic Director Douglas McNabney clearly was aiming for in his opening night speech at the acoustically impressive Koerner Hall.
McNabney explained that the inspiration for this year's Modern Age theme sprung from the early 20th century combination of art, politics, and changing social structures; he also implied how that unique combination (and related tensions) has something to impart to our own era, particularly in terms of the shifting definitions and identities within broader society. As society changes, so does art, and, it follows, so do one's definitions of where and how one fits within the wider world. The wildly different artistic visions of the early 20th century, he explained, came about at an interesting point in history, when industry, technology, politics, medicine, and sexual mores were all changing. These shifts found expression through art, including sharply contrasting music styles, ones that reflected a societal upheaval that would lead to not only new technologies and advances, but altered identities and ideas about the self.
Parallels to our own age are inevitable, especially if one considers the role of digital culture has played (and continues to play) in breaking down and re-forming ideas around identity, community, the nature of creativity and the definition of innovation; just as the early 20th century witnessed the fall of old forms and the rise of new ones, so too, does the early 21st century experience such shifts, ones which are, perhaps, most keenly felt within the artistic realm, where notions of authorship, authenticity, and ownership are more at play than ever.
The idea of a changing cultural landscape was strongly reflected in the opening night program of the Toronto Summer Music Festival (on now through August 12), where the works of Beethoven, Britten, and Schubert bumped up against each other in sometimes surprising, if delightfully inspiring ways. Beethoven's String Quartet in F Minor (the so-called "Serioso") offered a furious, busy contrast to Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2, which followed immediately after. Members of the award-winning Emerson String Quartet seemed athletic at times in their bowing, with cellist Paul Watkins offering a particularly knowing, confident anchor in balancing precision and drama. Though Britten's work incorporates a Baroque form (the chaconne, which has a continuous variation and a repetitive bass line, something Purcell — whom Britten greatly admired — used regularly), it is still solidly modern in its varied use of sounds and integration of its four parts, what with its drones, machine gun-like arpeggios and surprising tonal leaps.
The Emerson String Quartet.
The Emerson String Quartet.
Image via Toronto Summer Music Festival
Compare this with the Beethoven work, a piece the program notes compares to a thistle and its "prickly stems. But the rugged growth also has many admirers on account of its beautiful flower." Busy with intertwining melodies and motifs that are built up and just as quickly demolished, the work derives a delicious tension between its heavy and lighter moments, between the serious and the playful, a tension the Quartet captured beautifully. It makes for a sobering contrast with Britten's more sombre, moody if intellectual work. The quartet nicely incorporated the aerobic in with the poetic elements of Beethoven's score, reveling in the work's energy even as they skillfully teased out the bookish nerd hiding within the cloak of the loud bully. The interpretation made for thrilling listening.
The thrills increased with the foursome's gorgeous reading of Schubert's famous String Quartet in D Minor ("Death and the Maiden"), one that seemed to encapsulate all the themes and contrasts McNabney hinted at in his speech. By turns classical, romantic, and beguilingly modern, the work was given a particularly intense reading, its quiet moments filled with a scintillating integration of dread and beauty, its furious final Presto probing, raging, dynamic, and clearly referencing the frenetic pace of a tarantella, the much-loved Italian folk dance. With a balance of soulfulness and technique, the Quartet completely captured Schubert's mix of ferocity and serenity within the score.
Though frequently performed (and widely loved), the "Death and the Maiden"work isn't always given the depth and degree of understanding afforded it by the Quartet on Tuesday evening. It was a treat to experience such commitment, and when, at the final note, the "Death" figure that so haunts the piece was left in limbo, the outpouring of love and appreciation left no doubt as to the winner of the immortal struggle. "Welcome, O Life!" one wanted to shout —a line which seems perfectly in keeping with the Festival's celebration of the Modern Age this season. We may be enamored of our tech toys, but as the Toronto Summer Music Festival so skillfully reminds us, there's much value in looking back; we might just find the view in front of us is just as challenging, painful, and ultimately, beautiful.
More about Toronto Summer Music Festival, TSMF, Douglas McNabney, Classical music, Koerner Hall
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