There are musical moments that lift you up into a jet stream you ride till your feet are on the pavement again. Last evening in Koerner Hall was a flow of such moments as the Amici Chamber Ensemble celebrated their first set of twenty-five musical years.
The quivering voice of guest Jonathan Crow’s violin introduced the uniquely cheerful Beethoven Septet in E flat major with high notes that gave pure pleasure to my ear. The duo of cello and bass took two-tone care of the movement’s low register; clarinet paired with bassoon made the mid-register mellow. All seven movements of this “galant” divertimento were delightfully played and sparkled with charm. The Septet was at one time Beethoven’s favourite work, but in later years he wished it “could be burned”. The composer’s pleasure and displeasure with this work, alongside its perpetual popularity and my own delight last night make me wish there were a quantum level of music in which every possible feeling about a performance could be true.
The core Amici trio, Serouj Kradjian (piano), Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet) and cellist David Hetherington have played everything from Haydn through Hindemith to Higdon. When a project needs more help, as this night’s did, they expand the Ensemble to include their friends, many of whom are principal section chairs of the Toronto Symphony, the Canadian Opera, and the Royal Conservatory Orchestras.
Amici’s expansive chamber repetoire often features song. The whole second half of this concert show-cased the glorious voice of soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. Always in-character onstage, and totally at ease, her performances were simultaneously down-to-earth and larger-than-life. She joined the Amici in bringing out the festive colours of Poulenc’s mad-cap carnival freakshow Le bal masqué (1932), and the langorous, sensual Cinco canciones negras by Montsalvatge, arranged for her by Serouj Kradjian.
The vocal program opened on a note of pathos with Chanson perpétuelle, for soprano and piano quintet, Op. 37 (1898) by Ernest Chausson. Bayrakdarian plays the role of a woman so in love, but so injured by her lover’s neglect, that she decides to drown herself. This is a sad tale for a celebration, but Chausson’s through-composed score and the dramatic conviction that flows through Bayrakdarian’s body and voice as she sings, make you feel the steady current of love that is carrying the woman towards her life’s closing gesture.
Poulenc carried the evening back to a more antic disposition. Le bal masqué (1932) is Poulenc’s carnival parade of childish monsters, colour-illustrated crimes of the Sunday papers, and sundry irresistable eccentricities. Bayrakdarian surprises by staying off-stage for the preamble, makes her entrance saucy as a vixen, and gets right into the fun of it. She sings merrily mocking “Madame Dauphine, fine, fine, fine,” counts tiles on the roof with the comte d’Artois, minces about in blue stockings with Malvina “who comes to die of love at your door.” and while she sings of the “fat and blind woman, whose eyes bleed [while she] writes polite letters,” Isabel’s eyes are convincingly blank. The ensemble of oboe, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, violin, cello, percussion and piano, helped her build such comic tension that the audience had to be forgiven for bursting out in applause between movements.
This eclectic evening of “white” European music ended in Cuba with Xavier Montsalvatge’s most often-performed song cycle, Cinco canciones negras (“Five Black Songs”, 1946). Originally written for mezzo and piano, Amici’s Serouj Kradjian made a colourful arrangement for the entire ensemble to play behind La Bayrakdarian who sang about Cuba before “‘si’ became ‘Yes’.” Together they animated various earthy characters: an eighteenth century creole girl with her long white skirt, a man with a scar from a razor who becomes "a blade himself, [and] takes slices out of the moon,” and “a little black baby who won’t go to sleep.”
An evening with Amici always sets me back on the pavement feeling my humanity, all the more when there is someone who puts words to the music. It was the English poet A.E. Housman who wrote that a good song makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. That’s what happened during the second encore as Isabel Bayrakdarian sang Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” (“I have no regrets”). I feel safe in saying that is the Amici Ensemble’s message about their last twenty-five years, and counting.
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