When the nights get longer and the temperatures begin to drop, one of the best ways to cozy up is with a good concert of chamber music. I Musici de Montréal and conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni presented “The Night Transfigured”, a program of works inspired by night to warm audiences at Bourgie Hall on Friday evening.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni
Jean-Marie Zeitouni

The concert began with the world première of composer Cassandra Miller’s After All, commissioned by the CBC to celebrate the friendship between Benjamin Britten and Montreal-born composer and musicologist Colin McPhee. One of the most exciting aspects of Miller’s composition, in addition to the plaintive violin solo, was the sheer number of parts into which the ensemble was divided. Often string ensembles are limited to traditional four-part textures with occasional divisi. In After All, the strings were divided through significant portions of the work, creating unique textures. Since the piece was relatively brief, clocking in at around six minutes, I was almost not ready for it to end – something one does not often say of new music!

Following the première was a dedicatory performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, forming the emotional heart of the performance. I Musici selected this well-loved work in memory of former concertmistress Eleonora Turovsky, who passed away at age 72 in 2012. She was a founding member of the ensemble and performed The Lark under the baton of her husband Yuli Yurovsky, I Musici’s former artistic director. All of the players were visibly moved to both share their former colleague’s memory as well as this beautiful music with the audience, and it was a joy to watch such passionate players.

Because The Lark is so influential and well loved, performances tend to gravitate towards two extremes – dull and sickeningly sweet. But, since the ensemble has a personal history with this work, concertmistress Julie Triquet’s interpretation of the violin solo was heart-wrenchingly sincere. During the many cadenzas written into the score, her playing was never for a moment indulgent, gratuitously improvisatory or over peppered with rubato.

The first half of the program ended with Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations. This perennial favorite has become even more popular this year due to the Britten anniversary. Soprano Dominique Labelle is no stranger to singing Les Illuminations and her performance Friday was very commanding. I only wish that Labelle had been programmed to sing more than one set, since her instrument is so lovely.

From the moment she brashly declared “I alone have the key to this savage parade” in the first movement to the end, she easily traversed the many moods of the piece. Zeitouni literally danced along to Britten’s score, mouthing the words along with Labelle. Marie-Andrée Benny (flute), Lise Beauchamp (oboe), Martin Carpentier (clarinet), Lise Millet (bassoon) and Laurence Latreille-Gagné (French horn) were welcome additions to I Musici’s core group of fifteen string players during this piece.

The second half of the program began with Mozart’s light-hearted Serenata notturna, providing an emotional counterpoint to the agitated Verklärte Nacht that concluded the concert. Zeitouni found the bits of humor that Mozart placed here and there throughout the score, particularly in the transitions during the final rondo. At times, I wish I wish Zeituoini had allowed the second violin to sing out a bit more – some of the playful counterpoint between it and the first violin was lost, placing emphasis on the soloist instead.

Considering that I Musici has a strong dedication to performing early music, it would be interesting in the future to hear works like this with the performers in their original spatial orientations. As the program mentioned, the serenade could have possibly been performed with each of the ensemble’s positions in different places around a room, or even in adjacent rooms or spaces, in order to create unique acoustic effects. An intimate venue like Bourgie Hall would facilitate this, giving both acoustic and visual delight to the audience.

Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, from which the program derived its name, concluded the concert. Though the performance was moving, I felt more “transfigured” by the earlier Lark, due the special significance the piece has for the ensemble, than during Verklärte Nacht itself. Still, I enjoyed hearing Schoenberg’s tone poem performed by a chamber ensemble which allowed each of the score’s inner parts to be clearly heard. Because the piece was originally scored for a sextet, only later being expanded for string orchestra, some of the more interesting imitative effects can get lost when a large orchestra performs the piece.

I highly recommend cozying up with the broadcast of this concert, in order to hear the performances of The Lark as well as the première performance of Miller’s After All in particular. It’s on CBC Radio 2 and online.