After the complete Bach Suites, Shostakovich String Quartets and Mozart Viola Quintets, the 2012 Montreal Chamber Music Festival called it a wrap with a four-hour celebration called "Dvorak in America" held June 2, at St. George's Church.
Featuring a high-flying gaggle of Canadian quartets, the concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony and a rare sighting of artistic director Denis Brott in his cellist's chair. And yet, with all the strings, it was a 17-year-old keyboard polymath from NYC named Conrad Tao, who stole the show with a once-in-a-lifetime performance of the rarely-encountered American Suite, Op. 98.
Tao is ready for his own TV show: he plays music as if the composer were at his side, with color, joy and spontaneous poetry. He composes, studies, researches, writes. He uses words like "gestation" when he talks. Like that whiz kid on the West Coast, Conrad Tao should be licensed to operate by the time he's 21.
Of course, any respectable chamber-music festival needs a few pianists to really make things tick. And say what you want for strings and winds, you haven't heard Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" until you have heard them for piano four hands. There's something about the direct nature of the writing, the close proximity of the performers on the bench, and the irresistible charm that Dvorak invests in every bar and every note. Nothing is casually thrown in for effect, although the effects are many and varied, especially in rousing performances by Tao and David Jalbert, whose Goldberg Variations, newly recorded by ATMA Classique, was a hit at the 2011 Festival.
The effect was heightened by a young cello student-turned-page turner named Isabelle David, whose intoxicating beauty was nothing compared to the way she felt the music as if she were a performer herself—she turned the pages as if Dvorak had written the music with a page turner in mind. (Being a page turner is often like sitting in the exit row on a airplane; it seems like a good idea at first, but then you realize you have a big responsibility and the tension grows and the enjoyment ceases.)
Dvorak with strings isn't so bad either.
The Cecilia Quartet served up its signature Dvorak Quartet, Op.106, with unique, silvery passion. Aside from first violinist, they looked like refugees from Dark Shadows, but they played like angels and made Dvorak's restless, last-movement meanderings into something unbearably poignant. (The look may be advance marketing for their forbidding next recording for Analekta: Janacek, Berg and Webern).
The Cecilias' "American" Piano Quintet, Op. 81, with a richly-collaborative Jalbert avoided tradition and routine, so personal was each phrase, so completely did they allow themselves to fall under the music's spell.
In the midst of this congenial, collegial, convivial Dvorak, Andrew Wan, the Montreal Symphony concertmaster who played the Shostakovich First under Kent Nagano on the previous Monday night, and Tao played the G major Sonatine perfectly aligned with the music's reflective, lyrical core.
The contrasts between Wan's elegant violin playing and high sensitivity to the music's infinitely subtle store of feints and gestures, as if he were a young Szigeti (i.e., still with chops) and Tao's incandescent, highly intellectualized fire, was both soothing and exhilarating.
And then, at the last, there was Denis Brott leading the cellos and Barry Schiffman leading the violas as the two quartets, colleagues and students formed the band for Dvorak's E Major Serenade, which was not written in, after or about America, but was appropriate in its consoling, optimistic tone. Once past the sepulchral first movement, which was undoubtedly due to the emotions of the night, the intimate performance was just about right for a composer who had love, a young wife, and a new son on his mind.
It was as nurturing as life at a chamber-music festival in Montreal.
- Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. V—It's a Wrap!
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. IV, the Results
- The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt. III, The Finals
- Live from Montreal: The Montreal Violin Competition, Pt.II
- Making a Cello, Part II
- Live from Montreal!
- Making a Cello: Part One
- Remembering Master Cellist & Teacher Janos Starker, 1924–2013
- The Lindys in Indy, Day 5
- The Lindys in Indy, Day 4