Russia After Revolution

When Douglas McNabney –artistic director of  Toronto Summer Music Festival–programmed tonight’s concert, an evening of music that explores at least two compositions of the Soviet Era framed quaintly in the context of the Modernist experiment of the mid-20th Century– it’s unlikely he could have imagined that current events might seek to turn back the clock. Who would imagine that anyone –Alexander Putin most prominently–still cherishes the dream of a Soviet Empire? Futures that never happened have a certain poignancy, like an interrupted song. And yet no matter how noble a dream in its conception, there are often those who turn a dream into a nightmare, misreading or corrupting the original ideals.

Decades later? it’s the music not the political message that resounds, that wins any such debate: so long as the composer refused to be silenced. And so tonight’s program at Walter Hall titled “Russia After Revolution” is really about the music, about approaches to art, notwithstanding attempts to censor or silence free expression. But there are ways to be expressive & original without necessarily being dissonant or revolutionary with the music.

I’m pondering modernity & newness because the theme of TSM is “The Modern Age”, a time that’s passed. What was modern, exactly? The word is kind of dated, one that i think i used when i was a child, one that’s not so relevant now. In fact, used precisely, “modern” is as quaint & old as any other historical period for art or music: for instance “Soviet.”

We began with Prokofiev’s “Sonata for Two Violins”, played by Jonathan Crow and Martin Beaver.

Of tonight’s three works this was the boldest experiment in sound, even if it sometimes displays a comfortable neoclassical blend of old & new. Jonathan Crow and Martin Beaver made an arresting pair, in contrasts on several fronts (such as their physical appearance & body language, their native tone, and their approach). The disparity between the two violin sounds made for a vivid dialogue between the two, as if they were characters rather than instruments. There are moments of genuine dissonance, a few startling passages alongside others that are more conventional.

The second item took us a long way away from Russia, which is only a problem if you need the program to be 100% Russian. The “Phantasy Quintet“ by Ralph Vaughan Williams –a string quartet with an extra viola—is “modern” only via its chronology. Vaughan Williams does not push back the frontiers of music with edgy new procedures, but instead invokes older approaches, luscious sounds that make exquisite use of each instrument alone, or in groups. Crow & Beaver were joined by cellist Marc Coppey, and violas Paul Coletti and Douglas McNabney, the latter the Festival’s artistic director (i’m glad i finally had a chance to hear him play). Coletti and Crow had several stirring solo moments, particularly one near the end from Crow—speaking of birds—that reminds me of  “The Lark Ascending”. I’m glad to discover such a lovely piece, that I need to hear again at some point.

Violinist Jonathan Crow

Violinist Jonathan Crow

After the interval we were back in Soviet Russia, this time with Shostakovich’s Piano quintet in G Minor, Op 57. I was surprised from my experience of the composer at how safe the piece is. I suppose at this time the music was not meant to startle or challenge its audience. The work employs the quartet that played with McNabney but this time joined by pianist Angela Cheng.

Toronto Summer Music continues until August 12th.

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