Tonight’s Toronto Summer Music Concert featured violinist Jonathan Crow & pianist Philip Chiu.
The first guy is the draw. Jonathan Crow is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster, and in his first season as the artistic director of Toronto Summer Music Festival. When he came out into the corridor afterwards you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a rock star, given the electric response among his fans.
The concert was promoted as “Jonathan Crow”. And the other person playing? I didn’t give the pianist a second thought until I got to the hall, but he set us straight in due course. Both Crow & Chiu took their turns being the witty host. Again, I expected this from Crow, whereas Chiu’s wit was a pleasant surprise. More importantly, Chiu held his own playing some difficult repertoire.
For the umpteenth time this year, I heard a Sesquicentennial rationale for a concert programme. This one made a bit of sense, as we heard works for piano & violin from the two founding cultures:
- Claude Debussy: violin sonata (1917)
- Healey WIllan: violin sonata #1 (1916)
- Edward Elgar: selections for violin and piano (from the 1880s and after)
- Maurice Ravel: Violin sonata #2 (1927)
The works strike an intriguing balance, given that we heard from two French composers, two English composers, AND a Canadian: Willan qualifying for inclusion in lists of Canadian composers even though he was born in England.
As we heard in one of the witty introductions it seems that Crow & Chiu used to work together at McGill University and so have developed a genuine rapport that was especially evident in the Ravel that closed the program. While they made beautiful music together all night long, they took it to another level with the Ravel sonata. The opening movement is poetry, closing with a reminiscence of earlier themes as though we’re hearing them in a dream or hallucination. The second movement is blues, reminding me a bit of the foxtrot from L’enfants et les sortileges but without any singing dishes. The closing movement’s perpetuum mobile is every bit as hair-raising as that name might suggest, the violin perpetually playing, the two of them building to a colossal climax.
Before that we heard a contrasting pair of sonatas and some sweet little tunes. Crow & Chiu gave Debussy’s sonata a decidedly modern ride, without any schmaltz or excess. From what I understand this is how the composer liked it, as they appeared to follow the score without deviation or rubato.
In contrast, Willan’s sonata seemed to take us back to the 19th century, a work that’s especially challenging for the pianist. The first movement sounds like Rachmaninoff, the second more like Brahms, while the third has the exquisite gossamer textures of Mendelssohn’s faerie music, including some gorgeous melodies. I wonder that this work isn’t played more often, except for a piano part that is ferociously difficult. I daresay Chiu played it note-perfect throughout and with great sympathy for Crow’s soulful and expressive approach to the occasional broad melody.
The Elgar collection included three tunes I’ve never heard and two that are quite well known, namely the “Chanson du matin” and the “Salut d’amour”. Chiu was very understated throughout the Elgar, and indeed Crow opted for a very delicate and self-effacing approach to the melodies. This was a schmaltz-free reading.
We’re now in the last week of Crow’s first TSM Festival, which concludes August 5th.