Escape from wartime reflections

Tonight’s installment of the Toronto Summer Music Festival might seem to have ignored their theme of “Reflections of Wartime”. The only real battle in Walter Hall was for our hearts, a friendly popularity contest between Angela Cheng and Alvin Chow.


Alvin Chow & Angela Cheng (photo © Lisa Kohler)

Tonight was about pleasure & beauty. In a year when I’ve had the most visceral fear of war this century I make no apologies, have no guilt. North Korea? they are at it again they tell us. Toronto is having a skirmish with the new Premier and  are discovering how powerful he has become, by moving up the road from Queen st (aka City Hall) to Queens Pk.

Nevermind, because as Beethoven might have reminded his friends: “Nicht diese tone”.

No, instead let’s think of vested monkeys in processions, rowboats, dances, dances and yet more dances.

It’s the summertime after all.

While I haven’t been to that many concerts in the festival, when I looked through the schedule this was one that caught my eye early on, a crowd-pleasing program. Tomorrow night’s is back to serious fare, but I needed this kind of escape. The first half was a solo recital by Angela Cheng, while the second half was twice the action, as Cheng was joined by her partner in real life & at the keyboard, Alvin Chow. We heard some four-handed playing –where both sit at the same instrument—and music for two pianos.

We sidled up to the fun stuff, beginning in a first half that was much more a celebration of beauty. Cheng began with Beethoven’s penultimate sonata in a genial reading, sometimes humming along (and to her credit, more in tune than Glenn Gould ever was). At times her head was down in concentration, at other times, her head back in a kind of ecstatic space, the music more soulful at those lyrical moments.

After our one nod towards the German side of the equation, the remainder of the program was progressively more French as we went on. To close the first half we went half French / half Polish in the person of Frédéric Chopin. His G minor Ballade is so well-known you could see audience members adjusting their bodies in anticipation of their favourite passages, and Cheng didn’t disappoint.

Is it apt for the festival theme that they programmed a warhorse? Cheng gave it a suitably operatic reading, delicate in soft melodic passages, fiery and passionate when the piece explodes into frenetic action. The audience were eating out of her hand by this point.

After the interval it was all French & all fun.

I was quite taken with Cheng & Chow in their reading of Debussy’s Petite Suite. In this, one of the four-handed pieces, we saw a phenomenal chemistry between the players. We heard terrific detail, lots of precise attacks & jagged rhythms all played with balance and wit, yet retreating in the middle sections into softer tones of nostalgia & regret, rubati that never overstepped the boundaries of good taste.

It must be fun to be them at home, don’t you think?

The pleasure principle was again on display in a dazzling reading of Milhaud’s Scaramouche suite. Where the Debussy was refined, elegant & retrained, the dynamics were much more extreme this time, both in the aggressive dissonances and the sheer energy. Yet the middle movement was particularly delicate, verging on voluptuous, every moment a sensuous delight.

To close we heard a tour de force reading of La Valse, Ravel giving us his musical Rorschach test. (Psst… what do you think it means?) Watching this wonderful couple work their magic, I think that if there’s any war in Ravel’s music, it’s the normal warfare of a husband and wife, libido & life itself.

For an encore I was again envious, watching them play the Berceuse from Fauré’s Dolly suite, in a four handed reading that was almost indecently intimate, beautiful beyond words.

Oh well, I had to go home at the end of the concert, one of the nicest evenings I’ve spent in awhile.  Tomorrow is a serious program, then Thursday is a big band celebration at Koerner.

Something for everyone!

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