Beethoven encore with Crow and Chiu

Toronto Summer Music’s 2021 Festival season concludes this weekend.

In a year when theatre, opera & classical music have mostly been clinging to a precarious life through online presentations, this year’s festival was certainly a bit different, mixing vimeo links with the pleasant surprise of the first in-person concerts most of us have seen in over a year, offered at Grace Church on-the-Hill. The venue observes the now familiar public health procedures one experiences when we go to a doctor or dentist, such as a contact questionnaire (name, email address, queries about any symptoms we might have, and who we might have recently encountered), taking our temperatures, and with the enforcement of a reduced seating capacity, socially distanced and masked. These simple protocols have the by-product of reminding us how lucky we are to live in a country where the social contract is strong, where few have tantrums about the small sacrifices we’re asked to make in the interest of hygiene. In the absence of a church service or the ministers, these small rituals remind us to be grateful for what we have.

Philip Chiu, piano and Jonathan Crow violin

Last time as mentioned I was very fortunate to sit close to Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu making music. Today I had a different perspective, further back and to the side: but still wonderfully intimate. This time the audience (some in front, some behind me) and their response were a big part of what I saw and heard. Last time I was so intent upon the performance I more or less ignored the audience except when I heard them clap. I remember a semiotician (semiotics being the study of signs and symbols) arguing that the concert is really begun with the arrival of an audience, and that the performance is in some sense a response to our action. If you recall that old saying –“if a branch falls in the forest and no one hears it, is there a sound?”—one might be tempted to modify it slightly to ask: “if music is played without an audience, is there a concert?” I think one can argue that the answer is no, particularly when we remember the part played by supporters & donors in making concert series happen. Showing up to listen is not as passive as one might think, especially when it’s the first time in awhile that we’ve had the experience. I took in the breathing, the physical sounds, the silence in the moments between movements and the suspenseful seconds before applause. It’s especially interesting watching the faces of Crow and Chiu right after a performance, enjoying this cycle of communication between us and them.

Today’s finale of the five-part Beethoven sonatas series is to be repeated online Sunday at 2:00 pm

The program was as follows:
Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.4 in A minor, Op.23
Gavin Fraser – like years, like seconds [World Première, TSM Commission]
Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.10 in G Major, Op.96

It may be a cliché to say this, but Jonathan Crow wears a lot of hats. He’s the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster and the artistic director of Toronto Summer Music festival, stepping forward to comment on the music we’re hearing at each concert, while thanking donors and talking about the mission of the festival. Even as a violinist Crow has multiple roles, when I recall that in addition to opportunities like today’s to hear him play chamber music, sometimes he leads his section of the TSO, sometimes playing a solo emerging from the orchestral texture, as for instance in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and occasionally the concerto soloist. There are different sorts of violin sound, different approaches to ensemble playing and blending that call for varied approaches. The multiple demands of Crow’s different personas will push him to grow as an artist. Just as I had a different view watching Crow and Chiu obliquely from my pew further back today, similarly we see the music and the musicians differently in chamber music than in the higher-profile Symphony appearances. And they likely see themselves and hear themselves in new ways.

It’s counter-intuitive that Sonata # 4, the earlier of today’s two sonatas, is the edgier work, every movement including some unorthodox choices. In Wednesday’s concert, for instance, we went from the restrained grace of one of the charming earlier sonatas, to the troubled passion of the Kreutzer, from something small and restrained to something big and flamboyantly angular. This time, we’re seeing Beethoven’s growth in transcending the dramatic style of the first sonatas. But that still makes for charming music-making whether in the bold first movement presto, the charming scherzo second movement or the agitated rondo finale. While there is beauty throughout, Beethoven won’t let his players relax and enjoy the moment, pushing them to work, changing from major to minor, never quite giving his themes release.

Between the two Beethoven sonatas we heard a piece from Gavin Fraser that received its world premiere at the 10 a.m. presentation of this concert, repeated at noon (the concert I attended). When Crow told us the title of the TSM commission, “like years like seconds”, he made mention of time. I can’t tell whether the piece really dealt with the concept of time, or that I simply became aware of it due to the title plus Crow’s announcement. Even so, it’s a feat to be able to do something conceptual in a work of short duration. Chiu began with some lovely but dissonant noodling at the piano while Crow gave us a variety of capricious and playful sounds from his fiddle, leading to bigger sounds in the middle of the piece. Gradually the work came to resemble something more conventional, where the piano made chords against plaintive violin. They seemed to diverge, Chiu softly playing the notes at the bottom of the piano while Crow gave us gentle soft harmonics at the top end of his instrument.

For that last sonata that concludes the cycle and our concert, composed roughly the same time as the 7th and 8th Symphonies, Beethoven’s maturity is showing. It’s a sonata quite far removed from the time and tormented mindset we see in all the others. The two instruments are in concert without showing off, without seeming to be one-upping each other as in sonata #4 and so many moments in the first 9 sonatas. This time the piano plays in self-assured chords or tinkles along softly under the violin, not unlike what we hear in the 4th Piano Concerto. For the moment the composer sounds like a far happier man, or at least less likely to get into an argument. The tranquility Crow and Chiu displayed, reflects the calm eloquence of that last sonata. They have been busy with the ten sonatas and new compositions over the past week.

The Festival season concludes this weekend.

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