La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Tokyo Quartet Opens Music Toronto

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Due to the labour dispute at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Music Toronto ditched its home — the Jane Mallett Theatre — for the opening of its 40th season on Sept. 15.

Even though the dispute was resolved earlier that morning, as Music Toronto artistic director and general manager Jennifer Taylor told the audience, the season got off to a good start at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall with the Tokyo String Quartet and pianist Markus Groh.

First on the program was a piece the Tokyo quartet played for its Music Toronto debut in 1975 — the Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 by Debussy. There was no shortage of crisp and eloquent playing from first violinist Martin Beaver, second violinist Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith. Yes, there was a glaring slip from Ikeda in the last movement, but the impeccable ensemble delivered a fine take that was well-balanced in tonal refinement and texture. In fact, the performance was so polished that a sense of spontaneity and defiance of the music felt just a tad lost.

Next on the program was the world premiere of Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan's String Quartet No. 4, Inspirare(2011). The Latin word, inspirare, means "to breath into". Ryan, composer advisor to Music Toronto and composer-in-resident with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, described his single-movement work as an expression of different kinds of breaths, from smooth and relaxed, quick, soft and gentle, heavy sigh, whispering, held, ragged and determined to the actual physical expansion and contraction of breathing.

The piece is consisted of three major ensemble sections that are framed by four extended solos — first violin, second violin, cello and then viola — each with a different character and rooted in the pitch of a different open string, Ryan explained in the program note.

Inspirare sounded, for the most part, like it could be the Indie soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. However, we heard more docile slides in general than slashing strings. Besides razor-sharp, high-pitched and sometimes rhythmic scream, we also heard lyrical passages in which melodic scales were the dominating structure and driving force behind scattering yawns and gulps of air that make up one big giant breath.

But then, just as you prepare yourself for that last inhale and exhale at the end — the big bang — Ryan throws in a sweet puff — a retreat to thin air that you hear coming out of a deflating balloon.

Inspirare is a piece of music that works wonders with a bored mind and the Tokyo quartet gave it a dramatic reading. The premiere was well received by the audience.

The Tokyo quartet was joined by Groh, the 41-year-old German pianist, after intermission to perform Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34.

Groh, who has built a considerable reputation as a Liszt interpreter in recent years, played with a straight, rather matter-of-fact style in this sensual and tempestuous piece of work. It's a sharp contrast to the seasoned Tokyo quartet's elastic musicality and the uneveness was especially noticeable in the gentle second movement.

That being said, the ensemble work overall was classy and solid, a fine way to end a cool summer night's evening.

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