Spring Equinox Festival a seasonal bonus for classical music fans

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The Edmonton Chamber Music Society kicks off the classical music festival season this weekend with a new innovation: a spring equinox festival, featuring four concerts featuring exciting chamber musicians and a highly engaging and adventurous lineup.

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The idea, explains the festival’s artistic director, Patricia Tao, arose because the company had spare funds following the cancellation of last year’s popular summer solstice festival. So what could be better than an equivalent of the equinox to celebrate the end of a long and harsh winter?

The four concerts begin on Saturday and end on Thursday. The festival opens at Holy Trinity Anglican Church with a young Canadian duo making their Edmonton debut. Cellist Bryan Cheng and pianist Sylvie Cheng are siblings and have just won a major victory at the Pretoria-Unisa International Music Competition in South Africa.

The Cheng recital2Duo (pronounced Cheng Squared Duo) includes a chance to hear a true rarity – the thoughtful first movement of Ysaÿe’s solo cello sonata, written just after his most famous solo violin sonatas. The animated French daydreams of Poulenc’s Cello Sonata contrast with Shostakovich’s only Cello Sonata, written in 1934. Hindemith and Beethoven complete the recital.

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Sunday’s concert, also at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, is called “An Evening in Spain”. It features soprano Miriam Khalil, who played Mimi in Edmonton Opera’s La bohème. She is joined by other Edmonton musicians: Tao herself on piano, ESO concertmaster Robert Uchida, cellist Rafael Hoekman and violist Keith Hamm.

The eclectic program includes songs by 20th-century Spanish composers Fernando Obradors and Manuel García Morante, as well as a cheerful folk-influenced piano trio bolero by Enrique Arbós, the first of his Spanish Op.1 pieces. Khalil included a few excerpts from Golijov’s Ayre, a masterful song cycle with which she has been particularly associated (her complete recording was nominated for a Juno in 2019).

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The concert ends with another rarity: Turina’s Piano Quartet from 1931, a beautiful, unassuming lyrical work with hints of Spanish guitar influences.

The final two concerts feature the 2019 winners of the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition (the last time it was held). The Canadian-American Viano String Quartet, currently quartet-in-residence at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, will make their Edmonton debut as part of a European and North American tour.

Two of the works from this concert at Muttart Hall on Wednesday are relatively well known. Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2, with its wonderfully evocative middle movement, is based on folk tunes and rhythms from a region of the North Caucasus, where it had been evacuated after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1942 Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2, written 60 years earlier, has a famous Nocturne slow movement.

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Argentinian composer Ginastera’s String Quartet No. 1, however, will be new to many. This gritty, painterly and colorful work (with another gorgeous slow movement) is still influenced by the folk music he grew up with but absorbed into an individual style he called “subjective nationalism.”

The concert opens with a seven-minute piece, Strum: Music for Strings, by a young American composer who is arousing much interest, Jessie Montgomery. It combines rhapsodic lyricism with plucked string rhythms and was the centerpiece of her 2015 album of the same name.

For the last concert of the festival, Viano String Quartet come to the Foundry Room of the Oliver Exchange Building for “a varied and entertaining list of great string quartet works” in a more relaxed atmosphere, where food and drink will be available.

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From left, cellist Tate Zawadiuk, violist Aiden Kane, and violinists Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou form the Viano String Quartet, which performs at the Edmonton Chamber Music Society's Spring Equinox Festival.
From left, cellist Tate Zawadiuk, violist Aiden Kane, and violinists Lucy Wang and Hao Zhou form the Viano String Quartet, which performs at the Edmonton Chamber Music Society’s Spring Equinox Festival. Provided

The festival therefore promises an exciting and varied programme, and faithful to the traditions of the festival, the first three concerts are preceded by a half-hour warm-up recital allowing young local musicians to perform in public. Tao also promises that the Midsummer Festival will return in June, and plans are well underway.

In the meantime, chamber music lovers can extend their concert next week. On Friday, the Vaughan String Quartet, which built up a solid following when the four members lived in Edmonton, plays at Festival Place in Sherwood Park. They too will perform an interesting repertoire alongside a Haydn quartet, including pieces by Nicolas Rota and the Brazilian Antônio Carlos Gomes. The concert is free.

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PREVIEW

Edmonton Chamber Music Society Spring Equinox Festival

With: Cheng2Duo, Miriam Khalil and the Viano String Quartet

Or: The Foundry Hall, Holy Trinity Anglican Church and Muttart Hall

When: March 19-24

Tickets Individual concerts start at $16, Festival Pass $33 at edmontonchambermusic.com

Vaughan String Quartet

Or: Festival Square, Sherwood Park

When: March 25

Tickets: Free, details at festivalplace.ca

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