Artsfile review: a triple world premiere of ballet and music at NAC’s Encount3rs


The National Ballet’s Guillaume Côté and composer Kevin Lau

It isn’t often I get to feel like my critic predecessors in 1880s Vienna or pre-First World War Paris. But on Thursday night, the NAC presented three brand-new, half-hour Canadian ballets, each with its own orchestral score by a leading Canadian composer.

Co-presented by NACO and Cathy Levy at NAC Dance as part of Canada 150, Encount3rs packed the kind of “major cultural happening” thrill rarely seen in Ottawa, but becoming more common since Alexander Shelley arrived in town. If last year’s Life Reflected project established the new music director as someone open to engaging with his community, Encount3rs proved that Shelley’s commitment to interdisciplinary work and creation is more than a passing fancy.

Read the full review on Artsfile.

Artsfile review: Karina Gauvin delights in all-Purcell program


As one of the most acclaimed Handel and Mozart opera specialists of the day, soprano Karina Gauvin is accustomed to performing for full houses in London, Paris, Madrid, Vienna and Amsterdam. If she was disappointed at the rather thin audience that turned out to hear her at Dominion-Chalmers on April 10, she didn’t show it, singing her heart out with her usual vivacious, seductive charm.

Read the full review on Artsfile

Artsfile review: Thirteen Strings’ St. Matthew Passion, plus Mozart at NACO.

Denial of Peter

The Denial of Peter, Gerard Seghers

On Good Friday, Thirteen Strings and Seventeen Voyces joined forces to present Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion at Dominion-Chalmers. The performance was distinguished by magnificent orchestral playing and choral singing, wildly incompatible soloists, and some quasi-heretical liberties in presentation.

Read the full review on Artsfile.

Artsfile review: OSO takes on Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony


Comforting and grave: Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo

You certainly can’t call Alain Trudel and the Ottawa Symphony unambitious, picking Mahler’s sublime but enormous Symphony No. 2, the ‘Resurrection’, to close their 2016-17 season Monday night. And if they didn’t completely slay this 500-pound heavenly gorilla of a work, they did an impressive job of taming it.

Read the full review on Artsfile.

Artsfile review: Louis Lortie plays the complete Chopin Études and Preludes

Many classical artists have a musical signature: pieces they have played for so long, so often and with such consummate mastery that their name becomes forever associated with the work. What’s more rare is when a musician decides to retire those same compositions that made their career. When it happens, those last performances take on the weight and poignancy of a valediction.

The incomparable Louis Lortie is on a Canadian tour performing the complete Chopin Études and Preludes. He has said it’s likely the last time he’ll ever play those works in their entirety. You have to respect Lortie for saying he wants to quit while he can still do this feat of stamina and athleticism justice. But to hear him on Friday in Southam Hall play these sets not only with all the facility and razzle-dazzle of his youth, but with the added bonus of mature expression and lived-in soul, made his farewell almost tragic.

Read the full review on Artsfile.

Artsfile review: Baltic brilliance with Olari Elts and Sibelius Second at NACO


Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo

This week for Artsfile, I reviewed Wednesday’s night’s NACO concert with guest conductor Olari Elts making his Canadian debut. On the program were Busoni’s seldom-performed Lustspiel-Overture, Sibelius’ Second Symphony, and the world premiere of Gary Kulesha’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf with the regal Hungarian-Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó. Here’s an excerpt:

“There’s an irresistible energy and joy in Elts’ conducting style; he leaps about the podium, sweeping his arms and hands in enthusiastic but exquisitely clear, focused gestures. His gift for revealing inner structures gave the symphony a fresh, living dimensionality. Elts took full advantage of NACO’s hybrid chamber/symphonic sound, working at close range to produce a magical balance between sternum-rattling power and painterly detail and transparency.”

Read the full review here. And don’t forget to become an Artsfile subscriber!


Estonian conductor Olari Elts


Tomorrow night I’ll be listening to Louis Lortie play the complete Chopin Preludes and Étude, as he bids adieu to that particular repertoire with a farewell tour.


Review: a polished Prokofiev recital by David Jalbert


Another night, another top-notch piano performance in Ottawa.

Fans of big, old-school virtuoso pianism have been spoiled lately, with Yefim Bronfman,  Charles Richard-Hamelin,  and David Jalbert all playing here within a few days of each other.

Jalbert, who teaches at the University of Ottawa, was recently named one of the 25 greatest Canadian pianists of all time by the CBC. Jalbert isn’t as well-known as some of the other names on that list. He rarely tours internationally, teaches a lot (this summer he’s at Pianofest in the Hamptons and Orford, among others), and records judiciously.

Yet another product of the extraordinarily successful pianist “factory” that is Marc Durand’s studio at Université de Montréal, Jalbert possesses consummate technique, enlightened musicianship, and a vast curiosity. All three were on display Friday at his all-Prokofiev recital at Southminster United (Jalbert repeated the program in Montreal on Sunday).   Continue reading

Artsfile: a new online arts magazine for Ottawa.

This week saw the launch of Artsfile, a new online magazine showcasing the best in Ottawa’s performing arts scene. The features and reviews are by me and three of my former Ottawa Citizen colleagues: Peter Simpson (visual arts), Patrick Langston (theatre), and Peter Robb (editor-in-chief). The publication owes its existence to James and Sarah Baxter–James also publishes iPolitics, while Sarah is involved as a volunteer and fundraiser in several local arts organizations.


I’ll continue to review some concerts exclusively here, but I’ll be cross-posting my Artsfile reviews, beginning with Wednesday’s NACO concert featuring the luminous young Quebec pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin. Here’s an excerpt:

“Charles Richard-Hamelin is arguably the best and most complete pianist under the age of 30 in Canada. He combines monster virtuosity with keen intelligence and exceptionally sensitive, imaginative musicality. His headline-making silver medal at the 2015 Chopin competition in Warsaw certainly boosted his career, but unlike some big international prize winners, he hasn’t burned out early. His work ethic and consistency have allowed him to maintain the momentum.

On Wednesday, Richard-Hamelin played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 with NACO, under the guest baton of Carlo Rizzi. This excitable Italian conducts with enthusiasm, grace, and beautifully clear technique. He doesn’t over-intellectualize the music, but gives everything a narrative, a sense of dance, and an emotional immediacy that reflect his impeccable opera house credentials.

To date, I’ve mostly heard Richard-Hamelin in big Romantic and post-Romantic repertoire. His Mozart was glorious: supple, winsome, warmly lit from within, delicate but never feeble.”

Read the complete review here.


Bronfman slays in Prokofiev 2 at NACO

You can keep your Rach 3: in my books, the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto is the hardest in the standard repertoire. It’s relentless, merciless, bone-grinding, with a sadistic, 10-minute long cadenza at the end of the first movement and a video-game speed scherzo in which the soloist literally never pauses for breath. Wednesday evening at NACO, Yefim Bronfman made it all seem effortless.


Comrade, do you even Prokofiev 2?


Bronfman is an anomaly, a beast, a demigod. The kind of pianist who makes other pianists weep with despair and shake their heads in bewildered admiration. Yes, he played the Prokofiev with superhuman speed and power, but also clarity, articulation, wit, voluptuous colour and line. He muscled the piece into submission, but with a style that was more Sumo wrestler than bouncer: finesse and strategy as well as brawn.

I always love watching the contrast between Bronfman’s broad, motionless back and the lethal blur of his hands. More excitable  young pianists would do well to follow his zen example.

The young Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha is guesting this week. European critics have been raving about him, and I’ve heard the NACO musicians are fans. they must be seeing something different: from the hall I found his body language strangely off-putting: square, stiff, and erratic.  But you can’t argue with the results he gets: Glazunov’s Concert Waltz was warmly lyrical, sweet but not syrupy.

In the Prokofiev he kept a taut connection to Bronfman’s blazing speed; especially through the clattering machinery of the second movement. But I found Valčuha’s exaggerated, frantic movements visually distracting; he isn’t the most discreet partner.

After the Prokofiev’s final kaboom, Bronfman dialed down the adrenaline with a reading of Schumann’s Arabeske that was a miracle of delicacy, reverent tone and refined sentiment.


Physical tics aside, Valčuha produced an emotionally dignified Brahms Symphony No. 2 that did not lack for verve or exaltation. The easygoing pace of the opening Allegro still had forward movement thanks to lush phrasing and generous breath . I like this conductor’s judicious tempi, subtle dynamics and artfully calibrated climaxes—the stately Adagio and gently lilting, almost playful Allegretto were both just so. Only the finale was a little quick and light; the exuberant, “peasant” quality of the music was overly polished.

The orchestra sounded wonderful, with mannerly woodwinds, vibrantly expressive strings and stentorian brass. Principal horn Larry Vine enjoyed a particularly good night.