Review: Romero romances, Walton wows at NACO


Given the number of wannabe guitar heroes in Ottawa, I was somewhat surprised to see so many empty seats at Southam Hall for Thursday night’s NACO concert with legendary classical and flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero.

Granted, Romero was a replacement for Miloš Karadaglić, who had been scheduled to premiere a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, but had to cancel in late 2016 because of an arm injury. Romero, who is also half of a famous duo with brother Angel, is by far the bigger name, in classical circles at least. Miloš is a popular crossover artist in Europe, but that hasn’t translated to an equivalent  North American following (“who’s Miloš?” was a common refrain when I wrote about his cancellation.) I have to wonder if ticket sales would have been livelier had Romero been the featured soloist from the start.

Regardless, he’s here for one more performance, and really anybody who plays or loves the guitar has no excuse to not rush down to the NAC tonight for a masterclass in subtlety, colour, and transcendent musicianship.

Romero must have played Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez hundreds, if not thousands, of times, but there was nothing blasé or clocked-in about his performance. The interpretation was wondrously fresh, delicate, and profoundly poetic; the presentation a balance of zen mastery and disarming humility.

Romero uses his immaculate technique and magical tone to conjure vivid scenes of Iberian charm, all fountains and gardens and Moorish palaces. The concerto’s second movement is so over-played that it’s almost a parody. Romero redeemed it, imbuing its filigree phrases with the grace and sadness of all the nightingales in Spain.

Shelley and the orchestra wove a noble, romantically coloured tapestry behind the soloist, although their translation of Rodrigo’s organic Spanish idioms came across as more stylized and less spontaneous than Romero. There were intimate, evocative solos by principal flute Joanna G’froerer, cellist Rachel Mercer, and Anna Petersen on English Horn.

As an encore, Romero played a spellbinding Fantasia by his celebrated father (and only teacher) Celedonio.

Two works inspired by film opened the concert. Nicole Lizée is consistently proving herself to be one of Canada’s most original and exciting composers. In the concise Zeiss After Dark (Thursday was the world premiere), she employs her preferred alchemy of phasing, Doppler-effect brass, and snappy techno rhythms to pay homage to the flickering lighting effects in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Shelley also served up William Walton’s gallant Henry V Suite with a healthy dash of Hotspur swagger; Walton’s dazzling Agincourt finale sounded virile and valiant.

Walton’s astonishing Symphony No. 1 took up the second half. It’s an imposing slab of a symphony, extraordinarily challenging for all the sections of the orchestra. Shelley’s clarity of intellectual analysis and unassailable technique really shine in big-bodied,  structurally unforgiving works like this.

The first movement thrummed and pulsed with a kind of efficient, industrial passion. Walton marked the second movement Presto, “with malice”, and Shelley whipped the orchestra into a snarling, bickering frenzy. The last movement was both immense and immensely satisfying, the fugue section bluesy and loose, the ending a glorious riot of brass and tightly choreographed percussion (what a splendid effect, visually as well as aurally, from those double tympani!). Shelley was the calm center of control in the middle of all that grandiose sound and fury.


The program repeats at tonight’s Casual Fridays concert, without intermission, minus the Death of Falstaff movement from Henry V and the First and Third movements from the Symphony.





Reviews: Diabolical Rachmaninoff at NACO; ravishing Schumann with the Despax Quartet and John Dapaah

Wednesday was extra busy here at the Red Chair.

First there was a noon concert at Southminster United with the Despax Quartet and pianist John Dapaah. I’d heard a lot about the four gifted Despax siblings from Gatineau,  but this was my first opportunity to hear them play. Presented as part of Black History Month, the program featured the Schumann Piano Quintet as well arrangements of three beloved African-American spirituals.


The Despax family quartet. Cendrine and Maxime (seated), Jean and Valérie. Photo: Marc Bélair

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Musicians to benefit from new VIA Rail baggage policies

Cellists, guitarists and other players of more unwieldy instruments, rejoice!

The Red Chair has received confirmation from VIA Rail about upcoming changes to their baggage policies, which will allow for larger items to be safely stowed as carry-on in wagons on the busy Quebec City-Windsor corridor. (Kudos to luthier Guy Harrison, who first wrote about this on his blog.)

The new vertical storage spaces, coming later this year,  will accommodate musical instruments that don’t fit in the overhead bins. They’ll also fit skis, exhibit displays, and other larger items. Up until now, if you didn’t want to risk entrusting your precious Guarneri or Martin to a VIA baggage car, you had no choice but to drive.

Here’s the full statement I received this morning by email from a VIA spokesperson:

“By mid-2017, VIA Rail will allow musicians to bring their cellos on board as part of their carry-on baggage allotment. We are in the final stages of installing vertical baggage towers specifically designed to accommodate cellos and other oversized items. They have straps and are wide enough to safely accommodate items like cellos, guitars, skis, strollers, displays for special exhibitions, etc. Each of our LRC train sets will have a baggage tower in one Economy class car, which will cover the great majority of the routes on the Quebec City–Windsor corridor.”

Here’s what the new baggage towers will look like:



If you play a bigger instrument, what do you think? This setup look secure enough to me, but what do I know, I’m a pianist. Will this make you more likely to take the train instead of drive? Let me know in the comments.

Classical Juno Award nominees, and other news

Lots of news on the classical and dance scenes in the past couple of days, so here’s a little roundup:

The Juno Awards announced their 2017 nominees. Classical artists in the running include pianists Charles Richard-Hamelin, Louis Lortie and Jan Lisecki; Tafelmusik and les Violons du Roy; the Montreal and Toronto Symphony Orchestras; the New Orford String Quartet; Daniel Taylor’s Trinity Choir and Toronto’s Tapestry Opera; and composers Ana Sokolovic, Andrew Staniland and Christos Hatzis. You can see all the nominees on the Juno website.


Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin, runner-up at the 2015 Chopin competition, is up for a Juno Award for his live Analekta recording of works by Chopin, Beethoven, and Enescu.

Next up, Canada Scene announced that Compagnie Marie Chouinard will perform the choreographer’s wildly imaginative take on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights at the NAC in July, part of the 2017 edition of the Festival. The company will also present Chouinard’s In Museum at the National Gallery.


Stamps aren’t normally my thing, but I was pleased to see Canada Post release a colourful new series paying tribute to Canadian Opera. The five stamps feature two international stars, baritone Gerald Finley and soprano Adrienne Pieczonka;  John Estacio’s Filumena and Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (to be revived in Toronto and Ottawa later this spring); and the late Irving Guttman, known as the “father of opera in Western Canada.” Canada Post launched the series on Monday; by Tuesday evening the website was saying the collection was sold out. I’m not sure how common that is for stamp series, or what the overlap is between collectors and opera fans. If anyone has an idea, I’d love to know!canadian-opera-souvenir-sheet-ofdc

Finally, I’m following up on something luthier Guy Harrison posted on his blog yesterday. According to Harrison, VIA Rail will be adding special storage closets to cars travelling the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto routes. These will allow cellos and other larger instruments to be carried onboard. Right now, those instruments have to be checked, meaning many musicians choose to drive instead. I’ve contacted VIA for confirmation and more details. I’ll let you know what I hear back.

NACO review: sublime Sibelius, commanding Rachmaninoff with Storgårds and Kozukhin


NACO Principal Guest Conductor John Storgårds


I don’t know if Ottawa audiences fully appreciate our extraordinary good fortune in having nabbed John Storgårds as NACO’s Principal Guest Conductor. The self-effacing Finnish conductor certainly doesn’t attract as much attention as the popular, extroverted Alexander Shelley. He doesn’t have a role as the public face of the orchestra, and, for practical reasons, simply isn’t here as often. But he is a lavishly gifted, fiercely intelligent, intensely communicative musician, and of the finest interpreters of Scandinavian and Nordic repertoire anywhere in the world.

If the orchestra loves Shelley, it worships Storgårds, a true “musician’s musician”. With his star ever on the rise—his recording of the Dvořák and Suk violin concertos with Christian Tetzlaff and the Helsinki Philharmonic is up for a Grammy this year—how long Ottawa will be able to hang on to him isn’t guaranteed. We should enjoy him while we can. Continue reading

Review: Pianist George Li lives up to the hype, despite some youthful excess.

Local concert producer Roland Graham scored a major coup when he snagged George Li for his Masters Piano Recital Series at Southminster United Church. Li, a 21-year old Boston native, was a silver medallist at the 2015 Tchaikovsky competition. That feat secured his rapid graduation to the front of the current pack of young virtuosos, with an increasingly full calendar of prestigious international concerts. Tuesday night’s audience can proudly claim “they heard him when.” Continue reading