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.


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.


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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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

What’s on in classical and dance

I’m heading off on vacation this week, trading cold and ice for some sun, surf, and sand. The Red Chair will be empty while I’m away, and I’ll be missing a busy week. Here are a few notable performances happening over the next 7 days or so:

Thursday, Jan. 19: The National Ballet of Canada brings its sublime Onegin to the NAC. The ballet runs to Jan. 21. Watch for the exalted pairing of Greta Hodgkinson and Piotr Stanczyk on the 20th, and the rock-star magnetism of Evan McKie in the title role on the 21st.


The National Ballet of Canada’s Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Côté in Onegin (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)


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5 questions for Hilda Cowie


No treble: NACO double bassist Hilda Cowie. (Photo: Fred Cattroll)

Confession: I’ve always secretly wanted to play the double bass. Whether they’re driving the rhythm in a jazz trio or thundering in unison at the back of an orchestra, bassists always look badass to me.

Considering I’m barely 5’3″, struggle to lug my groceries, and have tiny hands, it’s probably best that I picked a less physically imposing instrument. I’d be hopelessly overhorsed. Not like Hilda Cowie, a versatile NACO bassist who plays with an impressive combination of muscle and grace. Her ease comes from native familiarity. Cowie grew up among the giant strings: her mother was a bass player and her first teacher in her hometown of Halifax.

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Update: St. Petersburg Phil’s Canadian cancellations

I can share some additional details about the St. Petersburg Philharmonic cancellations I wrote about on the weekend.

The orchestra cancelled both its planned Canadian concerts: Toronto as well as Ottawa. According to Daphne Burt, artistic planning manager at NACO, the reason the orchestra gave was financial constraints due to another presenter dropping out. Neither NACO nor Show One Productions, the Toronto presenter, have replaced the concert.


St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov in their home hall. Image courtesy of Opus 3 Artsits

However, Burt also confirmed that as far as she knows, the US portion of the tour is going ahead as planned, despite there being no mention of it on the orchestra’s own website. The Philharmonic is scheduled to perform in Rochester, Chicago, and San Francisco, among other stops, between February and March.



Again, anyone who had tickets to the Ottawa concert can refund or exchange them at the NAC Box Office.



St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Miloš cancel NACO concerts



St. Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov in their home hall. Image courtesy of Opus 3 Artsits

February is turning out to be an unlucky month for the NAC Orchestra, with two high-profile cancellations.

The St. Petersburg Philarmonic,  the venerable Russian ensemble led by Yuri Temirkanov has cancelled its NAC performance on February 25. In a statement, NACO says it learned of the cancellation in the fall and was hoping to book a substitute, but no suitable replacement was found.

The orchestra had been set to play Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and the Rach 2 with Russian pianist Nikolai Lugansky.

No explanation for the cancellation was given.  US performances appear to be going ahead as planned, but the orchestra’s own official website shows no international tour dates for that period. I’ll be following up with the Philharmonic’s management company, Opus 3 Artists, to see if they have more information.

Meanwhile, guitarist Miloš Karadaglić has cancelled all upcoming performances for health reasons. This includes his NACO concerts on February 23-24, which were to feature the world premiere of a new guitar concerto by Howard Shore, of Lord of the Rings soundtrack fame.

In this case, NACO has found quite the pinch hitter: the great Spanish guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero, who will join Alexander Shelley for Rodrigo’s popular Concierto de Aranjuez. The program will also feature the world premiere of Zeiss after Dark, a new work by the impossibly cool and clever Nicole Lizée, as well Walton’s Symphony No. 1 and his Suite from Henry V (which I just heard Shelley’s compatriot Edward Gardner conduct in October, with the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center.)

Your Miloš tickets will be honoured for the  Pepe Romero concert on the same date and in the same seats.  If the substitution doesn’t strum your guitar, you have until February 22, 2017 to either exchange them for any other NAC performance this current season, or  return them in person to the NAC Box Office for a full refund. As a reminder, during construction the Box Office has moved to 54 Elgin St. (corner of Queen).  You can also get a refund or exchange for your St. Petersburg Philharmonic ticket.

Stay tuned; if I find out anything else about the St. Petersburg tour I’ll be updating the blog.

EDIT: Forgot to mention that NACO has announced the Shore-Miloš premiere will take place in 2018.