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Moments of Revelation

Paul Wells of Ottawa Chamber Music Society

I first became interested in chamber music in 1996. PBS broadcast an episode of Live from Lincoln Center with Yo-Yo Ma and several colleagues playing Schubert. This is the sort of thing musicians used to play in their homes, Ma said. It still is. Ah-ha, I thought: Chamber music is music that fits in a living room, at least in theory. It’s that simple.

About eight years later I experienced my second revelation. The Emerson String Quartet released a CD of excerpts from Beethoven’s String Quartets. Here was all the passion, all the invention, all the ingenuity of Beethoven’s music for full orchestras. Yet there were only four musicians playing it. It was obvious in every note that Beethoven cared as much about these quartets as he did about his symphonies. Ah-ha, I thought: Chamber music is smaller in scale, but it’s not smaller in spirit. If anything it can feel more concentrated. Music boiled down to its essence.

Sometimes at Chamberfest, I find I’m blown away by something only two or three or five musicians have played. Music this focused can be a shockingly intimate experience: one composer, a few interpreters on a shared mission, a small audience hanging on every breath and pause and attack. After a concert like that, real life can feel diluted, somehow. Approximate.

Here’s a highly personal and subjective six concerts from this year’s Chamberfest that seem to offer the prospect of focused revelation I’ve come to crave.

Introducing Isidore String Quartet, July 21, 7 p.m.

One of the world’s most prestigious string quartet competitions is held in Banff every three years. The most recent winner, from 2022, is the Isidore Quartet from the United States. They’re impossibly young, all under 25, and unnervingly confident. They met at New York’s Juilliard School. They talk about “approaching the established as if it were new, and the new as if it were firmly established.” Their Chamberfest program will put both halves of that claim to the test. I’m especially intrigued by their “established” music. The long third movement in Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet is a kind of meditation. Not much happens, then everything happens. It’s from 1825, but it sounds like it could have been written 150 years earlier by a monk somewhere. Or 150 years later by Keith Jarrett. It sounds like it came to Beethoven from another world.

Introducing Viano Quartet, Aug. 2, 7 p.m.

Part of the mystery of chamber music is how different two ensembles can sound, even two string quartets. Viano, three Americans and a Canadian cellist, won the Banff competition in 2019. To me they sound flashier than Isidore, more impulsive. Maybe it’s a West Coast/ East Coast thing. Viano’s members met in Los Angeles: more sunlight? They’ll open and close with Piazzolla and Smetana, swaggering music that wears its heart on its sleeve. In between, newer music, brooding but deeply felt, from Caroline Shaw, the youngest-ever winner of a Pulitzer Prize for music.

The Westerlies, July 21, 9:30 p.m.

Are The Westerlies the most significant new brass ensemble since the Canadian Brass arrived more than 50 years ago? Hard to say, but what I do know is that The Westerlies are a different kind of brass ensemble: a quartet, two trumpets and two trombones, from the U.S. West Coast, who mix Appalachian and jazz influences with distinctly contemporary classical influences. I’ve been a huge fan of these four for years now. They don’t really sound like any other group. They’re down-home and cutting-edge at the same time, informal and daring. Their latest album Move, which will form the basis of their Chamberfest concert, marks a huge step forward in compositional ambition.

Sarah Slean and Ironwood Quartet, July 23, 7 p.m.

Sarah Slean, the alt-pop singer-songwriter, turns out to be a serious student of classical composition who often writes for orchestras and chamber ensembles. Here she’ll play and sing her own compositions, including three world premieres, with her friends in Ottawa’s Ironwood Quartet. There are tinges of folk music in Slean’s instrumental pieces and buckets of cabaret in her songs. Her music is artful but never self-consciously arty.

Wallis Giunta and Friends, July 28, 7 p.m.

A rare homecoming for the Ottawa mezzo-soprano who’s become a fixture of Europe’s great opera houses. She’s put together an audacious recital program of material as old as Ravel (not that old, come to think of it) and as new as the contemporary New York City composer Missy Mazzoli. On top of her charm and stage presence, Giunta is known for her stylistic range; this program, with a shifting constellation of instrumental accompanists, will show off everything she’s capable of.

Cantus: My Journey Yours, Aug. 1, 7 p.m.

Surely singing was the first music, after all. Cantus is an American a cappella ensemble of low male voices, now in its 27th season. They’re bringing a program of songs about migration, the universal leap of hope involved in leaving home for somewhere new. Most of the songs were written in the last century. A few were commissioned by Cantus. One, a meditation on rejection and acceptance called N-400 Erasure Songs by Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy, is breathtaking.

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