Review: Pro Musica Society celebrates Canadian music

As everyone must know by now, 2017 is Canada’s 150th birthday, and to celebrate this important event, many arts organizations have planned something special. For The Calgary Pro Musica Society the special event was a concert March 3 at the Rozsa Centre of now little-heard Canadian music from nearly a century ago — for Canadian music, the time when only the smallest flickers of national sentiment can be perceived.

The impetus behind this unusual, but much enjoyed, program was violinist Scott St. John, now living again in his home town of London, Ont. Turning the pages of the memoirs of violinist Harry Adaskin, St. John discovered a 1930 program of (then) contemporary Canadian violin music that was performed on BBC Ratio by Adaskin and his wife Frances. The main purpose of the evening was to re-create this signal event: a way to remember and celebrate the way we were, musical speaking, nearly a century ago.

The program, originally printed in a Radio Times of the BBC, prominently features a woodcut-style drawing of a husky Canuck, complete with flannel shirt, baggy trousers, and heavy boots, poling logs across a body of water with mountains in the background. The images of Canada and Canadians seem not to have changed much in a century. The music itself was composed in such tiny villages as Toronto and Montreal, a sharp contrast between image and practical fact. And the music itself, almost entirely of romantic temperament evoked the outdoors only in the setting of some French-Canadian fiddle tunes and folk songs. The program also contained a big romantic piano trio by Edward Manning, a New Brunswick-born composer who mostly worked in New York.

Assisting St. John was Calgary pianist Katherine Chi, a longtime friend of St. John, as well as cellist Rafael Hoekman, previously a member of the Calgary Philharmonic and now first cello with The Edmonton Symphony. All three are well-known performers in Canada and have played together before. Combining fluency in technique and a true commitment to this music, they were convincing advocates for the quality of these early works, bringing to their music making a high level of polish in execution and evident enthusiasm.

It has been some time now since I have heard St. John play as a soloist. As he performed the entire first half, one could not but notice how easily, how graciously, he plays. His sound is never forced or hard, but it nevertheless generous and projected easily throughout the Rozsa Centre. Whether it was the wistful, melancholy-tinged French folksong arrangements by Leo Smith or Hector Gratton, or the more overtly virtuoso Sonata in E minor by Healey Willan, St. John was evidently comfortable on state, a natural performer with a refined and poetic sense of the music. As effective as the difficult parts were, St. John was perhaps even more special in his very soft, lyrical playing, the reflective, tender aspects of the folksong arrangement a true delight.

Chi was a fine collaborative partner in the first half, her accompaniments filled with character and spunk. In the Brahamsian style trio by Manning on the second half, she had the leading part and commanded the proceedings with energetic playing that nevertheless did not overpower the strings. Hoekman, brought in at last minute for an ailing Shauna Rolston, provided the warmly lyrical phrases this music requires, and the three performers played with such a unity of purpose that would never guess that the concert was, in fact, just three friends who happened to be playing together.

The audience, seeing mostly unfamiliar names on the program, was clearly happily surprised to be attending a concert that was not only well performed — this could be expected — but contained music of evident quality and considerable charm. The music of these quiet Canadians who toiled for music in the years between the wars showed remarkable strength — music of our colonial past in its style, perhaps, but providing the shoulders upon which our current compositional more nationally inflected music proudly stands.

Kenneth Delong, Calgary Herald
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