Yao Guang Zhai, clarinet; guest of 5@1st Reply

Review by Judith Caldwell
               Hamilton is very fortunate to have Rachel Mercer living here.  She is a cellist and also the Artistic Director for 5 @ the First, a concert series of chamber music which features many of her extremely talented friends.  On Saturday evening the featured guest was Yao Guang Zhai, a young Chinese clarinet player who is currently associate principal clarinet with the Toronto Symphony.  He performed duets and a trio with Mercer on cello & Angela Park on piano.

Park & Zhai

Park and Zhai…post performance


The first duet was Park and Zhai playing Johannes Brahms Sonata in F minor.  This is one of the last pieces Brahms wrote before his death and is considered to be a pivotal piece in the clarinet repertoire as it was the first to explore the many ‘colours’ of the clarinet range and it influenced later composers.  The opening allegro is very passionate and grand and the instruments carry equal weight; then the andante is full of longing and wistfulness from the clarinet and the piano only joins in later; the allegretto is cheerful and up beat; and the final vivace is a fun, scampering romp.  This Sonata showed the flawless technique and commitment to the music of each of these performers.
The first half of the concert wrapped up with Park and Zhai playing Luigi Bassi’s ‘Rigoletto Fantasy’, a virtuoso piece of extreme difficulty with rollicking trills and scales which showed off Zhai’s circular breathing ability and total control.
After intermission it was on to Debussy with the guest & Park playing his Premiere Rhapsodie for clarinet and piano. The reading was a typically dreamy impressionistic Debussy, who explores sound in much the same way that Monet explores light in his paintings.  The clarinet part was evocative of Parisian life and suggestive of later Gershwin compositions.
The evening ended with Beethoven’s Piano Trio in B flat major with Rachel Mercer joining the duo. This trio was written early in Beethoven’s career and is scored for either violin or clarinet, which was a new instrument at the time and the key of B flat was probably chosen to ease the fast playing on the B flat clarinet.  The final Allegretto is very familiar and has a wonderful piano part full of ostentation followed by the clarinet and cello singing together.  This is a wonderful piece to show off the talents of the three gifted musicians.    Judging by the growing size of the audience, more and more people in Hamilton are realizing that one does not have to go far to hear 1st-class chamber music.  The next concert is a fund raiser called Cello Bellas featuring five cellists and will be held at First Unitarian Church, 170 Dundurn Street South on April 12th, at 7.30pm.

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