5 @ 1st, honouring Canadian women composers Reply

Review by Judith Caldwell    Apr. 14, ’19

Hamilton should be very grateful to Rachel Mercer for frequently offering wonderful new music she has found or commissioned to local audiences. The most recent concert featured compositions by Canadian female composers from the 20th and 21st centuries and included three works especially commissioned by Mercer for the occasion.   The afternoon began with a young artist, 8 year old Azlyn Spleit, playing Felix Borowski’s Adoration on the violin.  She played entirely from memory and with great aplomb, obviously not a bit nervous, and completed the fairly long and difficult piece without a glitch and to appreciative applause. 

 Next came a Duo Sonata for Violin and Cello (1989) by Jean Coulthard which was originally performed by Scott St. John and Shauna Ralston.  In her introduction Mercer said the music consisted of some written parts, some unwritten and some cryptic notes that were challenging to interpret.  The work is in three movements – Dramatico – Allegro con brio, Interlude – Adagio espressivo and Moderato ma con forza. Allegro martellato.  Dramatico was truly lovely with hints of Scheherazade, Interlude was appealingly interesting and Moderato was beautiful, intense and complicated with the instruments chasing each other musically.  This piece of Canadian music definitely deserves to be heard much more frequently.  The first half ended with Serpentine Paths (2019) by Jocelyn Morlock commissioned for the Mercer Duo and given it’s world premier today.  Morlock in her program notes said it was meant to show a struggle eventually leading to resolution and to focus on the journey rather than the struggle.   At times the instruments sounded like a train chugging along, at other like someone trudging by foot and at times seeming to be lost or have trouble finding the path.  Ultimately it all came to a harmonious and satisfying resolution.

Then the Mercer Duo – Akemi Mercer-Niewohner, violin, and her sister Rachel Mercer, cello, performed Four Duos by Violet Archer composed in 1979.  Our performers mother studied composition with Archer when she was a student.  The Duos were entitled Brooding, Restless, Interlude and Paean and sounded exactly as their names implied.  Brooding had a lovely interplay between instruments and quietly expired at the end.  Restless had an unsettling drive but also sounded like fun.  Interlude was dreamy and nice and Paean was deceptively light song of praise which showed substance in the end.

After intermission another commissioned work, supported by the Ontario Arts Council, from Rebekah Cummings who died only a few weeks ago after being diagnosed in January with terminal cancer.   The work entitled Our Strength, Our Song was delivered to the Duo in December and is meant to evoke a Bulgarian folk singing style which is a tribute to the generational bond between women leading to teaching and overcoming obstacles together.  The sisters were clearly moved by this music and the emotions it evoked.  Barbara Monk Feldman wrote Pour un nuage violet in 1998 and was available this week to work with the Duo in rehearsal of her piece.  It is meant to show the resistance of nature of various forms.  If this was resistance, it was of the passive kind as this was a dreamy, wandering, slightly mournful piece that was lovely to drift along with eyes closed.  The final commission was by Alice Ping Yee Ho entitled Kagura Fantasy and was supported by a Toronto Arts Council grant.  Ho was present and said a Kagura is a Japanese entertainment for the Gods and in her piece the Goddess of Mirth has irritated the Goddess of the Sun, who is hiding in a cave, and must be placated so that she will return and shine on everyone again.   The crazy dance of the Goddess of Mirth was frenetic and used pencils instead of bows in places which led to a minor violin problem and a restart of the piece.  Ultimately tunefulness and harmony prevailed and the Sun shone again.

Both sisters of the Mercer Duo are impressive musicians and were clearly passionate about this project.  They had spent the week in a studio recording these works, so hopefully a CD will be produced soon.  By the end of the concert they were tired but happy with what they had achieved, and the audience gave them a truly spontaneous standing ovation.   Rachel Mercer did most of the organizing and rounded up the Arts Council grants and sponsorship which made the concert possible – as well as playing the music.  Next concert Saturday June 15th @ 3pm and 7pm – a Beethoven Blowout!  www.5atthefirst.com

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