Duo Concertante: Concert Review

by Bob Park, Feb. 27, 2017

For the final concert in its 2016/17 season, the South Okanagan Concert Society presented the wonderful, Newfoundland-based, Duo Concertante. Violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves are partners in life and partners in music. Seventeen years ago we had first heard this superb duo here in Oliver, on the old Frank Venables Auditorium stage. In the intervening years Nancy and Tim have performed all over the world and received countless awards and accolades.

And here they were again, in Oliver, but this time we could welcome them to the new Venables Theatre! Of this year’s high quality concert line-up, this was perhaps the performance I was most looking forward to. In our age of electrically and digitally processed music it is refreshing to spend a few hours enfolded by the natural, un-amplified sound of beautiful instruments.

Duo Concertante reminded us what a miracle of sound in skilful hands the grand piano and the violin are! In spite of what one might expect by merely looking at their size, these instruments really were perfectly balanced. The big sound of our modern Yamaha C3 never overpowered the violin. While some brilliant minds in 16th century Italy were designing St. Peter’s Cathedral, creating the sculpture of David and painting the Mona Lisa , others invented a tiny wooden box that can fill a concert hall with sound that speaks straight to the heart—even four centuries later!

The concert opened with a seldom heard Sonata in A Major, by J.S. Bach. Instead of featuring a violin soloist with keyboard accompanist, this sonata had the violin and the keyboard on an equal footing. The counterpoint style has a melody being followed by another and often a third always playing catch-up, and each instrument takes the lead at different times. Although old J.S. Bach and the early music crowd might disagree, I think that this sonata works better with piano than with the original harpsichord, since the different voices can be separated more distinctly.

From the first movement of this sonata on, I knew we were in for a real treat. Nancy’s superb violin playing let us relax and enjoy the music, without her making us aware of how fiendishly difficult this instrument really is. The audience could sit back and let Nancy do the driving. Just one example: Nancy’s way of doing vibrato. Instead of imitating legendary violinists (Heifetz, Kreisler) with a one-speed, super- fast vibrato on all passages, Nancy varies the speed and intensity of her vibrato. On long notes in the Bach sonata she would come into the note softly with no vibration, and gradually build the volume, adding vibrato and then ending the note softly, again without vibrato. Easier said than done, and very effective. Throughout the concert, the violin became her way of expressing emotion, her personal voice.

The Bach was followed by another rarely heard work, Tartiniana Seconda, by Luigi Dallapiccoli (more fun to hear Tim say it than for me to spell it). This short four movement work featured melodies based on Baroque -era dance rhythms combined with some modern harmonies. The original Tartini theme was played with

broad triple stops on the violin. The variations allowed Tim to play some fine solo passages on the piano. This lively piece of music deserves more frequent performances.

Concluding the first half of the evening was the Brahms Sonata No.2 in A, perhaps the best known of the composer’s violin sonatas. The beautiful theme of the first of three movements is, I think, well known to violin fans, being on all those “greatest hits” CD’s! Brahms’ life and music are infused with sorrow, dignity and beauty. The slow second movement was absolutely lovely, played by Nancy with that expressive sense of dynamics that draws you in. The highlight of the night for me. This second movement changed in mood and ended with a lively tempo, tricking many of us into thinking the piece was over. The duo must forgive us for applauding; it seemed appropriate considering the magic of the moment.

The second half of the concert was given over to the Franck Sonata in A major, jokingly referred to by violinists as the “Frank Sinatra”. Not every violinist is up to performing this piece. It requires absolute mastery of all technical aspects of the violin and buckets of emotional energy. Nancy certainly pulled it off. When I focussed on Tim’s excellent piano accompaniment, it struck me that the piano part in this work is just as impossible as the violin part! I can’t think of a better way to end a wonderful evening than with that cascading triumphal melody that concludes the final movement!

After that brilliantly executed and exhausting work, it was surprising that the duo still had the energy to treat us to another technical fireball as encore. They played an arrangement of Kachaturian’s well-known Sabre Dance. Lots of fun!

What’s next for the Concert Society? “Piano Chameleons” (two pianos duel it out); “Cheng2Duo” (young brother and sister on cello and piano); “Cari Burdett and Quintet” (gypsy, folk, opera, jazz tunes, cabaret style); “Joe Trio” (court jesters of the classical). The four concerts of the 2017/18 season are already “live” on the ticket section of the Frank Venables Theatre website , as well as being accessible via the theatre box office, Tuesdays through Thursdays, and at 498-1626. Pick your reserved seats as soon as possible! Save $24 on the series, by purchasing tickets to all four concerts in advance!

When Joie de Vivre is a Tour de Force

Concert Review, by Bob Park

The weather might have been cold and blustery outside last Friday night, but the atmosphere inside the Frank Venables Auditorium was exactly the opposite. It was warm and friendly for the large audience who had turned out to enjoy the second concert in the South Okanagan Concert Society’s series. Fiddler Daniel Gervais, together with guitarist Clinton Pelletier and step-dancer Aline Dupuis-Gervais performed for us a highly eclectic and entertaining mix of jazz, classical, bluegrass, newgrass, country, old time, ragtime, and Celtic, which left us– two hours later– on our feet, clamoring for more. Fun for all ages and musical tastes!

To their foundational skills of technical facility and full command of the music, without which excellence does not occur, the three performers brought that more elusive “je ne sais quoi” of spontaneity, high energy and honesty. Above all, there was a tangible feeling that they themselves were really enjoying every second of what was happening. Contagious, to say the least.

We were drawn into their magic by the lively opening medley of fiddle tunes (toe-tapping and all!), including the well-known “Devil’s Dream”, which at one point morphed into a slow Gypsy Jazz minor swing. (Don Messer never had the courage to try that!). The evening continued with similar surprises and consistent spontaneity. Daniel on the fiddle and Clinton on the guitar never just went through the motions. They kept watching and listening to each other, expecting the unexpected. At one point I could hear Daniel call: “F”, which was followed by a quick key modulation and a whole musical gear shift on the violin that Clinton picked up on immediately.

Such outstanding guitar work, by a performer who is not content with just playing chords in the background, but has the skills to put the guitar on an even footing with the violin explains this duo’s success on Friday night. It was fun to listen to their constant interplay: trading fours and harmonizations of the melody between the two instruments. There are many guitar players out there, but guitarists such as Clinton Pelletier, who can trade licks on par with a hot fiddler, are very rare.

The evening passed very quickly, with the lively patter of Daniel engaging the audience with fascinating bits of history of the genres and styles prior to each piece. Clinton also gave us insight into the delightful music being created. After the performance, Aline told some of us about the regional variations in step-dancing, and demonstrated the different techniques of the Irish, the “Outaouais” (Ottawa valley), and the Quebec styles of dancing. Most interesting! I’m sure the whole audience would have loved to hear her explanations, too.

As it was, we all felt privileged to watch the beautiful step-dancing, and were mesmerized. The spotlight swung on Aline several times during the evening, as she danced to fiddle tunes that seemed to be made to measure for her movements and the beat of her feet. The prolonged applause given to her was most fitting!

The rich French Canadian heritage was highlighted again when Daniel sang and fiddled a humorous old “call and response” song, “tout en francais”, about a certain Lisette, who had some serious challenges in churning and sieving the butter through her “queue de chemise”. A rousing tune , sung at break-neck speed while simultaneously playing furiously on the fiddle—not many could pull off such a stunt.

Let me mention just a few more gems from an evening of highlights. Think: Hot Club of Paris in the “30’s. This music has never been as popular as it is today. Belgian guitar virtuoso, Django Rheinhardt and French violinist Stephane Grappelli are heros for our performers Daniel and Clinton, so no surprise that their take on the Gypsy Jazz anthem, “Minor Swing”, captured the style perfectly.

Another feat was the piece with which the first half ended: Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer’s “Wooly Mammoth”. The theme of stampeding mammoths being pursued by sabre tooth tigers makes for a technical monster of a piece. It features exceptionally fast and tight unison melody playing. With its interesting modality and advanced harmonization this piece takes bluegrass and moves it into the realm of classical and fusion jazz. To pull that off with a smile on your face is a real achievement!

Playing Bach, (Gigue from the Partita 2, in D minor), as an opener for the second half was a brilliant choice, which took some courage, since the unaccompanied Bach violin suites are considered the “Mount Everest” of the violin world. By “unplugging” , Daniel treated us to the natural, glorious sound of a well-played violin in a good hall. ( That alone makes buying a season’s ticket worth it, doesn’t it?)

We heard the hauntingly beautiful ‘Ashokan Farewell’, the ever popular ‘Yesterday’, and some pieces by Natalie McMaster. We were introduced to a rarely heard Swedish folk instrument (the nickel-harp, an unusual cross between a fiddle and a hurdy-gurdy). We enjoyed the fact that our vivacious fiddler was also turning his hand to composition, (Belize, Reverie, Gambier). We also had fun picking out tunes we recognized in the fun-filled medley that started out as Sugar Foot Rag but was transformed by our talented duo with bits and pieces of Cotton Patch Rag, Alabama Jubilee, and more.

The night concluded with a well-deserved standing O, and an encore medley that left me feeling I’d never done so much toe-tapping in my life. Hats off to Daniel, Aline and Clinton. Please come back soon!