Chamberfest review: Kapilow’s Après Maman hummable, well-developed and crunchy

Louise Bourgeois’ enormous spider sculpture Maman has been drawing people into its web for for 20 years now, tangling them up in strong reactions, from horror to delight. The Tate Modern nabbed the original, in stainless steel; six museums later acquired bronze castings, including the National Gallery of Canada.

Installed on the plaza outside the gallery, the elegant arachnid is arguably Ottawa’s best-known public art attraction. On any summer weekend you can find large groups of tourists snapping selfies with Bourgeois’ creation, staring up at the huge body, with its bulbous egg sac with a mix of disgust and amazement.

Children appear especially fond of Maman, perhaps instinctively sensing Bourgeois’ intention of a protective and nurturing force, running between her gigantic legs that rise up from the pavement as thick and tall as trees. Mommy dearest, indeed.

The Gryphon Trio commissioned American composer and music educator Rob Kapilow to write a work inspired by Maman, marking the sculpture’s 20th anniversary, as well as Chamberfest’s 25th and the 15-year mark since the National Gallery purchased it. Kapilow’s Après Maman, for string quartet, piano and celesta, flute, clarinet, percussion and tape, had its world premiere at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre Sunday night.

As a musical presenter, Kapilow is fast-talking, excitable and enthusiastic. That same hyperactive energy comes through in his music. I can’t fault Après Maman’s construction; the rather conventional thematic material is hummable and well developed, with just enough dissonance to keep things crunchy. But I found the main central section to be cartoonishly frantic and exaggerated, and Kapilow’s weaving of the Eensy Weensy Spider melody through the score felt too cute and clichéd by half. There was little of the sculpture’s stately grandeur, or its subtle play on the idea of the female spider as creative force, producing both life and art — a tribute to Louise’s beloved mother, a tapestry weaver. 

The tape featured excerpts of Bourgeois interviews in English and French. They surely provided context and insight, but the levels were off and it was very difficult to make out anything the artist said (it was unclear if this was intentional). The strongest part of Après Maman was a short taped choral section, for female voices singing Bourgeois’ own words — My mother was my best friend — in tight, uneasy harmonies.

Here, at last, was something suggestive of Bourgeois’ questioning, curious heart, her quietly provocative feminism, the rich sensuality of her art. In the end, I was left scratching my head: if the commissioners wanted a new piece of music inspired by an icon and pioneer of feminist art, why not give that opportunity to a woman composer? 

The concert also featured the Gryphon Trio in an affectionate reading of Haydn’s C Major Piano Trio; a delightful, expressive performance of Glière’s Two Pieces for Double Bass and Piano by Joel Quarrington and Jamie Parker and what is probably the most relaxed, unfussy, festive version of Schubert’s Trout Quintet I have ever heard. When musicians are having such pure, unadulterated fun on-stage, it makes even well-worn repertoire fresh again. 

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.