Review: A concert of firsts well-delivered by Thirteen Strings

Kevin Mallon has led Thirteen Strings for the past decade. Time to celebrate.

Tuesday’s Christmas concert by Thirteen Strings at Dominion-Chalmers was an evening of firsts. It was the first concert in the newly renovated space and the first performance featuring the freshly minted Thirteen Strings Chamber Choir.

The changes at DC are, for now at least, mostly spatial. The stage has been significantly extended with a wide, half-moon shaped apron, creating an area large enough to accomodate the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra while bringing smaller ensembles like Thirteen Strings slightly more forward toward the audience. Any impact on the church’s acoustics seems minimal, and is more a by-product of where the musicians are now placed than any targeted modifications.

The program featured Bach’s Magnificat, several well-known instrumental settings of French Noëls by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Recorder and Chinese-Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Quest for string orchestra.  Visually at least, it was a relief to see performers being able to spread out with elbow room to spare, especially in repertoire that called for extra musicians (brass, woodwinds and tympani), as well as a choir and soloists. Bigger choral works with orchestra have looked uncomfortably cramped in this venue, so it’s already an improvement.

Vincent Lauzer

In his previous career as a Baroque-specialized violinist, Mallon performed and recorded these lovely Charpentier pieces many times. His natural ease in the repertoire brought out all their refined, courtly grace. Two Montreal-based recorder virtuosos, Vincent Lauzer and Caroline Tremblay, added pastoral charm.

Lauder — a rising musical star in Canada and a student of the eminent German-born recorder player and composer Matthias Maute — was the featured soloist in Vivaldi’s only recorder concerto, where he displayed blazing speed, crystalline articulation, and jaunty, supple phrasing.  

Originally from Hong Kong, Alice Ping Yee Ho is based in Toronto and wrote Quest to challenge the student string ensemble at U of T. Its quasi-variation form explores a comprehensive array of techniques and effects, but the urgent, evocative lyricism of the piece’s main themes — first stated by unison cellos — saves Quest from becoming a dry or overly clever exercise.

If Mallon appeared at home in the Charpentier, the same could not be said for the Bach. I’ve seen Mallon struggle with directing singers before, and saw the same weaknesses here: unclear or absent cues for the choir and soloists, a lack of careful attention to the balance between the orchestra and the singers and an apparent unwillingness to follow the soloists’ tempi, dynamics, or basic need to breathe. Some performers told me afterward that the performance tempi were very different from what had been discussed in rehearsal. If a conductor is going to take this risk, they need to be absolutely focused and clear in their direction.

Alice Ping Yee Ho. Photo: Bo Huang

It’s a pity, because there was the potential for sublimely beautiful singing. I was less than convinced by soprano Myriam Leblanc’s Gilda in l’Opéra de Montréal’s Rigoletto earlier this season, but in Bach she’s in her element, with a ravishingly limpid, sweet yet penetrating voice. Mezzo Marjorie Maltais continues to impress with her beautiful, plush tone and seamless legato.

Sri Lankan-born tenor Asitha Tennekoon has a busy week in Ottawa — he’ll also be singing Messiah this Thursday and Friday with the Rideau Chorale. The voice is lightly and attractively coloured, albeit a little on the small side, and with a slight tendency to acquire a nasal twang in the higher register. But Tennekoon’s singing in the brilliant Deposuit was ferociously precise, shaped with daring and a fine sense of musical drama. In his lone Aria, the young bass Joel Allison displayed a voice that was striking in its maturity, effortless heft and power and superb control.

Jamie Loback

Prepared by Jamie Loback, the Thirteen Strings’ new chamber choir, made up of members of the Capital Chamber Choir and other choral groups — made an auspicious debut. Yes, the sopranos could have had a rounder, less piercing tone, and there could have been more fine detail in the singing. I would ideally have liked to hear more noticeable dynamics, greater use of mezza di voce, and more clearly defined ornamentation. But overall, the choir showed great potential, and Ottawa should welcome the addition of another quality chamber vocal ensemble.

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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.