Review: Concert of music composed by John Armstrong varied and interesting

John Armstrong.

Unless it’s a special tribute or anniversary event, it’s unusual to see an entire concert dedicated to the works of a single living composer. But John Armstrong’s output has been prolific and consistent enough to allow for an afternoon program that didn’t lack for variety or interest.

Armstrong, who teaches composition at the University of Ottawa, studied his craft with such luminaries as Nadia Boulanger and William Bolcom. Like Bolcom, Armstrong is fond of miniatures and most of the works presented at Tabaret Hall on Sunday were collections of tiny movements, each as concise and direct as any Tweet.

Armstrong’s talented son Patrick performed Remember, which his father wrote for his fourth-year bachelor’s piano recital (Gee, thanks dad.). This loose assembly of five movements roams freely over a range of styles, from the neo-impressionist, delicately coloured La Boulangerie, to the more starkly minimalist the cool night air… with its eerie plucked string effects.

I found Armstrong’s vocal works less compelling and assured than his instrumental compositions. In both Ghosts 3, for soprano, and On the Cusp, for baritone, the writing for voice is repetitive and of limited imagination. Armstrong falls into the “one note per syllable” trap, never allowing the singing to bloom and flow, replacing legato with clipped intervals that stifle the voice’s unique qualities and make the vocal lines sound like mere transcriptions.

Still, Cusp offered the pleasure of John Avey’s expressive, imperial baritone, with its wide, generous vibrato, securely supported by pianist Andrew Tunis. The earlier Ghosts featured alert, nuanced playing by flautist Lara Deutsch and guitarist Louis Trépanier. But soprano Jordanne Erichsen’s droopy, stoop-shouldered posture, perpetually wounded expression and oddly flaccid diction — she sings as if her mouth is full of gumballs — did little to stir excitement.

With 10 brisk movements and a longer, central Interlude, Abstracts, composed in 1988 for violin, clarinet and piano, was the most substantial work on the program. Each section bears a descriptive title: Assertive, Witty, ironic, Lyrical but restive and so on. Although they adhere to a complicated inner structure, the movements don’t sound linked in any obvious way. Armstrong explores every combination of the three instruments, from solos to different couplings to the full ensemble (all of it assertively played by violinist Trevor Wilson, clarinettist Emilia Segura and Patrick Armstrong).

Comparing this 30-year-old work to his more recent Remember, you could hear that Armstrong had already found his voice (and his predilection for small formats, although the earlier effort was more academic and less original.

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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.