Review: Music and Beyond kicks off with a night of marvellous musical contrasts

Wallis Giunta. Photo: Gerard Collett

The ninth edition of Music and Beyond began Wednesday night with an evening of contrasts and contradictions — not all of them harmonious.

The two acts in the opening ”gala” couldn’t have been more different. In the first half, Daniel Taylor’s Theatre of Early Music performed a patrician, semi-staged version of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. In the second, the Kruger Brothers, a trio from North Carolina, played their rousing Appalachian Concerto for banjo, guitar, and string quartet.

Ottawa mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta was the star attraction as Dido. Although she has sung the role before, with Toronto’s Opera Atelier, Giunta is not an early music specialist. She brought a modern sound and sensibility to her performance that sometimes clashed with the deliberate restraint and refinement of Taylor’s singers.

Giunta’s voice has bloomed over the past couple of years, during which she has been singing in Germany. In the past I had found it to be undersupported but this is no longer the case. The high Gs in Dido’s Lament had spine-tingling power and a rich, varnished topcoat of opulent colour. However, her chest voice can still sound hollow and forced.  

Giunta’s characterization of the tragic Queen of Carthage was charismatic and intense, shifting between statue-like grandeur and wounded emotion. Rather than try to integrate her awkwardly into the ensemble, Taylor wisely underlined her singular energy and vocal distinctiveness: dressing her in creamy white while keeping everyone else in black; isolating her onstage, minimizing her physical interactions with the other singers. Instead, two contemporary dancers — the riveting Bill Coleman and Carol Prieur — served as the physical avatars for passion, sensuality and betrayal. It was really the only approach that allowed this strange marriage to work.

Geoffrey Sirett was an enormously impressive Aeneas. In striking contrast to Giunta, with her dramatic hand gestures and fondness for scooping on climactic notes,  Sirett adopts a “less is more” philosophy. His velvety, tea-stained baritone is grounded in luxurious legato and judicious use of falsetto for expressive effect.

The rest of the ensemble was marvellous, including Larissa Koniuk’s sweetly affecting Belinda, Benjamin Butterfield’s hilariously inappropriate drunken sailor, and Taylor’s own creepy, campy Sorcerer.  Choral movements were finely etched, with especially beautiful echo effects. The small instrumental ensemble, led by violinist Adrian Butterfield, provided a softly shimmering backdrop for the singers.

After the intermission, Swiss-German brothers Jens and Uwe Kruger took the stage. Jens is a virtuoso banjo player, his brother is a guitarist and singer. Together with bass guitarist Joel Landsberg, they performed Jens’ Appalachian Concerto, accompanied by a string quartet made up of violinists Jasper Wood and Carissa Klopoushak, violist Catherine Ferreira, and Music and Beyond founder and cellist Julian Armour.

Without falling into pastiche territory, this charming, tuneful work was brimming with melodies that brought to mind everything from Vivaldi to Boccherini to Dvorak There were lots of opportunities for Jens and Uwe to show off their impressive picking skills. As an encore, Uwe sang a tender cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold.

Jens described the Appalachian Concerto as an homage to immigration and to the optimism and courage of people who leave everything behind to start fresh in a new country. He introduced himself and his brother to the audience as “immigrants…unfortunately, not to Canada.” It was a pointed message from an adopted American on Independence Day.

Dido and Aeneas repeats Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Saunders Farm with Ellen McAteer as Dido.

Update: The festival has announced the cancellation of two concerts by the Borodin Quartet as a result of illness in the group. The Borodins will appear instead next year. The Despax Quartet will perform a free concert at Southminster United Church starting at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Those with tickets should contact Music and Beyond to get a refund or to exchange them for another event.

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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.