Review: Strings were on the menu with #1000strings and Janus Quartet

The Janus Quartet is from Mexico. They performed Saturday evening at Chamberfest.

Strings al fresco were on the menu at Chamberfest on Saturday, with two free events in city parks that brought music into the community.

Bright and early Saturday morning, a large crowd of professional, amateur and student string players — and their proud parents and friends — began congregating in Hintonburg Park for the Ottawa premiere of Music in the Barns’ #1000Strings project

Music in the Barns, a Toronto-based contemporary music collective that presents innovative, often large-scale projects in unusual settings, reworked John Oswald’s 1990 string quartet Spectre, and turned it into a mass participatory experience. In 2015, they brought 1,000 string players of all abilities and ages together in Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square for the first performance. 

The Ottawa performance didn’t match that number. But it was still thrilling and heartwarming at the same time to see what was probably more than 100 string players of every stripe gathered under the August sun for this event — from tiny kids playing adorable micro-cellos to amateur bassists who cheerfully lugged their king-size instruments there in the heat. Professional section leaders included violinists James Ehnes and Carissa Klopoushak, NACO violist David Thies-Thompson, the Music in the Barns crew and the Janus Quartet from Guadalajara, Mexico. The wail of passing fire trucks and the loud buzzsaw hum of cicadas seemed to blend right into Oswald’s score, which is full of effects like swarms of bees and jet engines.

Later, at dusk, the Janus Quartet could be found in Dundonald Park on Somerset Street, playing a short concert before a Centretown Movies in the Park screening of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Instead of a tribute to ’80s hits (oh yeah, chick-chicka), the four young musicians served up a charming, unpretentious assortment of traditional musical genres from Latin America. Their set began with a tango arrangement of Besame Mucho, followed by a lively polka, a sentimental waltz, and another tango by Piazzolla. Under the darkening sky, it all felt deliciously nostalgic, evoking a Palm Court tea dance circa 1905.

Ensemble violinist Francisco Gonzalez comes from a family of famous mariachis, so you knew when he picked up his guitar you would hear something special. Gonzalez sang two swooningly romantic ballads in a fine tenor voice. 

The quartet concluded with an arrangement of an irresistible Mexican folklorico tune, its swirling 6/8 rhythms and syncopated bass line transporting the audience to a fiesta in a plaza under the stars.

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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.