Review: Young performers shine despite status quo programs

The senior class from NACO’s summer institute for young musicians performed in two jam-packed concerts on Thursday and Friday. With groups of varying size and composition succeeding each other on stage to play through excerpted movements from the chamber music canon, it was more of a relay than a marathon.

If the musicians were young, gender balanced, and culturally diverse, the repertoire was anything but. Forget women composers, composers of colour, or even Canadian composers of any period or persuasion; Ravel and Nielsen were the closest things to modern music on two programs.

I appreciate that a two-week institute does not offer time to delve into truly experimental works. That it’s easy for instructors to fall back on works they themselves know well, and that they must take into account the skills and compatibility of the participants. That student performers are eager to try their hands at the great 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces they have heard their teachers and idols play. But isn’t part of a teacher’s job to open their students’ ears and minds to different things? To challenge received notions of “greatness”?

More and more orchestras are getting called to task for status-quo programming. Common excuses include “we have to balance difficult music with more appealing works,” “seasons are planned years in advance,” or, my personal favourite, “we select composers based on merit, not identity.” It’s harder to accept such a limited — and limiting — approach at a summer student institute, where the instrumental mentors have much more discretion, and where recital programs are not even published in advance.

But back to the performances. Standouts included the first movement of Schubert’s Octet, played with an abundance of lively charm and lyrical sensitivity; two vibrant, mature, lushly textured excerpts from Dvorak’s String Quartet in G Major; and a gutsy, passionately stated, first movement from Brahms’ F minor Piano Quartet.

The technical excellence of these students is usually high, but their experience and comfort level can vary considerably. It was lovely to see the more self-assured, relaxed students supporting their more nervous peers with a smile, a reassuring glance, or a firmly indicated downbeat.

Some kids, like violinist Minkyum Kim (Korea), are born leaders. Others seem to have that little something extra — call it charisma, or star power — that makes you notice them no matter their position. Violinist Jennifer Ahn (U.S.) has it; so does double bassist Aaron Olguin (U.S.) and Canadian cellist Mari Coetzee, whose majestic tone overcame even the bone-dry acoustics of Freiman Hall, uOttawa’s millennial pink spaceship of a recital hall.

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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.