North Battleford's Chapel Gallery hosted a very fine group of Saskatoon musicians, the Elixir Ensemble, Sunday afternoon.
Not having been widely publicized, only 22 people were there to enjoy the excellent music and musicians.
The concert opened with Mozart's Trio for clarinet, viola and piano. It needed a little more of Mozart's charm and buoyancy, but was still a satisfying opening. The clarinetist Margaret Wilson, principal clarinetist for the Saskatoon Symphony, has a gorgeous sound that blended well with the richness of the viola, beautifully played by Jim Legge, who will be returning to participate in the Music for the Soul recital series Sunday.
Next were two pieces performed by Oxana Ossiptchouk, violin, and Zdravko Besermenji, guitar. The fiery La Vida Breve by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and the seductive Nightclub 1960 by the famous Argentinian tango composer, Piazzolla, were well-played.
Then Elixir chose Overture on Hebrew Themes for string quartet (Arthur Boan joined the ensemble as second violinist), clarinet and piano, written by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. This combination of instruments is rare.
The commission for the composition came about when Prokofiev visited New York in 1919. The Jewish ensemble, Zimro, which had emigrated from the Soviet Union, gave Prokofiev a notebook of Jewish folksongs, and he completed the composition in 10 days.
It received its premiere in New York in 1920, with Prokofiev at the piano.
Elixir captured its strong rhythms and the introduction of the second theme was gorgeously played by cellist Scott McKnight. With all the richness of Jewish folk music ó strong rhythms, sadness, happiness, tragedy ó this was a wonderful choice.
The concert ended with a superb performance of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet Op. 57. The pianist, Kathleen Solose, really shone in this performance and the other musicians moving effortlessly through all the transitions of different combinations of instruments. The quintet is a complex work, with many mood swings, influenced greatly by the era in which it was composed.
It was created during the period in Russia when Stalin was in power (causing my grandfather to emigrate to Canada with his family). Shostakovich had to stay in Stalin's favour, not just so he could continue composing, but because the consequences of falling out of favour meant he could be killed, sent to Siberia, or just left to die in poverty and obscurity.
Shostakovich, who was a clever man, with both a heart and a sardonic sense of humour, managed to please Stalin with this quintet (actually winning the Stalin Prize). At the same time he made vivid musical innuendos on the pomposity and arrogance of Stalin, who was far less clever and didn't realize his regime was being made fun of. Nor did Stalin understand the sadness and anguish expressed in the second slow movement were about the anguish any human being with a heart feels in the face of oppression, cruelty and ignorance.
I found a quote by Shostakovich that applies to both the Prokofiev Overture and his own Quintet, "... Jewish folk music has made a most powerful impression on me. I never tire of delighting in it. Itís multifaceted. It can appear to be happy while it is tragic. Itís almost always laughter through tears. This quality of Jewish folk music is close to my ideas of what music should be. There should always be two layers in music. Jews were tormented for so long that they learned to hide their despair. They express despair in dance music."
Thank you Elixir for bringing this wonderful music to North Battleford.