By: Dr. Araxie Altounian
The Royal Conservatory’s Ettore Mazzoleni Hall was full on Sunday afternoon, January 28, with a crowd of music lovers who had come to hear a concert dedicated to the post-romantic German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949), performed by the Amici Chamber Ensemble and several guest performers, including Montreal-based soprano Sasha Djihanian.
Known mostly for his operas and tone poems for large orchestra, Richard Strauss has also written quite a few works for the smaller, more intimate setting of chamber ensembles, as well as close to 200 lieder (art songs), many of which have gained a lot of popularity with audiences worldwide.
The selections presented by the Amici Ensemble spanned the long career of the composer. First on the program was one of Strauss’s later works, “Duett Concertino” (1947) for clarinet, bassoon, strings and harp (replaced by the piano in Serouj Kradjian’s own arrangement). Like Strauss’s tone poems, this work has a narrative, in which the clarinet represents a princess, and the bassoon a bear. As one would expect in a fairy tale, after the horror of the first encounter, the bear ends up turning into a prince, on a background of vivid folk dances. Both solo parts were brilliantly executed by the clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas (one of the three core members of the Amici Ensemble, and principal clarinetist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), and guest Michael Sweeny (Principal Bassoonist of the TSO).
Next the audience was treated to five art songs: “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (Dream in the Twilight, 1895), “Die Nacht” (The Night, 1885), “Befreit” (Liberated, 1898), “Morgen” (Tomorrow, 1894, a wedding present from the composer to his bride), “Zueignung” (Dedication, 1885). Serouj Kradjian (pianist, and core member of the Amici Ensemble) explained to the audience that these songs were originally written for soprano and piano, and later arranged by the composer for voice and orchestra. In his own new arrangements, premiered during this concert, Kradjian combined elements of both versions – the delicate intimacy of piano accompaniment with the colorful texture and lush tone of the ensemble featuring strings and clarinet.
Soloist Sasha Djihanian obviously loves singing Strauss. She admits in an interview that she discovered Strauss when she was a student at the Montreal Music Conservatory, and “instantly fell in love”. Fascinated by the composer’s genius, she states that the way he “marries harmony, melody and text is just exquisite and extremely evocative”. Djihanian’s pure, crystalline soprano is well suited to this repertoire. Her expression ranges from the most tender and delicate to the highly ecstatic, always maintaining a beautiful timbre. Djihanian recently completed her Masters in Voice degree at the Montreal Music Conservatory and has won prizes in numerous competitions, including 1st prize in the Czech and Slovak International Voice Competition in 2015, 1st prize in the Canadian Opera Company Competition in 2011, and was a Semi-Finalist in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium in 2011. Her performance with the Amici Ensemble was eagerly welcomed by the audience members.
The concert concluded with one of Richard Strauss’s earlier works, his piano quartet in C minor, composed in 1875 in Brahmsian style, under the influence of his very traditionalist father. The work is very interesting nevertheless, exuding youthful passion and intense lyricism, and not surprisingly, technically very demanding. Pianist Serouj Kradjian was joined by guest violinist Timothy Ying, guest violist Keith Hamm and cellist David Hetherington (the third core member of the Amici Ensemble).
It is worth noting that the original programing of the Amici Chamber Ensemble – now in its 30th year, turns each one of its thematic concerts into a unique experience. Furthermore, the three core members and co-artistic directors are always joined by various guest performers (hence the name Amici), thus offering the listener boundless possibilities to experience new repertoire and to appreciate the vast array of musical talent that exists in Toronto. This sense of novelty, along with the excellent level of performance, make the concerts of the Amici Chamber Ensemble very attractive.
For those interested in hearing the artists of the Strauss concert again, the Amici Chamber Ensemble will be performing two more concerts before wrapping up its 30th anniversary season (more about this on www.amiciensemble.com). As for Sasha Djihanian, she will hopefully return to Toronto in the spring for another concert, the details of which will be announced at a later date.