Music: Four strong, um, strings

It’s a little nutty how much classical music there is in Ottawa in the summer. The NAC Orchestra played three fun concerts, including some sterling Gershwin, in a park next to the War Museum. The Orchestre de la Francophonie Canadienne, a shoestring summer operation for musicians under 30 run by the impressive barely-over-30 conductor Jean-Philippe Tremblay, and the better-resourced but slightly greener National Youth Orchestra of Canada under Jacques Lacombe, both showed off the country’s young ensemble players. (The OFC is playing all four Schumann symphonies this Wednesday and Thursday at McGill University. Admission’s free. It won’t always be this easy to get in to watch Tremblay conduct.)

Now we’re into the second of two chamber-music festivals the city will host this summer. Long story. Tonight I went to hear Schumann’s string quartets (he wrote the three of them in a single summer) without paying much attention to who’d be playing them. Turned out it was the Penderecki String Quartet, and they were so graceful and smart I looked them up when I got home.

They’re the quartet in residence at Waterloo’s Wilfrid Laurier University. They record a lot. (Three Juno nominations last year alone.) Founded in Poland in 1986, they’ve gone through many changes, reproducing, as quartets often do, the joke about how this is George Washington’s original axe except it’s had three new handles and four new blades since those days. The player who impressed me most turns out to be the newest: American cellist Jacob Braun, who has a light, compact sound and did nothing to stand out except display constant understated agility and eloquence. The whole quartet made a good case both for how tightly structured Schumann’s music is and how gorgeously weird it can get. (The last movement of the first quartet is barrelling toward a traditional conclusion when somebody switches the gravity off and the whole band suddenly starts floating in an endless instant of reverie. Then the chase is back on.)

That’s all. Just wanted to get on the record how good these four are. They’ll play some recent compositions by Canadian composers in Ottawa on Monday, then perform every day for the rest of the week at the Festival of the Sound in Tony Clement’s riding. I’m gonna check out some of their recordings.

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