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Amici, Lara St. John blend music with couture

Amici: Fashionista At Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on Sunday

Toronto's Amici chamber concerts took a turn for the glamorous on Sunday afternoon, at the CBC's Glenn Gould Studio, with a program called Fashionista.

This marriage of chamber music and haute couture – an example of Amici's penchant for spicing up their performances with additional elements – brought to the stage a collection of evening gowns by Toronto designer Rosemarie Umetsu and musical selections by three composers. The result was a cross between a concert and a fashion show.

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The repertoire Amici selected for this concert suggested that classical music sometimes embraces ideas well outside the aesthetic realm of haute couture.

For instance, we probably won't see brutality, bleakness and manic-depressive obsession as fashion themes in Paris, Milan or New York this season. But these values were driving forces in Galina Ustvolskaya's three-movement Trio for Violin, Clarinet and Piano. Ustvolskaya, a Russian composer who died six years ago, was a student of Dmitri Shostakovich – and in some ways her music sounds more like Shostakovich than Shostakovich does.

Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and pianist Serouj Kradjian – two members of Amici's core trio – were joined by guest violinist Lara St. John for Ustvolskaya's Trio.

The piece was like a tightrope walk with no net, so thin and sparse was its musical substance. Both Valdepenas and St. John faced challenging parts that were both difficult and highly exposed. Kradjian's contribution was harsh piano outbursts that suddenly shifted to introspective quietude.

Fortunately, all three musicians were more than equal to the composer's technical demands – and found common cause in an impressive performance, marked by a refined austerity.

For Toronto composer Alice Ping Yee Ho's Breath of Fire, cellist David Hetherington (the third member of Amici's trio) joined Valdepenas and guest accordionist Joseph Petric.

There wasn't a strong haute-couture affinity here, either. Breath of Fire is a quirky piece – a cleverly crafted study in subtlety and contrast. Passages of repose, sometimes making use of unconventional instrumental techniques (windy sounds from the accordion, sliding glissandos in the cello and complex multiphonic chords in the clarinet), were set beside rhythmic passages that emerged as fragmentary little dances.

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As well, Ho's score has a "Swiss watch" quality to it: tightly wound, with precisely interconnected parts. Playing such a work is no mean feat – and the success of this performance was largely due to the tight cohesion of the ensemble.

It was in the final piece – Ernest Chausson's four-movement Concerto in D for Piano, Violin and String Quartet – that the Fashionista theme was at last matched to the chosen repertoire. With this rich and lush work, Amici came up with something that aptly mirrored the elegance and sophistication of Umetsu's evening gowns.

St. John was the violin soloist, Kradjian was the pianist – and appearing as guest artists, the up-and-coming Cecilia Quartet.

St. John made this four-movement piece her own, with a commanding performance built up from long phrases piled one on the other. Kradjian was also a musical force to be reckoned with, as he negotiated his way through some effusive piano passages with skill.

In this unusual work, the string quartet often serves as a miniature orchestra. The Cecilias embraced this role, filling out Chausson's chromatic harmonies with a solid yet supportive performance.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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