020119 Gryphon Trio with Nordic Voices, Ottawa, ON

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On February 1st, 2019 I walked through the refreshing cold to the Dominion-Chalmers Church for an evening of new and old serious music as part of Ottawa’s very highly regarded Chamber Music Festival.  

I arrived early and waited in the foyer for my friend and her comped tickets.  After waiting for what felt like much longer than necessary it occurred to me that I was probably in the wrong foyer.  And lo, around the corner, down a barren hallway and ‘round yet another corner I found a much more vibrant foyer, and this one was set up with a will call desk.  Harrumph.  It seemed pretty obvious that I had been waiting at the wrong foyer and it further made sense that my freind probably got sick of waiting for me and had already gone in and taken her seat.  

As a very happy and satisfied non-cellphone owner/operator it is very, very rare that I find myself in a situation where I feel like my life would be made more convenient had I just broken down and purchased a cellphone like everyone else.  (Seriously.  When people find out I don’t have a cellphone they always wonder aloud – usually very aloud – how I can even get through a day without one.  On the contrary [I say to generally blank stares], I often wonder how people can get through the day with one, and [I continue bravely] I can rarely think of a use for one.  But here I was, very much having a use for one.)

But as I invariably discover, even in this situation the cellphone would not have helped me in any way, for had I had one and used it I would have simply discovered that an accident on the highway had slowed down traffic to the point where my friend was held up until the very minute when the church was closing it’s doors to latecomers.  The CBC was recording the show and they didn’t want any mucky-muck with late arrivals and the inevitable big church door squeaks that accompany them.

Of course in the moment this was still all just a mystery to me, though by this time I had thought to ask the will call people if my friend had picked up her tickets and I had discovered that she hadn’t.  And so I waited, just exactly as I would have waited had I had a cellphone in my pocket.  And as I say, my friend showed up at the last minute and we ran up the stairs to our balcony pew with the big squeaky door shutting behind us.

Just as we sat down the introductions began, and they lasted a good fifteen minutes.  The speaker was the ‘cellist from the Gryphon Trio, which was half of the acts performing on this night.  He spent a great deal of time describing in too much detail how his local trio had commissioned a work for their twenty-fifth anniversary and how they had selected Norway’s Nordic Voices to perform said work with them.

And then – finally – the concert began.

The Gryphon Trio (piano, violin, and ‘cello) positioned themselves on stage right while the six vocalists that made up Nordic Voices lined up along stage left.  Curiously, the first half of the concert was comprised of old and very old music, whilst the second half was brand-spanking new.  

First up, Nordic Voices sang the first chunk of a trio of movements written by Tomás Luis de Victoria, who died in 1611, while The Gryphon Trio sat motionless.  This was the “very old” music I was referring to, and it was wonderful.  Six-part polyphony with nary a parallel harmony in sight.  It was warm and frosty all at once, and quite glorious.  

After the first movement the singers sat down and the Gryphons started up, playing the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio in A Minor, which was pretty good.  The two groups then continued to alternate, presenting their respective trios of musical chunks until the first set was behind us.  (The G. Trio’s second movement almost rivalled the singers’ first movement in awesomeness, but not quite.)

The second set was the commissioned piece – entitled Scar Tissue – and it featured all the musicians playing together.  And man, it was out of this world.  Vocally it was completely removed from what the Nordic Voices had performed in the first half, with thick, dissonant harmonies throughout, and the blending of the voices with the trio was just divine.  It was quite simply unlike anything I had ever heard before.

Then there was the encore, a surprise piece based on a Norwegian folk song that featured the greatest, most skilled and versatile overtone singing I have ever heard live.  One of the male singers was so remarkably good at altering partials of his base notes that he effortlessly and very, very musically was harmonizing himself with perfect polyphony.  Stated more simply: the dude was singing two notes at once and it was jaw dropping.  

And then for a musical nightcap my friend and I dragged another friend in the crowd out to the bar in the nearby Lord Elgin Hotel for the last half-hour of a great local jazz trio in the form of Roddy Elias on guitar, Mike Essoudry on drums, and Don Cummings on the organ.  

Considering I had awoken that morning with no live music planned for the day it turned out to be a pretty darn fine evening of ethereal musical brilliance.

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