Who: Chamber Music Hamilton
What: Special Feature
Where: Art Gallery of Hamilton (123 King Street West)
When: October 6, 2019
Tickets: various prices, starting at $15

Chamber music is a unique category in the larger spectrum of classical music. These pieces for small groups (usually up to a dozen musicians) are meant to be performed in a “chamber,” or intimate setting such as a house or small concert hall. Unlike larger orchestral works, there is no conductor to direct the musicians.

Locally, many chamber groups have found their home in local churches. Chamber Music Hamilton has existed in the city in one form or another since the late nineteenth century and its current iteration performs out of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The ensemble opened their 2019-20 season with a sold out special feature. In addition to the ten musicians on stage, narrator R.H. Thomson (currently starring in CBC/Netflix’s Anne with an E) and Trevor Copp (Tottering Biped Theatre) were included in the ensemble for the performance. These two individuals played a critical role in the concert, as the connecting theme between the pieces on the programme were that the stories were told not just through music, but through spoken word as well. To accomplish this task, Artistic Directors Michael Schulte and Abigail Richardson-Schulte chose two of classical music’s best known works; Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals and Vivaldi’s “Winter” from The Four Seasons. The programme was rounded off with a new arrangement of Richardson-Schulte’s wildly popular The Hockey Sweater, which was rewritten from its original form (for a full-sized orchestra) to one that could be performed by chamber ensemble.

Written in 1886, Saint-Saëns The Carnival of the Animals was meant to be a work for the composer’s students, so the cycle contains fourteen short movements which are interpretations of assorted creatures. The piece is so popular in both recordings and live performances that it’s always a challenge to hear it live, as each performance is likely to be compared to another iteration. Fortunately, Chamber Music Hamilton added a unique twist by including choreography to select movements and including the narrator into some of this physical element. Choreographed by Robin Patterson (Theatre Beyond Words) and charmingly executed by Trevor Copp, the physical interpretation of fish, birds, lions, turtles and more gave the work a whole new life. Hopefully this choreography finds its way into future performances of The Carnival of the Animals, as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

Also unique in Chamber Music Hamilton’s performance was a solo element in the movement “The Swan.” Typically performed by the ensemble cellist, this part was capably executed by Michael Schulte, who utilized a cello da spalla instead. Schulte was also featured on Vivaldi’s “Winter,” from The Four Seasons, another immensely popular piece, which was performed brilliantly. The text for “Winter” was also retranslated and adapted for the performance by Schulte, and although text and music didn’t always feel synchronized, each element on its own was both well performed and well narrated.

The final work on the programme, The Hockey Sweater, is based on the Roch Carrier book of the same name. Since being written in 2012, the piece has been performed countless times, although the chamber music version (commissioned by Robert Missen who was also at the performance) is relatively new. When composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte introduced the work, she spoke of the differences between the original and the newer, chamber music version. Despite the smaller ensemble, the chamber music version of The Hockey Sweater kept the intention and fun of the original. The performance was truly a team effort, with musicians transforming into referees, teammates, sport fans, and a church choir as needed. From where I was sitting, it was sometimes difficult to hear the classic text narrated alongside the music, but the overall performance of the work was a great success, proving that really great things can sometimes come in smaller packages.

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