Arion unmasks a courtly French program

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OTTAWA – After an absence of more than a year, the Ottawa Chamberfest is back. Sure, it’s slimmed down from past seasons, when it called itself “the world’s biggest chamber music festival.” But with Ontario now in Phase 3 of its COVID reopening plan, Chamberfest is able to deliver a hybrid format of limited-attendance indoor concerts, outdoor performances for larger audiences and livestreams you can watch from the safety and comfort of your couch.

This year also marks the debut of a new management team. Artistic director Carissa Klopoushak was formally appointed in March after acting as interim for more than a year, while executive director Mirhan Faraday, formerly with the Banff International String Quartet Competition and Festival, is just a few weeks into her new job.

Klopoushak’s approach to programming is markedly different from that of her predecessor, Gryphon Trio cellist Roman Borys. It’s hard to say at this point which choices are a result of pandemic accommodations and which represent a more permanent direction for Chamberfest. Certainly the festival’s diversity has vastly increased, with more performers and composers from BIPOC and other underrepresented groups than in past years. Whereas previous editions often forced ticket holders to choose between competing concerts happening at the same time, this year’s festival features one headliner group or artist performing the same program twice each day, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Klopoushak has kept popular events like the eclectic late-evening Chamberfringe series, kid-friendly morning programs for families and the New Music Now contemporary series.

Friday was Day 2 of the festival, and the featured artists were Montreal’s Arion Baroque Orchestra. The theme was “Once upon a time in Versailles,” with music by French Baroque composers who worked at or around the glittering palace between the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XVI.

Arion’s playing was the essence of French courtly elegance, although the ensemble can sound a little bland and bloodless when compared with the extraordinary vigour and daring of, say, Les Violons du Roy. Tempi were energetic if not gutsy, and I would have liked to hear more dynamic range and contrast. Lully’s suite for the comedy-ballet Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme felt a little too serious, although the final Chaconne des Scaramouches radiated tender charm.

The other works on the program were not as well known. Excerpts from Henri Desmarets’ opera Vénus et Adonis, Michel Corrette’s Concerto comique on themes by Rameau and others, and a Récréation by the infamously murdered composer Jean-Marie Leclair all contained hidden gems. Desmarets’ Passacaille sounds like a stately church procession with a boisterous party wedged in the middle, while a Leclair Chaconne was as full of sinuous, hairpin turns of mood and harmony as an F1 racetrack.

The acoustics of the Carleton-Dominion Chalmers Centre are challenging under the best of conditions; with no more than 25 people in the hall, all the details were blurred into a thick paste.

While there was plexiglass between the wind players, all the musicians were unmasked. It was surprising and unnerving. In comparison, National Arts Centre Orchestra strings and percussion are still masked at all times (as is the conductor), while winds are masked when not playing. Ottawa was under lockdown for much longer than Montreal; I’m not sure if audiences here are ready to see bare faces to that extent.


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