It is no secret that reviewers anticipate certain concerts more than others. The anticipation heightens when we are familiar with or are a fan of a particular artist or group. This was certainly the case for me when I walked into the packed house of Convocation Hall on Saturday evening to witness Ensembles Masques, a Montréal-based early music ensemble, under the auspices of the Edmonton Chamber Music Society. I have been listening to their discs with admiration for years, and Saturday’s live performance has cemented my appreciation for their beautiful playing, assured musicality, and enchanting collaboration.
Entitled “From Biber to Bach” (please, no Justin Bieber jokes allowed), the six musicians presented a program that considered the music that led to the likes of Bach and Telemann. I am particularly grateful that they decided to extend beyond the wall between performers and audience, explaining with welcome humour the history of both the repertoire and the Baroque instruments they were playing on. Several audience members conversed confusedly while the musicians tuned their instruments several times throughout the concert, until the ensemble’s founder, harpsichordist Olivier Fortin, mentioned that the gut strings were very sensitive to climate change. If classical music and, particularly, Baroque music have any hope for survival, Ensemble Masques’ accessible demeanour and professional quality are a good place to start.
The first half featured sonatas by Biber, Rosenmüller and Schmelzer, before finishing with a recognizable harpsichord concerto by J.S. Bach. The ensemble’s engaging and collaborative playing was immediately apparent. Each member was his or her own musician within one unit that never failed to impress. The Bach piece featured Olivier Fortin’s excellent playing on the University of Alberta’s own harpsichord. Special mention should go to Sophie Gent on first violin, whose performance was captivating throughout the evening.
The second half featured a work by Telemann, Burlesque Don Quixote, which showed off the ensemble’s flair for comedy amidst technical skill. Violist Kathleen Kajioka narrated the work between each movement. The clear favourite was the fifth movement, “Sanche Panche berné,” in which Sancho Panza is thrown into the air. The musicians used their faces and bodies to highlight the musical motives that suggested his being thrown into the air. It was a real treat for the audience.
When you like an ensemble’s recordings, it can be nerve-wracking to see the ensemble live in the hopes of not being disappointed. I have never been less disappointed by a live performance. There was no weak link in Ensemble Masques’ concert on Saturday evening in Convocation Hall. Each of the six musicians made the evening special, combining to create beautiful music together. No wonder it was packed house.
Upcoming Edmonton Chamber Music Society concerts can be found on the organization’s website: www.edmontonchambermusic.org.