Thursday, August 04, 2005

Tales of a teenage chamber music addict

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.08.04
BYLINE: Steven Mazey
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Photo: Remaining highlights of the Ottawa Chamber MusicFestival include a performance by the Canadian Brass tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.


Tales of a teenage chamber music addict


She got in line early so she could get a front-row seat, and when Tuesday's noon-hour concert at St. Andrew's Church was over, Rebecca Ehren was among the several hundred people standing and cheering the performance by violinist Jonathan Crow and pianist Paul Stewart of a sonata by Canadian composer Healey Willan.

It was the 15th concert Ehren had attended at this year's Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, and she was only sorry that she wouldn't be able to go to an 8p.m. concert that day.

"I have soccer practice," explained Ehren, a slim 13-year-old who has a pony tail, a sprinkling of freckles and a bicycle that gets her to the concerts when her music-loving parents Otto and Heather can't go with her.

"She's like a little kid in a candy store with this festival," says Otto Ehren, a writer and editor with the federal government.

Rebecca has been attending the festival with her parents since she was nine, and she says she goes to as many concerts as she can squeeze in between her soccer practices and piano lessons. Looking ahead to yesterday's lineup, she said, she was hoping to attend performances at noon, 2 p.m., 5p.m., 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

"What I love about this festival is that you are so close to the musicians. When you're in a big concert hall, the musicians can seem far away," said Ehren, who in her seat at St. Andrew's was about three metres from the performers.

She says it isn't easy to find other students her age who appreciate Beethoven.

"There isn't a lot of music in school, so they don't get exposed to it. I think some of them would like it if they gave it a try," said Ehren, who has been studying piano for six years with Ottawa teacher Clare Ellement.

She says she likes the music the festival presents, from baroque to contemporary pieces. Tuesday's noon-hour concert was devoted entirely to Canadian composers.

"You can hear a lot of different music. With the pass, you can hear music by composers you might not have heard of, without wondering if you would want to spend $30 for a ticket," said Ehren, who was looking forward to concerts by Canada's Gryphon Trio tomorrow and Saturday.

Ehren's dedicated concertgoing has made her a familiar face with volunteers and staff. Production manager Carlo Verdicchio invited her to give the Steinway a try after one recent show. She played an excerpt from Mozart's Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major.

"It has a great tone and it was really comfortable to play," she reports.

- - -

When you see the volunteers in their red festival T-shirts, smile and be nice to them. Say thank-you.

These people are taking tickets and selling programs and pushing pianos into place, all on their own time. And it's partly because of their unpaid work that the festival can offer its bargain-priced passes, which let patrons attend dozens of concerts over two weeks.

For those who bought their passes before June 30, the price was $70 general, $40 for students. That's considerably less than you pay for a prime seat for one hockey game at the Corel Centre or a performance of Mamma Mia! at the National Arts Centre. Does anyone ever accuse NHL hockey or mega-musicals of being elitist?

The festival has more than 300 volunteers, and many of them work a dozen concerts or more.

"They're very dedicated, and the festival couldn't do it without them," says Theresa Wilson, the festival's volunteer co-ordinator.

The volunteers are people like Evelyn Crees, back for the seventh time and working 24 concerts this year.

"I love the music, and I love talking to the people who come. You get to know the regulars," said Crees, who was working at the St. Lawrence Quartet concert on Monday.

She says some of her friends have told her they've seen the long lines outside the churches, and have told her they won't come because they hate to stand in line.

Doing her bit for PR, Crees asks a reporter to let people know that with four or five concerts presented at the same time on most evenings, it usually isn't necessary to line up far in advance unless you're determined to sit in the first few rows. In the festival's early years, when there were only one or two 8 p.m. concerts a day, people got in line early because they were afraid of being turned away at the door. This happens only occasionally now, and volunteers are quick to suggest other concerts nearby that aren't sold out.

The volunteers are people like Kevin Rutkay, 14, and his brother Brian, 16, who say they've been having fun at their first festival.

Kevin signed up because he plays violin, and his high school requires students to do volunteer work.

"I'm doing 10 or 11 concerts," Kevin said as he stood at the stage door for the concert by Trio di Colore last Thursday at St. John's Church.

"I've enjoyed the music a lot. I heard the Borodin Quartet and Quartetto Gelato and they were both excellent."

Kevin's brother Brian signed up because Kevin was doing it, "and it beats staying at home playing games on the computer."

- - -

Edmonton composer Alan Gilliland, former composer-in-residence for the Edmonton Symphony, arrived at St. John's Church on Monday morning and did a double take. There were more than 400 people lined along Somerset Street, all waiting for a concert consisting entirely of new music. Gilliland snapped a photo of the crowd to show his friends what the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival looks like.

The crowd was waiting to hear the St. Lawrence Quartet perform Toronto composer Christos Hatzis's String Quartet No. 2 and Gilliland's Jazz Suite for Clarinet and String Quartet, with clarinetist James Campbell.

"I was wondering how many people might show up for a noon-hour concert on a holiday Monday. This is incredible," said Gilliland, 40.

Audiences stood and cheered both pieces. Afterward, several patrons lined up to tell Gilliland how much they enjoyed his piece. Several also told him that they loved his jazz concerto, which the Edmonton Symphony performed at the NAC in May as part of the Alberta Scene Festival. Campbell was also the soloist in that piece, and had knocked 'em dead then, just as he did at St. John's.

"The secret is obviously just to get the music played," the composer said.

"That's where you get rid of the stigma that new music has for some people. I don't think there was one person here who was disappointed with the music. People aren't as afraid of new music as they used to be, and that's thanks to festivals like this and people like Julian Armour," Gilliland said of the chamber festival's director.

- - -

Borodin mania: Ottawa music shop CD Warehouse has been selling CDs at the festival, and the biggest sellers have been recordings by the Borodin Quartet, which presented the complete quartets of Shostakovich over five spectacular concerts.

The final peformance in the series was last night. (See today's City section for Richard Todd's review).

After Monday's concert, fans snapped up almost every available CD and waited in line to have them autographed by the musicians.

"It was absolute madness," says Pamela McDonald, the store's general manager. She had to order a rush shipment of additional CDs for last night's final performance, after selling several hundred at the first four concerts.

The concerts weren't sold out, but the audiences who attended were hugely enthusiastic, sitting in silence through the music and erupting into a roaring ovation.

"We like to bring music to our customers, to have something available when they get excited by a performance," says McDonald.

"This was such a historic event. It was great to be here for it."

- - -

The festival continues through Saturday. The high-profile concerts include a performance by the Canadian Brass tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers, countertenor Daniel Taylor and the Theatre of Early Music at St. Matthew's on Saturday at noon and 5 p.m., and the Vienna Piano Trio with the Gryphon Trio on Saturday at 8 p.m. at Dominion-Chalmers. For details, visit


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