Concert Reviews

Opposites Attract 3:30 at Gallery 345

It was a dark and stormy night. Literally. It was miserable, cold and pissing rain; a typical fall Thursday in Toronto. Down the windy streets of Roncesvalles lies an old factory building, which beckons the intrepid listener like a beacon of higher culture. After an existentially rigorous trek to the outskirts of the TTC, the open door seems both foreboding and welcoming. Asinine in existence, Gallery 345 is a premier destination for small ensembles in Toronto. On this evening, it plays host to two contrasting performances: solo baroque cellist[1], Erika Nielsen, and improvisational Jazz group, Arkana.

As the hour draws nigh, the man previously represented only as ticket taker and intrepid coat rack guide approaches the stage. He gestures magnanimously for quiet, then in an endearingly condescending and extraordinarily helpful manner, prefaces with words what is about to be experienced without words.

With little ceremony, Erika Nielsen seats herself and performs the ancient ritual of subtly plucking her strings to ensure tuning. With a thick, rich tone, she launches into a powerful ascending scale, slides into a stilted baroque melody, and finally arrives at a comfortable and friendly ending. The first piece, written by Domenico Cabrielli[2], is broken into two movements, Ricercare Primo and Ricercar Quinto[3]. The second movement opens in a glorious, verging on aggressive, statement of intent. It then segues into an arpeggiated motion, suggesting a search for melodic absolution. Occasionally, the piece rests on a comfortable place, before moving on with restless antipathy, followed by a virtuosic display of talent, and a succinct, almost apologetic culmination.

After a smattering of applause, Erika launches into the cozy arms of J.S.Bach[4]. The familiar opening notes lull the audience into a false sense of security, only to suck them into a whirlpool of harmonies. Eventually, the two cascading voices reappear, telling two connected, but differing narratives, which pause for a breath, then finish with a flourish.

After a deep breath, Erika calmly resets her bow, and brings forth sounds and themes inclining towards a set resolution. This fools the mind into thinking the sound is settled, until she runs directly into the third movement, The Courrente[5]. Brisk, crisp, and refreshing, Erika makes the movement’s theme very clear. As our minds jog on joyfully, she alludes to other implied musical ideas as well, never explicitly distracting from the main theme, before settling onto a final cadence.

We are then introduced to the Sarabande[6]. Forthright but beautiful, the melody proceeds to wonder, as if trying to fill every crevice and crack in the hall. Whilst the Sarabande is technically a dance, this interpretation favours beauty of line and melody instead. After a brief pause between the final two movements, we are treated to an upbeat pair of Gavottes, with two very different melodic ideals, unified by a common driving rhythm. From there, the music launches directly into the final Gigue, characterized by a top heavy rhythm that crashes like a slow building wave into an epic cadence and a flourish.

Knees weak, arms heavy, moms’ spaghetti on her shirt already, she launches straight into Guesseppe. Aggressive and unapologetic repetition of arppegiated sequences bleed into the rafters, supplanted by a melody that waivers between vapid complexity and a strong broad tone. Every section ends in close calls with final cadences, before an abrupt and unceremonious end. The audience leaps to their feet to congratulate Erika’s performance with enthusiastic applause as the next group takes the stage.

Following Erika’s performance, Jazz improvisatory group, Arkana, takes the stage. The group’s members include pianist Ali Berkok, drummer Andrew Millar, saxophonist Brodie West, and cellist Erika Nielson.   As the audience greets the new members with impartial applause, Erika acknowledges the crowd, and prepares them for “something completely different” before the group begins their first live composition.

Arkana is an improvisatory group; nothing they perform is written down, prerecorded, or preplanned. Rather, their music is spontaneous creation, relying on the technique, familiarity and innovative guts of the performing musicians. The first sound we are introduced to consists of chord-like clusters of sounds from the piano[7], followed by a tentative entrance, almost post-apocalyptic in nature. The sax player makes muted ovations to jazz-like themes before fading into an argument between the cello and the sax, occasionally punctuated by wild flurries from the drums. The piano returns with solemn, stately theme, reminiscent of a father settling his children down. After another brief flurry of emotive, melodic combat, the piano once again lays down the line and the first piece ends.

The only cue indicating the start of the second “piece” is a percussive introduction on the drums. Andrew palms his instrument, giving us a rhythm reminiscent of African musical ideals. Cello is introduced as a hesitant aggressor; the melodic material reminiscent of northern or Canadian modern music. Next, the piano enters with childlike chords, sounding both grounded and delicate, as if promising a return to musical normalcy. However, the sound impetus of the piano is promptly denied by the cello and sax whilst reaching their own musical accord. As such, the piano finds sympathy with the drums, before abruptly being cut off by the cello.

Piece number three starts with a bombastic and upstartish melody from the sax player, who blasts through the audience’s applause. Afterward, Ali introduces us to the concept of prepared piano[8], before transitioning into a non-committal rhythmic pattern echoed by the drums, which then fade into nothingness.

After a brief interlude of confused and tepid applause, Erika launches into a forthright, if all too brief, outpour of soulful confession. Her playing fades into uncertainty, as if uncomfortable with such a powerful display. Then, picking up the pieces of our shattered souls, the piano follows with a questioning melodic entry, accompanied by a lower pedal point[9] in the left hand. During this hesitancy, the sax plucks up its courage, and enters with dulcet, bell-like tones, before stealing the audience’s attention with more vigorous sounds. It then gives way to a powerful return of Erika’s cello, who ends the concert with a flourish and a definite statement of musical intent.

The audience leaps to their feet in thunderous applause, while the musicians stand, nonplussed.   The first sounds of the encore come from an aggressive piano entrance, accompanied by the sax player. In mighty conflict, the cello powers through the room, as all pretense towards diatonic unification fades. Suddenly, the drums, uncharacteristically blunt and melodic (as distinct from rhythmic) create a melody from non-toned sounds, and the Cello rises from the morass of sound with a theme reminiscent of Jaws. This, combined, creates a sense of impending doom, only emphasized by the fading train sounds coming from the sax player. The soundscape fades to black, the concert is over.



[1] Baroque Cello: Cello aka stringed instrument carried between the legs, using sheep gut strings and lacking an endpin

[2] Domenico Cabrielli (1659-1690)

[3] Seven Ricercare for Violin Cello Solo, Ricercare: An elaborate instrumental composition in Fugal or Canonic Style

[4] J.S. Bach: Baroque Composer Born in 1685, Died 1750.

[5] Dance from the Renaissance and Baroque era

[6] A French dance in triple meter derived from the spanash Zarabanda

[7] Cluster chord: a group of notes with no particular structure or meaning presented to the ear simultaneously

[8] Prepared piano: placing objects within the piano to achieve effects that would otherwise be impossible.

[9] Pedal Point: drone held in the lower voice or left hand of piano.