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Agassiz chamber festival draws superb musicians

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If patience is truly a virtue, then the folks who organize the Agassiz Chamber Music Festival are among the most virtuous people around. Artistic director Paul Marleyn, festival director Rita Menzies and a dedicated board of directors have tirelessly nurtured this annual event, now in its 14th year.

The early years drew modestly sized audiences, and I recall attending concerts, thinking what a shame it was that such superb artistry was witnessed by so few. But year after year, word got out about this week-long festival that brings quality musicians from around the world to collaborate on great chamber music.

You may remember the fantastically successful International Cello Festival of Canada hosted by this same Agassiz group in 2011. They have built on that success (and yes, there's another cello fest in the works for 2014) and this year's event looks exciting. It starts this Saturday, June 8 and runs until Friday, June 14, primarily at the University of Winnipeg.

"Audience numbers have gone up steadily," Menzies said. "We've doubled the number of pass holders in the past decade."

It's hardly any wonder. Looking at this year's roster of guest artists, one can't help but be impressed by the preponderance of some truly heavy hitters. As Menzies put it so enthusiastically, "This year's festival is studded with stars."

First up is veteran Canadian harpist Judy Loman. Besides the rarity of featuring a harp soloist, it's just a coup to have this legendary musician in our city. You can catch her Tuesday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m. at Eckhardt-Gramatt© Hall, playing Nocturne for Cello and Harp by Bellini, with cellist Paul Marleyn. She'll also perform Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall with renowned Canadian flutist Susan Hoeppner and Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh) viola professor David Harding in Debussy's poignant 1915 work, Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp.

No need to mark your calendar to ensure that you get to hear violinist extraordinaire Yehonatan Berick. He's onstage every night. A professor of violin at the University of Ottawa, Berick is probably one of the most versatile and fearless musicians you'll ever encounter. Example: he's playing all 24 of Paganini's Caprices Thursday, June 14 at 2:30 p.m. at St. Margaret's Anglican Church.

"Paul (Marleyn) heard me play them at the Domaine Forget Festival," said Berick from Ottawa. "He thought it would be interesting for me to play them here. They are special -- always wonderful to play."

Despite popular belief, Berick says that Paganini never played these famously demanding pieces.

"They were dedicated "to the artists" and are the only works published in his lifetime," he elaborated. "There is an incredible complexity, harmony and chromaticism in them. It's like a little opera -- with little acts. Each one has its own plot line."

Berick admits that "it's a lot of violin and only violin," but after hearing him play all the Bach Partitas in the Music and Beyond Festival in Ottawa two summers ago, I can honestly say it's worth your time.

How long does it take to play them all? Berick clocks them in at 75 minutes, "plus a minute or two for stretching and tuning." He'll play them through without intermission or sheet music.

As if that marathon task is not enough, Berick will join Marleyn and Harding in a string trio arrangement of Bach's Goldberg Variations on Monday. He's relaxed about the rigorous week, having played all the programmed works before. "As you start, there are fewer pieces to worry about. It becomes easier as the festival goes on." But he admits the Paganini looms a little large at the end of the week. "It's a feat every time."

Other musicians of note participating in the festival include delightful British cellist Colin Carr (playing tonight with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra), New York-based pianist Tom Sauer, Montreal violist Doug McNabney, violinist Kerry DuWors (Brandon) and a host of local talent: WSO musicians Micah Heilbrunn, clarinet, Patti Evans, french horn, and cellists Yuri Hooker and Cristian Markos.

There is also a free screening Sunday of the Oscar-nominated film Pina, about German dancer and choreographer Pina Bauer, and an emerging artist recital with soprano Sarah Kirsch and pianist Chris Kayler.

Both Menzies and Berick give full credit to Marleyn for the festival's success.

"He knows what he wants and we make it happen," said Menzies. She says he garners huge respect from the musicians and the board. "Paul puts together fantastic programs," Berick said. "He knows how to bring people together -- he's smart at doing this. It's a great, fun group of people."

Festival passes (all events) are $90, $80/seniors and $35 for students. Single tickets are $25, students and young adults to age 29 are $10. Noon concerts are $10/$5. All are available at McNally Robinson Booksellers, at www.agassizfestival.com or at 204-475-1779. Visit the website or call the preceding number for full program information.

gwenda.nemerofsky@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2013 C3

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Updated on Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 8:54 AM CDT: adds sidebar

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