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Cello fest stars take final bow at jam-packed gala concert

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After five glorious days of cello-packed programs, the second triennial International Cello Festival of Canada closed with a bang Sunday night.

Founded in 2011 by Agassiz Chamber Music Festival artistic director Paul Marleyn in collaboration with the Winnipeg Arts Council, the extravaganza showcased more than 60 cellists, including eight international artists from England, Sweden, Russia, Japan, Switzerland and the United States, in 25 concerts.

International Cello Festival of Canada

Gala Festival Finale

Sunday, June 22

Pantages Playhouse Theatre

Attendance: 477

4 stars out five

The weekend Gala Festival Finale, hosted by Bill Richardson and co-produced by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Mickelthwate's baton, was, by necessity, held at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. After hearing numerous concerts throughout the week in venues including Westminster United Church and the University of Winnipeg's Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall, this venue posed several acoustical and esthetic challenges (why wasn't that ladder cleared off the stage?). However, let's move on.

One of the brightest stars this year -- and there have been many -- has been award-winning English cellist Colin Carr. His infectious joy and ability to communicate seemingly every shade of emotion in whatever he is playing has consistently led to roaring standing ovations. His performance of Beethoven's Sonata in A, Op. 69 on June 21, and soulful Bach Cello Suite no. 6 in D, BWV 1012 heard during the concert on June 20, quickly became two festival highlights.

Elgar's mighty Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, composed in the wake of the First World War, is a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Most notably, the legendary English cellist Jacqueline du Pré took ownership of this work long ago, and anyone tackling it today surely feels her ghost looking over his or her shoulder.

But Carr showed us his own vision on Sunday with a deeply felt, and carefully considered, interpretation. The charismatic artist began simply, gradually building emotional intensity throughout the work's four movements. At times, his burnished, 1726 "Marquis de Corberon" Stradivari cello, once owned by Winnipeg's Zara Nelsova, appeared an extension of his body as he rocked back and forth, tossing off rapid-fire runs and declamatory outbursts in turn balanced by more introspective passages.

Sunday's concert also featured Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, longtime principal of the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The compelling soloist treated the audience to two intimate jewels: Max Bruch's Canzone Op. 55, which she imbued with arching lyricism, before the more intensely driven Adagio on Celtic Themes, Op. 56. Forsyth's earlier, charming performance of her father's Eight Duets for Young Cellists with WSO principal cellist Yuri Hooker on June 20 was another festival highlight.

The world première of Vincent Ho's Three Warriors saw a trio of soloists -- Marleyn, Japanese cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi and American artist Denise Djokic -- pitted like a battling tribe again a "common enemy" (a.k.a. the WSO string players). Ho's keen theatrical sense has already made such past works including his Dragon Realms and The Shaman: Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra into powerhouse, epic dramas; however, this latest, abstract, one-movement work felt more a hard-fought -- and long -- battle with no clear victor declared at the end.

The concert, and the entire festival, wrapped up with the 60-member-strong ICFC Orchestra of Cellists performing Karl Davydov's Hymnus, led by celebrated Russian cellist/conductor Alexander Rudin -- another star in this week's constellation.

Seeing the jumble of generations, nationalities and varying levels of artistry and experience with the players sharing their passion for their chosen instrument is what this festival is all about. It led to a surprise encore: Liverpudlian Nicky Byrne's arrangement of Eleanor Rigby, the Beatles' iconic pop anthem, long proudly claimed by cellists everywhere as their own.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2014 C3

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