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Roddy Ellias. Photo courtesy of the artist.

MacKay concert blends traditional with the seldom heard

By Alex Binkley on May 11, 2016

The MacKay United Church chamber music series wrapped up its 2015-16 season with an intriguing blend of well-known classical music and seldom heard selections.

In addition to the Silflay String Quartet, a mainstay of the New Edinburgh music scene, celebrated Canadian guitarist Roddy Ellias played one of his own solo compositions and joined with three members of Silflay to close out the concert.

The Silflay String Quartet.

The Silflay String Quartet.

Silflay is composed of local residents and NAC violinists Leah Roseman and Mark Friedman and they were joined for the concert by Sonya Probst on viola and Thaddeus Morden on cello. They opened with Mozart’s “Dissonance”. It begins with a lack of harmony but quickly settles into a lyrical and enjoyable listen, superbly rendered this evening.

Ellias then took the spotlight for the first three movements of “Emptying”, which he composed on commission. The piece allows him to show his well-honed skill with the guitar. He recently retired as professor of Jazz Guitar and Composition at Concordia University.  In addition to classical music, he is also adept playing jazz and new music. It was a special treat to hear him perform.

The pace of “Emptying” changes regularly. Being in the close confines of the church enables the audience to admire Ellias’s finger work or to let the music carry one’s thoughts to a favourite place. In the program notes prepared by Carolyn Bowker, he talks about the art of musical improvisation and letting musical ideas develop the way they want to.

The third presentation was the String Quartet No. 3 by Gavin Bryars, an English composer who wrote the piece in 1998. Despite his vast array of compositions, Bryars hasn’t achieved the attention of a Mozart or Beethoven. Listening to Silflay’s rendition probably convinced many in the audience to investigate him further.

The Internet contains plenty of information about his wide variety of compositions and includes the following praise from author Michael Ondaatje. “The music of Gavin Bryars falls under no category. It is mongrel, full of sensuality and wit and is deeply moving. He allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle. With a third ear maybe.”

“The Tree of Life” by Tom Hoffman closed out the evening. The composer is a deeply spiritual man and it shows in his music. Much like “Emptying”, it held the listener’s attention yet enabled the mind to travel somewhere special. The combination of Ellias, Roseman, Probst and Morden brought it to life.

No one would have complained if they had kept on playing.