By: William Littler Music Columnist, Toronto Star, Original Digital Copy Here.
Yes, the name is the same, but the Toronto-based chamber ensemble has lasted even longer than the popular television show.
I’m referring, of course, to Friends, or as Italians (and at least three Torontonians) prefer to say, Amici. This season marks the friendly chamber ensemble’s 25th anniversary.
The season begins Oct. 12 with a fundraising benefit at one of Rosedale’s most distinctive residences, Dr. James Stewart’s award-winning Integral House, and includes its first appearance at Koerner Hall, a March 1 anniversary gala headlined by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian.
In between it will be business as usual at the CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, with the kind of innovative programming for which this top-tier ensemble has made a special name.
Last season, for example, it presented a series of interactions with the worlds of food, fashion and the fine arts, including a special concert during which each piece was co-ordinated with a different culinary course. This season includes a silent film night at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Bell Lightbox, for which Amici will supply live accompaniments.
The enterprise began simply enough back in 1988 when Joaquin Valdepenas, principal clarinetist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and David Hetherington, the orchestra’s assistant principal cellist — both of them active in chamber music circles — decided they wanted to regularize their association with Patricia Parr, a professor of piano at the University of Toronto.
Although the intention was never to limit the number of players to three — one can never have too many friends, after all — these three became the basic unit around whom programs were built, until Parr decided to retire and Serouj Kradjian became the third musketeer.
The fourth musketeer, metaphorically speaking, turned out to be recently retired CBC producer Neil Crory, who offered the ensemble the radio exposure to spread their name and document their performances.
With full-time jobs keeping them busy, the threesome knew they could only be part-time Amici but even on a part-time basis and with a less than voluminous trio repertoire at their disposal, their concerts, broadcasts and recordings quickly announced the presence of a potent new force in Canadian chamber music.
Some of their earliest concerts took place at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, across the street from Roy Thomson Hall, with CBC fees their only remuneration and family members doing the ushering. Even so, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Andrew Davis agreed to conduct them in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and no less a soprano than Lois Marshall declaimed the text.
Recordings took their name farther afield. Their 12th, titled Levant, an album inspired by the Middle East, is about to be released. Its predecessor focused on Armenian music, and their first, which included a specially commissioned trio by Toronto composer Chan Ka Nin, appropriately titled “Among Friends,” won a Juno and became an engagement-producing calling card.
Two other new pieces from the same composer’s pen, along with a dozen or so from other Canadian notesmiths, confirmed how seriously they take their citizenship.
Not that they haven’t travelled abroad, one of their European tours made memorable by an engagement in Bratislava at which no one could find the key to the concert hall’s grand piano. An appalled Patricia Parr wound up playing Brahms on a humble upright.
When, a few years ago, Parr decided to hang up her suitcase, there seemed something almost foreordained about her successor. Years earlier, Amici had provided the 18-year-old’s introduction to the world of chamber music, with Parr herself acting as his chamber music teacher at the Universitiy of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.
Serouj Kradjian brought to Amici not only a fresh interpretive voice and impressive keyboard technique — sometimes used to accompany his spouse, Isabel Bayrakdarian — but the talents of a skilled composer-arranger and inventive programmer. The February 3 silent film night is his idea and he is currently at work composing and arranging some of its music.
He also plans to join Hetherington and Valdepenas in their regular spring engagement working with the students of Earl Haig’s Claude Watson School of the Arts and playing their compositions. Amici, it would appear, come in all ages.