MusicFest Vancouver’s opening-weekend concerts revealed much that is good about the annual summer festival

Casavant Fréres: 100 Years of Good Vibrations
At Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Saturday, August 11

Oberon Guitar Trio: Music of Our Time
At Pyatt Hall on Sunday, August 12

Celso Machado & Ed Henderson: Guitar Encounters
At Pyatt Hall on Sunday, August 12

A casual survey of MusicFest Vancouver’s opening-weekend concerts revealed much that is good about the annual summer festival—and a few conceptual and logistical snags, as well.

Historically, the event has ranked as one of the most aesthetically conservative of our city’s summer festivals. At the same time, though, former program director George Laverock and newcomer Matthew Baird have each done a good job of uncovering hidden treasures, and both aspects of MusicFest’s nature were revealed in Saturday afternoon’s standing-room-only organ recital at Holy Trinity Anglican Church. Organist and choirmaster Michael Dirk is both an exceptional musician and a somewhat obsessive student of keyboard chronology—a winning combination, as far as I’m concerned. Mixing virtuosity with humour, his fancy footwork on Wilhelm Middelschulte’s pedals-only extravaganza Perpetuum Mobile was mildly mindblowing, and when he added his hands to the mix for Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Gigue” Fugue in G Major he proved that Holy Trinity’s 100-year-old Casavant Frères organ is truly a civic treasure.

Opening the show with a sing-along version of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D Major—you know, “land of hope and glory” and all that—did little to dispel MusicFest’s reputation for choosing the safe and stuffy over the unusual and innovative, however. A little Olivier Messiaen on the program would have gone a long way to sluice the dust of empire out of our mouths, but perhaps that’s asking for too much.

Aesthetic timidity also afflicted Sunday morning’s performance by Calgary’s Oberon Guitar Trio. Yes, the program was dedicated entirely to 21st- and late-20th-century works by living Canadian composers, but the four pieces generally stuck with the harplike end of the classical guitar’s tonal spectrum, and the few nods to a world beyond the academy—Claude Gagnon’s use of the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” in Alice au pays des merveilles; William Beauvais’s appropriation of calypso in Juxtapositions—seemed gratuitous.

It’s possible that this show would have been more enjoyable if the performers—and their instruments—had gone on later in the day. Oberon’s Brad Mahon, Ralph Maier, and Murray Visscher had come directly from the airport to the concert hall, and their guitars were still acclimatizing to the West Coast humidity, factors that resulted in a more tentative performance than might otherwise have been the case.

Fortunately, the next event in MusicFest’s Guitar Day series was a vivid and visceral treat. Vancouver-based Ed Henderson is a marvellously lyrical musician, while the Sunshine Coast’s Celso Machado is simply a force of nature. Both delivered satisfying solo showcases, and their set-ending duets made even Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Samba de Uma Nota Só” sound fresh. Or was it that their gleeful take on Jobim’s much-covered “one-note samba” reminded us that, when it debuted in the early ’60s, it was considered a revolutionary fusion of Brazilian rhythm and bebop melody? That’s probably more like it: played with virtuosity and love, even the most familiar music is new every time.