Chris Donnelly

Chris Donnelly

Duo dazzles with classical jazz

Jazz pianist Chris Donnelly and classical clarinetist Kornel Wolak played to an audience of about a hundred last weekend.

A review by

J.R. Rardon

PORT HARDY—The North Island Concert Society is never quite sure how large a crowd it will draw when it headlines a classical music act.

But, as NICS executive Malcolm Fleeton noted Saturday night at the Civic Centre, “We couldn’t turn down the chance to have this quality.”

And it was high quality, indeed.

The Wolak-Donnelly duo, the unlikely pairing of jazz pianist Chris Donnelly and classical clarinetist Kornel Wolak, played to an audience of about a hundred patrons.

But they were a well-satisfied hundred.

Yes, the duo played classical music. But they also shared jazz, Latin, pop and even comedy while playing enough familiar material to keep the audience engaged.

And even the “traditional” classical pieces were anything but traditional, thanks to the Polish-born Wolak’s technical mastery.

By employing circular breathing, Wolak is able to play centuries-old pieces never written to be played on clarinet — written, in fact, before the instrument was introduced to orchestra.

From Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major to Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblee, Wolak unleashed a dizzying array of notes at a blistering tempo without ever pausing for a breath.

Through the technique, he is able to play songs written for stringed instruments and only later transcribed for wind instruments.

The clarinet can play only one note at a time. But on Bach’s Partita No. 3, which he played as a solo, Wolak employed a tremolo on the register key so fast and clean that it sounded as though he was accompanying his melody with a bass or chorded line.

Donnelly also had a turn to shine as a soloist, and utilized it to show off his virtuosity, improvisational chops and songwriting.

He introduced his first number, his self-written Henry’s Song and Dance, with a background story about being stiffed by a jazz club owner after playing a gig in which he had to rent and provide his own piano. He punctuated his playing with heavy, slump-shouldered sighs to the laughter of the audience.

Donnelly later gave the Civic Centre the feel of a smoky jazz club like Henry’s with his improvisational take of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind.

But it is as a duo that the pair really shine as performers. They kicked off the show with an epic, nearly 10-minute version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, improvising across a range of stylings from ragtime to blues to classical.

They ended with Rossini’s Introduction, Theme and Variations, which showcased each performer in passages that ranged from gossamer-delicate to frenetic.

The Brazilian Tico Tico provided another highlight, with Donnelly employing a shaker in his right hand while playing the bass line with his left while trying to keep up with Wolak’s ever-increasing tempo.

Wolak and Donnelly could well have overwhelmed the audience with virtuosity. Instead, they proved adept at engaging the crowd, with Donnelly as the deadpan straight man to Wolak’s prancing prince.

The society will close its 2013-14 season April 12 with folk/roots performer John Wort Hannam and his band. Info at niconcert.ca.