by Stephen Cera

Co-Artistic Directors, pianists Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis


Very little was “off” at the Off Centre Music Salon concert Sunday afternoon (June 17) in Toronto, except air conditioning in Trinity St. Paul’s Centre.

This enterprising series — conceived by Russian pianists Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis — brings together civilized commentary, great music and quality pastries.  There have been 114 performances to date, and a 25th anniversary celebration looms.  Home base has shifted from one venue to another, Trinity St. Paul’s being the latest (though possibly not last) port of call.  Its convenient location notwithstanding, the venue isn’t ideal, lacking acoustical insulation as well as a first-class piano.

Still, playing against a soft obbligato of hand-held fans, both Mr. Zarankin and Ms. Perkis made the house instrument sound beautiful.  Mr. Zarankin drew an especially  warm tone through a range of soft and loud, exercising complete mastery of his instrument.

“Russian-Spanish Salon:  Madrid – Moscow” (the title of the program) included vocal and chamber music from the two countries.  Defining cultural and other connections fell to Julia Zarankin, daughter of the co-founders and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton.  Her narrative thread may have sounded a bit wordy, more suited to reading than listening, but it yielded a trove of pertinent information.

Another daughter, Ilana Zarankin—an accomplished soprano who specializes in contemporary music — sang fervent accounts of music by de Falla and Stravinsky.

Two other guest artists also shone brightly:   baritone Brett Polegato and Australian pianist Lara Dodds-Eden, whose fastidious pianism was flecked at times by strident fortissimos.  Still, her musical support proved acutely sensitive otherwise in songs by Dargomyzhsky, Stravinsky, Montsalvage, Ruperto Chapí, Tchaikovsky and Falla.

Brett Polegato’s stirring rendition of the Tchaikovsky “Don Juan’s Serenade” brought the audience of several hundred to its feet.  A veteran of opera stages from Paris to Moscow, his plangent baritone and dramatic force imparted both weight and lyricism.  He is an artist who understands the importance of every word, and of vividly telling a story through music.   Ms. Dodds-Eden seconded every vocal and dramatic nuance.

Soprano Joni Henson, joining Polegato, took the role of Tatiana in the final scene from Tchaikovsky‘s “Eugene Onegin,” with piano accompaniment, and the combined sound of their voices engulfed the hall.

The program emphasized vocal music, leaving Glinka’s “Trio pathétique” as the most extended instrumental selection.  A pair of outstanding string players — Sheila Jaffé, violin, and Winona Zelenka, cello – proved ideal partners for Mr. Zarankin.   Tackling a work of uneven inspiration, the three musicians delivered it with tasteful brilliance and considerable eloquence.    Zarankin and Inna Perkis also offered touching performances of two pieces for four hands by the 22-year-old Rachmaninoff.

Another treat was hearing some rarely-done Stravinsky (Mavra and the Two Balmont Poems) as a musical complement to the Canadian Opera Company’s recent re-mount of “The Nightingale.”

Here’s to the next 25 years of well-centered, Off Centre Music.