Monday, 4 December 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 2: Quietly Epic Beethoven

This week I had the chance -- and eagerly seized it -- to hear a KWSO concert after attending a working rehearsal for the performance. My enjoyment of the performance was multiplied by some quantum factor because the rehearsal reminded me, in spades, of the significance of one of the works of music I was going to hear performed the following night.

It matters a great deal, because the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 is one of the most monumental works Beethoven ever composed. It's longer than any of his orchestral works except for the 3rd and 9th symphonies! But (and it is a huge "But"), the music disguises its size and power alike by its reticence in volume and scale of tone -- as shown by the very beginning, four notes tapped quietly out on the timpani at a moderate tempo. The opening orchestral tutti lasts for 4 minutes before the soloist's first entry, practically an eternity by classical concerto standards, yet only rises once (briefly) to the level of forte.

In the rehearsal, guest conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soloist Jonathan Crow played through the entire first movement, all 25 minutes of it, before beginning to pull it apart to work out the details -- a process which required a further hour of work. That elapsed time alone reminded us forcefully of the sheer size of a piece which can often seem somewhat innocuous until you look this closely at it.

During that rehearsal, I also found that I was frequently reminded, by turns of phrase and by the prominent use of the woodwinds, of the composer's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) which was in process of being composed at the same time. That symphony is another work which, as Sir Donald Tovey observed, conceals its power behind a relatively quiet and gentle surface.

Given the scale of this concerto, it's not surprising that it occupied the final place on the concert programme, after the intermission. The first half was by no means an also-ran.

Well, some of it, anyway. The KWSO always includes a contemporary work in its main series Signature programmes. Some of these contemporary works have been very rewarding -- but German composer Jörg Widmann's Con brio Concert Overture for Orchestra was not among them. It was the outcome of a commission which requested a work related in some way to Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies (presumably to be played on a programme with those two works).

The connection certainly eluded me. In the closing pages there were some brief melodic fragments for the trumpets and horns which sounded as if they might fit into Beethoven's Seventh. Otherwise, the music consisted mainly of the kinds of sound effects which were considered avant-garde in the 1960s when Krszsytof Penderecki used them in such works as his famous St. Luke Passion -- strings played col legno, sighs, rattlings, glissando shrieks, noises far removed from whatever each instrument was designed to do, even some vocalizing from players who were not otherwise aggressing upon their instruments (to quote Anna Russell's serendipitous metaphor). Today, this sort of thing can only be called derivative, passé, tedious -- and lifeless with it.

All of this carefully-organized noise was presumably governed by the rhythm being so assiduously beaten out by the conductor but, if I had closed my eyes, I would never have been able to guess what that rhythm might have been. Compare that to Beethoven, in whose output so many works can be readily recognized by their rhythmic profile alone, and the poverty of invention in this modern work becomes only too apparent.

I will kindly assume that the orchestra played with their usual finesse and aplomb in this very sticky wicket -- and with that, let's move on.

The next work was the polar opposite -- an almost perfectly timed choice, considering that it was performed on the weekend immediately after St. Andrew's Day. This was the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 ("Scottish") by Felix Mendelssohn. Don't let the opus number fool you! This was actually the last of Mendelssohn's five full-orchestral symphonies to reach completion, and certainly one of the most accomplished.

It's ironic that after years of never hearing this symphony performed live, I've now heard it twice in the space of four months. Believe me, I am not complaining! Here's how I described the work at the previous performance:

"There's no question in my mind that the composer absolutely captured the feeling of Scotland, not so much as a place, but as a state of mind: mysterious, dramatic, lively, pensive and -- in the end -- standing tall and proud as an equal for any member of the family of nations."

There's a terrific amount of energy in this score, and Rus Broseta led the orchestra in a performance that brought it all flying out at us. The sombre slow introduction gave a definite feeling that bigger matters were at hand. The allegro of the first movement rolled along with great momentum, even with the carefully-judged slowing into the second subject. The violins, so often tasked by this composer with high-speed tremolando passages, tore off their parts with great gusto -- so much so that it was a pity they were sometimes drowned out by the winds and brass. For a work like this, where the winds and brass so often play as a full group, a larger string section would be desirable. The other balance issue was the overly-enthusiastic contribution of the timpani in many places. But the surging, swelling waves at the climax of the movement came pouring over us with much better balance and clarity.

In the light-hearted scherzo, the clarinet melody chuckled and bubbled merrily along, to great effect. The more solemn slow movement brought beautiful horn chording. The finale was taken a little too fast for my liking, giving the music so much lift and energy that it began to sound playful rather than warlike (the score directs the tempo to be allegro guerriero which definitely means a "warlike" sound!). The majestic victory march conclusion was paced beautifully, giving the music plenty of zip and go still (it can easily become too solemn and ponderous here). All in all, a lovely performance of one of the finest of Mendelssohn's great inspirations.

And so to the Beethoven. The lengthy opening tutti set up the feeling of a conversation among the instruments which is so much a part of the flavour of this work. The violinist's first entry was paced with a good deal more rubato than is often used, but quickly settled back into the overall tempo of the performance. As the movement went on, that basic tempo got nudged a little bit here and there, but not too much -- soloist and conductor always remembering that this is Beethoven, not one of the late Romantics. Balance between the soloist and orchestra was always impeccable, and the long melodic lines from the violin developed the kind of singing, almost vocal tone which alone makes this concerto such a thing of beauty. Crow wrapped his fingers around the music's technical difficulties with complete assurance, always maintaining that sense of singing ease. His cadenza was a more heavy-weight affair, with much double-stopping, but not overdone, and the gentle re-entry of the orchestra at the end was all one could ask.

So too was the slow movement -- a miracle of quiet musical poise and lyricism in this performance. The theme and variations is of a kind found often in French Baroque music, where the bass and harmony remain constant and almost unchanging while the melody instrument spins out successive versions with more and more subdivided notes to the bar. (In the French tradition, these variations are often labelled as "doubles" because the number of notes per bar doubles in each variation).

Crow reminded me again of the Pastoral Symphony when he launched the finale with the kind of earthy tone and gusto that would fit perfectly into that symphony's scherzo. The orchestra came right along with him, relishing the country-dance inspiration underlying the main theme -- and then revisiting the lyrical tone of earlier movements in the lovely central episode. The quiet wind-down to the ending and the sudden surprising emphatic cadence to close were beautifully executed as well.

If recorded, this would certainly be a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to live with and treasure!

Sunday, 3 December 2017

National Ballet of Canada 2017-2018 # 2: The Breaking Point

This review is over a week late -- my apologies to my faithful readers who may have wondered if I had gone off on another trip!

If The Winter's Tale was a stirring narrative, the National Ballet's second fall season production -- John Neumeier's Nijinsky -- is no such thing.  Although it's woven around the events of the life and career of the famous dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, this ballet is less a story than a tortuous, tormented kaleidoscopic journey into a mind which is rapidly going to pieces.  The action begins and ends at the scene of Nijinsky's final performance, but everything happening between the start and finish is plainly unwinding and unravelling within the man's mind and memory.

In 2014, the last time the company staged the ballet, I saw two performances.  That gave me a chance to see two different casts in the work (here's the previous review:  Wow. Just... Wow!).  This time, I saw the show only once -- but got the opportunity to see how one of the two dancers had grown into the leading role in three years.

As Nijinsky, Skylar Campbell owned the stage and the role from the moment of his first entrance.  Poses, gestures, leaps, frantic arm movements, all became larger than life and twice as gripping as my recollection of his performance in the previous run.  In the final scene, when his life and career totally disintegrated before our eyes, Campbell had me gripping the arms of my chair with the intensity of his final great solo.

Sonia Rodriguez was equally riveting and intense as Nijinsky's wife, Romola, creating memorable moments in every scene.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  Robert Stephen is my nephew.

The most tortured, tormented dancing in the work is found in the role of Stanislav, Nijinsky's elder brother, who suffered from acute mental deterioration at an even younger age -- partly as a result of a fall from a window.  In this role, Robert Stephen created a moment of apparent lifelessness with the stylized fall in the first act, and generated a contrasting cutting edge with his repeated violent jerking movements in Act 2.

Jordana Daumec created a strong interpretation of the role of Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava, reaching a powerful climax in the second act where she appeared as the Chosen Maiden in the Sacrificial Dance from Nijinsky's staging of The Rite of Spring.

Among the dancers portraying Nijinsky in his famous roles, Felix Paquet gave a strong double performance as the Gold Slave in Scheherazade and as the Faun in L'apres-midi d'un faune.  Both parts are strongly shaped by the photographs which exist of Nijinsky dancing those roles, and the Faun in particular requires some very peculiar movement to capture the sidewise, two-dimensional posture from the famous photograph.

Donald Thom brought a heart-rending sense of frustration to the angular choreography of Petrushka, the fairground puppet.  His performance registered as that of a human who finds himself unexpectedly trapped in a wooden marionette's body, the reverse of the actual character arc in the original ballet.

Another very strong performance was that of Elena Lobsanova as Nijinsky's most frequent dancing partner, Tamara Karsavina.  She had to range the gamut from the ethereal Sylph in La Sylphide to the mechanistic puppet Ballerina in Petrushka.

The various historic roles, by the way, are choreographed by Neumeier.  Even with much reference to period photographs and documents, the style remains clearly Neumeier's.

Surrounding these performances were many more, too many to enumerate really, for in its totality Nijinsky is a very complex ensemble piece.  It's ironic in a way that the title role is more of a first-among-equals in this ballet when the real Nijinsky had no rival for attention whenever he stepped on stage.

And this is the one real weakness of Neumeier's otherwise powerful and gripping work.  There is so much happening on stage in many parts of this ballet that you miss three or four more events as soon as you focus in on any one of them.  

There is one more highly significant credit for this production.  Neumeier's choice of score calls for the orchestra to play three of the four movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's beloved Scheherazade in Act 1, and then the entire 65 minutes of Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" in Act 2.  That's effectively an entire symphony concert at every performance of the 5-day run, with double performances on Thursday and Saturday.  Not only that, but the Shostakovich is a very challenging work indeed, calling for long-sustained melodic lines from winds, brasses and strings -- and, I suspect, a great deal of watchful counting of bars and rests!

The matinee performance I saw was led by guest conductor Genevieve Leclair, and I give full credit to the orchestra and to the conductor for a memorable performance.  Getting through that symphony is by no means the least of the challenges of staging this piece.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

National Ballet of Canada 2017-2018 # 1: The Power of Winter

This week marks the second time the National Ballet of Canada has staged its masterpiece, The Winter's Tale, for the audience in Toronto.  In between, I also saw the company dance the work at Lincoln Center in New York.  The power of this extraordinary dance drama continues to grow on me with each viewing.  Indeed, I've since acquired the DVD of the world premiere production at the Royal Ballet in London, and watched it (or parts of it) many times over -- and it's nowhere even close to getting stale for me.  

What is there about this work by Christopher Wheeldon that places it in a league all its own among the numerous modern story ballets performed by the company?  I think that it's a matter of the depth and honesty of the story-telling.  Like the original Shakespeare play, this dance version makes no effort to gloss over or prettify the raw, powerful emotional currents in the story.  All of us, at one time or another, have succumbed to deep waves of emotion that sweep us out of control of ourselves, so the horrible jealousy of Leontes is something we can all relate to at some level.  

And this definitely is story ballet: it's not trying to psychoanalyze the subconscious of any character.  The Winter's Tale is just that, a tale to be told, and this work does a superlative job of telling it in dance.  And while Wheeldon's choreographic language is rooted in classicism, this work in particular stretches the dancers by shattering the classical rules at moments of heightened emotion while also doing away with all of the "conventional" story-telling gestures and actions beloved of the nineteenth century choreographers, replacing them with a richly diverse assortment of arm movements and facial expressions.

As well as the dance, there's the evocative and powerful musical score by Joby Talbot.  The more I watch this ballet, the more I admire the sheer virtuosity of his writing and scoring.  This is particularly true of the onstage "banda" of traditional instruments from assorted countries which plays simultaneously with the orchestra in the pit.  Talbot had to learn how to write for several of these onstage instruments, and the resulting music makes extraordinarily effective use of them.  To take just one example, there's the opening of Act 2: a long, sinuous solo played onstage on bansuri, the haunting, evocative bamboo flute of northern India and Nepal.

One thing that came into focus this week, as I saw two performances with two different casts, is the extent to which the drama of this ballet rises or falls by the performance of the dancer taking the central role of Leontes.  Friday night's Leontes was Evan McKie.  He gave a strong performance, poised and regal, a Leontes who never forgot in the midst of his emotional turmoil that he was a king and had to present a kingly front.  On Saturday afternoon, Piotr Stanczyk zeroed in on Leontes the man, and pushed the energy and violence of the choreography right to the wall and beyond.

The result of this contrast was revealed in the spill-over effect on the other performers.  Leontes falsely accuses his queen, Hermione, of adultery and treason.  Friday's Hermione, Jurgita Dronina, gave a poised, precise performance in the same mould as McKie's take on her husband.  So did Svetlana Lunkina as Paulina, the head of Hermione's household who becomes the conscience of Leontes after his wife and son die.

In Saturday's performance, Hannah Fischer presented a daringly intense Hermione, her anguish and desperation etched deeply into her every facial expression and movement.  Xiao Nan Yu, as Paulina, flung caution to the winds, her face frozen into a scream of pain as she pounded her fists against Leontes' back over and over, finally overmastering him and driving down him into a heap on the floor.  She then brought a dignified yet very real human sorrow into her mourning solo (and pas de deux with Leontes) at the beginning of the final act.

The final pas de deux between Fischer and Stanczyk brought the same kind of total commitment and immersion to their reconciliation, and the entire scene built up to a powerfully emotional climax when the family were reunited.  And then, in the final seconds, Stanczyk showed such a desperate, terribly real need as he turned back to the statue of his son that I was brought to tears.

The whole contrast between these two casts was a textbook demonstration of the world of difference between a clean, competent performance and a deeply intense re-creation, with the stakes raised right through the roof.  It's not hard to see how that huge central role of Leontes inevitably sets the tone for the other characters in the Sicilia acts.  The team of Hannah Fischer, Piotr Stanczyk, Xiao Nan Yu, and those around them had no need to fear comparison with any other cast I've seen in the show, the original cast from London (on whom  the roles were created) not excepted.

The first and third acts belong to those characters.  In between comes the Bohemian act, with all its light and sunshine, its glorious, brilliant green tree of life, and its fantastically energetic dances for the corps de ballet and for the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel.

Here, of course, there's less difference between one cast and the other since this act really does belong to the corps de ballet.  Right from their first entrance, the energy was up and bubbling over, and just got more so as the act progressed.  It's always a joy to watch this scene, with all of its careful gradations of tempo, dynamics, and dances arranged for anywhere from 1 to 20 dancers at a time.  One new detail that I noted was choreographer Wheeldon's fondness for having his dancers turn 180 degrees while still moving in the same direction -- which of course, means that they are momentarily travelling backwards.  Another of his choreographic fingerprints is a large number of movements in which arms move to the left while feet move to the right, or arms left and head right, combined with rapid changes from side to side.  Add in the backwards moves, and it can be tricky at times to see exactly which way a dancer is going to go next.  That slight sense of unpredictability adds greatly to the fun and energy of this scene.

There also was not a lot to choose between the two young love couples.  On Friday we had Rui Huang as Perdita and Francesco Gabriele Frola as Florizel, while Saturday's couple were Jillian Vanstone and Naoya Ebe.  The youth and high spirits, and genuine affection between the two, came across very clearly from both couples, and both Huang and Vanstone were lovely in the slow, lyrical solo which opens the second act in harness with that lyrical, haunting bansuri solo.

It was a real privilege to watch this intense and moving work twice, but it is definitely the Saturday afternoon performance that will stay lodged in my memory for a long time.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pilgrimage to the Celestial City

Top Ten lists are a risky business in any field of the arts.  I could write you a top ten list of my favourite operas today, and then might write a rather different one next year.  But there are a few works that will usually hold a place on that list for me.

One of them I first heard in a recording in 1973 or 1974.  Since then, I have listened to my copy of that first recording many times, yet it has never worn out its welcome.  I refer to The Pilgrim's Progress by Ralph Vaughan Williams.  You can read more about this marvellous work, its laborious gestation, checkered performance history, and my own feelings about the music in this blog post:  A Pageant of Rare Beauty and Power

Professional performances of this opera remain rare, and I had all but given up hope of ever seeing it staged.  But last spring I got wind of a production coming up in a most unusual venue, and this week I travelled down to Cape Cod in Massachusetts and, at long last, got to see The Pilgrim's Progress in a fully staged performance -- which I believe is only the third or fourth time the work has been staged in North America.

The performance took place in the Church of the Transfiguration, the headquarters church of an ecumenical Christian religious community and its choir, Gloriae Dei Cantores.  The church was built less than 20 years ago in the style of a Roman basilica, a long arcaded nave without transepts.  The audience seating was arranged down one side of the nave on risers, while the three stage platforms occupied the other side -- with the orchestra seated in the arcaded side aisle behind the stage.  The stage backdrop consisted of three huge screens on which still and animated scenic projections created a vivid sense of time and place.  The inherent peril of this layout was mitigated by placing three video screens on the wall behind the audience so that the singers could see the conductor -- on camera!

It was absolutely worth the apparently makeshift nature of this layout, because the acoustics of the church are glorious -- not least, the sound of the orchestra soaring clearly through the arcades above the stage to expand into the main nave.

I'm starting with the orchestra, because its role is so critical.  This is one of the most symphonic operas since Wagner, with preludes and interludes in many places in the score.  There are numerous examples of fully symphonic writing in counterpoint with the singers (it's not just "accompaniment"), and the score is also dotted with those lovely instrumental solo lines so beloved of the composer.  All of it came through with absolute clarity, played under the skilled direction of James E. Jordan.

Next, I have to jump to the critical contribution of stage director Danielle Dwyer and the Elements Theater Company.  This opera is like a pageant, and like any big pageant it has big crowd scenes.  Dwyer crafted ingenious solutions to creating "crowd" effects on the stage platforms, which were, in actual fact, not very deep.  She also ensured that each member of a crowd scene had a distinct personality, look, and style that were his/hers alone.  None of this got in the way of clear, balanced, and strong singing from the chorus in those same scenes and many others.  The most spectacular of these crowd scenes was the lengthy, vigorous, and colourful scene in Vanity Fair, but the Doleful Creatures surrounding Apollyon ran it a close second.

There was much excellent singing and acting from all members of the huge cast, but hard as it is, I do have to confine my remarks to a few standout performances.  Paul Scholten began and ended the performance as John Bunyan, singing firmly and steadily, and created a nicely contrasting gentler impression as Watchful, the Porter of the House Beautiful.  John E. Orduña made an equally firm and characterful Evangelist (the only character besides the Pilgrim and Bunyan who appears more than once).  Br. Richard Cragg was clear and strong as the Interpreter of the House Beautiful.  These three then joined in a beautifully blended trio as the three Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains -- a magical scene.

Eleni Calenos sang beautifully as the Branch Bearer, and her voiced soared ethereally as the psalm-singing Bird of the Delectable Mountains.  Sadly, in the latter role she was positioned somewhere a bit too far behind the scenes and hard to hear over the voices of the three Shepherds -- but when we could hear her, the sound was magnificent.

Doug Jones sang the high tenor aria of Lord Lechery with great gusto and precision, no mean feat as the music soars and swoops all over the map, with plenty of rhythmic tricks to boot.  His trio with the two prostitutes, Madam Wanton (Martha Guth) and Madam Bubble (Kathryn Leemhuis) was a riot of insinuations and suggestive looks and gestures.

Andrew Nolen sang powerfully as Lord Hate-Good, the judge who presides over the kangaroo-court trial of the Pilgrim.  His earlier contribution as the evil Apollyon was also good, but harder to hear because of the powerful cries of the Chorus of Doleful Creatures -- a rare instance where the staging got a bit out of hand.  Given Apollyon's threatening appearance, having his voice amplified would not have been out of place.

Aaron Sheehan and Sr. Estelle Cole created just the right sort of genteel comedy as Mister and Madam By-Ends, with their self-aware strutting and preening about the stage.

And most of all, Richard K. Pugsley as the Pilgrim.  This is a daunting role, to say the least -- on stage in every scene, and frequently singing in counterpoint to orchestral playing that goes its own way.  As well, the Pilgrim has to take an inner, emotional journey as wide in scope and as full of twists and turns as his outward physical journey.  Pugsley clearly portrayed all of those varying emotional states, his face and body always in tune with the voice, and with everything that was happening around him.

His finest moment came right where it needs to come, in the long aria of Act 3, Scene 2, where he finds himself locked in prison, remembers that he carries the Key of Promise, and escapes outside to the starry night.  His soaring phrases as he contemplated the star filled sky were intense and moving indeed.

So was the scene of the Pilgrim's arrival at the gates of heaven, with the onstage and offstage choruses singing antiphonally in near-perfect balance.

Aside from a couple of textual alterations and some instances of odd diction, plus one or two other points already mentioned, this was a deeply-felt and carefully planned and prepared staging of this challenging opera.  Beautifully sung and expertly performed -- I was more than amply rewarded for the time, effort and cost of travelling to Orleans, MA, to see it.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Irreplaceable Maureen Forrester: A Personal Tribute

In attending the Toronto Symphony's "Tribute to Maureen Forrester"
this week, I found myself taking another nostalgic trip down memory lane,
and feeling a real need to write my own personal appreciation of
this remarkable musician and her peerless art. 

So I've decided that, henceforth, I will also allow myself to write the
occasional essay on this blog which is not a review of a performance.
 
You could call it "broadening my base" (except that my "base" or
fundament is far broader than I would ideally like it to be already!).

I only met Maureen Forrester face to face on one occasion, but she was a performer who made it very easy to feel as if we, her audience, were her friends.  Hers was a strongly communicative art.  After some thought, I've come to the conclusion that, somehow, she managed to shift the edge of her personal space from the front of the stage to the back of the hall the moment she began to sing.  At the numerous live performances of hers which I attended, that special aura never failed to materialize -- and I haven't encountered too many other performing artists in my lifetime who could muster that kind of personal communication.

Maureen's career took off in a big way after Bruno Walter personally selected her to sing in his New York performances and recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (the "Resurrection" Symphony).  That was in 1958, when I was 4 years old.  Since Walter had shared a close personal and professional friendship with Mahler himself, being coached by and performing under Walter's direction was like accessing a direct line to the composer, a line long since become inaccessible in our latter day.  On the strength of that one performance, Forrester instantly became world-renowned as one of the greatest of Mahler interpreters.  That was no exaggeration.

A decade later when I began developing a strong interest in Mahler's music, I acquired a copy of that legendary recording.  I still have it in my collection.  The sound is a bit grainy by modern standards, the bigger climaxes have had to be damped down in the recording process, but the music still comes across with great clarity -- and that definitely describes the unmistakable sound of Maureen's voice arising out of the stillness at the beginning of the fourth movement.

I had to wait about 4 more years, but at last I got the chance to hear her sing that symphony live at Massey Hall, under the direction of Andrew Davis.  My subscription seat was right down in the third row of the ground level, and left of the aisle  -- directly facing the spot where most soloists sit and stand in a concert.  When she began to sing the Urlicht fourth movement, her voice was so quiet and inward that it seemed impossible anyone behind me could hear her -- but I knew perfectly well they could.  I can never forget the airborne "lift" of the sound as she leaped up an octave on the word "Himmel" ("heaven") and her voice took wing.  And it was a clean lift -- no scooping or sliding up to the note.  Pure magic.

During those same high school and college years, I also heard her sing the Third Symphony of Mahler and then the miraculous Das Lied von der Erde.  I can't recall if she actually sang from a score in the hour-long Das Lied, but I've never forgotten the long sustained closing notes, as she sang more and more quietly, in an absolutely steady voice, with one hand slowly lifting farther into the air in front of her at each reiteration of the word ewig ("ever").  I was captivated.

I also heard Maureen singing Bach, Handel, and several other composers during those years, and she was just as memorable every time.

My one and only face-to-face encounter with her came in the spring of 1978, when I was singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (one unforgettable season).  We were performing a concert of two rare and fantastic pieces, the Spring Symphony by Benjamin Britten and the Te Deum by Hector Berlioz.  Maureen was one of the soloists in the Britten, and excellent as ever.  At the intermission, she unexpectedly appeared in the choir's "green room", a cavernous space under the stage of Massey Hall.  Immediately she was swarmed by choristers hoping to get her autograph -- myself included.

I've never forgotten what happened next.  After signing six or seven programmes, she looked around, and said, "What am I doing?  I didn't come down here to do this! (pause) But I LOVE IT!"  And instantly, she seized another programme and carried right on as before.  I still have that autograph tucked away in a safe place.

After I moved away from Toronto later that year, I did not get to hear her singing live as often, but I collected a number of different recordings of her singing in both lieder and concert works.  And then, in 1984, Maureen Forrester was cast to sing the role of the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe at the Stratford Festival.  This, for me, was a do-not-miss event.  Iolanthe is my absolute favourite of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  I'd been in a youth choir production in my Toronto days, playing the role of the pompous Lord Mountararat.  The thought of a good dose of Stratford G&S shenanigans with Maureen Forrester appearing in it was irresistible!

So was the show, when I got to see it.  The antics she got up to, with dancing, singing, dialogue with face and gestures creating raunchy innuendoes, sailing across the flies on a trapeze, and riding in on a wagon dressed like Britannia, complete with spear, helmet and breastplate -- all of it had me in stitches.  Later on it was shown on CBC TV and I laughed myself silly at her, all over again.  And then I acquired the show from the Stratford Festival gift shop, on DVD, and now I can have a good hearty laugh any time I feel like it just by skipping straight to her rapturous ode, O, Knowlton Nash.

And through it all, that unique voice -- rich, deep, pure, never thick or plummy or veiled in any way, a real contralto and still the finest I have ever heard singing live.  I've listened to many great singers performing Mahler, live or in recordings, but for me the altos (Mahler's favourite voice type) divide into just two groups:  [1]  Maureen Forrester (2) Everyone else.  And that's how I will always remember Maureen -- as the true "voice of Gustav Mahler."

Toronto Symphony 2017-2018 # 3: In Honour of Maureen

This week's Toronto Symphony concerts were designed as a tribute to the great Canadian contralto, Maureen Forrester.  Like the previous tribute to Glenn Gould, this programme had a master of ceremonies to give spoken introductions -- this time, renowned singer and broadcaster Ben Heppner.

The programme began with a work specifically commissioned for this occasion.  This was a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, L'Aube ("The Dawn") composed by Howard Shore to poems by Elizabeth Cotnoir.  This 15-minute work created a much larger effect, partly because of the wide thematic scope of the poetry -- effectively a musical portrait of the natural world in which we live, shot through with imagery reflecting the traditions of the First Nations.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who recalls Shore's scores for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit  films that the music is written in a harmonically conservative, post-Romantic idiom.  Larger melodies contrasted or alternated with shorter ostinato figures.  The singer, Susan Platts, had passages where she sang melodically, and others where the text was declaimed in more dramatic fashion, almost operatic.  The five movements were all in moderate to slow tempo.  Beautiful singing and evocative orchestral writing went hand in hand together.  This work drew enthusiastic applause and should certainly be more widely heard.

After the intermission, the larger work was Gustav Mahler's unique masterpiece, Das Lied von der Erde ("The Song of the Earth").  With this late and monumental creation, Mahler burst the bounds of the traditional song cycle as much as Beethoven had done nearly a century earlier to the symphony with his epic Ninth.  The six movements of Das Lied are a sequence of "songs" for tenor and contralto alternating, but the total work lasts for an hour or more and the final contralto song, Der Abschied ("The Farewell"), takes a half-hour all by itself.

Effectively, Mahler had created a new genre of music -- and recognized that fact himself, when he called Das Lied his "symphony of songs."  Other composers followed his lead in creating song-symphonies (notably Zemlinsky and Shostakovich).

The last time I heard Das Lied von der Erde performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was back in the fall of 1974, and -- no surprise -- Maureen Forrester was the contralto soloist.  It was one of her signature works throughout her long career.  That's 43 years ago, and a long time to wait, but since then I have heard it done twice when the National Ballet of Canada has staged Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Song of the Earth.  In the second staging, the alto soloist was Susan Platts, who also sang the role in this week's concerts.

The tenor role was taken this week by Michael Schade, who has a long and distinguished career on several continents, in both opera and concert work, to his credit.  Schade is famed mainly as a Mozartean singer, and I was curious to see how he would sound with the much heavier orchestral textures of the late-Romantic giant orchestra used by Mahler.

The first song requires the most heroic tone, but contrasting with gentler singing in quieter passages, and Schade nailed the numerous high notes with no trouble -- although I sensed that he was pushing the sound for all he was worth in the louder passages.  He was much more comfortable and at ease with the lighter, chamber-like instrumental textures of the third and fifth songs.  The fifth song, "The Drunkard in Spring," drew his finest singing of the evening, and the playful expression on his face grew into a roguish wink at the final note as he snapped his score shut.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts has a dark, rich colour to her voice which is ideally suited to this work (especially to the second and sixth songs).  She has performed it many times and recorded it twice.  In the fourth song, the central section describing the young men on horseback galloped through at breakneck speed, as it should, and the text began to vanish a little in the hectic rush as she strained to get all the words out -- a common problem for almost all singers.

In the long, final Der Abschied, the problem goes to the opposite extreme: long-breathed, sustained vocal lines have to be sung over quiet bass pedal notes while the rest of the orchestra sits silent.  The last time I heard Platts singing the work, a tight rapid vibrato began to intrude in these passages but this week her voice was calm and smooth, holding those long, slow phrases with total control and serenity.  At the very end, her voice faded right down to the limit of audibility on the final "ewig..." without a hint of a quiver.

Maestro Peter Oundjian once again demonstrated his command of Mahlerian pacing and shaping, especially in the first movement with its regular tempo shifts and in the final movement, where tricky cross-rhythms combine the rippling of the brook with the trilling of bird song.  Balance was also near-ideal, with brass and percussion alike playing with restraint even in the dark climax of the long funeral cortege-interlude in the last song.

The entire concert was a fitting tribute to a great musical artist, created in the best way possible -- by other great artists, giving vivid and gripping performances of great music.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 1: O Brave New World

Note:  Although the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra has appointed its new Music Director, Andrei Feher, this appointment takes effect in the fall of 2018.  For this season, then, the Orchestra is performing its concerts under guest conductors, with Feher leading at least two of the eight main stage programmes.

"O Brave New World."  Now, there's a title that could conceivably lead in more than one direction -- for example, to Tchaikovsky's concert fantasia The Tempest or to the suite of incidental music for the same play composed by Sibelius (The Tempest being the source of that famous phrase).  But, no.  It is, as many will have guessed, a reference to the last of Antonin Dvorak's nine symphonies.

However, that came at the end of the concert.  Before that, there were intriguing and delightful works both classic and modern to be heard.

After the opening O Canada, conductor Mei-Ann Chen cheerfully congratulated the audience for joining in readily, and with full vocal tone.  She then introduced us to Edmonton composer Vivian Fung's tone poem, Aqua.  It's inspired by a modern skyscraper in Chicago, the Aqua Tower, whose sculptural exterior suggest rippling waves and pools of water (google it, and look at some pictures -- it really is eye-catching!).  Fung's music comprises two main sections, and she has found some striking and beautiful musical ideas and sounds to evoke the rippling outlines of the balconies and the blue glass "pools" on the building's exterior.  

Pianist Remi Geniet next came to the stage to join the orchestra and Chen in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K.503.  The opening movement was notable for a classical crispness of execution and even texture of sound.  Such moments as the almost martial fanfare at the end of the orchestral ritornello were kept in scale, with Chen and the players remembering that this was still the work of Mozart.  Geniet's performance of the piano part was neat and nimble on the keyboard, but somewhat blurred by what I felt to be over-much use of the sustaining pedal -- creating a more lush, almost Romantic sound that was slightly at odds with the style of the orchestra.

The slow movement is notably simple and sustained in style, and here the use of the pedal was much more to point.  The orchestral playing continued to be as rewarding.

The finale brought more over-use of the pedal, and also some overly-enthusiastic playing from the orchestra which momentarily ruined the balance with the piano at a few moments.  However, all was well in the final coda and the work drew enthusiastic applause from the audience.

After the intermission, Chen again took the microphone to introduce Darren Fung's short work, Toboggan.  Obviously, many of us were wondering if Vivian Fung and Darren Fung were related!  To put it in Chen's own words, "They're both from Edmonton but they're not related.  Their mothers go to the same church, that's as close as it gets."  This brought an appreciative chuckle.

The ensuing piece was a two-minute breakneck ride for the orchestra, clearly illustrating the programme contained in the one-word title with immense verve and energy.  The piece ended amusingly, with a crashing chord for the "grand arrival" succeeded by a single plucked note from one cello.  Fung himself was present to receive the loud acclaim from the audience.

The concert then concluded with the Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 "From the New World."  The exact wording of the title is significant.  It clearly tells us that the piece was written in the "new world" of the Americas (during Dvorak's time leading the new National Conservatory of Music in New York).  It was not, as some people suppose, meant as a tonal portrait of the new world, or (in other words) as a symphonic poem.  The influence of Longfellow's Hiawatha certainly underlay the second movement, but otherwise much of the music is as Czech as anything else the composer wrote -- once you stop listening for overt "Americanisms."

The real problem is for a performing artist to try to find something new or different to say in leading such a well-known, well-loved, frequently-heard repertoire warhorse.  Mei-Ann Chen solved the problem by the simple expedient of not trying.  She followed what the composer put in the score and let it speak for itself -- a very wise course of action.  But more on that in a minute.

As with his friend and promoter, Brahms, so with Dvorak: the horn choir of four players presents many of the symphony's most important moments.  Whether playing as a group, or in pairs, or with each one taking a solo part in turn, the security of the horn section is critical, as also is their balance within the group.  Apart from one false note in the first movement, the horn section's contribution throughout the symphony was beautiful, firm, balanced, and above all heart-tugging in the mysterious sequence of brass and wind chords which introduce the slow movement.

Sir Donald Tovey, one of my favourite writers on music, pointed out that those chords simply serve to take us from the E minor of the first movement to the D flat major of the second.  "But, as Dvorak is a man of genius, the explanation, like the conjuror's offer to show 'how it is done,' is more mysterious than the mystery itself."

The wind solos and duets which abound in all parts of the work were as beautifully played, with crisp articulation in the bouncing scherzo theme.  The slow movement's famous melody brought the most beguiling sounds from the cor anglais.  The flutes and clarinets were as lovely in the autumnal slow section before the final ferocious coda of the finale.

The strings produced firm tone in the outer movements and the most gentle, translucent sound in the Largo when playing with mutes.

Throughout the symphony, Mei-Ann Chen led the orchestra with a clear beat, never over-conducting, and always keeping the through line of each movement firmly in view.  This was especially notable in the finale with its tempo shifts in the final pages.  I only wished that she had taken the Largo at a slightly slower speed, giving it a little more breathing room.  Her basic tempo was at the faster limit of what could fairly be considered a largo tempo, but it left me feeling that the whole movement was a bit rushed -- not that I would want to go to the opposite extreme and drag it out interminably either.  This was also the one movement where I felt a little more give and take in the basic tempo would have been helpful.

Make no mistake, though -- I would far rather hear such a clean, well-planned performance of the New World Symphony than one in which the conductor indulges in all sorts of "interpretative" excesses, solely for the sake of doing something different with it.