Monday, 19 February 2018

Chekhov Another Winner

Chance meeting is everything in this life at times.  A couple of weeks back I found myself sitting in the VIA Rail train to Toronto across from an actor working over the details of a script.  As a result of our conversation, I found myself last Thursday night in the Palace Theatre in London, Ontario, watching the preview performance of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang, staged by the London Community Players. 

Anyone not familiar with this comedy is probably wondering about the titles of the play and of my review.  The simple explanation: the play tells a story of three siblings whose parents were university professors and community theatre actors, and loved Chekhov -- so they named their children after his characters.  And I can never resist the urge to pun.

The script is also littered with allusions to Chekhov's plays -- all throwaways, in terms of the main line of the story.  But the real under-resemblance is the presence of a collection of middle-aged people who feel they have wasted their lives, gathered together and sniping at each other between bouts of self-pity.  But be assured: the sniping is funny as you please, not as dreary and depressing as Chekhov's own plays can be (he's never been one of my favourite playwrights -- can you tell?).

Durang's script takes me to one of my favourite places to have fun: watching a really good team of actors get up on stage and deliberately impersonate a really bad team of actors.  That also brings up the equally tricky proposition that, when a script calls for totally over-the-top movement and vocal work, there's a frighteningly small space between "over the top" and "too far over the top."  Maybe only one of the three siblings is an actor, but it's quite obvious that all three were raised by actors -- a significant point that the production definitely brings to light.  

This production is a winner.  Even with a few rough edges, and a small, hard-to-warm-up preview audience, the show was drawing plenty of laughs by the time we got to the second act.

At the beginning we meet Sonia (Dinah Watts) and Vanya (George Jolink), both middle-aged, both unmarried, and both frumpy and grumpy.  Watts was particularly good here as she veered in and out of the edges of reality (her repeated "I am a wild turkey" a never-failing delight).  Jolink wasn't given much to work with in this scene except to play the patient martyr to her endless complaints, but he did it well, and did it with a good deal more variety and texture than one might expect.

Linda Worsley entered next as Cassandra, the cleaning woman, and brought in her train another whole chain of theatrical inside references -- this time, to the world of Greek tragedy.  Her name, too, proved to be no accident as she immediately began spouting oracular prophecies consisting of a mish-mash of Shakespeare and Aescylus, with some original material sneaked in from time to time.  She warns Sonia and Vanya of trouble to come, and repeatedly tells them to "Beware of Hootie Pie!"  None of which makes any sense to them -- like the ancient Cassandra's auditors, they pay no heed to her weird statements.  Worsley in full prophetic flight, with arms windmilling furiously, was a sight to behold, and with her trumpet-of-doom vocal tone she had no trouble making herself heard to the back of the house -- and probably beyond.

The next arrival is the other sister, Masha (Caroline Dolny Guerin), a self-identified Hollywood "star."  With her comes her hot young boytoy, Spike (Darryl Rayner).  Dolny Guerin immediately projected the self-centred monster of ego, and then masterfully let the armour slip just a bit at a time until we could discern the hugely insecure woman under the controlled surface.  Rayner, on the other hand, very quickly showed off Spike's manipulative colours, projecting raw  animal energy so strongly at everyone in the room that the play began to look for a few minutes like Entertaining Mr. Sloane.  He also made a comic highlight of the scene where Masha tells him to put his clothes back on like a striptease in reverse, and he takes her at her word -- all but seducing Vanya right there in the living room while very slowly getting dressed.  A classic portrayal of "I am sexy and I know it."

The last character we meet is the likable ingénue of the show, the niece of the couple next door.  As a likable ingénue, she is, of course, called (what else?) Nina.  Nina is awed by the chance to meet her idol, the great Hollywood actress Masha, but with her sterling common sense ends up befriending Vanya and (later) Sonia.  Hailey Hill gave a clear, consistent performance of what is definitely the most two-dimensional part in the script, and made as believable a character as the playwright would allow her to do.

And that's just the introductory material!  From there on, the play -- like any good black comedy -- spins into more and more preposterous but perfectly natural outcomes of this setup.  A mysterious play within a play (inspired by Konstantin's play in The Seagull), a complete set of Snow White costumes, a special kind of pincushion, Maggie Smith, a society party, a talking molecule, and Hootie Pie -- all play their part in the steadily increasing lunacy.

My favourite transformation was the moment when the dowdy Sonia suddenly reappeared as a glamour star.  Watts gave a stunning performance in these scenes, both voice and physicality altered almost beyond recognition.

Without giving anything else away, I just want to commend four more great moments. 

The hilarious opening scene of the second act, with the special pincushion.

The beautifully orchestrated unison crying scene.

The lengthy phone call, so believable that I was actually silently rooting in my seat for her to say "Yes" -- and gave a big fist pump when she did.  Now, that's total involvement theatre!

And above all, that incredible monologue.  This was George Jolink's crowning moment as Vanya.  Vocally superb, with wonderful shading and gradation of tone, ranging the gamut from sad nostalgia to a slow burn and one definite outburst of anger.  I'd like to see Jolink do less twisting and turning from side to side, and less half-facing to the audience in this long speech.  Since the focus of his outburst is Spike, it's not really necessary for him to keep including the others in his big rant.  The speech would have been better served by having Vanya keep driving in on Spike from every possible direction.

The rant quickly and directly leads to the denouement which proved once and for all that, really, everyone should have heeded Cassandra's warning to "beware of Hootie Pie!"  And then, a very satisfying and naturally achieved settled -- perhaps even happy -- ending.

Laura Sepulveda's set design appeared unnecessarily complex at first glance, but the upper gallery level across the back proved to be well worth while when it came time for characters to "Make an Entrance" as opposed to simply making an entrance.

Director Jeremy Hewitson has crafted a well-paced performance, making effective use of the stage's spaces (with the exception already noted), and almost completely avoiding the trap of too much over the top.  It's a rousingly funny evening of theatre, thought-provoking with it, and well worth anyone's time to see.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is on stage at the Palace Theatre until February 25.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

The Magical Mystery Opera

Fair warning up front:  this might well be the longest
review I've ever written of a single live performance.
But let's face it Wagner's Parsifal lasts for well
over 4 hours, not counting intermissions.  So naturally,
I have a great deal more that I need to say!

It's taken me just shy of fifty years to move from my first acquaintance with a recording of Wagner's final music drama, Parsifal, to my first live performance -- on Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The first recording I ever heard was Sir Georg Solti's Vienna studio production for Decca Records, a performance which to this day still carries an unmistakable and powerful aura of mystery and inspiration from conductor, singers and players.  There was a comment in the notes to that recording that I've never forgotten because it sums up the nature of the work so perfectly (sadly, I've forgotten the author's name): 

"The music of Parsifal is wide and deep, and long too,
but not too long if you are interested.  It is not,
sagas are not, for people in a hurry."

Considering that I've been waiting for near half a century, the only thing I was hurrying for was to make sure I was seated before the curtain went up!  Because, of course, no matter how magical a work of music sounds on a recording, there is always an extra dimension of involvement and participation when you sit down with an audience of hundreds -- thousands, really -- to witness a live performance.

Having said that, though, I must go on to add that any production which does not recognize the mystical, ritual aura of the piece is going to fall flat with a resounding thud -- at least, as far as I am concerned.

The Metropolitan Opera's production probably shocked a lot of traditionalists by putting the characters into more-or-less modern clothes, and eschewing the realistic scenery of the Met's previous staging.  I did see one patron walk out after the prelude to the third act, the scene which departs most drastically from traditional expectations.

But there's no question that Canadian director François Girard captured the ritual aspect of the work in his staging of the first and third acts (the second act was a bit more problematic at first).  And there was only two points in the entire span of this 4.5-hour opera where the staging failed to illustrate the sung text, which for me is a key point.

The ritual aspect of the performance was strongest in the first act, and it was in the first act that the conjunction of some of Wagner's most deeply-felt music with the incredibly apt stage pictures reduced me to tears time and time again.  I know that sounds unprofessional, and probably unmasculine to some, but too bad -- that's the impact this performance had on me.

Michael Levine's set design consisted of a steeply raked surface of bare and irregular grey rock for Acts One and Three.  In Act Two, Klingsor's magic domain appeared as a narrow reddish rock slot canyon such as one might see in the American southwest.  In both sets, the cyclorama backdrop carried various projections of moving clouds, planets and the moon (as seen from space), and non-specific swirling patterns which resembled the celebrated "light show" from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which just happens to be fifty years old this year.

The other key visual element of the production is the blood.  Some people may cringe, but Wagner's libretto underlines the importance of this symbol regularly.  Where Girard really went to town on this particular element is in Act 2, where blood is splashed all around the stage by the end of the act, including all women's dresses and the bed.

Thibault Vancraenenbroek's costumes consisted of business suits and white shirts for the men, and plain black or white dresses for the women -- all basically modern in appearance.

Girard's stated intention was to bring us into the production in some way, so the opening prelude was accompanied by a scrim projection of the interior of the Met staring back at us.  Against this, the cast -- seated in neat rows -- gradually appeared, and then as gradually got up and carried their chairs to form a double circle, on stage left, of all the men.  The women, much more unconventionally, formed into a looser grouping upstage right (in Wagner's libretto, no women appear -- except for Kundry -- outside of Act Two).

The use of those seated circles immediately gave a ritual feeling to the performance.  The feeling was accentuated by the positions and stylized gestures used by all the male chorus during Gurnemanz's long narrative of Act One, and during the scenes with Amfortas and Parsifal.

Meanwhile, the female "chorus" (remembering that they do not sing in this act) used gestures and positions that followed the movements of Kundry when she appeared.

Given this classically poised manner of staging, the entire scene of the Grail and the Last Supper carried an emotional punch that the older, more realistic version lacked (I've seen it on video).

The second act opened with ranks of women standing between silver spears anchored in the ground, and this was certainly a gripping visual image.  What was less gripping was the similar use of stylized gestures in this act.  Klingsor's opening scene, and summoning of Kundry, operates on a high level of overt dramatic action which clearly separates it from the preceding ritual in Act One.  But this production conveyed a similar ritual nature in this scene, and that took most of the wind out of the drama's sails.  Even Klingsor, with his slow and elegant movements, came across more like a priest than an evil sorcerer.

Problems were exacerbated even further in the Flowermaidens scene.  The women's white shift dresses conveyed nothing of the "flower" appearance Parsifal describes, and the ritualized gestures convey nothing of the sensual atmosphere conjured by the music and text.  Only in the very last minute before Kundry appeared did the women become at all seductive in their approach to Parsifal.

In the final act, the disorder of the Grail Knights was aptly illustrated by the messed-up appearance of the original set.  During the lengthy prelude, we watched as one of the knights was buried, while the hopelessness of the others was also clearly visible.

Here, in Act 3, the other disconnect from the original text came with the well-loved Good Friday Spell, where music and words alike describe the appearance of the flowery meadows on the most holy morning of the year.  I'm glad the designers didn't opt for fake cutesy flowers suddenly appearing out of the bare rock surface, but the discrepancy from what we saw to what was sung was hard to miss.

The concluding scene of Titurel's funeral in some measure resurrected the powerful atmosphere of Act 1, and the director's most intriguing inspiration was the idea of having the redeemed Kundry be the one to open the shrine and remove the Grail.  An equally beautiful and heart-rending further thought was having Gurnemanz move downstage to catch Kundry and lower her gently to the floor as she dies, released at long last by Parsifal's constancy from the eternal life she was cursed to lead.

Now, what about the performers?

Trust the Met to assemble a powerhouse cast of incredible singers who know exactly where they are going and what they are doing in such a challenging work.

First and foremost: the opera may be called Parsifal, but the singer on whom it stands or falls is the bass who takes on the role of the senior Knight of the Grail, Gurnemanz.  For a bass, this role has to stand as equal in difficulty to the role of Siegfried in the tenor repertoire.  René Pape did full justice to the part, with his rich vocal tone and assured handling of Wagner's often-complex lines.  If his voice began to sound a little tired by the end of the performance, who could blame him?  But his quieter singing was as beautiful as his louder passages were powerful, and his diction was definitely the clearest of the entire cast.

Next in my esteem is Evelyn Herlitzius, making her Met debut in the role of Kundry.  Both as a singer and as a dramatic actress, she ruled the stage in Act 2, and then took on an appropriately less overt style in Acts 1 and 3.  Her projection of all the shifting tides of emotion in her attempted seduction of Parsifal was one of the dramatic highlights of the production -- just as her sudden plunge down two octaves without a hint of swooping or sliding was a vocal highlight.

Peter Mattei gave a strong, dramatically clear performance as Amfortas.  Seldom can the pain of this tormented man have been so strongly and clearly illustrated by the staging, but Mattei gave equal weight to bringing that torment into his voice and succeeded magnificently, especially in the opera's final scene.

Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt made a fine Parsifal, fully equal to the challenges of the drama in Act 2 while nicely underplaying the naïve simpleton of Act 1.  His finest moment was right where it needed to be, at the crisis of Act 2 when he suddenly starts up crying "Amfortas!  Die Wunde!"

Baritone Evgeny Nikitin was effective as Klingsor, especially in conveying the mocking anger and unappeasable rage he felt towards the Grail Knights and Titurel in particular.

By no means an also-ran was basso Alfred Walker in the brief but important off-stage role of Titurel.  The rich dark colour of his voice contrasted well with the onstage bass of Pape.

The various smaller roles of sentries and knights were all strongly cast from within the company, and all added lustre to the overall quality of the performance.

The passages involving offstage singers, solo and choral, were all beautifully sung and balanced, but with no clear sense of the direction from which the voices were coming.  It would be nice to hear that the heavenly messenger, identified simply as "A Voice", was coming from somewhere above -- perhaps in the flies above the auditorium.  But that's a minor detail.

Which brings me to the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, prepared by Donald Palumbo.  There are very few operas in the repertoire, certainly none by Wagner, where the role of the choral singers is so critical.  Throughout the piece, the singing and acting by the chorus members was spot-on, and the ambience of the work was greatly enhanced by their contribution.  A particular highlight was the dark double chorus processional at the beginning of the final scene.

The Metropolitan Opera's house orchestra, under Music Director designate Yannick Nézet-Séguin, gave a memorable rendition of every page of a score littered with even more subtle danger spots than any of Wagner's earlier operas.  Throughout the work, Nézet-Séguin chose appropriate tempi, and achieved careful balance with the singers. Only in the Flowermaidens scene, did I feel that he might have been marginally too fast, but the majestic speeds of the two great transformation scenes more than compensated. Best of all, Nézet-Séguin managed to hold some volume in reserve until that magnificent moment in Act 3, right before the Good Friday scene, where the "Dresden Amen" mounts to the skies after Gurnemanz's invocation of Parsifal as the new King of the Grail Knights. This was easily the most stirring orchestral passage of the entire performance.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Toronto Symphony 2017-2018 # 4: Romance of the Tone Poem

The tone poem or symphonic poem was the pre-eminent form invented during the Romantic era of European musical history, and was practised by many composers throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.  Famous creators of multiple tone poems include Liszt, Dvorak, Smetana, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss -- to name only a few.  Some commentators even insist that the earlier concert overtures of Beethoven (particularly the Leonora # 2 & 3) and the later symphonies of Mahler are tone poems in all but name.

Throughout my concert-going career, tone poems have almost exclusively been a one-to-a-concert item.  But this week's Toronto Symphony Orchestra programme included no less than three tone poems, and a striking and diverse collection they made indeed.

First up was Lyadov's The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62.  The orchestra beautifully captured the sound world of this rarely-heard piece which murmurs quietly but mysteriously throughout its length, never rising above a mezzo-forte -- if indeed it even goes that far.  The term "diaphanous" perfectly describes both Lyadov's music and the orchestra's subtly-coloured performance of it.

The next work was the three-part Nights in the Gardens of Spain, for piano and orchestra, an unusual example of a tone poem which includes a concerto-scaled part for a solo instrument.  Despite the large solo part -- and with all due respect to Ingrid Fliter's skillful performance -- this most definitely is not a concerto.  You just have to look at the piano part -- mostly arpeggio elaborations of themes presented at the same time by the orchestra -- to see that the piano here is a part of the ensemble rather than an opposing dramatic voice.  But no matter.  Fliter and conductor Juraj Valčuha partnered in a sensuous, evocative performance of Manuel de Falla's inspired score, ranging from the perfumed darkness of the Generalife gardens at the beginning to the celebratory party atmosphere of the concluding Mountains of Cordoba.

After the intermission we heard the first successful entry in Richard Strauss' chain of tone poems, Don Juan, Op. 20.  This is music of great energy, beginning with the uprushing opening notes -- a Romantic-era nod backwards to the "Mannheim rocket" of the classical period.  Orchestra and conductor alike certainly caught that energy with an impressively crisp and precise launch.  As always, I hoped to be convinced of a clear through line tying the piece together -- and hoped in vain.  That's a near-impossible problem wished by the composer onto the interpreters of most of his tone poems, with their disjointed structures arising from the episodic programmes or (in this case) no stated programme at all.  But the players certainly gave it their all, and the final dying-away achieved great emotional intensity.

The concert wrapped up with a suite of excerpts from Richard Strauss' most successful opera, Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59.  The suite is uncredited, but is generally believed to have been created by the conductor Artur Rodzinski, who led its first performance.

It's only natural that this suite zeroes in on the numerous waltz fragments which pepper this beguiling operatic score.  The problem is that they remain, as in the full stage work, fragments.  But the arranger has devised the sequence and the linking passages with much care.  The one disappointment for me is that the suite doesn't end as the opera does -- with the great trio and love duet followed by the brief, light-hearted scherzando passage up to the final chords.

Players and conductor alike let the seductive waltz rhythms expand and sweep along in the most organic way, and the instrumental colours of the score shone out with gleaming purity.  This suite brought the concert to a most rewarding conclusion.

Awesome Anthology of Dance

Two weeks back, Toronto company Kaeja d'Dance presented an unusual and truly effective evening of dance entitled Solo Dance Xchange as the second phase of their multi-year project, Xtraordinary TO Dances.  I'll do the usual honours right up front.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  My nephew, Robert Stephen, was one of the dancers.

I wanted to put that right at the outset, because I would never have heard of this programme or gotten a ticket for it unless Robert had told me about it.  This kind of performance isn't usually on my radar, as my interest gravitates on the whole (but not entirely) towards more classical art forms.  

The concept of the co-artistic directors of Kaeja d'Dance, Alan and Karen Kaeja, was simultaneously complex and inspired.  The project began last year with the production of a film featuring 22 leading dancers from Toronto.  Each one was filmed in a short improvised dance segment in a location of his/her choice. 

Since the project began with the film, entitled XTOD: Moments in Reel Time, the show did likewise.  We took our seats in the theatre of Streetcar Crowsnest, a relatively new arts performance space in a modern condo building at Dundas and Carlaw in east Toronto.  The film lasted about 25 minutes, from which one can easily tell that the individual segments were indeed brief, and the linking moments between segments likewise.  For all that, this short "documentary" -- if that's the right word -- brought together beautiful camera work, creative editing, and evocative background soundscapes with the variety of locations chosen.  Whether by accident or design, all of the dance segments were filmed outdoors and all but two or three of the dancers chose locations involving nature in the city -- flowing water, trees, shrubs, the lakeshore.

After the intermission, each of the dancers presented a 2-3 minute solo dance inspired in some way by the film segment of one of the other dancers.  Names had been drawn from a hat, and each dancer then spent some time conversing with her/his "muse" about the sources for the flavour of the filmed improv solo.  Each dancer then created the short live segment for the performance, using some aspect of that interview or of the film as a point of departure.

The whole performance was effectively counterpointed with very creative lighting work by Simon Rossiter, and soundscape music by Eric Cadesky, Laurel MacDonald, and Phil Strong -- all of which was improvised during the space of a night or two before the first of the three performances.  

I've gone to the trouble of explaining all this in so much detail, because it helps to show my faithful readers why a conventional review of such a performance is incredibly difficult to write.

As the dance segments unfolded in front of us, one by one, I was struck by the incredible diversity of what we were seeing.  Throughout the evening, dichotomy was the rule of the day.  Some segments were deadly serious, and some were comical.  High-speed energy was succeeded by slow, controlled movement.  Props from sticks to tables to skateboards were used by some, while others simply moved within the space.  Elaborate costumes were followed by simple clothes and -- in two cases -- by complete nudity.  Some segments were impressionistic in the extreme, while others presented much more concrete images (Atlas holding up the world was my immediate impression in one case).

Styles of dance, by intention, ran the full gamut.  Mi Young Kim's traditional Korean dance  gave us the height of stylization.  Robert Stephen took us into the world of ballet.  Esmeralda Enrique brought Spanish flamenco into the mix.  Shawn Byfield presented an energetic tap-dancing performance.  Other performers explored the infinite variety of movement possible in the liberating environment of what is loosely called "modern" dance.

By way of review, all I can really say is that this lengthy sequence of dances (about 90 minutes) remained totally engrossing and fascinating for me throughout.  Equally fascinating was the performer talkback at the end.  Each dancer was asked to name their "muse" and briefly speak about what they took from that person to work with.  There followed an audience Q&A session, which brought out the fact that these quasi-improvised performances kept growing and changing from night to night of the 3-show run.  (I attended the final show).

During the performances, I had been looking for influences of a visible kind.  But in the talkback, it became plain that many of the dancers had taken up their muse's influence at a more subtle level, rather than making it overtly visible.  None the less, I remain convinced that some of those influences spilled over into more than one of the other performers' solo segments.  I wonder if that was another by-product of the continuing growth and change of the dances through the three performances?

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Diverse Evening of Five Creations

My holidays are over.  A month's layoff for Christmas celebrations and visits, and a holiday in Florida, and I'm back on my self-appointed critic's soapbox once again.

It's always fascinating to me to attend a premiere of a new work, of any kind.  Since I try to avoid reading in advance about such things, I can settle into my seat full of anticipation, and facing a stage which is -- in effect -- a blank slate.  What will the creator of the new work do with this opportunity?

Last night, I was fortunate to be able to attend a performance of no less than five new dance works, as the final stage of this year's Choreographic Workshop at the National Ballet of Canada.  

A bit of information about the workshop: the company members who choose to participate as choreographers, and the members who choose to participate as dancers, all do so voluntarily.  They willingly sacrifice time on weekends and lunch hours to create new works -- all in addition to their regular "day jobs" as dancers in the company.  A team of three experienced choreographers works with the participants to facilitate the creative process.  

Over a period of considerably more than a year, a number of new works get tried out, workshopped, and developed to varying degrees.  They may be shown as works-in-progress before a small invited audience.  As this development process nears completion, some of the choreographers will volunteer to have their work staged in this final performance (some of the choreographers are only interested in the process, and not in showing their work before an audience).

Conflict of Interest Alert:  Last year, I attended one of those works-in-progress sessions, and last night I got to see a much more developed version of the same work.  No bonus points will be awarded to any of my faithful readers who guess that the choreographer of that work was my nephew, Robert Stephen.

The "fascination frantic" in this particular dance anthology (as with all of the National Ballet's premiere works) is the fact that the dances are being created on members of a classical ballet company.  Thus, no matter how "modern" the choreographer's own outlook may be, the results are almost certain to become infused with at least a dash here or a smidgen there of classical practice.  One of the intriguing aspects of last night's show was the varying degree of this cross-fertilization which took place across the scope of the evening.

The other intriguing aspect of the programme was the presence of choreographers from outside the National Ballet, who were also invited to put themselves forward as candidates for this workshop.  Several did so, and two presented their works last night.

[1]  When the Wind Comes

Choreographer Hanna Kiel staged a haunting pas de deux in three sections, inspired by the theme of coping with grieving the loss of a loved one.  The first and third sections were set to music by Ezio Bosso, while the middle portion had a voice-over spoken text.  Jenna Savella and Kota Sato danced with a great deal of fire and energy, but also found a softer edge and more through line in the quietly expressive final section.  The work as a whole dug into a deep vein of emotional truth in dealing with Kiel's chosen theme.  I felt the strongest emotional affinity and absorption in this, of all the pieces staged. 

[2]  Suite in Old Style

Choreographer Robert Stephen was drawn to the eponymous musical work by Dobrinka Tabakova, and used the first two movements of Tabakova's suite to create a diptych.  I use that term, because of the great contrast in styles between the two sections of the dance, a contrast which mirrored the stylistic contrasts in the music.  As a whole, I felt that this work came closest to heeding Balanchine's advice to "dance the music" -- not that the results bore any resemblance to Balanchine's work.  The first movement of the music was primarily in the "old style," and the choreography mirrored that with a stylized folk-dance feeling prominent -- although one or another dancer occasionally fell out of the dance, and out of style with the others.  That stylistic disconnect was fulfilled in the second movement, where the overall dance language became much more modern, and much more dreamlike too.  Eight dancers formed the ensemble of this work.

[3]  3[4]

Choreographer Elena Lobsanova tried to elucidate her work with some written commentaries about the three danced sections and the brief motionless epilogue.  The commentary, however, was so cryptic as to add only a further, unhelpful layer of mystery.  I spent far too much time and mental energy trying to connect what I was seeing to what I had read rather than just watching and absorbing.  Two sections were set to the hypnotic music of Arvo Pärt; the third and fourth relied on the slow central passage from the finale of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.  The work provided an interesting diversity of dance movements, but the overall link connecting the dances together remained, for me, somewhat obscure.  While four dancers participated, it was Stephanie Hutchison's solo in the third section that proved most rewarding for me.  

[4]  In Between

By this point, I had stopped reading the choreographers' programme notes.  Ideally, I should have done it earlier!  Choreographer Alysa Pires had the benefit of a fine original score by Adam Sakiyama, which was both musically effective in itself and broadly supportive of her team of four dancers.  In this work, the four dancers formed and reformed frequently into pairs, ensembles, and soloists, with the partnering and movement styles alike changing very quickly at times.  Some moments in this work briefly touched in an electrical charge of erotic energy.  Of all the works, this was the one where I felt that I missed the most detail, and would have welcomed a second viewing just to get a better grip of everything that happened.

[5]  Grey Verses

Choreographer Brendan Saye had the advantage of a live music score, with pieces by Debussy, Corigliano, and Rachmaninoff played by violinist Andréa Tyniec and pianist Edward Connell.  The central section of this three-part work brought a highly-charged, angular solo from Dylan Tedaldi, and this was what mostly remained in mind at the end.  Overall, here was another work where the music and choreography remained for the most part clearly related to each other. 


A few final observations:  I would have enjoyed a chance to see the entire programme again, but with the order varied.  The cramped seating was playing havoc with my knees by the time we got to the fourth work, and I would have liked to see the last two works in particular when I was fresher and feeling less jammed into the small space.

Programme notes ideally should be a little more detailed and less cryptic.  We don't need a book, but a little clarity would do no harm.  Some of the notes were more helpful than others.

The question-and-answer session at the end was both enjoyable and informative.  A little more input from the facilitators about their role in the process would be informative too.

Overall, a fascinating evening of new works, with wonderful variety in approach, styles, and thinking from the five choreographers.  Sign me up for next year!

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Greatest Christmas Story of All

I am not using the term "greatest" loosely or ill-advisedly.  Johann Sebastian Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium ("Christmas Oratorio") is a magnificent masterpiece, telling the main events of the beloved Christmas story in music that is every bit as beautiful and compelling as the master's great Passions or the Mass in B Minor.

The Christmas Oratorio shares with the Passions the use of a tenor Evangelist to present the narrative portions of the story in recitative, with the other soloists and the chorus portraying the various characters in the story.  In between the narrative sections, the various arias, choruses, and chorales comment on the main action.

Actually, though, the Christmas Oratorio was neither designed nor intended for concert performance.  It consists of six separate cantatas which were performed at church services on six different days of the Christmas season in 1734-35 in Leipzig, as shown here:

Part 1:  Christmas Day (Dec. 25) -- the birth of Jesus.
Part 2:  Dec. 26 -- the annunciation to the shepherds.
Part 3:  Dec. 27 -- the adoration of the shepherds.
Part 4:  New Year's Day (Jan. 1) -- the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
Part 5:  Sunday after New Year (Jan. 5) -- the journey of the Magi.
Part 6:  Epiphany (Jan. 6) -- the adoration of the Magi.

The total work lasts for over 2.5 hours, not counting an intermission, and is thus a major effort to perform in full.  Many choral groups get around the problem by presenting it in two separate concerts, or by giving a selection of several of the cantatas.

As their pre-Christmas offering for this year, the Cellar Singers of Orillia ON presented a concert performance of Parts 2, 4, and 5, with organ accompaniment.  This apparently-odd selection makes sense when you notice that these are the cantatas which do not require trumpets and drums.  The other three parts (#s 1, 3, and 6) are all grand celebratory works in D major, and the trumpets and drums are prominent.  Trying to perform those parts with organ alone would sell the audience short.  But #s 2, 4, and 5 are gentler, more pastoral, more meditative in tone, and an understanding and sensitive organist can work wonders in representing the sounds of oboes, horns, flutes, and strings.

"Understanding" and "sensitive" are terms which describe Blair Bailey's playing very well.  The organ always provided firm support but never overwhelmed either soloists or choir.  Playing a work like this on the organ is a far tougher assignment than you might think, with 80 minutes of Bach's always-challenging music including some of his most florid and intricate writing.  

As tradition dictated (the same tradition followed by Handel in Messiah), the scene of the shepherds in the fields was prefaced by Bach with a pastoral sinfonia -- and this sinfonia thus became the curtain-raiser for the entire performance.  Although Bach did not use the Italian name pifa, the music serves exactly the same scene-setting function.  Unlike Handel's much simpler melody, the Bach sinfonia is a complex web of interweaving lines of counterpoint.  Bailey selected apt registers of his instrument to highlight the different lines.  I've never really appreciated, with an orchestra, the sheer technical complexity of this gentle and apparently (on the surface) self-effacing music.

The tenor soloist has the lion's share of the solo work, giving not only the Evangelist's narrations but also having a major solo or duet in each of these three cantatas.  In Bach's day, these parts would likely have been divided among different singers but tenor Charles Davidson handled them all -- and it's been many a year since I've heard a singer with a voice so ideally suited to the Evangelist role.  With a combination of light tone colour, flexible phrasing and passage work, no audible break from the lower register to the head tone, and immaculate diction, Davidson was virtually ideal.  A stellar performance.  I hope to hear him at some future date in the Evangelist role of one of the two great Passions.

Mezzo soprano Jennifer Enns Modolo was just as fine.  In the cradle song, "Schlafe, mein liebster" she found a soothing, aptly maternal tone without the voice becoming at all plummy or thick in tone.  A different but just as well-judged tone in the trio, "Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?," made her interruptions of the soprano and bass firm and clearly audible without becoming stentorian or overwhelming.  A delight to the ear.

Soprano Jennifer Taverner matched well with her colleagues, singing lightly and flexibly.  Her angel recitative soared effortlessly, and her voice caressed the notes in the famous echo aria,  "Flösst, mein Heiland."  Altogether, another rewarding presentation of a solo role requiring more subtlety than flash and dash.  Mary-Jayne Van Pypen provided the echo, and definitely deserves to be mentioned for achieving a near-perfect match to Taverner's voice and style.  This is by no means as easy as it sounded in this performance.

Bass Andrew Tees was something of a weak link.  His bigger, more dramatic voice and style of singing was out of keeping with the rest of the soloists (and with the tone and style of the performance as a whole).  There were also a couple of synchronisation problems in his duet with Taverner, and with the organ in his major solo.

The 40 voices of the Cellar Singers sang the complex polyphony of "Ehre sei Gott" in Cantata 2 and "Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen" in Cantata 5 with great energy, fully mastering the brisk tempo and the intertwining vocal parts.  Their warm, firm tone in the chorales gave a fine contrast.  Tonal blend was first-rate at all times, as was diction.  If the diction lacked the machine-gun precision which some choirs use, I felt the results were all the more musical for that.

Artistic Director Mitchell Pady brought many dynamic nuances to his interpretation of the chorales -- not, perhaps, the most "authentic" approach  But this is a style that I find more rewarding in a concert performance where my role is to listen, rather than to join in as I would likely have done in the Lutheran services of Bach's day.  Throughout the evening his tempi were nicely-judged for variety, giving plenty of lift to the music while avoiding the sometimes-ridiculous extremes of speed favoured by some modern interpreters.  I especially enjoyed the lilt which developed in Pady's conducting of the numerous triple-time movements, a lilt which reminded us of the secular dance music that Bach also composed with such fluency and skill.

This was such a persuasive and delightful performance of the three quieter cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio that I regret having missed this choir's performance of #s 1, 3, and 6 which took place a couple of years ago.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Diverse Christmas Concert

I got my Christmas season off to an entertaining start with a concert of Christmas music given by the Windmill Music ensemble in Mississauga.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  John Stephen, a member of the ensemble, is my brother.  Seems like I have a pretty artistic family!

Windmill Music has a 12-year history of presenting concert performances of Broadway, pop, rock, folk, and light classical music for voices.  That mission was certainly reflected in the very diverse programme performed on this occasion.

I want to get two artistic beefs out of the way right up front before going on to the performance.  As you would expect of a group of this nature, singers and instrumentalists were all amplified through speakers placed at the back of the venue, First United Church in Port Credit -- a church which is of a relatively modest size.  This sound  work needs to be handled with more care and discretion.  Not all of the soloists needed such amplification, and certainly the entire group singing as a choir didn't need it.  The speakers rendered the high overtones all too faithfully and when the singers went for a crescendo to a high note we all winced at the painful impact of the amplification.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's go in for the actual performances.  The ensemble for this show consisted of 17 singers, a string quintet, and a pianist.  The programme was chosen with care to allow no less than 12 of the singers to have solo or featured numbers.  There were also several instrumental selections to leaven the mixture.

The show started off on a classical note with the opening Sinfonia from Handel's Messiah.  This was followed by a vigorous performance of the soprano aria Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion.  Loralee McGuirl delivered Handel's endless runs with great energy, and shaped the slower central section with real finesse.

Much of the first half of the programme (after the Handel) consisted of what I would loosely lump together in the category of "Christian pop music" -- pleasant to listen to, firmly grounded in tonic, dominant and subdominant harmonies, moderate in tempo, and lyrical in style.  Even with two lovely solos from Abigail Freeman and one from Heidi Cyfco, it was a bit too much sameness.  

That sameness was highlighted forcefully when the choir launched into the much more adventurous modulations of O Holy Night -- beautifully done -- and then followed on with the high energy and quirky 7-beat rhythms of John Rutter's Rejoice and Sing.  

There were a few intriguing numbers based on older Christmas music, including Rise and Shine set to the tune of the medieval French noel Il est né, le divin enfant.  The last number before the intermission was a medley of several traditional carols in which the audience were invited to join.  

I found the second half both more rewarding and more entertaining because of the greater diversity of musical styles.  I was amused to see several audience members in front of me starting to sway and bob in their seats as soon as they caught the infectious rhythms of the spiritual, Come and See the New Born King.  I was doing it too.

The magnificent solo of Jesus, O What a Wonderful Child, as sung by Jason Hales, was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

Two numbers for the strings, White Christmas and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, delighted the audience and raised many chuckles as the modern American Christmas songs suddenly found themselves drifting through a chorale fantasia in the style of J. S. Bach.

Christa Clahane sang the famous Panis angelicus of César Franck with a gentle, almost ethereal tone that suited this music beautifully.

The traditional Catalonian carol Fum, Fum, Fum added more rhythmic variety and some good singing on the lower ends of the voices.

In the final number, the fusion of The First Nowell with Pachelbel's well-loved Canon worked like a charm, only one melody note of the hymn having to be modified slightly to fit the Canon's all-important bass line.  The choral tone of the group reached a near-perfect blend in the final soaring bars of this beautiful piece, partnered by some of the finest string playing of the concert.

As an encore, the entire ensemble joined in a rousing performance of the famous Hallelujah chorus from Messiah.  The audience weren't invited to sing along to this one, but there were certainly some singers in the audience who couldn't resist the urge.  I plead guilty to the lesser offence!

All in all, a pleasant evening (if a bit over-lengthy) with an interesting variety of music, and plenty of beautiful singing and playing throughout.