Thursday, 31 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 6: A Tragedy Concealed Within A Masque

I guess to start this post off, it helps to have some idea of what a "masque" is.  The term is so loose that it could perhaps best be described simply as an "entertainment", one which might include singing, dancing, recitations, poetry, spoken dialogue, elaborate sets -- the possibilities were truly endless.

On Wednesday night, a masque of sorts was presented at the Festival of the Sound by the Toronto Masque Theatre.  This certainly was not a historic re-creation of an authentic masque, as the entertainment was confined to music and the singers and players were in ordinary modern street clothes.  There was a slight nod to the masque convention of elaborate sets in the form of three pictorial banners hung at the back of the stage, depicting scenes relevant to the major musical work on offer.  Staging was mostly limited to the performers simply moving on and off the central stage area as required.  The programme was in fact designed as a tribute to the wonderful and diverse talent of Henry Purcell, the greatest of English Baroque composers.

In the first part, there was a well-planned sequence of instrumental and vocal movements from Purcell's theatre music.  Embedded in the middle of the sequence was the verse anthem Rejoice in the Lord alway, best-known of Purcell's numerous sacred works.  As director Larry Beckwith pointed out, this is known colloquially as the "Bell Anthem" because the repeated descending bass scales in the lengthy instrumental prelude are reminiscent of the ringing of changes on the bells of a cathedral.

After the intermission, there were three more vocal numbers, all of them thematically linked to what was to follow.  Then the players (string quartet and harpsichord) launched into the overture of the most famous of all of Purcell's operas, Dido and Aeneas.  This is a beautiful little tragedy-in-miniature lasting a mere 50 minutes, but within that short span of time it encompasses a whole world of emotions.  In keeping with the theatrical conventions of the time, the text has its definite moments of comedy, and the music is often quite jolly, playful, even rowdy.  Thus, when the tragic denouement arrives, the emotions are even more heightened by the lightness of much of what has gone before.  There's a temptation to call it a perfect work of music, but I resist that temptation, largely because a few examples of the word-setting are awkward both to sing and to understand -- a key example being Belinda's "Haste, haste to town".

This, of course, does not matter in the slightest when the dramatic heights of the score arrive!

I was especially pleased by the singing of soprano Teri Dunn, whose coaxing, urging portrayal of Dido's confidante Belinda was a joy to the ear.  The dramatic mezzo-soprano of Lauren Segal in the central role of Dido was powerful in the dramatic moments.  This opera stands or falls by the singing of Dido, and the role has become a famous centrepiece of the mezzo-soprano repertoire.  Segal was appropriately mournful in both of her great arias.  In the first, "Peace and I are strangers grown" was full of foreshadowings of her fate.  Her final aria, "When I am laid in earth", brought tears to my eyes, not least because of the simplicity of her utterance, uncluttered by romanticized overkill.  Dido certainly has to resist the urge to sing the part as if it were early Wagner!

Her Aeneas was baritone Peter McGillivray.  This role presents a different sort of challenge.  Aeneas has to present himself as the worthy partner of both Dido the character and of the singer who portrays her.  Yet he has no big showpiece arias comparable to hers, having to make his mark in relatively brief recitative and arioso passages.  McGillivray's voice was comparably powerful, and he rose to his greatest moment when he agreed to follow the (false) command of Jove to leave Dido and proceed to Italy, though leaving her would break his heart.

It was of a piece with the conventions of the day that some means had to be found to introduce comedy into the show, and this was done by having a Sorceress and two Witches plot to deceive Aeneas into leaving.  In the original story as related in the Aeneid, the commands of the god Mercury are of course the genuine article, but  not here!  Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman made the Sorceress into a most memorable character, with her expressive and mobile face conveying 101 shades of evil amusement.  Vocally, the summoning of her two attendant Witches was a marvellous moment.

Sopranos Virginia Hatfield and Elizabeth Hetherington had great fun with the evil chortling and laughing of the witches.  If their voices became a little shrill at times, there was no harm done as witches probably shouldn't sound too perfect in their singing!  In their second scene, the rendition of the gleeful little duet, "Our plot has took, the Queen's forsook, ha ha ha!" was one of the highlights of the performance.

Tenor Derek Kwan sang robustly as the Sailor in "Come away, fellow sailors", in spite of the fact that he was staggering drunkenly around the hall, singing directly to audience members -- one of the few moments of actual "staging" in the piece.  But it's the most natural thing to do.  When the words say, "Take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore," then it's not hard to see that this ought to be a comical moment.  As always, I regret that no room could be found by the composer to lengthen the song, because it is a delightful melody and the tenor gets only the one short verse to make his mark.  Kwan did so successfully.

The small ensemble of nine singers took turns doing chorus on numbers where they were not singing solo, and blended admirably in the chorus work.  The final sad lament after Dido's death set the seal on a truly gripping performance of this wonderful opera, so compact in its dimensions and so great in its emotional compass.

Director Larry Beckwith and his ensemble of singers and players have given the Festival another remarkable performance that will surely be talked about for years.  And I pity the people who missed it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 5: Vespers at Six

On Tuesday, the Festival returned to St. Andrew's Church for a very special early evening concert by the Elora Festival Singers: a complete performance of the Vespers by Rachmaninoff.

I've previously discussed this work in my companion blog, Off the Beaten Staff, at: Holy Week Part 4.  That post was put up during Holy Week 2012 (April 7 to be precise).

The work we know as Vespers is more properly called the All-Night Vigil, since it is a musical setting of 15 of the canticles sung in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Vigil service which begins with Vespers on Holy Saturday, and ends at dawn on Easter Sunday.  Although the work was composed and performed in 1915, no complete recording was ever made till 1973 and even now a complete performance is a relatively rare event in the west.  Most commentators concur that there is no finer work of music ever composed for the Russian Orthodox liturgy.

The fifteen movements together last about an hour, and are all sung unaccompanied.  The texts are, of course, in Russian and ought never to be sung in any other language (in my humble opinion).  Much of the effect of the music depends on the interaction of the distinctive sounds of the Russian language with the musical lines.  Speaking of the lines, the bass parts in particular pose huge challenges, stretching down as low as a low B-flat (which is certainly well below the cellar of my baritone range!).  Even in Russia, renowned for deep basses, finding singers who can musically sing these notes is a challenge!

It was for these reasons that I commented (in my other blog) that only a Russian choir could do justice to this music.  I was eager to hear the Vespers again, certainly, but also curious to know if my previous comments would be vindicated or shot down in flames!  The answer is mixed.

Certainly the choir's director, Noel Edison, left nothing to chance.  The singers were carefully prepared.  Interpretive choices were thoughtful, and for the most part successful.  Tonal blend and Russian diction were immaculate.  The striking bell-like sounds heard in several of the canticles were very clearly conveyed.  One of the trickiest aspects of Vespers is to make the crescendos and diminuendos integral to the music, so that the climaxes seem to flow naturally from the text rather than being imposed from without.  In this, both Edison and his choristers were very successful indeed, and the crescendos blossomed into full flower without any apparent effort.  It was a true joy to hear this challenging masterwork so expertly and lovingly performed.  The mezzo-soprano solo and the several tenor solos were all very well sung, although (sadly) the programme leaflet did not give the names of the soloists.

In so far as this performance fell short of perfection, it was due mainly to factors beyond the control of the singers and conductor.  In a Russian choir, there is a natural tilt towards darker, richer voices.  That is, you will get far more basses than baritones, and far more contraltos than mezzo-sopranos -- a fact which lends the music its rich, dark warmth.  In Canada, the reverse tends to be true.  The bass and alto sections both did admirable work, but there's no getting away from the fact that the brighter tones tended to dominate the overall sound picture.  The bass section in particular has to function like a firm hand, supporting the entire ensemble from its position low down in the scale.  The singers certainly did their best, but there were passages where a firmer bass tone was essential, and was not clearly heard.  In that infamous pianissimo scale down to that brutal low B-flat, the singers gradually fell away as the line descended, and at the end there were (I think) only two still sounding, and they were having trouble.

The other vocal problem was the simple fact that the tone sounded rather thin when the 24-voice choir divided into multiple parts.  Certainly a gigantic choral body is not needed, but a group of (say) 32-40 singers would, I think, be able to give a much more impressive account of the divided passages.  As well, there were a couple of numbers that I felt Edison simply took too fast, and the final chorus was disfigured by unnecessary tempo variations.

Even with these minor drawbacks, this was unmistakably a great performance of one of the true masterpieces of choral music, and the near-capacity audience on Tuesday night were certainly fortunate to have heard it performed with such skill and dedication.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 4: Going Off The Beaten Staff

Some of you, my regular readers, will recognize that title as a take-off of my own blog about rare or unusual classical music.  Well, in several concerts this week the Festival of the Sound has gone off its own usual turf of "classical chamber music" in several directions.  It just makes me sad that these unusual events are not terribly well attended because those who have stayed away have missed some beautiful music and some truly amazing performances!

The first one to mention (or repeat) was the performance of Shostakovich's Hamlet music with text sections from the play performed by actor Jeffrey Wetsch.  This was covered in my Festival blog # 2 a few days ago.

This was one of several concerts dominated by music of the twentieth century, and that label alone is enough to persuade many people to steer clear.  But it needs to be repeated, loudly:  "twentieth century" in music is not, repeat NOT a synonym for acerbic, acidic, discordant noise!  Actually, many composers of the twentieth century quite successfully wrote music of high beauty, consonance, and -- dare I say it? -- lasting audience appeal.

One of my favourites was Ralph Vaughan Williams, and although his name did not appear on any programme this week, his spirit seemed to be in the air with several works more or less inspired by folk music (a field which RVW worked very successfully and to beautiful effect throughout his career).

One such work was An-Lun Huang's Capriccio for Clarinet and String Quartet, Op. 41, which was played on Thursday with the composer present.  The inspiration here was drawn from Chinese folk music but the net result was decidedly beautiful and didn't sound (to these ears) especially "foreign".

This concert also featured Maples and the Stream by Vince Ho, a setting of poetry by Lien Chao for violin, piano, and speaker.  The poetry is full of elusive yet strongly visual imagery.  Ho's music was often fragmentary, cryptic, a few notes trying to say a great deal.  It was well rendered by Duo Concertante (pianist Timothy Steeves and violinist Nancy Dahn).  The reciter was Evelyn Hart, long famed as prima ballerina for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.  Needless to say, such an artist does not just stand and talk.  She moved around different areas of the stage, using a few simple props, and occasionally executing a dance-like flourish.  Just as every word of the poetry is meaningful, so too with Hart -- her every step and movement, to the slightest tilt of the head, was imbued with poetic insight.  Sad to say, then, but nonetheless true, it was not always easy to hear the words.  When the spoken word has to compete with music, the word can come off second best, even when (as here) amplification is used.

The same team returned on Friday to perform a work written decades ago on commission for the Festival and not heard again since: Exiles by Godfrey Ridout.  When that I was and a little tiny lad, not quite so far back as the dawn of the Old Stone Age, Godfrey Ridout was considered one of the leading Canadian composers.  Some musicians today make uncomplimentary noises when they hear his name.  This is very short-sighted of them!  Ridout deliberately eschewed the more abrasive aspects of the now dated avant-garde, preferring to compose music that would interest and involve audiences.  In the process, I feel that he also composed music of lasting value and quality.  So, call me an old fogey if you like!

Exiles is a setting of excerpts from Susanna Moodie's famous journal of pioneering in Ontario, Roughing it in the Bush.  Again, we had the work given by violin, piano and speaker.  Ridout wisely adopted a tone of voice in tune with the era in which this diary was written, and thus much of the music had a very folk-like cast not necessarily typical of his work as a whole (that Vaughan Williams sound again).  This time, the moments when Evelyn Hart had to speak through the music were much rarer, with the players acting more as commentators in between the segments of her reminiscences.  Again, simple but effective props and furnishing were used, with Hart clothed in appropriate period clothing.  She even  performed a joyful dance with a broom which brought smiles from many of the audience.

As well, in this concert Duo Concertante played a very amusing suite of Newfoundland folk tunes written for them by Clifford Crawley, Eneffelldy -- Old Lost Sea.  (pronounce it out loud to get the joke!).  This work reminded me very much of a remark made by one of my favourite music commentators, Sir Donald Tovey, about another composition:  "The melody is clearly in C Major, but that is the one key where its harmonies definitely are not."  It was great fun picking out the tune of a well-known folksong from a mass of harmony in a quite different key!

On Friday afternoon, the Festival moved "off-campus" (executive director Jen McGillivray's expression for it) to St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church.  This church is built in the shape of an octagon, a style much favoured by the Church of Scotland both at home and abroad.  The interior is very tall in relation to its floor area, and has a very warm acoustic environment.  Here the Festival also moved much earlier than its usual time period by welcoming the Toronto Consort for a performance of their program, Shakespeare's Songbook.

This show was a delight from start to finish!  Witty commentaries from music director David Fallis set us up for each number, and the constantly changing assortment of voices and instruments was carefully calculated to banish any hint of monotony.  The words did the rest.  Some, of course, are familiar from the texts of the Bard's plays, but in other cases the playwright simply indicated that such-and-such a song would be sung.  Many of these popular ballads and such were funny, suggestive, even downright raunchy, and the tunes were always catchy and memorable.  Great contrast was shown with the use of two songs of definitely tragic import, Bonny Sweet Robin and The Willow Song.  With each of these two numbers the audience remained silent for several seconds before applauding, such was the power of the interpretation.  The concluding Now Is The Month of Maying, a lively madrigal, involved the entire ensemble of nine for the first and only time and made a fine energetic conclusion!

I also have to mention, just in passing, that this was the first time I have ever witnessed somebody actually playing a hurdy-gurdy, although I have heard them used on several recordings.

I always love these times when the Festival goes out of its familiar turf and starts to experiment with giving us "something different"!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 3: Performers or Musicians?

The Festival of the Sound has always been a good place to ponder the distinct difference between a musical performer and a musician.  And yes, they are birds of a very different feather.  A performer can take the most showy virtuoso fireworks and lay out all the notes perfectly.  But ask the same performer to try, say, a sonata by Mozart and it's a very different story -- the notes will be there but the spirit of the music will likely be missing-in-action.  Whereas, a true musician could probably coax something lovely out of the Grade 1 piano examination repertoire.

Okay, maybe that was a bit exaggerated.  But still, there's no denying that any live performance lifts right off the stage and into the audience's hearts when the participants are playing or singing the music, and not just the notes.

Prime example at this year's Festival was found in a group of concerts which featured the Cheng2Duo, the New Zealand String Quartet and Martin Roscoe.  The Cheng2Duo consists of a brother and sister team:  Bryan Cheng on cello, and Silvie Cheng on piano.  They are this season's Stockey Young Artists.  The New Zealand Quartet are making their tenth annual appearance at the Festival.  Martin Roscoe is a British pianist of considerable stature, and makes his third Festival appearance this year.  All of these fine performers are definitely also musicians.

On Wednesday night, Roscoe was giving a solo recital, but the Festival added on the Cheng2Duo,
 in what Silvie Cheng jokingly called being the "opening act" for Roscoe.  Since Roscoe's program was entirely made up of piano pieces entitled "Fantasy", the Duo obligingly played the three Fantaisiest├╝cke for cello and piano by Robert Schumann.  These are tricky pieces, somewhat reminiscent of the Moments musicaux for piano by Schubert.  There are long singing lines for both players, a fair dose of energy, and the need for a very special kind of intuitive "feeling" that often seems to elude the great virtuoso.  What made the performance by the Cheng2Duo so delightful was their ability to relax into the music, to sense and communicate the natural ebb and flow of the rubato.

These characteristics also pervade the music making of Martin Roscoe, which is what makes the close comparison of these artists so fascinating.

His recital program started with a Fantasy by Wilhelm Stenhammer, a composer little known in North America but certainly well worth anyone's time.  He followed this with the remarkable Op. 49 Fantasie by Chopin.  I have to confess that I have never heard, or even heard of, this piece before, and I am at something of a loss to explain why.  It's on my music shopping list now!

After the intermission, Roscoe gave us Mozart's extraordinary Fantasy in D-, K.379.  This is certainly not a long piece, but its dramatic impact is huge.  Indeed, I choose to call it "extraordinary" because it sounds so unlike Mozart!  I've always found it truly Chopinesque, so much so that I wonder if Mozart was channeling the great Polish composer 40 or 50 years ahead of time!  Roscoe's performance was every bit as huge as the music demands, none of the gentle delicacy that some pianists deem appropriate for Mozart.  To conclude, he presented the massive Wanderer Fantasy of Schubert.  This towering masterpiece is certainly not for the faint of heart!  In his usual way, Roscoe brought every aspect of the music out into the open, without the kind of acceleration and over-pedalling that lesser lights might use (and do use) to cover up their weaknesses.  A performance of great strength and musicality -- typical of why I always look forward so much to this fine artist's appearances in Parry Sound.

On Thursday the Cheng2Duo gave their own recital.  They started with a major challenge, the late Cello Sonata # 4, Op. 102 by Beethoven.  Late-period Beethoven makes huge demands on any musician's resources of interpretation, especially the ability to dig ever deeper into the music, searching out more and more depth of meaning and feeling.  For a pair of young artists, the Cheng2Duo did a quite remarkable job of interpreting this work.  The same was true of Silvie Cheng's following performance of five of the pieces from the Op. 76 collection of Brahms.  These are miniature tone poems in all but name, sophisticated and complex in ways that tax the skills of the performer, but also requiring great interpretive insight and care.  Based on their work in Beethoven and Brahms today, I definitely look forward to seeing and hearing these two again as they progress (in years to come) to ever greater levels of artistic maturity.  I feel certain that they will.

Over ten seasons, the New Zealand String Quartet has established a firm reputation among Parry Sound concert-goers.  For me, they rank as the finest of the many string quartet ensembles I have heard over my 21 seasons at the Festival.  There's always an extra something special in their playing, and it's difficult to put a name to it:  an edge, extra power, special feeling, intensity, concentration, none of these terms are quite right although they're all accurate enough as far as the words go.  But I am very sure of the cause.  Except when paired with a pianist, they play standing up.  The cellist sits on a raised platform that places him at eye level with his standing colleagues.  I'm convinced that this lies at the root of their remarkably musical performances -- and the fact that the same ensemble has been playing together for 20 years with no change in personnel does them no harm either!

They opened Thursday night with a Haydn quartet (Op. 54 # 2) and a Mendelssohn quartet (Op. 12).  In the hands of the New Zealand Quartet, it became abundantly apparent that neither of these works was remotely close to being the kind of conventional note-spinning that some critics accuse both these fine composers of committing.  The Haydn, in particular, was filled with endless surprises in its structure.  A total delight all around.

After the intermission, the Quartet was joined by Martin Roscoe for the well-loved Piano Quintet, Op. 44 by Schumann.  This was played at the very first Festival concert I ever attended back in 1994, and I have heard it several times since then.  But I have never, ever heard the music given with such a wonderful feeling for contrast between its dramatic and meditative elements.

There really isn't any more I can say about this concert.  Although both the New Zealand Quartet and Martin Roscoe plainly leave nothing to chance in their preparations, the upshot is that the audience can absolutely take the resulting quality and involvement of the concert completely for granted.  And I'm sure the same will in just a few years also be true of the Cheng2Duo.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 2: From Russia, With Love

Most weekdays at the Festival of the Sound have three concerts: one at noon, one at 2:30 pm, and one at 7:30 pm.  The two earlier ones usually last about 75 minutes each, and the evening one is usually a full two hours with intermission.


This first week has a strong Russian theme running through it.  We may not always think about Russia first when it comes to chamber music, but there are enough fine examples to create several concerts.  This week's events have by no means exhausted the possibilities!

On Tuesday we heard the Tiberius Quartet from Romania playing Borodin's String Quartet # 2 -- a work which became newly prominent after the third movement Nocturne was used as the basis of the song "And This Is My Beloved" in the American stage musical Kismet.  The nocturne is also heard sometimes in transcription for full orchestra.  In its original setting, though, it's basically of a piece with the entire Quartet -- a beautiful, gravely romantic melody, pleasingly harmonized, and with the tune shared around all four players in turn.  The Quartet was beautifully played throughout, with a clear singing tone that fits this music so well.


Eachmaninoff's Cello Sonata, Op. 19, is a favourite work of mine -- on recordings.  This is the first time I've ever heard it played live, and I came away with a new appreciation of the pianist's witty remark (relayed by James Campbell in his pre-concert speech) that it's actually a sonata for piano, with cello. 

Macha Beloousova compassed the fiendish piano writing with flair and panache, as did Michel Strauss in the beautiful but at times inaudible cello part!  That sounds rather catty -- and actually, Beloousova did scale her tone down very successfully, in the first two movements in particular.  It was in the finale that Strauss was most often submerged in rolling waves of piano tone, but that is one of those insoluble problems that composers throw at musicians from time to time.  Dynamic and expressive playing from both, allied to a strong sense of the work's sometimes elusive structure.

Prokofiev's Overture on Jewish Themes, Op. 34, is a work we've heard before, and made a welcome re-appearance.  It's a sextet for piano, clarinet, and string quartet, and definitely carries with it that sense of mingled sadness and gaiety so characteristic of traditional Jewish folk music.  However, it's believed that the tunes may actually be songs composed in traditional style by the leader of the ensemble for whom Prokofiev originally wrote the piece.  Good feel for the klezmer overtones in the music by all concerned in this performance.


Among singers, a good deep bass voice is nearly as rare as a good Wagnerian heldentenor.  Canadian bass Robert Pomakov has a powerhouse voice and commands a huge range of dynamics as well as having those rich dark tones in his lower register.  He gave a gripping and authentically Slavic performance of Mussorgsky's powerful Songs and Dances of Death.  One of the joys of the Stockey Centre for a singer is that you can shade your tone right down to the barest pianissimo and the sound will still travel throughout the hall.  Pomakov took full advantage of this favourable environment!  He was accompanied by the Gryphon Trio, in an arrangement by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha.  The Gryphons are famous for their musicality and sensitivity, and it was on full display as they created musical lines out of the sometimes-fragmentary accompaniments.


The Gryphons gave us a powerfully integrated reading of Tchaikovsky's epic Piano Trio, Op. 50.  I've heard this work four times now, but this is the first time I have heard it played by a trio ensemble (rather than by a group assembled for the purpose).  Again, this is a work where the piano part occasionally can overwhelm the two string players.  One of the two acid tests for this piece is the ability of the pianist to hold the lid on, so to speak, and Jamie Parker did that and more admirably.  The other is the handling of the ending.  The ecstatic, indeed raucous, celebration of the final variation is suddenly interrupted by a dramatic swerve into the minor key and the return of the opening theme of mourning, with full force.  Seldom has the arrival of death in the midst of life been interpreted so dramatically by any composer in "absolute" music.  Here the Gryphons not only captured the full pathos of the interruption, but then proceeded through the long final statement of that opening theme at a tempo a shade slower than many artists use, so that every single note registered from all three players.  On record, this would definitely be a desert-island interpretation.


Among the perennial Festival favourites are the duo piano team of Anagnoson and Kinton.  Their blockbuster showpiece was the Suite # 2 for two pianos by Rachmaninoff, which was composed around the same time as his more famous Piano Concerto # 2.  Once you know that, it's easy to spot the family resemblance between some of the themes and harmonies -- first cousins once removed might be about right.  The Suite is huge -- in four movements, about half an hour long, and making the utmost demands on both players.  As Jim Anagnoson showed us during his short little pre-talk, the pages in the finale are nearly black from the sheer volume of notes.  In performance, that blackness translates into an unstoppable torrent of sound that becomes positively volcanic in the closing pages!  I have a really close seat, right at the edge of the stage on stage right, and it's a great position from which to watch pianists at work.  In this case, I was more than close enough to also follow the careful signals by which these two experienced duet partners communicate with each other while playing.  Just to get through to the ending of this work without collapsing is an achievement, but of course Anagnoson and Kinton gave us far, far more than that and I loved every minute of it!


The last big showstopper of the Russian minifest was a performance of the film music from Grigori Kostintev's 1964 film of Hamlet, music which just happened to be composed by a certain Russian composer named Shostakovich (a great favourite of mine).  We heard it today in a reduction for string quintet and piano.  Now, film music in a concert often doesn't work well, for me anyway.  Film themes tend to be short, sequences can be rather bitty, and the whole thing falls rather flat without the visual element that it is designed to accompany.  One way to get around that is to bring in an actor to present some sections of the text.  


Enter Jeffrey Wetsch, who proceeded to undertake a series of excerpts from Hamlet, spoken either between or through the musical selections.  Imagine the fun of starting the performance, as soon as the lights come up, with "To be, or not to be..." because that is exactly what he had to do.  He proceeded to present seven sections of Shakespeare, sometimes switching characters with lightning speed.  Wetsch's variety of tonal characterization was remarkable, and most necessary in a situation where he had to depend mainly on vocal style.  His voice ranged from sombre to ironic, from cajoling to emphatic, the full gamut of moods which Hamlet has to cover.  From the moment of drinking the poisoned cup and dying as Gertrude, he jumped instantly to become Hamlet crying out villainy and calling for the doors to be locked.  As Hamlet, he roamed around the hall, his voice echoing hollowly from various corners, until he returned to the stage, died, and lay there while the musicians finished the final number of the score.  Needless to say he got the lion's share of the applause and cheers that followed.  I can assure you that, if I ever chance to hear of a production of Hamlet starring this actor, I will be there if I can possibly manage it!  

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Festival of the Sound 2014 # 1: Choral Splendour

Every summer the Festival of the Sound runs for 3 1/2 weeks in Parry Sound, Ontario, presenting an eclectic programme rooted in classical chamber music, but ranging much more widely into many diverse styles and genres.  I've been attending regularly ever since 1994, so this is my 21st season.  I'm taking in so many concerts that I can't possibly write each one up separately, so I'm going to deal with them in batches.

The remarkable Trinity College Choir of Cambridge last appeared at the Festival 2 years ago, and this year they returned for the gala opening of the Festival's 35th season.  This body of 32 student singers has been voted one of the world's top five choirs by readers of Gramophone magazine, and with good reason.  It's almost superfluous to comment on the excellence of tone, blend, diction, and musical interpretation -- all these things we can take totally for granted.  The irony, of course, is that the singers do not take any of that for granted but work very hard to achieve the excellent results which we, the audience, then enjoy.

Their programme was delivered without intermission.  The first four numbers, indeed, were sung without any pause between them, allowing for a cumulative build-up of the impact of the choral writing.  This group included several works from the 1500s, the golden age of vocal polyphony, and the clarity of the intertwined vocal lines was noteworthy.  So too was the rich, dark voice of the (uncredited) bass who delivered the plainsong intonations between the refrains in Loquebantur variis linguis by Thomas Tallis.

The next work was substantial: the choral motet Der Geist hilft by J. S. Bach.  Some older members of the audience may have been surprised that this was sung with the accompaniment of a chamber organ, but recent scholarship has demonstrated pretty conclusively that earlier ideas of unaccompanied performance of the Bach motets were erroneous.  This is a particularly intricate piece, full of lively rhythms and high-speed enunciation issues, and the choir certainly did it with skill and flair in equal measure.

The next work was written specially for the choir by one of its members!  Owain Park, organ scholar at Trinity College, composed Judas mercator pessimus in a style both modern and intriguing.  A small group of four singers went to the back of the hall on an upper level to provide a distance effect.  The sound of this small body was sometimes submerged in the much louder sound of the main group, only to reappear in the sudden silence when the main choir's chord ended -- and usually on a starkly clashing chord.  The vocal lines grew outwards from unisons into shimmering tone clusters as voices diverged briefly from the main note and then returned.  Sudden staccato outbursts gave the effect of shouts of anger.  If this sounds not very user-friendly, I can only say that I found it totally gripping and definitely wanted to hear it again.

The biggest single work on the program was Sir Hubert Parry's choral song cycle Songs of Farewell.    These songs were composed near the very end of his career, a career which had given rise to such enduring standards as the hymn Jerusalem and the coronation anthem I was glad.  The six numbers form together into a kind of musical last testament, both in terms of the poetry Parry chose to set, and in terms of the musical skill demonstrated.  The first of the six songs is in standard four-part harmony, and the harmonic sophistication increases through the cycle to the 7 voice parts of # 5 and the 8 parts of # 6. It's interesting that the composer, who had long espoused Darwinian and humanist beliefs, yet chose to end with a setting of Psalm 39, a text that had also attracted Brahms in his German Requiem.  Parry's treatment of this psalm, which affirms that life must have an end, is sensitive, powerful, and -- in the end -- dwindles slowly away into uttermost darkness.  This poignant and gripping ending was the high-water mark of the choir's performance for me, the tone remaining audible down almost to the vanishing point with nary a quiver or shake.

I would have preferred for the program to end at this point, or at least to have had an intermission, as I would have liked some time to ponder and absorb the music I had just heard -- sure sign for me of a true masterwork.  However, the choir concluded the printed program with two pieces by contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen.  After doing a bit of reading about him, I would certainly like to hear more of his music.  Sadly, the two pieces we heard made not too much of an impression on me after the intensity with which the Parry ended.

The choir, conductor, accompanist, soloists and composer were given a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the program.  Their encore was a jolly, lively treatment of the classic children's song The Teddy Bears' Picnic, which had the audience chuckling gleefully and then cheering heartily again at the end.