Wednesday, 20 April 2016

An Elegy, a Meditation, and a Panorama

My blogging is falling shamefully behind hand!  I hasten to make amends, or at least partial amends!

Nearly two weeks ago, I attended a Toronto Symphony concert which was stimulating in some different and surprising ways.  Just when you think there's nothing new to be said about the old warhorses of the central repertoire, along comes a performance which surprises you.  Couple that with another repertory staple and a modern work which is stimulating and maddening in equal measures and you have the makings of a memorable evening of music.  The guest conductor for the evening was Thomas Søndergård, making his Toronto Symphony debut appearance.

The programme opened with Perpetual Summer, composed in 2010 by Canadian composer Kati Agócs for the National Youth Orchestra.   This work takes its theme from the apocalyptic possibility of a world in which winter never occurs, and the hot regions become unbearably hot.  Agócs in a programme note discussed her use of thematic material from the Summer concerto of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. 

I have to say, right up front, that those thematic fragments never came to my ear as such, and I don't propose to waste anyone's time hunting for them.  The impact of the music was completely clear without any such reference points.  Agócs uses a large orchestra, including a really large percussion section.  Inevitably, the result is a huge volume of sound.  Some parts of the resulting work are strongly rhythmic, while in others the existence of any rhythm is undetectable unless one watches the conductor (a favourite bugbear of mine in modern works).  I also found the use of percussion very arbitrary.  For example, the hand-cranked siren was used just once, and not in any context that made the inclusion of this very distinctive sound seem either necessary or motivated.  When the rhythm did seize hold, the music definitely took off for a space.

While I could relate what I was hearing to the ideas outlined by the programme note, it was only possible by considerable intellectual effort.  On the whole, this was one piece that engaged me throughout, but didn't leave me with any great feeling that it deserved more frequent hearing.

It's a masterpiece of understatement to say that Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 stood as a huge contrast.  Here, the orchestra was joined by soloist Francesco Piemontesi, also a TSO debut artist.  I've heard this concerto played live more often than any other of Beethoven's five, and it has always been a favourite of mine.  But the performance I heard this night was like no other in my experience, either live or recorded.

While most interpreters seem to relate the music to its successor, the famous "Emperor" Concerto, the piece that most often swam into my mind was the lyrical Pastoral Symphony.  Throughout the large first movement, the emphasis on the singing, lyrical qualities of the music was unmistakable and unusual.  Larger dramatic moments were slightly muted in favour of a more melodious approach which repeatedly brought a smile to my face.

While the strange dialogue of the second movement was as dark as it must be, the finale again brought a lightweight, singing, even dancing approach to the main rondo theme.  It was hardly a central approach to the score, certainly not a definitive one, but for me it worked beautifully -- and both conductor and soloist had an equal hand in making it so.

After the intermission we had the Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39 by Sibelius.  I suppose I'd better come right out with it, and say that this is my least favourite of the composer's seven numbered symphonies.  In retrospect, I think he was further ahead in developing an assured and personal style with his Kullervo Symphony of  seven years earlier.  In this symphony, he seems to be largely imitating foreign models of symphonic style and structure, and the result is (for me) episodic, disjointed, and unconvincing.  While many commentators zero in on the Russian influence of Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries, I also detect clear hints of the style of Bruckner, whom Sibelius -- at the time -- regarded as one of the greatest of all composers.

Anyway, to the performance.  It struck me that the quieter passages were the highlights -- such moments as the long meandering clarinet solo that launches the work evoked a chilly Nordic atmosphere to perfection.  Louder passages sometimes lapsed into bombast, and the heavy brass really went to town -- with sometimes disruptive effect on the overall balance.  Of course, in Roy Thomson Hall, I'm never quite sure how much of this effect is due to my occupying a seat close to the side wall of the main floor.

The scherzo third movement was given a hard-driving, savage reading -- for me, the highlight of the performance.  The finale then took on an appropriately grandiose tone.  Plainly Søndergård had the measure of this score, knew his way around it, and directed a purposeful and integrated account -- as far as it's possible to achieve purpose and integration in this sometimes wayward work.

Why, of why, can't we hear more often from such works as the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies?

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Melodrama to the Max

During the 1700s, one of the key forms in Italian music was the opera seria.  The term denotes the more serious or noble style of opera, as opposed to the comical opera buffa.  The form reached its greatest heights during the tail end of the Baroque musical era, and continued in use through the life of Mozart.

A few years ago, Opera Atelier in Toronto staged Mozart's last opera seria, entitled La Clemenza di Tito (that was before I began writing this blog).  This month, the production was of one of Mozart's early operas, Lucio Silla, another opera seria.  Perhaps it's not altogether surprising that the music of this early outing should point the way so often towards Tito.  Both, after all, are opere serie and both are set in ancient Rome.  What surprised me, though, in this early score was the number of anticipations of Mozart's later comic or semi-comic operas, including such diverse works as The Magic Flute and The Abduction From the Seraglio.

In the opera seria, the key musical form is the aria da capo -- a three-part solo in which the final section is a varied and elaborated reprise of the opening.  Commonly the aria da capo retained the extended instrumental ritornello introduction, which recurred at key points through the aria.  This was a classic stylistic feature of Baroque music.  Meanwhile, the libretto carried the story in a direction perilously close to melodramatic -- and, not surprisingly, the result (in this performance) was a fair number of chuckles and giggles from the audience in what were supposed to be serious scenes.

As this performance of Lucio Silla showed quite plainly, the vocal fireworks of the arias were the whole point and purpose of the work.  The dramatic scheme was frankly weak at the knees; the text on the whole not much better.  The story is carried forward by the recitatives, but always comes to a dead halt when it's time for another aria.  After all, the "Great Voices" each demanded a set of arias designed to show off all aspects of their talent.  Indeed, Mozart (like all opera seria composers) was not expected to composer anything until he had met and conferred with the various singers!

Given that description, it's not surprising that the later Mozart aria which most often sprang to my mind during this performance was Martern aller Arten from The Abduction From the Seraglio.  In that aria, the showy virtuosity of the opera seria was crossbred with the comical traditions of the opera buffa to stunning effect.

One of the curious features of this opera is the utter dominance of high voices.  The six named roles include three sopranos, a castrato soprano, and two tenors.  So the only altos and baritones or basses are in the chorus!  And, in accordance with opera seria tradition, the chorus has only a limited role.

So, to Opera Atelier's staging.  The co-artistic directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg were invited by conductor Marc Minkowski to stage the opera for the Salzburg Festival and this production was later mounted as well at La Scala in Milan.  The Toronto staging was not the same production, simply due to the much more modest size of the stage in the Elgin Theatre, Opera Atelier's Toronto home.

The score has been somewhat cut to suit the sensibilities of modern audiences.  The marginal tenor role of Aufidius has vanished altogether, and the total length of the opera has been reduced by some 40-45 minutes.  Even so, the performance with one intermission stretched to almost three hours.  No getting around it, opera seria makes serious demands on the stamina of the audience as well as on the soloists!

Among the five lead singers, I want to comment first on the work of Inga Kalna, making her Opera Atelier debut in the role of Cinna.  It's a male character, but in the original production in 1778 the part was sung by a woman.  Kalna's firm voice has a slightly dark colour to it which absolutely suited the role, and also contrasted nicely with her three soprano colleagues.  Her florid ornaments were absolutely crystal-clear, and thus very effective.  I'm sure the Opera Atelier audience would be glad to hear her perform again.

The other four soloists are all Opera Atelier stalwarts.  Peggy Kriha Dye sang with strong tone and a suitable dramatic edge as Cecilio (another male role, originally sung by a castrato).

Meghan Lindsay was very good as Giunia, Cecilio's lady love and the target of dictator Lucio Silla's amorous intentions.  Her ornamentation was the most showy of the work, as you might expect from the leading female role, and was clearly and rapidly executed.  Lindsay's role is the one that veers closest to Martern aller Arten, and there was no question in my mind that she could have shot straight into that infamous showstopper without missing a beat.

Mireille Asselin provided a certain degree of comic relief as Celia, sister of Lucio Silla, and love interest of Cinna.  Whether by the intentions of the librettist and composer or not, she brought a nice touch of soubrette sassiness to this role, creating effective contrast in her scenes with Cinna and Giunia.

In the title role, we had tenor Krešimir Špicer, another veteran of numerous Opera Atelier productions.  In modern terms, it's a tough role to bring off as the character's motivations hover somewhere on the verge of utter unreality.  Špicer managed to keep Silla believable, while still respecting the genre conventions.  In terms of singing, his emphatic, dramatic vocal style certainly suited the part.  His best moment came in his final aria.  It's a kind of aside to the audience, and that's just the way it was staged.  Špicer came around the orchestra pit to the front of the house and addressed the audience very directly.  In this aria, he gave his most subtle singing of the night, many passages delivered on a mere thread of head tone, and to great effect.

The lengthy ritornelli before a number of arias became the excuse for some low-key comic stage business, of a type Opera Atelier has successfully used in past productions.  This was particularly true of those moments when Celia was onstage.

The artists of Atelier Ballet had not as much to do in this production as in some others, but the sword-fighting scene between the men of the ballet and Cecilio was a fascinating piece of choreography, a wonderful cross between a dance and a stage sword fight, and was both visually stunning and dramatically effective.  Peggy Kriha Dye's interaction with the dancers in this scene was first-rate for precision and power alike.

In a rare departure from standard Opera Atelier practice, the chorus came on stage in white robes for the scenes of the Roman Senate to create a crowd of Senators.  The singers of the chorus remained readily audible, and their presence on stage added dramatic point to these scenes.

Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski made quite a point of the need to work within the conventions of the opera seria, rather than trying to run them over with more modern approaches.  I agree.  This production of Lucio Silla certainly made his point clear.  Having said that, he failed to persuade me to like the opera seria form.  The same few limited concepts and turns of phrase appear in the libretto, again and again.  Of course, this is to give each singer a chance to have several spectacular showpiece arias.  But I personally found it tedious and beyond repetitive.  Also, Pynkoski asserted strongly that this opera was a "masterpiece".  I disagree.  It's polished, skillful, and impressive -- for a 16-year-old composer.  But I heard nothing to convince me that Mozart had already arrived as a creative artist of the first rank.  What I heard was a competent mastery of a traditional art form.  There were a few pointers towards the more mature works to come, but that was all.

Opera Atelier has done splendid productions of several of the late, great "five" -- the operas of Mozart's maturity.  While this staging of one of his earliest operatic works was certainly intriguing, I felt finally that it has remained largely unheard for very good reasons.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Chopin and Dvorak Gems

Last night's concert by the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra was a fair sample of the kind of programming so typical of that admirable ensemble: a modern work by a Canadian composer to begin, a well-known concerto, and a lesser-known symphony by a well-known composer.

The hook which undoubtedly drew many of the audience was the appearance of world-renowned Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska to play Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21.  Indeed, the concert was billed in advance as "Janina Plays Chopin," and why not?  Fialkowska was acclaimed as "a born Chopin interpreter" by Artur Rubinstein at the outset of her career and has gone on to amply confirm that judgement in decades of concerts and recordings.

Together with guest conductor Heiichiro Ohyama, she presented a reading of this concerto which belied its status as an old warhorse.  Considered as a concerto for piano and orchestra, it falls squarely into the category of works which exist primarily to show off the piano part, and with the orchestra relegated to a background role.  Indeed, some researchers have asserted that Chopin himself didn't trouble to orchestrate the music, entrusting that task (which must not have interested him at all) to students.

It's one thing to know this as a historic or musical fact.  It's quite another matter to play the concerto in that manner.  A pianist who does is apt to become far too dramatic and flashy, forgetting that the composer was the man known as "the poet of the piano."  Fialkowska certainly did not -- she's far too fine a musician for that.  Her reading was marked by all the poetry and nuance anyone could ask, and even a whimsical feeling of fantasy in the rondo finale.  Together, she and Ohyama presented a finely integrated reading, the orchestra remaining right with the pianist throughout all the passages in which the necessary Chopin rubato was most naturally applied.  Ohyama brought out some interesting counter-melodies in several places, parts played by violas and bassoons that usually get run over by the rest of the orchestra.  An absolute delight!

The concert opened with an intriguing work by Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock, entitled Solace.  She originally composed it for full orchestra, but then withdrew that version in favour of the one we heard on this occasion.  The music is scored for a chamber-sized body of just fourteen string players.  The group play in a style that might almost be called musical stasis, long sustained notes hanging on and changing slowly.  Some play in the natural register of their instruments.  The violins contrast with their high harmonics, adding a glassy sheen to the sound.  In front of this group sit two soloists, a violin and a cello, playing chains of notes which are quite plainly inspired by birdsong, in the manner of Messiaen.  Actually, though, the sound at times (especially when the violin was playing) was like nothing quite so much as the Vaughan Williams of The Lark Ascending crossbred with Ligeti.  I know it sounds odd, but for me it was quite gripping and involving to hear this almost timeless sound world unfolding.

After the intermission, a second go round for me.  I've noticed this before, that I can go for years without ever hearing a live performance of a particular work, and suddenly everyone's doing it.  It's not even four months since I heard the Dvorak Symphony No. 7 performed live for the very first time in London UK (read about it here:  New Hall, Classic Orchestra ).  And now, I've had a chance to hear it again!  Believe me -- I'm not complaining!

Many experts consider this the finest of Dvorak's symphonies, the immense popularity of the New World Symphony (No. 9) notwithstanding.  It's a tightly integrated piece, inhabiting a darkly tragic sound world in which the sunny atmosphere so characteristic of much of Dvorak is largely absent.

The first and basic difficulty faced by Maestro Ohyama was the issue of balance.  The score has some heavy-duty writing for horns and trombones, and the string body of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony lacked the necessary numbers to balance those heavier instruments.  Although some extra players were added, more would have been a big help.

By comparison with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra noted above, this was a rawer-edged reading, less polished but more dramatically intense.  There were a few instances where the tricky Brahmsian cross-rhythms refused to integrate.  Such details, though, weren't of any real importance in the bigger picture.  The slow movement remained of a piece with the drama of the work as a whole, instead of being drawn as a relaxed contrast.  The scherzo third movement, often characterized as a folk dance inspiration, here showed kinship with the similarly dance-rooted scherzos of Bruckner -- feet on the dance floor, but the heart and head among the clouds of high tragedy.  The vehemence of the finale set the seal on a performance of great intensity.  The final coda showed us exactly how this remarkable work finishes in the depths of its own tragedy -- even when the final chords turn to the major key, the dark heavy horn and trombone writing undermines any notion of triumph.

As always when a piano concerto is played at a concert, there are members of the audience who vanish at the intermission.  In this case they missed a powerful and dramatic performance, perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but that character is well within the compass of this remarkable score.