Sunday, 31 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 10: The Difference Between Good and Great

At the end of my Festival experience for this year, I encountered a perfect pair of performances that highlighted the distinction between a "good" performance and a "great" performance.  It's an idea I was ready to explore after my recent top 25 of 200 post!

The contrasting performances were perfect for the purpose because both works are very familiar and popular, and I've heard both of them played live at least four times.

Don't get me wrong; I am not using the word "good" in a patronizing way.  In any professional performing arts venue, "good" is a standard the audience has every right to expect.  Flaws, if any, must be smoothly worked out and not obvious.  Mastery of the material should be a given.

The distinctions between good and great lie in the way performers set about interpreting the material, and this is where a really familiar piece is a huge handicap.  Most of the audience will conceivably be familiar enough to have clear ideas of how it "ought" to go!  Inevitably, as surely as one person finds a performance to be truly great, another will be disappointed.

The first of the two works was the famous Trout Quintet by Schubert.  It's one of the greatest audience favourites at the Festival, and with good reason.  There are few pieces in the entire repertoire as bright and sunshiny in mood as this one, and that fits perfectly with the ideal of good summer weather that so many of us share.  It was played with a good deal of vigour, and at the end many of the audience were on their feet.

Yet, for me, this was a good performance, but not a great one.  I found the playing, apart from the third (scherzo) and fourth (variation) movements, a bit pedestrian.  I know, that's  purely subjective judgement.  However, there was one significant flaw in the first movement and it coloured my appreciation of the entire performance.  Pianist Stephan Sylvestre was going out of his way to keep his sound well blended with his four string colleagues, but at least two of them didn't return the favour.  There were several passages in which the strings completely drowned out the pianist, and it was largely because some of the string players were playing this light-hearted Schubert inspiration as if it were a huge dramatic passage in the operas of Wagner or the symphonies of Mahler.  So while it was fun to welcome back an old familiar friend such as the Trout, the playing was for me rather disappointing.

No such qualms about the next night and the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio in A Minor, Op. 50.  This has been a favourite of mine also for many years, but I have never heard it played as it was on Thursday night and I doubt I ever will hear it like that again.  It's a powerful memorial work, but on this night it developed extra depth and dimension as a result of the particular occasion.

Canadian pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin won the silver medal at the last Chopin International Piano Competition, and as a result his solo piano career has gone up like a rocket.  It's for this reason that he made a totally understandable decision to end his participation in the Montreal ensemble Trio Hochelaga.  Friday night's concert began with Richard-Hamelin playing three Chopin selections, and those were incredible enough.  But it was when the Trio took the stage for Tchaikovsky, that founder Anne Robert (violin) explained that this was his final appearance with the Trio.  From her words, and the embraces the players shared a moment later, it was obvious that this was an emotional moment for them -- and that emotion certainly translated into Tchaikovsky's funereal masterpiece.

The result was a performance that showed an extra desire to really give their all to the music.  From the opening notes of the first movement, we clearly sensed that we were embarking on a memorable journey.  This became crystal clear when the first theme returned for the recapitulation, daringly played at a much slower pace than the original tempo.  The air of nostalgia and remembrance was unmistakable, as it was again in the slow coda.

In the second movement variations, it seemed that each one got pushed just a little farther than usual in its own way.  Faster, slower, lighter, more playful, darker, more of a dance-like lift, and so on.  For the entire length of the movement, there was no sense of slackening of interest or attention to the music.  The long final variation stormed across the stage in a wild celebration that was raucous and yet controlled at the same time.  Never has that sudden awful swerve back into A minor come with such power and immediacy, such an overwhelming sense of a tragedy unfolding.  The power of the long coda exceeded all that we had heard before and the long diminuendo to the end was paced at an achingly slow speed, the final notes from the piano as gentle as they could possibly be while remaining audible.  There followed a long silence before the storm of applause and cheers erupted.  I suspect most of the audience would agree that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 9: And Now For Something Completely Different!

One of the joys of this annual summer festival is the chance to encounter works that you've never heard before.  Every year produces a few good examples.  This season, a whole list of them fitted in around the last days of Week Two.

On Thursday afternoon, Trio Hochelaga offered a beautifully paced and polished reading of Ravel's Piano Trio in A Minor, a work which reflects the pictorial Ravel so well loved from his major masterworks for orchestra.  While this is not perhaps truly a rarity, it's not one of the more common works in the repertoire either, so a chance to hear it played live was very welcome.

There followed, though, a true rarity: the "Trapeze Ballet", by Prokofiev, composed for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and double bass.  The composer later adapted a six-movement Quintet, Op. 39, from the eight-movement ballet score.  In this case, the players performed the full ballet, and for a truly fascinating reason.

The Festival actually secured a 1970 filmed version of the ballet from Russia, and the five musicians performed the music in synchronization with the film.  James MacKay served as conductor to keep the whole performance together, and made some witty comments beforehand about the notes he put into his score (e.g. "left foot DOWN") to help him keep pace with the on-screen action!

This marked the Festival's first foray into live-music-mit-film synchronization, and I felt it worked very well.  The film had an interestingly surreal air to it, in which characters seemed to move in and out of the restricted stage space in which they were supposedly performing.  The choreography in the film was highly gymnastic, yet also evocative.  The circus setting of the story recalls, of course, the most famous circus ballet of all time, Stravinsky's Petrouchka -- yet neither choreography nor music really resembled that famous forerunner.

The musical accompaniment, too, provided all kinds of interesting delights.  Prokofiev composed extra-grotesque solos for the various instruments, and the whole score had an air of satire and irony about it which came through very well.  A fascinating film-and-music event!

The second concert included three rarities, all from Scandinavia.  The first, a little character piece for clarinet, horn, bassoon, cello, and double bass composed by Carl Nielsen, had the intriguing title of Serenata in vano.  Yes, that does translate into "in vain".  The music depicts a group of strolling musicians who do their level best to attract a lovely young lady out onto her balcony with their serenade.  However, she refuses to come so their efforts are in vain -- and the music ends with them marching off to the nearest pub to drown their sorrows.  It's a very witty piece, easy on the ear (as was this performance), and the storyline is certainly easy to follow!

The next work was an even rarer Suite for String Trio by Sibelius, a work which the composer never published.  It appeared years after his death in a  box in someone's attic or closet, and still is not well known.  This doesn't surprise me, as it is a rather conventional work from the early end of Sibelius' life.  It's pleasant, worth hearing, but not in any sense challenging or dramatic as we might expect from his later output.

The third and largest work here was a Grand Septet in B Flat Major by Franz Berwald.  Both the style and the instrumentation make it plain that Berwald was writing under the spell of Beethoven's Septet for similar forces.  Despite the title, it's not a heavy duty work at all.  This was an early work, written when the composer was in his twenties.  Although none of this music is startling in any way, it is certainly both lively and energetic, and the players gave it a lively and energetic performance!

I'm going to break my usual rule, not to review, but simply to mention a rare work performed on Friday afternoon after I had left Parry Sound: a String Quintet by Georges Onslow.  Onslow was a French composer, although plainly (as his name shows) of English descent.  He composed in a number of genres, but was best known for his chamber works.  No less a musician than Robert Schumann declared him equal to Mendelssohn as the only composers to approach Beethoven's mastery of the string quartet form.

Onslow composed quite a few quintets, but after the first few he adopted an instrumentation of violin-violin-viola-cello-cello, and then even allowed for one of the cellos to be replaced by a double bass -- the instrumentation used on this occasion.  I've heard a few of Onslow's works in recordings, and I am sorry I didn't get the chance to hear this one in live performance.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 8: Zimmermann's Coffee House Part II

Yesterday, the Festival of the Sound went in the morning to the Seguin Valley Golf Club a short drive out in the country.  The Club's beautiful new club house banquet room makes a lovely setting for a concert of Baroque music, and the catering staff laid on a light brunch of delicious pastries and coffee for the ticket holders and musicians.

As with last year's similar event, the legendary Zimmermann's Coffee House in Leipzig was evoked during the programme.  Zimmermann's was an upscale kind of venue which held evenings devoted to the new music of such composers as Bach and Telemann, among others.

The beautiful Baroque offerings included a suite for oboe, violin and continuo by Telemann, a double concerto for trumpet, oboe, and orchestra by Hertel (with harpsichordist Cynthia Hiebert filling in for the entire orchestra!), and a trio sonata for flute, oboe and bassoon by Vivaldi.

The last piece was introduced by Jim Mason (oboe), and then Jim MacKay (bassoon) added drily that they had been playing it together for fifty years.  To that, Suzanne Shulman's quick rejoinder was that they would keep playing it till they got it right!  (needless to add, they did get it right!)

The history of Bach's Musical Offering was then explained, and two movements were played from the Trio Sonata of that large collection: the Largo and the Allegro, which includes multiple entries of the theme propounded to Bach by Frederick the Great as a suitable fugue subject.

After a couple of other Bach selections, one on harpsichord and one on double bass (Joel Quarrington), the players then moved to the Ricercar a 6  from the Musical Offering -- Bach's answer to the royal challenge that he compose a fugue in six voices on that strange chromatic theme.

This impressive climax of musical skill and dexterity was then followed by the delightful Menuet and Badinerie from Bach's second orchestral suite, for flute and strings.  I've seen Suzanne Shulman play this work half a dozen times over the years, and it never fails to delight -- not least because it seems so obvious that she is thoroughly enjoying herself in what is, after all, a very playful piece of music!  (the French name "badinerie" carries roughly the same meaning as the Italian "scherzo", that is, a joke or jest.)

These morning coffee house concerts are still a new innovation at the Festival, but they are always sold out and the programmes are unfailingly interesting and intriguing, so I feel sure they will continue in the future.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 7: A Day with Mozart and Haydn

Each week the Festival shows one music-related film in the concert hall of the Stockey Centre.  Yesterday, the film was a famous classic: Amadeus.  In case any of my readers haven't seen it, it depicts the long-discredited theory that jealous fellow composer Antonio Salieri killed Mozart.  The film is based on Peter Schaffer's stage play, and Schaffer wrote the screenplay.

It's the first time I've watched Amadeus all the way through since I don't know how many years, but it still stands up remarkably well, not least because of the attention to detail in which pieces of Mozart's music, all beautifully performed, are used to underscore the various scenes.  That's in addition to the careful period detailing of costumes and sets, and of the old town in Prague which stood in for eighteenth-century Vienna. 

Particularly gripping is the entirely-fictitious final sequence of Mozart dictating the Confutatis of his Requiem to Salieri, a scene in which Salieri takes down, line by line, the various parts as Mozart describes them (and as we hear them), and then when Mozart looks at the paper the complete movement bursts forth on the soundtrack.  It's quickly surpassed by the use of the deeply-tragic Lacrymosa to underscore the scene of Mozart's funeral procession, in a cold driving rain.

All that served as an apt introduction to the evening's concert, a programme of Mozart and Haydn for choir and orchestra, presented by the Elora Festival Singers under their music director, Noel Edison.

Among Mozart's choral works, the Requiem and Great Mass in C Minor loom so large that it's easy to forget that these are not typical of his choral output.  In fact, many of his choral compositions date from early in his career and share the lightness of touch, the general air of optimism, common to his instrumental works of the same time.  The Vesperae solennes de Confessore is no exception.  This work presents the five psalms and Magnificat specified by the Roman Catholic church for the evening liturgy of Vespers.  Even with six lengthy texts to set, the entire work is still over in less than half an hour.  The word setting is compact, lines rarely being repeated.  In Laudate pueri Dominum the music is a severe fugue, but each entering voice sings a different line of text so Mozart gets through the psalm in a quarter of the time!  The one exception is the haunting, lyrical soprano solo and chorus on Laudate dominum, and this movement alone of the six has been widely played and recorded.

The Haydn Mass in D Minor, commonly known as the "Nelson Mass", is in a different league altogether.  Written by Haydn late in life, it's plainly the work of a composer at the very height of his powers.  Like all Haydn's masses, it has a Latin title: Missa in angustiis.  It's nearly impossible to translate, since the Latin angusta means narrow or limited, but perhaps the modern English idiom may serve and "Mass in a tight spot" will convey a bit of the meaning.  It was written at a time when war was in the air and the Austrian empire was under threat of invasion. 

The air of fear and uncertainty is amply conveyed by the use of trumpets and drums.  Right in the opening Kyrie the combination of minor key and martial fanfares sets the tone.  Even more astonishing is the interruption of the trumpets and drums, thoroughly ominous now, in the Benedictus.  In other movements, Haydn's native jollity reasserts itself, but never for too long.  This is among the most solemn of all his settings of the mass liturgy.  It's also among the most florid, with elaborate virtuoso writing especially for the soprano and bass soloists as well as the choir.

So, to the performances.  Although I've heard and sung the Nelson Mass a number of times, this was the first occasion I ever encountered it with the woodwind parts which were added to the orchestra by later editors.  On other occasions, it's always been the original version for trumpets, drums, strings and organ.  I was especially intrigued to hear the winds standing in for the prominent organ chords in the Kyrie and in a few other places.  Otherwise, they had independent parts.  The change makes sense since the Stockey Centre has no organ, and an electronic one... well....

Throughout both works, the choir sang incisively, with subtle phrasing and clear diction.  The soloists were drawn entirely from the choir, and a different solo group used in each work.  Each movement of the Vespers was shaped nicely.  The fugue was cleanly performed so that you could zero in on any one voice and hear the text clearly.  (I was reminded of the scene in the film where Mozart insisted that he could have 10 or more parts each with their own words in an opera -- well, here it was!)  Soprano Julia Morson sang with clear, rock-steady tone in the Laudate dominum.  The concluding Magnificat was especially energetic, appropriately so, and wound up to a rousing conclusion.  The small ensemble of six instruments was just what was needed for this music on a modest scale.

In the Mass, Edison deployed a larger orchestra of a dozen players, essential for the grander scale of the musical ideas.  Soprano Katy Clark sang with precision in the wildly florid Kyrie -- when we could hear her.  And there's the rub.  Her voice was softer-toned and softer-grained and simply couldn't cut through the power of the winds, trumpets and drums in full cry.  Ideally, I'd have switched her with Morson, whose clearer, sharper-edged tone could have competed more successfully in this work.  Clark would undoubtedly have given just as lovely an account of the Mozart solos.

Bass David Roth was most impressive in the Mass -- and the work does require a genuine bass, not just a baritone.  His descent into the depths in the Qui tollis was again completely rock-steady.  The choir sang with immense vigour, and with a genuine air of fear in the Kyrie and Benedictus when the music was invaded by those martial trumpets and drums, grimly foretelling war and terror.

Just as impressive was the grand, joyful sound of choir, orchestra and soloists in such movements as the Gloria, Cum sancto spiritu, Et vitam venture saeculi and Dona nobis pacem.

Throughout both works, Edison held to well-nigh ideal tempi and indulged in an absolute minimum of interpretive pushings and pullings.

The entire concert was a great event for lovers of the classical choral/orchestral repertoire.

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 6: A Shipload of Celts

Every summer the Festival runs several "cruise concerts" on one or other of the tour-boats in Parry Sound: the 60-passenger Chippewa or the 3-deck, 450-passenger Island Queen.  The Island Queen cruises are usually given over to a more popular or lighter style of music than the main Festival programmes offer, and they're always good fun. 

The ship sails at 6:00 pm this year, and goes on a two-hour tour through the islands in the northern part of the Big Sound, returning through the famous "Hole in the Wall" and so back to town by 8:00 pm, leaving plenty of time for a late dinner.  During that two hours, the musicians will play two sets of their music.

You can, if you wish, stay seated on the indoors lower deck and watch the whole show.  For my money, though, weather permitting, it's much more fun to stay on the top outdoor deck in the sun and watch the scenery unfold.  The ship has a first-rate sound system so you can hear all the music just as well as if you were indoors and downstairs!

Monday night's event was a "Celtic Cruise" with a Cape Breton-based band called Coig.  It says a lot for the popularity of Celtic music that the cruise was sold out!

Part of the fun of these cruise shows is the between-numbers patter, and the four members of Coig did a fine job of it!  It was very plain that they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, playing on the water (for the first time) and in Ontario's cottage country (for the first time too).  With a fine sense of fun they included a Gaelic singalong, invited people to get up and dance if they wished (some did), encouraged the upper deck passengers who were applauding by foot stomping, and generally created the atmosphere of a genuine Cape Breton ceilidh.

One of the best moments came as we sailed along a narrow channel between mainland and island, both dotted with cottages.  Plenty of people had been waving at us, but on one dock there was a woman who leapt from her deck chair and began dancing an impromptu Highland Fling as we sailed by with Celtic music blasting from our outdoor speakers!  Good for her!

A totally delightful way to wrap up a summer day with some evening music on the waters of Georgian Bay!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 5: A Day With Lots of Strings

Friday, July 22, the Festival had just 2 concerts, but they represented a fascinating diversity of things that can be done with a tightly-stretched string, whether synthetic, gut or metal.

In the afternoon, classical guitarist Daniel Bolshoy led a programme called "Music for Guitar and Friends".  He began with Leslie Fagan in the Canciones Populares Españolas by Manuel de Falla, a favourite of the Spanish repertoire for singers.  Bolshoy's nimble fingers made light of the accompaniments, while Fagan displayed all her usual versatility of voice -- particularly capturing the throaty sound of a traditional flamenco singer.

Next came Un sueño en la floresta for solo guitar, by Agustin Barrios and then a quintet for guitar and strings by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, with the Penderecki String Quartet.  Both were pleasant but unremarkable pieces.

The concert wound up with a favourite of mine, the Fandango from a Guitar Quintet by Luigi Boccherini.  According to Bolshoy, Boccherini hated the guitar and this kind of traditional Spanish music, but you'd never know it to listen to this piece!  It's a simple enough formula, but in Boccherini's hands it evolves into a 7-minute moto perpetuo in which each of the instruments has a turn at spinning out its own complicated solo parts, somewhat like jazz improvisations.  As the music builds and builds, the techniques get more varied -- with players using the pizzicato (plucking strings), the spiccato (bouncing the bow on the string), and col legno (using the wood of the bow).  I could have sworn I also heard one or two instrument bodies being lightly slapped as well but it was hard to keep track with so much happening.  About the only thing missing was a pair of castanets (and I actually have a recording which includes those too)!  The piece built up to a rousing conclusion, and drew a big round of applause from the audience.

In the evening, Stewart Goodyear returned for a recital of four favourite Beethoven sonatas.  No funny business with the strings here, of course, but what an evening of piano greatness!  The concert opened with the Sonata No. 17 in D Minor, Op. 31 ("Tempest"), followed by the Sonata No. 8 in C Minor ("Pathetique").  After the intermission we heard the Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ("Moonlight"), and the Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 ("Appassionata").  Note in passing that none of these nicknames were applied by Beethoven, although he did approve of his publisher's wish to apply "Pathetique" to No, 8.  In fact, Beethoven's own title for No, 14 was "Sonata quasi una fantasia", which is a much better name to convey the structural experiment which he undertook in this truly unusual sonata -- and in its opus partner in E flat major, which has the same title.

Goodyear became famous several years ago for playing the entire cycle of 32 sonatas in a single day, a performance repeated in a number of cities.  Even listening to this relatively brief cycle of four made it quite clear that his playing is remarkable for its precision, purity, and musicality.  One of the greatest contributors to the clarity of Goodyear's performances is his restraint in the use of the sustain pedal.  When he does use it, it's done with point and purpose.

A few highlight moments:  the alternating slow and fast sections in the opening movement of the Tempest were held together, paradoxically, by longer but more intentional pauses than usual.  The slow movement of the Pathetique came across as pure musical poetry, a delight when some pianists are apt to treat it as just something to get through before the next round of fireworks.

The first movement of the Moonlight flowed at a smooth, easy speed, perhaps faster than some, but with a clear sense of direction and motion.  The contrasting second movement developed a playful tone, like a little miniature game before the serious business of the volcanic finale.

Speaking of "volcanic", there are few works in piano literature as volcanic in temper as the Appassionata, and it needs that kind of weight -- it mustn't become just virtuoso fireworks.  I've always felt that it has a certain catastrophic quality about it, and the best performances -- like Goodyear's -- capture that sense of drama almost to the point of disaster.  That quality was highlighted when Goodyear chose the first movement as the place to ramp up the use of the sustain pedal.  His slow movement variations were given at a flowing tempo, and the suspended cadence leading into the finale struck like the crack of doom.  As for the roaring waves of the immense final movement, they definitely roared but with utmost clarity.  Here above all was where I could sense the incredible control he has over this challenging music.

This recital alone would have been enough to make anyone feel that the time spent getting to Parry Sound was time very well spent.

If I could have two wish list items, this is what I would ask for.  Please, could the finale of the Moonlight be played just a bit slower?  It doesn't need to be a huge difference, and the gain in clarity can be immense -- as I have heard myself a few years ago.  I've often thought that some of Beethoven's piano tempi were deliberately marked at an unrealistically high level just to deter any pianists who might think they were good enough to tackle his music!

The other: please, please, pulleeze could we have some other sonatas, not just these four old warhorses over and over again?  Parry Sound has a knowledgeable and sophisticated audience, and they aren't afraid of being asked to listen to less familiar works.  For me, these four -- and the Moonlight most of all -- have long since worn out their welcome since I've heard them all played sooooo many times.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Double Century and a Backward Glance

I'm interrupting my regular sequence of posts for a special one.  This blog is just over 4 years old now, having started in May of 2012, and this is my 200th post.  That's a very large number of arts events attended and reviewed -- even more than 200, actually, because I have sometimes covered more than one event in a single article!  In fact, that total even startled me a little!

So what I decided to do for the "Magic # 200" is to revisit my posts over the years, and compile a special list.  This is like a top 25 list, except it's not my favourite reviews but a list of events that have somehow lodged in my mind as extraordinary in quality or peculiarly memorable for some other reason(s).  I'm incorporating the links for each article on the list, to make it easier for you to go back and re-read them too.  Enjoy!

**************************************

[1]  Mahler Symphony No. 8, Toronto Symphony Orchestra with choirs and soloists, June 2012.
               Overwhelming Grandeur

[2]  Sophokles: Electra, Stratford Festival, August 2012.
               An Electrifying Performance

[3]  Shakespeare:  Timon of Athens, National Theatre on NT Live, November 2012.
               A Timon For Our Time

[4]  Coward:  Blithe Spirit, Stratford Festival, September 2013.

[5]  Schiller:  Mary Stuart, Stratford Festival, October 2013.
               A Fantasia on History

[6]  Ayckbourn:  The Norman Conquests, Soulpepper Theatre, October, 2013.
               See, the Conquering Hero Comes!

[7]  Mixed Programme, National Ballet, December, 2013.
               Innovation Both Exciting and Moving

[8]  Shakespeare: Coriolanus.  Donmar Warehouse on NT Live, February 2014.
               Sheer Stage Power

[9]  Nielsen: Symphony No. 3, Toronto Symphony, February 2014.

[10]  Mahler: Symphony No. 9, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, May 2014.
               A Ninth to Remember

[11]  Dvorak:  Requiem, Chorus Niagara and Orpheus Choir of Toronto, May 2014.
               Getting My Breath Back

[12]  Thiessen:  Lenin's Enbalmers, Curtain Club Richmond Hill, May 2014.
               Lenin's Embalmers

[13]  R. Strauss:  Four Last Songs, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Sandra Radvanovsky, June 2014.
               Sadness and Longing in Music

[14]  Kushner:  Angels in America, Soulpepper Theatre, June 2014.

[15]  Schubert:  "Death & the Maiden" Quartet; "Trout" Quintet, Festival of the Sound, July 2014.
               Schubertiade Finale

[16]  Vaughan Williams: Tallis Fantasia; Rachmaninoff: Symphonic Dances.
         Toronto Symphony Orchestra, August 2014.
               A Concert For the Ages

[17]  O'Casey:  Juno and the Paycock, Shaw Festival, September 2014.
               Powerful Marriage of Comedy and Tragedy

[18]  Neumeier:  Nijinsky, National Ballet, December 2014.
               Wow! Just...wow!

[19]  Ansky:  The Dybbuk, Soulpepper Theatre, June 2015.
               Mystical, Mysterious, and Powerful Drama

[20]  Ruhl:  Euridice, Soulpepper Theatre, June 2015.
               A Very Different Mythic Inspiration

[21]  Beethoven:  Five Piano Concertos in Three Concerts, Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra,
         Stewart Goodyear, Grand Philharmonic Choir, September 2015.
               The Beethoven Marathon

[22]  Wheeldon: The Winter's Tale, National Ballet, November 2015.
               Poetry in Motion

[23]  Kaufman:  33 Variations, Theatre Sarnia, February 2016.
               Variations on the Theme of Life

[24]  Munro:  The James Plays, National Theatre of Scotland at Luminato Festival, June 2016.
               The Scottish National Epic

[25]  Schumann: Frauenliebe und -leben; Brahms: Piano Quintet.  Festival of the Sound, July 2016.
                A Whole Day of "Above and Beyond"

Friday, 22 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 4: A Whole Day of "Above and Beyond"

We can all remember those special "above and beyond" concerts we've heard in Parry Sound.  I suppose this is true of any arts festival.  There will always be certain events, certain performances, certain performers that will engrave themselves into our memories because of the exceptional nature or quality or that certain something ("je ne sais quoi") that sets them apart.

But how often can we say that we've experienced an entire day like that?  Thursday, July 21, 2016, at the Festival of the Sound was just such a day.  It's the only way to describe it.

That is the more curious, to me at least, as the focal point of the day was the German composer Robert Schumann, a composer whose works are not always among the easiest to understand and interpret beyond the mere playing of the notes on the page.

The music of Schumann that we heard was not all familiar to many of us, but the artistic and emotional quality of many of these performances set them firmly within the "above and beyond" category.

Also very helpful were a pair of short lectures by Jeffrey Stokes, delving into the composer's psychology.

The first concert included four chamber works, each one featuring a single solo instrument alongside the piano.  Stokes had also pointed out that Schumann published all of these pieces with indications on the title page that any suitable alternative solo instrument would be quite all right -- obviously designed to increase the market for sales of sheet music!  Each of these pieces used a different soloist, and each one was a true delight!

First up was a set of Three Romances, Op. 94, for oboe and piano.  James Mason on oboe and Leopoldo Erice on piano gave a delightful reading of these charming pieces, creating an air of fantasy out of the distinctive twist and turns of the melodic lines and the multiple variations of tempo.

The next set consisted of Three Romances, Op. 22, for violin and piano by Clara Schumann.  She wrote this piece to play with Joseph Joachim, and it was actually one of her final completed works.  More's the pity, then, that Clara should have given up composition -- although her career as a touring virtuoso undoubtedly forced her hand.  This music showed definite mastery and imagination in both melodic and harmonic directions and made me regret more than ever the early end of her composing career.  Helene Pohl on violin and Peter Longworth on piano were gravely beautiful in the opening andante molto.  The second movement appealed with Pohl's beautiful handling of the wide-ranging main theme with its big leaps.  Longworth's rippling, bubbling piano part acted as a lovely foil to Pohl's long-lined violin themes in the final movement and ended in the gentlest of final arpeggios. 

James Campbell took the stage next with Erice for the Three Fantasy Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73 -- a long-time favourite of mine.  Campbell's mellifluous tone and careful attention to dynamics created more light and shade here than I have heard from any recordings that have yet come my way.  The wistful opening theme of the first movement, the light and lively second, the energetic eruption at the end of the last -- all were played with equal parts precision and passion.

Next we had the Fairy Tale Pictures, Op. 112 for viola and piano.  Here's a treasurable rarity: a work actually composed for the viola!  The four movements are said to represent scenes from the stories of Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Sleeping Beauty.  This information derives from one of Schumann's diary entries, for no such indications are shown on the score.  It's perhaps even more valid to leave out these explanations and let the listener's imagination wander where it will.  Undoubtedly the dance-like Rumpelstiltskin movement has an evil sound to it, and the final Sleeping Beauty piece is as quiet and peaceful as the forest-shrouded palace in which the princess lay asleep for 100 years.  Violist Gillian Ansell (partnered with Longworth) gave a characterful performance, full of energy in the galloping second movement, decidedly edgy in that malicious dance, and winding downwards with an increased sense of peacefulness as the final movement came to its gentle close.

One of the great highlights of the day came in the second concert, the song cycle Frauenlieben und --leben ("Woman's Life and Love").  Thanks to the pre-concert talk from Stokes we were all up to speed with the distinct hints at preoccupation with social class distinctions in the text, and with the ninth and final poem which is not sung -- although the slow and quiet piano epilogue, recalling the theme of the first song, obviously covers the same ground as the omitted poem.

Soprano Leslie Fagan gave her finest performance of the season, and almost certainly the finest performance I have ever heard her give.  She captured well-nigh perfectly the shifting emotional states of the woman, ranging from the infatuated young girl of the first song to the mixture of joy and apprehension in the bride in # 5, and on to the loving mother of a nursing baby in # 7.  In each case she characterized positively, both in her voice and in her face, but on an appropriately restrained scale -- one doesn't want opera-house theatrics when performing lieder!  Then came the eighth and last, the mourning song after the death of the woman's love.  I can only describe it in terms of colours.  Fagan's voice, normally a rainbow of brilliant hues, went dark, grey, and cold.  Her bleak intensity was matched by the careful placement of notes, the sharp little sforzandos, the quiet feeling of disquiet in the piano part.

Throughout, Erice was an ideal accompanist, sympathetic to the singer, flexible at need, shaping the accompaniment with care while never exceeding the ideal volume level for good balance.  In the final epilogue at the end of the eighth song, he cast a veil over the notes so that the slow reminiscence of the first song gave the sensation of coming from a great distance back in time.  Laden with equal measures of heartbreak and hope, that song and epilogue brought tears to my eyes.

The concert closed with the Piano Quartet, Op. 47.  This energetic work was played by three members of the Penderecki Quartet with Peter Longworth on piano.  The musical texture in the faster movements depends heavily on prolonged chains of runs in the piano part especially, but also from the strings, and these were all played cleanly and crisply.  The slow movement had a calm, almost hymn-like air to it, the repeated chords in the piano part being kept quiet and unemphatic.  Unlike some earlier performances in the week, Longworth held the piano part throughout the work nicely in scale with his colleagues.  I have to confess that I am not overly fond of this work, but if we're to have it, please let it always be played with the panache and precision of this reading!

The evening concert that rounded off he day was devoted to just two works, both drawn from the audience favourites list, and both justly considered peaks of the chamber repertoire: the Piano Quintets of Schumann and of his protege, Brahms.  Indeed, with this work Schumann effectively invented the piano quintet form as we know it,. laying the groundwork for followers such as Brahms, Franck, and Dvořák.

The title of the concert was "Mentor and Master," and we could and did have a little fun ahead of time discussing which composer was the mentor and which the master.  But of course, Schumann clearly regarded Brahms as the master, and that point was highlighted when Jeffrey Stokes came to the stage to read Schumann's famous encomium of Brahms from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik just before the performance of the Brahms quintet.

Stokes' reading in turn drew our attention to the sheer mastery of the younger man's thematic creation and development, especially compared to Schumann's sometimes-laboured use of repetitive melodic fragments.  It became easy to forget that Brahms suffered his own labours of Hercules over this piece, successively trying it out as a string quintet and a sonata for 2 pianos before finally achieving his desired results in the piano quintet form.

(In passing, I have to remind my faithful readers that the two-piano version was performed, and was published by Brahms as a separate composition numbered Op. 34 bis.  Seek it out; it's a remarkable listening experience!  And you can read my thoughts about it here:  Approved Alternates)

We've been blessed all this week with the playing of two remarkable string quartet ensembles, and each of them now took a turn on the stage.  The Schumann Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, was played by the Penderecki Quartet with Leopoldo Erice, piano.  The opening movement is marked allegro brillante and the ensemble's opening was certainly both brilliant and precise.  The first movement above all is marked by long, singing melodic lines, and these unfolded with a youthful spring in the step that was altogether engaging.  The slow second movement, in modo d'una marcia, can sometimes plod or drag but here the players maintained a sense of anticipation that kept the music from becoming a dead weight.  The first episode, lyrical in character, was played with a sweetness and the second with a ferocity that created maximum contrast from the march in two directions.

The biggest danger to balance is in the scherzo with its endless chains of rising and falling scales.  Here, it's all too easy for the pianist to outweigh his colleagues but Erice kept his playing perfectly in balance and with the Penderecki Quartet generated a level of vigour and motion that kept the movement flying along.

The finale is most in danger of lying down and dying with its apparently endless repetitions of a single 4-bar melodic fragment, but the players managed to build and sustain interest through the movement right up to that always-startling cadential pause.  The double fugue combining the finale's theme with that of the first movement then unfolded with an urgent forward momentum that carried the work irresistibly to its conclusion.  A powerful and engaging performance throughout.

After the intermission, the New Zealand Quartet partnered with pianist Stewart Goodyear in the matchless Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 by Brahms.

And what a performance they gave!  The music is too well-known to require any particular commentary, apart from the truism that the heavily-written piano part can easily override the string sound completely if played without discretion.  This is due not least to the heavy chording low on the keyboard in many passages (a frequent characteristic in the chamber works of the young Brahms).

No such danger arose here.  I can't think when I have ever heard a performance of this Quintet where that balance issue did not appear at some point, but Goodyear's playing from first to last was exemplary in maintaining balance and unity with his colleagues.  In many cases, he accomplished this by playing loud, emphatic chords staccato and with only sparing use of the sustaining pedal.  In other passages, although the music is marked fortissimo, he wisely chose to play a mere forte, still completely audible but not overwhelmingly so.  He had the score in front of him, but appeared to refer it only rarely, more often focusing his eyes on the members of the quartet.

As for the New Zealand Quartet, they used the widest range of tone from the edge of the inaudible all the way up to a ferocious fortissimo.  The most powerful passages, in the third and fourth movements especially, were driven with a fierceness and wildness that I can't recall encountering before -- yet still remaining completely controlled and musical at all times.  The quieter pages, such as the slow movement's lyrical theme or the introduction to the finale, were as completely secure in a gentler mode of playing.

I think that if one could magically construct a "perfect" op. 34 Piano Quintet, it would sound very much like the extraordinary performance we heard last night.  I'd venture to say much the same words as a final comment on the Frauenliebe und --leben, the Fairytale Pictures, the oboe Romances, the Fantasy Pieces with clarinet, and the Schumann Piano Quintet as well.  Truly a remarkable day.

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 3: Giving the Musicians Their Choice

If Tuesday of the first week was mainly devoted to audience favourites, James Campbell thought that Wednesday should be a day chosen by the artists.  Under the open-ended heading of "our favourite sonatas," the Festival put together two daytime concerts of works entirely chosen by the musicians.

As part of the proceedings, the "resident musicologist", Jeffrey Stokes, gave one of his amusing and informative lectures on the history and development of the sonata, covering effectively in 30 minutes a subject that most academics couldn't get through in anything under a week!

Note (Rant for the day): do not confuse this concept with the history and development of the "sonata form movement," although Stokes did briefly cover that topic as well.  In any case, that is a far more complex subject and to some degree a complete red herring, since the supposed inventor or perfecter of the form -- Haydn -- hardly ever composed a movement that strictly conforms to the models shown in most music texts.  (Rant over).

It should come as no surprise that the selection of works on this day leaned more towards the challenging or stimulating rather than the simply beautiful.  And none the worse for that!

The third and last of Brahms' violin sonatas, Sonata in D Minor, Op. 108, was performed by Moshe Hammer (violin) and Leopoldo Erice (piano).  In the first movement they struck the balance point between lyricism and drama, a balance which is inherent in the melodic figures making up the main theme.  The development section had a slightly uneasy quality from the frequent key shifts, especially in the long passage over the low A bass pedal point.   The coda with its final ascent to a quiet arpeggio chord was taken very slowly, increasing the effect.  Hammer played with great beauty of tone on the low strings in the slow movement.  The scherzo began by sounding very perky but soon developed much more dramatic weight.  True drama arrived in the energetic finale, and both artists here played with power and momentum.  Altogether, a gripping performance.

As a complete contrast we then heard the Sonata giocosa for guitar by Joaquin Rodrigo, played by Daniel Bolshoy.  As he pointed out in advance, the joke was mainly on the guitarist as the primarily tonal harmonies in the three movements are generously sprinkled with pungent "wrong" notes.  At any rate, a good dose of classical guitar playing is a highly desirable addition to the Festival's programmes, and this piece was both challenging and enjoyable.

Speaking of challenges, Peter Longworth threw us a tough one with Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7, Op. 83.  Although it came out fairly late in his career, it harks back to the more mechanistic music he composed as a young man.  In no uncertain terms, this music proves Prokofiev's frequent contention that the piano is in fact a percussion instrument.  It's tempting to try to assign some kind of specific programmatic intention to the music.  Apart from the quotation from Schumann's song Wehmut ("Sadness") in the slow movement, nothing else can be said with certainty.  It has been long known as one of the three "War Sonatas" on account of the time of composition (1942), but may in fact have much more to say about the Stalinist regime than about the external events of that year.

Longworth played throughout the first and third movements with considerable fire, and with machine-like precision -- an absolute requirement of the music.  The slower, more sentimental slow movement then came across as an unreal mocking fantasy by contrast.  The concluding pages with the hammered ostinato octaves drew rousing applause from the audience, and rightly so.

The second programme partnered Longworth with cellist Rolf Gjelsten in Beethoven's Cello Sonata in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1.  This work, although not as late as some more well-known examples, certainly displays the late Beethoven's tendency towards structural experimentation.  It has just two movements, each consisting of a slow introduction followed by a faster main section.  However, neither of the two introductions is precisely conventional (one repeats the same theme several times, while the other includes a restatement of the first movement's main theme).  Furthermore, the movements overall are compact in scale, yet the introductions appear suited to much longer movements.

This is a sound world like the famous late quartets in demanding of the artists not only technical proficiency but also deeply-thought interpretation of the music on its own terms.  The performers here encompassed the music's own distinctive character, the wistfulness and the energy being equally represented.

The concert concluded with the String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 by Brahms.  Some might question where this fitted into a programme devoted to "Our Favourite Sonatas", but as Jeffrey Stokes had rightly pointed out, a sextet such as this might originally have been called a sonata for 6 strings or a "sonata a 6".  Besides, as he found out on asking the players, it's beautiful, it's intriguing, it's fun, and it's Brahms.  What more reasons could you want?

Rolf Gjelsten and violist Gillian Ansell joined the Penderecki Quartet in a reading which captured all the diverse moods -- and there are many of them.  While I enjoyed the first movement, I particularly look forward in this work to the charming opening theme of the scherzo.  It's certainly not like any "scherzo" you might think of from Beethoven.  Rather, you get an indolent, gentle lyrical theme decorated in each bar with an appoggiatura rather in the  manner of Schumann's Arabeske for piano, lending a pleasing kind of curve to the theme.  It's played by a trio of two violins and viola in chordal harmony, supported by gentle pizzicati from the two cellos, and when well played (as it was here) the effect is bewitchingly beautiful.  Yes, the scherzo does later move into a more vigorous, playful mode in the two trios, but this haunting opening theme returns as well to beguile us -- and beguiling is a good word to describe the playing we heard from this group.

Following the scherzo, the slow movement brought the most beautiful sustained playing.  The energetic finale then contrasted with its main theme notable for elastic phrase lengths -- the different component parts of the theme mysteriously get shorter or longer on each replaying.  There's also the never-failing joke of the descending scale landing on the note below the one we expect because -- well, because why not?  All this was brought together by the players, with suitable emphasis on the joke notes, until the elements were all gathered together and the tremolando notes used to build up a rousing conclusion.  I think Brahms would have approved.

You can get the most fascinating programmes when you ask the musicians to pick their own favourites to perform!

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 2: Masters of Melody

Ask any classical musician who the greatest all-time composer of memorable melodies would be, and there's a good chance you'll hear the name "Franz Schubert" more often than any other.  Ask for a runner-up and a fair number will throw in the name of "Antonin Dvořák."

It was therefore a lyrical inspiration on the part of the Festival to construct a pair of concerts on Tuesday entirely around the music of these two Romantic composers.  It was also a highly popular move because all four of the main works appeared on the top lists of favourite pieces which were submitted two years ago by Festival audience members, and one of them was the most requested work after all the lists were collated (see below).

The afternoon concert opened with the delightful violin Sonatina, D.384 in D major by Schubert, played by violinist Moshe Hammer and pianist Peter Longworth.  It's a relatively early work,  written when the composer was 19 years old, and thus predating the often-monumental aspirations of the later Schubert.  As the diminutive title suggests, a certain lightness of touch and a lyrical tone are needed more than any heavy-duty virtuosity, and Hammer and Longworth certainly got that atmosphere right!

I'd like to pass lightly over the next selection, but cannot do so.  Like many nineteenth-century virtuosi, the German violinist August Wilhelmj arranged numerous works by other composers into versions which highlighted his virtuosity as a violinist at the expense of the original composer's own inspiration.  What we got yesterday was a classic bad example -- an "arrangement" of Schubert's Ave Maria which turned Schubert's simple and understated piano accompaniment into rippling, rolling arpeggios and had the violin playing the melody in parallel octaves -- very difficult to tune accurately and excruciating to the ear when not exactly on the beam.  I always enjoy hearing Moshe Hammer playing any of the great masterworks of the violin repertoire in that loving, almost caressing way he has.  Hearing him play a travesty of this sort, alas, is like seeing a master painter create a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in garish colours on a black velvet ground with glitter highlights.  

In fairness, I have to say that I even cringe at the "standard" version in which the Latin liturgical prayer is fitted, very awkwardly, to Schubert's music.  For those interested, you should look up the original poem which Schubert did set (with no clumsy word repetitions), and listen to one of the many fine recordings.  It may be an ear-opening experience for you!

No such qualms about the Piano Trio in E Minor, Op. 90 by Dvořák -- the famous "Dumky" Trio.

The musical form of the movements here found its parallel in the works of many composers writing in Slavic style. The slow, mournful or dramatic opening followed by the fast section of frenzied rejoicing echoes (or is echoed by) such diverse pieces as the Hungarian Dances of Brahms, the Hungarian Rhapsodies of Liszt, the Hungarian and Russian dances in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, the kolo in Lehar's The Merry Widow, and Dvořák's own Slavonic Dances -- to name only a few examples.

What's so unique about this particular Trio is that the composer here completely abandoned the traditional sonata-form in favour of his own folk-rooted inspiration.  Despite that, or perhaps because of it, this has become one of the most popular of all chamber works.

The Gryphon Trio, long-time friends of this Festival, gave the "Dumky" Trio a barnstorming interpretation of extremes.  Tempo contrasts, dynamic contrasts, degrees of attack on entries were all pushed to the very limit in each of the six movements.  It was hair-raising, intense, powerful, even frantic at times, and equally dark and melancholic at others.  While this made for a very exciting concert experience, I'm not so sure it would be an interpretation I would want to live with in a recording.  One of the issues was balance.  There were times when the violin part vanished under the heavyweight playing of the cello and piano.

The evening contrast began with the Gryphon Trio again, this time in Schubert's peerless Piano Trio in B-Flat Major, D.898.  Here the Gryphons brought us on a magical journey into a totally different world.  The four movements of this trio are filled with long singing melodic lines, and the three players now matched Schubert's music with the most lyrical of sound qualities.  The simplicity of the Andante movement, the rustic jollity of the Scherzo made perfect foils to the vigorous opening and the dancing rondo finale.  As pianist Jamie Parker so aptly observed, Schubert is always either singing or dancing -- and the Gryphon performance of this work proved his point in spades.  This was definitely a performance to treasure.

As was Dvořák's String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 (nicknamed "The American"), which we now heard played by the New Zealand Quartet.  I've commented in previous years on the special air of this ensemble's performances, which I attribute to the closeness that comes from the quartet playing while standing up (with the cellist seated on a riser at eye level with his colleagues).  It's a kind of intensity or inwardness combined with an unusual degree of unity among the players which is hard to describe, but not hard to feel.

The striking quality of this work is its sunny, open-hearted atmosphere, which depends in no small measure on the use of pentatonic scales at the foundation of many of the themes.  The more that the performers can attune their music-making to this quality, the more convincing this quartet will become.  The New Zealand Quartet did indeed embody that friendly, outgoing feeling into their playing, and -- sure sign of a great performance -- the entire work passed far too quickly for my liking.  I particularly enjoyed the slow movement, where you can discern the family likeness of the theme to the slow movement of the famous New World Symphony, composed the year before.  But equally, the players avoided any attempt to load the music down with the greater weight of pathos and nostalgia which the symphony generates.

And which was the most popular work requested by the Festival audiences of two years back?  It was the "American" Quartet!

What a delightful day of music from two of the greatest masters of melody the music world has ever known!

Monday, 18 July 2016

Festival of the Sound 2016 # 1: Opening the Season

My favourite time of the summer has come around again!  I'm back in Parry Sound, nestled into my favourite small hotel in the woods outside town, and all set for a couple of weeks packed to the brim with beautiful music!

For those among my readers who are not familiar, the Festival of the Sound has been running every summer in Parry Sound, 2 hours north of Toronto, for nearly 40 years now.  Although the Festival's main focus is "classical chamber music" in all its variety, there are also concerts featuring choral music, opera, piano, and a whole weekend of jazz as part of the mix.  Most of the events take place in the modern concert hall of the Charles W. Stockey Centre on the shores of Georgian Bay.

For several years now, it's been a tradition to preface the official opening with a fundraising dinner concert.  The Stockey Centre was cleverly designed in such a way that the seating can be readily removed, and the raked auditorium converted into a flat-floored banquet hall. 

The Friday night of the "Gala Opening Weekend" was devoted to this dinner event, "Classics by Candlelight", with three concerts interspersed between the three courses of the dinner.

The first performance (after the appetizers) was a Haydn string quartet in D major, Op. 20 No.4, performed by a favourite Festival ensemble, the Penderecki String Quartet.  The standout movement here was the peculiar third movement, Menuetto, allegretto alla zingarese.  I couldn`t detect any particularly gypsy tone in the music as I was too busy trying to figure out where the three-beat pattern of the minuet was hidden among the profusion of 2-, 4-, and 5-beat phrases!  Haydn the irrepressible joker was probably chortling with glee as he wrote this one!  The 3-beat pattern does emerge clearly in the trio, along with a delightful and unusual solo melody for the cellist.  The whole work was given a delightful, lively performance by the quartet.

The second concert was split in two parts, before and after the main course.  This was a song recital by soprano Leslie Fagan, accompanied at the piano by Guy Few.  Anyone who knows these two artists could readily predict that shenanigans would ensue.  What boggles my mind is how Fagan can go straight from an apparently uncontrolled fit of the giggles to a beautifully sustained singing tone in 2.5 seconds flat.  It ought to be impossible, but plainly it isn`t!  The repertoire was a fascinating mix of half a dozen numbers including lieder by Richard Strauss, operetta by Lehar (Vilja from The Merry Widow), Gershwin (Summertime), and opera arias by Puccini and Verdi.  The high point came when Fagan introduced her final number as "Caro Nome from... (pause) some opera...."  Few let out a huge hoot of a laugh and rolled off the piano bench.  For one wild moment I thought we were going to get Victor Borge's classic send-up, complete with the seat belt -- but Fagan and Few then proceeded to perform the aria very well indeed.  For Fagan, this was the high point of her performance, in every way.

After dessert, we then got a number of selections from violinist Moshe Hammer, including several of his favourites.  Guy Few again accompanied.  Leslie Fagan returned for one more number, Gershwin's witty waltz song By Strauss.  The standout final number of the night saw Hammer and Few joined by clarinetist James Campbell for Srul Irving Glick's Klezmer's Wedding, a piece originally composed for the Festival back in the 1990s.  It could almost be described as "duelling klezmers" with the increasingly-complex solo lines tossing back and forth between the violin and clarinet, while the piano keeps the rhythmic drive going with a classic two-step accompaniment.  The performance, perhaps best described as fire-eating, brought the house down.

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Saturday night we moved on to the official Gala Opening Concert, with the hall restored to its normal concert seating configuration.  This programme featured the ever-popular Elmer Iseler Singers under their music director Lydia Adams, with the Penderecki Quartet, clarinetist Campbell, double bass Bob Mills, and Guy Few on trumpet this time as well as piano (to say that he is versatile is something of an understatement!)

The concert opened with a lively Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben from Cantata # 147 by J. S. Bach.  The chamber ensemble of string quintet and trumpet played with great vigour to match the high-energy, joyful singing of the chorus.

Following that we had a trio of Mozart's sacred works.  Two Marian hymns formed the bookends of this musical triptych; a jolly Sancta Maria, mater Dei opened the set and an energetic Regina coeli closed off with its endless chains of "Alleluias".  In between these two upbeat pieces, like a jewel nestled on royal velvet, lay a quiet, prayerful Ave verum corpus.  The key to this well-loved motet is to sing it as simply and gently as possible.  The strings put on their sordines and dropped their tone right down, and the choir sang in very much the quiet end of their range.  It was as beautiful and heartfelt a reading of this simple inspiration from the master as one could possibly ask.

The first half closed with Northern Sketches by Srul Irving Glick, another work composed for the Festival back in the 1990s.  Four poems inspired by the northern woods and waters are set for chorus with violin, cello and piano.  Although the opening phrases for instruments have a questing, experimental feel to them, many lines in the subsequent vocal parts drop into timeless, ancient-yet-modern modal harmonies.  The third movement, Butterflies, was a langorous, limpid waltz, and the final movement, Celebration, a vigorous allegro.

After the intermission followed another Festival commission from earlier years, Shaman Songs by Gary Kulesha.  These seven numbers, including one for strings alone, unfolded in a more challenging contemporary idiom (including non-sung vocalizations) which yet captured the feeling and meaning in the poetry.  Since I had never heard either this cycle or the Glick work, I was pleased that the Iseler Singers here continued the Festival's recent practice of reviving commissioned works from earlier years.

Simplicity reigned again in a beautiful arrangement of the famous medieval carol Lo, How a Rose for choir and trumpet.  Guy Few's playing here was as quiet and lyrical as it had been virtuosic earlier in the evening.

We then heard Bud Dant's arrangement of the spiritual Just a Closer Walk With Thee for clarinet, jazz bass, piano and choir.  One of my favourite qualities in a good jazz performance is how even a slow, almost lazy tempo can set my feet and fingers tapping, and this was a great example.

The concert then concluded with a wonderful work by Parry Sound-born composer Eleanor Daley, Salutation to the Dawn.  For this piece, a semi-chorus of three sopranos stepped in front to sing their trio passages which led the choir throughout the piece.  It was a fitting end to a concert which blended the works of classic masters with those of several notable Canadian composers.

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The Sunday night concert was billed as an Opera Gala, and the hall was filled almost to capacity with an audience of eager opera lovers.  A programme list was distributed, but was not strictly followed to the letter.  However, we certainly got full measure, with two dozen or so selections lasting for about 3 hours, and covering many well-known classics of the opera, operetta, and Broadway musical repertoire.   As an added attraction, the five soloists were also joined by the 20 voices of the Elmer Iseler Singers.  The programme was carefully planned for contrast of styles and voices from one number to the next.  Piano accompaniment throughout was provided with style and dash by Guy Few.

I'd love to comment on all the selections, but I would not finish before it was time to start my reviews of the next concerts!  So I will have to stick with a few highlights.  Start with the affable chairman of the proceedings, tenor Mark DuBois, whose dry wit led us easily from one number to the next.  DuBois sang several numbers from the musical/operetta end of the continuum, and was especially fine in the selections from The Phantom of the Opera.

Soprano Leslie Fagan sang with precision and power in all her numbers, making her biggest impact in Sempre libera from La Traviata.  Mezzo-soprano Gabrielle Prata used her versatile, dusky voice to great effect and made the most of her acting opportunities in the Habanera from Carmen, and in Orlofsky's Chacun a son gout from Die Fledermaus.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth patiently suffered the slings and arrows of DuBois' dry wit more than his colleagues (DuBois kept playing the "professional jealousy" card) but sang ardently in tenor arias from Romeo et Juliette and La fille du regiment, as well as characterizing strongly in A Wand'ring Minstrel from The Mikado.  Baritone Bruce Kelly gave us a rousing Drinking Song from Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet, and a heartfelt performance of the one and only German selection of the concert, the Evening Star aria from Tannhauser.

Ainsworth and Kelly also partnered with magnificent results in my personal favourite of the entire programme, the beautiful duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers.

The Elmer Iseler Singers predictably produced beautiful background and interjections, as needed, and sang with all the power one could ask in Verdi's Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore and the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco.  More than this, they triumphed in the impossibly-difficult Humming Chorus from Madam Butterfly, which I think is probably the toughest assignment of anything that we heard in this concert!

All of this and much more besides added up to an uncommonly rewarding operatic anthology, but let us not forget that the cast of performers included several irrepressible jokers.  Sure enough, more comic shenanigans were afoot, already in the first half but more so in the second half.

Right off the bat, there was Mark DuBois starting the wrong selection from Phantom of the Opera, while Leslie Fagan freaked out momentarily ("I thought I was going to have a heart attack!").  Bruce Kelly casually waved a glass of red wine around as he sang the Drinking Song and as casually poured it down the hatch at the end.  Colin Ainsworth, equally casual, flirted with a couple of ladies in the front row in A Wand'ring Minstrel.  And just before the intermission, an actual anvil was unveiled for the Anvil Chorus, and James Campbell was voluntold from his seat in the gallery to play it, alongside DuBois, with a sledgehammer.

And that was just Act One!

(I have to note in passing that there were some "serious" issues with the percussion section here, the tuning of the anvil being suspect, and one of the players failing to cut off in time before throwing in an extra note that was definitely not in the score!)

In Act Two, Gabrielle Prata stole the show with her updated English lyrics and a whole raft of facial expressions and body gestures as Orlofsky.  She also proceeded to go well beyond mere flirtation and into total seductress mode as Carmen, practising her wiles on assorted victims including a page turner, an accompanist and a few audience members, including the one who happened to be seated right behind Guy Few in the stage-side box (I could see it coming, and I don't flummox easily -- although I undoubtedly blushed -- so when she stroked my face I gently captured her hand and kissed it).

Mark DuBois then brought a lady up from the audience to act as his Hanna Glawari while he sang the Merry Widow waltz song and proceeded to waltz with her.

I forget which aria it was but some of the best laughs of the whole evening came when Prata and Fagan kept trying to elbow each other out of the way in a competition for the high notes.

And I'm sure nobody objected to seeing and hearing the anvil-playing team at work again in the encore of the Anvil Chorus which rounded off the evening -- complete with specially-written English words as a tribute to the newly-drafted ex-clarinetist percussion player!

These kinds of comical shenanigans are part and parcel of the fun at the Festival of the Sound, but make no mistake -- the serious side of the music is amply well represented too, and the quality of the performances right across the board on this opening weekend was well up to the high standards which this Festival has always set for itself.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 3: Stand in Line!

It's a sobering thought to realize that the musical A Chorus Line, currently on stage at the Stratford Festival Theatre, is forty-one years old this month. Although many people disliked the film version, it was my first encounter with the show -- and I loved it for the snappiness of the lyrics and the catchy tunes ("One" remained lodged in my mind for weeks).

So I approached this production, my first viewing of the stage version, with a mixture of excitement, nostalgia, and wariness. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the show has not in the least become dated or a period piece. It's still as vibrant, living, and timely as the day it premiered.

As an ensemble, Stratford's cast is uncommonly rewarding. A requirement of the show's book and lyrics is that there be a mix of ages and body types, and yet all have to be able to dance at a high level. This company perfectly met the requirement in every way.

Another requirement is that a round dozen of these skilled dancers and singers have to get cut from the auditions after the first ten minutes of the show, and then do not reappear. This adds up to a very large company of twenty-nine excellent singers and dancers, all working on stage together during those first ten minutes.

Now plunk it all down on the small thrust stage of the Festival Theatre. Director and choreographer Donna Feore certainly has to function as a traffic cop during this opening number, and has achieved miracles by a small but significant expedient. The ramps up to the stage from under the audience seating have been filled in with platforms, which provide working spaces for the "director", Zach, and his assistant, "Larry" (played respectively by Juan Chioran and Stephen Cota). That frees the entire stage space for the dancers, and they certainly needed every inch of it. Feore is a true master of choreography on this unique and tricky stage, and it showed in every minute of the production.

Michael Gianfrancesco's set is simple, but does all that is needed. The back wall of the stage has been removed, and replaced with a series of revolving panels that have black-painted brickwork on one side and mirrors on the other. The panels are framed by steel towers and a steel lighting grid. On either side there are entrances, and performers can also enter and exit between the panels if they are revolved halfway.

The biggest problem of the show is a built-in hazard, and probably unsolvable. Voices of course are amplified, and that's where the trouble comes in. No matter where you stand on the stage of the Festival Theatre, some part of the audience can't see your face, and that makes it much harder to understand what an actor is saying or singing. A number of the songs include sections where the words fly out at a terrific clip -- patter songs, as they used to be called back in the day. In this theatre, it's very difficult to pick up all the words in those rapid sections. Pity, because the lyrics one does hear are both clever and thought-provoking.

One of the difficulties of reviewing a production of A Chorus Line is the problem of how to handle what is emphatically an ensemble show. Nobody "stars". Each character gets his or her few minutes in the spotlight and then supports each of the others in turn.

However, there were a few performances that definitely needed to be highlighted. Alexandra Herzog was hilarious as the tone-deaf Kristine. I've no doubt she's a fine singer, so here we get that always-delightful chance to hear a thorough professional do very badly something that she certainly knows how to do very well! (this is not as easy as it sounds!)

Julia McLellan made a hilarious Val -- sassy and sexy and funny as you could want in the infamous "Dance 10, Looks 3" monologue and song.

Ayrin Mackie threw attitude everywhere she went as Sheila, and then touched our hearts when she finally revealed something of herself with the song "At the Ballet".

Colton Curtis as Mark re-created the awkwardness of puberty very believably in the segment where he described how he thought he had gonorrhea.

There are three emotional high points in the show. Conor Scully as Paul was wonderful in his solo monologue about growing up, working a drag show, and coming to terms with being gay. The moment when he broke and began to weep was powerful indeed -- as was the sudden humanity shown by the hitherto-blunt Zach in reacting to him.

In the next segment, when Cassie (Dayna Tietzen) is confronted by Zach, and they hash out their previous relationship, we got a relative disappointment. Each of them does a fine job with their characters individually, but there was a constant air of awkwardness, almost contrived staginess, about this scene, apart from the awkward situation the two characters find themselves in. I could sense that this is meant to be a pivotal scene in the show but for me it never developed that kind of emotional oomph.

The scene where Paul injured himself and had to be taken to hospital, on the other hand, showed an almost shocking intensity. All the actors dug down very deep inside their characters here as they considered what they would do when they could no longer dance, and the audience became very quiet and focused on the revelation taking place before them.

Coming from that deep moment, the glorious impact of the finale of course is meant to lift everyone out of their seats. It was indeed spectacular. But I still felt a little bit let down overall, and I think it was the failure of the Cassie-Zach scene to really take off that made me feel that way.

In sum, a magnificent achievement on the levels of choreography, staging, and music. On the character front, things were a bit more uneven, although the best work was amazing. Still, for it's many strengths, this is definitely a show that's well worth seeing.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 2 and # 4: Uneasy Lies the Head

Wait a minute!  Stratford Festival 2016 # 2 AND # 4?  

Yes, indeed.  More than this: the two-part presentation entitled Breath of Kings is actually a condensed adaptation and conflation of four of Shakespeare's history plays:  Richard II, Henry IV Parts I & II, and Henry V.

But these four plays do, in effect, tell a single continuous story, with common characters carrying over from one to another.  They also use the same actors and creative team, which is why I am choosing to treat the entire two-part performance as a single entity for review purposes.

These history plays, with a couple of exceptions, have not fared as well with audiences outside of the British Isles.  The history which they dramatize is not familiar to most people in other lands, and yet the plays presume a working background knowledge of the times, places, and people involved.  For this reason, the histories have generally not been as frequently staged at Stratford as many of the Bard's other plays.

This is only the latest of several projects at the Stratford Festival over the years to combine two or more of the history plays in condensed form into a single entity.  This particular project is the brainchild of Graham Abbey, and this world-premiere at Stratford is staged by arrangement with his Groundling Theatre Company in Toronto.

The basic plan is simple enough.  Each of the four original separate plays is condensed into a single act for the purpose of this two-show adaptation.  The first night I saw Breath of Kings: Rebellion which encompasses Richard II and Henry IV Part 1.  The second night I saw Breath of Kings: Redemption which takes in Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V.  One notable exception is the transferring of the scene in the Eastcheap tavern after Falstaff's death from the Henry V act to the Henry IV Part II act.  Since the entire tetralogy is performed by the same company of nineteen performers, this has the advantage of freeing up the actors from the tavern for other parts in the final act.

The key problem with this procedure is that it knocks sizable holes in the historic underpinnings of the plays -- nowhere more so than in the two parts of Henry IV.  Anyone who knows these plays well will probably be able to guess what's coming.  The various scenes involving Falstaff have been left largely intact.  To make room for them, other scenes and characters have either disappeared entirely (Glendower) or been severely abbreviated.

But why not?  The main thread of the story remains, for the most part, clear enough to follow.  In case of any difficulties, the Stratford programme includes family trees which help enormously to clarify who is related to whom and in what degree.  And Falstaff is such a delightful comic rogue that it would be a shame to abbreviate him!

The Tom Patterson Theatre has been reconfigured this year as an arena stage with seating on all four sides.  It makes little difference to the issues of staging a production.  The one hazard of this space, as always, is the loss of sound at either end of a long rectangular hall which was actually built as a curling arena.  Audience members seated along the long sides have a better chance to hear everything said than those at the narrow ends, under the highest part of the arched roof.  The new configuration has made it worse, since actors now have to spend a certain amount of time facing one end or the other of the hall alternately.

And so to the actual productions.  In Breath of Kings: Rebellion, Tom Rooney as Richard II was petulant, temperamental, arbitrary, and just on the verge of turning into a whiny spoiled brat.  "Just on the verge" is an excellent place to play this character of kingship gone sour.  His scene of forced abdication and the surrendering of the symbols of his kingly power was his finest moment, the man finally coming to true maturity late, but not too late.  Graham Abbey was a forceful Bolingbroke, and made a strong case that he was best fitted to wear the crown.  Anusree Roy made a powerful impression as the Duchess of York, pleading for the life of her son.  Geraint Wyn Davies and Carly Street created a touching, nostalgic atmosphere as the two gardeners.

One of the intriguing aspects of this dual production is the casting of a number of male roles with female actors.  It might confuse some people at first glance, but I found it very easy to come to terms with a woman being addressed as "my lord Archbishop" or the like, and from then on it became the norm and thus a non-issue.

The second act brings forward Araya Mengesha in the critical role of Prince Hal, later to be King Henry V.  Mengesha brings plenty of energy to this role, striking perfectly the note that makes us, no less than his father, doubt his suitability for kingship.  He thus doubled the impact of the scene where he promises his father to make good, and offers to wager on single combat with Hotspur.

I've often thought through the years the Geraint Wyn Davies was ideally suited, both temperamentally and vocally, for the role of Sir John Falstaff -- and he amply proved the point here.  His big voice (this is one man whose words never got lost on an audience) and his extrovert style of acting allow him to wear the character of the fat knight, with all his deceptions and self-aggrandizement, like a second skin.  A treasurable portrait.

Johnathon Sousa was a total firebrand as Hotspur, flaring in bursts of temper, striding swiftly about the stage,  dominating every scene in which he appeared, yet always plainly on the end of a self-held rein.  Hotspur's death speech and Prince Henry's funeral tribute to him were emotional high points of the play.

The title of the second play, Breath of Kings: Redemption, plainly refers to Prince Henry's progress towards the throne and into the complete king which he becomes.  The young prince and king-to-be must become the centre of this play, and it was here that Mengesha's performance showed some weakness.  Although he portrayed the right aspects in several key scenes, it was less clear how he developed from the character at the beginning of the play to the character at the end.  We, the audience, need to see and hear this growing, this maturing, not just be given the results of it.

More vocal variety would have helped too.  The "once more unto the breach" speech was given in a hoarse bellow, all at the same volume level.  That might do in real life, but theatre is not meant to be real -- rather, it should be realistic -- and this speech could benefit from some more shaping.  How much this might help was clearly seen when Mengesha later modulated his delivery of the "St. Crispin's Day" speech much more thoughtfully, to excellent effect.

Another dramatic and emotional high point was the deathbed scene of Graham Abbey as Henry IV with Mengesha as his son and heir.  Here, both men became completely believable as human beings, and we had a very rare glimpse of the man inside the public persona from each.

Another point where I would have liked to see a bigger contrast: I wanted to be able to hear and see the hot air hissing out of Falstaff after he is disowned by the new king.  Vocally, Davies moved into a less blustery, less pompous mode, but the physical change that also needed to happen was too subtle -- a major lack in a character whose every moment has to become larger than life.

The recruiting scene of the "scarecrow army" in Gloucestershire was unclear, with lines being tossed off like so many throwaways, and the motivation behind the entire scene didn't come into view.

Set against these relative disappointments were some strong performances indeed.  Kate Hennig's breezy performance as the Hostess of the Tavern, Mistress Quickly, was a delight -- genial and commanding all at once.  Carly Street's iron-willed and diamond-hard Archbishop of York held the stage with confidence and power to spare.

In the second act (the Henry V act), Tom Rooney was a conversational but completely clear one-man Chorus.  Geraint Wyn Davies gave us an effective Captain Fluellen.  Wayne Best wrapped himself in the tattered remains of his dignity and power as the King of France -- majestic and royal, even with little cause to still be so.  Anusree Roy gave a regally dignified performance as his Queen.

Mikaela Davies had her best moments of the two evenings as the Princess Katherine of France, and her French-English speeches were very convincing -- as were those of her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Irene Poole).  Michelle Giroux made a stately, courteous herald Montjoy -- probably the biggest role ever given to a herald in any play!

Last and by no means least, Falstaff's page boy, Davy Gam, was played by a bright-eyed Brent McCready-Branch.  His strong voice and crystal clear diction outran some of his adult colleagues.

Across the two evenings, the understated sets and set pieces designed by Anahita Dehbonehie supported everything that happened without ever drawing focus.  Yannik Larivee's costumes, although not historically accurate (nor even especially detailed), certainly clarified the relationships and social standings of all the characters.  Kimberly Purtell's lighting designs were absolutely critical, in this theatre-in-the-round environment, in helping to create a clear sense of time and place for the various scenes.

The multiple battle and fight scenes were effectively staged, with clever use of lighting effects and slow-motion background fighting during dialogue passages.  The sections of the stage floor which were pulled up and piled at odd angles highlighted the crucial scenes of the Battle of Agincourt in the final act.

The directing team of Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha definitely guided the company well in getting these sometimes-ponderous plays up off the ground, and keeping them moving along.  The bone I have to pick with them lay with the oft-times unmotivated rotating of actors in their places on the stage.  Too often, it became a question of "I have to turn so everyone in the audience can see me" rather than "this character has to turn because he/she needs to...."

In short, then -- plenty of effective work, some truly powerful scenes, mostly positive cuts to the lengthy original scripts, added up to a gripping and involving two nights of theatre.  The various caveats I've noted shouldn't detract from the considerable overall strengths of these productions.

Perhaps the real problem in the end lies with the size and shape of the theatre itself.  Having taken the step of going to a four-sided seating configuration, perhaps Stratford now needs to pull the new end seating closer to the opposite end seats, and so reduce the playing area to a more workable size.