Monday, 18 December 2017

The Greatest Christmas Story of All

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Diverse Christmas Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 3 December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflict of Interest Alert:  Robert Stephen is my nephew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Pilgrimage to the Celestial City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 21 October 2017

The Irreplaceable Maureen Forrester: A Personal Tribute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 7: Sombre Yet Bright Romeo and Juliet

My last Stratford outing of the season -- very nearly over now -- was to see Scott Wentworth's production of Romeo and Juliet.  Some of my regular readers may be surprised to read that I have never seen the play on stage before.  Two film versions, yes, and numerous performances of Prokofiev's stunningly dramatic ballet version -- but not the original play, although I am familiar with the text.

I found this production a bit of a mixed bag.  The sombre darkness of the setting, costumes, and the play as a whole was yet relieved by some powerful performances that lit up the stage.  It's just a pity that the play as a whole didn't reach the level of its brightest lights.

For this production, the artistic team returned to the original classic configuration of Tanya Moiseiwitsch's Festival Theatre stage, all in plain dark wood as in days of yore.  Against this background, Christina Poddubiuk's black costumes (with gold trimming for the men and white highlights for the women) conspired to deepen the prevailing gloom, already apt to appear in a performance of such a tragedy.

The exceptions were notable: a pale blue dress for Juliet, a lighter white and beige for the Nurse, and variations on dull red with gold trimming for the Prince and his kinsmen, Mercutio and Paris.  All were costumed in a manner reminiscent of Cavalier or Stuart style.

Right at the outset, Sarah Dodd as the Chorus presented her opening speech in a pleasantly conversational tone (i.e., not portentous or "dramatic"), but she spoke so quietly that many of us in the rear rows had trouble hearing her.  

The spoken "Chorus" was accompanied at each entrance by a very effective counterpoint, a kind of visual chorus of four women dressed in black with hair wrapped in white turbans, each carrying an orb of lights in her hands.  These four grouped around the perimeter of the stage, or moved to other positions, not only for the Chorus but also for other key dramatic moments, especially the final scene in the vault after the deaths of Romeo and Juliet.

In the presentation of characters, this production was a bit uneven.  Juan Chioran as the Prince was certainly strong, but a bit too petulant in some moments.  Petulance was the absolute property of the Capulets, Randy Hughson and Marian Adler.  The script takes them in that direction, of course, but Hughson and Adler made themselves so thoroughly unpleasant that I had no sympathy to spare for them in the final scene.  

The roles of the Montagues are smaller, but even so I found both Jim Codrington and Kim Horsman to be more believable people than their opposite numbers, the Capulets.  What I question was the decision (directorial?) to play all four parents as elderly people suffering from mobility issues.  It almost looked as if both families had put off having children until they were in their 40s, yet Lady Capulet explicitly affirms that she was wedded and bedded at the same age as Juliet (14).  This would suggest that her biological age in the story ought not to be any higher than 28-30!

Among the younger male characters, Evan Buliung stood out for his performance as Mercutio.  The perpetual leer on his face was the perfect visual equivalent to speeches crammed with sexual metaphors, innuendoes, and outright indecencies -- in a word, raunch.  The best part of his work was a whole range of gestures to underline his meanings, gestures which largely avoided the expected or customary but still got the message across.  This aspect of his physical performance was best displayed in the Queen Mab speech.  A very imaginative approach.

Zlatomir Moldovanski's powerful Tybalt dominated the stage, but I wanted more variety of expression, both facially and vocally.  He was a bit monotonous, although unquestionably energetic.  All one level or all one note, so to speak.

Wayne Best gave a fire-eating performance as Friar Laurence, his voice and manner telegraphing nothing of the conventional "man-of-God" one expects to see.  If anything, his Friar was more than a little too secular in manner.

Seana McKenna's Nurse was unquestionably old, rattling amiably through the same story she'd just told with no apparent inkling that she said the exact same thing just moments earlier.  Her expressive face, though, clearly betrayed the character's different shades of feeling even as that cheerful voice prattled away nonstop.  Excellent work, and a real bright light in the show.

As, for different reasons, was Juliet.  Sara Farb had no trouble sounding the tragic depths of the character in the final scenes, but it was her approach to the earlier parts of the play that worked so well for me.  Like many another fourteen year old, she could be totally mature one moment only to fly into a childish tantrum the next.  And fly off the handle she did, several times.  This was a truly adolescent Juliet, all too obviously living out the internal hormonal battles attendant on the transition from childhood to adulthood.  When she completed that journey, in the last minutes, the impact on the audience was indescribable and unmistakable.

Romeo has to go through a similar journey, and Antoine Yared was less effective than Farb only in the sense that his emotional states were painted in blazing primary colours where hers used more diversity of subtler shades.  As a result his shifts in feeling were sometimes a little more abrupt than one might ideally like to see.  One of his highlights was the balcony scene, in which he spent long moments standing in centre stage, top level, with his back to the house, looking up at Juliet as he spoke to her or listened to her.  It takes a good actor to pull off that scene with his face invisible to the audience for such long stretches.

The duel scenes were all fought at high voltage, and with plenty of fast movement around the stage, including up and down the steps.  They were among the production's most effective moments.

Among the least effective, for me, were some of the stylized, ritualistic scenes involving the visual chorus and the walking ghosts of the dead Mercutio and Tybalt.  Once or twice I caught myself thinking, "Well, isn't that clever?"  That's not really the effect desired, I'm sure.

Perhaps, then, not a truly great Romeo and Juliet -- but still a very good one, and with some truly effective performances and a heart-tugging conclusion.  

Stratford Festival 2017 # 6: Madness is the True Sanity

Back in the 1960s, the Stratford Festival performed a number of twentieth-century plays by European playwrights, in English translation.  In more recent years, this particular strain of theatre has become rare to the point of being an endangered species on Stratford's stages.  So this season's production of David Edney's new English translation of Jean Giraudoux's La Folle de Chaillot ("The Madwoman of Chaillot") is a welcome addition to the Festival's repertoire.

It's timely, too -- so timely that it's hard to believe it hasn't been staged more often of late.

And for me, there's a personal resonance.  I had an opportunity to appear in a high school production of the play back in 1972, and passed for personal reasons -- there was just too damn much going on in my life that year!  But I did go to see the show, and enjoyed very much watching a number of friends on stage in this play.

Since The Madwoman is such a rare bird, a quick synopsis is not out of place.  A Prospector discovers that Paris is sitting on a gigantic pool of oil, and conspires in a café with a President and a Baron to destroy Paris and get at the black gold.  

Their plottings are overheard by various delightful and eccentric denizens of the neighbourhood of Chaillot, most prominently the Countess Aurelie (Seana McKenna) who passes the time of day in the café daily.  Although Aurelie's own eccentricities are so marked that she is called The Madwoman of Chaillot, she is actually no fool.  She works out a plot to dispose of the conspirators without delay.  There's a hilarious mad tea party/mock trial, and the play ends with Paris returning to life after the Prospector, President, Baron, and the rest are safely locked inside a one-way secret passage in Aurelie's cellar.

No getting around it: this play is not notably realistic.  Instead, for all its comical moments, it hovers somewhere between the worlds of fable and allegory -- and this places it in the same general field as another European play staged at Stratford way back in 1981, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit.  One major similarity of these two otherwise dissimilar moral tales is the use of occupations or characteristics rather than names to identify the characters -- over half of the characters in The Madwoman are labelled as The Street Singer, The Lifeguard, The Sewer Worker, and so on.

Now, although this all sounds batty beyond words when set down in black and white, the actual play is a much more gently satirical creation.  Its impact depends completely on being (for the most part) underplayed.  It most emphatically is not a farce, and that style mustn't creep in anywhere.  Well, except for a few very brief moments.  The best productions of this play will move with a lyrical, almost musical rhythm through the multiple intertwining episodes, especially in the first act.

Director Donna Feore has orchestrated a delightful team effort which understands the stylistic needs of the piece and, for the most part, achieves them.  Her experience on the Festival stage shows clearly in her effective use of the Tom Patterson's oblong arena stage, with few if any of the characters getting trapped into twisting around in circles, trying to face everyone at once.  Also, and just as unmistakable, is the gently musical feel of the text in so many scenes, a sensation which clearly reflects Feore's long experience of directing musicals.

Designer Teresa Przybylski's first act café set uses a subtle device to suggest the overhanging trees which shade all the best sidewalk cafés in Paris.  The space above the stage is hung with interlacing curved strips of lights, suggesting the strings of lights hanging in the tree branches.  In the second act, Countess Aurelie's cellar is stuffed to the brim with all kinds of antiquated furnishings, piled-up treasures, and odds and ends of all kinds.  The property manager was still busy enumerating all the pieces on a checklist as we took our seats for the second act!  Costumes varied from the proper suits for the business characters to such eccentricities as Gabrielle's vast hooped skirt, the Lifeguard's red and orange striped bodysuit, the Prospector's swirling cloak, and Josephine's regal purple dress and hat.  Kimberley Purtell's lighting designs were simple and effective, with a sickly reddish special in the offstage exit area for the magic cellar passage.

The most unmusical part of the play is the opening scene in which the President and the Baron meet, plan to set up their new corporation, and then encounter the Prospector who tells them that Paris is sitting on top of a giant pool of oil, ripe for the drilling.  This portion of the text is, no surprise, the most businesslike and prosaic of all.  Ben Carlson's signature breezy style of speech suited the casual rudeness of the President to perfection, while David Collins developed a nice hint of hesitation and need to be persuaded as the Baron.  The big weak link here was Wayne Best, whose performance as the Prospector was laced with over-the-top diction and farcical gestures and mannerisms.  It was another one of those characterizations that's funny at first and quickly becomes boring because it's so predictable.

As this plot gradually develops, the stage as gradually fills in with the multiple, diverse, quirky personalities of the Parisian street scene as envisaged by Giraudoux.  Comic highlights here, and not over the top, were the street singer of Mike Nadajewski (who only recalls the first phrase of his song, "La belle polonaise") and Gareth Potter as the by-the-book Lifeguard.  On a more human level, I was persuaded to love the simplicity of Irma, the Kitchen Girl (Mikaela Davies) and Florette, The Deaf Signer (Elizabeth Morris).

(By the way, that last is not a misprint for "Deaf Singer."  This is the earliest play I have yet encountered which includes sign language as part of the text of the play, with other characters interpreting aloud Florette's signing.  The original English translation of 1948 by Maurice Valency referred to the character as "the Deaf Mute.")

Add in a Juggler, a Flower Seller, a Shoelace Peddler, a Sewer Worker, a Ragman, a Doctor, and you can begin to see why a character identified as "The Eccentric" can pass through almost unremarked!

Michael Spencer-Davis gives a finely judged performance as Martial, the Waiter, who acts as a kind of master of ceremonies throughout the café scene -- breezy and understated.

The link connecting these dissimilar worlds is provided by Pierre (Antoine Yared), a young man who was hired by the President to blow up a building but didn't carry through his mission.  Instead, out of fear, he leaped into the river to drown himself, only to be rescued by the Lifeguard.

One of Seana McKenna's finest moments in the whole play is the lengthy speech in which Aurelie describes her morning routine, to show Pierre how beautiful life is.  She succeeds in persuading him to consider living, albeit still doubtful, but then he meets Irma and that seals the deal.  Yared was truly convincing in his wish to die, but allowed himself to thaw out by degrees under Aurelie's concern and her depiction of the beauty of life.

Seana McKenna gave another of her many outstanding performances as Aurelie.  Everything about this character, from her speech to her appearance to her movements, has to telegraph gentility and subtlety of mind.  McKenna clearly understood this, and more besides.

Earlier on, the Ragman has appeared as but one of the cast of eccentrics, but it's at this point in the play that he assumes major stature.  Scott Wentworth stepped easily and naturally into the role of the official spokesperson, persuading the others that they must explain to Aurelie exactly what danger her beloved Paris faces.

The final scene of the act, where Aurelie issues instructions to everyone, was played by McKenna with just the right tone of gentility underlain by an unquestioning assurance that she would be obeyed.

The second act introduces three more characters -- Aurelie's fellow madwomen.  Kim Horsman was a forceful, acidic Constance.  Marion Adler portrayed a querulous and uncertain Gabrielle.  And Yanna McIntosh, in a rare but rewarding foray into comedy, played the ethereal and whimsical Josephine.  The four proceed to hold a kind of "mock court trial" for the President and his associates, with the Ragman called upon to stand in for the defendants and Josephine acting as the judge.  Wentworth was especially funny here, glorying in his alter ego's own evil schemes to control all the world's money.

More poetic was the scene where Pierre finds Aurelie mistaking him for her long-lost lover, Adolphe Bertaut.  Is this just a fantasy?  Or is it a dream?  Or a hallucination?  We aren't told, and don't really need to know, since both McKenna and Yared struck the note of gentle irony tinged with regret that this moment demands.

This production succeeded beautifully in transporting us to the dream-like wonders of Paris before World War Two (the play was first staged in 1944).  Not the real Paris, but Paris as it may never have actually been.  It's the idea of Paris that matters here, the ideal city of light, of laughter, of love.   It's no accident that the stage reached it's most brilliantly lit state in the final moments, after the "villains" were securely locked away, when various characters rushed in to report that the sun was shining again, people were smiling, and the birds were flying once more.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Toronto Symphony 2017-18 # 2: Life After Death

This week's concerts at Roy Thomson Hall have been highlighted by one of the few great masterpieces for choir and orchestra from the nineteenth century which has secured a continuing place in the repertoire right to the present day: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 ("A German Requiem") by Johannes Brahms.

Ein Deutsches Requiem has been a favourite of mine ever since I was young.  In fact, a recording of it was one of the very first records I ever bought for myself, with a Christmas cheque from my aunt in Regina providing the means.  Even now, I have four recordings in my collection and hardly a month goes by that I don't pull out one of them for a listen.  I also had the privilege of singing it under Andrew Davis during my one season in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, in the fall of 1977.

This was the work whose success in 1858 definitively placed Brahms on the centre stage of the musical world that he was destined to occupy for four more decades.

The composer's use of the word "Requiem" tips us off right away that this is a work related to death and loss.  But the word is also misleading since this is in no sense an intercession for the soul of the deceased, such as we find in the Latin Requiem Mass of the Roman Catholic Church.  Brahms, through his choice of German texts from the Lutheran Bible, instead highlighted his concern for the living who remain behind.  It was aptly said by Brahms himself that he wished he could remove the word "German" and substitute "Human."

Therein lies the key clue.  Brahms was most definitely not a religious man, being perhaps best described by the words "agnostic" and "humanist."  And when we turn to his carefully selected texts, we find no liturgical purpose or intent, but a litany of consolation and comfort.  There's no doubt that the completed work represents a heartfelt response by the composer to the pain of loss, and to the undoubted power and beauty of the language.

Those characteristics clearly informed Saturday night's performance.  Under Maestro Peter Oundjian's direction, the music grew with undoubted power and beauty, but also with a classical poise and restraint that are entirely appropriate with Brahms.  Come to think of it, that statement could also describe last week's equally powerful and poised reading of the same composer's D minor piano concerto (read about that concert here: In Honour of Glenn).

Oundjian's reading was marked by careful and neatly judged shifts of tempo between the different sections of movements.  His interpretation was also notable for the careful balancing of the different parts of the orchestra.  In the first movement, the wind lines emerged with a delicacy and beauty that were admirable.  In the second movement's stark processional, the trombones led the ascent to the climax without in any way overpowering their colleagues.  The long pedal point under the fugue of the third movement was simply present, audible, but not in any way loud until the final few bars.  And so on. 

Another key point is the use of the organ.  The score is simply marked "organ ad libitum" -- in other words, use your own judgement as to when and how much to use the organ!  This is actually a fairly common indication in choral scores of the period, since these were often performed in churches. 

Many years ago, then-Music Director Gunther Herbig led a performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem in which the organ was very much present and noticeable at many points in the score.  Oundjian's approach was different, and very much in keeping with his overall sense of the work.  The organ was certainly in use, but in its quieter registers, so that as often as not it provided a useful support or underpinning without drawing attention to itself.  Only in a couple of climactic passages -- notably the endings of the third and sixth movements -- did the rich bass pedal tones truly become audible.

The same quality of restraint and poise informed all of the singing as well.  The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, in fine fettle as always, sang clearly and musically but without much resort to the two extreme ends of the dynamic range.  Thus, when the choir did go very quiet or very loud the extra intensity was easily felt.

So, too, with the two soloists.  Baritone Russell Braun gave a near-ideal performance of the baritone solos in the third and sixth movements.  His singing had more the feel of a lieder performance than of a concert.  This more inward style of singing was exactly in tune with the sensibility of the entire performance.

Erin Wall gave a lovely performance of the soprano solo in the fifth movement.  Ideally, though, this should be sung by a lighter-weight soprano.  Wall's voice is undoubtedly pure and beautiful, but the high-arched vocal lines call for a gently soaring effect.  When singing those high passages, Wall was apt to become stentorian in contrast to the work of all her colleagues.

Really, though, every moment of this performance was touched with a sense that the music had been carefully and deeply thought through.  It made for an uncommonly rewarding concert that, like all the best live performances, simply didn't last long enough.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Toronto Symphony 2017-18 # 1: In Honour of Glenn

On Friday I took in my first Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert of the season, a unique and impressive tribute to Glenn Gould.

The first work on the programme was a commissioned work given its world premiere, a work written in honour of Glenn by Kelly-Marie Murphy, one of the leading Canadian composers of the last two decades.  This was followed by the original chamber scoring of Wagner's Siegfried-Idyll, a work which Gould recorded in the final year of his life as he moved towards conducting as his new form of musical expression.

After the intermission, the Brahms Piano Concerto # 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, the work over which Gould and Leonard Bernstein so famously disagreed back in the day.  This was played by Canadian piano star Jan Lisiecki, and the entire programme was conducted by Peter Oundjian.

A little unusually, the concert also had a host: renowned Canadian actor Colm Feore.  Undoubtedly Feore was invited for this event because of one of his most famous and notable screen appearances, in Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. 

Murphy's work had what I consider a deliberately quirky title:  Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark.  It was inspired by a radio documentary in which Gould described a long drive to northern Ontario, and the intermittent appearance of relay radio stations on which he heard Clark's current hit, Who Am I?  Murphy's work began with a slower, questing section of uncertain harmonies which reflected that aspect of Gould's diverse mind, and then leaped into a much more energetic main portion, loaded with jazzy syncopations and cross-rhythms (the time signatures on this score must have been a sight!).  I personally enjoyed it very much, since I always like highly rhythmic music which reflects quirky imagination.  This work captured that very definite quality from both the composer and her subject.

The Wagner was treated to a gentle, reflective performance -- much as I imagine it would have been played at its famous premiere, with the musicians standing in the hall of Wagner's home.  In such a large space as Roy Thomson Hall, such a small ensemble inevitably sounds a bit more distant but all the music still came through clearly.  It's not often that the orchestra will perform such a small-scale work as part of a mainstage programme, but it was a real delight to the ear.

After the intermission, Feore introduced the concerto by giving us the famous Leonard Bernstein speech from New York played on the sound system.  The performance which had then followed back in 1962 had taken the entire first movement at a far slower tempo than normally heard.  

In actual fact, there is no clear indication of tempo.  The score simply states maestoso (majestically) which is not really a tempo.  What this does indicate, of course, is the character of the music.  Too fast and it will become playful.  Too slow and it will become funereal.  Among recorded performances, where playing times can be checked, there's actually a fairly wide range of timings for this movement.

Oundjian and Lisiecki opted for a tempo which was on the slower side of the average, paying due heed to the maestoso direction, but not ponderous.  What was perhaps more unusual was that this original tempo remained the centrepoint around which the entire movement revolved.  Many performers have a tendency to get faster as they go.

This interpretation of maestoso definitely worked in one most critical respect.  Brahms builds in tempo variations by subdividing his basic 6/4 beat into multiple shorter beats, and in particular triplet groups of notes in short values.  In a faster performance, many of these high-speed triplet passages become blurry.  The absolute clarity of every note from start to finish in the first movement was a key feature of this performance.

So too was the use of the widest possible range of dynamics.  Right from the outset, Oundjian actually observed the dynamic indication of forte or mezzo forte, with only the timpani rolls occasionally building up to fortissimo, "growing thunderously nearer" as Sir Donald Tovey so famously put it.  When Lisiecki entered with that almost mournful theme in parallel sixths this, too, was played gently. 

And so it went.  Quiet passages were truly quiet -- something that can't often be said in this concerto.  On the other end, the music never became truly thunderous until the enormous climax at the end of the development, leading into the recapitulation and the almost shocking appearance of the opening theme on the piano in E major -- Lisiecki's first truly big moment.  The final coda whipped up the highest level of excitement, power, punch, and volume without ever abandoning the basic tempo.  This was one of the very few times I have felt moved to join in applause after the first movement of a concerto, and my tribute was as much to the conductor as to the soloist.

The slow movement began very quietly and gently, and here the soloist's carefully-judged use of rubato reminded me of his playing of Chopin, a central composer of the piano repertoire and of Lisiecki's repertoire in particular.  The music built up unerringly to the climactic passage, which recalled the majestic quality of the first movement.  The ending died away at the quietest possible dynamic level.

Lisiecki instantly launched into the finale, again at a speed a little more moderate than sometimes heard.  And again, the slight slowing was all gain.  Although the piano passage work was again utterly clear, the advantage of the speed showed best in the orchestral fugato episode in the middle, with crisp and precise playing on each entry of the fugal version of the theme.  Again the final coda was judged to near perfection, setting the seal on an unusually clear and well-thought-out performance of Brahms' early masterpiece.

The instant standing ovation and cheers for the soloist were no surprise.  His encore, however, was a surprise -- and yet absolutely fitting in the context of a Glenn Gould tribute.  Lisiecki played the Aria from the Goldberg Variations by Bach -- that famous work with which Gould both began and ended his recording career.  It certainly wasn't a Gould-style performance.  Lisiecki's tempo was a little more wayward, in a Chopinesque kind of way.  I could imagine the Aria being played like this in the middle of the nineteenth century!  But the gentle, quiet ending set the perfect seal on the entire programme, reminding us all of the great musician to whom this performance was dedicated.