Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Shaw Festival 2017 # 2: How Long, O Lord?

Trying to define greatness in a playscript is a fraught effort, to put it mildly.  But I'll take a kick at the can anyway.  For me, the truly great play is one which can be staged in a wide variety of ways without doing any violence to the underlying meanings of the text.  That is, of course, in addition to the numerous directorial concepts which end up swearing at the text -- and the great play can survive even those and emerge with its reputation largely intact.  Also, the great play is one in which each production can find new points of emphasis that cause you to rethink the nature of the script every time you see it staged.

Judged by those standards, Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan is undeniably a great play.  And this season's production at the Shaw Festival, helmed by new Artistic Director Tim Carroll, definitely found new and different points to emphasize in the script, and unusual approaches to many of the characters.  Yet the truly powerful and vividly performed Saint Joan that I keep hoping to see eluded this cast and creative team, too.  How long, O Lord?  (For those not familiar, that is the final line of the play.)

The first and biggest challenge in staging Saint Joan is to avoid turning it into a historical pageant, safely and comfortably removed from the present day, in which characters take it in turns to "stand and deliver" their eloquent points of view.  It's an easy trap to fall into, particularly if the director can see no further than the play's historical roots, abetted by Shaw's sometimes all-too-wordy speeches.

To speak frankly, Saint Joan is a play which stretches to truly Shakespearean lengths.  For this production, clever surgery has detached the odd phrase, aside, diversion, or tag line, in many spots so that the script is brought down to a more manageable size without impairing any of its essential character or meaning. 

I understand that Tim Carroll's innovative approach to staging the play has provoked considerable comment (to put it politely).  Personally, I like it very much precisely because his staging doesn't distance us from the play, nor does it contradict the meaning of the play in distracting ways.

Indeed, Judith Bowden's black box set with mirrored rear wall and lighted white cubic forms ascending and descending in different scenes reminded me of nothing quite so much as the similar kind of scenic minimalism often seen in the National Ballet's recent productions of modern ballet works.

The characters are also costumed in more-or-less contemporary clothes of the simplest possible design, in neutral greys, browns, and blacks, which equally serve the function of taking our minds off costumes and bringing us back to what the characters are saying and doing rather than how gorgeous or spectacular they look.

With the first scene of the play, we quickly come face to face with Tim Carroll's principal directing style in this show.  Robert de Baudricourt, the commander of the castle at Vaucouleurs, appears in the first scene.  In Shaw's copious stage directions, and in every other production I've seen, he's a loud, angry, aggressive bully.  But Carroll and actor Allan Louis have taken a different approach.  This Robert de Baudricourt is a very self-contained man; his bullying is entirely verbal, never physical, and much more understated.

As a result, the whole first scene really hangs fire, being far too conversational and easygoing in tone to launch the epic journey on which we should be taken.  Only as we get near the end of the scene does Louis wind up to a sufficient pitch of temper to convince us that Robert's conversion to Joan's cause is at all surprising.

More unconventional character readings lie ahead.  La Tremouille, who normally would pose an actual physical threat in his bullying of the Dauphin in Scene 2, here becomes another cutting wordsmith -- and cutting is the right word for him as portrayed by Jonathan Tan.  In previous seasons, Tan has been typecast at the Shaw as a whole series of wildly hyperactive characters, in roles requiring him to speak at 100 syllables per second.  The disciplined vocal outrage and stone-cold scorn of his La Tremouille is a refreshing change of pace from him.

A similar new look has occurred with Wade Bogert O'Brien, who has been trapped year after year in the roles of the pleasant-but-vacuous young Englishman, often a younger member of a noble family, who can be found littering the stage in virtually every play produced in England between 1860 and 1950.  His assumption of the role of the Dauphin lies in a completely different and much more rewarding league altogether.  Where many actors play the Dauphin as a man of childish immaturity, sulking and whining all over the palace, O'Brien has had the insight to realize that this is how his courtiers view him, but does not have to be how we view him.  This Dauphin maintains an adult level of dignity even as his courtiers and the Archbishop rake him over the coals time and again.  A refreshing and very believable choice.

The suave and sophisticated man of the world appears in the guise of the Archbishop of Rheims, played by Benedict Campbell.  Dignity and grandeur so often seen in this character are here laid aside in favour of a persuasive, modulated voice and smooth manners.

The role of Dunois is a nasty trap for an actor.  The character is given a huge buildup by others as a charismatic man of war when he's not on stage, but gets only two short scenes to impress us with how well he can live up to the advance billing.  Gray Powell manages the role sufficiently, but makes less of an impression than one might hope.  Simply put, Joan acts him right off the stage.

To describe Tom McCamus as the Earl of Warwick, only the word "urbane" will do.  The polished irony of the man is brought more fully alive than in any other production I have seen.

In his two scenes, Karl Ang makes a very good Chaplain, a hard-line nationalist who sees everything in stark black and white, yet somehow never spills over into childish pouting.

The terror of the trial is aptly expressed by the cold face and voice of Graeme Somerville as the Bishop of Beauvais, while Jim Mezon's Inquisitor is unexpectedly and uncommonly friendly, cajoling Joan rather than threatening her.  Somerville played his character so quietly and coldly that his words kept disappearing under the threshold of audibility, a problem shared by no other character in the performance.

So far so good, but there will be no play at all without the right person in the central and title role.  As Saint Joan is an acknowledged masterpiece of theatre, so the role of Joan is a recognized testing ground for a leading actress.  In order for the play to work, she must create before our eyes and ears the young girl whose force of character could set the world on fire.

Even by the standards of the greats who have played the role before her, Sara Topham definitely takes the part into that territory.  Her energy, clarity of voice, and forceful assertive character are all there, right from the get-go.  Why, then, was I left at the final curtain with the deflated feeling that the play as a whole had slightly missed the mark?

In the end, Topham's strong and vivid performance is somewhat undercut by the relatively low-key staging of the first two scenes.  Like an ancient tragedy, this tale begins in medias res and has to hit the floor running.  I've come to the conclusion that Topham's Joan certainly was headed that way, but some of her scene partners were a bit too much of the casual stroller by comparison -- and kept pulling her back by their choice to play the scenes more quietly.  It's difficult for Joan to get fired up all the way when some of the obstacles she faces won't give her a tough argument!

It's a question of striking a better directorial balance between the refreshing "new look" which Tim Carroll has brought to the text of the play and the need for enough dramatic fire to carry us through those first two scenes.

But having said that, I feel that this is a Saint Joan that is well worth seeing for its many fine qualities.  The mythical "perfect performance" still lies somewhere ahead of our time, but this production has landed in the ball park, and the uncommon clarity of the performances across the board stand the play in good stead.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Shaw Festival 2017 # 1: Doing the Lambeth Walk

Once again, as several times before in my theatre-going, I find myself resorting to the image of a cook whipping up a souffle -- light, airy, fluffy, and tasty as can be.  But if anything goes wrong, the souffle will collapse and come out of the oven with all the fluff of a solid lump of dough.

Me and My Girl, the featured musical show on the Shaw Festival's largest stage, is a souffle.  It contains no deep moral lessons to speak of.  It's a show in which the book serves only as a framework to get us from one song and dance to the next, albeit the book does so very entertainingly.  And it's the kind of show that will land with the dull thud of a flop if it's taken too seriously.

That fate -- the collapse of the souffle -- certainly doesn't overtake this production!

The show, as we now see it, is actually a multi-layered hybrid.  The original London production of 1937, with music by Noel Gay and book and lyrics by Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber became a hit after the BBC broadcast a segment of the show which included a catchy dance tune, The Lambeth Walk.  In no time, dance steps were invented to go with the song and the craze swept London and all the rest of the country too.  Throughout its original London run the show kept getting adjusted, with songs added and dropped here and there.

In the early 1980s, Stephen Fry wrote a new and stronger book to go with the original music, keeping the original formula of the cockney who unexpectedly inherits a peerage and adding some more songs by Noel Gay from other shows (most notably Leaning on a Lamp Post).  This new version opened in London in 1985 and ran there for eight years, plus a three-year run on Broadway and a touring company around North America which starred Tim Curry.

This tells you something really important about the show.  It's a thoroughly British entertainment, and experts often state that such material doesn't travel well.  But Me and My Girl is very much the exception to that particular "rule."

I saw that London production, and was thoroughly captivated by it.  The score has a number of songs that are all first-class earworms, with The Lambeth Walk foremost among them.  I heard the song during that one performance, and then didn't hear it again for over a quarter of a century -- but I was humming the catchy tune to myself as I walked into the theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake the other night!  (All my further comments are now related to the current version and production.)

The key challenge in presenting this musical is the requirement for not one, not even the conventional two, but three leading couples.  And this is where the strong ensemble of the Shaw Festival really pays off.  There's not a single weak link among the six leads, and around them is gathered a supporting cast of first-rate singer-dancer-actors.

As Bill Snibson, the cockney who unexpectedly gets elevated to the peerage as the Earl of Hareford (sic), Michael Therriault gave a gymnastically athletic performance.  The numerous complex stunts and pratfalls gave plenty of energy to his scenes.  Vocally, both his singing and speaking voice stuck firmly to the cockney accent at all times.

Sally Smith, his equally cockney girlfriend, was played with plenty of fire and go by Kristi Frank.  Her accent didn't stick quite as firmly as one would like in her singing, but she definitely has a way with a slow ballad, and a beautiful singing voice to boot.

The young aristocrats of the story, the Honourable Gerald Bolingbroke and Lady Jacqueline Carstone, were played by Kyle Blair and Elodie Gillett as two sides of the same coin.  As so often in stories dating from this period, these children of a thousand earls were shallow and self-centred.  It was particularly intriguing to watch as Gillett, who I've seen playing romantic heroines before, turned into a self-assured spoiled brat of an anti-heroine.  With both of these actors, you can take the quality of both singing and dancing as a given, but even they excelled themselves in the vigorous tap-dance that opens Act II.

Last and by no means least, Sharry Flett as the Duchess of Dene and Ric Reid as Sir John Tremayne.  At the outset, these two appear to be in contention over the body and soul of Bill Snibson, with the Duchess determined to bring him up to standard as a nobleman and Sir John equally determined to push him out the door.

In a series of beautifully nuanced scenes, these two gradually moved towards each other's point of view, at the same time as they gradually let us see that they had been secretly in love for a long time.  Both also did splendid vocal work in their singing numbers.  Flett in particular brought down the house with hilarious backup from the men of the ensemble in the stately march-like anthem of Song of Hareford.  I'm not going to say how it was done -- this number all by itself makes the show a total must-see!

Aside from the three leading couples, Jay Turvey gave a fussy, preening performance (and several encores) of his song about The Family Solicitor -- one of the many running gags in the show.

Jeremiah Sparks generated laughs as the elderly Sir Jasper Tring, complete with antique ear-trumpet to supplement his hearing.  He also did a lovely job of his unexpected little dance number.

Neil Barclay was properly pompous and dignified as the butler, Hethersett.  He has few lines in the show, but every one of them was a perfectly timed comic payoff.

Although there are a number of other named characters, they're all basically interchangeable and might just as well be considered ensemble.  Every one, big and small, was presented with care.

Choreographer Parker Esse's ensemble dance numbers, and there are many, were all executed with verve and energy to spare, effectively creating much of the feeling of a joyful romp which leaves the theatre with everyone at the show's conclusion.

Stage director Ashlie Corcoran made effective use of the entire stage in the Festival Theatre, while Drew Facey's minimalist revolving set provided all kinds of useful acting areas without overwhelming the performance.

If I had a bone to pick anywhere (and it's only a small one), it would be with the musical direction.  Paul Sportelli undoubtedly prepared and led a high-energy, musically accomplished performance throughout the show.  What got a bit tedious, for me, was how many of the songs (all similar in musical structure) were done at what seemed to be the exact identical tempo.  I don't think that happened in the London production of 30 years ago, and this performance would be well served by building in a little more variety of the musical pacing.

But that's a detail.  The sum total of this show is far greater than the individual parts would suggest, excellent as they are.  It's one of the most lively, entertaining musicals I've seen on stage in many a year.  Don't hesitate.  Go!  See it!  I think I can guarantee that you, too, will walk out of the theatre singing The Lambeth Walk at the end of the evening.   Me and My Girl continues at the Shaw Festival until October 15.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 10: The Grand Finale and Tea.

Now I'm really running late, over a week behind schedule.  I'm sure all my fellow FOTS fans are wondering where I got to!  Then on Monday, the sun almost went out, and I figured it was a warning to get back on track -- but it still took 2 more days for me to get down to doing it.

Each year, the Festival of the Sound comes up with a new and different way to mark the end of the three-week Festival.  It's usually something big, bold and spectacular, yet always musical as befits one of the premier music festivals of the country.  This year, the anchor of the final grand concert was the National Academy Orchestra under the direction of Boris Brott, and the theme of the programme was "Last Night of the Proms."

Right away, the mind fills with visions of a jam-packed Royal Albert Hall with thousands of patriotic English men and women (and children) singing along at the top of their lungs while waving flags by the thousand.  Well, it wasn't quite that spectacular, but still a rousing and enjoyable end to a splendid summer festival.

By tradition, the patriotic singalong always comes in the second half, but the first half is always a more serious programme with a major centrepiece work. This concert, true to tradition, opened with a lively performance of Felix Mendelssohn's third symphony, the Scottish Symphony.  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.  Well, I guess as a descendant of many generations of proud Scots, both Highland and Lowland, it's natural for me to feel that way.  But along with that emotional link comes a boundless admiration for the skill with which Mendelssohn stated and developed his musical ideas, the orchestration in which he clothed them, and the overall result which perfectly illustrates the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. 

The orchestra played the work with tremendous energy, the sound filling the hall to such an extent that one could easily have believed there were sixty players instead of less than thirty.  I especially admired the crisp articulation from the strings.  Mendelssohn loved to entrust melodic material to his winds and brass while tasking his strings with endless chains of tremolando and arpeggio passages to fill in his harmonies.  It gives the music a lift and lightness but only -- and this is key -- if all the string players are right on point with each other.  Here, they certainly were, amply proven by the immense power and precision of the surging waves at the end of the first movement.

In the scherzo, the laughing vivace playing of the high-speed clarinet melody was a delight.  I'm only sorry the clarinetist wasn't credited by name -- he certainly should have been!  The finale took off right from the spot-on staccato pickup chords which open the movement.  If the final majestic coda was a bit slower than optimal, it was nonetheless well within the allowable.

This symphony was followed by a Grand Duo Concertante for double bass, violin, and orchestra by Bottesini.  This is one of those pieces composed by so many instrumental virtuosi in the nineteenth century, where the soloist(s) endlessly display their technique in dazzling, flashy playing while the orchestra occasionally plays a cadence, a phrase, or even -- gasp! -- an entire line of melodic material!  Great fun for the soloists, in this case Martin Beaver on violin and Joel Quarrington on double bass, but no challenge at all for the orchestra.  This sort of thing, to me, is about as exciting as watching paint dry, no matter how good the soloists are.  And they were very good!  I'd just rather hear something a little more musically substantial.

After the intermission, it was shenanigan time.  First, the orchestra played a shortened version of Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs.   It's a signature "last night" work, and the conductor aptly coached the audience in the appropriate clapping during the Hornpipe, which finished with the requisite breathless rush.  Then that same wonderful clarinetist stretched his tear-laden solo with an endless line of improvisations while the other players conversed, wandered on and off, poured tea, sat in the audience for a few moments, until finally conductor Brott tried -- and failed! -- to bribe him into stopping with a $20 bill!

Rule Britannia brought hearty participation from the audience.  Russell Braun sang with great fervour in Parry's Jerusalem, with the orchestration arranged by Elgar.  That master's obligatory Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 followed, in a shortened version.  Alas, the Festival's indefatigable office team had mistakenly not supplied the words to Land of Hope and Glory so the normal singalong at this point didn't quite come off.  But all went well, with a rousing conclusion of the National Anthem and the Royal Anthem.

It was an inspired decision by the Festival's artistic team to follow this evening of spectacle and grandeur with a lower key event on Sunday afternoon by way of a wind down.  The hall was converted to its flat floor configuration for an English tea with light music to accompany. 

(It was billed as "High Tea", but according to my upbringing which included a Scots Presbyterian-raised mother and an English-born mother-of-best-friend, it was no such thing.  "High Tea", as I was always taught, was a meal -- usually on Sunday -- where the standard assortment of cakes, sandwiches, biscuits, and the like, was augmented by one hot dish, usually a meat dish, to form an evening meal.)

What we had was delightful though.  Each patron received an individual plate with several small sandwiches, assorted biscuits, and two high-octane sweets.  Tea and coffee were on tap, and mimosas and wine available from the bar.

While we ate, we were serenaded by two sets of classic good-old-days songs accompanied by the easygoing patter and diverting piano stylings of Gene di Novi, interspersed with two short sets of English songs by Russell Braun, accompanied by Carolyn Maule.  No surprises here.  Gene di Novi is as near to being sui generis as any musician could be in this day and age, and always an absolute delight to the ear and balm to the soul.  As for Braun, I had heard him sing all his songs before, some of them more than once.  But there are no such words as "too often" when an artist of this stature raises a simple, evocative melody like Ivor Novello's We'll Gather Lilacs to the heights of the greatest vocal works of all time.  I can never, never hear him sing that song without my eyes becoming moist.  Nor can I ever forget his knowing glances and suggestive vocal shadings in Sir Noel Coward's downright naughty, borderline R-rated The Bar on the Piccola Marina.

What a wonderful way to wind up another summer of splendid music-making on the Bay!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 9: Tales and Hymns

Contrast is the name of the game at this Festival, and Friday's two concerts provided a particularly notable example.  Here was a day that ranged from outright laughter to the most moving solemnity and the grandest rejoicing. 

In the afternoon, a mixed group of four quite different works.  First up was a work for chamber ensemble with guitar composed (and led in performance) by Graham Campbell, called Devil's Avocado.  Campbell stated that the title arose from an auto-correct-gone-wrong in a text message, which I can certainly relate to!  What exactly this intriguing title had to do with the music wasn't apparent, but it was an interesting piece with enough quirky little twists and turns, and enough spice of unusual harmonies, to make me want to hear it again!

Pianist Glen Montgomery has appeared at the Festival many times.  I always think of him as the versatile musician par excellence because he can, and apparently will, play anything and everything you ask of him.  But now for something completely different.  After playing in Graham Campbell's work, he stepped forward in a new role, as composer, to introduce the world premiere of a suite for chamber ensemble, Masques of Canada.  

Montgomery's music was a mixture of different styles, as suited by the different musical portraits he was trying to paint in sound.  His music was both intriguing and enjoyable, and two movements in particular -- Skating With Mahovlich and Orr and Montreal Jazz -- brought a definite smile to my face with the infusion of wit into the mixture.  It's just a pity that, due to time constraints, we were only given five of the eight movements.  I certainly hope to hear the work again, and hear it complete as it deserves.
The third work was a suite for solo marimba entitled The Spirit and the Dust, but Canadian composer Dinuk Wijeratne.  Percussionist Beverley Johnston, introducing the performance, made me chuckle when she referred to the scarcity of works written for solo marimba.  There were three people in the hall, myself and Jim and Carol Campbell, who heard a great deal of marimba music in February since that was a focus instrument of this year's Adam Chamber Music Festival in New Zealand which we all attended (and, in Jim's case, performed at).

I had some pretty strong negative reactions to some of the music presented there, and my feelings were reinforced by Wijeratne's beautiful work.  I think he has more composition in his little finger than several other composers have in their entire bodies, and I sat through enough music by those "others" in February to be able to tell the difference.  Johnston's choices of which hammers to use in which movements intrigued me, as she selected a firmer mallet with a sharper sound for the final movement, a piece which I might otherwise have thought needed a softer-edged quality.  Just one of the many subtleties you encounter in what many people wrongly see as the very un-subtle percussion department.

The afternoon concert concluded with another work by Richard Mascall, Singing Beaver on Water (we heard some of his music in the opening concert of the entire Festival).  This was the tale of Nanabush and the Giant Beaver, a traditional Ojibway tale.  A tale of course needs a tale-teller, and that was John Rice, a well-respected teacher and elder of the Anishinabe Nation.  His retelling of the story was very clear at all times, with plenty of expression and a wry sense of humour that totally suited the tale.  Mascall's music accompanied some parts of the story, and was interspersed with other parts as interludes.  Some sections were simple lyrical melodies to evoke mood, while others were more dramatic music intended to illustrate the events.  

Any piece that combines music with speaking is apt to be a bit iffy for balance, but every word and every note remained clearly audible, and the audience was both involved and entertained by the tale as Rice unfolded it for us.  It's just a pity that the original billing of "Painted Sound" wasn't followed through.  (The Festival uses this title for concerts which combine projections of artworks on the screen with musical performance.)

In the evening, it was time for the annual visit of the Elmer Iseler Singers, always a highlight for me and certainly for many others -- as attested by the near sell-out audience.  The concert was entitled Hallelujah!, and incorporated several different settings although one of my favourites -- the austerely beautiful Randall Thompson a cappella motet -- was replaced.  The choir was accompanied throughout by the Festival Ensemble, or on piano by Guy Few.

Normally the choir is led by its music director, Dr. Lydia Adams, but she was unable to travel.  Long-time accompanist Shawn Grenke, himself an experienced choral conductor, led the ensemble throughout the evening with certainty and clarity as great as if he had taken them through the entire rehearsal process.

The final chorus of Christ on the Mount of Olives by Beethoven led off the hallelujahs of the second half in resounding style, although I'm sorry to have to say it's an impostor.  Search as you will, you won't find any of the variant spellings of "hallelujah" in the original German text.  It's a choice of the writer of the English text, and it does fit naturally to the rhythm of the notes.  The English version otherwise adheres closely to the meaning of the German original. 

There was a lovely extended motet movement by Bach, with piano and cello (Guy Few and Roman Borys) providing continuo accompaniment, and a more recent Hallelujah by Eric Whitacre.

After a short work by Parry Sound composer Eleanor Daley, whose title I did not catch, we then got a choral version of the famed song Hallelujah by the late Canadian iconic musician and poet, Leonard Cohen.  A beautifully-arranged accompaniment for the ensemble by Graham Campbell set the seal on this piece.  Somehow, though, I keep wondering what Cohen would think of the process of deification that's overtaken his song since his passing last year. 

The program wound up with Handel (who else?) and here the audience were encouraged to sing right along.  Many did.  It's a good way to find out where the experienced choristers are hiding out in the crowd (that would include me).  It was great fun, and put a rousing finale to the concert!

But for me, the highlight came in the first half with an extended new work by Canadian composer David Braid, entitled Corona Divinae Misericordiae.  It's an extended setting of a prayer cycle created in Poland the year before the outbreak of World War Two.  The actual prayers involved, of course, are for the most part far older.  The work is constructed in five main movements, linked together by four instrumental cadenzas.  These were played by (in order) clarinetist James Campbell, violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, and bassoonist James McKay.  The fourth cadenza, for percussion, was led by percussionist Beverley Johnston but involved all the performers, with multiple bells, drums, and the like, while the remainder clapped their hands.

That last cadenza was the most overt way Braid found to underline his incorporation of music from many different spiritual traditions and times into his work.  He used elements of the western tradition from plainsong chant to elaborate polyphony and more contemporary harmony, elements of Indian music, jazz, and (with the percussion) reaching backwards to the very beginnings of both music and worship.

The astonishing result nonetheless demonstrates a very clear and individual style by the composer, one that I certainly hope he will continue to develop and extend over time.  If nothing else, David Braid certainly has the gift of writing, with understanding and love, for the human voice.

Each of the five choral sections was led off by an extended solo for mezzo-soprano, here sung by Andrea Ludwig.  It was a kind of paradox that the solo voice, which might become the most immediate and personal element of the work, instead seemed to me the most remote, timeless, and filled with mystery.  Not that the choir's singing lacked any of those qualities -- most certainly not!  Some choral sections were marked by shorter solos from baritone Graham Robinson.

This entire complex plan cohered magnificently together, with the whole definitely exceeding the sum of its parts.  It's a work which I very much hope to hear performed again, and soon!

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 8: Commemoration and Virtuosity

Thursday afternoon at the Festival of the Sound brought a brace of concerts presenting music connected with the First and Second World Wars of the last century.  The four pieces presented a fascinating cross-section of responses to wartime experience from four different composers.

The World War One concert began with a chamber arrangement of Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel.  The composer had already begun working on a piano suite in tribute to the great baroque composer François Couperin, using dance styles of Couperin's time as the basis for the structure and titles of his movement.  After the war erupted, and the losses of life on the battlefields mounted, he dedicated each of the movements to a friend killed in the war.  After the war, in 1919, he orchestrated four of the six pieces (the other two, Fugue and Toccata are too pianistic in effect) and this shorter version is the basis of the chamber arrangement we heard.

A tombeau (to use the old 17th-century term) is a work conceived as a memorial or tribute.  In Ravel's case, the music is not especially sad or mournful.  Words like "pensive" and even "playful" come to my mind instead.  His own comment was, "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."  So Le tombeau de Couperin had best be considered as a tribute, rather than a memorial.

The arrangement made effective use of a quintet of violin, cello, oboe, clarinet, and piano.  The oboe is essential, as it is a featured instrument on Ravel's own orchestration, and sounds as if the music never had any other form or instrument conceived for it.  Although the piano was Ravel's own instrument, the texture of the piano part here used is very light, even minimal, and in places silent altogether.  Thus, the arranger has preserved the light and airy texture so characteristic of Ravel's own masterly orchestration.

The Gryphon Trio were joined by James Mason and James Campbell on the winds.  All five players absolutely captured the spirit of the music, at tempi that seemed always completely organic and not in the least "interpretive."  This suite was a great delight.

It was followed by the five movement suite from L'histoire du soldat by Stravinsky.  This music tells a story of a soldier, a violin, and an encounter with the devil, which has roots in an old folk tale.  It's only really "war music" in the sense that it was composed during the war, and for a small chamber ensemble which was forced on the composer by wartime limitations.

As befits a folk tale, the musical style is quirky, playful, sometimes serious -- but with a wink and a nod.  The seven players on this occasion captured that feeling perfectly.  At least I know one thing for certain now.  Bassoonist James McKay, introducing the work, mentioned how many times it had been performed at the Festival, and the names of some of the people who had narrated the story (there was no narration on this occasion).  So I know for certain that it has always been performed before during the week I was absent, since I've never heard it in my life!

The second concert, the World War Two concert, was much more serious.  It opened with the Gryphon Trio playing Shostakovich's Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67.  Definitely a wartime work, and one in which the composer's signature mordant humour turns to bitter ashes.  It's a strange and disquieting world which Shostakovich unfolds for us, and the Gryphons' performance relished that strangeness, that sense of life turned upside down and inside out, which informs the music.

The emotional highlight of the day, and (for me) of the entire Festival, came next with the performance of a septet version of Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. The original work is subtitled as a "study for 23 solo strings," but we heard it in an arrangement for paired violins, violas, and cellos, plus one double bass.

As compared with the original, this arrangement actually highlighted the darkness of much of the music.  Consider the original instrumentation of 10/5/5/3 (violins/violas/cellos/double basses) and you can see that the violins equalled the violas and cellos together, whereas in the arrangement the lower instruments outnumber the violins by more than 2 to 1. Sadly, then, there were places in the heavier textures where the violins were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

But if the balance didn't always match the original full score, the players definitely caught the feeling of the piece.  There was no mistaking the elegiac tone of the final pages, with the quotation from Beethoven's Marcia funebre (from the Eroica Symphony) sounding solemnly and sadly from the bass.  A powerful performance of a work still too little valued and known.

Thursday evening's concert was entitled Virtuosity but could equally well have been called, Anything You Can Play I Can Play Faster!  My frequent readers know that I refer to this mythical song from time to time, and on Thursday night it came into my head twice.

It's the same old story to me.  Just because you can play a piece that quickly doesn't necessarily mean you should.  Also, and more critically, there's the question of whether -- in fact -- the musicians can keep the music under control at the speed they want to go.  That was a real bugbear of my piano teacher when I was a kid.  If you can't control it, don't go that quickly.  I guess some of what he said rubbed off on me after all.  (We won't go into the question of my present-day piano playing  at this time!)

The concert opened with Haydn's jolly Cello Concerto in C Major, with a string quintet backing up cellist Yegor Dyachkov.   The concerto works are not among Haydn's greatest achievements -- really, more like chips from the master's workbench.  But they are great fun to listen to, and this performance certainly proved the point.  Dyachkov tackled the solo part with plenty of vim and vigour, and the use of a smaller ensemble cast more light on the music (for me) than a larger orchestra would do.

And so, all was well until the finale.  Here's where the horse race happens today, with cellists everywhere competing to see who can get through the movement in the shortest time.  I'd say this performance was much more musical than I expected, given the hectic tempo, but I still hope one day to hear some sane person choose a slightly slower speed where we can actually hear all the notes.  This hectic, helter-skelter mode of playing is undoubtedly exciting but does that make it good music?

After the concerto, the unexpected treat was a rarely-played String Quintet No. 2 in G Major by Dvořák.  I've had a lifelong love for this Czech composer's music, but have to confess that this work was completely new to me.  I'll have to go shopping for a recording, but in the meantime I certainly enjoyed the performance which highlighted the composer's well-known gift for lyrical melody.

The concert concluded with one of the most popular chamber works at the Festival, the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25 by Brahms.  It was this work which introduced me to the wonders of the world of chamber music, and I came to it by way of Schoenberg's masterly orchestral transcription.  The original sets the standard for many of the works to come from Brahms: vigorous rhythms and cross-rhythms, off-beat accents, rich harmonies and dense piano writing.  In fact, the trouble usually arises with the piano overpowering the three string players.

No such problem arose in this performance.  The strings played with fire and panache in the faster movements, and pianist Jamie Parker shaded his performance with more subtlety, and less use of the sustain pedal, than I've sometimes heard from him in the past.  Sforzandi in the scherzo were clean and tight, and the slow movement brought the most beguiling playing from all involved.

But then came the finale, the notoriously fiery Rondo alla zingarese, and the urge to overspeed struck once again.  The main body of the movement wasn't any worse than any other performance I've ever heard, and the players were all well in control.  But then came the final accelerando coda, and what we got was not just an acceleration but a second-stage blastoff into hyperdrive.  Within a few bars, the notes began blurring together and the tight ensemble began falling apart.  I guess it was to their credit that they finished together, but it would have been much better if they'd settled for overdrive instead of hyperdrive, as most musicians do.

Once again, my mantra: never do your damnedest when your next-to-damnedest will work better.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 7: The Great and the Rare

Wednesday at the Festival roamed the entire range of possibilities from less-distinguished to less-known music, performed by a whole roster of outstanding artists.

The first of three concerts was entitled Canadian Songbook.  In this programme, baritone Russell Braun and soprano Leslie Fagan joined with pianists Carolyn Maule and Guy Few in a diverse recital of Canadian song from every corner of the emotional universe.

The programme opened with two of Godfrey Ridout's folk-song arrangements.  Braun and Fagan got off to a rousing start with the Québecois song Ah! Si mon moine voulait danser.  This lively song is a real tongue-twister and both singers got the words out with total clarity and the essential sense of fun.
The contrast was huge with the mournful She's Like the Swallow, also arranged by Ridout, and the haunting Frobisher Bay  by James Gordon.

Braun next sang an assorted set of three songs, two of them love songs, and Fagan responded with her own three songs, "from the woman's point of view" as she laughingly said.

The two then joined in a rollicking set of three spirituals arranged by John Greer.

Braun's next set was a group of three songs from around the beginning of the last century, including the hilarious O, What a Difference Since the Hydro Came by Claud Graves, which I first heard back in the 1990s at my very first Festival of the Sound.  

Fagan followed up with a hysterical group of three "nursery rhymes" by Peter Tiefenbach -- although perhaps "nonsense songs" would be a better term, since her interpretations of the texts leaned somewhat towards adult entertainment only!  

These comic gems led on to the conclusion, with both pianists on the bench at once and both singers joining in a recitative and duet from a Canadian operetta, Leo, the Royal Cadet by Oscar Telgmann.  The singing was punctuated by several trumpet fanfares from the versatile Guy Few.

This whole recital was a fascinating study in the art of contrast.  Braun and Fagan are both very fine and versatile artists, but their voices are produced in very different ways and with startlingly different results.  It was intriguing to hear them shaping their voices into a common style somewhere in the middle for the duet numbers.  

I was also reminded afresh of how both these singers, in their very different styles, share the undoubted gift of being able to make a second-rate piece of music seem much greater than it really is.  Of course, it doesn't do any harm that both of them also know how to loosen up and have a bit of good fun while they're at it.

Now, how do you follow an act like that?  You go on in the next concert, in typical Festival style, to a completely serious classical programme -- but one which might have fooled a few people.

That's because the first work on the # 2 concert of the day was a quartet for clarinet and piano trio by American composer Peter Schickele.  As soon as you mention that name, people's ears perk up because he is even better known by his comical alias of P.D.Q. Bach, the last -- and oddest -- of J. S. Bach's twenty-odd children (as he likes to put it).  But Schickele is also a serious composer in his own right, and on the strength of this piece I'd have to say a not inconsiderable one.  The music was predominantly tonal, and a little tilted in the direction of minimalism in that melodic patterns were frequently repeated.  But the total effect was more persuasive than the music of such composers as Steve Reich and John Adams -- which, frankly, bores me stiff.  Certainly, the persuasion lay in part in the fluent performance by the Gryphon Trio and James Campbell.

Pianist Jamie Parker then followed on with a single Intermezzo -- just one! -- from Op. 118 by Brahms (# 2 in A major, just for the record).  I certainly am not forgetting the likes of Schubert, Schumann, Chopin or Liszt when I say that the four late sets of pieces by Brahms are among the greatest masterpieces of the Romantic piano literature.  Any opportunity to hear these wonderful masterworks is always welcome indeed!  Getting hit with just one of them -- albeit played with wonderful sensitivity -- was a little like squirting an eyedropper of water in the mouth of a man dying of thirst in a desert.  Sigh.  "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

The Gryphons closed the concert with the Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 70 by Beethoven.  This major work was played with a good deal more light and shade, nuance and subtlety, than one sometimes hears in Beethoven, and balance was impeccable throughout.  A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of music.

The evening concert was entitled Three Great Sonatas, and more than lived up to its billing.  A friend from the Festival told me in passing that there were jokes around the Festival office about having a concert of Three Not-so-Great Sonatas!  Hmm. 

Pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin played in all three works.  He was joined in Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 7 in C Minor, Op. 30 No. 2 by violinist Martin Beaver, and in Chopin's Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 by Yegor Dyachkov.

Beethoven was treated to a performance of sparkling brio in the quicker movements, contrasted with the gently lyrical adagio cantabile of the slow movement.  Dyachkov's signature emotive style suited well the bigger, bolder gestures of the Chopin.  Together with Richard-Hamelin, he made out a good case for the long first movement, Chopin struggling to contain his natural impulses into the straitjacket of sonata form.  As always, I found the succeeding three movements much more enjoyable and involving.

After the intermission, a very great rarity: Richard-Hamelin gave a welcome performance of Schumann's Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11.  It's always baffled me that so many pianists seem to fight shy of the Schumann sonatas.  In over half a century of concert going, this is the first time I have ever heard one of them played live! 

Richard-Hamelin brought great clarity to a score which teems with contrasting episodes.  This sonata behaves, at times, almost more like an opera than a sonata, with different characters each determined to have their say.  As always, I wished that the meltingly beautiful Aria movement could be a little longer.  The episodic scherzo and the dramatic finale both cohered firmly, and playing throughout was of a high order.  A great conclusion to a wonderful day of widely-varied music!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 6: The Voices of the Past

The first concert of Week Three at the Festival was different -- so different that it didn't really resemble any concert I'd ever been to before in my life.  

And so this review is going to be different, too -- somewhere between a standard concert review and a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Canada has always had a reputation for developing extraordinary talent among classical singers.  Over a century ago, one of the great opera divas of the world, Emma Albani, was actually (in spite of her stage name) a Québecoise, Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse, from Chambly (outside Montréal).

Albani was the first Canadian singer to become widely known on the international stage, but hardly the last.  After World War Two, a whole crop of distinguished names appeared and prospered, both in Canada and internationally.  Among them were sopranos Pierrette Alarie and Teresa Stratas, contralto Maureen Forrester, tenors Jon Vickers and Léopold Simoneau, baritone Louis Quilico, and many more.  

These were the names I grew up on, the legendary singers who were discussed, described, and heard on recordings in our home.  As I grew older, I was fortunate enough to hear several of them in live performances.  These golden voices set a standard of musical excellence which has continued to shape and define my taste in singing throughout my life.

And these golden voices were the subject of Tuesday night's unusual programme.

Canadian baritone Gino Quilico, himself a distinguished international opera singer, has put together a fascinating evening of tribute to 10 great Canadian opera singers of the past.  He commented from the stage that he had trouble cutting it down to ten -- I can relate.  I can easily think of half a dozen more whose reputations were framed more in the concert repertoire than in the opera house.  But he chose his 10 wisely -- with respect to balance of voice types, and (as he said) he picked ten who had some degree of personal influence on him, even if only at a distance in time.

That comment certainly applied to his first great name, Edward Johnson, the tenor from Guelph who had a splendid quarter-century touring the great opera houses of the world, followed by an equally significant fifteen years as director of the Metropolitan Opera House.  Quilico became aware of the name every time he walked into the Faculty of Music's headquarters at the University of Toronto, the Edward Johnson Building!

The other nine singers were:

* tenor Raoul Jobin
* tenor Richard Verreau
* soprano Pierrette Alarie
* tenor Léopold Simoneau
* contralto Maureen Forrester
* baritone Louis Quilico
* tenor Jon Vickers
* soprano Teresa Stratas
* tenor Ben Heppner

I finally worked out that I had heard four of these great voices in live performances: Alarie, Simoneau, Forrester, and Heppner.

For each of these singers, Quilico shared a brief biographical outline, described some famous roles, and played an audio or video clip (or two) of each one in performance.  He also shared personal insights into the ones he had sung with, and (in justifiable family pride) showed on the screen the newspaper stories generated when he and his father became the first father-son team in history to appear in the same opera at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  He also took that moment to explain the importance of the coach in the opera world, a role which his mother filled for both of the Quilico baritones.

Quilico stated that his father became justly known for his great signature role, as "Mister Rigoletto."  He then added, simply, "That's one part I would never dare take on.  It was his role."

The videos in particular were fascinating.  Most of these great names were active during the Golden Age of televised music on CBC, and the video clips showed them in lavishly costumed and staged full productions which -- we had to remind ourselves -- were performed with full orchestra in a television studio.

One of the most touching was a love duet given by Pierrette Alarie and Léopold Simoneau (married in real life) in which their personal level of affection could clearly be seen, heard, and felt over and above the stage requirements of the piece.

The funniest, no question, was... but we'll get to that in a few moments.

After the speech and audio/video, either Quilico and/or soprano Leslie Fagan sang a solo or duet from the opera in question.  Sometimes it would be a different aria (as Quilico said more than once, he was glad not to be a tenor!).  These musical selections were skillfully accompanied by pianist Dominic Boulianne.


Of them all, Forrester was the one I heard live most often, and the only one I met in person.  So I was particularly intrigued to know what he would come up with for Maureen -- that rarest of singers, a true contralto.  If ever she had a signature role, it was the heartfelt four-minute song Urlicht which comes fourth of the five movements in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony (# 2).  Quilico played an audio recording of her singing Urlicht, accompanied simply on the screen by the publicity photo which I remember from the first time I heard her sing it at Massey Hall in the 1970s.

But then, he got onto the subject of her notorious sense of humour, and inserted a short video clip of one of her dialogue scenes in the riotous Stratford Festival 1984 production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe.  This was followed by Leslie Fagan, a high soprano always up for some comedic fun, doing her level best (and a damn good best it was, too) to imitate Forrester's much deeper voice in the ripely over-done subsequent rendition of O Foolish Fay.   This aria's text was completely rewritten into an ode to the CBC and Knowlton Nash, names certainly familiar to us old-timers!  It made a great comic send-off before the intermission.

Throughout the evening, Gino Quilico (let's keep our Quilicos straight here, folks!) spoke to the audience in a very approachable, conversational tone.  What could easily have become a lengthy lecture became instead a pleasant evening's visit with a person you soon felt was your friend.  If you want to present a show of this kind, that's the best way by far to lead it.  His singing was still powerful and clean in the bigger numbers, if perhaps a bit less so in some quieter passages.  One of the major highlights was heard in the power and drama of the Credo from Verdi's Otello.  

Fagan displayed two opposite extremes of her voice in the quiet Ave Maria from Otello, followed shortly by the more dramatic Sempre libera from La Traviata.  

Perhaps the greatest vocal delight of the evening came in the duet La ci darem la Mano from Don Giovanni, in which both Quilico and Fagan aptly characterized the roles so that one didn't need to know the opera in order to figure out what was happening.  Their vocal tones matched beautifully too, as they ought to in a duet.

The evening ended in a final tribute to the ten great voices, with Quilico and Fagan joining in the lovely duet Lippen schweigen, better known as the Merry Widow Waltz.

Overall, a wonderful evening of reminiscence, of fine music, great performances, and entertaining anecdotes.  Thanks to James Campbell for spotting the possibility of integrating this unique concert into the Festival's string of special Canada 150 events and tributes.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 5: The Organic Quality of Music

Okay, let me get the apology out of the way right at the outset: sorry for the appalling pun in the title.  But, hey, come on, I have to be allowed a pun at least once in while!

I love good organ music, and it's not always easy to catch on the fly -- organ recitals are not often as well publicized as other forms of public music performance. So I was very excited when this year's Festival programme included a concert at St. James Church, featuring the organ.  The church's organist and music director, William "Bill" McArton, played the key role in the proceedings, whether as solo organist or as provider of accompaniment or continuo bass to other artists.

There are several key composers whose works provide the foundation stones of any organist's recital repertoire, and McArton opened and closed this concert with two of them while touching on another in the middle.  J. S. Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G Major, BWV550 began the programme with a stately reading of the prelude, and a suitably flowing reading of the following fugue, which worked up to an entirely appropriate climactic cadence at the end.

Suzanne Shulman, flute, and John Lowry, violin, next came forward to present a Trio Sonata in E Minor, TWV 42:e6 by Telemann, with McArton and cellist Beth Root Sandvoss providing the basso continuo.  This work began solemnly, but the fourth movement brought it to a much lighter end.

Next was a Flute Sonata in E Minor, Op. 2 No. 1 by Jean-Marie Leclair.  As rarely heard as the Telemann, this work proved to be just as delightful with McArton and Sandvoss again playing the continuo.

By this time, a serious thunderstorm was rattling the church at regular intervals, and there was an unfortunate power outage when McArton was only 20 bars or so into Mendelssohn's Organ Sonata in D Minor No. 6, Op. 65.  The power came back on, the organ was restarted, and McArton resumed from the phrase where he was interrupted.  Like Mendelssohn's other organ sonatas, this one clearly displays the structural influence of Bach mingled with some of the freer harmonic practises of the nineteenth century.  In this case, the work began unusually with a chorale theme and variations of great variety, played by McArton with considerable drama; this was followed by a more severe fugue based on the chorale theme, with a gentler, lyrical andante movement to close. 

Lowry then joined McArton for two movements of a Suite for Violin and Organ, Op. 166 by Josef Rheinberger.  The Praeludium was the one place where I felt McArton overplayed his hand, since his choice of stops was a bit heavy for Lowry to compete with.  However, the succeeding Moto perpetuo was gentler, and since Lowry was having to do almost all the moto with his endless chains of triplets his audibility certainly wasn't an issue here.  A charming piece, but a rather odd combination of incompatible instruments, for my money.

McArton then closed a memorable programme with a powerful performance of the Choral (sic) No.3, FWV40 by César Franck.  The Trois chorals were the last works Franck completed before his death, and sealed his reputation as the greatest organ composer since Bach.  Compared to the chorale preludes of Bach, this is a much more improvisatory piece in character, but eventually a clear structure emerges as the music progresses.  The technical challenges of this work are formidable, and McArton surmounted them with ease, giving a reading of combined majesty and edginess which fully caught the character of the music.

All in all, a rewarding programme to bring the second week of the Festival to its close.  I'm going on hiatus for a few days to catch up on sleep, and will return next Tuesday to resume my daily reports on the Festival's final week.

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 4: Day of Extremes

Thursday was a day of extreme contrasts at the Festival, and the day revolved around two separate themes.  In the afternoon, we had a brace of concerts entitled "Time Travel," in which we moved backwards from the most recent to the oldest.  

The first programme was a collection of four pieces by four different Canadian composers -- the four, whether by chance or design, were all women.

The first of these four works, Katarina Curcin's String Quartet No. 3 was unusual to begin with in being given a generic title rather than a descriptive one.  Although the Cecilia Quartet tipped us off ahead of time about descriptive or thematic elements heard in the music, I found the connection too elusive to grasp.  I did enjoy Curcin's broad palette of sounds, and especially the way that a diatonic chord would suddenly loom out of a cloud of chromatic or even atonal/polytonal sounds.

The second and third works were tougher.  To put it bluntly, both composers vastly over-used the high harmonics of the strings.  These notes, achieved by pressing the bow only lightly upon the strings, are challenging to play.  When played by a soloist, as was often the case in the nineteenth century, they can be very beautiful but only -- and this is the key -- in small doses for effect.  Lengthy continuing use is apt to become squealy like nails on a chalkboard, and tends to generate tension in the hearer.  This isn't just me, by the way.  It was the consensus of everyone I spoke to after the concert.  Curcin used the harmonics too, but she used them more discreetly, and leavened with passages drawn from the instruments' main ranges.  

Aside from the harmonics, both these works fell prey to my great bugbear in contemporary music: sound for sound's sake.  The composer has the instruments make a sound, or type of sound, for so long, then switch to another one, and then another.  The piece ends whenever the composer decides that she/he has written enough -- and there's no clear indication of why this couldn't just as well happen three minutes earlier or five minutes later.  There's virtually no sense of structure, of time, of coherence, and certainly not of rhythm.  

In a different vein altogether was Kelly Marie Murphy's Postcards From Home, a set of three pieces obviously inspired by her home turf of Alberta.  This was a Festival commission in 2000, and well worth reviving.  It's a trio for piano, violin, and clarinet.  A good deal of the motive energy in first and last movements comes from the piano, and in the slower central movement (Prairie Sunrise) the deep bass notes of the piano create an appropriate atmosphere of a huge, spacious sky in which the violin and clarinet can wander at will.  The rowdy final movement, Hoedown, ends with an amusing joke for all three instruments.

The second afternoon concert resumed the journey backwards with Schubert's Death and the Maiden string quartet.  One of the three monumental string quartets written by Schubert during the last two years of his life, this masterpiece was performed with considerable elan and power by the Cecilia Quartet.  If the slow theme of the second movement variations (the melody of the eponymous song) lacked the last extreme of tension at first, the conclusion of the movement was appropriately dark and bleak, with the players abandoning vibrato.  The brief scherzo and trio was strong enough to avoid seeming merely cute, and the finale ended with a true burst of power.  A fine performance, if not the last word on one of the great monuments of Romantic music.

This was followed by the Land's End Ensemble in Haydn's Piano Trio No. 43 in C Major.  (just think of Haydn's 104 symphonies and 68 string quartets, and let that number 43 sink in for a minute.)  Like so many of Haydn's compositions, it's full of life and cheerful energy, imaginative in structure, and not without the odd little musical joke to liven things up.  The sparkling finale, in particular, is another one of those guaranteed smile-on-the-face compositions -- and Land's End did the music full justice, from start to finish.

At 5:00 pm, a small audience of forty of us (the ones who rush to buy tickets as soon as they go on sale in April!) joined together at the Station Gallery for tea and biscuits, and an informal talk with Jim Campbell and Suzanne Shulman about their experiences working with Glenn Gould in his television recording projects.  Their reminiscences told us much more about this fascinating, complex artist than some of the more public stories which have been current for many years.  Equally fascinating were the video clips from these TV programmes which they shared.

In the evening, the Festival's tribute to Glenn Gould was capped by Stewart Goodyear's complete performance of the Goldberg Variations by Bach.  This, of course, was Gould's signature work: the first work he ever recorded, and also the last.  The two recordings of the Goldberg, as Campbell pointed out, book-ended Gould's career.

Goodyear's Goldberg was nothing like Gould's -- and that's no surprise to anyone who knows Stewart Goodyear's art.  Externals first: Goodyear took all the repeats except in the final recurrence of the Aria.  (Gould's maddening habit of cherry-picking repeats is the main reason why his recordings drive me crazy!)  Right at the outset, Goodyear adopted a faster, more flowing tempo than any other performer I've ever heard in the opening Aria.  From then on, he just seemed to get faster and faster.  Although some tempo variation did appear later on, he powered through the entire work in just 63 minutes (the complete recordings I have, as well as previous live performances I've heard, all time out somewhere around the 75-minute mark, give or take a bit).  

Besides the high speeds, Goodyear's performance was marked by total absorption in the music, and by a truly phenomenal accuracy and precision of playing.  The precision was easy to hear because he used almost no sustain pedal, and when he did use it he only touched the pedal lightly -- which would mean that only the bass note would momentarily be sustained.  Under those conditions, any erroneous notes would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.  I heard just two.  If someone were to film his performance, with a tight close-up on his hands, no harpsichordist would ever dare to proclaim again that the music is impossible to play on the single keyboard of the piano! 

And yet (and I hate to say this), I felt something was missing.  The unremitting mechanical perfection of the performance threw into high relief the limited amount of expressivity.  The long slow variation which falls at the midpoint of the work proved to be the turning point.  Up until then, the music was all fast.  After that variation, Goodyear selected a more varied range of tempi, and also allowed some slight little nudges in the basic tempo of each variation -- nothing extreme, but just enough to allow the music to breathe and flex a little more.  The first half could certainly have benefited from similar treatment.

Goodyear rightly received a standing ovation at the end of his remarkable performance.  What I really look forward to is the chance to hear him play the Goldberg Variations again in another 15 to 20 years.  It might come out just the same way, but somehow I doubt it.  No true artist can hold still and refrain from any artistic growth for that long.  And most musicians will agree that Bach is the one composer who continues to grow and change as you do, throughout your entire life, always challenging you in new and different ways.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 3: Plucking, But Not Chickens

Strings were being plucked all over the place at the Festival on Wednesday.  I may have missed the concert by the Canadian Guitar Quartet Tuesday, but on Wednesday I got chances in two different concerts to hear all four members playing in solo works -- and where there were no guitars, there was also a great deal of harp music to be heard.  I love both.

The morning bought the now-traditional Baroque concert at the Seguin Valley Golf Club, a special event that includes a continental breakfast of croissants, pastries, and coffee in the ticket price.  The program consisted of a good mixture of Baroque music for lute (transcribed on guitar) or for keyboard (transcribed on harp). Pluck, pluck, pluck.

There were four highlights from this programme for me.  Renaud Côté-Giguère gave a fluid, fluent performance on guitar of the Prelude and Fuga from Bach's Suite in C Minor, BWV977 for lute.  Julien Bisaillon played with equal skill and subtlety in a Passacaglia in D Major (variations on a ground bass) by Sylvius Leopold Weiss.  If you think any of that sounds easy, just remember that the lutenist or (in this case) guitarist has to provide his own bass line while still playing the upper voicings.  Weiss was a noted virtuoso lutenist and his compositions, like Bach's, are not for the faint-hearted!

Harpist Erica Goodman played a delightful three-movement harp sonata by Giovanni Battista Pescetti (actually written for harpsichord, but I won't tell if you won't tell).  Flutist Suzanne Shulman and Goodman then joined in a beautiful performance of the Flute Sonata in G Minor, BWV1020 by Bach -- a work which some musicologists instead attribute to his son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach.  Shulman raised chuckles when she commented that she personally thought it was written by Francis Bacon.  She also drew laughter from the audience when she introduced the famous Largo, Ombra mai fu from Xerxes by Handel (an aria sung in homage to a tree).  It's often played at weddings or graduations, and she said, "While we play it, feel free to graduate, to marry the person next to you, or to hug a tree."

In the afternoon, we heard a recital with a French theme.  A projection of Monet's famous painting of water lilies appeared on the screen while Suzanne Shulman, in a blue half-light, played Debussy's Syrinx for solo flute.  The Cecilia Quartet, James Campbell, and Erica Goodman then joined with her in Ravel's beautiful Introduction and Allegro.  Campbell described it as a septet, which is true, but the character of the music is such that it seems to me almost more like a concerto for harp and chamber ensemble.  Whichever way you look at it, Goodman and her colleagues gave it a wonderful performance.

This concert went from heights to heights.  The Cecilia Quartet were then joined by pianist Stewart Goodyear in Franck's Piano Quintet.  It's dangerous to describe a performance as "definitive", but I felt this one came pretty close.  This music requires the widest range of tone and colour from the players, from the sensitivity of some pages in the slow movement to the virtuoso fireworks of the work's conclusion.  Balance was exemplary throughout the quintet, even when Franck's keyboard writing grew heaviest. 

Although the slow movement is described as Lento, con molto sentimento it really works better if you ignore or at least tone down the molto sentimento, and that's how these artists played it.  The tone was delicate, as it should be, but not swooping or swooning as some might be tempted to do.  As for the finale, the first recollection of the opening movement was presented with an air of quiet reminiscence which completely belied the leading role it would soon play.  And at the end that same genteel theme was driven to its conclusion with a force and ferocity such as I've never heard before.  A stunning performance.

The evening concert opened with chamber versions of two of my all-time favourite musical works, works which I have indeed loved ever since I first began to discover classical music.  One was Handel's Harp Concerto in B Flat, HWV294 and the other was Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp in C Major, K.299.  The Handel was once believed to be originally written as an organ concerto for Handel himself to play (cue the virtuoso fireworks) but is now generally accepted to have been written for the harp first and then transcribed for organ.  The Mozart concerto was written for a commission from a Parisian nobleman who played flute, and whose daughter played the harp.  It's said that Mozart disliked the harp -- certainly he never wrote any other work for it -- but you'd never know that from the sound of the music.  Harpists, on the other hand, could tell you a thing or two about the some of the nasty technical challenges hidden in the music.

Well, forget all of that.  Erica Goodman played with surpassing fluency and beauty of tone in both works, well supported by the ensemble.  Her dialogues with Suzanne Shulman on flute in the Mozart concerto were light and airy, so much so that the performance took wing.  If you happened to glance my way during either of these beautiful works, I'm sure you'd have seen the smile.  I love all kinds of music, but have seldom felt so much joy and delight in any concert.

After the intermission, the guitarists returned with some intriguing repertoire in a more modern style.  The famous orchestral dance from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve didn't make as much impact on two guitars, although the virtuosity was undeniable -- the sound is too light to make it easy to hear the melody over the thrumming harmony. 

Renaud Côté-Giguère's composition Palio, inspired by the famous medieval horse-race in Siena, was treated to a fire-eating performance by the composer and colleague Bruno Roussel. 

Even more exciting was the wild taxi ride of En las calles de Buenos Aires by Patrick Roux, for the unusual combination of four guitars and string quartet, which brought the concert to a lively end.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 2: An Eclectic Day

So now I am back from my roaming time in the United States, and ready to resume my role of unofficial resident blogger for weeks 2 and 3 of the Festival of the Sound.

The first afternoon concert today featured violinist Atis Bankas and pianist Leopoldo Erice in a programme of Beethoven and pseudo-Beethoven.  It started with a masterpiece and ended with what can only be called (in modern slang) an earworm.  Damn tune is still running through my head hours later!

Erice opened the concert with the Piano Sonata # 31 in A Flat Major, Op. 110.  As with the other marvellous creations of Beethoven's late years, so with this next-to-last of the piano sonatas.  The flashy virtuosity of some of the earlier sonatas or piano concertos has been left far behind.  While the music is still just as challenging, the technique is now at the service of musical ideas which can only be described as refined and rarefied. If a pianist heard or read Mahler's famous remark that a symphony should encompass the whole world, said pianist wouldn't go far wrong by thinking of this remarkable sonata as the piano equivalent.

Erice's interpretation spanned all the musical realms found in the work.  In the quieter pages, there was a sense of fantasy, while slow passages plumbed the depths of thought -- particularly notable in the finale, just at the beginning of the fugue's inversion.  The faster and bigger passages certainly didn't lack energy, but the energy was of an appropriately more inward kind, lending a pensive quality in places where the younger Beethoven might simply have demanded -- and then supplied -- more speed.  A thoughtful reading of a challenging and rewarding work.

Erice was then joined by Bankas for the Violin Sonata # 5 in F Major, Op. 24.  This is the work that was tagged with the nickname "Spring" after the composer's death, and no wonder -- there's a fresh, bright, brisk springtime feeling to almost every page of the music.  This work always sounds to me like a dress rehearsal for style of the Pastoral Symphony (# 6).  In fact, Beethoven began work on the symphony the year after this sonata was published, although the Pastoral only reached completion and performance six years later, in 1808.  

Bankas and Erice joined in a performance that aptly caught the brightness and lighter weight of the entire work.  Only in one place did things become too light, and that was in the first movement when Bankas spun out chains of notes alongside the repeat of the main theme which were so quiet that they almost disappeared.  Otherwise, balance between the two was exemplary.  In the brief little scherzo movement they kept the music light while playing at a slower tempo than many artists, a tempo that some might have felt was ponderous -- if they hadn't heard this sparkling performance.  This sonata is justly an audience favourite, and received a truly winning interpretation here.

The afternoon concert closed with a chip from the master's workbench, a pleasant little rondo for the two instruments.  This was followed by Fritz Kreisler's recomposition of the work, in a different key, as a Rondino on a theme by Beethoven.  This was one of many pieces which Kreisler originally credited to various composers, before he finally admitted authorship later in life.  Bankas subtly flavoured his playing in the Kreisler with an entirely period-appropriate degree of vibrato and portamento which he did not use in any of his Beethoven playing.

I'm ashamed to say that I missed the second afternoon concert, one which I actually had been looking forward to hearing (a selection of music arranged for guitar quartet).  I was just too damn tired after my recent travels, and wanted to get into my hotel room, unpack, and have a nap!

The evening programme was devoted to a classical music theatre piece called The Missing Pages by Tom Allen.  In it, he unearthed the little-known story of Theodor Molt, a European-trained music teacher from Quebec who became (in 1825) the only Canadian to meet Beethoven.  The conversations Molt had with the master have perforce had to be imagined, since the relevant pages are missing from Beethoven's conversation books.  The one historic sign of the meeting is a simple little vocal canon signed by Beethoven in the National Archives of Canada.

Allen has imagined a lively series of encounters among his four characters: Beethoven (Richard Waugh), Molt (Bryce Kulak), soprano Susannah Sotto (Patricia O'Callaghan), and Beethoven's secretary Anton Schindler, played by Allen himself.  Viewed as theatre, the piece was more in the nature of a staged reading than an actual play, suitable to a concert-hall setting.  But there was more than enough dramatic interest to sustain audience involvement.

Allen mostly remained in the background of the piece, popping in occasionally as narrator and (as Schindler called it) "controller" of the story.  Waugh, a leading voice-over actor, proved to have more than adequate resources to dominate the stage when seen in person.  Kulak created a fussy, fidgetty persona as Molt, and also demonstrated his skill as a pianist in a waltz theme and variations of his own composition.  I mean Molt's own composition -- purportedly.  Was it really his?  Someone else's?  Did Kulak write it?  Pastiche?  It was certainly in the authentic early-nineteenth-century salon manner, whoever actually set it down.  O'Callaghan had fine moments of both singing and acting, including the heart-breaking moment when her voice fails her on a high note.

The glue holding this whole loose structure together was, of course, the master's own music.  Each part was prefaced by a movement from a larger work played by pianist Leopoldo Erice with his customary finesse and sense of appropriate style.  Within the action, suitable pieces provided as background or as interludes were played in arrangements for harp by Lori Gemmell.  This might seem improper to some, but I can listen to the harp for hours on end and thoroughly enjoyed it.

While not a heavyweight classical concert, nor yet a powerhouse drama, this was an entertaining and enjoyable fusion of the two, and the audience plainly had a fun time with it.