La Scena Musicale

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Sunday, 20 July 2014

This Week in Montreal: July 21 to 27

Just for Laughs (July 12-26)

Big names at this year’s galas include Andy Samburg, Aziz Ansari, Russel Peters, Jim Gaffigan, and Seth Rogan. If you can’t make it to a gala show, you can still see Nick Offerman at Club Soda or your favourite funny Canadians at Homegrown, hosted by Debra DiGiovanni at l’Astral. Just for Laughs, with 1,700 artists from 19 countries, will offer 1,600 shows of which 1,200 will be free outdoor venues.
 - Hassan Laghcha

Concerts Populaires Celebrates 50 Years

In June 1964, at the initiative of mayor Jean Drapeau, the first event of the Concerts Populaires took place: a homage to Vienna with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under the baton of Alexander Brott. This year, the Orchestre Métropolitain, directed by Julian Kuerti, will performs an integral reproduction of the 1964 inaugural concert with soprano Aline Kutan. Six concerts will beare presented between June 26 and July 31 at the Centre Pierre-Charbonneau, Thursdays at 7:30 pm.
 - Renée Banville

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Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Lands Recording Contract

Editorial Note:  Given the general decline of the recording industry, fewer and fewer musical ensembles' works are being documented for posterity. Many have taken to creating their own "in-house" label and marketing their products independently, for example the London and San Francisco Symphonies, as well as the TSO itself. The TS of course has had a number of contracts with prestigious labels in the past such as CBS and Finlandia labels. [Go to for a complete list of TSO Discography]  
This morning comes the surprise press release that the Toronto Symphony has signed a recording contract with the respected British label Chandos Records.  This is good news indeed, especially on the eve of TSO's European tour. The inaugural release is Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherazade, recorded live in June 2013.  Purists may scoff that it is not a studio recording, but that's par for the course with the recording industry today; besides a live recording give it a greater sense of occasion and excitement.  Let's hope this is the first of a very successful partnership between the TSO and Chandos.  

- Joseph So
TSO signs recording contract with Chandos Records
Chandos releases the TSO’s Sheherazade in August 2014
Chandos recording contract
Toronto, July 15, 2014 – Chandos Records announced today that it has signed a new recording contract with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). The first TSO recording released by Chandos will be Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, recorded live at Roy Thomson Hall in June 2013, led by TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian and featuring TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow. Two further TSO recordings are planned by Chandos.
“Chandos Records is delighted with this new collaboration with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra,” said Ralph Couzens, Managing Director of Chandos Records. “TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis, and, more recently, TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian, have a distinguished history with both the orchestra and with Chandos Records. Chandos has produced many acclaimed recordings with both artists and looks forward to future projects with the superb Toronto Symphony Orchestra.”
Based in the U.K., Chandos Records Ltd. is one of the world's premier independent classical music record labels. The company is renowned for its superb sound and has won many prestigious awards for its natural sound quality. The live TSO recording of Sheherazade will be released by Chandos in Canada on August 29 and in the United States on August 26. The worldwide digital release date is August 5.
“I am delighted that the TSO is working with Chandos, a company that has recorded rich and diverse repertoire with an extraordinary group of orchestras from around the world,” said TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian. “We're particularly excited that this release coincides with our summer European tour.”
The TSO has a long history of recording, dating back to 1942. The TSO recording library consists of over 145 releases. Most recently, the TSO released eight recordings on its self-produced label, TSO Live.
The TSO Season Presenting Sponsor is BMO Financial Group
The TSO Official Airline is Air Canada
About the TSO: Founded in 1922, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions, recognized internationally as an outstanding orchestra. Currently celebrating his 10th season as Music Director, Peter Oundjian continues to lead the Orchestra with a commitment to innovative programming and audience development with performances that range from Masterworks to New Creations, Young People’s Concerts to Pops, all showcasing the exceptional talents of the Orchestra along with a roster of distinguished guest artists and conductors. In addition to the concert season, the TSO serves the larger community with TSOUNDCHECK, the original under-35 ticket programme; the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra; and music education and outreach programmes that connect students with acclaimed curriculum-based programming.

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2014 - a Preview

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2014 – A Preview

By Joseph So

Summertime, and the music is lovely...”

With apologies to Ira Gershwin for my corny appropriation (and alteration) of his lyrics from the divine Porgy and Bess, I must say it sums up perfectly my feeling of the state of summer music in our fair city of Toronto. For years, one would have to travel far and wide in the summer to get a classical music fix. But this is no longer the case – the TO summer is no longer the musical desert of yore. Yes I still make my annual treks to a few select places for opera – I had just returned from the Glyndebourne Festival and the Münchner Opernfespiele. But now I make sure that I am in town for TSMF (Toronto Summer Music Festival), a three-week celebration of classical music-making of a very high order. This year, more than ever, the offerings are enticing indeed.

The theme of TSMF 2014 is The Modern Age, a period that loosely encompass classical music in the first quarter of the 20th century, give and take a decade or so at either end. This takes us from around 1890 through to the 1930's, a period when music underwent extremely exciting transformations from tonality to serialism, culminating in the works of the so-called Second Viennese School. A look at the program of 2014 TSMF shows the emphasis however is on tonal music, highlighting the works of Late Romantic musical giants the likes of Strauss and Mahler, to the Impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, the Russian music masters Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, as well as the great English composers Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Also entering into the equation is the rise of popular musical idioms such as folk and jazz. With such a broad stroke, the 2014 edition of TSMF is ambitious, audacious, and exciting, with something for every musical taste. There are plenty of programming highlights to be sure, so my choices here reflects my personal taste. For full details, go to

Pianist Beatrice Rana

The two areas of focus of the 2014 TSMF remain chamber music and art of the song. The Festival opens with the Emerson String Quartet in a recital at the acoustically friendly Koerner Hall on July 22. Chamber cognoscenti will remember them as having played so beautifully on the soundtrack of The Late Quartet. Now we can hear them in person in a program of Beethoven, Schubert and Britten. The brilliant Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of the 2011 Montreal International Musical Competition (Piano Edition) and the Silver Medal of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition, will give a recital on July 23 at Walter Hall, in a program of Bach, Chopin and Prokofiev. The New York based Orion String Quartet will be in town July 24 for a program of Haydn, Brahms, and Dvorak, with special guest pianist Peter Serkin (who is a great pianist in his own right of course but old-timers like yours truly still think of him as son of the great Rudolf). It's extremely exciting for the Festival to present soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in a recital of songs and arias, including the works of Beethoven, Verdi, Cilea, Rachmaninoff, Duparc and Copland. (July 31 Koerner Hall). While not all the songs fall within the Festival theme, Radvanovsky is such a wonderful singer that even if she sings the telephone book, it'll be worth hearing! Anyone who saw her magnificent performance as Elisabetta in the recent COC Roberto Devereux will know what I mean.

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

For the Art of the Song, audiences can experience the artistry of a great singer, British baritone Christopher Maltman together with the dean of collaborative pianist Graham Johnson on August 6 at Walter Hall. I had the great good fortune of hearing Maltman just last week, as Lescaut in Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Part of a stellar cast that included the hottest tenor on the planet Jonas Kaufmann and the super-glamorous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, Maltman more than held his own in a rather thankless role. The theme of Maltman's recital, The Soldier – from Severn to Somme, is one of remembrance, of the victors and victims of war in the songs by Mahler, Mussorgsky, Butterworth, Ives, Finzi and Poulenc. Graham Johnson is one of three artists giving public masterclasses as part of the Art of the Song program. The other two are baritones Francois LeRoux and Sanford Sylvan. Maltman will appear in a Musicians Up Close event on August 5th 2 pm in Walter Hall, just before the Johnson masterclass. Perhaps the biggest coup of TSMF 2014 is the presence of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Principals of the TSO will give a chamber recital of works by Dohnanyi, Mahler and Strauss (August 7 Walter Hall). The big event is the Closing Night Concert with the full TSO forces on August 12 at Koerner Hall before they leave for their European tour. The participation of the TSO this summer is surely a watershed that will make TSMF a major musical force to be reckoned with in the future.

In late May, I had the opportunity to sit down with TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney for a wide-ranging talk. This was our fourth pre-festival talk, since his taking over the TSMF from Agnes Grossmann. He was in town to present the noon-hour preview concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, and spent the day busy dealing with TSMF business. Ever friendly, cordial and totally unflappable, McNabney fielded my questions with thoughtful, articulate answers. As usual, we reviewed the past season as well as looked a little into the future:

TSMF Artistic Director Douglas McNabney

LSM: Let's begin by first looking back at last year's festival. Would you say your goals were accomplished?
DM: Oh yes, very much so! Last summer we had a 30% increase in attendance, and our advance ticket sales this year are ahead of last year.

LSM: What do you think accounted for this big jump in attendance?
DM: The Festival has become better known, and we don't have any competition in the summer. I really believe the festival theme, La belle epoque, was partly responsible. Paris at the turn of the caught the imagination of the public. It's a thread that ran through all the concerts.

LSM: That's great. Looking back at last season, what do you think could have been done better or can be improved upon in the future?
DM The big challenge is always reaching our public. We have 1200 seats to sell in Koerner Hall and 500 seats in Walter Hall. You would think if we could reach our target audience, we shouldn't have difficulty filling these seats. The traditional print and broadcast media have changed and they no longer pay as much attention (to classical music.) This year we've done something really interesting to increase the notoriety of the Festival. We've got the involvement of Toronto Symphony Orchestra...

LSM: That's quite a coup! How did you manage to get them on board? It should raise the profile of TSMF.
DM: They've put us in their season brochure. They announced the European tour and the first stop is Toronto Summer Music. We print 30,000 copies of our brochure; and they print 500,000! It always surprises me how many in Toronto have never been to the Festival, but that's only normal as it's only our 9th season. We're really beginning to establish ourselves, having events like the TSO put us into the spotlight. From there we can do more interesting things. We are really punching above our weight, to invite an organization like the TSO. A lot of it is based on personal connections... I know Andrew Shaw and Loie Fallis very well. These are people I've gone to school with. There is a trust there.

LSM: Part of building audience is through outreach. How's that going?
DM: The big thing we did last year was the “Shuffle” and it was a hit. It's based on the shuffle function of the ipod. For the first two years (of my tenure), we called it the Friday Night Experiment. I was always looking for an occasion to do something a little different, an alternate style. Some of our public would go to this and other public would come and it would be an interesting mix, and through that people may buy tickets to the regular season. (We found out) no, that's not how it works. Last year we found the right way – marketing it as almost a different festival. We have to go for a different public, serving a different public. It increases the notoriety of Festival and when people talk about TSMF they can find something in it for them, and it's not going to be the Emerson String Quartet, and it's fun and it's very high quality. These are not garage bands... it's going to be world music and serious jazz bands. I think we're doing the right thing.

LSM: How do you do the promotion for these new, alternate events?
DM: Last year we did the promotion in and around Heliconian Hall (the concert venue) in Yorkville, mostly with sandwich boards. It's 'Pay What You Can.' The Yorkville area is teeming with people; our concerts in Heliconian Hall were frequently full – we couldn't seat everybody for one of the tango shows. It's fun and different. We bring some of the Festival young artists into the program. They really love it – it's different and eclectic. They come and and play just one movement of the work. The idea is to do something a little different while maintaining the quality. It worked well last year and we're going to continue with it.

LSM: I'm curious – how did you get Sondra Radvanovsky on board?
DM: I work with Roman Borys of the Ottawa Chamberfest, two of us work together as a package. It means she's taking one week out of her holiday to do this, but she thought it was an interesting enough proposition. The details are still under negotiation. [Note: since the interview, the program has been announced, and it includes Ah Perfido! Beethoven's formidable concert aria, plus several operatic chestnuts and some of the best known songs by Rachmaninoff and Duparc]

LSM: I noticed that you are offering song recitals with your Art of the Song fellows...
DM: Yes. In the past, we've always had the Art of Song participants to sing within Mentors and Fellows programs. Many people complained that it wasn't enough of an occasion to highlight the singers. This year they'll have two concerts. Eight singers and five pianist, and we'll get to hear them all.

LSM : What are you most proud of in this year's festival?
DM: Bringing the Toronto Symphony is a huge undertaking. It's a tremendous financial responsibility, much bigger than anything the Festival had undertaken in the past. I had to work really hard to convince the board to do this. The TSO has been helping's a wonderful collaborative effort, to help us reach potential new donors. For the TSO, the alternative was to do their regular, free concert at David Pecaut Square. That reaches a big public, but this way they get to play in Koerner Hall for the first time. There's a whole video team assembled to document the concert and their tour.

LSM: I've noticed that there is a strong Asian presence among the Art of the Song program participants, and there seems to be more Asians in the audience for both the symphony and the opera. Are you trying to tap into that?
DM: Yes we do have a very strong Asian presence (among the fellows) this year. We still don't have the (Asian) public yet. Having them as fellows, we hope we're going to bring in the audience. We have an Asian board member – he's young, energetic and well connected. We are working on building long term relationships with the communities – it's building trust and it's always long term.

LSM: As a voice fan, I must say I've really been impressed with the wonderful people you've brought in for the Art of the Song program, despite the disappointments of a few cancellations in the past...
DM: This year we have Christopher Maltman here to do a very well thought out program, with a real theme that takes you through World War One. Graham Johnson is here for a week to give masterclasses. This is just our 4th Academy, already we've had Sir Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley, Elly Ameling, Roger Vignoles, and Julius Drake, all amazing artists and teachers. The only one missing is Malcolm Martineau and I'm working on it!

LSM: Let's talk a little about this year's theme, The Modern Age. I've noticed that the programming have pretty much stayed within the boundaries of tonality rather than venturing into Serialism, which is of course the major musical transformation of this period. Can you say something about that?
DM: You know, one of my big passions is Schönberg and the Second Viennese School. I am interested in the whole creative process, his whole voyage, how he got into it following the horrors of World War One, its parallels in the visual arts, the Cubist movement and the German Expressionism, etc. But I won't be doing that as part of TSMF. We're doing the Chamber Symphony, still very tonal, but that's as far as we'll get this year. We'll have some of our young artists do this repertoire. This material has to be presented in a special way so as not to lose my audience...

LSM: Looking into the future – what would next year's theme be?
DM: It's Music of the Americas, a very rich and diverse thematic area with lots of possibilities. We'll take some of the American composers who studies in France – everybody from America studied in Paris in those days. Just Copland is a lot of fantastic music; we can also broaden into jazz. The problem next year is to limit it to the great music.

LSM: Thank you and my best wishes for a very successful Festival.

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This Week in Montreal: July 14 to 20

Festival de Musique de Lachine From July 5 to 19, the Festival presents an opening concert featuring violinist Alexandre Da Costa and the Acacia Ensemble. They will peform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and arrangements from operas. Two solo pianists are featured in the festival’s program: renowned performer André Laplante and young prodigy Daniel Clarke Bouchard. Myriam Farid and Olivier Godin perform a four-hands piano. Notable in chamber music is the duo of violonist Kerson Leong and pianist Philip Chiu, the Trio Triple Forte with pianist David Jalbert, violinist Jasper Wood, and cellist Yegor Dyachkov, as well as Flûte Alors!, a recorder ensemble that proves to be a veritable journey into history. As far as vocal arts, the ensemble Vivavoce performs motets from the Renaissance through contemporary music. The Découvertes concert introduces the Quatuor Fandango Quartet, a young guitar quartet formed in 2009. The Sinfonietta du Festival and its conductor Vincent Lapointe present Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat major and Tchiakowvsky’s Serenade for Strings. Concerts take place at L’Entrepôt Performance Hall or Saints-Anges Church in Lachine. 
 - Renée Banville

Just for Laughs (July 12-26) Big names at this year’s galas include Andy Samburg, Aziz Ansari, Russel Peters, Jim Gaffigan, and Seth Rogan. If you can’t make it to a gala show, you can still see Nick Offerman at Club Soda or your favourite funny Canadians at Homegrown, hosted by Debra DiGiovanni at l’Astral. Just for Laughs, with 1,700 artists from 19 countries, will offer 1,600 shows of which 1,200 will be free outdoor venues. 
 - Hassan Laghcha

Julian Kuerti

Concerts Populaires Celebrates 50 Years In June 1964, at the initiative of mayor Jean Drapeau, the first event of the Concerts Populaires took place: a homage to Vienna with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal under the baton of Alexander Brott. This year, the Orchestre Métropolitain, directed by Julian Kuerti, will performs an integral reproduction of the 1964 inaugural concert with soprano Aline Kutan. Six concerts will beare presented between June 26 and July 31 at the Centre Pierre-Charbonneau, Thursdays at 7:30 pm. 
 - Renée Banville

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Thursday, 10 July 2014

Russian Songs / Yuri Gorodetski, tenor (CD Review)

Russian Songs

Yuri Gorodetski, tenor
Tatiana Loisha, piano
ATMA Classique ACD2 2690

I first heard Belarusian tenor Yuri Gorodetski at the Queen Elisabeth Competition (Belgium) in 2008 where he won Fifth Prize.  My impression at the time was a very nice lyric tenor, used with taste and sensitivity, as evidenced in a most poetic and heart-felt ‘Kuda, kuda’ from Eugene Onegin. At the end, he had tears welling up in his eyes. Four years later, he reprised this aria at Chant 2012 in Montreal. While he didn’t win the grand prize – that was won by Canadian baritone Philippe Sly – Gorodetski received the ATMA Classique Prize. This disc, recorded in Salle Françoys-Bernier, Domaine Forget in April 2013, is the result of that award. The program of Russian songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff was a natural choice. These mostly familiar pieces are strong on melancholia – even the happy ones seem to be tinged with traces of sadness. Gorodetski, with his plaintive tone and a well-developed mezza voce in the middle register, is an ideal interpreter of these pieces. There is however a fly in the ointment - his tendency to sing the extreme top notes too “open” as in the high B in the famous ‘Spring Waters’ by Rachmaninoff (Track 12). This unfortunately gives his singing a strident quality. When he attacks a top note with too much force, as in the high C at the end of “Davni l’ moj drug” (Track 20), the line is distorted. Interestingly, I never noticed this technical issue in  the QE Competition back in 2008. These quibbles aside, there is still much to enjoy on this debut album. The well-produced booklet has an essay by Irene Brisson on Russian songs, artist bios, and song texts in Russian, French and English. The recorded sound is clean and warm.  A special kudos to Belarusian pianist Tatiana Loisha, who is supportive of the singer and technically up to the demands of the bravura piano accompaniment, especially in the Rachmaninoff. Recommended for fans of the Russian song repertoire. JOSEPH SO

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As Long As There Are Songs / Stephanie Blythe (CD Review)

As Long As There Are Songs

Stephanie Blythe
Craig Terry, piano
INNOVA 875  (55min 32sec)

There have been plenty of opera divas over the years trying their hand at pop. Just because these ladies are wonderful in opera doesn’t always mean success as the two genres pose totally different technical and stylistic demands.  Singing intimate pop songs in an operatic fortissimo, with excessive vibrato, rigid rhythm and a general lack of “swing” are surefire reasons for unidiomatic results.  The best ones, Eileen Farrell of the past comes immediately to mind, sing naturally, without any hint of operatic artifice.  Based on this disc of 14 popular American songs, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe qualifies as a fine pop singer. From Irving Berlin to Harold Arlen to George Gershwin, Blythe sings “naturally” with clear diction, capturing the spirit of each song. Personally I prefer the sad songs, which she sings in an exquisite half voice, like ‘Always’ and “When You Wish Upon a Star.’ For the upbeat songs, she brings her chest voice to the very top – totally verboten in opera – and its creates a certain "Ethel Merman forcefulness" to these numbers. The disc uses Meyer Sound’s new “Constellation Acoustic Technology” creating a very natural ambiance, as if the listener is in the room with the singer. Given this realistic acoustic, one wish there were an audience complete with applause. As it stands, it's just odd that there's dead silence after the end of a song. Here is a video clip where Blythe talks about the recording process -   Recommended for fans of Blythe and for opera fans who want to venture into old standards.  JOSEPH SO 

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Le Nouvel ensemble vocal - enfin un chœur a capella juste!

Par Marc-Olivier Laramée

En juin, un nouvel ensemble vocal fit son apparition sur la scène montréalaise de la musique classique. Le chant choral occupe une place de plus en plus importante au Québec, mais peu de chœurs peuvent se prévaloir du titre de chœur professionnel. L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, avec son nouveau chœur de chambre professionnel ou bien le Studio de Musique ancienne en sont de bons exemples.

Ce nouveau chœur est formé de chanteurs provenant des universités McGill, Concordia et de l’Université de Montréal d’où provient justement le chef de chœur Pascal Germain‑Berardi. Le chœur est aussi soutenu par plusieurs anciens Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, ensemble dont M. Germain‑Berardi a aussi fait partie.

Ce concert avait pour objectif de lancer ce nouveau projet, d’établir des bases en vue de prochains concerts. « J’étais entouré de jeunes musiciens de qualité ne demandant qu’à avoir des occasions pour performer… » dit le chef. Ces chanteurs ont répondu présent, donnant ainsi une performance a cappella d’une justesse rarissime dans le chant choral. Avec des effectifs restreints de quatre chanteurs par voix, le résultat est fort surprenant.

Pour débuter le programme, une œuvre sortant des classiques du chant choral, Mirages sur le désert de Gobi, de Se Enkhbayar. Cette œuvre tire son inspiration de la musique orientale de la Mongolie. Le public fut transporté dans un univers contradictoire par les effets sonores du chœur et méditatifs du désert, cet univers accompagné d’une voix fraîche parfaite d’une soprano, l’audience se sentait transportée tout droit en Mongolie.

Par la suite, un vent estival emplit la salle avec l’interprétation des 3 Chansons de Charles d’Orléans de Claude Debussy. Bien que l’arrimage des différentes voix ne fut pas à son meilleur, la troisième chanson fut la mieux réussie.

S’ensuivirent deux compositions. Lève-toi, une pièce inspirée du Cantique des Cantiques, une œuvre originale du chef lui-même. Cette pièce rendue sous la forme d’un motet était d’une pureté et finesse cristallines. Les qualités vocales du chœur furent mises à l’honneur. Une justesse parfaite! La deuxième composition, T’en souviens-tu Godin? de Jean‑Christophe Arsenault, un jeune compositeur québécois, est inspirée de l’œuvre du très connu ministre de l’immigration et écrivain Gérald Godin. On peut percevoir toute l’envergure du travail fait par Godin. L’histoire du Québec, ses échecs et ses défis. Pour terminer la première partie, le Magnificat d’Avro Pärt ainsi qu’une œuvre du pédagogue de la musique hongroise, Evening Song de Zoltán Kodály.

La deuxième partie, elle, était dédiée aux compositeurs des 18e et 19e siècles. Tout d’abord, le Miserere Mei de l’italien Antonio Lotti. Le chant sacré est souvent bien chanté mais encore plus souvent mal interprété. Heureusement, ce nouveau chœur a réussi à marier les deux. Le style, l’ambiance, le sens de l’œuvre et encore une fois l’élément le plus important la justesse, tout y était!

Vient ensuite mon coup de chœur, le Concerto pour Chœur de Sergeï Rachmaninoff. Cette œuvre est complète. Que ce soit ici la légèreté et agilité des voix de femmes dont c’était la meilleure performance ou bien la profondeur et la solidité des hommes. Le sérieux de la religion orthodoxe et le souci de l’équilibre des voix étaient extraordinaires. Les 16 chanteurs ont tout donné et tout fait pour créer un amalgame équilibré tel un bon vin.

Pour terminer le concert, le Pater Noster de Giuseppe Verdi ainsi que trois motets d’Anton Bruckner. Le Pater Noster tout comme le Magnificat de Pärt manquaient tous deux de coordination. Les tempi semblaient vagues. Dans le cas des motets, parmi Locus Iste, Vexila Regis et Os Justi, le deuxième remporta le prix d’interprétation. Même les silences chantaient!

On peut dire que dans l’ensemble, la justesse est l’élément fondamental qui distingue ce chœur des autres. Malgré quelques faux pas, avec un travail de cohésion entre les membres et une attention plus particulière à regarder le chef pendant le concert, ces chanteurs pourraient devenir un incontournable parmi les chœurs professionnels.

Concert inaugural du Nouvel ensemble vocal
Direction : Pascal Germain-Berardi
Samedi 14 juin 2014, 20h00
Paroisse de la Nativité de la Sainte-Vierge, 3200 Ontario, Montréal 

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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Le Festival de Lanaudière du 8 juillet au 10 août

par Justin Bernard

Pour cette 37e édition, le pianiste Alain Lefèvre, ambassadeur artistique du festival, fera le concert d’ouverture. Au programme, une œuvre de Bach transcrite par Liszt, une sonate de Haydn et une autre de Rachmaninov, les 24 préludes de Chopin et La Valse de Ravel. 8 juillet.

Pour souligner le 150e anniversaire de naissance de Richard Strauss, trois des œuvres du compositeur seront interprétées : le poème symphonique Don Quichotte avec solistes, accompagnés par l’Orchestre du Festival, que l’on pourra entendre dans un autre poème symphonique, Don Juan, et dans la suite orchestrale extraite du Chevalier à la rose. À la direction, Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Solistes : Stéphane Tétrault, violoncelliste, et Brian Bacon, altiste. 12 juillet.

Les Violons du Roy, dirigés par Bernard Labadie, seront présents au festival avec un programme qui comblera les amateurs de musique baroque : une cantate en compagnie de la soprano Sophia Brommer et deux suites orchestrales de Bach ainsi que le motet Sileti venti de Haendel. 19 juillet.

Après Beethoven et Schumann, c’est Brahms que la Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie de Brême mettra à l’honneur dans deux concerts très attendus. Sous la direction de Paavo Järvi, les deux premières symphonies, deux concertos et deux solistes : le pianiste Lars Vogt et le violoniste Christian Tetzlaff. 2 et 3 août.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin dirigera l’Orchestre Métropolitain dans la Symphonie no 8 de Beethoven, la Siegfried Idyll de Wagner, le Prélude de Tristan et Isolde et, enfin, une version orchestrale du Liebestod. 6 août.

Pour la dernière soirée classique, Kent Nagano dirigera l’OSM dans la Symphonie no 2 « Résurrection » de Mahler. Solistes : Erin Wall, soprano, et Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano. 9 août.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Muti in Chicago (last in a series of three articles)

Muti with members of MCANA: Photo by Todd Rosenberg 

“At my age I don’t care what critics write anymore but I do care about presenting Italian opera the way the composer intended and I do care about using music to bring people together.” – Riccardo Muti (2014)

The Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) held its annual meeting in Chicago this year between June 17-19. The featured concerts were two performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) led by its music director Riccardo Muti. In the first two articles in this series of three, I reported on these excellent concerts. As part of the MCANA activities, the group of about 30 critics also attended a rehearsal led by Muti, followed by a Q and A session with the illustrious Italian maestro. This session turned out to be a memorable experience.

With the members of MCANA, Muti was initially somewhat defensive and prosecutorial; perhaps he felt the need to establish who was boss when members of the CSO were behind him on the stage. After the orchestra members had left and Muti came down off the stage to greet the  critics at close quarters – several hugs for members of the local press – the Italian conductor was much more relaxed and friendly. For over an hour, he stood amongst the critics speaking his mind and answering questions with amusing stories and thoughtful analysis.

Riccardo Muti will be 73 next month and on the evidence of what we saw in Chicago, he appears healthy and full of energy. The same could not be said when he took up his post in 2010. He suffered a series of illnesses that had him canceling more concerts than he conducted in Chicago. There was some doubt whether he would be able to continue. Fortunately, these medical misfortunes are very much in the past and Muti has become a beloved figure for the members of the Chicago Symphony and for the Chicago public.

Riccardo Muti has had, to put it mildly, a major career. He led La Scala for 19 years; he has been music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra; and he was on the short list to succeed Herbert von Karajan as head of the Berlin Philharmonic. That post went to his contemporary and sometime rival Claudio Abbado.

In 1991, Norman Lebrecht painted a portrait of Muti in The Maestro Myth that emphasized how seriously he took his work, while making clear that Muti was also far more extroverted than the low-key Abbado. Muti’s great mission then, as it is now, was to preserve and disseminate Italian operas, exactly as their composers intended. This meant removing all the excesses introduced by egocentric tenors such as Pavarotti: if there are no high C’s or fermatas on high C’s written by the composer, singers in Muti-conducted opera performances will not be allowed to add them. Period! In other words, Muti is dedicated to doing
for 19th Century Italian opera what the historically-informed specialists have done for 18th Century music. How ironic, then, that in the session with our critics group in Chicago, Muti saved his most vitriolic comments for these folks; Nikolaus Harnoncourt was singled out as the worst offender.

Muti had the critics in fits of laughter as he imitated Pavarotti stretching the top note on “Vincerò” in the aria “Nessun Dorma” to interminable lengths. He also ridiculed the sound produced by members of the Arnold Schoenberg Choir in Vienna – Harnoncourt’s favorite chorus – as totally sexless and nonsensical in Bach’s B minor Mass. “Bach had nine children,” Muti shouted. He even resorted to scatological images to remind us that Bach loved nothing better than playing the organ – his own and the one in his church. The original instrument conductors are the “vegetarians of music,” Muti declared. “They are the fundamentalists.”

But aren’t conductors like Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner simply doing for Bach and Mozart what Muti is doing for Verdi? Surely they are all trying to figure out what the composer intended and to give historically accurate performances. While Muti didn’t specifically address this question, he would undoubtedly have argued that the “fundamentalists” go too far, and often leave out the most human elements of musical expression.

Muti’s views on performance practice became the focus of the session with the critics when I asked him about his approach to the Schubert symphonies. Having heard him rehearse and conduct Schubert over the past several days, it was clear to me that his considered approach was very much in the tradition of conductors such as Bruno Walter, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. Some would call it old-fashioned. I suggested to him that much work has been done on Schubert in the past 25 years and many scholars and conductors believe Schubert should be played in a manner best described as “historically informed.”

Muti responded by saying that while no one really knows how this music would have been played in Schubert’s time, we do have some powerful evidence. It is the way the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) plays today. The VPO’s style of playing has been carefully and deliberately preserved by the players themselves over the past 200 years. Muti noted that he has been working with the VPO for more than 40 years. Players change. They continue to come and go, but the VPO style of playing remains the same. The current players are the teachers of the next generation, and so on. For Muti, this means that we need look no further than the current incarnation of the Vienna Philharmonic to know how Schubert was played in 1820. Toscanini famously said that “tradition is the last bad performance.” Obviously, Muti has a more positive view of the meaning of “tradition,” especially where the Vienna Philharmonic is concerned.

Muti also noted that the second performance of Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung was conducted by Salieri, with an orchestra and chorus numbering nearly 1,000, suggesting that for early music specialists to state unequivocally that classical symphonies need to be played by small orchestras is misleading. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were often limited by the numbers of players available, but welcomed the opportunity to hear their music played by large orchestras.

For the record, during the two concerts I heard during my visit to Chicago, Muti conducted Schubert’s Symphonies Nos. 1, 5 and 6 with the CSO and they demonstrated careful preparation and genuine love of the music. Muti used an orchestra of about 50 players. There were certainly echoes of Bruno Walter but there was also a lightness in the phrasing and the bowing and a restraint in the vibrato that suggested Muti has paid more attention to the “fundamentalists” than he lets on. Timpanist David Herbert even brought along a set of drums that wouldn’t have been out of place in Schubert’s orchestra.

Muti’s other “mission” in life is to use music to further the cause of world peace. He founded the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra in 2004 to give concerts in places where there have been recent hostilities or people suffering. Muti and the orchestra visit prisons and hospitals, and places such as Sarajevo, Yerevan, Damascus and Nairobi. The project is called Le vie dell’Amicizia (The Paths of Friendship). Other conductors have committed themselves to peace projects – Leonard Bernstein, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim come to mind – but in Muti’s case the mission is usually carried out away from the major musical capitals of the world. Muti goes where famous conductors are seldom seen or heard. He even finds time to visit prisons in the Chicago area.

In a lifetime of watching great conductors, I have seldom met a maestro of Muti’s stature who seemed so genuinely interested in what mere critics had to say. At his age, he doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. He certainly doesn’t have to ingratiate himself with several dozen critics who will have little effect on his reputation or his legacy. For those of us fortunate enough to be in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall this wonderful June afternoon, Muti left an indelible impression on us as a dedicated musician and a caring multi-dimensional human being.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Don Quixote Rides Again at Stratford

Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman with music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion

Director: Robert McQueen
Choreographer: Marc Kimelman
Musical Director: Franklin Brasz
Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote: Tom Rooney
Sancho Panza: Steve Ross
Aldonza: Robin Hutton

Stratford Festival
Avon Theatre
June 20, 2014

Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway in 1965 and quickly entered the ranks of the classics of the American musical theatre. It is an inspired treatment of Cervantes’ Don Quixote story and continues to delight audiences all around the world. More than that, it is recognized as part of a genre that was created with commercial success in mind but is now taken seriously by non-profits far beyond Broadway. The Stratford Festival has been taking the American musical seriously for decades, but so too are opera companies everywhere. Chicago Lyric Opera, for example, presents a Rogers and Hammerstein musical every season. Can the Met be far behind?

Major composers over the years have taken an interest in the demented figure of Don Quixote, a man who believes he can right wrongs and defeat all the bad guys in this world. Richard Strauss was particularly successful with his tone poem Don Quixote, in which a cello soloist takes the role of “the knight of the woeful countenance.” The best-known operatic treatment is Don Quichotte by Jules Massenet. It is rarely performed but recently got an airing by the Canadian Opera Company (COC). Man of La Mancha has enjoyed success far greater than either one of them. Undoubtedly, one of its greatest assets is the hit tune “The Impossible Dream,” in which both words and music capture the very essence of the man Don Quixote and lend themselves to being repeated throughout the show as a leitmotif.

Dale Wasserman
The other compelling ingredient is the book, the way in which Miguel de Cervantes’ early Seventeenth Century novel has been transformed into a stage play. It was Dale Wasserman’s invention to imagine a play within a play. We don’t know much about Cervantes life but Wasserman invents one that is highly credible. He imagines that Cervantes has been travelling through Spain with a small theatrical troupe when he is arrested and thrown into prison for something he did in his former line of a work as a tax collector. Cervantes is then set upon by the other prisoners and his magnus opus – the novel about Don Quixote, of course – is stolen. To save it from the flames, Cervantes improvises versions of the tales told in his novel to entertain his tormentors.
Cervantes ultimately wins over his fellow inmates and gets his manuscript back, but more than that, he inspires them to identify with Don Quixote and dream the impossible dream.

For some observers this is pure hokum and diminishes the literary quality of Cervantes’ original novel. Many critics feel that the message of the novel is far darker than that of the musical. Cervantes’ novel, they say, is really about a mentally ill old man who sets out on a fool’s errand. He understands nothing about what is really happening in the world around him and as he confronts supposed adversaries, he is repeatedly humiliated. It is a sad story that ends badly.

Stratford has produced Man of La Mancha before. It was done in 1998 at the Festival Theatre with Juan Chioran remembered as a superb Cervantes/Don Quixote, but this latest version is altogether worthy of the nearly 50 years history of the show.

The sets by Douglas Paraschuk are massively conceived and suitably menacing for a musical that takes place entirely within the confines of a Seventeenth Century Spanish prison. In the background, we see the blades of a windmill turning slowly. They remind us of Don Quixote’s tilting at windmills, but also of the cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, in which men are inexorably ground down, as millwheels grind grain to dust.

In front of the windmill is a raised drawbridge leading up to some massive doors. From time to time during the play, the doors are flung open at the top of the stairs, the drawbridge is lowered with the hideous sound of chains clanking, and soldiers descend into the prison to take away more wretches for torture and execution.

Tom Rooney as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote
in Man of  La Mancha. Photo by Erin Samuell.
The dual roles of Cervantes and Don Quixote are an extraordinary challenge for any actor. Time and again, he must pass convincingly and almost imperceptibly from one personage to the other. He must be not only a superb actor but also a singer of some stature. Tom Rooney was ideal in the role. His acting was strong but never over the top and his singing was wonderful. As both actor and singer he makes a beautiful sound with his voice, but more than that, he is able to express both the heroic aspirations of the two characters and the melancholy of their ultimate failure.

Steve Ross as Sancho Panza provided an excellent foil for his two masters, and Robin Hutton as Aldonza captured all the earthiness the part requires. Throughout the play Don Quixote has mistaken her for his beloved Dulcinea and by the end she has come to almost believe it herself. Hutton’s transformation is touching.

Director Robert McQueen’s production was excellent in all the myriad details that make a group of actors a real ensemble. There were only two scenes I found unconvincing. The first comes at the end of Act I. The gang rape of Aldonza was unnecessarily cruel and violent, and left several audience members – myself included - with a serious case of nausea as they headed out for intermission. The scene was obviously Wasserman’s idea, but it was director McQueen who made it so graphic in this production. 

The second comes near the end of the show.  As the play unfolds, it is very clear that Don Quixote is a Christ-like figure, at least in Wasserman’s conception, but for his death scene we don’t need Don Quixote to mime a crucifixion pose. We get it without the underlining. Again, in my estimation, director McQueen went too far.

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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Alice Through the Looking-Glass

Story by Lewis Carroll
Adaptation for the stage by James Reaney

Director: Jillian Kelley
Choreographer: Dayna Tekatch
Designer: Bretta Gerecke
Composer: Jonathan Munro
Sound Designer: John Gzowski

Alice: Trish Lindström
Red Queen: Cynthia Dale
White Queen: Sarah Orenstein
Humpty Dumpty: Brian Tree

Stratford Festival 
Avon Theatre
June 21, 2014

It is one of the great mysteries of genius how a shy, stammering Oxford mathematics professor came to create the most enchanting children’s books in the history of the genre; not only that, but how these same stories about a young girl and her adventures with a vast panoply of absurd characters are so intellectually clever as to continue to challenge great minds more than 150 years after they were written! The “Alice” stories not only turned out to be imaginative and compelling, but also philosophical textbooks that found new ways to frame the basic questions about our very existence.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (photo: right) spent most of his life teaching at Christ Church College, Oxford, but he found time to write both Alice and Wonderland (1850s) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Apparently, his inspiration was the children of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church. Liddell had three children, all girls: Lorina, Edith and Alice. It appears that Dodgson was particularly attracted to 11-year-old Alice. Not only did ‘Alice’ become the heroine of the two books, but rumor has it that Dodgson even planned to marry her.

The Stratford Festival is best known for its Shakespeare productions, but it has always offered a full range of plays and musicals or operettas. Year after year, its seasons mix plays from different centuries and from many different genres. To be so consistently successful in all these ventures requires imaginative and capable leadership – Antoni Cimolino at the moment – and a strong company of actors, singers, dancers and technicians. Alice Through the Looking Glass was a fine example of a company production. The Reaney adaptation was a huge success in 1994 and twenty years later it is still an impressive achievement. The new production, directed by Jillian Kelley in her Stratford debut is wonderfully entertaining, and not only for children.

James Reaney (1979)
It is difficult to praise too highly what the late James Reaney did, to bring Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic to the stage. For a start, he was faithful to the original material in the sense that he closely followed Carroll’s story, resisted the temptation to bring in material from the earlier and more popular Alice in Wonderland, and did not attempt to add his own thoughts about the material, the characters or the author. Reaney understood that Alice Through the Looking-Glass is quite strong enough on its own, with its clever story line and original characters.

Then it was up to the director and her team to breathe life into the play. Kelley and her colleagues get it right in one scene after another.

Lewis Carroll was especially clever in using the game of chess as a metaphor for Alice’s coming of age. The rules of chess work as the unseen and little understood actions of invisible forces moving individuals through life. Many of the leading characters in Alice Through the Looking Glass are chess pieces come to life; among them are the Red and White Kings and Queens, and the Red and White Knights. Early on Alice gets what it’s all about:

It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played – all over the world – if this is the world at all, you know. Oh, what fun it is! How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a pawn, if only I might join – though of course I should like to be a Queen best.

Trish Lindström
And so it goes. Alice does become a Queen. Trish Lindström as Alice was wide-eyed and likeable, and a whole host of Stratford stalwarts popped in and out throughout the show. It was luxury casting with Cynthia Dale, no less, as the Red Queen and Tom McCamus as the March Hare. Brian Tree, in his 25th Stratford season, almost stole the show as Humpty Dumpty, pontificating magnificently from atop his enormous egg body with assistants working his floppy arms.

Mike Nadajewski and Sanjay Talwar deserve special kudos for their well-drilled and funny Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The costumes added immensely to the success of this scene and to most others. Bretta Gerecke was the wizard at work here, aided by choreographer Dayna Tekatch.

And did I mention audience involvement? Children running up and down the aisles are usually the bane of an actor’s existence - not so on this occasion; here, they were positively encouraged to be off and running when jelly beans starting falling from the sky, and from the actors on stage.

Music was used sparingly in this show but always seemed just right. Jonathan Monro composed the music and recorded it too, using only keyboards. While the music was vaguely contemporary, it was never at odds with the period style of the play, nor did it ever fall back on all too familiar nursery rhyme versions of the songs.

The good news from Stratford is that at least one of the ‘Alice’ stories is as fresh and timeless as ever. If you enjoyed it as a child, come to the festival this summer and bring your kids. They’ll fall in love with it too, and you yourself will have another chance to ponder the great existential questions raised with incomparable cleverness and imagination so long ago by that shy Oxford mathematics professor.

For something more…

If your copies of the Alice fantasies are by now too dog-eared to pass muster, look no further than the internet. Free replacements are readily available at

Since 1969, American composer David Del Tredici has spent much of his time writing pieces that are Alice-related, and many of them are superb. Del Tredici often sets Carroll’s text to music but he also probes deeply into the layers of meaning, the real character of Alice and the relationship between Alice and the author. In addition, he fully enters into the spirit of the word games, and creates a few of his own. To learn more about this wonderful music visit the composer’s website at

Paul Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”

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