La Scena Musicale

Monday, 8 February 2016

Lebrecht CD of the Week - Bartók: 44 Duos (Decca)

Sarah and Deborah Nemtanu - Bartók: 44 Duos (Decca)

4/5 stars

It has been an age since I looked to my shelves for a work by a major composer and found that, after 40 years of building a library, I don’t have it. Nor, so far as I recall, have I ever heard it, either in concert or on radio (though a few recordings do exist).

The 44 duos were written by Béla Bartók in 1931 on commission from a German violinist, Erich Doflein, who wanted to use them as teaching aids in his studio. Easy money, you’d think. But Bartók, being Bartók, couldn’t write a dull phrase. The four books of exercises for two violins are filled with the most scintillating ideas and tunes, many drawn from Hungarian folklore, others combusting with instant inspiration. Not one of them sounds remotely like the kind of manual exercises Czerny wrote for the piano or Sevcik for the violin. There is art in these works, and beyond art a gift for playfulness and lively communication.

The two sisters in this performance, Sarah and Deborah Nemtanu, hail from Bartók’s Balkans but grew up in France. Both are concertmasters of Paris orchestras; their father is concertmaster in Bordeaux. The Nemtanus bring a range of rare qualities to their playing—family rivalry, tradition, intuition, and irrepressible joie de vivre.

They also bring a vast experience. The prelude and canon of Book 4, for instance, could not be brought off with such grace by players who had not whiled away hours together in Bach – especially the concerto for two violins—before breaking into a Csardas dance. There are passages here when the music-making sounds so profoundly intimate that the listener is almost an intruder, a guilty pleasure. The gap on my shelves is now admirably filled.

—Norman Lebrecht

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Sunday, 7 February 2016

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 8 - 14)

My Toronto Concert Picks for the Week of Feb. 8 to 14

~ Joseph So

Josef Wagner (Figaro) and Jane Archibald (Susanna) (Photo: Michael Cooper)

This is a particularly rich week for opera/voice lovers. The two productions of Canadian Opera Company's winter season continue at the Four Seasons Centre.  You have two more chances to catch Siegfried, the hit of the season,on Feb. 11 and 14.  Great singing, memorable production, and magnificent orchestra - what more can one possibly want? I have a friend who is going to all seven of the performances - that's a bit too compulsive for me, but if I had the energy, I would go to at least one more!  Stefan Vinke and Christine Goerke are just simply amazing. We are so blessed in Toronto to have these two. Vinke is going to sing this in Bayreuth, and I understand Goerke is going to be the Brunnhilde in a new Ring in Bayreuth in 2020!

Marriage of Figaro opened on Feb. 4 in a fresh take on this standard repertoire masterpiece by Claus Guth. I found myself enjoying it a great deal, and wrote a review for Musical Toronto that appeared on the weekend. I can't pretend it's my favourite production, but it's growing on me!  I will see it at least once more, the Ensemble performance on Feb. 22. The singing on opening night was spectacular, particularly Josef Wagner (Figaro), Russell Braun (Count), Erin Wall (Countess), Jane Archibald (Susanna), and Emily Fons (Cherubino). Debus conducted beautifully, and the orchestra didn't have any residual heaviness from a steady diet of Wagner!  Performances of the Mozart opera this week on Feb. 9 and 13.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts both operas.
British bass-baritone Christopher Purves (Photo:

There are three important noon hour vocal recitals at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre this week. British bass-baritone Christopher Purves, in town to sing Alberich in Siegfried, gives a recital on Tuesday Feb. 9 of songs by Handel and Duparc, plus the centerpiece, Songs and Dances of Death by Mussorgsky. The pianist is Liz Upchurch. 

Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner (Photo: Steven Haider)

Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner, the Figaro in the COC's The Marriage of Figaro, is singing the Mount Everest of song cycles, Schubert's Winterreise on Thursday Feb. 11. The 75 minute work of 24 songs is seen by many as the ultimate recital program.  I interviewed Mr.Wagner two weeks ago, and he told me he has been working on this cycle since he was 20, and he's now 40! He has sung it three times, all from memory, which is quite a feat given the amount of text. His pianist is Rachel Andrist. 

The third noon hour concert is given by members of the COC Ensemble Studio on Wednesday Feb. 10. On the program are highlights from Marriage of Figaro, which they will be singing on Feb. 22. This is a great opportunity to hear a preview. I can tell you that bass-baritone Gordon Bintner was fantastic as the Count at the dress rehearsal, deputizing for an indisposed Russell Braun.  The pdf file of the program on the COC website is not available, but I imagine the whole cast will be there - Iain MacNeil (Figaro), Karine Boucher (Susanna), Aviva Fortunata (Countess), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Jacqueline Woodley (Cherubiino), Gordon Bintner (Count), Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure (Don Basilio), Megan Latham (Marcellina), Doug MacNaughton (Antonio), Aaron Sheppard (Don Curzio), and Sasha Djihanian (Barbarina).  All three concerts are free. To make sure that you get in, show up an hour ahead to line up.

Violinist Maxim Vengerov

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting The Year of the Monkey: A Chinese New Year Celebration, on Feb. 13 7:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall. Chinese conductor Long Yu is at the helm. On the program are selections from Romeo and Juliet, and selections from Peking Opera.  Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov is the soloist in Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, a very famous Chinese classical music piece that practically any Chinese music lover will know.

TSO Chinese New Year Celebrations

As if COC Music Director Johannes Debus isn't busy enough these days, he is leading the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in a concert on Feb. 12 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall.  On the program are Rimsky- Korsakov's Scheherazade and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Edward Zhou.

Toronto Consort (Photo: Paul Orenstein)

The Toronto Consort, a chamber group specializing in Early Music, is presenting an intriguing program called Way of the Pilgrim, marking the re-release of their CD which is now on the Marquis label. On the program are pilgrim songs, crusaders' laments and dances from Spain, France and Germany. The concert takes place on Feb. 12 8 the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, at 427 Bloor St. West. There is a pre-concert talk an hour earlier. This concert is repeated on Feb. 13.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, Musicians in Ordinary is presenting a series of concerts. On Feb. 13th 8 p.m. at the Heliconian Hall in Yorkville, they are presenting  Sweet Swan of Avon: Words and Music. This particular concert focuses on Shakespeare's Lives of Girls and Women, with readings from Hamlet, Richard III, Taming of the Shrew and other works.  Music by Campion, Byrd, Dowland and other Tudor and Stuart composers are on the program. Artists are soprano Hallie Fishel, lutenist John Edwards and reader Ruby Joy. Christopher Verrette conducts.

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Monday, 1 February 2016

Cette semaine à Montréal (1 à 7 février) / This Week in Montreal (February 1–7)

Romanticism and Exoticism with the OM

Julian Kuerti offers two visions of Oriental exoticism : the delicious tales of One Thousand and One Nights with mezzo soprano Michèle Losier, and the Symphonic Suite of Rimski-Korsakov. Maison symphonique, February 5, 7:30 pm. On tour in three neighbourhoods fromFebruary 3-6.

Julian Kuerti proposera deux visions de l’exotisme moyen oriental : le délicieux conte des Mille et une nuits avec la mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier et la Suite symphonique de Rimski-Korsakov. Maison symphonique, 5 février, 19 h 30. En tournée dans 3 arrondissements du 3 au 6 février.

Les Cycles à la Chapelle - Historique

La rentrée à la Chapelle s’amorce avec deux cycles. Le violoniste Olivier Thouin et le pianiste François Zeitouni présenteront le deuxième de trois concerts consacrés à l’intégrale des sonates de Beethoven pour piano et violon. Le 7 février, 15 h.

Olivier Thouin

LMMC en février

Le 7 février, le Ladies’ Morning Musical Club nous offre un récital peu commun au violon et à l’alto avec le lithuanien Julian Rachlin, aussi à l’aise à l’un qu’à l’autre instrument. Rachlin a étudié le violon auprès de Boris Kuschnir au Conservatoire de Vienne et auprès de Pinchas Zukerman à la Manhattan School of Music. Ses partenaires de musique de chambre incluent Martha Argerich, Yefim Bronfman, Gidon Kremer et Maxim Vengerov. Depuis 2000, il est à la tête du festival Julian Rachlin & Friends à Dubrovnik. Œuvres au programme : Beethoven et Brahms.

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Lebrecht CD of the Week - Wihan Quartet: Dvořák/Janáček (Nimbus Alliance)

The Wihan Quartet - Dvořák, Suk, Janáček (Nimbus Alliance)

Rating: 4/5 stars

It must be something in the plum juice that produces, generation after generation, a cluster of distinctive string quartets from the country constituted as the Czech Republic. There is nothing like a Czech string quartet. It’s a generic school of ensemble playing that aligns all the right accents to a witty, virile expressiveness and an almost effortless panache.

Count the present contenders on the world stage: the Panocha, the Pavel Haas, the Pražák, the Stamic, the Vlach, the Wihan, and the daddy of them all, the Talich. There are presently seven or eight Czech quartets of the highest quality out there. No other nation of ten million can match that.

The Wihan Quartet—their name belongs to the cellist of the 1891 Bohemian Quartet: Josef Suk, Oskar Nedbal, Hanuš Wihan, Karel Hoffman—are as authentic as it gets. Their sound is close to what Antonin Dvořák must have heard when he composed quartets for his son-in-law’s group, as well as his elegiac cello concerto for Hanuš Wihan.

Skip to the Adagio of Dvořák s 1895 G-major quartet, written on his return from three years in America, and you will hear exactly what I mean. The gorgeous central theme, drawn from a folk tune, sacrifices nothing of its earthiness while metamorphosing into exquisite art. These parallel lines of grit and beauty are integral to Czech sound, delivered with a seal of organic farming and at Allegro driving speeds that would be illegal in most other countries.

The first Janáček quartet, titled Kreutzer Sonata and premiered by the Bohemians in 1924, is a meditation on marital breakdown. The Wihans paper over the human cracks by playing up the bucolic night noises that Janáček employs to mitigate misery with a sense of mortal insignificance. Theirs is a step beyond the conventional psychoanalytical interpretation and it works pretty well. In the track between two major string quartets, the Wihans dash off Suk’s delicious variations on the St. Wenceslas Chorale.

Czech it out.

—Norman Lebrecht

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Sunday, 31 January 2016

Otello brings murder, mayhem, mischief and 'green-ey'd' monsters to Montreal

By Naomi Gold

FOR Montreal opera and theatre aficionados, the afterglow of new year’s will radiate through late January to early February with the creative brilliance of Otello.

Conceived when Giuseppe Verdi's music met William Shakespeare's pen, the operatic masterpiece had an agonizingly long and arduous gestation.  Although Verdi couldn't read English, he revered Shakespeare's work --referring to Macbeth (for instance) as "one of mankind's greatest creations".  On The Bard of Avon himself, Verdi wrote: "He is one of my very special poets, and I have had him in my hands from my earliest youth, and I read and reread him continually."  But by the time he was introduced to the familiar story of Othello (or The Moor of Venice), Verdi had already declared himself retired from composing opera. This was largely due to his erstwhile success with the monumental Aida which had debuted in 1871.  Moreover, with his triumphant 1874 Requiem Mass, the great composer had no interest in resuming his art when music publisher Giulio Ricordi and conductor Franco Faccio first presented Othello to him in 1879.  They persisted nonetheless, annointing Arrigo Boito as collaborating librettist, but still he refused.  The trio, along with Verdi's (second) wife Giuseppina Strepponi, conspired to coax Verdi out of his self-imposed retreat. For the next few years, Verdi intermittently expressed casual interest but promised nothing, while Boito labored over the libretto.  Five years later, in March 1884, Verdi began composing, but just sporadically.  Long stretches of inactivity were punctuated by incredibly productive bursts of creativity where he would compose with great fervor. This pattern was repeated until December 1886, when an excited Verdi wrote to Boito that his opera was all but completed. The ecstatic Boito responded: "The Moor will come back no more to knock on the door of the Palazzo Doria (Verdi's Genoa residence), but you will go to meet the Moor at La Scala. Otello exists. The great dream has become reality". Indeed, Otello debuted to unprecedented popular and critical acclaim on February 5, 1887, at Milan's La Scala.

Verdi's music functions as opera was intended: a heightened form of drama perfectly faithful to the spirit and letter of the play. Out of some 300 operas adapted from Shakespearean plays, only a pitiful 2% have seen the light of stage. The reason is self-evident: adaptations are notoriously challenging, and those difficulties are directly proportional to the original's quality. Hence, as further testament to the magnitude of his genius, Verdi counts three operas based on the Bard's plays: Macbeth (1847), Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893), adapted from The Merry Wives of Windsor.

This brand new co-production is presented as a partnership between British Columbia's Pacific Opera Victoria and l'Opéra de Montréal. It marks the end of a 16-year local drought of the iconic oeuvre. As Otello, tenor Kristian Benedikt must summon considerable vocal chops whilst executing a panoply of emotions that begin on an intense plane and devolve into insane jealousy. Soprano Hiromi Omura interprets innocent victim Desdemona, Otello's faithfully devoted wife and baritone Aris Argiris must personify evil as he sings the role of satanic Iago. Glynis Leyshon stages this new production and Keri-Lynn Wilson conducts the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal.

Otello performances take place on January 30, February 2, 4, and 6 @ 7:30 pm in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.  For tickets/info call 514-842-2112 or visit;

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This Week in Toronto (Feb. 1 - 7)

My Toronto Concert Picks for the Week of Feb. 1 to 7

~ Joseph So

The big news for Toronto opera fans this week is the opening of the second production of the Canadian Opera Company's winter season, Marriage of Figaro.  We are getting the 2006 Salzburg production staged at the time to celebrate Mozart's 250th anniversary. Directed by Claus Guth, this intriguing re-imagining of the Mozart opera downplays the comedic elements. Instead, the austere set and Guth's dark vision give this piece an Ingmar Bergman feel. I've only seen part of a working rehearsal, and the final dress is happening Monday evening. There is however a 2006 commercial DVD starring a luminous Anna Netrebko as Susanna that's well worth watching. The COC has assembled a very fine cast, led by Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner in the title role. I've interviewed Mr. Wagner for an article which will appear very soon in Musical Toronto,

Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner (Photo: Joseph So)

Opposite him as Susanna is Canadian soprano Jane Archibald. Erin Wall and Russell Braun play the upstairs couple. The rest of the stellar cast include Emily Fons (Cherubino), Helene Schneiderman (Marcellina), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Michael Colvin (Basilio), Sasha Djihanian (Barbarina), and Doug McNaughton (Antonio). COC Music Director Johannes Debus is doing the superhuman assignment of conducting both Siegfried and Marriage of Figaro. He's probably spending more time at the opera house than at home! It opens on Feb. 4th 7:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre, with the second performance a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.

Salzburg production of Marriage of Figaro from 2011 (Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Meanwhile, the critically acclaimed Siegfried continues with performances on Feb. 2 and 5, both at 6:30 p.m. This revival is receiving uniformly rave reviews - a show not to be missed! In addition, there are three noon hour recitals this week at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The one that caught my eye features the Gryphon Trio (violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon, cellist Roman Borys, and pianist Jamie Parker) with guest soloist bass Robert Pomakov. The interesting program, Classics Reimagined, juxtaposes Mozart with Heather Schmidt's Lunar Reflections. I confess I am not familiar with the Schmidt work, and the program has no annotation. Concert on Tuesday Feb. 2 noon at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.  The program details can be found at

The Gryphon Trio (Photo: John Beebe)

If you can't make the Gryphon Trio's noon hour concert at the opera house, they are also performing on Monday Feb. 1st 7:30 p.m. at Walter Hall in the basement of the Edward Johnson Building on the campus of University of Toronto, as part of the New Music Festival. On the program are pieces by students of Allan Gordon Bell, including Candle Ice by Carmen Braden, Lunar Reflections by Heather Schmidt, In a World of Distance and Motion by Kelly Marie Murphy, and a new work by Vincent Ho. The Schmidt work is performed without the Mozart pairing.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is relatively quiet this week with only one event, Science @ the Symphony. The TSO and the Ontario Science Centre join forces "to present an exploration of sound, technology, space and mind-blowing science experiments."  It's part of TSO's Young People's Concert Series. Evan Mitchell conducts. Two performances on Feb. 6th 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. For details, go to

Conductor Bruno Weil makes a welcome return to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.  This ambitious project is selling very well - 95% according to the Tafelmusik website. Soloists are soprano Ruby Hughes, mezzo Mary Ellen Nesi, tenor Colin Balzer and bass-baritone Simon Tischler. There is currently a crowd-funding campaign going on to raise money for the recording of the Beethoven 9th drawn from this series of performances. To participate, go to  The first half of the program features the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir in Rheinberger's Abendlied, Brahms' Warum ist das Licht gegeben, and Valediction, a new Tafelmusik commision, directed by Ivars Taurins. Four performances, on Feb. 4, 5, 6 and 7 at Koerner Hall.  Times vary, with the Sunday matinee already sold out. Go to Tafelmusik website for details.

Pianist/composer Adam Sherkin

Pianist and composer Adam Sherkin is giving a free noon hour concert on Feb. 4th at the Lower Bluma Lobby of the St. Lawrence Centre, in partnership with Steinway Piano Gallery. Sherkin is not only a fine pianist, he's known for his very thoughtful and intriguing programming. This one focuses on music that the young Liszt composed on a trip through Switzerland, Italy and Austria in the 1830's. A decade later, the composer revised these pieces and published it as the Annees de pelerinage: Premiere annee. In this recital, Sherkin pairs it with his own composition, German Promises of 2011.

Annex Quartet (Photo:

Music Toronto is presenting the Toronto-based Annex Quartet in a recital on Thursday Feb. 4 8 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre. On the program are works by Mendelssohn, Janacek and R. Murray Schafer.

Tenor Colin Ainsworth

On Sunday Feb. 7 2:30 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Opera in Concert, otherwise known as Voice Box, is presenting a rarity, Salieri's Falstaff. Sung in Italian with English surtitles. Larry Beckwith conducts the Aradia Ensemble, with featured soloists tenor Colin Ainsworth (Ford), Allison Angelo (Mistress Ford) and Dion Mazerolle (Sir John Falstaff). Unlike the Verdi piece, there are two characters called Slender (Justin Welsh) and Mistress Slender (Michele Bogdanowicz)! Details at -

Mezzo Wallis Giunta and conductor/pianist Jordan de Souza

Canadian mezzo Wallis Giunta and conductor Jordan de Souza join forces to present Songbook VI, a concert of new opera works, under the auspices of Tapestry New Opera.  No details of the program is available on the Tapestry website. Maestro de Souza is also at the COC and he's slated to conduct the Feb. 23 and 25 performances of Marriage of Figaro.  Two performances of Songbook VI on Feb. 5th and 6th 8 p.m., at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District of downtown Toronto.

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Monday, 25 January 2016

Lebrecht CD of the Week - Manhattan Intermezzo (Naxos)

Editor's Note: La Scena Musicale is pleased to welcome back contributor Norman Lebrecht for his weekly CD reviews, which will be posted online on Mondays and appear in the print edition.  Read Norman's regular CD reviews and columns at Lebrecht Weekly.

NaxosCDCoverSedakaEtc 200
Manhattan Intermezzo (Naxos)
Run Time: 69 m 19 s

Rating: 3/5 stars

What you really need to start 2016 – what you never imagined you'd ever need – is a piano concerto by Neil Sedaka.

Absolutely no irony here. Anyone who can write a novel or concerto start to finish without falling on his/her plot deserves all the credit going and a fair ride from reviewers. Sedaka, 75, made his name with a stream of teen hits in the late 1950s after attending Saturday classes at Juilliard. He hit the #1 jackpot with Oh, Carol, a tribute to his ex-girlfriend Carole King, and never looked back.

Except, perhaps, for a hankering to do some of the stuff he learned at Juilliard. He kept up his piano playing and, after tooling around with a Chopin project, produced the title piece of this album, a meditation on his home town. Like Manhattan itself, the score has got all you can eat – lashings of Rachmaninov, a splosh of Schumann, a Gershwin kick-start, ethnic dabblings and layer upon layer of pure smooch. Jeffrey Biegel plays it for all it’s worth, the Brown University Orchestra is perfectly adequate and you won’t feel the slightest bit ripped off by the experience.

Also on the album: a Duke Ellington concoction, a concerto by ELP’s keyboardist Keith Emerson and a somewhat unnecessary Rhapsody in Blue. On my copy, the order of play on the disc differs from that on the sleeve. Let your ear be the guide. There’s no mistaking the Duke’s irresistible swing or the unfiltered breakfast syrup of Sedaka. Go on, ignore the calories and indulge.

—Norman Lebrecht

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Cette semaine à Montréal (25 à 31 janvier) / This Week in Montreal (January 25–31)

Opera McGill: L'Elisir d'amore

Opera McGill’s annual mainstage opera is a production of Donizetti’s comic opera L’Elisir d’amore, known for great arias including Nemorino’s “Una ­furtive lagrima.” Patrick Hansen conducts with staging by François Racine. Pollack Hall. January 28, 29, 30 at 7:30 pm, and January 31 at 2 pm. The performances on the 29th and 30th will be webcast at

Image result for Opera McGill: L'Elisir d'amore

Jean-Guihen Queyras aux Violons du Roy

C’est une rencontre longuement attendue que fera avec les Violons du Roy ce violoncelliste inspiré. Soliste de l’Ensemble intercontemporain dirigé alors par Boulez, qui en avait fait son protégé, le réputé violoncelliste possède une grande diversité de répertoire. Œuvres au ­programme, sous la direction de Mathieu Lussier : Bach, Monn et Hasse. Salle Bourgie, 29 janvier, 19 h 30.

Cet hiver au Théâtre Outremont

Le Théâtre Outremont, devenu en 2015 le premier théâtre municipal de l’histoire de Montréal, a maintenant une vocation artistique variée incluant cinéma, danse, musique et théâtre. Il vise à favoriser la ­participation du public montréalais à la vie culturelle, incluant le public jeunesse. Plusieurs spectacles seront à l’affiche en décembre et janvier. Le 28 janvier, le trompettiste Jacques Kuba Seguin ramène le jazz au théâtre avec son ensemble Odd Lot, qui présente son dernier opus, L’élévation du point de chute.

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Sunday, 24 January 2016

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 25 - 31)

My Toronto Concert Picks for the Week of January 25 to 31

~ Joseph So

Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) and Christine Goerke (Brunnhilde) Photo: Michael Cooper

Canadian Opera Company's winter season opened with Siegfried  last evening. This is the same production from the Ring Cycle that opened the opera house nearly ten years ago. What a joy to re-acquaint myself with this masterpiece, directed by Francois Girard.  Siegfried for years has been my least favourite of the Ring operas, but last evening's show was so stunning that I just might change my mind!  First of all, it was a great night of singing, from Stefan Vinke (Siegfried) down to the smallest roles. He was matched by the Brunnhilde of Christine Goerke. The rich, ringing tone of Alan Held (Wanderer) was a joy. The COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus made magnificent sounds for 5 hours (okay, that includes two relatively short intermissions). A full review to follow in Musical Toronto - I will update with the link here. Anyway, this show is not to be missed!  Yes it's long but the music is glorious. Two performances this week, Jan. 27 at the early start time of 6:30 p.m. and Jan. 30 at the super-early start time of 4:30 p.m.

(l. to r.) Alan Held, Stefan Vinke, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke in Siegfried (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a very interesting program this week, combining Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the gorgeously atmospheric tone poem The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius.It's one of those rare compositions, written specifically for cor anglais or English Horn. It's called that but in reality it's a lower-pitched oboe. To me, this piece has amazing suggestive power of imagery - just listening to the strings and its interplay with the woodwind gives me the chills. Watch this clip and see if you agree with me -  As if that's not enough of an attraction, these performances also feature Canada's "queen of new music" Barbara Hannigan in Dutilleux's Correspondances. She has recorded this for Detusche Grammophon a few years ago. Peter Oundjian conducts. Performances at Roy Thomson Hall on Jan. 27 and 28.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan (Photo: Raphael Brand)

On Saturday Jan. 30th 3 p.m., the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra under the baton of conductor Shalom Bard is giving a concert at the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building on the campus of University of Toronto. On the program are Sibelius Symphony No. 1, Rossini's Overture to La gazza ladra, and Shostakovich's Festive Overture.

Russian pianist Denis Matsuev

Another important concert this week is the recital by the fabulous Russian pianist Denis Matsuev on Saturday Jan. 30  8 p.m. at Koerner Hall. He is in the middle of a North American tour and thanks to Show One Productions, he's making Toronto one of his stops.  However, it's already sold-out, but you can always check with the box office for returns.  He is playing a program of works by Schumann and Rachmaninoff.

Violinist Daniel Hope (Photo: Harald Hoffmann)

British violinist Daniel Hope had a long association with the late, great Yehudi Menuhin. At the age of 11, Hope was invited by Menuhin to play Bartok duos with him on German television, thus beginning a long artistic partnership that resulted in over 60 concerts, including Menuhin's last performance on March 7th 1999, when the great maestro conducted Hope's performance of Schnittke's Violin Concerto. On Thursday Jan. 28th 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall, Hope joins German pianist Sebastian Knauer in a recital, billed Yehudi Menuhin @100. They will perform pieces by Bach, Enescu, Mendelssohn, Walton, Ravel and Bartok.

The august Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is giving a free community concert on Saturday January 30th 3 p.m. at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. It's general seating, so get there early! Doors open at 2:15 p.m. TMC is accepting donations to support their outreach program. Suggested donation is $10. This concert is given in conjunction with the 6th Annual Choral Conductor's Symposium, which is open to the public for a fee.  The concert will be webcast on Livestream at  New for 2016, the concert will include the premieres of two works submitted to the TMC Choral Composition Competition. For more information, go to

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Saturday, 23 January 2016

TSO's Semi-staged Mozart Requiem Brings the Divine to the Human Level

Semi-staged Mozart Requiem Brings Grieving and Loss to the Human Level

~ Joseph So

Mozart: Requiem

Lydia Teuscher, soprano / Allyson McHardy, mezzo / Frederic Antoun, tenor / Philippe Sly, bass-baritone
Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers / Lydia Adams, conductor
Toronto Symphony Orchestra / Bernard Labadie, conductor
Joel Ivany, stage director
Roy Thomson Hall, Friday 7:30 p.m. January 22, 2016

Mozart's Requiem Mass, his last (and unfinished) creation, is arguably his greatest. No matter how many times I've heard this piece, I never get tired of it.  A ticket to this semi-staged version put on by the TSO wasn't so easy, as all three performances were sold out, a rare occurrence in Toronto. Thanks to the good graces of their press department, I was able to experience it - and what an experience it was.  I admit to being a bit of an 'old guard', a traditionalist at heart. But I'd like to think that I'm not so old as to reject all re-imaginings of the standard repertoire. When a new interpretation speaks to me, I do find that it can be a revelation.

(l. to r.) Lydia Adams, Joel Ivany, Bernard Labadie (Photo: Joseph So)

The stage director for this show is Against the Grain Theatre Artistic Director Joel Ivany, whose work I am familiar with, having seen most of his creations.  Whether one agrees with him or not, he always has something interesting to say. Given that the Latin text of the Requiem Mass doesn't really have a strong narrative structure, Ivany wisely chooses to focus on the emotional and  the personal.  
His staging is simple - no costumes or props, only a little white card written with the name of a loved one whom the card carrier is mourning. It begins with an empty stage. When the choir, orchestra musicians and soloists stream onstage from the auditorium, they put their cards on a low platform on either sides of the stage.  I was fortunate to have a seat on the side up front so I could see all the details. At one point, I saw a choir member tenderly touched the name written on her card before putting it down. That seemingly insignificant yet powerful gesture moved me very deeply. It symbolizes for me what makes us human, our ability to grief, to mourn, and to remember. The relatively simple staging brings this divine piece of music down to the human and personal level.

Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers; TSO Chamber Orchestra (Photo: Joseph So)

There were quite a lot of movements and gesturing by the choir during the performance, all meant to illuminate the text. There was a fly in the ointment - if we had all committed the text to memory, it would have made the movements and gestures more meaningful. That is obviously asking the impossible from the audience. Unfortunately, no text was printed in the program, but given the very low lighting, it wouldn't have helped. Projected titles would have been a compromised solution. But even without the text, one gets a general idea what Ivany is trying to say with his direction. His staging brings this work down to a human level for me. And I'd like to think also for each member of the audience and for the performers themselves. It makes us reflect on the personal losses in our lives. Loss and mourning are necessarily individual and private, yet it's also a collective experience. We share in our grief, we can empathize with each other. Empathy is one of the most precious qualities of being human. 

(l. to r.) Jonathan Crow, Joel Ivany, Bernard Labadie (Photo: Joseph So)

I was struck by the total absence of religious symbolism in the staging. To me, this says that loss and the act of grieving are not tied to any organized religion. It is collective, but on the human level. Throughout the piece, I found myself more moved than I'd thought I would. No, not all the staging touches worked for me - perhaps if I had been more familiar with the liturgical text, the gesticulating of the choir members would have had more meaning for me.  Occasionally some movements or stage noises were distracting, but overall the experience resonated with me, much helped by the expert lighting of Kevin Lamotte.  A few times the ceiling was illuminated, giving it a quasi-religious feel. But it was a bit ironic that the ceiling structure resembled more a spaceship than any Judeo-Christian symbols!   

(l. to r.) Lydia Teuscher, Allyson McHardy, Frederic Antoun, Philippe Sly (Photo: Joseph So)

Musically, it was a near-transcendent performance to my ears. With Bernard Labadie, his expansive, unhurried tempo brought out fully the inherent lyricism and spiritual depth, never heavy or leaden but fluid, with the right balance of urgency and repose.  The clarinet quintet that opened the performance was really wonderfully played. I am not a huge chamber fan, but I was thinking how lovely - and appropriate - the music was for the staging at that moment. The Amadeus Choir and Elmer Iseler Singers under Lydia Adams provided the fervent choral forces needed. In a few spots there were some sign of strain, lacking ideal blending in the voices, a situation where a larger number of voices would have helped. But over all I thought the Choir did remarkably well, especially from memory! The four soloists were superb. German soprano Lydia Teuscher was last in Toronto in a Messiah, if memory serves. Her pure, angelic soprano was an absolute joy. The three Canadians were equally amazing. Allyson McHardy's low mezzo lent solidity and depth to her music; tenor Frederic Antoun brought to his lines uncommon Mozartian grace. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly was awesome in the low notes in his first solo lines, and he sang magnificently. Overall, a wonderfully balanced group of soloists, in a performance that will stay in memory for a long time. 

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