La Scena Musicale

Friday, 17 June 2016

We've Moved!

This blog is now retired. You can find all of the posts as well as new La Scena Musicale online content, news, and back issues at

Friday, 10 June 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Cameron Carpenter: All you need is Bach (Sony)

2/5 stars

Before we go any further, let me declare once and for all that I am done with three stars. Everywhere else, critics award three stars as a kind of neutral, no-harm-done mark for something they neither love nor hate. Myself, I’ve stopped reviewing that sort of thing. If it doesn’t make you want to laugh or cry (for better or worse), why steal a nanosecond of your readers’ attention by discussing it?

So no more three stars on this site.

They’d be wasted, anyway, on Cameron Carpenter. The flamboyant American organist, more used to playing in a singlet than a surplice, either makes you feel young and with-it or old and totally out of it. Much of what I’ve heard him play has the first effect on me. Cameron is virtuosic, effervescent, totally in command of his pipes and sometimes quirky enough to make you rethink the piece from core principles. I like it when he does that, a lot.

Just not in Bach. To my ears, the sound of his much-vaunted International Touring Organ is all wrong in the fugues and sonatas selected for this album. No matter that it’s recorded in the sonorous Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin-Dahlem, it sounds unsuited to Bach and not a million miles away from the entertainment arcade of an English seaside resort.

What’s missing? Awe, that’s what. Bach can, in sententious hands, sound like so much holy-moly. Here, however, there is no sense Sebastian at the organ was writing for the glory of anything larger than his lunch. Cameron powers through the pieces with impatience and bravura. All too easy.

That’s just my impression, of course, and I may have fallen headlong into the Cam-trap of being made to feel unworthy of his genius. There is, after all, so much to admire in his fluidity and bravura. Other listeners may find All You Need is Bach utterly life-changing. But two stars is all I can give (now that three have been abolished). And two's a lot.

—Norman Lebrecht

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Friday, 3 June 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Feldman, Crumb: Piano pieces (Hyperion)

5/5 stars

Every few months I take my ears out for a cleaning. This is not as easy as it sounds. Finding music that is original, unfamiliar, astringent, elevating and altogether uncomplacent restricts the seeker to the dustiest corners of recorded repertoire. And no sooner do you find a box that fits the bill than what you thought was household detergent comes stuffed with sticky minimalisms.

Anyway, this week, I’ve struck lucky with some top-grade industrial ear cleanser from a British pianist I’d normally associate with Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Messiaen. Steven Osborne, though, has a quirky turn of mind and a wonderful turn of phrase. The idea of interleaving Morton Feldman and George Crumb on a solo piano album is so counter-intuitive it would not occur to any other pianist in a month of car-wash Sundays.

Feldman (1926-87) is the ultimate urban ascetic, assembling music from bathroom fittings he took from a Greenwich Village bed-sit and half a croissant left over from yesterday’s breakfast. Crumb (born 1929) is a fusion composer of animal sounds and extreme electronica. Amazingly, the pair work together like Johnson & Johnson ear-buds.

You cannot imagine, until you hear it, what Crumb is going to do next in his Little Suite for Christmas, a fricassee of festive scraps and piano-string strummings, the sort of thing that might occur in a jam session involving John Cage, Pope John Paul II and a box full of legal highs. This is the generic opposite of a Christmas album, one you’d never give to a spinster aunt.

As for Feldman, he never lets you down. Just when you’ve classified him as an annoying epigrammatist, too clever for his own good, he delivers a contemplation of magic carpets under the title ‘Palais de Mari’ and grips your attention for a full half-hour. It’s his final piano work before pancreatic cancer took his life and every note of it is a world entire. What are you waiting for? This has to be heard.

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Friday, 27 May 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - Anonymous: Six concertos (CPO)

3/5 stars

The best fun I’ve had all week is trying to identify the composers of six 18th century concertos that have turned up in the vaults of the Saxon State University library in Dresden. Five of the concertos are for flute, which suggest a possible Frederick the Great connection, the sixth is for cembalo. All are entertaining, accomplished, professional – top-drawer music for a courtly dinner party. But who wrote them?

The obvious suspects are the Dresden concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) and the singer and composer Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759). Both turned out music of high quality and near-memorability but, from what I’ve heard, not quite as high as this.

The Adagio of the opening concerto on this album bears such close resemblance to a Bach theme that if it’s not by Johann Sebastian himself it’s by someone who knew his style well enough to write a simulacrum. Maybe a son of Bach – there were plenty – or a student. Either way, you get the point: this is early-classical music that comes close to the best of its time.

There are numerous hints of Vivaldi, whom all the Germans imitated, Bach most of all. And the longest finger of suspicion points to Telemann, who wrote screeds of music just like this which fell into disuse the moment he died. There is no immediate solution to this authorial mystery, though you’ll have as much fun as I did playing spot the composer. What does emerge is how easy it was in early-classical times to hit a high-average without ever crossing the threshold of genius.

The performers here are Les Amis de Philippe, led from the cembalo by Ludger Rémy.


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Monday, 23 May 2016

Review: Les Feluettes by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria

Jean-Michel Richer (Comte Vallier de Tilly) et Etienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet)
Photo, Yves Renaud

Saturday night’s world premiere of Les Feluettes was an accomplishment long in the making. A co-commission by Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria, the opera was conceived by Australian composer Kevin March, who saw the English movie adaptation, Lilies, over a decade ago.

Set in a men’s prison in the 1950s and 1910s, the story is popular in Quebec through the play by Michel Marc Bouchard. Bishop Jean Bilodeau (tenor Gordon Gietz) visits the prison to hear the last confession of his boyhood friend Simon Doucet, played by baritone Gino Quilico. In a Man of La Mancha-style construction, the all-Canadian, all-male cast of inmates stage an opera-within-an-opera for the Bishop, who must reckon with his past.

Deception, obsession, betrayal, and murder—Bouchard’s story has all of the trappings of a great opera. Old Simon forces Bilodeau to watch on as his younger self (tenor James McLennan) meddles in the burgeoning romantic relationship between young Simon (baritone Étienne Dupuis) and Vallier (tenor Jean-Michel Richer).

The up-and-coming Dupuis commanded in his role, whether in the bruising fits of anger in his solos or the effusive dignity of his love duets with Richer. The acting between the two leading men was uncommonly believable for opera. For those worried, the love scene in the second act that warranted a disclaimer for nudity was practically chaste.

Gordon Gietz (Monseigneur Jean Bilodeau) 
Photo, Yves Renaud

Special mention to countertenor Daniel Cabena, who played an affable Mademoiselle Lydie-Anne de Rozier, Simon’s secondary love interest, as well as baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, Vallier’s mother the Comtesse Marie-Laure de Tilly, who stole every scene.

March’s eclectic and cinematic score was as if, as my opera-going partner stated, Debussy and Britten met in Hollywood. This was March’s first time writing a full-length opera, and the score held together quite well, only getting better as the night progressed.

Staging elements added to the realization except for the placement of the orchestra upstage behind bars. Conductor Timothy Vernon had no eye contact with the singers on stage, they were expected to watch him; he was filmed and projected on two monitors mounted above the audience on either side of the auditorium. Turning what is traditionally a two-way communication between conductor and performers into a one-way exercise in trust added unnecessary bumps in the production that may or may not be attributable to opening-night jitters. Fortunately, issues of balance and togetherness were mostly worked out by the second act.

It may be daring to write a full-length new opera these days, but Les Feluettes hit on all of the right notes. Aside from its subject matter, which has taken a long time to hit the operatic main stage, the opera could have easily been part of the canon for the last 30 years. As CBC reported earlier this week, there was some pushback from several Opéra de Montréal subscribers over the homosexual content, but in the end it is truly their loss to miss this tasteful and stirring production.

Jean-Michel Richer (Comte Vallier de Tilly) et Etienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet) 
Photo, Yves Renaud

You still have time to see for yourself. Three presentations remain, May 24, 26 and 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Salle Wilfrid Pellieter, Place des Arts. The production will travel to Victoria, BC in April 2017.

La Scena has a limited number of fundraising tickets available for May 28. Visit

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Cette semaine à Montréal (23 à 29 mai) / This Week in Montreal (May 23–29)

English Follows

Etienne Dupuis (Simon Doucet) Photo: Yves Renaud

Le War Requiem de Britten à la Maison Symphonique

Kent Nagano et l’OSM, accompagnés du chœur de l’OSM, présentent le War Requiem de Benjamin Britten les 25 et 28 mai à 20h00 et le 29 mai à 14h30, à la Maison Symphonique. Parmi les solistes, on retrouve la soprano Catherine Naglestad, le ténor Ian Bostridge, et le baryton Russell Braun, qui remplace Thomas Hampson pour des raisons de santé.

Concours Musical International de Montréal

Le CMIM débutera cette semaine avec les quarts de finale du 23 au 25 mai, et les demi-finales les 27 et 28 mai, à la salle Bourgie. Ne manquez pas les classes de maîtres données par les juges Ida Kavafian et Pierre Amoyal le jeudi 26 mai à 14h30 et 19h30, à la Chapelle Historique du Bon Pasteur.

Les Feluettes à l’opéra de Montréal

Après le succès retentissant de sa première, l’opéra Les Feluettes de Kevin March continue cette semaine avec trois autres représentations, les 24, 26 et 28 mai à 19h30, salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. S’inspirant de la pièce à succès de Michel Marc Bouchard, Les Feluettes raconte la tragique histoire d’amour entre deux jeunes hommes, relatée 40 ans plus tard par un opéra-dans-un-opéra mis en scène dans une prison de Québec. Lisez notre critique ici.


War Requiem at the Maison Symphonique

Kent Nagano and the OSM with the OSM chorus present Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem May 25 and 28 at 8:00 pm and 29 at 2:30 pm at Maison Symphonique. Soloists include soprano Catherine Naglestad, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Russell Braun, who is replacing Thomas Hampson for health reasons.

Concours Musical International de Montréal

The CMIM kicks off this week with Quarter-final rounds May 23–25, and Semi-final rounds May 27 and 28 at Bourgie Hall. Catch masterclasses with judges Ida Kavafian and Pierre Amoyal on Thursday May 26 at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm, respectively at the Chapelle Historique du Bon Pasteur.

OdM’s Les Feluettes

After a resoundingly successful opening night, Kevin March’s Les Feluettes continues this week for three more presentations, May 24, 26, and 28 at 7:30 pm, salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Based on the successful play by Michel Marc Bouchard, Les Feluettes tells the tragic love story between two young men, as retold 40 years later in an opera-within-an-opera at an all-male Quebec prison. Read our review here.

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