La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 30 (D. Oistrakh)

1908 - David Oistrakh, Odessa, Ukraine; violinist and conductor

Wikipedia
Biography and more

David Oistrakh plays Sibelius's Violin Concerto, 2nd mvt. (Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, 1966)



David and Igor Oistrakh play Prokofiev's Sonata for Two Violins, 2nd mvt.

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Monday, 29 September 2008

Canadian First: Québec City Hosts Plácido Domingo’s Operalia

Report by Paul Robinson


Plácido Domingo put Québec City on the world operatic map when he brought his Operalia 2008 to town.

Operalia is a vocal competition which has taken place annually for the past sixteen years in great musical capitals such as Paris, Madrid, Hamburg, Los Angeles and Tokyo.

Although Domingo is involved in many projects – heading opera companies in Los Angeles and Washington among them – Operalia is obviously very close to his, and his family’s heart. In Québec City, Domingo conducted the final concert of the competition; his wife Marta was a member of the 13-person jury; the Hymne performed by the contestants en masse was composed by Plácido Domingo Jr.; and the film Operalia 1993-2008 was directed by his son Alvaro.

Operalia Jump Start to Fame & Fortune for Fabulous Few
Operalia was conceived as a way to help young opera singers advance their careers and it has succeeded in doing just that. Prize winners over the years have included the likes of Rolando Villazon (1999), José Cura (1994), Elizabeth Futral (1995), Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (2000), and Kate Aldrich (2002) heard as Adalgisa in Norma at Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton, Québec.

This year’s competitors were typical. They were in their early to mid-twenties and virtually all of them have completed their vocal training and have embarked on professional careers; what they need now is wider recognition to take them to the next stage.

The Operalia jury is comprised of people in a position to lend winners a helping hand. The jurors selected are often administrators of opera houses - among the members this year were Peter Katona, artistic director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Ioan Holender, head of the Vienna State Opera; and Jean-Louis Grinda, director of the Monte Carlo Opera.

There are three main prize categories in Operalia: male (US$30,000/20,000/10,000); female (US$30,000/20,000/10,000) and zarzuela (US$10,000). This last category is unique to this competition and honours the fact that Domingo’s parents were both zarzuela singers and he grew up working in their touring company in Mexico.

Scope of Operalia Global: Many Apply; Few are Chosen
Nearly 1,000 singers apply to Operalia every year. On the basis of audio and video audition tapes, 40 contestants were invited to come to Québec. There was a quarter-final round and then a semi-final round held between September 18-21. After these preliminaries, 14 finalists remained and each one sang an aria at a concert on September 24, with Domingo himself conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Québec (OSQ).

This final concert, at which the winners were announced, was held at The Grand Théâtre de Québec , and the hall was filled to capacity. Microphones (CBC Radio 2 and Espace musique) and cameras (the European television arts channel Mezzo) were abundant. After the singers had finished their performances, the jury returned their verdicts.

Among Winners this Year - Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Ukraine, and Georgia

At Operalia 2008, first prize for male singer went to tenor Joel Prieto. Prieto was born in Puerto Rico and is currently a member of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. For the competition he sang “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. From the outset it was clear that he had one of the most beautiful lyric voices of all the competitors. Apart from some intonation problems, he sang very well. He was even better in his zarzuela aria and also won a prize in that category.

Among the women, Mexican-born soprano María Katzarava emerged the winner with a stunning performance of “Amour, ranime mon courage” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. Ms. Katzarava studied with Ramón Vargas and is a member of the young artists program at the Los Angeles Opera.

Outstanding amongst the other finalists, were Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva who demonstrated exceptional dynamic and dramatic range in “Ritorna vincitor” from Verdi’s Aïda. Like Prieto, she walked away with two prizes: second prize in the female category and sole winner of the audience prize.

Zarazuela –Bel Canto “con Salsa”?A total of four singers were awarded prizes for zarzuela performance, each receiving US$10,000. My favourite was Georgian mezzo-soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze who sang the bouncy and colourful “De España vengo” from Pablo Luna’s El niño judío.

More power to Domingo for championing zarzuela throughout the world; its popularity has long been confined to Spain and Spanish-speaking countries, but the repertoire is full of wonderful music that transcends language barriers.

For the singers who were fortunate enough to win cash prizes at the competition and catch the attention of some important opera directors, success may well lead to further recognition. As Operalia literature states,Domingo is committed to personally mentoring the prize-winners as they work to develop their talent and make crucial career decisions.

Supernova Sheds Light on Rising Stars

The stars of the evening were rightly the contestants; that said, Domingo’s contribution, not only as MC, but also as music director, was immeasurable. Few conductors could have shown such mastery in such a varied repertoire and fewer still could have provided the detailed and sympathetic support these young artists needed to give their best. Kudos also for the musicians of the OSQ who played superbly.

At age 68, Plácido Domingo may be approaching the twilight of a fabulous singing career but as conductor, administrator, teacher and mentor he appears to have the energy and dedication of a man half his age.

Operalia 2009 will be held in Budapest, Hungary.


Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Conductor as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music. For more on Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at http://www.theartoftheconductor.com/.
Blog Photos by Marita
















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Today's Birthday in Music: September 29 (Bonynge)

1930 - Richard Bonynge, Sydney, Australia; conductor and pianist

Wikipedia

"Lovely together" - Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland at home

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Sunday, 28 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 28 (Robbin)

1950 - Catherine Robbin, Toronto, Canada; mezzo-soprano

Biography and pictures
Farewell concert (La Scena Musicale, May 2003)

Catherine Robbin sings "Verdi allori" from Handel's Orlando

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Saturday, 27 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 27 (Kipnis, Barstow)

1930 - Igor Kipnis, Berlin, Germany; harpsichordist, fortepianist, music director

Biography
Obituary (The Independent, UK, April 2002)


1940 - Josephine Barstow, Sheffield, England; opera soprano

Wikipedia

Josephine Barstow sings "Nel di della vittoria" from Verdi's Macbeth

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Friday, 26 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 26 (G. Gershwin, Wunderlich)

1898 - George Gershwin, Brooklyn, New York, U.S.A.; composer

Wikipedia
Concise Biography

George Gershwin plays "I Got Rhythm" at the opening of the Manhattan Theatre in New York in August 1931


"They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Fred Astaire sings to Ginger Rogers, original performance, 1937)



1930 - Fritz Wunderlich, Kusel, Germany; opera and concert tenor

Wikipedia
Biography and photographs

Fritz Wunderlich sings:

"Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte


"Morgen" by Richard Strauss (with the Bavarian State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jan Koetsier, 1962)


"Mattinata" by Ruggero Leonvacallo

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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 25 (D. Shostakovitch, Gould)

1906 - Dmitri Shostakovich, St. Petersburg, Russia; composer

Wikipedia
Shostakovichiana
More Cracks Opening ... (La Scena Musicale, Sept. 2006)

Excerpt from Act III of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (2000 TV film; voices of Galina Vishnevskaya and Nicolai Gedda; London Philharmonic Orchestra, Mstislav Rostropovich conducting)


Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 10, 1st mvt. (Royal Scottish National Orchestra)



1932 - Glenn Gould, Toronto, Canada; pianist, composer, conductor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)
Master of Counterpoint (La Scena Musicale, Feb. 2000)

Glenn Gould plays Bach: The Well Tempered Clavier Book 2 - Prelude and Fugue in A, BWV 888


"So You Want to Write a Fugue?" - composition by Glenn Gould


Glenn Gould plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto # 5, "The Emperor", 1st mvt. (Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Karel Ančerl)

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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Met Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala



Top Left: Deborah Voigt interviewing Paulo Szot in Time Square

Photo: Ken Howard
Top Right: Renee Fleming in Capriccio

Photo: Ken Howard
Below:Renee Fleming as Violetta

Photo: Ruby Washington / New York Times



















Metropolitan Opera in HD opens with Glittery Gala

Joseph So

Now in its third season, the Gelb-inspired, wildly successful Metropolitan Opera in HD opened Monday night with a starry gala consisting of one act each from three operas featuring America's reigning diva, soprano Renee Fleming. The live simulcasts of 14 operas the past two seasons have attracted 1.3 million viewers, a staggering figure when you consider the Met, humongous as opera houses go, has a capacity of only 4,100 including standing room. With this new innovation, the Met has managed to reach a huge worldwide audience, as these shows are also seen in Canada, Europe, Japan, and Australia, and for the first time, Mexico City, the home of tenor Ramon Vargas who also starred in two of the three operas. Despite a few naysayers, there is no question that the Met in HD initiative has gone a long way to promote opera to the general public.

Given the Met success, other houses have jumped on the bandwagon. La Scala's opening night Tristan und Isolde last December 7 was shown in movie houses in Europe and the US (but sadly not in English Canada); San Francisco, Covent Garden and Opera Australia each have their own, non-live simulcasts, but their impact cannot compare to the live Met events, which has a real sesne of occasion. None was more stunning than the opening gala on Monday. Taking a page from Hollywood, the Met laid down the red carpet in Lincoln Center to welcome celebrities the likes of Martha Stewart, German soprano Diana Damrau, and NY mayor Michael Bloomberg. The show was also shown on outdoor screens in Time Square and Fordham University. Mezzo Susan Graham and soprano Deborah Voigt served as roaming reporters speaking, with luminaries and opera fans/tourists alike, lending the event a truly festive feel.

The centerpiece of the event was of course soprano Renee Fleming, America's sweetheart, at least operatically speaking. She combines personal beauty with a seamless, creamy voice and loads of personality. To showcase her talent, the Met put on Act 2 of La traviata, Act 3 of Manon, and the final scene from Capriccio. Now twenty years after winning the Met Auditions, the Fleming voice is still in pristine shape, a testament to her excellent technique and musical acumen. For this extravaganza, several designers created gowns for her, and she wore La Voce, her own perfume. Even Martha Stewart made a special champagne concoction, The Grand Dame, to toast Renee during intermission - talk about being in diva heaven!

Opposite Fleming in two of the three operas was Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas - perhaps not the most romantic-looking of tenors around, but certainly among the most vocally impeccable today, especially as Alfredo. (Too bad his cabaletta was cut) As Des Grieux, his lyric tenor was stretched in "Ah fuyez, douce image" in the St. Sulpice scene, but he coped well. American baritone Thomas Hampson is no stranger to Germont, having sung it in many high profile productions, including the recent Salzburg production with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko. Despite his good intentions, there is no disguising the fact that Hampson is not a true Verdi baritone. He sang all the notes with honour if not distinction. To my ears, Hampson lacks the vocal opulence, the large, rich, mellow, commanding sound of a Robert Merrill or a young Sherrill Milnes to do Germont justice - one longs for Dmitri Hvorostovsky or Bryn Terfel in this role.

The "other" leading American baritone of the evening was Dwayne Croft, in the rather thankless role of Lescaut. He sang correctly but given Fleming's star power, Lescaut's little aria went by with nary a stir from the audience. British bass Robert Lloyd did rather better as a commanding Comte des Grieux. Capriccio's final scene is essentially a one-woman show, and Fleming never looked more gorgeous in the Art Deco outfit, or sounding more vocally resplendent in Madeleine's musing of the primacy of word or music. Veteran American baritone Michael Devlin did a star turn in the cameo role of the Major Domo.

Final Thoughts - few singers today are as gifted as Renee Fleming, and by and large she lived up to the hype. However, I must say that she has become more and more mannered with time. Much of that mannerism was in evidence here. It suited her Manon better than her Violetta - afterall, Manon is the born coquette. Even here, her vocal mannerism was a bit over the top, especially in the cloyingly sung Gavotte. The last twenty minute of Capriccio has some of the most sublime music Strauss ever wrote, and Fleming sang it very beautifully to be sure. But her acting was so extravagant, so excessive that it almost ruined it for me - sometimes, economy of movement makes more of a statement than the incessant waving of hands caressing every inch of one's face and neck. One marvels at the depth of feeling in the aristsocratic stillness of Kiri Te Kanawa, Elizabeth Söderström, or even Johanna Meier as Madeleine. I am afraid there is nothing Parisian - or Straussian for that matter - about the Madeleine of Renee Fleming, only American Apple Pie.

The Met orchestra was led by three maestri - James Levine received a rousing ovation, not only for his conducting of the Verdi, but for his recovery from kidney cancer surgery. The Met Traviata production combines acts 2 and 3, and Levine led the Met forces even more leisurely than usual. In Manon, Marco Armiliato led the orchestra with a firm and sure hand. But for me, the best of the evening was Patrick Summers in the 20-minute final scene from Capriccio - the moonlight music never sounded more trancendent.

I saw the simulcast at the Scotiabank Theatres in downtown Toronto. Everything went well, except for about 15 minutes in the beginning when there was no subtitles. There was likely some technical improvements to the picture quality from last season, as the brightness level has really improved. The sound quality was glitch-free. The next show will be Salome with the great Karita Mattila - get your tickets, you wouldn't want to miss it!

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Today's Birthday in Music: September 24 (Rutter, MacNeil)

1945 - John Rutter, London, England; composer and choral conductor

Wikipedia
Sing a Song of Christmas (The Guardian, UK, December 2000)

John Rutter's setting of Psalm 150, sung by the combined choirs of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Chapel Royal (St. Paul's Cathedral, London, 2002)



1922 - Cornell MacNeil, Minneapolis, U.S.A.; opera baritone

Wikipedia
Reunion (Opera News Online, November 2007)

Cornell MacNeil sings "Va, Tosca" (Te Deum) from Puccini's Tosca (Metropolitan Opera, 1978)

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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 23 (Novotná)

1907 - Jarmila Novotná, Prague, Czechoslovakia; opera and operetta soprano

Wikipedia
Centenary recollections

Jarmila Novotná sings:

Selections from Lehar's Giuditta and "Vilja" from The Merry Widow (1934)


Czech folksong "Vy, zelení hájové", Jan Masaryk accompanies (1942)

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Monday, 22 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 22 (Tomowa-Sintow, Szeryng)

1941 - Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria; opera soprano

Wikipedia
Home Page

Anna Tomowa-Sintow sings "Or sai chi l'onore" from Mozart's Don Giovanni (Herbert von Karajan conducting; 1987)



1918 - Henryk Szeryng, Zelazowa Wola, Poland; violinist

Wikipedia
Obituary (NY Times, March 1988)

Henryk Szeryng plays Tchaikovsky's Violin Concert, 3rd mvt. (Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta conducting; early 1980s)

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Sunday, 21 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 21 (G. Holst)

1874 - Gustav Holst, Cheltenham, England; composer

Gustav Holst Website

St. Paul's Suite, Finale (The Dargasson), St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Hogwood


Katherine Jenkins sings "I Vow to Thee My Country" (words by Cecil Spring-Rice)


"Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets (Promenade Concert at Buckingham Palace, 2002; Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra)

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Saturday, 20 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 20 (Spiegel)

1945 - Laurie Spiegel, Chicago, U.S.A.; composer

Wikipedia
Interview

Interview, part 1 of 2 (1984) with Laurie Spiegal (introduction by Max Mathews)


Laurie Spiegel plays her "Improvisations on a 'Concerto Generator'"

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Friday, 19 September 2008

OSM’s 75th with Mehta & Messiaen a Celebration of Sound!

reviewed by Paul Robinson

Canada doesn’t see much of Zubin Mehta these days but he still has a soft spot for Montreal and tries to return as often as he can to the city that helped him so much in his early days as a conductor. He was back again to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) last week and it turned into a great event for all concerned. Mehta has a home in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t conduct there much any more. His primary musical responsibilities are to the Israel Philharmonic – he was appointed music director for life in 1981 – and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence, where he is currently at work on a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Montreal Symphony and Zubin Mehta Grew Together in the 60s
In 1961, at the very beginning of his career, the OSM took a chance on 25-year-old Zubin Mehta and hired him as music director. For the next six years, he and the orchestra learned repertoire together, but within a year of his OSM appointment, Mehta also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-77). His career quickly became international. In 1977, he became music director of the Israel Philharmonic, and then the New York Philharmonic (1978-91), and later, the Bavarian State Opera (1998-2006) in Munich. He is a regular guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and has been invited by its members to conduct no fewer than four of its famous New Year’s concerts.

For his return visit to Montreal to celebrate the OSM’s 75th, Mehta put together a programme of works by Messiaen and Saint-Saens to be presented in the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (Messiaen) was part of “Automne Messiaen 2008” being celebrated all over Montreal from September to December and culminating in performances of Messiaen’s opera Saint Francis of Assisi conducted by Kent Nagano. In fact, 2008 is the centenary of Messiaen’s birth: the actual date is December 10.

Mehta on Messiaen: “I really miss him!”

I had not realized that Mehta has been a great champion of Messiaen’s music over the years. At his press conference held a few days before the Montreal concert, Mehta talked about his relationship with Messiaen and his music, and passed on an amusing anecdote. It seems that Messiaen was in Tel Aviv for rehearsals of his Turangalila Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. During the course of rehearsals the players became bored and restless and at one of the breaks some of them went to Messiaen and asked him to cut a couple of movements. Naturally, Messiaen was offended and made a counter-suggestion. Better they should cut the other work on the programme – Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – and he would tell them exactly where to make the cuts! Mehta had to apologize to Messiaen over the incident. No word on whether anyone apologized to Mozart.

Mehta recalled that Messiaen often came to rehearsals wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt with girls in hula skirts on it, but when it came to the performance of his music he was very serious and very strict.

Wind, Brass & Percussion Orchestration – When “Bigger” is “Better”

Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
was given its first performance in 1965 at the Church of St. Chapelle in Paris and then a month later at Chartres Cathedral. It is obviously designed to be performed in a large space with long reverberation time. The orchestra comprises only winds, brass and percussion and the music features slow-moving chords and percussion effects from various kinds of bells, gongs and tam-tams that are intended to reverberate in a large space. Notre Dame Basilica is indeed a large space, but in this case “bigger” is even better. The piece sounded wonderful in Notre Dame – especially the almost deafening percussion crescendos – but to have heard it in Chartres Cathedral would have been something else again.

Mehta conducted the Messiaen with his customary efficiency. Messiaen pupil Pierre Boulez could hardly have done better. Nor was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum the only Messiaen heard during the evening. The concert began with a performance of the early (1932) organ piece Apparition de l’Église éternelle played by Pierre Grandmaison. This ten-minute work begins with a series of unsettling tone clusters, but gradually out of extreme dissonance comes relief in the form of the grandest and loudest major chords one is ever likely to hear from an organ. Presumably, this is the “apparition” of the title.

Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony Pure Sound, Beautifully Balanced

The major work on the programme - and the best-known - was Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 Organ, with organist Patrick Wedd. For all its deserved popularity, this symphony is seldom heard under ideal conditions. It is most often performed in concert halls and often with electronic organs, but this performance was the real deal and I never expect to hear it done better. I was sitting about half-way back in Notre Dame, which meant that I was about the same distance from Mehta and the orchestra in front of me and the organ console and pipes behind me. Thanks to careful preparation by the performers, balances in both soft and loud passages were just about right. Given the size of the place and the vast distance between orchestra and organ this was an amazing achievement; of course, the performers have the benefit of video cameras to see and hear each other, but it still takes musicians with sharp ears and cool nerves to make it all work.

Mehta has had a lot of experience with the Organ Symphony. He has recorded it several times, most recently with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1997, and his view of the piece has become more refined over the years. Saint-Saens saves all the bombast for the last movement – this is the only time in the piece that the organ is allowed to play fortissimo – and Mehta made sure that the really big guns were saved until the end. In fact, the only other section of the score where the organ plays is the second movement ‘Poco Adagio,’ and there it mostly meshes softly with the orchestra in an accompanying role.

From the OSM Mehta got all the power he needed, but also a beautifully dark and blended sound. At the same time, Mehta had obviously asked the timpanist to use hard sticks so that the important timpani solos would register clearly in the reverberant acoustic.

In both the Messiaen and the Saint-Saens, we saw a master conductor at work. Mehta is a consummate technician, but he also loves the music he plays. It was a treat to see him at work and to hear this music so well performed.

Mehta Discography, Autobiography, and a Well Deserved Award For listeners who wish to hear more of Mehta, there is a huge catalogue of recordings and DVDs and it continues to expand with new releases almost every month. Among his recent releases are the VPO New Year’s Concert 2007 from DG on both CD and DVD; the Israel Philharmonic’s 70th Anniversary Concert from 2007 released by Euroarts on DVD; and of special interest to those who want to see how he does it, there is a DVD called Zubin Mehta in Rehearsal from Image Entertainment. We see Mehta rehearsing Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel with the Israel Philharmonic, followed by a complete performance. Also scheduled for release on September 30 by Medici Masters is a 1977 concert with Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the title Zubin Mehta: Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For more information about Zubin Mehta, his life, recordings and upcoming performances visit his website at www.zubinmehta.net.

It was announced this week that Mehta has been awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale by the Japan Arts Foundation. The prize is given for lifetime achievement and is worth US$143,000. It will be officially presented in a special ceremony in Tokyo on October 15.

Finally, Mehta has recently written his autobiography. It is available now in German (Partitur meines Leben), Italian, and Hebrew, and the English version will be released by Amadeus Press November 15 with the title Zubin Mehta: a Memoir.


Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com/. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at http://www.theartoftheconductor.com/.
Blog Photos by Marita

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Upcoming Fall Theatre Productions in Montreal


August 28-September 13

Montreal Theatre Ensemble, in association with the John Abbott College Department of Theatre and Music, presents Of Mice and Men at the Casgrain Theatre in Ste. Anne de Bellevue. This also marks the inauguration of the Stage Two initiative where the College welcomes outside companies to share their experience and open their rehearsals to the present theatre students. The first mentoring company is the Montreal Theatre Ensemble.

September 7-September 28

The Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre presents Dangerous Liaisons. Directed by Alexandre Marine and featuring a mainly local cast, this promises to be one of the most lauded productions of their season. Sunday-@-the-Segal is September 7 and opening night is September 11.

September 10

Fundraiser for Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre's upcoming production of Life is a Dream. The evening will feature an exciting dramatic reading of scenes from the script, as well as an introduction to the play and the world of Baroque Spain by an expert in Spanish literature. At the Centre Green.

October 16

Auberge Shalom…pour femmes presents an evening with superstar lecturer Stephen Pinker who will speak on 'The Decline of Violence'. Mr. Pinker is considered one of the world's top 100 public intellectuals. At the Gelber Conference Centre.

October 22-November 1

Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre presents an adaptation of the Spanish classic Life is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de Barca as part of Centaur Theatre's Brave New Looks. Directed by Alison Darcy, the cast of this hilarious and profound work features some of the most exciting Montreal actors including Andreas Apergis, Peter Batakliev, Julian Casey, Gemma James-Smith, Leni Parker, Julie Tamiko-Manning and Eric Digras, along with two live musicians.

October 26-November 16

The Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre presents Cat on a Hot Tin Roof directed by Greg Kramer. Expect another outstanding production, cast and design team from the Segal Centre. Sunday-@the-Segal is October 26 and opening night is October 30.

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Today's Birthday in Music: September 19 (Thebom)

1918 - Blanche Thebom, Monessen, U.S.A.; opera mezzo-soprano

Biography
Famous Ladies with Long Hair

Blanche Thebom sings:

"Printemps qui commence" from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila (1944 broadcast)


"Stride la vampa" from Verdi's Il Trovatore (TV performance, 1950)

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Thursday, 18 September 2008

Kent Nagano & Montreal Symphony Take on The General

BEETHOVEN: IDEALS OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
reviewed by Paul E. Robinson

The General: for orchestra with soprano, choir and narrator. Music by Beethoven: Symphony #5 in C minor Op.67; Egmont Op.84; Incidental Music (exerpts); Opferlied Op.121b
Text by Paul Griffiths. (English version)
Maximilian Schell, narrator/Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano/Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/OSM Chorus/Kent Nagano, conductor; Analekta: AN 2 9942-3 (2 cds)



For his first recording with the OSM, Kent Nagano has come up with a fascinating project. This album features the music of Beethoven, but it is presented from a distinctly Canadian point of view.

Musically, The General is essentially Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play, Egmont; the original Goethe text, however, has been set aside and replaced by a new one created by the Welsh music critic, Paul Griffiths. The new story is based on the Rwandan experiences of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, as recounted in his book, Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-4 and as the Hutus prepared to massacre hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, Dallaire did everything he could to prevent it but failed; the world was simply not interested. Dallaire returned to Canada a disillusioned and broken man - one of the great tragic heroes of our time.

Nagano and Griffiths came up with the concept and then Griffiths set to work. He decided to tell the Rwanda story without mentioning either names or places. For the most part, the narration is given between the musical numbers. As I mentioned, the music is mostly from Egmont, but Griffiths also drew on excerpts from other Beethoven works, most of them little-known.

While one wants to applaud Griffiths and Nagano for their ambition, The General is ultimately disappointing. By avoiding naming names and places, Griffiths has robbed the piece of its potential power. The genocide in Rwanda has already taken its place in history as one of the greatest horrors of modern times and Dallaire’s own account of it is totally engrossing. But without any mention of Rwanda, Dallaire, Tutsis and Hutus, Griffiths’ text is almost meaningless and incomprehensible. The bits of narration are far too brief to establish any context, nor is there really any coherent story being told.

In the performances which preceded the recording, the narrator was the celebrated Canadian actor Colm Feore; unfortunately, he was unavailable for the recording. In choosing Maximilian Schell (left) as narrator, Nagano and Griffiths have the benefit of a great actor, but he has nothing to work with. What’s more, judging by the mismatches in tempo and volume, one can assume that he did his work alone in a studio rather than with the orchestra.

Finally, Griffiths chose to end The General with Beethoven’s Opferlied for soprano, chorus and orchestra. In his notes Griffiths tells us that he wrote new words for Opferlied and he tells us that these words and Beethoven’s music were exactly what was needed to end the piece. Beethoven’s Egmont music ends with a Victory symphony and that was hardly appropriate for the Rwandan story. Unfortunately, since there are no texts included in the CD booklet, we have no idea what those words are. This recording has been issued in both an English and a French version, but neither one includes the text.

Beethoven’s music for Egmont is wonderful and with carefully chosen excerpts from Goethe’s play, a performance with narration can be moving and inspiring. Griffith’s new version left me totally uninvolved and baffled by the whole enterprise. It is curious that Dallaire himself was not associated with this project in any way even though he has readily gotten involved with several film projects relating to his experience in Rwanda. In fact, while Griffiths explicitly names Dallaire as ‘the protagonist’ of his drama he never even mentions the title of Dallaire’s book in his notes. Could it be that Dallaire or his publisher had something to do with that, and with Griffiths’ decision to avoid any mention of either Dallaire or Rwanda in his text?

On the positive side, Nagano and the OSM play Beethoven’s music with great intensity. The same goes for their performance of the Fifth Symphony on the second CD. Nagano’s approach indicates he has been strongly influenced by the period instrument specialists. He takes all the repeats and very quick tempi in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings. He has the strings play with little or no vibrato much of the time. The opening of the slow movement sounds strikingly different with this approach. And he makes the most of Beethoven’s timpani writing. There are some inconsistencies: why eliminate vibrato in the strings at the opening of the slow movement, but allow it in the bassoon solos later on? On the whole, however, this performance of an old warhorse is fresh and exciting. Still, one can’t help wondering what the Fifth Symphony has to do with “the ideals of the French Revolution.”

For some reason, the overture and two songs from Egmont and Opferlied are repeated at the end of the second CD. I can understand repeating the vocal works – in The General they are given in English (or French) while here they are performed with the original German texts – but why repeat the overture?

The music for The General was recorded in Studio MMR at McGill University, and the Fifth Symphony was done in the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts; neither one has the warmth of the famous church in St. Eustache where so many of the OSM/Dutoit recordings were made by Decca.

Some fine music-making on this 2-CD set but lots of questions too. Fans of Kent Nagano – and there are a growing number of them – will want to have this album in any case, as the first recorded documentation of his work in Montreal.


Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com/. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at http://www.theartoftheconductor.com/.

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Today's Birthday in Music: September 18 (F. Caccini)

1587 - Francesca Caccini, Florence, Italy; composer, singer, lutenist

Wikipedia
Opus to Woman Power (La Scena Musicale, March 2005)

"O che nuovo stupor" by Francesca Caccini (Alicia Molina, soprano, with El Concierto Ylustrado; Cádiz, 2007)

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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: September 17 (Isang Yun)

1917 - Isang Yun, Chungmu, Korea (now Tongyeong, S. Korea); composer

Wikipedia
Interview

Königliches Thema for violin (Rieko Suzuki, violin; Yogyakarta Contemporary Music Festival 2007)

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Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Review: COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert

Concert: Meet the Young Artists

COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert

Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

September 16, 2008







I just came back from the 3rd annual COC Ensemble Season Opening Concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Centre. This was a "Meet the Young Artists" concert, where the audience members get a preview of the 2008-9 edition of the Ensemble singers, some returning from previous year and others new. This year, the event was made even more significant than usual, thanks to an anonymous donor who has given the COC a whopping 2 million dollars in support of the Ensemble and the concert series - what a great start to the season!




The Ensemble lineup this year consists of five sopranos (Laura Albino, Ileana Montalbetti, Teiya Kasahara, Lisa DiMaria, and Betty Allison), one mezzo (Erin fisher), two tenors (Michael Barrett and Adam Luther), one baritone (Alexander Hajek), and one bass (Michael Uloth). Without exception, these artists are well trained, musical, with fresh, youthful instruments, ingratiating personalities and attractive stage presence. Some are of course more polished or have more experience than others, but they all have the potential for future careers in opera. Complementing the ten singers is an apprentice conductor, Samuel Tak-Ho Tam, who led the cast in "Questo e il fin", the Finale to Don Giovanni. The two accompanists were head of COC Ensemble Liz Upchurch, and Christopher Mokrzewski.




Each artist gave a brief self-introduction, plus a word or two about the piece he/she was about to sing. Mezzo Erin Fisher kicked off with the Sesto's aria from Giulio Cesare, which showed off her high mezzo to advantage. She is reminiscent of former Ensemble member Lauren Segal in voice and appearance - I can see her as Cherubino and Octavian. Bass Michael Uloth followed with Sarastro's aria from Zauberfloete, "In diesen heil'gen Hallen". He has an attractive stage presence - no small advantage in today's push for dramatic verisimilitude, and while his voice at this point is a light-weight bass, it will probably develop and darken with time. Laura Albino sang "Piangero" from Giulio Cesare with bright, dramatic tone - one wishes for a bit softer attack, more chiaroscuro, particularly in the dolce second verse, and a high piano.




Tenors are a rare commodity in the opera world, and the COC Ensemble boasts two, both from Newfoundland. Michael Barrett, brother of former Ensemble baritone Peter Barrett, sang the famous "Vainement, ma bien aimee" from Le roi d'Ys with nice tone, although his use of falsetto - as opposed to a true voix mixte - in the one-octave leap to above the stave may not be to everyone's taste. Baritone Alexander Hajek, in his second season, was the best of the men with a ringingly sung Champagne Aria. He was also most at east in front of an audience. His physical appearance might typecast him as a buffo in his future career - which is unfortunate, as his is the voice suitable for princely roles.




A new Ensemble member, sopano Ileana Montalbetti, sang Donna Anna's "Or sai". Hers is a big, budding spinto, a little steely and hard driven at times. In some ways, she reminds me of former member Joni Henson. Montalbetti sang quite well, with a big, ringing sound, perhaps a little short on polish and subtlety in her delivery, needing to keep the cutting edge from take over. Second year Ensemble member Teiya Kasahara sang "Regnava nel silenzio" from Lucia di Lammermoor, with a flair for drama and blazing high notes. The other tenor of this year's Ensemble, Adam Luther, sang Edgardo's aria from Lucia di Lammermoor. Luther impressed in the title role of Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni last June. His sound is suitably Italianate, and he sang "Fra poco a me ricovero" well, although one wished for more dynamic variation instead of the constant mezza forte he used.


The last two solo pieces turned out to be among the best offerings of the 80 minute concert. Second year soprano Lisa DiMaria offered "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio" from Falstaff. Petite and bubbly in appearance, DiMaria is an excellent Nannetta, singing with a well focused, sweet lyric soprano, with a nice trill. The last of the singers - and certainly not least - was third year member soprano Betty Allison. She sang the exacting "Come scoglio" from Cosi fan tutte with beautiful, focused tone, well controlled vibrato, sure sense of pitch, and admirable fioratura. The last item on the program was a truncated Finale from Don Giovanni, featuring the whole cast, led by Ensemble conductor Samuel Tak-Ho Tam, who incidentally was the only one who did not speak to the audience. He led the Ensemble in a solid reading of the score, a little tentative perhaps, but with time and experience, his conducting is sure to grow.

All in all, this 2008-9 edition of the Ensemble is made up of 10 very talented singers, and they will prove indispensible to the upcoming productions this season.

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Today's Birthday in Music: September 16 (N. Boulanger)

1887 - Nadia Boulanger, Paris, France; composition teacher, composer, conductor



Wikipedia
Biography
That Woman Down the Hall (La Scena Musicale, Nov. 2000)

No. 3 of Three Pieces for Cello and Piano (Bao Peng, cello; Low Shao Yong, piano; Singapore, 2007)

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Monday, 15 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 15 (Norman, Walter)

1945 - Jessye Norman, Augusta, U.S.A.; opera and recital soprano

Wikipedia
Biography and pictures

Jessye Norman sings:

"Ein Schönes war" from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos (Metropolitan Opera, 1988, James Levine conducting)


"I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls" from Balfe's The Bohemian Girl (London, 1986)


"Ride on, King Jesus" (Carnegie Hall, James Levine conducting)



1876 - Bruno Walter, Berlin, Germany; conductor

Wikipedia
Biography and pictures

Bruno Walter conducts Beethoven's Leonore No. 3 overture (Metropolitan Opera House, 1941)


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sings, and Bruno Walter conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler's 4th Symphony (1960)

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Sunday, 14 September 2008

Nagano & OSM Rise to the Challenge: Mahler's Epic Symphony of One Thousand!

The final ‘Chorus mysticus’ is one of the most powerful passages in his entire oeuvre, if not in the whole history of musicHenry-Louis de La Grange
It is easy to be overwhelmed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Few works require such vast resources - hundreds of singers and instrumentalists. Fewer still rise to such towering climaxes, and yet the Mahler Eighth is not about size, but about love and death and the meaning of it all. Mahler wrestled with these concepts his whole life and tried his best to express what he felt through his music. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal opened the OSM’s 75th season with two performances of the Eighth Symphony and the one I heard - the second - on Wednesday night, was extraordinary.

An Opera Disguised as a Symphony, or a New Kind of Symphony?It is often remarked on that Mahler was one of the great opera conductors of his time yet wrote no operas. Each of his symphonies, however, is a music drama and many of them use one or more voices. The Eighth Symphony begins with a hymn, but its entire second part is a setting of much of Goethe’s Faust: Part Two, an operatic scene if ever there was one. At the same time, Mahler was not writing an opera disguised as a symphony; he was writing a new kind of symphony. In fact, he composed the entire first movement before he had a text and then fit his selected text to the music.

One can analyze the Eighth Symphony in purely musical terms. The first movement, for example, is in sonata form and the second movement is a kind of Lisztian symphonic poem in which themes from the first movement reappear. In both movements Mahler employs the most complex contrapuntal devices. It all hangs together as a musical structure on a very large scale, but Mahler was also trying to go beyond traditional musical forms by adding voices to the orchestra just as Beethoven had done in his Ninth or Choral symphony. The Beethoven Ninth is also coherent as a purely musical structure. Remember how Beethoven brings back themes from earlier movements to start the last movement. Mahler does the same thing in his Eighth Symphony, only on a larger scale and with a more elaborate extra-musical purpose.

Part One: The Agony of Struggle and the Ecstasy of Hope A Wild Ride to Faith
The first movement of the Eighth Symphony makes use of a Ninth Century Latin hymn attributed to Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. It is a fervent glorification of God and the equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the hope that all men will be brothers. In the words of Maurus’ hymn:

Give us joy,
Grant us Thy grace,
Smooth our quarrels,
Preserve us in bonds of peace.

Like Beethoven, Mahler uses his soloists and chorus in this movement simply as different kinds of instruments, and so extends the expressive range and colour of the symphony orchestra. Mahler also gives us a hymn setting that goes far beyond Bach and Beethoven in its extreme emotionalism. There are moments when the music gets so wild it seems on the verge of spinning out of control.

Part Two: Repentance, Divine Love, Forgiveness and Life Everlasting
The second movement of the symphony is something else again. Here, through the medium of lines from Goethe’s Faust, Mahler continues his lifelong exploration of the mysteries of love, faith and death. In his Symphony No. 2 Resurrection, Mahler had given us a powerful vision of life after death, and in his Fourth Symphony he had shown us what heaven could be like through the eyes of a child. In the Eighth Symphony we have Goethe’s depiction of life after death as Faust’s soul is welcomed into heaven and Faust is reunited with his beloved Gretchen. In Goethe’s telling of the Faust legend, the scholar Faust makes a pact with the devil that in return for getting everything he wants in earthly life, he will serve the devil in hell. One thing leads to another - Faust falls in love with Gretchen and gets her pregnant. She gives birth but then drowns her illegitimate child. Convicted of murder, she is sent to prison. Faust is doomed to hell and damnation, but at the end of Part One, voices from heaven proclaim that Gretchen will be forgiven and saved.

By the end of Part Two, Faust is forgiven his overweening ambitions and desires and accepted in heaven where Gretchen awaits him. Like Schumann and Liszt before him, Mahler found in Goethe’s text the most profound expression of the human condition and the path to everlasting life through earthly love and Christian faith.

Thriving on Challenges, Nagano Delivers Full Scope of Mahler’s Masterpiece
Given its enormous musical and philosophical challenges, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a daunting challenge for any conductor. Kent Nagano showed Montreal listeners once again that he thrives on challenges. He conducted with remarkable technical control and a deep sense of what lay behind the notes. The overwhelming climaxes at the end of each of the two movements were built with care and realized with maximum intensity. Yet it was often in the quiet passages that one felt Nagano’s total identification with the music. Mahler loved to storm the heavens, but some of his most profound music is whispered rather than shouted.

Nagano’s soloists were all first-rate and added immeasurably to the success of the performance. Soprano Jennifer Wilson got off to a shaky start but settled in later on to soar fearlessly over the huge orchestra. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme impressed me with the beautiful colour of her voice. The star soloist, however, was undoubtedly tenor Simon O’Neill (left:photo by Lisa Kohler). He has been singing some of the great Heldentenor roles in opera houses around the world and one can see why he is in such demand. In the Mahler Eighth he was heroic indeed but never lost his fine lyric sound.

The OSM Chorus sang magnificently under its guest chorus master, Michael Zaugg. The OSM winds have shown themselves capable of producing finer intonation on other nights, but then Mahler’s writing is often cruelly exposed. On the whole, however, the orchestra played with total commitment and careful attention to balances.

The eminent Mahler authority Henri-Louis de La Grange gave us something to ponder in calling the final 'Chorus Mysticus' one of “the most powerful passages in the history of music.” As Kent Nagano led his stellar ensemble of soloists, chorus and orchestra through this inspiring music at Place des Arts, one had no choice but to concur wholeheartedly.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com/. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at http://www.theartoftheconductor.com/.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: September 14 (M. Haydn, Cherubini)

1737 - Michael Haydn, Rohrau, Austria; composer

Wikipedia
Michael Haydn Project

Short compilation (2007) of works by Michael Haydn to celebrate the 270th anniversary of his birth



1760 - Luigi Cherubini, Florence, Italy; composer

Wikipedia

Maria Callas sings "Dei tuoi figli la madre" from Cherubini's Medea (studio performance)

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Saturday, 13 September 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: September 13 (C. Schumann, Schoenberg)

1813 - Clara Schumann, Leipzig, Germany; composer and pianist

Wikipedia
Biography and more

Piano Trio in G minor, 3rd mvt. (alesiEnsemble Salzburg, Milan, 2008)



Diana Damrau sings "Was weinst du, Blümlein" (Madrid, 2008)



1874 - Arnold Schoenberg, Vienna, Austria; composer

Biography
Schoenberg and the Second Vienna School

Verklaerte Nacht, part 1 (National Chamber Orchestra of Moldavia, Cristian Florea conducting)


Measha Brueggergosman sings "Der genuegsame Liebhaber" (version Berlin, 1905), with Justus Zeyen accompanist

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Friday, 12 September 2008

Stratford and Shaw: Artistic Turmoil, a Tough Economy & Life is a Cabaret


I’ve been visiting the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Toronto, I learned early that Stratford was home to one of the greatest theatre companies in the English-speaking world. The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake came a little later, but it too quickly became famous for the quality of its productions. I returned this summer for a major dose of both festivals – four shows in two days at each festival – and I was rarely disappointed.

Superstar Christopher Plummer Plays with Newcomer Nikki M. James
From the beginning, Stratford was known not only for its Shakespeare but also for its ability to attract stars. Director Tyrone Guthrie started things off, and then came Alec Guinness, James Mason, Paul Scofield, Alan Bates, Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov and many others. This year we had Brian Dennehy in O’Neill’s Hughie and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and Christopher Plummer in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. I missed Dennehy but enjoyed every moment of the 78-year old Plummer’s wise and witty Caesar beguiled in Egypt by the teen-aged Cleopatra. In this production with Nikki M. James playing the young Queen, we had something close to a real teen-ager in the role (she is 27 but looks and sounds much younger).

James turned out to be one of the most controversial elements in a season of controversy in Stratford. She was clearly out of her element in Romeo and Juliet but the more colloquial language and shorter speeches in Shaw’s play allowed her to put forward her best qualities - grace and youthful charm. James was originally cast in a smaller role in Caesar and Cleopatra, but a late withdrawal by broadway star Anika Noni Rose gave her the opportunity to play Cleopatra.

The casting of the all but unknown James in two major roles in her Stratford debut season was the work of Stratford’s new artistic director Des McAnuff, and one could argue that he must take most of the blame for her less than stellar Juliet. Not a good omen for his new regime. But then it wasn’t planned to be that way - that is, his regime.

Three Artistic Directors Two Too Many!
When the 2008 Stratford season was announced, there was a trio of artistic directors appointed to succeed Richard Monette. By all accounts, the three new directors couldn’t get along and McAnuff managed to emerge victorious and in sole charge. Perhaps he had sharper elbows. (News Update: After writing this article I learned that Richard Monette (left) passed away in a hospital in London, Ontario. This was sad and surprising news. He had put his heart and soul into the Stratford Festival.)
In spite of his questionable judgement in casting and a propensity to parachute in American cronies – just look at the bios in the programmes for this year’s plays – McAnuff is a gifted director and both Romeo and Juliet and Caesar and Cleopatra demonstrated that fact. He used the famous thrust stage in the Festival Theatre to great effect in both plays. Michael Roth (Romeo and Juliet) and Rick Fox (Caesar and Cleopatra) gave us original music that thankfully didn’t consist largely of pompous fanfares. Some of McAnuff’s talented American imports - among them actor John Vickery, fight director Steve Rankin, aerial effects designer Paul Rubin, costume designer Paul Tazewell, director Amanda Dehnert, choreographer Kelly Devine and the afore-mentioned Michael Roth - even rivaled the best of the old Stratford guard.

McAnuff may or may not be an egomaniac; that unpleasant possibility notwithstanding, one must admit that in his first season he has already brought a fresh approach. Stratford has a long tradition and is proud of it, but even venerable institutions need retooling from time to time.

Musicals, Money, and Broadway-on-Avon
Musicals have become Stratford’s cash cows in recent years and there are those who find this turn of events disgraceful. “How,” they ask, “could Stratford’s distinguished Shakespeare company – ‘North America’s leading classical theatre’ it calls itself - become so obsessed with commercialism?”

The fact is that Stratford is a commercial operation and needs to make a lot of money to sustain itself. It puts on about fifteen shows a year and runs in repertory in three theatres from April to November. The musicals draw the crowds but their success also enables Stratford to continue presenting Shakespeare and more esoteric fare. And, as it happens, Stratford has become one of the best producers of musicals anywhere; this year, for example, we had a brilliantly fresh Cabaret with local favorite Bruce Dow as the Emcee! One has come to expect precision and attention to detail in the Stratford musicals and Cabaret was no exception. The orchestra too sounded wonderful in its ersatz Kurt Weill charts.

I must confess that I dislike the sound systems used everywhere today for musicals. Both the singers (with mikes poking up beside their ears!) and the orchestra in the Stratford musicals, are miked. The idea is to make everything sound bigger and louder and to compensate for tiny voices. No Ethel Mermans need apply anywhere anymore.

The effect of miking an orchestra is usually a congested and artificial sound. No so in this Stratford Cabaret. The Music Man in the same theatre (Avon) the following night, however, was another matter. Since the sound designer for both productions was Jim Neal, it is difficult to know why the results were so different. For the record, our seats were nearly the same for both productions - three or four rows back in the centre section of the orchestra.

In a struggling U.S. economy and with the Canadian dollar nearly at par with the U.S. dollar – not to mention the high cost of gas – there were lots of empty seats for the Stratford performances I attended. It was a similar situation at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. While both festivals tend to rely heavily on retirees, at the Shaw this year I was struck by the large numbers of much older patrons.

Life is a Cabaret and Getting Married is a Good Laugh at Shaw!
The Shaw Festival has chosen to concentrate on plays by GBS (George Bernard Shaw) and his contemporaries. That repertoire comprises a large chunk of programming and the company has become very good at it. This year we had Terrence Rattigan’s After the Dance (1939), a depressing drama about bright young things partying their way to destruction between wars. Come to think of it, the theme of this play is not so very different from that of Cabaret. We also had J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945), another play touching on the insularity and selfishness of the British upper classes. Jim Mezon’s direction was atmospheric and provocative, as were the lighting, the sets and the sound effects. The “elevator” almost became another character in the play, and a somewhat nasty one at that.

Shaw’s Getting Married is one of those Shavian plays people like to dismiss as hopelessly didactic and argumentative. Shaw wrote it in 1908 as an attack on the divorce laws currently in effect in England. It was virtually impossible to get divorced and few people did. Shaw’s view was that if people no longer wanted to be married, it should be easy for them to go their separate ways. In the play he thrusts us into a household in which the Bishop’s daughter is about to be married. As family and guests arrive, a discussion develops about the virtues and drawbacks of marriage. Rather than a dry legal or philosophical discussion, what develops is a hugely entertaining exchange of ideas between some highly eccentric folks. As directed by Joseph Ziegler, this production was great fun! Many of the ideas expressed in this play are as relevant today as they were in Shaw’s England of 1908.

Wonderful Town Not Quite as Wonderful as it Might Have Been
The Shaw Festival, as did Stratford, has turned to musicals to attract a broader audience. This year’s programming included Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

Bernstein was a phenomenon, of course, and one of America’s greatest composers of Broadway musicals. Wonderful Town quickly became a smash hit when it opened in 1953. Seeing it 55 years later, I was initially shocked to realize how much of a period piece it had become. The musical idioms, the 1950s references in the lyrics by Comden and Green all seem a bit dated. But then everything at Shaw is dated and that perhaps, is part of its appeal.

Each generation, at some point in time it seems, experiences nostalgia for bygone days. Elderly audiences come to mind once again. Many of us can relate to the recent history of Getting Married (1908), say, in a way that we can’t relate to Shakespeare, Ibsen or Chekhov. We see our roots in Shaw, Rattigan, Priestley, Wilde and all the rest. Nostalgia is partly what draws the older crowds to Shaw, but these are also people who “grew up with” the classic Broadway musicals.

Wonderful Town is not as old as Oklahoma or South Pacific, but it has now passed into that semi-frozen state of theatre pieces that used to be current, but are not yet full-fledged classics.
Wonderful Town was done well at Shaw, but not in my opinion, nearly as well as such things are done in Stratford. The singing and dancing are not on the same level. The orchestra sounded - well - “miked”! The sound designer John Lott must have been partly to blame, but perhaps also conductor Paul Sportelli who is credited with the orchestrations.

If you want to hear how Wonderful Town should sound, listen to a recent DVD with Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic with outstanding singing by Kim Criswell, Audra McDonald and Thomas Hampson.

Good Theatre, Charming Towns, Fine Food & Wine
It is the consistently high quality of the plays and musicals presented that draws me back to Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake each summer, but admittedly, the towns themselves are an important part of the total experience.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the more picturesque of the two, and has the beauty of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River nearby, not to mention the excellent wineries which have sprung up in recent years and which offer tours, wine-tasting and fine dining.

If you want to sit by the water and enjoy a quiet lunch away from the tourist hordes, there is one special place to do that - the patio at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club at the foot of Gate St., just a short walk from the main shopping district.

Stratford does not have the charm of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but it is nonetheless a very welcoming small town with lots of very good restaurants. The Belfry – the poor cousin upstairs from the overpriced but often spectacular Church Restaurant – used to be one of my favorite hangouts, but it has now upgraded its menu to the point where it is impossible to get anything recognizable as traditional fare. A much better choice these days may be the Keystone Alley Café. It offers good food, well presented, at reasonable prices.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com/. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at http://www.theartoftheconductor.com/.

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