Saturday, 30 August 2008
Friday, 29 August 2008
Knowlton's Festival Bel Canto: From Dream to Reality
In a mere matter of months, three gifted idealists – Swiss-Quebec businessman Marco Genoni, OSM (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) music director Kent Nagano and Santa Cecilia National Academy director Bruno Cagli – created a new music festival with international scope in one of the most unlikely of places – Knowlton, Quebec – and carried it off with huge success!
Now that the applause has died away, the performers have gone home and the chapiteau (tent) has been folded and put away, it is time to take stock of what was accomplished and to consider what the future might hold.
Festival's Major Events Drew Larger than Expected Audiences
The day after the festival, I sat down for a chat over a cup of cappuccino with festival founder Marco Genoni. While he was obviously still basking in the glow of success, Genoni was already hard at work analyzing what took place and planning next year's festival. He could look back with pride on the fact that all the major events were virtually sold out, that the artistic standard met or surpassed expectations and, not least of all, that there was no significant rainfall during the festival. Although advance publicity advertised a tent seating 600, for some events there were as many as 817 people in attendance.
Time and Talent of Local Volunteers Much Appreciated
On the negative side there were rumblings that local residents were dismayed by the high prices, couldn’t get tickets or couldn’t relate to the unfamiliar musical fare. As a reaction to some of the criticism, Genoni announced during the festival that as a way of “giving something back to the community” the OSM would give a free concert in Lion’s Park in Knowlton on Labour Day weekend. Unfortunately, it turned out that this free concert would not take place after all. The problem was that the concert would have been in direct conflict with the annual Brome Fair, a major local event. In addition, the local volunteers who worked so hard and so well for Festival Bel Canto could not handle another major event so soon. As Genoni put it, “it was a mistake made with goodwill in mind.”
Bel Canto and the Santa Cecilia Connection
As Genoni, Nagano and Cagli look to the future they must try to clarify the mission of the festival. Given the origin of this year’s festival as a collaboration between the OSM and the Santa Cecilia National Academy in Rome, the bel canto feature is important. Or perhaps it is less bel canto than Italian singing that is important. Most music-lovers can surely relate to a celebration of Italian singing and vocal music in the broader sense, but even that repertoire can be very limiting. I suspect the festival would have greater appeal if it could include symphonic repertoire and instrumental concertos.
Clearly, Genoni and his colleagues realize on the one hand that a concert featuring pop singer Gino Vanelli hardly fits any meaningful definition of bel canto; on the other hand, any festival devoted solely to bel canto will probably appeal largely to connoisseurs.
The Santa Cecilia connection is a good one and provides an interesting training component. Each year the festival will feature international singers but also some newcomers who can benefit from working with the stars. Knowlton will also have the opportunity to see some outstanding young singers before they become well-known.
I like the concept of a festival with a bel canto focus. Nagano and the OSM will enjoy their annual immersion in this repertoire, and I believe they will attract an audience for it. At the same time it may not be wise to limit the festival to a single theme.
Even Mozart’s huge repertoire has been found too limiting by some international festival organizers to carry an annual festival on its own. The founders of Festival Bel Canto may find that they too need to broaden their concept beyond bel canto style. Broadening it enough to include pop singer Gino Vannelli may, however, be going too far.
I would suggest rather broadening the musical scope to include non-vocal fare. After all, the OSM, one of the stars of this festival, is a world-class orchestra and most of the bel canto repertoire for orchestra is very limiting. It is interesting for them to work on the style but there are no great bel canto symphonies or concertos. Bel canto describes a certain period in the history of Italian opera and it was a period in which the orchestra was largely limited to an accompanying role.
If the facility in Knowlton is to be limited to less than 1,000 seats, the size of the orchestra may have to be limited too as it was this year, to something around 50 players. This means the OSM cannot do Berlioz, Mahler or Tchaikovsky but they can do Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. I am sure Nagano can come up with plenty of interesting programmes with this broader repertoire base.
The challenge then, is to market the festival in future as featuring bel canto but definitely not limited to it. The bel canto “plus” programming should attract not only fans of bel canto who will soon discover what wonderful work Nagano and Cagli are doing in Knowlton, but also customers with a more general love of classical music.
Addressing the Question of Acoustics
Another question mark is the performing facility itself. The tent used this year was expensive and not well-suited to classical music. The acoustics were only fair at best. According to Genoni, festival organizers would like to keep the size of the facility to less than 1,000 seats to simulate the experience of a small Italian opera house. Next year, he said, in addition to the refinements planned for the tent, the OSM will bring to Knowlton the portable shell which has served it well in its regular concerts in the parks in and around Montreal.
Where Have all the Critics Gone?
Overall marketing of this new festival’s debut was certainly not what it should have been. As far as I know, there were no critics from New York, London or Toronto and even coverage in Montreal was far less than the festival deserved. I suspect that this was one of those organizational aspects that failed to get enough attention due to the festival’s somewhat impetuous launch.
Festival Bel Canto Richly Supported by Knowlton Community
Finally, how does one answer those critics who say that Quebec or Canada already has enough festivals and that the money is spread too thin already? While very little taxpayer money went directly to the festival this year, festival organizers will soon be drawing up their grant applications for future years. If they can enrich the community, attract audiences and do a better job than competing organizations then they can claim legitimacy. It is early yet, after only one festival, to make firm pronouncements, but Genoni, Nagano, Cagli and their colleagues have at least earned the right to continue the realization of their dream.
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/.
Today's Birthday in Music: August 29 (Roswaenge)
Helge Roswaenge sings:
"Che gelida manina" (in German) from Puccini's La Bohème
(c. 1938) "Hier soll' ich dich denn sehen, Constanze" from Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Thursday, 28 August 2008
Today's Birthdays in Music: August 28 (Tucker, Giordano)
Richard Tucker remembered
Richard Tucker sings two Italian songs: "Non ti scordar di me" and "Torna a Sorrento" (early 1960s?)
Richard Tucker and Renata Tebaldi sing the final duet "Vicino a te" from Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier (recorded live in Chicago, 1956)
1867 - Umberto Giordano, Foggia, Italy; composer
Jon Vickers sings "Come un bel dì di maggio" from Andrea Chenier
Jose Carreras, with Mirella Freni, sings "Amor ti vieta" from Giordano's Fedora (Barcelona, 1993)
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
In a critical condition (5)
Couldn't happen now, I hear you say. No paper would ever construct itself around an arts critic, and no critic could ever be held to personify a newspaper in the way that Brien did, or Neville Cardus on the Manchester Guardian, Marcel Reich-Ranicki on the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Pauline Kael on the New Yorker, and others of a golden age.
Or could it? We keep hearing media executives talk of innovation when they mean sackings - the latest to use this euphemism is the boss of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, where 550 jobs are about to go.
But innovation is not made overnight. It comes from the experience and wisdom of newspaper veterans who have seen it all before and know what works and what won't. Getting rid of good critics is a symptom of media death wish. It declares that a newspaper has no sense of its past, present or future, and no conversation with its readers.
A newspaper that cherishes and promotes its critics - as The Scotsman does, for instance, during the Edinburgh Festival - offers readers a reliable benchmark against which they can measure their own reactions and opinions to things they have seen and heard. The Scotsman deploys its critical team strategically in festival time as a way of setting itself apart from the range of free newspapers that flood the city streets.
In Salzburg, likewise, the local Nachrichten is read more closely during festival time than any of the national or international papers because its critics provide a clearer context day by day of events in the present festival against triumphs of the past. Their value cannot be measured purely in payroll terms.
True, few critics these days have the fame or clout that Brien, Cardus and Reich-Ranicki did in their pomp, but arts critics still form the thin blue line between a newspaper of value and a throwaway sheet.
They can be, in the public perception, the soul of a newspaper or at the very least its conscience. Executives who ignore that truth will follow the critics they fire very rapidly onto the nearest dole queue.
Today's Birthdays in Music: August 27 (R. Clarke, E. Coates)
Rebecca Clarke Society
Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano (Igal Braslavsky- viola , Luba Barsky-piano; Jerusalem, 2007)
1886 - Eric Coates, Hucknall, England; composer and violist
Eric Coates's Knightsbridge March (Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg, Potsdam, under the direction of Scott Lawton)
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
Today's Birthday in Music: August 26 (Sawallisch)
Biography and pictures
Sawallish rehearses and conducts the Bavarian State Orchestra in Strauss's Till Eulenspiegels lustige spiel (early 1970s)
J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, transcribed by Stokowski; Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra (Yokohama, Japan, 1999)
Monday, 25 August 2008
Bellini's Norma Triumphant Finale for Festival Bel Canto
This is the fourth in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton, Quebec, by Paul E. Robinson
The organizers of Festival Bel Canto 2008 programmed a lot of music by the great bel canto composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – but only one full-length opera. And they chose well in the inaugural season; Bellini's Norma is generally regarded as perhaps the greatest of the genre. But Norma has always been problematic too in that it requires an exceptional artist to conquer the challenges of the title role. Callas, Sutherland and Gruberova have done it, but very few others in recent memory. Micaela Carosi accepted the challenge in Knowlton this past Sunday, in the closing performance of the festival, and acquitted herself admirably, as did the rest of the cast, conductor Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM).
Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) is one of those composers – Mozart and Schubert are the prime examples – who died well before his time and accomplished extraordinary things during a short life. Bellini wrote very little instrumental music, preferring to compose operas. He is sometimes dismissed as "superficial." Musicians point to the simple harmonies and accompanying figures as evidence that he had nothing new or profound to say, but one could argue that Bellini's "simplicity" is often like Mozart's: with simple means both composers could portray great depth of feeling. The character Norma, for example, is one of the most complex personages in opera; she is a Druid leader dedicated to throwing off the yoke of the hated Romans and yet she has had two children by the Roman leader Pollione. When she discovers that Pollione has been having an affair with her fellow priestess Adalgisa, her sorrow and rage lead her to thoughts of kill ing her children, Pollione and Adalgisa. In the end she decides to sacrifice her own life.
Wagner might have depicted all of Norma's varied emotions with distinct musical ideas, but like Mozart, Bellini proceeds with more subtlety. He never forgets that his medium is primarily vocal music and that vocal music can never be less than beautiful.
Bellini's vocal lines are often florid and highly ornamented, thereby conveying extremes of emotion from the heights of joy to the depths of sadness. It is the measure of a bel canto performer how well he or she uses this ornamentation to convey emotion. For many singers the goal seems to be accuracy; this approach reduces Bellini's art to empty display. Yesterday afternoon Micaela Carosi treated the bel canto festival audience not only to a mastery of the notes but also to a clear understing of how the notes can be used to enhance expression. She has a large and beautiful voice and gave a convincing portrayal. Her performance of the famous "Casta diva" was both accurate and moving.
As good as Carosi was, I felt others in the cast provided a greater range of emotion. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as Aldalgisa has an even more beautiful voice than Carosi and brought her character to life with much more intensity. Aldrich conveyed a great deal through facial expression and careful attention to rhythmic detail.
Tenor Francisco Casanova was also in command of the technical requirements of Bellini's score and in the final scenes he captured the pain and agony of the situation with remarkable power. And he did it without resorting to the Italian tenor's usual tricks of holding high notes for effect or adding crude sobbing. With strong singing and a few well-chosen gestures he helped to make these scenes intensely poignant.
Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea played the chief druid Oroveso, also Norma's father, and showed why he has rapidly risen to become a star at many of the world's great opera houses including the Met. While hardly old enough to be credible as Norma's father, he sang with strength and an uncommonly beautiful sound.
Special credit must be given to Kent Nagano who masterminded the entire production. He set the tempi, adjusted the delicate balances between singers and orchestra and within the orchestra, and gave clear guidelines as to the style of singing and playing. In conversation onstage with the CBC's Kelly Rice before the performance Nagano commented on how much the orchestra had learned about bel canto style from being immersed in it for the past few weeks. Nagano pointed out how a recent Mendelssohn performance by the OSM sounded quite different, and appropriately so, from this concentrated work on the music of one period.
But Nagano is that kind of conductor - very serious about his work and always curious about learning something new and better. Montreal is lucky to have his inquiring mind, not to mention his enormous conducting skill. Norma is full of recitatives which many conductors find either boring or impossible to sort out. Nagano gave clear and strong directions for every recitative passage; it may not mean much to the audience but I am sure the singers and the members of the OSM were very appreciative. The orchestra played superbly throughout the performance and the OSM Chorus was excellent too.
Incidentally, there was a huge gong which sat on the left front of the stage throughout the performance but it was never used. In Act 2 Scene 7 Norma strikes a sacred gong three times to indicate that it is time to go to war against the Romans. In the Jürgen Rose production of Norma given in Munich in 2006 and issued recently on DVD, Norma (Edita Gruberova) is seen to strike a remarkably similar gong. What happened in Knowlton? We heard the three strokes on the gong but the strokes were delivered by the percussion section of the OSM. Why have the gong on stage if it is never going to be used? It reminded me of Chekhov's old maxim about a gun; if a pistol is seen on the wall in the first act one expects it to be fired later in the play or it shouldn't be there.
Breaking News From Knowlton:
At the Norma performance on Sunday, Honorary Chairman of the festival Marco Genoni announced that at next year's festival the featured opera will be Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, sung in French.
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 www.amazon.com. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at www.theartoftheconductor.com.
Today's Birthday in Music: August 25 (Bernstein)
Bernstein conducts the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (Tokyo, 1987)
"Almighty Father" from Bernstein's MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers (State Choir "Latvija" and Latvian National Symphony Orchestra; Riga, 2007)
June Anderson and Gerry Hadley sing "Make Our Garden Grow" from Candide (concert version, Barbican Centre, London, 1990)
Ravel's La Valse (finale): Leonard Bernstein and l'Orchestre Nationale de France (Paris, 1975)
Sunday, 24 August 2008
Report from Seattle's Wagner Competition
Sweden’s Michael Weinius faced this daunting prospect but was brave enough to stick to his choice of the Prize Song for his first offering. This writer had some reservations about his performance - he seemed to lack conviction and power - but these were swept away when he sang a heartfelt and herioc “Amfortas, die Wunde” from Parsifal in the second half.
The judges agreed, apparently, awarding Weinius one of the two $15,000 prizes. The other prize went to South African soprano, Elza van den Heever. Until now, Van den Heever had not envisaged a Wagner career; she recently sang Donna Anna in San Francisco’s Don Giovanni. But she impressed the judges with her clear, bright, highly musical renditions of “Dich Teure Halle” from Tannhauser, and “Einsam in truben Tagen,” from Lohengrin.
Before the judge’s decision was announced, both the audience and the orchestra were given a chance to vote too. Seattle’s uber-enthusiast General Director, Speight Jenkins, has created such a comfortable and happy atmosphere in the company, off duty singers often attend other performances. When our audience filed out to the urns in the foyer, I found myself lining up to vote behind the current Seattle Aida, Lisa Daltirus and their Ring’s reigning Wotan, Greer Grimsley. The audience also voted for Elza van den Heever.
The orchestra, whose experience is perhaps the ‘purest’ given that they can’t see any of the contestants, voted for German mezzo-soprano, Nadine Weissmann. Weissmann’s Erda and Waltraute monologue had the requisite exciting rich, dark tones but, at this point in her career, she seemed to lose a little power in longer phrases, failing slightly to deliver on the initial promise.
Seattle’s competition is unique in its focus on Wagner and, in the wise choice to set an age range of 25-39 - given that dramatic singers take longer to mature. By encouraging the careers of young Wagner singers, Seattle Opera, often called “the American Bayreuth” because of its devotion to the German genius, is ensuring its own future.
- Janette Griffiths (Visit Janette's blog)
Photo: Rozarii Lynch
Bel Canto Diva Sumi Jo Wows Festival Audience!
Korean-born Sumi Jo is well-known as an international artist specializing in the coloratura soprano repertoire. She was an excellent choice for the first Festival Bel Canto with her success in a wide range of roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. In addition, Sumi Jo studied at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, one of the artistic collaborators on the festival with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Sumi Jo gave us a taste of this repertoire last night but she also dazzled the audience with superb performances of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate and, as a much deserved encore, with a highly theatrical excerpt from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.
Once again Le Chapiteau on Tibbits Hill overlooking Lac Brome was filled to capacity as Festival Bel Canto 2008 entered its second and last weekend. And in this summer of near legendary rainfall in the Eastern Townships the sun was shining and the temperature was, well, as it should be in the middle of summer – warm. Kent Nagano and the OSM opened the evening with Haydn's Symphony No. 101, nicknamed "the Clock" for its tick-tock effect in the second movement. How this piece fits into a bel canto festival is a mystery to me, and Dieter Rexroth's essay on bel canto in the festival's programme book sheds no light on the matter. More likely than not, we were treated to the Haydn simply because the OSM presented this entire Tibbits Hill programme in Montreal just a few days ago minus the bel canto focus.
In any case, Nagano gave us a welcome taste of his current approach to music of the classical period. To my ears, it shows the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This means a preference for quick tempi, particularly in slow movements and minuets, very little vibrato, lots of expressive variety in bowing, strong accents, and forceful trumpets and timpani. Whether one agrees with all of the interpretative decisions or not, Nagano's Haydn is fresh and thoughtful and on this occasion the OSM gave him everything he asked for.
Even before she sang a note Sumi Jo's first appearance in a tight low-cut blue green evening gown was greeted with oohs and aahs and even cheers. The same thing happened again in the second half when she reappeared in an even more dazzling gold gown. Sumi Jo is a beautiful woman and her sparkling form-fitting gowns were designed to show her off to the max. After only a few bars of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate it was clear to all in the hall that she is not only a great beauty, but also a great artist. Her bel canto runs and trills were delivered with effortless clarity and the top note in the final Alleluia rang out with confidence and fullness. Nagano and the OSM were with her every step of the way.
After intermission Nagano warmed up the band again with Rossini's La scala di seta overture. Wonderful playing especially from the oboe soloist. It is a challenge to keep track of who is playing on any given night at the festival since the OSM has split the 100-piece orchestra into two sections, and sends only one section for each concert. I can't be sure but I believe it was associate principal Margaret Morse who played so many notes so quickly and so well in the oboe solos. Later, Nagano led a performance of the overture to Bellini's Norma, perhaps for those unable to get a ticket for the full opera in its two performances at the festival.
Ultimately, the night belonged to Sumi Jo who was featured in excerpts from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi, and Bellini's I Puritani. All were performed with total involvement and mastery of the numerous technical challenges. It should be emphasized that Sumi Jo chose arias of substance rather than those with crowd-pleasing virtuosity, just as June Anderson had done in her concert in the festival last weekend. My favourite in Sumi Jo's bel canto group was Giulietta's romance from I Capuletti e I Montecchi, not least of all because of the hauntingly beautiful French horn obbligato.
Sumi Jo has recently enjoyed great success in performances of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and on the basis of what she showed us last night one can see why. Offenbach is not one of the "official" bel canto composers but much of this opera draws heavily on stylistic features of the vocal writing of Bellini and Donizetti. With Kent Nagano alternately wielding a baton and a key, Sumi Jo sang the great aria for Olympia the mechanical doll. Music and movement were presented with almost uncanny skill in this immensely entertaining aria. The audience demanded more and Sumi Jo sent them home even happier with "O mio babbino" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.
I'll be at Bellini's Norma today, the festival's final offering in this inaugural season. I'll post a report on that and then offer an overview of the festival's achievements and shortcomings based on my own thoughts and observations and a conversation with the festival's founding spirit and honorary chairman, Marco Genoni.
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 www.amazon.com. For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at www.theartoftheconductor.com.
Today's Birthdays in Music: August 24 (Dubois, A. Marcello)
Prelude in C minor (Paul Wagener, organ)
Rehearsing The Seven Last Words of Christ (Franco Tenelli, tenor; Julie Dufresne, soprano; Catherine Todorovski, organ)
1669 - Alessandro Marcello, Venice, Italy; composer and violinist
Concerto for oboe and orchestra in D minor (Paolo Grazzi, oboe; Il Giardino Armonico, dir. Giovanni Antonini)