La Scena Musicale

Friday, 27 March 2009

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 28 - Apr. 3)

There are several very interesting presentations this week that are well worth attending. First of all, I can recommend Tapestry Newopera Work's presentation of Opera To Go, an evening of four newly commissioned short operas. I attended the opening last evening, and can honestly say that I was hugely impressed by the wealth of talent and creativity that exists in Canada. Under the leadership of Managing Artistic Director Wayne Strongman, Tapestry actively nurtures composers and librettists by holding intensive summer workshops, known as LibLabs. Over the past 14 years, 47 composers and 47 librettists have participated. So far over twenty 15-minute opera works have been created and staged by the Company. In this year's showcase, three short pieces (One Lump or Two? / My Mother's Ring / The Virgin Charlie ) and one 40-minute work (The Perfect Screw) are being staged. Three comedies and one dark piece, a ratio that seems to be par for the course. I find myself totally engrossed and hugely entertained by all four pieces. It is workshops like this that take opera out of its "grand" mode to a more accessible level. New works like these keep the art form alive. Performances on March 27- 29, at the Enwave Theatre in 231 Queen's Quay West, Toronto.
Speaking of new works, Opera in Concert is staging Canadian composer Charles Wilson's newly revised Kamouraska. Though composed in 1974-5, this piece never received a full staging until now. According to the OIC website, this opera is based on a Canadian novel by Anne Hebert, "a tale of horror and imagination, based on a real 19th century love triangle in rural Quebec. Charles Wilson’s opera paints a terrifying tableau of the life of Elizabeth d’Aulnieres, her marriage to Antoine Tassy - squire of Kamouraska - his violent murder, and her passion for George Nelson, an American doctor" It stars former COC Ensemble member soprano Miriam Khalil, as well as James McLennan and Alexander Dobson. Alex Pauk conducts the Esprit Orchestra, with OIC Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin as dramatic advisor. Performances on March 28 8 pm and March 29 at 2"30 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto.
Another important event this week is Madama Butterfly produced by the newly resurrected Opera Hamilton. It opens on March 31 in a "special performance", followed by two more on April 2nd and 3rd. It takes place at the Ronald V. Joyce Centre for the Performing Arts, Hamilton Place, 60 minutes drive down the QEW from Toronto. It stars Chinese soprano Ai Lan Zhu as Cio Cio San, with tenor Gordon Gietz as Pinkerton. Baritone Gaetan Laperriere is Sharpless and former COC Ensemble Studio member mezzo Lauren Segal is Suzuki. Long time OH stalwart Daniel Lipton conducts.
Finally, you have one last chance to catch the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, featuring the superb pianist Louis Lortie and the sensational conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin joining forces for a program of Ravel and Prokofiev at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday. I attended the Wednesday performance, a truncated show with only Ravel Piano Concerto in G Major and the Prokofiev 5th Symphony. Lortie was in scintillating form, offering a sparkling account of the G Major, expertly supported by Nezet-Seguin. The mammoth No. 5 is a little too bombastic for me - too much brass and percussion in the first movement, but as a performance, it was absolutely stunning. The March 28 show is also truncated, with Piano Concert for the Left Hand replacing the G Major, and the addition of the orchestral version of Alborada del gracioso. It is also billed as a "casual concert", with an early start (7:30 pm) and a jazz ensemble to entertain the audience after the show. Any chance to hear Lortie and Nezet-Seguin is not to be missed!


Tuesday, 24 March 2009

COC Ensemble Studio La Boheme showcases Voices of the Future

Yannick-Muriel Noah (Mimi) and Adam Luther (Rodolfo) in Act 4 of La boheme. (Photo: Heather Lewis)

One of the joys of opera going is to discover new and exciting voices. Those in attendance at Tuesday's noon hour concert at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto were treated to a delightful display of the vocal richness Canada has to offer. Current and former members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio offered selections from Puccini's La boheme to a packed Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. The COC is staging this perennial favourite in a series of 12 performances starting April 17, starring a cast of nearly all Canadian talent, led by former Ensemble member Frederique Vezina (Mimi), David Pomeroy (Rodolfo), and Peter Barrett (Marcello). Often we forget that behind the "first cast" is a team of "cover artists" or understudies who are ready, willing, and able to take over in case of an indisposition. Yesterday we got to hear the cover singers showing what they can do. Without the benefit of sets, costumes and orchestra, these singers managed to bring Puccini's music to life through their voices and the force of their personalities.
l to r (Laura Albino, Alexander Hajek, Yannick-Muriel Noah, Adam Luther, Peter McGillivray, Michael Uloth)
Photo: Heather Lewis

Leading the cast was soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah as Mimi. Noah made a splash last season replacing an ailing Eszter Sumegi in two performances of Tosca, receiving raves. The first prize winner of the prestigious Hans Gabor (Belvedere) Competition in Vienna two years ago, Noah was given a contract to sing the title role in La Wally last fall in Klagenfurt (Austria), receiving critical acclaim. As Mimi, her rich and dark-hued spinto was shown to advantage, her "Donde lieta" a model of delicacy and emotional power. Partnering her as Rodolfo was tenor Adam Luther, who was a youthful and impetuous Jacquino in Fidelio earlier this season. Tenors with good voices are always in demand, and when one combines voice with handsome stage presence, it is a recipe for success. As Rodolfo, Luther sang with ringing tone, only a little short on chiaroscuro. Baritone Alexander Hajek's Marcello was engaging and stylishly sung. Former Ensemble member Peter McGillivray nearly stole the show as a lively and big-voiced Schaunard. Bass Michael Uloth took full advantage of Colline's brief moment to shine in "Vecchia zimarra" The trio of Musettas - sopranos Laura Albino (Act 2), Lisa DiMaria (Act 3)and Teiya Kasahara (Act 4) all brought their unique gifts to the role. Albino sang a sassy "Quando m'en vo"; DiMaria made a vivid impression in her exchanges with Marcello, and Kasahara was suitably sympathetic and compassionate in Mimi's final moments. Ensemble Studio conductor Samuel Tak-Ho Tam offered full support to the singers, as did collaborative pianist Christopher Mokrzewski. With twelve performances scheduled - a huge number and two more than usual given the popularity of Boheme - I wouldn't be surprised if some of these singers will get their moment in the sun.

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Sunday, 22 March 2009

Opening Night at Paris' Opéra-Comique - Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring

by Frank Cadenhead

The second Parisian opening night is at the historic Opéra-Comique. I mounted the metro exit stairs at Auber (a station named for the composer) and arrived in the center of a busy traffic circle. turning around, you get the full effect of the grandiloquent facade of the Paris Opera's old house, the Palais Garnier, recently clean, dominating the square and glowing brilliantly in the night. To get to the Comique, however, you turn left after the stairs and head up Boulevard des Capucines. To my surprise, this very night, I noted a plaque high on a doorway at the building at the corner. Jacques Offenbach died in that building. How many times I have walked this route and never seen that sign. After two blocks, the name changes to Boulevard des Italians. This is not the Champs-Elysees and you pass chain restaurants and movie houses. But after six blocks you turn right on Rue Favart and the building entrance is 100 meters or so down the street, facing its own small plaza.

The historic Comique, also called the Salle Favart, saw many first performances: Bizet's Carmen, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust to name only a few. The latest in a series of theatres on that spot, the current one is from 1898 and seats 1200. It was recently refurbished and given a modest budget by the state after being used for popular events for several years. It has now directed its focus to the baroque and the new interest in French opera - something the post-War French completely neglected. This season, for example, includes Hérold's Zampa and Auber's Fra Diavolo with Rameau's Zoroastre next month, Chabrier's Le Roi Malgré Lui from Lyon in April and the Carmen in June will be conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. The finest Parisian opera production so far this season was the December production by Deborah Warner of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Bill Christie and his Les Arts Florissants at their elegiac best. But there are newer operas on the schedule too, including the most recent opera by Peter Eotvos, Lady Sarashina and the opera tonight, Benjamin Britten's 1947 opera, Albert Herring.

Did you ever wish that the evening you are witnessing could be recorded? It was that kind of a night. It is a rarely produced opera and you know that it will not likely ever be as well done - a cast of honored veterans of the English operatic stage, a spot-on staging and an environment where the music could bloom at its best. Deliciously tart and witty, this comedy originally starred Benjamin Britten's lifetime companion, the tenor Peter Pears. The story centers on a Suffolk small town and their search for a virtuous May Queen. The town leaders go through the list of eligible young women, finding fault with all of them; in the contemporary updating, tapes from the omnipresent UK security cameras document the misbehavior. They decide, as a critique of the wayward girls, to name a reclusive young man, a store clerk named Albert Herring, as the May King.

The wide-eyed young man, the flawless tenor Allan Clayton, works at a convenience store owned by his mother. In the smart staging of Richard Brunel, the store front is glass and steel with all the fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic. Herring learns of the dubious honor he has received when the town leaders show up at the store. The mother is entranced with the small prize money but Herring is confused. The American soprano Nancy Gustafson was elegant is the imperious Lady Billows but her mushy pronunciation had me reading the French translation more than once. There were no problems like that with the brilliant mezzo Felicity Palmer as her assistant, Florence Pike. Andrew Greenan was the blustery police commissioner with the fine tenor Simeon Esper as an ever-smiling mayor. Soprano Ailish Tynan, as the moral Miss Wordsworth, and baritone Christopher Purves, the eternally upbeat vicar, completed the town leadership. Hanna Shaer was the overbearing mother and played that with a dry intensity that was chilling. Baritone Leigh Melrose and mezzo Julia Riley were splendid as Sid and Nancy, a randy young couple who tempt Albert to break out of his shell.

The smart and deliciously good-humored music was unexpected from the composer. Such fun was hardly anticipated from a composer who shows his petulant side in the collection of his letters recently published. Assisting in this special night at the opera were conductor Laurence Equilbey whose best-selling recordings with her chorus, Accentus, have made her a bright new star in France. Conducting a score of members of the orchestra of the Opera of Rouen Haute-Normandie, where this opera is a co-production, her reading of the score of this exceptional ensemble opera was warm and exuberant and could have not been more musically focused.

While all operas at the Comique are not so flawlessly executed, witnessing opera in that house is not to be missed those attached to the lyric arts. Its intimate atmosphere is a perfect place to enjoy opera. Along with the operas they stage they also have concerts, lectures and events for young people illuminating the the work, the composer and his time. The website, in French, is

See also: Opening Night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro

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Saturday, 21 March 2009

Traditional Thai to Contemporary Jazz: Music on the South China Sea

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

After a week in Hong Kong, Marita and I flew to Bangkok (Thailand) where we spent an active three days touring the city before boarding the Diamond Princess for our South East Asian cruise.

Bangkok is deservedly famous for its heat, humidity and pollution, coupled with gridlock traffic. But there has been progress. Modern Bangkok has a good system of expressways and an elevated Sky Train that circles through the downtown area. The
three-wheeled tuk-tuks still zip through any opening in the gridlock and provide an amazingly efficient, if precarious, alternative.

Apart from the traffic, one of the persistent hazards in downtown Bangkok is the gem store 'tout,' that seemingly helpful ubiquitous local preying on tourists at every turn. His/her friendly directions invariably lead to stores selling local jewellery of all sorts where legions of clerks will seek to divest you of your bank balance.

Political Calm and Flourishing TourismA few months ago Bangkok was in political turmoil and the international airport was completely shut down by protestors. Things are calm at the moment and the airport is functioning normally. Within a matter of months, there will be a new train operating between the airport and downtown.

We spent a full day in the countryside visiting the floating markets of Damnoen Saduak about an hour and a half from the city. This is a dreadful tourist trap, but worth a visit nonetheless. This area is crisscrossed with a system of narrow and shallow canals (klongs) used by the local people to get around. Many people live here in this swampy area in houses raised on stilts.

For the tourist, the adventure begins with boarding a narrow flat-bottomed boat propelled by a rear motor. The motor is attached to a long shaft with a propeller, which trails just below the surface. The boats are noisy, but cleverly adapted to water conditions.
After about a half hour’s ride through a maze of canals we come to a group of shops full of souvenirs and swarms of tourists. Dozens of boats bump each other nearby. Half of them are filled with tourists, and the rest with locals selling fruit and vegetables and more souvenirs.

It's difficult to decide which is worse: being bottled up cross-legged in the boat surrounded by waterborne hustlers or wedged between sweaty tourists in the stores on land. Perhaps there are people who enjoy this kind of thing, but I’m not one of them. Let me out of here!

But, as they say, that too is Thailand and any number of other places on earth where masses of people are forced to do whatever they can to survive.

The Rose Garden: Flowers, Fast Food, Elephants, Oxen and Music!

On the way back to Bangkok, we stopped at another tourist gathering place, the Rose Garden, for lunch and a stage show. The roses were not in full bloom this time of year, but we did see some lovely orchids. The food at this attraction is, unfortunately, little better than hospital fare designed to get 500 people in and out of a dining facility as quickly as possible.

The hour-long stage show included some of what we had seen at a local hotel in Bangkok some forty years ago - Thai temple dancing, Thai boxing and a souped-up orchestra playing on traditional instruments - but the Rose Garden offered up a bigger, if not better, production.

The orchestra opened with a variety of popular tunes from different countries; morphed into Thai music to accompany the story (with voiceover in English) of Thai traditions and culture being told on stage through a variety of scenes – some of which included live elephants and oxen!; and closed with the tune, It’s a Small World After All, in appreciation, perhaps, of all the folks who had travelled so far, from so many different places, for this experience.

As we continued our drive back to Bangkok, we were reminded that Thailand is still primarily agricultural with rice the number one export product. Coconut plantations abound, and there are farms devoted to salt harvesting, using ancient manual techniques based on evaporation.

The Size of a Small Town - Diamond Princess Strives to Please One and All!In Laem Chabang, a container port two hours drive from Bangkok, we boarded our home for the next sixteen days, the cruise ship Diamond Princess. The thought of spending that much time locked in with 4,000 other people – 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew – is enough to bring on palpitations.

From my perspective, the key to enjoyment on a cruise is to understand your own needs and phobias and plan accordingly. There are places on board where heavy drinkers, loud talkers or party animals gather. It doesn’t take long to identify these places and learn to avoid them. If you have a room with a balcony, you can even spend virtually the entire cruise in your own space. Food comes to you when you want it at no extra charge; wireless internet is available in your cabin (for a price); and writers can happily do what they do in relative calm, watching the waves and the ship traffic go by.

Cornucopia of Music at Sea Fits the Bill for MostThen there is the music, and plenty of it. There are twenty or thirty musicians (singers and instrumentalists) on board and they seem to be playing almost continuously in all manner of configurations. As the Diamond Princess Orchestra, some of them make up the pit band for the nightly stage shows; as Liquid Blue, others can be heard playing early rock music in the Explorers Lounge. Still others come together as a 40s ‘big band’ in the Wheelhouse Bar; as the contemporary rock band Equinox in Club Fusion; or as a string quartet in the Atrium.

Something for everyone? Well, not quite.
The average age of passengers on board Diamond Princess appears to be 65 or more, and the music is designed to suit their age, tastes and cultural profile. There is no music offered that requires concentrated listening. The cruise lines must have learned, long ago, that retired people, on vacation, are rarely looking for concert performances, or what those of us who are avid classical music lovers would call ‘serious’ music.

I am not surprised that there are no classical music concerts on board the Diamond Princess; nor does it surprise me that there are no courses on classical music included in the Scholarship@Sea Program in spite of the fact that most of the scheduled onboard activities seem designed to appeal to small, specific interest groups. For those who are interested, there are some cruises that do specifically target this niche market.

There are other ways to satisfy intellectual curiosity on board the Diamond Princess. There is a library and plenty of good reading material. There are also daily lectures given by experts on the ports of call.

On this cruise, former ABC News correspondent Tiiu Lukk and art and architecture authority Deborah Fraioli gave talks on Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang, before our arrival in Vietnam. I complemented that information with my own reading on the subject, and between lectures I took in the Jazz Jam by the Diamond Princess Orchestra and spent a little time in the Golf Simulator to hone my game. True to its promise, Diamond Princess offers fun and games for every taste.

In my next report - some thoughts on sensational Singapore!

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

Photos by Marita

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This Week in Toronto (Mar. 21 - 27)

Yannick Nezet-Seguin brings his artistry and charisma to Roy Thomson Hall this week (March 25, 26, 28)
Photo: Marie Reine Mattera

Today is the first day of Spring, and not a moment too soon! After suffering from an unusually severe winter, we Torontonians can finally look forward to warmer days. As I write this on Saturday morning, it is 3 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Too bad I am going to be wasting a chance to enjoy the rays by sitting for three and a half hours inside a movie theatre this afternoon. But given it is the Met in HD La Sonnambula starring the incomparable duo of Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, the sacrifice is worth it :)

This new production of Sonnambula opened two weeks ago to near-unanimous negative reaction. Stage director Mary Zimmerman's reworking of this piece, set in a rehearsal studio of this opera, was vociferously booed on opening night. The critical reaction was preserved for posterity since the performance was broadcast on Sirius Radio live. I find it humorous that in the first minute of so of the booing, Margaret Junwait (the Met announcer) totally ignored it in her voice-over. The booing continued unabated and eventually she couldn't ignore it any longer, only to say somethng innocuous and lame like "there are different reactions to the show from the audience" or some such thing. Wouldn't it have been better to acknowlege it right at the beginning, whether she agrees with it or not? Now we have a chance to decide for ourselves today whether the boos were justified. Zimmerman won't be taking a curtain call since it is not the premiere, but it will be interesting to see if she is going to be interviewed at intermission. (However I must say Dessay and Florez received nothing but the loudest cheers) The venues are at selected Cineplex theatres in the GTA, including Sheppard Grande, Scotiabank Theatres, and Silver City (Yonge and Eglinton).

My theatre of choice for Met in HD is Sheppard Grande. I noticed that when I went to see Madama Butterfly two weeks ago, the management has made vast improvements to their concessions arrangements, greatly reducing the wait time. They are also experimenting with "Intermission Table Service", where patrons can pre-purchase drinks and food ahead of time. On the menu are sandwiches, wraps, sushi, sweets, hot and cold drinks. The prices are not cheap, but par for the course in theatre concessions. At intermission, the order will be ready and waiting for the purchasers in a reserved seating area. This is a great idea!!! But because it was a new procedure, very few people took advantage of this service and the seating area was practically deserted. I would imagine this time around, it will be better patronized.

The other important musical event this week is the welcome return of conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin and pianist Louis Lortie to Toronto. On the program are the two Ravel piano concertos, his Alborada del gracioso, and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5. Notice that there are different starting times and variations in the program! March 25 concert is only 75 minutes long, start time of 6:30 pm, with no intermission. Ravel's G Major and Alborada del gracioso are NOT performed. Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is NOT on the March 28 concert. Also, the March 28 is a "Casual Concert" with informal attire and a reception with live music after the show. If hearing the full program is important to you, then March 26 is the show to attend. On the other hand, if you want an early evening, then March 25 is worth considering.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Father Fernand Lindsay Has Died

Breaking News: Father Fernand Lindsay has died tonight of post-surgical complications in Joliette. Father Lindsay is known as the founder and artistic director of the Festival Lanaudière and the Camp musical de Lanaudière.

When the Festival Lanaudière celebrated its 25th anniversary, LSM published the following profile by Anaïk Bernèche: Fernand Lindsay - Bringing Live Classical Greats to Thousands

> Details of the funeral and service

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Saturday, 14 March 2009

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 14 - 20)

The Silk Road Ensemble brings their unique program to Roy Thomson Hall (March 19 and 20, 8 pm)

While this column is about classical music in the Toronto area, I can't help but mention the appearance of Art Garfunkel, of the iconic Simon & Garfunkel fame, on March 14, 8 pm. Interesting that the Roy Thomson Hall website lists him as a countertenor! I must say this is the first time I heard him referred to as such. He still has a big following among us Baby Boomers :-) For ticket information, go to,2 and follow the link.

The other exciting event this week is the appearance of Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at RTH (March 19 and 20, 8 pm). According to information on the Ensemble with its multimedia presentations has performed in 25 countries in more than 100 venues, ranging from concert halls to stadiums to museum galleries, in festivals around the world. Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, this project is "a catalyst promoting innovation and learning through the arts". Their vision is to "connect the world's neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe." If you have not experienced their performance before, I urge you to give it a try. For tickets, go to,3 and follow the link.

The premiere early music group in Toronto, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under Music Director Jeanne Lamon, is performing Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia March 12 -15 at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre. I believe there has been a cast change, with Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin replacing British soprano Sophie Daneman. Others on the cast is alto Vicki St. Pierre, tenor Rufus Muller, and bass Peter Harvey. For ticket information, go to

On the recital front, the Aldeburgh Connection is presenting A James Joyce Songbook (March 15, 2:30 pm in Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto). The quartet of soloists are soprano Katherine Whyte, mezzo Lynne McMurtry, tenor Michael Colvin, and baritone Peter Barrett. The Sunday Series is intelligent programming at its best - "each show is set around a theme, be it literary, musical, or historical, weaving the musical selections around interesting readings from letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and poetry." Complimentary tea is served at intermission. Tickets can be ordered by telephone at: 416 735-7982.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

Hong Kong Arts Festival Ends on a High Note!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The 37th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival ended this week after a very busy month which featured 125 performances and eight world premieres. The organizers reported that the average attendance was a very healthy 94%. There was lots of dance and theatre – a Peter Hall production of Pygmalion was among the highlights – but many more musical events. No fewer than four orchestras were invited this year: the Chicago Symphony (Haitink), the Northern Sinfonia, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Koopman) and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Metzmacher). I arrived in Hong Kong just in time to hear the last of these ensembles, and its two concerts were a mixed bag.

Sound and Interpretation Problematic in Metzmacher’s Bruckner

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) Berlin played in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a hall seating about 2,000 in a circle surrounding the performers. From my balcony seat, the orchestra had lots of presence and the reverberation was reasonably long and quite flattering; however, the best acoustics in the world don’t help much when the air conditioning system is so noisy.

Ingo Metzmacher opened the first concert with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the soft upper string lines at the beginning of the piece were almost inaudible. The same thing happened at the beginning of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony later in the evening. Something needs to be done about this problem or world-class performers will simply find excuses to avoid Hong Kong.

I have long admired the DSO Berlin, as far back as the days when it was called the RIAS Symphony under Ferenc Fricsay. More recently, Kent Nagano was the music director and to judge by the recordings, he got excellent results. On this occasion, there was no doubt about the very high quality of the orchestra and I heard some especially fine horn and double bass playing.

Metzmacher is more problematic than his orchestra. His leadership was impressive in Webern’s Passacaglia and the Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, but his Bruckner was disappointing.

There is a formidable tradition of Bruckner conducting from Furtwängler through Jochum, Böhm, Karajan and Tennstedt; for such conductors, Bruckner not only created monumental musical structures, but also sought to express deep thoughts about his religious faith. For Metzmacher, Bruckner is apparently a less gifted relative of Carl Maria von Weber. To put it another way, this was ‘Bruckner Lite’ - one trivial rustic tune after another, with no depth of feeling whatsoever.

Metzmacher hurried through the Seventh Symphony as if he had a plane to catch. Climaxes in the middle of the slow movement and at the end of the first and last movements never came close to the ecstatic heights the music requires. With this kind of conducting, Bruckner’s music will soon disappear from the repertoire.

When Metzmacher turned to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, he conducted with more fire, but again there was a decided lack of flexibility and poetry. In both major symphonies, Metzmacher seemed to think that loud endings are crude and vulgar. He went out of his way to make the last chords actually less powerful than what had come before. Instead of avoiding vulgarity, the effect was to make the endings anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Soloists Struggle with Hall AcousticsAnother major problem in the first concert was baritone Matthias Goerne. He has gained a well-earned reputation as a lieder singer. Perhaps he was indisposed on this night, because he was virtually inaudible through much of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. He also seemed to have trouble sustaining phrases.

Guest violinist Christian Tetzlaff also seemed to struggle to be heard in the Berg concerto. As does Goerne, Tetzlaff spends a good deal of time playing in the realm of sotto voce; this is very dangerous territory for a soloist when a big orchestra is at work behind him in a less than ideal hall.

Objectively speaking, the acoustics in the HK Cultural Centre could have been to blame for some of these auditory problems.

Metzmacher Takes ‘Encore’ Literally!
Curiously, as an ‘encore’ after the Bruckner at the first of the DSO Berlin concert, Metzmacher repeated the Wagner Lohengrin Prelude he had used to open the concert. What was the point? To remind us how much Bruckner was indebted to Wagner? Or perhaps to remind us how effectively the air conditioning noise had drowned out the soft opening of the piece at its first playing? I don’t think I was the only audience member who would rather have heard some other music.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Architecturally Bland
I will have to reserve judgment on the acoustics of the HK Cultural Centre, having heard only two concerts from pretty much the same seats; on the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever about the architecture of the place. While the site chosen for the Centre is surely one of the best locations in Hong Kong – right next to the Star Ferry dock in Kowloon with a fantastic view of Hong Kong, especially at night – the building itself is hideous beyond belief. Basically, it is a beige wall of bricks with no windows and no imaginative embellishment to break up the ugly emptiness. The nearby Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art are equally uninspired structures.

The interior of the Cultural Centre, happily, is a feast for the eyes, fairly overflowing with colorful posters of productions past and present, contemporary art exhibits, and performance videos.

Hong Kong Philharmonic to Perform Later this Month
I will be back at the HK Cultural Centre in a few weeks time to hear a concert by the HK Philharmonic. I look forward to hearing how the orchestra has evolved from the semi-professional band I knew forty years ago – I actually played double bass in the HKPO for a short period – into the fully professional ensemble headed today by the eminent Edo de Waart.

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

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Hong Kong 40 Years Later: A Homecoming and a Transformation

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

It was in 1966 that Marita and I first arrived in Hong Kong. The trip out from Canada was our honeymoon and a post at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) was my first job. We were young and adventurous, looking for an exotic life – and we found it. We spent three happy years here and then left for other challenges. Yes, we are back! This week, 40 years after we left it, we returned to Hong Kong and to HKU where I gave a lecture on Leopold Stokowski.

Forty years later, what has changed, and what if anything, has survived of the world Marita and I knew in the mid 1960s?

On a superficial level Hong Kong today is a modern miracle, a far cry from the colonial outpost caught in a time warp that it appeared to be in 1966. In those days, the planes landed at Kai Tak Airport, little more than a runway stuck into the middle of the harbor off Kowloon. It was a precarious place to land and some flights inevitably ended up in the water. Today, planes fly in and out of a much safer airport on Lantau Island. Arriving passengers are whisked into the city via a wonderfully smooth and quiet express train, or by taxi over a suspension bridge that is an engineering marvel. In Hong Kong itself, 7 million people are transported to and fro by an incredible combination of escalators, interconnecting walkways, and a super-efficient network of buses.

Life on Three Levels and Gone are the Lawns
Most of Hong Kong island is a mountain and most people live somewhere on the side of that mountain (Central, Mid-levels, or the “Peak”). This means that cars and other vehicles are always going up or downhill, or around a switchback. If one is on foot, one is always either climbing up or down endless staircases, or stopping to catch a breath. In our 1960s Hong Kong, there was still a community of shacks on the hillside (right). If shacks still exist somewhere on the island, we didn't see them.

The HKU campus in those days was lush and green, with more lawns than buildings. My office overlooked the inner courtyard of the main building on campus. This 1912 Edwardian building still stands, and continues to be an important part of campus life.

Upon arrival in Central (downtown on Hong Kong island), I was overwhelmed by the vast number of high-rise office buildings and modern shopping complexes. So much of the old Hong Kong has been rearranged, hidden behind grander structures or simply bulldozed, that I was completely disoriented.
Marita and I are staying at Robert Black College, a residence for visiting scholars situated at Mid-Levels on the Hong Kong University campus. The campus fronts on Bonham Road but ends well up the hill at University Drive. Robert Black is on University Drive and to get to the main academic building one heads downhill through the entire campus which, 40 years after we left it, is jammed with buildings where beautiful lawns used to be. Going downhill to the campus from Robert Black is a breeze; it’s heading back up that’s literally a ‘drag’ - a climb ideally accomplished with the assistance of several sherpas and a mule or a mountain goat.

Forty years ago the climb was not so very different for us, because we lived at No. 3 University Drive. No. 3 no longer exists; it was demolished about ten years ago to make way for a sizeable Graduate Centre.

Hong Kong University Department of Music Debuts in the 1980s
In 1966, HKU was a small, prestigious institution. I was there to lecture in Philosophy, but my first and last love was really music, and I gravitated towards it whenever I could. No Department of Music at HKU? No problem. I persuaded the Department of Extra-Mural Studies to let me give some courses in music. No professional orchestra? Again, no problem. I would form one. Before long I was spending many nights and weekends filling the air with music and talk about music; it was well into the 1980s, however, before the powers that be at HKU came to their senses and created the Department of Music which today is a vibrant part of university life.
I am currently completing revisions to my Stokowski book and the new version will be published later this year. With Stokowski on my mind, I proposed to the music department at HKU a lecture called “Leopold Stokowski: the Limits of Interpretation.” They liked the idea and this past week I delivered the goods to a packed house – or should I say, a packed ‘room’, an assembled throng of 20, which was in fact as large a group as the room could accommodate.

The attendees included some formidable folk, one of whom was Mak Su-yin, who once worked for me at CJRT-FM in Toronto and is now in charge of academic studies in music at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts.

Another listener with a Toronto connection was Deborah Waugh, a percussionist who studied with members of Nexus and who is now a staff member in HKU’s Department of Music.

Chan Hing-yan is a composer and Associate Professor in the department. He recently completed a piece for harp and shared with me how much he had learned from Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s harp compositions. In his opinion, Schafer – with the help of Toronto Symphony harpist Judy Loman – has written some of the best harp music ever. I had no difficulty agreeing with him.

Another attendee was Ron Hill, a former staff member in the Geography department at HKU who, in retirement, appears be one of the busiest double bass players in Hong Kong. He delivered the sad news that one of our best friends in our Hong Kong years, Professor Robert Lord, had recently passed away. Robert’s academic fields were Russian literature and linguistics, but he was a skilled violist as well. We enjoyed making music together.

It is inevitable after all this time that inquiries about old friends frequently bring answers we don’t want to hear or believe. And so we also learned from Ron that another great soul is no longer with us: Mary Visick, an old China hand who did more than her share for the appreciation of literature in the Far East.

The Peak Tram and Lunch at The LookoutOur second day in Hong Kong we took the famous Peak Tram to the top of the mountain with US attorney Yee Ling, a former student of Marita’s (Ying Wah Girls’ School), as our guide. In the days before air-conditioning “the Peak” was where the rich folk went to escape the summer heat. More recently locals and tourists alike have been making the trip to get a breathtaking view of Hong Kong beneath them and Kowloon and the New Territories in the distance across the harbor.

On this trip we were amazed to see that the size of the harbor has shrunk. So much land has been reclaimed for new buildings that there seems to be far less open water.

The Peak Tram has been around since 1888 and it is not really a tram at all. It is more correctly called a ‘cog railway’ or ‘funicular.’ The cars run on tracks at a very steep angle but they are being pulled up the hill on a cable. It sounds like a dubious activity but the fact is this railway has never had an accident.

This was not the best day for viewing the panorama. Visibility was about 100 feet when we ascended, but during lunch the heavens opened and it rained heavily for half an hour. Then all at once the clouds parted and we could suddenly see for miles. We seized the opportunity to take a lot of pictures and we had no sooner finished, than the clouds closed in again. Our timing had been perfect.

In 1966, the view from The Peak had been magnificent! Good thing too, because there wasn’t much else to see or do up there.

Today there is the Peak Tower - a combination shopping mall and viewing platform. There are now also at least half a dozen restaurants. On Yee Ling’s recommendation, we chose to dine at the oldest one – the charming Peak Lookout Restaurant - and found it to be excellent. We were delighted with the lamb curry and Tandoori chicken. If it hadn’t been raining, we might have done some serious walking after lunch; the government has created the Hong Kong Trail which meanders through 30 miles of country parks including the area around the Peak.

An Old Friend, a New Memoir, and Reflections on HistoryAs a Canadian, I cannot think about Hong Kong and its history without paying tribute to the brave men who tried to defend it against the Japanese invasion in 1941. The small British garrison was quickly overrun, along with the contingent of Canadian soldiers sent in as reinforcements. It was disgraceful that the Canadian government allowed them to be sent to almost certain death. There were never enough soldiers to stop the Japanese but the politicians wanted to look as if they were doing something simply to cover their own backsides. Many Canadians were brutally killed during the attack and others were put in internment camps at Stanley or Sham Shui Po. For some of these soldiers death must have seemed far preferable to the three years of internment they endured. They were badly treated and many died of beatings or malnutrition.

Many local residents were interned with the defending forces, including the remarkable Solomon Bard. Solly was a medical doctor and a musician whom I was honored to know during my sojourn in Hong Kong. Now 93, he has a new memoir – Light and Shade - coming out this month. I will discuss it further in one of my future blogs.

37th Hong Kong Festival of the ArtsThe Hong Kong Festival of the Arts is currently underway and in my next blog I will give a report on it. The Chicago Symphony under Haitink has already been here and in the final week French actress Juliette Binoche is appearing with British dancer Akram Khan in a unique show called In-I. In-I is primarily a dance event and Binoche deserves a lot of credit for attempting to go beyond her accustomed comfort zone as an actress. Also coming up are two concerts by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Ingo Metzmacher.

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

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Monday, 9 March 2009

Michael Ignatieff: An open letter

Dear Michael Ignatieff
As a former colleague of yours on the BBC's Late Show in the 1990s, I want to draw your attention to a Canadian phenomenon which, though you are not yet prime minister, can be significantly remedied by your intervention. There may even be some votes in it.
You can guess what I'm referring to. It's the top-down dumbing down of arts and culture.
Canada is a country that punches creatively above its weight. Its diversity of authors -from Margaret Attwood and Carol Shields to Josef Skvorecky, Mordecai Richler and Ying Chen - are read the world over. Its musicians are widely heard and its theatrical style is distinctive. Like Britain, Canada has nurtured a national cultural renaissance by means of an enlightened state broadcaster and modest amounts of public subsidy.
Those gentle boosters are now in jeopardy. CBC Radio has converted its classical station to pick 'n' mix, and its classical presentation to low populism, demolishing cultural confidence.
To cite one current example. CBC is asking listeners to choose 49 Canadian songs to send to President Obama. Michael, could you ever imagine such cultural cringe at the BBC?
Another instance: the Canada Council for the Arts is scrapping subsidy for controlled-circulation literary and music magazines. I can't figure out the bureaucratic reasoning from afar and I should declare a tiny interest: my weekly column appears without fee on a website linked to one Canadian publication. These magazines nurture the grass roots of art. Scythe them down, and not much will grow tomorrow.
What can you do as leader of the opposition? Easy. The squeaky bums in broadcasting and arts councils (we have the same types over here) respond very swiftly to comments from an opposition leader shortly before an election. The bums don't want to lose their seats.
One speech, Michael, that's all it would take. One speech urging Canada to smarten up and stop dumbing down would put more heart into the arts and more arts in the world than a pack of Medicis. One word from you, and the bureaucrats will go upmarket.
Think about it. With a positive signal to Canada's creative furnace, your Liberals would stand for innovation and enlightenment, as distinct from the numbskull Conservatives. To borrow Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor, you would be the fox and they the hedgehog - tomorrow's roadkill.
Forgive this intrusion from abroad. I have no right to interfere in Canadian affairs, except to wish the best for its arts. My justification is John Donne's: no man is an island. Canada's arts are important. If they shrink, the world suffers. They help to define what you and I would call civilisation. Get behind them, Michael, before the election.
With best wishes

Norman Lebrecht


Sunday, 8 March 2009

Opera York's Tosca inaugurates the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre

Soprano Mirela Tafaj (Tosca) and tenor James Ciantar (Caravadossi) in Opera York's Tosca at the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre
(Photo courtesy of

by Joseph So

North Toronto's fledging opera company, Opera York, celebrated a milestone on March 5 when it opened its spring season with Puccini's Tosca. What made this event special was the opening took place in its new artistic home, the new Diamond and Associates designed Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre. Located on Yonge Street north of Major Mackenzie Highway, in the heart of Richmond Hill, this handsome building is designed by the same architectural firm that created the bigger and glitzier Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the home of the Canadian Opera Company in downtown Toronto. The new, 615 seat Richmond Hill performing space, with its clean lines and predominance of wood trim, bears resemblance to its bigger sister. What is even more felicitous is the wonderful acoustics of this new hall. I had the pleasure of experiencing it last evening, when I attended the second performance of Tosca. Albanian-Canadian soprano Mirela Tafaj starred as the Roman diva Floria Tosca, partnered by a brand-new tenor, James Ciantar, in his professional debut in a principal role. Singing Scarpia was baritone Nicolai Raiciu. Sabatino Vacca led the Opera York Orchestra. The sound in this hall is rich and full, and the size of the venue is perfect for small scale opera and symphonic performances, as well as plays. This venue is an important addition to the cultural life of the Richmond Hill community, 45 minutes drive north of downtown Toronto.

Given the recessionary times, money is tight everywhere. So it was extremely commendable that Opera York managed to put on a very good show. (I was told that the March 7 performance was just six seats short of selling out) It began with the three principals, led by soprano Mirela Tafaj. Since her arrival in Canada, Tafaj has sung Musetta with Opera Ontario, Mimi and Micaela with Opera York, Violetta with the Toronto Opera Repertoire, appeared on the Montreal Opera stage in a Gala concert, as well as a number of concerts and recitals, including the Toronto Mozart Society and the LSM Gala Concert several years ago. As Tosca, her attractive stage presence and dark-hued soprano was ideal. On March 7, she was in excellent voice and acted with passion and authority. Her spinto soprano has the requisite weight for the climactic moments, complete with five very big high Cs. She was also able to scale her big voice down impressively in the quieter moments, giving us an exquisitely sung "Vissi d'arte." Tenor James Ciantar turned out to be a real find. A student in the studio of retired Canadian tenor Ermanno Mauro, Ciantar can be considered a neophyte, still in the early stages of his development as an opera singer. He has a very impressive, Italianate tenor with an easy top - that's half the battle right there! His "Recondita armonia" was very good, with excellent high notes. The basic voice is a fine one; what he needs now is to work on a more solid mezza voce, develop more vocal discipline and not get carried away, and to hold back and save for the climaxes. With further study and seasoning, Ciantar with go far. The third principal was baritone Nicolae Raiciu, who is a member of the COC chorus and has covered and sung solo roles there. A darkly handsome Scarpia, Raiciu was perhaps not quite menacing enough, but he was a solid Roman chief of police. He also did double duty as the stage director! I would be remiss if I did not mention veteran baritone Douglas Tranquada as a highly amusing (and scene-stealing) Sacristan. Also, this was the first time I have ever seen the Shepherd Boy singing his little ditty right onstage!

Given the limited budget, set designer Frank Pasian did quite a nice job with the traditional sets. It would have been evern more effective if the lighting changes weren't so abrupt at times. The orchestra under Sabatino Vacca was uneven, but he managed to hold it together, with only a stray note here and there. The tempo in Act One was on the slow side but it picked up later on. The surtitles had always been the Achilles heel of OY, but this time, it worked well, a few shadows notwithstanding. All in all, an enjoyable evening at the theatre.

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Friday, 6 March 2009

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 7 - 13)

Nicole Cabell's Debut Disc on Decca. Cabell sings a recital at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday March 8.
(Photo: Decca Records)

With the weather finally warming up this weekend, it's time to come out of hibernation and sample some of the music around town. This Saturday at the Cineplex movie houses, we have a continuation of the Met in HD season with Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This production is significant in the history of the Met Opera in more ways than one. It ushered in the Peter Gelb era when the opening night performance was shown live on big screen in Lincoln Center and in Time Square (!) in September 2006. The Gelb regime represents a new marketing and promotion direction that has brought opera (and the Met) to the masses. It was a brilliant stroke of audience outreach. It is also important to remember that this Butterfly replaced the super-realistic and old-fashioned Zeffirelli production, complete with cherry blossoms and Suzuki washing clothes in a little stream in front of Cio Cio San's house! Very quaint but alas also very dated. This new Butterfly incorporates a lot more contemporary theatre aesthetic in the Met's design and staging. Now for the first time it is going to be transmitted worldwide via the Met in HD theatre chains. The original star soprano, Chilean Cristina Gallardo-Domas, has been replaced in the eleventh hour this week by American Patricia Racette. Pinkerton is Italian tenor Marcello Giordani and Sharpless is American baritone Dwayne Croft. This is definitely NOT to be missed, if you can still get a ticket!

American soprano Nicole Cabell gives a recital at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday as part of the RTH Vocal Series. It won't be easy following in the footsteps of the magnificent La Bartoli who wowed the Toronto audience, even if not one of the local critics. But Cabell is well worth hearing. She burst onto the opera scene by winning the Cardiff Singer of the World several years ago. She combines a lyric soprano of beautiful timbre with a willowy and attractive stage presence. I saw her Musetta three years ago in Santa Fe opposite the Marcello of Canadian baritone James Westman. In the few short years since Cardiff, Cabell achieved the near impossible for a young singer these days - a recording contract with a major label, Decca. Her debut album garnered critical acclaim when it appeared two years ago (see photo above). Her RTH program includes songs by Liszt, Obradors, Guastavino, Bernstein, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Spirituals, with Spencer Myer at the piano.

Another interesting recital this week is that of Canadian soprano Joni Henson. A graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, Henson was a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, where she sang a number of high profile mainstage roles - Gutrune in the COC Ring, Fiordiligi, Elisabetta in Don Carlos (two performances replacing an ailing Adrianne Pieczonka), and most recently the Foreign Princess in Rusalka. Her instrument is unusual in that it has true spinto weight, with dramatic soprano aspirations in the future. It is powerful and rich, with a very lovely middle register. At the Music Toronto "Discovery" recital (Thurs. Mar. 12, 8 pm St. Lawrence Centre), Henson will be singing Beethoven's Ah! Perfido and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, both pieces tailor-made for her voice. Also on the programs are Britten's cycle On this Island, and Oskar Morawetz's Songs from the Portuguese. Stephen Ralls is at the piano.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Opening Nights at The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Two Paris Theaters - Two Opening Nights
First Night: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," February 25, 2009
by Frank Cadenhead
Getting there is half the fun. Coming up the escalator at the l'Etoile metro station, the Arc de Triomphe fills the entire field of vision. I turn and walk down the Avenue Champs-Élysées, appearing in the background of uncounted tourist photos. Turning right at Fouquet's restaurant, I continue past the Hotel Georges V (the crowd was trying to catch a glimpse of the band AC/DC.) After a left turn at the American Church it is only two blocks to the theater, where, standing in front, you have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine.
The theater is legendary. Opened in 1913, it is classic Art Deco style with crystal ornaments by Lalique himself. Only months after opening its doors, young Stravinsky was crawling out the back window to escape the angry crowd after Nijinsky danced his Sacre du Printemps. Historic names has been on stage there: Josephine Baker, Balanchine, Maria Callas. Elton John, Maurice Chevalier, Wilhelm Furtwaengler to sample a few. A recent makeover - taking up the auditorium carpets and installing more wood - has warmed the normally dry acoustics but it is still a ideal theater for the voice (even though the Orchestre National de France has been calling it home since its founding in 1934.) While mainly a venue for visiting soloists, orchestras and ballets, it does stage a four or five operas each season which, by their quality, are usually high on "must see" lists.
Last night it was the fourth revival of a production of Nozze di Figaro by veteran director Jean-Louis Martinoty which has been around for the past decade. Normally with Rene Jacobs and the Concerto Koln, this run features Marc Minkowski and his early music band, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. With a particularly young cast this night, it compared well with others in the series with more established names.
One "regular" in this production is baritone Pietro Spagnoli. His Almaviva is polished to perfection after multiple appearances and his expressive gifts make him a critical part of the mix. Others returning include the solid bass Antonio Abete as Bartolo and the radiant mezzo Anna Vonitatibus as Cherubino. But it was the Susanna of Olga Peretyatko (Operalia laureate 2007) and the Contessa, Maija Kovalevska, (Operalia 2006), making her French debut, which most interested me this night. While the TCE usually features Mozart, baroque opera and bel-canto, the exceptions include Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The 2007 performances featured Peretyatko as Anna Truelove and won her critical laurels. Her Susanna was a delight, with an ease of musical delivery belying her age and a self-confidence on stage that suggests a important career in the making. Kovalevska, from Lithuania, has all the vocal gifts necessary for her role and her "Dove sono" was enchantingly sung. But, with a lingering lack of definition in the role itself, her Contessa is still a work in progress.
An appearance by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as Don Basilio, is always an occasion; this veteran is one of the last remaining trained in traditional French vocal style and his light tenor always glistens. A "haute-contre," he has made a career of Monsieur Triquet from Onegin plus roles like Rameau's Platée, the wonders of which the French have only recently rediscovered. New Yorker Amanda Forsythe made a strong impression as Barbarina and mezzo Sophie Pondjiclis was obviously having fun as Marcellina. Vito Priante, as Figaro, has a clear, flexible baritone but did not seem comfortable in the role and had a tendency to bark.
The director, Martinoty, was present for hands-on direction of this revival and all the characters had clear theatrical definition. The stage was filled with a variety of outsized reproductions of museum art (the long list of works is in the program) which served to accentuate the themes of the acts and the players moved behind and around them during the action. The costumes were richly attractive and traditional. What was apparent, more that usual, was the complex interaction between classes, portraying this with such gusto that would have made Mozart's upscale audiences squirm. Marc Minkowski and his orchestra have been together for a few decades now and are a well-oiled machine. He conducts with brisk tempos - like most 'historically informed" groups - but with an infectious passion about the music that always raises the temperature in the hall. The happy opening night audience threw bravos all around. More important for the artists, it happens that the theater's current director, Dominique Meyer, is taking over the Vienna State Opera in 2010 and a success here might be important for their future.

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Monday, 2 March 2009

Mendelssohn at 200 Still Thrills and Inspires!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels
Felix Mendelssohn and sister Fanny
Composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) has often been denigrated for being blessed with a life that was too easy. Great composers, the theory goes, have to struggle; that’s what makes them great. Well, of course, this is nonsense. Whether he struggled or not to create the music the world continues to love, Mendelssohn, at 38, died far too young. He might have left us so much more to enjoy.
I attended a Mendelssohn Festival last spring and an all-Mendelssohn concert just a few weeks ago. At each event, one of the major works was the Octet for Strings, and taking part in each event was the incomparable Miró Quartet.
It is always a special pleasure to hear a live performance of the Octet – Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote it – but having heard two excellent performances of this astonishing masterpiece within a matter of months, I was inspired to pen a Mendelssohn tribute, a timely tribute, for the composer was born 200 years ago this month.
From Jewish Activism to Christian Conversion
Felix Mendelssohn’s father was a Hamburg banker and his grandfather the famous philosopher and Jewish activist Moses Mendelssohn. Felix’s father Abraham was Jewish in name only and religion meant nothing to him.
At the time, first in Hamburg and later after the family moved to Berlin, there was no particular discrimination against Jews but such discrimination was a part of history and could reappear at any moment.
Abraham’s wife Leah had a brother who had converted to Christianity and continually urged his sister and her family to do the same. Abraham and Leah finally agreed, more out of convenience than conviction, and had the children baptized.
Felix was seven years old when he converted, and thereafter parents and children called themselves Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, adopting the Christian last name of Leah’s brother Jacob. Abraham went along with this change of religion, but he was clearly uncomfortable in abandoning the faith his father Moses had worked so hard to celebrate.
Large Score Oratorios a Testament of Faith
For all practical purposes Felix lived his life as a Christian and became an ardent believer. His oratorios Elijah and St. Paul were the work of a man of Christian faith. These were the largest compositions Mendelssohn ever attempted, and in his lifetime they were widely admired, especially in England where Mendelssohn had become a frequent visitor.
These large-scale works are not nearly as popular today, although some individual arias and choruses are wonderful. The tradition of grand choral works has passed, and to many modern listeners, these pieces seem dutiful and sorely lacking in drama, rather than inspired.
Speaking personally, Elijah and St. Paul are not the works of Mendelssohn that I would carry with me to that dreaded ‘desert island.’ I would, instead, be sure to take with me the Octet, the Violin Concerto and the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies. Although these works are very different, they all have in common a capacity not only to lift the listener out of depression, but to send him/her away, filled with hope and optimism. What a splendid legacy for any composer!
Devastated Mendelssohn Succumbs to Deadly Depression
Mendelssohn was a prodigy often compared to Mozart. Both showed uncommon talent for music while little more than toddlers. Both children were giving piano recitals and composing music before they were ten years old. “The Little Berliner,” as the young Felix was called, was only twelve years old when he was introduced to Goethe as one of the 'Wunderkind' of his time.
In adulthood, Mendelssohn’s career was that of travelling virtuoso and conductor. For many years, his home base was Leipzig, where he became conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts. He married Ceçile Jeanrenaud in 1836 and fathered two daughters and a son. By all accounts it was a very happy marriage.
Mendelssohn had a lifelong confidante in his older sister Fanny (pictured above with Felix), a fine musician and composer in her own right. When she died suddenly in May, 1847 he was devastated to the point where he was unable to enjoy music, let alone compose. A few months after her passing, he had recovered to the point where he could write some short pieces and the String Quartet in F minor Op. 80. Not surprisingly, this was some of the darkest and most unsettled music he ever wrote. After this brief recovery from despair, came a terminal relapse. Mendelssohn, after a series of strokes, died on November 4, 1847, a mere six months after his beloved sister.
A Shower of New Recordings Will Doubtless Freshen the Lecacy
In this 200th anniversary year of Felix Mendelssohn’s death, there will doubtless be all kinds of tributes from the record companies.
One of the first to appear is from Deutsche Grammophon and features violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Early in her career Mutter recorded Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 463 6412 ). Now, nearly thirty years later, she has recorded the work again (DG B0012533). This time her collaborators are Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn actually wrote the piece for Ferdinand David, then concertmaster of the Gewandhaus. Mutter gives an authoritative and beautiful performance, and perhaps under Masur’s influence plays the slow movement a little faster than she did years ago.
This recording is unique in being sold in CD and DVD versions on separate discs, but in the same package. I am not sure I understand the concept, but I guess it gives the listener more options.
In addition to the Violin Concerto, both the CD and the DVD include two other performances of music by Mendelssohn and featuring Mutter. She is joined by former husband André Previn and cellist Lynn Harrell for the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 49, and with Previn she plays the Violin Sonata in F major.
Both are excellent performances, but I was simply astonished by the quality of Previn’s playing. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this year, and to see him on stage conducting these days is to see a man in obviously failing health.
It’s difficult to believe the Previn in this DVD recorded just a few months ago is eighty! The Mendelssohn D minor Trio is no picnic for the pianist, and especially in the scherzo and the finale, his hands seem to be in constant motion. His body scarcely moves and there is little or no facial expression, but that’s pretty much the way he’s always played the piano. The fingers, however, fly! Fly, and hit the right notes!
Adding to These Classic Performances You Won’t Want to Miss!
If you like your Mendelssohn with more personality and ‘edge of the seat’ excitement, I recommend the terrific performance of the D minor Trio by Martha Argerich and the Capuçon brothers recorded live at the Lugano Festival in 2002 (EMI 5 57504 2).
As far as recordings of the symphonies are concerned, I have many favorites. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded all the symphonies and I greatly admire the sensible tempos – why do so many conductors take the “Italian” symphony so fast these days? – the long lines and the beautiful textures (DG 477 7581). The second movement of the Reformation only comes into focus at a slower tempo. It is fashionable to denigrate Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang), but the Karajan recording comes close to convincing us it is a masterpiece.
I have long treasured Casals’ wonderful recording of the Italian symphony with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra (Sony SNYC 46251). It is slow and mannered but what depth of expression and exuberance! Not to be missed. The CD also contains a marvelous performance of the Octet.
Worth seeking out is John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Italian and Reformation symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 459 156). Terrific playing and a fresh look at these great works! The disc also contains the revised version of the Italian symphony.
Mendelssohn was thought to be a facile composer who tossed off major works in a matter of hours; in fact, we now know that he was plagued with self-doubt and often revised his compositions.
Fanny felt that his first thoughts were usually the best and cautioned him against this frequent revision. In the case of the Italian symphony it is difficult to understand why he would have been moved to rewrite what to most observers is one of his finest compositions. Because he did, we can hear the revisions and judge for ourselves which is the better of the two versions.
For another recording of the Scottish symphony – one that has been widely admired for many years and deservedly so – check out Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony (Decca 466 9902) in a spacious and grand performance from 1960.
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
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