La Scena Musicale

Monday, 30 November 2009

Cette semaine à Montréal (30 nov à 6 déc) / This Week in Montreal (Nov. 30 to Dec. 6)

Musique, danse, et théâtre à Montréal cette semaine
Music, dance, and theatre in Montreal this week

Theatre: Educating Rita, by Willy Russell, lightens the mood as the Segal Centre’s second show, running from November 22 to December 13. A disillusioned, alcoholic professor and his continuing-education student, a free-spirited, working-class hairdresser, meet over the course of a university semester. The mismatched characters have an immediate, profound and lasting impact on each other. Self-development, class and education are the main themes in this comic and witty play. —Jessica Hill

Théâtre : Il n’y a plus rien - Disparu en 1996, Robert Gravel a laissé quelques œuvres marquantes, posant un regard à la fois lucide, désopilant et d’une noirceur tragique sur l’humanité. Cet ultime volet de sa trilogie La Tragédie de l’homme brosse un saisissant tableau d’un hôpital pour vieillards. Montée cette fois par Claude Laroche, l’œuvre créée en 1992 paraîtra-t-elle encore plus actuelle dans notre société vieillissante, superficielle, obsédée par la santé ? » Du 17 novembre au 19 décembre, au Théâtre du Rideau Vert. —Marie Labrecque

Danse : Le 1er, Aline Apostolska reçoit en entrevue la grande Margie Gillis dans le cadre de la série Visages de la danse, à 19 h, à l’Agora. Du 2 au 5, David Pressault partage l’espace scénique avec le public dans l’excellent Corps intérieur, repris au Monument national. Le 3, le collectif Wants&Needs dirigé par Andrew Tay et Sasha Kleinplatz propose Short and Sweet à la Sala Rossa : 25 chorégraphes avec des œuvres de trois minutes dans une ambiance cabaret. Les 5 et 6, la compagnie Ballet Ouest fait danser 70 jeunes aux côtés de professionnels dans le Casse-Noisette de Margaret Mehuys au Centre Pierre-Péladeau. —Fabienne Cabado

Jazz : Jeu. 3 » Lancement du disque Bridge de la clarinettiste Lori Freedman. (17 h – 19 h) Casa del Popolo. [284-0122] » Le Nouvel Orchestre du flûtiste François-Richard. Maison de la culture Mont-Royal. (20 h) [872-2266] » De New York, le Ernesto Cervina Quartet avec le saxo ténor Joel Frahm. Upstairs Jazz Bar. (20 h 30) [931-6808] » De Chicago, le duo Dave Rempis (saxes) et Frank Rosaly (btr.). Casa del Popolo. (21 h) » Le saxophoniste Yannick Rieu. (Artiste du mois au Resto-bar Le dièse onze, 21 h.) En reprise le 10 et l7 avec invités différents à chaque semaine. [223-3543] —Marc Chenard

Jazz : Jeu. 3, ven. 4 » Le quartette du guitariste John Pizzarelli avec invitée, la chanteuse Coral Egan. L’Astral, Maison du jazz Rio Tinto. (20 h) —Marc Chenard

Jazz : Ven 4 » Concert Jazz et Noël avec le pianiste Dave Gelfand. Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, série Jazz Nocturne. (22 h) [872-5338] Ven. 4, sam. 5 » Kye Lyra Sextet avec Jean-Pierre Zanella. (Jazz brésilien) Upstairs Jazz Bar. (20 h 30) » Normand Guilbeault sextette, Hommage à Mingus. Resto-bar Le dièse onze. (20 h 30) —Marc Chenard

Musique Baroque : Réunissant des ensembles de haut calibre et des artistes de renommée internationale, le Festival Bach de Montréal se déroule depuis le 24 novembre. Le 4 décembre à 19 h 30, on pourra entendre le pianiste Evgeni Koroliov dans les Variations Goldberg. Collège Marianopolis, 4873, avenue Westmount. Un concert gratuit pour les 16 ans et moins. Le concert de clôture aura lieu le 5 décembre à 19 h 30 à la basilique Notre-Dame et présentera l’ensemble Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. Créé à Berlin Est au début des années 1980, l’ensemble est aujourd’hui l’un des principaux orchestres de chambre spécialisés en musique baroque. 514-581-8637 ou 514-581-7538, www.bach-academie-montreal.com

Musique de Noël : Le mois de décembre offre un grand choix de concerts. Parmi eux, le Chœur de l’Université Laval, dirigé par Guy Lavigne, que vous pourrez entendre le 5 décembre à l’église Saint-Charles-Garnier dans un programme de Noël incluant la Festkantate de Bruckner et le Magnificat de Pergolèse. Le 6 décembre, à l’église de la Nativité de Notre-Dame, Claude Léveillé et l’Ensemble Polyphonia donnent en matinée un concert comprenant entre autres des œuvres de John Rutter, Raymond Daveluy et Donald Patriquin. www.choeurul.asso.ulaval.ca / www.polyphonia.qc.ca

Musique contemporaine : La série de concerts hommage se poursuit le 6 décembre à 16 h avec une coproduction SMCQ / Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. Les organistes Jean-Willy Kunz et Régis Rousseau interpréteront deux œuvres majeures : Vers une étoile… de Gilles Tremblay et Chorales ornées d’Yves Daoust, ainsi qu’une création de Jean Lesage en hommage à Tremblay. Église de l’Immaculée-Conception, 4101, avenue Papineau, 514-526-5961.

Jazz : Dim. 6 » Dave Turner Quintet. Upstairs Jazz Bar. (20 h 30) —Marc Chenard

Musique vocale : Pour lancer les activités qui marqueront ses 30 ans, l’Opéra de Montréal annonçait en juin dernier un nouveau projet de démocratisation : Apéro à l’Opéra. L’Opéra a ouvert ses portes à six chanteurs non professionnels sélectionnés par voie d’auditions. Les candidats ont pu profiter d’un stage de formation intensif de six semaines, au terme duquel ils ont chanté le 16 novembre devant un public réuni au Piano Nobile. Trois d’entre eux ont été choisis pour chanter sur la scène de la Place des Arts au Gala du 6 décembre : Lise Brunelle, de Mont-Tremblant, Sophie Lemaire, de Montréal, et Annie Sanschagrin de Crabtree. 514-985-2222 www.operademontreal.com Suivez l’audition des six candidats : www.artv.ca/emissions/apero-a-lopera.html

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Ratcliff's Uncommon "Ode to Common Things" Superb Marriage of Words and Music!


Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Like many institutions in the state of Texas, the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is more than a little to the right of center - it takes few risks in matters of programming; nonetheless, music director Peter Bay keeps finding ways to energize his concerts and challenge his listeners. The latest example of this irrepressible spirit was a performance of Cary Ratcliff's (
photo: above) Ode to Common Things, a major work for soloists, chorus and orchestra based on poems by the Chilean master poet, Pablo Neruda.

Comfort Food: Words by Shakespeare, Music by Mendelssohn

The concert began with Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Nights Dream (MND), programmed as part of the ASO's ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. In this performance, the ASO was joined by the Conspirare Symphonic Choir.
From the Incidental Music that he had composed for Shakespeare's play, Mendelssohn later extracted a purely orchestral suite comprised of some of his best-loved music, including the glorious 'Wedding March' which has ushered millions of happy couples out the door of a church into a life of 'wedded bliss'.
Maestro Bay chose to add to Mendelssohn's orchestral suite some other bits and pieces from Mendelssohn's MND Incidental Music. The problem is that these bits are ,well - incidental, and don't make a lot of sense on their own without some of the text they were meant to support.
For me, the best options are, either 1) to play the suite of stand-alone orchestral pieces, or 2) to add some linking text comprised of narration and/or spoken excerpts from the play.
Be that as it may, Bay and his musicians played the music very well indeed. The horn and flute solos were not impeccable, but the style of playing was impressive. I particularly liked Bay's tempo for the scherzo, which is marked Allegro vivace and not Presto, as too many conductors seem to think. Bay's comfortable tempo adeptly brought out the charm of the piece.
The brief vocal solos were a little shaky and the chorus occasionally lacked clarity and rhythmic precision, but overall this was a good night for Mendelssohn.
Eclectic Traditional: Words by Neruda, Music by Ratcliff
What made the evening a spectacular triumph for me was the opportunity to hear a wonderful recent work by American composer Cary Ratcliff.
Cary Ratcliff has lived in Rochester, NY for many years and plays keyboards with the Rochester Philharmonic. He has produced a large body of work which includes, among other things, songs for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Ode to Common Things, composed in 1995, is a very ambitious piece lasting nearly an hour. Its quality more than justifies its length.
The poetry Ratcliff chose to set to music in Ode to Common Things is by Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, and dates from the years 1954-59.
Some years ago I became interested in Neruda and that interest deepened considerably after a visit to Chile in 2008. Then - as it happens - just this last week, during an ocean voyage, I read a fine biography of Neruda by Adam Feinstein.
Neruda is perhaps most widely known and admired for his love poetry, but during much of his life, he was a political activist and diplomat. An ardent communist, he got into all kinds of trouble with friends and opponents alike. At one stage, when the Chilean government sought to arrest him, Neruda was forced into hiding. He later escaped on horseback over the Andes into Argentina. In another period, he alienated friends by stubbornly continuing to support Stalin even after the dictator's monstrous crimes came to light.
Neruda died of prostate cancer in 1973, just after the heartbreak of seeing his friend Salvator Allende overthrown and probably murdered in a coup led by General Pinochet. Neruda's funeral procession became one of the first public protests against the Pinochet government.
Neruda wrote numerous odes, but the Ode to Common Things is perhaps exceptional. An analysis and celebration of everything we take for granted in our lives, Neruda's poetry in this piece is perceptive, surprising, beautiful, sad and funny - often all at the same time. And so too is Ratcliff's music. In fact, when the poetry and the music are combined, there is almost too much sound and information to comprehend - at least at first hearing.
Fortunately, for this performance, Neruda's poetry was made available to the audience as an addition to the printed program. Unfortunately, when words are set to music they are often elongated to the point of being unrecognizable, especially when the tempo is quick, and so the tiny font size (7-8pt?) used in the program accentuated the difficulty of digesting large blocks of text in time to appreciate its particular musical expression.
These are problems, however, that will likely disappear with repeated hearings as one becomes more familiar with this complex piece. And let me be clear about this: Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things deserves repeated hearings.
Ratcliff composes in a style that I would describe as 'eclectic traditional'. The harmonies are traditional but the ways in which voices and instruments are used and combined are decidedly original.
In a choral work based on Chilean poetry, most composers would go all out with Latin rhythms. The orchestration would include a good deal of Latin percussion and bits of tango and samba would be everywhere. Ratcliff's composition is more subtle; its Latin elements are never predominant.
Ratcliff pays Neruda the compliment of respecting him as not only Chile's greatest poet, but also as a man whose thoughts and words have universal significance.
Power and Poetry: Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists Deliver!
Singing in the original Spanish, the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus, prepared by Craig Hella Johnson, was wonderful. The nearly 100 voices handled the tricky rhythms and textures with both finesse and enthusiasm.
Soprano Ava Pine, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller and tenor Bryan Griffin were all excellent. Miller was particularly impressive in her duet with acoustic guitar in 'Ode to the Guitar'.
Maestro Peter Bay is to be commended not only for introducing Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things to Austin, but also for conducting it with extraordinary technical command and acute sensitivity to the myriad expressive demands of the piece.
A good night for Mendelssohn! A great night for Pablo Neruda, Cary Ratcliff and Peter Bay.
As you Like it!
After hearing a work like Ode to Common Things, listeners may want to read more poetry by Pablo Neruda and listen to other pieces composed by Cary Ratcliff. They may also want to watch a beautiful film about Neruda during a period of exile when he lived in Italy, and make the acquaintance of some Neruda songs by another composer, Peter Lieberson.
The Essential Neruda (ed. Mark Eisner). City Lights Press, 2004
Cary Ratcliff: Songs. Kathryn Lewek, sop., Cary Ratcliff, piano. Albany Records, 2008
Il Postino. Philippe Noiret. Dir: Michael Radford. Miramax DVD, 1995
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony/James Levine.Trumpet Swan Records, 2006.

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 Amazon.com.

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This Week in Toronto (November 23 - 29)

Photo: An early portrait of the soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom in 1957




I begin this week's post with a piece of sad news for opera fans. The beloved Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom passed away from complications of a stroke at the age of 82. She made her debut in 1947, singing mainly light lyric and soubrette roles - she was a marvelous Susanna in her early days. She sang at the Met in the early 60's, but later restricted her appearances closer to her home in Sweden to raise a family. She reappeared on the international scene in the 1970's until her retirement in the late 1980's. A frequent visitor to Toronto, I have many fond memories of her performing here - a concert Tatiana that also featured Nicolai Gedda as Lensky in Massey Hall; Hanna Glawari for the COC; several Rachmaninoff songs recitals. But my most memorable experience of her was as the Marschallin, opposite the Octavian of Frederica von Stade and the Sophie of Kathleen Battle with the Met on tour in Cleveland. She remains my favourite Marschallin to this day. I also remember a late-career Nozze di Figaro Contessa at the Met around 1987. By that time she was past her best vocally but remained a supreme artist.

Now to happier news. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 5 on Nov. 25 at a rather odd time of 6:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Stephane Deneve leads the TSO forces. On Nov. 26 2 pm, 28 at 8 pm and 29 at 3 pm, the great Canadian violinist James Ehnes plays the Prokofiev violin concerto No. 2, in addition to the Shostakovich symphony and the Prokofiev Suite to Love For Three Oranges, with Deneve on the podium.

The Aradia Ensemble under Irish conductor kevin Mallon presents a interesting concert to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn, on Nov. 27, 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. On the program is Mallon's reconstruction of mass fragment Missa Sunt Bona Mixta Malis. It is billed as a world premiere. The centerpiece is Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, with a quartet of soloists led by soprano Charlotte Corwin.

The RCM's Glenn Gould School is presenting an English-language version of Bohuslav Martinu's rarely performed comic opera, Comedy on the Bridge. This opera, staged at the RCM for the first time, is part of an all-Martinu program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. The opera represents the first
conducting assignment for Uri Mayer since he was appointed as Director of The Glenn Gould School Orchestral Programme and Resident Conductor. Also on the program is Anagnoson & Kinton, who will perform Martinu's
Three Czech Dances for Two Pianos. It takes place on Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 12:00 pm and > Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 8:00 pm, at the venerable Mazzoleni Hall of the RCM.


The National Ballet of Canada follows an ultra-traditional Sleeping Beauty with a cutting-edge contemporary mixed program, Nov. 25 - 29 at the Four Seasons Centre. On the program is choreographer Aszure Barton's world premiere, Watch Her. This is paired with George Ballanchine's scintillating The Four Temperaments, set to a score by Paul Hindemith.

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Leon Fleisher Brings Out True Musicianship at Koerner Hall

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

There was a moment during Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand on Nov. 20 when members of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra watched in wonder the piano man on centre stage.

With his glasses off, his back to the audience, Leon Fleisher, 81, immersed himself in a wash of sound as large as a tsunami; his low hum was audible throughout the cadenza, his left hand worked itself into a blur up and down the keyboard.

As the sound gradually diminished, Fleisher lifted his right hand over the piano — his left hand playing all the same — and masterfully gave cue to the orchestra in a different time signature.

In a program that featured him both as a soloist and conductor, the American pianist who had to abandon the standard piano repertoire at the height of his career at the age of 37, when he lost the use of his right hand due to a neurological movement disorder, dazzled the audience in the sold-out Koerner Hall with his tenacity to do just one thing — make music.

A familiar face in Toronto’s classical music community, especially at the Royal Conservatory of Music where he has given master classes since the inception of the Glenn Gould School in 1997, Fleisher has, thanks to a combination of Botox injections and Rolfing, enjoyed a successful comeback to two-hand playing in the last several years.

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, he proved once again that a true musician does not need 10 fingers to make beautiful music on a piano.

Commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War, the single-movement concerto displays Ravel’s versatility as a composer to write full colour and texture for one hand.

Fleisher’s fast finger work throughout the piece’s harmonic, melodic, percussive, and glissando passages made the dark and mighty piece sound as if it were played with two hands. Conducting the orchestra from the piano bench, he was sensitive to Ravel’s brilliant orchestration and brought out layers of nuances from various sections of the orchestra. Here, the musicians must have been infected with Fleisher’s deep devotion to music, because they sounded like a professional orchestra rather than one that is in training.

The Royal Conservatory Orchestra, comprised of some of the country’s brightest young musicians, produced for the most part an expansive and expressive sound. In Rachmaninoff’s epic Symphony No. 2, the musicians were shamelessly giving to Fleisher’s lyrical and romantic treatment of the big tune. As a whole, there was excessive drama and passion, but that is never overdone in this more-is-more work.

The orchestra suffered, though, in their ability to play together consistently. This deficiency showed especially in the opening work, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, a rhythmically theatrical work that requires dead-on synchronization and chemistry from each player.

But with an orchestra that is so eager to give and please — and give and please they did — one can easily forgive the rest.

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Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in Florence

by Giuseppe Pennisi 

Italians are not fond of fairy tales. There is very little Italian literature of that kind, even of high quality fantastic books and novels. The same applies to music theatre. Attempts to develop an Italian “Zauberoper” in the 19th and 20th Century were – by-and-large – doomed to fail. The Japanese, particularly love their fairy tales, with its long literary roots, plus a very rich musical theatre. Leóš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky), a fable set to musical theatre, lands in Florence in a new co-production with the Japanese Saito Kinen Festival, with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa as the musical director. Frenchman Laurent Pelly, a rising star of international theatre, is the stage director and the costume designer, whilst the set are entrusted to Barbara De Limburg Stirum. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (one the best in Italy) and an international cast of 13 soloists – to cover nearly 25 different characters - complete the playbill. 

On opening night (November 8, 2009), the fable enchanted, indeed enthralled, the Florentine audience and European critics reviewers. There was considerable interest in Seiji Ozawa, as he has reduced his conducting duties to a comparatively small number of fully staged operas every year. There was also interest in Laurent Pelly’s stage direction, especially after the semi-flop of his Traviata in Santa Fé and Turin – the entire plot was set in the Parisian Père-Lachaise grave yard. The Cunning Little Vixen has been seldom staged in Italy, even though in the last ten years the opera was seen at the Spoleto Festival, La Scala and La Fenice. 

The opera was based on a novel published by installments on a Brnò’s daily paper, as a set of cartoons giving life to both human and animal characters. The cartoons compare and confront two different worlds: the gritty, petty and hypocritical lower middle class of a small town, and the healthy and generous animals of a nearby woods. There, the animals – first of all the cunning little vixen – live in full freedom and nature regenerates itself. The action does not have a dramatic development (like Jenufa, Kat’ia or Makropoulos) but is made up of a number of episodes welded into a coherent structure by the music – mostly by a continuous forest’s murmur. In the middle of the third act, the vixen is shot by the gamekeeper, but with a real coup de theatre, in the final scene of the opera she seems to appear again in full bloom and with her very cunning eyes. In short, the forces of nature are stronger than that of mankind; sensual and physical love are at the root of such a strength, an optimistic outcome of Janáček’s meditation on death and rebirth, which is the dominant theme of his three last operas. In Janáček’s biography, his friend Adolf E. Vaseck recalls that, at the composer’s request, at his funeral service, the Orchestra of the Brnò National Opera played the end of The Cunning Little Vixen as an anthem to the eternity of nature. 

Seiji Ozawa chooses the meditation on death and rebirth as the key element of his musical direction. His baton strikes the right balance between melancholic Slavic melody and Richard Strauss’s pagan and pantheistic symphonic approach. He also draws up front Debussy’s influence on The Cunning Little Vixen's orchestration - Janáček knew both La Mer and Pelléas quite well. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino provided the right tinta in both the forest and the urban setting. 

Pelly’s stage direction and costumes and Barbara De Limburg Stirum’s sets are visionnaire - viz a blown up vision of a naturalistic staging. The forest is lush and at the same time almost somber. 

In the excellent international cast, two singers stand out: Isabel Bayrakdarian, the sexy and sensual cunning vixen, and Quinn Kelsey, the brash, albeit, reflective gamekeeper.

THE PLAYBILL

THE CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Leóš Janàček
text and music

Seiji Ozawa conductor
Laurent Pelly stage director and customs designer
Barbara de Limburg Stirum sets
Lionel Hoche choreography
Peter van Praet
lighting

Quinn Kelsey
The Gamekeeper

Judith Christin
His Wife, The Owl

Dennis Petersen
The Schoolmaster,The Mosquito

Kevin Langan
The Priest, The Badger

Gustáv Belácek
Harašta, a tramp

Federico Lepre
Pásek, The Innkeeper

Marcella Polidori
Páskova, His Wife

Isabel Bayrakdarian
Bystrouška, the Cunning Little Vixen

Lauren Curnow
The Fox

Eleonora Bravi
Bystrouška as a Child

Elena Mascii
Frantík

Riccardo Zurlo
Pepík

Marie Lenormand
Lapák, the Dog

Mayumi Kuroki
The Cock

Gregorio Spotti
The Grasshopper

The Hen
Elena Cavini
Gabriella Cecchi
Laura Lensi
Delia Palmieri
Sarina Rausa
Maria Rosaria Rossini
Maria Livia Sponton
Nadia Sturlese


The other animals of the wood


Carlotta Favino
Elena Mascii
Eleonora Bravi
Alessia Marchiani
Riccardo Zurlo
Pietro Achatz Antonelli


The little foxes

Leone Barilli

Paola Fazioli
Kristina Grigorova
Margherita Mana
Gaia Mazzeranghi
Christine Vezzani
Judith Vincent
Paolo Arcangeli
Michelangelo Chelucci
Cristiano Colangelo
Antonio Guadagno
Zhani Lukaj
Pierangelo Preziosa



Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio
Musicale Fiorentino
Piero Monti
Chorusmaster

Soloists of MaggioDanza

The Children Chorus of Florencee
Marisol Carballo Chorusmaster

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Sunday, 15 November 2009

Jon Kimura Parker Shines from Beethoven to Billy Joel

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Once in a while, a concert pianist comes across as both virtuoso and versatile. That was the case at Koerner Hall on Nov. 8. The pianist was Canada’s own Jon Kimura Parker, whose afternoon recital began with two well-known Beethoven sonatas.

The Pathétique (Op. 13) and Appassionata (Op. 57) are two of Beethoven’s most beloved piano sonatas. Parker played both pieces with conviction and a clear sense of structures that kept the big picture in focus.

With Beethoven, rests are just as important as notes, and while Parker’s rests seemed peculiarly long at times (for example, the Grave in Pathétique), they created extra tension and drama in the beautiful, intimate Koerner Hall. The sound he produced from the shiny black Steinway was warm and luminous, but the contrast in dynamics was overwhelmed at times, especially in loud crescendos. The slow movements were simple and lovely, his voicing and tonal imagination unmatched.

Parker displayed flawless techniques and overactive fingers in the fast movements. However, while his finale in the Appassionata was thrillingly bang-on, it makes one puzzle as to why the infamous hand-crossing passage in the first movement of the Pathétique was not, with the secondary theme in the bass coming in late each time. Overall, Parker’s Beethoven was slightly over-pedaled, but it worked well in the stormy Appassionata.

After intermission, Parker introduced the audience to an entirely different program, which he said he had chosen to reflect Koerner Hall’s inclusion of a wide variety of music.

He began the second half of the recital with three pieces composed by American jazz pianist Chick Corea: Night Streets, Where Have I Known You Before?, and Got a Match?. Parker said he wanted to try something different and, while he didn’t improvise, he showed off his groovy side with equal flair nevertheless.

Next, it was John Adams’ China Gates. Written in 1977 with young pianists in mind, “gates” is a borrowed term from electronics and reflects the moments when the two modes in alternates in China Gates. Here, Parker gave a sensitive reading of the score and produced a poetic undulating realm that was both rich and subtle in colour and texture.

The final piece of the program was Stravinsky’s Petrushka arranged by Parker, who “retranscribed it according to my own ears and technique, and with an effort to reproduce more of the orchestral colours.” As well, he’s added a few of the sections that Stravinsky left out when he condensed the ballet into the piano suite, such as the Bear Dance, his 10-year-old daughter’s favourite. Parker gave his Petrushka a folksy swing that was riveting from beginning to end.

The recital concluded with two encores: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G major, a piece Parker said he first learned at the Royal Conservatory of Music when he was 15, and Billy Joel’s Scenes From An Italian Restaurant, his high school anthem. If anyone could pull off a piano recital from Beethoven to Billy Joel, rocking the house on his way out, Jackie Parker would be it.

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This Week in Toronto (November 16 - 22)

Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo: Andreas Klingberg)



Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, in my mind - and the minds of many - is Canada's reigning prima donna. Possessing a beautiful and versatile lyric soprano and generous stage presence, Pieczonka is enjoying a high powered international career, in demand from Munich to San Francisco to the Met. Since moving back to Canada after spending some fifteen years living in Vienna and London, she has managed to enjoy the best of both worlds- continuing her European appearances in the leading houses there, as well as singing and living at home and in the U.S. She will appear as Amelia opposite the Simon Boccanegra of the great Placido Domingo at the Met in January, and it will be part of the Met in HD series shown in 42 countries around the world. On Tuesday, Nov. 17, you can hear Adrianne - for free! - when she gives a noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheater, at the Four Seasons Centre. She will be accompanied by Elizabeth Upchurch in a selection of arias from her new all-Puccini CD, recently released on the Orfeo label. I am not positive about this, but I imagine there will be discs for sale at that time. This is sure to be a full house so I advise anyone interested to show up at least 45 minutes early to line up.

Another interesting recital at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheater, FSC is that of pianist Sergei Saratovsky, on the very next day (Nov. 18th noon). Saratovsky received the best Canadian at the 2008 Montreal International Musical Competition, piano edition. I recall his excellent playing when I covered the finals last year, and this recital is well worth attending. On the program is Debussy's Estampes and Schumann''s Carnaval.

On the subject of pianists, Chinese-Canadian piano phenom Yuja Wang is in town with the Shanghai Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall on Nov. 16, 8 pm. She is one in a long line of Chinese pianists with a big technique, which she will be showing off in Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, conducted by Long Yu. Also on the program is a Chinese piece and Mussorgksy's Prelude to his opera Khovanchina.

Now that the COC's fall season is over, the opera house becomes a ballet house, featuring the National Ballet of Canada's Sleeping Beauty from Nov. 13 to the 22. Performances this week are on 18, 19, 20, 21 at 7:30 pm, and 22 at 2 pm. Aurora will be shared by a whole bunch of ballerinas, with the prima danced by Heather Ogden. Others are Xiao Nan Yu, Sonia Rodriquuez, Jillian Vanstone and Stacey Minagawa. The Prince is led Guillaum Cote, with Jason Reilly, Zdenek Konvalinaa and Piotr Stanczyk to follow. The great Rex Harrington is now a character dancer, as King Florestan. The roots of the NBC are in the classics, and this piece, with its wonderful Tchaikovsky score and Petipa choreography, remains a perennial favourite. It is definitely not to be missed.

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Saturday, 14 November 2009

Szymanowski's Opera "King Roger" Reconsidered



Classical Travels
This Week in Spain

King Roger was a real person who reigned in Sicily circa 1130 and whose court was widely recognized for its high level of intellectual knowledge and discourse. Szymanowski's opera King Roger (1926)was inspired by the composer's travels in the Mediterranean region - more specifically, Sicily, where he became fascinated by the unique interplay of the cultures of ancient Greece and the Arab world.

I first came to know King Roger through recordings. It was only recently that I finally saw a live performance - at the venerable Gran Theatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain.

One of the main themes in King Roger is borrowed from Euripedes drama "The Bacchae", in which another ruler - King Pentheus - is torn to pieces by followers of the god Dionysus. In the course of writing King Roger - Szymanowski eventually wrote most of the text as well as the music - the work became a series of three tableaus representing encounters between King Roger and Dionysus.

In the first production of King Roger (Warsaw, Poland), of which there is a photograph of the Act One setting in the fine programme booklet for the Liceu Opera production, great care was taken by the set designer to bring to life the historical context of the opera; hence, the audience saw a real church with the figure of Christ looming large at its centre in Act One; a real palace in Act Two; and the ruins of a Greek theatre in Act Three. All of these settings and more are called for in the composer's detailed stage directions.

Abstract Approach Brings Apollo/Dionysus Conflict to Life
For Barcelona's Gran Theatre del Liceu production, British director David Pountney chose to present King Roger in a more abstract way. One set design served for all three acts of the opera: a series of risers upon which most of the action took place. Costumes were non-historical. The men wore black robes or suits. King Roger's wife Roxana wore a red dress of vaguely twentieth century style.

Although this 'abstract' new production, directed by David Pountney and conducted by Josef Pons, was far from faithful to Szymanowski's stated intentions, it nevertheless dealt with the opera's religious, philosophical and psychological elements in thought-provoking ways. The voices and orchestra were first-rate. The production was sung in Spanish with Catalan surtitles.

Pountney's purpose, as clearly stated in the Liceu Opera programme book, was to focus attention on the 'essence' of the opera, which he takes to be Roger's internal struggle between intellect and emotion, or between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements of human nature. By extrapolation, this is a struggle shared by all mankind and so need not be limited by time and place.

Pountney's production not only explores the ideas and emotions of Szymanowski's characters, but attempts to illuminate the subtext of the composer's lyrics; for example, in his first appearance, the Shepherd/Dionysus character immediately arouses the interest of King Roger's wife, Roxana. Roger himself is at once repelled and fascinated by the pagan and blasphemous message transmitted by this charismatic stranger. He orders the Shepherd's arrest and then, almost immediately, rescinds the order.

In Pountney's production, there is a moment of extraordinary power when Roger approaches the Shepherd from behind and encircles him with his arms as if to take him into custody. In that very moment the 'capture' becomes a depiction of homosexual carnality. Roger has succumbed to desires he didn't even know he had and is henceforth more conflicted than ever about this man.

Throughout the opera, King Roger is shadowed by his advisor Edrisi, an 'Arabian sage'. Edrisi is the philosophical counterweight to Roger's wife Roxana. She is all about intuition and passion, while Edrisi is a man of reason and, in a way, Roger's conscience or higher self. Ultimately, Dionysus prevails and leads his followers, including Roxana to experience the ultimate rites of his sect. In the opera, Roger and Edrisi experience them too and return, almost destroyed by the experience. They stagger onstage, covered in blood, and Edrisi, the voice of reason and Roger's conscience, is near death.

Are we to think then that Dionysus has won in the end?
Not so fast! As the sun rises behind him, King Roger turns, and offers himself up to it - an affirmation of the ultimate power of Apollo and reason. He has been tempted by the mysteries of Dionysus, he has been changed by the experience - they are after all a celebration of a vital part of human nature - and he has emerged a stronger and wiser man.

It must be stressed that while the opera begins with an affirmation of Christian worship, Christian faith is not really the central issue. At the end of the opera, King Roger clearly does not reaffirm his faith in Christ and Christian values, but rather in the older and more fundamental Apollonian ideal. For another example of how these themes have been explored in profound ways by another twentieth century composer, I suggest readers view Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice.

Physical and Vocal Demands of Production Well Met
While a discussion of ideas is necessary to any appreciation of Szymanowski's King Roger, it would not be a work worth reviving, were the music not extraordinary. The opera opens with old-fashioned choral music to suggest the atmosphere and tradition of Christian church music. It then goes on to more chromatic music, obviously influenced by the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, with elements of Middle Eastern music as well. A similar blend of sources can be found in parts of Strauss' Salome.

The main characters in Pountney's King Roger are called upon to convey a vast range of ideas and emotions through their voices and through a demanding series of physical movements and so must be consummate singing actors. At the Gran Teatro del Liceu, with eight performances of the opera being given over a period of about two weeks, two casts are required.

In the production I saw, the role of King Roger was sung by the fine American baritone Scott Hendricks. I was interested to read in the programme that he has also done Death in Venice at the Liceu. Hendricks was matched every step of the way by the excellent German tenor Will Hartmann (Shepherd/Dionysus), making an auspicious debut at the Liceu. Hartmann faced the additional challenge of being required to don a woman's dress at one point in the opera, and later, of having his entire body painted in gold. The role of Roxana, in this production, was taken by the celebrated German soprano Anne Schwanewilms.

The busy chorus was wonderful. Maestro Josep Pons, associate principal conductor of the Liceu and also director of the Orquesta Nacional de España, gave us a sensitive and compelling reading of King Roger.

Painting with Light and Color Transforms Simple Set
I have described director David Pountney's approach to King Roger as 'abstract', and reported that the single set used was little more than a series of risers. There was, however, considerably more to the 'visual' side of this production than that series of risers, thanks to the wonderfully creative imaginations of set designer Raimund Bauer and lighting designer Fabrice Kebour, who was making his debut at the Liceu.

Bauer's risers had openings through which characters appeared and disappeared and the steps seemed to move as if characters themselves. The lighting introduced colours and patterns that played upon the risers, closely relating to the flow of the music and the drama. The result was substantial music drama in which all the elements worked together based on a common understanding of the text and the music.

King Roger will never be a popular opera - it has too much intellectual content and too little commercial appeal for that - but it deserves to be performed more often, especially in productions as serious and resourceful as this one.


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 Amazon.com.

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Thursday, 12 November 2009

The 2009 Parma Verdi Festival

by Giuseppe Pennisi

Maestro Gianandrea Gavazzeni used to say that there is no need for a “Verdi Festival” because almost every day a “Verdi Festival” is being held in more than one of the five continents of the world. As a matter of fact, Parma, the capital of the province where Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813, has been organizing a top-notch Festival for several decades. It used to take place in early Junethat is, strategically after the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and before the many Summer Opera Festivals (35 in 2009) flooding Italy from late-June to mid-September.

Since 2005, Mauro Meli has been Superintendent of Parma’s Teatro Regio and of the Verdi Festival and he invited Yuri Temirkanov to be the musical director of both organizations. In 2006 a program was undertaken to make Parma “the European music capital” by activating a new auditorium (for symphony and chamber music) and the many precious small theatres in the surrounding towns and even villages (first of all the Teatro Verdi in Busseto, near Le Roncole, the hamlet of only a few homes where Verdi was actually born). International collaborations were developed through co-production and tours. Finally, the Festival was moved from early June to October, Verdi was birth-month. Every day of October in Parma Verdi has a Festival event: a fully staged opera to highlights in concert to screening of films based on Verdi’s work. The whole town has become a part of the Festival, with exhibitions, shows and performances everywhere.

All this activity requires a great deal of financing, and the money had been forthcoming for a few years from the Central and Local Governments, a major State owned company and from local enterprises. But, recently, the economic finance crisis has put a major halt on funding. This year, Meli has had to make do with a much smaller budget, resulting in a lean program (see www.teatroregioparma.org/verdifest/index.htm): only two fully staged operas, the Requiem Mass (considered by many as Verdi’s 27th opera), and concerts and highlights from all the other 25 operas.

This review focuses on the three major events: the Requiem Mass and the fully staged productions of I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The Requiem opened the at the Cathedral. It is well known that Verdi was an atheist as many Italian Risorgimento intellectuals were; their atheism stemmed largely from their opposition to the Papal Kingdom as well as from the goal of having Rome as the capital of a united Italy, not of a Pope’s State. Verdi’s letters reveal that he was a tormented atheist with many doubts about the meaning of existence and the after-life. The Requiem Mass can be considered a melodrama-style search for these deep philosophical answers. Its central part (Dies Irae) is a long operatic act with the tender Lacrimosa, a meditation on human fragility, as a conclusion. Not even the final Libera me solves these doubts. The orchestra was conducted by Lorin Maazel, who had to fly into Parma to replace a suddenly sick Yuri Temirkanov. Even though Maazel had no time for a proper rehearsal, the orchestra and the chorus (under Martino Faggiani’s direction) gave the proper dramatic colour to the score and provided the required support to the soloists. Francesco Meli has thickened his voice in the last few years, but kept a very clear timbre and a pure emission; he might become a Carlo Bergonzi of the future. Daniela Barcellona is a true force of nature; she did balance her powerful voice with an excellent fraseggio and displayed a great skill to ascend to high tonalities with ease and to descend to grave tonalities with the same ease. Alexaneder Vinogradov is a good, but not memorable, Russian bass. Svetla Vassileva seemed not quite apt for the role: in the last few years she has taken roles not fully in line with her specific vocal endowment, with evident effects now. Her volume is small and she has difficulties with the low notes and pushes excessively with the acute. Being next to Barcellona did not help as it exposed her limits.

Much beloved by Verdi’s fans, Leo Nucci (now almost 68 years old) played the protagonist of both I Due Foscari and Nabucco. The latter is a widely performed opera whereas I Due Foscari has the record of being the shortest and one of the least staged Verdi melodrama. It was revived in 1968 in a Rome Teatro dell’Opera production that travelled as far as the Metropolitan Opera in New York. It is a dark opera, based on an even darker poem by Byron, that deals with power intrigues in 15th Century Venice. Jacopo is unfairly condemned to permanent exile by the Council of Ten, the highest governing body in Venice; in spite of Lucrezia’s efforts and pleas, his father cannot overturn the decision; Jacopo commits suicide and Francesco is ousted by his rivals. There are only three characters of dramatic and vocal relevance: the old doge, Francesco Foscari (Leo Nucci), his son Jacopo (Roberto De Biaso) and his daughter-in-law Lucrezia Contarini (Tatiana Serjan). There is almost no actionbut a lot of difficult singingon the stage because nearly the entire plot develops behind the scene.


Joseph Francioni Lee (stage direction) and William Orlandi (stage set) provide an intelligent solution: the three acts are performed with only a short intermission and there is as much action as the libretto provides. The stage direction and the sets are traditional but effective. Nucci and Serjan overrode the rest of the cast in tremendously difficult roles requiring considerable vocal agility and strong volume. De Biaso was good but at the end of the performance appeared clearly tired. Fine, but not exceptional, was Donato Renzetti’s baton.

Only a few words on Nabucco. The Daniele Abbado production is nearly 10 years old and was seen last year in Reggio Emilia (only 50 miles from Parma). It is a late 20th Century blockbuster with Jews in modern attire and the Babylonians in Hollywood-style costumes. Leo Nucci’s receives the lion’s share of the applause, closely followed by Dmitra Theodossiou; they are experienced professionals and know all the tricks to please the audience, even emphasizing certain moments of Verdi’s score. The young Michele Mariotti conducts with a swift allure. This production of Nabucco will be staged in Modena in February 2010 and in Japan next Summer.


THE PLAY BILL
Messa da Requiem

Soprano SVETLA VASSILEVA
Mezzo DANIELA BARCELLONA
Tenor FRANCESCO MELI
Bass ALEXANDER VINOGRADOV

Conductor LORIN MAAZEL
Chorus Mastero MARTINO FAGGIANI
I due Foscari
Francesco Foscari LEO NUCCI,
Jacopo Foscari ROBERTO DE BIASIO
Lucrezia Contarini TATIANA SERJAN
Jacopo Loredano ROBERTO TAGLIAVINI
Barbarigo GREGORY BONFATTI
Pisana MARCELLA POLIDORI
Fante MAURO BUFFOLI
Servant pf the Doge ALESSANDRO BIANCHINI

Conductor DONATO RENZETTI
Stage direction JOSEPH FRANCONI LEE
Stage sets and costumes WILLIAM ORLANDI
Lighting VALERIO ALFIERI


Nabucco

Nabucodonosor LEO NUCCI, GIOVANNI MEONI (18, 24, 28)
Ismaele BRUNO RIBEIRO
Zaccaria RICCARDO ZANELLATO
Abigaille DIMITRA THEODOSSIOU
Fenena ANNA MARIA CHIURI
Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo ALESSANDRO SPINA
Abdallo MAURO BUFFOLI
Anna CRISTINA GIANNELLI

Conductor MICHELE MARIOTTI
Stage Director DANIELE ABBADO
Stage sets and cistumes LUIGI PEREGO
Lighting VALERIO ALFIERI
Chorus Mastero MARTINO FAGGIANI

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