La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 31 January 2009

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 31 - Feb. 6)

Tenor Michael Schade
(Photo courtesy of Moira Johnson Consulting)









By Joseph So



This week's highlight is the Canadian premiere of Dvorak's Rusalka. This rarely performed opera is best known for its hit aria - "Song to the Moon", sung by the water nymph Rusalka. Frequently programmed in concerts and recital CDs by sopranos blessed with silvery tone and good top notes, this aria is really the only genuine hit tune in the opera. I have seen this piece twice, once with Renee Fleming and the other time with Czech diva Gabriela Benackova, both memorable in terms of star power. The tenor role of the Prince, considered a dramatic tenor role, has a few good moments, but overall it really isn't a particularly showy role. Canadian Ben Heppner has done well with this, although he appears to have dropped it from his active repertoire.

Now we have Canadian tenor Michael Schade trying his hand in this high-flying part. Schade started his career as a Mozart specialist, but with the passage of time, the voice has grown heavier and bigger. Now such roles as Idomeneo and Tito are in his repertoire, although he still sings the lyric tenor roles of Tamino and Ottavio. The Prince will be a bit of a stretch for him vocally, as the role requires a large, heroic sound more in line with the voices of a Heppner, Paul Frey, Peter Seiffert, Siegfried Jerusalem, Johan Botha, and the late Sergej Larin. In the title role is American Julie Makerov, who was a very good Freia and Donna Elvira for the COC. I also saw her several times, including a marvelous Tosca in Sarasota some years ago. I look forward to her Rusalka especially after being disappointed that her all important Mi tradi was cut from the recent COC Doon Giovanni, an idiotic decision as far as I am concerned. Also in the cast are Richard Paul Fink, a local favorite. The production comes from Theater Erfurt. I have not seen the dress rehearsal, but as I understand it, the sets are typical regional German house Regietheater type, ie, bleak, dark, short on colour, and symbolic in approach. I will reserve my judgement until I have seen the show. However, as is typical of new-fangled productions that favor "concept" and "meaning" over practicality, functionality and visual appeal, these modern sets can be a minefield for the perfomers. I understand at the dress rehearsal, the fountain with water onstage where the singers splashes about meant an inevitable wet floor. When Michael Schade took a fish bowl out of the fountain, he slipped on the wet floor that sent him flying, landing on his behind right in center stage - not a very elegant staging for the Prince!!! The fishbowl careened toward the lip of the stage, thankfully without tumbling into the auditorium. Stage accidents do happen, but it would be nice if stage directors and set designers take the welfare of singers into consideration when they come up with their "concepts"...

Speaking of tenor Schade - this Canadian is known as a superlative recitalist, and he will be giving a recital at the Four Seasons Amphitheatre on Tuesday Feb. 3 at noon. It is free and not to be missed. It is first come first serve so get there early!

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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 31 (Schubert, Glass)

1797 - Franz Schubert, Vienna, Austria; composer

Wikipedia

Schubert documentary, Part 1


Schubert documentary, Part 2


Piano Quintet in A ("The Trout"), 4th mvt.  (Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, Jacqueline DuPré, Pinchas Zuckerman)



1937 - Philip Glass, Baltimore, MD, U.S.A.; composer

Wikipedia

La Jolla Symphony and Chorus perform the North American premiere of Glass's Cello Concerto (Wendy Sutter, cello; Steven Schick, conductor)

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Friday, 30 January 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 30 (Finley, Harrell)

1960 - Gerald Finley, Montreal, Canada; opera bass-baritone

Wikipedia
Official website

Gerald Finley sings "Batter, my heart" from John Adams's Doctor Atomic (Metropolitan Opera, 2008)



1944 - Lynn Harrell, New York City, U.S.A.; cellist

Wikipedia

Lynn Harrell's Cello Workshop


Lynn Harrell and James Levine play Mendelssohn's Cello Sonata No. 2 in D, 1st mvt.

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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Today's Birthday in Music: January 29 (Delius)

1862 - Frederick Delius, Bradford, England; composer

Wikipedia
Official website

"La Calinda" from Koanga


"Sunset" from Florida Suite (Welsh National Opera Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras)

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Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 28 (Arthur Rubinstein, Tavener)

1887 - Arthur Rubinstein, Łódź, Poland; pianist

Wikipedia
Arthur Rubinstein - The Artist

Arthur Rubinstein plays Chopin's Scherzo in B flat minor, Op. 31 (1973 recording)




1944 - John Tavener, Wembley, England; composer

Wikipedia
John Tavener - Life

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, sings "The Lamb" (1998)

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Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Met Trashes Gluck' s Orfeo ed Euridice

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels
THIS WEEK IN TEXAS
In 2006, while he was gearing up to take over as the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb stated that one of his major goals was to “broaden the audience and make it younger at the same time.” He also made it clear that he believed the way to do this was to make more extensive use of new technology and bring in directors from film and Broadway who could bring the quality of the theatrical experience at the Met up to the level of its singing and orchestral playing.
Three years later and we are beginning to get a sense of Gelb’s achievements. He has certainly made use of technology by making Met HD Live a widely-appreciated fact of life along with more extensive use of broadcasts of Met performances on Sirius Satellite Radio. These innovations have doubtlessly won thousands of new listeners for the Met. On the other hand, while new stage directors have been brought in to shake things up, their work has often been disappointing. The latest offering, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with choreographer Mark Morris doubling as stage director, is yet another recent Met production notable both for its silliness and its extravagance.
Big Hall the Wrong Way to Go With Orfeo
The first question that needs to be asked is why a small-scale classical opera from 1762 is being performed in a house seating 3,800 people? This is an opera designed for small theaters of the sort that were the norm in the mid-Eighteenth Century. Gluck’s orchestra was small – no more than 30 players – and there would have been a small chorus and dancers and only three solo singers. In the Met production, conductor James Levine was true to period style in limiting the size of his orchestra, but this nod to scholarship only served to underline the absurdity of the situation; such a small orchestra can barely be heard in such an enormous space. So the whole project is misconceived from the start.
Choreographer as Director Should Have Worked Well
Next, someone familiar with the piece decided that while it is not hard to find solo singers and a chorus to do justice to Orfeo, it is much harder to figure out how to deal with all the dancing required in the piece. Not only is there a lot of it, but it is even harder to figure out correct period style for dance than it is for music. In the latter case, at least we have the instruments from the period to give us some clues.
It is a worthy idea, therefore, to put a choreographer in charge of staging Orfeo, but only if that choreographer has made a study of Eighteenth Century dance style. Unfortunately, Mr. Morris gave no indication whatsoever that he knew anything about this subject. What is more, he appeared to take the view that it didn’t matter anyway; he was quite prepared to do as he pleased. And so he did. The result was a mishmash of classical and modern dance clichés.
One particular dance sequence – the scene in the Elysian Fields – appeared to be borrowing from the iconic Monty Python skit dealing with the Ministry of Silly Walks; it was that awkward and risible.
Patchwork Costumes & Hollywood Squares Set Design
In this production, as in too many recent Met productions, we had the patchwork costume problem. Although Isaac Mizrahi was credited with “designing” them, once again the costumes appeared to have been put together by the cast members themselves, perhaps rifled on their way to work from bags intended for Good Will.
Superfluous and expensive sets are also a trademark Met feature. This week we had an enormous steel fire escape-type structure lowered into place from the flies. Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo walked up to the first level of this contraption, then back down again. And away it went never to be seen again!
There now appears to be a full-fledged Hollywood Squares school of set design ensconced at the Met. We saw it earlier this season in “Le Damnation de Faust” and “Dr. Atomic,” and now in Orfeo ed Euridice. The basic concept is to have people seated in cubicles three or four tiers high staring out at the audience.
In this production, the people were made up and costumed in all different ways to suggest well-known folks from the past. It was hard to tell exactly who was whom, but I thought I saw the likenesses of Henry VIII, Ghandi, Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln.
The general idea, according to director Morris, is that these are ‘dead people’ looking on as interested observers as Orfeo attempts to bring the dead Euridice back to the land of the living. On a more practical level, it was a way for the director to keep his busy chorus on stage and make them somehow part of the action. From time to time these dead personages made stylized and incomprehensible gestures. Some of these gestures even appeared to resemble similar gestures made by the dancers on stage. The one that particularly puzzled me was in the manner of holding an invisible beachball. The gospel lyric “He’s got the whole world in his hands” comes to mind. Perhaps again Morris was invoking something from Monty Python.
Vocal Brilliance and Orchestral Precision Don’t Save the Day!
On the musical side, this production fared much better. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe has the ideal voice for Orfeo. It was effortless and beautiful from top to bottom. Danielle De Niese and Heidi Grant Murphy were very good in the other roles. James Levine made little effort to approximate period style but he and his players contributed immaculate precision and expressive phrasing.
I have often complained in the past that on Met broadcasts the orchestra is recorded at a much lower level than the singers, much to the detriment of the score as a whole. This was not the case with Orfeo. In fact, we had the opposite problem; as if to compensate for its size, the little chamber orchestra positively boomed out of the speakers while the voices appeared to be recorded at just the right volume.
In summary, this opera has no business being presented in a huge theater like the Met and a production this misguided made the worst possible case for it.
On the basis of what I have seen so far this season, I am not surprised that ticket sales have fallen and that Gelb has been forced to cancel or replace four productions planned for next season. The current and global economic mess is mostly to blame, but it doesn’t help that artistic judgment is lacking, that poor directors are hired over and over again and that vast amounts of money are being wasted on dreadful productions.
To be fair, we did see a terrific Salome earlier this season. Still to come are Lucia di Lammermoor with Netrebko and Villazon (Feb. 7), and La Sonnambula with Dessay and Florez (March 21), and ‘hope,’ after all, springs eternal.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at http://www.amazon.com.
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Today's Birthdays in Music: January 27 (W.A. Mozart, Ehnes)

1756 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vienna, Austria; composer

Wikipedia

Symphony No. 41 in  C, K.551("Jupiter"), 3rd mvt. (Jeffrey Tate conducts the English Chamber Orchestra)


Clarinet concerto in A, K.622, 2nd mvt. (Eric Hoeprich, basset clarinet; orchestra of the Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens conducting.  Festival la Chaise-Dieu Abbatiale, 2005)


Leontyne Price sings "L'amerò, sarò costante" from Il Re Pastore with Izthak Perlman, violin; Zubin Mehta conducts the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1980).



1976 - James Ehnes, Brandon, Canada; violinist

Wikipedia
Official website

James Ehnes plays the Largo from J.S. Bach's Sonata for violin solo #3 in C, BWV 1005

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Monday, 26 January 2009

Today's Birthdays in Music: January 26 (Furtwängler, Dudamel)

1886 - Wilhelm Furtwängler, Berlin, Germany; conductor, composer

Wikipedia
"Genius forged in the cauldron of war"

Wilhelm Furtwängler conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in the Overture to Wagner's Die Meistersinger (1942)



1981 - Gustavo Dudamel, Barquisimeto, Venezuela; conductor, violinist

Wikipedia
Gustavo Dudamel website

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Arturo Márquez's Danzón No. 2 (Promenade Concerts, London, 2007)

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Sunday, 25 January 2009

Today's Birthday in Music: January 25 (Lutosławski)

1913 - Witold Lutosławski, Warsaw, Poland; composer

Wikipedia

Witold Lutosławski conducts the London Sinfonietta in his Chain 1


Martha Argerich and Gabriela Montero play Lutosławski's Variations on a Theme of Paganini (Verbier Festival, 2007)

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