La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Operalia Winners Showcased in Bellini and Tchaikovsky



One lesson to be learned from Thursday night’s concert is that great singers can make even the worst music sound important - lesser singers not so much. On this occasion, we heard some talented young singers struggling with the inanities of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, second-rate music that should never have been inflicted on them. On the other hand, in the second half of the concert, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin showed other Operalia winners to great advantage.

Murrali and Ensemble Undone by Bellini
As one of its missions, the Knowlton Festival celebrates the art of bel canto and features some of its finest practitioners. But as with everything else in life, there is good and not so good. To programme an hour of excerpts from I Capuleti e I Montecchi, conscript some promising young singers to perform it and force – remember, one has been bussed to the site from one’s car - a festival audience to sit through it, is cruel and unusual punishment. The music isn’t worth it. The singers chosen to present this repertoire showed little affinity for it, conductor Massimiliano Murrali didn’t do much with the score, and the Festival Orchestra seemed ill at ease with the whole undertaking.

At last night’s performance, we had the usual absence of surtitles or translations but were at least offered a brief synopsis of the story behind the opera by Kelly Rice, who also pointed out that in this telling of the Romeo and Juliet story, Romeo is a ‘trouser role’. Rather important I would suggest – particularly for those coming to the opera for the first time. – to be alerted to the fact that in this Bellini opera, as in some other operas such as Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, one of the leading male parts is sung by a woman. Even more important in an hour without surtitles or translations.

To assist the audience further, Mr. Rice pointed out that mezzo-soprano Kremena Dilcheva would be instantly recognizable as playing the role of Romeo because she would in fact be wearing “trousers.” For all we know, there may still be members of the audience waiting in the Chapiteau for this mysterious trouser-wearing female singer. No such person ever appeared on stage during the performance I saw. What we did get was a Romeo in a glamorous shimmering blue (for “boy”?) low-cut gown.

As for this evening’s Juliet - dare I mention that Sumi Jo gave us a wondrous performance of Juliet’s aria, “O, quante volte” at last year’s festival?

Nagano and Company Bring Onegin to Life
So much for the first half of the concert. After intermission, we had music of real quality – from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin – and a conductor who knows his business and his music; Kent Nagano, no less, with an impressive cast of singers. Even the orchestra sounded a whole lot better.

The cast for the Tchaikovsky was headed by Ukrainian soprano Oksana Kramaryeva as Tatyana. I first heard her at Operalia in Québec City last September. At the time I was greatly impressed by the beauty of her voice and her command of phrasing, especially in an excerpt from Verdi’s Aïda. Last night, she was again impressive in the musical values of Tatyana’s great “Letter” aria. However, as we heard more of the opera, it seemed to me that she was underplaying the character. This is a deeply conflicted woman and her inner turmoil seldom bubbled to the surface in Kramaryeva’s performance. Baritone Christopher Magiera as Onegin also sang well and he was much more passionate. Tenor Dmitri Popov (photo: right) made an exceptionally heroic and ill-fated Lensky. Nagano kept it all flowing with total command of the score.

Cornucopia of Bel Canto Talent Presented at FestivalAs Marco Genoni noted in his opening remarks, the Knowlton Festival celebrates three generations of singers. It features big stars like Sumi Jo, Ben Heppner and Thomas Hampson, but also artists at the early stages of their career who are creating excitement through their prowess at the Operalia competition created by Placido Domingo. Finally, there are the young singers from the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. This is an admirable concept and one hopes it will be an ongoing feature of the Knowlton Festival. The process, however, can be risky if young singers are entrusted with roles beyond their capacity, on the same stage where the stars have performed.

Audiences expect to pay a pretty price to see and hear proven internationally acclaimed artists. Tickets to performances by rising stars and students, on the other hand, should surely cost less.

For the record, it was a beautiful summer’s evening in Knowlton. Perhaps summer has finally settled in after weeks of below average temperatures and frequent rain. More of the same is expected through the final weekend of the festival.

Coming Next: the final performance of La Sonnambula will be given tonight (Saturday), and Sunday at 11 am Kent Nagano will conduct the OSM in the concluding concert. The programme includes the Symphony No. 1 by Brahms and the final scene from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. June Anderson, Sumi Jo and Susan Platts are the featured soloists. After the concert, patrons are invited to picnic on the hillside near the Chapiteau. Sounds like a great way to end an exciting festival. For more information visit the festival website.

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.
Group Photo (above) left to right: Oksana Kramaryeva, Dmitri Popov, Ekaterina Lekhina, Christoper Magiera, and accompanist Doug Han after recital earlier in the week.

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Friday, 14 August 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Nagano/OSM/Hampson Outstanding in Brahms/Strauss Programme

by Paul E. Robinson

Last night at the Knowlton Festival, Kent Nagano continued his Brahms cycle with the OSM playing the Symphony No. 3 in F major Op. 90. The evening’s guest soloist was American baritone Thomas Hampson (photo: right) in three songs by Richard Strauss. It was arguably one of the best concerts of the festival.

The Brahms Third opened the programme and from the first bars, Nagano’s ear for balance and beauty of sound was again evident. As the first movement unfolded, there was more. I wouldn’t say there was abandon – that quality doesn’t seem to be a part of Nagano’s artistic persona – but there was real intensity. This symphony is regarded as autumnal and reflective, and is the only one of the four Brahms symphonies to end quietly. In the first and last movements, however, there is excitement and grandeur and Nagano and his musicians captured much of it. I must say I have rarely heard the orchestra play better. The wind solos were not just accurate, but memorable. The string textures were rich and finely detailed.

Musicians know that the Third Symphony is very difficult as an ensemble piece. Nagano and the OSM players had obviously done their wood-shedding, and it paid off. The syncopations in the last movement were exceptionally precise. Much of the credit for the standard of playing must always go to the musicians themselves, but the conductor’s perception of sound is obviously crucial to the shape of the whole.

Nagano has an ear for both the big picture and the smallest detail. As far as the big picture is concerned, I was struck by his slower than usual tempo for the second movement. At this tempo, the lower strings had time to be expansive in their phrasing; they positively glowed. In the fourth movement, Nagano chose to maintain the quick tempo right into and through the second subject, where other conductors ease up. This strategy worked perfectly and added to the excitement without any loss of melodic grace.

Programming Major Work Before Intermission May be Wise
A minor point, but a significant one perhaps: at most of the Knowlton Festival concerts, the major work concludes the concert. At the final chord, a fair number of concert-goers – understandably – make a dash for the exits to make sure they don’t get caught up in the long lines to board busses.

Last night the Third Symphony, the major work on the programme, opened the concert. At its conclusion audience members stayed in their seats – or, more accurately, on their feet – to applaud Nagano and the OSM at the end of the performance. The ovation was warm, vocal, and sustained. Conductor and musicians clearly appreciated it.

Incidentally, in his opening remarks tonight, Knowlton Festival president and executive director Marco Genoni apologized for the transportation challenges and assured folks that these were being dealt with by management.

Baritone Thomas Hampson Beguiles Knowlton!After intermission, one of the leading stars of the Metropolitan Opera took the stage to perform some rarely-heard songs by Richard Strauss. Thomas Hampson is by now a beloved figure in New York and around the world and everything he does is informed by scholarly preparation, intelligent phrasing and a ringing voice. He was in fine voice last night and I thoroughly enjoyed the repertoire.

Hampson sang three songs, written in the years 1897-99, around the time Strauss was composing works such as Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben, but before the composition of his most famous operas.

For me, the most impressive of the songs presented was Notturno Op. 44 No. 1. The poetry is by Richard Dehmel, the same man who later inspired Schönberg in his Verklärte Nacht. Since these are orchestral songs and the composer is Richard Strauss at the top of his game, it is not surprising that something amazing happens in the orchestra in every bar.

The orchestration, with its use of trombones at the bottom of their register combined with double basses and contrabassoon, suggested a sort of dry run for Elektra or Salome. The sustained chords played by this combination of instruments were ominous and unsettling. On top of these chords were frequent violin solos – virtually the top and bottom of the orchestra playing together. The sounds were mesmerizing and gave Hampson the ideal framework for his rendering of the text. A great song and an ideal performance.

Hampson also sang Hymnus Op. 33 No. 3 and Pilgers Morgenlied Op. 33 No. 4. Even without the texts available to them, the audience loved what they heard and demanded an encore. Hampson obliged with Rheinlegendchen (Rhine Legend) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. This is folk poetry rendered into Mahlerian folk song and Hampson sang it beautifully. With all the accompanying body language, it was obvious to the audience that Hampson was telling some kind of amusing story. One wished he had let the audience in on at least the outlines of this charming tale before he sang it.

Hampson is justly famous for his Mahler, having recorded most of the songs with Leonard Bernstein and written extensively about the composer and his music. Come to think of it, it was more than twenty years ago that he made the Bernstein recordings and Hampson sounds better than ever! Anyone wanting to know more about Hampson should visit his website. It is filled with information including titles and texts of all the songs in his repertoire.

Incidentally, the violin soloist in Strauss’ Notturno was Andrew Wan, one of the OSM’s two concertmasters. Wan just joined the orchestra last year and it is already apparent that he is a huge asset for his stellar playing and for the obvious energy and leadership he brings to the role.

Good Sound Might Go Further with Portable Shell
I have long thought that where one sits at a concert has a lot to do with one’s impression of the performance. This is probably less true in a great hall but critical in a poor or mediocre hall. Le Chapiteau (tent) at the Knowlton Festival is not a great concert hall nor does it pretend to be one. Last night I sat in the sixth row – for many of the other concerts I have been much further back and off to the side – and for the first time I really began to feel I was hearing the orchestra properly and well. I would guess that anywhere in the first ten rows one will have a similar experience. The problem is that these are also the most expensive seats. A great experience for those who can afford to sit there; for the rest of the audience, some work needs to be done to enhance the sound. A portable shell of some kind might help.

Coming Next: Today at 5 pm Susan Platts gives a free recital and tonight at 8 pm Massimiliano Muralli leads the Festival Orchestra with prize winners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia competitions in excerpts from Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Kent Nagano conducts excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning the busiest day of the festival begins at 10 am with a children’s opera Orfea and the Golden Harp presented by Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, followed by a master class with Italian conductor Massimiliano Muralli. Marianne Lambert gives a recital at 2 pm. In the evening, there is a second performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula led by Kent Nagano and featuring Sumi Jo. Finally, on Sunday morning at 11 am – note the unusual time for the concert – Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in the closing concert with soloists June Anderson, Sumi Jo and Susan Platts in the final scene from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Nagano also completes his Brahms cycle with the Symphony No. 1. For more information visit the festival website.

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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Opera Extravaganza a Fitting Finale to Toronto Summer Music Festival

Melinda Delorme, soprano
Teiya Kasahara, soprano
Desiree Till, soprano
Lauren Segal, mezzo
Erica Iris Huang, mezzo
Joey Nicefore, tenor
Paul Ouellette, tenor
Stephen Bell, tenor
Phillip Addis, baritone
Tomislav Lavoie, bass-baritone

Arias, duets and ensembles from Cosi, Zauberfloete, Barber of Seville, L'elisir d'amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Carlo, Adriana Lecouvreur, Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier, Falstaff, and La Traviata

National Academy Orchestra,
Agnes Grossmann, conductor

MacMillan Theatre, Thursday August 13, 2009




The fourth annual Toronto Summer Music Festival concluded its highly successful season last evening, in a sold out Macmillan Theatre at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. It was billed as an Opera Extravaganza, starring young Canadian singers at the beginning of their professional careers, all under the leadership of conductor and TSMF artistic director Agnes Grossmann conducting the National Academy Orchestra.

It would be less than truthful of me if I didn't mention that I missed terribly the fully staged opera that has characterized TSMF in the past, especially after last summer's wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos. It was obviously a financial decision, but given the serious economic downturn, the decision was probably prudent. This very enjoyable opera extravaganza last evening has gone a long way to ease the disappointment. Like the blockbuster Ehnes-Parker opening concert, this closing concert also had a festive air, and Toronto's musical community turned out in force. They were rewarded with a scintillating program, perhaps a tad on the long side for an orchestral concert since it went from 7:30 to 10:45 with a single intermission, but any true opera lover would never complain when the music making is so good.

An event like this is designed to showcase fine Canadian singers, and there were cetainly plenty of them last evening. It is really great to hear young, healthy, fresh voices, well schooled and well prepared. Of course each brings to the stage his or her unique gifts - some are totally ready for prime time, while a small minority might require some more fine tuning, but every single one has the talent for a professional career. Having said that, a few I found particularly impressive. Let me mention the ladies first. Top on my list is soprano Melinda Delorme, who has blossomed beyond expectations since her tenure at the COC Ensemble Studio. As an Ensemble member, one didn't get to know what she is capable of, and frankly she was overshadowed by some of the other, flashier singers. I was very pleasantly surprised by her beautifully sung Ariadne last year. Newly svelte with a lovely new hair style and colour, hers is now a complete package. Of the two Mozart selections, I prefer her "Come Scoglio," beautifully sung, complete with big if somewhat steely high Cs, and she has the requisite agility for this most exacting of Mozart aria. Delorme saved her best for last - the Final Trio from Der Rosenkavalier. She was able to float an exquisite pianissimo B-flat, and the timbre of voice is ideal as a youthful Marschallin. She should have a very good future.

I was also very impressed by mezzo Erica Iris Huang, whom I saw as a fine Komponist last summer. She sings with even more authority, security and expression this year, in the extended duet with Desiree Till, who was a most engaging Zerbinetta. This scene is rarely excerpted in concert, and the conversational style (without surtitles) is challenging for a non-German audience. The ladies were superb here, as well as in the Octavian-Sophie final duet in Rosenkavalier, although not having the Marschallin and Faninal there for their couple of lines proved a little disconcerting! It was also a little curious that Huang would choose to sing Principessa di Bouillon's Act Two aria - frankly not great music and hardly something for a young singer, but the slam-dunk 90 seconds worth of melody after a tediously long recitative always bring down the house. Huang sang it with panache, and with fresher, more youthful tone than many a Principessa di Bouillon.

Of the men, I really enjoyed the singing of Phillip Addis, whose beautiful lyric baritone never sounded better. His "Cruda, funesta smania" from Lucia was very enjoyable, as was the duet "Dunque io son" with the gleaming-voiced Lauren Segal as Rosina. I had not heard bass-baritone Tomislav Lavoie before, and he made a huge impression with "Ella giammai m'amo", one of the greatest bass arias every written. To my ears, this aria should be sung by a true bass, and someone further on in years. So I missed the solid low notes of a true bass, but Lavoie has an easy, brilliant top as compensation. I also prefer a more hushed, sotto voce opening to the aria, but other than that, I liked everything else he did - bravo!

What is an opera gala without a tenor, right? Well, we had three last evening, with two of them - Joey Niceforo and Paul Ouellette as "head-liners". The two guys are the same height and looks like they could be brothers. They also shared "una furtiva lagrima" - I confess this is the first time I have heard this aria as a duet! They also shared, with the third tenor Stephen Bell, "La Danza", "A vucchella" and the obligatory "O solo mio". (I am glad none of them started waving a white hankerchief) Nicefore and Ouellette are both engaging and relaxed on stage, no doubt due to their affinity and experience in the cross-over repertoire to which their modest-sized voices are more suited than the day-to-day singing in large unamplified opera houses. In any case, the audience loved them.

The long evening was nicely held together by conductor Agnes Grossmann, who led the youthful forces with care and sensitivity. I particularly loved her conducting of the Strauss, which had a freedom and lyricism that was a pleasure to the ear. The concert ended with "Libiamo" from La Traviata - minus champagne unfortunately, but enjoyable just the same. I think we are very lucky in Toronto to have TSMF, a true oasis in the summer musical desert. I wish them well and look forward to another brilliant summer in 2010.

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Thursday, 13 August 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Beethoven's Diabelli Variations Illuminated by Kovacevich

by Paul E. Robinson

American-born pianist Stephen Kovacevich has made his home for many years in England. He must like it there because he rarely visits North America these days. He made an exception with Nagano and the OSM last summer and last night again at Nagano’s invitation – and with Nagano and his family in the audience - he gave a recital at the Knowlton Festival in Québec. The performance confirmed Kovacevich’s reputation as the ‘thinking man’s pianist’.

For the first half of the concert, Kovacevich chose Bach’s Fourth Partita and Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). In both pieces he appeared to be probing the music deeply, without necessarily inviting listeners to share his thoughts.

The dynamic range adopted in the Bach was extremely limited and in the Schumann, Kovacevich confined his playing to mutterings and murmurings. But there were compensations. I have rarely heard the two contrapuntal lines in the Allemande movement of the Bach played with such lyrical beauty in both parts. And in the Schumann one was reminded that these may be scenes from childhood but they are not intended for children. This is a man looking back on childhood with a great sadness; those dreams he had so long ago are gone now, crushed by the weight of the real world of adulthood. The piece is often played with a sense of nostalgia but rarely with the disheartening melancholy Kovacevich gave to it.

After intermission came the mighty Beethoven Diabelli Variations. Before playing this daunting piece, Kovacevich spoke briefly to the audience. He pointed to the work’s experimental quality, and suggested that this is a ‘mysterious’ composition in the sense that its meaning is not altogether clear. Does it end on a hopeful note or only an illusion of hopefulness?

Since this is a late work and as Kovacevich pointed out, Beethoven had lived a very unhappy life - especially with respect to the opposite sex - one might expect all the late quartets, piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations to be full of sorrow and despair. This is not the case at all. What all these works do share is the experimental quality - evidence of the composer at the height of his powers, creating new forms and using the piano and other instruments in a myriad of new ways. One could argue that the older Beethoven was preoccupied with creativity rather than despair.

The Diabelli Variations have been at the heart of Stephen Kovacevich’s repertoire for his entire career. He made his European debut with the piece in 1961. He recorded it for Philips a few years later and just last year – forty years later – he recorded it again for Onyx Classics.

Kovacevich’s Knowlton Festival performance of the Diabelli Variations was far more extroverted than his Bach and Schumann. He does not dazzle the listener with his technique; rather he concentrates on tone quality and what one might call the soul of the music. Other pianists can play faster and louder. What Kovacevich gives us instead is a look inside the music and inside the composer’s psyche.

Many composers were invited to write variations on Diabelli’s banal little tune. Beethoven knew as well as anyone that the tune was superficial, but then went on to demonstrate that every element of it could be used as the basis for development, that one thing could lead to another, and another. Ultimately, as Beethoven showed us, one could end up with something rather profound. Put it all together and you have a master class in compositional technique and a window into Beethoven’s soul.

Many of the variations in this work are abrasive and some are downright gloomy. Some quote Bach (Goldberg Variations) and Mozart (Don Giovanni). As Kovacevich pointed out in his remarks, after the monumental fugue, Beethoven ends up with music resembling late Mozart. Was this an ironic commentary on Diabelli’s tune? Is Beethoven suggesting what a great composer like Mozart could have done with Diabelli’s mundane material? Or was this Mozartean minuet tacked on to leave the listener with classical repose after the storm and stress of what has come before? The mystery persists.

This is why works such as the Diabelli Variations are infinitely engrossing. No single performance can ever reveal all its facets. Stephen Kovacevich has spent a lifetime exploring the piece and it was a privilege to hear his latest thoughts. He is one of the supreme interpreters of the piece.

At the age of 69, Kovacevich remains a unique and important artist. Given the infrequency of his North American appearances – watch for a recital in Chicago next season – his recordings are invaluable. Many of his older Philips recordings are still in the catalogue and his traversal of the complete Beethoven sonatas for EMI is readily available. There is also a recent EMI DVD containing live performances of the Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111.

Coming Next: Tonight (Thursday) soprano June Anderson gives a master class at 5 pm and at 8 pm Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in Brahms’ Symphony No. 3. On Friday, prizewinners from Placido Domingo’s Operalia are featured with the Festival Orchestra under Nagano in excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin.

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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Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Les Violons du Roi with Guilmette a Royal Treat!

by Paul E. Robinson
The excitement of the opening weekend has died down and the crowds have thinned but the Knowlton Festival (Québec) continues with music-making of the highest order. Our own period music specialist ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, based in Québec City, took the stage last night and filled the air with the sounds of Handel.

In a festival that focuses on bel canto, it makes perfect sense to give some exposure to vocal literature which was an important forerunner. With the participation of Les Violons du Roy, organizers have significantly broadened the repertoire covered by the Knowlton Festival. I hope we will hear more baroque music next year.

Historically informed performances are now fairly commonplace, but Les Violons du Roy have been at it for nearly twenty-five years and their authority in this repertoire is palpable. Much of the credit must go to its conductor Bernard Labadie (photo: right). He gives us not only scholarly work but joyous, exciting and often surprising performances. No wonder he is now in demand all over the world as a guest conductor.

In addition to his early music expertise, Labadie has served a long apprenticeship in the opera house and will make his debut at the Met later this year leading performances of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. He is a fine all-round musician and the whole world is now discovering how good he is.

In praising Labadie I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of his players. There were twenty-five of them in the Chapiteau (tent) and each one of them made important contributions. Best of all, they functioned as a well-rehearsed ensemble. They had obviously taken great care to coordinate their phrasing, dynamics, length of the notes and bow strokes. The heart of this orchestra is the string section and it demonstrated a whole range of musical virtues from subtlety to virtuosity. Yes, this is a remarkable band of musicians. One wished their names had appeared in the programme!

The major work this evening was Handel’s Water Music. This music was written in 1717 for King George I to enjoy as he sailed down the Thames. Some of it is appropriately regal and festive but there are also more intimate pieces. The orchestration is one of the glories of the work – actually three suites joined together – and Les Violons du Roy made the most of its opportunities. We had a sensuous oboe solo, a perky recorder solo, lusty horn fanfares and trills and exciting timpani riffs.

As Labadie pointed out in his introductory remarks, the Water Music is rarely played complete. The reason, one might suggest, is that it can wear out its welcome - but not in this performance. Labadie not only varied dynamics within movements; he also dared to speed up and slow down when he thought the music would benefit from such alterations. Handel left no such instructions for the Water Music, but by now Labadie feels so confident in this style that he can permit himself imaginative embellishments. It’s called ‘interpretive freedom’ and in going down this road, Labadie is following in the footsteps of early music pioneers of the order of Harnoncourt, Christie and Gardiner.

Incidentally, Labadie and Les Violons du Roy have made a recording of the Water Music for Analekta.

In the first half of the programme, we heard an orchestral suite from Armida and a group of arias from Handel’s operas Alcina and Giulio Cesare. The fine soprano soloist was Hélène Guilmette (photo: right). Her youthful, lyric voice was well-suited to the music and she tossed off the ornamentation with the greatest of ease. I must confess that I prefer a more darkly romantic interpretation of ‘Piangerò la sorte mia.” This performance was a little too artful for my taste and the choice of ornamentation ornate rather than expressive. Still, I came away from these performances looking forward to hearing more from Guilmette.

As an aside, I feel compelled to point out once again that in a festival, the focus of which is vocal music, it is a gross oversight not to provide the audience with texts and translations either in the printed programme or as surtitles.

Coming Next: Tonight’s concert in the Chapiteau features the wonderful pianist Stephen Kovacevich making a rare appearance in Canada. He will play Beethoven’s massive Diabelli Variations. Tomorrow night Nagano and the OSM resume their Brahms cycle with the Third Symphony. Joining them will be American baritone Thomas Hampson in a group of songs by Richard Strauss. For more information visit the festival website.

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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Last Night of the Proms Live by Satellite on September 12th

I just received a press release from Cineplex Entertainment announcing of exciting news for fans of the venerable BBC Proms. Known for its wildly successful Met in HD shows throughout Canada, Cineplex Entertainment is joining forces with BBC Worldwide and BY Experience to present The Last Night of the Proms broadcast LIVE via satellite from The Royal Albert Hall in London, England, on Saturday, September 12th at 2:30 pm EST / 12:30 pm MST / 1:30 pm CST / 11:30 am PST exclusively at select Cineplex Entertainment theatres across the country.

The Last Night of the Proms is one of the most popular musical celebrations enjoyed by millions of people and we are delighted to extend the experience live to guests exclusively at our theatres,” said Pat Marshall, Vice-President, Communications and Investor Relations, Cineplex Entertainment. “There is no better way to experience some of the world’s leading artists than on the big screen and in digital surround sound.”

Founded in 1895, Last Night of the Proms celebrates British tradition with patriotic music of the United Kingdom and is one of the most famous musical events in the world, watched and listened to by millions. The 2009 season, which began on July 17th, consists of 100 concerts and will culminate with a powerful finale on September 12th that will feature leading international artists and an all-embracing musical program that introduces new works alongside much-loved classics.

Beginning Friday, August 14th, advance tickets are available online at www.cineplex.com/events as well as at participating theatre box offices. Admission for children ages 3 – 12 is $16.95 + tax, seniors is $19.95 + tax and general admission is $21.95 + tax. A special group rate is also available for groups of 20 or more at $16.95 per person. For more information on group rates, call 1-800-313-4461.

Cineplex Entertainment will present The Last Night of the Proms live at the following select theatres throughout Canada:

BRITISH COLUMBIA

SilverCity Coquitlam Cinemas

170 Schoolhouse Street

Coquitlam, BC

SilverCity Riverport Cinemas

14211 Entertainment Way

Richmond, BC

SilverCity Victoria Cinemas

3130 Tillicum Road

Victoria, BC

Scotiabank Theatre Vancouver

900 Burrard Street

Vancouver, BC

Galaxy Cinemas Nanaimo

213-4750 Rutherford Road

Nanaimo, BC

Cineplex Odeon Park & Tilford Cinemas

200-333 Brooksbank Avenue

North Vancouver, BC

Colossus Langley Cinemas

20090 91A Avenue

Langley, BC

Famous Players 7 Cinemas

2306 Highway 6

Vernon, BC

Famous Players 6 Cinemas

172-1600 Fifth Avenue

Prince George, BC

Famous Players Orchard Plaza Cinemas

160-1876 Cooper Road

Kelowna, BC

Cineplex Odeon Aberdeen Mall Cinemas

700-1320 Trans Canada Highway

Kamloops, BC

Cineplex Odeon Meadowtown Cinemas

19800 Lougheed Highway

Pitt Meadows, BC

Cineplex Odeon Victoria Cinemas

780 Yates Avenue

Victoria, BC

ALBERTA

Scotiabank Theatre Chinook

6455 Macleod Trail SW

Calgary, AB

Galaxy Cinemas Red Deer

357-37400 Highway #2

Red Deer, AB

Cineplex Odeon South Edmonton Cinemas

1525-99th Street NW

Edmonton, AB

Galaxy Cinemas Lethbridge

501-1st Avenue SW

Lethbridge, AB

Scotiabank Theatre Edmonton

8882-170 Street

Edmonton, AB

Cineplex Odeon Grand Prairie Cinemas

10330-109th Street

Grand Prairie, AB

Famous Players Westhills Cinemas

165 Stewart Green SW

Calgary, AB

Cineplex Odeon Crowfoot Crossing Cinemas

91 Crowfoot Terrace NW

Calgary, AB

SASKATCHEWAN

Galaxy Cinemas Regina

420 McCarthy Boulevard N

Regina, SK

Galaxy Cinemas Moose Jaw

1235 Main Street N

Moose Jaw, SK

MANITOBA

SilverCity Polo Park Cinemas

817 St. James Street

Winnipeg, MB

Galaxy Cinemas Saskatoon

347 2nd Avenue

Saskatoon, SK

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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: "Bel Canto Greatest Hits" with Young Singers from the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome

by Paul E. Robinson


One of the unique features of the Knowlton Festival (Québec) is the collaboration with the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia (ANSC), one of Italy’s leading music schools. The president of ANSC, Bruno Cagli, is involved in planning for the Knowlton Festival, and every year he includes performances by some of his outstanding students in the festival programme. Monday night we heard six of them accompanied by the Festival Orchestra directed by Carlo Rizzari.

The concert was a sort of “Bel Canto Greatest Hits”, similar to the one presented last year by June Anderson and some ANSC students. Without a star of Anderson’s stature on the bill, however, it lost some of its audience appeal. With this in mind, the festival organizers might have considered reduced ticket prices. After all, an average price of $100 a seat is a lot to pay for a concert by students - however promising – whether they are from Rome or Montréal.
Maestro Rizzari also has a connection with the ANSC. He is the assistant conductor of its orchestra. One might assume that the ANSC orchestra is a ‘student orchestra’ but one would be wrong. The Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Symphony Orchestra is one of the best orchestras in Italy. Its current music director is Antonio Pappano and conductors of the stature of Masur, Eschenbach, Temirkanov, Tilson Thomas and Nagano appear with it regularly. Bernstein was a frequent guest conductor and made several recordings with the orchestra.

Festival Orchestra, Rizzari & Sparkling Rossini Overtures
On this night, Rizzari was in charge of the Festival Orchestra, which had already distinguished itself in the previous night’s performance of La Sonnambula. Most of the musicians are Québec players, but the concertmaster is Riccardo Minasi, a well-known Italian soloist and early music specialist. Minasi teaches at the Conservatorio Bellini in Palermo and, earlier this year, took up a position as associate director of the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra. Presumably, the idea of engaging Minasi was to provide expertise in the area of bel canto style within the orchestra. So far the results have been impressive. Last night, the orchestra again gave us long singing lines and excellent precision, accompanied the singers with exceptional sensitivity and, on its own, contributed sparkling performances of two Rossini overtures.

Singers Delight Audience with Bel Canto “Hits”With respect to the singers, I would say that they all displayed admirable training, but not much individuality – with one notable exception. And while this programme concentrated on bel canto repertoire, not one of the six seemed, in my opinion, outstandingly gifted in this idiom.

The notable exception was tenor Antonio Poli (photo: right). This young man has a voice of extraordinary natural beauty and he uses it with remarkable elegance and maturity. Poli and baritone Pedro Josè Quiralte Gómez sang beautifully in the famous duet from Bizet’s The Pearlfishers, and in the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, Poli really came into his element. His breath control and phrasing were outstanding and even in the loudest passages, there was never any sense of strain. I suspect that Poli will go on to a major career singing lyric roles in Mozart and early Verdi.

For the record, the other singers taking part were soprano Paola Leggeri, mezzo-soprano Anna Goryacheva and baritone Sergio Vitale. Their performances were certainly competent, but generally too studied to really come alive; for example, soprano Rosa Feola’s traversal of an aria from Rossini’s La Donna del Lago. Other interpretations were so restrained that I began to suspect the teachers at the ANSC of having actively discouraged any expression of passion or personality. It’s all very well to insist on the purity of bel canto style but in the final analysis, what makes music come alive is the combination of discipline and individuality. There was not much of the latter on display last night.

That said, it’s always a pleasure to hear young singers. This extraordinary collaboration between Knowlton and Rome is at the heart of the Knowlton Festival, and gives audiences an opportunity to hear voices trained at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, arguably the ultimate authority in bel canto style. Therein lies the excitement and the appeal of last night’s concert. What will we hear? Tomorrow’s stars? Possibly! The joy of discovery!

The audience that turned up last night numbered about 300 in a tent which has been filled to a capacity of 850 at previous events. If applause and standing ovations are a gauge of the success of a concert, the evening was definitely a success.

Getting to the Festival SiteIf you’re planning to join the music-lovers who have already discovered the Knowlton Festival, be forewarned; you’ll have a bit of a challenge getting to the festival site. You’ll be parking your cars in a central location in Knowlton – a big field next to the Brome Lake Duck Farm – then walking across the field to the school busses lined up to transport you (5-7 minute ride) along narrow winding gravel roads to the Chapiteau (tent) a couple of miles away. There is no parking at the site itself. For the most part, the system works well, and the Knowlton volunteers greeting and directing traffic on site are cheerful and engaging. The weather thus far has not been too problematic.

This odyssey becomes more challenging, however, if the busses are not running smoothly and if the weather is not cooperative. Last night, it poured rain and I suspect that the prospect of getting soaked on the way to the concert deterred many people from attending.

Coming Next: Tuesday night the period music specialists ensemble, Les Violons du Roy, plays Handel, and Wednesday night pianist Stephen Kovacevich gives a recital of works by Bach, Schumann and Beethoven. For more information check the festival website.

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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