La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 28 February 2010

This Week in Toronto (March 1- 7)

Painting of Frederic Chopin by Eugene Delacroix, 1838.

On Monday (March 1) two hundred years ago, the great Frederic Chopin was born. Although he died in 1849 in Paris, at the young age of 39, his impact on the piano world was indelible. This week, there will be numerous events around the world celebrating his 200th anniversary. (In fact, the celebration has already begun on Feb. 22, the date of his actual birthday based on church records) Famous pianists and Chopin interpreters the likes of Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim and Yundi Li, to name a few, are giving concerts to commemorate the milestone. Here in the GTA, we have the Canadian Chopin Festival's Third Canadian Chopin Competition: Senior Division. It takes place at the John Paul II Cultural Centre at 4300 Cawthra Road in Mississauga. The Preliminary Round is at 10 am on March 1 and 2. Attendance is free. Semi-finals take place on March 3 and 4, also at 10 am. Finals take place on Saturday March 6 10 am, with the Winners Concert on Sunday March 7 at 2 pm at Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall ($20 - 50). For more information, call (289) 937-6545, or visit the website at

Other Chopin festivities include a noon hour concert at the Canadian Opera Company's free concert series - Homage a Chopin: a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin. Pianist is Lucas Porter, on Tuesday March 2, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre. Admission is free, but remember to show up at least 45 minutes to line up. On the same day at 7 pm, as part of the Canadian Chopin Festival, well known pianist William Aide will give a lecture-recital, at the John Paul II Cultural Centre in Mississauga. On Thursday, March 4 at 7 pm, Liszt scholar Alan Walker will give a lecture on Chopin, the Poet of the Piano. Admission to these events is $10 each. On Friday March 5 7:30 pm, there is a show called Chopin and Friends: A Parisian Salon Recital at the same venue. There is no details as to performers or program, but go to for any additional information.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Le Plus Forte, its last concert of the New Creations Festival on Wednesday, March 3, at 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall. On the program is Osvaldo Golijov's The Last Round and Jacques Hetu's Symphony No. 5 (world premiere). Soloist is soprano Barbara Hannigan, whose repertoire is predominantly contemporary music. There will be a post-concert live event in the lobby called Spotlight on Piazzolla - not to be missed by Astor Piazzolla fans! On Saturday March 6 7:30 pm Sunday 3 pm March 7, the TSO presents Best of British, a mixed program of British music, including works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, and Bruch. Christopher Bell conducts and soloist is violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Opera York, a young professional opera company in York Region, continues its presentation of Verdi's Rigoletto, at the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre. Soprano Charlotte Corwin is Gilda, tenor Romulo Delgado is the Duke and Nicolae Raiciu is Rigoletto. Sabatino Vacca conducts. It opened on Sunday, Feb. 28 and continues with two more shows on March 4 and 6 at 8 pm.

On Sunday March 7, Off Centre Music Salon presents its Russian Italian Salon: Multiple Choice. Singers are sopranos Lucia Cesaroni and Ilana Zarankin, who happens to be the daughter of Inna and Boris Zarankin, co-artistic director of Off Centre. Also on the program is mezzo Emilia Boteva, cellist Winona Zelenka and violinist Marie Berard. It takes place at 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio.

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Friday, 26 February 2010

Chang and von Oeyen: A Musical Union

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It was hot at Markham Theatre on Wednesday night, when violinist Sarah Chang and pianist Andrew von Oeyen fed a full house of hungry audience with something temperamental, something serene, and something romantic.

The instrumental duo’s evident chemistry was a powerhouse in Brahms’s Sonatensatz and Sonata No. 3 in D minor. Chang, at times aggressive but never forceful, was sensitive to the expressive details. Along with von Oeyen’s vibrant and solid playing, the pair produced urgency and drama through the stormy passages.

Opening the second half of the program was American composer Christopher Theofanidis’ Fantasy for violin and piano. The Fantasy is a transcription of the second movement of his Violin Concerto, written for Chang and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2008. It is a gentle, lullaby-like piece with clear lines and a melody that is almost too simple. Chang and von Oeyen sounded pure and effortless here. The audience held their breath from the first note to the last.

The finale piece on the program is Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano. In this truly collaborative piece, which neither the violin nor the piano dominates, Chang and von Oeyen were a musical union through hushed moments, sweet canons, or sparkling climaxes. Even though the acoustics was a bit stifled at Markham Theatre for this chamber recital, Chang delivered her signature big, luscious sound, and it was matched perfectly by von Oeyen’s deep and full-range tone on the piano.

Chang and von Oeyen gave one encore, playing Edward Elgar’s Salut d’amour. I would’ve liked a more adventurous mix of the program, but this partnership is worth listening to no matter the music.

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The Odd Couple: Britten and Shostakovich Superb Match Under van Zweden & DSO

There are plenty of recordings of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 Op. 60 (Leningrad), but one rarely gets a chance to hear it in concert. The same could be said, only more so, for Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto Op. 15. To have them both offered on the same program is a special treat; thus, Jaap van Zweden
and the Dallas Symphony (DSO) had me excited even before they played the first note of this concert at Morton Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas, Texas.

As it happens, these two works were composed within a few years of each other: the Britten in 1939 and the Shostakovich in 1941. Although the two composers didn’t meet until 1960, they were mutual admirers and each dedicated major works to the other.
The Britten Violin Concerto was first on the program and it brought back to Dallas the extraordinary Dutch violinist, Simone Lamsma, whose performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto last season had made such a strong impression.
Consummate Performance of Neglected Masterpiece!
Lamsa’s rendering of the Britten concerto was beyond impressive. Her technical and intellectual control of the piece convinced me that Opus. 15 is a neglected masterpiece. She soared into the top register of her instrument with total assurance and tossed off the difficult left-hand pizzicati with perfect panache. Such rock-solid playing enabled one to savor the musical argument, and it was profoundly satisfying.
The final movement of this volin concerto is a Passacaglia – a set of variations on a bass line - and surely one of the most imaginative examples of the form by this composer or any other. It starts with a doleful theme in the trombones - performed with perfect intonation by the DSO brass - and goes on from there. It was mesmerizing to hear Ms. Lamsma ring changes on the theme while behind her various sections of the orchestra were going through a series of inventive and complementary permutations on their own. The movement ends quietly and sadly, not unlike the ending of the Berg Violin Concerto.
Lamsma played magnificently, with van Zweden and the DSO providing impeccable accompaniment.
Instrumental Britten Revived and Re-instated
Over the course of his lifetime, Britten was frequently criticized for being, in effect, "too clever." Critics claimed that his music was superficial, that it had no depth.
With the passing of time, however, many have come to appreciate the extent of Benjamin Britten’s originality. For some, myself included, he is the greatest composer of opera and song that England has ever produced, and I believe his instrumental music will continue to grow in stature.
The Violin Concerto Opus 15 is often written off as “an early work,” but as is the case with Mozart and Mendelssohn, many of Britten’s early works are among his finest. Let me give you just one example of what might be mistaken simply for ‘cleverness’ in this concerto. It’s an extraordinary passage in the Scherzo movement for piccolos and tuba. A ‘clever’ and unusual combination? Perhaps! But exciting as well, when one realizes that, in combination, Britten has given these often stereotyped instruments striking new dimensions of expression.
I have always considered Benjamin Britten to be one of the great masters, but before this concert I had never fully appreciated his Violin Concerto. I am deeply grateful that Lamsma and van Zweden provided the key to such a work. Incidentally, the Violin Concerto has a Canadian connection; Britten completed its composition in St. Jovite, Québec.
Making a Case for “Leningrad”
After intermission came the much longer Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad) by Shostakovich, perhaps best known for its Bolero-like first movement (Allegretto) which builds from a soft, repeated snare drum figure to a monumental climax.
Unfortunately, Shostakovich’s theme for this episode is every bit as trite as Ravel’s Bolero and, like its counterpart, it does not improve with repetition. No wonder Bartok made fun of the Shostakovich tune in his Concerto for Orchestra!
That said, Maestro van Zweden made the best possible case for the 7th’s opening theme. He started the section with a virtually inaudible snare drum establishing the rhythm – marked ppp in the score – and built the volume with meticulous care. When the climax came, it was certainly impressive – and earsplitting – as the extra brass (called for in the score) were added to the already large and powerful orchestra. As usual, the magnificent McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton Myerson Symphony Center handled the huge volume of sound with ease.
For me, however, the best parts of the Leningrad are not the towering climaxes in the first and last movements but the second movement (Moderato) and the third movement (Adagio).
The second movement (Moderato) is hauntingly beautiful, beginning with the loveliest oboe solo Shostakovich ever wrote, beautifully played by Erin Hannigan. Then come several sections recalling Mahler, especially in his use of woodwinds in various combinations. Then an entirely original touch - at least in my experience - as the bass clarinet (Christopher Runk) plays an eloquent, extended solo accompanied by the harp, two flutes in their lowest register and an alto flute. This combination makes for an uncommon, uncanny sound. Once again, van Zweden and the DSO played to perfection: tempo just right; rhythms crisp; tonal quality exquisite.
The Adagio movement opens with extremely disturbing block chords that move into music expressing all kinds of lamentation. This is followed by the moderato risoluto section, a kind of 'danse macabre.' Van Zweden brought out the syncopation driving the music forward and made sure we also heard the rich sonorities of the Dallas strings, especially the double basses.
First Violins of DSO Savor Challenge!
This is music of endless soul-searching, probing the best and the worst of the Russian spirit during one of the worst periods in the country’s long and troubled history - the siege of Leningrad by the Nazi forces in an unimaginable campaign lasting two and a half years.
If music can adequately express such horrors, the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony is where you will find it. It is not easy listening, but like all great art, it penetrates and articulates the human condition in a universal language.
In closing, I must applaud the members of the first violin section of the Dallas Symphony led by Emanuel Borok and Gary Levinson. In this symphony, there is one passage after another where they must perform death-defying high wire acts in their instrument’s highest register. This is cruelly exposed music. Not only did they play these passages with unfailing accuracy; they also gave them superlative shape and character. This was first-class playing by any standard and Dallas is fortunate to have such gifted and dedicated musicians.
Photo by Marita: Maestro van Zweden and DSO in rehearsal

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Sunday, 21 February 2010

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 22 - 28)

Quebec conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads the Rotterdam Philharmonic at Roy Thomson Hall
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Toronto classical music lovers rejoice - your cups truly runneth over this week! The opera and the symphony are both in full swing, plus there are a number of special events, including several eminent international artists in town for recitals and workshops. For me, the highest profile visitor this week is Quebec wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin who is making a stop at Roy Thomson Hall, this time with his own band, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of their North American Tour. The single performance takes place on Wednesday Feb. 24 8 pm. The soloist is the ever-colorful pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The concert opens with Messaien's Les offrandes oubliees, and ends with Richard Strauss' magnificent tone poem Ein Heldenleben. This event is not to be missed!

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents two interesting program in its New Creations Festival showcasing the works of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, who will be in town for a number of appearances. On Thursday Feb. 25 8 pm, Peruvian-born American conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya who last conducted Barber of Seville at the Canadian Opera Company in 2008 returns to Toronto to lead Azul, a program showcasing works by Golijov and others. American soprano Dawn Upshaw, long a champion of Golijov, sings the Canadian premiere of Three Songs by the composer. Also on the program is Azul for Cello and Orchestra, which is also receiving its Canadian premiere. On Saturday Feb. 27 7:30 pm, the concert is named La Pasion, featuring works by Golijov, Andrew Paul MacDonald, and Peter Lieberson, the husband of the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, conducted by both Peter Oundjian and Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, are also featured.

During this Osvaldo Golijov Week, in addition to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the composer will also appear in events with Soundstreams and the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. On Monday, Feb. 22, 7 pm at the Gardiner Museum, Soundstreams is hosting The Diverse World of Osvaldo Golijov. Attendance is free but you need to register to ensure a spot. Go to for details. On Wednesday, Feb. 24 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Soundstreams presents Ashes in the Wind, featuring music of Golijov and Jose Evangelista. Soloists include mezzo Wallis Giunta and pianist Serouj Kradjian. Also appearing is American soprano Dawn Upshaw singing three Schubert lieder that have inspired Golijov. For additional information and tickets, go to On Friday, Feb. 26 7 - 9 pm at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at the University of Toronto, the Faculty of Music presents Golijov at its Composer's Forum, an excellent opportunity to hear Golijov talk about his creative world.

The Canadian Opera Company's two winter productions, Carmen and Otello, are in their final week of performances. Opera being opera, there is no shortage of drama on stage and off. As reported before, the Carmen run has not one but two replacement mezzos in the title role. As reported in this space last week, the final four performances will be sung by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Also of interest is the appearance of American tenor Garrett Sorenson as Don Jose this week. Another cast change is COC Ensemble soprano Simone Osborne taking over the role of Frasquita. The two final performances are on Feb. 23 and 27. Meanwhile, Otello is having its own unintended drama. Tenor Clifton Forbis became indisposed during the show last Friday but finished the performance. I understand that the COC has since flown in American tenor Frank Porretta over the weekend, but so far there is no official announcement from the COC as to who will sing the performance on Monday Feb. 22 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. Frank Porretta comes from an eminent musical family. In fact his full name is Frank Porretta III, as his father, Frank Porretta II, was a well known tenor at the New York City Opera, on Broadway, movies and television in the 50's and 60's. The younger Porretta has a dramatic tenor with a baritonal timbre and a ringing top, ideal as Otello, a role he has sung previously. His repertoire also includes Calaf (with which he recently made his debut at the Met), Samson, Don Jose, Canio, and Cavaradossi. The last two performances of Otello are on Feb. 25 and 28.

UPDATE: I just got news at 12:15 pm that Frank Porretta will indeed be singing the title role in this evening's Otello!

The eminent pianist Andras Schiff returns to Toronto for a recital, this time at Royal Conservatory of Music's new Koerner Hall on Tuesday Feb. 23 8 pm. On the program are works by Mendelssohn and Schumann. Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and pianist Serouj Kradjian give a recital under the auspices of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto on Thursday Feb. 25 1:30 pm at Koerner Hall. On the program are songs by Heggie, Berlioz, Poulenc, Bellini, Gomidas, Ravel and Obradors.

As if the concert schedule on Feb. 24 isn't crowded enough, the glamorous violinist Sarah Chang is giving a recital with pianist Andrew von Oeyen at the Markham Theatre north of Toronto. It is a shame that the concert, at 8 pm, conflicts directly with Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. I have not been able to find out anything about the program - there is no mention of it at the Markham Theatre website, nor Chang's own website. On Thursday at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, soprano Jessica Muirhead and mezzo Lauren Segal will be giving a joint concert of arias and duets. Muirhead is currently singing Micaela and Segal is Mercedes at the current run of Carmen. This is bound to be popular so be sure to show up at least 45 minutes early to secure a seat.

Last but not least, Opera York stages Verdi's Rigoletto at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday Feb. 28 2 pm. It stars soprano Charlotte Corwin as Gilda, Romulo Delgado as the Duke, and baritone Nicolae Raiciu in the title role. Sabatino Vacca conducts. For more information, go to

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Saturday, 20 February 2010

Fresh Spin on Bach Has it All

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It was big-band swinging and hip-hop belly-dancing Bach, the very J.S. like you’ve never heard.

In a program titled Bach Re-Invented, the New York-based Absolute Ensemble made its Canadian debut at Toronto’s Koerner Hall Thursday night. Led by conductor Kristjan Järvi, the 18-piece electro-acoustic ensemble gave Bach’s keyboard inventions a contemporary makeover that is anything and everything goes. Jazz, funk, classical, rock, hip-hop, Latin, Middle Eastern, and whatever else you can identify, it was all there, with funky stage lighting to boot.

Son of conductor Neeme Järvi and brother to Paavo Järvi, Kristjan, who was married to Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz, co-founded Absolute with composer Charles Coleman in 1993. The group, comprised entirely of multitalented virtuosic players, has established itself as one of the most fascinating new music groups to watch.

Aside from Coleman’s Innovation J.S., loosely based on Bach’s 
Two-Part Inventions No. 5and No. 8, all of the works in this program were composed by current ensemble members.

Guitarist/rapper Gene Pritsker’s piano concerto 
Reinventions, featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein, was a standout. Despite being a bit fragmented as a whole, the contrapuntal composition was Bach-laden and Pritsker’s turntable scratching on a Mac Book and hip-hop dancing were something Bach the inventor would have found interesting.

Pianist Matt Herskowitz’s piano concerto 
Undertow featured the composer himself on piano. Based on Bach’s Three-Part Invention No. 9 in F Minor, the piece built up a wave of energy that is both lyrical and neurotic.

Cellist Mike Block’s beautiful 
Raga on a Theme by Bach was a relatively laid-back excursion in comparison. It was followed by saxophonist Daniel Schnyder’s wailing and choppy concerto grosso, toopART Reinventions, which saw Dinnerstein return to the piano bench.

Overall, there were some dazzling and robust solo playing, especially from clarinetist Michiyo Suzuki, violinist Adam Taubic, trumpeter Wayne du Maine, trombonist Mike Seltzer, bassist Mat Fieldes, and drummer/percussionist Damien Bassman.

Dinnerstein, also making her Canadian debut, has been an unstoppable rising star ever since her debut recital at Carnegie Hall and recording of the 
Goldberg Variations. She displayed flawless techniques throughout and produced an unusually crisp sound from the keyboard. Her phrasings were concise, imaginative, and boundless.

Mervon Mehta, executive director of the Royal Conservatory of Music, announced before the concert that he is in talks with Dinnerstein to have her back for a 
Goldberg recital.

That day can’t come soon enough.

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Cette semaine à Montréal (15 à 21 fév) / This Week in Montreal (Feb. 15 - 21)

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

Orchestral Music: Kent Nagano leads the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in a varied programme on February 15 and 16 at Place des Arts. Austrian pianist Till Fellner (pictured here), a protégé of Alfred Brendel, will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #1. Fellner is currently recording all five Beethoven Piano Concertos with Nagano and the OSM. Also on the programme is the world premiere of Gilles Tremblay’s L’Origine, featuring mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier. 514-842-2112, - Hannah Rahimi

Théâtre :
En février, le Théâtre du Rideau vert met à l’affiche Une musique inquiétante, de l’auteur américain Jon Marans, pièce finaliste en 1996 du Prix Pulitzer et lauréate du L.A. Drama Logue Award, reprise dans une douzaine de pays depuis sa création. Le jeune pianiste prodige Stephen Hoffman (Émile Proulx-Cloutier) débarque à Vienne en 1986 pour étudier avec le grand Schiller, mais il se retrouve plutôt dans la classe du déclinant Mashkan, professeur de chant sentimental (Jean Marchand). Il lui donne à travailler les Dichterliebe de Schumann, ce qui révolte d’abord le jeune pianiste. Ces deux hommes que tout semble opposer (âge, race, culture, façon d’aborder la vie) finiront pourtant par aller à la rencontre l’un de l’autre, non pas tant à travers leur dialogue qu’à travers la musique. Les 16-21 fév. - Lucie Renaud

Musique de chambre : Le mercredi 17 février à 20 h, on entendra la soprano Maryse Innis, accompagnée de sa fidèle collaboratrice, la pianiste suisse Catherine Courvoisier, dans un répertoire de musique française et espagnole du XXe siècle. Au programme, des œuvres de Fauré, de Falla, Poulenc, Debussy et Granados. Native de Montréal, la soprano Maryse Innis s’est forgé une solide réputation en France et en Suisse, où elle réside maintenant. Chapelle Historique du Bon-Pasteur. 514-872-5338. - Renée Banville

Musique de chambre : Dans la série Musique sur un plateau, les JMC présentent le mercredi 17 le Cecilia String Quartet, considéré comme l’une des meilleures jeunes formations de chambre en Amérique du Nord. L’altiste Jean-Philippe Tremblay se joindra au quatuor pour interpréter un programme Bruckner. On y entendra l’Intermezzo en ré mineur pour quintette à cordes et le Quintette à cordes en fa majeur. Un grand moment de musique pour réchauffer l’air froid de février. Les concerts de cette série, d’une durée d’environ une heure, sont précédés d’un apéritif dès 17 h. Maison JMC, 305, avenue du Mont-Royal Est, 514-845-4108, - Renée Banville

Danse : Séverine Lombardo et Anne Thériaultsont à Tangente du 18 au 21.  Pour les amateurs de classique, le Ballet de Guangzou danse La Sylphide du 18 au 20 à la salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

Early Music: The Montréal en Lumière Festival presents Emma Kirkby and Daniel Taylor with the Theatre of Early Music in two concerts at the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. On February 19, they perform Bach’s setting of Pergolesi’s exquisite Stabat Mater, as well as Bach’s Psaume 51 "Tilge, Höchster, Meine Sünden”. On February 20, Taylor leads the ensemble back to the 16th century, exploring the sacred and beautiful music of Palestrina, Tallis, and Hildegard von Bingen. 514-982-2535, - Hannah Rahimi

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This Week in Toronto (Feb. 15 - 21)

Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen
Photo: Teatro della Scala, Milano

The big news for Toronto opera fans this week is the arrival of Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili to sing the last four performances of Carmen at the Canadian Opera Company (Feb. 17, 20, 23, 27). Only 25 years old, Rachvelishvili was plucked out of the La Scala young artists program by conductor Daniel Barenboim to sing the title role of Carmen that opened the La Scala season last December 7. Despite the incredible pressure, Rachvelishvili received favourable notices and a well deserved ovation from a highly critical opening night audience. While the loggionisti heckled stage director Emma Dante, they only had cheers for Rachvelishvili. In addition to this important cast change, American tenor Garrett Sorenson takes over the last two performances as Don Jose (Feb. 23, 27) The COC run of Otello continues, with performances on Tuesday Feb. 16 7:30 pm and Friday Feb. 19 7:30 pm.

Another piece of big news this week is the Verdi Requiem at Roy Thomson Hall, starring Michele Crider, Daniela Barcellona, Maxim Aksenov and Roberto Scandiuzzi as the quartet of soloists, together with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under the direction of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. This is part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra season, with a big name international cast. Michele Crider's big dramatic soprano is ideal in "Libera me" - the last time I heard her several years ago, her high pianissimo B flat was exquisite. Any performance of the magnificent Verdi Requiem is an occasion, but with a stellar cast like this, the event is not to be missed - Feb. 18 and 20, 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Tafelmusik offers Mostly Mozart with conductor Bruno Weil at their usual venue of Trinity-St. Paul's Centre on Wednesday Feb. 17, 7 pm. On the program are Serenade K 525 "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik", Piano concerto. No. 20 K466, and Haydn Symphony No. 97. The program is repeated on Feb. 18, 19, 20, and 21.

Toronto Operetta Theatre under the direction of Guillermo Silva Marin presents Leo The Royal Cabet by Oscar Telgmann on Feb. 17 (preview), `9 (opening), 20 and 21m, at the St. Lawrence Centre. Among the soloists are husband-wife team of Gabriella Prata and Robert Longo. For details and ticket information, call (416) 366-7723 or 1-800-708-6754. The Toronto Opera Repertoire, which I reported on last week, continues with Nozze di Figaro (Feb. 19 and 21) and Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci (Feb. 17)

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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Pianist Anton Kuerti's Beethoven Mesmerizes UT Austin Audience

Anton Kuerti arrived in Canada in 1965, and Toronto has been his home base ever since. In that span of 45 years, this extraordinary artist has demonstrated time and again that he has no peer in the performance of the piano music of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

In Canada, Kuerti is a national treasure; in the United States, he has had an illustrious career, stemming from his student days in Cleveland and Philadelphia, to his now regular concertizing in America's major cities. Those fortunate enough to be in McCullough Hall at the University of Texas (Austin) last week, had the rare pleasure of hearing Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital presented by Texas Performing Arts.

Masterful: Insight, Technique and Temperament

Kuerti’s Austin engagement included an inspiring master class with students from UT's Butler School of Music. In works by Mozart, Clementi and Brahms, he encouraged those who performed for him to dig deeper, especially in matters of research and phrasing. He suggested various ways in which the meaning of the music can be realized through careful attention to accents and the placement of chords. On the question of how to play trills and other ornaments in early music, he made it clear that while extensive study of all the appropriate sources is absolutely essential, in the end the artist must use his intuition to solve these kinds of challenges.

His reputation having obviously preceded him, McCullough Hall was packed for Kuerti’s recital. He opened with the Sonata No. 26 in E flat major Op. 81a Les Adieux. The program notes - penned by Kuerti himself - suggested that we should not press the extra-musical allusions in this piece too hard: “…what really matters are not the events, but the universal emotions associated with them.”

Briefly, the sonata deals with the departure of Beethoven’s friend and benefactor (the Archduke Rudolph), on a long trip. The first movement depicts the farewell; the second the loneliness Beethoven felt during his friend's absence; and the last, the Archduke's joyous return.

From the opening bars, Kuerti captured the tenderness of the piece, as well as Beethoven’s obvious sincerity. Too often, in performances of Les Adieux, the slow music is too loud and lacking in repose and the fast music is trivialized. Not so on this occasion. In Kuerti’s hands, each note was imbued with feeling and nobility.

Incomparable Appassionata Brings Audience to its Feet!

For many listeners, the Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 Appassionata, is the greatest of all Beethoven’s works for piano. It has beauty, excitement and grandeur, and most of all, perhaps, the power that we associate with the mature Beethoven. It was all there, in Kuerti’s performance.

There is nothing quite like the opening bars of the Appassionata. The music starts pianissimo and continues at this volume for almost fourteen bars. Like most pianists, Kuerti ignored the allegro assai tempo marking in order to accentuate the mystery of this remarkable introduction. Then come the true Beethovenian outbursts, first in forte and then in a shattering fortissimo. Before long we arrive at the noble theme in A flat major, which is really a transformation of the mysterious passage in F minor which had opened the movement. Kuerti fully realized the intensity of the piece without sacrificing its architecture. A great performance!

Kuerti received a standing ovation for his performance of the Appassionata, but after several returns to the stage he cut off the applause with a wave of his hand. He suggested to audience members that before they left for intermission, they might like some helpful comments about the Diabelli Variations, the next work on the programme. Having said this, he launched into a brilliant twenty-minute analysis of this long and difficult work, illustrating - among other things - which elements of Diabelli’s waltz tune were used in which variation.Taking their seats after intermission, the capacity audience was primed and ready for the Diabelli.

Exposing Diabelli Variations as Indisputable Masterpiece

Kuerti’s tempo for the waltz theme was very moderate indeed. Compare, for example, another celebrated interpreter of this great work, Alfred Brendel. Brendel comes out of the gate at about double Kuerti’s tempo. Beethoven’s marking was simply vivace with no metronome marking, and that is vague enough to allow for almost any tempo. In my opinion, Kuerti’s approach makes more sense than Brendel's, both as an interpretation of the waltz tune and as a lead-in to the 'Variation 1' 'march,' which follows.

In any case, Kuerti brought out of the distinct character of each of the thirty-three variations without rushing, and without getting bogged down in over-interpretation. I was particularly struck by what he did with 'Variation 20,' with its long notes in the manner of a chorale played by trombones. There are very few dynamic markings in this variation and it can easily sound ponderous and boring. Kuerti’s piano was so well-regulated – by Kuerti himself - that we could hear and be moved by the strange harmonies of this music, as if for the first time. Who but Beethoven could have found foreshadowings of Wagner’s Parsifal and Mussorgsky’s Catacombs in Diabelli’s little waltz?

As impossible as it may seem, Kuerti’s playing appears to get even better with the passing of time. Of course, one expects serious artists to deepen their interpretations as they get older, but in Kuerti’s case technique continues on the upswing as well. The Diabelli Variations is a formidable technical challenge for any pianist particularly in the fugue of 'Variation 32.' Kuerti played it up to speed (allegro) and with the most incredible clarity.

Some listeners have found the concluding minuet of the piece to be anti-climactic after the fugue, but again Kuerti found just the right tempo and held down the dynamics exactly as Beethoven had indicated. The result was surely what the composer intended - a reminiscence of the waltz theme incorporating elements of almost everything that had happened in the previous variations, a sort of affectionate farewell to the theme after so many adventures.

As if that Weren't Enough!

After such a formidable and thoughtful performance, an encore was neither expected nor offered; instead, there was a relaxing, forthright ‘Talkback’ session for those who chose to stay. Anton Nel, the chairman of the piano department at the Butler School of Music acted as moderator for audience questions and jumped in with a few of his own.

Anton Kuerti is known to be a plain-spoken man, to say the least, and he was not shy about expressing his opinions. With reference to his teachers, he was effusive in his praise of Arthur Loesser (“the most widely cultured man I ever met”), but very critical of the methods of Rudolf Serkin (“I don’t think scolding has a big role in education."). He spoke at length about teaching children to love music. He thinks there is too much emphasis put on mechanics. He referred to his own childhood and the moment that changed everything for him: “I remember the day I discovered that I could shape the music.” In other words, the teacher’s goal should be to encourage children to express themselves through music, not simply hound them into learning pieces by rote.

"And what is the most important thing to be learned from Beethoven?" “Beethoven," said Kuerti, "shows that by persevering you can achieve great things. If we look at his manuscripts, we see that he often crossed things out and he often revised what he had done before. Composing, for Beethoven, was torture. But as with so many things in life, hard work and commitment pay off. Don’t give up.”

For those wanting more…

Anton Kuerti has recorded all 32 Beethoven Sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and the Piano Concertos. You can find them here. Kuerti’s study of Beethoven is a life-long process. Recently, he spent some time with a piano concerto Beethoven wrote when he was thirteen years old. Kuerti calls it Piano Concerto No. 0. Unfortunately, only the piano part survives. Kuerti, a composer as well as a pianist and a scholar, wrote an orchestration for the piece and played it for the first time at a recent concert in Vancouver; he hopes to release that performance on a CD in the near future.

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Interview: Brooks Riley and Rainer Mockert on Filming Opera

Photos (t.) Rainer Mockert

(b.) Brooks Riley

It may come as a surprise to many that the august art form of grand opera is a "growth industry" these days. In Toronto for example, the Canadian Opera Company reports that attendance last season was an extremely impressive 99.4% capacity. There is also a concomitant increase of operas captured live for showing in movie houses or at home on DVD. The Met in HD showing of Carmen in January set an attendance record worldwide. While classical music sales constitute an ever-shrinking segment of overall record sales, and studio recordings of operas have all but disappeared, there is one bright spot - record companies have moved to capturing live performances to issue as CDs and DVDs. Certainly it is less expensive than taking a cast of opera stars and a 100 piece orchestra into the recording studio, plus a live performance has a sense of occasion that a studio recording cannot duplicate.

Last summer when I was in Munich for the Opera Festival, I had the great good fortune of meeting Brooks Riley and Rainer Mockert. A team in life and in art, Mockert and Riley are involved in videotaping live performances, almost exclusively operas, for commercial release on the Arthaus Musik label, and now on their own company label, VCL Klassik, part of Zoom Productions. Mockert worked for 8 years for UNITEL as line producer, then executive producer of many of its opera productions and feature films. He also produced Peter Sellar's ground-breaking Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy that wowed audiences in the late 1980s. Also noteworthy is a documentary on Sellar's staging of Messiaen's St. Francois d'Assisse in Salzburg.

Brooks Riley is a director, producer, film critic, screenwriter and a former Senior Editor of FILM COMMENT magazine. She has written for the New York Times, Opera News, and the Washington Post. Her first four opera productions, Ice and Steel, Werther, Hansel und Gretel and Tristan und Isolde were released in 2008. I enjoyed the Tristan DVD from Dessau very much. I visited them at their spacious home in Munich, where we had a long, wide-ranging conversation on their thoughts on producing opera videos. Rather than writing about our conversation in prose, I think it is best to reproduce their answers to my many queries verbatim. Here is a transcript of our interview -

J.S. There seems to be more and more operas presented on DVD nowadays. What do you think account for its rise in popularity?
B.R.: It has in part to do with advances in technology. Operas are now filmed in sharp High Definition Video, and more people have big flat-screen televisions which makes the viewing in 16:9 format far more pleasurable, and intense too.
There’s another important reason: opera singers these days are encouraged to give acting performances on stage. Gone are the days when the tenor planted himself downstage and spread his arms out wide to sing an aria. Modern directors expect acting from their singers. This makes an opera on DVD a dramatic experience. There’s actually more to see than an open mouth and pretty costumes.
A third reason which will no doubt raise a few hackles: Regietheater is producing many interesting stagings. It is in part thanks to the serious re-interpretations of great operas, that opera is more popular today. Opera-going used to be a cultural duty for many of those who could afford it. They knew what to expect. Now, with so much directorial talent available, every new production is awaited with anticipation and curiosity. Opera is no longer a museum event, it is a thriving art form, even if many of the operas were written a long time ago. Today’s productions are more challenging for the video director, but when they’re done well, the result can be great to watch.

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?
B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.
J.S. I noticed a huge difference in older opera videos compared to the videos today, which have many more closeup shots than the past. How do you balance closeups versus the "big picture" ? I noticed that with some of the more recent opera videos, one doesn't always get a sense of the scale of the production.... everything is closeup... what is your view on this? What do you think of the use of split screens like the Met Tristan telecast last March?
B.R.: Balance is the key word. You try to establish the mise-en-scene and then you go closer. I am not a big fan of extreme close-ups, or what I call the ‘singing head’ shot. For one thing, there are issues, such as make-up, sweat, gold-capped molars. But more than that, an extreme close-up has the effect of removing the singer from his context, which is the stage. Operas are not talk shows or news broadcasts: They occur on a stage, where things are happening. The singer may be doing something interesting with his hands, or with his body, so I like to show that as well. I prefer the medium close shot, which gives you more of the singer’s body than his open mouth. I do use extreme close-ups occasionally but there has to be a good reason for it. Close-ups can be interesting if it’s a particularly momentous part of the libretto. But even then, I prefer to move in to a close-up rather than abruptly cut to one.
One always has to occasionally return to the master shot, so that that viewer doesn’t lose his or her orientation. But I also use what I call mini-masters, which show an area of the stage where things are happening. Context is everything when choosing a shot.
As for split screens: I didn’t see the Met broadcast, but my feeling is the same as it is for split screens in the cinema—a way to compensate for lack of preparation. In an opera, the split screen immediately removes the viewer from the cinematic experience. It’s a device that doesn’t belong: It calls attention to itself. The only use of it that I condone is in a concert broadcast. I recently saw a concert with Cecilia Bartoli which made clever use of split screens. In this case, it was a welcome addition to customary concert broadcasts, which can be very predictable and rather boring. And a concert is not a narrative entity like an opera—you have more freedom to experiment.
J.S. As a video director, do you try to present the production "faithfully" , or do you have a special "take" or "concept" in how a particular production should look on the home screen?
B.R.: I try to make the best film possible of the production, one which succeeds on its own terms but which remains faithful to the production.

J.S. Obviously some productions are going to be more "video-genic" than others. How do you deal with that? Do you see your job as trying to make a production look as good as possible? Do you think the videographer can (or should) improve on the original?
B.R.: Sometimes. But it isn’t necessarily because the production isn’t ‘video-genic’ as you call it. An interesting case in point: the revolving stage in the Dessau Tristan and Isolde was certainly effective in the theatre. But on video it becomes vividly cinematic, in a way that could not be experienced in the theatre. Especially the finale of Act I and the beginning of Act 2 create the effect of travelling shots, giving the production added kinetic intensity.
Another case in point: Vladimir Deshevov’s ICE AND STEEL has a huge cast, may of whom have solo parts. There is so much going on onstage that an audience might only get some of what’s going on. I was able to make far more of it available through judicious choices of shots. I certainly didn’t improve on the original, which was magnificent. But I made more of it available.
Every new production has its own set of challenges for the video director. You have to be flexible and daring at the same time.
J.S. Do you have complete artistic freedom in capturing the performance? Or do you believe the stage director's ideas come first?
B.R.: I have complete artistic freedom, but I always try to be at the service of the stage director’s work. When I am finished with editing the material, I invite the stage director to look at it. So far, all of the directors whose work I have filmed have been pleased with the result. I am always open to suggestions, but they are rare—and often good.

J.S. What is your views on the current Regietheater aesthetic? Do you think all operas can be (or should be) "updated"? I am thinking of the Bregenz Aida that I just saw on TV, or the Munich Lucrezia you saw, or the Konwitschny Don Carlos from Vienna and Barcelona. What do you think of these updating?
B.R.: There is a misconception about Regietheater that it’s all about blood and guts, trenchcoats and black leather jackets. Regietheater is not about making motorcycle molls out of the Valkyries, although that is precisely what Götz Friedrich did nearly 30 years ago. Regietheater is about a serious appraisal of the dramatic elements of an opera.
I am a big fan of Regietheater as long as it’s good--and a lot of it is great. And I think that opera has gained a wider audience because of it. There’s a tendency in America to bash Regietheater as ‘Eurotrash’. To prove their points, critics always point to the most egregious examples, as Heather MacDonald did a few years ago in City magazine; and more recently, the novelist Daniel Kehlman, bashed Regietheater in a speech at the opening of this year’s Salzburg Festival. But operas staged the original way seem quaint, possibly enjoyable as déjà vu, but irrelevant and often boring. Updating them can certainly do operas no harm, and if successful, can actually make a work written one or two centuries ago, seem astonishingly of the moment.
Regietheater has less to do with updating than it does with intensifying the dramaturgy of an opera, and going deeper into the work. There are examples of Regietheater which do not update, but which apply 21st century aesthetics to achieve the mise-en-scene.
Wouldn’t life be boring if every production of Wagner’s RING OF THE NIBELUNG took place on a Styrofoam rock? There are far deeper investigations of that great work being produced all over the world, without a rock in sight. And the work is resilient enough to accommodate many more interpretations.
J.S. Of your many past projects, which one(s) are you most proud of?
B.R.: This is a difficult question to answer. I love all my children (nine, so far), but for different reasons. I am proudest of the Weimar RING OF THE NIBELUNG because it was such a fantastic complex staging enriched by magnificent acting. I am also proud of ICE AND STEEL because I only had one go at it, the last performance, and was able to capture everything I wanted in spite of the huge cast and complicated staging. And for sheer beauty, I am proud of AGRIPPINA, which will be released later this year. It was a gorgeous, funny and profoundly moving stage production and I dare to say that about the video as well.

J.S. I personally find including interviews of performers, conductor and particularly the director very important in a DVD release. I want to hear what they have to say. (I missed that in the Dessau Tristan and the Weimar Rheingold) Failing that, perhaps an essay by the director, or some sort of a Q & A, in the program booklet would be very helpful. Would you consider adding these in future projects?
R.M.: I agree and we hope we can add material like this in the future. It is not easy to do this in each case, because we tape performances at a time when the stage director has already left. We see him or her only during the final editing period. Next season we will be more around during the opening nights and final rehearsals, so that we will definitely shoot additional material. We also hope to add portraits of the cities where the opera houses are located..

J.S. What new projects are you working on?
R.M.: Later this year a new classical DVD label will be launched by a well- established feature film DVD company, VCL. The new label, VCL KLASSIK, will be distributed worldwide. VCL has broadened its scope in the last few years, producing more special interest DVDs in the area of Art, Health, Sport, Architecture, Nature, Animals and Travelling guides. With VCL Klassik, VCL hopes to make new as well as hitherto unreleased concerts and operas available to a worldwide audience.
The program will be a good mixture of well known titles and titles which are not on DVD, or only as old productions. The new productions will be chosen from the best produced in Europe in a given season.
We are preparing five new productions for this year and are in the closing stage with the theatres. With each new production that is released, an archive title acquired from existing license stocks will be released for the first time on DVD. VCL Klassik plans to release at least 12 new productions and 12 archive titles every year.
In Germany, Austria and Switzerland we are lucky to have over 250 opera houses, and therefore a lot of possibilities. The opera houses also benefit from the DVD. And the exposure is extremely helpful in finding new sponsors in addition to public funding and ticket sales.

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