La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 July 2010

Summer Delights: Concerts This Week around the GTA

Photo: Matthias Goerne makes a welcome return to Toronto after an absence of several years.

Summer is usually a quiet time musically in Toronto, but not any more. Since my return from music-rich Munich on Monday, I have been attending a performance every day in TO. Tuesday was the Matthias Goerne-Andreas Haefliger recital at Koerner Hall, a highly anticipated event for voice aficionados. Wednesday morning was the Goerne Masterclass at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, and last evening was a chamber recital with Andrew Burashko and his Art of Time Ensemble, on the music of Korngold. All of these events lived up to my expectations. First of all, Goerne is among the most celebrated of lieder interpreters. He has been a frequent visitor to Toronto - I recall a recital at the then Ford Centre featuring the music of Hans Eisler. Then during the depth of the SARS crisis in Toronto when practically all the international artists cancelled for fear of catching something, Goerne showed up with the Toronto Symphony. For that alone I will always be grateful to Herr Goerne for living up to his end of the bargain. This time around, he appeared under the auspices of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, in a program of Schumann and Brahms. Like several other lieder specialists (Wolfgang Holzmair, Ian Bostridge comes to mind) Goerne has lots of eccentric body movements while delivering a song. This can be distracting to some, but for me, it just represents his total focus in exploring the inner meaning of the song text. His baritone remains one of the most beautiful and expressive today, exemplary in his attention to textual nuance. He sings in a relatively low dynamic level, never overpowering the song and only going up to forte infrequently. His Brahms in the second half was particularly memorable, singing the pieces with rich, smooth tone. Particularly affecting was the last song, Wie bist du, meine Konigin, one of Brahms' greatest creations. Andreas Haefliger played Brahms' Three Intermezzos for solo piano, Op. 117, with gleaming tone, even if rhythmically his playing was a little uneven and idiosyncratic. Rumoured to be under the weather, Goerne did not give an encore.

The morning after the recital, Goerne gave a two-hour masterclass at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. There was a good crowd of lieder fans gathered in the Torel Room in the Edward Johnson Building. Three singers participated in the masterclass - soprano Lesley Ann Bradley, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Peter McGillivray. These three singers are scheduled to give a German Art Song Recital on Wednesday, August 4 in Walter Hall at 8 pm. so their participation was sort of a tune-up for the concert next week. Each student prepared three songs, but given the shortness of time (40 minutes per session), they worked on basically one to two pieces. Each student was allowed to sing the first piece all the way through, then the intensive work started. It must be disconcerting to be stopped three notes into the first line. Goerne made corrections and suggestions, and the student started again, and often made to stop again. It could not have been easy for a student to be deconstructed in this fashion, and one would benefit from possessing a very thick skin. There is no doubt that Mr. Goerne is a demanding teacher - not shy to speak his mind, sometimes in a rather blunt fashion. His class reminded me of a Elisabeth Schwarzkopf class I audited during my student days. Goerne wisely stuck to interpretation and stayed away from technical issues - it is always dangerous to fool around with a student's technique, as the master won't be there to offer support in the future. Also, it must have been very uncomfortable to be figuratively undressed in front of an audience, but such is the nature of the masterclass beast! In the final analysis, the advices given make for a better final product.

Last evening, I attended a chamber concert, Korngold: Source and Inspiration, given by Andrew Burashko and his Art of Time Ensemble. The format of this concert is very intriguing - an original composition, in this case Korngold's Suite for piano, two violins and cello is juxtaposed with six new songs inspired by the Suite, written and performed by contemporary musicians Danny Michel, John Southworth and Martin Tielli. Korngold was a child prodigy and he lived the second half of his life in Southern California as a well known film music composer. He was known for his melodic gift, amply demonstrated in the Suite. After the performance of the Korngold, the Ensemble was joined by the three songwriters in succession. The fragments that inspired the contemporary composition were played once again, followed by each new piece. I find the format - and most of the new creations - quite fascinating. I confess that as a classical music lover, I generally don't much like the vocal production of contemporary singers. I observed that part of the audience - perhaps the older ones - sat on their hands when it came time to applaud, underscoring the gulf between the classics and the contemporary. This concert was a brave attempt at drawing a connection between "source and inspiration" and Burashko and his team are to be applauded for their efforts.

An intriguing concert, Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour - A Triptych, is going on this week (July 29, 30 and 31 at the Tank House, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District in downtown Toronto). It is the world premiere of three chamber operas by Canadian composers - Fuhong Shi, John Rea and Pierre Klanac. Scored for soprano, mezzo and accordion, the common thread from the texts of the three works is on the eternal theme of love. According to the press release from the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, this show is "a collection of three extraordinary expostulations of love from three different cultures and periods". Singers are Xin Wang and Krisztina Szabo, sharing the stage with accordionist John Lettieri. The show is only about an hour long. If you are into the contemporary classical music scene, this is well worth attending. Go to for ticket information.

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Die schweigsame Frau the Hit of the 2010 Munich Opera Festival

Photo (l.) Die schweigsame Frau curtain call (Franz Hawlata, Diana Damrau, Toby Spence)
Photo (r.) Opening of Act 3 (Diana Damrau & Franz Hawlata)

Among this year's smorgasbord of operas at the Munich Festival, none was more intriguing than the new production of Die schweigsame Frau, among the most rarely performed of Strauss operas. Given its rarity, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it is either poor music or impossible to stage. If the new production at the Munich Festival is any indication, it is neither. The score, simply put, is gorgeous, particularly the end of Acts 2 and 3. The production, by trail-blazing Australian director Barrie Kosky, is riotously funny, a Regie-Oper treatment that is frothy and thoroughly entertaining, yet never losing sight of the tender and philosophical core of the work. Done with two intermissions, the show at three and a half hours is not exactly short, but it's time well spent. And judging by the huge ovations at the end of the performance I saw on July 23, the audience thought so too. It is hard to believe that this gem has not received a modern staging in North America save for Santa Fe Opera's twenty years ago when John Crosby, a real Strauss enthusiast, was still alive and in charge.

Based on a book by Ben Johnson and with a libretto by Stefan Zweig, it tells the story of the rich and elderly misanthrope Morosus (wonderfully sung and acted by Franz Hawlata) who cannot stand noise of any kind. His nephew Henry (played and sung with great charm by English tenor Toby Spence) and his barber (the excellent Nicolay Borchev) hatch a plan to trick Morosus into marrying a "silent woman" Timidia, who is really Aminta (the wonderful and heavily pregnant Diana Damrau), who is married to Henry, in order to claim the inheritance from the old man. Morosus falls for Timidia, and no sooner they're married that her true nature is revealed. Far from silent, Aminta is a member of a particularly noisy operatic troupe and the gang proceed to play havoc at the Morosus mansion. Like any farce, eventually the deception is revealed and Morosus realizes that he has been foolish and resolves to live his life with greater acceptance and grace. From that unlikely - and some would say rather unpromising - premise, Strauss put together a work of great charm when performed by first rank artists and a great orchestra. The Munich production certainly fulfilled the promise - to my eyes and ears, it is arguably the hit of the 2010 Festival.

German coloratura sensation Diana Damrau, almost eight month pregnant, amazed everyone with her physical agility. She sang spectacularly as usual, some slightly pinched high notes notwithstanding. Her engaging stage persona was not in the least bit affected by her advanced stage of pregnancy. In fact, in some of the stage antics Kosky dreamed up, her expanded waistline was incorporated into the staging with hilarious results. There was also excellent chemistry between Damrau and Toby Spence. As Henry Morosus, Spence sang his music with bright, sweet tone, music that is some of the most treacherous Strauss wrote for tenors. His secure top and well focused tone were a pleasure. Being handsome and youthful didn't hurt either - his pairing with Damrau was totally believable. Given his success here, Spence will likely be in high demand as a Strauss tenor in the future. After a career of 24 years, Franz Hawlata's bass remains fresh and supple. The Kosky staging has Morosus as an almost "straight man", the victim of the antics of the other motley characters. Hawlata played this good-naturedly. Kudos to him for a lovely final aria "Wie schoen ist doch die Musik", the highlight of the opera, occurring in the last five minutes of a long evening. The supporting roles were all well taken. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was delightfully frumpish but sounding a bit wobbly as the put upon housekeeper Frau Zimmerlein, and Nikolay Borchev a youthful and energetic Barber.

Barrie Kosky's set is deceptively simple. In Acts 1 and 2 it consists only of a rather innocuous raised platform. In the beginning of Act 3, the "lid" of the platform opens up, and in the process a torrential shower of gold pieces - symbolizing Morosus' hidden wealth - starts raining down (see photo). Seen on July 23, an audience surprised and delighted by this clever coup de theatre started applauding. A practice perhaps all too common in North America, applauding scenery is considered gauche in operatically sophisticated Europe. When Aminta's friends in the operatic troupe appeared in disguises, some of the gender-bending variety like the near-naked Las Vegas showgirl that's actually a male ballet dancer in drag, there were plenty of giggling from the titillated audience members around me. Kosky has managed to create an outlandishly funny and entertaining production that actually enhanced the drama without being offensive. Let's hope it will be videotaped for DVD in the future. At the end, all the principals received huge ovations, but none more vociferous than the one reserved for conductor Kent Nagano, whose affinity for Richard Strauss is well known. He shaped the piece with loving care, exciting in the farcical parts but never at the expense of the inherent poetry in the more serious moments. It was a performance that makes one wish Die schweigsame Frau is part of the standard repertoire.

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Verbier Festival Concert, Paul McCreesh, conductor, Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. July 26, 2010. Salle des Combins.

By Frank Cadenhead

The first concert of my week at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland was, I expect, not the highlight. While the festival program correctly listed the conductor as Paul McCreesh, the Canadian star I had hoped to see, Measha Brueggergosman, had been replaced by another star, Sophie Koch. I was not too dismayed because this French mezzo is one of the great voices you are likely to hear these days. The program was also changed and Berlioz's "La Mort de Cléopatre" was now the same composer's song cycle, "Les Nuits d'Eté," to the text by Théophile Gautier. I did not know McCreesh and Koch had a history of performing together, but it seemed they were taking different paths to uncover Berlioz's work.  I suspect conductor McCreesh might have been the problem.

One of the extraordinary musical stories of our time is the movement for historically informed performances (HIP) of early music and how, over time, this sensibility has been carried over into the regular concert hall. It did not happen overnight. It was originally a small, close-knit group, mostly English, whose early insistence on historical purity usually led to overly analytical and dry academic performances for the devotees.

As the movement moved toward the mainstream, the orchestra tuning got better, valveless horns blew fewer sour notes and conductors, accepting that there was actually no one specific way to play the Baroque, began to assert their own individuality. There was much less dull group-think. Pioneering HIPsters like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner started carrying this HIP sensitivity over into the Classical and Romantic periods, and Mozart and Beethoven were soon stripped of their thick textures and there was nary a ritardo, rubato or glissando in sight. Now a new generation of young musicians and conductors like Daniel Harding have grown up with this sensibility and attack the regular repertory with a fresh x-ray analysis combined with their own musical poetics.

Thanks to Medici.TV, you can, for example, listen on the internet to the concert at the Salle des Combins of last Friday, the 23rd of July. Here French HIPster Marc Minkowski, who now makes regular appearances around the world in the broader repertory, conducts a program of Faure, many of Canteloube's "Songs of Auvergne" (with the delicious Anne Sofie von Otter) and ends with Mozart's Symphony No. 39. While the overriding sensibility is still the stripping away of all the romantic excesses of an earlier conducting style, each piece has its own life, its own glory, its own soul.

McCreesh does know his HIP business. The first item on the program was the Overture and Suite of Dances from Gluck's opera, "Orphée et Eurydice." Elegance, clarity, balance and polish made the dances a pleasure to hear. Apparently, he does not find voyages outside the HIP corral as easy as others seem to. That is why I believe he had trouble with Sophie Koch and the Berlioz.  Berlioz is difficult enough to get a handle on and only a few, like the grand Sir Colin Davis, have achieved complete success. He might not have had enough time with Ms Koch, but it was a partnership that stayed solidly earthbound and I find it hard to fault Koch, who provided the only clues that this could be a major piece of music.

The worst was to come after the intermission. The Beethoven Seventh Symphony was given a roughing-up that it did not deserve. Beethoven as street thug was McCreesh's vision and his incessant, violent, orchestral hammer blows - no matter the movement - and his need to whack the audience over the head with the thunderous tympani (the wrung-out guy got the first bow at the end) made me glance around for avenues of escape. His conducting style also seemed odd compared with his HIP friends, who normally value precision over schlamperi. You could see the first chairs looking at each other for clues as to what to do, attacks were often ragged and there was notable doodling in some of the tutti passages.

The audience, largely masochistic, seemed to love the brutal roughing-up. If you promise not to miss the majesty, elegiac beauty and troubled soul of this symphony and feel the need to be a punching bag for an out of control, high-testosterone Beethoven, this concert, like all the other major concerts at Verbier, is available for streaming for free until September 30 on

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Saturday, 24 July 2010

Don Carlo: Munich Opera Festival

Don Carlo Curtain Call (l. to r.: Thomas Hampson, Rene Pape, Nadia Krasteva, Ramon Vargas, Marco Armiliato, Olga Guryakova, Paata Burchuladze)

For Verdi Opera lovers, any performance of Don Carlo is an occasion. Based on the Schiller play, this is one of Verdi's grandest operas, one that operates on multiple levels - social, geopolitical, religious, historical as well as individual/human levels. It's one of those operas that one gains more insight with each viewing. A truly grand work that requires a large orchestra and singers of the first rank, it is certainly not a show that can be done on the cheap. Originally composed in French in 1865-67, with its 5-act plus ballet version, Verdi reworked it on several occasions resulting in a number of permutations. Perhaps the most frequently performed version has been a 4-act version sung in Italian, without ballet, and with Carlo's aria moved from act 2 to act 1, and occasionally with some of the music from the excised Fontainebleau Scene tagged on, in what one would call a hybrid version. However, many houses in recent years, such as in Paris and Amsterdam, as well as our own Canadian Opera Company have performed the "original" 5-act version, but invariably there are cuts and selective restorations of the original score. Some are basically Italian versions sung in French plus bits of the Fontainebleau Scene - as in the 1977 COC production, while others have restored more of the original music, such as the 2007 COC version with Adrianne Pieczonka as Elisabeth. This opera has been subjected to the radical "Regie-Oper treatment", like the Peter Konwitschny's Don Carlos production seen in Barcelona and Vienna. Konwitschny restored the ballet music, but instead of dancers, he had the singers miming their roles in a outrageously funny 25 minute sequence he called Eboli's Dream. While it provided a moment of comic relief in an opera that is unrelentingly gloomy, I have often wondered what Verdi would have made of this new creation.

The Bavarian State Opera's version isn't anything so radical. It is the 4-act Italian version, plus the Fontainebleau scene, with Carlo's aria moved to the beginning. [Note: Originally, I had made a mistake stating that it was "minus" - instead of "plus" - the Fontainebleau Scene. A reader wrote to point out my error. I stand corrected - that's what I get for writing this review in the middle of the night!] After the death of Rodrigo, a standard cut has been restored, with the music which Verdi later re-cycled as the Lacrymosa in the Requiem. The 10-year old Jurgen Rose production is austere, dark, spare, and uncontroversial. The three walls are black, as are almost all the costumes except for Rodrigo's which is brown. As a result Eboli's Veil Song lacks any sense of light and playfulness. A huge Christ on the Crucifix, propped on the left wall, dominates the proceedings. The ending, with Charles V wrapping his cloak around Carlo and going down into the crypt, is one that was quite common once but has since gone out of favour. Some productions have Carlo shot, some have him tortured beforehand, like the one in Toronto where he is blinded first - gruesome business. The auto-da-fe in Munich was impressively staged, with the heretics over the enormous woodpile looking quite real from a distance, even though they were dummies with movable arms and legs. This was one of the few moments in the whole production with some vivid colours, the rest of the time it was either white on black or grey on black.

To my ears, the best thing about the performance on the 22 was the singing of the men. Rene Pape was simply outstanding as Filippo, a voice of power and and resplendent beauty. Not far behind was the Posa of Thomas Hampson, whose voice sounded full and rich, and his acting as vivid as ever. Tenor Ramon Vargas started a little tentatively, with a minor crack early on, but he settled down to give a very fine performance. Even Paata Burchuladze, whose voice is now afflicted with a persistent wobble, rose to the occasion as Grand Inquisitor. Christian Van Horn, a frequent artist in Munich, was excellent as the Friar/Charles. I am sorry to say the women were not on the same level. As Elisabetta, Russian soprano Olga Guryakova displayed a big, dramatic voice under imperfect control. She sounded unfocused in the passaggio and occasionally off pitch. She had difficulties with dynamic shading, struggling with the high piano phrases. Her lovely stage presence and dramatic acuity were at least in this performance undermined by her vocal insecurities. Mezzo Nadia Krasteva, heard recently as Carmen in Vienna, had problems with the coloratura and the high notes in the Veil Song. "O don fatale" went better, but she ran out of steam near the end of this very strenuous aria. Her best moment was the trio in the Garden scene with Carlo and Rodrigo. The orchestra responded well for Marco Armiliato, who gave a lyrical reading of the score. Once again like Tosca, there were moments when it was too slow, particularly in "Tu che le vanita" - perhaps that's the curse of a singer-friendly conductor, to accomodate the singer. Given his sympathetic baton, Guryakova did her best work of the evening in this aria. Even with the uneven casting, there were enough fine moments to make this a well-spent four and a half hours in the opera house.


Thursday, 22 July 2010

Anton Kuerti gets Schumann, mostly

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

More than a few times during his all-Schumann piano recital Tuesday evening, Anton Kuerti looked like he was frustrated with himself. Unfortunately, he sounded liked it too.

Opening the fifth annual Toronto Summer Music Festival at Koerner Hall, Kuerti, who turns 72 years old this week, played with his usual integrity and nobility; but he missed too many notes to keep track of.

The blemished performance must have distracted even the celebrated pianist, because at times he took it out on the piano, hitting the jumps instead of landing them. Passages that required military precision came across as loose and muddled.

That being said, you could still savour Kuerti's Schumann like you would a frostbitten pint of ice cream.

To start it off, the program is a varied: it includes some of Schumann's least-heard works, as well some of his most-performed, and then some of his best-written. Kuerti gave us boundless soul, intrigue, and imagination with Novelettes, Op. 21, nos. 1, 7, and 4, Fantasie in C major, Op. 17, Toccata in C major, Op. 7, and Grand Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11.

It's also a program that's physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding for any pianist in his or her prime, never mind a septuagenarian, and Kuerti thrived on the music's sweet lyricism and sustained its rhythmic pulse with a sense of purpose, clarity, and admiration for the composer.

A loyal crowd cheered on their feet at the end of the concert, but Kuerti didn't give an encore.

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Wacky L'elisir d'amore at the Munich Opera Festival

A space ship? No, it's Dr. Dulcamara's vehicle - the funny David Boesch's L'elisir d'amore at the Munich Opera festival

This delightfully wacky L'elisir d'amore premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in December 2009. Most of the cast are back for this year's Munich Opera Festival revival - Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze as Adina, the imposing Ambrogio Maestri as Dr. Dulcamara, and Fabio Maria Capitanucci as a macho Belcore. Even the conductor remained the same - Juraj Vallcuha. The only change last night was in the Nemorino himself. Italian tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, the Nemorino last December, is supposed to be replaced by Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, who of course is famous in this role. After vocal cord surgery in spring of 2009, Villazon chose Nemorino to make his return this past March, in the friendly confines of the Wiener Staatsoper, where he has had many big successes.

Yesterday was supposed to be his return to Munich after cancelling Werther last July. When it was announced by someone in front of the curtain that Villazon was suffering from a stomach infection and was unable to sing, it was greeted with isolated but quite insistent boos. When it was announced that his replacement was Slovak tenor Pavol Breslik, there was a round of applause. Breslik of course was the Gennaro in last summer's Munich Lucrezia Borgia starring fellow Slovak, the evergreen diva Edita Gruberova. Breslik was excellent as Gennaro, in a rather far-out production that I admit I am not very fond of. This wouldn't be the first time he has replaced Villazon, and it was clear from the first note that Breslik was a most worthy replacement Nemorino. He brought a Mozartian quality to his singing of Nemorino, with a bright, pingy, and agile sound. Being youthful and possessing a good figure also helped. There was a great deal of physical acting - ie, stage antics - in this show, perhaps designed specifically for Villazon. Breslik was able to carry out all the physical requirements, including singing "Una furtiva lagrima" hanging precariously off a lampost 15 feet above ground! As if that wasn't enough, Breslik also spent extended minutes in his underwear frolicking with the adoring village girls. It takes a lot of nerves (and self confidence over one's body) to do that convincingly, and traditionally singers as a group aren't too comfortable with their body. As a last minute replacement, Breslik cannot be faulted in his performance. But I find that I missed the Chaplinesque qualities in Villazon. Breslik, for all his qualities, lacked pathos in his big aria. But the majority of the audience probably didn't agree with me as they gave him a huge ovation. Stage director David Boesch, new to opera, has scored a success with this production. He treats L'elisir as a complete fantasy, which it is! The location is indeterminate but it doesn't really matter. There were plenty of whimsical or downright silly sight gags, fireworks, sprinkling of the "elixir", you name it. The Adina was Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze who leaped to fame as Juliette opposite Villazon in Salzburg, a replacement for Anna Netrebko. She has quite a large voice for Adina, and rather steely at the top, where she sometimes go sharp. But overall she sang and acted well, as did Maestri (a visually hilarious Dulcamara) and Capitanucci (a rather understated Belcore).

There are two more performances of L'elisir during the waning days of the Munich Opera Festival, and its remains to be seen if Villazon will sing any of them. There is a rumour floating around that he has cancelled the whole run, as well as the Covent Garden Werther next May. I hope this is not true.

UPDATE: In Rolando Villazon's website , the tenor apologizes to his fans for cancelling the two performances of L'elisir, the second one is this evening. He still hopes to sing the third and last performance on July 27. I wish him a speedy recovery.

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Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Red Hot Tosca at the Munich Opera Festival

Mario! Mario! Mario! The three huge banners hanging between the Grecian columns said it all. Puccini's great opera may be called Tosca, but it is as much about Cavaradossi as it's about the Roman prima donna. A great tenor demands equal billing. The Munich Opera certainly has a great Cavaradossi in its native son tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Without a doubt, Kaufmann is the hottest spinto tenor in front of the public today. His ability to excel in German, Italian and French repertoires is remarkable. In this production of Tosca, Kaufmann and the Finnish diva Karita Mattila (Tosca), aided and abetted by Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo at his sadistic best as Scarpia, generated so much heat that these three figuratively burned up the stage last night. The performance began a little slowly but built to a shattering climax. Kaufmann was in great voice; singing his two arias splendidly, with impeccable Italianate tone and nuanced acting. His full throttled Act 2 cries of "Vittoria, vittoria" was the most exciting I've ever heard. However he did make a small mental error in "Recondita armonia", entering too soon in the second phrase. Other than a few minor blemishes, it was a performance to remember. Mattila's Tosca was human, emotional, extroverted, genuine, and earthy. The voice with its cool timbre might not be ideal in Italian opera, but she makes it work by throwing herself totally into the role. Her chest register has grown with maturity, and she used it last night with abandon. Occasionally it sounded a bit rough and the break between chest and head voices was noticeable, but it suited the verismo style. Her five high Cs were searingly produced, and her "Vissi d'arte" was heart-felt. Uusitalo's Scarpia is rather unsubtle, and there isn't much suave and seductive quality to his voice or his acting - this Scarpia is a psychopath through and through. In Act 2, the performance caught fire and the confrontation scene between the principals were truly exciting.

A lot - mostly negative - things has already been written about Luc Bondy's production. Having seen it in New York and now here, I am puzzled as to why the Met audience hated the production so much. Yes, it is gloomy; and no, it isn't pretty like the Zeffirelli production it replaced, but then Tosca is not exactly a pretty story, is it?! There were also objections to the gratuitous sex in act 2 with the additions of three non-singing roles as Scarpia's playthings; and I've even heard objections to the demonstrably sexual interactions of the lovers, citing that in the Napoleonic era in the 18th century, this wouldn't have happened. But isn't sex the driving force of this story? Why not show it -after all this is the 21st century and this is a verismo opera! More problematic for me are some aspects of the staging, as in the end of act 2. No, I don't mean the business with the crucifix and the candelabras, but having Tosca sitting on the sofa fanning herself? Huh? Wouldn't it make more sense to have Tosca get out of there as soon as possible instead of lounging around? Also problematic is the ending of act 3, with a dummy jumping instead of Tosca. But in my mind, none of these are sufficient enough for the booing at the Met. There were boos last night too, but it was reserved for conductor Marco Armiliato, replacing Fabio Luisi who conducted the earlier performances. Yes, the tempo in act 3 was a bit too leisurely, but Armiliato offered sympathetic support to the singers, and the sounds coming out of the pit was fine. A bit taken aback, Armiliato took the boos in stride, at one point even smiling to the audience and shrugged his shoulders. What stayed with me long after the show was the energy and passion in this performance - no it wasn't perfect, but it was memorable.

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Monday, 19 July 2010

Aspen, Colorado: A Glorious Place to Make Music!

Aspen Music Festival and School

After a few days in Vail enjoying the music-making of Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, Marita and I drove over to Aspen, about 100 miles away through the mountains. What we found there was a much older community and a festival and school operating on an equally high artistic plane but with a more varied range of goals and activities. True, Aspen has been in the news lately for its administrative infighting which saw music director and conductor David Zinman suddenly resign, and president Alan Fletcher emerge as the man in charge going forward, but on the basis of the two concerts I heard – actually one concert and a dress rehearsal – Aspen is maintaining its status as one of the world’s great oases of musical nurture and development.

Aspen Festival Over Half Century Old!
The Aspen Festival was founded in 1949, and in its formative years it was a philosophy rather than a full-fledged festival. What came to be called “The Aspen Idea” meant a place where people could develop in body, mind and spirit. Soon there was a school and more and more concerts and a performing space was built based on a design by the legendary Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. As a Finnish-Canadian, Marita took special pleasure in discovering this fact about Aspen.
Saarinen’s tent was replaced by a more permanent structure designed by Herbert Bayer and Fritz Benedict in 1965, and then in 1999 an even more elaborate building was erected – the Benedict Music Tent – designed by architect Harry Teague and acoustician Larry Kirkegaard. The “tent” had now become a 2,000 seat concert hall with a stage spacious enough to accommodate a large orchestra and chorus. An unusual feature of the construction is the tensioned membrane ceiling created by Birdair. The material, known as fiberglass fabric membrane, lets the light in but keeps out the heat of the sun, and apparently does no harm to the acoustics. The sound in the Benedict Music Tent is far more reverberant than one would expect and the overall effect in the two performances I heard – one by a string quartet and the other by a large orchestra – was very impressive.
Chamber Music in 2000 Seat Hall Acoustically Sound!
The Emerson Quartet presented a programme devoted to music by Dvořák, Barber and Shostakovich. I feared their sound might be lost in so large a hall, but that was not the case; possibly the effect of a wooden semicircular baffle placed behind them. I was delighted to hear the Emerson playing some of my favourite music: Dvořák’s Cypresses. These pieces began their lives as songs, and years later Dvořák reworked them for string quartet. Dvořák was a master of string quartet writing and these are some of his most beautiful works. To really appreciate them, the proactive listener would be richly rewarded by comparing the two versions of each piece.
Cypresses was followed by Dvořák’s String Quartet in E flat major Op. 51, to my mind not one of his best. Nonetheless, the Emerson Quartet gave it the careful preparation and total commitment it gives to every piece it plays.
After intermission came the original version of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Coincidentally, I was to hear the more popular string orchestra version played by the Dallas Symphony in Vail the following night. Both versions are effective but in quite different ways. The quartet version has its own special intimacy, while the orchestra version has a strength and power which cannot be achieved by four players.
Finally, the Emerson played the String Quartet No. 9 Op. 117 by Shostakovich. Its last movement is one of the most exciting in any of the composer’s fifteen string quartets, and the Emerson played it superbly. The chordal pizzicati rang out with accuracy and authority and the contrapuntal writing had boundless energy. The Emerson Quartet brought the audience to its feet and then let it down gently and eloquently with an excerpt from Bach’s A Musical Offering.
Open Rehearsal with Hans Graf and soloist Gil Shaham
The next morning I was back in the Benedict Music Tent for the dress rehearsal of a concert by the Aspen Chamber Symphony (ACS) under the direction of Hans Graf, music director of the Houston Symphony. The ACS is one of three Aspen orchestras and each one is a remarkable ensemble. They combine well-known principal players from orchestras around the world and gifted students who have auditioned and succeeded in being accepted at Aspen.
ACS concertmaster is Alexander Kerr, Professor of Violin at Indiana University, and former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Principal second violin is Espen Lilleslåtten, concertmaster of the Bergen Philharmonic in Norway, and principal clarinet is Theodore Oien who holds the same position in the Detroit Symphony. All the members of the American Brass Quintet teach at the Aspen School and play in one of the orchestras…and on it goes.
The Aspen orchestras also have a Canadian component. Principal clarinet in the Aspen Festival Orchestra is Joaquin Valdepeñas of the Toronto Symphony, and principal horn is John Zirbel of the Montreal Symphony.
“Composer in Residence” Christopher Rouse Takes Notes
One of the highlights of the dress rehearsal was the opportunity to hear Odna Zhizn (A Life) by Christopher Rouse with the composer in attendance and basically supervising the performance. Odna Zhizn was conceived as a tribute to Natasha, a Russian friend of the composer. Rouse has said that the piece functions “both as the public portrayal of an extraordinary life as well as a private love letter.” The work had its premiere just a few months ago by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
Like all of Rouse’s orchestral music it is dazzling in its orchestration and dramatically powerful. Rouse seemed generally happy with what he heard and at this final stage of rehearsal only made a few comments about balance. It certainly seemed to me that Hans Graf and the Aspen Chamber Symphony had prepared the piece very well indeed.
Sheer Joy: Shaham Shares Talent and Temperament
The other major work was the Brahms Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist. Shaham has been coming to Aspen regularly since his student years and he is particularly renowned for his interpretation of this piece.
Now 39 years old, Shaham still exudes a youthful wonder at the world around him. As the orchestra plays the introduction to the first movement, Shaham looks at the conductor and at members of the orchestra as if to say “How can it be so beautiful?” And Shaham’s attitude is as infectious as I am sure it is intended to be. The players in return re-examine the music they are playing as if they had never seen it before, and can’t believe what they are seeing and hearing.
It almost goes without saying that Shaham’s violin playing was joyous and nearly impeccable. But it should be said that while he and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, whom I heard perform in Vail, share an intense commitment to music, they are very different personalities and interpreters. Salerno-Sonnenberg seems to bare her soul in everything she plays, and doesn’t hesitate to go to the dark side if she thinks the music requires it. Shaham, on the other hand, is more of a classicist. It is simply not part of his DNA to personalize the music. Fortunately, there is room for both types of performers in classical music.
Aspen, Colorado: So Much More to Offer than Slopes!
Like Vail, Aspen is primarily a skiing destination. Because of its limited size – it has mountains on three sides – with the crowds that come in winter and more recently in summer too, it is a very expensive place to live. There are only about 6,000 residents and many of them are jetsetters on the order of Michael Douglas, Goldie Hawn, Jack Nicholson and Charlie Sheen. And they generally arrive in Aspen in private jets, dozens of which were parked at the Aspen Airport during my visit. The people who have to earn a living in Aspen mostly live in less glamorous towns nearby.
The Aspen music festival runs for eight weeks and involves about 700 students and 150 faculty, but it’s not the only act in town. Every summer, the very prestigious Aspen Institute attracts many of the most famous minds in politics, economics and the media, The recent Aspen Ideas Festival featured the likes of Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Alan Greenspan, David Gergen, and Arianna Huffington.
For Those Wanting More…
The Emerson Quartet recorded all the Shostakovich string quartets in 2000, and they are available in a boxed set as DG 463 2842 2. If you want to hear exactly what Shostakovich had in mind, investigate the recordings by the Beethoven Quartet; this is the ensemble which premiered most of Shostakovich’s string quartets. Their recordings, made between 1956 and 1974, had the approval of the composer. They are now available in a boxed set from DOREMI as DHR-7911-5, and the remastering and restoration work done by Jacob Harnoy is excellent.
Dvořák’s Op. 51 and Cypresses are included in the latest Emerson release as DG 477 8765 5. Gil Shaham has a DVD of the Brahms Violin Concerto with Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic, recorded at a concert given in Palermo in 2002 (EuroArts 2051987).

NEW for friends! The Art of the Conductor podcast.

Photo of Gil Shaham by Marita

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Friday, 16 July 2010

Stratford Summer Music 2010: A Preview

Tenor Ben Heppner headlines Stratford Summer Music
(Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

Stratford has long been famous for its Shakespeare, but for classical music lovers in southern Ontario, the Stratford Summer Music is a welcome musical oasis in the months of July and August, while major musical organizations the likes of the Toronto Symphony and the Canadian Opera Company are in hiatus. Billed as "Stratford's Other Festival", SSM is now in its 10th season under the directorship of John Miller. With the news this week that the attempt to start a classical music festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake has been met with failure, classical music lovers can doubly appreciate SSM for its excellent music making. The highest profile artist this summer is undoubtedly Ben Heppner. Given the Canadian tenor is usually busy singing in European festivals, it was quite a coup for Stratford Summer Music to engage him for not just one show, but for the better part of a week! Heppner will give three hour -long rectials that start at the unique time (to SSM, that is!) of 11:15 a.m. at St. Andrew's Church (July 22, 23, 24). CBC broadcaster Barbara Budd joins Heppner in a tribute to Canadian tenor Edward Johnson, who was also the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera back in the 30's and 40's. This show is now called Edward and Beatriz: A Love Story, conceived by CBC's Neil Crory. With John Hess at the piano, Heppner will sing songs and arias that featured prominently in Johnson's career, including "If With All Your Hearts" from Elijah, "Aprile" by Tosti, "Donna non vidi mai" from Manon Lescaut, "Amor ti vieta" from Fedora, and "Waltzes and Wine" from Oscar Strauss' A Waltz Dream. Other Heppner programming includes a solo recital on July 20, a masterclass for three young Canadian singers (tenors Joey Niceforo and Van Abrahams and baritone Vasil Garvanliev). Heppner is also the soloist with the 100-member National Youth Orchestra under the baton of Jacques Lacombe on Sunday evening, July 25.

Heppner is by no means the only game in town. SSM also features many other fine artists. If jazz is your thing, be sure to catch Jackie Richardson, Peter Appleyard, Gene DiNovi and others in the Festival Finale on Sunday Aug. 22. Jean-Philippe Tremblay conducts musicians from the L'Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne. Other classical musicians appearing in the festival includes cellist Winona Zelenka , violinist Benjamin Bowman and pianist Jan Lisiecki, who happens to be a 15-year old piano sensation. I look forward to his all Chopin recital on Aug. 12 at 11:15 a.m. For complete program and ticket information, go to

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Lepage's Nightingale Free on the Web

By Frank Cadenhead

No serious opera fan should miss the astounding Robert Lepage production of Stravinsky's "Rossignol et autres fables," which is available for a limited time for free streaming on Arte Live Web. It is the same production that received rave reviews in October of last year at the COC. Seen as the triumph of
the Aix-en-Provence Festival and hailed in the European press as a highlight of the operatic year, the American press and public seem unconcerned and unaware of this even though the same director is to stage the new Wagner Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera.

Recorded from the July 7 performance at the Grand Théâtre de Provence, it has the enchanting soprano Olga Peretyatko as the nightingale. The orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Lyon, one of the top orchestras in France, get as close to perfection as possible under their music director Kazushi Ono. There are lots of other musical goodies on this important site of a major European television channel.


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The Montreal Symphony's Musical Masked Ball Raises One Million

by Naomi Gold

On a sultry summer night on May 26, 2010, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra welcomed some six hundred supporters to their 12th annual Midsummer Night's Ball. The soirée's leitmotif was movement. Herewith, the high notes from this year's 'Un Ballo in Maschera' gala, in five movements:

Andante -- Allegro con anima e con brio (chinotto)
Arriving attendees are amazed by an imaginative, labyrinthian entrance to Complexe Desjardins—disguised as an opulent Venetian ballroom—for the black tie, red carpet gala.  Enhancing the mystique are costumed hostesses and ushers who distribute masks to intrigued guests. Upstairs on level four, the Hyatt Regency Hotel hosts a highly animated, 'supertonic' cocktail reception.

Allegro vivace assai
Onstage at Complexe Desjardins' Grande Place, masked music director Kent Nagano conducts the MSO in a vivacious performance of Verdi's Preludio from Un Ballo in Maschera.  This is followed by Stravinsky's Fête populaire de la semaine grasse, an excerpt from Pétrouchka.

Andante molto mosso

Honorary ball co-chairs Monique F. Leroux, president/CEO of Mouvement Desjardins and Montreal Canadiens Hockey Club owner/board chairman Geoffrey Molson are introduced by emcee, actor Guy Nadon. Thanking sponsors and attendees, they make the melodious announcement that a cool million is raised. Desjardins Group's 110th anniversary is fêted  via video montage, and all applaud the Habs' awe-inspiring playoff action in their 101st year. The harmonious soirée seamlessly segues into a sumptuous symphony of taste orchestrated by Cornellier Traiteur.

Andantino grazioso - Tempo di valse

A polyphony of post-prandial performances is presented by MSO musicians under the baton of first assistant conductor Stéphane Laforest. Two waltzes by Johann Strauss II, An der schönen blauen Donau, and Frühlingstimmen, gracefully open the dance floor to guests. Maestro Laforest later conducts Frédéric Bégin's Créer l'avenir, which also features the FACE children's choir and solo violinist Alexandre Da Costa.

Finale:  Allegro con fuoco
A whopping $60,000 worth of prizes is drawn including two trips to Paris, London, Los Angeles or San Francisco, courtesy of Air Canada and Starwood Hotels.  Consistent with the gala's obbligato theme of movement, Gilles Caplan's band inspires guests to move 'n groove well into the finale.

The corporate gala sponsors were Desjardins Group, Club de Hockey Canadien, Fiera Capital, Aldo Group, Alimentation Couche-Tard, National Bank Financial Group, Bell Canada, BMO Financial Group, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, Cirque du Soleil, Ernst & Young, Garda, Hydro-Québec, La Coop fédérée, McKinsey & Company, PricewaterhouseCoopers, RBC Royal Bank, Samson Bélair Deloitte & Touche, Société des alcools du Québec and Solotech.

Next year will be the MSO's last at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, as their new concert hall is slated for delivery by September 2011. The 2010-2011 season starts in stentorian style with Carl Orff's monumental secular oratorio, Carmina Burana.  A plethora of world renowned artists will perform, including piano virtuoso Anton Kuerti, who will play Beethoven's Emperor concerto, while Sir Andrew Davis wields his baton in a program of Prokofiev and Rachmaninov.  A concert version of Wagner's magisterial masterpiece Das Rheingold will close the season. To consult the full calendar and order tickets, call 514-842-9951 or visit

PHOTO BY Déclik Communications
  Guests enjoy the MSO conducted by maestro Kent Nagano, amidst the magnificently decorated "Venetian grand salon" of Complexe Desjardins. An apropos piano keys motif appears on the sprawling dance floor.


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Monday, 12 July 2010

Dallas Symphony Opens Extraordinary Summer of Music in Colorado!

Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival

Imagine a music festival that features three of the world’s top orchestras in successive week-long residencies. Throw into the mix the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and Gil Shaham. Shake things up with some of the best conductors at work today: Jaap van Zweden, Alan Gilbert, Charles Dutoit, and Marin Alsop. And don’t forget to add lots of chamber music. Set all this talent up in one of the most spectacular mountain locations you can think of – say, Vail, Colorado - and run your festival for about six weeks. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But of course, who could afford to do it.

That is the question that kept crossing my mind as I sat in my seat at the awkwardly-named Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival: “How could anyone or any group of people find the money to mount such a festival, especially in the depths of a recession when every arts organization in the country is cutting back or packing it in?” But Bravo! is not a misguided new venture; this festival has been going strong for 23 years. So how do they do it?
It is surely true that Vail must have some of the most dedicated music lovers in the world. It must also be true that these extraordinary music lovers have the financial means to bring their dreams to life.
Classical Music on a Movie Set?
The town of Vail is almost a Disney version of an alpine ski village – charming Swiss chalets bedecked with flower boxes, bustling boutiques, cosy eateries. Since 1962 when it was created, Vail has become an increasingly popular “destination.”
Skiers flock to Vail by the thousands to enjoy some of the best downhill skiing in the world. Après-ski, they gather in their beautifully appointed chalets or in the fine restaurants, bars and upscale stores that abound in the village.
Everything in Vail is carefully managed to maintain the unified Swiss-style, tourist-friendly look. Yes, you will find a McDonald’s here, artfully camouflaged to blend with the alpine character of the buildings and the well-manicured streets. Even cars are controlled in Vail - one doesn’t really need one to get around. The village is compact enough so that one can walk from one end to the other without much effort. For those who are a little less energetic, there is a free shuttle bus that provides an excellent alternative. In the summer, the village and the area’s many mountain paths attract thousands of cyclists and hikers. For those who like some culture with their outdoor activities, there is the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.
Dallas Symphony Bravo’s Opening Orchestral Act
I visited Vail for the opening concerts of Bravo! 2010. I just missed Yo-Yo Ma in recital, but arrived in time to hear the first of six orchestral concerts to be performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO). The DSO will be followed later in the season by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in a similar residency.
One might wonder how the Dallas Symphony gets to share the spotlight with two orchestras generally touted as being in another league - certainly true as far as budgets go!
Among the highlights of the two Dallas Symphony concerts I heard in Vail were the Brahms’ Second Symphony, in which the string playing had a dynamic range and a richness that would be the envy of any orchestra; a high-speed Beethoven Fifth that reflected Maestro van Zweden’s fascination with the Gardiner-Harnoncourt original instrument movement; and an extraordinary interpretation of Barber’s Violin Concerto featuring Nadja-Salerno Sonnenberg.
I have heard Ms. Sonnenberg play this Barber concerto many times with different orchestras and conductors and each time I marvel at how deeply she probes the piece. In Jaap van Zweden, she had not only a friend and former class-mate, but an ideal collaborator. Both she and van Zweden – former concert master of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in The Netherlands - studied with the legendary Dorothy Delay in New York at about the same time and went on to make recordings of the Barber Violin Concerto.
In short, the Dallas Symphony, under Jaap van Zweden, is the equal of many of the finest orchestras in the world. There is, however, another reason why the Dallas Symphony belongs in Vail. This town has long been a favourite getaway destination for Texans: skiing in the winter and cooler and drier weather in the summer. To accommodate these Texas patrons, American Airlines even operates two daily non-stops from Dallas to Vail (actually nearby Eagle County Airport).
Challenges of Outdoor Venues Part of Summer Music Fest Fun!
One always has to make allowances for summer concerts. Even at the best facilities, weather and various distractions are inescapable factors. Vail is no different. The idea is to get away from the formality of winter season concerts in enclosed concert halls, and enjoy the beauties of nature with fine music filling the air. So what if the birds often add their voices to the soundscape (Tanglewood, Ravinia, Vail, etc.)? So what if commuter trains often intrude (Ravinia)? So what if traffic from I-70 sometimes makes its presence felt (Vail)?
The weather is unpredictable everywhere, but this year in Vail (and Aspen) the rains came almost every day, and often just when they could cause the most trouble. Lots of walking is required to get from buses and cars to the Ford Amphitheater in Vail and on the way to our first concert, Marita and I got thoroughly soaked. Fortunately, our seats were under cover – by the end of the concert we were dry again! - but how about those with lawn tickets? The first half-hour of the concert was accompanied by pouring rain! Well, the downpour seemed to be part of the experience for the lawn-folk; most came well-prepared with head to toe raingear and plastic sheets to put under and over themselves. And most seemed to be heartily enjoying the event!
Good Sound, Decent Ticket Prices, Glorious Scenery: Bravo, Vail!
What about the facility itself? It is much smaller than most of the summer concert venues used by the big orchestras - the Atlanta Symphony, for example, recently moved into a new summer home seating 12,000. The Vail facility - The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater - seats about 1,200 and there is room on the lawn for about 1,200 more. This means that even the folks on the lawn are getting a pretty intimate experience.
The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater was designed by Morter Architects of Vail and it could be characterized as elegant and graceful. There are five large wood ceiling panels, seemingly floating in air over the stage and audience area, and there are large spaces behind and beside the stage to reveal the ski slopes and trees characteristic of Vail. There does not appear to be much in the design that enhances the acoustics. In fact, executive director John W. Giovando informed me that on-going concern with regard to the acoustics has precipitated discussion of adding a solid back wall to the facility. But in the meantime, the sound system is quite good, and patrons under cover and on the lawn seemed generally pleased with what they were hearing.
I hate to keep coming back to money matters, but money does matter to nearly everything in life. There is no getting around it; the economics of the festival don’t make much sense. I have already mentioned the cost of bringing in large and famous orchestras for weeks at a time. And the venue is too small to generate much revenue. So the ticket prices would have to be astronomical, right? Wrong. For the Dallas Symphony concerts, the top price was a mere $65, very low by either winter or summer standards. Top price at Tanglewood this season is $89 and even higher for special events and at nearby Aspen orchestral concerts are priced at $70 and higher. To be fair, however, one must note that ticket prices for both the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic concerts – which perform at the height of the summer season in Vail - are higher.
Looking at the festival economics from another perspective, we should all be grateful to the folks who live in Vail and who care enough about music to support it for themselves, for their community, and for the tourists who have come to realize that Vail is a unique and magical place, not only in winter but in summer too!
Bravo! Artistic Director Eugenia Zuckerman Plays Mozart
Flutist Eugenia Zukerman has been artistic director of Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival for the past 13 years and this season she is stepping down. Among her farewell concerts was an appearance as soloist in Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, in a Bravo! concert with the Dallas Symphony, conducted by Jaap van Zweden.
Zukerman is largely responsible for putting together artists and programmes for the six-week festival and by all accounts she has done fine work. She will be succeeded next season by another well-known performer, pianist, Anne-Marie McDermott.

Photo by Marita

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