La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Introducing Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert


Introducing Canadian Pianist Leonard Gilbert

Twenty year old pianist talks about pursuing the dream of a career in music

By Joseph K. So
The International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition is certainly one of the most prestigious in the world, given the number - and the calibre - of distinguished laureates it has produced in its august history. The road to Warsaw is a long and arduous one. In the case of Canadian pianist Leonard Gilbert, his unqualified success of First Prize, as well as the Mazurka and Polonaise prizes, at the Canadian Chopin Competition held last March in Toronto meant he received a grant to allow him to travel to Warsaw for the preliminary round 12- 24 April. Of some 180 aspirants who participated in Warsaw, Gilbert was among the 81 successful candidates invited to move on to the actual event this coming October. Gilbert has the distinction of being the only Canadian in this elite group. For those in the audience of the Canadian Competition and in the winners' concert at Koerner Hall afterwards, his playing with its trademark technical prowess, sensitivity of touch and singing tone made him a deserved winner hands down. Currently he is in Indiana University working with his teacher, world-renowned pianist and pedagogue Menahem Pressler, in preparation of the "big dance" in October. In July, Gilbert was in Toronto to give a private recital. In a long and wide-ranging interview, Gilbert spoke of his love of the piano and his aspirations for a career in music. For someone who only had his 20th birthday on August 30, his intellect, maturity, poise, and especially the way he handled questions in an interview situation was impressive indeed. Below is an abridged transcript of our long conversation:


LSM: How does it feel to be the only pianist representing Canada at the Warsaw competition? What do you hope to get out of this experience?
LG: I feel very honoured to be chosen. Of course, as with any competition I hope to win. But it’s the first time for me to go to such a big competition, I want to be able to show to myself and to others that I have what it takes to be a pianist. I want to show that I have something to say to the audience.

LSM: Do you remember the first time you sat in front of a piano?
LG: Yes, I was five or six…one day my mom was playing the piano. I sat down and I was able to figure out the same melody…

LSM: Do you come from a musical family? What attracted you to the piano? When did you take your first lesson?
LG: Yes, I do come from a musical family. My mom sings… she’s a classical singer. What attracted me to the piano? There’s such a big range to the instrument… people say it encompasses a whole orchestra. There’s such a huge repertoire. I also sort of like the physical part of it too. I wasn’t attracted to singing; I did the violin for awhile and I liked it, but I don’t think it was the same for me as the piano. I was probably six when I took my first lesson.

LSM: Who was your teacher?
LG: It was Derek Bampton. I stayed with him for four or five years. Then I studied with Patricia Parr for three years. I am now with Mr. Pressler at Indiana, officially for the last two years.

LSM: Which high school did you go to?
LG: I went to Earl Haig, in the Claude Watson arts program.

LSM: For a lot of people, the bane of learning the piano is practice! So have you always loved to practice?
LG: No! (laughs) When I was younger I didn’t want to practice, but the more I played, the more I enjoyed it.

LSM: How many hours did you practice in those days?
LG: Maybe an hour… then it became two or three hours. When I became serious, it jumped to five or six hours. Now it’s as much as it takes.

LSM: Do you have a pianist idol? After the recital the other day you mentioned to me that Horowitz was your idol…
LG: Yes it's Horowitz. I got more serious with the piano when I went to Derek – that's when I started listening more to pianists, and realized there’s this whole golden age of the piano. Other than Horowitz, I also like Wilhelm Kempff, Dinu Lipatti, and Emil Gilels.

LSM: Was there ever the temptation to emulate your piano idols?
LG: There’s always the temptation to want to play like them - Horowitz’s in a class by himself. Even my teacher Mr. Pressler said when he was young he wanted to play like Horowitz. But I think we have to develop ourselves - each person is unique.
LSM: When did you make the decision to have a life in music?
LG: I made the decision a little late – when I was applying to university in Grade 12 in 2008. I applied to Indiana, Juilliard and Curtis. At the time I also liked math and science, so I also applied to Toronto, Waterloo, McMaster for biomedical sciences. At that time I was trying to decide whether to go into life sciences or music. It was a difficult decision but I realized that I would really regret it if I didn’t’ try to go into music because I knew deep down that’s what I really wanted.
LSM: A pianist’s life is in front of an audience performing. How do you feel when you are in front of an audience?
LG: When I was younger, I was always afraid because of the pressure. I still do feel a little of the pressure, but I’ve changed my attitude over time. When I was younger I focused a lot on technique. As I performed more I realized it’s not about playing the fastest and the loudest and all that….I wanted to enjoy performance rather than worrying about the pressure of playing the right notes. In the end it doesn’t matter too much if you mess up a little, if you have something to say to the audience…that’s what they’ll remember at the end. I found out the more I performed the more I calmed down. I play better and now I'm more relaxed...I really enjoy it now!
LSM: When you’re playing, what goes through your mind?
LG: What should go through my mind is thinking about the music and not anything else. When I am practising I focus on the music. When I am playing I need to know what I’m going to be doing with each phrase, each note – I’m not someone who is so spontaneous and just do something on the spot. I try to concentrate, singing along in my head, but not try to place everything as it wouldn’t flow very well.
LSM: Would you say that when you are on your own , in a practice session, you focus more on technique while in front of an audience you focus more on communication?
LG: No, the practice shouldn’t be so different from the performance – then things won’t come out right. When I am practising, I try to focus on communication too. Ideally I try to solve whatever technical problems first, and then try to make something out of the music.
LSM: What are your thoughts on playing Chopin?
LG: For Chopin it’s easy to think of it as pretty, but just to play it beautifully isn’t easy… the more I play it the more I think there’s more than just surface beauty. Beneath the surface there’s lots of inner turmoil and tension, lots of frustration and pain. There’s also lots of nostalgia in his music. In a lot of his music, he goes back to the Polish folk traditions. His mazurkas for example, or the middle section of the first scherzo I played the other day. If you listen hard enough, you’ll hear there’s always a longing in the music.

LSM: How do you compare Chopin to other composers you play? Whose work do you play that you particularly like?
LG: I find it strange - I like Chopin but I don’t find myself listening to him very much on Youtube or on CDs, although I really enjoy playing and studying him. Another composer I like is Beethoven.. I love to listen to Beethoven all the time, but I find it much more difficult to play and to grasp his work. I don’t get as much enjoyment playing it as I do Chopin. I wouldn’t really think it is fair to compare Chopin to other composers… he’s obviously very Romantic, but not the heavy-Russian type of Romantics like Rachmaninoff or Scriabin. Chopin’s music is rather light, and you can listen to it a long time. You still get all the emotions, whereas something like Beethoven it’s totally different…it’s more strict, more dramatic, not very Romantic in the same sense.
LSM: Who do you like, other than Beethoven?
LG: I really like Scarlatti. I just think his music is nice and pure. When it’s played well it’s very uplifting. Right now because of the competition my focus is on Chopin. I think in a way it’s easier to play late Romantic and post Romantic 20th cc. pieces than Mozart and Beethoven. The earlier music is purer, you don’t have as many things going on…you have to deliver.
LSM: You have had good success in competitions in just a short period of time that you've been competing. Getting into round one of Warsaw is already quite an accomplishment… in a sense you’ve already won! What makes you a successful competitor?
LG: I've had some really bad experiences in competitions in the past - things didn’t go the way I expected. From those experiences I’ve learned to not put too much pressure on myself. I go into a competition and play the best I can, if something like a prize happens that’s great, if it doesn't that’s ok too as long as I played well, that I’m satisfied with myself. I ‘ve been able to perform more, like the Canadian Chopin Competition, and going to Indiana. The school is not a competitive school like Juilliard or Curtis. I play in masterclasses every week and I’m getting more and more experience. It settles me down and prepares me for Warsaw. Another interesting thing about the school is Mr. Pressler is not in the masterclasses – it’s a student-run masterclass, there is no “master” in the masterclass. We comment on each other. It’s a good way of learning; we are not afraid to say things to each other. Some students play while others don’t - I play every week. I record myself and listen – I think it’s one of the best ways to learn.
LSM: There must also be formal, “real” masterclasses too, right?
LG: No (laughs) there isn’t any…. it is strange. Mr. Pressler is away a lot so we end up having these student masterclasses. We don’t get that many guest artists to do masterclasses in Indiana, maybe one a year. You lose something and you gain something from it. At the same time I go to the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy. I’ve been going there for the past three years – that’s where I first met Mr. Pressler.
LSM: What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?
LG: One of my strengths is the sound I get out of the piano. People say I don’t have any problems getting triple forte, or ppppp. I am still working on the middle area! I try always to be inspired when I am performing, to have things to say to the audience. I feel it when the audience react to what I am trying to do. At the same time my weakness is that I’m not always consistent… it’s something I’m working on.
LSM: Do you find that sometimes you are rushing a little bit from one phrase to the next, you don’t have enough pauses? It’s like a galloping horse…you go faster and faster, and then you catch yourself and slow down….
LG: Yeah.. it is something I have to work on. That’s something my teacher says too - you start a phrase but there’s always an ending too.
LSM: What do you hope to say to the audience in a performance?
LG: Depending on the piece of course, I try to communicate, to give an emotion to the audience. I want the audience to feel the emotion too. I try to communicate part of myself. You can analyse a piece of music and say there’s such and such going on, but if you don’t feel it, it’s is not going to go to the audience. That’s why everybody interprets a piece slightly differently. We all have our own life experiences, bringing that to our playing helps us better connect to the audience.
LSM: One of my first questions that I put on paper but actually haven't asked you yet is - what does the piano mean to you?
LG: I think the piano is one of the best communication tools – for me it has always been a great way to express myself. Some people paint to express themselves, for me it’s playing the piano. It’s part of who I am.
LSM: Are you 20 yet?
LG: No yet - Aug. 30.
LSM: Well, for a 19 year old, the ways you’ve answered these questions... you've exceeded my expectations…I think you are very well taught! Tell me, is there a piece of music that has the greatest meaning to you?
LG: That’s something that have changed from time to time, but for now the piece that’s closest to me is the Ballade No. 4 of Chopin. I played the Second Ballade first and I liked it. But when I heard the Fourth Ballade it really struck me.. it's so different and so special. In some ways it had to do with my personal life – my parents were getting a divorce at the time. I could connect to the piece because there’s so much frustration and turmoil, and at the same time it’s a beautiful piece with many beautiful moments. It reflects what I was going through at the time, and at the same time I could appreciate the good things in it. I love this piece…I'll never get tired of it.
LSM: For someone who is not yet 20, you're articulate, smart, mature, and handle yourself well in interview situations. I wish you all the best in Warsaw...
LG: Thank you.

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Thursday, 19 August 2010

South Pacific a Perfect Summer Tonic

Jason Howard (Emile) and Carmen Cusack (Nellie) in South Pacific (Photo: Kim Ritzenthaler)






Scorching heat and unrelenting humidity, the opening of the CNE, and the struggling Blue Jays - all signs that we are in the dog days of summer. So what better diversion than spending an evening in an air-conditioned theatre, especially when we have a show as entertaining as South Pacific? This touring version of the Lincoln Center production won seven Tony Awards back in 2008. With the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada normally in hiatus in the months of July and August, Dancap Productions is bringing Miss Saigon and South Pacific to the Four Seasons Centre. The Rogers and Hammerstein show made quite a splash on Broadway two years ago, starring bass-baritone Paulo Szot as Emile de Becque. (Opera fans will remember that Szot sang Escamillo in the COC Carmen in 2006) Szot was a big hit in New York, winning a Tony for his efforts. Originally, this touring production was to star another "barihunk" Rodney Gilfry. But he withdrew and we have a most worthy replacement in Welsh Canadian Jason Howard. A well respected, internationally ranked opera singer, Howard < http://www.jasonhoward.net/ > combines a darkly rich and sonorous bass-baritone with an impressive stage presence. Now that he has finally sung on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, let's hope the COC will bring him back in an operatic assignment - Wotan, anyone?

Inspired by the Michener's book Tales of the South Pacific, the musical combines exotic locale, romance, inspired melodies, and something unusual at the time - social commentary. Few musicals dare to deal with issues of racism, so South Pacific was ahead of its time. Watching the show through our 21st century lens, the idea of racially mixed romance and marriage seem all so tame, but it was certainly a big deal sixty years ago, especially when the main character, Nellie Forbush, is a naive southern belle. The solo "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" must have made quite a stir in its time. That's well and good, but Rogers and Hammerstein did not lose sight of the fact that the primary role of a musical is to entertain. To that end, they've written a string of inspired numbers that have withstood the test of time - particularly "Some Enchanted Evening", "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right outa My Hair", "Bali Hai" and "Younger Than Springtime". These songs have certainly become lasting hits of the musical stage.

The Lincoln Center production directed by Bartlett Sher is a beautifully constructed and sensitively presented show, with very nice sets, atmospherically lit, and backed by a fine-sounding 25 piece orchestra under the baton of conductor Lawrence Goldberg. Typically, the practice of Broadway is amplification, and this run is no exception. The Four Seasons Centre has such great acoustics that with full amplification, the sound on opening night was likely adjusted so as not to be too "in your face". I am happy to report that the singing was uniformly excellent. Jason Howard, in keeping with a long tradition of casting Emile De Becque with opera singers, is the only true operatic voice in the cast. Howard, with his magnetic stage presence and rock solid bass, gave an entirely winning performance. Opposite him as Nellie was Carmen Cusack, who possesses a sweet and beautiful Broadway voice. Being a native Texan, Cusack's southern drawl was never less than convincing. Anderson Davis was a typically well scrubbed, American boy next door Lt. Joe Cable, and he sang a beautiful "Younger Than Springtime". All supporting roles were well taken, particularly Jodi Kimura as a suitably earthy Bloody Mary and Matthew Saldivar a swaggering Luther Billis. On opening night, it was a very good crowd but not sold out. I think when the public realizes what a good show it is, they will not hesitate to go see it. Performances run until September 5 at the Four Seasons Centre. For more information and tickets, go to http://www.dancaptickets.com/

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Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Jan Lisiecki at Stratford Summer Music

Photo: courtesy of Stratford Summer Music










One of the joys of attending concerts is the discovery of new artists, the "new stars", on the scene. In the case of piano wunderkind Jan Lisiecki, there is no question that at the tender age of 15, he has already established himself as one of the brightest stars on the horizon. Born in Calgary of Polish parents, Lisiecki made his orchestral debut at the age of 9 and has performed as a soloist with orchestras more than 50 times in Canada and abroad. He has given numerous recitals as well, in some of the biggest venues including Carnegie Hall. This being a Chopin year, Lisiecki is concertizing widely in Canada, Europe - including Chopin's birthplace in Poland - and as far away as Tokyo, Japan. His sold out appearance last week at the Brott Music Festival in Hamilton received critical accolades. This week, Lisiecki is giving a series of three concerts as a tribute to Chopin's Bicentenary at the Stratford Summer Music on August 12, 13 and 14. On August 12 at 11:15 am, Lisiecki kicks off the concert series with a one-hour recital with the Tokai String Quartet at St. Andrew's Church. On the program is the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 plus other solo works. He plays the Piano Concerto No. 2 on Saturday August 14. The tickets are at an extremely reasonable $27 and this is a great chance to hear this phenomenal young pianist. For details, go this the artist's website; for tickets and other information, go to the
Stratford Summer Music website:



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Monday, 9 August 2010

Nagano/OSM Week at Orford Festival 2010

by Paul E. Robinson
The Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) is an orchestra without a home – at least in the summertime. For some years now, it has been trying to cobble together a summer work schedule that would satisfy its commitments to players, its financial responsibilities, and the larger Quebec area’s classical music-loving public.
OSM’s latest experiment took place this past week at Festival Orford, both at Orford itself and in the nearby town of Magog, one of Quebec’s prime destinations for summer vacationers. Is this the answer for the perpetually itinerant OSM? Maybe yes, and maybe no; it is a complicated matter and there are no simple answers.
The recent summer history of the OSM has the band playing at the Lanaudière Festival in Joliette for several seasons, and for the past two years at the Knowlton Festival in L’Estrie (Eastern Townships).
The OSM could give more concerts at Lanaudière, but music director Kent Nagano is busy in Munich during July and unavailable for Lanaudière engagements. Personally, I don’t understand why that should be an issue. Whereas Nagano’s unavailability continues to be offered up as a reason why the OSM cannot do more at Lanaudière, many of the major orchestras on the global stage either use guest conductors in the summer or appoint summer festival music directors.
And Knowlton? This festival got off to an impressive start using a bel canto theme, then suddenly ground to a halt. Knowlton Festival organizers put out a statement that provided no explanation at all, and gave no indication of total abdication, but one suspects that this festival has no future. Although original and inspired, the bel canto concept was a somewhat esoteric choice for a place like Knowlton, and it is not surprising that audiences for most of the programmed concerts were sparse. The theme was modified in the second season, but costs continued to escalate and many concerts failed to attract large audiences even in an 800-seat facility. The whole project made neither artistic nor economic sense.
Goodbye Knowlton – Hello Magog: OSM and Orford Courting!
Enter Orford. The Orford Arts Centre (OAC) has been one of Canada’s leading summer music schools for many decades. In recent years, however, it has lost some of its momentum and prestige and financial problems have forced the OAC to rethink its mission.
Last year, conductor and Nagano protegé Jean-Francois Rivest was appointed OAC artistic director, and with the OSM once again searching for a summer home, an OAC-OSM collaboration - a one week festival tacked on to Orford’s usual summer season, featuring Nagano and the OSM – quite naturally materialized.
Since the hall in the OAC itself has too few seats to support concerts by a fully professional orchestra, it was decided that the OSM would play in nearby Magog, at Église Saint-Patrice (Saint Patrick’s Church). In addition to the OSM, which was scheduled for three concerts, other performers would include pianists Till Fellner, Peter Serkin and Mari Kodama (Mrs. Kent Nagano), violinist Christian Tetzlaff, clarinetist-composer Jörg Widmann, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, and Tafelmusik – a pretty impressive lineup at any festival.
Sold Out Concerts Signal a Potentially Profitable Union
On the face of it, this hastily-conceived festival was a huge success. The church seats about 1,000 people and the two concerts I attended appeared to be all but sold out.
Some of the performances I heard were outstanding, including an impassioned reading of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by Tetzlaff and Nagano, and a wonderfully poetic and well-played Brahms Serenade No. 1 by Nagano and the OSM. The last concert – a solid sell-out – featured Till Fellner playing Schumann with Nagano and the OSM.
Undoubtedly, this new OSM week at Orford is much cheaper to operate than the Knowlton Festival. In Knowlton, land had to be purchased, an elaborate tent facility rented, a complex school bus shuttle system set up, and an audience had to be found in a town of only a few thousand souls even in the tourist season. In Magog, on the other hand, festival organizers could construct a concert platform inside the church and draw on a much larger and more vibrant community for support. Smaller concerts could be held in the already existing Gilles Lefebre Concert Hall in the Orford Arts Centre. Another positive factor: the provincial and federal arts councils already support the Orford Festival and the OSM and would likely see this new collaboration as “win-win” for both organizations.
Standards of Excellence: What Does This Festival Want to Be?
Before all involved in mounting this festival rush to self-congratulatory mode, they should pause to review what went wrong as well as what went right with this opening season in Magog. For example, the first concert I attended was given by the newly-created Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) conducted by Nagano. Orford has once again gone in the direction of having a training orchestra as part of its activities. All well and good. This kind of orchestra has been used as the cost-effective basis for music festivals all over the world: Aspen, Verbier, and Schleswig-Holstein, for example – all three with outstanding training orchestras by any standard. Quite frankly, at least on its initial showing, the Orford Academy Orchestra, though it could be, was not in the same class.
On paper, this concert provided excellent stylistic challenges for young musicians. It began with a recent work called Armonia by German composer Jörg Widmann. This piece featured the glass harmonica, a most unusual instrument dating back to Mozart’s time. Then Widmann appeared as soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. The concert ended with Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”). With this programming and Nagano on the podium, it appeared that the OAO would be probing three different musical idioms in one concert, and gaining tremendously from the experience.
The evening got off to an excellent start with a performance of Armonia that appeared to meet all the considerable demands of the score. Then, with the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the concert really ran off the rails.
Nagano and Widmann at Odds in Mozart
Widmann and Nagano appeared to be playing in two different styles. Widmann is an excellent musician, but his approach could be characterized as aggressively modern. His technique is superb, but his sound is penetrating and hard, and he studiously avoided adding period embellishments of any kind. Nagano, on the other hand, seemed to be after some sort of re-creation of period style.
If Widmann was masculine in his approach, Nagano was feminine, stressing delicacy and lightness. He had obviously told his players to avoid the first beat of the bar accents and to play ‘across the bar lines’; as a result, the music lacked a rhythmic spine and the playing often sounded confused. For example, the main theme of the last movement was played totally differently by orchestra members and soloist. Widmann played his notes short but the violins played them long. The less said about the quality of the horn playing, the better.
Tricky St. Patrick’s Acoustics Contribute to Shaky Schumann
The Schumann had good and bad moments. The first movement was taken so fast, that it was reduced to musical gibberish. The acoustics were partly to blame. Churches are notoriously reverberant and the young musicians obviously had trouble hearing each other. If Nagano did take the acoustics into account, his adjustments clearly did not work. The second movement was similarly troubled as the musicians tried to keep their contrapuntal lines together. The final three movements fared better, with some fine, sensitive playing in the ‘Cologne Cathedral’ movement and a touch of exuberance in the finale. But again, the quality of the playing was uneven, and a quality that one takes for granted in youth orchestras – enthusiasm – was only rarely evident. One of the front-desk string players rarely moved his bow more than about six inches no matter what the volume of the music.
Kent Nagano has had a very busy week. In addition to his three concerts in Magog, he conducted two concerts at Lanaudière. If you factor in all the rehearsals for the five concerts he conducted – all completely different programmes, by the way - and the driving back and forth required, one wonders whether he really spent enough time working with the Orford Academy Orchestra. I don’t know what preceded it, but I do know that the last rehearsal before the concert was led not by Nagano, but by Rivest. Was Nagano really being fair to the young musicians by spreading himself so thin? One also has to wonder whether Nagano has any affinity for training student orchestras; perhaps his skills lie elsewhere.
Looking Forward to Next Summer
At the very least, festival organizers ought to reconsider a number of issues relating to the student orchestra programme. Is it a sound idea to present concerts in the same hall, under the same conductor, on successive nights by a dodgy student orchestra (OAO) and the internationally-recognized OSM? If the student orchestra is an integral part of the festival, and the festival aspires to be world class, can organizers be satisfied with a student orchestra that does not meet the standards of similar major festivals around the world? If not, what can be done to raise the standard? A more rigorous audition process? More rehearsal? More involved conductors?
St. Patrick’s Church is a venerable institution dating back to 1894. It is a landmark in the Magog area and many festivals are regularly giving concerts in much worse places. It is always a problem to fit an orchestra around choir stalls, altars and pulpits in such places, and the lack of air conditioning can make old churches exceedingly uncomfortable. Given the physical constraints at St. Patrick’s, it is simply not possible to get more than about sixty players on the stage. This means that Mahler, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, etc are out of the question in this venue; nevertheless, everything considered, it is a useful facility and I suspect that those who attended this year’s concerts would happily return for more.
Has the OSM Finally Found the Perfect Partner?
Magog has never, I believe, been known as a ‘classical’ cultural mecca. Most people come here to enjoy swimming and boating on beautiful Lake Memphremagog, listening to rock, or country and western on the waterfront, or a beer and a burger in one of the many restaurants and bars in the downtown area.
But Magog has something to satisfy other tastes as well. There is the excellent Owl’s Bread Bakery and Restaurant for great coffee and bistro fare, and there are upscale restaurants such as Cavallini’s, both within a few blocks of St. Patrick’s.
Judging from the sold-out performances this opening season, there is obviously also an audience for classical music in Magog and as the festival grows, it could work with the community to create a true festival ambiance beyond the confines of St. Patrick’s.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at Amazon.com. NEW for friends! The Art of the Conductor podcast.

Photo by Marita: Christian Tetzlaff and Kent Nagano

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Sunday, 1 August 2010

Roberto Devereux: Munich Opera Festival

Photo: A modern dress Roberto Devereux starring Edita Gruberova and Sonia Ganassi








Roberto Devereux; The Queen Rules Again, at the Munich Opera Festival, Sunday, July 4, 2010
Richard Rosenman, Editor, Wagner News, Toronto Wagner Society
LSM Guest Reviewer
This is the second season that the Bayerische Staatsoper offers Edita Gruberova in a Gaetano Donizetti vehicle. Wisely or not, it had resisted mounting two of the three queens, last year’s contribution being Lucrezia Borgia. This historical melodrama of intrigue, forbidden love and corruption in Elizabeth’s I court, here shorn of its costumes and royal interiors, is less an equivalent of our time soap opera than a showcase of what ultimately counts –music and singing.
The production, premiered in 2004, has been seasonally revived but still draws full houses of devoted fans. Hearing the frenzied applause one feels it is all about her. Truly, Gruberova is a phenomenon – almost forty one years on stage (twenty after her first Elisabetta, in Barcelona), she still attacks the vocal pitfalls of the role fearlessly, though not as recklessly as in the past and not always as successfully. More successful is her concerted effort to act out the legendary temperament of the historical queen. She retains her charisma like a true primadonna that she is.
The director, Christof Loy, has chosen to place the action in a grey ministerial office, our idea of East German burocracy. The dark suited officials busy themselves with documents and briefcases. They are grave and humorless, whether shuffling papers or drawing blood, beating the hapless Roberto, (José Bros). Violence abounds; even Nottingham, (Paolo Gavanelli), gratuitously ties and abuses Sara, his wife, (Sonia Ganassi) in a fit of misplaced jealousy.
Of her many portrayals of the role, this time Elisabetta, like the rest of the cast, is also in modern dress, a light blue suit, almost a mini, changed only close to the finale for a more dignified black. Listening to Gruberova makes one continuously compare the now with what has been and with other famous Elisabettas. Her singing is now squally, lacking the precision of say, Caballe, in the same role. But one must admire her determination, not deterred by momentary fadings or strainings of her instrument.
Although nominally the hero, Roberto Devereux is forced to remain in the shadow, though he asserts himself when he comes through bright and lyrical when needed. In the snake pit, that the court is, he retains our sympathy as the victim. Nottingham, Paolo Gavanelli, a large and imposing figure, another favorite of the Munich public judging by the second best ovation, held his vigorous baritone in check most of the time. The resulting lyricism contrasted with his fortes, sung not shouted. He was convincing in the stages of his metamorphosis from a devoted husband to a ruthless avenger, blinded by jealousy. The other victim, his wife Sara, Sonia Ganassi, a reliable counterforce to the queen.
The orchestra was led by Friedrich Haider. At the end the queen tears off her wig and passes the crown to the new king. Gruberova suddenly looks her, and the queen’s, age. It is more than a mere opera – it is theater of highest order.

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Dialogues of the Carmelites: Munich Opera Festival

Photo: Dialogues of the Carmelites, Munich Opera Festival, July 2010





Dialogues des Carmelites. Russian steppes or French countryside?
Richard Rosenman, Editor, Wagner News (Toronto Wagner Society)
LSM Guest Reviewer
The curtain rises on a vignette that promises but not delivers the expectation produced –an iconic street scene of rushing, anonymous multitudes is contrasted with a lone immobile figure apart, alone. This is Blanche, and a deep silence envelops all.
This production of Francis Poulenc’s work, revived from the Munich premiere of March 28, 2010, tries to be a mood piece – a lonely cabin in nowhere, an island of light in a dark nothingness; but no matter how it advances from backstage to front, no matter how it turns this way or other to face the public, it is still a transparent cage full of squabbling women, dressed like any homebound housewives. The transparency is visual and acoustic. It allows us to see and hear the dialogues. The action takes place in this one space, now a common room, now the Mother Superior’s death chamber, and so on. There is no nunnery paraphernalia, no Christian symbols to distinguish this group from any gathering of manless women. No reference to their faith. No threatened doom from the synthetic police, wimpy and hardly the instruments of implacable, cruel state.
The only refugee is the text which, mercifully, Dmitri Tcherniakov was not allowed to alter, ringing with addresses like “mother”, “sister”, as the only references to what Bernanos wanted, and names like Chevalier de la Force and Blanche de la Force, the last one the lone figure at the opening and the victim who rehabilitates herself at the end, but the Tcherniakov way.
Tcherniakov drifts too far from the intentions and promises of the text, culminating in a finale difficult to reconcile with sounds of another, embedded in the libretto. The self immolation, or self asphyxiation, planned by the sisters in the now sealed cabin/hut/convent room, is foiled by Blanche, bent on martyrdom, breaking down the door and leading the sisters one by one out into open air. She then locks herself in the now abandoned hut/etc/etc and presumably perishes in the ensuing fiery explosion, complete with a mini mushroom cloud of artificial smoke.
One of the most moving effects of the original is rendered meaningless by this contrived ending, worthy of a Schwartzeneger’s erstwhile films. This whole ado about the sealed hut and the rescue of the sisters, is accompanied by the ominous thumps, referential to a guillotine, here out of context. It is as if at the end Hamlet went on a vacation.
With fine singing overall, still some distinguish themselves. The mature Felicity Palmer, as the dying prioress, Madame De Croissy, quite convincing in her death rattle; Chevalier de la Force, Blanche’s brother, Bernard Richter, fine tenor and her father, Marquis de la Force, Alain Vernhes, engaging; Soile Isokoski as Madame Lidoine, and, of course, Blanche, Susan Gritton, a beautiful soprano, perhaps too lyrical for one consumed so by angst that it drove her to seek refuge from the world in a convent and faith, and ultimately to martyrdom by self sacrifice.
Kent Nagano, who led the orchestra, was visibly the public’s favorite. He received the most dedicated applause among the lukewarm audience reaction. Part of it was surely a reaction to his decision to depart as the Munich Staatsoper’s musical director, a common knowledge by then. Still, a number of empty seats condemned the performance a priori.

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