La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

TSO Overachieved with Lang Lang in Liszt Concerto


by L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

What a difference a superstar pianist can make.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s special one-night-only concert on Sept. 27, featuring the Chinese phenomenon Lang Lang, began with two very good performances — Mozart’s colourful Magic Flute overture and Brahms’ to-die-for third symphony in the first half of the program.

However, both performances became relatively pale and unmemorable the instant music director Peter Oundjian gave cue to the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, with a relaxed and polished Lang sitting at the keyboard.

The TSO rarely sounded so concentrated and unapologetic, with beautiful lush tones that marinated the hall, and with the absolute confidence of a major metropolitan orchestra in top form.

Liszt’s four-movement work, performed as a single continuous piece and lasts for about 20 minutes, is a firecracker that requires full-on buoyancy and coolness from all players. Oundjian and the TSO delivered all that and much more, mastering the back and forth play of the powerful main theme and every little dialogue between orchestra and soloist. They looked like they had fun and when not playing they turned their eyes to the pianist at the helm.

Lang, still just 28 years old, gave the concerto a satisfying bravura-style treatment both he and Liszt are known for, yet not a single note was out of place. Every phrase was thought out, every turn of passage embraced, and every cadence bang on and choreographed with hand gestures not unlike tai chi or martial arts. He’s a bit like the Elvis Stojko of classical music in athleticism, except there’s much more poise and artistic vision.

Under Lang’s much-blessed fingers, the music danced, lamented and tumbled effortlessly. He could have easily played the whole thing with his eyes closed and, in fact, he closed his eyes or looked away from the keyboard most of the time.

Following an undying standing ovation from the audience, Lang performed two encores while the orchestra sat still on stage. But it was the Liszt that lingered at the back of the mouth at the end of the night.

Oundjian announced during the concert that the TSO administration is currently working with Lang’s people to have the pianist in town for an extended period of time next year. Let’s hope so, because pianistically speaking anyway, no one can touch him right now.

> TSO.ca

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Sunday, 26 September 2010

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 27 - Oct 2)

Tenor Salvatore Licitra in town for a Bel Canto Foundation Gala Concert (Photo credit: Olivier Wilkins)

















Sondra Radvanovsky is COC's newest Aida
Photo: Nigel Dickson















There are lots of big events happening for opera fans this week. The biggest news is undoubtedly the opening of Canadian Opera Company's Aida. The last time COC staged this Verdi opera was April 1986 - that's twenty-four and a half years ago! Despite its huge popularity, Aida isn't staged all that often because of the difficulty of finding the great voices needed to do this piece justice. Torontonians have the great good fortune of engaging American-born Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. To my ears, she is the genuine article - the best Verdi soprano in front of the public today. The voice is huge, dark, gleaming, and gorgeous, with an easy top, and supported by a solid technique and used with exemplary musicality. She is married to a Canadian and has been making her home in Southern Ontario for quite some years, but this will be her first major engagement and her first complete opera in Toronto. And it is her role debut as well! She is sharing the role with another Canadian, soprano Michele Capalbo, who has made a name for herself in the Italian spinto repertoire. Capalbo is famous for her high pianissimos, so this run of twelve Aidas will be a real vocal showcase. In addition to the two prima donnas, this production also features fast-rising Australian tenor Rosario La Spina, a name new to Canadian audiences. However, La Spina has made a name for himself in his native Australia, including a very notable Pinkerton a few years ago in Sydney. Jill Grove, known for her contralto low register, is Amneris, while baritone Scott Hendricks, the Iago last season, is Amonasro. Canadian bass Phillip Ens is Ramfis. COC music director Johannes Debus conducts. Performances on Oct. 2, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, Nov. 2, and 5. For more information and tickets, go to http://coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/1011Season/Aida/CastAndCreativeTeam.aspx

Speaking of tenors, we also have in town Sicilian tenor Salvatore Licitra, one of the best known tenors today. Signor Licitra's star rose quickly when he jumped in at the last minute to replace an indisposed Luciano Pavarotti at a Met Tosca almost ten years ago. He has since established himself as a lirico spinto in great demand around the world, especially in the Italian verismo repertoire. His appearances in Canada include appearances in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. This time, Licitra is brought to Toronto to headline the Bel Canto Foundation's 2010 Gala, with Conductor Kerry Stratton leading the Toronto Concert Orchestra in its debut. This event will take place this Wednesday, September 29 at the Le Parc Conference and Banquet Centre 8432 Leslie Street at Highway 7 in Thornhill. The event is a fundraiser and it includes a dinner and concert. I am not sure of the ticket situation at this late date, but for more information, go to www.BelCantoFoundation.ca or call 647-454-7664.

Last week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened the new season with the monumental Mahler Second. It was a most impressive opening night, I must say. Kudos to Peter Oundjian for leading the massive forces in an exciting performance, drawing torrents of galvanizing sounds from the augmented orchestra. But don't interpret the comment as indicating a bombastic performance - there were moments of delicacy and poetry as well. If the opening movement was somewhat episodic, the performance continued to build and at the end, the audience was left emotionally drained but elated. The musicians were given a complete, unreserved standing ovation that lasted many minutes. The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is one of Canada's treasures, and it was in fine form. Mezzo Susan Platts has a contralto-like low register, and her "Urlicht" was wonderful, while not erasing memories of the great Kathleen Ferrier or Canada's own Maureen Forrester. If memory serves, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has recorded this in a live performance with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Her voice has become richer the last two or three years, so she made a warm, full-bodied sound in her brief moments near the end, and it blended well with the choir. It was a performance to remember. This week, the TSO is busier than ever with two different programs. On Thursday and Saturday, we have Schumann and Chopin - Canadian Louis Lortie, a frequent visitor to TO, plays the Schumann Piano Concerto and Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise. Peter Oundjian conducts. The concert is at 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall. On Monday, the peripatetic Lang Lang makes a return visit, playing Liszt No. 1. Also on the program is Brahms Symphony No. 3. This concert is repeated on Friday. For details and tickets, go to http://www.tso.ca/Home.aspx

Elsewhere, the COC's noon hour Free Concert Series continues at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on Tuesday with pianist Darrett Zusko playing Mozart, Schumann and Chopin; and an intriguing program on Thursday called Beyond Bellydance, on traditional and contemporary Arabic dance. As usual, show up early if you want a seat! For more information and program details, go to http://coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/FreeConcertSeries.aspx On Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, the Off Centre Music Salon opens its season with Tears and Laughter, featuring works by Shostakovich and Dunayevski, among others. It features tenor Ryan Harper, baritone Vasil Garvanliev, soprano Ilana Zarankin, cellist Winona Zelenka, plus Inna and Boris Zarankin. The concert takes place at the Glenn Gould Studio. For more information, go to http://offcentremusic.com/concerts.html

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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Toronto Symphony Opens Season with Mahler Second



By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

In a similar fashion it ended its previous season in the spring, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened its 89th concert season on Sept. 23 with a big orchestra, big choir, stunning vocal soloists and a lot of exhilaration in the air.

The single piece of work on display was Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, the Resurrection, which music director Peter Oundjian describes in the program as “the true successor to Beethoven’s Ninth”.

The lightning timpani strokes, the stormy and theatrical mood, the graceful calm, the magical and almost surreal voices combined — it was all there, one at a time, like a depressed schizophrenic monster on Prozac rising slowly and reluctantly from dark basement to earthly soil and into an orgy of spiritual om and eternal high.

The contrasts throughout the five movements were nicely played by the orchestra, with Oundjian managing to coax out some of the most impossible pianissimos ever written for a large ensemble. And just when you least expect it, Mahler gives you the pipe organ, bells, tam-tams, horns, trumpets, two harps, two timpani and everything else on stage (and some off stage). The performance overall could have had more life, especially in the hopeless first movement, but it was home run most of the way for Oundjian and his players. A well-deserved standing ovation broke out as soon as the last note ended.

The two soloists that gave the performance its juice were soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo-soprano Susan Platts.

Platts, dressed in an elegant red evening gown, sang with a dark and creamy tone in Urlicht (Primal Light), one of the most arresting songs in the entire symphony. Her capable voice carried over the orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with good phrasing, intonation and clear diction.

Opposite Platts was Bayrakdarian in a black-and-white mermaid dress. With a commanding stage presence, Bayrakdarian’s subtle entry in the finale was done with skill and taste. She sounded a bit pressed in her first high rise above the choir, but showed off the range of her voice the rest of the way with superb control and deep understanding of the music.

The performance repeats at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 25 at 8 p.m.

TSO.ca

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Monday, 20 September 2010

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 20 - 26)

Left: Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian opens the TSO season in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. Photo: Dario Acosta




While it is sad that the memorably sizzling summer is all but a distant memory, Torontonians can console themselves with the start of an equally hot fall music season. Several major music presenters start their season this week, chief among them the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Thursday September 23 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall with Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection". Soloists are soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and mezzo Susan Platts, two of the brightest lights in the Canadian musical firmament. Supporting them is the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian is on the podium. This concert is repeated on Saturday September 25 at 8 pm. For information and tickets, go to http://www.tso.ca/Concerts-And-Tickets/Events/2010-2011-Season/Opening-Night-Mahler-Resurrection-Symphony.aspx

Canada's premiere baroque band Tafelmusik opens its season on Wednesday September 22 7 pm with Lyrical Baroque, a mixed program of works by Handel, Vivaldi, Telemann, Fasch and Conti, under the direction of its leader Jeanne Lamon. Soloists are soprano Shannon Mercer in arias from Il pastor fido, and Eric Hoeprich playing the chalumeau, described on the Tafelmusik website as "an early clarinet". The concert takes place at its usual venue, Trinity St. Paul's Centre on 427 Bloor Street West. The concert is repeated on Thursday, Friday, Saturday all at 8 pm, with the last performance on Sunday at 3:30 pm. For details and tickets, go to http://www.tafelmusik.org/concerts/concert_LyricalBaroque.htm

While the Canadian Opera Company's mainstage show Aida isn't due to open until October 2, its free concert series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre kicks off on Tuesday noon with Meet the Young Artists showcasing new and returning members of the COC Ensemble. The new singers this year include Ambur Braid, Jacqueline Woodley, Rihab Chaieb and Christopher Enns. I've heard all four of them - Enns in a recital at Heliconian Hall some months ago, and the three women at the COC President's Council Season Opening Event two weeks ago. All of them have lovely voices and are valuable additions to the Ensemble. Returning are Simone Osborne, Neil Craighead, Wallis Giunta, Adrian Kramer, Michael Uloth and Ileana Montalbetti. The noon hour concerts are free and extremely popular, so be sure to line up 45 minutes in advance to ensure a seat. Go to http://coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/FreeConcertSeries/September2010.aspx to download a pdf file of the program.

The Tapestry New Opera Works under the direction of its long-time leader Wayne Strongman opens Opera Briefs: a program of Opera Scenes by John Harris, Stephen Andrew Taylor and Gareth Williams. It takes place on Thursday Sept. 23 at 8 pm at the Ernest Balmer Studio, 55 Mills Street in the Distillary District. Soloists are Tapestry regulars Carla Huhtanen, Keith Klassen and Peter McGillivray. Joining them is mezzo Kimberly Barber in her Tapestry debut. This show is repeated on September 24 at 8 pm and on September 25 at 4 pm. For more information, go to http://www.tapestrynewopera.com/

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Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Une rentrée culturelle sous un ciel variable


Par Simon Brault, président de Culture Montréal

La rentrée culturelle bat son plein. Des centaines de créateurs et des dizaines de compagnies et d’institutions tentent d’attirer l’attention en présentant les fruits d’un travail de création et de production qui les a mobilisés pendant des mois, sinon des années.

Au travers de cette fébrilité, des défis complexes se profilent à l’horizon pour notre ville... et il faudra bien les relever pour espérer d’autres rentrées aussi foisonnantes ! Le secteur culturel montréalais est reconnu pour sa résilience, mais il est impératif d’en renforcer les assises financières et l’ancrage dans la population pour le protéger des forts vents qui souffleront bientôt…

Car force est de constater que rien ne va pour le mieux dans le meilleur des mondes. Partout en Occident, on assiste à un mouvement de balancier inquiétant ; moins de deux ans après l’adoption de plans de relance très coûteux dont le secteur culturel a peu bénéficié, plusieurs gouvernements annoncent en effet des compressions sévères pour juguler des déficits record. De nombreux experts prédisent plusieurs années de stagnation et remettent en question les hypothèses de croissance sur lesquelles se fondent les modèles d’affaires et l’action des gouvernements depuis la fin de la deuxième guerre mondiale.

De plus, le climat politique morose qui prévaut affecte aussi l’élan de la métropole. L’espace de confiance nécessaire à la réalisation de grands projets semble rétrécir. Mais Culture Montréal continuera de coopérer avec les ministres concernés, avec la mairie de Montréal et avec la Chambre de Commerce du Montréal métropolitain pour la mise en œuvre du Plan d’action Montréal, métropole culturelle 2007-2017.  Ce plan a entre autres permis un rattrapage dans le réseau des bibliothèques publiques et le décollage du projet de réaménagement du Quartier des spectacles. Ce n’est pas rien ! L’émergence de Montréal Complètement Cirque, qui a investi plusieurs arrondissements de la métropole cet été, s’inscrit aussi dans la vision portée par le Plan d’action.

Cependant, presque trois ans après la tenue du Rendez-vous, il faut admettre que les nombreux projets d’infrastructures ont drainé beaucoup de ressources et d’attention alors que de les dossiers touchant le développement culturel au quotidien sont restés en friche.        
 
À cet effet, on ne peut passer sous silence la situation actuelle dans le Quartier des spectacles. L’état de délabrement du boulevard Saint-Laurent s’est accentué avec la stagnation du chantier du 2-22. De plus, la vision et la promesse d’un « environnement unique pour vivre, créer et se divertir »  semble difficile à réaliser alors que les projets de condos dispendieux poussent comme des champignons. Cela dit, il faut saluer les efforts convaincants du Partenariat du Quartier des spectacles pour animer la Place  des Festivals ; l’édification de l’Adresse symphonique ; les rénovations à la Place des arts ; et la reconfiguration possiblement prometteuse des grands festivals.

Évoquons un autre sujet d’inquiétude : en juin dernier, l’évacuation, pour des motifs de sécurité, de dizaines d’artistes d’un édifice situé au 5555 de Gaspé -  dans le Mile End, l’un de nos châteaux forts créatifs - nous rappelait, si besoin était, qu’ici comme ailleurs, les artistes sont souvent les premières victimes d’un développement fait en leur nom dans des quartiers dont on veut optimiser la vocation culturelle pour des raisons économiques. Il faut contrer ce phénomène, et c’est pourquoi Culture Montréal proposait récemment un ensemble de solutions pour favoriser la présence des créateurs sur le territoire. Nous devons être à la hauteur de nos prétentions de métropole culturelle exemplaire !

Il faudra bien plus que des bétonneuses et des beaux discours pour bâtir la métropole culturelle sous ce ciel variable. Il faudra une vision partagée et appuyée par nos concitoyens. C’est donc avec eux qu’il faut parler d’art et de culture à l’occasion de la rentrée.

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The Muti Era Begins in Chicago

CSO Launches Bold Vision and New Recording   

By Barbara Sealock 





A bold new era is underway at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the arrival of Maestro Riccardo Muti as the Orchestra’s tenth music director.


Muti’s much-anticipated tenure bodes well for the CSO, its mission, reach, and direction. Outlining a “fresh approach to programming in general,” the maestro will bring wide appeal and vibrant change to Symphony Center and beyond.


No stranger to Chicago, Riccardo Muti made his debut with the CSO at Ravinia in 1973 and was resident conductor in 2007 for a month-long series of subscription concerts, a sold-out opening night, and a triumphant European tour, during which time he had the opportunity to get to know members of the orchestra and staff as “members of an extended family.”


Early on, Muti appointed world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma to the newly created position of Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, which began in January 2010. The appointment of Ma as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first creative consultant is a cornerstone of Muti’s vision for the CSO: to collaborate with visionary artists in order to create unparalleled musical experiences.


Yo-Yo Ma and Evgeny Kissin will have residencies spanning both the CSO subscription and Symphony Center Presents series. Among other plans are multi-cultural initiatives, outreach to the Chicago community, programs for incarcerated and at-risk youth, and live performances in schools. A European tour is projected for 2011 and a Carnegie Hall performance is scheduled for April.


The new International Chicago Symphony Orchestra Sir Georg Solti Conducting Competition and Apprenticeship will be launched this season, offering a conductor at the start of his or her career the opportunity to come to Chicago to study and train with Riccardo Muti and other distinguished guest conductors. The selection of an apprentice will be made through a competitive process, and applications are currently being accepted.


A month-long inaugural celebration opens with “Festa Muti: Concert for Chicago” at Millennium Park on September 19, with pre-concert performances by Chicago area youth musicians beginning at 4:30 p.m. Free concerts, open rehearsals, community events and subscription programs will be presented throughout the month. A Gala Ball and concert featuring Anne-Sophie Mutter as guest soloist will be held at Symphony Center and Millennium Park on October 2.


The first CSO recording of Muti’s tenure—a poignant and powerful live performance of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem—will be released September 28 in the U.S. on the CSO’s Grammy-winning label, “Resound.” Featured vocalists are Barbara Frittoli, Olga Borodina, Mario Zeffiri, and Ildar Abdrazakov.


Program innovation will be evident at A Berlioz Spectacular, September 23-25 and 28. Featuring Symphonie Fantastique not as the stand-alone work it is generally perceived to be but paired with Lelio, its companion piece, the performance will be narrated by renowned French actor Gérard Depardieu. “The two works belong together in performance, as the composer intended,” Muti said.


In collaboration with 50 Chicago cultural organizations, the CSO will celebrate Mexico 2010 as part of a citywide celebration honoring the bicentennial of the Mexican independence and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution.  Performances will include Carlos Chávez’s Sinfonía India and the world premiere of Bernard Rands’ Danza Petrificada, incorporating Mexican folk music and rhythms and inspired by the words of Mexican poet Octavio Paz.


A tribute to Chavela Vargas will be offered on October 15 as part of the Symphony Center Presents series, featuring flamenco vocalist Bulka from the island of Mallorca, Spain, and native Oaxacan singer Lila Downs, whose exotic style draws on music from bolero, corridor and ranchera, blues, jazz, and opera.


New Music will occupy a prominent place in the upcoming season. Anna Clyne’s «rewind« and Mason Bates’ The B-Sides will be performed by the CSO and led by Muti in celebration of Bates’ and Clyne’s first season as CSO Mead Composers-in-Residence. “Mason Bates and Anna Clyne will not only shine a new light on the artistic excellence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but also will place a special importance on the human element of cultural exchange and further define what an orchestra’s role should be in its community,” said Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.


The CSO will perform four commissioned works by Osvaldo Golijov, Bernard Rands, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and will celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Luigi Cherubini with rare performances of his Requiem in C Minor.


Muti will lead the CSO in Verdi’s “Otello” next spring in Chicago and on April 15 at Carnegie Hall. “Otello” is not heard enough, and opera teaches musicians to ‘play singing,’ almost like imitating the voice,” Muti said. “It gives the orchestra the opportunity to become more subtle, more nuanced.  Most conductors don’t know anything about voices. Otello is one of the most fantastic scores written in the 19th century. The great conductors of the past came from the opera: Klemperer, Toscanini, Mahler, and others.”


Given the CSO’s existing high level of attunement, he observed that “A great orchestra, with the right leadership, can be more finely nuanced and brought to an even higher standard.” The maestro noted that Americans like to use the word “vision” when speaking of future plans, “whereas in Italy, the word ‘vision,’ usually refers to a saint.  Unlike a saint,” he said, “my vision is not going to go away. In music—as in love, as in life—things that are done abruptly are not done well. All of this will take time.”


“Having worked with Muti for over 25 years, I never cease to be astounded by his passion, intellect, force of will and physical vitality,” said Yo-Yo Ma. “He not only cares deeply about the music and the score, but he’s tremendously concerned about the health of our planet, our children, and the least fortunate among us."


“What I’m excited about Maestro Muti is the incredible chemistry he has with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, certainly one of the greatest cultural institutions on our planet. Together, their chemistry and imagination and creativity will certainly set the musical world on fire.”


“Personally, I am thrilled, honored, and humbled at the prospect of working with the entire staff and musicians of the CSO.”


“The start of Riccardo Muti’s tenure as our music director marks an exciting time in the history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the city,” said William A. Osborn, chairman of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association board of trustees. “We are immensely proud to welcome him to our family, and we look forward to deepening the scope of our ongoing commitment to serving the broader Chicago community.”


“We express our extreme gratitude to Bank of America, our first global sponsor, for providing the support that will help make so many of the elements of Muti’s vision for our Association and our city a reality.”


According to CSO organizers, “Riccardo Muti’s vision for the CSO—to deepen the Orchestra’s engagement with the Chicago community, to nurture the legacy of the CSO while supporting a new generation of musicians, and to collaborate with visionary artists—signals a new era for the institution.”


“Making great music with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is just the beginning,” Muti said. “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and I will become ambassadors to the community and the world. We have a responsibility, as musical ambassadors, to serve our communities and we must not take this responsibility lightly."


“Chicago has a true treasure in the CSO, one that should be shared with as many people as possible.”


***


Tickets to Chicago Symphony Orchestra events may be ordered through the Orchestra’s website at cso.org or by calling 312- 294-3000


The Chicago Symphony Orchestra International George Solti Conducting Competition. After a preliminary and objective review of applicants, finalists will be invited for a round of auditions leading the Civic Orchestra of Chicago; the finals will be chaired by Riccardo Muti in February 2011. cso.org


New CSO Recording. The Verdi Messa da Requiem, Muti conducting, will be released on the CSO Resound label on September 28 in the U.S. The recording will be available on CD, Hybrid SACD and as Digital Download; iTunes: September 21; International Release: October 15; and additional major digital retailers: October 28.

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Monday, 13 September 2010

Founding Member of Cecilia Quartet Resigns

By Crystal Chan

Founding cellist Rebecca Wenham announced her resignation from the Cecilia String Quartet on September 10, 2010. Wenham cites her plan to move to California as the cause.

She will be replaced by cellist Rachel Desoer. Desoer will make her first appearance with Cecilia at the group's season opener: a performance as soloists with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra on Nuit Blanche (October 2, 8 p.m., Koerner Hall).

Desoer attended The Juilliard School, McGill University, and received her Bachelor of Music degree from Oberlin College. Past awards include at the 5th Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition.

Just days ago on September 5, 2010, the Cecilia Quartet was announced as the first place winner of the 10th Banff International String Quartet Competition.

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Saturday, 11 September 2010

Review: Ben Heppner in Recital


Photo: Kristin Hoebermann




BEN HEPPNER IN RECITAL

Ben Heppner, tenor
John Hess, piano

September 11, 2010, 4:30 pm
Four Seasons Centre, Toronto




by Joseph K. So

Since winning the Met Auditions and the Birgit Nilsson Prize in the late 1988, tenor Ben Heppner quickly rose to become the most celebrated Canadian tenor since the great Jon Vickers, specializing in the heroic tenor repertoire. He is regularly in demand in many of the major opera houses and concert halls of the world. But curiously he has sung little in his adopted home of Toronto. This past couple of seasons for example, he has sung at Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Aix en Provence, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Salzburg Festival, and Dallas Opera among others. For his last Toronto opera appearance in a complete role, one has to go back to his Canio in Pagliacci for the COC in the 1995-6 season. Our new opera house is now four years old, and the only time Heppner sang on this stage was a gala concert in the inaugural season of summer 2006. He was supposed to be the featured artist in the Diamond Anniversary Concert last fall, but illness led to his cancellation. There is speculation that Heppner will appear in one of his most celebrated roles, perhaps Tristan or Parsifal, in a future season with the COC, but this remains rumour for now. So today's "make up concert" is likely his only local appearance in the foreseeable future.

Given that today's concert coincided with the Toronto International Film Festival and Rosh Hashanah, the near sold-out opera house is a testament to his drawing power. If there is any doubt that Heppner is the most beloved Canadian classical artist, one only has to witness the waves of applause that greeted him at the beginning, and the standing ovation he received at the end, despite what can best be described as a seriously flawed recital. Singing at home has been curiously problematic for him in the past decade, so everyone had hoped that this would be a more felicitous outing for him. To be sure, there is no denying that a steady diet of the heaviest of operatic repertoires over a period of twenty years has taken its toll on his voice. The basic timbre remains attractive, and his artistry is never in doubt. But the human vocal cords are not designed to propel huge volumes of sound to the farthest reaches of the upper galleries over a heavy Wagnerian orchestra. As a result, the Heppner voice has lost some of its suppleness and technical facility over the years.

The program this afternoon consisted of songs by Grieg, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, some of the most beautiful in the repertoire - and congenial to his instrument. After a somewhat tentative opening in the first couple of songs, Heppner warmed up and delivered the pieces strongly and with his usual ingratiating timbre, a few minor glitches in intonation notwithstanding. The tessitura of the Grieg songs are not high, except for the last of the six, "Ein Traum", one of the loveliest that Grieg wrote. Heppner sang this beautifully, his top voice displaying a bloom that one is accustomed to hearing from him. He received a well deserved round of sustained applause at the end of the first group. Of the Sibelius group, particularly affecting was his attention to textual details in the famous "Flickan kom ifran sin alsklings mote", a piece often sung by women although there is a beautiful tenor version by the great Jussi Bjoerling. Also lovely was his rendition of "Svarta rosor". After the intermission came six Tchaikovsky songs, including the famous "Net, tol'ko tot, kto znal", more commonly known as "None But the Lonely Heart". Perhaps it was because Heppner had not committed the text to memory - referred self-effacingly by him as his "Soviet Block" - and relied on the score, his delivery of the Tchaikovsky group was more tentative, with a number of blemishes in intonation. He was more or less glued to the text, thus restricting his ability to communicate to the audience. But it was really in the final group of opera arias that he ran into trouble, beginning with "O souverain, o juge, o pere" from Le Cid. This is one of the tenor's favourite arias which he performs often, but on this occasion his singing was considerably below his best; the same can also be said of "Wintersturme" from Die Walkure, and the Tosti song that came after. It was unfortunate that the singer was not in good form - it really underscores the fragility of the human voice. Let's hope Heppner will be back and soon - he certainly has the audience behind him.

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Thursday, 2 September 2010

Montreal Symphony Signs Nagano for Three More Years

MSO Board chair announced at the orchestra's season opener dedicated to Haiti that maestro Kent Nagano has been signed for three more years to his contract, meaning that he will lead the orchestra for another four years.

> press release

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Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Feline Follies Forever: Cats Still Purrs and Fascinates

By Naomi Gold, naomi.gold@yahoo.com
Photo: © G CREATIVE

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'meowza' musical was presented in Montreal by Evenko, in conjunction with Broadway Across Canada, on August 20 to 22nd. The stats on CATS are staggering.  It's the 2nd longest running show on Broadway and most popular North American touring production in history. Based on T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats", the show has been translated into ten languages and has won seven Tony awards.

This production fulfilled both its hype and high expectations. Particularly er, memorable was the signature aria Memory, sung by Anastasia Lange --as Grizabella --once a glamour puss, but now an old and scruffy Jellicle cat. The coolest cat of them all, Rum Tum Tugger, was played to purrfection by (understudy) Felix Hess who hammed it up with a hip-swiveling, Elvisesque swagger. Chaz Wolcott, interpreting Magical Mister Mistoffelees, thrilled spectators with his jazzy prancing and (ballet) dancing.

Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier was packed --and decked -- to the rafters, as colorful Christmas lights adorned the staging area up to and including the second level of private loges. Sets and costumes were a sumptuous visual feast amidst oodles of psychedelic and special effects.  
J. Michael Duff conducted the performance, which was directed and choreographed by Richard Stafford.  Executive producer was Nicholas Howey for CAT'S-EYE, LLC.

The future of CATS: United Hemispheres Inflight Magazine interviews Andrew Lloyd Webber for their current issue. Apparently, he's been thinking about adding another couple of T.S. Eliot poems to the musical. Turns out, Webber owns a Turkish swimming cat, but he's concerned about the feasibility of having water in the theatre.  Obviously, he hasn't heard about the Canadian Opera Company's 2009 production of Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale & Other Short Fables.  Staged at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, it featured 67,000-plus litres of water poured into a pool structure which lay in the orchestra pit.  The total weight was a whopping 78 tons.  Andrew, are you listening ?  No problem !

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