La Scena Musicale

Friday, 26 February 2010

Chang and von Oeyen: A Musical Union

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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Sunday, 21 February 2010

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 22 - 28)

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




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

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

During this Osvaldo Golijov Week, in addition to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the composer will also appear in events with Soundstreams and the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. On Monday, Feb. 22, 7 pm at the Gardiner Museum, Soundstreams is hosting The Diverse World of Osvaldo Golijov. Attendance is free but you need to register to ensure a spot. Go to http://www.soundstreams.ca/our_events/index.php for details. On Wednesday, Feb. 24 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Soundstreams presents Ashes in the Wind, featuring music of Golijov and Jose Evangelista. Soloists include mezzo Wallis Giunta and pianist Serouj Kradjian. Also appearing is American soprano Dawn Upshaw singing three Schubert lieder that have inspired Golijov. For additional information and tickets, go to http://www.soundstreams.ca/our_events/detail.php?id=72 On Friday, Feb. 26 7 - 9 pm at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at the University of Toronto, the Faculty of Music presents Golijov at its Composer's Forum, an excellent opportunity to hear Golijov talk about his creative world.

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

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

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

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

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


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