La Scena Musicale

Monday, 26 April 2010

Eschenbach, Lang Lang and the SHFO Give Austin a Show to Remember!

There is no one hotter in the world of classical music today than Chinese pianist Lang Lang. What a coup for Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra (SHFO) that he agreed to be the featured soloist on their first North American tour!
In this extraordinarily long tour of twenty-three concerts in thirty-two days, Lang Lang played concertos by Prokofiev, Mozart and Beethoven, with Eschenbach at the podium.
I caught up with this remarkable road show at the Long Center in Austin, Texas.
An Intimate Destination for Music Festival Connoisseurs
The Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival is based in Salzau Castle, 100 kilometers north of Hamburg, Germany. Over the past thirty years it has grown into one of the most prestigious festivals in Europe.
Each year, a new festival youth orchestra is created after months of international auditions. One hundred young musicians are selected from over a thousand applicants around the world, and these fortunate 100 spend the summer in Salzau working with some of the world’s greatest conductors.
Leonard Bernstein founded the Orchestral Academy of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, and his work has been carried on by conductors of the stature of Valery Gergiev, Kurt Masur, Sir Georg Solti and Christoph Eschenbach.
Fabulous - Fast and Furious - Clearly The Best of the Best!
The SHFO Austin concert opened with Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical,” played with great precision and panache. I particularly liked the way Eschenbach shaped the brief Gavotta, reminding us that Prokofiev was, after all, a great ballet composer. The Finale went like the wind, showing off the orchestra’s virtuosic winds to great advantage.
Attentive listeners might have noticed a quote from Beethoven’s Seventh in this symphony – an example of Prokofiev’s ‘affectionate parody’ of classical style.
Lang Lang’s Mozart Showy and Exquisite
Lang Lang continues to astound audiences the world over with his incredible technique, but lately he is giving audiences much more – a deepening musicianship. He has gone out of his way, for example, to enrich his study of Bach and Beethoven with Daniel Barenboim, and of Mozart and Schubert with Eschenbach – each of these maestros an internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso in his own right.
On this night, Lang Lang collaborated with Eschenbach on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major K. 453. There is room for virtuosity here – Mozart, like Lang Lang, enjoyed showmanship – but the higher musical values required are beauty of tone and maturity of phrasing, and in this performance, Lang Lang demonstrated that he can play Mozart as well as he plays Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. The rapport between pianist, conductor and orchestra was remarkable. The give and take was exemplary from beginning to end.
As Only Lang Lang Can!
For his encore, Lang Lang chose the thrilling finale from Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7. He played with incredible abandon and the kind of bravura that is nearly unique today.
Traditional Beethoven Mindful of the Masters
This evening’s performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony opened with an unusual ‘delayed’ first chord; this was quite deliberate on Maestro Eschenbach’s part, but at least one critic reviewing an earlier performance on this tour complained about a lack of unanimity in the orchestra.
In fact, Eschenbach was employing a style of attack considered the norm when Furtwängler and Böhm were conducting. German orchestras were trained to play the first chord in classical works after, rather than on, the conductor’s downbeat, the goal being that the musicians should feel the first chord together, and enter accordingly.
With orchestras trained in this tradition, this tactic works quite well - as it did in Austin.
Eschenbach’s approach throughout the symphony was traditional rather than, as is ‘fashionable’ today, an emulation of the style advocated by the period instrument specialists.
There was lots of vibrato in this performance and tempi were moderate rather than fast to the point of unintelligibility. The timpani were forceful, but not intrusive as they so often are in period instrument performances. The performance had plenty of excitement, as Eschenbach whipped up his players in all the right places.
As an encore Eschenbach and the SHFO offered a powerful performance of Beethoven’s “Prometheus Overture.”
For Those Wanting More…
If you are interested in hearing the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra on its home turf, plan to be in North Germany this summer between July 10 and August 29. The festival will be celebrating its 25th anniversary, and the theme this year is the music of Poland.
Among the guest artists will be Valery Gergiev, Alan Gilbert, Christopher Hogwood, Thomas Hampson and Matthias Goerne. There will be 136 concerts during the seven-week festival, and the concerts will be given in 74 different locations in the Schleswig-Holstein region. For more information visit the festival website.

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This Week in Toronto (April 26 - May 2)

Soprano Serena Farnocchia (Photo courtesy of Atelier Musicale srl)

With the spring opera season in full swing, the musical offerings are varied and delectable. Top on my list is the opening of one of Donizetti's "Three Queens" - Maria Stuarda, at the Canadian Opera Company. This is the first fully staged production of this opera in Canada. It has a really great cast, headed by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia in the title role. She was Luisa Miller for the COC, impressing everyone with her limpid, gleaming tone. She is also a wonderful Liu and Mimi, the last I heard her sing in Santa Fe in 2007. I look forward to her return. Also very special is the appearance of Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta. Saw her in Ermione and as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito at Santa Fe some years ago. I was bowled over by her intensity and "take-no-prisoners" style of vocalism - a very exciting singer. Tenor Eric Cutler makes his company debut as Leicester. Antony Walker conducts. Opening night is May 1, and it promises to be an evening of vocal fireworks - not to be missed! In the mean time, the COC production of Der fliegende Hollander continues with performances on Wednesday April 28 and Sunday May 2. As well, Opera Atelier's English language The Marriage of Figaro will be at the Elgin Theatre on April 27, 28, 30, and May 1. I attended opening night and enjoyed the handsome production, clever staging and the fine ensemble singing. I am usually not one for operas sung in translation, but this very clever English translation worked well. This is a show well worth attending.

Elsewhere on the opera front, Toronto Operetta Theatre's Pirates of Penzance is not being presented this week as originally intended. Instead, the company is putting on a Gilbert and Sullivan Extravaganza on May 1 and 2. It features singers originally engaged for the cancelled show. The reason for the cancellation of the staged production is not clear. For details, go to

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is putting on A Night at the Opera, a concert of operatic excerpts starring soprano Joni Henson, mezzo Lauren Segal, tenor Richard Margison, and baritone Doug MacNaughton. TMC specializes in oratorios and other choral works, and I can't remember the last time it puts on an operatic concert like this one. Noel Edison conducts the TMC Festival Orchestra. It takes place on Wednesday, April 28 at Koerner Hall. For more information, go to

The Women's Music Club of Toronto presents a recital of Schumann and Chopin by pianist Janina Fialkowska at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at the U of T Faculty of Music, on Thursday 1:30 pm. Fialkowska has had her share of career setbacks due to health issues, but now she is back. Find out more at her website:
Information on the concert can be found at

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting Mendelssohn and Mahler, a rather eclectic and unusual pairing, on Thursday 8 pm (repeated on Saturday May 1) at Roy Thomson Hall. On the program is Mendelssohn piano concerto No. 1 with pianist Anton Kuerti, and Mahler Symphony No. 7. Peter Oundjian conducts.

On Saturday 1 pm at selected Cineplex cinemas across Canada, the Met in HD is presenting Rossini's Armida starring American prima donna Renee Fleming. The Met mounts this production as a vehicle for Fleming. This is is hardly ever done, not just because it is so long - four hours, but also it requires five tenors! The Met has high tenors Lawrence Brownlee, Bruce Ford, and Barry Banks, so there won't be any shortage of stratospheric notes! I don't know about the ticket situation, but you might want to call the Cineplex theatres carrying the show. The encore performance will be on May 22.

Also on Saturday, Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is giving a recital of Schumann, Schubert, Liszt, Scriabin, and Prokofiev at 8 pm in the new Koerner Hall. Wang is now on the roster of Deutsche Grammophon and she is definitely a pianist to watch.

The Aldeburgh Connection presents a very intriguing concert on Sunday at 2:30 pm at Walter Hall. It is billed as City of Villages, a singer's tour of Toronto, with works by Wagner, Sullivan, Beckwith and Ross. The soloists are soprano Lucia Cesaroni, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Benjamin Covey. Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata will be at the piano as usual.

The Amici Chamber Ensemble's final concert of the season, Silenced Voices, takes place on Sunday May 2, 3 pm at Glenn Gould Studio. Baritone Russell Braun joins Amici in a moving program featuring the songs of Ukrainian composer Kyrylo Stetsenko and Amenian composer, Father Gomidas, plus chamber works by Gideon Klein and Erwin Schulhoff, all of them victims of genocide. Tickets are available at the Roy Thomson Hall box office. For more information, go to


Sunday, 25 April 2010

Figaro in English Offers Charm and Wit

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Imagine stepping into an interior courtyard of a country residence; a group of ticketholders are being treated to a private performance of a comic opera. The guests munched on chocolate bars and sipped bottled water during intermission. The year is 2010.

And so opened Opera Atelier’s new production of Mozart’s beloved The Marriage of Figaro at the Elgin Theatre Saturday night, when director Marshall Pynkoski recreated the private performance of Beaumarchais’s stage comedy of the same title that took place in the home of a French nobleman prior to its official debut in Paris in 1784.

Sung in English with a modern, clever translation by British director/writer Jeremy Sams, the “play within a play” saw singers addressing the audience directly and nimble dancers rearranging the set artfully.

Music director David Fallis, who also leads the Toronto Consort in his spare time, conducted Tafelmusik Orchestra in the pit in fine form. Starting with the auspicious and exciting overture, much of the music during the three-hour performance was exceedingly well played with precision and colour, including that from Charlotte Nediger, who accompanied the recitativi on the fortepiano as light as a soufflé.

Figaro is rarely this tall, but in the long legs of Canadian bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre, Figaro has never been more adorable or likeable. Laquerre's voice is so expansively warm and smooth, I only wished his lower register was projected better. That being said, the sharp contrast between Laquerre's mellow tone and the bright tweets of Susanna, sung brilliantly by soprano Carla Huhtanen, added interesting textures throughout to the work's otherwise cheerful and harmonious lyricism.

The jealousy-driven Count Almaviva, portrayed by baritone Phillip Addis, came across strong and hot-headed, but short on authority. Addis sings well, even passionately at times. But when paired with soprano Peggy Kriha Dye, whose Countess Rosina is layered with emotional turmoil despite the farce, Addis's Count — perhaps because he's confined in the same type of tights and riding boots as his valet Figaro is — appeared boyishly powerless.

Fresh out of school and already making a buzz on the operatic scene is mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, who is an absolute delight in the pants role of page boy Cherubino. Hiding her fiery red hair under the hat, Giunta's supple voice is light and refined. Her Cherubino is on the girly side for someone who is supposedly sexually charged, but sympathetic and lovable all the same.

Overall, the ensemble work stood out and it's nice to see a young cast that includes Laura Pudwell as Marcellina, Curtis Sullivan as Dr. Bartolo, Patrick Jang as Don Basilio and Curzio, Vasil Garvanliev as Antonio, and 17-year-old Cavell Wood as Barbarina.

While no English version of the opera will ever be quite the same as librettist Da Ponte's original tongue-rolling Italian, this Figaro is refreshingly charming, witty, and there is no shortage of laughs.

The Marriage of Figaro continues at Elgin Theatre on April 25, 27, 28, 30 and May 1.

Opera Atelier's website

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