La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Tippett, Mozart, Elgar Concert Offers Gem and Fire

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Violinist Stefan Jackiw didn’t draw a full house at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall Wednesday night (May 5, 2010). That’s too bad. He is a rare find.

The newly 25-year-old American, who looks like 15, made his gentle Toronto debut with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K.216. With his eyes closed, Jackiw swayed and turned. There was no fanfare, just pure and simple. His bowings were long and then short, quick and then slow, creating sweet poetic cadences the way Mozart had intended. By the time the catchy rondo ended softly in thin air, it felt like the icing on the cake had just been licked.

The audience wanted more and received the largo of Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in C-major as an encore. Jackiw dropped a few more jaws here with his tender phrasings, subtle colours, and a full range of sound.

The other half of the concert was dominated by Brits. First up was Michael Tippett’s Little Music for Strings. Led by conductor Sir Andrew Davis, the whittled-down TSO gave a careful reading of the score, which Tippett composed in 1946. The piece began with a flat, austere outlook, but ended with a somewhat teasing, festive vivace. Davis wrapped it up in style by turning to face the audience on the last beat.

The main course of the night was Elgar’s grand and complex Symphony No. 1. In this romantic and stormy piece, Davis, who conducted without a baton and in a laidback yet don’t-mess-with-me manner, brought out startling freshness and precision from each musician. There was a sweeping transparency throughout the long four-movement work in structure, harmony, and expression. The orchestra was a hot tamale.

Unfortunately, a fan up in the hall’s ceiling made a small racket during the Elgar. Hopefully it’s been taken care of, so you can enjoy the concert in peace at 7:30 p.m. on May 8 (minus the Tippett and intermission). Or, you can opt for a 3 p.m. performance at the George Weston Recital Hall on May 9.

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Monday, 3 May 2010

Pianist Yuja Wang - One to Watch

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Just a week ago, she had to cancel her concerts due to a sore arm. But pianist Yuja Wang showed no trace of fatigue during her triumphant Toronto debut recital at Koerner Hall Saturday evening.

Wang, a Chinese-born Curtis Institute grad, is a new generation artist who has risen quickly in recent years to much critical acclaim, and it was easy to see why. She walked briskly on stage, bowed in such speed and depth that her head almost banged the piano, and showered the audience with three Liszt-transcribed Schubert lieder  Gretchen am SpinnradeAuf dem Wasser zu singen, and Der Erlkönig  with a virtuosity that was both tender and robust.

Despite her petite ballerina figure, Wang’s sound was enormous. Obviously, she’s got red-hot chops. However, what was more mesmerizing was the way she owned the piano with a sense of youthful confidence and delivered ripe interpretations that are as smooth as a tiramisu. This was especially true in Schumann’s daunting Symphonic Etudes and a tasteful selection of Scriabin’s preludes, etudes, and the Poeme No. 1 in F-sharp major, Op. 32.

The highlight of the recital was Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6. Here, Wang’s charmingly feisty and rebellious personality shone through immediately in the devilish main theme. Her percussive attacks and blows were so daring with military-like precision that the lyrical passages sounded ethereally vulnerable and delicate.

Wang played three contrasting encores  Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64, No. 2Volodos’s paraphrase of Mozart’s Turkish March, and Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major, K. 455 — for an exuberant audience that stood on their feet cheering and shouting bravos. She nearly slipped while walking across the stage, but without losing composure sat down on the piano bench and performed the pieces with grace, mischief, and total control.

At 23 years old, this pianist is not just a powerhouse. She is one of the most interesting and important artists in the next decade.

> Read an interview of Yuja Wang in The Music Scene Spring 2010

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Sunday, 2 May 2010

This Week in Toronto (May 3 - 9)

Confrontation between soprano Serena Farnocchia as Maria Stuarda (r) and soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska (l) in COC's Maria Stuarda (Photo: Michael Cooper)

For opera lovers, the big news is the recent opening of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, the first fully stage production of this work in Canada. It is showing at the Four Seasons Centre. Its stellar cast is headed by Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, whose limpid tones are always a pleasure. The exciting Bulgarian soprano Alexandrina Pendatchanska sings Elisabetta, and American tenor Eric Cutler is Leicester. There is only a single performance this week (tomorrow May 4 at 7:30 pm) as the opera house is needed for the soon-to-open Idomeneo. I will see the Donizetti tomorrow and will have more to report.

On Sunday 2 pm, Mozart's Idomeneo takes centerstage at the Four Seasons Centre. It stars American Mozart specialist Paul Groves in the title role. This will be Groves' COC debut. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian sings Ilia, a role she sang earlier in the season at the Paris Opera. American soprano Tamara Wilson returns as Elettra. Canadian mezzo Krisztina Szabo is Idamante, a role sometimes sung by a tenor. Canadian tenor Michael Colvin (Arbarce) returns after an absence. He has centered his career in the UK the last two years. Colvin will also sing the title role in an all-Ensemble show on May 19. The music of Idomeneo is simply glorious - any chance to hear "Fuor del Mar", especially the difficult version, is not to be missed.

Meanwhile I attended the Sunday matinee of Der fliegende Hollander, and it proved to be a memorable afternoon at the opera. For me, the production by Christopher Alden and Allen Moyer remains problematic. Yes I do feel the German Expressionist style in this production is a good choice, but the way it is executed is more open to debate. Its rather claustrophobic-looking unit set poses serious limitations to scene changes, making it confusing for audience members new to this piece. For example, no phantom ship is physically possible in this production. Obviously we are in the 21st century and one shouldn't be slavish in adhering to operatic convention, but judging by the various subtexts and some radical stage directions introduced by Alden, his concept has strayed far from the original. OK, nobody expects Senta and Dutchman ascending to heaven - this original staging, rather hokey by modern day standards, I actually saw in Sarasota some years ago. But having Erik shoot Senta changes things considerably! The wandering Jew subtext and the "outsider" idea is so overused in European Regietheater these days that these twists no longer appear fresh. Thankfully the musical side of things was great. The orchestra was fantastic, with Johannes Debus giving a well-paced, incisive reading of great clarity and eloquence, eliciting torrents of exciting yet totally refined sounds from the pit. The fabulous chorus outdid itself, and the soloists were uniformly excellent. Particularly impressive was Evgeny Nikitin, whose singing surpassed the two previous Dutchmans in this production. The same can be said about Julie Makerov's Senta. Her voice, powerful yet lyrical, is perfect in the Jugendlich dramatisch repertoire. She would make an excellent Elsa and Elisabeth in the future. Swiss tenor Robert Kunzli, in the ungrateful role of Erik, sang his two arias with clarion tone. Mats Almgren was challenged by the low notes in the beginning, but warmed up to give an estimable performance, his unique bass with its dark and menacing timbre ideal as Daland. Finally I want to single out tenor Adam Luther, whose Steuermann was the best work he's done for the COC. This character doesn't have much music to sing, but he is unusually involved in this production, and Luther is up to the challenge. This show is well worth seeing (Saturday 4:30 pm).
The COC Ensemble Studio will give a Spring Schubertiade at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon on Tuesday. Soloists include Erin Fisher, Michael Uloth, Wallis Giunta, Michael Barrett, Simone Osborne, Teiya Kasahara, Laura Albino, Adrian Kramer, Neil Craighead, Adam Luther, and Ileana Montalbetti, this last singer tackling the highly dramatic Der Erlkonig! Anne Larlee is the pianist. The full program can be downloaded as a pdf file at Remember to show up 45 minutes ahead of time for a seat.

The great Canadian baritone Gerald Finley makes a welcome return to Toronto, this time in a recital at Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music on Sunday 3 pm. He gives a Mother's Day recital of Schumann, Barber, Ives and Ravel, with his frequent collaborator Julius Drake at the piano. For full details and tickets, visit

For those not voice-centric, there is always the symphony. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents a program of Mozart and Elgar, under conductor laureate Andrew Davis. Stefan Jackiw plays Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3, and Davis conducts Elgar Symphony No. 1. Dates are May 5, 6, 8, 9. For details, go to

The Emerson Quartet plays an all-Dvorak program - Cypresses Nos 1 - 6, plus Quartet in E flat Op. 51 and Quartet in G Op. 106. The concert is at Koerner Hall on Wednesday 8 pm. For more information and tickets, go to

Finally, for those willing to venture outside the GTA, there is a really rewarding concert in Kitchener, just a bit over an hour's drive west on the 401 - the sublime Verdi Requiem with an excellent quartet of soloists - soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo Marie-Nicole Lemieux, tenor John Mac Master, and baritone Nathan Berg. Howard Dyck conducts the Grand Philharmonic Choir. This concert is a special occasion - it marks the farewell of its long time music director Howard Dyck. There will be a reception after the show for those with reception tickets. It takes place on Saturday May 8, at 8 pm at Centre in the Square in 101 Queen Street North in Kitchener. For more information, go to


COC's Flying Dutchman - Right Notes on a Tilt

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

If you are there for the music, it’s gorgeous. If you are looking for more in the latest revival of Canadian Opera Company’s production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, it’ll depend on how long you can endure looking at the stage at a slant.

Allen Moyer’s set design of this previously run production (in 1996 and 2000) for the COC is ingenious in more than one ways. It is a ship at sea  a rectangular box that extends the length of the stage but tilted to the right. The ship then transforms into a spinning room, a home, and a party room. The singers sounded terrific because, and I can only imagine, it’s like singing with a surround-sound shell: voices were opulent, resonant, and magnetic.

At least that was the case at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on April 28.

Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin, making his COC debut, portrayed the ashen Flying Dutchman skilfully with not only his polished voice but superb acting. Soprano Julie Makerov walked the fine line between insanity and hopelessly in love in the role of Senta. Her voice, despite being a bit flat in some high pitches, was gloriously commanding. Swedish bass Mats Almgren as Daland was a little shaky in some lower passages in Scene 1, but his unique voice was rich and graceful. German tenor Robert Künzli as Erik was outstanding and so was mezzo-soprano Barbara Dever as Mary. Special kudos go to Canadian tenor Adam Luther as the Steerman for his eloquently beautiful solos in Scene 1, and to the choruses led by Sandra Horst. Conductor Johannes Debus and the COC orchestra delivered precision, passion, and drama from the pit.

However, the angle of the giant box stayed tilted to the right for the entire show, which runs for more than two hours without intermission.

In 1996, when I saw this very production at the then Hummingbird Centre, I lost a contact lens halfway through and watched the rest of the opera with one clear eye. My neck strained with a constant right tilt and I went home with a massive headache. The set is memorable to say the least; the image of this tilting stage was burned to my brain. It haunted me all these years like the portrait of the long-faced Flying Dutchman haunts Senta. I recoiled a bit when I saw Moyer’s infamous set again this week.

But bad experiences aside, the skewed ship and everything that it contained actually looked stunning in an instant. Director Christopher Alden evoked the condemnation of the nautical legend using mostly greyish tones during the first two scenes and, thanks to lighting designer Anne Militello, one felt the force of the sea intensely. This dark, oppressed mood was reinforced with a military-style spinning-and-weaving scene from the women’s chorus. Their synchronized foot stomping and hand gestures were chillingly choreographed it gave me goose bumps.

By the time you get to the last scene though, the set becomes dominated with neon green. If like most people in the audience your head is still tilted to the right, it’s hard to make out whether the actual stage above the orchestra pit is a flat line. The men wore neon green armbands that are Hitler-like and women sported neon green feathers. They wrestled back and forth on the intended stage that is the slanted party room, while lighting switched between neon green and neon pink. An elderly couple sitting near me left about halfway through and I contemplated reaching for some Tylenol in my bag.

In the end, it was the zombie walk of the Steerman across the real stage that saved me.

The Flying Dutchman continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on May 2, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 20.

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