La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Luminato Opening Weekend: Dark Star Requiem

Image from Dark Star Requiem

REVIEW: Dark Star Requiem (Staniland & Battson)

by Joseph K. So

Dark Star Requiem (Staniland and Battson)
Presented by Tapestry New Opera Works and the Luminato Festival
Wayne Strongman, music director/conductor
Tom Diamond, director
Beth Kates, design and projections
Ben Chaisson, design and projections
Neema Bickersteth, soprano
Krisztina Szabo, mezzo
Peter McGillivray, baritone
Marcus Nance, bass-baritone
The Elmer Iseler Singers
Gryphon Trio

The Fourth Annual Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity opened this weekend with a multitude of events in many venues across the city of Toronto. I attended the world premiere of Dark Star Requiem, staged by Tapestry New Opera Works in conjunction with the Festival. As Battson and Staniland explain in the program notes, the genesis of this piece began when they met at Tapestry's LibLab five years ago. Together they have created a chamber opera, two electro-acoustic sound projects, an art installation and an art song. Three years ago they decided to create this oratorio dealing with one of the most weighty subjects of contemporary society, that of AIDS tragedy. A sequence of 19 poems charting the history of the disease was incorporated into 14 movements. The musical movements are unified through a haunting melody and driving rhythms.

This is a most daunting subject on which to create a large-scale piece, that of a universal epidemic that resulted in immeasurable human suffering. Staniland and Battson are to be applauded for their efforts. It was obviously a labour of love for everyone involved, led by the four excellent soloists - soprano Neema Bickersteth, mezzo Krisztina Szabo, baritone Peter McGillivray and bass-baritone Marcus Nance. In the 70 minute piece - which went closer to 80 minutes last evening - they sang and acted multiple roles with passion and conviction. Contemporary vocal writing is sometimes not the most grateful for the voice, and on this occasion the singers were occasionally stretched by the demands of the music. But they unflinchingly tackled the difficulties head-on, and the result was impressive. Top vocal honours go to Szabo and McGillivray for having to deal so well with music of either extremely low tessitura or sustained passages at the top of the range. Neema Bickersteth's clear high soprano made a strong impact; and bass-baritone Marcus Nance's mellifluous voice lent the proper gravitas to anchor the quartet.

As mentioned earlier, the work is divided into fourteen "movements" roughly detailing the history of the disease from the very earliest days to present. The score is percussive, dissonant yet lyrical and evocative, greatly enhanced by some very well done lighting and projections. I also liked Tom Diamond's direction very much, using the available staging area with economy of means and uncommon fluidity. Cellist Roman Borys played magnificently and his work basically anchored the ensemble, supported by the rest of the trio and two percussionists. The singers, especially the lower voices, had excellent diction, but that said, the text would have benefited from surtitles. Occasionally, as in the "Black Lion" movement, the words were obscured by the very loud percussions. Conductor Wayne Strongman was most impressive, leading the ensemble with power and nuance. The Elmer Iseler Singers showed once again why it is one of the glories of the Canadian choral scene.

I find myself moved at the end of the evening, when the oratorio concluded with a very powerful and haunting Requiem. I have to say there were moments earlier in the work when it did not touch me as I had expected. Why? I find that often in the case of contemporary compositions of a weighty subject, sometimes the complicated intellectual discourse would take over, and the approach becomes rather didactic. There were moments, like in the "Theory" movement, that I felt I was in a history class. "Cuba Libre" with its rather forced humour revolving around the cocktail of medications didn't really work for me, although it did give an opportunity for Szabo and McGillivray to show off their comic flair. But the work has its greatest power and impact when the focus is on the personal, on their emotional response by the individual character to this tragedy. These quibbles aside, I am glad I saw it. CBC-2 taped the performance for broadcast on World AIDS Day on December 1, but I feel this work with its excellent production needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. There is a second performance this evening (Saturday June 12) at 8 pm in Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music. For anyone who cares about this 20th century tragedy, it should not be missed.

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Friday, 11 June 2010

FTA : clôture

FTA : clôture

Voici la clôture du Festival Trans-Amériques… Deux évènements  méritent toute fois encore votre attention ! Il s’agit, côté danse, du spectacle  Miroku, du Japonais Saburo Teshigawara,  présenté au Théâtre-Maisonneuve les 11 et 12 juin, à 20 h. Côté théâtre, les courtes trois lectures d’Amour, colère et folie, vous inciteront à participer à Une journée pour Haïti.


Le joli  titre du spectacle, Miroku, est le nom du futur Bouddha, celui qui viendra lorsque le monde sera harmonie. Pour Teshigawara, le mouvement jaillit comme le trait pur d’une calligraphie, il exige  un abandon et une présence de tous les instants. Miroku marque le retour à Montréal de Teshigawara après une absence longue de 10 ans. Je vous invite à consulter la critique du spectacle qu’a publié Fabienne Cabado dans l’hebdomadaire Voir.

Le spectacle est présenté  les 11 et 12 juin au théâtre Maisonneuve.

Une journée pour Haïti

Samedi, en point d’orgue à ces 17 jours de propositions artistiques, le festival propose la lecture-solidaritéUne journée pour Haïti.

Cinq mois jour pour jour après le terrible séisme qui a frappé le pays tout entier, le Festival Trans-Amériques nous invite à écouter à l’usine C la mise en lecture d’Amour, colère et folie, de l’écrivaine haïtienne Marie Vieux- Chauvet.  Le célèbre roman, publié en 1968, suscita la colère du despote alors au pouvoir en  Haïti, François Duvalier. Le dramaturge José Pliya a tiré de cette puissante trilogie (Amour, colère et folie sont trois romans réunis sous une même bannière) trois monologues mettant en présence trois figures féminines entières et résolues en dépit de l’injustice.

Toutes les sommes recueillies lors de cette journée, incluant les frais de service du réseau Admission, seront versées au Centre d’étude et de coopération internationale (CECI). Tous les artistes associés à ce projet offrent leur collaboration à titre gracieux.

Avec Une journée pour Haïti , le FTA conjugue avec succès foi et excellence. Martin Faucher, Brigitte Haentjens et Denis Marleau mettront en lecture les trois monologues de  l’adaptation théâtrale de José Pliya. La comédienne et ancienne ministre de la culture Magali Comeau-Denis est venue expressément de Port-au-Prince pour incarner, dans Amour, Claire sous la direction de Brigitte Haentjens la directrice de la compagnie Sybillines.  Denis Marleau dirigera, au grand plaisir des amis de la compagnie UBU Christiane Pasquier. Au regard de la fructueuse collaboration artistique qui est la leur depuis plusieurs années, la lecture de Colère est apriorité prometteuse. Le metteur en scène Martin Faucher – qui est aussi conseiller artistique auprès du FTA depuis 2007 - rencontre pour sa part l’impressionnante Pol Pelletier.

L’événement Une journée pour Haïti se déroule à l’Usine C samedi 12 juin, dès 14 h. À noter : La comédienne Magali Comeau Denis, Mélanie Demers, chorégraphe et directrice artistique de Mayday, et l’écrivain et éditeur Rodney Saint-Éloi, participeront à 18h00 à une table ronde ayant pour titre : « La situation des artistes et des arts en  Haïti aujourd’hui et leur rôle dans la reconstruction du pays. Et nous, ici, que pouvons-nous faire ? »

Pour plus de précision sur l’horaire ou le déroulement de la journée :

- Nathalie de Han

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TSO and YUNDI: Right Ingredients, but not Exceptional

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Aside from the fact that one is Chinese and the other Polish, pianist YUNDI bears an uncanny likeness to the composer that made him famous — the longish hair, the effeminateness, and the pale, sad-eyed look.

And maybe because he was the first pianist in 15 years to be awarded first prize at the 2000 International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition, YUNDI has emerged as a kind of prince of Chopin; he would dazzle us with virtuosic techniques and romantic melodies.

Playing Chopin's 
E-minor Piano Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, the 27-year-old pianist did just that. That being said, while YUNDI is a thinking pianist whose quality of playing often outweighs what he actually plays, something was missing from this performance.

He sounded tired, the orchestra followed along obediently, the piece came across fragmented, and the piano was barely audible at times. Despite some really nice moments here and there (in the second and third movements), it was a bit like watching a top chef throwing all the right ingredients into the pot and not produce a kick-ass dish.

Still, the audience showered the star pianist with standing ovation and cheers, and he returned to the stage with Chopin's 
Nocturne In E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2. Here, YUNDI delivered pure poetry that is second to none.

The second half of the program featured the long and abstract 
Symphony No. 9 in D minor by Bruckner.

After Canadian conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin backed out of the performance due to "exceptionally heavy schedule in recent weeks, compounded by scheduling changes," Jean-Marie Zeitouni, also Canadian, took over the podium to conduct this hard-sell piece of work.

Bruckner's last and unfinished symphony is a dark, agonizing, stop-and-start piece made up of an orgy of musical motifs that are, for the most part, tonally ambiguous. Even though a string of audiences were seen leaving the auditorium throughout the performance (presumably to line up for an autograph with YUNDI), Zeitouni and the TSO gave a careful reading of the score. The sound was rich, meaty, and full of colours, especially from the winds.

Kudos to principal timpanist David Kent, whose precise strokes gave the performance its soul.

The program repeats at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday, June 12.

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Thursday, 10 June 2010

Montreal Fringe Fest Starts Today!


June 10 – 20

The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary this summer. Founded by Kris Kieran and Nick Morra, the festival fell into Jeremy Hechtman’s hands in 1996 and has since become one of the Plateau-Mile-End’s largest cultural events. 

This year, the festival has expanded to 20 days and divided itself into three series. Starting June 1st, the Fringe After Dark Series will present a concert, special event or activity every evening, including a slow-dance night and a strip spelling-bee. 

By June 10th, the Fringe Park Series, at Parc-des-Amériques (corner of Rachel and St-Laurent), will host a plethora of outdoor activities including a circus workshop with Cirque du Soleil and a Piknic Électronik dance party on Astroturf. 

Finally, the Fringe itself runs from June 10th to the 20th and has many exciting performances lined up. French and English companies mix with each other and equally share the stage, something distinct to Montreal.

This year, watch out for:

» Transplante-moi un coeur, mon amour, by Les Garçonnes. Four female narrators give four different accounts of the story of a young girl who is incapable of accepting the mundane side of life. Presented in French.
» How Coyote Was Swallowed by the Sandia Mountains, by Anna Roth Trowbridge. This  case study of family dynamics affected by mental disorder promises to be a meta-theatrical gem. Leo, suffering from untreated bipolar disorder, commits suicide. His sister Scilla attempts to decipher the reason by writing him into a play. Along the way, haunted deserts meet mythical imagery and comedy meets insanity. Presented in English

Espace 4001 Space at 4001 Rue Berri
Saturday, June 12 at 5:15 PM
Sunday, June 13 at 8:15 PM
Wednesday, June 16 at 10:00 PM
Thursday, June 17 at 8:15 PM
Saturday, June 19 at 5:15 PM
Sunday, June 20 at 9:30 PM

Admission is $10 at the door, or $8 for ages 25 and under (with valid ID). Advance tickets are also available by telephone at 514.849.FEST or Fringe Passes are also available.

- Jessica Hill, Crystal Chan

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Monday, 7 June 2010

Sinfonia Toronto closes season with last-minute cello sensation

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Canadian cellist Shauna Rolston isn't easily replaceable. But when Soo Bae, another Canadian cellist, took her place at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio on May 14, the only cellist that mattered was the one featured on centre stage.

Rolston was to give the world premiere of Canadian composer Heather Schmidt's Cello Concerto and perform Tchaikovsky's Nocturne for Cello and Strings. However, she couldn't make it last minute due to personal reasons. 

In a revised program of Sinfonia Toronto's final concert of the season, Bae, 33, charmed the audience with loads of wits and personality in Boccherini's Sonata No. 6 (adagio and allegro only) and David Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody, the latter which she recorded for her self-released CD Bonjour, named after the Stradivarious Bonjour cello she won a three-year loan for from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2006.

Bae kept Canadian composer Chan Ka Nin's Soulmate for Cello and Strings on the program. Taken from the composer's Poetry on Ice, which he wrote for the Guelph Spring Festival in 1995, Soulmate describes the soulful connection between two figure skaters. It was transcribed by the composer for solo cello for Rolston, who later asked him to revise the piece for cello and string orchestra.
Even though Bae had just learned the notes on short notice, she delivered passion and grace with utmost precision and absolute confidence in this moving and intimate piece. In fact, she was ecstatic. This is a gutsy and fearless communicator who was born to do what she does best - play the cello.
Sinfonia Toronto under the direction of founder and conductor Nurhan Arman opened the program with Puccini's Crisantemi, originally scored for a string quartet, and closed it with Arman's own arrangement of Brahms's Sextet in G major, Op. 36. Arman brought out an eclectic range of colours and dynamics from this spirited group of largely young musicians. Some of the most beautiful sounds on this occasion came from principal cellist Andras Weber and principal violist Anthony Rapoport.
What a way to close the season.


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Sunday, 6 June 2010

This Week in Toronto (June 7 - 13)

Photo: Chinese pianist Yundi, aka Yundi Li

Music lovers in Toronto have the great good fortune of hearing two internationally ranked pianists with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra "back to back." Argentinean Ingrid Fliter was in town for Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 last week, and this coming week we have Chinese pianist Yundi Li - now officially re-branded as Yundi - playing Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1. Their presence in Toronto so closer together is particularly meaningful - some of us will remember that these two artists took the top two places in the 2000 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Yundi Li received the Gold Medal, an honour not given out to any competitor for many years until his win. Fliter came second. By a twist of fate, both Yundi Li and Ingrid Fliter are now on the roster of EMI Classics. Yundi Li ended his relationship with Deutsche Grammophon (home to two other Chinese pianists Lang Lang and Yuja Wang) for reasons much speculated but not confirmed. He has since signed with EMI.

It would be very interesting to have an (almost) direct comparison of these two pianists in Chopin. That said, I personally would have preferred other, more showy Chopin pieces than the two piano concertos. I attended the Fliter concert last Saturday at Roy Thomson. She played with flair, energy, accuracy, assurance, generally pleasing tone, and she was rewarded with an extremely warm reception from the nearly packed house. Despite her fine work, her Chopin played second fiddle - pardon the mixed metaphors - to the monumental Mahler Symphony No. 1, played in near-spectacular fashion by the TS forces under the baton of Peter Oundjian. This week, we'll get to see what Yundi Li can do with Piano Concerto No. 1, which while romantic is more rooted in the classical tradition and as a result more restrictive and harder to really show off the stunning technique and musicality that Yundi Li possesses in spades. The Chopin is paired with Bruckner Symphony No. 9 in D Minor. Originally to be conducted by Quebec wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin, he has asked to be released because of his heavy schedule, a truly unfortunate state of affairs as the choice of this heavy-duty Bruckner was his idea. Now it falls on the shoulder of Quebec conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni. I heard him as the conductor at the Montreal Piano Competition two years ago, as well as in a couple of opera performances. It would be interesting to see what he can do with this most daunting of symphonic works. Performances are on June 10 and 12, 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. For details and tickets, go to

The other big news this week is the start of the Luminato Festival, also called Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity. Now in its fourth year, Luminato is a 10-day festival of theatre, dance, classical/contemporary music, film, literature, visual arts and design. The shows, many of them free, are of cutting edge quality. For vocal fans, this year is immensely interesting, with the North American premiere of Rufus Wainwright's opera Prima Donna, which had its world premiere in Manchester, UK last July. That show debuts June 14 and I will have more to say when the time comes. For this week, we have free screenings of three documentaries revolving around Wainwright on Sunday June 13 beginning at 5 pm - All I Want: A Portrait of Rufus Wainwright; Rufus Wainwright Prima Donna; and Rufus!Rufus!Rufus!Does Judy!Judy!Judy! The screenings are at the Toronto Mediatheque at 150 John Street. Since these are free events, be sure to arrive plenty early to ensure a seat!

Also intriguing is the world premiere of Dark Star Requiem, presented by Tapestry New Opera Works, a Toronto company focusing on cutting edge new vocal creations. According to its press material, this is a dramatic oratorio by poet Jill Battson and composer Andrew Staniland, tracing the 25 year history of AIDS from its origins to the present day. This is commissioned by Luminato and co-produced with Tapestry, featuring four soloists and the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Gryphon Trio. Performances on June 11 and 12 at RCM's Koerner Hall. For more information about this and other shows at Luminato, go to

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Mahler Resurrection a Dallas Symphony Specialty!

I try to get to Dallas as often as I can to bask in the glory of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, one of the world’s great concert halls. After listening to concerts in other venues, it is always a shock to experience the Meyerson. To hear every instrument in the orchestra as it was meant to be heard, and to hear the perfectly blended sound of a fine orchestra, with a presence that is palpable, is satisfaction beyond words. Simply put, as the saying goes: “You had to be there!”
Of course, the Meyerson is simply a space, albeit a very carefully designed space, and like a Strad or any other fine instrument, makes no sound by itself. One needs musicians, and a gifted leader who can make things happen.
By now we know that Jaap van Zweden is an exceptional leader able to take full advantage of a stage peopled by excellent instrumentalists and singers, and of the hall itself. From the opening bars, one knew that this was going to be a typical van Zweden performance - intense and exciting, but absolutely rooted in the composer’s instructions.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection) has been important in the life of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) for a long time; for example, when the Eugene McDermott Concert Hall in the Meyerson Symphony Center opened in 1989, music director Eduardo Mata began his tenure with this inspiring piece; in 2006, music director Andrew Litton ended his tenure with it; four years later, in May, 2010, Jaap van Zweden celebrated both the end of his second season as music director of the DSO and the end of the orchestra’s 20th season in the Meyerson with the Mahler Second.
This Mahler Shook the Rafters and Touched the Soul!
All the previous performances were apparently memorable; the latest, under van Zweden, was arguably as good as it gets. To cite just one moment in the Mahler Second performance, when the organ joins the orchestra and chorus towards the end of the last movement: you don’t just hear it – you feel it through your whole body.
The piece opens with the violins and violas playing a tremolo with the dynamic marking fortissimo. Then, in the second bar, cellos and basses play a sixteenth-note figure marked triple forte, and – perhaps for the first time in symphonic music – the German marking "wild", meaning in English “wild” or “violent”.
In this first movement, Mahler is depicting the dark side of life, the struggle of man against natural and human forces, and against oneself. It is the struggle to achieve something worthwhile and to make something of oneself. More specifically it is a struggle for faith in God. For Mahler, this was a very real struggle in his own life and his faith was utterly destroyed many times.
The Mahler Second begins in turmoil and angst, but ends in joy and affirmation of belief in life everlasting. Or was this affirmation simply wishful thinking for Mahler? His personal struggle with faith went on for years and found expression in every piece of music that he wrote. Sadly perhaps, there is neither joy nor affirmation in the final bars of Symphony No. 9 - his last completed symphony.
The conductor’s challenge in the opening bars of the Mahler Second is to not only to play what the composer has written, but also to give it the life and death intensity that defines the essence of Mahler. This is not accomplished by getting the strings to play “loud.” Mahler very carefully calibrated all the dynamic markings and a conductor who ignores the nuances will not come close to realizing the meaning of entire phrases, passages and movements. Van Zweden and the members of the enlarged (for this performance) DSO had clearly rehearsed painstakingly, to accomplish a performance so detailed, accurate and engrossing.
Chorus, Soloists, Orchestra Magnificent Match!
Soloists for the Resurrection were soprano Heidi Grant Murphy and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who recently triumphed in the Met production of John Adams’ opera Dr. Atomic, and was seen by millions in the Met HD Live broadcast.
In the Urlicht movement, van Zweden achieved a remarkable blend of vocal and instrumental sound. The brass players breathed as one in their quiet, slow-moving passages, and perfectly matched Ms. Cooke’s phrasing. Even though the soloists were positioned toward the back of the orchestra, Ms. Cooke’s voice came through with both intensity and clarity. The soprano part is much less prominent in this work, and Heidi Grant Murphy did not seem to be at her best.
The Dallas Symphony Chorus (DSC) is one of the finest ensembles of its kind anywhere and it certainly distinguished itself in this performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Longtime DSC director, David R. Davidson, passed away last year, and he deserves great credit for bringing the choir to its present level. Indicative of the seriousness with which these choir members take their responsibilities, is the fact that they sang this performance without scores.
Hellos, Goodbyes, and Forever Malher

With this concert, the DSO introduced Edward Stephan, its new timpanist. It was an auspicious debut, to say the least. His very first timpani roll, four bars before letter 2 in the score, was absolutely thrilling and his strong and multi-faceted playing will be a great asset. Incidentally, Mr. Stephan is no stranger to the Dallas area; he has been playing for some years just down the road, so to speak, with the Fort Worth Symphony. Nonetheless, he had no inside track to get the job. He auditioned and prevailed over dozens of other candidates.
On a somewhat sad note, concertmaster Emanuel Borok recently announced his retirement effective in August, making this Mahler Second his last subscription concert. As usual, he was superb in his solos and his leadership will be greatly missed.

More Mahler to come from van Zweden in Dallas. One of the highlights of the DSO’s 2010-2011 season will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. Also programmed: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony, both conducted by van Zweden.

Photo by Marita

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TSO: Great Mahler, not so great Chopin

by L. H. Tiffany Hsieh

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was one gorgeous band Thursday night in a lush program that opened and closed with Mahler's Blumine and Symphony No. 1, the Titan, respectively.

Music director Peter Oundjian cleverly programmed this massive work that was originally a two-part, five-movement symphonic poem, which Mahler turned into a symphony after three performances by dropping the second movement that is Blumine.

From the start, Oundjian displayed total control over each nuance and climax, bringing out precision, passion and, most importantly, excitement from his more-than-capable players.

Blumine, which means flower, was lovely with subtle colours throughout its lyrical form. TSO principal trumpeter Andrew McCandless delivered the gentle trumpet serenade with such finesse and tenderness that one could picture a lone dandelion and feel compassion.

Mahler's first symphony showcases the brass section in ways akin to royal fireworks and military parades, and the TSO didn't disappoint. While the outer movements were exceptionally performed here (with audiences jumping to their feet on the last note), the highlights were the inner two movements. Seductive and hypnotic, the orchestra played like a giant pendulum that creeps into your subconsciousness note by note, beat by beat.

Unfortunately, the piece programmed in between Blumine and Symphony No. 1 was less successful.

Celebrating Chopin's 200th birthday, the TSO is featuring the composer's two piano concertos in two separate concerts with two very different pianists. On Thursday, the Argentinian pianist Ingrid Fliter made her TSO debut in Chopin's F minor concerto. On June 10, the Chinese pianist YUNDI returns to tackle the E minor.

Fliter, 36, is one ebullient pianist to be sure. Her hummingbird-like fingers handled the keyboard beautifully and the way she lingered over harmonic chords, especially in the larghetto, was almost magical.

That being said, this particular performance lacked command right from the maestoso opening. Both soloist and the orchestra sounded afar and uncertain at times. While Fliter's elaborate runs ran like oil and the orchestra accompanied her to a tee, the overarching structure was weak and unimpressionable. Fliter and Oundjian took a slower tempo in the third allegro vivace and that made the supposedly brilliant mazurka rhythm sound sluggish and dull. The movement dragged and the virtuosic and showy elements Chopin had intended were wiped.

Nevertheless, the audience gave Fliter a warm standing ovation, possibly following her cue as she jumped to her feet while Oundjian's conducting hands were still in the air.

> Toronto Symphony website

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