La Scena Musicale

Friday, 18 June 2010

Beethoven rules at TSO season finale

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

A man two seats away shouted "Bravo Beethoven" into the auditorium. A moment earlier, another man nearby jumped up with his hands in the air, the way Swiss soccer fans did when their team beat Spain in the FIFA World Cup earlier this week.

Victory. Such was the joy generated by Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in D minor, the Choral performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with soloists and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

In their final program of the season, music director Peter Oundjian and the TSO are throwing a three-night bash of the mighty Beethoven Ninth, which contains one of the most well-known and beautiful melodies known to mankind.

On the second night (June 17), a handsomely dressed Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was glorious and the four soloists — soprano Marianne Fiset, mezzo-soprano Michele Losier, tenor Frederic Antoun, and baritone Brett Polegato — were enchanting. 
The overall ensemble work between the four was exquisite despite difficulty hearing Losier's voice at times.

Oundjian and his players were ecstatic and outstanding throughout, with timpanist David Kent, who by far has the sexist part of the entire piece, stealing the limelight in the first two movements.

It's hard for the Beethoven's gigantic Ninth not to receive jubilant applause, but the TSO gave it such a riveting interpretation it felt like Christmas.

The symphony was proceeded by the composer's earlier Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19. Toronto pianist Stewart Goodyear's thundering fingers and crisp articulation highlighted the work's humble being among Beethoven's five piano concertos. The playfulness of the showy third movement was matched perfectly between orchestra and piano. Not a step was missed.

Not sure if it was intended, but the Steinway sounded a bit underwhelming as it didn't produce the kind of richness one usually can expect from a modern concert grand. It almost sounded like a fortepiano, but not like a fortepiano.

That being said, when the music is this good, it almost doesn't matter what instrument it's played on.

That's right. Bravo Beethoven.

The TSO's third performance of the Beethoven Ninth takes place on June 19. Show time is 11 p.m., with a post-concert party to follow.

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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Luminato Festival: All Days Are Nights:Songs for Lulu

Rufus Wainwright in his one-man show All Days Are Nights/Songs for Lulu (Photo: courtesy of Luminato Festival)

Luminato Festival: All Days Are Nights:Songs for Lulu

June 15, 2010 7:30 p.m. Elgin Theatre

Joseph K. So

A genuinely funny moment happened at the show last night. In the middle of the second half of Rufus Wainwright's one-man show, he turned to the audience and said he's dedicating the next song to the Toronto Star, in which the reviewer "compared my opera to a Loblaws bag as opposed to something you'd buy in Louis Vuitton - obviously he's identified himself as a real label queen." This was obviously a jab at John Terauds' review of his Prima Donna. Love him or hate him - and there were no haters at the Elgin Theatre last evening - you can always count on Rufus Wainwright for a good laugh, as he has "the talent to amuse" as Noel Coward would say.

Although the show didn't start out that way. In fact, a man came out before the start to tell the audience not to applaud until after Wainwright's exit from the stage. The singer then came on in a black number with a long, long long train, a feathered collar but as usual with chest hair artistically exposed. He proceeded to play his new album as a tribute to his mother, the late Kate McGarrigle. There was no interaction with the audience. On the screen was a constantly morphing projection of eyes (sometimes one, other times a cluster) slowly opening and closing. During one particularly sad moment in the lyrics, a tear drop appeared at the corner of one giant eye. To my eyes - no pun intended - they resembled some exotic jungle plants like black venus fly traps ready to pounce, but that's just me... If I was left a little underwhelmed by this strange tribute, I don't think I was alone. The theatre was nearly full, but the applause at the end was tentative.

The second half was a different story. Wainwright became the guy his fans have always loved - sweetly pungent, flamboyant, sexy, willful, adorable, self-centered, and above all consummately entertaining. As with the little quip about the Star and the Loblaws bag, Wainwright wasn't about to take a put down laying down. The songs in the second half were his chestnuts and the audience was suitably ecstatic. It was a generous program. Billed to last 2 hours including one intermission, I think it was closer to two and a half hours. He was in good voice, the instrument remained flexible and responsive to the end. As an encore, he sang a song written by his late mother, and sweetly thanked his fans for being so supportive during the past year. The audience was sent home happy.

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Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Yannick Nézet-Séguin Chosen to Head the Philadelphia Orchestra

If classical music had a more honoured place in our culture, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s appointment to head the Philadelphia Orchestra would have been front page news in every newspaper in the country. Get a life, people, this is an historic event! Never mind that Canadian conductors have long since gotten used to doors being shut in their faces in their own country. It is by now a cliché to say that Canadians have to go elsewhere to find success. But YNS has not only found success abroad, he has climbed Mt. Everest. Two years ago he was conducting opera with Rolando Villazon at the Salzburg Festival, last year he took on the music directorship of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and principal guest conductorship of the London Philharmonic, then earlier this year he made his debut at the Met conducting Carmen.Now, a scant few months later he is announced as the new leader of the orchestra made famous by Stokowski. Even after Stokowski’s departure, with Eugene Ormandy in charge, Columbia Records routinely billed the Philadelphia Orchestra as “the world’s greatest orchestra” and, as I recall, no one begged to differ.
How is it possible that a 35-year old conductor from Montreal can be selected to lead such an orchestra? And – here’s a dose of reality for you - how can he hope to succeed in an organization that has demonstrated administrative incompetence and financial malpractice more often than sublime music-making in recent years? Yes, the fact is that this once-great orchestra has been self-destructing to the point of threatened bankruptcy. It didn’t help matters that some disgruntled musicians and a malicious and destructive music critic ran off music director Christoph Eschenbach before he had even settled in, leaving an artistic vacuum that drove down audience numbers at warp speed.
There is no doubt that YNS is stepping into a situation in Philadelphia that is challenging to say the least. But now there is an executive director in place with an excellent track record – Allison Vulgamore from Atlanta – and a new board chairman in Richard Worley. There are also reports that the deficit at the end of the current season will be much less than expected. And after nearly four years of deliberating and dithering the orchestra has finally chosen a music director.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is clearly part of the solution to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s problems. Without an exciting conductor to galvanize both the musicians and the audiences, not much can be accomplished. Those of us who have watched YNS in Montreal know that he is an exceptional leader. Under his direction the Orchestre Métropolitain has given one inspired performance after another in concerts and on recordings. Some critics scoffed at the arrogance of such a young man to decide to record all the Bruckner symphonies. But the results have been remarkable. Perhaps not yet in the class of Jochum, Karajan or Wand but well-considered and beautiful in their own right.
Make no mistake about it, YNS is a solidly grounded musician with an enormous talent for understanding the music he conducts and for getting musicians to play well for him. But it is a very different matter to conduct a part-time orchestra in Montreal or even a second-level orchestra in Rotterdam, than to lead the Philadelphia Orchestra. When YNS is not there the Philadelphians will be led by guest conductors of the stature of Simon Rattle and Valery Gergiev. It is well-known that Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, was under serious consideration for the Philadelphia post and was the number one choice for many of the musicians. He too will likely be a frequent guest conductor with the orchestra in years to come. YNS may have been chosen for the music director position on the strength of his two appearances with the orchestra, but as he becomes a more frequent presence he will have to show that he truly belongs there and that in such elite company he still stands out for his own artistry and charisma. And let’s not forget that Christoph Eschenbach has re-emerged from his unpleasant experience in Philadelphia in a position of potentially greater influence: this fall he takes up his dual post as music director of the National Symphony and artistic director of the Kennedy Center in Washington. Philadelphia is less than 200 km from Washington and comparisons will undoubtedly be made.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin is not only a young man in years. He is a young man who exudes youthful energy. He is a young Leonard Bernstein, or more to the point, he is an East Coast Gustavo Dudamel. Dudamel is very physical in his conducting style and so too is YNS. But it is more than that. It is the physical expression of love of life and music that Dudamel conveys to his young Venezuelan musicians and now also to the hardened professionals of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. YNS has that same persona. That is a huge plus for orchestras looking for ways to make classical music fresh again and to bring younger people into the concert hall. But there is a risk too as the LA Philharmonic recently discovered on its first tour under Dudamel. The flash and exuberance is beginning to wear thin and critics are now wondering if there is anything underneath. YNS will face the same scrutiny in Philadelphia and wherever he appears on tour with the orchestra. Is YNS really a serious musician or is he merely an entertainer or a marketing ploy? We’ll see.
And let’s not underestimate what music critics with an agenda can do to undermine music directors. It has happened time and again. Claudia Cassidy famously destroyed Rafael Kubelik’s tenure with the Chicago Symphony. New York critics beat on Baribrolli when he succeeded Toscanini as music director of the New York Philharmonic to the point where he had to leave, and Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer combined backstage gossip, personal attacks and questionable musical analysis to hasten Eschenbach’s departure from Philadelphia. It was illuminating to see that when Eschenbach took the Philadelphia Orchestra on tour the reviews were often ecstatic. But it is the constant drip drip of negative criticism at home that really counts. Eschenbach deserved better just as Kubelik and Barbirolli did before him. And watch out – Dobrin’s initial reaction to YNS is skepticism: “he has proven mostly to be an extremely charismatic manifestation of adrenaline.” Dobrin also says that he would have preferred Jurowski.
And Verizon Hall? Sad to say, the Philadelphia Orchestra plays in a new hall that is a disaster. The entrance is cavernous and gloomy in the extreme – not a welcoming feeling at all – and the concert hall itself has very poor acoustics. The musicians complained for years about their old hall – the Academy of Music – and it was bad. But Verizon Hall is even worse. The hall is not kind to the various timbres in the orchestra, there is neither warmth nor presence, and bass response is disappointing. What is to be done? At a time when the orchestra is struggling to make ends meet it is unrealistic to think that money can easily be found to fix the problems. But it must be done. It is as necessary as finding a new executive director or a music director. Avery Fisher Hall has been improved – several times, in fact – and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto was greatly improved after years of suffering and denial. And Place des Arts? Even in the OSM’s golden years under Dutoit – at least on recordings - nothing could be done. A generation went by before the OSM’s board found the backbone to do what had been needed for years; either improve Place des Arts or build a new hall. I have no doubt that this will be a priority item on YNS’s agenda in Philadelphia. He has always been a man who knew what he wanted and got it done ASAP.
As we celebrate Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s appointment in Philadelphia let’s not forget that two other Canadian conductors are making international careers: Jacques Lacombe has just been appointed to succeed Neeme Järvi as head of the New Jersey Symphony, and Bernard Labadie is in great demand as a guest conductor in the United States.
- Paul E. Robinson

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Luminato Festival: Prima Donna

Rufus Wainwright at the opening of his Prima Donna (Photo: courtesy of Luminato Festival)

By Joseph K. So

Wainwright/Colomine: Prima Donna
Regine St. Laurent /Janis Kelly, soprano
Marie / Charlotte Ellett, soprano
Andre / Colin Ainsworth, tenor
Philippe / Gregory Dahl, baritone
Francois /Joe Bucci
Sophie /Miranda Calderon
Tim Albery, Stage Director
Robert Houssart, Conductor
Antony McDonald, Designer
Thomas Hase, Lighting
William Reynolds, Projection

The much anticipated North American premiere of Rufus Wainwright's opera, Prima Donna, had its opening last evening at the Elgin Theatre in downtown Toronto. The glitterati were out in force and and there was the obligatory red carpet photo op in the beginning and a post-performance bash for the invited guests. This work has an interesting history. It was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, but Wainwright and the Met parted company when the composer insisted it be sung in French while Met head honcho Peter Gelb wanted it in English. The work had its premiere in July 2009 at the Manchester International Festival in the UK with a subsequence performance in London. This run of four performances is the first time on this side of the pond. As a regular attendee at the opera, I have to say I recognized fewer people than usual in the audience last evening. I spotted COC General Director Alexander Neef and his wife Eloise, a (very) few opera die-hards, and of course fellow journalists. No, it was not your typical opera crowd dominated by a sea of grey hair - the audience was (mostly) young(er) and hip. They were probably attracted to the event more for Rufus Wainwright than any love of opera they might have.

The production comes from the Manchester International Festival. The sumptuous set, that of a drawing room in a Parisian apartment, is designed by Antony McDonald. The opening scene has the scrim down and the main character, Regine the opera diva, can be seen through the apartment window from the outside. This is reminiscent of a photo taken of Maria Callas in the 1970s gazing out of her window from her apartment at 32 Ave. Georges Mendel in Paris. Perhaps this was what Wainwright and director Tim Albery had in mind. The opera revolves around Regine Saint Laurent the opera diva who abruptly left the stage six years earlier, living in a Paris apartment. Andre Letourneur the journalist who also happens to be a tenor (!) persuades Regine to come out of retirement to sing Alienor d'Aquitaine, an opera written for her. She finds herself falling in love with Andre. Act One ends with a kiss and embrace. Act Two shows Regine vocalizing and preparing to return to the stage, realizing that she cannot go through with this as her confidence is gone. Andre reappears with his finance, Sophie - I wonder if Wainwright was thinking of Der Rosenkavalier at this point! (This little scene also recalls Act Three of Madama Butterfly) Regine is devastated. As Paris is celebrating Bastille Day, Regine hears the revelers on the streets and steps out to the window ledge as the house light goes out. Does she jump? It's left to the audience's imagination.

Opera as a genre is known for the twists and turns of the libretto, often to a fault. As an opera, Prima Donna does not really have enough of a dramatic skeleton on which to hang its action and its music. Why did Regine leave the stage in the first place? Did she lose her voice? Her confidence? No, it turned out that she was jilted by her tenor. For a worldly woman like Regine, this appears to be a rather flimsy reason for wanting to end a career! Why does Philippe the butler turn against her in Act Two, when Regine realizes she cannot go through with her comeback? The relationship of Regine and Philippe is not fully explained. Is he a former lover? Is he a sort of Svengali character in her life - shades of Sunset Boulevard? Actually I find the main characters in Prima Donna surprisingly under-developed. The music, and to a certain extent the drama, in Act One I find under-energized. Together with the stage direction, it takes on a sick room atmosphere - perhaps deliberately so. It sort of drifts along without sufficient dramatic development needed to give the piece propulsion. There is more action in Act Two, but again there are dramatic holes. Musically the piece demonstrates the prowess of Wainwright as a composer of melodies. There are quite a number of inspired tunes, something that doesn't happen very often in contemporary opera. The problem is in the rest of the music, especially in the orchestration, which is often awkward, bumpy and jarring, the instruments often failing to blend. The orchestra under conductor Robert Houssart sounded rough and angular, perhaps more a result of the score than subpar playing or under-rehearsing. I think Wainwright's intentions are good, but his technical execution of something as grand as an opera leaves something to be desired. The production itself is slick and sophisticated, with good lighting and projections. The one exception is the opening projection of some constantly falling objects - leaves? rain drops? - looking more like a technical glitch. Also the surtitles, instead of using projections, were shown on small video monitors. I was in the very last row of the orchestra and had trouble reading the text.

It is often lamented that contemporary operas aren't very singable. I would say it is not true with Prima Donna. Yes, the vocal lines are often challenging, but the singers generally coped well. Scottish soprano Janis Kelly's role as Regine is long and arduous, and there were moments when her voice turned strident or tremulous. She regrouped and sang an affecting final scene. Earlier on, a passage where she was required to trill unfortunately exposed the weakness in her voice, but overall it was an honorable performance. Tenor Colin Ainsworth sang the journalist Andre, a rather one dimensional character. Ainsworth has the the right vocal timbre for the French language and he generally sang well, only struggling when the tessitura rose too high. Baritone Gregory Dahl was impressive both vocally and dramatically as the butler Philippe, his outburst in Act Two a real scene-stealer. Too bad his character is also one-dimensional. Scottish coloratura Charlotte Ellett as the maid Marie showed off a secure top and generally nice tone. But perhaps it was opening night jitters, she suffered from a bad case of tremolo at the beginning of her aria that opened Act Two. She recovered to finish nicely, receiving the first spontaneous applause from the audience. Her diction was also the worst of the principals - anything remotely high, the words were lost.

Operatic history is full of cases where composers revise their original creations - it is often hard to say when the process of creativity of a particular piece ends. To my eyes and ears, Prima Donna remains a work in progress. There are some very lovely moments which will remain in memory, but the piece needs tightening and further development in the drama, and in particular a reworking of the orchestration if it's going to withstand the test of time as an opera. At its present form, it is a pleasant piece of musical theatre, not opera. With revisions, it has the potential to be much more.

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Sunday, 13 June 2010

This Week in Toronto (June 14 - 20)

Janis Kelly in Prima Donna (Photo: Antony Crook)

Toronto's Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity is in full flight this week, with a plethora of activities throughout the downtown core. There are several top attractions for classical music lovers. (If you missed Dark Star Requiem on the Opening Weekend, you can catch it on CBC2 on December 1, in conjunction with World AIDS Day) At the top of the list this week is Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna. It stars Scottish soprano Janis Kelly in the central role of Regine Saint Laurent. St on Bastille Day, 1970, St. Laurent, an opera singer, is contemplating a comeback after 6 years. This is obviously inspired by the life of Maria Callas, and recalls (but not based on) Callas Forever, a Zeffirelli film starring Fanny Ardant and Jeremy Irons. The story of Prima Donna is also about her love affair with a journalist, sung by Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth. Others in the cast include baritone Gregory Dahl and soprano Charlotte Ellett. British stage director and Toronto resident Tim Albery, who directed Goetterdammerung of the COC Ring, is the director of this co-production designed by Antony McDonald. It had its premiere at Sadler's Wells, Manchester International Festival and Luminato. This opera was originally commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, but the two parted company when the Met general manager Peter Gelb balked at the insistence by Wainwright that the opera should be in French. It had its world premiere last July in Manchester, with a subsequent performance in London. This will be its North American premiere. The opening is on Monday, June 14 at the Elgin Theatre, and it is sure to be a glittery event. Additional perforances are If you are a Rufus Wainwright fan, you can catch him in his one-man show, All Days are Nights/A Song for Lulu at the Elgin on June 15 and 17. At the Closing Weekend, there's Beethoven 9th ("Choral") Symphony from the TSO at Roy Thomson Hall. Billed as TSO Goes Late Night, the performance is at 11 pm, lasting approximately 60 minutes with no intermission. After the concert is a party in the lobby with live music, a chance to meet some of the TS musicians who will likely show up! For details and ticket information, go to

This is a busy week for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In addition to the Beethoven 9th at 11 pm on Friday, it is giving a performance on Wednesday at the equally unconventional time of 6:30 pm at the Roy Thomson Hall, followed by a second performance on Thursday at 8 pm. Peter Oundjian leads a quartet of soloists (soprano Marianne Fiset, mezzo Michele Losier, tenor Frederic Antoun, and baritone Brett Polegato). The Thursday performance has the bonus of pianist Stewart Goodyear playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19. On Friday, for a single performance, the TSO presents Ravel's Scheherazade with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who is Armenian, like the music director Oundjian. The program also features the music of Khachaturian (including three Armenian songs) and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Go to for details and ticket information.

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