La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 July 2010

Summer Delights: Concerts This Week around the GTA

Photo: Matthias Goerne makes a welcome return to Toronto after an absence of several years.










Summer is usually a quiet time musically in Toronto, but not any more. Since my return from music-rich Munich on Monday, I have been attending a performance every day in TO. Tuesday was the Matthias Goerne-Andreas Haefliger recital at Koerner Hall, a highly anticipated event for voice aficionados. Wednesday morning was the Goerne Masterclass at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, and last evening was a chamber recital with Andrew Burashko and his Art of Time Ensemble, on the music of Korngold. All of these events lived up to my expectations. First of all, Goerne is among the most celebrated of lieder interpreters. He has been a frequent visitor to Toronto - I recall a recital at the then Ford Centre featuring the music of Hans Eisler. Then during the depth of the SARS crisis in Toronto when practically all the international artists cancelled for fear of catching something, Goerne showed up with the Toronto Symphony. For that alone I will always be grateful to Herr Goerne for living up to his end of the bargain. This time around, he appeared under the auspices of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, in a program of Schumann and Brahms. Like several other lieder specialists (Wolfgang Holzmair, Ian Bostridge comes to mind) Goerne has lots of eccentric body movements while delivering a song. This can be distracting to some, but for me, it just represents his total focus in exploring the inner meaning of the song text. His baritone remains one of the most beautiful and expressive today, exemplary in his attention to textual nuance. He sings in a relatively low dynamic level, never overpowering the song and only going up to forte infrequently. His Brahms in the second half was particularly memorable, singing the pieces with rich, smooth tone. Particularly affecting was the last song, Wie bist du, meine Konigin, one of Brahms' greatest creations. Andreas Haefliger played Brahms' Three Intermezzos for solo piano, Op. 117, with gleaming tone, even if rhythmically his playing was a little uneven and idiosyncratic. Rumoured to be under the weather, Goerne did not give an encore.

The morning after the recital, Goerne gave a two-hour masterclass at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. There was a good crowd of lieder fans gathered in the Torel Room in the Edward Johnson Building. Three singers participated in the masterclass - soprano Lesley Ann Bradley, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone Peter McGillivray. These three singers are scheduled to give a German Art Song Recital on Wednesday, August 4 in Walter Hall at 8 pm. so their participation was sort of a tune-up for the concert next week. Each student prepared three songs, but given the shortness of time (40 minutes per session), they worked on basically one to two pieces. Each student was allowed to sing the first piece all the way through, then the intensive work started. It must be disconcerting to be stopped three notes into the first line. Goerne made corrections and suggestions, and the student started again, and often made to stop again. It could not have been easy for a student to be deconstructed in this fashion, and one would benefit from possessing a very thick skin. There is no doubt that Mr. Goerne is a demanding teacher - not shy to speak his mind, sometimes in a rather blunt fashion. His class reminded me of a Elisabeth Schwarzkopf class I audited during my student days. Goerne wisely stuck to interpretation and stayed away from technical issues - it is always dangerous to fool around with a student's technique, as the master won't be there to offer support in the future. Also, it must have been very uncomfortable to be figuratively undressed in front of an audience, but such is the nature of the masterclass beast! In the final analysis, the advices given make for a better final product.

Last evening, I attended a chamber concert, Korngold: Source and Inspiration, given by Andrew Burashko and his Art of Time Ensemble. The format of this concert is very intriguing - an original composition, in this case Korngold's Suite for piano, two violins and cello is juxtaposed with six new songs inspired by the Suite, written and performed by contemporary musicians Danny Michel, John Southworth and Martin Tielli. Korngold was a child prodigy and he lived the second half of his life in Southern California as a well known film music composer. He was known for his melodic gift, amply demonstrated in the Suite. After the performance of the Korngold, the Ensemble was joined by the three songwriters in succession. The fragments that inspired the contemporary composition were played once again, followed by each new piece. I find the format - and most of the new creations - quite fascinating. I confess that as a classical music lover, I generally don't much like the vocal production of contemporary singers. I observed that part of the audience - perhaps the older ones - sat on their hands when it came time to applaud, underscoring the gulf between the classics and the contemporary. This concert was a brave attempt at drawing a connection between "source and inspiration" and Burashko and his team are to be applauded for their efforts.

An intriguing concert, Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour - A Triptych, is going on this week (July 29, 30 and 31 at the Tank House, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Distillery District in downtown Toronto). It is the world premiere of three chamber operas by Canadian composers - Fuhong Shi, John Rea and Pierre Klanac. Scored for soprano, mezzo and accordion, the common thread from the texts of the three works is on the eternal theme of love. According to the press release from the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, this show is "a collection of three extraordinary expostulations of love from three different cultures and periods". Singers are Xin Wang and Krisztina Szabo, sharing the stage with accordionist John Lettieri. The show is only about an hour long. If you are into the contemporary classical music scene, this is well worth attending. Go to http://queenofpuddingsmusictheatre.com/ for ticket information.

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Die schweigsame Frau the Hit of the 2010 Munich Opera Festival








Photo (l.) Die schweigsame Frau curtain call (Franz Hawlata, Diana Damrau, Toby Spence)
Photo (r.) Opening of Act 3 (Diana Damrau & Franz Hawlata)


Among this year's smorgasbord of operas at the Munich Festival, none was more intriguing than the new production of Die schweigsame Frau, among the most rarely performed of Strauss operas. Given its rarity, it is easy to come to the conclusion that it is either poor music or impossible to stage. If the new production at the Munich Festival is any indication, it is neither. The score, simply put, is gorgeous, particularly the end of Acts 2 and 3. The production, by trail-blazing Australian director Barrie Kosky, is riotously funny, a Regie-Oper treatment that is frothy and thoroughly entertaining, yet never losing sight of the tender and philosophical core of the work. Done with two intermissions, the show at three and a half hours is not exactly short, but it's time well spent. And judging by the huge ovations at the end of the performance I saw on July 23, the audience thought so too. It is hard to believe that this gem has not received a modern staging in North America save for Santa Fe Opera's twenty years ago when John Crosby, a real Strauss enthusiast, was still alive and in charge.

Based on a book by Ben Johnson and with a libretto by Stefan Zweig, it tells the story of the rich and elderly misanthrope Morosus (wonderfully sung and acted by Franz Hawlata) who cannot stand noise of any kind. His nephew Henry (played and sung with great charm by English tenor Toby Spence) and his barber (the excellent Nicolay Borchev) hatch a plan to trick Morosus into marrying a "silent woman" Timidia, who is really Aminta (the wonderful and heavily pregnant Diana Damrau), who is married to Henry, in order to claim the inheritance from the old man. Morosus falls for Timidia, and no sooner they're married that her true nature is revealed. Far from silent, Aminta is a member of a particularly noisy operatic troupe and the gang proceed to play havoc at the Morosus mansion. Like any farce, eventually the deception is revealed and Morosus realizes that he has been foolish and resolves to live his life with greater acceptance and grace. From that unlikely - and some would say rather unpromising - premise, Strauss put together a work of great charm when performed by first rank artists and a great orchestra. The Munich production certainly fulfilled the promise - to my eyes and ears, it is arguably the hit of the 2010 Festival.

German coloratura sensation Diana Damrau, almost eight month pregnant, amazed everyone with her physical agility. She sang spectacularly as usual, some slightly pinched high notes notwithstanding. Her engaging stage persona was not in the least bit affected by her advanced stage of pregnancy. In fact, in some of the stage antics Kosky dreamed up, her expanded waistline was incorporated into the staging with hilarious results. There was also excellent chemistry between Damrau and Toby Spence. As Henry Morosus, Spence sang his music with bright, sweet tone, music that is some of the most treacherous Strauss wrote for tenors. His secure top and well focused tone were a pleasure. Being handsome and youthful didn't hurt either - his pairing with Damrau was totally believable. Given his success here, Spence will likely be in high demand as a Strauss tenor in the future. After a career of 24 years, Franz Hawlata's bass remains fresh and supple. The Kosky staging has Morosus as an almost "straight man", the victim of the antics of the other motley characters. Hawlata played this good-naturedly. Kudos to him for a lovely final aria "Wie schoen ist doch die Musik", the highlight of the opera, occurring in the last five minutes of a long evening. The supporting roles were all well taken. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was delightfully frumpish but sounding a bit wobbly as the put upon housekeeper Frau Zimmerlein, and Nikolay Borchev a youthful and energetic Barber.

Barrie Kosky's set is deceptively simple. In Acts 1 and 2 it consists only of a rather innocuous raised platform. In the beginning of Act 3, the "lid" of the platform opens up, and in the process a torrential shower of gold pieces - symbolizing Morosus' hidden wealth - starts raining down (see photo). Seen on July 23, an audience surprised and delighted by this clever coup de theatre started applauding. A practice perhaps all too common in North America, applauding scenery is considered gauche in operatically sophisticated Europe. When Aminta's friends in the operatic troupe appeared in disguises, some of the gender-bending variety like the near-naked Las Vegas showgirl that's actually a male ballet dancer in drag, there were plenty of giggling from the titillated audience members around me. Kosky has managed to create an outlandishly funny and entertaining production that actually enhanced the drama without being offensive. Let's hope it will be videotaped for DVD in the future. At the end, all the principals received huge ovations, but none more vociferous than the one reserved for conductor Kent Nagano, whose affinity for Richard Strauss is well known. He shaped the piece with loving care, exciting in the farcical parts but never at the expense of the inherent poetry in the more serious moments. It was a performance that makes one wish Die schweigsame Frau is part of the standard repertoire.

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Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Verbier Festival Concert, Paul McCreesh, conductor, Sophie Koch, mezzo-soprano, Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra. July 26, 2010. Salle des Combins.

By Frank Cadenhead


The first concert of my week at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland was, I expect, not the highlight. While the festival program correctly listed the conductor as Paul McCreesh, the Canadian star I had hoped to see, Measha Brueggergosman, had been replaced by another star, Sophie Koch. I was not too dismayed because this French mezzo is one of the great voices you are likely to hear these days. The program was also changed and Berlioz's "La Mort de Cléopatre" was now the same composer's song cycle, "Les Nuits d'Eté," to the text by Théophile Gautier. I did not know McCreesh and Koch had a history of performing together, but it seemed they were taking different paths to uncover Berlioz's work.  I suspect conductor McCreesh might have been the problem.


One of the extraordinary musical stories of our time is the movement for historically informed performances (HIP) of early music and how, over time, this sensibility has been carried over into the regular concert hall. It did not happen overnight. It was originally a small, close-knit group, mostly English, whose early insistence on historical purity usually led to overly analytical and dry academic performances for the devotees.


As the movement moved toward the mainstream, the orchestra tuning got better, valveless horns blew fewer sour notes and conductors, accepting that there was actually no one specific way to play the Baroque, began to assert their own individuality. There was much less dull group-think. Pioneering HIPsters like Nikolaus Harnoncourt and John Eliot Gardiner started carrying this HIP sensitivity over into the Classical and Romantic periods, and Mozart and Beethoven were soon stripped of their thick textures and there was nary a ritardo, rubato or glissando in sight. Now a new generation of young musicians and conductors like Daniel Harding have grown up with this sensibility and attack the regular repertory with a fresh x-ray analysis combined with their own musical poetics.


Thanks to Medici.TV, you can, for example, listen on the internet to the concert at the Salle des Combins of last Friday, the 23rd of July. Here French HIPster Marc Minkowski, who now makes regular appearances around the world in the broader repertory, conducts a program of Faure, many of Canteloube's "Songs of Auvergne" (with the delicious Anne Sofie von Otter) and ends with Mozart's Symphony No. 39. While the overriding sensibility is still the stripping away of all the romantic excesses of an earlier conducting style, each piece has its own life, its own glory, its own soul.


McCreesh does know his HIP business. The first item on the program was the Overture and Suite of Dances from Gluck's opera, "Orphée et Eurydice." Elegance, clarity, balance and polish made the dances a pleasure to hear. Apparently, he does not find voyages outside the HIP corral as easy as others seem to. That is why I believe he had trouble with Sophie Koch and the Berlioz.  Berlioz is difficult enough to get a handle on and only a few, like the grand Sir Colin Davis, have achieved complete success. He might not have had enough time with Ms Koch, but it was a partnership that stayed solidly earthbound and I find it hard to fault Koch, who provided the only clues that this could be a major piece of music.


The worst was to come after the intermission. The Beethoven Seventh Symphony was given a roughing-up that it did not deserve. Beethoven as street thug was McCreesh's vision and his incessant, violent, orchestral hammer blows - no matter the movement - and his need to whack the audience over the head with the thunderous tympani (the wrung-out guy got the first bow at the end) made me glance around for avenues of escape. His conducting style also seemed odd compared with his HIP friends, who normally value precision over schlamperi. You could see the first chairs looking at each other for clues as to what to do, attacks were often ragged and there was notable doodling in some of the tutti passages.


The audience, largely masochistic, seemed to love the brutal roughing-up. If you promise not to miss the majesty, elegiac beauty and troubled soul of this symphony and feel the need to be a punching bag for an out of control, high-testosterone Beethoven, this concert, like all the other major concerts at Verbier, is available for streaming for free until September 30 on Medici.tv.

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