Saturday, 9 October 2010
Fialkowska takes Chopin back in time with Tafelmusik
Wilde and Weill at Shaw: An Ideal Husband and a Touch of Venus
SHAW FESTIVAL, Niagara-on-the-Lake, 2010
Kurt Weill has always been an enigma for classical music lovers - his career started so propitiously: he studied composition first with Humperdinck, and later with Busoni; he turned out dozens of remarkably mature early works; his Symphony No. 2 was given its premiere by Bruno Walter; he made his mark in the German musical theatre too, first with The Threepenny Opera, and later with Mahagonny.
Then came Hitler and the Nazis, and in 1933 Weill was forced to flee Germany. He sent his parents to Palestine and he and his wife Lotte Lenya ended up in New York. For many of his admirers, this move to the United States marked the end of Weill’s career. He sold out to Broadway and never fulfilled his promise. He died of a heart attack at 50 (1950).
This characterization of a gifted and decent man’s career has always seemed to me grossly unfair and insensitive. When he came to America, Weill could have re-established himself as a “serious” composer, as Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and many others had done, but already in Germany he was headed in a different direction. He was a theatre man through and through. He collaborated with Brecht, but never shared Brecht’s communist ideology. What he did share was a fascination with words and music and with the wondrous resources of musical theatre.
We forget that Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s was a pretty wondrous place too, with some of the best minds in literature, art and music working together to create a unique genre - American musical comedy. Weill leapt at the chance to contribute to this uniquely American musical theatre. As a man escaping government oppression, Weill had no difficulty understanding and appreciating the commercialism of Broadway. In no time at all, he established himself as one of Broadway’s leading composers, a standing he held for the rest of his life.
In many respects, the current production of Weill’s One Touch of Venus at the Shaw Festival, is a typical Broadway show of the period (1943) with a simple and amusing story line; bright, hummable songs; a few big dance numbers; and sparkling dialogue.
As did many Broadway musicals, One Touch of Venus went through a convoluted gestation. Weill had been in New York eight years when he wrote this show, but he still had strong European connections; so it was that he wanted Marlene Dietrich for the leading role, composed some of the music specifically for her, and pursued her personally to accept the role. He had probably seen her in the 1932 German film Die Blonde Venus and believed that image to be ideal for his “Broadway” Venus.
In the end, Dietrich declined and the ultimate Venus of the show’s Broadway opening was Mary Martin. One could hardly imagine two more different choices for the same role - the one legendary for her sensuality - bedroom eyes, voice and body - and the other a tomboyish American “girl next door!” Consider also that the director of the first production was Elia Kazan, not renowned for productions that had people falling out of their seats. The choice of Kazan suggests Weill’s musical had a certain seriousness of purpose.
With this background in mind it became a little difficult to accept the ‘slapstick’ approach adopted by director Eda Holmes for the Shaw Festival production. It’s true that the show abounds in one-liners – what would we expect from Ogden Nash – known for his poetic wit - and S.J. Perelman, a man who had written several of the Marx Brothers films. But I think Mark N. Grant comes closer to Weill’s vision when he writes in the Shaw Festival programme: “Venus is golden age Broadway’s reply to the sex comedy of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch” - the point being that Lubitsch’s characters more often raise eyebrows than slip on banana peels.
Even more importantly, Weill’s music is shapely and interesting and requires the best voices that can be found. It didn’t get them in this production.
Robin Evan Willis was attractive, but failed to project the required fascination of the character – after all she is the Venus of the famed statue come to life and on the prowl - and the quality of her singing was inconsistent. She did pretty well with the low-key “That’s Him,” but far less well with “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” and “Speak Low.”
As Rodney Hatch, Kyle Blair showed some comic flair but little sophistication, and his singing voice was barely adequate. In fact, the more I think about the beauty of songs like “Speak Low,” the more inadequate it becomes. It didn’t help that Ryan Desouza’s 10-piece orchestra was consistently too loud, even when playing soft accompaniments. How do they do that? Is it insensitivity, or the fault of the sound system?
The Shaw Festival and its artistic director Jackie Maxwell are to be applauded for extending their mandate to include plays and musicals contemporaneous with Shaw. Happily, one detects also a desire to do such works in more or less, period style - that is to say, as they were done in the first instance.
Naturally, directors and performers are allowed and even encouraged to “refresh” these period pieces, but what the Shaw Festival has earned over the years is a respect for its understanding of this period and style and one expects to see it on display in most productions at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shaw, Wilde, Coward, etc. are performed on stages around the world, but at the Shaw Festival they are produced and performed by ‘experts’ and we love them for that.
The current season’s production of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is a case in point. For the most part, the cast – most notably Stephen Sutcliffe as Viscount Goring – and the production, were superb. To my mind, however, some of the costumes seemed unnecessarily “refreshed,” and the original, pseudo-tango score by John Gzowski, while cleverly evoking one of the plot elements (Argentina), erred on the side of being pervasively dark and menacing, whereas the play itself remains a near-perfect combination of wit and menace. Had Gzowski studied Argentinian tangos more closely, he might have discovered that the best of these also miraculously combine these two ingredients.
All in all, I was delighted to have had the rare opportunity to see a live production of One Touch of Venus. Eda Holmes and her colleagues certainly gave us an entertaining evening in the theatre. While I left the Royal George Theatre amused, however, I also left convinced that that the production could have been different and it could have been better.
Nagano, Mutter & OSM: An Evening of Uncompromising Soul-Searching
Whatever else he may be as a man and a musician, Kent Nagano is insatiably curious. So far, his Montreal audiences have not only accepted, but embraced, his voyages of discovery.
This week Maestro Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) gave Place des Arts concert-goers a feast of the familiar and the unfamiliar that was truly exceptional, and I think they liked it.
The evening’s star attraction was the outstanding violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, now a fully mature artist after years of wonder as a young prodigy encouraged by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Andre Previn and Mstislav Rostropovich.
Mutter could play the Beethoven and Brahms concertos for the next 30 years and sell out most any hall on earth, but she has chosen to do otherwise. She still loves the classics, but she loves being a musician of her time as well; as such, she commissions the finest contemporary composers to write pieces for her. She then not only gives the premiere performance of that piece, but introduces it to audiences in concert halls around the world and usually records it too. She is a dream artist for any composer.
And so Mutter came to Montreal with only two pieces to play – neither one of them a virtuoso warhorse. Instead, we were treated to Sur le même accord by Henri Dutilleux, and In tempus praesens by Sophia Gubaidulina (or sometimes spelled ‘Gubaidoulina’).
In my opinion, the Dutilleux was little more than an amuse bouche, but the Gubaidulina was the genuine article: a full-length 21st century violin concerto that had something new and important to say that went far beyond new sounds/noises.
Henri Dutilleux was 86 when he wrote Sur le même accord (2002). The piece is only ten minutes long and limits itself to creating beautiful colours in a way that is pleasing but not very substantial. Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens (2007) on the other hand, aims for and achieves musical originality and spiritual depth.
Gubaidulina often composes pieces of soulful import and her life seems driven by a personal religious conviction. As she herself has put it: “I am a religious Russian Orthodox person and I understand ‘religion’ in the literal meaning of the word, as ‘re-ligio’, that is to say, the restoration of connections, the restoration of the ‘legato’ of life. There is no more serious task for music than this”.
Whether one shares Gubaidulina’s religious commitment or not, one cannot help but be moved by In tempus praesens. Notably, the orchestration is unusual and highly effective. Gone are the first and second violin sections of the orchestra, giving the solo violin more room to dominate in its own range and timbre. Another unusual touch is the use of three Wagner tubas. Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to good effect. but few composers have since. These tubas don’t sound particularly Wagnerian or Brucknerian in this work, but they do add a distinctive colour.
In one memorable episode in the piece, the strings play reiterated chords that increase in volume, as other instruments are added. In the pauses between, the solo violin plays passages of great virtuosity and intensity. There is never a dull moment in this piece, and all of it seems genuinely expressive.
Mutter’s performance was authoritative, and she had worthy partners in Nagano and the members of the OSM. Their playing was remarkably assured for so complex a piece.
In tempus praesens is a work one would like to hear many times again to appreciate everything that is going on. Fortunately, Mutter has recorded it for Deutsche Grammophon with Gergiev and the London Symphony.
The second half of the concert was devoted to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. The trumpet solo which opens the piece was in the very capable hands of principal trumpet Paul Merkelo. From beginning to end he gave what amounted to a clinic in trumpet playing with some of the sweetest sounds ever heard in Place des Arts. And by ‘sweet’ I mean that Merkelo produces a unique sound that remains beautiful even in the loudest passages. Not far behind was principal horn John Zirbel, with outstanding playing in the third movement. The entire orchestra played magnificently under Kent Nagano’s masterly direction.
I have not heard the OSM in Place des Arts for many months and I was struck by the seating of the orchestra. The double bass section, for example, was on the left side for this concert, and that placement made a big difference; the sound projected much better than in past concerts I had attended at Place des Arts (seated in roughly the same section – the first balcony) although, in my opinion, it still lacked that depth and presence characteristic of some of the world’s best concert halls.
The third movement of the Mahler features extended solos for the first horn player. In this performance John Zirbel was moved from the horn section on the back left to a position on the right behind the viola section. Unfortunately, most people couldn’t see him, because he was positioned directly behind the harp. If Zirbel was moved for better projection of the horn sound, the tactic was unsuccessful. The horns generally project well from their normal position, and the change didn’t seem to make any difference.
The Adagietto worked its magic as it nearly always does; this is one of the most hauntingly beautiful movements in all of Mahler. No wonder Visconti used it for his film Death in Venice and Ennio Morricone stole it for the soundtrack of Sergio Leone’s great film Once Upon a Time in America. The strings played with a lovely warmth and Nagano made sure that rhythm wasn’t sacrificed to beauty.
All in all, the Mahler Fifth performance was impressive in terms of the standard of playing and the wealth of detail Nagano was able to bring out. On the other hand, there was a certain lack of urgency and passion in the performance. It could well be the result of trying to prepare too much challenging music in too little rehearsal time. Conductor and players might have been erring on the side of accuracy at the expense of excitement. If so, the repeat performances could have been more inspired than the opening night performance I heard. On the other hand, it could also be that this is the way Nagano likes his Mahler - accurate and inward-looking, but not too emotional and certainly not out of control.
Whatever the case, there is always more to be discovered and there is plenty of room for interpretation; that’s why we celebrate Mahler this year and next and continue to be fascinated by his music.
Friday, 8 October 2010
Cette semaine à Montréal / This Week in Montreal 11-17 oct
Wednesday, 6 October 2010
This Week in Toronto (Oct 3 - 9)
The reverberations of the COC season-opener AIDA continues unabated. I attended opening night last Saturday, and to say it polarized opinions is an understatement. It is safe to say the majority of attendees did not like the production. Take a look at the production photo I've included above - I defy anyone looking at it and guess that it is from AIDA! Having said that, the musical side of things was wonderful, particularly the singing of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. There are eleven more performances (Oct. 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, Nov. 2, 5). Now with standing room tickets, you can see the show for as little as $12 - there is no reason not to go. Even if you don't care for the production, the chance to hear La Rad, the premiere Verdi soprano of today, is reward enough.
Sunday, 3 October 2010
COC’s Aida Booed on Opening Night
They cried “Bravo!” for the leads: Sondra Radvanovsky (Aida), Rosario La Spina (Radames), Jill Grove (Amneris) and Scott Hendricks (Amonarsro).
They cried “Bravo!” for conductor Johannes Debus and his orchestra.
But when director Tim Albery and the design team joined the cast for the curtain call at the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening performance of Verdi’s Aida on Oct. 2, the audience booed.
The boos didn’t last very long — this is Canada after all — but they were unmistakably sounds of disapproval and they were vehement.
“The music is great, but the set is disgusting,” a boo leader said to his friends.
Albery, a Toronto resident, is a veteran director behind numerous critically acclaimed operatic productions, including COC’s War and Peace in 2008 and the recent premieres of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna.
This Aida, a new COC production of the opera in 25 years, is a modern twist of the Egyptian tragedy in that it bears a strong military (gun) presence with Mad Men-like vibes but minus the glam. It’s set in a war-torn country that doesn’t try to depict the Memphis of ancient or future Egypt and the ordinary costumes are plainer than white robes and kilts.
Personally, I have no problem with Albery’s stark concept behind the set. It’s always refreshing to see a current and different take on a beloved piece of work like Aida, especially when it tells the story just as powerful as any traditional, more opulent set, sometimes more to the point.
A good example is the relatively insignificant scene of the men readying themselves to go into battle with prayer and ritual at the Temple of Vulcan. This scene doesn’t really serve any purpose in the story line, but the music is sensual and gypsy-like, with a ghostly female chorus singing modal tunes off-stage and harps strumming full force in the pit.
Here, Albery gives us five sexy priestesses dressed in sparkling cat-woman bodysuits and performing sacred dances in three-inch heels behind a glass wall. The stage was lighted red and the men looked on hypnotically; some took off their shirts, put on armour gears, and applied grease over each other’s naked chest and face as if willed by voodoo.
They were aroused, they were ready to kill.
Radvanovsky, making her COC and Aida debut, deserved the prolonged clapping and “Bravo!” shouts at the end of all her big arias. The American-born, Toronto-based soprano has a powerful control of her bursting voice that carried well beyond the back of the hall in all its glory, fortissimo or pianissimo. She is one Aida many will remember for a long time to come.
Australian tenor Rosario La Spina also made a solid COC debut in the role of Radames, the Egyptian general in love with Aida. He sounded majestic without being forceful.
American mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, another COC debutant, delivered a strong performance in the role of Amneris, particularly in Act 4, when she soared and owned the depressing prison set on stage and gave it life.
After his recent success as Iago in COC’s Otello, American baritone Scott Hendricks made a triumphant return singing Amonarsro, Aida’s father.
Debus and the COC orchestra in the pit gave Verdi’s music its due course, with rich sounds and unreformed passion. But this presented a sharp contrast to the stripped down set on stage framed with cheap chairs, painted wall river in the Nile scene (fake lake?) and Value Village-inspired clothes.
Aida is supposed to be an easily liked opera with great tunes, exciting chorus scenes, and lots of spectacles. To mess with such a work on opening night can often prove to be fatal, as was the case here. So kudos to the COC for kicking off a new season with a bold and out-of-favour production.
Aida continues at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts until Nov. 5.