La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 9 October 2010

This Week in Toronto (Oct. 11 - 17)

Left: Composer Benjamin Britten (1913- 1976)

The big operatic news this week is the opening of the other production of the Canadian Opera Company's Fall Season, that of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice. The last - and only - time this opera was produced by the COC was in June 1984 under the Lotfi Mansouri era, when the Britten work received four performances. American tenor Kenneth Riegel was a memorable Aschenbach and Canadian baritone Allan Monk in his prime, was an equally impressive Traveller. This is Britten's last opera, and a deeply personal statement and a summation of his life's work. We are extremely fortunate to have on the podium Steuart Bedford, the conductor of the premiere in 1973! Whether or not you are a fan of Britten or this work, it is simply a must-see. It stars Alan Oke as Aschenbach and Peter Savidge as the Traveller. Opening night is Saturday Oct. 16 at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. Additional performances on Oct. 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, Nov. 3 and 6.

Meanwhile, the COC Aida continues. The singing, simply put, is superb. I daresay Sondra Radvanovsky is born to sing this role. It was her role debut on opening night, and the audience went wild. Even at this stage, she is the definitive Aida of our time. The production, on the other hand, has generated polarized opinions. If you want to see what the controversy is all about, be sure to go to one of the shows. There will be nine more performances to go, including Tuesday Oct. 12 and Friday Oct. 15, both at 7:30 pm. And this season for the first time there are standing room tickets at $12! There is simply no reason not to go - just to hear the best Verdi soprano of our time is enough of a reward.

The COC Vocal Series continues on Tuesday noon (Oct. 12) with a program of English and American Songs, including works by Quilter, Barber, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Bolcom, and Rorem. Since this is free, it is extremely popular. Remember to show up at least 45 minutes before to secure a seat. For a pdf file of the program, go to

The Toronto Symphony Orhestra presents the beloved Sibelius Violin Concerto with violinist Henning Kraggerud, and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 under the baton of former TSO music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The concert is on Thursday Oct. 14 at 8 pm and repeated on Saturday. On Thursday, cellist Yo-Yo Ma makes a welcome return to Toronto, in a gala evening at Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall, in a program of Schubert, Shostakovich, and Piazolla. This concert is apparently sold out already but there may be returns. Go to the RCM website at for more information.

Elsewhere, the Toronto Philharmonia opens its season with an All Beethoven Program - Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 7, under conductor Uri Mayer. Vit Muzik is the violin soloist. This concert takes place at the George Weston Recital Hall. One of the best in terms of acoustics, the GW is sadly underused these days so it is good to know that the Philharmonia plays there regularly. Go to for more details.

Finally, Music Toronto is presenting the St. Lawrence Quartet on Thursday Oct. 14 at 8 pm, in a program of Haydn, Prokofiev, Goddard and Hebert-Tremblay. The venue is as usual the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre.

It really seems like Oct. 14 is the busiest day musically so far of the fall season, with many worthwhile events going on simultaneously. I will be attending "The Rubies", the Opera Canada Awards, to take place at One King West Hotel in Toronto. This year, the honorees are Dawn Martens, Roger Moore, Stephen Ralls, Bruce Ubukata and Edith Wiens. Performing in their honour will be sopranos Marianne Fiset and Shannon Mercer, baritones Jason Howard and Brett Polegato, as well as the Canadian Children's Opera Company. The Rubies refers to the founder of Opera Canada magazine the late soprano Ruby Mercer. OC is the oldest continuously published arts magazine in Canada. Thanks to Ruby - as she was called by those of us who knew her - it is Canada's only opera magazine, and at 51 years it is still going strong. For those interested in attending, go to for more information.

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Fialkowska takes Chopin back in time with Tafelmusik

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Chopin is just about everywhere as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Perhaps the last place you’d expect to hear his compositions though is with a Baroque ensemble. However, never has Chopin been as present on stage as he was at the Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre on Oct. 7, when the Tafelmusik Orchestra performed his E-minor piano concerto with Janina Fialkowska on an 1848 Pleyel piano.

The concept of Chopin on Period Piano is a simple and ingenious one for Tafelmusik. Fialkowska would play on the same piano model Chopin played on during his last concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1848. The program would pair the first concerto with the Grand Nonet in F major by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), because Chopin had played the concerto in 1838 on the same program as the Nonet, a bouncy four-movement piece a bit off-the-wall but performed by nine Tafelmusik members with staunch enthusiasm and energy.

In a new arrangement for chamber ensemble (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn and string quintet) by Dutch composer Sylvia Maessen, Fialkowska and the Tafelmusik players gave a delicate and intimate performance of Chopin’s E-minor concerto, typically performed with gusto and big romantic reverberation. The Pleyel piano, restored by the Quebec City-based husband-and-wife team of Marcel Lapointe and Isabelle Gagnon, didn’t produce such fireworks, but had dynamic, supple sounds that finely matched Tafelmusik’s exquisite period instruments and roamed comfortably inside the Trinity-St. Paul’s.

It’s like opening an aged bottle of wine that is ripe and smooth in taste. It’s as if you’ve turned a coloured photo into sepia in Photoshop and the same image now looks warmer and more enhanced and you can picture the lives and stories of the people in it. That was the case here. The concerto was played without a conductor and in true chamber music style with musicians seated around the piano, nodding heads to each other to bring out a subtle nuance and voicing. If you just closed your eyes for a second, you could almost picture Chopin at the piano and George Sand sitting somewhere in the audience.

The performance wasn’t about the soloist, as it normally would be in a Chopin concerto. That being said, Fialkowska was a standout from the moment she stepped on stage with her majestic black tailcoat. The E-minor concerto under her hands and on the Pleyel piano — Chopin’s instrument of choice — was light, crisp, and full of life. Perhaps it’s the half-Polish blood in her, Fialkowska has a nature flamboyance in this music without even having to try hard. The Pleyel has smaller keys in width and a shallower dip than a modern piano, but none of the differences seemed to present challenges for Fialkowska, who was performing Chopin on a period instrument for the first time.

For the encore, Fialkowska gave a swift interpretation of Chopin’s Waltz Op. 64, No. 2 in C-sharp minor. At one point, a motorcycle revved outside and sirens screamed, but time stood still inside.

It was truly beautiful, wonderful, and magical, definitely the Chopin birthday party to beat.

Chopin on Period Piano repeats Oct. 8, 9 and 10.

From Oct. 9 until March 27, 2011, you can also watch the exhibition Fryderyk Chopin & the Romantic Piano at the Royal Ontario Museum.

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Wilde and Weill at Shaw: An Ideal Husband and a Touch of Venus

by Paul E. Robinson
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 Desouzas 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 Wildes 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.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at NEW For friends: "CLASSICAL AIRS," The Art of the Conductor podcast!
Photo ( Robin Evan Willis as Venus and Kyle Blair as Rodney Hatch

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Nagano, Mutter & OSM: An Evening of Uncompromising Soul-Searching

by Paul E. Robinson

Whatever else he m
ay 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.

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.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at NEW For friends: “CLASSICAL AIRS,” The Art of the Conductor podcast!


Friday, 8 October 2010

Cette semaine à Montréal / This Week in Montreal 11-17 oct

Le 15 octobre, 20 h, la compositrice résidente Cléo Palacio-Quintin présente Saltation éphérique, avec la participation de deux compositeurs spécialistes de l’électronique en direct, une création pour hyper-flûte-basse, ainsi que de nouvelles œuvres incluant hyper-flûtes, piano, électronique et vidéo. Avec Cléo Palacio-Quintin, flûtes et hyper-flûtes, David Cronkite, piano et électronique et Louis Dufort, vidéo et électronique. Œuvres de Cronkite, Dufort, Palacio-Quintin. Un début de saison électrisant ! 

514-872-5338 -Par Renée Banville

Un programme qui réunit des œuvres de deux monstres sacrés du lied : Gustav Mahler et Richard Strauss. Au cœur de cet événement, s’inscrivent les cycles de Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen et les Rückert Lieder. C’est aussi le retour très attendu de trois jeunes artistes canadiens qui œuvrent avec talent au développement d’une carrière au récital : le baryton Tyler Duncan et la pianiste Erika Switzer de la Colombie-Britannique se joignent à la mezzo-soprano québécoise Julie Boulianne, acclamée pour sa récente interprétation de Cendrillon à l’Opéra de Montréal. 17 octobre, 15 h, au Conservatoire de musique de Montréal. 514-397-0068, -RB

Originaire de Montréal, la pianiste virtuose Lucille Chung offrira le 12 octobre un concert-bénéfice au profit de l’Ordre militaire et hospitatlier de Saint-Lazare de Jérusalem. Au programme, des œuvres de Mozart, Chopin ainsi qu’une transcription pour piano seul du Deuxième Concerto de Saint-Saëns ! Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur,100, Sherbrooke Est, 19 h 30. 514-847-0826 -Par Julie Berardino

Mardi 12 Tuesday
» 9h. UdM-Laval. 12$. Mat-Opéramania. Boris Godunov. 343-6479
» 17h. UdM-MUS B-484. EL. Série de conférences “Bilans et tendances de la musicologie”, sous-série “Quand les sons s’évanouissent: sens et non-sens dans la musique ancienne”. Grammaire et rhétorique dans la polyphonie du bas Moyen-Âge, Margaret Bent, musicologue. 343-6427
» 19h30. CHBP. 125$, includes champagne, wine & cheese, charity receipt for 100$. The Montréal Commandery of the Order of St. Lazarus presents a Benefit Concert for Palliative Care. Mozart: Sonata #17, K.570; Chopin: Nocturne #27, op.1; Saint-Saëns: Concerto #2, op.22, Lucille Chung, piano. (7pm champagne; 7: 30pm concert; 8: 30-10: 30pm wine & cheese) 847-0826
» 19h30. McGill POL. 10$.McGill Baroque Orchestra; Cappella Antica; Hank Knox, director. 398-4547
» 20h. MC Rosemont-La Petite Patrie, Studio 1, 6707 de Lorimier. LP. Tangos, Trio Romulo Larrea. 872-1730
» 20h. McGill TSH. FA. McGill Chamber Jazz Ensemble; Joe Sullivan, director. 398-4547
» 20h. PdA SWP. 28-70$. Les Évasions classiques Air Canada. Boulez: Messagesquisse; Bruch: Concerto pour violon #1; Mahler: Symphonie #1 “Titan”, O.S. de Montréal; Kent Nagano, chef; Viviane Hagner, violon. (19h causerie: Kelly Rice, chroniqueur, CBC Radio) 842-2112, 842-9951

Mercredi 13 Wednesday
» 12h. CHBP. EL. Midi musique. Beethoven, Angelova, Rachmaninov, Franck, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Wieniavsky, Katerina Bragina, violoncelle; Vania Angelova, piano; Robert Margaryan, violon; Ashken Minasian, piano. 872-5338
» 13h30. UdM-Longueuil. 12$. Mat-Opéramania. Ariadne auf Naxos. 343-6479
» 17h. McGill TSH. FA. Masterclass, Natalia Shamayeva, harp. 398-4547
» 19h. Bibliothèque publique Eleanor-London, 5851 boul. Cavendish, Côte St-Luc. 5$. Tournée du CAM. Alla Tedesca: Le baroque à tous vents! Les 30 ans d’Arion. Fasch: Concerto pour basson, cordes et clavecin; Telemann: Quatuor pour 2 flûtes, basson et continuo; Concerto pour flûte à bec et basson; Concerto pour flûte traversière, flûte à bec, orchestre à cordes et basse continue, Musiciens d’Arion Orchestre Baroque; Mathieu Lussier, chef. 485-6900
» 19h30. Collège de Maisonneuve Cégep, Salle Sylvain-Lelièvre, 2701 Nicolet (angle Sherbrooke Est). 10-20$. Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, ouverture; Glière: Concerto pour cor; Beethoven: Symphonie #5, op.67 / Dvorak: Danses slaves, op.46 #1-4, O.S. des jeunes de La Sarre (Allemagne); Alexandre Mayer, chef / O.S. des jeunes de Montréal; Louis Lavigueur, chef. 645-0311
» 19h30. McGill POL. 10$.McGill Jazz Orchestra I; Gordon Foote, cond. 398-4547

Jeudi 14 Thursday              
» 17h. Magasin Ogilvy, Salle Tudor, 1307 Ste-Catherine Ouest. 30$ concert et buffet. Poulenc au salon, Paris des années folles. Poulenc: Sonate pour clarinette et piano; Trio pour hautbois, basson et piano; Élégie pour cor et piano; Sonate pour flûte et piano; Sextuor pour quintette à vent et piano, Pentaèdre; David Jalbert, piano. (vins et bouchées à la française) 270-2558
» 17h. UdM-MUS B-484. EL. Série de conférences “Bilans et tendances de la musicologie”, sous-série “Quand les sons s’évanouissent: sens et non-sens dans la musique ancienne”. L’analyse en action: les bonnes et les fausses notes, Margaret Bent, musicologue. 343-6427
» 19h30. Église Notre-Dame-des-Sept-Douleurs, 4155 Wellington (& de l’Église), Verdun. 0-12$. Société de musique classique de Verdun. Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie, op.61; Sonate pour piano, op.35; Brahms: Quintette pour piano et cordes, op.34, Serhiy Salov, piano; Gregor Monlun, Roland Arnassalon, violon; Elvira Misbakhova, alto; Kateryna Bragina, violoncelle. 679-6427
» 19h30. McGill POL. 10$.McGill Wind Symphony; Jonathan Dagenais, cond. 398-4547
» 20h. Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, Salle de concert, 4750 Henri-Julien. 10-20$ à la porte le soir du concert. Maxime McKinley: Théâtre invisible (création); Territoire Lune; Wirkunst-Forum; Beethoven: Trio, op.1 #3; Mauricio Kagel: Trio in zwei Satzen, Trio Fibonacci. 272-5980
» 20h. MC NDG. LP. Musique classique, jazz et pop. Jazz et pop, avec accents classiques et baroques, Quatuor Ponticello. 872-2157

Vendredi 15 Friday
» 19h30. CHBP. LP. Saltation éphérique. Cronkite, Dufort, Palacio-Quintin, Cléo Palacio-Quintin, flûtes, hyper-flûtes; David Cronkite, piano, électronique; Louis Dufort, vidéo, électronique. 872-5338
» 19h30. McGill POL. 10$.McGill Sinfonietta; Alexis Hauser, cond. 398-4547
» 19h30. UdM-MUS B-484. EL. Fauré, Choeur de l’Université de Montréal; Raymond Perrin, chef. 343-6427
» 19h30. UdM-MUS B-421. 11$. Opéramania. Soirée spéciale: Les 20 meilleurs DVD d’opéras 2000-2004 (palmarès des 20 meilleures captations; suite la semaine prochaine) 790-1245, 343-6479
» 20h. Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, Salle de concert, 4750 Henri-Julien. 10-25$. Série Vingtième et plus. Quatuor Molinari. 527-5515
» 20h. Église St-Joachim, 2 Ste-Anne, Pointe-Claire. 7-14$. Grand concert; musique classique. Les Larmes d’Orlande. Roland de Lassus: Le Lagrime di San Pietro, Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal; Christopher Jackson, dir. 630-1220

Samedi 16 Saturday
» 15h. Centre Leonardo da Vinci, Théâtre Mirella et Lino Saputo, 8370 boul. Lacordaire, St-Léonard. 4$. Scène familiale. Théâtre musical pour les 4 à 8 ans. Baobab, Aboulaye Komé, Nathalie Cora, musiciens, comédiens; Hamadoun Kassogué, Sharon James, comédiens. 311, 328-8400
» 19h30. McGill POL. 10$.McGill Sinfonietta; Alexis Hauser, cond. 398-4547
» 19h30. UdM-MUS SCC. 0-12$. L’OUM fait son cinéma!. Dompierre, Cusson, Grégoire, Benoît, Baillargeon, Prokofiev, Chostakovitch, Evelin Ramon, Orchestre de l’Université de Montréal; Jean-François Rivest, chef; Michel Cusson, guitare; Leslie Ting, violon. 790-1245
» 20h. Basilique Notre-Dame, 110 Notre-Dame Ouest. 20$. Concours international d’orgue du Canada. Concert gala: Le Rendez-vous des Grands, Michael Unger, Konstantin Volostnov, Balint Karosi, Frédéric Champion, orgue. 844-2172, 866-844-2172

Dimanche 17 Sunday
» 11h. Centre culturel Peter B. Yeomans, 1401 ch. Bord-du-Lac, Dorval. 5$. Concerts Divertissimo. Arion, Alla Tedesca. 633-4170 (h13)
» 14h30. OrSJo. EL. Canonisation de frère André. Le carillon en fête: La cloche du portier résonne encore, Mozart, Bach, Daquin, Aubin, Lebel, Taillefer, etc. Andrée-Anne Doane, Claude Aubin, carillon. (Durée 45 min.) 733-8211 (f31)
» 14h30. PdA SWP. 28-70$. Les Dimanches en musique. OSM, Hagner. (13h30 causerie: Kelly Rice, chroniqueur, CBC Radio) 842-2112, 842-9951 (h12)
» 15h. CCPCSH. LP. Rendez-vous du dimanche; jazz. Yves Léveillé, Yves Léveillé Quartet. 630-1220
» 15h. OrSJo Basilique. EL. Canonisation de frère André. Couperin, Vivaldi, J.B. Bach, J.S. Bach, Widor, Philippe Bélanger, orgue. 733-8211
» 15h. St. John the Evangelist Church, 137 Président-Kennedy (coin St-Urbain). CV. Music under the Red Roof. Opening concert. Bach: cantatas, BWV 115, BWV 78, BWV 96, The Gallery Choir and players; Garth McPhee, cond.; Isaiah Bell, tenor. 288-4428
» 16h. McGill TSH. FA. Master’s Recital, Rachel Allen, trumpet. 398-4547
» 16h. St. James Church, 642 Main Road, Hudson. 15-20$. Hudson Chamber Music Series, Valérie Milot, harp. 450-458-5107, 450-458-4088
» 20h. CHBP. LP. Chopin, Janusz Olejniczak, piano. 872-5338

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Wednesday, 6 October 2010

This Week in Toronto (Oct 3 - 9)

Left: COC's new production of AIDA, with Sondra Radvanovsky in the foreground (photo: Michael Cooper)

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.

Elsewhere vocally and operatically, the COC Vocal Series, the free noon hour concert at the Four Seasons Centre's Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre features a program of French opera, with singers from the U of T Opera Division. Stuart Hamilton, the doyen of Canadian opera scene and an expert on French opera, is the host. As usual, you must show up 45 minutes in advance to get a seat. Also up at York University, the retired mezzo Catherine Robbin is launching her new CD of Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch. Daniel Lichti is the baritone soloist. This even takes place at the Tribute Communities Recital Hall at York University. The CD will be available for purchase. This Saturday at 1 pm, the Met in HD series opens with the long awaited Das Rheingold, the first installment of the new Met Ring Cycle by Canadian director Robert Lepage. The opening night reviews were good, except the stage machinery failed at the end and the rainbow bridge to Valhalla failed to materialize. Let's hope the glitches are ironed out for Saturday. Consult for more details.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra offers Best of Barber - that's Samuel Barber, one of the most melodically inspired and accessible of American composers. During the mid 20th century when most classical composers jumped on the serialist bandwagon, Barber stuck to his guns and composed in a tonal and romantic style. And now his music has endured with quite a number of his colleagues' works play to half-empty auditoriums. On the TSO program are his famous Adagio for Strings, his Symphony No. 1 and his violin and piano concertos. Solooists include Jon Kimura Parker and Gil Shaham. Peter Oundjian conducts. On Saturday Oct 9, the TS presents a slightly different program, featuring Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. For more information, go to

For baroque fans, I can recommend Tafelmusik's Chopin on Period Piano. On the program is Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 as well as Spohr's Nonet in F Op. 31. Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska is the pianist. Dates are on Thursday Oct. 7 and repeated on the 8, 9, and 10. For more information and tickets, go to

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Sunday, 3 October 2010

COC’s Aida Booed on Opening Night

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

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.

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Canadian Opera Company's AIDA

Production photos from the new COC production of Aida
(Photo credit: Michael Cooper)

The Canadian Opera Company's 2010-11 season opened Saturday with Verdi's AIDA. It is astonishing to think that this archetypal Italian opera has not been staged by the COC for a quarter century. The reason is quite simple - great Aidas, or should I say great Verdi sopranos, don't grow on trees. Even major houses like the Met and Covent Garden with their enormous resources have had difficulty in casting this opera. Since the retirement of Leontyne Price, the number of singers who can claim to have had a genuine success in this most exacting of Verdi soprano roles can be counted on the fingers of one hand. We are lucky to have Sondra Radvanovsky's first-ever Aida at the COC. She has already been highly acclaimed in several Verdi roles - Leonora (Trovatore), Elvira (Ernani), Elena, Amelia (Ballo), Elisabetta, even Violetta which I heard about 10 years ago in Santa Fe but it is no longer in her active repertoire. Given her huge, dark, gleaming sound, admirable flexibility, long breath-line, and a stunning high pianissimo, Aida would appear to be a natural fit. Tonight we got to find out that Radvanovsky is born to sing this role. Simply put, the voice is that of a true Verdi soprano, a focused, luscious sound that is even from top to bottom and at all dynamic levels from the softest pianissimos to galvanizing fortissimos, all backed by a rock solid technique and deployed with exemplary musicality. "Ritorna Vincitor" with its dramatic outbursts was dispatched with power and nuance. So many sopranos have crashed and burned in the very exacting "O patria mia" with it exposed high C - for Radvanovsky, it was as if it's child's play. The long, arching musical lines, lightly orchestrated, rising to the long-held high C before coming down to a diminuendo high A, simply took one's breath away. I haven't heard an Aida of this quality since the prime of Leontyne Price. I understand Radvanovsky and her Canadian husband have made the GTA their hometown for close to ten years, and it has taken this long for the Canadian Opera Company to wake up to the fact that we have a great singer in our midst. I spoke briefly with COC's Alexander Neef at the reception afterwards, and he assured me that La Rad will be back as soon as possible!

The rest of the cast, while not on quite the same level as Radvanovsky, was very fine. Australian-born Sicilian Rosario La Spina (Radames) has a beautiful tenor which he uses musically. He has the potential of becoming a dramatic tenor, but at this fairly early stage in his career he's essentially a lyric. So there were moments when he was heavily taxed by the demands of the role. The passaggio occasionally gave him trouble, such as in the recitative before "Celeste Aida" and in the extended duet in the Nile Scene. Overall one would have liked a bit more volume and bloom at the top - he was at his best in the lyrical Tomb Scene at the end. All in all, it was a most auspicious debut and I hope the COC will bring him back. American Jill Grove is a low mezzo bordering on contralto - she was excellent as Gaea in a Santa Fe Daphne I saw a few years back. Other than for one problematic high B flat in the very dramatic Act 4 duet with Radamas, she sang beautifully, revealing a rich and full bottom voice, but also a respectable high A in the Judgement Scene. American baritone Scott Hendricks has previously appeared as Rodrigo and Iago with the COC. An exciting singer who gives his all, Hendricks sang Amonasro with burnished tone and a strong sense of drama. The smaller roles were all well taken, particularly the two Canadian basses - Alain Coulombe as a sonorous King and Phillip Ens as Ramfis. Former Ensemble member Betty Allison contributed a mellifluous (but unseen) High Priestess. I would be remiss if I don't mention the excellent chorus under the direction of Sandra Horst. COC Music Director Johannes Debus impressed with a superb reading of the work - his authority and understanding of the score is remarkable given it was his first Aida. The orchestra responded well to him as usual and overall it was an entirely satisfying musical experience.

I have left comments on the production to the last. As a frequent visitor to European opera houses, I have seen plenty of radical re-imaginings of the standard repertoire by stage directors, the so-called Regietheater approach. I have seen some I loved - like the Munich Opera Die schweigsame Frau, and some I detested, like the Komischer Oper Berlin Madama Butterfly. The oft-heard argument in favour of these re-interpretations is that it frees one from rigid adherence to tradition - and all the external trappings (ie. pyramids, elephants, black-makeup) that go with it - and allow the audience a fresh look and to focus on a work's inner meanings. But often in the process of the jettisoning of tradition, it is merely replaced by another one, this time a director's straitjacket. From what I can tell, director Tim Albery has time-place-shifted this Aida to some present-day Latin American dictatorship. Everyone is in modern dress - men in suits or military uniforms and women in garishly opulent costumes, all except for poor Aida who looks like a frumpy cleaning woman. Fair enough - why should Aida, a slave girl, be glamorous, like Nina Stemme in the Zurich production? But the pageantry and the grandeur that are inherent in the music - the triumphal march or the ballet for example - are much diminished in this staging. In a director's Q&A available for viewing in the COC website, Albery states this production is a nightmare seen through Aida's eyes, and that "it's not everyone's cup of tea." Whether it is your cup of tea depends on how tolerant you are to re-interpretations. I observed a few people leaving at intermission, including my guest for the evening, and about four people in my vicinity left at various points during the second half. Personally I would never leave such a wonderfully sung performance - the glorious Verdi score alone is reward enough. More problematic for me is the disconnect between what one sees on stage and what's in the text - for example it's so ridiculous to see the chorus in modern dress singing "glory to Egypt"! At least at this point in operatic history, no director has yet dared to change the text or the music in any significant way, for which I am grateful. Albery has recycled some of his ideas in the COC Goetterdammerung into Aida - men in suits, long boardroom table, overhead florescent lights etc. The best part of the production is the Tomb Scene, where there is the least directorial tinkering, although Amneris, who has the last word in this opera, had to sing her line "Pace t'imploro" in pitch darkness. I half expected Jill Grove to whip out a cigarette lighter to illuminate herself! Rather than going any further into details of the staging, the only way to understand it is to experience it for yourself. There are eleven more performances of Aida, and this year for the first time, there are standing room tickets, so there is no excuse not to go - just the chance to hear today's finest Verdi soprano is worth it!

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