La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bye Bye Mister Don McLean: McGill Music Dean Fêted in Montreal

By Naomi Gold
Photos by Owen Egan
Photos, from top to bottom: 
Outgoing music dean Don McLean
Alexis Hauser conducting the McGill Symphony Orchestra
Pianist Anton Kuerti with the Cecilia String Quartet

McGill University's Laudatoria Gala recently honored former music dean Don McLean, who sings his Montreal swan song before returning to Toronto. During his nine-year tenure which began in 2001, the Faculty of Music emerged as a leader in both pedagogy and research.  In 2005, a $20 million gift was made by Canadian billionaire/philanthropist Seymour Schulich. And thus the new music building was constructed. It houses a state-of-the-art research/production facility known as the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology, or the CIRMMT (pronounced KERMIT) lab. McLean also recruited renowned grammy-winning music producers, engineers and professors from the USA to McGill's Schulich School of Music.

Funds raised by this soirée are specifically earmarked towards the completion of CIRMMT's recording studio, the Music Multimedia Room.

Following a black-tie dinner, guests were treated to an über-eclectic concert which featured Hank Knox directing McGill's Baroque Orchestra with Vincent Lauzer on recorder, piano virtuoso Anton Kuerti interpreting Schumann, those sneaky Canadian Brass dudes, the Cecilia String Quartet, maestro Alexis Hauser leading McGill's Symphony Orchestra, McGill's Jazz Orchestra conducted by interim dean Gordon Foote, pianist Philip Chiu, trumpeter Jens Lindemann, and opera students performing Musetta's Waltz from La Bohème. Musical talent (and comedic schtick) abounded—both onstage and off—as many local luminaries filled the audience. Current and former professors, students, friends, staff and benefactors of the faculty were in attendance, including CBC broadcaster Kelly Rice, who served as the congenial gala emcee.

Post-performance, patrons proceeded to the new music building's Multimedia Room for a dazzling reception which featured appetizers aplenty, lotsa schmoozing, cool jazz, and oodles of fizz. Long after midnight, hearty revelers sang a chorus of Bye Bye Miss American Pie as the party spilled out into the 'starry starry'—and snowy night.

To access the full roster of concerts at the Schulich School of Music, click here

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Monday, 8 November 2010

Jaap van Zweden Masterly in Shostakovich Eighth

by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels
Meyerson Symphony Centre
Dallas, Texas
October 22, 2010

Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 8
Nicola Benedetti, violin
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
Jaap van Zweden took most of the summer off to nurse a sore shoulder. The recuperation seems to have been successful and he is back in town leading the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) with even more energy than before. Among his specialties are the symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and Shostakovich is not far behind. Last season in Dallas he conducted a stunning performance of the Symphony No. 7 and this season he followed it up with an equally fine reading of the Eighth Symphony.

Benedetti's Mendelssohn a Tad off Track

This evening’s concert program opened with a perennial favourite, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. To give it some new life, we had a vivacious young British violinist of Italian heritage, Nicola Benedetti. She brought to the stage not only an attractive appearance, but a solid technique and a ravishing tone that carried well over the orchestra. Van Zweden made sure that the DSO provided a discreet accompaniment, and only let loose in the tuttis.

Benedetti is certainly a young artist to watch, although she might want to reconsider her role vis à vis that of the orchestra. The last movement of this performance of the Mendelssohn was more than a bit scrappy as the strings and winds tried to match Benedetti’s tempo. Listening to the orchestra as much as it listened to her would have worked to Benedetti’s benefit here.

Shostakovich Eighth Transcends Politics

Although the Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 is played far less often than many of the other Shostakovich symphonies, it is quite familiar to Dallas musicians and audiences. Andrew Litton recorded the piece with the DSO in 1997. Taking up where his predecessor left off, van Zweden has the DSO playing at a higher level than could have been imagined during the Litton era and that new standard makes nearly every concert a joy to hear.

The Eighth Symphony is a long, sprawling piece that can easily descend into annoying bombast alternating with egocentric navel-gazing. Shostakovich was very much a man of his time – the worst of the Soviet era – and it could be argued that the music loses much of its power without the historical context. That was certainly not the case with this performance. Maestro van Zweden maintained focus from beginning to end, and in so doing probably convinced many listeners that this was music not just for its own time, but for all time.

In spite of attempts to describe this and many other symphonies in programmatic terms, it seems to me that most great symphonies stand or fall by their musical quality, not by the events which inspired them or the stories they purport to tell.

The Eighth Symphony ultimately passes this test.

The long first movement is an excellent example of
motivic development culminating in massive climaxes, followed by catharsis in the haunting English horn solo.

There are two scherzos, structured after models provided by Mahler. The second of them is rhythmically infectious and contains an unprecedented workout for the trombones, and great fun too in the section with the trumpet solo that could have been taken from the repertoire of a circus band.

The fourth movement is one of the great passacaglias in symphonic music, right up there with the finale of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. In this performance, basses and cellos repeated the theme over and over with extraordinary accuracy of intonation and with beautiful tone and mesmerizing phrasing.

In the last movement, the music becomes deeply personal and probing. In her excellent notes in the DSO programme book,
Laurie Shulman expressed the feeling of this movement perfectly: “These [instrumental] soloists come across as voices, a manifestation of Shostakovich’s faith in the indomitability of the individual human spirit.”

In these solos, the members of the DSO outdid themselves with the most refined and beautiful playing.

In the composition’s final pages, van Zweden worked miracles with sustained soft playing. The conductor appeared to be doing nothing at all to achieve such finely-honed dynamics; but make no mistake – this kind of musical perfection comes only after the most demanding rehearsals.

DSO Quest for New Concertmaster Continues

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) is currently between concertmasters – long-time leader Emanuel Borok retired last season and a new person has yet to be appointed – but a variety of guest concertmasters have been doing excellent work.
William Preucil (Cleveland Orchestra) and Andres Cardenes (Pittsburg Symphony) have already appeared this season.

Guest concertmaster for this performance was
Nathan Olson, a protégée of Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil. Olson may be a little young and inexperienced to lead the DSO but it all depends on how he relates to the players and to conductor van Zweden. Some exceptional young violinists have leadership as well as virtuosity in their veins; Olson may be one of them. We shall see.

Coming later in the season are more guest concertmasters including
David Kim, concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The official word is that the new DSO concertmaster will “not necessarily be one of the guest concertmasters.”

The process of finding the right concertmaster is certainly interesting and cannot help but create an exciting, season-long guessing game for concert-goers in Dallas.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

Photo by Marita

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Sunday, 7 November 2010

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 8 - 14)

Soprano Christine Brewer (photo: Dario Acosta)

With the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier having wrapped up their fall season, there are fewer vocal events on offer this week. However, a major piece of news is the return of American soprano Christine Brewer to Toronto, as soloist in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Glagolitic Mass. This work, sometimes called the Slavonic Mass, is one of the glories of the 20th century oratorio repertoire and has earned its rightful place in the standard repertoire. It requires massive forces - four soloists, a double chorus, organ, and a large orchestra. It is the opening show of the TSO's two-week Slavic Celebration. Brewer is one of my very favourite singers. I've heard her many times, as Ariadne, Ellen Orford, Aegyptische Helena, Alceste, a concert Isolde, and most recently as Lady Billows - her soprano is a magnificent instrument and any chance to hear this phenomenal singer is not to be missed! Other soloists include Canadian tenor John Mac Master, mezzo Nancy Maultsby, and baritone Tyler Duncan. Peter Oundjian leads the TS forces. Opening night is Wednesday Nov. 10 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and the concert is repeated on Thursday. The second TSO program on Saturday Nov. 13 and Sunday Nov. 14 is Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, together with Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. Also on the program are two concertos, Lutolawski's Cello Concerto with cellist Colin Carr, and Dvorak's Piano Concerto in G Minor with pianist Natasha Paremski. For information and tickets, go to

Another very interesting event is the first Toronto International Piano Competition that has been going on all the past week. The event is sponsored by the Chinese Cultural Centre. The finals will take place at Koerner Hall, 7:30 pm this Monday. It is the concerto round, with orchestra conducted by Kerry Stratton. The semi-finals was last Saturday, so the three finalists have already been chosen, although not yet announced on the website. If you are interested in attending the finals at Koerner Hall, go to their website to see if there are still tickets available. The renowned jury panel includes Arie Vardi (Yundi Li's teacher), Yong Hi Moon, Marietta Orlov, and Marc Durand, among others. The jury chair is Yoheved Kaplinsky, the head of piano department at the Juilliard. Vardi, Kaplinsky and Moon gave masterclasses last week. This finals is well worth attending. For more information, go to and/or

UPDATE: I have just heard from the Competition publicist Linda Litwack. The three finalists have been chosen: Vakhtang Kodanashvili, 32, originally of the Republic of Georgia, now living in South Bend, IN (Tchaikovsky: Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor) Jiayan Sun, 20, of China, currently studying in New York (Prokofiev: Concerto No. 2 in G minor) Kirill Zvegintsov, 27, of Ukraine, currently living in Bern, Switzerland (Ravel: Concerto in G) Each will perform a piano concerto with the Toronto Concert Orchestra and conductor Kerry Stratton, Monday, November 8, 7:30 p.m. at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W. Tickets, $25-35, are available from (416) 408-0208 or At the conclusion, the distinguished jury will name the winners, who will be presented $28,000 U.S. in prizes. The first-prize winner receives $15,000 U.S. along with orchestral and solo concert engagements. Second prize is $8,000 U.S., and third, $5,000 U.S. The event will also stream in live video at More info may be found on the website. This is going to be an exciting event Monday evening and it is well worth attending!
Tafelmusik is presenting a program of Handel, Rameau, and Charpentier this week at their usual venue, Trinity St. Paul's Centre. Soloists are soprano Johannette Zomer, mezzo Vicki St. Pierre, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Peter Harvey. Ivars Taurins conducts. Concerts are on Thursday Nov. 11, repeated on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For information and tickets, go to

On the opera scene, there's the Toronto Operetta Theatre presenting A Gala Offenbachienne, starring soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, tenor James McLennan, and baritone James Levesque. It takes place at the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre at 2 pm on Sunday Nov. 14. Go to for more information.

Finally, a most intriguing event! Urbanvessel presents Voice-Box, a new opera by Juliet Palmer with libretto by Anne Chatterton. According to their own website at, the work is "a genre-crossing, interactive performance that blows the lid off gender and power dynamics with cheekiness, raw talent and real fighting. Voice-Box brings together the sweet science of boxing and the power of the singing voice, defying assumption about female aggression." The show takes place at Harbourfront Centre and runs Nov. 10 to 14.

This is of course not specific to Toronto, but the Met Live in HD continues with Don Pasquale starring the Russian soprano sensation Anna Netrebko as Norina. Ernesto is Matthew Polenzani, and Dr. Malatesta is Mariusz Kwiecien. The conductor is supposed to be James Levine, but a friend attended the performance on November 10. James Levine took ill after act 2 and was replaced for act 3. He has been in frail health in recent years, and it remains to be seen if he will conduct the HD transmission on Saturday Nov. 13.