La Scena Musicale

Friday, 19 November 2010

Pianist Olga Kern Delivers an Unstoppable Rush in Recital

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

There were two beautiful things to look at on stage at Toronto’s Koerner Hall Nov. 16: Russian pianist Olga Kern and the newly handcrafted Yamaha CFX 9-foot concert grand.

Together, the two created a wealth of sounds that, depending on where you sat in the hall, either gave you goose bumps, made your pupils dilate, popped your veins through your sleeves or all of the above.

Kern, 35, gave a solo recital for the Canadian launch of Yamaha’s latest beast in a program that began with Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 in C major, Hob. XVI: 50, Schumann’s Carnaval and, after intermission, finished with Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor and Balakirev’s Islamey: Oriental Fantasy.

For the most part, Kern delivered the entire program with such incredible speed, power and absolutely to-die-for techniques that there was little room for anything else other than to sit tight, buckle up and pray she doesn’t crash. A normal human being would have tangled up those fingers in her chosen speed — the fastest of anything I have ever heard (live or recorded), including the slow movements — but Kern’s fingers buttered over the shining keys with a kind of graceful and exact execution that only she can pull off.

Her Haydn sonata was bouncy and youthful, while pregnant with an unmistakable articulation and individuality that is classy on the outside and bad-girl on the inside. In Carnaval, those fat opening chords in Preambule sounded under her hands blatantly glorious and impressive, even though there were no big movements coming from her slender arms and model-thin body. Her expressive and imaginative musical ideas shone through vividly through all of the contrasting scenes that Schumann had so ingeniously composed, ending triumphantly with theDavidsbundler march.

The all-Russian second half of the program got under way with a change of evening gown and a loud cheer from the audience. Kern tackled Rachmaninoff’s stormy elephant-like sonata in a fierce manner with aggressive attacks in the lower register of the piano, which buzzed in agony at times. The pure intensity of Kern’s playing here was enough to set the piano on fire, but her lyricism in the second movement would just as soon calm the tsunami into a placid lake. She was that good, and capable of anything.

In Balakirev’s virtuosic showpiece Islamey, Kern was a firecracker in full speed from beginning to end. The unstoppable rush of her performance took the audiences’ breaths away, making them stand on their feet, while the pianist indulged them, and herself, with four fabulous encores that included Rachmaninoff’s C-sharp minor prelude and Moment Musical No. 4.

As for the CFX, it did whatever Kern wanted it to do.

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Monday, 15 November 2010

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 15 - 21)

Photo: tenor Joseph Calleja

The big news for opera fans this week is the belated appearance of Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja in the Roy Thomson Hall Vocal Series. He was first announced for November 2009 as part of last year's Vocal Series. His recital was postponed to May of 2010. Then it was again delayed to November 19th. Let's hope Mr. Calleja will appear as scheduled this Friday. He is of course no stranger to Toronto audiences, having appeared as Rodolfo in a COC La boheme way back in April 2000. He was near the very beginning of his career at the time, and even in those early days, his voice was exceptionally beautiful, with an interesting fast vibrato that recalled the tenors of the past. Now, ten years later, Calleja at 32 is a big star, one of a handful of tenors on the highest international level and with a big label recording contract. He appeared as Hoffmann on the Met Live in HD series last season, and this season, he will appear as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor opposite French diva Natalie Dessay (March 19 - check your local listings on the Cineplex network). The Roy Thomson Hall concert is a program of opera arias from Rigoletto, Macbeth, Tosca, Romeo et Juliette and Le Cid, plus songs by Tosti and Leoncavallo. This is your great chance to hear this bel canto tenor. Go to for more information.

On Tuesday Nov. 16 8 pm, the wonderful Russian pianist Olga Kern will be in town to play a recital of Haydn, Schumann, Rachmaninov and Balakirev. Kern was the gold medal winner of the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. The concert takes place at RCM's Koerner Hall. For more information and tickets, visit

The Mozart Society of Toronto has had a long and distinguished history. It was started by the late Peter Sandor, and when he passed away some years ago, the Society continued under the guidance of his colleagues and associates, all of them believed in their mission of promoting the music of Mozart. But in the current time of the internet and easy access to live and music online, attendance has dwindled. And maybe young people today aren't so interested in joining a group devoted to the music of a composer who lived two hundred fifty years ago. The Society has decided to come to an end with this last concert, a recital given by soprano Charlotte Corwin, in a program of Haydn, Handel and Mozart, with Nicole Bellamy at the piano. Corwin is a very fine singer - I saw her Gilda at the Opera York Rigoletto last March and thoroughly enjoyed it. The recital takes place at 7:30 pm in Sunderland Hall, First Unitarian Congregation, 175 St. Clair Avenue West. Admission for non-members is $20 at the door.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues with it Slavic Celebration this week. I attended both performances of Glagolitic Mass last week and was blown away by the power and sweep of this great piece by Janacek. The audience was enthralled by the performance and gave the artists a rousing ovation - it was just too bad the Roy Thomson Hall was far from full. If you missed last week, by all means attend this week's concerts. On Wednesday Nov. 17 at 8 pm, TSO presents Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. Also on the program is Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila, and the ever popular Moldau by Smetana and Janacek's high energy Taras Bulba. Peter Oundjian conducts. This is an excellent program well worth attending. Andreas Haefliger of course is the son of the great Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger who passed away a few short years ago. The last time Haefliger senior was in town was as the Speaker in the Schoenberg Gurrelieder, which marked the swansong of the TSO music director Jukka-Pekka Saraste. That was about 2001 - how time flies! The show is repeated on Thursday at 2 pm.


Sunday, 14 November 2010

Friday Night Shadows and Light With the Theatre of Early Music

By Hannah Rahimi

On November 12, Daniel Taylor and the Theatre of Early Music filled Montreal’s Chapelle Notre-Dame de-Bon-Secours with the sounds of sacred polyphony. Exploring the shadows and light of unaccompanied choral harmonies, Taylor compiled works from some of the best 16th and 17th century composers, including Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, and the lesser known Manuel Cardoso. With many of his works lost to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Portugese Cardoso is a rare gem in the history of choral polyphony, merging the Italian Baroque School with the influence of the great Renaissance composer Palestrina.

While Taylor chose to intersperse various movements of Cardoso’s Requiem with the works of other composers, it would have been a pleasure to hear the Requiem in its entirety to get a fuller sense of Cardoso’s unique compositional voice. In the opening “Introitus,” the choir brought out Cardoso’s six-voiced harmonies with clarity, carefully unfolding his startlingly exquisite dissonances and resolutions. Other highlights of the evening included performances of Byrd’s simple and somber “Ave Verum” and Purcell’s highly chromatic “Hear my prayer,” which ended the concert on a contemplative note. The members of the choir, particularly the strong tenor section, sang with beautifully clear tone throughout the evening, allowing the purity of the lines to emerge without any distracting flourish or ornamentation.

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