La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Usual Best from Gryphon Trio

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

The Gryphon Trio is the kind of chamber music ensemble that tends to please listeners even when playing something as demented as Charles Ives’ Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano.

Actually, make that demented with a sick joke and some right notes and some wrong ones, said Gryphon Trio’s pianist, Jamie Parker, in his pitch to try and “undersell” the piece from the stage.

It worked. The listeners took in Ives’ witty, dissonant and satirical piano trio, which shifts its mood from dark to light to drunkenness and fury, with delight and admiration. Of course, Parker, violinist Annalee Patipatanakoon and cellist Roman Borys delivered their usual best at their Music Toronto concert at the Jane Mallett Theatre Nov. 18. Much intelligence and many biting harmonic renditions were on displayed from all three players here. The second movement, titledTSIAF (“This Scherzo Is a Joke”), was at times riveting with excitement and the moderato con moto finale evolved from one of the weirdest landscapes of sound to one of the most ethereal and lovely ever written and played.

The Gryphon Trio opened the concert with something much tamer than the Ives’ trio, Beethoven’sTrio in B flat, Op. 11, written originally for clarinet, cello and piano and featured in the Gryphon Trio’s latest CD of Beethoven trios. The trio demonstrated probing musicianship in this cheeky three-movement work, also known as the Street Song Trio, with stylish phrasing and a liquid chemistry. The variations in the finale rolled gracefully with virtuosity. Everything sounded so natural, so easy.

After intermission, listeners were treated to a young Canadian composer’s work that came out of one of Gryphon Trio’s educational initiatives. Rothko Sketches, inspired by the Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko, was composed by Joseph Glaser, an alumnus of the 2010 Young Composer Program at Earl Haig Secondary School’s Claude Watson School for the Arts. Glaser, who is currently enrolled in the composition program at the University of British Columbia, probably wrote the short piece with synesthesia in mind, creating minimalistic segments based on colours such as orange, blue and yellow. Whether or not you can hear the colours, the result of the composition is a surprisingly tender and organic undulation of Rothko’s signature abstract and blurry blocks of paintings. It left me wishing there was more to explore after the last note was played.

The program concluded with Dvorak’s Piano Trio in F minor, Op. 65. Here, the Gryphon Trio dispatched bursts of uncanny richness throughout this defiant yet poignant piece of work. Borys’ cello solos sizzled each time, Patipatanakoon matched him with unfaltering poise and Parker, who looked and sounded totally relaxed, was in top form from beginning to end.

The concert will be heard on In Concert on CBC Radio 2 on Feb. 13.

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Monday, 22 November 2010

Austin Symphony Celebrates Mexico!

Last weekend (November 19 and 20) the Austin Symphony under music director Peter Bay presented an all-Mexican programme. And there was a good reason for it. This year, Mexico is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence, and the 100th anniversary of its revolution. A big year for Mexico and President Calderon duly named it “Año de la Patria.”
Surprisingly, given the inspiration for this concert, there was virtually nothing in the programme book to let the audience know what it was all about. All we got were the cryptic words “Mexico’s 200/100” on the main programme page.
Surely a concert such as this provides not only an opportunity to preach to the choir, presumably the Hispanic population in Austin – about 30% of the city’s total population - but also to educate the wider public. At a time when all we hear about Mexico these days is illegal immigration, murders and drug cartels, it is even more important to try to convey a positive message.
For the record, readers might be interested to know that one of the Austin Symphony’s performances fell on November 20, the very day that Mexicans celebrate as the start of the revolution in 1910. So important is this day that in all the Mexican state capitals and many other cities besides, giant clocks were installed in the main squares this year to count down the hours and days to November 20.
Folk Music of Mexico Goes Classical
All the music chosen for this concert had folkloric elements. It was Antonin Dvořák, during an extended residency in the United States in the 1890s, who advised American composers to find their own voice through study of the indigenous folk music of their own country. Eventually, that advice began to bear fruit as composers such as Charles Ives and Aaron Copland did just that.
In Mexico, the same thing happened and a powerful new Mexican classical music began to emerge in works like ChavezSinfonia India (1935). Then came some of the composers represented in the Austin Symphony’s Mexican concert: Silvestre Revueltas and his score for the film Redes ( 1935); Blas Galindo and his Sones de Mariachi (1940); Manuel Ponce and his Violin Concerto (1942) and Moncayo’s Huapango (1941). The other work on the programme, Arturo MárquezDanzon No. 2 dates from 1994, and it too shows folkloric influence. Interestingly, while Aaron Copland was busy creating a distinctly American music, he also found time to show Mexicans the way in his El Salón México (1933).
The concert began with Galindo’s Sones de Mariachi. As the title would indicate, this is music suggesting the sound of the mariachi band. We hear the familiar guitars and trumpets, but not much in the way of development. Although this piece is little more than a transcription, it was nevertheless a pleasant way to open the concert. The trumpet section showed a nice appreciation of authentic mariachi style in their use of a wide vibrato at every opportunity.
Masterful Performance of Pedantic Ponce Piece
Next came Ponce’s Violin Concerto, a much more substantial piece. Ponce was best known in his lifetime for the song Estrellita, and he incorporates elements of the song into the slow movement of the concerto. Unfortunately, the rest of the piece is pretty pedantic and uninspired. It sounds like the work of an academic fulfilling his tenure requirements. Surprisingly, for a Mexican composer of this period with so much lively folk material to draw on, the rhythms are dull and plodding. No wonder it is seldom played. Ponce seemed to be at his best in the short guitar pieces he wrote for Andres Segovia.
The soloist in the concerto was Francisco Ladrón de Guevara-Finck, a young Mexican violinist who studied with Dorothy Delay at Juilliard and who has won several international competitions. He showed great command of his instrument and a beautiful tone. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine him making a major career unless he reconsiders how he presents himself. To come out on stage with wrinkled clothes, baggy pants and unshined shoes makes one wonder about his maturity, and his respect for his colleagues and for the audience. And did I mention that he didn’t bother to comb his hair? The nodding and grimacing didn’t make the music sound any better either.
Brilliant Revueltas and Mesmerizing Moncayo!
After intermission Peter Bay conducted a suite from the film Redes (Nets) by Revueltas. Even without benefit of seeing the film, one can imagine very well the scenes described in the music. Revueltas had a real talent for vividly capturing drama in just a few pages of music. Interestingly, Revueltas spent some time living in the United States including almost a year in Austin (1917-18 not 1916-18 as stated by David Mead in his programme notes for this concert) studying at what is now St. Edward’s University (for more about Revueltas in Austin see below). Sadly, Revueltas ruined his health and his career by drinking too much and died at the age of only 40.
The concert ended with two folkloric showpieces. The first of them, Márquez’s Danzon No. 2 is well-known as one of Gustavo Dudamel’s party pieces with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela. It begins as a slow tango and builds to exciting climaxes. Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony played it brilliantly and the audience loved it. Finally, came Moncayo’s Huapango. The folk music on which it is based comes from the state of Veracruz. There is an important part for the harp recalling the arpa jarocha from that region. The climax of the piece comes in a thrilling call and answer sequence between trumpet and trombone.
Both the Danzon No. 2 and Huapango are based on the idea of taking a catchy rhythm, repeating it incessantly and ultimately culminating in loud climaxes. Sounds a lot like Ravel’s Bolero, doesn’t it? But while each piece succeeds in what it sets out to do, I wonder about programming them back to back. Having heard one of them, the other coming right after inevitably sounds anticlimactic.
It must be said, however, that the Austin Symphony was in great form throughout the concert and had complete control of some very complex rhythms. Peter Bay prepared everything with his usual attention to detail and found poetry and excitement in all the right places. And the tempo he set for Huapango was bracing, to say the least.
For Something More…
Readers interested in knowing more about Revueltas’ time in Austin are referred to Lorenzo Candelaria’s article in American Music (Vol.22 No. 4 Winter, 2004), “Silvestre Revueltas at the Dawn of His 'American Period'”: St. Edward’s College, Austin, Texas (1917-1918). This article provides not only significant detail about the composer’s student days in Austin, but also about musical life in Austin in those early years. Revueltas was eighteen when he lived in Austin and attended school for only one year, a period of about ten months. At the school, and in Austin generally, he was known as a gifted violinist, and according to Candelaria, had not yet written any music of substance.

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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This Week in Toronto (Nov. 22 - 28)

Photo: Conductor Nicholas McGegan

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting two performances of Beethoven's Symphony No. 8, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Also on the program is Saint Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor Op. 33, with cellist Joseph Johnson. British conductor McGegan is an internationally renowned baroque specialist, but he is also known for his Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Britten. He has received numerous awards, the most recent was on October 29 in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace, when HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, formally made McGegan and Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in recognition of his "service to music overseas." The concert on Wednesday Nov. 24 is at an early starting time of 6:30pm, the so called "Afterworks" series where a concert typically lasts 75 minutes and performed without an intermission. In the TSO website, it specifically states that the TSO "encourages all beverages to be enjoyed while in your seat" - hand it to the TSO for being so accomodating! The concert on Thursday Nov. 25 is at its usual start time of 8 pm, and there is an addition of two more pieces to the program - Rameau's Suite from Dardanus, and Vivaldi's Concerto in B Minor for Four Violins Op. 3 No.10. On Saturday Nov. 27 1:30 and 3:30 pm, the TSO is presenting Meet the Orchestra, a program aim at children between 5 and 12, in an effort to demystify classical music and build an audience base for the future. Featured will be the Vivaldi Concerto for Four Violins, as well as the the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra concerto competition winner Blake Pouliot. Go to for information and tickets.

With the Christmas season drawing ever closer, various musical organizations are gearing up for a feast of Holiday music, the earliest of which are taking place this week. To put you in the mood, the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto is presenting Humperdinck's ever-popular Hansel and Gretel. It is not exactly clear why - perhaps because it involves children and it has a happy ending , this piece is typically Holiday fare. This is a good opportunity to hear the young, fresh, up and coming voices at the U of T Opera Program. All performances take place at the MacMillan Theatre, Faculty of Music on Nov. 25, 26 and 27 at 7:30 pm, and Nov. 28 at 2:30 pm.

The Vienna Boys Choir is another Christmas staple, and this year they are in Toronto to give a concert of Austrian folk songs, waltzes, classical and pop pieces as well as holiday favorites. It is at the Markham Theatre 171 Town Centre Blvd. on Thursday Nov. 25 - well worth a trek north!

Opera Kitchener, which I believed was formed after Opera Ontario (with Hamilton and Kitchener branches) ceased to exist a few years ago. This company will be performing La boheme at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga on Friday, Nov. 26 7:30 pm. This follows a staged performance in Guelph on Nov. 15 and a concert performance in Kitchener on Nov. 21. The Mississauga performance will be staged. The only soloist I am familiar with is tenor James Ciantar who recently sang the same role for Opera York at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Similarly Sabatino Vacca conducted the run of three performances at Opera York. Other soloists are sopranos Tina Winter and Anne-Marie Ramos and baironte Jeremy Ludwig. Go to for more details.

On the subject of opera, Opera in Concert will present the rarely heard La Dame Blanche by Boieldieu, on Sunday Nov. 28 at 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre.
I admit this piece is unfamiliar to me, and this represents a great chance to hear it. Go to for more information. Overlapping this performance is the Off Centre Music Salon with Tea With the Mighty Four - and intriguing title! Well, the "mighty four" turned out to be Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann! Soloists are sopranos Alison Angelo and Eve-Rachel McLeod, and mezzo Erica Huang. For more information, go to