La Scena Musicale

Monday, 31 January 2011

This Week in Toronto (Jan 31 - Feb. 13)

Pinchas Zukerman (photo: Paul Labelle)

Violinist-conductor Pinchas Zukerman and the National Arts Centre Orchestra will be at Roy Thomson Hall this coming Saturday Feb. 5 to present Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 and the Piano Concert No. 5 Op. 73, "Emperor" featuring pianist Jonathan Biss. There will also be a piece, In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski by Paul Koprowski. Concert is at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-show chat with Rick Philips in the lobby at 6:45 p.m. This is a Casual Concert, so there will be a party in the lobby afterwards with live music by Paisley Jura. Earlier in the day at 1:30 and 3:30 will be two Young People's Concert conducted by Alain Trudel, playing excerpts from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and Bizet's Carmen Suite. On Thursday Feb. 10 and Saturday Feb. 12 at 8 p, Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko makes a welcome return to the TSO. On the program are Hommage a Mozart by Ibert; Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58, and Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, Op. 58. For details and ticket information, go to

The Canadian Opera Company's winter season is in full swing. It's Magic Flute opened on Saturday Jan. 29 to fine reviews. I saw opening night and found it a light-hearted production perfect for curing the winter blahs. I particularly liked the whimsical costumes and animals. The commedia dell'arte approach also managed to keep it light. Performances continue on Feb. 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, with the Feb. 10 performance sung by rising soprano Simone Osborne as Pamina and Quebec tenor Frederic Antoun as Tamino. The COC's second production, Nixon In China, opens this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Chinese baritone Chen-ye Yuan sings Chou En Lai, a role he has performed in Chicago, St. Louis, and recently Vancouver. Veteran American baritone Robert Orth is Richard Nixon; English character tenor Adrian Thompson is Mao, and soprano Maria Kanyova is Pat Nixon. Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl was scheduled to be Madame Mao, but unfortunately she was forced to withdraw due to illness. If memory serves, this would have been Dahl's return to the COC after an absence of almost 16 years. We last heard her as a scintillating Zerbinetta in Ariadne of Naxos in the 1995 season. She is replaced by soprano Marisol Montalvo. Rising Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado conducts. For details and ticket information, go to

Interestingly, at exactly the same time as the COC Nixon is the Met's. Toronto opera lovers will get a chance to hear and see it live on Met in HD on Saturday 1 p.m. on Feb. 12, in selected Cineplex cinemas. At the Met, the role of Chou En Lai is sung by Canadian baritone Russell Braun! Other singers are also familiar, include Janis Kelly (Rufus Wainwright's Prima Donna) as Pat Nixon, Kathleen Kim (the fabulous Olympia at the recent Met Hoffmann) as Madame Mao, Robert Brubaker (our Peter Grimes from years back!) as Mao, and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon. The Met production has the benefit of having the composer John Adams at the podium. Opera audiences tend to be scared of contemporary operas, but John Adams' music is highly accessible. I loved his Doctor Atomic and look forward to Nixon in China. For more information, go to

Virtuoso violinist Leonidas Kavakos is appearing at Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music on Saturday Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. in a program of Prokofiev and Beethoven Violin Sonatas, plus a work by Lera Auerbach. On Friday at 5 p.m., Kavakos is giving a free masterclass. On Sunday Feb. 6 at 2 p.m., the dynamic duo of Anagonoson & Kinton, together with TSO Principal Timpanist David Kent and Principal Percussionist John Rudolph will be giving a concert at Mazzoleni Hall. On the program is the rarely heard Bartok Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion. For ticket information, go to

The Off Centre Music Salon, known for its eclectic programming, is presenting the Urgo-Finnic and Spanish Salon on Sunday Feb. 6 2 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio. On the program are rather novel combinations of music by Bartok, Arvo Part, Kodaly, Sibelius, Albeniz, Granados and Rodrigo! Soloists are sopranos Joni Henson and Teiya Kasahara, baritone Olivier Laquerre, accordionist Joseph Macerollo and pianist Ricker Choi. The host is Julia Zarankin. Details at

For something a little different. The Toronto Sinfonietta is presenting a program to celebrate the Chinese New Year on Feb. 12 - never mind the Chinese New Year is actually on Feb. 3, as in Chinese culture, the festivities continues a full two weeks and then some! George Gao is playing a erhu concerto by Chinese composer An-lun Huang. For those not familiar with the erhu, this two string instrument produces an incredibly tone that tucks at the heart strings. The concert takes place at the Glenn Gould Studio on Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. For details, go to

Finally, the Amici Ensemble, the recipient of a Juno nomination for their Armenian Chamber Music disc, is presenting a concert, From Vienna to Prague, on Sunday Feb. 13 3 p.m. On the program are works by Mozart, Martinu and Fibich. More information at


Margaret Price (April 13 1941 - January 28 2011)

Photo: Margaret Price

Welsh soprano Margaret Price passed away unexpectedly from heart failure in Moylegrove, Wales on Friday. A singer known for her opulent voice well suited to the music of Mozart and Strauss, she had a major international career that spanned three decades, from the early 60's to the 1990's. In addition to Mozart and Strauss, she also sang operas of Verdi (Desdemona, Aida, Elisabetta, even Nanetta in her earliest days) and Cilea (Adriana Lecouvreur), although she was best remembered as a Mozart singer. She made her operatic debut in Wales as Cherubino in her mezzo days. Later, her Fiordiligi, Pamina, Constanze and Contessa were considered among her best roles. She was also a luminous Straussian, particularly in Four Last Songs. Here is the second song, "September" from 1981 with Andre Previn on the podium.

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Sunday, 30 January 2011

Festival of Renaissance Music – Conspirare’s Contemporary Twist

Craig Hella Johnson never ceases to amaze us. Just when you think his exceptional musical imagination has surely outdone itself, he comes up with something even more remarkable. His latest achievement was a festival given at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin and called Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now. Sound like an article in an academic journal? Perhaps, but that didn’t stop his many followers from selling out four concerts in one weekend and to judge by the concert I attended, enjoying every moment of it.
The basic concept of the festival was to combine music by several of the great Renaissance polyphonic composers – Josquin des Prez, Orlandus Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria – with contemporary pieces or responses composed by Robert Kyr. In spite of the umbrella title for the festival, the series went well beyond the Renaissance in its final concert devoted to the music of Bach, but again with a response by Kyr.
I attended only the Orlandus Lassus concert but there is no doubt that both the concept and the execution were exceptionally powerful. This concert had the added attraction of a pre-concert talk by Kyr.
Robert Kyr is a Professor of Music at the University of Oregon. He has composed a huge amount of music in many different genres – twelve symphonies and dozens of choral works, for example – and he has also studied and made performing editions of a great number of Renaissance pieces; in short, he was just the man for the commission Craig Hella Johnson had in mind for this series - someone with an in depth knowledge and love of Renaissance polyphony, who could compose new works, somehow inspired by this music written more than 400 years ago.
I have no doubt that Craig Hella Johnson was thrilled with what Robert Kyr gave him: music of our time of the highest quality, enriched by the polyphonic models, mysteriously bringing to life virtually the entire history of music. No mean feat.
What makes Conspirare’s concerts so impressive is that Johnson, the singular visionary, is also Johnson the gifted master of choral conducting. Conspirare’s nineteen-member Company of Voices is a hand-picked group of professional soloists melded into a vocal ensemble second to none. Craig Hella Johnson is the leader who makes it all work.
I must confess that I attend concerts of early music with a skeptical ‘chip’ on my shoulder. I am all too aware that the further back we go in the history of music, the fewer the facts at our disposal. When it comes to the performance of Renaissance music, in particular, what we know doesn’t take us very far.
In the cases of Josquin des Prez (1450-1521) and Orlandus Lassus (1532-1594), performers are often floundering on basic matters such as pitch, tempo, note values, dynamics and accidentals. We are still arguing about such things in Mozart and Haydn. Going back 500 years or so the questions are far greater in number.
Rather than emphasize what they don’t know, the best interpreters of early music concentrate on the challenges and the joy of opening up the door to the distant past even a crack. They are the archeologists of the music profession. They spend years immersing themselves in accumulated knowledge, then load up and head out into the field, full of excitement about the tiny glimpses into the human experience they might discover.
Orlandus Lassus (or Orlando di Lasso) is usually identified as a Franco-Flemish composer, although he spent most of his early life in Italy and his last 40 years in Munich. For his time, he was extraordinarily well-travelled and prolific. He composed over 2,000 works and set texts in Latin, French, Italian, Dutch and German. He wrote both sacred and secular music; only the former were represented in the Conspirare program.
For modern listeners who are apt to find Renaissance choral music somewhat austere and monotonous, we should keep in mind that behind that conservative persona endlessly praising God, there often lurked an earthier character fascinated by sex and drinking - in other words, an “all too human” composer. Orlandus Lassus was such a composer. In his secular works, he often dealt with both subjects.
In spite of Robert Kyr’s comment in the programme, that the evening’s concert exemplified “the scope and stylistic diversity of Orlandus Lassus’ output,” we were given a very limited exposure to the composer’s range. Instead, all we got we got were motets, a lament and two Mass movements.
Kyr’s “response” first took the form of a lament based on Lassus’ Third Lamentation. which we had just heard. Kyr began where Lassus left off, with free-flowing, harmonically limited polyphony, then gradually went further afield using texts from Psalm 69 and the Book of Jonah.
The concert concluded with a more ambitious work by Kyr inspired, not by Lassus, but by a somewhat later composer, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1641). The piece, called Sante Fe Vespers 2010, was inspired by Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.
This is where Kyr showed himself to be in total command of his art and his material. While quoting from Monteverdi, he went far beyond the early Seventeenth Century master to create intricate polyphony and sonorous climaxes only a modern composer could conceive.
Renaissance & Response: Polyphony Then and Now was a brilliant concert that gave the audience a way in to Renaissance music, and at the same time a way to relate its techniques and its contents to the music of our time.
Perhaps next time around, Craig Hella Johnson might enrich the experience even further by also showing us the secular side of the great Renaissance composers.

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."

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COC Magic Flute A Real Charmer

Top: Tamino and Animals
Left: Aline Kutan (Queen) and Michael Schade (Tamino)
below left: Rodion Pogossov (Papageno)
Bottom: Isabel Bayrakdarian (Pamina) and Michael Schade (Tamino) All photos by Michael Cooper

The COC winter season opened on Saturday with a new production of The Magic Flute. After a controversial Aida and a thematically depressing Death In Venice, it was good to have something like The Magic Flute to lift the spirits of winter-weary Torontonians. For once, it's good to have a Flute that doesn't take itself too seriously. I've seen more than my share of this opera, and sometimes the designers and stage directors take it so seriously that all the fun is sucked out of the show. This production is full of charm - sitting in front of me on opening night was a little girl, who sat silently during the whole opera, totally transfixed on the proceedings on stage. Turning the opera seria into commedia dell'arte, director Diana Paulus and set/costume designer Myung Hee Cho use the old trick of a play within a play to keep it light. The Masonic symbolism all but disappeared in the production, instead we have whimsical and evocative touches and brilliant colours. Unlike the truly magical - and rather literal - August Everding Munich production I had the pleasure of seeing 25 years ago, the COC show doesn't have real fire and real water - just dancers in fiery reds or icy silvers symbolizing trial by fire and water. Also, unlike Munich, the Genies don't come down from a hot air balloon. The black and white animals are fabulous. The COC production may not be high tech like the Met's or magical like Munich, it proved to be equally entertaining. This is the kind of updating that may seem very tame for European tastes, but for North America it's ideal. Because of the already established commedia dell'arte approach, bringing the Queen back for the finale was perfectly appropriate. Unlike the COC, the one I saw in Santa Fe last summer, bringing back the Queen for the festivities of the victory of good over evil was simply weird.

The musical side of things was in good hands. Being German, COC Music Director Johannes Debus was certainly in his element in this work, leading the COC Orchestra with a sure hand. He made a bigger contrast in tempi than usual - the slow was really slow in the beginning of the overture, then it sped up! Elsewhere he gave a well considered reading of the score. Since there are twelve performances, Tamino and Pamina are double cast. (I will be returning to a later performance to hear Simone Osborne and Frederic Antoun) On opening night, soprano Aline Kutan was a sensational Queen of the Night, nailing the coloratura with precision, and all the high F's were spot on. With only 10 minutes of music, she made every second count. Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov was an energetic and ultra-playful Papageno, acting up a storm and singing with gusto and beauty of tone. He was of course our Figaro four years ago, and at the time I singled him out for praise in my review in Opera (UK). He has since made his Met debut and is engaged there annually for the next several years. Canadian tenor Michael Schade has sung a staggering 250 performances as Tamino and it showed. He brought to this role knowledge, experience and musicality, even if his tone has hardened over the years. Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has only sung Pamina very few times - I recall at the Academy of the West early in her career. An engaging and sympathetic Pamina, Bayrakdarian sang with a large, rich tone particularly in the middle voice but had difficulty with mezza voce and the high lying phrases in "Ach! ich fuhl's." The Three Ladies (Betty Allison, Wallis Giunta and Lauren Segal) with their leather outfits and glasses wouldn't look out of place in a dominatrix convention. They sang well and were really quite funny. It's nice that contemporary staging have stopped putting Monostatos (nicely sung and acted by John Easterlin) in black-face. Young Russian bass cantante Mikhail Petrenko was a fine Sarastro, although he didn't really have the booming bass of a Matti Salminen, and they didn't give him any "old makeup." The Three Genies were taken by three young women - how Ann Cooper Gay managed to get them to sing like young boys with no vibrato I'll never know! All in all, a Flute to lift your spirits and leave the theatre smiling.

Performances at the Four Seasons Centre continue on Feb. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 18, 20, 23, 25, with a special Ensemble Studio show on Feb. 17.

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Friday, 28 January 2011

Popera A Perfect Winter Tonic

Top: ( r.) Allyson McHardy, Lyne Fortin, David Speers, Gordon Gietz, Daniel Okulitch in "Helas! mon coeur s'egare encore!", the finale of the "Giulietta Act" of Les contes d'Hoffmann

Bottom: Allyson McHardy singing Non piu mesta from La cenerentola, with the McMaster University Choir in the background and David Speers on the podium

Popera Plus!

Lyne Fortin, soprano
Allyson McHardy, mezzo-soprano
Gordon Gietz, tenor
Daniel Okulitch, bass-baritone

Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra
McMaster University Choir
David Speers, conductor

Overture from Luisa Miller
Ave Maria from Otello / Fortin
Non piu andra from Nozze / Okulitch
Habanera from Carmen / McHardy, Chorus
Chanson de Kleinzach from Les contes d'Hoffmann / Gietz
Intermezzo from I Pagliacci
Viens, Mallika from Lakme / Fortin, McHardy
O du mein holder Abendstern from Tannhauser / Okulitch
Finale from Act 3 La traviata / All soloists & chorus
Overture from La cenerentola
Non piu mesta from La cenerentola / McHardy
Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux from Le Cid / Fortin
E lucecan le stelle from Tosca / Gietz
La ci darem from Don Giovanni / McHardy & Okulitch
Kermesse Waltz from Faust / Chorus
Aleko's Cavatina from Aleko / Okulitch
Love Duet from Madama Butterfly / Fortin & Gietz
Va pensiero from Nabucco / Chorus
Encore: Concertato from Giulietta Act, Les contes d'Hoffmann / All soloists and Chorus

Hamilton Place, January 27, 2010 8 p.m.

You've got the winter blues? The snow, freezing rain, and dreary grey skies getting you down? There's nothing like a healthy dose of opera to cheer up any winter-weary Canadian - at least it works for me! Yesterday I drove to Hamilton, in rather benign weather even if the traffic didn't cooperate, for the opening performance of Popera! An annual event of Opera Hamilton, it's the "opera's greatest hits" affair that have proven an audience favourite over the years. While it wasn't sold out, attendance was respectable and the audience suitably enthusiastic. OH has assembled an excellent quartet of soloists, all singers who have previously performed with the company. On hand last evening was soprano Lyne Fortin, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, all singers with beautiful voices and noteworthy international careers. OH audiences are lucky to be able to hear these fine singers all in a single evening. Toronto and COC audiences are of course familiar with mezzo Allyson McHardy, who was an outstanding Suzuki last season and will be back as Juno in Semele next season. Tenor Gordon Gietz has sung in Beatrice et Benedict, Flying Dutchman and most recently Don Giovanni at the COC. But Lyne Fortin and Daniel Okulitch have yet to sing in the Four Seasons Centre and it's a real shame - let's hope with the new administration, the situation will be rectified soon.

Following the overture to Luisa Miler, Fortin kicked off the singing with an affecting Ave Maria from Otello, her warm, silvery tone and lovely mezza voce was perfect for Desdemona. She followed it up with an even lovelier "Pleurez, pleurez mes yeux" from Le Cid. This is one of my very favourite arias, and I have heard it sung by some of the greatest sopranos over the years, including Regine Crespin, Montserrat Caballe, and Francoise Pollet. Fortin captured the spirit of this tragic aria magnificently, her heart-felt delivery equal to any of these great ladies. To my ears, Fortin's timbre is so reminiscent of the wonderful Francoise Pollet whom I heard at the height of her powers. In addition to these two solo arias, Fortin and tenor Gordon Gietz paired up for a powerfully sung Love Duet from Madama Butterfly. Instead of singing to the audience as is often the case, they sang and reacted to each other, with Gietz particularly paying attention to the text. There was no holding back by these two artists, as they both ended the duet with a strong high C, held longer than any of the performances I've seen in recent memory. Also very lovely is the "Flower Duet" from Lakme, the voices of Fortin and McHardy blending perfectly. I give credit to the singers and conductor David Speers for including as much of the recitatives as possible, turning the stand-alone arias into scenes.

With her excellent agility and rock solid technique, Allyson McHardy contributed a sensational "Non piu mesta." If her Carmen was a little understated, her Angelina was just right, and her Zerlina subtly amusing opposite the charming and sexy Don Giovanni of Daniel Okulitch. The McMaster University Chorus offered yeoman support. Curiously, despite its huge size, there wasn't the big sound coming out of them as one would have expected, especially in Carmen. Perhaps the choir isn't very familiar with the operatic repertoire? For some reason, there was no choral accompaniment in the Kleinzach Aria. No matter - tenor Gordon Gietz was a very well sung and acted Hoffmann, here as well as in the ensemble from the "Giulietta Act", sung as an encore. Okulitch is a singer we don't get to hear at all in Toronto. His Wolfram's "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhauser was lovely, sung with hushed tone and poetic imagination. And I'd be remiss in not mentioning the Aleko's Aria, sensationally sung by the bass-baritone. My concert companion was a Russian-speaking Czech lady, and she said Okulitch's Russian diction was perfect. Conductor and OH General Director David Speers offered solid and attentive support to the singers. The Hamilton Philharmonic was solid, although one would want a fuller and richer sound from the upper strings - the principal cello, however, was marvelous. The concert is repeated on Saturday, Jan. 29 8 p.m. at the Great Hall in Hamilton Place.

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Thursday, 27 January 2011

This Week in Montreal / Cette semaine à Montréal - Jan. 31 - Feb. 6

Werther @ The Montreal Opera: two shows left on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3
It's your last chance to catch the beloved Massenet adaptation of Goethe's Sturm und Drang masterpiece. A success since its 1892 premiere, Werther is one of the staples of the operatic repertoire. The Montreal Opera's production is a rare treat to sample the rare baritone scoring for the lead role, which Massenet wrote himself for Mattia Battistini in 1902. It transfers the action from late 18th-century Germany to 1920s America, in a move which the Gazette's Arthur Kapatainis suggests alludes to a Gatsby-Daisy relationship between the troubled Werther-Charlotte love duo. Stars Michèle Losier and Phillip Addis were La Scena Musicale's December cover story. Read our interview with the pair here.

Assistez à l’opéra Werther, chef-d’oeuvre d’une infinie richesse de Massenet, inspiré du roman phare du père du romantisme qu’était Goethe. La production met en vedette Michèle Losier dans le rôle de Charlotte et Phillipp Addis dans le rôle du jeune poète Werther, qui pour elle est éperdu d’un amour impossible.

Claudine Ledoux and Olga Gross: album launch Feb. 2
Quebec mezzo-soprano Ledoux and harpist Gross will launch their first duo album. Expect performances of Fauré, Debussy, Brahms, Bellini, and Gounod. Tudor Hall at Ogilvy's, 2 p.m.

La harpiste Valérie Milot et le comédien Onyl Melançon se joignent aux quatre musiciennes pour habiter l’oeuvre fantastique d’Edgar Allan Poe et l’oeuvre musicale du compositeur français André Caplet. Une proposition originale mariant avec bonheur la musique d’inspiration sacrée du 19e siècle à l’imaginaire du poète et romancier. Église Saint-Joseph.

L’un des pianistes les plus importants de sa génération, Alexandre Tharaud, met sa virtuosité au service de l’émotion dans le Concerto en ré majeur de Haydn et le Concerto no 9 de Mozart, qu’il interprétera avec Les Violons du Roy. C’est au compositeur J. M. Kraus que Bernard Labadie consacre la partie orchestrale du concert. 19h30

CHAPELLE HISTORIQUE DU BON-PASTEUR : OPÉRA, Dimanche 6Les chanteurs vedettes de demain nous invitent à leur gala d’opéra, fête de l’art lyrique, où ils nous présentent les airs les plus célèbres du répertoire. Des oeuvres de Puccini, Poulenc, Offenbach, Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti et Massenet, interprétées par dix chanteurs de l’Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, accompagnés au piano par Jérémie Pelletier. 15h30. 514-872-5338

Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano canadienne, protégée de Jessye Norman, connue pour ses interprétations de Bach et de Mahler, chantera Brahms, Strauss, Mahler et Korngold au LMMC. 514- 932-6796. Photo: Tomas Bertelson

Le Trio Fibonacci est en résidence à la maison de la culture Plateau-Mont-Royal depuis octobre 2010. Dans le cadre de cette nouvelle résidence, il offrira à la clientèle de la maison le 6 février à 15 h l’intégrale du Trio opus 100 en mi bémol majeur de Schubert.

- Crystal Chan, Renée Banville

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Prix d’Europe Music Journalism Prize

For its 100th edition, the Prix d’Europe is launching its Music Journalism Prize in honour of Claude Gingras (Prix d’Europe en journalism en homage à Claude Gingras). All articles (news/information, features including interviews, profiles and music history article, and reviews) published in English and French in 2010 will be eligible. Deadline for submissions: February 28, 2011.

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Monday, 24 January 2011

Hélène Grimaud finds resonance in recital

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

She doesn’t play nice to please the listeners, but French pianist Hélène Grimaud did that anyway by giving her all at her Toronto debut recital at Koerner Hall on January 23.

Grimaud’s program — an exact replica of her latest CD, Resonances — showcases four distinctively different piano repertoires: Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor, K. 310, Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op. 1, Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances.

Her ultra-robust Mozart opened the recital with an unmistakable sense of rebellion that Grimaud is often associated with in her choice of programming and interpretation. It’s Mozart madness driven by repeated intensity and head-on attacks on the minor chords in the left hand. Any piano students playing this sonata the way Grimaud did would simply be chastised for being too aggressive and lacking gracefulness. But Grimaud heightened the emotional calamity of the music and found peace and rumination in the slow movement.

With her deep breathing audible from the stage, Grimaud sent goose bumps and harmonic pleasures to the back end of the hall in the one-movement Berg sonata. She chose to perform this piece, which she first learned at the age of 11, with music and a page turner by her side. While there was no explanation for this in the program notes, Grimaud, now 41, has said in a Deutsche Grammophon interview about Resonances on YouTube that even if you have a photographic memory you can’t help but fall into a certain automatism when playing this piece. Instead, she said if you look at all of the indications of the density and richness of the markings in the score, it’s a constant reminder of what the composer was trying to achieve. The result was stunning, especially if you closed your eyes.

After intermission, Grimaud took on the mighty Liszt B-minor sonata with great strides, sometimes sacrificing precision over escalation. The pure difficulty of playing the notes in this single-structure, 30-minute piece was a second thought for a virtuoso and mature pianist like Grimaud, who immersed herself in the middle of Liszt’s fantasy of musical motives. The performance was highly focused and offered much revelation into the composer’s genius.

The last piece on the program was Bartok’s Six Romanian Folk Dances. The six vignettes — stick dance, sash dance, stamping dance, hornpipe dance, Romanian polka and quick dance — were chic and flamboyant under Grimaud’s capable hands, a rare treat during the matinee recital.

Grimaud returned to the stage before a standing crowd and ended the afternoon with a calming transcription of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’ Orfeo ed Euridice as an encore. It wasn’t defiant, powerful, or particularly memorable. But it was nice for a change.

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Sunday, 23 January 2011

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 24 - 30)

With the 255th anniversary of Mozart birthday on January 27, the various musical organizations are in overdrive with a huge array of performances featuring his work. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues its Mozart festivities this week with Peter Oundjian conducting two midweek performances. The so-called "Afterworks" Concert is on Wednesday at 6:30 pm., a time convenient to those who want to catch a concert right after work before going home. These concerts have a truncated program, and it is reflected in the reduced ticket prices. Pianist Jeffrey Kahane plays Piano Concerto No. 9. Also on the program is Symphony No. 34. The full-length Thursday concert takes place at 8 pm, and with the addition of Piano Concerto No. 22 and the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor. On the weekend are two concerts called "Mozart's World" - a program of light classics by Mozart and his contemporaries. In addition to the warhorse Eine kleine Nachtmusik is the Oboe Concerto in C Major, plus works by Haydn, Vandal and Salieri. Saturday show is at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. For program details, go to

The long awaited winter season of the Canadian Opera Company begins on Saturday with Mozart's The Magic Flute, in a series of twelve performances. Pamina is shared by sopranos Isabel Bayrakdarian and Simon Osborne, while tenors Michael Schade and Frederic Antoun share the role of Tamino. Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov, a wonderful Figaro several seasons back, returns as the bird catcher Papageno. Quebec soprano Aline Kutan makes her long awaited COC debut as Queen of the Night. The young Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko makes his company debut as Sarastro. COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. I attended one of the working rehearsals last week, and was very impressed with the charming production. Go to for dates and ticket information.

On the subject of opera, something a little different - Soundstreams is presenting Chinese composer Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, music inspired by ancient Chinese shamanism written for string quartet and pipa. This show is conducted by talented Vancouver conductor Leslie Dala. I recall attending a program of excerpts from Ghost Opera a few years ago at the Royal Ontario Museum and the striking music left a strong impression. This performance takes place at Koerner Hall on Tuesday Jan. 25 at 8 pm. There is a pre-concert chat at 7 pm. For details, go to

The Aldeburgh Connection is presenting A Shropshire Lad in Ontario, with tenor Michael Colvin and baritone Brett Polegato. This song cycle by Butterworth set to text by Housman was premiered by British baritone James Campbell McInnes who later immigrated to Ontario and became an important figure in Canadian music life. Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata preside at the keyboard. The concert takes place at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at 2:30 pm. For more information, go to

At exactly the same time this Sunday, Opera in Concert is presenting Haydn's rarely performed La Fedelta Premiata, with soloists Susanne Holmes, Farah Hack, Leslie Bouza and Graham Thomson. Ashiq Aziz, recently featured in Opera Canada, is the conductor. The concert takes place at the Jane Mallett Theatre. Details at

An easy 50 minute drive down the QEW is Opera Hamilton's winter offering, Popera, an "opera's greatest hits" concert starring an excellent quartet of Canadian singers, soprano Lyne Fortin, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Gordon Gietz, and baritone Dan Okulitch, with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, plus the McMaster University Choir all under the baton of David Speers. On the program are selections from Otello, Le nozze di Figaro, Carmen, Tales of Hoffmann, Lakme, Tannhauser, La traviata, Le Cid, Tosca, Don Giovanni, Butterfly and Nabucco - how's that for a jam-packed program! There are also orchestral selections from La cenerentola, Luisa Miller, and I Pagliacci. The performances take place on Jan. 27 and 29 8 pm at the Great Hall of Hamilton Place. For ticket information, go to

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Austin Symphony's New World "Beyond the Score"

It is always a difficult business to “educate” the classical music audience without talking down to them on the one hand or talking over their heads on the other, and while some subscribers welcome non-musical elements in a concert, others hate them.
The Austin Symphony and conductor Peter Bay deserve full marks for making a valiant effort to both educate and entertain at their Long Center concert last week.
In the first half of the concert, we were given some background on the piece courtesy of the Chicago Symphony’s (CSO) Beyond the Score series, a multi-media production incorporating a giant screen over the orchestra, a narrator, two actors, a singer and a pianist. This innovative opening to the concert introduced us to Dvořák the man and the composer, and told us something about his approximately two-year stint (1892-95) in New York as head of the National Conservatory. More importantly, it explored all the elements that inspired Dvořák to create his most famous composition. In the second half, we had a complete performance of Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor “From the New World.”
The Austin Symphony was in familiar territory with this programming, having participated in a symposium/festival called New Worlds: Dvořák in Search of America, a celebration of the Dvořák Centenary sponsored by the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas in 2004. In that festival, the Austin Symphony also played the New World Symphony and there was much discussion about the American elements in the score and above all, about how Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha inspired the composer.
Beyond the Score Too Fond of the Familiar?
This installment of Beyond the Score was, presumably, written by the CSO’s creative director Gerard McBurney. (Not ‘Burney’ as listed in the Austin Symphony program book!) Visit the website for a full listing of past and future presentations.
What one notices right away is that nearly every piece given this multi-media treatment is already well-known to and beloved by symphony audiences everywhere. In other words, these are the very pieces least in need of elaborate and expensive extra-musical treatment in order to make them intelligible to contemporary listeners. That seems to me a basic problem with the concept.
For the record, there is one exception. Beyond the Score has also presented the Shostakovich Symphony No. 4 - exactly the sort of neglected and problematic repertoire that should be given special treatment. The San Francisco Symphony's Keeping Score series is far more innovative in its choice of repertoire.
Beyond the Score More Fiction than Fact
In this Beyond the Score presentation of Dvořák’s New World Symphony, McBurney has concentrated on why it is called “From the New World” and made extensive use of Michael Beckerman’s entertaining but highly speculative book New Worlds of Dvořák.
The impression left by the Beyond the Score presentation is that the middle movements of the symphony are very closely related to the Hiawatha story as told in Longfellow’s poem. We are also left with the impression that Dvořák used actual African-American songs in the symphony. Neither impression is factual.
Let’s take the Hiawatha case first. All this Hiawatha business got started around the time of the eagerly anticipated premiere of the New World symphony in 1984. Music critic Henry Krehbiel attended rehearsals, interviewed Dvořák, and wrote about the piece at some length.
On good authority – Dvořák himself – Krehbiel stated that the slow movement was inspired by Longfellow’s account of Hiawatha’s wooing/courtship of Minnehaha. That claim opened the door to all sorts of research into what passage in the music corresponded to what passage in the poem. But Dvořák would say no more.
In New Worlds of Dvořák, Beckerman explores the Hiawatha connections in great detail, and ultimately concludes that Dvořák meant what he said, that Hiawatha was “an inspiration” and only an inspiration, and that there is no detailed Hiawatha program to be uncovered in the symphony.
Beckerman also reminds us that when one of Dvořák’s American students went to stay with him for several months in Bohemia, for the primary purpose of discovering the meaning of the symphony, he came away empty-handed. The student, Harry Patterson Hopkins, went for long walks in the woods with Dvořák every day. In Beckerman’s words: “He found out nothing.”
And did Dvořák use “negro spirituals” in the symphony? It has often been stated that the famous tune that begins the Largo is such a tune. But as much as McBurney tries to throw dust in our eyes in Beyond the Score, this is more nonsense.
Dvořák became aware of “negro” music through a young man named Harry Burleigh. A student at the National Conservatory during Dvořák’s tenure there, his father had been a slave, and Harry had sung some spirituals and plantation songs for Dvořák. Burleigh made it very clear that while Dvořák was interested in this music, it is impossible to find any note for note quotations in the symphony.
Of course that didn’t stop the critics from claiming to find them. What did Dvořák have to say on this subject? In a letter written in 1900, he reflected his annoyance with the whole enterprise: “But forget that nonsense, the notion that I used Indian and American melodies, because it is a lie! I tried only to compose in the spirit of those national American melodies.”
There was more foolishness about Wagner being imitated in the brass chords which begin the Largo, and in the use of period film of a sea voyage to accompany the music in the first movement, suggesting that this music was inspired by Dvořák’s journey to America.
Mention was made by the narrator of a tuba, curiously used only in the Largo movement, yet no mention was made of an even stranger instrumental anomaly in the symphony - the piccolo – which is used for only 4 bars in the first movement, and nowhere else in the piece!
Taking Beyond the Score Beyond the Familiar
Whether serious or silly, all these stories and anecdotes are amusing and colorful and help to enliven multi-media presentations.
I spoke to several members of the audience after the presentation. They certainly enjoyed it. They felt they learned more about the composer and they embraced the use of visual media and live actors; upon close questioning, however, it also became apparent that they had embraced the still debated message McBurney conveyed, whether deliberately or inadvertently, as factual. i.e., that 1) the symphony quotes “negro” spirituals, and 2) the symphony tells the story of Hiawatha and Minnehaha.
So much for music education.
From my perspective, Beyond the Score presentations in this simplistic vein are both unnecessary and misleading, and do little to advance the cause of music education. That said, one can imagine insightful treatments of less popular pieces such as Liszt’s A Faust Symphony, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Spring Symphony, etc. that would benefit enormously from a Beyond the Score multi-media programming component.
In the End, The Sound, not the Story Stirs the Heart
After intermission, we experienced the music without the media, and it was a pleasure. In spite of the familiarity – over-familiarity? – of the piece, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony gave it a fresh and committed performance.
The orchestra was without its regular concertmaster Jessica Mathaes. Former concertmaster Eugene Gratovich led with authority. All sections were in top form. Special kudos to the horn section, and to the double basses whose difficult four-part chords at the end of the Largo were perfectly in tune, and, of course, to the excellent English horn soloist who played the famous tune earlier in the same movement, with beautiful tone and phrasing.
For Those Wanting More…
Michael Beckerman’s book was published in 2003 by W.W. Norton. Another useful book edited by Beckerman is called Dvořák and His World (Princeton University Press., 1993). Dvořák the man is brought vividly to life by the Czech-Canadian novelist Josef Skvorecky in Dvořák in Love, first published in 1986.
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 of Maestro Peter Bay by Marita

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