La Scena Musicale

Monday, 25 April 2011

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 25 - May 1)

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka

This is another exciting week for opera lovers. The Canadian Opera Company is staging Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos after a 16-year absence. It stars the reigning Canadian prima donna Adrianne Pieczonka in one of her signature roles. I had the pleasure of interviewing her recently for the cover story of the new issue of The Music Scene in which she gave us her insight into the character of Ariadne - you can read it at Partnering her as Bacchus is Canadian tenor Richard Margison. The Composer is the wonderful British mezzo Alice Coote, and Canadian coloratura soprano Jane Archibald sings Zerbinetta. The three ladies recently sang their respective roles at the Munich Opera to rave reviews. It is hard to believe it has taken so long, but Sir Andrew Davis is finally making his COC conducting debut. Ariadne is one of my favourite operas, and with such a superlative cast, this show is not to be missed. It opens on Saturday April 30, at the rather odd time of 4:30 pm. Meanwhile, the recently opened La cenerentola continues with performances this week on Thursday April 28 at 7:30 pm and Sunday May 1 at 2pm. I attended opening night last Saturday, and it was one of the most entertaining operatic evenings in recent memory. I admit I am not much of a Rossini fan, but this scintillating production and great singing won me over.

Also at the COC this Thursday is the noon hour concert - a program of three short operas. The rarely performed Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge, at 12 minutes (!) is reputed to be the shortest opera in existence. It is paired with the better known work, The Telephone. This Menotti opera is often paired with The Medium but not here. However, we have a new opera inspired by the telephone, a work by Ana Sokolovic called Dring, Dring that had its premiere last October at Koerner Hall. Soloists in these three works include sopranos Ileana Montalbetti and Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo Rihab Chaieb, tenor Christopher Enns, and baritones Adrian Kramer and Neil Craighead. For details of these shows, go to

Opera Atelier's La clemenza di Tito received uniformly rave reviews, and it is easy to see why. I saw the opening on Friday and it was a terrific show. The big draw is soprano/pop diva Measha Brueggergosman as the vengeful Vitellia, a role perfect for scenery-chewing. The rest of the cast is great too - dramatic tenor Kresimir Spicer returns as Tito, male soprano Michael Maniaci as Sesto, and two Quebec singers - Mireille Lebel as Annio and Mireille Asselin as Servilia. They are all wonderful, but I must single out Lebel for praise - she is the best looking and certainly one of the best sounding Annio I've seen. I can see her as a perfect Cherubino, and maybe even Octavian in a few years. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. The run continues this week with performances on April 26, 27, 30 at 7:30 pm., and May 1 at 3 pm. Details at

The great Russian pianist Yefim Bronfman returns to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in Liszt's Piano concerto No. 2 in A Major. Also on the program is ever-popular Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, the so called Organ Symphony with Patricia Krueger as soloist. A contemporary piece by Michael Colgrass rounds out the program. American maestro Leonard Slatkin is at the podium. The Light Classics series this week features music from France. On the program is Bizet's Carmen Suite, Debussy's Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, and Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Caroline Goulding is violin soloist and conductor is Guillermo Figueroa.

The Aldeburgh Connection presents A Spring Schubertiad, its annual concert in memory of Greta Kraus on Sunday 2:30 pm at Walter Hall. Soloists are soprano Gillian Keith, tenor Lawrence Wiliford and baritone Tyler Duncan. As usual Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata are at the piano.


Thursday, 21 April 2011

COC Ensemble Artists Shine in Quilico Competition

Top: Contestants and Liz Upchurch, director of the COC Ensemble Studio
Second from Top: Judging Panel (l. to r. Alexander Neef, John Hess, David Speers)
Third from Top: Christina Petrowska-Quilico and Alan Walker
Bottom: Three Winners (l. to r. Adrian Kramer, Ileana Montalbetti, Chris Enns)

Christina and Louis Quilico Awards
featuring artists of the COC Ensemble Studio

by Joseph K. So

Wednesday, April 20, 2011
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
Toronto, ON

Liz Upchurch, piano

Ambur Braid, soprano
"O zittre nicht" - Die Zauberfloete
"What is he thinking of...who is there to love me?" - A Hand of Bridge

Neil Craighead, bass-baritone
"Se vuol ballare" - Le nozze di Figaro
"Arise, Ye Subterranean Winds" - The Tempest

Wallis Giunta, mezzo-soprano
"Parto, parto" - La clemenza di Tito
"Nobles seigneurs, salut!" - Les Huguenots

Christopher Enns, tenor
"Kuda, kuda" - Eugene Onegin
"Here I Stand" - The Rake's Progress

Jacqueline Woodley, soprano
"Scoglio d'immota fronte" - Scipione
"S'altro che lacrime" - La clemenza di Tito

Ileana Montalbetti, soprano
"Come in quest'ora bruna" - Simon Boccanegra
"Einsam in truben Tagen" - Lohengrin

Michael Uloth, bass
"O Isis und Osiris" - Die Zauberfloete
"I'm a Lonely Man, Susannah" - Susannah

Simone Osborne, soprano
"Och, jaky zal...Ten lasky sen" - The Bartered Bride
"Ach, ich fuhl's" - Die Zauberfloete

Adrian Kramer, baritone
"Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen" - Die tote Stadt
Sid's Monologue - Albert Herring

Rihab Chaieb, mezzo-soprano
"Svegliatevi nel core" - Giulio Cesare
"Must the winter come so soon?" - Vanessa

Founded in 2000 by noted pianist/pedagogue Christina Petrowska Quilico in honour of her late husband and renowned Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, the Christina and Louis Quilico Fund has been offering financial awards in support of promising young Canadian singers in their pursuit of a professional career. This year for the first time, the Christina and Louis Quilico Awards, as it is now called, took place at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, hosted by the Ontario Arts Foundation. The event was in the form of a vocal competition adjudicated by a panel made up of Alexander Neef of the COC, David Speers of Opera Hamilton, and John Hess of the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre.

Unlike the typical competitions out there that are open to qualified singers, the format of the 2011 Quilico competition is unusual in that it is only open to COC Ensemble Studio artists. If I may allow myself a bit of speculation, it could not have been easy for COC's General Director Alexander Neef to sit in the judge's chair. As head of the COC, these young singers are his charges, his figurative "children." How does one love one child more than the other? That said, it is the reality of the opera world that artists are constantly being compared, and they compete for roles, contracts, and recognition by impresarios and the public. So it is only part of a singer's training to engage in friendly competition, to develop the strength and self confidence in one's own abilities, and at the same time the grace to recognize and appreciate excellence in their midst. I came away from the event feeling impressed by the wealth of talent among our young singers, the very artists who will ensure a bright future for opera.

Soprano Ambur Braid kicked off the proceedings with the vocal fireworks from Queen of the Night's "O zittre nicht." A dramatic coloratura, Braid sang with big, rich tone, remarkable accuracy in her fioritura and secure high notes, including the single F near the end. Her second piece was an aria in English from Samuel Barber's rarely performed short opera, A Hand of Bridge. Braid showed off her full middle register, a rarity among coloraturas. Right in the middle of her aria, a series of loud, blood-curdling screams could be heard coming from somewhere in the opera house, outbursts that occurred periodically over what seemed like an eternity, in reality probably only a couple of minutes at most. Braid deserves full credit for keeping her composure, and the presence of mind to quip at the end of her aria - "That's how I feel exactly!" cracking up the audience in the process. Fortunately for the rest of the competition, the drama was where it should be - confined to the stage!

Next up was bass-baritone Neil Craighead who offered a mellifluous if dramatically restrained Figaro's cavatina "Se vuol ballare" from Nozze, followed by an aria from Purcell's Tempest, a very good piece for his voice. He sang it with fine English diction and good agility. Mezzo Wallis Giunta, who will be joining the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met, contributed Sesto's showstopping "Parto, parto" and "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Les Huguenots. The Mozart is a tour de force, which Giunta sang with her trademark gleaming tone. Good tenors are always in short supply, and Christopher Enns is indeed a tenor with great material. He sang Lensky's aria with feeling and plangent tone. His Tom Rakewell was equally impressive. After just one year, his upper register and mezza voce have gained solidity. With continuing work, he has the potential for a big career. The first half concluded with soprano Jacqueline Woodley singing two arias. Her first piece, the very difficult coloratura aria from Handel's Scipione showed off her fresh, warm tone even if the fioritura wasn't quite note perfect. Her Servilia's aria from La clemenza di Tito impressed with nice high pianissimos.

The second half opened with soprano Ileana Montalbetti. While it would be premature to call her a dramatic soprano, the rich, penetrating, somewhat steely tone and ample volume is ideal in certain Italian spinto roles and the jugendliche dramatisch roles in Wagner and Strauss. Montalbetti offered beautifully poised singing in "Einsam in truben Tagen" and "Come in quest'ora bruna", the occasional flatness in the passaggio in Amelia's aria notwithstanding. Bass Michael Uloth does not have a basso profundo type of voice, and he sang Sarastro's "O Isis und Osiris" with youthful and even timbre; the Olin Blitch's aria from Susannah, while a little monochromatic, was movingly sung. The fast-rising soprano Simone Osborne sang Marenka's aria with warm tone and dramatic intensity. The second piece, "Ach, ich fuhl's" was also lovely - she undoubtedly benefited from having sung several performances of Pamina recently on the COC mainstage. Adrian Kramer has a warm and flexible lyric baritone which he used to advantage in Fritz's aria from Die tote Stadt - it was a very beautiful piece of singing. His second aria, Sid's "Tickling a trout, poaching a hare" from Albert Herring - replacing the previously announced "Largo al factotum" - showed off his comedic acuity and his ingratiating stage persona. The competition ended with mezzo Rihab Chaieb, who sang a heart-felt "Must the winter come so soon?", Erika's aria from Vanessa and well suited to her lyric mezzo voice.

After a brief pause for the judges to deliberate, it was announced that baritone Adrian Kramer was awarded First Prize ($5000), soprano Ileana Montalbetti Second Prize of $3000 and tenor Christopher Enns Third Prize ($2000). Given the high quality of the performances, one wished for more than three awards. It may sound trite, but truly there were no losers. All ten singers are enormously gifted artists and with further training and development, they will be voices to be reckoned with in the future.


Sunday, 17 April 2011

Fun at the Opera: Nuns in NY and Aliens in Austin!

by Paul E. Robinson
It’s not possible to be in two places at once, or is it? Thanks to “The Met Live in HD," I virtually spent the afternoon in New York enjoying Le Comte Ory, and the evening at the Long Center in Austin, Texas, totally engrossed in Jonathan Dove’s Flight as presented by the Austin Lyric Opera.
Le Comte Ory and Flight are far from standard opera fare, yet both were first-class entertainment, and, in the case of Flight, philosophically interesting too. These two productions had something else in common; each of them involved the birth of a child - one off stage and the other on, but more about that later.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory may not be as noteworthy as his Il Barbiere di Siviglia or La Cenerentola, but in a production as good as this one by The Met, with a cast almost too good to be true, it doesn’t really matter.
Director Bartlett Sher has a real flair for this kind of piece. Le Comte Ory is essentially a small scale chamber piece best seen in an opera house seating 500-1,000 people. It is really absurd to be producing it at The Met with its 3,800 seats.
Size and space notwithstanding, Sher worked magic. Rather than destroy the work by opening it out to the parameters of the mammoth Met stage, he preserved the essence of the opera by scaling down. To accomplish this, he came up with the ‘conceit’ of doing the opera as a play within a play. He devised a stage or raised playing area using only a small part of the vast Met stage.
What the audience saw was activity on and offstage, as it were, with a stage manager “managing” and his crew moving sets, props, and the curtain as required. How this all looked to The Met audience at the back of the third tier I have no idea, but for the audience in the movie theatre it was an ideal way to present the opera. Of course, the movie audience also had the advantage of being able to see facial expressions and the small bits of business that propelled the production.
Heading the cast were singers ideal for their roles: tenor Juan Diego Florez as the hopelessly randy Count Ory; mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato as his page; and soprano Diana Damrau as the Countess Adèle.
Florez was sensational tossing off his high Cs and Ds and Damrau inhabited the coloratura stratosphere as if she owned it. Di Donato, who didn’t get to demonstrate any high-pitched fireworks, did what she always does - made a gorgeous sound and executed the technical turf with the greatest of ease and accuracy.
The ensembles were impressive. With a brilliant conductor at the helm, in the person of Maurizio Benini, these complicated set pieces came off splendidly. The Act I finale had speed, accuracy and most remarkably, beauty of sound.
The most memorable scene in the opera was indubitably the ‘three-in-a-bed romp’ with Florez, Damrau and Di Donato, all of whom must have worked for days with director Sher to get the movements of hands, legs, lips, etc. to coordinate so perfectly with the music. There is definitely potential in this scene for a slapstick and tasteless rendering, but Sher didn’t go there; instead, he gave us a sophisticated and intricate staging, clearly based on Molière and the high art of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century French comedy.
After a break for dinner – and an update on the Masters from Augusta – Marita and I dashed downtown to see a very different kind of opera.
Jonathan Dove’s Flight was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998, and for a contemporary work, it has garnered an extraordinary number of productions around the world. It’s a “comic opera,” for the most part, but in no way does it relate to “musical comedy” or the lighter category of musical stage works. The music in Flight is highly complex - particularly in its rhythms - and there are no arias in the usual sense of the word.
As I have suggested, Flight also has a philosophical dimension. It is based on the real life tragedy of an Iranian refugee named Mehran Nasseri, who lived in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for nearly eighteen years. Without proper papers, no country would take him. The story is best known in a 2004 film version by Steven Spielberg (Terminal), but a more reliable source is Nasseri’s own autobiography The Terminal Man.
Dove and his librettist (April de Angelis) have depicted Nasseri’s story not only in its essence, but also as a kind of parable for our times. That said, they focus on the comic potential and downplay some of the most disturbing elements. In real life, Nasseri was trapped by the rigidity of immigration departments in Belgium, France and the U.K. He may also have been mentally ill. He was finally released from his terminal “prison” for health reasons and is now apparently living in a homeless shelter.
In Flight, Nasseri is simply called ‘The Refugee’ and, somewhat oddly, his plight is treated as a secondary issue. More time is spent on the affair between the Stewardess and the Steward, marital problems between Bill and Tina about to leave on a vacation in the tropics, and a couple going to Minsk. There is also an Older Woman, alone in the terminal but dreaming about relationships past, present and future.
All these people, like ‘The Refugee,’ are trapped in a ‘terminal;’ that is to say, their lives as they have lived them so far. Generally, they are unhappy with who they are and with the people to whom they are married or with whom they have a relationship.
Most travelers - but not ‘The Refugee’ – can eventually leave the “terminal.” In Flight, as the characters depart the ‘physical’ terminal at the end of the opera, they also set out with a new sense of themselves and of each other.
One of the most imaginative touches on Jonathan Dove’s part was to score the airport Controller’s part for a coloratura, and correspondingly, on the director’s part, to position her on a very high platform (the control tower) onstage. She is the link between planes and people, sky and earth, and perhaps God and man. Nili Riemer was wonderful in this role, producing soaring lines of melody perfectly in tune with her character.
Equally inspired was the composer’s choice of a counter-tenor voice – an ideal range for a ‘misfit,’ an ‘alien’ - for the role of ‘The Refugee.’ Nicholas Zammit, fresh out of UCLA and a last minute substitute in this production, sang and played this part with beauty, accuracy and a real touch of innocence in his demeanor. Talk about auspicious debuts!
In giving ‘otherworldly’ voices to the Controller and “The Refugee,” both of whom “live” in the terminal but have ‘personas’ that reach out to worlds scarcely imagined or understood, Dove and de Angelis clearly intended to suggest a relationship between these two characters.
This was an excellent cast assembled in Austin by General Director Kevin Patterson, conductor Richard Buckley and stage director Kristine McIntyre.
As usual, Buckley ran a tight ship from the ‘pit’ and deserves a lot of credit for achieving such amazing precision in a very difficult work on opening night.
And the babies I mentioned? The Minsk Woman gave birth on stage in Flight, and earlier in the day, just a half hour before her husband was due on stage at The Met, Mrs. Juan Diego Florez gave birth to a son, Leandro, at home in the Upper West Side of New York. May both newcomers live long and happy lives!
It was a compliment to the stature of this production that composer Jonathan Dove was in attendance. He appeared on stage with the cast to share in the well-deserved applause at the end. I suspect that he was pleased with what he saw and heard.
Incidentally, whoever harbors the notion that Austin doesn’t appreciate classical music should know that on the occasion of the opening night performance of Flight at the Long Center, the Mayor of Austin declared the date “Jonathan Dove Day” in the city!
For Those Wanting More…
While The Met production of Le Comte Ory generally pleased the critics, noted Rossini scholar Philip Gossett was not happy.
Gossett believes that the standard 1828 edition of the score used by The Met is unreliable and misrepresents what the composer intended. In his opinion, The Met should have used the new scholarly version based on recently discovered original performance materials; this version is being published by Bärenreiter and has already been used for a production at the Zurich Opera.
It should be noted that Mr. Gossett is the General Editor of this new edition.
In commenting on this dispute in a recent article in the New York Times (April 8, 2011), Anthony Tommasini points out that the newly discovered ‘original’ scoring is fuller and more complete than the 1828 edition: "The Act I finale, which Rossini lovers know as a madcap ensemble for seven solo singers and chorus, was originally scored for and performed by 13 solo singers and two combative choruses. And for the spirited final choral ensemble of the opera, which comes after a hauntingly romantic trio and has always seemed strangely abrupt, Mr. Gossett and his team have discovered 100 additional measures."
Kudos to The Met for reviving this neglected Rossini confection and going all out on the casting, but thumbs down for its failure to take advantage of the latest scholarship.
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 (above): Maestro Richard Buckley with "Flight" cast members by Marita.

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This Week in Toronto (Apr. 18 - 24)

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792 - 1868)

by Joseph K. So

The Canadian Opera Company's spring season swings into action this week with Rossini's La cenerentola, one of the best known among his 39 operas. I had a sneak peek at one of the working rehearsals last week, and can say Torontonians are in for a real treat! Absolutely gorgeous production - best described as an updated and stylized traditional style - with amazing costumes and superlative singing. This Rossini was last staged by the COC exactly fifteen years ago in April 1996, starring the glamorous Italian diva Ana Caterina Antonacci as Angelina. Although billed as a soprano, Antonacci has one of those "falcon" or Zwischenfach voices that are good in low soprano or high mezzo roles (Octavian, Donna Elvira, Marie, Didon, Santuzza). This time around, we have a totally different Angelina in Elizabeth DeShong, a genuine low mezzo with a rich, resonant timbre, an exceptional upper extension and great agility. The Ramiro is the terrific American Lawrence Brownlee. I first heard Brownlee in the Montreal Opera Gala in 2001. Even at the very beginning of his career at that time, his voice was already amazing. To my ears, Brownlee is the only legitimate competition to the great Peruvian Juan Diego Florez, and the American's mellower sound is preferable to Florez's extremely bright but somewhat edgy timbre. Canadian baritone Brett Polegato is Dandini and Italian buffo Donato DiStefano makes a welcome return to the COC as Magnifico. American baritone Kyle Ketelson is Alidoro - talk about luxury casting! Italian maestro Leonardo Vordoni makes his company debut. The show opens on Saturday April 23 at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre for nine performances. The COC's free noon-hour vocal series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre continues on April 21 with a recital of songs by Mahler and Strauss featuring artists of the COC Ensemble Studio. No program as of press time but you can be sure it will be good. Be sure to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

On Good Friday, a day before the opening of the Rossini, Opera Atelier opens with Mozart's La clemenza di Tito starring soprano Measha Brueggergosman as Vitellia. It follows her highly successful OA debut as Elettra in Idomeneo three years ago. Measha has achieved pop diva status in Canadian culture. She doesn't sing opera all that often so this is a good chance to hear her. Returning to the company is Serbian dramatic tenor Kresimer Spicer as Tito, and American male soprano Michael Maniaci as Sesto. Canadians soprano Mireille Asselin (Servilia) and mezzo Mireille Lebel (Annio) round out the cast. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Six performances at the Elgin Theatre starting April 22.

The Canadian Music Centre is celebrating the life of the late Ann Southam in a tribute at the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music on April 21 at 7:30 pm. This is billed as a gathering of family, friends, colleagues and admirers of the late Canadian composer. This event is free but please email to let the organizers know at

This being Easter Week, there are numerous concerts big and small celebrating the Christian event. A particularly interesting one is the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir presenting Sacred Music for a Sacred Space: a celebration of Healey Willan. On the program are sacred works by the late Canadian composer. Noel Edison as usual conducts. The event is on Good Friday at 7:30 pm, at the St. Paul's Basilica, 83 Power Street in Toronto.

Finally for something a little different, the 2011 Christina and Louis Quilico Awards is going to take place on Wednesday at 5:30 pm at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. This event will be hosted by the Ontario Arts Foundation. The late Louis Quilico was of course Canada's greatest Verdi baritone, and his second wife Christina Petrowska Quilico a well known pianist and pedagogue. This competition is unusual in that all contestants are COC Ensemble Studio members. The jurors are Alexander Neef of the COC, David Speers of Opera Hamilton and John Hess, pianist and head of Queen of Puddings Theatre. Remember to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

France’s Ebene Quartet Offers Up Technique and Flair, Classical and Pop

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

France’s Ebene Quartet may look pretty, but its four male members are more than just pretty faces.

That much, with charisma and originality to boot, was evident on stage at Walter Hall April 11 as part of the chamber music series put on by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

First violinist Pierre Colombet, second violinist Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Mathieu Herzog and cellist Raphael Merlin — on average about 30 years old — performed pieces they have already recorded together
. The changed the order of the programe and the two quartets planned for the first half were swapped. So the foursome attacked the first work, Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, with an abundance of freshness that was at times bold, at times sensual and always tightly focused. Their body language was accentuating without being distracting; their sound as a whole was nicely balanced.

Bartok’s third quartet, originally set to open the program,
was animated and delivered with the same technical prowess from each player. The one-movement work with four sections came across almost as cinematic, with outbursts of particularly rhythmic, melodic and harmonic passages. These four guys appeared mildly interested in making the music more complicated than necessary and wildly enthusiastic about making it accessible in every possible way without dumbing it down.

After intermission, “The other Ebene Quartet” returned on stage for a second half that was devoted to jazz and pop standards as reimagined by the players. From Wayne Shorter's Footprint to Eden Ahbez's Nature Boy, Misirlou from Pulp Fiction, Brad Mehldau's Unrequited, Astor Piazzolla's Libertango, Miles Davis' All Blues and So What to Beatle's Come Together for the encore — all pieces featured on the quartet's latest album, Fiction — Colombet, Le Magadure, Herzog and Merlin clearly demonstrated their collective genre-defying versatility.

No doubt this is a young, fast-rising string quartet that is both entertaining and worth paying serious attention to. The players' shared love and interest to perform and record both classical and non-classical music is admirable, even though there was a clear separation between the two in this particular program, intentionally or not. The jazz and pop set was less impressive as it lacked a level of unceremonious pass-me-a-beer feeling. Perhaps they should have tried losing the jackets, but only Herzog and Merlin did so right before playing Misirlou.
A couple of times, Herzog even egged the audience on in clapping for his colleagues' solos, something that usually comes without having to ask for it in jazz.
It was like people were being told it was okay to let loose and make some noise. They gladly obeyed by offering up a standing ovation with applause, cheers and whistles.

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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Pitcairn and "Red Violin" CHAMPS in Austin, Texas!

A lingering recession is the worst of times for the arts generally and for music education specifically. Hardly a day goes by without more news of cuts to funding of orchestras, theatres, art galleries, museums and schools. The bad news, however, is often offset by good news; for example, the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto, Canada) just announced a partnership with Carnegie Hall to introduce a national system of study and assessment in the U.S. modeled after the RCM’s comprehensive and highly respected programme, and the Venezuelan movement called El Sistema has taken root in the United States as well, with encouraging results.
More modest classical music education programmes are flourishing all over the United States and some seem almost impervious to economic or political ups and downs.
One such venture was initiated in Austin in 1991 by violinist Robert Rudié under the name Chamber Music in the Public Schools (CHAMPS). Today CHAMPS works every year with at least 60 students in a total of eleven schools.
To judge by the benefit concert given last week at the Ballet Austin Headquarters, CHAMPS has more support than ever. Several years ago, I was one of a total of approximately 50 people who attended a similar CHAMPS event. This time out there were more than 250 in attendance.
The State of Texas, like most U.S. states, has a huge budget deficit, and hundreds of teachers are being laid off, but proven programmes like CHAMPS continue to grow. Why? I would guess that driving this growth are parents who care enough about their children’s classical music education to make the effort to find the money to fund the programmes that provide it.
2redviolinThe big attraction at this year’s CHAMPS benefit concert was Elizabeth Pitcairn performing on the "Red Violin."
In 1998, Canadian director Francois Girard made a film (poster: right) called “The Red Violin” about a Stradivarius violin (the "Red Mendelssohn") and its mysterious history. This particular Strad was called the “Red Violin" because of the distinctive colour of its varnish. Unlike most Strads, the whereabouts of which have been well chronicled over history, the “Red Violin” vanished from sight for more than 200 years; the film speculates about the people who might have owned it and/or played it throughout those years.
Current owner of the “Red Violin", Elizabeth Pitcairn, comes from a distinguished musical family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Her great-grandfather founded the Pittsburg Plate Glass Company (PPG) and her father trained to be an opera singer. Her mother, Mary Eleanor Brace Pitcairn, has an Austin connection, having studied cello at the University of Texas. Elizabeth herself studied with Robert Lipsett at USC in Los Angeles. She concertizes internationally and, until recently, served as co-concertmaster for the New West Symphony under Boris Brott.
Pitcairn became a part of the history of the “Red Violin” when her family bought this priceless instrument for her at auction almost twenty years ago. The auction price is said to have been $1.6 million.
imagesAccompanist for Ms. Pitcairn at the Austin concert was Toby Blumenthal (photo: right), newly appointed director of CHAMPS. Pitcairn and Blumenthal are both directors of a summer music school, The Luzerne Music Center New York State), founded by Toby and her late husband Bert Phillips, a longtime cellist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
This CHAMPS fundraiser concert was thoroughly enjoyable and no doubt an inspiration for all the young people in attendance. Between pieces, Ms. Pitcairn charmed the audience with some personal anecdotes and a brief history of her famous violin – which she has named “Felix.” Judging by her love of music, her ability to charm an audience, and her virtuosic playing, Elisabeth Pitcairn seems an ideal role model for young people just beginning to explore the wonders of classical music.
Playing with authority and panache, she began her short programme with Beethoven’s Spring Sonata then went on to pieces by Gershwin, Dinicu, Paganini and Monti. The sound of the “Red Violin” was pure gold in Paganini’s Cantabile, and distinctively exciting in the fireworks of Monti’s Csardas.
The CHAMPS programme made a wise choice in inviting Elizabeth and “Felix” to perform their magic in Austin. I am certain that many children and their parents left this concert vowing to redouble their efforts to make good music an important part of all their lives.
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 slideshow by Marita

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Monday, 11 April 2011

Still Dangerous After 181 Years?

By Frank Cadenhead

The new brochure of the 2011-2012 season at Paris's Opéra-Comique only arrived in the past few days and has already caused a stir in two countries. 

Most Parisians know the name of the composer Auber only as the name of a metro stop near the Palais Garnier. But Daniel François Esprit Auber (1782-1871) was the most performed French opera composer in the 19th Century and his opera "La Muette de Portici" (The Mute Girl of Portici) has an important history. The fact that this opera is in the season at the Opera-Comique next year, from the 3rd to the 21st of April, has caused a minor sensation.

When performed in Brussels in 1830, two years after its debut at the Paris Opera, it was already a European favorite and had established a new genre: "Grand Opera." The libretto, by Auber's long-time collaborator Eugène Scribe, is the story of an abortive attempt by the city of Naples to revolt against Spanish rule. While the chorus represents the oppressed populace, it was actually the duet "Amour sacré de la patrie" ( "Sacred Love of the Homeland") that caused a riot in the hall. As every Belgian child knows, this immediately became the anthem of the revolution against their Dutch rulers and, some months later, Belgium was an independent country.

What turned heads was the tiny print in the Opéra-Comique brochure indicating that this opera was a co-production with "Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie," Belgium's principal opera. The opera company is from the nation's capitol, Brussels, and is also known as "Koninklijke Muntschouwburg (de Munt)" in the Dutch language. (The opera is located in an area where money was minted in earlier times.) The La Monnaie orchestra will actually be in the pit and the conductor is Patrick Davin, another Belgian.

Belgium was annexed by France in 1797, given over to Holland with the fall of Napoleon in 1815, and freed from Dutch rule in 1831. It is a parliamentary democracy with a monarch (now Albert II) who holds limited powers. In 1971, as a result of conflict between the two principal regions, a new confederation of three semi-autonomous regions was created: Dutch speaking Flanders in the north, French-speaking Wallonia in the south with the city of Brussels—mostly French speaking but physically in the area of Flanders—a third region. This federation was created to resolve the political conflicts between the two language regions of Belgium in the 1960s.

These historic conflicts are again a factor in Belgium politics and there are even proponents of dividing the country in two. As a result of these conflicts, Belgium has been unable to form a new government since the last fell in June, 2010 (the previous government remains as a caretaker). The stalemate marks the longest any state in history has had without a government and many young people who refuse to accept that Belgium cannot stay united are protesting. A recent "Nude-in" by students was well-covered by the European media and there is now a Facebook group demanding a new staging of this historic Auber opera.

In any case, this is a political hot potato and in an April 7 article in the major Brussels newspaper La Libre entitled "La Muette de Portici?" Oui, mais pas ici!" ("The Mute Girl of Portici? Yes, but not here!") the reporter asked a wary Peter De Caluwe, the La Monnaie boss, about his role in this project. De Caluwe, obviously ducking the political issue, spoke of conversations with Jérôme Deschamps who heads the Opéra-Comique. When Dechamps proposed a co-production of an opera by Adolphe Adam, De Caluwe, "amused," suggested "La Muette de Portici" instead and Deschamps, unexpectedly, ran with that suggestion, also soliciting a third co-producer: the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. 

The production will be directed by Emma Dante, the Sicilian who staged the politically edgy "Carmen" which opened the La Scala season in December of 2009.

The La Libre article concludes: "There is no date planned then for this production on the stage at La Monnaie: nothing before 2015. By that time, we should have a government and, if everything goes well, still a Belgium."

The La Libre article: 

The dangerous duet on YouTube:

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Sunday, 10 April 2011

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 11 - 17)

Soprano Sumi Jo
Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt

Sadly, the Roy Thomson Hall Vocal Series appears to have come to an end. I have been a subscriber since Day One, and every spring, we eagerly awaited the announcement of the program for the following season. This time around, the only subscription series appears to be the three-performance "Virtuoso" series that consists of Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, pianist Yundi (Li) and a duo recital of tenor Michael Schade and baritone Thomas Quasthoff. I don't have the figures, but the Vocal Series at RTH lasted from the mid 1980s to 2011, with a brief hiatus of one or two years somewhere in between. The artists who appeared over the years as part of this series were some of the biggest names in the business - Kiri Te Kanawa, Montserrat Caballe, Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Barbara Hendricks, Salvatore Licitra, and Canadian stars the likes of Karina Gauvin, Gerald Finley and Russell Braun. We even got to experience Romanian diva Angela Gheorghiu who was just here last Thursday. Now Korean soprano Sumi Jo will be the last artist of this august series. She is of course no stranger to Toronto, having sung at Roy Thomson and other venues over the years. Jo will give a wide-ranging program that includes songs by Vivaldi, Paisiello, Gounod, Adam and Donizetti, as well as arias from The Tales of Hoffmann, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, and La traviata. Accompanying her on the piano is Gary Matthewman. Friday April 15 at 8 pm.

Women's Musical Club of Toronto has presented many wonderful Canadian artists over the years. This time around, baritone Russell Braun is bringing his interpretation of Schubert's great song cycle, Die Winterreise to Toronto. Actually he sang this at least once before in Toronto - I recall hearing him sing it at Jane Mallett Theatre about five or six years ago, accompanied by his wife, pianist Carolyn Maule. This time it will be the chamber version arranged by Normand Forget, with accordionist Joseph Petric and the Pentaedre Wind Quintet of Montreal. The concert takes place on April 14 1:30 pm at Walter Hall, Faculty of Music of the University of Toronto.

The newest operatic kid on the block, Wish Opera, is presenting its inaugural production, Rudolf Friml's famous operetta, Rose Marie. I recently interviewed founder of WO soprano Tonia Cianciulli for an article - According to Cianciulli, the mission of this new operatic venture is to combine the beauty of the operatic art form with fashion and design, in such a way that will appeal to contemporary audiences. Another goal of WO is to promote Canadian talent. With Rose Marie, it boasts an all-Canadian cast led by Quebec mezzo Maude Brunet as Rose Marie LaFlamme. Her love interest, English Canadian miner Jim Kenyon is played by baritone Todd Delaney. Kerry Stratton conducts the Wish Opera Orchestra. There are two performances, on Friday April 15 and Saturday April 16 at 8 pm, at the John Bassett Theatre in downtown Toronto.

On the Orchestral front, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra under Quebec conductor Alain Trudel is presenting a very popular program of Gershwin, Copland and Dvorak on April 13 7:30 pm at the acoustically excellent George Weston Recital Hall in North York. The centerpiece is Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95 "From the New World". Also featured is the Toronto Children's Chorus. On Saturday April 16, there will be two shows, The Stars of Tomorrow featuring young musicians. Once again Alain Trudel leads the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra. These two popular priced concerts take place at Roy Thomson Hall at 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm.


Friday, 8 April 2011

McGill's Golden Violin Award Goes to Ewald Cheung

By Crystal Chan

The $20,000 Golden Violin Award was started in 2006 to recognize the talent of a string student each year who is near the completion of their studies at McGill's Schulich School of Music. It's the largest privately funded music scholarship in all of Canada. This year's winner is 21-year-old violinist Ewald Cheung, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in Performance  this spring. Cheung will put the money towards the costs of travelling for international competitions. This award follow wins (he's a five-time laureate and two-time winner) at the Canadian Music Competitions from 2000 to 2004, the 2007 Standard Life Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Competition, the 2009 Shean Strings Competition, the 2010 McGill Concerto Competition and the 2010 Orchestre Symphonique de Trois-Rivières Competition. Cheung was a founding member of the former Roddick String Quartet. He first started playing at age four at the Suzuki School in Edmonton and was one of three child prodigies featured in the 2004 documentary Minor Keys, which was produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

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COC Ensemble and OdeM Atelier lyrique Joint Concert Features Voices of the Future

Top:Nurse, Craighead and Giunta from the Trio in Cosi Act One

Middle: Rigden and Kramer acting it up as Rosina and Figaro; Upchurch at the piano.

Bottom: COC Ensemble - OdeM Atelier lyrique Joint Concert (l. to r. Aaron Ferguson, Pierre Rancourt, Neil Craighead, Adrian Kramer, Chantale Nurse, Suzanne Rigden, Wallis Giunta, Jacqueline Woodley)
Photo: Chris Hutcheson

COC Vocal Series
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
12 pm, April 7, 2011

Liz Upchurch, piano

'Tornami a vagheggiar" from Alcina - Suzanne Rigden, sop.
"Un'aura amorosa" from Cosi - Aaron Ferguson, ten.
"Il est doux, il est bon" from Herodiade - Chantale Nurse, sop.
"Come un'ape nei giorni d'aprile" from La cenerentola - Pierre Rancourt, bar.
"Ah! Perdona al primo affetto" from La clemenza di Tito - Rigden & Wallis Giunta, mezz.
"Tickling a trout, poaching a Hare" from Albert Herring - Adrian Kramer, bar. & Ferguson
Scenes from Cosi - "La mia Dorabella", "Ah, guarda sorella", "Soave sia il vento" - Nurse, Giunta, Ferguson, Rancourt, & Neil Craighead, b-bar.
"La ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni - Rancourt & Woodley
"Dunque io son" from Il barbiere di Siviglia - Rigden & Kramer
"Questo e il fin" from Don Giovanni - Tutti

We Torontonians are familiar with our marvelous young singers at the COC Ensemble Studio, but we don't get a chance to hear their counterparts at the Opera de Montreal. Thanks to this new initiative - well, new as of last year - opera lovers now have an opportunity of hearing the voices of the future in Quebec. The joint concert yesterday, labeled Collaborations, had four singers from each program. They all have young, fresh, promising voices and youthful and attractive appearances, just the right combination for the rigorous demands of an operatic career. To be sure, these artists are in various stages of development, some are works in progress in need of seasoning and polish, while others are definitely ready for prime time.

There was much to enjoy in the concert. We in Toronto are of course familiar with our COC singers. Wallis Giunta is leaving for the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met. Together with the Adler Program in San Francisco, these two programs are the most prestigious in the U.S. Her contributions in this concert show why she is earmarked for a significant career - musicality, firm grounding, gleaming tone of good volume and attractive stage presence. Her duet with Suzanne Rigden from La clemenza di Tito was nicely sung, their voices blended beautifully. The trio from Act One Cosi was also enjoyable - both Giunta and Nurse were in the RCM production two years ago so they sang the piece with experience and assurance. Bass-baritone Neil Craighead continues to improve and he was a mellifluous-sounding Don Alfonso in the Trio. A highlight of the concert was the excellent Sid of Adrian Kramer and Albert of Aaron Ferguson in the deliciously funny scene from Albert Herring. I had the pleasure of seeing Canadian baritone Josh Hopkins as a wonderful Sid in Santa Fe Opera last summer. Kramer reminds me of Hopkins - firm, manly voice, droll acting and good comedic instincts. Ferguson's light tenor with its slender timbre is ideal in acting parts like Albert, and he acquitted himself very well. His voice is at its best in mezza voce which he showed off in Ferrando's aria. Suzanne Rigden has a bright, clear high soprano, which she used to advantage, adding extra appoggiaturas in Morgana's aria from Alcina, just a little short on accuracy in the runs. Chantale Nurse sings with rich tone and an interesting fast vibrato, despite occasional support and pitch issues in her middle voice in "Il est doux, il est bon" - a promising singer to watch. Pierre Rancourt and Jacqueline Woodley contributed a charming "La ci darem la mano", with the soprano a sparkling Zerlina. The singers were well applauded by a very appreciative audience.

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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

When You Wish Upon an Opera ...

The newest operatic kid on the block kicks off with Rose Marie

By Joseph K. So

What’s more quintessentially Canadian than the Rockies, Mounties, Indians and Romance? It’s billed as a Canadian love story between a French girl and an English boy, set in the wild west of the Canadian Rockies. Throw in a scintillating score with catchy tunes, sung by up-and-coming singers with beautiful voices and attractive stage presence, and you’ve got the right ingredients for success. That’s certainly the strategy of Wish Opera, in its inaugural production of Rudolf Friml’s operetta, Rose Marie. Founded in the spring of 2010, Wish Opera has as it mission the fusion of fashion and design with the beauty of the operatic art form in productions that appeal to the contemporary audience. Given its mandate to support and nurture Canadian artists, Rose Marie stars an all-Canadian cast, led by Quebec mezzo-soprano Maude Brunet as Rose Marie La Flamme. Her love interest, English Canadian miner Jim Kenyon, is sung by baritone Todd Delaney. Bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre is Rose Marie’s brother Emile. This musical was a huge hit on Broadway in 1924, and it was adapted for film no less than three times. The most famous version was the 1936 Hollywood movie starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and the song “Indian Love Call” became the signature tune of this screen couple.

Soprano Tonia Cianciulli is the driving force behind this ambitious venture. Recently she spoke with TMS about her new project:

Tell us a little about your background as an artist and what is your vision for Wish Opera. Can you explain the concept of combining music with fashion and design for our readers?

I am a classically trained singer – I studied voice at the University of Western Ontario. The idea for Wish Opera came out of an event I did for clients of my husband’s company six years ago. We took over an empty loft space in the Liberty Village area in downtown Toronto, painted it white and we had six or seven different artists displaying their works. We had a stage built for live jazz, opera, and fashion; it represented a fusion of the arts. We got great feedback from the arts community. This event provided a platform for artists to gain exposure and experience. Through that I developed a passion for working with artists of all mediums, and I see this as a way of expanding the audience of opera. By fusing the different art forms, we are opening it up to younger people, people who may not even think of going to the opera. In our productions, in addition to singers we also feature Canadian designers of fashion, furniture, interiors, and photographers.

Last year at the Wish Opera Launch Concert at York University, you announced plans for a production of Don Giovanni in a different venue and with a different conductor. Why the change?

We had planned to do Don Giovanni up at York University, but after the launch, we quickly realized that to sustain the company we needed to be downtown. A lot of our audience are in the downtown core – that’s just the reality of it. We found a new home in the John Bassett theatre at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It’s a stunning 1300 seat facility, and they are excited to have us there. We also found a new music director in Kerry Stratton. He’s got an incredible personality and is very supportive of Canadian talent.

Combining the beauty of music with fashion and design, which are by nature also expressions of beauty. In other words “beauty” figures prominently in the ethos of Wish Opera. Does that mean when it comes to opera singers, you want them to be beautiful too?

(Laughs) I guess that’s an understandable question! No, we are looking for singers who can perform the role – we are not looking to fill the roles with the same tall, skinny people! Ideally we want to hire singers who can do a quality job. Where the fashion comes in at this point is that we are pulling pieces from different designers’ lines that we can use as costumes. It gives the designers exposure and let people know that there are lots of local talent. For Rose Marie we have two designers from Montreal who have agreed to feature their lines on stage for us. There’s actually a scene in Rose Marie that takes place in a dress boutique in Quebec City where a little fashion show takes place!

That’s not in the movie…

No it’s not, because the movie is not true to the original operetta. In the original this scene does exist. The Montreal designers are Denis Gagnon and Marie Saint Pierre - they are very talented and certainly designers to watch. When we get a larger budget, we’ll be able to go to the designers and ask if they can create specific costumes for us. For now we are just going with what they already have.

Considering that you use contemporary designers, is it safe to say your productions are going to have a contemporary feel to them, as opposed to traditional productions?

Well, I am not looking for things to be abstract. If it’s more contemporary, it’ll be more accessible for the audience. We might be doing period pieces as well, but for now, I think we are just focusing on bringing things up to date and to make it accessible to the modern day audience.

Tell us about your plans for the orchestra…

We are forming a Wish Opera Orchestra. Kerry (Stratton) can speak to that. Trumpeter Andre Dubelsten is working with Kerry to pull together a team. For Rose Marie it will be an orchestra of 19 or 20 musicians. This work has a lot of Canadian content – it’s set in the Rockies and we have an all-Canadian cast. We’ve even have the RCMP on board. They are often reluctant to come to these events as people often don’t take them seriously. I had to convince them that it would be a good opportunity for them to educate the public. Before curtain, Constable Terry Russel will appear, dressed in his Royal Red Surge regalia, and speak to the audience about the significance of the Mounties uniform. Canadian painter Charles Pachter has also agreed to be on board. He is well known for his renderings of the Canadian flag and the Queen on the moose and his classic painting of a Mountie – you can’t get more Canuck than that (laughs)!

Friml & Stothart: Rose Marie, April 15 & 16, John Bassett Theatre, 255 Front Street West, Toronto, Ontario.

Photos » Top: Mezzo Maude Brunet as Rose Marie; Bottom: WO founder, soprano Tonia Cianciulli

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