La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Irons, Mirren and Orchestra Shine in Shakespeare Concert

Conductor Lorin Maazel brings his Castleton Festival Orchestra to the Black Creek Summer Music Festival

Dame Helen Mirren (photo: Giles Keyte)

Jeremy Irons

"Music Inspired by Shakespeare"
Prokofiev - Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Mendelssohn - Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream Op. 21 & Op. 61

Castleton Festival Orchestra
Lorin Maazel, conductor
Dame Helen Mirren
Jeremy Irons
Joyce El-Khoury, soprano
Tharanga Goonetilleke, soprano
Women's Voices of the Castleton Festival Chorus
June 29th 2011 8 pm, Rexall Centre, Toronto

By Joseph K. So

Following the blockbuster opening with Domingo and Radvanovsky, Black Creek presented its second classical event last evening, starring three big names - conductor Lorin Maazel, and actors Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, in a program of music and words. It was a warm day but a cool evening that turned unseasonably cold as the evening went on, leading a number of patrons to sport blankets after intermission. But the music-making on stage was hot. The crowd, while on the small side, was enthusiastic and totally attentive to the proceedings onstage, gamely ignoring the frequent jet planes blazing across the sky since Rexall Centre is in the flight path. (Let's just be thankful that the supersonic Concorde is no longer in service!) Thanks to the superb sound system and the excellent video projections, such distractions weren't difficult to ignore.

The first half of the evening consisted of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The band was the three-year old Castleton Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of conductor Lorin Maazel. It's an orchestra of young musicians, but don't be fooled by their youth. Based on last evening's performance, their playing was astoundingly good, especially the wonderfully translucent strings and the incisiveness, the absolute precision of their attacks. Maazel certainly has had lots of experience working with young people, as he was the first music director of the Orquestra de la Communidad Valenciana, an orchestra made up entirely of young musicians. I had the pleasure of hearing them play when I was in Valencia three years ago, covering their recording of a new opera, Wuthering Heights. The Castleton Festival Orchestra is reminiscent of the Spanish orchestra, with young musicians from all over the world.

The second half was the centerpiece of the evening - a coupling of Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream with Shakespeare's play as adapted by scholar and poet J.D. McClatchy. To many in the audience, the big attractions were Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, and the two stars did not disappoint their fans. Taking on multiple roles in the play, they sailed through the dialogues with verve and wit, especially Irons who charmed the audience with his many guises - a truly amazing performance. Dame Helen was slightly off form, perhaps a touch under-rehearsed, as she had a number of fluffs which she covered up expertly. (Incidentally, the same forces performed the identical show at the Music Center in Strathmore in the U.S. the next day) It was a long and episodic piece, and the risk of having the audience prematurely applauding was great. So it was to the great credit of Maazel whose timely body language kept the crowd in check. In addition to the two actors, sopranos Joyce El Khoury (a Canadian) and Tharanga Goonetilleke contributed nicely, together with the Women's Voices from the Castleton Festival Chorus. Near the end, Maazel let the orchestra in a highly spirited playing of the familiar Wedding March, bringing the enjoyable evening to an end. This being an outdoor venue, one could complain that the weather could have been warmer, or the planes flying overhead could have been fewer, but such is al fresco music-making! There is something magical about hearing divine music on a summer's night outdoors, and it's an experience not to be missed.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Reinvented Jessye Norman Scintillating As Ever

Review by Joseph So

Jessye Norman captivating the small but enthusiastic audience (Photo: Joseph So)

Jessye Norman accompanying herself in "Amazing Grace" (Photo: Joseph So)

Soprano Jessye Norman and pianist Mark Markham (Photo: Lawrence Lock)

A Celebration of the American Musical Theatre
Jessye Norman, soprano
Mark Markham, piano
Koerner Hall June 28, 8 pm.

Somewhere - West Side Story (Bernstein)
You'll Never Walk Alone - Carousel (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
But Not For Me - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)
I Got Rhythm - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)

The Man I Love - Lady, Be Good (Gershwin)
Sleepin' Bee - House of Flowers (Arlen)
Climb Ev'ry Mountain - Sound of Music (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
Lonely Town - On The Town (Bernstein)
My Man's Gone Now - Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)


A Tribute to the Greats
My Baby just cares for me (Donaldson/Kahn) - For Nina Simone
Stormy Weather (Arlen) - For Lena Horne
Another Man done gone (traditional) - for Odetta
Mack the Knife (Weill) - for Ella Fitzgerald

For Duke Ellington -
Meditation for piano (Mark Markham)
Don't Get Around Much Any More
I've Got it Bad And That Ain't Good
It Don't Mean A Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing

Amazing Grace

In her prime, the voice of Jessye Norman was a force of nature - opulent, deep, resonant, golden, and totally unforgettable. The soprano from Augusta, Georgia won the ARD international music competition in Munich in the late 1960s and went on to become one of the most celebrated classical singers of our time. By the late 1990's, Norman scaled back her operatic and classical appearances and increasingly migrated to the pop and jazz fields. By the early 21st century, she stopped singing opera entirely - with the occasional exceptions - and re-invented herself as a jazz singer. Last year, she released Roots: My Life, My Song on the Sony label, her first new recording in years. The transformation was complete.

Last evening, Jessye Norman returned to Toronto after an absence of many years. Under the auspices of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, she sang a program of Broadway standards, with special tribute to the jazz greats the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Looking like the grande dame that she has always been, Jessye sauntered onstage with her familiar gait, to vociferous cheering from a small but adoring audience. She immediately launched into "Somewhere" from West Side Story, followed by "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, two of the most beloved tunes from the American Songbook. The timbre of the voice was recognizably and unmistakably Jessye. In fortissimos, the sound recalled her glory days. It would be less than honest to not point out that the sound has become leaner, the top more truncated, and there was a pronounced register break which she successfully disguised. She now uses chest voices more liberally than ever. She sang the first half without amplification, and sitting in row K, I had no problem hearing her. In the forte passages, the sound remained impressive. Her enunciation of the text and her expression have gained in depth of feeling with the passage of time. When she sang soft, as in Gershwin's But Not For Me or Bernstein's Lonely Town, it was truly exquisite.

But it was the second half of the program that touched the heart. Paying tribute to the great African American singers of the past, she sang songs dedicated to Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. In tribute to Odetta, Norman sang "Another Man done gone", a traditional song about a woman lamenting the killing of the black men folks. Norman sang it a capella, except for Mark Markham rhythmically pounding his fist on the piano frame - the delivery and the overall effect of the piece was chilling, deeply moving, and totally unforgettable. She concluded the regular program with the famous It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing, a real Duke Ellington standard. She gave two encores - a marvelous "Summertime" full of embellishments, and "Amazing Grace" where she accompanied herself on the piano in the first half, and then walked along the stage front to get the audience to join in. It was a magical moment.

I must say that back in the 1980's, I never thought of Norman as someone "who've got that swing" - her recording of pop songs of Cole Porter or Gershwin were always stately, grand, operatic, sung with so much voice that one would not have thought that she could be capable of scaling it back and be true to the music as the pieces were meant to be sung. Well, her transformation the last dozen years into an authentic jazz stylist has truly amazed a lot of her fans. She now sings these with absolute idiomatic style and depth of feeling. I am glad to have had an opportunity to witness the re-invented Jessye Norman. It was too bad that the intimate Koerner Hall was only slightly more than half full, but the enthusiasm of the audience made up for it. Shockingly, they ran out of programs early on. I was one of the dozen or so people scavenging the auditorium for a discarded program after the show. I was told only 200 programs were printed - what could the organizers be thinking?! Two hundred programs, for one of the greatest singers of the past thirty years? I hope the TD Jazz Festival will do better in the future!

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Monday, 27 June 2011

This Week in Toronto (June 27 - July 3)

Soprano Jessye Norman (Photo: Carol Friedman)

Now that the symphony, ballet and opera seasons have all come to a close, music lovers need not despair. The Black Creek Summer Music Festival (June 4 - Aug. 31) and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (June 24 - July 3) are both in full swing. The jazz festival has been around since 1987 and is really an institution now. Of particular interest to opera lovers is the return of one of the biggest opera stars, Jessye Norman, to Toronto after an absence of many years. I remember hearing her in a recital at Massey Hall as early as 1978. Her voice was a force of nature and I remember sitting there in the audience, in total awe. After that time, I always seek out her performances. She has since retired from the opera stage, but continues to sing. She is now returning as a jazz vocalist. The concert takes place at RCM's Koerner Hall on Tuesday June 28 8 pm. The program is billed as A Celebration of American Musical Theatre, including songs by Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hammerstein. The second half is A Tribute to the Greats - Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, annd Duke Ellington. Not to be missed if you are a Jessye Norman fan!

On Wednesday June 29 at the Rexall Centre on the grounds of York University, the Black Creek Summer Music Festival is presenting its second classical music blockbuster following the opening gala with Domingo and Radvanovsky. This time it is Music Inspired By Shakespeare, with conductor Lorin Maazel conducting his Castleton Festival Orchestra. Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons will give spoken performances from Shakespeare. Musical selections include Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet's Fantasy Overture, and Incidental Music from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Non-classical performances include Lionel Ritchie on Tuesday June 29 and Diana Krall on Saturday July 2. Details at

Last week, I mentioned that the adventurous Queen of Puddings Music Theatre is presenting a world premiere of a new opera by Ana Sokolovic, SVADBA_ Wedding. It has received excellent reviews by John Terauds at the Toronto Star and elswhere. Performances continue on June 28, 29 and 30 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs.


Monday, 20 June 2011

This Week in Toronto (June 20 - 26)

Last Night Of the Proms

This being the final week of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra season, it's offering its own Last Night Of the Proms. I don't quite remember when this tradition started at the TSO, but it's been at least a dozen years. Given the recent nuptials of Will and Kate, the ever-enterprising TSO is offering its own Royal Wedding Celebration! The usual program of British music that always ends with Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Brittania - and plenty of flag waving. Conductor Bramwell Tovey leads the TSO forces and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under choirmaster Noel Edison. Three performances, on Tuesday June 21 at 8 pm and Wednesday June 22 at 2 and then again at 8 pm. Then on the weekend are two performances of Opera Favourites starring American soprano Leah Crocetto and Canadian tenor David Pomeroy. Crocetto is coming to Toronto fresh from the 2011 edition of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition where she was a finalist in the Song Prize. Previously she was a winner of both the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the Jose Iturbi Competition in Los Angeles. Pomeroy is no stranger to Toronto audiences. The tenor from Newfoundland made an auspicious Met debut replacing an indisposed Joseph Calleja in the title role of Les contes d'Hoffmann last December. He is slated to return to the COC in this role next season. The two will sing selections from Italian operas - La traviata, Turandot, Madama Butterfly, Ernani and Rigoletto. Alasdair Neale conducts. Two performances on Saturday June 25 at 7:30 pm and Sunday June 26 at 3 pm. Not sure why the late start for the matinee, but given most singers don't like to sing too early in the day, I am sure they don't mind!

Also of interest this week is Queen of Puddings Music Theatre's presentation of SVADBA- Wedding, a world premiere opera by Ana Sokolovic. The cast is made up of 6 women (sopranos Laura Albino, Carla Huhtanen, Jacqueline Woodley, Shannon Mercer and mezzo-sopranos Andrea Ludwig and Krisztina Szabo), sung in Serbian with English surtitles. According to the publicity material, the opera takes place the night before the main character, Milice, leaves for her wedding. Her girlfriends keep her company in an all-night slumber party, "invoking pagan rituals as they prepare her for the impending marriage.... Solokovic uses existing Slavic/Balkan peasant folk tales, myths and traditions as her text source, and draws on her native Balkan folk music as a source of inspiration for all her music. She transforms the music and text into her own unique onomatopoeic language and transports listeners to a world of magic realism. The singers have to use every single possible vocal technique – combining opera singing with Balkan folk singing, overtones, extreme chest voice, heightened nasal voice, whispering, creating a wildly inventive intense palette of colours. The experience for the audience will be unforgettable, a bath of ravishing, soaring and seductive sensations." The production is directed by Michael Cavanagh. Performances on June 24, 25, 28, 29, 30 and July 2 at 8 pm at the Berkeley Street Theatre. More information at


Friday, 17 June 2011

Mark Adamo : Little Women

Stephanie Novacek (Jo), Joyce DiDonato (Meg), Chad Shelton (Laurie), Stacey Tappan (Beth), Margaret Lloyd (Amy), Daniel Belcher (John Brooke)

Houston Grand Opera Orchestra/Patrick Summers

Mise en scène : Peter Webster

Décors : Christopher McCollum; Costumes : Melissa Graff

Naxos 2.110613 (114 min 53 s)


Little Women a été créé en 1998 au Houston Grand Opera et est devenu depuis l’un des opéras les plus souvent montés sur les scènes internationales. L’histoire est une adaptation du roman de Louisa May Alcott qui raconte la vie des quatre filles March (Jo, Meg, Amy et Beth), vivant dans la demeure familiale lors de la Guerre de Sécession. La mise en scène somme toute conservatrice est totalement en phase avec la musique raisonnablement accessible de Mark Adamo. Le modernisme atonal sert plus souvent d’outil dramatique que de véritable système structurant. Les parties qui se veulent émotionnellement « touchantes » sont plutôt colorées par un lyrisme harmonique qui rappelle des opéras « folk » américains tels que Susannah de Carlisle Floyd ou Emmeline de Tobias Picker. Les interprètes sont convaincantes : Joyce DiDonato campe une Meg assurée, Stephanie Novacek dessine une Jo entêtée et Stacey Tappan est particulièrement sensible dans le rôle de la fragile Beth. Cette captation a été enregistrée à Houston, là où l’opéra fut créé, mais lors de la reprise en 2002. Une œuvre que l’on pourrait qualifier, dans le langage approprié des Américains, d’intelligemment « mainstream ».

- Frédéric Cardin

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Thursday, 16 June 2011

Kimmo Pohjonen/Samuli Kosminen: Uniko

Kimmo Pohjonen, accordion & voice; Samuli Kosminen, string & accordion samples, programming; Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Jeffrey Ziegler, cello)

Ondine ODE 1185-2 (51 min 49 s)


Here’s a neat lesson in brand name recognition and the advantage of a dedicated fan base. The cover of this album is dark blackish brown with red streaks. The title and artists are given in tiny letters and it is necessary to look into the booklet to establish Pohjonen’s and Kosminen’s claim to composition and arrangement of the music (a commission for Kronos). Aside from credits and acknowledgements, the data sheet is no more informative than Pohjonen’s website. What (or who) is Uniko other than an international manufacturer of something?

The cultural drift of the 21st century seems in large part to be devoted to refuting Rudyard Kipling’s dictum that “East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” Uniko is an occident-orient express that crashes through all the barriers. Grasping for a comparative, it suddenly occurs and the composers have been listening to the soundtracks created by Goran Bregović for the fabulous films of Emir Kusterica. The similar fusion of computer and instruments and the driving rhythms are indeed suggestive of the Balkan Peninsula. Whether or not that’s what the composers intended, some wizard string playing emerges from the electronic backup. Cross-under concept notwithstanding, this is bracing music. Heartily recommended to Kronosaurs everywhere.

- Stephen Habington

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Italian Concertos

Alison Balsom, trompette; Scottish Ensemble

EMI 4560942 (61 min 46 s)


Depuis dix ans, la charmante Alison Balsom a su convaincre le monde de la musique classique que la trompette virtuose, chasse gardée majoritairement masculine depuis toujours, pouvait resplendir de mille feux sous les doigts prestes et alertes d’une jeune femme d’à peine une trentaine d’années. Mme Balsom possède une technique fluide et assurée et elle dispose surtout d’une belle sonorité ample et nette qui ne brille pas exagérément dans l’aigu, ce qui donne à ses interprétations un aspect coussiné, mais sans mièvrerie. Le programme présenté sur ce disque est on ne peut plus « grand public ». Des arrangements de concertos baroques pour violon ou hautbois sont illuminés d’une autre couleur par cet instrument « royal » qu’est la trompette. Vivaldi, Albinoni, Marcello, Cimarosa et Tartini offrent à Mme Balsom amplement de matière pour démontrer son élégance sonore et son aisance technique. Cependant, le roi incontesté de ce genre de répertoire fut, sans contredit, Maurice André. Comment se compare la jeune anglaise née en 1978 ? Très bien, il faut le dire. Mais elle paraît un brin trop « policée» face au brillant maître. On lui recommanderait plus d’audace, et une attitude plus frondeuse, question de nous garder sur le bout de notre siège.

- Frédéric Cardin

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John Adams Portrait

Angèle Dubeau, violon; Louise Bessette, piano; La Pietà

Analekta AN 2 8732 (60 min 36 s)


Le compositeur américain John Adams s'illustre principalement dans le domaine de l'opéra et de la musique symphonique. Or, Angèle Dubeau et son ensemble La Pietà s'intéressent ici à son répertoire de musique de chambre avec pour résultat un disque très bien ficelé. Le duo pour violon et piano Road Movies est ici interprété avec la fougue qu'il mérite tandis que le quatuor à cordes John's Book of Alleged Dances est présenté avec toute la fantaisie que le compositeur lui a conférée (on regrette tout de même que ne soient ici enregistrés que des extraits, tant les musiciennes nous convainquent par leur interprétation). Quant à Shaker Loops – déjà un classique si l'on se fie à ses nombreuses interprétations disponibles sur disque –, l’œuvre est ici présentée dans sa version originale pour septuor à cordes. La beauté du son et l'agilité des musiciennes sont au service de cette musique diaphane, brumeuse et enveloppante. Un beau disque qui s'écoute avec un grand plaisir.

- Éric Champagne

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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Festival Classica: Giving Classical Music an Urban Twist!

By Christine Lee


By 5 p.m.  many people had already gathered to sit and listen to the music at Saint-Lambert’s Festival Classica, the town’s first classical music festival. 

The festivities really began at around 9 p.m. with the Orchestre Symphonique de Longueuil, directed by Marc David. As they began to play the first notes of a waltz, dancers in magnificent dresses and tuxes appeared and began their choreography, astounding spectators. As the night progressed, the parking lot turned into a dance hall; the music of the Bee Gees and ABBA compelled people of all ages to dance. A quick headcount showed well over 1,500 people. As the orchestra finished the encore, a crowd member protested: “But the dancing has just begun!”

This first concert set the tone for the rest of the festival.


On Saturday, Saint-Lambert’s churches hosted various concerts: Annabelle Follows the Sound of Her Own Voice, a family-friendly show featuring soprano Christina Tannous  and pianist Dominic Boulianne, Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer (Love Song Waltzes op. 52 and op. 65) and Tango Boréal. Outside, opera was broadcasted on a giant screen and the St. Lambert Choral Society took to the outdoor stage, showcasing a wide variety of Broadway music, from Les Misérables to The Phantom of the Opera; several soloists donned costumes.

Another noteworthy concert featured Daniel Taylor, the internationally-known countertenor who took everyone’s breath away at the Église Saint-Barnabas with his beautiful, versatile voice, capable of commanding and delivering many emotions. The crowd gave a standing ovation as soon as the last note was sung and demanded an encore, which Taylor gladly delivered. The singer drew chuckles from the audience when he tried to converse and even joke in French during the concert.

Marie-Josée Lord made a (surprise) special appearance at the Espace Musique 100.7 FM tent, where her performance was met with applause and hand shakes. Her show the next day was sold-out, so many craned their necks for the chance to see her in person.

Serhiy Salov, originally from Ukraine, now lives in beautiful Montreal. So what’s his connection to Saint-Lambert? His piano teacher lives there! From the very first note of Salov’s performance, the audience was captivated, stunned by how his hands effortlessly glided over the piano as he played Ravel and Stravinsky. Even the most difficult and virtuosic passages were conquered by his nimble, slender fingers. There was perhaps even a sigh of regret from the spectators as Salov lifted his hands from the last chord. A standing ovation and cries of "Bravo" echoed through the church hall. The pianist returned for an encore, playing a medley of orchestral works arranged for piano. When I found him after the concert, he exclaimed: "The crowd was so wonderful and welcoming! I wanted to play more pieces.”

Carmina Burana
Back at the outdoor stage, two pianists, three soloists, four percussionists and a choir of 200 led by Michel Brousseau touched the hearts of the audience (almost 3,000 people) with their rendition of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff. The man behind the Festival, baritone Marc Boucher, was seen on stage (at last!) as a soloist and melted the audience’s hearts with his rich and deep voice. When the last chord was struck and sung, the crowd left their folding chairs to applaud, cheer and ask for an encore. A brilliant performance! 


Marie Josée Lord, SOLD OUT 

Beatles Baroque
The Beatles Baroque concert attracted a large audience. The spectators were invited to sing along with the music, but many were too shy; however, as time passed, they gradually began to hum along. These sing-alongs, combined with dance-alongs (shows with programmes focusing on dance music: waltzes, tangos, marches, polkas, folk dance, etc.) and paint-alongs (painting inspired by the music), definitely set Festival Classica apart from your usual classical music fest. The wide range of interactive activities allowed the public to come close to the performers and attracted many people. Crossing over different media, Festival Classica brought together paintings, concerts, drum workshops, a masked ball, and even opera and Broadway karaoke (with a spotlight and video camera)! 

Wonny Song and Alexandre Da Costa
Violinist Alexandre Da Costa and pianist Wonny Song took to the stage at the Saint-Lambert Church. Both he and Song charmed the Saint-Lambert audience with their sensitive playing. Song later revealed that it always makes him slightly nervous to play before a home crowd. "It comes with a little stress but it's definitely a rewarding experience," he said. "[It's] stressful and exciting at the same time." Even so, the crowd loved the two musicians and the thundering applause was almost deafening. Song commented, "It was a pleasure playing here [at this festival]. The atmosphere is very charming, intimate, and magical: an audience that all musicians would enjoy playing for." It really showed through the performance how deeply they both enjoyed playing this concert.

As for the festival itself, Da Costa believed it to be a “superb idea.” He explained: “these days, the trend is long festivals, so to have one that lasts three intensive days is a bit like the [Montreal] Jazz Festival [or] the Just for Laughs festival … [Festival Classica] is very interactive and the spectators can choose from a multitude of activities.” Da Costa added, “I’ve known the director Marc Boucher for a long time, so we were really happy to be part of this first edition. We definitely will negotiate to try to come back here because it’s really a festival that we enjoy and love.”

Indeed, with such a wide variety of concerts, quality performances, high-profile guests and activities for everyone, Festival Classica is bound to be successful and is well on its way to its second edition. 

Concerto Della Donna
Anne-Marie Lozier of the all-female choir Concerto Della Donna also shared her thoughts on Festival Classica. “It’s a great idea because it allows people to test out [classical music], especially [at] the free concerts [since] there is no cost, no investment in it,” she said. “They can come and if they don’t like it, they leave; if they like it, they stay and attend even more concerts… I feel really honoured that they asked us to take part in this first edition.” She also pointed out that the location of the festival differentiated it from others. “[Saint-Lambert is] a lovely town! I hope the festival doesn’t [move downtown]. I think it’s nice to have it outside. First of all, there is less street traffic and, second, it allows people like me who have never been to this area to come out and attend.”

All in all, Festival Classica was a great success and many are holding their breaths, hoping that there is a second edition in the making. By the looks of it, there are high chances we’ll be hearing more from Marc-André Lechasseur and his superb team that put this event together.

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Louis Lortie plays Liszt – The Complete Années de Pèlerinage

Louis Lortie, piano

Chandos CHAN 10662(2) (2 CD : 161 min 20 s)


Louis Lortie revisite les Années de Pèlerinage de Liszt, cette fois dans leur intégralité, après une escale à la deuxième année italienne il y a de cela une vingtaine d’années. Il paraîtra cliché de parler de maturité, mais c’est juste, car Lortie a effectivement acquis un bagage musical impressionnant depuis ses jeunes années, et il en fait ici un usage intelligent et sensible. C’est au deuxième degré de la lecture que l’on remarque la véritable valeur de l’interprétation du pianiste québécois. Les traits subtils et suggestifs qui touchent à l’intangible de la perception lisztienne sont effleurés avec respect et avec soin. Lortie retourne à la lettre des œuvres, c’est-à-dire à l’aspect sacré de ces déambulations profanes et de ces impressions à première vue charnelles, mais en réalité profondément spirituelles. La douceur et la tendresse du jeu, l’élan brillamment calculé qui donne parfois la sensation d’être incontrôlé, tout cela procède d’une lecture préméditée et pleinement assumée. La prise de son laisse au piano la chance d’être à la fois ample, soyeux et lustré. Magnifiques.

- Frédéric Cardin

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Mahler: Symphonies Nos 1-10

Vocal soloists; Schweizer Kammerchor; Zürcher Sängerknaben; WDR Rundfunkchor Köln; Kinderchor Kaltbrunn; Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman

RCA Red Seal 88697 72723-2 (15 Hybrid SACD – 794 min 24 s/ DVD 80 min)


It used to be that a Mahler symphony cycle on record typically required a decade or more to complete. The sessions for this set began in 2006 and concluded last year. RCA threw in super audio (playable on conventional CD decks) recording and launched the cycle with military precision in 2007. The performances reached collectors in sequence, at mid-price and in short order. The appearance of this lavish boxed set followed the last individual release by only a few months. The collection comes at bargain price and the highest production values have been maintained. A consolidated booklet includes splendid essays on each work by Thomas Meyer, complete sung texts with English translation and even a roster of the players. The striking cover art for each album (details from art nouveau paintings by Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti, a contemporary of the composer) is retained. Even the slip covers are of high quality with double-disc symphonies housed securely together in bi-folds. No wonder that multiple sponsors are listed -- including Mercedes-Benz. This is Champagne fare on a beer budget.

David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra won international renown with a series of recordings for Arte Nova. Their Beethoven symphony cycle was a million-seller. A Schumann cycle and the orchestral works of Richard Strauss were also lionized by critics. During the past four years or so, Zinman has taken the trouble to acquaint us with the fact that the Tonhalle is a world-class Mahler orchestra. His methods are revealed in the accompanying film documentary on the preparation and performance of the Sixth Symphony. Going Against Fate by Viviane Blumenschein is remarkably candid in presenting an orchestra in rehearsal and on the concert platform. Musicians are encouraged to express their feelings about the music. And except when he is belting out Tom Lehrer’s satirical song, Alma (yes, that Alma), Zinman is a model of decorum and humility.

As the discs came along one by one, the reception was generally warm with a bit of sniping from critics on the flanks. After hearing the complete contents of the box, let it be said that here is a rare example of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. The performances are excellent and audio quality is of the highest standard. In each symphony, Zinman is scrupulous in observing Mahler’s markings and the players respond magnificently to his requirements. The project also attracted superbly prepared choruses and a first class lineup of vocal soloists. The singers taking part are: Juliane Banse, Anna Larsson, Birgit Remmert, Luba Organisova, Melanie Diener, Lisa Larsson, Yvonne Naef, Anthony Dean Griffey, Stephen Powell, Askar Abdrazakov and Alfred Muff. The experience is rather like joining this legion to complete an odyssey. Only journey’s end is abrupt. Zinman elected to use the ‘completion’ of the Tenth by the American Clinton Carpenter rather than his normal choice of Deryck Cooke’s performing version. Of all of the realizations produced, Carpenter’s is the most interventionist. It is worth hearing but it can never supersede what Cooke achieved.

Long after the Mahler consecutive anniversary years, this symphony cycle will be recalled as one of the greatest issues of the period.

- Stephen Habington

Buy this CD at

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Monday, 13 June 2011

Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire / Michael Gandolfi: Q.E.D – Engaging Richard Feynman

eighth blackbird; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Spano

ASO Media CD 1001 (48 min 55 s)


Ce disque sur étiquette maison de l'Orchestre symphonique d'Atlanta regroupe deux créations récentes commandées à deux compositeurs bien en vue chez nos voisins du sud. Tous deux travaillent à une musique résolument tonale, avec un certain goût pour les emprunts stylistiques non classiques. La pièce de Jennifer Higdon, On a Wire, est un concerto grosso conçu pour le sextuor eighth blackbird. D'un seul mouvement, la pièce se développe au fil de nombreuses sections où l'ensemble de chambre dialogue avec l'orchestre. Si on peut admirer l'agilité dont fait preuve la compositrice, il faut cependant admettre que l'œuvre semble plus anecdotique qu'essentielle. L'œuvre chorale de Michael Gandolfi évoque quant à elle l'univers du physicien Richard Feynman à travers des textes d'auteurs classiques américains (Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, etc.). Si le projet artistique reste confus (l'esprit de Feynman semble loin de Stein et Dickinson), la musique demeure charmante. Il faut avouer que l'on craque facilement pour le rythme un peu funky du deuxième mouvement. Au final, on se retrouve avec deux œuvres honnêtes et bien faites, interprétées par un orchestre d'un très bon niveau.

- Éric Champagne

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Haydn : Concertos pour violoncelle

Wen-Sinn Yang, violoncelle; Accademia D’Archi Bolzano/Georg Egger

Oehms Classics OC 782 (72 min 7 s)


Le violoncelliste suisse d’ascendance taïwanaise Wen-Sinn Yang s’était attiré des éloges pour son exécution intérieure et raffinée des Suites de Bach (Arthaus Musik, 2005). Manquait cependant à sa gravure un certain enjouement nécessaire par moments à ces chefs-d’œuvre. Les deux Concertos de Haydn qu’il propose maintenant possèdent les mêmes qualités, mais appellent la même réserve. Le son est toujours beau et soutenu, et les rythmes relèvent de ce que l’on peut considérer comme étant un juste milieu. De ce point de vue, les mouvements lents sont les mieux réussis. On aurait souhaité trouver plus d’entrain et de mordant dans les mouvements extrêmes, cette forme d’humour parfois bourru qui reste la marque de « papa Haydn », mais le soliste s’en tient à un sérieux par trop monolithique. Il faut dire que le chef est d’abord et surtout le premier violon de l’ensemble restreint qu’il dirige assez mollement. Le programme est complété par une transposition du Concerto pour violon no 4 en sol majeur, moins inspiré que les compositions originales pour violoncelle, malgré un Adagio bien senti.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Villa-Lobos : Choral Works

SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart/Marcus Creed
Hänssler CD 93.268 (62 min 4 s)
La musique chorale de Villa-Lobos, avouons-le, est une denrée rare autant sur disque qu’au concert. Raison de plus de se réjouir immensément de cette parution soignée de la maison Hänssler. Deux pièces au programme sont des premiers enregistrements, soit José et Préces sem palavras, pour chœur d’hommes. L’écriture vocale de Villa-Lobos est consonante et recherche la fluidité de la ligne mélodique plutôt que l’effet sonore ou la complexité harmonique. Le résultat est un corpus éminemment agréable à écouter et probablement très plaisant à interpréter. Curieusement, on est parfois tenté de faire un rapprochement avec la musique chorale anglaise du 20e siècle, Herbert Howells ou encore le très populaire John Rutter, mais avec quelques jolies touches de faux-folklorisme brésilien. On retiendra particulièrement la Bachianas Brasileiras no 9, dans sa version pour chœur, évidemment. Aussi, le somptueux Prélude et Fugue no 8 BWV 853 de Bach, arrangé pour chœur mixte à six voix ! À lui seul, il vaut le prix du disque ! Plusieurs autres très belles surprises raviront le mélomane curieux qui aura la bonne idée de se procurer ce disque véritablement indispensable.

- Frédéric Cardin

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This Week in Toronto (June 13 - 19)

Luminato 2011 (June 10 - 19)

by Joseph K. So

There was a time when Toronto in the summer was a cultural desert - how times have changed! Now we have the Black Creek Summer Music Festival, Toronto Summer Music Festival, and this week, the headliner is the Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity, now in its fifth year. The centerpiece this year is a re-telling of the old Arabian tales in One Thousand and One Nights directed by Tim Supple, based on translations by Hanan Al Shaykh. I attended the opening on Saturday at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Center on Front Street. The show is in two parts, each approximately three hours long. If you have preconceived ideas about Arabian Nights, leave them at the door, as you will be confronted, shocked, provoked, and delighted in this brilliant re-imagining of these ancient tales. In addition to this, there are a number of must-sees Luminato events this week. If you are a fan of K.D. Lang, be sure to catch her on June 17 at the Festival Stage. There's the world premiere of Andromache, directed by Graham McLaren ad adapted from the Racine classic by Evie Christie. The National Ballet of Canada is contributing the North American Premiere of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in a co-production with the Royal Ballet in London. (June 10 -12 at the Four Seasons Centre). The celebrated Kronos Quartet is presenting four concerts with a multi-cultural bent (June 10-11 at Koerner Hall of RCM and June 15 at the Jane Mallett Theatre). And the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is having a special performance of Mahler's magical Fifth Symphony, billed as TSO Goes Late Night, on Saturday, June 18th at Roy Thomson Hall. For Festival details and ticket information, go to

Elsewhere, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is bringing back the ever-popular violinist Joshua Bell playing Bruch's Scottish Fantasy. Also on the program is Mahler's Symphony No. 5, and a piece by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, with the intriguing name of Torque. TSO music director Peter Oundjian is a the helm. Two performances, on June 15th and 16th at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. As mentioned above, there is an extra performance of the Mahler in conjunction with Luminato on Saturday at the late start of 10:30 pm.

Tapestry New Opera Works, the eclectic and adventurous company under the leadership of Wayne Strongman is presenting its New Opera Showcase: Excerpts from Four New Operas. On the program are works by Maja Ardal and Norbert Palej, Marjorie Chan and John Harris, David Brock and Gareth Williams, and Michael Lewis MacLennan and Jeffrey Ryan. Among the many performers are Kimberly Barber, Keith Klassen, Neema Bickersteth, and Peter McGillivray. Two performances, on June 14 at 7:30 pm and June 15 at 6:30 pm, at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District in downtown Toronto. For more information, go to


Luminato Opens with New Re-imagining of Old Tales

Scenes from Tim Supple's One Thousand and One Nights (Photos: Cylla von Tiedemann)

One Thousand and One Nights
A Dash Arts Production and Luminato Commission
Dramatized and Directed by Tim Supple
Stories Adapted by Hanan al-Shaykh
June 7 -9 (preview) 10 - 19 (performances)
Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, 227 Front Street

By Joseph K. So

Now in its fifth season, Toronto's Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity has always focused on exploring edgy and provocative re-imaginings of all facets of the performing arts. This year, the centerpiece of the Festival is its commission of Tim Supple's One Thousand and One Nights, an audacious re-telling of the old tales known in the west as the Arabian Nights. Luminato has previously collaborated with the British director in A Midsumjmer Night's Dream in 2008. Supple uses the text of the original stories adapted by Lebanese writer Hanan Al-Shaykh. According to her bio, her novels were initially banned in many Arab countries but are now translated into twenty-nine languages world-wide. This new interpretation bears little resemblance to the sanitized and sugarcoated versions we westerners were exposed to as children. There's no Ali Baba and no Aladdin in this production, as these characters were added on later in a French translation. The re-telling by Supple and Al-Shaykh is far from bedtime stories for children - it is intense, provocative, explicitly sexual, ribald, violent, and highly emotional, confronting and challenging the audience into abandoning their pre-conceived notions. The production has been five years in development. In Supple's Notes included in the program, he mentions doing exploratory work in Cairo as early as July 2006. He found Luminato as the creative/funding partner in 2008, and the work began in earnest in 2009. In November 2010, an audition involving seventy performers took place in Alexandria and eventually twenty actors were chosen to participate.

Given the political events that engulfed the Middle East since January of this year, One Thousand and One Nights with its violence, repression, and subjugation of women has take on a contemporary resonance, particularly for the actors who have left behind families and loved ones to come to Canada. Many are understandably worried about the safety of their families at home. Al-Shaykh wrote the text in Arabic, and it's performed here seemlessly in Arabic, French and English. Unfortunately I was sitting fairly high in the center section, too far from the TV monitors used for the translations for me to read comfortably. For the largely non-Arabic speaking audience, understanding the text was a huge challenge, even though to be fair, the actors largely spoke clearly the vast majority of the time, but some of it was inevitably lost. It didn't help when the monitors had periodic glitches, with long stretches of dialogue without accompanying translation. Because of the bad sight-lines, I found myself torn between reading and trying to see what's happening onstage. Twenty stories were told in two parts - some familiar ones, others less so. Supple and Al-Shaykh went to the oldest manuscript to do the research, and the director pointed out in his Notes that little was added or changed. The show was long - two parts each slightly more than three hours, performed in the afternoon and evening. The cast was made up of 19 young, energetic and compelling actors, many of them taking on multiple roles and doing full justice to the heavy physical and theatrical demands placed on them. We western audience members are not used to the gritty, provocative, in-your-face theatrics of this production. Kudos to Supple and his creative team - set designer Oum Keltoum Belkassi, costume designer Zolaykha Sherzad, lighting designer Sabri el Atrous, and sound designer John Gzowski - for their skill in transforming a rather anonymous performing space into one suitable for the story-telling. It was amazing what they did with a simple platform with one movable wall that allowed entrances and exits, plus a few props (like carpets, fabrics and lights dropping from overhead etc.) and the occasional projections.

The central theme of One Thousand and One Nights involves the young bride Shaharazad (wonderfully played by Houda Echouafni) trying to stay alive by telling a serious of fantastic stories to the King Shazaman, who had vowed to take revenge on womanhood after he caught his unfaithful wife in an orgy with her slaves. This opening sequence was expertly - if rather shockingly - executed and deftly directed by Supple. This was followed by a series of fantastic tales that were quite gripping, although I wished I didn't have to struggle so much with the translations to make out what was said. Despite its length, the three hours in the afternoon - with a short intermission - went by relatively quickly. That said, I wonder if this work is better served by condensing into a single sitting. Special mention must go to the orchestral ensemble for its wonderful playing. Even with the length and some of the production glitches, it was a highly intense theatrical encounter and likely something not previously experienced by most in the audience. The show is definitely worth seeing. Performances continue until June 19th at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre.


Saturday, 11 June 2011

Yuja Wang's Lite Rach 3

by L. H. Tiffany Hsieh

The Chinese rising star pianist Yuja Wang is emerging as some kind of new-edge sweetheart in the classical music world. She's young — 24 — tomboyish pretty, cool, funny, feisty and good. Extremely good.

You gotta love this girl and the audience at Roy Thomson Hall on June 9 loved her instantly as Wang stylishly conquered Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto in the company of Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Standing ovation, cheers and the whole nine yards.

So it'll make me the odd person for what I'm about to write. As much as I am a fan of Wang's piano playing, this particular performance from her — the second night of her TSO debut — just didn't do it for me.

Rach 3 is a richly meaty and complex piece of work. If it were a baking recipe, you'd be using a whole packet of eggs, all-purpose flour, full-fat milk, double cream, three different kinds of sugar and a whole stick of butter. Real butter, too.

Instead, Wang offered up a lite-Rach, a lean version of this otherwise devilish bomb surely bad for your blood pressure, with skim milk, whole wheat flour, lite cream and margarine.

You can call it poetic or sophisticated, but in the youthful language of "geez" and "BS" Wang showed a penchant for during an intermission live chat, her Rach 3 was a bit blah and stale despite an impressive display of fiery chops.

From the start, the opening melody lacked a certain pronouncement. If Wang was going for subtlety, it was barely audible at times.

She also took too much extra time and liberty in the lyrical sections throughout all three movements. Beautiful and, yes, sophisticated as her tones and phrasings were, the meticulous, Chopin-like manner she put on the harmonic exploration slowly went into a dreamlike standstill that crippled the rest of the piece in a partial comatose state.

In rhythmic passages, instead of fatty fingers for maximum fatty effect, Wang's skinny, super-articulated fingers delivered thin, staccato-like execution in this what should really just be a think, creamy pool of dark, gooey sauce.

Overall, it was a gutsy, different kind of Rach 3, but too bad it was unmemorable and disengaged.

Oundjian led his orchestra in fine form in the rest of the concert — the last of TSO's Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists series.

Ravel's Alborada del gracioso was a charming concert opener. After intermission, Rachmaninoff's The Sea and the Seagulls from Cinq Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 160 served up a refreshing appetite "like sushi and sashimi" as Oundjian aptly described from the stage. The aromatic seaside fragrance wafted toward Debussy's La Mer with a powerful sensual force of nature. All's well that ends well.

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Les gagnants du 100e Prix d'Europe

par Renée Banville

L’épreuve finale du Prix d’Europe a eu lieu hier à la Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur. Le public a patienté durant près d’une heure pour apprendre le nom du lauréat. Malheureusement, les organisateurs ont décidé de faire languir le public et les candidats. Le jury a dévoilé les noms des quatre finalistes qui demeurent en liste dans chacune des catégories, soit : chant, claviers, cordes et vents/percussions. Ce sont, dans l’ordre : la soprano Andréanne Paquin, le pianiste Charles Richard-Hamelin, le violoniste Victor Fournelle-Blain et la percussionniste Isabelle Tardif. Chacun de ces finalistes remporte un prix de 5000$ de la Banque TD. Le Prix d’Europe, d’une valeur de 30 000$, sera dévoilé lors du gala qui aura lieu dimanche à 19h30 à la Salle Claude-Champagne.

La présidence d’honneur de la 100e édition a été confiée au claveciniste et organiste Kenneth Gilbert, lauréat du Prix d'Europe pour orgue en 1953. Le jury est présidé par le compositeur Gabriel Thibaudeau et est composé de Nicole Lorange, soprano, Rachel Martel, pianiste, Christophe Guiot et Yuriko Naganuma, violonistes, et Jean-Marie Poupelin, hautboïste. Les compositeurs Denis Gougeon, John Rea et Ana Sokolovic sont les membres du jury dans la catégorie composition. Le nom du gagnant de ce prix sera également annoncé lors du concert-gala.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Gabriela Montero: The Piano is her Playground

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero described the piano as her playground on stage at Roy Thomson Hall June 1.

That proved to be a bit of an understatement as she went on to play two brilliant encores à la Gabriela Montero.

First, it was Gershwin’s famous Summertime, as requested by a member of the audience, in Bach-like style.

Second, it was the theme from Hockey Night in Canada dressed in Latin fever. Montero insisted on improvising something Canadian — Torontonian to be precise — even though she had never heard of the melody until Paul Meyer, principal second violinist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, played it out for her after another audience member requested it on the spot.

Yes, these were encores for Montero’s debut performance with the TSO in which she performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. While she was effortless in Rhapsody — in fact she’s an unruffled, graceful pianist with killer tones — it takes more than a superlative soloist to pull off this ensemble piece and unfortunately pianist and orchestra were poorly coordinated in this, the finale of a thoughtfully matched but unusual program of Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists.

Hence the delightful encores were more than a treat. They were the long-awaited lemony sunshine following a largely subdued concert by nature of the music.

TSO music director Peter Oundjian started off the night with Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed The Isle of the Dead. This was one of the best performances I’ve heard this orchestra deliver this season. Not a single note was off. Every detail was nuanced with just the right amount of anticipation, freedom and embroidery.

Then came Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra. Featuring TSO principal clarinettist Joaquin Valdepenas as soloist, this delicately dreamy piece of work was in good hands. The natural chemistry between Valdepenas, Oundjian and the orchestra was advantageous in terms of unity, but what lacked in this particular performance were a sense of adventure and elements of surprise.

French composer Paul Dukas’ best-known work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, felt like a write-off and out of context. Despite a decent and easy reading of the score by the orchestra, the light-hearted mood and the stop-and-go temper of the music added little to the previous works and even less so as a conversation piece during intermission.

Oundjian’s rationale for programming this piece, as explained in the program note, is that Dukas was very much influenced by Debussy and Dukas passed on his orchestral expertise to his student, Olivier Messiaen.

So, the second half of the concert opened with none other but Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliees. Thankfully, the TSO returned to its top form and delivered a striking imagery of sadness, madness and deadness. When it was all over, it was as if a life was just beginning.

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This Week in Toronto (June 6 - 12)

Pianist Yuja Wang (photo: Felix Broede)

by Joseph K. So

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is one of the current crop of piano virtuoso wowing audiences around the globe. She is in town with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week at the Roy Thomson Hall. Born in Beijing, Wang studied with Gary Graffman at Curtis and won the Aspen Music Festival's concerto competition at 15! In 2006, she was named Gilmore Young Artist, and in 2010, she was the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant. She records exclusively for the Yellow Label. Wang had to cancel her National Arts Centre engagements last week due to illness. We hope she is fully recovered and look forward to a dazzling display of her artistry. Three shows - June 8's performance is part of the Afterworks Series starting at 6:30 pm. Wang plays Rachmaninoff No. 3. Also on the program is Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. The show on June 9 is the longer one at 8 pm, with the addition of Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's Alborada del gracioso. Finally, on June 9 at 7:30 pm, as part of the Casual Concert Series, the program is the same minus the Ravel, and there is a post-concert party at the lobby with a live band. Peter Oundjian is at the helm.

The other big news this week is the return of the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity. Technically the festival is from June 10 to 19, but the buzz is already starting in earnest! June 7 marks the opening of One Thousand and One Nights, Luminato's most ambitious commission to date. British director Tim Supple and Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh join forces for a cutting edge interpretation of the the One Thousand and One Nights. Go to for show details and tickets.

Just north of the GTA is the picaresque town of Sharon. The Music At Sharon series features Canadian pianist Jane Coop on June 12. Details at


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Domingo and Radvanovsky Deliver the Magic at Black Creek

A very well filled Rexall Centre awaiting the arrival of the soloists (photo: Joseph K. So)

Tenor Placido Domingo and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky weaved their magic on a (cold) summer night at the Black Creek Summer Music Festival (Photo: Joseph K. So)

by Joseph K. So

Black Creek Summer Music Festival Inaugural Gala Concert

Placido Domingo, ten.
Sondra Radvanovsky, sop.
Black Creek Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Eugene Kohn, cond.
Rexall Centre, Toronto
June 4, 8 pm. 2011

Opening Cavalleria Rusticana (Chorus)
"O Souverain" from Le Cid (Domingo)
Bolero from I vespri Siciliani (Radvanovsky & Chorus)
"Favella il Doge" from Simon Boccanegra (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"La mamma morta" from Andrea Chenier (Radvanovsky)
"Nemico della patria" from Andrea Chenier (Domingo)
Triumphal March from Aida (Chorus)
"Gia nella notte denza" from Otello (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Mira, d'acerbe lagrime" from Il Trovatore (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Poet and Peasant Overture" von Suppe (Orchestra)
"Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific (Domingo)
"I could have danced all night" (Radvanovsky)
"Tonight" from West Side Story (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"I want to be a Prima Donna" (Radvanovsky)
"Musica Prohibita" (Domingo)
"O sole mio" (Radvanovsky)
"Non ti scordar di me" (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"No puede ser" (Domingo)
" Vissi d'arte" (Radvanovsky)
"Besame mucho" (Domingo)
"Somewhere over the rainbow" (Radvanovsky)
"Granada" (Domingo)
"Lippen schweigen (in English) (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Hallelujah" (Domingo conducting, with Radvanovsky and Kohn joining the Chorus)
+ Fireworks to End

A year in planning, the high profile Black Creek Summer Music Festival had its inaugural concert last evening at the Rexall Centre. A great deal was at stake. It was by far the largest scale summer music series the Toronto area has seen, with the highest profile artists from the fields of classical, pop, jazz, country, and Broadway. The event that kicked off the Festival starred mega-star tenor Placido Domingo in his first visit to the GTA in a dozen years. The weather had been good most of the week, but we woke up to a pouring rain and driving wind. As if on cue, even the weather gods cooperated - by the afternoon, it had cleared and the audience didn't have to sit in wet seats or worse, shiver in a downpour. Yes, it was unseasonably cold and a bit windy, but given our unpredictable spring, Torontonians would gladly put up with this little bit of discomfort. More problematic was the chaotic traffic conditions that led to the concert being held up for 30 minutes so attendees could make their way from their cars to the stadium. The Rexall Centre, with one third of the seats at one end closed with the stage on court level, was surprising intimate due to the amphitheatre design. I have attended many al fresco concerts in the past both in the States and in Europe, and this venue is better than most and much preferable to some of the open air ones in Munich for example (Koenigsplatz and Odeonplatz come readily to mind) where the openness meant poor, diffused sound. The amphitheatre also meant the wind was substantially reduced. The staging area was set up to the highest professional standards with a superb sound system and multiple stationery and roving video cameras. The concert was streamed live on the internet to an international audience for a fee of $15. Needless to say this was the most elaborate and high-tech classical event Toronto has seen a long time. Would the hugely elaborate production suggest that at some point, we can expect a release of the event on commercially available DVD?

The evening began with the Prelude and Chorus to Cavalleria Rusticana, which the audience dutifully applauded. Let's face it - they were there to hear the two stars rather than what the pick-up Black Creek Orchestra and Chorus could do. In particular the audience in the well-filled Rexall Centre was there to hear Placido Domingo. When he came out, a roar of cheering erupted. He started with a popular "set piece" for dramatic tenors from Caruso to Heppner, and of course Domingo - "O souverain" from Massenet's Le Cid. For a singer who has been in front of the public 50 of his 70 years, the only way to describe his vocal estate is 'miraculous'. The timbre is fresh and youthful, and he sounds better than most tenors half his age. There is a natural darkening of the sound with the passage of time, the tone is a burnished gold nowadays. Domingo began as a baritone so the extreme high notes, like the C, was never his forte. Now he has migrated to an increasing number of baritone roles. In this concert, the Le Cid aria and the love duet from Act 1 Otello were the only two tenor pieces he attempted. Midway through the duet, the pitch was transposed down a semitone so the he didn't have to deal with the long held high A at the end. Purist may quibble but personally I much rather hear this great singer operate within his comfort zone than to have him struggle with a note. And he sang the duet brilliantly, with plenty of lovely mezza voce and a ringing top. Among the other solo pieces he sang, "Nemico della patria" from Andrea Chenier was a standout, delivered with passion and intensity. The role of Carlos Gerard fits Domingo like a glove - let's hope he will add this to his repertoire soon. The tenor also sang a number of "pop" pieces, like "Some Enchanted Evening" with his trademark pleasantly accented English. As a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, Domingo sang "Musica Prohibita", a piece made famous by the great Caruso.

Sharing a stage with Domingo was Sondra Radvanovsky, the best Verdi soprano in front of the public today. She combines a phenomenal technique with silvery, full-bodied tone and a glorious upper extension. Her Bolero from Vespri Siciliani showed off her sparkling coloratura. The extended duet of her Amelia opposite the Simon of Domingo was one of the highlights of the evening - the tenor caressed the phrases beautifully and sang the soft passages with security and feeling. "La mama morta" from Andrea Chenier is written very much in the middle voice, and Radvanovsky rich and solid middle makes her a ideal Maddalena. I don't think this role is in her repertoire, as she sings very few verismo heroines, but this is one that suits her beautifully.

The formal part of the program came to an end with "Non ti scordar di me" sung as a duet. The enraptured audience wasn't about to let the two artists go without several encores. The ovations were so warm and vociferous that the singers were called back again and again. In the end there were a total of eight (!) encores. Radvanovsky's 'Vissi d'arte' is a lesson in beauty of tone, legato phrasing and technical control. The two joined forces in Lippen schweigen from Giuditta, and finally, Domingo took the baton and led the orchestra and chorus in a joyous rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, joined by the soprano and the conductor Eugene Kohn! As if that wasn't enough, the evening ended with spectacular fireworks. I think it would be hard to top this in the future, but I am sure Black Creek Summer Music Festival will have more surprises for us this summer. Stay tuned!