La Scena Musicale

Friday, 29 July 2011

What's New At Toronto Summer Music Festival
















Photos:
Roger Vignoles, collaborative pianist;
Sir Thomas Allen and pianist Joseph Middleton at the TSMF Recital



by Joseph K. So

Now that Black Creek Festival is taking a hiatus due to tennis, Toronto music lovers need not despair - there's the excellent Toronto Summer Music Festival! It may not have the hype and the big budget of Black Creek, but its offerings are every bit as interesting and musically significant. Since my return from the Munich Festival, I've already attended a number of terrific events at TSMF. Most memorable was the recital given by the great Sir Thomas Allen, in a program of Schumann's Dichterliebe, plus songs by Beethoven, Schubert, Peter Warlock, Michael Head, and Frank Bridge. At 67, he sounds better than many singers half his age. As encores, he sang September Song by Kurt Weill (and recorded by great singers from Ethel Waters to Frank Sinatra) and - are you ready - Cole Porter's Miss Otis Regrets! It's nice to see Sir Thomas letting his hair down for a couple of American standards. The next day, I attended a masterclass he gave at Walter Hall, Faculty of Music. He put three baritones and a soprano through their paces. Thanks to the wisdom and experience of Sir Thomas, these four singers - already very fine musicians to begin with - performed on an altogether higher level thanks to Sir Thomas. Last evening, I attended a chamber concert starring the Leipzig String Quartet and the dean of pianist, Menachem Pressler. It was very well attended and the artists very warmly received.

There are plenty more in the coming week. I am particularly looking forward to a recital of two young American singers, soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Nicholas Phan, with the great Roger Vignoles at the piano. While it is sad that the original singer, American soprano Christine Brewer, has cancelled, Toronto audience will get to experience these two very promising singers at an early stage of their careers. Below is a selection of TSMF events this coming week:

All concerts start at 7:30 p.m.

August 2 - Koerner Hall
Vienna - At the Heart of Romanticism - Nash Ensemble
6:15 pm: pre-concert talk with Tom Allen (the broadcaster that is!)
The London-based Nash Ensemble is the residenet chamber group at Wigmore Hall. They perform a program that traces the earliest seeds of Romanticism, with works by Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann

August 4 - Walter Hall
Kiera Duffy, soprano, Nicholas Phan, tenor and Roger Vignoles, piano
6:15 p.m. pre-concert talk by Tom Allen. Duffy, a high lyric soprano, will sing Poulenc's Fiancailles pour rire and Strauss' Brentano-Lieder. Nicholas Phan will sing Schumann's Liederkreis and Britten's Winter Words. As a duo they will sing Schumann's Tanzlied, In der Nacht, Die tausend Grusse and Rossini's La serenata

August 6 - Walter Hall
Romantic Pleasures - The Nash Ensemble with pianist Michael McMahon and soprano Nathalie Paulin. 6:15 p.m. - pre-concert talk with Tom Allen.
On the program are Liszt's song settings of poems by Victor Hugo, Faure's songs on texts by Paul Verlaine, Chausson's Chanson perpetuelle Op. 37 for soprano and piano quintet, Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor D. 703, and Mendelssohn's Piano trio in D Minor Op. 49.
Festival passes, including Flex Passes are available. Single tickets are available online at www.torontosummermusic.com by phone at 416-408-0208; in person at The Royal Conservatory Box Office, 273 Bloor St W; at the door from 4:30 pm on the day of the performance at Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, Faculty of Music, 80 Queen’s Park Crescent.

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Friday, 22 July 2011

Athleticism and Wit: Les 7 doigts de la main's Cabaret 2011

By Sabreena Chandra

Twisting, tossing, contorting, unravelling... not enough words can describe the tremendousness of this spectacle.

Cabaret 2011, performed by Les 7 doigts de la main and directed by Isabelle Chassée and Sébastien Soldevila, gave us as many hold-your-breath moments as ‘Ouuus’ and ‘Ahhhs.’ 



The show consisted of an annoying yet humourous stage director (played by Sébastien Soldevila) trying to put together a Cabaret show. This angle gave the audience an interesting perspective on show staging. The entertainers persevered to astonish the stage director by doing trapeze tricks; jumping off and landing on a plank the width of an arm; soaring through stacked high hoops; twirling and whirling in an aerial silks act... It was an evening filled with athleticism, flexibility, strength, sassy and witty performers, brilliant musicians and an audience in absolute awe of the performance. Although the stage director was not flabbergasted by the acts, the audience certainly was. Who would have thought a simple teeter-totter and hula-hoop could be part of something so extraordinary.

At the Olympia theatre until July 23.

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Les débuts modestes du Festival Opéra de Québec


Par Julie Berardino 

 
Le très attendu Festival Opéra de Québec se déroulera cet été (du 25 juillet au 6 août) à  Québec avec une version modeste du Rossignol et autres fables de Stravinsky et de la Flûte enchantée de Mozart. Tel que prévu, Robert Lepage, originaire de Québec, sera à l’honneur dans la production qu’offre sa compagnie Ex Machina de l’opéra de Stravinsky, qui fut créée par le Canadian Opera Company et a récemment complété une tournée à New York.

La production amène chanteurs et marionnettiste à évoluer dans un grand bassin d’eau sur scène (salle Louis-Fréchette du Grand Théâtre de Québec) alors que l’orchestre jour derrière celui-ci. La structure complexe a bénéficié de la majeure partie du budget de 1.7$ millions du festival, dont 775 000$ proviennent de fonds publics municipaux et provinciaux. D’après Grégoire Legendre, directeur général du festival, la vente de billets générera pour sa part 600 000$. Le directeur artistique du COC, Johannes Debus, sera au pupitre. 

L’intemporel opéra de Mozart sera présenté dans une réduction pour piano de Peter Brook, une version qui a fait la tournée de l’Europe et de l’Amérique du Nord sous l’éloge de la critique. La production inclut le ténor Canadien Antonio Figueroa dans le rôle de Tamino et se tiendra dans la salle Octave-Crémazie, qui accueille 550 personnes. 

Ce festival d’une durée de deux semaines inclura également l’événement extérieur du 30 juillet mettant en vedette la soprano Marie-Josée Lord, de Québec, et le ténor Marc Hervieux, ainsi que 4 autres programmations. 

Legendre espère présenter plus d’opéras au cours des prochaines années, incluant les propres productions du festival. Une nouvelle production prévue de La Flûte enchantée a dû être annulée à cause de restrictions budgétaires. Aussi, compte tenu de son horaire chargé, la participation de Robert Lepage n’est pas assurée chaque année. 

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Der Rosenkavalier




















Lucy Crowe (Sophie) and Sophie Koch (Octavian) taking their bows;
Anja Harteros (Marschallin) waves to an adoring audience;
Group Bow (l. to r.) Heiki Grotzinger, Martin Gantner, Sophie Koch, Anja Harteros, Florian Fischer, Lucy Crowe, Peter Rose






by Joseph K. So

Bayerische Staatsoper Nationaltheater 19 July 2011
Anja Harteros (Marschallin)
Sophie Koch (Octavian)
Lucy Crowe (Sophie)
Peter Rose (Ochs)
Martin Gantner (Faninal)
Piotr Beczala (Sanger)
Heike Grotzinger (Annina)
Ulrich Ress (Valzacchi)
Ingrid Kaiserfeld (Marianne)
Florian Fischer (Mohammed)
Constantin Trinks, conductor

After three Regietheater treatments (Ariadne, Don Giovanni, Rusalka) in a row, I was ready for a change of pace. Last evening's production of Der Rosenkavalier was likely the oldest in the repertoire of the Bavarian State Opera - it premiered way back in 1972! Next year this Otto Schenk-Jurgen Rose production will be forty years old, a lot older than the Marschallin herself! And I would think it has been very busy during that time given it is a staple of the standard repertoire in German houses. Well, after 39 years of heavy use, the sets are looking a bit tired now, particularly Act One, with a rather faded quality to the walls and the ceiling. Act Two, the grand ballroom of Herr Faninal where the Presentation of the Rose takes place, remains impressive. It even drew a round of applause from a few in the audience last evening, a sort of practice one rarely encounters in European houses with their sophisticated audiences. (If you want to see the sets in its pristine glory, seek out the DVD dated from the late 70's, conducted by Carlos Kleiber, starring Dame Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp) The stage direction now appears rather dated and predictable, a bit of an anachronism in an era of Regietheater. I had a chat with a few local fans of a certain age, and they all expressed the opinion that this Rosenkavalier is one of the very few traditional productions left at the Bavarian State Opera, and they'd loathe to see it replaced by anything modern. In any case, it's nice once in awhile to be reminded of the past, doubly delightful when the musical values were as high as last evening's.

The chief pleasure last night was the singing and the orchestra under up-and-coming German conductor Constantin Trinks. In the title role was French mezzo Sophie Koch in one of her signature roles. She combined a creamy high mezzo with a certain understated passion in her acting. She had good chemistry with the Marschallin, here sung by German soprano Anja Harteros who has recently added this role to her growing repertoire. I'm used to more mature sopranos singing this role, so Harteros seems a bit young. But it's important to remember that the character of the Feldmarschallin is only supposed to be around 35 in the opera, a little "old" to have children in that era but not too old to have some fun! Harteros' portrayal had a good mixture of youthfulness and dignity. Vocally she was glorious, floating a beautiful high pianissimo on the word "Rosen" at the end of Act One and an equally gorgeous high B flat at the beginning of the Final Trio. For me, the revelation was British soprano Lucy Crowe, whom I had not heard before. She was simply delightful as Sophie - very spunky and genuinely funny in Act Two, her very mobile face expressing a myriad of emotions. Vocally, her surprisingly large and lovely high lyric soprano, with a certain "peaches and cream" quality, was a real pleasure. As the veteran of the cast, British bass Peter Rose acted and sang Ochs with wonderfully warm and mellow tone, and his portrayal free of exaggeration and vulgarity. Among the supporting roles, I was most impressed with the Faninal of Martin Gantner who sang beautifully the words "Ein ernster Tag, ein grosser Tag, ein Ehren tag, ein heiliger Tag" that opens Act Two. And of course one mustn't forget the great Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who had plenty of voice left for a brilliant "Di rigori Amato" after a strenuous sing the night before as the Prince in Rusalka.

Judging by this performance, German conductor Constantin Trinks rightly belongs to the elite group of young conductors destined for greatness. He brought out fully the elegance and lyricism of the score without resorting to sentimentality. The orchestra must know this piece so well that the musicians can play it in their sleep - the sound coming out of the pit was wonderful - full, rich, and refulgent. All in all, it was a memorable night at the opera.

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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Rusalka


Rusalka curtain call (l. to r. Piotr Beczala, Kristine Opolais, Tomas Hanus, Alan Held, Nadia Krasteva)
Rusalka (soprano Kristine Opolais) in her watery environment. Photo: Bavarian State Opera









by Joseph K. So

Munich Opera Festival, July 18, 2011
Kristine Opolais, Rusalka
Piotr Beczala, Prince
Alan Held, Water Goblin
Janina Baechle, Jezibaba
Nadia krasteva, Foreign Princess
Ulrich Ress, Forester
Tara Erraught, Kitchen Boy
Tomas Hanus, conductor

This Munich production of Rusalka generated a great deal of discussion at its premiere in October 2010. It was unlike any Rusalka one would have seen in the past, to put it mildly. Austrian director Martin Kusej has an unrelentingly dark take on the "Czech national fairy tale", a label used by several of my Czech music friends. Incidentally they were outraged by the Rusalka borrowed from Theater Erfurt the COC staged two seasons ago. I shudder to think what they would have thought of the Munich production!

Much has been written about how the stage director re-framed the story to reflect the infamous Austrian child sex abuse case of Josef Fritzl who kept his daughter in a cellar for years where she was subjected to his abuse. When I first read about the Kusej production last year, I couldn't help but felt that to re-imagine an idyllic fairy tale into such a horrific story is either a stroke of creative genius or the product of an extraordinarily macabre mind, or both. Could something like this possibly work? Most of the critiques I read after its premiere were mixed, although there were also some very positive reviews, so I was anxious to see for myself. The only Kusej I'm familiar with is his gritty and uncompromising yet brilliant Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk starring the great Eva-Maria Westbroek. While the sordid story of the Shostakovich is ripe for the Kusej decontructionist treatment, would it work on something like Rusalka?

While Kusej was largely faithful to the original version of the Shostakovich opera, he has taken major liberties in Rusalka. The Water Goblin is now Rusalka's father, and the witch Jezibaba her mother. They live in an upstairs world complete with a huge painted backdrop of beautiful mountains and a serene lake, while Rusalka and her sisters are confined to the leaky, dark dungeon underneath. Her Song to the Moon is sung embracing a plastic globe lamp. She is subjected to periodic sexual abuse by the Water Goblin. Rusalka longs for freedom and Jezibaba releases her but on condition that she is mute, giving her a pair of red shoes in which Rusalka can barely walk. She falls in love with the shallow Prince who dumps her for the Foreign Princess. I find the above scenario rather convoluted, and it gets more so in Act 3 when the Water Goblin inexplicably kills the Gamekeeper and is hauled away by the police. Rusalka and her sister-victims are put in a psychiatric ward. The unfaithful Prince returns to look for Rusalka and stabs himself.

I will comment more on the production later, but my take on the music first. It's always a pleasure to write about the musical side of things at the Munich Opera. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais became an overnight sensation as a result of this production. Last evening, it was clear why. She is an extraordinary singing actor, willing to stretch herself vocally and dramatically. The withdrawal of Nina Stemme meant Opolais assumed a dream role. She has since triumphed as Cio Cio San at Covent Garden. The voice was pushed by the demands of the role, but it didn't break. Her portrayal was completely riveting. Piotr Beczala was an excellent Prince, singing with a more robust sound than Klaus Florian Vogt last year (as revealed in the commercial DVD) Beczala has lost quite a bit of weight, and he looks great. Perhaps he doesn't equal the matinee idol sex appeal of Vogt, but I'd gladly give up a bit of that for his more complete vocalism. Alan Held, replacing last year's Gunther Groissbock, sang impressively as the Water Goblin. Janina Baechle was a strong voiced Jezibaba, while Nadia Krasteva looked vampish with her plunging neckline as the Foreign Princess. She sang with steely tone and coped well except for a few pushed top notes in a role meant for a dramatic soprano. Czech conductor Tomas Hanus lavished care on the score - the sound coming out of the pit was so gorgeous that it created a disconnect with what was happening on stage.

In fact it was one of the more depressing evenings I have spent in the opera house. In a documentary accompanying the commercial release of the DVD, it was pointed out that European fairy tales are really quite dark and violent. I've often wondered if these fairy tales - like Hansel und Gretel, Koenigskinder etc. aren't meant to scare children! No wonder some stage directors like Kusej look at the underside of these fairy tales to reveal a deeper meaning. But this can run into problems too. To my ears, the evocative score of Dvorak, tinged with sadness to be sure, is at odds with Kusej's intentions. On a certain level this production works - the callous human behaviour towards creatures they don't understand, the destruction of nature and the environment, for example are important and cogent issues underscored in this production. But to skin a deer onstage and the macabre dance of the women with dead deers I find heavy-handed and are there for shock value. The linking of the story to the Fritzl case leaves too many holes - not to speak of wholesale changes - in the story. While Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk maybe ideal for this sort of radical re-imagining, I don't feel it worked nearly as well in Rusalka. It's daring, audacious, striking, provocative, but is it coherent and will it be enduring? Only time will tell.

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Monday, 18 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Don Giovanni

Canada Night at the Bavarian State Opera (l. to r.: Gerald Finley, Erin Wall, Joseph Kaiser, Phillip Ens)











by Joseph K. So

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Bayerische Staatsoper
July 17, 2011 6:00 pm.
Conductor: Constantin Carydis
Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni)
Phillip Ens (Commendatore)
Erin wall (Donna Anna)
Joseph Kaiser (Don Ottavio)
Veronique Gens (Donna Elvira)
Alex Esposito (Leporello)
Laura Tatulescu (Zerlina)
Levente Molnar (Massetto)

This production of Don Giovanni by stage director Stephan Kimmig premiered to divided opinions in October 2010. It's one of those shows that puts one's Regietheater quotient to the test. DG has always been fodder for the Regie approach, going back to Peter Seller's Harlem DG in the 1980s. Of course productions in recent years have been much more radical - I am thinking of the Calixto Beieto one at the Liceu, seen in all its glory on DVD. This Munich DVD topped that by a mile in terms of sensationalism. Last evening the opera house was full - of course, and the reception at the end was interspersed with mild booing for the production - par for the course. But the funny thing is, I actually enjoyed quite a lot of it. Yes, half the cast (four out of eight principals) were Canadian - that's a pleasure in itself. The conductor was hotshot Greek maestro Constantin Carydis, who gave a high energy yet refined reading of the score - he scored an "A" in my book! The orchestra sounded great, however I must say two nights in a row a horn cracked...

This infamous production is known as the "Container Don Giovanni" - a collection of shipping containers arranged in various configurations that move every which way. On the outside, one container is scrawled "Welcome to Espain"; another one has in Japanese - "The Best Mandarin Oranges!" The outsides of the containers open up completely and the insides serve as sets that tend towards grimy, garish - ok I won't mince words - ghastly. I am thinking of the wedding scene - it is in an extra long container with completely Arctic backdrop.... come to think of it, it has penguins so it must be Antarctica! At one point, Elvira and Ottavio started dancing, not with each other but with two stuffed penguins. Why? I haven't got the foggiest idea. While all this was going on, there was a pole dancer of sorts and two semi-nude female dancers making out. What have any of this got to do with Don Giovanni is a mystery. Also mysterious was the presence of an elderly man, stripped totally naked, standing stage front and centre throughout the overture, with involuntary tremors of his left arm and hand. He re-appeared in the final scene. Poor guy - I hope he got paid well....

Not meant to be totally negative as there were a few scenes that worked - the Giovanni-Leporello clothes changing scene at the beginning of Act Two was good. I also liked the Champagne Aria - it must be the first in history that Don Giovanni sings this not with a champagne flute but a meat cleaver! The final scene of the Don descending into hell began with master and servant in chef's clothing cooking - and actually eating - dinner! Not fake food but the real thing. I felt like I was watching a TV cooking show. Also interesting was the arrival of Commendatore to take Giovannni to hell. The Commendatore now looks like a Catholic priest (!), and accompanied by a dozen or so men dressed in various military and civilian costumes. The Commendatore and his entourage linked hands, as if to give him more power to conquer DG. To sum it up - many directorial touches - some humorous, some grim or macabre, a few surprising, more than a few puzzling, and finally some truly outrageous. There were an unusually large number of young people in the audience, no doubt there to see this far-out production.

As to the individual characters. This Don Giovanni is a chameleon - I've never seen so many costume and wig changes outside of a fashion show. It is sung magnificently by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley - an altogether amazing performance. Elvira is a back-packing, downtrodden young woman, beautifully played and sung by French soprano Veronique Gens. She didn't really have a high pianissimo, but she disguised it well - by singing those two high notes against a wall. Overall she was a very fine Elvira. Alex Esposito was a brilliant sidekick of a Leporello, and vocally he was fabulous, getting the second loudest ovation after Finley. Canadian soprano Erin Wall as Anna made the most of a one dimensional character, and she sang some lovely pianissimos in No mi dir. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser has the right Mozartean timbre to his sound and he was a good partner for Wall. The pair of peasants were very good - Laura Tatulescu was an excellent Zerlina, and baritone Levante Molnar, though somewhat older and a little chubby, was a more interesting than usual Massetto. Canadian bass Phillip Ens has sung countless Commendatores in his career, and he continues to own this role. The verdict? I wouldn't want this to be the first DG for someone new to the opera, but if you want something different, or are bored with the traditional take, this production is certainly entertaining. Oh, did I forget to mention the animal carcasses hanging in one of the containers? Ummm, I will have to see the show again to catch all the nuances....

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Sunday, 17 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Ariadne auf Naxos

Soprano Emily Magee as the new Ariadne in Munich














by Joseph K. So

It's always a pleasure to return to the beautiful Bavarian State Opera every July for the Festival. This year's program is particularly interesting for me - six evenings of five operas (Ariadne auf Naxos, Don Giovanni, Rusalka, Der Rosenkavalier, Mitridate re di Ponto) and a Michael Volle Liederabend. Last evening was Ariadne auf Naxos, which I had previously seen in its premiere three years ago at the Prinzregenten-theater. Now it has moved to the larger space of the National-theater. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who sang the premiere of this Robert Carsen production, was to have reprised her marvelous Ariadne, but she had to withdraw from this (as well as Elsa in Lohengrin) and return to Canada due to the passing of her mother. American soprano Emily Magee took over both roles. Also new in this revival was the Bacchus of American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who also sang this role recently at the Met. The third new cast member was the Zerbinetta of Daniela Fally. Returning was the excellent Composer of Daniela Sindram.

It's my experience that the most evocative operatic productions are also the most enduring, ones that stand up to repeated viewing. I was very impressed with the Carsen production three years ago. Seeing it a second time last evening, my original impression only strengthened. I found more nuances that I had missed previously, and I discovered new layers of meaning. To be sure, the Carsen signature is written all over it. The Canadian director probably got the inspiration of situating the opening scene in a ballet studio - as the son of Canadian ballet maven Walter Carsen, the young Carsen was probably steeped in that tradition. It was staged very naturally, in a cinema verite fashion and it worked beautifully. Another Carsen signature is the presence of extra - wordless, or should I say note-less - personages on stage that help to flesh out the drama. Very sparse staging throughout, with the occasional prop such as upright pianos during Zerbinetta's big aria. The visual clarity allows the audience to focus on the drama and the interactions of the characters. The presence of doubles seems to suggest that we are not just watching the love loss of Ariadne, but that of all womanhood. In the final scene, the men led by Bacchus on one side and Ariadne and her women on the other side coming together, the symbolism is plain to see. That, combined with the nobility of the music of the final duet, was extremely moving to me. What of the gender-bending scenes? The four comedians, some of them rather over-fed, in black dresses, or the chorus-line of lithe-bodied men camping it up behind Zerbinetta? Carsen is probably likely also poking fun at the opposing sexual agendas of men and women. I loved the jazzy, contemporary feel to the choreography, once again probably influence by contemporary ballet.

The cast last evening was very strong, really without a weak link. Magee is of course a celebrated Ariadne, having sung it elsewhere and can be seen on the dvd from Zurich. She stepped easily into this production - physically she bears quite a resemblance to Pieczonka. Vocally she was very good over all. She took a little bit of time to warm up - if her high fortissimos were a little forced in the beginning, it improved greatly midway in the Opera; and her high pianissimos in "Ein schoenes war" were lovely. Her only true weakness was the very low notes in "Es gibt ein Reich" but she can be forgiven as even a great Ariadne like Lisa Della Casa couldn't make those notes sound beautiful! Magee's comedic moments in the Prologue were understated, which is preferable as far as I am concerned. Robert Dean Smith is one of the few tenors capable of handling the high tessitura of Bacchus without strain, but occasionally he was covered by the orchestra. Coloratura soprano Daniela Fally is a voice new to me. Last evening her Zerbinetta was vocally not quite on the same level as Diana Damrau, and Fally is an equally scintillating actress. Daniela Sindram reprised her amazing Composer. Perhaps vocally she wasn't the very best I have heard - and I've heard some great ones over the years, but Sindram wins hands down as the most believable impersonating a man! I love the way Carsen's staging spills over at the beginning and the end, as well as in between the prologue and the opera, giving the proceedings a cinema verite feel. There were plenty of entrances on the side aisles of the auditorium, and the houselights were kept up a lot of the time, making the audience feel as if they were part of the action.

The reduced orchestra under Kent Nagano sounded great. I am sure this is a piece that the musicians can play in their sleep - the strings and woodwinds were sounding especially beautiful. The final duet in Nagano's hand never sounded more noble and refulgent. The production, originally designed for the Prinzregententheater, doesn't look out of place in the bigger space of the National-theater, especially with some framing on either side of the stage to reduce the width. The ovations at the end lasted more than five minutes, with the singers called back time and time again. The audience reception of Nagano was positively ecstatic - I bet the public is sorry to see him leave! All in all, a wonderfully satisfying evening at the opera.

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Strings of Summer / Songs of Summer









Strings of Summer / Songs of Summer
Toronto Summer Music Festival's new Artistic Director Douglas McNabney talks about his vision for the future
Joseph K. So
Toronto-born violist Douglas McNabney is a man on a mission. Last September, he took over as Artistic Director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival replacing Agnes Grossmann, who had led the fledging organization since 2006. In the few short years under Grossmann, TSMF and its accompanying Academy have developed a loyal following in a city not exactly brimming with summer classical music. Now as her successor, it’s McNabney’s mandate to continue its tradition of excellence, while keeping the organization on a firm financial footing. Given the fragility of Toronto’s recovery from the last recession, the increasingly “niche market” nature of classical music, not to mention the thunder-stealing, high profile Black Creek Summer Music Festival with its big advertising budget, TSMF faces major challenges. Success calls for a leader with vision, acumen, ingenuity, dedication, and good old-fashioned hard work. Dynamic, articulate, erudite and personable, Douglas McNabney combines experience in arts administration (he directed Quebec’s Domaine Forget for ten years) with first-hand knowledge as a respected chamber musician, the very qualities that make him a good fit. McNabney has garnered the confidence of Jane Smith, former board member and a driving force behind TSMF: “Douglas has, in a few months, built upon Agnes' exemplary foundation to a new level. As an international chamber player and teacher, he counts all the best chamber musicians as colleagues. His emphasis on performance within the revised Academy will see TSM "Fellows" in mainstage concerts playing with their Mentors in a true collaboration. I am most excited by the Art of Song program which Douglas rightly views as an integral part of chamber music.”
Two weeks before the opening, McNabney took time out from his busy schedule for a chat. Over a quick bite and an espresso at a local café around the corner from TSMF’s modest office on Bathurst Street, McNabney spoke candidly about his new job and the challenges facing TSMF. With mere weeks to go before opening night, the inevitable cancellation reared its ugly head. The American soprano Christine Brewer has bowed out of her song recital for health reasons. McNabney was philosophical: “this is part and parcel of running a festival. For the 10 years at Domaine Forget, every season inevitably problems of one sort or another arose – artists couldn’t arrive because of visa problems, sudden deaths, births… Every occasion like this becomes an opportunity. We’ll be looking at somebody unknown to Toronto audiences. This will be an occasion to discover something new for Toronto, a bit like what we are doing with (pianist) Kirill Gerstein. He’s one of the new strong voices…a major artist.”
[NOTE: On July 15, TSMF announced that soprano Kiera Duffy http://www.kieraduffy.com/ and tenor Nicholas Phan http://www.nicholas-phan.com/ will replace Brewer in the August 4 recital. True to his word, McNabney has engaged two artists new to Toronto audiences. Duffy and Phan are two young singers with very promising careers. The soprano was featured in the 2007 Met documentary The Audition. She will be singing Strauss songs, while Nicholas Phan will sing Schumann’s Liederkreis and Britten’s Winter’s Words. The two will also sing a few duos as well]
LSM: Toronto doesn’t have a strong tradition of summer classical music, yet TSMF has in a few short years managed to develop a loyal following. What accounts for its success? What do you think are the strengths of TSMF, and what’s your vision for the future?
DM: When I was first approached for this position, I looked at what has gone well in the past. It’s obvious that chamber music was extremely strong – it had the best students and the best audiences. The solo recitals also did well, and there was a huge continent of the public interested in voice. So it makes sense to do an academy combining chamber music and the art of the song – these two go together really well. It’s often said that art song is to vocal music what chamber music is to instrumental music – it’s a nice pairing. We also have incredible fundraisers – they’ve been so effective with the private sector. The support is extraordinary – I’m in awe! We’re still young, so government support is where we have to work on if we want to expand. For the long term, we have the potential to expand, especially in Koerner Hall with its great location and great acoustics, the perfect size for giving our audience a high quality experience. At some point in the future TSMF will expand its horizons and move into the orchestral world.
LSM: Any plan to revive the opera program? I am thinking of the very enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos...
DM: Not in the immediate future…long term yes. You’ve picked a really successful production. To do it well, it takes a lot of our resources and you need to do only opera, in places like Santa Fe and Glimmerglass. Otherwise you get a very uneven production because of the differences in the level of the voices and in the pit. I can’t see us hiring an orchestra or producing an opera. What we welcome is someone else’s productions. To bring opera back to Toronto Summer Music, we’ll need to partner with other organizations like Haliburton, Glimmerglass, Canadian Opera, which is blank in the summer. Toronto Summer Music can act as the host of productions of others.
LSM: So partnership is what you are looking for?

DM: Absolutely! Putting together partnerships is the key. That’s what we’re already doing. I’ve managed to convince Roman (Borys) to take us to Ottawa Chamberfest, and Domaine Forget is taking us for a concert. We do all our classes at the U of T Faculty of Music, and we are bringing students from all over the country and they get to see the facility and meet the staff. We are also booking more performances at RCM’s Koerner Hall…

LSM: What about programming? What do you have planned for the next few seasons?
DM: This year it’s heart of the repertoire – the Romantic Period. Next year we’ll move into the music of the nations, the national identities in music, music influenced by the folk idioms…Russian, Spanish, and the Bohemian composers. From there we’ll do “music of the Colonies”. I’d love to do music of England, France, Spain, and Italy, and how this music found its way into North America. That’s three years from now.
LSM: I noticed that you recently played a piece by George Crumb. What are you thoughts on new music? Do you plan to program something like this in TSMF? Canadian audiences, especially older audiences, tend to be resistant to contemporary music. At classical music concerts these days, the auditorium is mostly a sea of gray hair...
DM: I loved playing that George Crumb piece. Introducing new music? At some point, yes, but we have to find the right formula, to make sure we have the public with us. New music is a difficult sell. As to old audiences - I go to experimental theatre and the halls are always full of young people. I want to see these people in the halls for new music as well. Do you know that people spend almost twice as much on arts events than on sporting events? The statistics are there (http://www.hillstrategies.com/) – if somebody has not heard a classical music concert by age 18, they’ll never go. But if they’ve gone to one symphony concert by age 18, then when they are 55 or 60, they might go to something like Black Creek Festival because it’s such a big thing. But they have to have gone to at least one concert…it only takes one! How to get young people to classical music is my big challenge. Funny thing is, Romantic music (in this year’s TSMF) is all about youth – unrequited love, passion and sorrows of young Werther etc., but we have old people on stage and old people in the audience. We have as part of our chamber music institute this year where young musicians in the academy play with their mentors on stage. We have a series of concerts like this – it’s the Marlboro (Music) formula. It’s the best way to teach young people about tradition, and the mentors also rediscover the excitement and enthusiasm of youth. Once we get young people on stage, we can get young people in the audience…
LSM: If interest in classical music may be dwindling in the general population, it’s certainly not true in the non-European immigrant communities. Have you thought of reaching out to them?
DM: Yes, especially the Asian communities. Do you know in China, they open a concert hall a week? We want someone from the Asian communities on our board. Next year, we have Dong-Suk Kang, a leading violinist in Korea. He has the Seoul Spring Chamber Music Festival and he’s coming for a week and bringing five of his musicians. We hope to build around that, and bring in the whole of Toronto’s Korean community. We are trying to get the Russian community to come out to hear Kirill Gerstein. Building our audience means building connections to the public that actually listens to this music. That’s what we have to move towards.
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Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Tale of Two Festivals: Castleton and BlackCreek

by Paul E. Robinson
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Every summer Marita and I drive from Austin, Texas back to our native Canada, varying our route each year according to events of particular interest on the road and the availability of friends we enjoy visiting.
This year we decided to make a stop in Charlottesville, Virginia, a favourite place we hadn’t visited in too many years. This charming, lively, petite (pop: 40,000) mountain town is home to the University of Virginia where we fondly recalled once having inspected the tiny room inhabited by Edgar Allen Poe during his short tenure as a student here. The literary stature of Poe notwithstanding, Charlottesville is most famous for Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and the third president of the United States.
Castleton Farms Home to Castleton Festival
180castletonAs we plotted our route from Charlottesville to the Eastern Townships of Quebec, we decided it would be unconscionable to pass within a few miles of Lorin Maazel’s new Castleton Festival without seeing what all the excitement was about; with Maazel in mind, we set out along the back roads of western Virginia.
The town of Castleton turned out to be little more than a general store. Mostly, we were greeted by lush green rolling hills and farmland, with just enough signage to remind locals where they are and to give visitors the feeling that one wrong turn could get them hopelessly lost.
There were few signs directing one to the Castleton Festival. Upon arrival at what we took to be the festival headquarters, our first impression was that everyone had either gone for a walk in the woods or was attending to farm chores. We walked through the small lobby into a tiny jewel of a theatre. We could hardly believe that La Bohème had been performed here the day before. The pit could scarcely hold more than a dozen players and the house appeared to have no more than 100 seats.
Back outside, looking off the deck, we could see well-tended gardens and a pond in the distance. Further along the deck we could see a fair number of people in the cafeteria attached to the theatre. It was lunchtime and dozens of young people were either enjoying a meal or working away on laptops – some doing both at once. All in all, it was a beautiful estate, a glorious place for work and leisure.
We continued our explorations, looking now for someone in administration. Across the road from the theatre building was a small barn. Lots of out-of-state license plates in the driveway indicated visitors, but this was clearly a working farm. There were pigs in pens, some cattle, and a zebra – or was it a “zonkey?” Someone with a sense of humour had put up a sign describing an even more unusual animal on the premises - a zonkey - an exotic blend of donkey and zebra. There was even a picture to aid in recognition.
Next door, as we stepped out of the car, one of two young women walking towards us stopped to introduce herself as “one of the Maazel children” and kindly offered to find someone to help us. She disappeared through a hedge and emerged a few minutes later with a strikingly attractive woman, who introduced herself as Dietlinde Maazel. I knew that Dietlinde was the maestro’s wife of 23 years and that she was one of the masterminds of the festival. Lorin Maazel is the president and artistic director and she is vice-president and associate artistic director.
180dmMs. Maazel (photo: right) exuded tremendous pride in and enthusiasm for the Castleton Festival, and in spite of being interrupted in the middle of what must have been another hectic day, she offered to give us a tour of the facilities. The first thing she set us straight about was the role of the little theatre we had just seen. It was indeed the starting point for all the musical activities at Castleton Farms and many concerts had been held there over the years, and some of the festival’s chamber operas were still presented there.
The main festival performance space, which from the exterior looks like a massive modern barn, was just a half mile up the road. A barn as an opera venue? What an ingenious concept! We entered through the reception area, which had been set up for a gala dinner preceding the opening of La Bohème the night before, and then stepped into the auditorium, where a rehearsal for Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges was in progress.
This facility, we learned, had been completed just in time for this year’s Castleton Festival. The centre of attention was the very large performance space with ample backstage area for storing and moving sets, and a pit that seated about 100 musicians. While, for the time being, the 400 seats in the venue are little more than benches and the walls are bare, some upgrading will doubtless take place in years to come.

There was only piano accompaniment at this rehearsal, with the resident festival director, William Kerley, blocking moves for some of the soloists and chorus. Soprano Cecelia Hall, who sings the lead role of the child, sounded wonderful. All the voices projected easily from the stage.
Ms. Hall is typical of participants at the Castleton Festival. She, like most of the other 100 or so singers and the 89 members of the festival orchestra, is a young artist well into a professional career. In most cases, participants have completed their college or conservatory studies and have some professional experience. What they need to really advance their careers is more training from the best in the business, and this is the exceptional opportunity that the Castleton Festival provides: two months working almost daily with Maestro Lorin Maazel and his associates.
The Castleton Festival is a summer music school primarily for opera singers and orchestral players but also for stage directors and administrators. The intensive workload is undertaken in a very nurturing environment designed to enrich young lives. Married participants are encouraged to bring spouses and children, and all performers are housed either in buildings on the 600 acre Maazel farm property or at neighbouring farms. Ms. Maazel acknowledged that the responsibility of keeping track of the 200 plus young artists at Castleton Farms over the summer, particularly given the propensity of some for fast driving on winding country roads, was quite a challenge.
Castleton Festival participants, including singers and orchestra members, are often recruited personally by Maazel as he travels the world guest conducting. The current orchestra, for example, includes players from Qatar, Turkey, China and London.
As we watched the Ravel rehearsal with her, Ms. Maazel seemed to have all the time in the world to answer our questions and to point out the features of her festival, casually remarking at some point in our conversation that the Castleton Festival Orchestra and some of the singers had to be in Toronto, Canada the following evening for a major performance at the BlackCreek Festival, and that the ensemble of about 110 would be leaving that very night. Enviable calm under pressure!
We know that Lorin Maazel is a force of nature among conductors. At the age of 81 he is conducting as much as he ever did, and even finding time to compose and to create a new festival. In his wife Dietlinde, he has obviously found the ideal partner; a magic-making multi-tasker who also thrives on a busy schedule.
After Ms. Maazel’s gracious introduction, we came away anxious to hear a performance by the Castleton Festival participants. We didn’t have long to wait; we had only to drive to Toronto by the following night. A second incentive was the BlackCreek Festival itself, which had opened the week before with a highly-praised event featuring Placido Domingo. Garth Drabinsky’s enterprising new summer offering, the coming together of two major but very young festivals with very different visions - the Castleton, with a focus on mentoring young classical music talent and the BlackCreek, with a focus on big-name extravaganzas and music of many genres - is a new and exciting concept for Toronto.
Sky Traffic, Sound Technology and Top Dollar
I must admit that when I heard about plans for the BlackCreek Festival, I was skeptical. Who would want to pay high prices - $52-$135 for most concerts and a top price of $280 for Domingo – to sit outside on a tennis court listening to amplified classical music?
The Rexall Centre at York University was built to accommodate professional tennis tournaments and physically, it serves that purpose well; situated right under the flight path for landings at Pearson International Airport, however, the location surely cannot be considered ideal for tennis. If less than ideal for tennis, it should be disastrous for classical music performances. At the concert we attended, a plane whirred overhead every 3-4 minutes during one 20-minute period; fortunately, there were more quiet times than noisy during this concert. Clearly, the management of the BlackCreek Festival operates at the mercy of the weather and air traffic controllers.
To be fair, however, summer concerts in the great outdoors cannot really be judged by indoor standards. The Ravinia Festival in Chicago has been thriving for decades in spite of the trains that pass by with annoying frequency. As a matter of fact, festival directors there recently made a virtue out of imperfect conditions by commissioning a series of new train-related compositions for the festival.
So...while one might wish the planes to be seen and not heard, does the Rexall Centre have some offsetting advantages?
Opening night at BlackCreek was apparently utter chaos due to the traffic congestion, whereas at the concert I attended, there was no trouble at all; that is, if you don’t mind paying $20 to park, then boarding a school bus to the venue itself. And did I mention that if it rains, ticket-buyers are just out of luck - no rain checks are given and no umbrellas are allowed in the facility.
What about that bane of music-lovers’ existence these days - miked singers and musicians? Amplifier technology has taken over Broadway to the point where genuine singing ability is almost irrelevant and ear-splitting volume is the norm. With 11,000 seats in the Rexall Centre, no shell to assist in the production of high-quality natural sound, and the aforementioned sky traffic, Drabinsky and Co. really had no choice; it was truly amplified sound or nothing.
I am happy to report that the BlackCreek Festival has achieved the impossible: amplified orchestral sound that gives us a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. To be sure, the harp and celesta in excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet were too loud, but otherwise there was warmth, nuance and depth in the string sound and timbral accuracy in the winds and brass. The volume was robust but never excessive.
180mirrenironsEven more impressive, perfect for a concert in a venue such as this, was the imaginative use of video. On the big screen overhanging the stage we saw useful facial and profile shots of Maazel and of the vocal soloists positioned with the chorus behind the orchestra and all but invisible to the audience. Most importantly, we had close-ups of Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons (photo: right) as they played a dozen different characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Without the video, the audience would have missed completely Irons’ vast range of facial expressions and the subtle interplay with Mirren.
Nor was this “basic video” to spice up the proceedings. Clearly, the video team had taken a great deal of time and trouble to match their shots to the words and the music. This was excellent work that would greatly enhance concert hall performances of similar repertoire.
Orchestra of Maazel’s Making
The Castleton Festival Orchestra had been virtually hand-picked by Maestro Maazel and had been working with him for several weeks. If it did not rise to the level of the New York Philharmonic, his most recent orchestra, it was nonetheless a fine body of players.
Maazel has long been known as a superior technician. His stick technique is clear and decisive and his knowledge of a vast repertoire is legendary. As Maazel ages, he seems less concerned with dazzling effects and more with beauty and expression. Watching him on the podium I am reminded of Fritz Reiner – not that I am old enough to have ever seen Reiner “live” – whose technique and demeanor, on DVDs and by reputation, was similar. Reiner never “acted out” the music and his face was virtually immobile. His expression was severe, to say the least, as Maazel’s, for the most part, is today. Such demeanor often elicits greater discipline and closer attention – even fear – on the part of the musicians, especially the young and impressionable.
Maazel like Reiner and all the best conductors, works out the thousands of details of phrasing, articulation and colour in rehearsal. When it comes to the performance what is needed most on the podium is accuracy, reliability and inspiration. Professional players can be depended upon to remember the details and execute them as agreed in rehearsal.
Under less than ideal concert conditions at the Rexall Centre, Maazel and the Castleton Festival Orchestra made music on a gratifyingly high level. The Prokofiev excerpts were powerful and exciting. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture was even better. Maazel had added some dynamics of his own to Tchaikovsky’s score, but they always made musical sense. Rhythms were crisp and the love music was as passionate as one could hope for. Maazel’s articulation of the final chords was unusual but compelling. The timpani crescendo at the end was brilliant.
There are no cheap effects in Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and any conductor who attempts to add them is looking for trouble. Maazel obviously loves this music and played it as Mendelssohn surely intended it to be played. His tempi for the Overture and the Scherzo were far slower than those chosen by many conductors who should know better, and to my ears, perfect. With slower tempi, there is time for accurate execution of the rhythms and accents, as well as time for expressive phrasing. Maazel brought out the beauty of the music without wallowing in romanticism.
180el-khourySpecial mention should be made of Ottawa-born Joyce El-Khoury, (photo: right) one of Maazel’s favourite sopranos, who recently scored a major success as Mimi in his new production of La Bohème at Castleton. El-Khoury’s brief solos in the Mendelssohn had a youthful tone that was a joy to hear.
Mirren and Irons recounted the Midsummer Night’s Dream plot line for us and spoke some of its most memorable lines as they played the various characters. This play is magical in its exploration of young love and the interplay of human and supernatural forces. Irons amazed the audience with his command of accents and voices, and Mirren lived up to her reputation as one of the most skilled and versatile actresses of our time.
It was a glorious concert, with the music, poetry, actors and musicians all combining magnificently to overcome the risks of performing in an open air venue.
But did the people come? I would guess that there were fewer than 2,000 people in attendance on this night in a facility that holds 11,000, a much smaller audience than had shown up for Domingo on opening night.
I suspect that while we had the crème de la crème in Maazel, Mirren, Irons et. al., only the pop stars and classical superstars like Domingo will be able to fill a place as big as the Rexall, and at such inflated prices.
Something has got to give; either Drabinsky gives up trying to present classical music in such a venue or he drastically reduces the prices for such events.
Maazel in for More than a Midsummer's Night at BlackCreek
As suggested earlier in this piece, the two festivals covered here are a study in contrasts but they also intersect in interesting ways.
Castleton is one artist’s vision of how to develop young talent. Maazel economizes by using his own property and a lot of his own money but the scope of the vision requires more resources in the long run. Maazel is thinking long-term. I note that on the Staff List for the BlackCreek Festival, Maazel is listed as “Artistic Advisor, Classical Programming.”
This is where Castleton and BlackCreek come together. Maazel wants the exposure that BlackCreek can give his young performers but he also needs the income. Fees from appearances such as this, beyond Castleton, surely help to subsidize the basic programme back home. On the basis of his reputation and contacts, Maazel has been able to set up similar arrangements in California (Berkeley), Maryland (Bethesda), Virginia (Manassas), and China (Beijing).
After all, it makes no economic sense to be mounting full-scale opera productions and concerts in Castleton with a large orchestra in a facility seating 400; only by repeating them elsewhere can the costs be recouped.
Castleton and BlackCreek are both exciting, new ventures, albeit it with very different goals. Time will tell whether their visionary founders have understood their markets and accurately crunched their numbers.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar,and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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