La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Black Creek Ends Season With Beethoven and Mussorgsky

Curtain call after a rousing Beethoven 9th: (l. to. r.) Adrianne Pieczonka, Ekaterina Metlova, Lorin Maazel, Richard Margison, Rene Pape. Background is the London Symphony Orchestra and the Black Creek Festival Chorus.

by Joseph K. So

Mussorgsky: Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov
Rene Pape & Black Creek Festival Chorus
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
Adrianne Pieczonka, Ekaterina Metlova, Richard Margison, Rene Pape
London Symphony Orchestra, Lorin Maazel, conductor

It seems just yesterday when the inaugural season of the Black Creek Summer Music Festival opened auspiciously with the Domingo-Radvanovsky Opera Gala on June 4. It was an exciting evening of music making - complete with spectacular fireworks, good attendance and the blessings of the weather gods. Despite the high musical standards of the opening gala and the subsequent shows, Black Creek has not been smooth sailing for Garth Drabinsky and the Festival organizers. Toronto doesn't exactly have a history of summer classical music - it's been a half dozen years since the COC and the National Ballet played in Harbourfront, and one have to go back 30 years since the TSO played in the Ontario Place Forum. After all these years, any attempt to develop an audience base is going to take time. The Rexall Centre, better known for tennis, is advertised as being "in the center of Toronto" but in reality is anything but. Located at the northwest fringes of Metro on the grounds of York University, it's not so easily accessible by public transit, and the much publicized traffic chaos - not to mention the hefty $20 parking tariff - scared some people away. Attendance figures have been very disappointing, forcing drastic ticket price cuts, and worse, the cancellation of a number of shows. Opera lovers who were looking forward to hear Denyce Graves and Roberto Alagna were sorely disappointed, as three of the high profile classical shows bit the dust. German bass Rene Pape's All Russian Program was reduced to a 10-minute Coronation Scene tagged onto last evening's Beethoven 9th, which served as the final concert of the 2011 Black Creek Festival. (Originally the final concert, to take place on Aug. 31, was to be French tenor Roberto Alagna and Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassilieva's Canadian debut) Music al fresco is always subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and Black Creek was no exception - Tony Bennett and Diana Krall were cut short, leading to considerable audience grumbling. Barry Manilow earlier in the week had to be postponed two days due to a torrential downpour. On top of it all, there was a dispute with the chorus over compensation for the cancelled concerts, made public by British critic Norman Lebrecht on his blog, Slipped Disc.

As a result, the Beethoven 9th evening with Maazel and the London Symphony went ahead under a bit of a cloud. At least the weather gods relented and the concert was blessed with excellent weather. The quartet of soloists included two well known Canadians - soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and tenor Richard Margison, plus the great German bass Rene Pape in his Canadian debut. Rounding out the cast was the young Russian mezzo Ekaterina Metlova. While it was sad that the Pape concert was cancelled, we at least got to hear his magnificent bass in the Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov. His voice is simply immense - he probably didn't need the amplification last night! The chorus under Robert Cooper rose to the occasion and provided powerful and incisive support. It was too bad that it was only 10 minutes long - if only they had included the Death of Boris! There was a 5 minute pause before the start of Beethoven 9. Maazel must have conducted this piece hundreds of times in his long career and could have done it in his sleep. He conducted it last evening without opening the score in front of him. It took a bit of time for the LSO to warm up - the first movement was rather indifferently played. By the Scherzo, it started to build to a shattering - and loud - Presto, the final movement. These outdoor concerts typically attract some people who don't normally attend symphony concerts, and the movements were interrupted with applause - there was even one embarrassing moment when some over-zealous audience members applauded right in the middle of a movement. Voice fans waited patiently for the "Ode to Joy" and given the excellent quartet of soloists, they were not disappointed. Pape led off the proceedings impressively with his gargantuan bass. Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka showed off her well focused, gleaming tone. Tenor Richard Margison, last heard locally as Bacchus in the COC's Ariadne auf Naxos, was in fine voice, with a timbre perfectly suited for this work. Beethoven doesn't really give the alto any opportunity to shine in this piece - her inner melodies just doesn't get noticed unless you listen hard. As a result, Metlova really made little impression here, but hopefully we'll get to hear her again in Toronto in the future. The Black Creek Festival Chorus put aside its unhappiness and gave a thoroughly committed performance. As mentioned earlier, Maazel is the old hand and his experience showed - the orchestra played with true if not flamboyant tone, and Maazel's increasing intensity suitably built to an exciting climax. Let's hope that Black Creek will persevere and return next season, as the organizers promised. Toronto needs a high profile festival such as this and it deserves the full support of GTA music lovers.


Monday, 22 August 2011

The Lion King Rocks 'n Roars Into Montreal

By Naomi Gold

The famous Broadway musical The Lion King recently made its Montreal debut at Place des Arts. The production is a multimedia entertainment extravaganza fit for a (lion) king based on Disney's animated coming-of-age parable which follows Prince Simba, a precocious lion cub.

J. Anthony Crane as Scar, the villainous uncle of Simba 
who yearns to be king himself.  
Photo courtesy of Disney.

A specially rearranged Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier enabled the dramatic entrances of cast members from the back rows and private loges through the audience. Gargantuan animal puppets, costumes, lighting, set design, special effects and onstage surprises were mesmerizing.  There were a few vocal highlights, although the strength—both musically and otherwise—of this production lies in its ensemble pieces. The cutesy comical lines delivered as hyperbolic shticks will mostly amuse adult viewers. As a whole though, this show provides excellent family fare for your entertainment dollar and will delight audiences of (almost) all ages. Spectators on opening night responded to curtain calls with a standing ovation. 

Since its debut on the Great White Way in 1997, this play has been seen by 55 million viewers worldwide and garnered six Tony awards. It is the seventh longest-running musical in Broadway history. The Broadway score was composed by Elton John and is augmented by new musical material; the librettist is Tim Rice. Producers are Peter Schneider and Thomas Schumacher. The show is directed by Spider-Man's Julie Taymor while Garth Fagan ably tackled choreography. Translated into seven languages, The Lion King has played in 14 countries on five continents. This version includes subtitles in French.

The Lion King runs at Place des Arts until September 4 and includes weekend matinees. Prices range from $46 to $133.50 and tickets can also be purchased from PdA's box office: (514) 842-2112 / Elevated seating for children should be requested prior to entering Salle Wilfrid Pelletier

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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Susan Graham: A Shimmering Voice

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (photo: Dario Acosta)

by Joseph K. So

To those of us who love opera and are followers of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions - Met Auditions for short - 1988 was a vintage year. All eleven finalists enjoyed respectable careers, with four of them reaching "authentic star" status - sopranos Renee Fleming and Patricia Racette, mezzo Susan Graham, and of course Canada's own Ben Heppner. Now 23 years later, these four artists continue to thrill audiences at important houses around the world. New Mexico-born, Texas-raised mezzo Susan Graham has become a particularly beloved artist, praised for her shimmering high mezzo and dramatic intensity. Toronto opera audiences are eagerly anticipating her Canadian opera debut, in the title role of Iphigenie en Tauride for the Canadian Opera Company. The Robert Carsen production, so far seen at the Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Covent Garden and Teatro Real in Madrid the last few seasons, received uniform praise for its ability to cut through the trappings of grand opera and tap into the emotional core of Gluck's masterpiece. Last month I had a phone conversation with Susan Graham, who was enjoying some downtime at home in Santa Fe, NM. In between bites of lunch, Graham patiently answered my barrage of questions:

LSM: Your fans are looking forward to your return to Toronto. I think we last heard you in a recital at Roy Thomson Hall 10 years ago, in a program of mostly Ned Rorem songs if I remember correctly. Was that the last time you sang in Toronto?
SG: That was a few years ago! Wait - didn't I sing Les nuits d'ete with the Symphony? I don't remember which came first...

LSM: Have you sung elsewhere in Canada?
SG: Yes, I sing in Montreal quite often - in fact I'll be there August 7 at the Lanaudiere Festival. I've also sung in Quebec City and Edmonton.

LSM: And now we get to hear you in opera! Let's talk at little bit about Iphigenie - it seems to be your most frequently performed role, is that correct?
SG: It's certainly true the past few years, largely because of this wonderful production by Robert Carsen. We've done in in many places. It's a fantastic production that audiences love.

LSM: But you'll have different colleagues in Toronto...
SG: Yes, Russell Braun and Joseph Kaiser. I love those guys, it's going to be fantastic!

LSM: Have you worked with them before?
SG: I've never worked with Joseph but I know him, and I've worked with Russell before - we sang Iphigenie in Paris, in a completely different production.

LSM: What attracts you to Gluck, and in particular to Iphigenie?
SG: Even when I was very young and a student of piano, I've always been drawn to the formalism and the harmonic language of the Classical period. Gluck sort of broke that mode by bridging the gap to the Romantic period. He broke the pattern of recitative, aria followed by applause. Guck's operas are more through-composed, and it keeps the emotional tension running. There's no secco recitativo - everything is orchestrated, giving it a richer texture. I love the poignancy of the melodies. Iphigenie is called upon to do this impossible task, to kill the first stranger who comes on shore. There's great nobility in her music, and yet there's also a lot of sadness and pain.

LSM: Sometimes people ask - are baroque operas relevant to contemporary society... what do you think?
SG: Well, one only have to listen to any opera by Handel to know that it's the essence of the human condition. Part of what I like about it is the formalism in the music, the dignity of it. But at the same time, as a singer, the joy for me is to find the real blood and guts inside this very dignified, formal music. And when you have a really good production that focuses on the emotions like this one, it frees us singers to find those personal expressions in ourselves to illustrate it to the audience.

LSM: You have such a wide-ranging repertoire - baroque, classical romantic, 20th century, contemporary. When you go from one fach to another, how do you deal with the different vocal demands?
SG: I try to keep it simple. I've always maintained that good singing is good singing - one doesn't necessarily changes one's technique. That being said, I recently just did the grandmother of baroque opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea in Florence. I realized that in a small setting with a small orchestra, it's very intimate and one can alter the volume and colour of the voice. It's very different from singing 'Presentation of the Rose' or some big Wagnerian scene where you have to pump out a lot of power - sometimes it's not always about power! Nevertheless, the singing remains the same. For me, equally important as vocal technique is the very clear expression of the music, so whether I am singing the seductive future empress Poppea or Cherubino or Iphigenie, I still want to express clearly through the colours of my voice and the text which each character's emotions are.

LSM: You also sing a lot of contemporary opera. Do you find contemporary opera composers write well for the voice?
SG: Some of them do - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's true of all periods of music. The advantage with (singing the work of) living composers is I can request a change (laughs)! Jake Heggie and I worked carefully together on the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. Last year I did a concert piece written for me by a composer who doesn't write so much for singers as he does for instrumentalists. So the particular demands of a certain voice range is new to him. Working with him and talking about tessitura etc., it was a learning experience for him as a composer, and for me as a singer.

LSM: The contemporary operas you sing, like Dead Man Walking, Great Gatsby, American Tragedy - they are all tonal music. Is it fair to say that you've stayed away from atonality?
SG: Yes, that's fair to say... I am more naturally drawn to beautiful music in which I can use my vocal gifts more effectively. I like to spin a melody, I like a beautiful tune, what can I say! And my voice is of a weight and timbre that I've always been able to scale it down to an intimate level - I can sing soft, and I appreciate the ability of doing that within a beautiful phrase of music.

LSM: You've been singing for 25 years. What is the secret to your longevity?
SG: It's actually 22 or 23.... Well, I never sang anything that was too heavy for me. I've been lucky to know what I am good at and what I am not, so I've stayed away from those things. I never tried to overweigh my voice. It sits quite high for mezzos, so there was a time when people tried to get me to beef up the bottom of my voice. My voice teacher and I both knew if I tried to do that, it would cost me some of the shimmer at the top - that's always been very important to me. When I've been faced with making choices, I've made the right ones.

LSM: As a high mezzo, have you ever been tempted to do some of the zwischenfach roles like Elettra in Idomeneo or Vitellia in Tito, that sort of thing?
SG: Certainly! Yes I have thought of Elettra, Vitellia, even the Countess, but it didn't seem right from a vocal colour standpoint. You see it's more than just about range, it's also about the colour of the voice. I've also looked at the Marschallin - I might do that some day....

LSM: I for one would be sad to see you switch to the Marschallin since we are so used to you as Octavian!
SG: (Laughs) It's hard for me to think about doing any other role because I love Octavian so much!

LSM: Since we are on the subject of new roles, are there any roles you are eyeing for the future?
SG: Well, the last new role I learned was Xerxes and I'm doing that again this fall. I've only been doing it for a year. I am doing the Enchanted Island at the Met - it's a pastiche of a whole bunch of music - Handel, Vivaldi. That will be a new role for me.

LSM: If you were to fantasize about singing a role that's completely outside your fach, what would it be?
SG: Tosca! I would love to sing Tosca... I am angry with Puccini because he didn't write any good roles for mezzos (laughs)!

LSM: Have you ever sung Suzuki, in your early days?
SG: (Big laughs) You know how tall I am?! [Note: for the record, Susan Graham stands at a statuesque 5' 10", and she claims she has lost plenty of gigs because she was too tall for her colleagues on stage]

LSM: Any new recordings on the horizon?
SG: Not at the moment...the recording business is funny these days. I just recorded the Ruckert Lieder with the San Francisco Symphony, but I don't have any solo disc coming out.

LSM: With the downturn of the record industry, many singers are now producing their own discs...
SG: Yes that's also my last album, Un frisson francais (on the Onyx Classics label)

LSM: A great album - you're so good in the French repertoire! I remember being bowled over by your Beatrice and La belle Helene in Santa Fe. In fact I went to an autograph session you had at The Candy Man. I took a picture of you with Libby (poodle)...
SG: Oh, did I have Libby with me?! I'd love to have the picture if you still have it...

LSM: Is Libby still with you?
SG: No, she died in 2007...she was 18 years old! She lived a long happy life...

LSM: Is there a Libby's II?
SG: (Big laughs) Unfortunately no, I am sorry to say. Travelling is very difficult these days...maybe some day!

LSM: Well, you've been a delightful interview subject. Thanks for talking, especially during your lunch hour!
SG: I'm sorry I took a bite of lunch in between, if you'll forgive me...

Susan Graham with the late and much loved Libby at The Candy Man, Santa Fe, NM (Photo: Joseph So)

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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Nagano-OSM Week at Orford an Impressive Affair

When the Knowlton Festival folded two years ago, the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal (OSM) and its chief conductor, Kent Nagano, needed to find an alternative venue for some of their summer music-making. An inspired choice was the Orford Festival. While last season’s appearances were uneven, this summer everything came together and the results were impressive.
Last summer at Orford, the OSM gave two full concerts under Nagano, who also worked with the Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) on a third concert. The venue for all three performances was the Saint-Patrice Church in Magog. This year, the OSM gave only one full orchestra concert, which was presented at the University of Sherbrooke. Some OSM members were also involved in chamber music performances. The OAO concert under Nagano was presented at the Saint-Jean-Bosco Church in Magog. The three concerts I attended were packed, even with a top price of $85 in Sherbrooke.
Tan Dun Gives Schafer’s Soundscape New Dimension
tandun180The highlight for me was the Sherbrooke concert. The OSM has not appeared in this city for many years and it was gratifying to see such an enthusiastic response. Nagano’s theme for the evening’s programme was a “Journey to the Heart of Nature;” hence the selection of (photo: right) Tan Dun’s Water Music, Debussy’s La Mer and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 Pastoral. Tan Dun’s Water Concerto is a complex and strange piece for any audience, but the folks in Sherbrooke clearly found it entertaining, as did I. Although the Salle Maurice-O’Bready at the University of Sherbrooke has extremely dry acoustics, and lacks the warmth, blend and presence one expects from a first-class concert hall, it did provide a clarity of sound that served the Tan Dun piece quite well.
I was reminded of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s term “Soundscape" while listening to Tan Duns Water Concerto. Schafer was a pioneer in encouraging audiences to appreciate all the fascinating sounds in our world. In his piece, Tan Dun explores virtually all the ways one can use water to make music. There are three solo percussionists in the piece and each one works with what looks like a very large, transparent plastic salad bowl full of water. With their hands, they tap out all sorts of rhythms. They also use water glasses instead of hands to beat out sounds in the water. Finally, the lead percussionist – the astonishing Wang Beibei (photo: below right)– placed some wooden salad bowls of various sizes upside down in the large plastic bowl and using drumsticks, created still more fascinating sounds.
wanbbeibeiOne might well ask how delicate water sounds could possibly compete with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra. The answer is that each of the bowls of water has a microphone attached, and that Tan Dun’s orchestral scoring is complementary rather than combative.
One of the most effective episodes in the piece has the percussionists beating out galloping horse sounds in their water bowls while wind players in the orchestra contribute the sounds of neighing horses. Corny? Maybe in the telling, but certainly not in the playing. To my ears it was artful and good-humoured.
It should be emphasized that in too many contemporary concertos, the orchestra is given little to do, much of it elementary if not inconsequential. Not so here. Many of the techniques and rhythms could only be executed by a first-rate body of players. Nagano and the OSM played brilliantly.
Sea a Little Dry, but Sounds in Countryside Lush and Fresh
Debussy’s La Mer was also well played but suffered from the dryness of the hall. The timpani riff at the end of the piece, although pounded out with authority, sounded like someone beating on a table top with a pair of hammers.
The OSM under Nagano recently made a recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, scheduled for release this fall, and the orchestra’s performance on this night certainly reflected the most detailed preparation, giving a sense that Nagano had personally inscribed dynamic markings in every bar of each player’s part. There were sounds I felt I was hearing for the first time simply because Nagano and his players had taken such care over balances. This performance was not only well-rehearsed; it was beautiful and joyful.
As will everything that the OSM played this season at Orford, the Pastoral will be repeated August 16-18 at the Edinburgh Festival. With that international exposure in mind, I must mention that the horn playing in the Beethoven and in several other works was unacceptably shaky. While Beethoven calls for just a pair of horns in the Pastoral, in many performances a third, even a fourth player is often added to spell off the others. Nagano might consider that option for Edinburgh.
Theme of Social Landscapes, Real and Imagined
OAO180The Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) concert began with Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s lugubrious Symphony No. 4. I can’t imagine what led Nagano to choose such a dreadful piece for a summer concert in Magog. It was written in 1946 in response to the terrible war years in Germany. Clearly, noble sentiments do not always translate into great music. This 33-minute piece for string orchestra certainly challenged the young players – perhaps that was the point of the exercise – but the Symphony No. 4 seems to me academic and tedious.
The OAO is much improved this season, and the Saint-Jean Bosco Church is a much better venue for a symphony concert than last year’s Saint-Patrice. Under Nagano’s direction, the OAO gave an accurate and exciting rendition of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.
Guest artist on the OAO programme was the superb pianist Benedetto Lupo, whom I had heard several times in Austin, Texas. On this occasion he played Mozarts Piano Concerto No. 27 with verve and just the right amount of flexibility in dynamics and tempo. Nagano’s accompaniment, however, was lighter and more period-oriented than the Mozart style offered by his soloist.
Schubert Octet a Priceless "Prelude"
On the same evening and in the same venue – August 4, Saint-Jean Bosco Church (photo: right) – members of the OSM played Schubert’s Octet. The Schubert was played at 6 pm and the OAO concert at 8 pm. I assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that the Schubert was a prelude to the orchestra concert. But, in fact, even though it was only an hour long and devoted to only one piece, it was sold as a separate concert with tickets costing $22. This bit of programming comes perilously close to price-gouging.
On the other hand, the Schubert Octet was played so well it could very accurately be described as priceless. With Andrew Wan in the leader’s chair, phrasing was consistently shapely and the players responded to each other with the utmost concern for timbre and balance. Equally impressive was the choice of tempi. With illustrious performances by the Vienna Octet and the Berlin Octet still ringing in my musical memory, I have long been convinced that this music needs time to breathe and that moderate tempi pay enormous dividends. The OSM players obviously feel the same way and gave us sublime Schubert.
So this was a great week for Nagano, the OSM and Orford, not to mention the music-lovers of Magog and Sherbrooke. The venues have been sorted out, the qualitative bar has been raised and just a little more tinkering needs to be done in programming and marketing. I am looking forward to 2012!

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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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Le rossignol et autres fables : la magie à hauteur d’homme

Par Lucie Renaud 

L’opéra, genre souvent devenu lourd – ou prisonnier des multiples couches de conventions séculaires –, peine parfois à se redéfinir. Rarement rencontre-t-on, un même soir, un plateau éblouissant et une mise en scène qui mène l’imaginaire ailleurs, prolonge le propos musical, séduit sans réserve, sans que le spectateur ait l’impression d’être témoin d’un ego trip. Quand on fréquente la scène opératique nationale plus ou moins assidument, au fond, très peu de moments puissants se détachent de la masse. En première position, j’avais retenu jusqu’ici la puissance du diptyque Le Château de Barbe-bleue de Bartók et Erwartung de Schoenberg (appréciée dans sa mouture 2004 présentée à l’Opéra de Montréal). J’y ajouterai maintenant Le rossignol et autres fables, production présentée dans le cadre de la première édition du Festival Opéra de Québec, collage musical sur des pages de Stravinski, conçu et transmis de main de maître par ce  même Robert Lepage qui, ici, n’a aucunement cédé aux sirènes d’une machinerie de scène pyrotechnique, mais a opté pour un dialogue direct avec le spectateur.

On peut bien sûr relever l’audace d’avoir installé sur le devant de la scène du Grand Théâtre de Québec ce vaste bassin, dans lequel évolueront  chanteurs et marionnettes de Michael Curry dans Le Rossignol. On retiendra plutôt que ce choix artistique facilite une admirable transposition d’échelle, la scène se trouvant d’un seul coup dépourvue de son immensité pour devenir lieu intime, magique, qui permet ainsi le décuplement d’émotion. Malgré une salle comble, ainsi qu’un OSQ et un chœur imposant massés à l’arrière-scène, jamais je n’ai cru n’être qu’une parmi 2000. Au contraire,  j’avais l’impression que Stravinski s’adressait à moi directement, comme si, abritée dans une grotte naturelle, je me laissais raconter des histoires, tantôt ludiques, tantôt fabuleuses.

En première partie,  pendant et prélude au Rossignol, Robert Lepage a groupé une série de pièces brèves, composées sur une période d’une décennie, ce qui permet d’obtenir un portrait kaléidoscopique de cette période de la vie du compositeur qui devait mener à l’élaboration de ses essentielles Noces. Si l’OSQ, sous la direction de Johannes Debus, a semblé presque trop sage dans Ragtime, il s’est rapidement ajusté, offrant un accompagnement riche et pourtant d’une remarquable clarté. Des jeux d’ombres chinoises se superposaient à Pribaoutki, aux Deux poèmes de Constantin Balmont, aux Berceuses du chat et aux Quatre chants paysans russes, dans un enchaînement de gestes d’une sublime délicatesse, souvent spectaculaires certes (l’éclosion de la fleur, le berceau dans lequel s’installait le bébé, les queues agiles des chats, etc.), mais – et c’est là peut-être la plus grande force du traitement – qui demeuraient produits par des humains. Quand un animal, une table, un bateau redeviennent dans la lumière les mains qui les ont initiés, l’émotion s’en trouve étrangement décuplée. Je m’en voudrais de passer sous silence l’interprétation fluide et incarnée  de Stéphane Fontaine, habillé en cosaque, des Trois pièces pour clarinette seule, interludes tissés à la trame narrative de la première partie.

Dans la courte fable de Renard, des acrobates, placés derrière un tulle, se transformaient en ombres chinoises. Saluons ici le quatuor vocal narrateur, particulièrement le moelleux du ténor Edgaras Montvidas et les faussets du baryton Nabil Suliman, et l’habile décalage entre corps (cachés par la toile) et mollets des artistes (visibles), découpés, ce qui permet une autre distanciation du propos.

En deuxième partie de spectacle, la voix limpide, agile et aérienne de la soprano Julia Novikova, qui fait des débuts remarqués dans le rôle-titre du Rossignol qui éclipsent plusieurs interprétations entendues au disque, devenait soutien à l’enchantement pur ressenti. La trame narrative de cet empereur de Chine (Ilya Banniki transmet bien que le maître du pays est avant tout homme) qui, d’abord envouté par le chant merveilleux d’un rossignol, décide de l’intégrer à sa cour, le bannissant du royaume une fois reçu en cadeau de l’empereur du Japon un oiseau mécanique, puis s’appuyant de nouveau sur son chant quand la mort (inspirée Svelana Schilova) vient réclamer son dû, est communiqué de façon brillante par une série de marionnettes reprenant les divers personnages de ce conte d’Andersen.

Bien sûr, on ne peut que louer la perfection de l’ensemble; chaque geste scénique, chaque inflexion de chanteur, chaque transposition visuelle ont été mûrement réfléchis afin d’être débarrassés de toute scorie. On retiendra pourtant la profonde humanité du propos, Robert Lepage ayant réussi ici le tour de force de revenir à l’essence même du théâtre – et de l’opéra, son prolongement – : raconter une histoire et, ce faisant, toucher irrévocablement le spectateur.

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Mode & Design Festival – Mode & Opera

By Christine Lee

The North American premiere of Mode & Opera, a fusion between the fashion and music world, showcased numerous talents as part of the Mode & Design Festival on August 4th. The Opéra de Montréal contributed three singers to the show: Soprano Caroline Bleau, tenor Antoine Bélanger and baritone Étienne Dupuis. In costume, each singer sang a solo (including arias from Carmen) between sets of a catwalk show featuring costumes inspired by opera music. These garments reflected Egyptian, Medieval and Japanese influences, all done with a modern touch

Because pre-recorded tracks were used as accompaniment, expressiveness on the part of the singers was quite limited: rubato was inexistant as any slight changes in tempo would have upset synchronicity. But this did not stop all three singers from giving excellent performance.

The musical concept for the runaway show was put together by Christian Pronovost and Michel Beaulac. They did an excellent job foreshadowing the opera performances by adding small vocal effects and elecro-acoustically modified voice into the music during the catwalk segments.

The show will reproduced in Los Angeles, perhaps in the coming year.

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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Nathalie Paulin and the Nash Ensemble at Toronto Summer Music

Photos: (t) The Nash Piano Trio; (b) Soprano Nathalie Paulin and pianist Michael McMahon

Romantic Pleasures
Nash Ensemble: Benjamin Nabarro, Laura Samuels, violins; Philip Dulces, viola; Paul Watkins, cello: Ian Brown, piano
Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Michael McMahon, piano
Saturday, August 6, 2011
7:30 p.m. Walter Hall

Liszt: Victor Hugo Songs
S'il est un charmant gazon
Comment, disaient-ils
Enfant, si j'etais roi
Oh! quand je dors
Faure: La bonne chanson
Chausson: Chanson perpetuelle, Op. 37 for soprano and piano quintet
Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49

Tonight's concert was a double pleasure for me - re-acquainting with the lovely voice of Acadian soprano Nathalie Paulin, whom I had not heard for a few years, and discovering the artistry of a sensational chamber group, the London-based Nash Ensemble.

Since she last sang opera in Toronto - as Thibeaut in Don Carlos at the new opera house - Paulin has expanded her operatic repertoire in such roles as Despina for Cincinnati Opera and Massenet's Manon for Calgary Opera and Opera Lyra Ottawa. She recently received terrific notices for her participation in the rarely performed Les Indes Galantes in Boston and the even rarer Der Vampyr at the Lanaudiere Festival. So it's great to have her back in Toronto, her adopted home town, for an evening of French chansons. The Nash Ensemble is new to Toronto audiences, although the London-based group has been in existence since 1964. Well, it's no exaggeration to say they are a revelation, and we have TSMF to thank for bringing the group to Toronto.

The evening began with a group of four very well known Liszt songs, in French, set to the text by Victor Hugo. Paulin's best attributes - her warm middle register, her feminine, soft-grained tone, her attention to the French text, and her ingratiating stage persona - are tailor-made for this repertoire. She sang these with her usual lovely tone and depth of feeling, perhaps one could have wished for more ideally hushed high pianissimos, especially in the very famous "Oh! quand je dors." Michael McMahon, a frequent collaborative pianist for Canadian singers, offered solid support. The piano lid was fully open, but he did not swarm the singer. The next item was supposed to be Chausson's equally famous Chanson perpetuelle, but there was an unannounced program switch. Instead we got Faure's La bonne chanson, with the soprano accompanied by the Nash Ensemble. (An announcement really should have been made as these songs, however familiar elsewhere, aren't that commonly performed in English Canada) Perhaps it was the highly evocative strings - especially the wonderfully warm cello by Paul Watkins and Nabarro's violin, the blend between the voice and the instruments was so exquisite that one almost felt musically transported to the La Belle Epoque. The last item in the first half was the Chausson for soprano and piano trio. If there's an ultra-Romantic piece of music, this is it! The melodic line, the rhythm, and the strings literally drip pathos - perhaps a little soppy by modern standards, but... Paulin sang it with gleaming tone and emotional engagement. Following the intermission, the Nash ensemble played two familiar chamber pieces - Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 and the even more popular Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49. The Ensemble's performance was a revelation- two beautifully paced readings with exemplary clarity and precision, not to mention refulgent tone and technical prowess. I hope we'll get to hear this wonderful group again.

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Friday, 5 August 2011

Duffy and Phan: Singers with Youthful Enthusiasm and Great Promise

Soprano Kiera Duffy, tenor Nicholas Phan and pianist Roger Vignoles receiving applause at the Toronto Summer Music recital (photo: Joseph So)

by Joseph K. So

Romantic Poets
Kiera Duffy, soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Roger Vignoles, piano

Thursday, Aug. 4, 2011
7:30 pm Walter Hall

Schumann: Liederkreis
Poulenc: Fiancilles pour rire
Schumann: Tanzlied; In der Nacht; Die tausend Grusse
Rossini: La serenata
Britten: Winter Words
Strauss: Brentano-Lieder

When American soprano Christine Brewer cancelled her August 4 Toronto Summer Music Festival recital in late June, it put the management of TSMF in a tough spot - how do you replace an eminent, seasoned recitalist on such short notice? We had the answer last evening. Instead of a veteran with years of experience, Toronto audiences were introduced to not one, but two young singers of great promise: soprano Kiera Duffy and tenor Nicholas Phan. Pianist Roger Vignoles has previously worked with Duffy in a recording of Strauss songs, and it was on his recommendation that TSMF extended the invitation to Duffy, together with Phan, to appear at the Summer Festival. Met in HD audience may have caught Ms. Duffy as one of the finalists in The Audition, a documentary that chronicles the 2007 Metropolitan Opera Auditions. A high soprano with a well focused sound and an excellent technique, Duffy has since gone on to a fine career in opera and concert. Nicholas Phan possesses a sweet, lyric tenor combined with an engaging stage presence. He has sung opera in such diverse venues as Glyndebourne, Glimmerglass, Frankfurt, Chicago,and the Edinburgh Festival. He's also a noted recitalist, as a number of his song recitals can be found on Youtube. These singers are new to Canadian audiences, and the intimate Walter Hall is an ideal venue for a debut recital.

The program opened with Mr. Phan singing Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 24, a cycle of nine songs set to the text of Heine. This is not the more familiar, 15-song Liederkreis Op. 39. Phan sang with exemplary enunciation of the text as well as plenty of expressive nuance. His is a beautiful compact-sized instrument, with genuine sweetness and a caressing tone quality. Perhaps it's youthful exuberance, Phan last evening tended to over-sing in the climactic moments, pushing his voice at the expense of steadiness - a few times it took on a worrisome pronounced vibrato. He needn't have tried to make a bigger sound as it carried very well in the small and acoustically lively Walter Hall. In the second half, his major contribution was Britten's Winter Words in a particularly affecting performance. It's a difficult cycle that taxes the singer and audience alike, but Phan made it come alive and sustained the audience's interest well. Perhaps because of the complicated and convoluted text, his English was hard to understand and one had to keep referring to the song text. The last song, "Before Life and After" was touching - Phan's depth of understanding of the material was impressive.

Duffy's solo contribution in the first half was Poulenc's Fiancilles pour rire. Poulenc set this cycle of six bittersweet songs to the text of his good friend Louise de Vilmorin. Duffy sang the eclectic cycle with its many changes of mood well, although her high soprano meant some of the text was lost, and overall I would have liked more warmth in her delivery. Her stage presence appeared a bit cool and reserved for these songs - it would have been nice if she had engaged the audience more. In the second half, her centerpiece was the Brentano-Lieder - this went much better. Unlike the Poulenc, the Strauss cycle is ideally suited to a high voice along the lines of a Diana Damrau, and Duffy sang it with nice, focused tone and fine technical control, with many lovely high pianissimos. The two artists collaborated in several duos - three by Schumann, and Rossini's La serenata. "Tanzlied" was nicely done; "Die tausend Grussse" sounded suitably exuberant if a touch too competitive -and loud- between the two singers! Roger Vignoles is the elder statesman here, and he offered rock solid, sympathetic support to the soloists but rightly never receded into the background. All in all, it was an auspicious Canadian debut for the two soloists, and to be sure they will be heard from again in the future.


Monday, 1 August 2011

The Longueuil International Percussion Festival Turns 10, Part 3/3 - The Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil, Répercussion, and Marie-Josée Lord

By Christine Lee

Longueuil, July 14

The Orchestre symphonique de Longueuil conquered the stage with a powerful start. The performance was synchronized with the Loto-Quebec Fireworks, as conductor Marc David led the orchestra with irresistable zest. Spanish painter Jorge Colomina was once again present to document the performance.

The concert was split into three parts: live orchestra with the fireworks; the orchestra and the group Répercussion, four talented percussionists; and a brilliant finale featuring Marie-Josée Lord.

 Répercussion demonstrated their range of instrumental talents; it was almost unbelievable. A pan flute quartet, an eight-hand marimba, djembe, singing—these musicians rocked percussion like none other.
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Your browser may not support display of this image.After a short break, Marie-Josée Lord came on stage and the mood become more classical. Singing arias from Carmen, her strong voice carried the melody over the orchestra. The emotion in her voice was incredible. The haunting high note that she held sent shivers down my spine. Between two pieces, the orchestra performed an instrumental work and then Marie-Josée Lord returned for one last song
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I met up with Marc David after the concert and spoke to him about the Festival and the concert.
As a first-timer at the LIPF, the orchestra enjoyed a good-sized crowd and a warm welcome. The Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, and the season-ending performance with the fireworks was perfect for the occasion. “The idea of bringing fireworks into the concert began when we were having conflicts between the fireworks themselves and the noise they would make while we would be performing. I thought, ‘Why don’t we take 30 minutes and synchronize the two together?’ So we got into contact with the La Ronde organizers and I received the recording that the Australian team would use for the fireworks. I then adapted the song into an orchestral piece that we could perform and, at the same time, follow the explosive visuals. I’m very proud of the results.
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Marc elaborates, “I had the click track in my score and I followed it quite precisely so we would stay synchronized with the fireworks. The La Ronde organizers gave us the start and it just rolled from there. At the end, I looked around and I was so happy to see that we were ending together. It was a beautiful experience.”

“You can really feel the difference between an outdoor festival like this one and a concert hall. For summer concerts like these ones, we like to try to come out of our usual repertoire and format, and offer to the public something more fun, festive and light,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

“It was mission accomplished tonight.”

The Longueuil Symphony Orchestra begins its 26th season this September.

Read Christine's interview with LIPF co-founder France Cadieux here

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The Longueuil International Percussion Festival Turns 10, Part 2/3

By Christine Lee

Longueuil, July 14

The great thing about Longueuil’s International Percussion Festival is the array of different activities offered: a drum workshop, a dance workshop, stalls selling goods, a mini-museum, restaurants right by the street, concerts, and dance shows. As I wandered up and down the street, I even came across a circus performance of aerial silks.

Thursday featured a free performance by Bïa & Paulo Ramos with live painting by Brazilian painter Flavio Freitas. Brazil-born Montrealer Paulo Ramos and his band displayed a suaveness that captured the audience’s hearts straight away. The Latin rhythms made the crowd dance, clap and sway. There was even a dancer who blitzed across the stage with a flurry of quick-footed steps and taps—a true dancing Faust!

I managed to catch a glimpse of UPPERCUT, a woman’s urban drumming group, before they left the Hôte Zone stage. Next up was a dance intensive workshop presented by Bahia Studio. Evens Plissint, salsa director at the Bahia Studio School, riled up the crowd for the “best 30 minutes of our lives.” With the Bahia S.W.A.T. team—a group of dancers dressed in a flashy blue t-shirts—in the crowd, Evens and Francis Lafrenière, two-time finalist of So You Think You Can Dance, coached us in a simply choreographed funk dance. All too soon, the workshop ended, but Evens promised to return on Saturday, this time at the Loto-Quebec stage with a fleet of dancers, shows and new choreographies.

I had seen Insolita perform a song the previous night and was looking forward to their performance, but nothing prepared me for how brilliant and moving the show would be. The concept was “fire, water, earth, air” and they definitely delivered it. Dancers manipulated flaming fans and swung thick white cloths while drummers stomped in water as they played. Their costumes and make-up were exceptionally well-done and not only did the singers have powerful voices, but they also played bass and percussion flawlessly. Not to mention that there were four drum sets on stage! It was not surprising that the crowd applauded loudly and cheered for an encore.

I arrived early at The Cuban Martinez Show and the crowd had already gathered around, itching to dance. When the show started, the audience exploded into action. The Cuban Martinez show has an impressive band that includes guitar, trombone, bass, drums, percussion, singers, keyboard and trumpet. This lively act churned out irresistible Cuban jazz fusion.

If you mixed tap dancing, drums, a bass, a synth backtrack, and some vocal elements together, you would get Pec Percussion. Behind all this is Frédéric Gauld, a young man with a bright smile and a strong sense of rhythm. I met up with him after the concert.

Such a physically demanding performance must be really difficult, so I asked him how he does it. Still slightly out of breath, he explaains: “My approach to rhythm is very organic. I like to work with my muscles, my body and my anatomy. If you think about it, rhythm is really an intricate part of living and of our physical being. Just think of your heartbeat, the steps you take when you walk: this is all rhythm and part of your daily life. So if I were to play rhythm ignoring these things, I would be missing out on a lot. When your body becomes part of the rhythm, your arms, your legs, your breathing, you really feel like you’re part of something bigger and capable of doing more.” 

The night continued with Martin Deschamps, a hardcore rocker with a strong voice, and Brazilian painter Flavio Freitas in a non-stop energetic performance. Martin had a lot of surprises in store for us, including playing drums and bass. He danced along and played air guitar, owning the stage like no one else. It was a pleasure to watch him have so much fun on stage; it was contagious! 

Maloukaï, a female drumming group, was founded in Montreal in 2005. Though many of its original members have left, the group still has eight members: Nancy Saviskas, Josée Mercier, Marise Demers, Nadia Essadiqi, Anne-Marie Kirouac, Isabelle Delaney, Sandra Laine and Christine Rouillard. They perform original material and original choreographies. In 2010 they won the Desjardins de la Relève contest for best musical group and were awarded a show on the Loto-Quebec stage this year. Your browser may not support display of this image.I spoke with Anne-Marie Kirouac about their performance.
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“It’s good to get new people to... discover what percussion instruments are and the music that they can produce. For example, about Maloukaï, some people might be thinking, ‘My gosh, an hour of music with only percussion? How could I possibly listen to that?’ and we try to show them that there are different things that we can do with percussion: shifting the rhythms, mixing the timbre, and creating new instruments with objects like garbage cans. And that, no, they won’t get bored listening to us.

“We try our best to create musical pieces that are different from each other because we know that we don’t have a thousand instruments that we can use, so at some point there will be sounds that will be repetitive. So we always try to bring in new styles and I think we were able to do that today,” she says.
 Upcoming show: Saturday August 6th at 7:30pm.  “Les Samedis percutants” Chambly, Quebec.

Read Part 3 of Christine's reviews and interviews at the LIPF here

Read Christine's interview with LIPF co-founder France Cadieux here

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The Longueuil International Percussion Festival Turns 10, Part 1/3 - Interview with Arashi Daiko

By Christine Lee

Longueuil, July 13, 2011

This year marked the tenth anniversary of Longueuil’s International Percussion Festival. Its new stage, dubbed the “Hôte Zone,” hosted an array of brilliant artists and musicians, including performances by Arashi Daiko, Normand Brathwaite, Insolita and the Orchestre Symphonique de Longueuil. Every day of the festival was dedicated to a particular country: Thursday celebrated Brazil; Friday, Cuba; Saturday, Guadeloupe; and Sunday, Spain.
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Opening the festivities was Arashi Daiko, Quebec’s only taiko group. Founded in 1983 by the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre of Montreal, Arashi Daiko currently has eight members: Mikio Owaki, Michio Hirai, Sandra Kadowaki, Steve Chan, Ryoko Itabashi, Yukari Hazama, Manon Desmarais and Jean-François Gravel. Wearing simple costumes and with drum sticks in hand, they charmed the audience with their drumming and choreography in a charismatic, high-energy performance. The performance astounded with captivating dance, hypnotizing flute and thundering rhythms.

I met up with Arashi Daiko after the performance.

“We’ve been invited guests at LIPF since its first edition,” Mikio tells me.

I asked Jean-François what he thought about the evolution of the festival. “Well,” he replies, “it started off in a park in a really small venue, and then it went on to a bigger place, with more shows, more musicians, and better known musicians. Last year, all the activities were free. They had more stages and lots of performances going on in the street. So it’s a completely different kind of concept.”

As for the secret behind their energy and on stage, Sandra, another member of the group, confides: “I think it’s because it’s not our job [to play taiko], so everyone is doing it because they really love it. It’s a passion for all of us. [Arashi Daiko] is a community and a volunteer group, and the money we raise is for maintaining our equipment and traveling.”

Michio, a member for 10 years, adds: “It takes energy, time and dedication to become a member of Arashi Daiko. Devotion and hard work. We must sacrifice our Friday nights and most of our Saturdays to practice. We’re pretty much family.” He laughs. 

After Arashi Daiko’s opening performance, the crowd greeted Normand Brathwaite and the many artists that would grace the stage in the following days. Martin Deschamps, Insolita, and Bïa, all gave a sneak peek of their performances to come. 

Amid a sky full of fireworks, rhythms and music filled the cool night air and captivated the cheering audience. It was a magical, memorable night.

Read Part 2 of Christine's reviews and interviews at the LIPF here

Read Christine's interview with LIPF co-founder France Cadieux here

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