La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Gordon Bintner remporte le Concours OSM

Par Caroline Rodgers  

Le baryton-basse originaire de la Saskatchewan Gordon Bintner a remporté le Grand Prix au Concours OSM Standard Life la semaine dernière. On pourra l’entendre le jeune chanteur de 23 ans le 6 décembre prochain à la Maison Symphonique, dont il partagera la scène avec l’OSM dans le cadre d’un concert dirigé par Arild Remmereit. De plus, il se voit remettre une bourse de 10 000$, le Prix Espace-musique (un enregistrement professionnel à l’un des studios de Radio-Canada et la diffusion en direct du concert avec l’OSM sur les ondes d’Espace musique), un récital au Centre national des arts, une tournée du Chili à l’été 2012, et d’autres récitals dans les provinces canadiennes.  

Pour cette 72e édition, le Concours OSM faisait place à des concurrents des catégories chant, bois et cuivres. Dans la catégorie cuivres, la lauréate est Vanessa Fralick, 25 ans, de l’Ontario, en trombone. Dans la catégorie bois, le lauréat est Eric Abramovitz, 18 ans, du Québec, en clarinette. Les deuxièmes prix reviennent à Geoffrey Sirett, 27 ans, du Québec, baryton, et à Vincent Boilard, 23 ans, du Québec, en hautbois.   

Le Concours OSM Standard Life, commandité depuis 20 ans par la Standard Life, est ouvert uniquement aux candidats canadiens. Il a offert cette année plus de 100 000$ en prix et bourses.


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Monday, 28 November 2011

Bay and Austin Symphony Celebrate Virtuosity!

By Paul E. Robinson

Ginastera: Variaciones concertantes Op. 23Franck: Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra M. 46Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major S.125
Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber
Anton Nel: pianoAustin Symphony Orchestra (ASO): Peter Bay, conductor
Michael and Susan Dell Hall
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin. Texas
Saturday, November 19, 2011

Boulez: Mémoriale
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat major
Timothy Hutchins, flute
Till Fellner, piano
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM): Kent Nagano, conductor

La Maison symphonique

Place des Arts
Saturday, October 15, 2011
It is an indication of how far the Austin Symphony has come with Peter Bay in his fourteen seasons as music director and conductor, that the ASO could carry off a programme as demanding as this one; both the Ginastera and Hindemith works are veritable concertos for orchestra in the sense that they feature so many players in solo roles. Add another extraordinary artist in the person of pianist Anton Nel to play showy pieces by Franck and Liszt and you have an entire evening of virtuosity.
The Ginastera Variaciones concertantes is a chamber orchestra piece that manages to get some real excitement going in the final dance movement. Elsewhere, the composer shows a preference for soulful and melancholic variations, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to play - far from it. From the opening cello solo, played superbly by Douglas Harvey, there was never any question about the quality of this performance. Each of the featured soloists handled his or her challenge with authority. Special recognition must be given David Neubert who played the difficult double bass solo with remarkable accuracy and beauty of tone.
Hindemith’s set of variations on obscure pieces by Weber has been a crowd-pleaser since its premiere in 1944. The composer has a reputation for being turgid and academic at times in his music, but theSymphonic Metamorphosis is rich in orchestral colour and abounds with good humour. The fugue manages to be both an astonishing feat of contrapuntal mastery and great fun.
Speaking of mastery, Peter Bay was in complete control of this piece. Judging by the performance, all the difficult sections were thoroughly rehearsed. Balances and tempi were close to ideal. An excellent performance.
Anton Nel heads the Division of Keyboard Studies at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas. He is also a busy performer with a vast repertoire, ostensibly able to play anything written for his instrument. On this occasion, he concentrated on two warhorses from the Nineteenth Century romantic repertoire and played them as if they posed no technical challenges whatever.
We all, however, have likes and dislikes and I must confess that the Franck and the Liszt are not among my favourite pieces. I find their themes trite and their variations uninteresting. Although I have heard them played with more intensity and individuality by others, I can hardly fault Anton Nel for his approach. He played beautifully and the audience loved his performance. He rewarded them with an encore - a noble reading of the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung.
For Something More…
Anton Nel is in charge of the Division of Keyboard Studies at the University of Texas; he is not, however, the only stellar performer on staff. Two nights earlier I heard Colette Valentine, one of Nel’s UT colleagues, play brilliantly with the Miró Quartet in music by Schubert (Trout Quintet) and Dvorák.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."
Photo by: Marita

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This Week in Toronto (Nov. 28 - Dec. 4)

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo: Andreas Klingberg)

The reigning Canadian prima donna, Adrianne Pieczonka is back home in Toronto, after having been away the last few months singing in Vienna, Tokyo, Hamburg and Berlin. She is giving a recital under the auspices of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto on Thursday Dec. 1 at 1:30 p.m. at Walter Hall, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. On the program are songs by Duparc and Canadian composer John Greer. Pieczonka is also singing Tatiana's Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, as well as two Verdi arias - Ritorna vincitor from Aida and Ernani, involami from Ernani.

On the subject of voice, an important event this week is the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition. For the first time, the process of selecting new ensemble artists is open to the public, in the form of a competition. Ten finalists have already been chosen based on an earlier selection process. On Monday Nov. 28 5:30 p.m. at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, these ten young singers will strut their stuff in the hope of making the 2012-13 roster of the COC Ensemble Studio. There's also the not insignificant prize money of over $10,000. The ten finalists are Lindsay Barrett, Claire de Sevigne, Sasha Djihanian, Rachel Fenlon, David Gibbons, Danielle MacMillan, Owen McCausland, Laura McLean, Cameron McPhail, and Aviva-Fortunata Wilks. For more information, go to

The Against The Grain Theatre Company, known for its cutting edge take on works old and new, is bringing back its re-imagining of Puccini's warhorse, La boheme. It received very positive notices back in May when the production was first unveiled. Now with a different cast, ATG is giving three performances at the Tranzac Club on 292 Brunswick Avenue, in the heart of the Annex full of U of T students, not an inappropriate locale given Boheme is a story about Bohemian artists in 19th century Paris. Well, this Boheme has been time and place shifted to 2011 Toronto. Stage director Joel Ivany has rewritten the libretto to make it relevant to the Toronto audience. The singers are placed not on stage but interspersed among the audience. Soprano Miriam Khalil is the seamstress Mimi, tenor Ryan Harper is poet Rodolfo. Others in the cast are Justin Welch (Marcello) Lindsay Sutherland Boal (Musetta), Neil Craighead (Colline) and Keith Lam (Schaunard). Dec. 1 - 3 at 8 p.m. at the Tranzac Club.

This week, guest conductor Andrey Boreyko returns to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in two performances of Russian Gems, with violinist Leila Josefowicz playing Stravinsky's violin concerto. Also on the program is Prokofiev Symphony No. 5, and Lindov The Enchanted Lake. Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall.

Tafelmusik presents Baroque Spendour: The Golden Age of Dresden on Dec. 1 and 2 8 p.m. at the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre. Oboe soloist Alfredo Bernardini is at the helm, conducting works by Zelenka, Fasch, Pisendel, Telemann and Vivaldi. On the Tafelmusik website you can access the concert program as well as an interview with Maestro Bernardini.

Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall has a number of exciting programs this week. British cellist Steven Isserlis gives a recital of works by Mendelssohn, Liszt, Franck and Thomas Ades on Dec. 2 8 p.m. Connie Shih is the collaborative pianist. Of course Koerner is now the venue of choice, but the old Mazzoleni Hall is still in business. This week, it hosts the RCM's student production of The Magic Flute, in abridged format. It features the voices of tomorrow - students from the Glenn Gould School. Performances on Friday Dec. 2 and Saturday Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. And let's not forget the free concert with the celebrated conductor Sir Roger Norrington, who according to RCM's publicity material studied violin at RCM in the 1940's (!), will be leading the RCM Orchestra in rehearsal of Brahms Symphony No. 1. This event takes place Friday Dec. 1 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Koerner Hall.

Meanwhile a few steps down Philosophers Walk is the University of Toronto Faculty of Music's fall showcase for it voice students - a Poulenc double-bill La Voix Humaine/Les Mamelles de Tiresias. I vividly recall a U of T opera program's production of Les Mamelles about 10 years ago and it was great fun. COC chorusmaster Sandra Horst, who is also on the faculty of the U of T Opera School, will conduct. Michael Albano and Erik Thor share the directing duties. Dec. 1 - 4, four performances nightly at 7:30 pm at the Macmillan Theatre.

Roy Thomson Hall's Canadian Voices Series continues this week with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch giving a recital at Glenn Gould Studio. The program - all contemporary and relatively unfamiliar American song repertoire - is a challenging one. Okulitch is singing three cycles - Songs from the Underground by Glen Roven, Night Songs by Lowell Liebermann and Quiet Lives by Ricky Ian Gordon. All have text by many writers including Yeats, Wordsworth, Whitman, Graves, and Dorothy Parker. The song recital genre has become an increasingly hard sell, which is a real shame. Where can one hear such wonderful singers in such an intimate setting? Okulitch is an outstanding young talent, with rich and ringing baritone, exemplary musicality, not to mention a handsome stage presence. In the last few years, Okulitch has wowed audiences and critics in several high profile assignments such as the world premiere of The Fly, and the lead role in Dead Man Walking. He doesn't sing in Toronto very often and this is a great chance to hear him. Dec. 4 at 2 p.m.

Also at Glenn Gould Studio is pianist Eve Egoyan's recital on Friday Dec. 2 8 p.m. She is playing works by the late composer Ann Southam who composed these pieces with Egoyan in mind. The pianist has recorded the works in her recent CD. This performance will mark the world premiere of Southam's Returnings II: A Meditation.


Friday, 25 November 2011

Miriam Khalil : Artist In Focus

Soprano Miriam Khalil (Mimi) and tenor Roger Honeywell (Rodolfo)

Soprano Miriam Khalil as Mimi in Opera Hamilton's La boheme
(Photo: Peter Oleskevitch)

Miriam Khalil: Artist In Focus

Joseph K. So

They say that the first love is the sweetest, to quote lyrics by hiphop artist Drake. This is certainly true with soprano Miriam Khalil.

No, it's not a comment on her romantic life but rather her artistic life. It seems that Khalil's very first live opera experience was La boheme and she fell instantly in love with the heroine Mimi. "The music took me to another world. I can easily relate to her character. She is not complicated at all and so makes her that much more approachable as a person. Her music has these moments of soaring beauty," explains Khalil in a recent conversation. By all accounts, her Mimi for Opera Hamilton last season was lovely, combining womanly warmth and vulnerability with gleaming vocalism. I ask her if she listens to recordings of Mimi in her preparation for the role - " I do - my favourite is Mirella Freni, and I also listen to Anna Netrebko for a different perspective. I like to see what different people bring to the role, but once I start to prepare it vocally, I don't listen to anyone."

Sadly I wasn't able to experience her Mimi due to an out of town assignment. The good news is that she is now bringing it to Toronto, in a revival of the freshly unorthodox La boheme for the Against the Grain Theatre, seen for the first time last Spring. In fact, Khalil was scheduled to sing it but when she got the call to go to the Glyndebourne Festival to appear as Almirena in Handel's Rinaldo, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

This summer was her third at Glyndebourne. In 2009, she was recommended to Glyndebourne by artist manager Deborah Sanders of IMG as a cover for Danielle di Niese in the role of Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare. As luck would have it, di Niese became ill in the middle of a performance on June 10, and in the best tradition of "the show must go on", Khalil stepped in. "I sang from the side in Act 2 and I went on in costume for Act 3." Her ability to step in and did a nice job got her rehired the following year as a cover for Zerlina in Don Giovanni. She didn't get to go on, but it was a great experience just the same. It isn't every day that a young singer still in the early years of a career gets to have European exposure at such a prestigious house. This past summer, covering Almirena, Khalil was called upon to sing one performance, an important step in her career development.

Equally important in her young career was a first place at the Great Lakes Regionals of the 2007 Met Auditions. It led to her being invited to New York with the possibility to be in the Finals. If you look carefully, you will see her appearing briefly in the documentary, The Audition, that was part of the Met in HD series a couple of years ago. In the end, Khalil wasn't selected to be the final ten, but it was another important learning experience. "It was a slightly surreal and overwhelming experience to be on that stage, thinking that hopefully one day I will get to sing there," Khalil recalls. She is smart enough to know that as an artist, one never stops perfecting one's art. Over the years, she's been under the tutelage of several voice teachers - Jean McPhail (who also taught Isabel Bayrakdarian), Timothy Noble, Diana Soviero, and most recently Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen. With maturity and training, the Khalil soprano has gained in strength, substance, and technical ease. Looking into the future, Khalil aims to stay focused on her core repertoire of Mozart and the Baroque masters, trying to keep the voice appropriately light and airy, so important in this repertoire. Future engagements, in addition to a number of concerts, will be Frasquita in a Pacific Opera Victoria Carmen later this season.

Against The Grain Theatre's La boheme

Based on performance statistics from 2005 to 2010, Puccini's La boheme at 447 performances is the fourth most popular opera in the world, just behind Die Zauberfloete, La traviata and Carmen, but ahead of such warhorses as Tosca, Don Giovanni and Madama Butterly. Its perennial appeal is easy to understand - perhaps more than any other opera, its story is about youth, love and life. Few operas resonate in the hearts of a contemporary audience like La boheme. In that spirit of a contemporary take on an old classic, the Against The Grain Theatre production is conceptualized by the creative team of director Joel Ivany, designer Camellia Koo and lighting designer Jason Hand. This team won third prize in the European Stage Directing Prize for their concept production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi earlier this year.

The opera will be sung in English, and I understand that the newly rewritten libretto by Joel Ivany will be full of local references. In keeping with a 2011 take on the Puccini masterpiece, Ivany's unexpurgated libretto will be provocative. The performing space is equally unorthodox, to take place in the bare-bones environs of the Tranzac Club in the Annex, an appropriately Bohemian neighborhood full of University of Toronto students. Instead of taking place on a stage, the performers will be interspersed among the audience, giving the proceedings a sense of immediacy and realism. This concept production follows a long tradition of updating this most "updatable" of operas. In the early 90s, the Opera Australia production by Baz Luhrmann had a thoroughly modern Boheme, with an extremely photogenic tenor David Hobson as Rodolfo opposite the lovely Cheryl Barker as Mimi. Luhrmann has since brought his concept to Broadway with spectacular success. Recently I saw a Boheme telecast on Swiss TV where the opera takes place in a high-rise! Updating is always a tricky business, and any conceptual re-imagining will not please everyone. The best way is to decide for yourself. There will be three performances, on Dec. 1 -3 at 8 p.m. at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Avenue in the Annex area of downtown Toronto. Cast includes Miriam Khalil (Mimi), Ryan Harper (Rodolfo), Justin Welsh (Marcello), Lindsay Sutherland Boal (Musetta), Neil Craighead (Colline) and Keith Lam, plus a full chorus.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

In Memoriam: Sena Jurinac

Soprano Sena Jurinac as Elisabetta in Don Carlos

In Memoriam: Sena Jurinac (Oct. 24, 1921 - Nov. 22, 2011)
The great soprano Sena Jurinac passed away on Tuesday at her home near Augsburg in Germany. This information was confirmed by the Wiener Staatsoper, for many years Jurinac's home theatre where she had her greatest triumphs, and where she received the title of Kammersangerin. Born in Travnik in Bosnia (formerly Yugoslavia) in October 1921, Jurinac studied in Zagreb, Croatia, and made her debut in 1942 as Mimi in La boheme. Jurinac first sang at the Wiener Staatsoper as Cherubino in 1944 and remained a member of the company until 1983 when she made her farewell as the Marschallin. In the English speaking world, she was a favourite at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, but sadly she never sang at the Metropolitan Opera. Rudolf Bing, in his memoirs, stated that he invited her on several occasions in the 1950's but Jurinac turned down the invitations. A specialist in Mozart and Strauss, she was a celebrated Contessa, Cherubino, Octavian, and Marschallin. She also sang Puccini - an estimable Butterfly - as well as Marie in Wozzeck. The Jurinac soprano in its prime was a gorgeous instrument, noted for its opulence and richness, particularly in the middle register. Her stately and aristocratic bearing on stage was a pleasure. She made relatively few recordings, but her most celebrated appearance on video is her Octavian opposite the incomparable Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Rosenkavalier, with Herbert von Karajan conducting. This video has never been out of the catalogue, and recently remastered with fabulous results.

Photo: Sena Jurinac (Octavian) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin) in Der Rosenkavalier


Sunday, 20 November 2011

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 21 - 27)

Conductor Andrey Boreyko (photo: Susanne Diesner)

Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko makes a welcome return to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week, in an eclectic program of Bernstein, Glazunov and Dvorak. Boreyko of course is no stranger to Canada, having held two separate posts, one as music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 2001-6, and also as principal guest conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (2000-3). Boreyko is one of the very gifted of the current generation of conductors, having received terrific notices just about everywhere. His debut with the august Cleveland Orchestra last season was highly praised. He is in town for an extended period - well, given how busy conductors are these days, you can say two weeks is extended! He is conducting Bernstein's Overture to Candide, Glazunov's Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (with Branford Marsalis as soloist). The centerpiece is Dvorak's much loved Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" - a very moving piece and aptly paired with Bernstein. Two performances on Nov. 22 and 24 at 8 p.m. Next week Boreyko is conducting a all-Russian program (Prokofiev and Stravinsky) with Leila Josefowicz - more about that later.
On the weekend are two performances of light classics, under the banner of Toronto Symphony Orchestra Classical Spotlight. It is an eclectic program of Haydn, Beethoven, Cimarosa and Mozart, designed for those wanting to ease themselves into the joys of classical music, with several soloists performing bite-sized pieces. For example, Alexander Serendenko is playing only the 3rd movement of the Beethoven No. 1! Of special interest to voice fans is the appearance of BC soprano Layla Claire, who is making quite a splash in the opera world. I heard her at the Queen Elisabeth Competition several years ago, and she's now in the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met. What a coup for her, to be prominently featured in the new documentary on James Levine, released to mark his 40th anniversary at the Met! Ms. Claire will sing the short but sweet "Alleluja" from Mozart's Exsultate jubilate - if only she's singing the whole thing! Two performances - Saturday No. 26 at 7:30 p.m., repeated on Sunday at 3 p.m. Edwin Outwater, music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, conducts.

Meanwhile, a couple of kilometers north of Roy Thomson Hall, the Royal Conservatory of Musicc Orchestra, featuring Canadian musicians of the future, will be giving a very interesting program on Nov. 25 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall. Uri Mayer is leading the young musicians in Bernstein's Suite from his ballet Fancy Free, Chausson's Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, and Strauss' mega-decibel Also sprach Zarathustra. I went to their season opener a couple of months ago, and heard them play Overture to Der fliegende Hollaender - a performance full of youthful enthusiasm and promise. Mayer is really picking daunting pieces for these young musicians, and they are rising to the challenge.

Now that the Canadian Opera Company fall season is over, the noon hour concerts at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre are given over to instrumentalists. On Nov. 22, Canadian pianist and Toronto resident Ricker Choi is playing Brahms Six Pieces for Piano Op. 118, Scriabin Sonata No. 5 and Chopin Ballade No. 1, a well balanced and familiar program. Be sure to show up at least 30 minutes to an hour to be assured of a decent seat, but then there's always standing room.

Just because the COC is in hiatus doesn't mean there is no opera. In fact, if you can forgo an orchestra, Opera In Concert is presenting Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, an opera that I believe have never been staged in Canada. OIC must be commended for taking this piece on - with five acts and ballet, this is a marathon, but I can only assume it will be cut. [I just checked the OIC website and they are doing it in two acts!] In the hands of great singers, this is a wonderful work. Opera fans will be familiar with the fabled live performance of Sutherland, Corelli and Simionato from La Scala, sung in Italian - as Gli Ugonotti! The OIC performance will have soprano Laura Whalen and tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez as Marguerite and Raoul. Lesley Ann Bradley is the zwischenfach Valentine. Pianist Michael Rose will have the very daunting task of playing this gigantic piece - toi toi toi to all the artists!

Another important vocal event is the Aldeburgh Connection's The Great Comet: The Extraordinary Life and Music of Franz Liszt. Unfortunately this falls on exactly the same time as the Meyerbeer - on Nov. 27 2:30 pm at Walter Hall. Soloists are soprano Joni Henson, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone James Westman, with as usual Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata at the piano. AC is known for intelligent and thought-provoking programming, so it is going to be difficult to decide!


Monday, 14 November 2011

The Theatre of Early Music’s Glorious Gloria

 By Hannah Rahimi 

As part of the Montreal Bach Festival, a large audience gathered on Sunday afternoon to hear the Theatre of Early Music performing at the majestic Église Saint-Léon de Westmount. The concert opened with the ethereal voice of Daniel Taylor floating over the crowd from the back balcony of the church. He proceeded to lead the TEM choir in a series of moving choral works, beginning with a traditional Basque air, The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came, and ending with John Tavener’s The Lamb, a contemporary work that combines homophonic simplicity with exquisite moments of dissonance.

Montreal-based cellist Matt Haimovitz displayed his tremendous virtuosity, rich tone and enormous musicality in performances of Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor and Concerto in G major. Although the church’s thundering acoustics swallowed up some of the more intricate passages, Haimovitz and the small TEM orchestra managed to convey Vivaldi’s fire and lyricism in this compelling performance.

Concluding the concert, the orchestra and choir joined together to present a passionate rendition of Vivaldi’s Gloria. Under Taylor’s guidance, the choir expressed the jubilant highs and simmering lows of this stunning religious work, enhanced by the sensitive and spirited playing of the orchestra. Sopranos Agnes Zsigovics and Hélène Brunet enchanted the audience with their beautifully blended duet in Laudamus te. Zsigovics also shone in Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, naturally shaping each phrase with her clear, round voice, accompanied by the elegant, lush playing of oboist Matthew Jennejohn.  

This concert was the perfect antidote to a grey Sunday in November, breathing joyous life into sacred works of music to warm us as winter sets in. The Montreal Bach Festival continues until November 20.

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Sunday, 13 November 2011

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 14 - 20)

The Gryhpon Trio (l. to r.) Roman Borys, cello; Annalee Patipatanakoon, violin; Jamie Parker, piano)

This week is a bit strange, as many interesting concerts fall simultaneously on Nov. 17. The second and final week of Lang Lang's residency at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra begins on November 17 when LL plays Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2, and ends on Nov. 19 with the "biggie", Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor." Also on the program both nights are Chinese composer Bright Sheng's piece with the intriguing title, Tibetan Swing. Sheng is an accomplished composer who infuses western musical idioms with eastern sensibilities. Some years ago, I saw his opera, Madame Mao, at the Santa Fe Opera. An acerbic yet lyrical commentary on recent Chinese history, it was a riveting evening in the theatre. According to the program notes on the TSO website, Tibetan Swing is "based on a typical Tibetan dance rhythm, trying to evoke both the beauty and the savagery of a particular mountain dance, an expressive dance well known for swinging the long sleeves of its traditional costumes and for its rhythmic foot stomps." The other piece on the program is Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, conducted by Peter Oundjian.

On Nov. 17 8 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Music Toronto is presenting the Gryphon Trio in Beethoven's Piano Trio in C Op. 1, No. 3. Also on the program is Anton Arensky's Piano Trio in D Minot, Op. 32, and the Canadian premiere of William Jordan's Owl Song.

University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting a free noon hour concert on Nov. 17 at Walter hall, Andiamo a casa, a program of operatic music for multiple pianos, played by members of the faculty, pianists Mia Bach and Andrea Grant. If you are one of those who love opera if only there's no singing (!), this is your chance - the two pianists will play transcriptions from Ernani, L'Italiana in Algeri, Norma, Lucia and Aida.

On Friday Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio, Sinfonia Toronto is presenting Gems Old and New, a program of two well known pieces (Mozart and Beethoven) with two new works (Teehan and Hatzis). Pianist Ratimir Martinovic and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly are the soloists.

If you like your chamber music with a modern bent, try Art of Time Ensemble's Songbook 6 with Steve Page, arrangements of popular songs by Harry Nilsson, Scott Walker, Randy Newman, Elvis Costello, Dan Mangan and others, interpreted by singer/songwriter Steven Page. Nov. 18 and 19 8 p.m. at the Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront.


Thursday, 10 November 2011

Passionate Bach at the OSM

By Hannah Rahimi 

For the second concert in this year’s Montreal Bach Festival, Kent Nagano led the OSM in a performance of Bach’s St John Passion, joined by the OSM Choir along with such acclaimed soloists as Sibylla Rubens, Christoph Genz and Markus Werba.

Montreal’s new hall, La Maison symphonique, proved a fine addition to the festival’s list of venues despite a rough start, when a small piece of the ceiling crashed to the floor just as the lights were dimming over the hall. Unfazed, Nagano calmly took the podium and proceeded to lead the orchestra in a dramatic yet refined rendition of the Passion 

In an interesting dramatic choice, soloists performed on podiums at various positions within the orchestra, walking gingerly amidst the instruments to get to and from their places. While this staging may have strengthened the unity between the sounds of voice and instruments, it seemed unnecessary, more visually distracting than musically enhancing.      

 As evangelist, German tenor Christoph Genz provided a lyrical narration of the drama, carrying the flow of the story with stunning clarity and smoothness. Slightly less at ease was Austrian tenor Martin Mitterutzner, who sang with rich tone but wasn’t always perfectly together with the orchestra, particularly in the aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken.” Replacing contralto Ingeborg Danz, Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor contributed his pure, otherworldly voice, most notably in a transcendent rendition of “Es ist vollbracht,” exquisitely accompanied by Margaret Little on viola de gamba. Under Nagano’s precise direction, the OSM choir breathed dramatic force into the choruses and floated above the orchestra in the chorales. 

A strong continuo section drove the performance, featuring cellist Brian Manker, organist Luc Beauséjour, bassoonist Stéphane Lévesque and Axel Wolf on lute. Oboists Theodore Baskin and Alexa Zirbel drew out the tensions and lyricisms of numerous arias, along with flutists Timothy Hutchins and Carolyn Christie, who provided a rich and unified tone.

Overall, a promising start to the Montreal Bach Festival, which runs until November 20, 2011.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: looks impressive, sounds even better

By Natasha Gauthier

Photo: Decca / Marco Borggreve

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra stopped at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Sunday, October 23, as part of their recent Canadian tour. Two Tchaikovsky symphonies were on offer, the First (“Winter Dreams”) and the much more celebrated Sixth (“Pathétique”).

The performance offered a glimpse at a particular kind of symphonic tradition that is rarely seen in North American. The Mariinsky is freakishly homogenous: 100-plus musicians all from more or less the same cultural background, all with the same professional training, and in this instance playing its wheelhouse repertoire. The result is an orchestra that plays like the legendary corps of the Mariinsky Ballet dances: as if they were a single person. 

Every bowstroke happens with one breath. Every instrument is held with exactly the same body position, whether playing or at rest. Even the two bassoonists end their phrases with the same little graceful, perfectly coordinated flourish.

It all looks very impressive, but it sounds even better. Much has already been written about Gergiev’s unorthodox conducting style: the absence of podium (at his height, he hardly needs one) and baton, the vague, amorphous hand gestures. None of it hinders the communication between him and the musicians. 

Winter Dreams is not the greatest of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, but Gergiev elevates it by bringing out its atmospheric themes while deftly glossing over its structural weaknesses. The Maestro’s flexible approach to rubato was particularly suited to the lovely, dance-like Scherzo, while the outer movements were distinguished by especially plangent, wintry tones from the woodwinds and brass. 

The monumental and much more challenging Pathétique really allowed the orchestra to stretch its legs, like racehorses springing out of the gate. Gergiev’s tempi choices vary more widely than the norm, and he coaxed the musicians to thrilling contrasts between dazzling speed and dolent restraint. The inexorable buildup through the third movement chugged along like a steam locomotive, and the climax of the finale was powerful enough—both in volume and in emotional impact-- to blow you out of your seat.

Read the October 2011 La Scena Musicale cover story on Gergiev here:

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

ALO Flute Lacks Magic!

by Paul E. Robinson
525MM Magic Flute-19
: The Magic Flute
Austin Lyric Opera
(ALO)Director: James MarvelConductor: Richard BuckleyThe Long Center
Austin, Texas
Saturday November 5, 2011

Congratulations are in order for the Austin Lyric Opera on the occasion of its 25th Anniversary. The organization also deserves enormous credit for dealing quickly and apparently effectively with a serious financial crisis that came to a boil last spring. Changes since then have included the resignation of General Director Kevin Patterson, the listing of ALO’s office building for sale, and major program cuts to the 2011-2012 season. Kevin Smith was appointed interim General Director and principal conductor Richard Buckley was given the additional title of Artistic Director.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute was the first opera the ALO produced in its inaugural season in 1987. In a program note Kevin Smith declares that the theme of the 25th anniversary is “Let the Magic continue…;” unfortunately, there was little, if any magic in James Marvel’s production of The Magic Flute.
Let it be said at the outset that The Magic Flute is full of wonderful music, but the libretto is an unruly mishmash of comedy and spirituality. It is a huge challenge for any director to make sense of it all and put it together in a way that is both faithful to Mozart and intelligible for the audience. Come to think of it, there are any number of Shakespeare plays that pose a similar challenge.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I would guess that director James Marvel had another challenge too; that is, how to mount a production of one of Mozart’s greatest operas with a severely trimmed budget resulting from the ALO’s financial troubles. Marvel and artistic director Buckley probably had to engage cheaper and less experienced singers than they originally intended and had to make do with less elaborate sets and costumes. Be that as it may, I can really only go by what I saw and heard at the Long Center, and frankly, I was disappointed.
Mr. Marvel talks a good game. In his program notes, he goes on about the Masonic elements in the opera, and about how the main theme of the work is the “many faces” of love. But what he put on stage was a musical comedy version of the opera. He stressed the jokes and the sight gags and treated the serious elements as satire. Does he not listen to the music? In the choruses and elsewhere, one hears kinship with some of Mozart’s most profound works such as the Masonic Funeral Music and the Requiem. There is plenty of comedy in The Magic Flute, but it is only there to leaven the generally serious, indeed life and death matters which are the heart and soul of the opera. The opera is about love but it is also about the power of love, wisdom and music to overcome adversity and superstition. This is Enlightenment thinking in the form of art and it permeates nearly every scene in the opera.
Metaphors abound in The Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night represents the forces of darkness and she and her followers are in a life and death struggle with the forces of light represented by Sarastro and his priests, but Marvel and Lighting Designer David Nancarrow have chosen to bathe everyone in the brightest possible light from beginning to end. The costumes are invariably bright and perky and the sets are little more than a series of risers with sliding panels. Some projections are used to supply what is lacking on stage, but these are barely more than rudimentary. By using so many bright lights and costumes, Marvel eliminates the basic contrasts in the story of the opera - worse than that, he removes all mystery from the spiritual elements.
Speaking of removing things, why didn’t we have a serpent in the opening scene; a fuzzy projection doesn’t count! And what happened to the Two Men in Armor in Act Two? Their music was sung by two priests. No money available for the right costumes? And what are we to make of the way chorus members were allowed to file onstage in rows as if preparing for a concert, and leave the same way? Marvel seemed to have no idea how to move large groups, let alone give the individual singers any sense of character; they invariably lined up like zombies. Is Sarastro running a cult or what?
One of the most impressive productions of The Magic Flute I have seen was presented at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland (1986). August Everding was the director and Toni Businger did the costumes. In the castle courtyard where the performances are given, conventional sets are impossible, and yet the use of imaginative props and costumes – yes, including a wonderful serpent – and a great cast made this production a profoundly moving experience. It was the magnificent choir in this production that brought me to the realization that the spirit of Mozart’s Requiem lives in this music and that Beethoven was undoubtedly influenced by these choruses in The Magic Flute when he came to compose the "Prisoners' Chorus" in Fidelio.
My point is that a successful production is not necessarily about lavish sets and huge budgets; it has more to do with simply understanding the opera and finding a way to capture its essence.
On the musical side, Richard Buckley must take some of the blame. None of the principal vocalists came close to producing the sound and phrasing required by Mozart, with the possible exception of Jamie-Rose Guarrine (photo above: right) in the smaller role of Papagena. Some of the singing, in my opinion, was simply unpleasant.
It is fashionable to take fast tempi in Mozart these days, but that doesn’t make them right. Consider Buckley’s tempo for the Allegro section of the Overture. This section is not marked ‘Allegro molto’ or ‘Presto’ and yet Buckley took off at top speed. His tempo choice not only ignores what Mozart wrote, but is at odds with the spirit of the opera. Buckley’s tempi were invariably faster than usual – compare Bruno Walter or Colin Davis – and were of a piece with Marvel’s musical comedy approach.
The Austin Lyric Opera has shown a flair for presenting familiar operas in new ways, as well as unfamiliar works which are both substantial and entertaining. But The Magic Flute was not a wise program choice, given a director with so little appreciation of the work and too few singers up to the musical challenges.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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