La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 14 April 2011

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

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

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

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

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Monday, 11 April 2011

Still Dangerous After 181 Years?

By Frank Cadenhead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The La Libre article: 

The dangerous duet on YouTube:

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Sunday, 10 April 2011

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 11 - 17)

Soprano Sumi Jo
Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt

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

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

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

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