La Scena Musicale

Friday, 13 May 2011

Adrianne Pieczonka Sings Luminous Koerner Hall Recital

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (photo: Johannes Ifkovits)

Adrianne Pieczonka Recital
Brian Zeger, piano
Koerner Hall, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto
Saturday May 7m 2011 at 8 pm

by Joseph K. So

Schubert: Ganymed
Das Rosenband
Die Forelle
Du liebst mich nicht
Gretchen am Spinnrade
Strauss: Traum durch die Dammerung
Das Rosenband
Die Nacht
Ruhe meine Seele
Mein Auge
Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten
Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder
Der Engel
Stehe still
Im Treibhaus
Strauss: Du meines herzens Kronelein
Wir beide wollen springen

"Adrianne - you are the music!" a voice shouted from the auditorium when soprano Adrianne Pieczonka had just sung the first of her encores, Schubert's An die Musik, and getting ready to launch into the second, "Somewhere" from West Side Story. The audience's initial shock at this little breach of concert etiquette turned into a burst of delighted applause. In fact, it was an evening full of accolades from a nearly sold out house, where the audience showed their appreciation to an artist who, in the mind of many, is the reigning Canadian prima donna. The soprano combines a beautiful voice with a sincerity and simplicity that touches the heart - an artist without artifice. On this particular evening, the extremely receptive audience was made up of voice fans of course, but also friends and family of the singer, gathered there to honour and enjoy an evening of music-making. It was an old-fashioned "love-in."

The soprano began with a group of well known Schubert lieder. There was no evidence of the cold that knocked her out of the opening night of the COC Ariadne auf Naxos a week earlier. The voice was clear and strong, the tone pure, with its trademark gleam. Her interpretation was straightforward, rather generalized in its emotional expression, the text communicated with unpretentious directness. Some may have found her interpretation a little bland or subdued - perhaps, but to my ears it was a refreshing change from the rather convoluted or overly intellectual sort of "word-pointing" a la Schwarzkopf that one sometimes encounters in recitals by "lieder specialists." The two Strauss groups showed off her silvery timbre and warm, sweet tone, and in particular her ability to caress a phrase with mezza voce. There was a poise in her delivery of these songs, particularly pieces like "Traum durch die Dammerung" or "Das Rosenband." A highlight of the evening was the Wesendonck-Lieder, a cycle she must have sung dozens of times. Written very much in the middle register, it' relatively low tessitura sometimes poses a problem for lyric sopranos, but Pieczonka's full lyric voice with its warm and solid middle voice is ideally suited to these songs - "Im Treibhaus" and "Traume" were particularly lovely. The Wagner was followed by more Strauss, including "Morgen!" which the soprano delivered with admirable repose. The singer made an emotional dedication of the final song "Zueignung" to her wife mezzo Laura Tucker. It was sung with unbridled joy and full-throttle ecstasy. Throughout the recital, Met pianist Brian Zeger offered the most attentive and sympathetic support, the two benefiting from having performed the identical program last summer at Kent Nagano's Orford Festival in Quebec. Let's hope this is the first of many collaborations between the two artists. Four encores followed, and the audience went home happy.

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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Benefit Ball Boasts Big Bucks for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens

By Naomi Gold (

Photo by Guy Labissionnière & Blue Strom Média
From left to right: Guy C. Hachey, COO Bombardier Aerospace and gala co-chair; Line Beauchamp, Quebec Minister of Education, Recreation & Sports; Constance V. Pathy, board chairperson of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; Christiane Hachey, gala co-chair

Uniprix Stadium recently hosted 700 guests at the annual fundraising ball for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal. The Asian-themed soirée began with champagne apéritifs, shrimp antipasto and sushi appetizers. Attendees then proceeded to the cavernous ballroom, where Nancy Martinez and her band set a harmonious mood with their jazzy tunes.

As the first of four scrumptious courses was served by Montreal caterer Agnes Dei, emcee Mireille Deyglun welcomed and thanked patrons for their support. Ecstatic GBC board chair Constance V. Pathy joyfully announced the company's upcoming tour to China and introduced ball co-chairs Guy Hachey, COO Bombardier Aerospace and wife Christiane. They imparted that $630,000 was raised, which delighted company CEO Alain Dancyger and artistic director Gradimir Pankov.
The gala's highlight was a bravissima performance of Mauro Bigonzetti's Cantata, which included the Gruppo Musicale Assurd, a quartet of female singer/musicians from southern Italy. The (all too) brief bravura excerpt brought the stadium down—eliciting a thunderous standing ovation.

Post-prandial fun featured plenty of prize drawings, including airfare to Europe and stunning Swarovski jewels. High-spirited band Alter Ego inspired guests and dancers to strut their stuff on the sprawling dance floor until early morn'. Gala partners and sponsors included Bombardier, Gian Rocco, Hotel Management International, Ogilvy, La Maison Ishi, SAQ and Solotech.

Tickets are still available for GBC's last show, which runs from May 12 to 21 at Place des Arts. Dancers will interpret works by two German choreographers: Marco Goecke's Pierrot Lunaire and a pas de deux set to the finale of Stravinsky's Firebird follows Searching for Home by Stephan Thoss. Artistic director Gradimir Pankov will present a spectacular roster of classical, neo-classical and contemporary works in 2011-2012. Canadian choreographer Peter Quanz kicks off next season with the world première of Rodin/Claudel, which is followed by Fernand Nault's beloved Christmas Nutcracker classic. The Nutcracker Market shopping emporium returns to Palais des Congrès in November. Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman's The Little Prince is another première performance to be presented in 2012. For subscriptions, tickets and other information, call the Place des Arts box office at (514) 842-2112 or contact GBC: (514) 849-0269; Prices begin at $20.00.

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Beethoven Marathon

Complete Beethoven String Quartets at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival

By Crystal Chan

Canada’s young Afiara string quartet kicked off a six-concert Beethoven marathon tonight with plenty of enthusiasm.

It’ll be the first time in over a decade that Ludwig’s string quartets will be performed as a complete cycle in Montreal.

Next week, Afiara will pass the baton to an ensemble of an earlier generation—the venerable Tokyo String Quartet, highly acclaimed as some of the top string players worldwide. Then, the Chiara String Quartet, Harvard’s new quartet-in-residence.

Some say the Beethoven string quartets changed the whole face of music. Most of them were premiered in a series of concerts put together by violinist Ignaz Schuppanzi and his quartet, one of the first performance series featuring a professional chamber music ensemble playing to a paying audience and, at the time, the only one featuring instrumental music exclusively in Vienna. This, at a time when chamber music was generally thought of as a recreational home activity; early 19th century Monopoly, if you will.

Those concerts were prototypes of music concerts as we know them today—consumer activities where audiences look forward to being wowed by what those at the top of their field choose to present.

Not only did these pieces alter music history, but as festival founder Denis Brott put it before the opening show by Afiara, experiencing the quartets could “change your life.”

Afiara has a bit of a specialty when it comes to Beethoven; they took home the Szekely Prize for the best Beethoven performance at the Banff International String Quartet Competition last year. For players in their 20s and 30s they showed maturity in their performance at St. George’s Church.

They carried off the dramatically long stretches of silence in the String Quartet #1’s second movement very well. It’s a movement supposedly inspired by the fateful crypt scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The more-classical feeling Quartet #1 was followed by the fully Romantic Quartet #11 “Serioso,” a sort of test lab piece preceding the famed late string quartets. It was good programming to balance the opening show in the series with a piece each from the early, middle, and late string quartets.

Chamber music is a medium of choreographed conversation, and nowhere was that more apparent tonight than in the beautiful, long third movement of the concert-closing Quartet #15. The movement’s slightly religious feel had a magical effect in the dark church, and the intonation problems the players had occasionally suffered from in the two previous pieces seemed to all-but disappear. It was no doubt this virtuosic 15th quartet that most of the audience had in mind during the standing ovation.

The thirteen other quartets take their turn in the spotlight tomorrow and Tuesday-Wednesday over the next two weeks.

For classical music lovers, it’s a marathon of canonical and beloved pieces not to be missed. The “late string quartets”—the last six, and the last pieces Beethoven ever composed—are especially innovative (correspondingly, some note, to the progression of Beethoven’s loss of hearing) and relentlessly hard for performers. They also appalled critics of the time.

As good a measure as any by which to tell you’re in for a real mind-opener.

May 11, 17, 18, 24, and 25 at 5 p.m. A free lecture by musicologist Richard Turp precedes each concert at 7 p.m. As part of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, until May 28

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COC Ends Season with a Deeply Moving Orfeo ed Euridice

Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo) and Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice) Photo: Michael Cooper

Gluck: Orfeo ed Euridice
Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Centre May 8, 2011

by Joseph K. So

Lawrence Zazzo (Orfeo)
Isabel Bayrakdarian (Euridice)
Ambur Braid (Amor)
Harry Bicket, conductor
Robert Carsen, director
Tobias Hoheisel, Set and Costume Designer
Robert Carsen/Peter Van Praet, Lighting Designer

Music has the power to tap into our subconscious and allow our deepest emotions to bubble up to the surface. When music is coupled with imagery as in staged opera, its power is multiplied many fold. Sometimes, a turn of a musical phrase or a specific stage action can trigger an unexpected emotional response in the listener/viewer. During the opening performance of the Gluck opera last Sunday, at the precise moment when Euridice and Orfeo came face to face and she died in his arms, the stage lighting abruptly and dramatically dimmed. I remember thinking to myself - 'ah, the light had gone out of Orfeo's world!' The effect was galvanizing - I felt as if I've been punched in the stomach, overwhelmed by a feeling of sadness and loss. I left the opera house that afternoon, with a renewed sense of wonder and appreciation for the power of music, and for the men and women of genius who bring the work to life, in this case Robert Carsen. The Canadian director and set and costume designer Tobias Hoheisel have created a production that is timeless, sparse, and devoid of the trappings of grand opera, focusing instead on the emotional core of the music and the action that best serve this ancient myth. As someone who is in his fifth decade of attending live opera, I admit to being rather tradition-bound in my personal taste of productions. Contemporary re-imaginings that I've encountered are sometimes appreciated on an intellectual level, perhaps even grudgingly and any emotional heart strings are left un-tugged. As a Wagner and Strauss fan, I've often found the formalism of Baroque rather limiting in its emotional impact. Now I realize that in the right hands it can be every bit as powerful and timeless. This Orfeo was one of only five or six performances in a life-time of opera-going that had such a powerful impact. I feel privileged to have experienced an epiphany at the opera.

While much of the credit goes to the creative team of Carsen, Hoheisel, and lighting designer Peter Van Praet, kudos must also go to the singers - soloists and the chorus - for bringing the concept to life. Particularly impressive was the magnificent performance of American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, who was on stage virtually the whole 80 minutes with no intermission. His Orfeo was a tour-de-force, combining beauty of tone with a searing intensity that left one breathless. As Euridice, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian had much less to do, but she was perfect as the doubting wife, singing beautifully and only betraying signs of strain in a couple of fortissimo passages. The third character in this opera is Amor, ably played and acted by COC Ensemble Studio soprano Ambur Braid. Amor in this production is an "Orfeo double" in the first half and an "Euridice double" near the end of the opera. This gender ambiguity is unfortunately not really explained in the Director's Notes in the program, leaving it open to interpretation. Perhaps Amor's assumption of human form underscores the god's empathy for the mortal's capacity for love and self sacrifice. Carsen is to be commended for going straight to the heart of the work. His absence from the COC has been far too long, and let's hope we will be experiencing his productions again very soon. The chorus under Sandra Horst never sounded better; and while the COC Orchestra isn't exactly a baroque band, under the expert baton of Harry Bicket, the orchestra sounded most convincing. All in all, this Orfeo - and the 2010-11 season in general - is decidedly a high water mark in the history of the Canadian Opera Company.


Monday, 9 May 2011

This Week in Toronto (May 9 - 15)

Pianist Emanuel Ax (photo courtesy

When it comes to classical music, the cup truly runneth over for us Torontonians this week. In a span of seven days, we get to experience five operas - three stage productions and two concert performances, three internationally ranked pianists, symphonic concerts, excellent choirs and chamber groups, two vocal recitals, plus a number of community-based music events.

I attended the Canadian Opera Company's third spring production, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, which opened yesterday afternoon. Without exaggeration, it was a truly unforgettable experience. The power of Gluck's magnificent score, presented in a visually stunning production starring great singing actors led by the terrific American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, under the inspired direction of Canadian Robert Carsen, left an indelible impression. This show continues this week on May 11 at 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre.
Meanwhile, La cenerentola is on the stage of the FSC on May 10 at 7:30 pm, and Ariadne auf Naxos resumes May 12 and continues on May 15. The unusually long hiatus between the second and third performance of Ariadne allowed soprano Adrianne Pieczonka to squeeze in a Liederabend at Koerner Hall. Details and tickets at

The COC's Free Concert Series is presenting two vocal programs this week. On Tuesday at noon in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is Sides of Us, a concert featuring tenor Richard Margison and his daughter Lauren Margison. On the program are jazz, flues, folk, opera and art songs! Christopher Mokrzewski is at the piano. There is a documentary highlighting Margison as a folksinger, and he is terrific! Program at Be sure to line up an hour ahead for a seat. On Thursday, the COC Ensemble Studio artists present Serenata Italiana, a program of Italian songs. You can download the pdf file of the program here -

In addition to the three staged operas above are two operas in concert with piano accompaniment. The Concert Opera Group - Artistic Director of U of T Music Professor Darryl Edwards - is presenting Tannhauser on May 13 7:30 pm at the Runnymede United Church. Considering that this Wagner masterpiece has never been seen on the stage of the COC, kudos to Edwards for bringing it to Toronto audiences! In the title role is veteran tenor J. Patrick Raftery, who also teaches at the Faculty of Music. Elisabeth is soprano Joni Henson. Peter McGillivray is Wolfram. Christopher Mokrzewski is at the piano. I wouldn't be telling the truth if I say one won't miss an orchestra - this is Wagner afterall! However, this represents a really good opportunity to hear this Wagnerian gem sung by Canadian artists. I am not sure if Raftery has sung Tannhauser before, but it is safe to say Henson and McGillivray are new to their respective roles. Unfortunately the Concert Opera Group website isn't functioning, but go to TO Tix for ticket information

At exactly the same time is Opera By Request's presentation of Wagner's Das Rheingold, at the College Street United Church. Former COC Ensemble baritone Andrew Tees is Wotan, tenor Lenard Whiting is Loge, and music director William Shookhoff is at the piano. Go to their website for more information -

The headliner this week at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is the return of frequent guest pianist Emanuel Ax, in town for two performances of Mozart's Piano concerto No. 17 in G Major K 453. Also on the program is Strauss' Alpine Symphony conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. In town for the run of Ariadne, Sir Andrew is a superb Straussian and this is another chance to see him conduct. Performances at Wednesday May 11 at 8 pm and Thursday at 2 pm. On Saturday is Bugs, Birds and Butterflies, a children's concert. Details and tickets at

Svetlana Dvoretskaia's Show One Productions is presenting sensational Russian piano virtuoso Denis Matsuev at Koerner Hall on May 12 at 8 pm, in a program of Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Matsuev is currently on tour and has just played Montreal. Details at

Long time impresario Ann Summers and her International Resource Centre for Performing Artists is presenting Opera Week Celebration Concert on May 11 at 8 pm at the George Weston Hall in North York. This is the culmination of a week of masterclasses given by Italian maestro Vincenzo Scalera and American coach Joan Dornemann to participating young singers. Details at

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir under Noel Edison is presenting Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor on May 11 7:30 pm at Koerner Hall. Soloists are soprano Gillian Keith, mezzo Anita Krause, tenor John Mayell and baritone Thomas Goerz. Details at