La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Yuja Wang's Lite Rach 3

by L. H. Tiffany Hsieh

The Chinese rising star pianist Yuja Wang is emerging as some kind of new-edge sweetheart in the classical music world. She's young — 24 — tomboyish pretty, cool, funny, feisty and good. Extremely good.

You gotta love this girl and the audience at Roy Thomson Hall on June 9 loved her instantly as Wang stylishly conquered Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto in the company of Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Standing ovation, cheers and the whole nine yards.

So it'll make me the odd person for what I'm about to write. As much as I am a fan of Wang's piano playing, this particular performance from her — the second night of her TSO debut — just didn't do it for me.

Rach 3 is a richly meaty and complex piece of work. If it were a baking recipe, you'd be using a whole packet of eggs, all-purpose flour, full-fat milk, double cream, three different kinds of sugar and a whole stick of butter. Real butter, too.

Instead, Wang offered up a lite-Rach, a lean version of this otherwise devilish bomb surely bad for your blood pressure, with skim milk, whole wheat flour, lite cream and margarine.

You can call it poetic or sophisticated, but in the youthful language of "geez" and "BS" Wang showed a penchant for during an intermission live chat, her Rach 3 was a bit blah and stale despite an impressive display of fiery chops.

From the start, the opening melody lacked a certain pronouncement. If Wang was going for subtlety, it was barely audible at times.

She also took too much extra time and liberty in the lyrical sections throughout all three movements. Beautiful and, yes, sophisticated as her tones and phrasings were, the meticulous, Chopin-like manner she put on the harmonic exploration slowly went into a dreamlike standstill that crippled the rest of the piece in a partial comatose state.

In rhythmic passages, instead of fatty fingers for maximum fatty effect, Wang's skinny, super-articulated fingers delivered thin, staccato-like execution in this what should really just be a think, creamy pool of dark, gooey sauce.

Overall, it was a gutsy, different kind of Rach 3, but too bad it was unmemorable and disengaged.

Oundjian led his orchestra in fine form in the rest of the concert — the last of TSO's Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists series.

Ravel's Alborada del gracioso was a charming concert opener. After intermission, Rachmaninoff's The Sea and the Seagulls from Cinq Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 160 served up a refreshing appetite "like sushi and sashimi" as Oundjian aptly described from the stage. The aromatic seaside fragrance wafted toward Debussy's La Mer with a powerful sensual force of nature. All's well that ends well.

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Les gagnants du 100e Prix d'Europe

par Renée Banville

L’épreuve finale du Prix d’Europe a eu lieu hier à la Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur. Le public a patienté durant près d’une heure pour apprendre le nom du lauréat. Malheureusement, les organisateurs ont décidé de faire languir le public et les candidats. Le jury a dévoilé les noms des quatre finalistes qui demeurent en liste dans chacune des catégories, soit : chant, claviers, cordes et vents/percussions. Ce sont, dans l’ordre : la soprano Andréanne Paquin, le pianiste Charles Richard-Hamelin, le violoniste Victor Fournelle-Blain et la percussionniste Isabelle Tardif. Chacun de ces finalistes remporte un prix de 5000$ de la Banque TD. Le Prix d’Europe, d’une valeur de 30 000$, sera dévoilé lors du gala qui aura lieu dimanche à 19h30 à la Salle Claude-Champagne.

La présidence d’honneur de la 100e édition a été confiée au claveciniste et organiste Kenneth Gilbert, lauréat du Prix d'Europe pour orgue en 1953. Le jury est présidé par le compositeur Gabriel Thibaudeau et est composé de Nicole Lorange, soprano, Rachel Martel, pianiste, Christophe Guiot et Yuriko Naganuma, violonistes, et Jean-Marie Poupelin, hautboïste. Les compositeurs Denis Gougeon, John Rea et Ana Sokolovic sont les membres du jury dans la catégorie composition. Le nom du gagnant de ce prix sera également annoncé lors du concert-gala.

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Gabriela Montero: The Piano is her Playground

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero described the piano as her playground on stage at Roy Thomson Hall June 1.

That proved to be a bit of an understatement as she went on to play two brilliant encores à la Gabriela Montero.

First, it was Gershwin’s famous Summertime, as requested by a member of the audience, in Bach-like style.

Second, it was the theme from Hockey Night in Canada dressed in Latin fever. Montero insisted on improvising something Canadian — Torontonian to be precise — even though she had never heard of the melody until Paul Meyer, principal second violinist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, played it out for her after another audience member requested it on the spot.

Yes, these were encores for Montero’s debut performance with the TSO in which she performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. While she was effortless in Rhapsody — in fact she’s an unruffled, graceful pianist with killer tones — it takes more than a superlative soloist to pull off this ensemble piece and unfortunately pianist and orchestra were poorly coordinated in this, the finale of a thoughtfully matched but unusual program of Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists.

Hence the delightful encores were more than a treat. They were the long-awaited lemony sunshine following a largely subdued concert by nature of the music.

TSO music director Peter Oundjian started off the night with Rachmaninoff’s rarely performed The Isle of the Dead. This was one of the best performances I’ve heard this orchestra deliver this season. Not a single note was off. Every detail was nuanced with just the right amount of anticipation, freedom and embroidery.

Then came Debussy’s Premiere rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra. Featuring TSO principal clarinettist Joaquin Valdepenas as soloist, this delicately dreamy piece of work was in good hands. The natural chemistry between Valdepenas, Oundjian and the orchestra was advantageous in terms of unity, but what lacked in this particular performance were a sense of adventure and elements of surprise.

French composer Paul Dukas’ best-known work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, felt like a write-off and out of context. Despite a decent and easy reading of the score by the orchestra, the light-hearted mood and the stop-and-go temper of the music added little to the previous works and even less so as a conversation piece during intermission.

Oundjian’s rationale for programming this piece, as explained in the program note, is that Dukas was very much influenced by Debussy and Dukas passed on his orchestral expertise to his student, Olivier Messiaen.

So, the second half of the concert opened with none other but Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliees. Thankfully, the TSO returned to its top form and delivered a striking imagery of sadness, madness and deadness. When it was all over, it was as if a life was just beginning.

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This Week in Toronto (June 6 - 12)

Pianist Yuja Wang (photo: Felix Broede)

by Joseph K. So

Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is one of the current crop of piano virtuoso wowing audiences around the globe. She is in town with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week at the Roy Thomson Hall. Born in Beijing, Wang studied with Gary Graffman at Curtis and won the Aspen Music Festival's concerto competition at 15! In 2006, she was named Gilmore Young Artist, and in 2010, she was the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant. She records exclusively for the Yellow Label. Wang had to cancel her National Arts Centre engagements last week due to illness. We hope she is fully recovered and look forward to a dazzling display of her artistry. Three shows - June 8's performance is part of the Afterworks Series starting at 6:30 pm. Wang plays Rachmaninoff No. 3. Also on the program is Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2. The show on June 9 is the longer one at 8 pm, with the addition of Debussy's La Mer and Ravel's Alborada del gracioso. Finally, on June 9 at 7:30 pm, as part of the Casual Concert Series, the program is the same minus the Ravel, and there is a post-concert party at the lobby with a live band. Peter Oundjian is at the helm.

The other big news this week is the return of the Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity. Technically the festival is from June 10 to 19, but the buzz is already starting in earnest! June 7 marks the opening of One Thousand and One Nights, Luminato's most ambitious commission to date. British director Tim Supple and Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh join forces for a cutting edge interpretation of the the One Thousand and One Nights. Go to for show details and tickets.

Just north of the GTA is the picaresque town of Sharon. The Music At Sharon series features Canadian pianist Jane Coop on June 12. Details at


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Domingo and Radvanovsky Deliver the Magic at Black Creek

A very well filled Rexall Centre awaiting the arrival of the soloists (photo: Joseph K. So)

Tenor Placido Domingo and soprano Sondra Radvanovsky weaved their magic on a (cold) summer night at the Black Creek Summer Music Festival (Photo: Joseph K. So)

by Joseph K. So

Black Creek Summer Music Festival Inaugural Gala Concert

Placido Domingo, ten.
Sondra Radvanovsky, sop.
Black Creek Festival Orchestra and Chorus
Eugene Kohn, cond.
Rexall Centre, Toronto
June 4, 8 pm. 2011

Opening Cavalleria Rusticana (Chorus)
"O Souverain" from Le Cid (Domingo)
Bolero from I vespri Siciliani (Radvanovsky & Chorus)
"Favella il Doge" from Simon Boccanegra (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"La mamma morta" from Andrea Chenier (Radvanovsky)
"Nemico della patria" from Andrea Chenier (Domingo)
Triumphal March from Aida (Chorus)
"Gia nella notte denza" from Otello (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Mira, d'acerbe lagrime" from Il Trovatore (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Poet and Peasant Overture" von Suppe (Orchestra)
"Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific (Domingo)
"I could have danced all night" (Radvanovsky)
"Tonight" from West Side Story (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"I want to be a Prima Donna" (Radvanovsky)
"Musica Prohibita" (Domingo)
"O sole mio" (Radvanovsky)
"Non ti scordar di me" (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"No puede ser" (Domingo)
" Vissi d'arte" (Radvanovsky)
"Besame mucho" (Domingo)
"Somewhere over the rainbow" (Radvanovsky)
"Granada" (Domingo)
"Lippen schweigen (in English) (Domingo & Radvanovsky)
"Hallelujah" (Domingo conducting, with Radvanovsky and Kohn joining the Chorus)
+ Fireworks to End

A year in planning, the high profile Black Creek Summer Music Festival had its inaugural concert last evening at the Rexall Centre. A great deal was at stake. It was by far the largest scale summer music series the Toronto area has seen, with the highest profile artists from the fields of classical, pop, jazz, country, and Broadway. The event that kicked off the Festival starred mega-star tenor Placido Domingo in his first visit to the GTA in a dozen years. The weather had been good most of the week, but we woke up to a pouring rain and driving wind. As if on cue, even the weather gods cooperated - by the afternoon, it had cleared and the audience didn't have to sit in wet seats or worse, shiver in a downpour. Yes, it was unseasonably cold and a bit windy, but given our unpredictable spring, Torontonians would gladly put up with this little bit of discomfort. More problematic was the chaotic traffic conditions that led to the concert being held up for 30 minutes so attendees could make their way from their cars to the stadium. The Rexall Centre, with one third of the seats at one end closed with the stage on court level, was surprising intimate due to the amphitheatre design. I have attended many al fresco concerts in the past both in the States and in Europe, and this venue is better than most and much preferable to some of the open air ones in Munich for example (Koenigsplatz and Odeonplatz come readily to mind) where the openness meant poor, diffused sound. The amphitheatre also meant the wind was substantially reduced. The staging area was set up to the highest professional standards with a superb sound system and multiple stationery and roving video cameras. The concert was streamed live on the internet to an international audience for a fee of $15. Needless to say this was the most elaborate and high-tech classical event Toronto has seen a long time. Would the hugely elaborate production suggest that at some point, we can expect a release of the event on commercially available DVD?

The evening began with the Prelude and Chorus to Cavalleria Rusticana, which the audience dutifully applauded. Let's face it - they were there to hear the two stars rather than what the pick-up Black Creek Orchestra and Chorus could do. In particular the audience in the well-filled Rexall Centre was there to hear Placido Domingo. When he came out, a roar of cheering erupted. He started with a popular "set piece" for dramatic tenors from Caruso to Heppner, and of course Domingo - "O souverain" from Massenet's Le Cid. For a singer who has been in front of the public 50 of his 70 years, the only way to describe his vocal estate is 'miraculous'. The timbre is fresh and youthful, and he sounds better than most tenors half his age. There is a natural darkening of the sound with the passage of time, the tone is a burnished gold nowadays. Domingo began as a baritone so the extreme high notes, like the C, was never his forte. Now he has migrated to an increasing number of baritone roles. In this concert, the Le Cid aria and the love duet from Act 1 Otello were the only two tenor pieces he attempted. Midway through the duet, the pitch was transposed down a semitone so the he didn't have to deal with the long held high A at the end. Purist may quibble but personally I much rather hear this great singer operate within his comfort zone than to have him struggle with a note. And he sang the duet brilliantly, with plenty of lovely mezza voce and a ringing top. Among the other solo pieces he sang, "Nemico della patria" from Andrea Chenier was a standout, delivered with passion and intensity. The role of Carlos Gerard fits Domingo like a glove - let's hope he will add this to his repertoire soon. The tenor also sang a number of "pop" pieces, like "Some Enchanted Evening" with his trademark pleasantly accented English. As a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, Domingo sang "Musica Prohibita", a piece made famous by the great Caruso.

Sharing a stage with Domingo was Sondra Radvanovsky, the best Verdi soprano in front of the public today. She combines a phenomenal technique with silvery, full-bodied tone and a glorious upper extension. Her Bolero from Vespri Siciliani showed off her sparkling coloratura. The extended duet of her Amelia opposite the Simon of Domingo was one of the highlights of the evening - the tenor caressed the phrases beautifully and sang the soft passages with security and feeling. "La mama morta" from Andrea Chenier is written very much in the middle voice, and Radvanovsky rich and solid middle makes her a ideal Maddalena. I don't think this role is in her repertoire, as she sings very few verismo heroines, but this is one that suits her beautifully.

The formal part of the program came to an end with "Non ti scordar di me" sung as a duet. The enraptured audience wasn't about to let the two artists go without several encores. The ovations were so warm and vociferous that the singers were called back again and again. In the end there were a total of eight (!) encores. Radvanovsky's 'Vissi d'arte' is a lesson in beauty of tone, legato phrasing and technical control. The two joined forces in Lippen schweigen from Giuditta, and finally, Domingo took the baton and led the orchestra and chorus in a joyous rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus, joined by the soprano and the conductor Eugene Kohn! As if that wasn't enough, the evening ended with spectacular fireworks. I think it would be hard to top this in the future, but I am sure Black Creek Summer Music Festival will have more surprises for us this summer. Stay tuned!