La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Irons, Mirren and Orchestra Shine in Shakespeare Concert

Conductor Lorin Maazel brings his Castleton Festival Orchestra to the Black Creek Summer Music Festival

Dame Helen Mirren (photo: Giles Keyte)

Jeremy Irons

"Music Inspired by Shakespeare"
Prokofiev - Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet
Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Mendelssohn - Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream Op. 21 & Op. 61

Castleton Festival Orchestra
Lorin Maazel, conductor
Dame Helen Mirren
Jeremy Irons
Joyce El-Khoury, soprano
Tharanga Goonetilleke, soprano
Women's Voices of the Castleton Festival Chorus
June 29th 2011 8 pm, Rexall Centre, Toronto

By Joseph K. So

Following the blockbuster opening with Domingo and Radvanovsky, Black Creek presented its second classical event last evening, starring three big names - conductor Lorin Maazel, and actors Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, in a program of music and words. It was a warm day but a cool evening that turned unseasonably cold as the evening went on, leading a number of patrons to sport blankets after intermission. But the music-making on stage was hot. The crowd, while on the small side, was enthusiastic and totally attentive to the proceedings onstage, gamely ignoring the frequent jet planes blazing across the sky since Rexall Centre is in the flight path. (Let's just be thankful that the supersonic Concorde is no longer in service!) Thanks to the superb sound system and the excellent video projections, such distractions weren't difficult to ignore.

The first half of the evening consisted of Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. The band was the three-year old Castleton Festival Orchestra, the brainchild of conductor Lorin Maazel. It's an orchestra of young musicians, but don't be fooled by their youth. Based on last evening's performance, their playing was astoundingly good, especially the wonderfully translucent strings and the incisiveness, the absolute precision of their attacks. Maazel certainly has had lots of experience working with young people, as he was the first music director of the Orquestra de la Communidad Valenciana, an orchestra made up entirely of young musicians. I had the pleasure of hearing them play when I was in Valencia three years ago, covering their recording of a new opera, Wuthering Heights. The Castleton Festival Orchestra is reminiscent of the Spanish orchestra, with young musicians from all over the world.

The second half was the centerpiece of the evening - a coupling of Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream with Shakespeare's play as adapted by scholar and poet J.D. McClatchy. To many in the audience, the big attractions were Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons, and the two stars did not disappoint their fans. Taking on multiple roles in the play, they sailed through the dialogues with verve and wit, especially Irons who charmed the audience with his many guises - a truly amazing performance. Dame Helen was slightly off form, perhaps a touch under-rehearsed, as she had a number of fluffs which she covered up expertly. (Incidentally, the same forces performed the identical show at the Music Center in Strathmore in the U.S. the next day) It was a long and episodic piece, and the risk of having the audience prematurely applauding was great. So it was to the great credit of Maazel whose timely body language kept the crowd in check. In addition to the two actors, sopranos Joyce El Khoury (a Canadian) and Tharanga Goonetilleke contributed nicely, together with the Women's Voices from the Castleton Festival Chorus. Near the end, Maazel let the orchestra in a highly spirited playing of the familiar Wedding March, bringing the enjoyable evening to an end. This being an outdoor venue, one could complain that the weather could have been warmer, or the planes flying overhead could have been fewer, but such is al fresco music-making! There is something magical about hearing divine music on a summer's night outdoors, and it's an experience not to be missed.

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Reinvented Jessye Norman Scintillating As Ever

Review by Joseph So

Jessye Norman captivating the small but enthusiastic audience (Photo: Joseph So)

Jessye Norman accompanying herself in "Amazing Grace" (Photo: Joseph So)

Soprano Jessye Norman and pianist Mark Markham (Photo: Lawrence Lock)

A Celebration of the American Musical Theatre
Jessye Norman, soprano
Mark Markham, piano
Koerner Hall June 28, 8 pm.

Somewhere - West Side Story (Bernstein)
You'll Never Walk Alone - Carousel (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
But Not For Me - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)
I Got Rhythm - Girl Crazy (Gershwin)

The Man I Love - Lady, Be Good (Gershwin)
Sleepin' Bee - House of Flowers (Arlen)
Climb Ev'ry Mountain - Sound of Music (Rodgers & Hammerstein)
Lonely Town - On The Town (Bernstein)
My Man's Gone Now - Porgy and Bess (Gershwin)


A Tribute to the Greats
My Baby just cares for me (Donaldson/Kahn) - For Nina Simone
Stormy Weather (Arlen) - For Lena Horne
Another Man done gone (traditional) - for Odetta
Mack the Knife (Weill) - for Ella Fitzgerald

For Duke Ellington -
Meditation for piano (Mark Markham)
Don't Get Around Much Any More
I've Got it Bad And That Ain't Good
It Don't Mean A Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing

Amazing Grace

In her prime, the voice of Jessye Norman was a force of nature - opulent, deep, resonant, golden, and totally unforgettable. The soprano from Augusta, Georgia won the ARD international music competition in Munich in the late 1960s and went on to become one of the most celebrated classical singers of our time. By the late 1990's, Norman scaled back her operatic and classical appearances and increasingly migrated to the pop and jazz fields. By the early 21st century, she stopped singing opera entirely - with the occasional exceptions - and re-invented herself as a jazz singer. Last year, she released Roots: My Life, My Song on the Sony label, her first new recording in years. The transformation was complete.

Last evening, Jessye Norman returned to Toronto after an absence of many years. Under the auspices of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, she sang a program of Broadway standards, with special tribute to the jazz greats the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Looking like the grande dame that she has always been, Jessye sauntered onstage with her familiar gait, to vociferous cheering from a small but adoring audience. She immediately launched into "Somewhere" from West Side Story, followed by "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel, two of the most beloved tunes from the American Songbook. The timbre of the voice was recognizably and unmistakably Jessye. In fortissimos, the sound recalled her glory days. It would be less than honest to not point out that the sound has become leaner, the top more truncated, and there was a pronounced register break which she successfully disguised. She now uses chest voices more liberally than ever. She sang the first half without amplification, and sitting in row K, I had no problem hearing her. In the forte passages, the sound remained impressive. Her enunciation of the text and her expression have gained in depth of feeling with the passage of time. When she sang soft, as in Gershwin's But Not For Me or Bernstein's Lonely Town, it was truly exquisite.

But it was the second half of the program that touched the heart. Paying tribute to the great African American singers of the past, she sang songs dedicated to Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington. In tribute to Odetta, Norman sang "Another Man done gone", a traditional song about a woman lamenting the killing of the black men folks. Norman sang it a capella, except for Mark Markham rhythmically pounding his fist on the piano frame - the delivery and the overall effect of the piece was chilling, deeply moving, and totally unforgettable. She concluded the regular program with the famous It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing, a real Duke Ellington standard. She gave two encores - a marvelous "Summertime" full of embellishments, and "Amazing Grace" where she accompanied herself on the piano in the first half, and then walked along the stage front to get the audience to join in. It was a magical moment.

I must say that back in the 1980's, I never thought of Norman as someone "who've got that swing" - her recording of pop songs of Cole Porter or Gershwin were always stately, grand, operatic, sung with so much voice that one would not have thought that she could be capable of scaling it back and be true to the music as the pieces were meant to be sung. Well, her transformation the last dozen years into an authentic jazz stylist has truly amazed a lot of her fans. She now sings these with absolute idiomatic style and depth of feeling. I am glad to have had an opportunity to witness the re-invented Jessye Norman. It was too bad that the intimate Koerner Hall was only slightly more than half full, but the enthusiasm of the audience made up for it. Shockingly, they ran out of programs early on. I was one of the dozen or so people scavenging the auditorium for a discarded program after the show. I was told only 200 programs were printed - what could the organizers be thinking?! Two hundred programs, for one of the greatest singers of the past thirty years? I hope the TD Jazz Festival will do better in the future!

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Monday, 27 June 2011

This Week in Toronto (June 27 - July 3)

Soprano Jessye Norman (Photo: Carol Friedman)

Now that the symphony, ballet and opera seasons have all come to a close, music lovers need not despair. The Black Creek Summer Music Festival (June 4 - Aug. 31) and the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (June 24 - July 3) are both in full swing. The jazz festival has been around since 1987 and is really an institution now. Of particular interest to opera lovers is the return of one of the biggest opera stars, Jessye Norman, to Toronto after an absence of many years. I remember hearing her in a recital at Massey Hall as early as 1978. Her voice was a force of nature and I remember sitting there in the audience, in total awe. After that time, I always seek out her performances. She has since retired from the opera stage, but continues to sing. She is now returning as a jazz vocalist. The concert takes place at RCM's Koerner Hall on Tuesday June 28 8 pm. The program is billed as A Celebration of American Musical Theatre, including songs by Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hammerstein. The second half is A Tribute to the Greats - Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta, Ella Fitzgerald, annd Duke Ellington. Not to be missed if you are a Jessye Norman fan!

On Wednesday June 29 at the Rexall Centre on the grounds of York University, the Black Creek Summer Music Festival is presenting its second classical music blockbuster following the opening gala with Domingo and Radvanovsky. This time it is Music Inspired By Shakespeare, with conductor Lorin Maazel conducting his Castleton Festival Orchestra. Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons will give spoken performances from Shakespeare. Musical selections include Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet's Fantasy Overture, and Incidental Music from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Non-classical performances include Lionel Ritchie on Tuesday June 29 and Diana Krall on Saturday July 2. Details at

Last week, I mentioned that the adventurous Queen of Puddings Music Theatre is presenting a world premiere of a new opera by Ana Sokolovic, SVADBA_ Wedding. It has received excellent reviews by John Terauds at the Toronto Star and elswhere. Performances continue on June 28, 29 and 30 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs.