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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Nagano-OSM Week at Orford an Impressive Affair


When the Knowlton Festival folded two years ago, the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal (OSM) and its chief conductor, Kent Nagano, needed to find an alternative venue for some of their summer music-making. An inspired choice was the Orford Festival. While last season’s appearances were uneven, this summer everything came together and the results were impressive.

Last summer at Orford, the OSM gave two full concerts under Nagano, who also worked with the Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) on a third concert. The venue for all three performances was the Saint-Patrice Church in Magog. This year, the OSM gave only one full orchestra concert, which was presented at the University of Sherbrooke. Some OSM members were also involved in chamber music performances. The OAO concert under Nagano was presented at the Saint-Jean-Bosco Church in Magog. The three concerts I attended were packed, even with a top price of $85 in Sherbrooke.

Tan Dun Gives Schafer’s Soundscape New Dimension

tandun180The highlight for me was the Sherbrooke concert. The OSM has not appeared in this city for many years and it was gratifying to see such an enthusiastic response. Nagano’s theme for the evening’s programme was a “Journey to the Heart of Nature;” hence the selection of (photo: right) Tan Dun’s Water Music, Debussy’s La Mer and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 Pastoral. Tan Dun’s Water Concerto is a complex and strange piece for any audience, but the folks in Sherbrooke clearly found it entertaining, as did I. Although the Salle Maurice-O’Bready at the University of Sherbrooke has extremely dry acoustics, and lacks the warmth, blend and presence one expects from a first-class concert hall, it did provide a clarity of sound that served the Tan Dun piece quite well.

I was reminded of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s term “Soundscape" while listening to Tan Duns Water Concerto. Schafer was a pioneer in encouraging audiences to appreciate all the fascinating sounds in our world. In his piece, Tan Dun explores virtually all the ways one can use water to make music. There are three solo percussionists in the piece and each one works with what looks like a very large, transparent plastic salad bowl full of water. With their hands, they tap out all sorts of rhythms. They also use water glasses instead of hands to beat out sounds in the water. Finally, the lead percussionist – the astonishing Wang Beibei (photo: below right)– placed some wooden salad bowls of various sizes upside down in the large plastic bowl and using drumsticks, created still more fascinating sounds.

wanbbeibeiOne might well ask how delicate water sounds could possibly compete with the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra. The answer is that each of the bowls of water has a microphone attached, and that Tan Dun’s orchestral scoring is complementary rather than combative.

One of the most effective episodes in the piece has the percussionists beating out galloping horse sounds in their water bowls while wind players in the orchestra contribute the sounds of neighing horses. Corny? Maybe in the telling, but certainly not in the playing. To my ears it was artful and good-humoured.

It should be emphasized that in too many contemporary concertos, the orchestra is given little to do, much of it elementary if not inconsequential. Not so here. Many of the techniques and rhythms could only be executed by a first-rate body of players. Nagano and the OSM played brilliantly.

Sea a Little Dry, but Sounds in Countryside Lush and Fresh

Debussy’s La Mer was also well played but suffered from the dryness of the hall. The timpani riff at the end of the piece, although pounded out with authority, sounded like someone beating on a table top with a pair of hammers.

The OSM under Nagano recently made a recording of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, scheduled for release this fall, and the orchestra’s performance on this night certainly reflected the most detailed preparation, giving a sense that Nagano had personally inscribed dynamic markings in every bar of each player’s part. There were sounds I felt I was hearing for the first time simply because Nagano and his players had taken such care over balances. This performance was not only well-rehearsed; it was beautiful and joyful.

As will everything that the OSM played this season at Orford, the Pastoral will be repeated August 16-18 at the Edinburgh Festival. With that international exposure in mind, I must mention that the horn playing in the Beethoven and in several other works was unacceptably shaky. While Beethoven calls for just a pair of horns in the Pastoral, in many performances a third, even a fourth player is often added to spell off the others. Nagano might consider that option for Edinburgh.

Theme of Social Landscapes, Real and Imagined

OAO180The Orford Academy Orchestra (OAO) concert began with Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s lugubrious Symphony No. 4. I can’t imagine what led Nagano to choose such a dreadful piece for a summer concert in Magog. It was written in 1946 in response to the terrible war years in Germany. Clearly, noble sentiments do not always translate into great music. This 33-minute piece for string orchestra certainly challenged the young players – perhaps that was the point of the exercise – but the Symphony No. 4 seems to me academic and tedious.

The OAO is much improved this season, and the Saint-Jean Bosco Church is a much better venue for a symphony concert than last year’s Saint-Patrice. Under Nagano’s direction, the OAO gave an accurate and exciting rendition of Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

Guest artist on the OAO programme was the superb pianist Benedetto Lupo, whom I had heard several times in Austin, Texas. On this occasion he played Mozarts Piano Concerto No. 27 with verve and just the right amount of flexibility in dynamics and tempo. Nagano’s accompaniment, however, was lighter and more period-oriented than the Mozart style offered by his soloist.

church180

Schubert Octet a Priceless "Prelude"

On the same evening and in the same venue – August 4, Saint-Jean Bosco Church (photo: right) – members of the OSM played Schubert’s Octet. The Schubert was played at 6 pm and the OAO concert at 8 pm. I assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that the Schubert was a prelude to the orchestra concert. But, in fact, even though it was only an hour long and devoted to only one piece, it was sold as a separate concert with tickets costing $22. This bit of programming comes perilously close to price-gouging.

On the other hand, the Schubert Octet was played so well it could very accurately be described as priceless. With Andrew Wan in the leader’s chair, phrasing was consistently shapely and the players responded to each other with the utmost concern for timbre and balance. Equally impressive was the choice of tempi. With illustrious performances by the Vienna Octet and the Berlin Octet still ringing in my musical memory, I have long been convinced that this music needs time to breathe and that moderate tempi pay enormous dividends. The OSM players obviously feel the same way and gave us sublime Schubert.

So this was a great week for Nagano, the OSM and Orford, not to mention the music-lovers of Magog and Sherbrooke. The venues have been sorted out, the qualitative bar has been raised and just a little more tinkering needs to be done in programming and marketing. I am looking forward to 2012!

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.


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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Le rossignol et autres fables : la magie à hauteur d’homme

Par Lucie Renaud 

L’opéra, genre souvent devenu lourd – ou prisonnier des multiples couches de conventions séculaires –, peine parfois à se redéfinir. Rarement rencontre-t-on, un même soir, un plateau éblouissant et une mise en scène qui mène l’imaginaire ailleurs, prolonge le propos musical, séduit sans réserve, sans que le spectateur ait l’impression d’être témoin d’un ego trip. Quand on fréquente la scène opératique nationale plus ou moins assidument, au fond, très peu de moments puissants se détachent de la masse. En première position, j’avais retenu jusqu’ici la puissance du diptyque Le Château de Barbe-bleue de Bartók et Erwartung de Schoenberg (appréciée dans sa mouture 2004 présentée à l’Opéra de Montréal). J’y ajouterai maintenant Le rossignol et autres fables, production présentée dans le cadre de la première édition du Festival Opéra de Québec, collage musical sur des pages de Stravinski, conçu et transmis de main de maître par ce  même Robert Lepage qui, ici, n’a aucunement cédé aux sirènes d’une machinerie de scène pyrotechnique, mais a opté pour un dialogue direct avec le spectateur.

On peut bien sûr relever l’audace d’avoir installé sur le devant de la scène du Grand Théâtre de Québec ce vaste bassin, dans lequel évolueront  chanteurs et marionnettes de Michael Curry dans Le Rossignol. On retiendra plutôt que ce choix artistique facilite une admirable transposition d’échelle, la scène se trouvant d’un seul coup dépourvue de son immensité pour devenir lieu intime, magique, qui permet ainsi le décuplement d’émotion. Malgré une salle comble, ainsi qu’un OSQ et un chœur imposant massés à l’arrière-scène, jamais je n’ai cru n’être qu’une parmi 2000. Au contraire,  j’avais l’impression que Stravinski s’adressait à moi directement, comme si, abritée dans une grotte naturelle, je me laissais raconter des histoires, tantôt ludiques, tantôt fabuleuses.

En première partie,  pendant et prélude au Rossignol, Robert Lepage a groupé une série de pièces brèves, composées sur une période d’une décennie, ce qui permet d’obtenir un portrait kaléidoscopique de cette période de la vie du compositeur qui devait mener à l’élaboration de ses essentielles Noces. Si l’OSQ, sous la direction de Johannes Debus, a semblé presque trop sage dans Ragtime, il s’est rapidement ajusté, offrant un accompagnement riche et pourtant d’une remarquable clarté. Des jeux d’ombres chinoises se superposaient à Pribaoutki, aux Deux poèmes de Constantin Balmont, aux Berceuses du chat et aux Quatre chants paysans russes, dans un enchaînement de gestes d’une sublime délicatesse, souvent spectaculaires certes (l’éclosion de la fleur, le berceau dans lequel s’installait le bébé, les queues agiles des chats, etc.), mais – et c’est là peut-être la plus grande force du traitement – qui demeuraient produits par des humains. Quand un animal, une table, un bateau redeviennent dans la lumière les mains qui les ont initiés, l’émotion s’en trouve étrangement décuplée. Je m’en voudrais de passer sous silence l’interprétation fluide et incarnée  de Stéphane Fontaine, habillé en cosaque, des Trois pièces pour clarinette seule, interludes tissés à la trame narrative de la première partie.

Dans la courte fable de Renard, des acrobates, placés derrière un tulle, se transformaient en ombres chinoises. Saluons ici le quatuor vocal narrateur, particulièrement le moelleux du ténor Edgaras Montvidas et les faussets du baryton Nabil Suliman, et l’habile décalage entre corps (cachés par la toile) et mollets des artistes (visibles), découpés, ce qui permet une autre distanciation du propos.

En deuxième partie de spectacle, la voix limpide, agile et aérienne de la soprano Julia Novikova, qui fait des débuts remarqués dans le rôle-titre du Rossignol qui éclipsent plusieurs interprétations entendues au disque, devenait soutien à l’enchantement pur ressenti. La trame narrative de cet empereur de Chine (Ilya Banniki transmet bien que le maître du pays est avant tout homme) qui, d’abord envouté par le chant merveilleux d’un rossignol, décide de l’intégrer à sa cour, le bannissant du royaume une fois reçu en cadeau de l’empereur du Japon un oiseau mécanique, puis s’appuyant de nouveau sur son chant quand la mort (inspirée Svelana Schilova) vient réclamer son dû, est communiqué de façon brillante par une série de marionnettes reprenant les divers personnages de ce conte d’Andersen.

Bien sûr, on ne peut que louer la perfection de l’ensemble; chaque geste scénique, chaque inflexion de chanteur, chaque transposition visuelle ont été mûrement réfléchis afin d’être débarrassés de toute scorie. On retiendra pourtant la profonde humanité du propos, Robert Lepage ayant réussi ici le tour de force de revenir à l’essence même du théâtre – et de l’opéra, son prolongement – : raconter une histoire et, ce faisant, toucher irrévocablement le spectateur.

www.festivaloperaquebec.com

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Mode & Design Festival – Mode & Opera

By Christine Lee

The North American premiere of Mode & Opera, a fusion between the fashion and music world, showcased numerous talents as part of the Mode & Design Festival on August 4th. The Opéra de Montréal contributed three singers to the show: Soprano Caroline Bleau, tenor Antoine Bélanger and baritone Étienne Dupuis. In costume, each singer sang a solo (including arias from Carmen) between sets of a catwalk show featuring costumes inspired by opera music. These garments reflected Egyptian, Medieval and Japanese influences, all done with a modern touch

Because pre-recorded tracks were used as accompaniment, expressiveness on the part of the singers was quite limited: rubato was inexistant as any slight changes in tempo would have upset synchronicity. But this did not stop all three singers from giving excellent performance.

The musical concept for the runaway show was put together by Christian Pronovost and Michel Beaulac. They did an excellent job foreshadowing the opera performances by adding small vocal effects and elecro-acoustically modified voice into the music during the catwalk segments.

The show will reproduced in Los Angeles, perhaps in the coming year.

www.festivalmodedesign.com

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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Nathalie Paulin and the Nash Ensemble at Toronto Summer Music






















Photos: (t) The Nash Piano Trio; (b) Soprano Nathalie Paulin and pianist Michael McMahon





Romantic Pleasures
Nash Ensemble: Benjamin Nabarro, Laura Samuels, violins; Philip Dulces, viola; Paul Watkins, cello: Ian Brown, piano
Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Michael McMahon, piano
Saturday, August 6, 2011
7:30 p.m. Walter Hall

Liszt: Victor Hugo Songs
S'il est un charmant gazon
Comment, disaient-ils
Enfant, si j'etais roi
Oh! quand je dors
Faure: La bonne chanson
Chausson: Chanson perpetuelle, Op. 37 for soprano and piano quintet
Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49

Tonight's concert was a double pleasure for me - re-acquainting with the lovely voice of Acadian soprano Nathalie Paulin, whom I had not heard for a few years, and discovering the artistry of a sensational chamber group, the London-based Nash Ensemble.

Since she last sang opera in Toronto - as Thibeaut in Don Carlos at the new opera house - Paulin has expanded her operatic repertoire in such roles as Despina for Cincinnati Opera and Massenet's Manon for Calgary Opera and Opera Lyra Ottawa. She recently received terrific notices for her participation in the rarely performed Les Indes Galantes in Boston and the even rarer Der Vampyr at the Lanaudiere Festival. So it's great to have her back in Toronto, her adopted home town, for an evening of French chansons. The Nash Ensemble is new to Toronto audiences, although the London-based group has been in existence since 1964. Well, it's no exaggeration to say they are a revelation, and we have TSMF to thank for bringing the group to Toronto.

The evening began with a group of four very well known Liszt songs, in French, set to the text by Victor Hugo. Paulin's best attributes - her warm middle register, her feminine, soft-grained tone, her attention to the French text, and her ingratiating stage persona - are tailor-made for this repertoire. She sang these with her usual lovely tone and depth of feeling, perhaps one could have wished for more ideally hushed high pianissimos, especially in the very famous "Oh! quand je dors." Michael McMahon, a frequent collaborative pianist for Canadian singers, offered solid support. The piano lid was fully open, but he did not swarm the singer. The next item was supposed to be Chausson's equally famous Chanson perpetuelle, but there was an unannounced program switch. Instead we got Faure's La bonne chanson, with the soprano accompanied by the Nash Ensemble. (An announcement really should have been made as these songs, however familiar elsewhere, aren't that commonly performed in English Canada) Perhaps it was the highly evocative strings - especially the wonderfully warm cello by Paul Watkins and Nabarro's violin, the blend between the voice and the instruments was so exquisite that one almost felt musically transported to the La Belle Epoque. The last item in the first half was the Chausson for soprano and piano trio. If there's an ultra-Romantic piece of music, this is it! The melodic line, the rhythm, and the strings literally drip pathos - perhaps a little soppy by modern standards, but... Paulin sang it with gleaming tone and emotional engagement. Following the intermission, the Nash ensemble played two familiar chamber pieces - Schubert's Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703 and the even more popular Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49. The Ensemble's performance was a revelation- two beautifully paced readings with exemplary clarity and precision, not to mention refulgent tone and technical prowess. I hope we'll get to hear this wonderful group again.

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