La Scena Musicale

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Yuja Wang’s Montreal Recital Debut Reveals Maturity, Not Theatrics

By Crystal Chan

These days, there are a lot of pianists Yuja Wang’s age or even younger that have mastered the nearly-inhuman technical virtuosity required of pieces such as Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, which the 24-year-old performed to a rapt audience of nearly 600 as part of the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club season in her Montreal recital debut.

Take Lang Lang, for example, a more direct parallel than most others as both are prodigies that emerged from China at around the same time, and both studied with Gary Graffman. But what Wang seems to have that Lang Lang and countless other young shooting stars don’t is a natural restraint, an unassuming air and ease with the keyboard that one doesn’t usually get from the showy former child prodigies—at least not at this stage of their careers.

She opened the concert with Scriabin preludes and etudes, her voicings crisp, her accompaniment figures not too over-pedaled. She played the short pieces as a suite, with barely a pause between each song. Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A major closed off the first half, a difficult piece which she was comfortable enough with to appear as if she were almost playfully improvising the percussive lines. There was drama here, but not to excess. Wang took full command with the already-mentioned Liszt Sonata in B minor in the second half. It’s a dazzlingly difficult masterpiece, but with long stretches without cadenzas it’s not as overtly crowd-rousing as some other Liszt solo piano pieces. That Wang managed to pull off and hold the attention of the audience during the pensive sections as well as the showy ones is clear proof that Wang is a player with an abundance of early-onset maturity.

Her control and reserve seems to be a lucky extension of her personality: although she’s known for glamour outfits and audiences undoubtedly love her, the way she bows and interacts with the audience betrays shyness instead of groomed charisma. And when that translates to playing, it becomes magic: she lets the music speak for itself. The best part of watching her in recital is that you actually forget that she is a beautiful young star, which is hard to do.

To borrow some analogies from the movie world: she’s a method actor with the face of an ingénue and the appeal of a lead. A career to watch.

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Nagano/OSM: Brilliant Beethoven Beats Out Bland Bruckner

by Paul E. Robinson

Boulez: MémorialeBeethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat majorTimothy Hutchins, fluteTill Fellner, pianoOrchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM): Kent Nagano, conductor
La Maison symphonique
Place des Arts

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Montréal’s new hall, La Maison symphonique, has been presenting concerts for over a month now, and after an ‘unfinished’ opening, we’re finally into the fine-tuning phase of the project. An impromptu example occurred mid-concert when maestro Nagano stepped down from the podium after the first movement of the Bruckner to announce that he was unable to continue until his wonky podium was fixed. Someone had failed to ensure that the offending podium, made of the same Quebec beech wood that covers the entire interior of the hall, was sitting flat on the floor of the stage. In addition to threatening the maestro with seasickness, the pitching podium also contributed some unwanted percussion effects; no matter, Nagano handled the situation with enormous grace and humour and a stagehand quickly stablilized the stand.

Nagano is apparently a big fan of composer Pierre Boulez and has programmed no fewer than five of his pieces this season. For my part, I have never warmed to Boulez’ music and continue to find it as bloodless as Boulez’ conducting. The seven minute
Mémoriale for flute solo and small ensemble dating from 1985 is mostly quiet and uneventful music that fails to convey much of anything.

Beethoven Style and Substance Steal the Show

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is an early work quite without the fire and novelty of the composer’s mature pieces, but in the hands of Austrian pianist Till Fellner, it was consistently interesting. Fellner didn’t attempt to make the work bigger than it is; he simply brought out its charm and playfulness, adding to the fun by introducing some hesitations in repetitions of the main theme in the last movement. Perhaps the best feature of this performance was the high level of collaboration between pianist, conductor and orchestra. Nagano’s reduced orchestra produced a rich, full sound and accents were strong and incisive. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra at the end of the slow movement was a genuine conversation with soloist and musicians truly listening to each other. The gradations of softness were beautifully realized. It should be noted that Fellner was playing a Hamburg Steinway which he himself had selected for the new hall. La Maison symphonique will also have a New York Steinway selected by Emanuel Ax. The purchase of these two instruments was made possible by Montreal philanthropist David B. Sela.
Underpowered Bruckner Disappoints

The OSM was greatly enlarged for the Bruckner Fourth Symphony, but the instrumental configuration on stage remained the same. First and second violins sat facing each other with cellos and basses behind the firsts and violas behind the seconds. From my seat on the right hand side of the Parterre level I finally heard plenty of “buzz” from the basses. The overall string sound was warm and resonant without obscuring detail. Several times in the Bruckner, I felt the brass was underpowered, but this likely had more to do with Nagano’s interpretation of the piece than with the acoustics. On the other hand, the soft trumpet solos seemed far too loud. As this aberration was certainly not attributable to the incomparable Paul Merkelo, I concluded that it was one of the acoustical peculiarities of my seat location in the hall. Special kudos to principal horn John Zirbel for the masterful way he handled his countless solos.

This Bruckner Fourth was very well played with many moments of expressive detail; however, overall, it seemed to me that Nagano had sacrificed power and intensity in favour of blend and balance. We really don’t need to hear every note of those endless string scales and tremolos when the brass is giving us the heart and soul of the piece. To put it bluntly, this is often filler and should be treated as such. While Nagano gave us beauty and carefully prepared detail, he rarely got to the inner spirituality of the work.
Bruckner 1888 Version of the Fourth Symphony

There has been a good deal of discussion over the years about the various revisions of Bruckner’s works by the composer himself, and by others. The Fourth Symphony is one of the most difficult cases in point. Apart from the composer’s own search for perfection, the reasons for revision appear to have been twofold. The orchestration often needed revision to be more effective, and in the earlier editions the music suffered from repetition, stopping and starting when it should be moving forward. Nagano chose for this performance of the Fourth Symphony the edition identified in the programme as “version 1878-1880,” presumably referring to the version edited by Leopold Nowak. Although the Novak appears to be the choice of most contemporary conductors, a convincing case has been made recently for the previously discredited 1888 Bruckner version - the composer’s last thoughts on his own work – which audiences, as a result, may soon be hearing performed more frequently in concert halls around the world.
For something more…

Both leading Montreal maestros are dedicated Brucknerites. Yannick Nézet-Séguin has been working his way through a cycle of Bruckner symphonies with the Orchestre Métropolitain and the latest release happens to be the Symphony No. 4 (ATMA Classique ACD2 2667). For the record, he uses the 1936 Haas edition. Kent Nagano has just recorded the Seventh Symphony with his Bavarian State Orchestra (Sony 88697909452).

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, "Classical Airs."

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Monday, 24 October 2011

Gergiev and Mariinsky Dazzle in All Russian Program

Conductor Valery Gergiev and Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra receiving ovations from Roy Thomson Hall audience

By Joseph K. So

Mariinsky Orchestra
Valery Gergiev, conductor
Alexander Toradze, piano
Roy Thomson Hall
October 21, 2011, 8 p.m.

Stravinsky: Suite from The Firebird (1919)
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 10

One of the joys of living in a big city like Toronto is that we are blessed with the occasional - alas far too infrequent in my opinion - visits by great orchestras around the world. In the last few years, we've heard the Vienna Philharmonic, the La Scala Orchestra, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, among others. Now we have the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra with none other than Valery Gergiev on the podium, although I should modify the comment by saying that Gergiev on this occasion eschewed the podium - and the baton! The program was Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 and as a starter, the Stravinsky Firebird Suite. Watching Gergiev conduct with his fluttery fingers is a treat in itself. The current issue of La Scena Musicale has a cover story by Crystal Chan on Gergiev and his band, currently in a North American tour. This is a must read.

Gergiev has his champions and his detractors, but one thing is clear - he is a great conductor. It was very much in evidence on Friday night. The first piece, Stravinsky's well known Firebird Suite, never sounded more fresh and organic as in the hands of the Mariinsky forces. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the opening passages were played with such razor sharp precision, incredible rhythmic unison, not to mention vivid, resplendent tone colours that to my own surprise, I found myself conjuring up images of a living breathing animal onstage, something that had never happened to me before. This spectacular opening was followed by pianist Alexander Toradze in Prokofiev No. 3. He may be getting on in years, and no, he didn't jump two feet in the air from the chair like he was reputed to do in the past, but this man is still a bundle of energy. I confess Prokofiev 3rd is a bit too militaristic sounding for my taste but one had to admire Toradze's authoritative performance. In the lyrical moments, he was marvelous, and in the more dramatic moments, totally commanding. The centerpiece of the evening was Shostakovich Symphony No. 1, a rather infrequently performed work, massive, imposing, yet curiously uneven and lacking in maturity - well, what can one expect when the composer was all of 19 years old?! The juxtaposition of two melodies in the second movement, the lyric strings with brassy, militaristic rhythms is really quite bizarre, once heard never forgotten. The precision, acuity of attack, the discipline mixed with supreme freedom exhibited by the musicians took one's breath away. I find the brass section is usually a good indication as to the quality of the orchestra, and the Mariinsky brass section was flawless last evening. Hearing a performance on such an exalted level, it makes one appreciate the transformative power of music. Let's hope Gergiev and his band will return as soon as possible.


This Week in Toronto (Oct. 24 - 30)

COC Music Director Johannes Debus (Photo: Michael Cooper)

With the COC fall opera season over and the Opera Atelier's Don Giovanni yet to start, there is a noticeable slowing down of all things vocal. However, there are still a couple of interesting events. Within an hour's drive down the QEW - if the traffic gods are merciful, Opera Hamilton's Barber of Seville is well worth seeing. It stars the fabulous Canadian mezzo Lauren Segal as Rosina. Hugh Russell as Figaro and Edgar Ernesto Ramirez is Almaviva. This is Rossini at his frothy best and with a youthful cast, it'll be a lot of fun. It already opened last Saturday, in a new venue for OH, at the intimate Dofasco Centre for the Arts. There are three more performances, Tuesday Oct. 25, Thursday Oct. 27 and Saturday Oct. 29, this last a matinee.

Even though the COC is in hiatus right now, both General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus are still in town. Neef is the special guest of the Toronto Wagner Society this evening (Monday Oct. 24) when he will talk about all things Wagnerian. The event takes place at the Toronto Arts and Letters Club at 14 Elm Street (Yonge-Dundas subway) in downtown Toronto. Non members are welcome. Maestro Debus will conduct the Royal Conservatory of Music Orchestra in a program of Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 played by the Concerto Competition winner Conni Kim-Sheng. Other works include Lutoslawski's Little Suite for Chamber Orchestra, and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8. A beautiful work, Dvorak 8th doesn't get nearly as much play time as his 9th, the New World. This concert is well worth hearing for the works, but also for the wonderful young musicians who are the future of Canadian music. The concert is at the beautiful Koerner Hall.

Up and coming Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan kicks off the new Canadian Voices series at Glenn Gould Studio on Thursday, Oct. This vocal series of four concerts (Duncan plus soprano Layla Claire, mezzo Julie Bouliane, and baritone Daniel Okulitch) replaces the long-standing Roy Thomson Hall Vocal Series. While the demise of the RTH Vocal Series is lamentable, this new series gives us a chance to hear fine young Canadian singers, the best our country has to offer. More information at Click for Duncan's program

Since this is Halloween season, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is offering a Oz with Orchestra - a Wizard of Oz program that's bound to delight the young and the young-at-heart. It's a showing of the film with Judy Garland, accompanied by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra! Emil de Cou conducts. Two shows - on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Finally, this month marks the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio Service. On October 30, there will be a full day's special programming - 8 hours in total - celebrating this landmark on CBC Radio 2 and Espace Musique. There will be concerts and events from different broadcast centers across Canada. Go to CBC Radio 2 for program details.


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Chamber Das Lied Touches the Heart

Baritone Russell Braun, tenor Thomas Cooley, conductor Kenneth Slowik and Smithsonian Chamber Players receiving audience ovation
(Photo: Joseph So)

By Joseph K. So

In the Shadow of Schoenberg's Verein fur musikalischen Privatauffuhrungen:
Late Mahler in Chamber Guise

Mahler: Kindertontenlieder (arr. Kenneth Slowik)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

Russell Braun, baritone
Thomas Cooley, tenor
Benjamin Bowman, violin
Mark Fewer, violin
Steven Dann, viola
Myron Lutzke, cello
Joel Quarrington, bass
Christopher Krueger, flute/piccolo
Lief Mosbaugh, oboe/English horn
Anthony Thomson, claret
Julia Lockhard, bassoon
RJ Kelley, horn
Mark Duggan, percussion
John Brownwell, percussion
Andrew Burashko, piano
David Louie, harmonium/celeste
Kenneth Slowik, conductor

Saturday, Oct. 22, 8 p.m., Koerner Hall

Fresh from a highly acclaimed appearance as Orestes in the COC Iphigenie en Tauride, Canadian baritone Russell Braun joined forces with the Smithsonian Chamber Players for a deeply felt, superbly rendered concert of two Mahler masterpieces last evening at Koerner Hall. I recall *almost* hearing this same concert at Santa Fe several years ago with Russell Braun and the SCP forces, but alas it conflicted with an opera I was attending that evening. So I was very much looking forward to this concert at the beautiful and acoustically wonderful Koerner Hall. Imagine my surprise when most of the musicians playing with SCP was well known local artists, ie. Burashko, Quarrington, Dann et al. The mystery was solved when my colleague, RCM Publications Editor and Publicity Manager Barbora Krsek, told me only a small portion of the SCP musicians actually go on tour and it is the custom of SCP to pick up local musicians as guests in their concerts.

Given it's two of Mahler's best known - and gloomiest - song cycles, the evening was a bit somber. Mahler composed Kindertotenlieder in 1904 and premiered in January 1905. Not long after, in a cruel twist of fate, Mahler's daughter Maria died of scarlet fever. There is something supremely sad about a life taken before its time, a thought fully expressed in Mahler's music. The chamber reduction, by conductor Kenneth Slowik, is even more austere than the original and I must say it takes away some of the orchestral colours one is used to. Braun's voice, with its warm, soft-grained timbre, and great dynamic control, is one of the most expressive in front of the public today. To be sure, there are lyric baritones out there with a richer, stronger, more solid core to the tone, or more volume, or with equally fine technical control. But to my ears, Braun's voice, which is a bit far back in its production, has that undefinable quality that seems to come from the heart. This quality is perfect for Mahler, particularly these two cycles. If I were to quibble, the placement of the soloists - and the instrumentalists for that matter - for both cycles are a bit too far upstage, as if there is an invisible barrier between them and the audience. As a result, the sound of both Braun and the tenor (Thomas Cooley) didn't stand out as much as they could.

The second work, Das Lied von der Erde, is unquestionably Mahler's greatest song cycle. A symphonic poem of six very vocally demanding songs - the last one, Abschied lasting almost 25 minutes. This work could easily have been his ninth symphony, but Mahler chose to call it a symphony for tenor, alto and orchestra. It is usually presented with a tenor and a low mezzo or contralto, but here the alto's music was taken by a baritone. The six songs are set to Chinese poems loosely translated into German. Four of the six are based on poems by the famous Chinese poet Li Bai. The sixth song, Abschied, is a composite based on text by Wang Wei plus modifications by Mahler himself. Decidedly autumnal in nature, the text deals with the transience of life and the nature of loss. The three tenor songs are high lying and tends to be the more jovial pieces, while the alto pieces are sad and introspective. Cooley, a voice new to me, coped very well with the very high tessitura that has defeated many a singer. His is not a big voice and certainly not a heldentenor so often cast in this work, but it has a sweet and ingratiating quality that is appealing, especially in the quieter moments. To my ears, a lyric tenor is much preferable to a heldentenor who invariably sounds stentorian in this music. I find Cooley's timbre matches Braun's baritone beautifully. He also has the high register to do the music justice - should I say as much as is humanly possible given the treacherous tessitura and loud orchestration of the opening Das Trinklied. The centerpiece is the last song, Abschied or Farewell, one of the greatest in the song literature. Few who have suffered the pains of parting and loss can remain unmoved by this. Braun sang it with intensity, passion, and a powerful sense of resignation - a truly moving performance.

Perhaps because of the economy or too many competing events - the COC's last performance of Rigoletto was also last evening - the hall was far from full. But the audience was very appreciative and gave the artists a well deserved ovation. If I were to make an observation - it appears that attendance at classical concerts are ominously down this year. Let's hope it's just a temporary phenomenon - our lives will be a great deal poorer without the arts.