La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Passionate Bach at the OSM

By Hannah Rahimi 

For the second concert in this year’s Montreal Bach Festival, Kent Nagano led the OSM in a performance of Bach’s St John Passion, joined by the OSM Choir along with such acclaimed soloists as Sibylla Rubens, Christoph Genz and Markus Werba.

Montreal’s new hall, La Maison symphonique, proved a fine addition to the festival’s list of venues despite a rough start, when a small piece of the ceiling crashed to the floor just as the lights were dimming over the hall. Unfazed, Nagano calmly took the podium and proceeded to lead the orchestra in a dramatic yet refined rendition of the Passion 

In an interesting dramatic choice, soloists performed on podiums at various positions within the orchestra, walking gingerly amidst the instruments to get to and from their places. While this staging may have strengthened the unity between the sounds of voice and instruments, it seemed unnecessary, more visually distracting than musically enhancing.      

 As evangelist, German tenor Christoph Genz provided a lyrical narration of the drama, carrying the flow of the story with stunning clarity and smoothness. Slightly less at ease was Austrian tenor Martin Mitterutzner, who sang with rich tone but wasn’t always perfectly together with the orchestra, particularly in the aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken.” Replacing contralto Ingeborg Danz, Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor contributed his pure, otherworldly voice, most notably in a transcendent rendition of “Es ist vollbracht,” exquisitely accompanied by Margaret Little on viola de gamba. Under Nagano’s precise direction, the OSM choir breathed dramatic force into the choruses and floated above the orchestra in the chorales. 

A strong continuo section drove the performance, featuring cellist Brian Manker, organist Luc Beauséjour, bassoonist Stéphane Lévesque and Axel Wolf on lute. Oboists Theodore Baskin and Alexa Zirbel drew out the tensions and lyricisms of numerous arias, along with flutists Timothy Hutchins and Carolyn Christie, who provided a rich and unified tone.

Overall, a promising start to the Montreal Bach Festival, which runs until November 20, 2011.

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Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra: looks impressive, sounds even better

By Natasha Gauthier

Photo: Decca / Marco Borggreve

Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra stopped at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on Sunday, October 23, as part of their recent Canadian tour. Two Tchaikovsky symphonies were on offer, the First (“Winter Dreams”) and the much more celebrated Sixth (“Pathétique”).

The performance offered a glimpse at a particular kind of symphonic tradition that is rarely seen in North American. The Mariinsky is freakishly homogenous: 100-plus musicians all from more or less the same cultural background, all with the same professional training, and in this instance playing its wheelhouse repertoire. The result is an orchestra that plays like the legendary corps of the Mariinsky Ballet dances: as if they were a single person. 

Every bowstroke happens with one breath. Every instrument is held with exactly the same body position, whether playing or at rest. Even the two bassoonists end their phrases with the same little graceful, perfectly coordinated flourish.

It all looks very impressive, but it sounds even better. Much has already been written about Gergiev’s unorthodox conducting style: the absence of podium (at his height, he hardly needs one) and baton, the vague, amorphous hand gestures. None of it hinders the communication between him and the musicians. 

Winter Dreams is not the greatest of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, but Gergiev elevates it by bringing out its atmospheric themes while deftly glossing over its structural weaknesses. The Maestro’s flexible approach to rubato was particularly suited to the lovely, dance-like Scherzo, while the outer movements were distinguished by especially plangent, wintry tones from the woodwinds and brass. 

The monumental and much more challenging Pathétique really allowed the orchestra to stretch its legs, like racehorses springing out of the gate. Gergiev’s tempi choices vary more widely than the norm, and he coaxed the musicians to thrilling contrasts between dazzling speed and dolent restraint. The inexorable buildup through the third movement chugged along like a steam locomotive, and the climax of the finale was powerful enough—both in volume and in emotional impact-- to blow you out of your seat.

Read the October 2011 La Scena Musicale cover story on Gergiev here:

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

ALO Flute Lacks Magic!

by Paul E. Robinson
525MM Magic Flute-19
: The Magic Flute
Austin Lyric Opera
(ALO)Director: James MarvelConductor: Richard BuckleyThe Long Center
Austin, Texas
Saturday November 5, 2011

Congratulations are in order for the Austin Lyric Opera on the occasion of its 25th Anniversary. The organization also deserves enormous credit for dealing quickly and apparently effectively with a serious financial crisis that came to a boil last spring. Changes since then have included the resignation of General Director Kevin Patterson, the listing of ALO’s office building for sale, and major program cuts to the 2011-2012 season. Kevin Smith was appointed interim General Director and principal conductor Richard Buckley was given the additional title of Artistic Director.
Mozart’s The Magic Flute was the first opera the ALO produced in its inaugural season in 1987. In a program note Kevin Smith declares that the theme of the 25th anniversary is “Let the Magic continue…;” unfortunately, there was little, if any magic in James Marvel’s production of The Magic Flute.
Let it be said at the outset that The Magic Flute is full of wonderful music, but the libretto is an unruly mishmash of comedy and spirituality. It is a huge challenge for any director to make sense of it all and put it together in a way that is both faithful to Mozart and intelligible for the audience. Come to think of it, there are any number of Shakespeare plays that pose a similar challenge.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I would guess that director James Marvel had another challenge too; that is, how to mount a production of one of Mozart’s greatest operas with a severely trimmed budget resulting from the ALO’s financial troubles. Marvel and artistic director Buckley probably had to engage cheaper and less experienced singers than they originally intended and had to make do with less elaborate sets and costumes. Be that as it may, I can really only go by what I saw and heard at the Long Center, and frankly, I was disappointed.
Mr. Marvel talks a good game. In his program notes, he goes on about the Masonic elements in the opera, and about how the main theme of the work is the “many faces” of love. But what he put on stage was a musical comedy version of the opera. He stressed the jokes and the sight gags and treated the serious elements as satire. Does he not listen to the music? In the choruses and elsewhere, one hears kinship with some of Mozart’s most profound works such as the Masonic Funeral Music and the Requiem. There is plenty of comedy in The Magic Flute, but it is only there to leaven the generally serious, indeed life and death matters which are the heart and soul of the opera. The opera is about love but it is also about the power of love, wisdom and music to overcome adversity and superstition. This is Enlightenment thinking in the form of art and it permeates nearly every scene in the opera.
Metaphors abound in The Magic Flute. The Queen of the Night represents the forces of darkness and she and her followers are in a life and death struggle with the forces of light represented by Sarastro and his priests, but Marvel and Lighting Designer David Nancarrow have chosen to bathe everyone in the brightest possible light from beginning to end. The costumes are invariably bright and perky and the sets are little more than a series of risers with sliding panels. Some projections are used to supply what is lacking on stage, but these are barely more than rudimentary. By using so many bright lights and costumes, Marvel eliminates the basic contrasts in the story of the opera - worse than that, he removes all mystery from the spiritual elements.
Speaking of removing things, why didn’t we have a serpent in the opening scene; a fuzzy projection doesn’t count! And what happened to the Two Men in Armor in Act Two? Their music was sung by two priests. No money available for the right costumes? And what are we to make of the way chorus members were allowed to file onstage in rows as if preparing for a concert, and leave the same way? Marvel seemed to have no idea how to move large groups, let alone give the individual singers any sense of character; they invariably lined up like zombies. Is Sarastro running a cult or what?
One of the most impressive productions of The Magic Flute I have seen was presented at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland (1986). August Everding was the director and Toni Businger did the costumes. In the castle courtyard where the performances are given, conventional sets are impossible, and yet the use of imaginative props and costumes – yes, including a wonderful serpent – and a great cast made this production a profoundly moving experience. It was the magnificent choir in this production that brought me to the realization that the spirit of Mozart’s Requiem lives in this music and that Beethoven was undoubtedly influenced by these choruses in The Magic Flute when he came to compose the "Prisoners' Chorus" in Fidelio.
My point is that a successful production is not necessarily about lavish sets and huge budgets; it has more to do with simply understanding the opera and finding a way to capture its essence.
On the musical side, Richard Buckley must take some of the blame. None of the principal vocalists came close to producing the sound and phrasing required by Mozart, with the possible exception of Jamie-Rose Guarrine (photo above: right) in the smaller role of Papagena. Some of the singing, in my opinion, was simply unpleasant.
It is fashionable to take fast tempi in Mozart these days, but that doesn’t make them right. Consider Buckley’s tempo for the Allegro section of the Overture. This section is not marked ‘Allegro molto’ or ‘Presto’ and yet Buckley took off at top speed. His tempo choice not only ignores what Mozart wrote, but is at odds with the spirit of the opera. Buckley’s tempi were invariably faster than usual – compare Bruno Walter or Colin Davis – and were of a piece with Marvel’s musical comedy approach.
The Austin Lyric Opera has shown a flair for presenting familiar operas in new ways, as well as unfamiliar works which are both substantial and entertaining. But The Magic Flute was not a wise program choice, given a director with so little appreciation of the work and too few singers up to the musical challenges.

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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Sunday, 6 November 2011

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 7 - 13)

Chinese pianist Lang Lang

The big news this week is the start of the two week residency of Chinese pianist Lang Lang in Toronto, hosted by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. According to the TSO publicity material, this marks the pianist's first residency anywhere in North America. Lang Lang will explore all the Beethoven piano concertos while in Toronto, the first time he is playing all these works in such a concentrated time period. Performances begin on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall with Piano Concerto No.1, paired with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4 "Italian" and Alice Ping Yee Ho's Ice Path. On Thursday, Nov. 10, LL plays Piano Concerto No. 3, while the rest of the program remains the same. On Saturday Nov. 12, the program is Piano Concerto No. 4, together with Smetana's ever-popular "The Moldau" and Martinu's Symphony No. 6. Peter Oundjian conducts. The busy first week of residency concludes with Lang Lang's "101 Pianists" Workshop, with the participation of young pianists of different ages and levels to share the stage with Lang Lang and perform Schubert's Marche Militaire.

On Tuesday 8 p.m. at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Music Toronto presents French pianist Lise de la Salle in her Toronto debut. On the program are works by Ravel, Debussy, and Liszt.

Tafelmusik is presenting Mozart and Friends this week, in four performances, Thurs. to Sunday at Trinity St. Paul's Centre. On the program is Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major and Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony. Legend has it that the musicians in Haydn's court orchestra left their families behind to play at Esterhazy's summer palace, and they longed to go home. Haydn facilitated their departure in the adagio section of the last movement, when each player left the stage so at the end there was just Haydn himself (and the concertmaster) left. Esterhazy reportedly got the hint and granted the wishes of the musicians - what a fascinating story!

On Sunday Nov. 13 7 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio, in Tribute to Franz Liszt, pianist Ellen Annor-Adjei plays plays his Mephisto Waltz, Funerailles, Spanish Rhapsody, Faust Waltz, La Campanella, and Isolde's Liebestod, with narration by Eric Friesen.

Finally, for something a little different - Toronto Masque Theatre presents Crazy To Kill, an opera by John Beckwith and James Reaney adapted from Ann Cardwell's book. Billed as Canada's first detective opera, it premiered at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1989. This is supposed to be the Toronto debut of this work, starring mezzo Kimberly Barber, baritone Doug McNaughton, and soprano Shannon Mercer. Performances on Friday and Saturday at the Enwave Theatre in Harbourfront.

And if that's not different enough for you, try Tapestry New Opera's presentation of Pub Operas by David Brock and Gareth Williams. In this Canadian premiere, the show features opera vignettes based on real-life stories in Glasgow's historic Sloans Pub. Tapestry's Wayne Strongman is the music director. The soloists are soprano Xin Wang, mezzo Heather Jewson, tenor James McLean and baritone Benjamin Covey. Performances on on Nov. 10, 11, 12 at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District of downtown Toronto.