La Scena Musicale

Monday, 30 January 2012

Susan Graham Recital Combines Artistry with Star Power

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau receiving audience accolades in Koerner Hall Recital (Photo: Joseph So)

Susan Graham Recital Combines Artistry with Star Power

by Joseph So

Sunday Jan. 28, 2012 at 8 p.m.
Koerner Hall, RCM, Toronto

Purcell: Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel
Berlioz: La mort d'Ophelie

"Mignon Songs"
Schubert: Heiss mich nicht reden
Schumann: So lasst mich scheinen, bis ich werde
Liszt: Kennst du das Land
Tchaikovsky: Nyet tolka tot kto znal
Duparc: Romance de Mignon
Wolf: Kennst du das Land

Horovitz: Lady Macbeth
Poulenc: Fiancailles pour rire

American Songs (announced from the stage)
Messager: J'ai deux amants
Porter: The physician
Duke: Ages Ago
Moore: Sexy Lady

Reynaldo Hahn: A Chloris
Stephen Sondheim: The Boy From

One of the highlights of the fall opera season was the appearance of American mezzo Susan Graham in the title role of Iphigenie en Tauride. Of course that wasn't the first time she sang in Toronto, as I recall her recital of American Songs (mostly Ned Rorem songs) in the Roy Thomson now-defunct Vocal Series a dozen years ago, as well as a date with the Toronto Symphony in Les nuit d'ete. But it took an operatic star turn to capture the imagination of Toronto voice fans. Simply put, Susan Graham is the complete package, a consummate artist of extraordinary gifts, a combination of gleaming vocalism, stunning technique, musical intelligence, communicative power, and stage allure. How often does a singer get a song written for her called "Sexy Lady" and actually living up to every word of the text?

On a blustery Saturday evening of high winds, slippery sidewalks, fender benders and road closures, Koerner was packed, a testament to Graham's drawing power. She didn't disappoint her fans one bit. In terrific voice, Graham took no time to warm up, singing the Purcell with lovely tone and clear diction. (For some reason, the second Purcell song, Mad Bess, was omitted) This was followed by Death of Ophelia by Berlioz. The French repertoire is Graham's forte - she's rare among American singers in her facility with the French language, which she speaks fluently and accent-free. Her care and attention to textual nuance was exemplary. The next six songs, all based on Goethe's text, was sung as a group loosely labeled as "Mignon Songs." It was good to hear "Kennst du das Land" by both Liszt and Wolf, the latter to many ears - mine included - the superior song. Graham sang these so exquisitely that there was spontaneous applause, quickly (and good-naturedly) shushed by the diva herself. Martineau, a collaborative pianist of the first rank, played the Wolf even more magnificently than usual, with stunning pianistic flourish and ample dramatic power.

The second half was made up entirely of American songs, with a combination of art songs and the more lighthearted "pop" repertoire. In the hands of Graham, the extended scena "Lady Macbeth" by Joseph Horovitz became a veritable tour de force as powerful as Verdi's. After this deadly serious piece, Graham switched gears into more fun stuff. With songs by Messager, Porter and Duke, and given her charmingly earthy stage persona, Graham had the audience eating out of her hand. Her final piece on the regular program, "Sexy Lady" - an autobiographical song written for her by Ben Moore, was a self-effacingly funny piece that defies description. By then, the audience didn't want to let her go. She rewarded "a perfect audience" with two encores - the exquisite A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn which she called her favourite song, and Stephen Sondheim's The Boy From... I am sure the audience would agree that this concert was well worth the price of braving the elements on a winter's night.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 30 - Feb. 5)

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

The big news for voice fans this week is the Canadian Opera Company premiere of Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin, which is being billed as Love From Afar. Saariaho is one of a handful of contemporary composers whose works are regularly performed, and more importantly, revived. Her musical idiom is unique in its tonal palate, with its elusive quality that is at once adventurous but also accessible. Last year, several of her chamber and vocal works were featured in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival, with none other than soprano Karita Mattila interpreting a couple of the pieces. Saariaho's larger scale works, her operas, are also regularly staged. For example, both L'amour de loin and Adriana Mater received productions at the prestigious Santa Fe Opera. I was fortunate to catch L'amour de loin there in 2002 with the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Jaufre Rudel, Dawn Upshaw as Clemence, and Monica Groop as The Pilgrim. I wouldn't say it was an easy work upon first hearing, but I found that the more I delved into it, the more rewarding it became. That production, available on DVD, is visually striking but also quite static. What we are getting at the COC is the more recent production from Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. (Quite incidentally, the Finley role was taken by another Canadian, Phillip Addis) In Toronto, we'll have the great Russell Braun - the terrific Orestes from last Fall's Iphigenie - as Jaufre Rudel, Erin Wall as Clemence and Krisztina Szabo as The Pilgrim. COC Music Director Johannes Debus, whose work includes a lot of contemporary music, is the conductor. If you are at all interested in new music, this is not to be missed. It opens on Thursday, Feb 2 at 7:30 pm, and repeated Saturday Feb. 4 at 4:30 p.m. If you are curious about Saariaho's music, the COC two noon hour concerts of her works. On Jan. 31 is a Chamber and Vocal concert with Canadian soprano Carla Huhtanen, and on Feb. 2 is From the Grammar of Dreams: Vocal Music of Kaija Saariaho. Soloists are members of the COC Ensemble Studio.
Be sure to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat. Meanwhile, the Puccini warhorse, Tosca, received rave reviews when it opened on Jan. 21. I caught the show earlier today (Jan. 29), and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was simply incandescent in the title role. The opera house was packed, proving that a tried and true verismo can still pull them in! On Jan. 31 7:30 p.m., the alternate Tosca (Julie Makerov) and Cavaradossi (Brandon Jovanovich) will get to strut their stuff. Both are very fine singers - Makerov of course is no stranger to Toronto, having sung Donna Elvira and Rusalka. Jovanovich was a terrific Siegmund in the Die Walkure I saw last June in San Francisco. Additional performance this week on Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

This week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra welcomes back its former music director Gunther Herbig to conduct Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, coupled with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. Herbig is among the best of conductors in these big Romantic/Post-Romantic pieces, and it's good to have him back. Anton Kuerti is the soloist in the Emperor. This is a great program. Two performances, on Thurs. Feb. 2 and Sat. Feb. 4, both at 8 p.m.

On Feb. 5, the Off Centre Music Salon is presenting its annual Schubertiad. This year's theme is The Composer Contemplates and Twitters, no doubt a bit of borrowing from social media! Soloists are soprano Charlene Santoni, baritone Vasil Garvanliev, and violinist Jacques Israelievitch, plus of course Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis. This event also marks the launch of Boris Zarankin's new Schubert sonatas CD on the Doremi label. Sunday Feb. 5, 2 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In Memoriam: Rita Gorr (Feb. 18 1926 - Jan. 22 2012)

Photos (lower): Rita Gorr as Orfeo;

(top) Gorr signed my score of Les dialogues des Carmelites during her appearance as Mme. de Croissy at the Canadian Opera Company

In Memoriam: Rita Gorr (Feb. 18 1926 - Jan. 22 2012)

by Joseph So

The great Belgian mezzo soprano passed away last Sunday in Majorca where she had lived the last decades of her life. Gorr was born Marguerite Geirmaert, in Zelzate in Belgium, between Ghent and the coast. She studied voice in Ghent and Brussels, won first prize at the Verviers vocal competition in 1946, and made her professional debut in Antwerp as Fricka in Die Walkure the same year. (Interestingly, she bid farewell to her 60+ year career in 2007 as the Old Countess in Pique Dame, also in Antwerp)

From 1949 to 52, Gorr was a member of the Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg. After winning another competition in Lausanne in 1952, she made her debut at the Opéra-Comique and the Paris Opéra, singing such roles as Magdalena in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Delilah in Samson et Dalila, Venus in Tannhäuser, Charlotte in Werther, Mère Marie in Dialogues des Carmélites, Carmen, Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande, and Amneris in Aida. She was Mother Marie in the first recording of the Poulenc opera on the EMI label. Gorr made her debut at Bayreuth in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, La Scala in 1960, and the Metropolitan Opera on October 17, 1962 as Amneris. In four seasons at the Met, she sang Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Eboli in Don Carlo, Azucena in Il trovatore, and Dalila.

Gorr's magnificent mezzo is best remembered for its incredible opulence, power and intensity. She had a wide repertoire from Baroque to Wagner to contemporary works. Her upper extension allowed her to assay the occasional soprano roles, such as Santuzza. She also recorded the Liebestod, although to my knowledge she never sang the role on stage. She is well represented on disc, with many superlative recordings. Among her very best output is her Ortrud in Lohengrin under conductor Erich Leinsdorf, and her Amneris opposite the Aida of Leontyne Price and the Radames of Jon Vickers under the baton of Georg Solti. She sang comparatively little in North America, and to my knowledge she sang only in Toronto once, as Madame de Croissy in the last Canadian Opera Company's revival of Les dialogues des Carmelites. She was in good company, with a cast that included Anne Sophie Schmidt (Blanche), Lauren Flanigan (Mme Lidoine), Elizabeth Vidal (Constance), Nadine Denize (Mother Marie), and Benoit Boutet (Chevalier de la Force) Even with such a great cast, Gorr's Croissy was the most memorable. To honour and enjoy the artistry of this great singer, here is the link to a concert from 1993 when Gorr, at the grand age of 67, sang with great authority and lovely tone "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" from Gluck's Orfeo. Requestiat in pace, Rita Gorr.


"RachFest" a High Note for Graf, Gerstein, and the Houston Symphony!


Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Houston Symphony: Hans Graf, conductor

Jones Hall
Houston, Texas
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Symphony orchestras frequently mount “festivals” to package their wares more effectively, but I can’t remember ever coming across a Rachmaninov Festival, or “RachFest,” as they called it in Houston.

Composer Sergei Rachmaninov
There are usually two main reasons for classical music festivals: to celebrate artistic achievement and to fill seats. 
Whereas Beethoven and Mozart festivals have become so common and in the beginning at least were so lucrative that artistic purposes were almost beside the point, in the case of Houston’ s more venturesome “RachFest,” I would guess that artistic and monetary motivations were about equal.

The Houston Symphony may have had a third reason for programming its Rachfest. Since much of Rachmaninov’s symphonic repertoire involves piano, such a festival potentially requires more than one outstanding soloist. In this department, Houston’s RachFest turned out to be as much as celebration of pianist Kirill Gerstein, as a tribute to Rachmaninov. Gerstein played all four piano concertos in a period of three weeks - quite a challenge for even the greatest of pianists!

RachFest Might Have been so Much More
As exciting as the concept was, I would suggest that the Houston Symphony’s celebration of Rachmaninov with a multi-concert festival could have been somewhat more imaginative.

To start with, two of Rachmaninov’s best works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphony No. 2, were not included. 

The Rachfest would also have provided an opportunity to showcase major Rachmaninov works such as The Bells and Vespers or, in cooperation with Houston Grand Opera or one of the local universities, one of the composer’s operas.

Why, I would ask, did the opening concert of RachFest open with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture, rather than with one of the many shorter orchestral works by Rachmaninov?

Finally, I would suggest that more information on the Houston Symphony website, in the program book and in the lobby (posters, flyers etc.) would have significantly enriched the concert experience for many.

A Steady Beat Through Troubled Times
Maestro Hans Graf is now in his penultimate season as music director of the Houston Symphony, after which he assumes the title of Conductor Laureate. The consensus of opinion on his tenure appears to be that he has maintained the standard set by his predecessor Christoph Eschenbach.

Maestro Graf has lived through some tough years in Houston as the organization has struggled through a flood, a strike and the worst recession since the Great Depression. He may not have been the sort of charismatic leader who could bring new listeners to Jones Hall, but charismatic leaders are not always as sound musicians as Graf; in short, Graf has been a stabilizing influence for the Houston Symphony at a time when orchestras everywhere are floundering.

A Brilliant Rendition of Isle of the Dead
In this RachFest concert, Graf was not only an excellent partner for the amazing Mr. Gerstein in the piano concertos, he was also very impressive in one of Rachmaninov’s finest orchestral pieces, Isle of the Dead, which he introduced to the audience as the first performance of the work ever given by the Houston Symphony - an extraordinary oversight, given the importance of the piece.

Between 1880 and 1886, Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin did five versions of a painting he called “The Island of the Dead.” Before the downbeat, Maestro Graf directed the audience’s attention to a screen depicting one version of that painting, though not the specific one that had inspired Rachmaninov to compose Isle of the Dead.

This painting depicts a dark and rocky island with tombs on its cliffs. Approaching the island is a small boat in which we see a woman in a white shroud standing over a coffin. Böcklin never gave an explanation for the painting, leaving it to the viewer’s own imagination, and Rachmaninov has done the same with his tone poem Isle of the Dead, which opens with a musical evocation of the small boat rocking in the water as it moves toward the island. Bass instruments in a minor key and an unsettling 5/8 metre produce an appropriately dark sound for this long opening section, which gives way to a brighter more impassioned middle section, almost Wagnerian in its sweep as it builds inexorably towards a massive climax, returning finally to the morose music of the beginning.

Isle of the Dead is a magnificent piece that is surely one of Rachmaninov’s greatest achievements.

Hans Graf obviously loves this piece and gave a superb performance with the Houston Symphony, making the most of every detail, some of which were rendered by one of the world’s great horn players, William VerMeulen.The rich, golden colour of VerMuelen’s  playing is inimitable and the unique expressiveness of his phrasing was ideal for the Isle of the Dead.

Channeling Rachmaninov: Graf and Gerstein Get it Right!
Last week, at RachFest's opening concert, Gerstein had played the Piano Concerto No. 3. This week he paired the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4, and next week he will conclude the festival with the Piano Concerto No. 2. 

Kirill Gerstein (photo: Marco Borggreve)
Rachmaninov composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 when he was still a teenager. It is a remarkable work for such a young composer. Understandably, while the composition draws inspiration from music by composers he admired as a youth, such as Liszt and Tchaikovsky, it already shows Rachmaninov's growing mastery of the instrument and contains some wonderful original melodies. Gerstein played with the appropriate youthful energy and brought great beauty of tone to the quieter passages. 

The Piano Concerto No. 4 was written 35 years after the first concerto and shows a remarkable stylistic evolution. By 1926, the world of music had changed drastically as composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky experimented with greater chromaticism and complexity in their music. Rachmaninov couldn’t embrace all the new developments, but he was listening. The Piano Concerto No. 4 is indeed more chromatic than his earlier concertos and moves away from the big romantic tunes that were his bread and butter, towards the use of smaller motivic elements. Gerstein and Graf perfectly realized the modernity of this new style, engrossing the audience from beginning to end.

There are young pianists who dazzle audiences with speed and power; Gerstein is not one of them. Significantly, when asked in the Q and A after the concert to name the pianists he most admired, Gerstein named Radu Lupu and Rachmaninov, both pianists renowned for their musicianship rather than for their feats of pianistic gymnastics. Musicianship is what the performance of Rachmaninov’s music requires; while technically demanding, it requires, above all, beauty of tone and phrasing. Gerstein has it all.

A magnificent concert and a fine celebration of a great composer! 

Encore a Nice Touch!
For an encore, Gerstein might have chosen to dazzle the audience with a Rachmaninov Prelude; instead, he and Graf sat down at the piano and played a charming early Rachmaninov Romance for four-hands

For Those Wanting More…
In the Q and A after the concert, I asked Maestro Graf about Rachmaninov’s own recording of the Isle of the Dead with the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the performance is stunning, the composer himself made cuts in the score for this recording. While Maestro Graf admitted that the recording did prompt him to consider making those cuts himself, in the end, he could not bring himself to deviate from the published score.

I had a second question about the Piano Concerto No. 4 score, of which there are several versions, including one produced by the composer late in life and used for a recording with Ormandy in 1941. Which version had Gerstein and Graf used for this concert and why? Graf answered that there are things in the 1941 recording with Ormandy that are not in the score used for that recording, and that even after the recording, Rachmaninov continued to make changes.

Gerstein wrote a blog about the concerto for the Houston Symphony website, which includes the following comments: “Maestro Hans Graf and I have enjoyed correspondence about some of these late additions. Pianist and researcher Leslie Howard, kindly shared a copy of an autograph page, housed at the Library of Congress, for figures 74 to 76 of the 3rd movement. I am happy that our performance this weekend will include additional counterpoint lines that are usually omitted from performance.”

To Screen or Not to Screen – That is the Question
The Houston Symphony, like many other orchestras is making extensive use of large video screens to enhance the concert experience. In Jones Hall there are two large screens at the front of the hall on either side of the stage. The idea is to give the audience close-up views of the soloist, conductors and members of the orchestra during the performance. While I personally think this is a wonderful idea, others find it distracting. For me, it is a case of using new technology to enhance the concert experience.

Those who attended this performance may have noticed that only one of the screens was in use. Why? Krill Gerstein gave the answer in the Q and A after the concert. Sitting at the keyboard, Gerstein had the right side screen directly in his line of sight. He found it distracting to be watching himself while he played. It was even more disconcerting for him since there is a short delay between the actual performance and what appeared on the screen.

Houston Arts District Surprises and Delights
At this concert and at the Alley Theater production of The Toxic Avenger this same evening, representatives of American Express were handing out free CDs and food and beverage vouchers worth $10. These freebies were given to any patrons who could show an American Express card, as part of American Express’s imaginative “Surprise and Delight” campaign. At the Alley Theater performance, patrons were given a free CD featuring music from the show. Jones Hall gave members of the audience free Houston Symphony CDs. These promotions appear to have been very effective marketing ploys for both arts organizations and for American Express.

Breaking News
The Houston Symphony yesterday (January 24thannounced details of its 2012-2013 season. As mentioned above, this will be Hans Graf’s last season as music director.

One of this coming season’s highlights will surely be a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck conducted by Graf. His farewell concerts in May, 2013 will feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.

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 podcastClassical Airs.

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Monday, 23 January 2012

Rare Szymanowski with Austin Symphony and Emanuel Ax a Texas Treat!

Mozart: The Impresario Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Moniuszko: Bajka (A Fairy Tale) Fantastic Overture
Szymanowski: Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for Piano and Orchestra Op. 60

Emanuel Ax, piano
The Austin Symphony, Peter Bay, conductor
Michael and Susan Dell Hall
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
January 13, 2012

We hear a lot about troubled orchestras these days. As the recession lingers on, ticket sales continue to be disappointing and donations are down. The orchestras that survive are the ones that tighten their belts and step up their marketing. They also tend to limit their programming to more popular fare.
The Austin Symphony has always prided itself on living within its means and in hard times, it is coping better than many other orchestras. In matters of repertoire, it treads carefully but occasionally allows conductor Peter Bay to shake up the mix. That was the case this week, with the audacious programming of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante.

The music of Szymanowski (photo: right) is definitely not part of the
standard repertoire, but he is an important composer. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see a production of his opera King Roger; I was struck by the theme of the work – the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Twelfth Century Sicily – and by the originality of the music.

Szymanowski was fascinated not only by the folk music of his native Poland, but also by the art and history of other cultures. His musical style has been called ‘Romantic Impressionism’ and while that is a fairly accurate descri
ption, it leaves out the spirituality and folkloric content of many of his works; in short, his was a unique voice in classical music in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

The Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, composed in 1932, had a major success at its first performance. Although it requires a virtuoso pianist, the orchestral part is more prominent than in the typical concerto; hence, the dual title of the piece.

In this Austin performance, soloist Emanuel Ax (photo: right) played with all the technical mastery the piece requires, fully exploiting its vast range of colours. In light of the fact that the orchestration is murky at times, the Austin Symphony could have used a little more rehearsal time, but on the whole this was a good performance of a work which should be heard more often.

Conductor Peter Bay came up with another Polish piece to set up the Szymanowski, but this programming was far less successful. Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872) is at best a minor composer and his Bajka appeared to be a stop-start potpourri of forgettable tunes. Suppé did this sort of thing much better.

In the first half of the concert, Emanuel Ax gave a sparkling account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2; unfortunately, I still have ringing in my ears a superb performance of this same concerto from last October in Montreal. Till Fellner was the soloist with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. That performance had everything, including the sound of an exciting new concert hall that does wonders for the string instruments.

All in all, it was a treat to hear the Szymanowski Symphony No.4, Symphonie Concertante and special kudos are in order for a soloist of the stature of Emanuel Ax for bringing it to Austin.

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 Conductorpodcast, Classical Airs.

Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Austin Symphony members, by Marita

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Rob Ford: The Opera A Rip-Roaring Cautionary Tale

The principals of Rob Ford: The Opera taking a well deserved bow (l. to r. Conrad Siebert, Fabian Arciniegas, Eliza Johnson, Andrew Haji, Rosanna Murphy, Jamilynn Gubbe, Caitlin Wood)

Rob Ford: The Opera - a Rip-roaring Cautionary Tale

by Joseph So

University of Toronto Faculty of Music
New Music Festival
Composers: Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime, Saman Shahi
Librettist: Michael Patrick Albano
Conductor: Rafael Luz
Director: Erik Thor
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012
MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building

Andrew Haji (Rob Ford)
Rosanne Murphy (Margaret Atwood)
Fabian Arciniegas (Father)
Eliza Johnson (Mother)
Elizabeth Polese (Remeron)
Andromahi Raptis (Paxil)
Anna Sharpe (Nardil)
Caitlin Wood (Homeless Woman)
Conrad Siebert (Cyclist)
Jamilynn Gubbe (Seagull)

Jerry Springer has one. So does Anna Nicole Smith. Not to speak of former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. So why not Rob Ford?

I am of course referring to high profile public figures as fodder for grand opera. Given that the operatic art form has always served as a vehicle for social and political commentary, it's only logical that our Toronto mayor would be given the operatic treatment - after all, Ford is, er, larger than life in more ways than one. Given such a controversial, even incendiary, political figure at the hands of young composers with their left-leaning, free-wheeling creative impulses, the end product is inevitably a funny and irreverent jab at the political goings-on of the Ford Nation.

The four members of the Student Composer Project (Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime and Saman Shahi) each penned a section of the one-hour opera, with a pithy libretto supplied by well known stage director Michael Patrick Albano. It played to a capacity audience at Macmillan Theatre on Sunday afternoon. People started lining up hours (!) before the 2:30 p.m. show to ensure a seat. The audience was in a boisterous mood, cheering Michael Albano and Dean of Music Don McLean lustily even before a note of the music was heard.

In his libretto, Albano wisely stayed away from some of the more contentious personal issues of the mayor, instead focusing on matters of public record. In fact he treads rather carefully and with good reason - it's hard to make the darker sides of one's personal life funny. Except for the opening fantasy sequence of Ford's early life, the libretto sticks closely to the much publicized episodes - cutting the library budget, eliminating bike lanes, getting rid of the homeless etc. With devastating but not mean-spirited humour, the opera had the audience in stitches yesterday afternoon. The confrontation between Ford and the angelic Margaret Atwood drew the most belly laughs. Ford meets his comeuppance when he snatches the wings from Atwood, and presumably perishes, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Thus one could say Rob Ford: The Opera is more than just laughs but a modern cautionary tale of sorts.

Musically, it's a bit of a pastiche, with a number of literal quotations - there's even a direct quote from Parsifal in the Judgement Scene! The four composers are quite skillful in their (generally sparse) orchestration, sticking with tonal music and avoiding the intellectual - and thus potentially less accessible - approach. Worthy of particular praise is Massimo Guida's contribution in Scene's 1 and 2. He composes with a particularly strong melodic inspiration, his lyricism greatly enhanced by the excellent singing of Andrew Haji (Rob Ford). Under conductor Rafael Luz who gave a clear if not ideally taut reading of the score, the chamber orchestra played valiantly. No it wasn't note-perfect, but Rob Ford the Opera captures the imagination of the audience and as a piece of social commentary, it succeeds in spades.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 23 - 29)

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham returns to Toronto for a Koerner Hall Recital on January 28 at 8 p.m.

The Canadian Opera Company's Tosca opened to rave reviews last weekend, and with thirteen performances to go, there are plenty of opportunities to catch this excellent show starring Canada's reigning prima donna Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role. Partnering her is Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi. Mark Delavan is the evil Roman chief of police Scarpia. Paolo Carignani conducts. The traditional production - a rarity for the COC - is a revival from just a few short years ago. Performances on Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.

For those who caught the fabulous Iphigenie of Susan Graham last fall at the COC, you'll be happy to know she is back in town to give a recital with the great collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau, in a program of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Duparc. Jan. 28 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall. I also heard a rumour, as yet unconfirmed, that Graham will give a masterclass while in town. If I get more information, I will update this blog.

For ten days, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting a New Music Festival. The Festival opened last Sunday with the world premiere of Rob Ford: The Opera - a U of T students work that wowed the capacity audience - including yours truly - at McMillan Theatre. The centerpiece of the Festival is the music Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, who will be interviewed on Monday noon at Walter Hall. That evening at 7:30 p.m. in Walter Hall, the Gryphon Trio will play his music as well as several Canadian composers including Alexina Louie and Andrew Staniland. For details of the many activities of the Festival, consult

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, having just concluded its Mozart@256 celebrations, is offering an eclectic pairing of Bartok's inimitable The Miraculous Mandarin with the more traditional Brahms and Haydn. TSO's Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless plays the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, complemented by Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. James Gaffigan is the guest conductor. Performances on Jan. 25 and 28 at 8 p.m. The show on Thursday Jan. 26 7:30 p.m. is without an intermission and features only the Bartok.

RCM's Royal Conservatory Orchestra under conductor Julian Kuerti is presenting Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 as well as Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Minjoo Jo, the winner of the GGS Concerto Competition. Also on the program is R. Murray Schafer's Dream-e-scape. The concert takes place on Jan. 27 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall.

Uri Mayer, the director of the Orchestral Program and the Resident Conductor of the RCM Glenn Gould School, is the new Artistic Director of the Toronto Philharmonia. He will lead his Orchestra in a concert celebrating Mozart at the George Weston Recital Hall on Jan. 25 8 p.m. Pianist Andre Laplante plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 K.467 in C Major. Also on the program is Symphony No. 40. For details, go to

An intriguing event is Amici Chamber Ensemble's Fashionista: Fashion as Art on Jan. 29 3 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio. It features the fashion of Canadian designer Rosemary Umetsu, who is well known for the concert gowns she has designed for many Canadian artists, including Isabel Bayrakdarian and Nathalie Paulin. Joaquin Valdepenas, Joey Hetherington and Serouj Kradjian are joined by accordionist Joseph Petric in a program featuring the music of Chausson as well as a newly commissioned piece by Alice Ping Yee Ho.

Last but not least is Wagner's Lohengrin, put on by Opera by Request. When's the last time Torontonians saw a fully staged Lohengrin? I think you'll have to go back to the mid 1980's COC production with Siegfried Jerusalem, Ellen Shade, Leif Roar and Janis Martin! Thanks to the audacious programming of Opera by Request, we'll get to hear it live, albeit with piano accompaniment, on Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The soloists are local Canadian singers the likes of Rachel Cleland (Elsa) and Andrew Tees (Telramund). William Shookhoff at the piano. If you love this opera - as I do - it's worth investigating. It takes place at the College Street United Church on 452 College in downtown Toronto. Tickets are very affordable at $20.


Saturday, 21 January 2012

Tafelmusik Honours the Past and Welcomes the Future with Hercules

Photo (bottom): Tafelmusik music director Jeanne Lamon receives audience accolades after performance of Hercules (foreground l. to r. Sumner Thompson, Jeanne Lamon, Allyson McHardy) All Photos: BDS Studios
Photo (top): Hercules full cast

Handel: Hercules
Jan. 19, 2012 Koerner Hall

Sumner Thompson, bar. / Hercules
Allyson McHardy, mezzo / Dejanira
Colin Balzer, ten. / Hyllus
Nathalie Paulin, sop. / Iole
Laura Pudwell, mezzo / Lichas

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
Dancers of Atelier Ballet
Jeanne Lamon, music director
Marshall Pynkoski, stage director
Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, choreographer
Raha Javanfar, lighting designer

As Canada's premier baroque band, Tafelmusik has attracted a loyal following over the years. Well, they were out in force last Thursday for the opening of Handel's Hercules. Rather than the traditional venue of Trinity St. Paul's Centre, Tafelmusik rented the more spacious and acoustically friendly Koerner Hall, now arguably the best concert hall in Toronto. The change in venue represents a further artistic evolution of Tafelmusik, and judging from the performance and the audience response, it was a resounding success. The place was packed, a powerful testament of the loyalty of Tafelmusik audiences at a time when many organizations play to much less than full houses. The evening had a feel of a real gala, with the audience eagerly anticipating the performance, but also a post-concert announcement, but more about that later.

Hercules is technically an oratorio, but given its dramatic nature, the piece is quite viable as an opera. Here we have essentially a fully staged production complete with entrances and exits, with full costumes (minus wigs) for the principals but no sets and taking place in a concert hall. The action was enhanced by choreographed dance sequences by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, and the deft direction of Marshall Pynkoski. Their work here bear the indelible stamp of their own company, Opera Atelier. Directorial touches that work beautifully in the Elgin can appear a little over the top in the tight confines of a concert stage - have you ever seen a more elegant janitorial staff made up of dancers carrying brooms and dustpans? The exaggerated way Hyllus (Colin Balzer) threw himself at Iole elicited some giggles from the people around me, but I am nitpicking. A more legitimate complaint was the extremely dim lighting in the first half, rendering the printed text in the program totally useless. (Perhaps somebody heard the complaints at intermission as the house light was considerably brighter in the second half)

Top vocal honours went to mezzo Allyson McHardy as Dejanira. Hers is a genuine low mezzo bordering on a lyric contralto, with a timbre that brings to mind the excellent contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, but McHardy has a stronger, more solid upper extension, a rare attribute for a low voice. Dejanira has the most music to sing, and McHardy dispatched everything with technical ease, intensity and expression. Particularly memorable was her Act 3 Scene 3 aria with its bravura passages - McHardy's performance here was a tour de force. Also noteworthy was Canadian tenor Colin Balzer, who has carved out a good career in Mozart in mostly European houses - his Don Ottavio at the recent Aix en Provence Don Giovanni was outstanding. His smooth, plangent sound was heard to advantage as Hyllus, at his best in "Let not fame the tidings spread." Reportedly under the weather, Acadian soprano and Toronto resident Nathalie Paulin overcame some initial huskiness and went on to provide her usual feminine warmth and soft-grained vocalism as Iole. Her voice blended beautifully with McHardy's, and their two duets, particularly the one in Act 3, was the highlight of the evening. While it was sad that illness forced the wonderful Quebec mezzo Mireille Lebel to cancel, we got to hear Laura Pudwell, long an OA stalwart, stepping in as a worthy replacement in the role of Lichas. The title role was taken by American baritone Sumner Thompson. Tall and imposing - he towered over Nathalie Paulin - Thompson was an impressive Hercules. His voice is a bit too light for the role and not ideally audible in the lower reaches, but overall he acquitted himself well. The smaller solo roles were expertly taken by the very fine Tafelmusik Chorus - there were only twenty-two of them, but everyone was up to the task.

The Tafelmusik Baroque Chorus under its longtime music director Jeanne Lamon played the Handel score with precision, elegance, verve and elan. It was a fitting way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Lamon. The Company also took this occasion to announce the inauguration of its own recording label , Tafelmusik Media. After the performance, the audience was invited to remain in their seats to watch a video announcing this new initiative. Given the huge discography already in existence, launching its own label is a logical undertaking. It is important to note that it is more than a record label, as material will be available in a number of formats, presumably with future downloading capabilities. This is a most welcome news for supporters of Tafelmusik, and for lovers of the baroque repertoire in general. More information can be found on their website


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Gustav Leonhardt nous a quittés

Triste nouvelle pour le monde de la musique : Gustav Leonhardt, claveciniste, organiste, musicologue et chef d'orchestre, s'est éteint le lundi 16 janvier à son domicile d'Amsterdam, à l'âge de 83 ans.

Atteint d'un cancer, il avait annoncé le 12 décembre dernier qu'il mettait fin à sa carrière, après un concert au Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord à Paris.

Pionnier du renouveau de la musique baroque, il a été le professeur de plusieurs musiciens renommés. Parmi ceux-ci, mentionnons Bob van Asperen, Christopher Hogwood, Ton Koopman, Alan Curtis et Geneviève Soly.

De sa discographie comptant plus de 200 titres, on retient, entre autres, l'intégrale des cantates sacrées de Bach, en collaboration avec Nikolaus Harnoncourt, sous étiquette Teldec (autrefois Telefunken), enregistrée entre 1971 et 1989. CR


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 16 - 22)

Photo: Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra's leader Jeanne Lamon

The big news this week is the beginning of the Canadian Opera Company's winter season, with its duo offerings of a warhorse, Tosca, with a contemporary opera, Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's Love From Afar. Tosca stars soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role. She has sung it to acclaim in other major venues such as San Francisco and LA, and it's time for her hometown audience to catch her in one of her best Italian roles. Opposite her is tenor Carlo Ventre. Given there are something like 14 shows, the two principals are double cast, with Julie Makerov and Brandon Jovanovich as the other pair of lovers. Paolo Carignani conducts.
Kaija Saariaho is one of the few contemporary opera composers whose works regularly receive revivals. I saw this work several years ago in Santa Fe, as L'amour de loin, starring Canada's own Gerald Finley, American soprano Dawn Upshaw and Finnish mezzo Monica Groop. Peter Sellars directed. It was a very intriguing experience. It is not easy music, but the more one delves into it, the more rewarding it becomes. Other than Finley, up and coming Canadian baritone Phillip Addis had a big success singing the role of Jaufre Rudel in Antwerp. Now we have another great Canadian baritone, Russell Braun tackling this most enigmatic of opera characters. Erin Wall and Krisztina Szabo complete the small cast. At the helm is COC Music Director Johannes Debus, who has made quite a name for himself in contemporary works particularly those of Henze. It's not often that we encounter the works of female composers in opera. The COC noon hour concert is taking a look at the work of female composers from Hildegard von Bingen to present day. The concert, In Praise of Women, takes place on Jan. 17 in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, and features members of the COC Ensemble. On Jan. 19 at noon, the COC Chamber Music Series presents East Meet West, a program of the music of Debussy and Tan Dun. Be sure to line up at least 45 in advance for both concerts to ensure a seat.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues its celebration of Mozart with a series of performances of his last composition, the Mozart Requiem. The soloists are Simone Osborne, Kelley O'Connor, Frederic Antoun, and Tyler Duncan, joined by the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers. Also on the program is Canadian piano wunderkind Jan Lisiecki playing the Piano Concerto No. 20 K466. There will be four performances - Jan 18 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall, Jan. 19 at 2 p.m., Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. (a shortened show minus the concerto), and Jan. 22 matinee at the George Weston Recital Hall. Details and tickets at

Another major event for voice fans is Tafelmusik's presentation of Handel's Hercules, staged by Marshall Pynkoski. Instead of its usual venue of Trinity St. Paul's Centre, it will take place at Koerner Hall on Jan. 19, 20, 21, and 22. The soloists are Nathalie Paulin, Mireille Lebel, Colin Balzer and Sumner Thompson. These performances mark the 30th anniversary of Tafelmusik's Music Director Jeanne Lamon. I am told that a ceremony honoring Lamon will take place at the Jan. 19 performance, including the announcement of an important Tafelmusik initiative - be sure not to miss this important event.

A very intriguing event is the University of Toronto Opera Student Composer Collective presenting Rob Ford: The Opera. Well, this I've got to see! It will be directed by Michael Albano and features students of the U of T Opera Division. One performance only on Jan. 22, 2:30 p.m. at the Macmillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building. It opens the New Music Festival.

A bit farther afield - an hour down the QEW if the traffic gods are willing - is Opera Hamilton's Popera Plus, an evening of operatic arias and duets featuring four excellent singers - soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo Norine Burgess, tenor Bruce Sledge and baritone Phillip Addis. Three shows, on Jan. 14, Jan. 19 and Jan. 21. For details of times and venue, go to