La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 29 April 2012

This Week in Toronto (April 30 - May 6)

Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy receives its COC premiere (l. to r. Alan Held, Michael Koenig, Gun-Brit Barkmin). Photo: Michael Cooper

The classical music scene is incredibly busy this week. The spring season of the Canadian Opera Company continues this week with its second presentation of Alexander Zemlinsky's Eine Florentinische Tragoedie (A Florentine Tragedy).  I attended the opening on April 26.  The score, with its lush harmonic language highly reminiscent of Richard Strauss (with a dash of Franz Schreker thrown in), is absolutely ravishing in the hands of Sir Andrew Davis leading the COC Orchestra. Together with the strikingly beautiful set designed by Wilson Chin, this work deserves to be seen and heard by all opera lovers in Toronto. Paired with it is Puccini's comic Gianni Schicchi, an opera that can appear unfunny, even tedious, in the wrong hands.  I can honestly say this production was the funniest I've seen.  Much of the credit of the success goes to two people - soprano turned stage director Catherine Malfitano, and American bass-baritone Alan Held, who takes on the Herculean task of singing both lead roles - Simone and Schicchi.  Having seen his serious side over the years, most recently as Vodnik in the Munich Rusalka, it's great to know that he can be such a comedian in the Puccini. Malfitano was an incendiary singing actor during her performing years.  The last role I saw her was as an incredible Kostelnicka in an ENO Jenufa in November 2006. She brings her intensity as a singer to her directing, and it shows that she is equally adept at stage directing.  Two performances this week of the double-bill - May 2 and 5 at the Four Seasons Centre.  The other production, Tales of Hoffmann, continues on May 3 and May 6 (mat.). Both shows are not to be missed.  The COC free noon-hour vocal series presents soprano Erin Wall in Maidenflowers: an afternoon of Richard Strauss. Wall has that ethereal tone and lovely pianissimos to do Strauss justice. I first heard her almost ten years ago when she sang Four Last Songs with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra at the George Weston Hall. She was just starting out then, but you could still tell it was an exceptional voice. Sandra Horst is the collaborative pianist. As usual, the COC noon hour events take place at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre.  Be sure to show up an hour ahead to line up for a seat.

As part of the Canadian Voices Series which replaced the venerable Roy Thomson Hall International Vocal Series, Canadian soprano Layla Claire is giving a recital at Glenn Gould Studio on May 3 at 8 p.m. This is the last of the four-concert series that also featured Dan Okulitch, Tyler Duncan and Julie Boulianne. On the program are songs by Britten Cantaloube, Strauss and Golijov, with Steven Philcox at the piano.  I've heard Layla Claire several times and she has a lovely voice, not to mention her movie-star looks. Tickets are a bargain at $29 a pop.  Do go support Canadian talent - our singers deserve to be heard.

For oratorio lovers, the Pax Christi Chorale is presenting a work we just don't get to hear very often - Elgar's masterpiece The Kingdom, to celebrate its 25th anniversary gala. Soloists are soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Krisztina Szabo, tenor Keith Klassen and baritone Roderick Williams, under the direction of Stephanie Martin. The concert takes place on May 6 3 p.m. at Koerner Hall.  

A more operatic oratorio is Verdi's Requiem, a piece I never get tired of hearing. Toronto Classical Singers is presenting a performance of this magnificent work with soprano Allison Arends, mezzo Mia Lennox Williams, tenor Lenard Whiting, and baritone Bruce KellyJurgen Petrenko conducts the Talisker Players Orchestra. The concert takes place on May 6 4 p.m. at Christ Church Deer Park

Off Centre Music Salon, under the co-direction of its founders Boris and Inna Zarankin, presents Spanish Ballade with a Russian Interlude, on May 6 2 p.m., at its usual venue of Glenn Gould Studio. The soloists are soprano Joni Henson, mezzo Leigh Anne Martin and baritone Peter McGillivray

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra goes "Light Classics" this week, with a program of Gershwin and one of film music, billed as "Sci-fi Spectacular" featuring music from movies like Star Trek, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The great news is that George Takei, aka Lieutenant Sulu, is hosting the event - I ask you Trekkies, it doesn't get better than that!!! Jack Everly conducts.  Three shows - Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., plus a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m.  If Sci-fi isn't your cup of tea, perhaps the All American program of Gershwin, Bernstein, Copland, Barber and Adams will?  On the program are several terrific pieces - Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Bernstein's Overture to Candide, Copland's rousing all-American piece, Rodeo, and surely one of the most sublime of contemporary compositions, Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.  Joana Carneiro conducts. Performances on Saturday 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 3 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall

The Aradia Ensemble under the direction of Kevin Mallon is presenting The Grain of the Voice, an intriguing concert of madrigals and a new composition by Mallon himself, on May 5 8 the Glenn Gould Studio. This concert is also being presented at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at noon on May 3rd. The description of this concert is rather complicated, so I've taken it directly from the Aradia website: "The title of this concert comes from an important essay by semiotician Roland Barthes featured in the collection of Image, Music, Text (NY: Hill and Wang 1977). Barthe's concept is that often in our refining of Western classical music, we have lost an essence - The Grain of Voice.  This concert will explore waves of recapturing this essence with the choir and orchestra of Aradia combining forces with the raw, vital singing of Toronto-based Georgian choir Darbazi. They will present their traditional repertoire alongside Aradia who will performance 17th century motels by Monteverdi and Gesualdo, performed in hopefully a vital and expressive style of the Italian baroque. A new composition by Keven Mallon will unite these two very different vocal 'grains.'"

Finally, Svetlana Dvoretskaya of Show One Productions is presenting a blockbuster this Thursday May 3 at Roy Thomson Hall, the 20th anniversary tour of the Moscow Soloists Chamber Orchestra with Yuri Bashmet as conductor/violist, and Mischa Maisky as cellist.  On the program are works by Schubert, Haydn, Tchaikovsky and Brahms.


Sunday, 22 April 2012

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 23 - 29)

American bass-baritone Alan Held (photo courtesy of

The big news for opera fans this week is the opening of the second production of the Canadian Opera Company's spring season, the rather unconventional pairing of Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. There are several firsts with this run, perhaps the most important is the Canadian premiere of the Zemlinsky's one-act opera. It also marks the COC directorial debut of American soprano turned stage director Catherine Malfitano.  A fascinating singing actress, Malfitano brings her cutting-edge theatrical instincts to her work as a stage director.  Also of note is the COC debut of American bass-baritone Alan Held.  To be sure, he is a bass-baritone, but to my ears Held has taken over from basses James Morris and Sam Ramey as the premiere American "low voice" singer of our time.  A regular guest at the Met, Munich and Covent Garden, he sang Vodnik in the Munich Rusalka I saw last July. It was an extraordinary performance, not an easy achievement as in the hands of stage director Martin Kusej, the Water Gnome becomes the bad guy. It'll be interesting to see how Held responds to the rather unconventional production here at the COC.  You can read about his thoughts on these two productions in the blog on his website -  The opera also stars German mezzo Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca and tenor Michael Koenig as Guido Bardi. The unconventional story of the Zemlinsky opera really requires some homework on the part of the audience, and the COC website has excellent articles on this work, including one on Malfitano's take on these operas. As well, you can get a taste of this work on youtube -  If you are a fan of the post-Romanticism of Schreker, Korngold and Braunfels, you'll love the score!

In the Puccini half of the evening, Held does double duty in the title role Gianni Schicchi, a show that also features many present and former members of the COC Ensemble Studio. Rising Canadian soprano Simone Osborne in the ingratiating role of Lauretta - short and sweet, with arguably the most famous aria for lyric soprano in all Italian Opera. She is partnered by the sweet-voiced 2011 Operalia winner tenor Rene Barbara as Rinuccio. Others Ensemble members in the show are mezzo Rihab Chieb, tenor Adam Luther, baritones Peter McGillivray, Doug McNaughton, Philippe Sly, and Neil Craighead.  American mezzo Barbara Dever returns to the COC as Zita; and this show also marks the return of Italian buffo bass Donato di Stefano.  Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, an extremely familiar figure to Toronto Symphony Orchestra audiences, makes a welcome return to the COC.  The show opens on Thursday April 26 7:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre. A very interesting event this week is the appearance of Lauren Margison, the daughter of Canadian tenor Richard Margison, in a noon hour jazz concert, New York State of Mind, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.  She is also a trained classical singer with a lovely soprano voice and has appeared with her father at the RBA singing opera and folk songs. Here she is featuring the jazz and pop standards of Billy Joel and Billie Holiday among others. Christopher Mokrzewski is the collaborative pianist. Be sure to show up an hour early for a seat.

Meanwhile, at Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting three concerts featuring the great violinist Itzhak Perlman. On Wed. April 25 and Thurs. April 26 8 p.m., Perlman joins the TSO as soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Also on the program are the viscerally exciting Suite from Spartacus by Khachaturian as well as Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini. Peter Oundjian conducts. On Saturday April 28, Perlman and his former student, TSO music director Peter Oundjian, will perform together Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and String Orchestra, BVW 1043.  The other pieces are the Overture to Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5.  There's also a conversation between Perlman and Oundjian, but not at intermission but on stage!  This usual event is bound to be very popular.  Meanwhile, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra under the direction of Quebec conductor Alain Trudel will be appearing in Koerner Hall on Tuesday April 24. The program consists of two core repertoire pieces - Tchaikovsky's pleasing Capriccio Italien and Brahms Violin Concerto - alas only the first movement; and the less frequently performed Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber by Hindemith. Canadian content is provided by Claude Vivier's Orion.

If you don't mind opera with piano, Opera By Request is putting on Donizetti's Don Pasquale on Wed. April 25 7:30 p.m. at the College St. United Church in downtown Toronto, under the direction of William Shookhoff. This group has presented some daunting works the likes of Don Carlo and Lohengrin, so now for a change of pace, it's presenting the frothy Don Pasquale. For more information, go to

The Toronto Philharmonia is presenting an opera concert of works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Soloists are soprano Joni Henson and tenor Brennan Guillory, under the direction of guest conductor Christopher Zimmerman. The show takes place at the acoustically wonderful George Weston Recital Hall on April 26 8 p.m.

If you are a G & S fan, be sure to catch the Toronto Operetta Theatre's evening of music from the Mikado, Gondoliers, Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, and Pirates of Penzance, surely a G & S Greatest Hits Evening!  Soloists include Leslie Ann Bradley, Marion Newman, David Ludwig, Christopher Mayell and Keith Savage. Two shows, Friday April 27 at 8 p.m. and Sunday April 29 at 2 p.m. at its usual venue, Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Simone Osborne: Artist In Focus

Simone Osborne: Artist In Focus
The Rising Star Soprano Speaks to La Scena Musicale about her Blossoming Career

by Joseph K. So

When Canadian soprano Simone Osborne won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 2008, she was all of 21, an extraordinarily young age to be the winner of such an important competition. When I interviewed her for an article in The Music Scene. I was struck by her bright smile, her personal warmth and most of all, her intelligence, and a certain level-headed quality that belies her age. I commented at the time that with her talent and smarts, she has just the right combination for a successful career.

Now four years later, Osborne's career has indeed blossomed. She is on the roster of Columbia Artists Management, a high power agency that has guided many of the greatest artists in classical music. Still in her last year of the Canadian Opera Ensemble Studio, Simone Osborne has already sung several leading roles to positive reviews - Pamina, Gilda, Ilia, Juliette, and now Lauretta. Her triumphal return to Vancouver (her hometown) to sing Juliette garnered ecstatic reviews. Still only 25, she has achieved more than what some singers do in a whole career. Osborne recently took time out from rehearsals of the COC Gianni Schicchi for a chat about her life and her career:

LSM: I recall interviewing you in 2008 for an article in La Scena Musicale when you won the Met Auditions. Since then your career has truly blossomed! You are now on the roster of Columbia Artists, one of the most prestigious artist agencies. We've heard you in major roles the last couple of years - Pamina, Gilda, Juliette, and now Lauretta. Tell us a little about your experiences with singing these wonderful roles....

SO: That interview we did was actually one of the first that I did after winning the Met competition. It's funny but it seems like a life time ago and just yesterday, in equal measure. I remember sitting in my mothers living room, chatting with you by phone, answering questions, the whole time in a state of shock. It had not sunk in. In a strange way, I feel the same way today about the last few years. So much has changed, so many experiences have been gained, but it's been a busy four years, and I rarely have time to put it all into perspective.

I do however, have very clear memories of all of these wonderful roles you mentioned. These characters came into my own life at very different times. If I look back at the young woman I was while singing Pamina, I barely recognize myself. I think that is because I discover things about myself, about life and about society, through my explorations of these characters.

As for my experiences singing these roles, I have been utterly spoiled with the circumstances in which I made each of these debuts. The teams assembled for each of the particular shows you mentioned were world class and not only could I have not asked for more, but I couldn't have possibly expected how much I would learn and what I would gain on the stage and off as a result of this work.

With Pamina, I polished my sense of Mozart style with the help of the wonderful maestro Johannes Debus and Kevin Murphy. I learned that sometimes less was more when it came to carving out a character. I realized with Pamina that I had an impulse to turn every role I played into a version of myself - and began to fight that impulse.

With Gilda, I learned that I was capable of a lot more than I gave myself credit for. It is a role that is next to impossible to sing without a strong technique, stamina and frankly - guts! I overcame a lot of challenges in the process of putting her together and was just grateful and proud to make it to opening night. I may have learned as much about myself off the stage on this production as I did on the stage.

Juliette was another test of endurance, pacing and focus. I remember scarfing down a banana between each act (that makes five over the course of the night!) and steeling my mind for another round. But there was also the pacing of the character. Waiting to reveal certain facets of Juliette's persona until they were laid out by Gounod in the score. I felt a strong sense of duty to portray this beloved historical figure to the the best of my ability. I must have read the Shakespeare play a dozen times, looking for clues. I was also able to coach the French style with the incredible maestro Jacques Lacombe, coming away with lessons I won't soon forget.

As for Lauretta, I guess we'll have to wait and see...

LSM: If you had to pick one, which one is your favourite?

SO: Oh, come on Jo! That is the closest feeling I know to picking a favourite offspring. Simply not fair. I love them all! Each one is unique and special in it's own way.

LSM: Let's talk a little about Lauretta. It seems to be a role tailor-made for you. And of course she has one of the most famous arias in all opera. Tell us a little about Lauretta vocally...

SO: Singing Lauretta feels like slipping on an old glove. It is a new role for me but it seems to fit just right. The aria is relatively indicative of the whole role, if perhaps a bit more delicate (when sung as it is written in the score - and less like a grand diva encore or party piece). In terms of nuts and bolts is essentially a lyric role with an optional high Db in the finale (which I prefer to think of as a C# - slightly less daunting!). It requires a solid middle voice which has enough cut in it to fight thick orchestration and doubling - like all Puccini soprano roles. That is why Lauretta is one of the only Puccini roles I feel comfortable touching for some time. The reason being that although there is indeed a Puccini sized orchestra beneath you, Lauretta is supposed to be young and much of the orchestration under her music reflects that. Not to mention - it's short! It's a short piece for every one of the major roles, but especially for Lauretta. I think the longest chunk I sing at one time is about 8 minutes. That's a walk in the park compared to Gilda, in a production that went straight through Act 2 to the end without me leaving the stage! It certainly helps to have a maestro like Sir Andrew Davis leading the way and taking care to bring out the best in each of us. And luckily for me, one of the greatest stage creatures of our time, Catherine Malfitano, tackled Lauretta early on in her career and is full of advice and encouragement.

LSM: How do you approach her character (Lauretta) ? How do you compare her to the other women you've played - Gilda and Pamina, for example?

SO: Lauretta is young and head over heels for her first love. And she's a soprano to boot - look out world! But seriously, Catherine and I had discussions early on about how we see her. Our Lauretta as innocent, but smart. In singing the aria she is sincere rather than just working as a master manipulator to get what she wants from her father. However, she is a spunky little thing and is determined to live happily ever after with Rinnucio. I'm grateful Catherine took the time to piece together this layered personality because Lauretta has a much shorter time, less music and text to reveal herself to the audience than say a Gilda or Juliette. Even Pamina has more material to work with. All this means is that I must work hard to create an interesting, three dimensional human being on the stage - rather than a simple caricature.

LSM: What other roles are you working on? Do you have a dream role?

SO: I am working on a lot of Mozart these days and looking forward to singing lots of it in the near future. I am dusting off the cobwebs on things like Susanna, Ilia and Zerlina - all of which I have performed before, and am looking forward to singing again soon. I am also preparing Melisande and two new (light!) Verdi roles for the near future.

As for dream roles, things like Manon, Violetta and Mimi are at the top of the list. However, I'll have to wait on each of these for a little while. In fact, I promised my boss at the COC, Alexander Neef, that I would lock my Boheme score in a drawer somewhere and "just forget about it" for a long time...

LSM: What upcoming assignments can you tell us?

SO: Well, after Schicchi closes at the COC, I will spend the summer in Japan, singing all of the soprano roles in a Arthur Honnegar piece at Seiji Ozawa's summer festival in Matsumoto. After that, I come back to Canada for a return to Gilda in a run of Rigoletto performances. Then it's off to Dubai to start a cruise of the Seychelle islands on board a Stella Maris cruise ship where I will represent the COC in a competition featuring young singers from La Scala, the Met, Covent Garden, among others. Following the cruise, I head to Zurich as a soloist in a new production at the 10,000 seat Hallenstadion amphitheatre, called Viva Verdi. And then, it is back to North America, and a return to Carnegie Hall for a gala concert early in the new year.

LSM: Given that you've won the Met Auditions, you've "reached the pinnacle" so to speak. Are competitions behind you now, or would you still want to try your hand in the future?

SO: I don't know about that! I feel as though I'm reaching for the pinnacle every day, with every practice session. And let me tell you - that pinnacle seems quite far in the distance! The Met was an incredible experience that changed the course and speed of my career trajectory in a big way. I am extremely grateful for the support of the Met and for all of the doors that winning that competition opened for me. That is why I want to continue to make choices that allow me to grow as an artist. That way I will hopefully make all of the people who got behind me early on, proud one day! I'm sure some people in a similar position might put competitions behind them, but I prefer to remain open to any experiences that might mean growth or new lessons learned.

LSM: At 25, you are still incredibly young, considering how far you've already gone in your career. Where do you see your voice going in the next 5 or 10 years?

SO: I think I'll let it lead the way. I would love to sing lots of Mozart roles for now and use a young Mirella Freni's repertoire choices as a general guide for my own. Taking things one step at a time, moving like a tortoise rather than a hare, and allowing for a long, fulfilling career as a result would be the dream. I plan on listening to my instrument itself, being vigilant about study, vocalizing, practice, and consistent work with a technician I trust. I think there is a lot of Italian and French repertoire in my future. Looking down the road, there are things like Susanna and Adina today, then the Countess and Manon, Lucia and Violetta down the road, Mimi and Marguerite even further along and then who knows? Tatyana, Marshallin, Butterfly? A girl can dream! But for now, I'll listen to the incredible team of people that I call my trusted "board of directors", follow my gut and listen to my voice. I'll continue to put one step in front of the other, turn down opportunities that may be too much too soon, and keep my eye on the prize - a career and artistry that I am proud of, based on hard work, honesty and respect of this incredible art form.


Sunday, 15 April 2012

Review: Opera Hamilton's Il Trovatore

(top) James Westman (Count di Luna); (mid.) Richard Margison (Manrico) and Joni Henson (Leonora); (low) Emilia Boteva (Azucena) Photos: Peter Oleskevich

Verdi: Il Trovatore

Opera Hamilton
Dofasco Centre for the Arts / April 14, 2012
Richard Margison (Manrico)
Joni Henson (Leonora)
James Westman (di Luna)
Emilia Boteva (Azucena)
Taras Kulish (Ferrando)
Mia Lennox Williams (Inez)
David Speers, conductor
Valerie Kuinka, stage director

by Joseph So

Warhorse, potboiler, over-the-top – words often used to describe Verdi’s Il Trovatore. One of the most parodied of operas, the Marx Brothers had a field day with it in A Night at the Opera, as did Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance. Il Trovatore is one of the three most popular operas in Verdi’s “middle period”, the others being Rigoletto and La traviata. Based on statistics from the Operabase website which maintains attendance figures worldwide from 2005-2010, Il Trovatore ranks 5th in popularity among 29 operas by Verdi, who in turn tops the list as the most frequently performed opera composer with a totally of 2259 performances, beating out Mozart, Puccini and Wagner. Detractors of Il Trovatore love to poke fun at its outrageously improbable plot, “oom-pah-pah” orchestration, stand-and-deliver principals and one-dimensional characterizations. Indeed Il Trovatore has everything but the kitchen sink – a love triangle, mistaken identity, kidnapping, filial piety, revenge, murder, poison, suicide, burning at the stake, beheading – you get the general idea! So, a performance of this opera is really a fun night at the opera. On the opening night of Opera Hamilton's stab at this piece on Saturday, I think the audience had a lot of fun, judging on the enthusiastic reception at the end.
Typically for a regional opera company, the set is basic but effectively enhanced by projections and judicious lighting. The traditional costumes from Malabar in Toronto are quite handsome. If one were to quibble, the head dresses of the nuns make them look more Islamic than Catholic. Il Trovatore has gorgeous music and it requires gorgeous voices to bring it off. It partially succeeded on opening night. Top vocal honours went to baritone James Westman in his first-ever Count di Luna. He sang with resplendent tone and a particularly generous top, at one point he even threw in a couple of interpolated high notes. Vocally, di Luna suits him like a glove, even if dramatically his wasn't a particularly nuanced portrayal. As Azucena, Bulgarian mezzo Emilia Boteva was certainly up to the task. Her big, gusty and somewhat metallic instrument has what it takes to be an idiomatic Azucena, even if her top notes were a bit wild on opening night. Joni Henson has a big, spinto soprano, with the right vocal weight for Leonora. She sang well except for the top register and some of the coloratura passages in the cabaletta that follows "Tacea la notte placida" and the higher passages of "D'amour sull'ali rose." More suitable for her is Miserere which she sang very nicely. After two decades of singing some of the heaviest roles in the repertoire, Richard Margison's dramatic tenor is showing signs of wear and tear. But he husbanded his resources wisely and sang with a vital sound, only occasionally suffering from a slow vibrato in sustained high passages. David Speers was the ever-considerate conductor in his unswerving support of the soloists. The male chorus sounded a bit threadbare, especially in the more dramatic moments. While this wasn't exactly a Il Trovatore for the ages, it was an entertaining evening in the theatre.


This Week in Toronto (Apr. 16 - 22)

Russell Thomas (Hoffmann) and Lauren Segal (Nicklausse) in COC's Tales of Hoffmann (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The first of the Canadian Opera Company's spring presentations opened on April 10, with Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Given the inherent fantasy of the piece, Regieoper directors often dream up all sorts of crazy mise-en-scenes, but not this Vlaamse Opera (Antwerp) production directed by Lee Blakeley. It's essentially traditional, but with enough of a twist to make it interesting. The audience loved it and so did I, particularly the singing. On opening night, it was an evening of vocal standouts. I was very impressed with American tenor Russell Thomas, whose voluminous, warm sound was totally secure from top to bottom, tireless in a very long role. Canadian mezzo Lauren Segal shined as Nicklausse, a role tailor-made for her voice and personality. Given this version that opened all the cuts, Nicklausse has more music to sing than any of the women. To my eyes and ears, Segal gave the performance of her still young career. Canadian bass John Relyea made his very belated COC debut as the three Villains in a performance the recalls James Morris in his prime. His imposing vocal and physical presence was certainly one of the evening's highlights. Erin Wall's ethereal soprano with its lovely high pianissimi was ideal as Antonia and Keri Alkema's plummy mezzo-turned-soprano was shown to advantage in the Barcarolle. Johannes Debus brought out exciting sounds from the orchestra. All in all, it was a wonderful evening at the opera and well worth seeing. Performances on Wednesday Apr. 18 and Saturday Apr. 21, both at 7:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre.

Two important musical events at Roy Thomson Hall this week, the first being the visit of the National Arts Centre Orchestra led by its music director Pinchas Zukerman. He has announced his intention to leave the NAC Orchestra, but not until 2015, so Canadians still have time to savour his tenure here. One performance only, on Saturday April 21 7:30 p.m. The program includes Antinomie by Canadian composer Jacques Hetu; Telemann's Viola Concerto with Zukerman as soloist; Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 and Schubert's Symphony No. 3. Eric Friesen is host. It's part of the Casual Concerts series so there will be a party in the lobby after the show.

Also this Friday April 20 8 p.m., the reigning American prima donna Renee Fleming is returning to Roy Thomson Hall for a song recital with Hartmut Holl as collaborative pianist. It's a very interesting program of Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Korngold in the first half, followed by Duparc, Dutilleux and Ricky Ian Gordon in the second half. The program is perhaps a little short but there will be plenty of encores for sure! For program details,

Another famous American soprano is in town this week. Dawn Upshaw, known for her championing of contemporary music, is appearing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Richard Tognetti at Koerner Hall on Sunday Apr. 22 3 p.m. Upshaw is singing Morning Winter Walks, a song cycle by Maria Schneider. It will be the cycle's Canadian premiere. The first half is a challenging program of works by Anton Webern and George Crumb. The second half is in more familiar territory with songs by Schumann and Schubert. The centerpiece is the chamber version of Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, an exquisite post-Romantic work.

Opera Hamilton's Il Trovatore continues at the Dofasco Centre for the Arts in downtown Hamilton, a 55 minute drive down the QEW. I attended the opening on Saturday and it was an entertaining show. I particularly enjoyed hearing Canadian baritone James Westman as Count di Luna, showing to all that he is indeed a Verdi baritone. Tenor Richard Margison is Manrico, soprano Joni Henson sings Leonora and Emilia Boteva is Azucena. David Speers conducts. Performances on April 17 and 19 at 8 p.m., and a matinee on April 21 at 2 p.m.


Friday, 13 April 2012

Visite en Europe de l’Est grâce à l’Orchestre Métropolitain

Par Philippe Michaud

C’est jeudi qu’avait lieu le concert Horizon Est présenté par l’Orchestre Métropolitain. Quatre œuvres d’une grande virtuosité nous ont été présentées.

En guise d’introduction, et pour nous préparer à cette soirée aux airs tziganes, l’OM a interprété l’ouverture de l’un des opéras les plus populaires de Smetana, La fiancée vendue. Dans ce morceau d’environ sept minutes, les cordes doivent souvent s’écouter et se répondre. Ici, les musiciens étaient en pleine forme et nous ont livré une interprétation endiablée.

Le Concerto pour violoncelle de Dvořák est l’une des œuvres les plus jouées du compositeur tchèque. C’est aussi le concerto le plus joué du répertoire. Le soliste invité était le jeune Stéphane Tétreault. Ce jeune musicien, qui n’a même pas vingt ans, nous a offert une excellente prestation de cette œuvre durant plus de quarante minutes. Doué d’une grande virtuosité, mais sans trop en mettre, il a réussi à émouvoir le public de la Maison symphonique dans l’adagio. Le chef Julian Kuerti a été à l’écoute du jeune musicien tout au long de l’œuvre. Du début à la fin, il a su insuffler à l’orchestre tout le dynamisme requis dans ces œuvres créées par des compositeurs tchèques et hongrois. Il n’hésitait pas, par exemple, à faire quelques pas de danse en dirigeant l’OM. Il est vrai qu’on avait parfois envie de se lever de son siège pour danser !

Dans son interprétation de l’œuvre phare de Dvořák, le Premier Prix au concours de l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Standard Life-OSM 2007 a réussi à se démarquer, sans toutefois trop voler la vedette. L’orchestre y tenait également une place très importante. À la fin du concerto, il a été applaudi de longues minutes par un public en délire. Ce jeune homme est promis à un grand avenir musical.

Les Danses de Galánta de Kodály ont été l’œuvre la plus endiablée de la soirée. Cette pièce, tirée de rythmes tziganes, demande une extrême précision et une grande rapidité de la part des cordes. Heureusement, les violons, altos, violoncelles et contrebasses nous ont livré une interprétation sans reproche, digne des plus grands orchestres européens. Il faut aussi souligner le très bon travail des bois, notamment la clarinette. 

En présentant comme dernière pièce la suite tirée du ballet Le Mandarin merveilleux, l’OM a montré à son public sa grande flexibilité. Cette œuvre, qui fait appel à plusieurs percussions, dont un xylophone, un célesta et une grosse caisse, et même à un piano, exploite tous les timbres d’un orchestre symphonique moderne. Le public n’a pas été déçu, et cela concluait en beauté une merveilleuse soirée.

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Sunday, 8 April 2012

Van Zweden/DSO "Passion" a Performance for the Ages!

by Paul E. Robinson

J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion BWV 244
John McVeigh, tenor
Morgan Smith, baritone (Christus)
Camilla Tilling, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, alto
Johannes Chum, tenor (Evangelist)
Alistair Miles, bass
Dallas Symphony Chorus, Joshua Habermann, director
Children's Chorus of Greater Dallas, Cynthia Nott, director
Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas

Friday, March 29, 2012

Jaap van Zweden, recently named “Conductor of the Year” by Musical America, has been recognized by music-lovers in Dallas since 2008 - the start of his music directorship of the DSO –  as an extraordinary leader of musicians. He has impressed audiences and critics alike in the “Big D” with his readings of Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Bruckner and Shostakovich, remarkable for their intensity and high performance standard.

But the music of Bach, especially the St. Matthew Passion, is something else again. The forces here are large but they are rarely powerful. No trumpets, trombones or percussion required for this piece. This music needs a lighter touch, deep insight into the sacred texts, and a performing style that is historically accurate. Tonight’s performance revealed to Dallas audiences this other side of Jaap van Zweden, and again he proved masterful on the highest level. For this listener, it was a performance for the ages, full of beauty and insight from beginning to end.

Once again, we must remember that much of van Zweden’s musical education took place during his eighteen years as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. Sitting in that orchestra, van Zweden worked with some of the finest conductors of his generation - among them Nikolaus Harnoncourt, (photo: right) a man renowned for his painstaking work on performance practice in music from the Baroque and Classical periods. Van Zweden has frequently mentioned that he learned a great deal from Harnoncourt about how this music should be played, but this performance was not simply a matter of copying what Harnoncourt did.

Masterminding a Historically Accurate Performance
The understanding of historically correct performance practice has evolved over time and will continue to evolve as scholars and scholar-performers like Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Koopman, Herreweghe and others dig deeper. Harnoncourt himself, for example, recorded the St. Matthew Passion no fewer than three times between 1970 and 2000 and each performance is different. In other words, to say that van Zweden learned from Harnoncourt is only to say that van Zweden learned from him a great deal about period performance practice as a starting point for his own study. What we heard in Dallas was not a St. Matthew Passion modeled on Harnoncourt but a living, breathing performance that only van Zweden and his singers and players could have given.

On this occasion, Van Zweden was limited by the fact that he had only a week of rehearsals, that he was working with musicians playing on modern instruments, and that these musicians were largely inexperienced with this style of performance. He asked the string players to use much less vibrato and a lighter and more nuanced bowing style than they were accustomed to using. In addition, he penned all manner of dynamic markings in their parts. He even changed the length of some of the notes in the score, often shortening long notes in accordance with period style, thus allowing for greater clarity. He frequently delineated cadences at the end of phrases with Luftpausen,literally a “lift” of the bow before the cadence.

The winds sounded different too. Van Zweden expressed a preference for the more mellow sound of wooden flutes as compared to the metal flutes used in most orchestras today, and the DSO flutists obliged him by using wooden ‘head joints’ (photo: left), the part of the flute with the mouthpiece.

All these touches are the stuff of historically authentic performances. We should also mention the generally faster tempi and modest chorus and orchestra sizes favoured by van Zweden in accordance with what is now known about what would have been done in Bach’s time. Record buffs can make their own comparisons between any of the Harnoncourt or Gardiner recordings and the older ones by Mengelberg, Klemperer or Karajan. The words ‘grandiose’ and/or ‘lugubrious’ come to mind when describing these traditional performances

Outstanding Musicians and Soloists Rise to the Occasion
Strict adherence to scholarly practice does not in itself guarantee a great performance of anything, let alone a work as profound as the St. Matthew Passion. One still requires excellent singers and musicians and a conductor who can put such a complex piece together and make it compelling; thankfully, we had all these things and more on this night in Dallas.

Let’s start with the man telling the story in Bach’s Passion. The Evangelist, as he is called, needs to have the most flexible of tenor voices and a compelling presence. The Austrian tenor Johannes Chum (photo: right) was that man and I never expect to hear a finer performance. He never shouted, sobbed or waved his arms about. He simply sang the music and conveyed the meaning of the words. That was more than enough. His rendering of the passage in which Peter vehemently denies Jesus, not once but three times, was heartbreaking, especially on the words “Und ging heraus und weinete bitterlich” (And he went out and wept bitterly). 

Baritone Morgan Smith sang the role of Christus (Jesus) with great dignity and again, let the music and the words speak for themselves.

The solo arias contain enormous expressive and technical challenges; soprano Camilla Tilling sang them beautifully, with near-perfect control. Even more impressive was alto Jennifer Johnston (photo: left). Her rendering of the celebrated aria “Erbarme dich” was poignant beyond description, and the orchestral accompaniment led by concertmaster Alexander Kerr was sublime. I can’t imagine how Jaap van Zweden got the strings to play their sustained notes so softly. The pizzicato in the double basses was exactly what was needed - loud enough to mark the rhythm but not so loud that it obtruded on the hushed sadness Bach so obviously wanted here. Kerr’s solo playing displayed a flawless technique and beautiful tone, always, as we might say, ‘within the frame.’ This great solo does not require the heavy richness of tone we associate with Brahms or Tchaikovsky. In fact, that kind of playing would destroy the purity of Bach’s conception, not to mention be stylistically misguided.

Bass Alastair Miles was a tower of strength. His great solo “Mache dich” was sung with effortless command of the long lines and with a richness of tone that reminded me of Tom Krause in his prime. Tenor John McVeigh was another solid performer apart from a few brief moments of strain in his upper register.
Incidentally, another superb violinist, Emanuelle Boisvert, until recently concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony, led the second orchestra in this performance. She too contributed some fine solo playing in her accompaniment of the bass aria “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder.” 

The Dallas Symphony Chorus, under its newly-appointed director Joshua Habermann (photo:right) has had very little experience with this repertoire in recent years, but rose to the occasion. This is not Carmina Burana or the Beethoven Ninth. The St. Matthew Passion requires very controlled and disciplined singing and the chorus must have worked hard to master it. The Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas were similarly well-prepared and sang very well indeed. Too bad Bach didn’t call for children’s voices in Part Two.

Guest Continuo Trio a Perfect Choice
In between the arias and choruses in the St. Matthew Passion are pages of recitative in which the soloists are accompanied only by a continuo group, on this occasion comprised of William Skeen (viola da gamba), Phoebe Carrai (cello) and Hanneke van Proosdij (organ). These players were borrowed from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco and they were superb. Their parts are pretty unobtrusive except when they are not perfect. These musicians were perfect and enhanced the performance immeasurably. William Skeen was also very impressive in two of the arias, particularly the bass aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz.”

Two Orchestras Double Heavenly Sound
There are two choruses and two orchestras in the St. Matthew Passion. Each orchestra has two flutes, two oboes and strings. The oboists are sometimes called upon to play other instruments, namely either an oboe d’amore or an oboe da caccia. In this performance the oboe d’amore parts were played by Erin Hannigan (photo: left) and Brent Ross, and the oboe da caccia parts were played on English horns by David Matthews and Willa Henigman. All four players were outstanding and one marveled anew at Bach’s musical imagination in the use of these instruments. Especially memorable was the soprano aria “Aus Liebe” in which the sole orchestral accompaniment is a flute and a pair of oboes da caccia (English horns), and the extraordinary alto aria “Sehet, sehet” with a pair of oboes da caccia and continuo. The singing and playing in both cases was heavenly.

Chorales Simple and Profoundly Moving
Lutheran chorales are used throughout the work to break up the storytelling and to involve the congregation. At least that was the intention in Bach’s time. As in so much of the music in the St. Matthew Passion, Bach indicated neither tempo nor dynamics. In traditional performances these chorales were often taken very slowly and encumbered with all manner of interpretive glosses as if to underline their seriousness. Early music specialists tend to play these in a more straightforward manner, treading lightly with swells and fades. Van Zweden is of the latter persuasion. Now and again he allows himself stress on a word or phrase but for the most part he plays the chorales simply and definitely without sentimentality.

English Surtitles Engage Listeners: Thankyou!
This evening’s performance was given in the original German, with surtitles in English - a wonderful idea which allowed each listener to follow the story and to be fully engaged. Bach’s audience would, of course, have understood every word, and to present a performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 2012 without meeting that same standard would be to totally misrepresent this great masterpiece. There are only two acceptable options today: either translate the work to the language of the audience, or present it in the original German, with surtitles.

As usual, Laurie Shulman’s program notes were thorough, scholarly and very helpful.  I don’t know many orchestras that go to the trouble of commissioning such exemplary notes week in and week out. For this performance of the St. Matthew Passion there were no fewer than nine pages of notes!

For further Listening and Reading…
Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s most recent recording of the St. Matthew Passion is available on Teldec 8573-81036-2. The set also contains a bonus CD-ROM devoted to Bach’s 1736 autograph manuscript. Listeners can put the CDs on their stereo player and follow the score using their computer. Some of Harnoncourt’s thoughts on the work are included in his book The Musical Dialogue, published by Amadeus Press in 1989.

There are several recordings available in English. One of the most interesting was done by Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic in 1963. It is an abridged version but it is dramatically compelling. The CD set also contains an illustrated discussion of the work by Bernstein (Sony SM2K 60727).

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. Click here for a Classical Conversations video (Paul and Maestro Jaap van Zweden discuss Bach's St. Matthew's Passion).

Jaap van Zweden: Photos by Marita