La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

In Memoriam: Jean Cox (1922-2012)

Jean Cox (January 16 1922 - June 24 2012)

American heldentenor Jean Cox passed away at the age of 90 in Bayreuth on Sunday June 24.  A native of Alabama, Cox served in the US Air Force during WWII.  After the war, he studied singing in his native Alabama, then in Rome, Frankfurt and Munich. He made his operatic debut in 1951 in Boston as Lensky in Eugene Onegin. He made his Bayreuth debut in 1956 as the Steuermann in Der fliegende Hollander, under the direction of Wolfgang Wagner. He appeared there a total of thirteen seasons in Bayreuth as Steuermann, Erik, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Walther von Stolzing, and Siegfried, this last his signature role.  His last appearance there was as Stolzing in Die Meistersinger in 1984. He also had a long association with the Nationaltheater Mannheim, where he made his debut as Alfred in Die Fledermaus. He was named Kammersanger of the Mannheim opera house in 1977. In 1973, Cox sang the mature Siegfried opposite the Brunnhilde of Norwegian soprano Ingrid Bjoner at the Canadian Opera Company at the invitation of Hermann Geiger-Torel. His repertoire was huge, encompassing 75 roles although he was best known as in a limited number of dramatic tenor roles. Unlike some heldentenors who started out as baritones, the beautiful, bright tenor voice of Cox did not have any of the heaviness of the so-called "bari-tenors" and his high register was always free, rather reminiscent of another famous American Wagnerian, James King. Indeed they shared much the same repertoire. After his retirement, Cox and his wife, British mezzo Anna Reynolds, established a studio near Bayrueth and taught singing.  Here is a tribute to Jean Cox and his career, just posted on Youtube in memory of this great singer:


Saturday, 23 June 2012

A spectacular swan song for Riverdance in Montreal

By Naomi Gold 
Photos by Jack Hartin
There's an oft-repeated phrase in the world of competitive sports: "The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat".  Applied to the iconic Irish production known as RIVERDANCE, the thrill of victory essentially serves to affirm its colossal success.  The latter part however, might be restated as 'ecstasy of de feet', to reflect the exquisite footwork of its protagonists. When RIVERDANCE announced its North American farewell tour, Evenko and Broadway Across Canada teamed up to produce two shows at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.  

Although the production incorporates extensive vocal, fiddle, percussion and other musical solos, the predominant element is of course, dance. In fact a dizzying plethora of genres is performed, from traditional Irish stepdance to folk, jazz, flamenco, soft-shoe cum moonwalk-esque maneouvres and more. After much tapping, swiveling, spinning, sashaying, and soaring it was time to bid 'Riverdancers' adieu. The delighted crowd, which comprised a cross section of cultures, generations and tastes, erupted in a cacophony of bravos.   Principal dancers Callum Spencer & Chloey Turner, along with ensembles and chorus, brought the house UP, during a boisterous, extended curtain call.

The global phenomenon that celebrates Irish culture, RIVERDANCE premiered at Dublin's Point Theatre in 1995 and made its American debut in New York City in 1996. It garnered stellar reviews and was an immediate hit.  

Composed by Bill Whelan, produced by Moya Doherty and directed by John McColgan, RIVERDANCE has been performed 10,000 times for some  22 million people in 40 countries, with a worldwide broadcast viewing audience of  2 billion. Although this is North America's finale, RIVERDANCE will continue to tour other parts of the world.   Slán libh Riverdance, and until we meet again.....!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, 18 June 2012

TSO Announces Resident Conductor and Affiliate Composer



June 18, 2012 – TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian proudly announces Canadian artists, conductor Shalom Bard as the TSO’s RBC Resident Conductor and composer Kevin Lau as the TSO’s RBC Affiliate Composer. In their roles, Shalom and Kevin will be fully integrated into all areas of the organization, with full access to the inner workings of a major symphony orchestra. Earlier this year, the TSO had an open call for applications which was met with an overwhelming response. Both highly sought-after positions, these two-year residencies represent an important investment in the Canadian arts community by fostering the development of artists and leaders. This investment is supported by special project grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, and a multi-year commitment from the RBC Foundation totalling $400,000, establishing the TSO’s first RBC Emerging Artists Programme.
“RBC is committed to supporting emerging talent in Canada and we are thrilled to establish the new RBC Emerging Artists Programme at the TSO to help foster the careers of up and coming artists. In addition, RBC will also support various public performances where these artists will be involved, including the TSO’s New Creations Festival” said Shari Austin, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship, RBC and Executive Director of the RBC Foundation.
“We are delighted to welcome Shalom and Kevin as part of the TSO’s artistic team starting in September 2012,” said TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian. “I look forward to working with them both as they continue to build their careers here with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.”
As the TSO’s RBC Resident Conductor, Shalom Bard will work closely with Music Director Peter Oundjian and the Artistic Staff of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with complete access to all TSO rehearsals and performances. He will also work with TSO guest conductors for consultation, coaching, and discussion. In the 2012-2013 season, Shalom will conduct as many as 20 concerts throughout the TSO season, making his Toronto TSO conducting début at a special concert featuring violinist Maxim Vengerov (October 20, 2012). His other conducting dates include the Audience Choice Light Classics concert (January 26 & 27, 2013), Student Concerts on the Northern Residency tour (September, 2012), and a variety of TSO Education and Outreach concerts. Shalom Bard also takes on the important role of the new Conductor of the renowned and talented Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (TSYO), of which he himself is an alumnus. As TSYO Conductor, Shalom Bard will lead the TSYO in each of their three concerts, direct an intensive rehearsal weekend, and lead all rehearsals, mentoring the musicians of the TSYO.

Prior to his position with the TSO, Israeli-born Canadian Shalom Bard was Resident Conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia during the 2011–2012 season under the mentorship of Maestro Bernhard Gueller. Previous appointments include Assistant Conductor for Educational Concerts with the Herbert Zipper Orchestra of Los Angeles, and Conductor of the Mooredale Youth Orchestra in Toronto. Shalom holds Masters degrees in orchestral conducting and clarinet performance from McGill University and the University of Southern California, respectively.
As the TSO’s RBC Affiliate Composer, Kevin Lau will work closely with Music Director Peter Oundjian, Composer Advisor Gary Kulesha, and the Artistic Staff of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. During his two-year term with the TSO, Kevin will compose at least two works for the Orchestra. Kevin’s first work will premiere in June 2013 in concerts also featuring Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. He will also participate in educational work with young audiences in the TSO’s community outreach programmes.

A Hong Kong-born Canadian, Kevin Lau is an active composer of contemporary orchestral and film music. His music has been commissioned and performed by numerous ensembles including orchestras in Hamilton and Mississauga, Orchestre de la Francophonie, the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra, and the Esprit Orchestra. His orchestral composition Fountain of Dreams was awarded winner of both the 2005 Mississauga Young Composers' Competition and the 2008–2009 University of Toronto Composer's Competition. In 2010, he was awarded the Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music for his composition Starsail. His composition Joy, for solo violin and strings, will be featured in a soon to be released CD by Canadian violinist Conrad Chow.

RBC Resident Conductor and RBC Affiliate Composer are part of the RBC Emerging Artists Programme, supported by the RBC Foundation. These positions are also supported in part by theCanada Council for the Arts.

RBC Wealth Management is the Presenting Sponsor of the Maxim Vengerov performance in October 2012 and the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 performance in June 2013.

TSO 90th Season Sponsor is BMO Financial Group.

About the TSO: Founded in 1922, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is one of Canada’s major cultural institutions and is internationally recognized as a leading orchestra. Under the leadership of Music Director Peter Oundjian, the TSO is committed to innovative programming and showcases a roster of distinguished guest artists and conductors. In addition to performances, the TSO serves the community with one of the largest music education outreach programmes in Canada, connecting students throughout Ontario with acclaimed curriculum-based programming.


Sunday, 17 June 2012

This Week in Toronto (June 18 - 24)

With summer just around the corner, we are in a transition period musically.  The regular season is now at an end, and the summer programs are just gearing up.  This marks the last week of the season of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and true to tradition, it's presenting its annual Last Night at the Proms.  British-Canadian conductor Bramwell Tovey leads the TSO forces in a calvacade of beloved British patriotic pieces the likes of Land of Hope and Glory, Pomp and Circumstance, Rule Britannia, and others.  Trumpeter Alison Balsom is the soloist in Carnival of Venice.  Also featured are two of Canada's finest voices - soprano Laura Whalen and baritone James Westman.  We don't get to hear these two artists in town very often, so this is a good opportunity to catch them in Toronto. Three performances at Roy Thomson Hall, one on Tuesday June 19 at 8 pm, repeated on Wednesday June 20 at 2 pm and again 8 pm.   The very last show of the 2011-12 TSO season takes place on Sunday June 24 3 pm, not at Roy Thomson Hall but at the acoustically wonderful if under-used George Weston Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts, a short subway ride north on the Yonge line.  Bramwell Tovey conducts a mixed program with Mendelssohn's tuneful Symphony No. 4 "Italian" as the centerpiece. Alison Balsom returns for the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who passed away earlier this year. In keeping with the festive spirit, the third piece is Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture.

Another interesting event for opera fans is Voices of Summer, a gala fund-raising concert of the Toronto Operetta Theatre, featuring works by Lehar, Sigmund Romberg, Gilbert and Sullivan, Bernstein, Kalman, and others. The cast includes sopranos Leslie Ann Bradley and Miriam Khalil, mezzo Gabrielle Prata, tenor Michael Barrett, baritones Robert Longo and Andrew Tees, under the direction of Guillermo Silva-Marin. The performance takes place in TOT's regular venue, the Jane Mallett Theatre at 3 p.m., and there is a pre-concert reception at 2:30 pm and a silent auction to benefit the Company.

(Photo - Pianist Ricker Choi at the Berliner Philharmonie)

Canadian amateur pianist Ricker Choi is giving a recital, Music Heals, a Benefit Concert for the United Way, at the Glenn Gould Studio on June 23 at 7:30 pm. Choi is both a pianist and a full-time financial risk consultant. Piano aficionados sometimes turn their noses up at the word "amateur", but I can honestly say that Mr. Choi can really play, and beautifully!  He was the second prize winner of the Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition, and recently he won both the third prize at the Paris International Competition for Outstanding Piano Amateurs and the grand prize of the competition sponsored by the Chinese Cultural Centre in Toronto. He studied with Boris Zarankin, and received his A.R.C.T. Piano Performance Diploma in just five years.  The program of this concert includes works by Liszt, Brahms and Bartok.  Join him on stage will be winners of the 2012 North York Music Festival grand prize winners. For more information about Ricker Choi, go to his website at

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival starts on June 22 and continues to July 1.  Unlike last year when the great Jessye Norman showed up to give a Koerner Hall Jazz concert, there aren't any classical musicians participating this year that I've been able to find. But this is a major event of the summer and there are bound to be things of interest. For more details, go to


Thursday, 14 June 2012

Nielsen Third a First for Austin, Texas

by Paul Robinson

Stanton: Triple Venti Latte
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor Op. 18
Nielsen: Symphony No. 3 Op. 27 “Espansiva”

Jon Nakamatsu, piano
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Peter Bay, conductor

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
June 2, 2012

Carl Nielsen’s Third Symphony, which premiered in Copenhagen (Denmark) just over 100 years ago, had its first-ever performance in Austin this month. Long over due? Absolutely. This is a great symphony by one of the major composers of the Twentieth Century; “kudos” to Maestro Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony, not only for finally bringing this music to Central Texas, but also for the quality of the performance.

With the Third Symphony, Nielsen (photo: left) really began to find his own voice as a composer. His first two symphonies each have moments of beauty and excitement, but it is in the Third that Nielsen first demonstrates the individuality that was to characterize his mature works. As one might expect from a composer who spent many years playing in an orchestra, the Third Symphony often looks backwards. Its bracing opening chords recall the beginning of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony; the entire first movement recalls the ¾ metre, the rhythms and the energy of the first movement of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony; and the symphony’s blend of folkloric tunes and predilection for massive climaxes is reminiscent of Bruckner. While drawing inspiration from his predecessors, however, Nielsen went beyond them in his sense of drama and the juxtaposition of wildly contrasting elements. In this respect he brings to mind Mahler, one of his most illustrious contemporaries.

Glorious Rendition of Neglected Masterpiece
Peter Bay brought plenty of driving energy to the first movement of the symphony. I don’t think I have ever heard the Austin Symphony play with such a powerful weight of sound. As with any great symphonic work it takes a master conductor to let the brass and percussion have its head without rendering the strings irrelevant or even inaudible; Maestro Bay managed this feat with authority in the Nielsen, and in so doing let the audience hear a neglected masterpiece in all its glory. The strings played heroically, with the brass and timpani shaking the building in the big moments, just as the composer intended.

Nielsen the innovator comes to the fore again in the slow movement in which he introduces a soprano and a baritone to the score. These are wordless voices simply adding different colors to the orchestral texture; unfortunately, the soprano was so loud and sang with such an unpleasant vibrato that Nielsen’s conception was ruined. What a shame when the winds and strings were playing so beautifully!

The finale of the Third Symphony begins with a tune that could have been written by Elgar or Holst – there is something positively British about it – which Nielsen then proceeds to manipulate in weird ways, ending the movement in a blaze of brass and timpani riffs.

It must have been gratifying for Maestro Bay and his players to receive such a rousing ovation at the end of their performance. Perhaps Nielsen’s time in Austin has finally come.

Back to Beginnings
The concert opened with a fun piece by Zack Stanton, a 29-year-old faculty member at the University of Texas. Triple Venti Latte dates from his student days while he was working at – you guessed it – Starbuck’s. According to the composer, he needed the money and the caffeine to cope with graduate school and a new baby in the house. The piece is very accessible in style and might even have a future in pops programs.

I suspect that most people came to this concert not to hear Nielsen or Stanton, but to hear Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. In all honesty, I can’t say that I myself was looking forward to yet another run around the track by this popular warhorse, but it’s always exciting to contemplate what talented performers might do with familiar music.

Jon Nakamatsu (photo: right) came to prominence as a prizewinner at the Cliburn Competition in 1997 and has since established himself as an important artist. On this night there were no theatrics and there was no personal indulgence of any sort; instead, we had a very high level of technical competence and unfailing musicality. Just as importantly, soloist, conductor and orchestra were perfectly attuned to one another. As in the Nielsen, Maestro Bay had the orchestra playing with precision and power. This was an outstanding performance.

For an encore, Nakamatsu gave the audience another crowd-pleaser – Chopin’s Fantasie- Impromptu – and again, he played beautifully and the crowd was, well, pleased.

This was the last concert in the Austin Symphony’s 2011-2012 season “main series.” An important premiere, the Symphony No. 4 by Edward Burlingame Hill (1872-1960), is in the works for the 2012-2013 season. Hill, perhaps best known today for having been one of Leonard Bernstein’s teachers at Harvard, was a serious if neglected, composer. He was one of the first Americans to study composition in Paris. Many of his orchestral works were played by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. The Fourth Symphony dates from the years 1940-41. The work will be recorded live for later CD release next May.

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.

Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Paul E. Robinson by Marita

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, 11 June 2012

Un weekend Brahms haut en couleur!

Par Philippe Michaud

C’est cette fin de semaine que Yannick Nézet-Séguin et l’Orchestre Métropolitain ont donné l’intégrale des quatre symphonies de Brahms ainsi que son concerto pour violon. Même si ces chefs-d’œuvre sont parmi les plus connus du répertoire, le maestro a voulu nous présenter sa vision unique des œuvres de son compositeur préféré.

Au retour de l’entracte, lors de la première soirée, le directeur musical de l’OM a ainsi expliqué qu’il avait voulu donner plus de liberté à l’orchestre. Cela était plutôt visible chez les cordes, où les coups d’archet étaient différents. Il a aussi reconfiguré la disposition de l’orchestre. Les contrebasses, au lieu d’être à notre droite, ont été disposées en arrière.

C’est toujours un plaisir de voir diriger Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Il était impressionnant de le voir se tenir devant l’orchestre sans partition, y allant de mémoire. Le public de la Maison symphonique s’est vite rendu compte qu’il connaissait par cœur les symphonies du maître allemand.

Les cordes, et particulièrement le violon solo, ont joué avec subtilité, surtout dans la deuxième symphonie, beaucoup plus douce que les trois autres. Le jeu du violon solo pendant la première symphonie était également exemplaire. Les cuivres sonnaient très bien tout au long des deux soirées; un vrai plaisir pour les oreilles. Remercions l’acoustique de la Maison symphonique qui est, doit-on le rappeler, sans reproche.

Certains se plaindront d'un tempo un peu plus rapide que d’habitude, surtout dans les derniers mouvements. Ils n'ont pas tort, mais ça n’a pas trop dérangé. L'interprétation de l'OM demeure de haut niveau et a su garder le public concentré jusqu'à la dernière seconde de la deuxième soirée Brahms.

J'avais déjà eu la chance d'entendre Benjamin Beilman lors du dernier Concours musical international de Montréal. À l'époque, j'avais été impressionné par la justesse de son jeu. Deux ans plus tard, le jeune homme est toujours aussi doué. Il a toutefois gagné en assurance, pour le plus grand plaisir des mélomanes. Yannick Nézet-Séguin a été à l'écoute du soliste du début à la fin. Le tout était spectaculaire, surtout lors du dernier mouvement, une véritable danse.

Bref, l'OM et son chef ont rempli leur mission et nous ont présenté cinq œuvres phares de la musique classique avec un dynamisme et une précision dignes des plus grands orchestres.

Labels: , , , ,

This Week in Toronto (June 11 - 17)

Gustav Mahler (July 7 1860 - May 18 1911)

The Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity continues this week.  The Festival opened with an extraordinary production of Glass' Einstein On The Beach.  I know his music and Robert Wilson's mis-en-scene aren't to everyone's taste, but personally I found it fascinating.  I saw opening night on June 8, and for four full hours, I did not leave my seat once....deliberately holding back on fluid consumption the hours preceding helped!  Honestly it felt a lot shorter than four hours. I went in accepting the work on its own terms. I actually found it endlessly fascinating. No, I didn't liked everything, but it certainly left an indelible impression on me.  I also saw the delightful new Canadian children's opera, Laura's Cow.  It was absolutely charming and bursting with melodies.  There was also the TSO Late Nite Shostakovich Symphony 11 that I had to pass up because of Stewart Goodyear's Beethoven Marathon. This week of Luminato has less classical music content, but we can look forward to Symphonic Finale on the Festival Closing Night June 17 at 7 p.m. at David Pecaut Square, right next to Roy Thomson Hall. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Peter Oundjian is playing a program of "classical greatest hits" that includes Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, a movement from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", the 1812 Overture plus music from Lord of the Rings etc.  It is sure to be a rousing finish to this year's Festival.

In addition to its Luminato participation, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a blockbuster this week, Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the so-called Symphony Of A Thousand.  It has an (almost) all Canadian cast - sopranos Erin Wall, Twyla Robinson (replacing an indisposed Adrianne Pieczonka), Andriana Chuchman, mezzos Anita Krause and Susan Platts, tenor Richard Margison, baritone Tyler Duncan and bass Robert Pomakov. Peter Oundjian conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Mendelssohn Choir, the Amadeus Choir, the Elmer Iseler Singers and the Toronto Children's Choir.  Any performance of Mahler 8, with its gargantuan forces - ok, not quite a thousand but several hundred - is an occasion, so this will be an exciting event.  I understand it's always sold out, so do move fast.

Tapestry New Opera Works, known for its cutting edge - and often experimental - productions, is presenting two workshop performances of The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., composed by Aaron Gervais with libretto by Colleen Murphy. From the composer's own website comes the following description:

I wrote this cham­ber opera for three singers and six instru­men­tal­ists in con­junc­tion with Colleen Murphy for Tapestry’s Opera To Go series. It tells the story of a young East­ern Euro­pean woman (Oksana) who has found her­self in the safe­house of an Ital­ian priest (Alessan­dro). She has escaped from a pimp (Kon­stan­tin), who tricked her into pros­ti­tu­tion, and now finds that she is falling in love with Alessan­dro. He in turn, despite his priestly call­ing, finds him­self tempted by Oksana. During this scene, they dance around the com­pli­ca­tions of their sit­u­a­tion, each one afraid to reveal him- or her- self to the other. In addi­tion, another prob­lem presents itself at the end of the scene.

Gervais is a SOCAN award winning composer and Murphy a Governor General's Award-winning playwright. The performances take place on June 11 and 12 8 p.m. at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District of downtown Toronto.

Labels: ,

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Experience versus Meaning: Einstein On The Beach Deciphered

Photos: (top l.) Einstein On The Beach creative team Glass, Childs and Wilson receiving applause at the conclusion of the Roundtable
(top r.) Stage director Robert Wilson answering audience question
(second from top) Composer Philip Glass
(l.) Choreographer Lucinda Childs
(b.) Moderator/Luminato Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt
Photo credit: Joseph So

by Joseph So

How should one appreciate a work of art?  Should we strive to understand what it's all about, to uncover its meaning, or should we just experience it, appreciate it for what it is, without attempting to understand it? To be sure, it is only human nature for audience members to try to discover the meaning behind a creative work, and relate it to their own world. From the perspective of the creative team of Einstein (composer Philip Glass, stage director Robert Wilson, choreographer Lucinda Childs), gathered last evening at the Baillie Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario for a roundtable discussion of their seminal work Einstein On The Beach, it's not necessary to understand but very necessary to experience what is being presented. At one point, stage director Robert Wilson recounted an anecdote that Picasso once said - and I am paraphrasing here - that when we listen to a bird sing, we don't ask what it's singing about, we just appreciate its beauty.  That perhaps sums up beautifully the position of Glass and Wilson in regards to Einstein On The Beach, and likely the rest of the artistic output of these two artists.  

Wilson's story of course brings to mind immediately Siegfried trying to understand the Forest Bird's song, which he eventually is able to do after tasting the Dragon's blood. This knowledge leads him to find Brunnhilde asleep on the rock...see, even heroes from Nordic legends look for meaning - but I digress!  I understand (pun-intended) where Wilson is coming from, and to a degree I agree with him.  Sometimes we just try to analyze too darned much - we should just enjoy the ride.  This I fully intended to do on Friday when I attend the opening of Einstein On The Beach. Personally I love the musical language of Glass; it has a hypnotic effect on me and when coupled with a story the likes of Satyagraha, I find it immensely moving. One of my very best experiences in the opera house was a San Francisco Opera production of Satyagraha in the mid 1980's. The combination of the incredible story of Ghandi, the touching production, and the mesmerizing music brought me to tears near the end of the opera. 

If I may allow myself a bit of analysis, I feel that meaning is very important, but it should come from each individual audience member and not dictated or imposed by the creators (composers, producers, directors, performers). It should come from within the receiver. An audience member is perfectly capable of processing a message, discarding what is not relevant and come up with something meaningful to him/her. For example, I love contemporary operas, or contemporary take on old works. But I take issue with some stage directors who impose his/her concept on me - in these productions, there's no room for alternate explanations, no possibility of parallel realities, it's his/her way or the highway.  I have real problems with that.  That's why I love Robert Carsen's Orfeo - a modern take where the baroque trappings are stripped away and what we get is the emotional core of the work.  We are allowed to freely interpret and perceive what we see.  I was deeply moved by the performance I saw a year ago at the COC.  I hope I will have a similar experience tomorrow.

Einstein On The Beach,  Sony Centre, Friday June 8 and Saturday June 9, 6 p.m., Sunday June 10 3 p.m. 


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Maestro Huang Feili and the Rise of the Chinese Conductor

by Paul E. Robinson

In March 2009, I was a Guest Lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music (CCOM) in Beijing, China. My audience was a class of young conductors. My lecture, titled "Stokowski: the Limits of Interpretation," considered the many changes that Stokowski had made in the scores of the music he conducted and how these changes might be defended and justified. Moments before my talk was to begin, I had a distinguished surprise visitor, 92-year old Huang Feili, (photo: left) the man who had founded the conducting department of this institution back in 1956. His presence not only did me great honour, but gave me great joy. I was delighted to see an old friend whom I had first met in Toronto in 1987.

Western Music in China

China has made extraordinary progress in the last 20 years, particularly in the growth of its economy, the well-being of its vast population – 1.3 billion at last count in the census of 2010 – and in the transformation of its infrastructure. The explosion of Western classical music in China in that same time period has been no less remarkable; as recently as 1976, the Chinese communist authorities had denounced Western music as decadent and bourgeois, and a corrupting influence. Chairman Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing had made it her business to suppress any music except that which served the political purposes of the country’s communist regime.

The general history of Western music in China has been well told in a recent book called Rhapsody in Redbut my specific interest over the years has been the struggle faced by Chinese conductors to find opportunities for training and growth, and ultimately to become masters in their own house. At the very centre of that struggle was my old friend Huang Feili.

Shanghai’s International Settlement and Maestro Mario Paci

When Mario Paci (photo: right) arrived in Shanghai and played a concerto with local musicians, the residents of the International Settlement realized that this was the man they needed to take the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra (SMO) to a higher level. Paci accepted the challenge, reorganizing and reinvigorating the SMO from 1919 until 1942, when war with Japan ruined everything.

The quality of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra should not be underestimated. There is no doubt that for more than 30 years, it was the finest symphony orchestra in the Far East. Among its members was Walter Joachimprincipal cello of the SMO for eleven years. After settling in Canada in 1952, he became principal cello of the Montreal Symphony. Concertmaster of the SMO was Arrigo Foa. Recruited by Paci from his native Italy, Foa made Shanghai his home for 21 years. I met Foa in Hong Kong in the 1960s when I played double bass for the Hong Kong Philharmonic, which he conducted.

Huang Feili’s Musical Journey:  Defining the Mission

Growing up in Shanghai in the 1930s, Huang became familiar with Paci only after the Maestro had already vastly improved the SMO. While still in Primary School, he heard the orchestra for the first time playing an outdoor concert in Hongkou Park. Later, in Middle School, he attended his first SMO indoor concert at the (photo: leftLyceum Theatre.  Now a violin student, and old enough to appreciate the role of the conductor, he recalls the experience: “That was the first time I came into contact with a symphony orchestra and with Paci. I watched my violin teacher sitting to the left of the concertmaster and I watched Paci’s conducting. For the first time I heard the wonderful sound of an orchestra come out of the hands of a conductor. I was greatly impressed.” 

Later, with the help of his violin teacher, Huang regularly attended Paci’s rehearsals. Huang never had formal training in conducting. As he puts it, “My conducting was 'stolen', mostly from Paci!” Interestingly, given my reason for being in Beijing in 2009, Huang also recalls another important influence on his conducting education in the 1930s: Stokowski’s 1937 film with Deanna Durbin One Hundred men and a Girl. Musical life in Shanghai in those days was surprisingly rich and varied. recitals and concerto performances by artists of the stature of Heifetz, Szigeti, Elman, Moiseiwitsch and Chaliapin.

After the war, Huang moved to the United States to study music at Yale University. Among his teachers was the distinguished composer Paul Hindemith. By this time, he played the violin well enough to join the New Haven Symphony and work with soloists such as Serkin and Primrose. There were also opportunities to watch KoussevitskyMonteux, Stokowski, Mitropoulos and others at work in nearby Boston and New York.

Upon graduating from Yale in 1951, Huang had a big decision to make: should he go back to China or try to make a career in the West? By this time, the communists were in power and it was not yet clear what the New China would look like. Ma Sicong was then in charge of the Central Conservatory and offered him a job at the school: “New China has been established and things are good – come back.” The deciding factor for Huang was his family; he had been married before he left for Yale and hadn’t yet seen his first-born child.

Back in China, Huang joined the Department of Composition at the Central Conservatory and among his other assignments, taught conducting. One of his early successes was a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin with students of the CCOM. Huang was the conductor on this historic occasion - the first performance of a Western opera in China, featuring Chinese singers and 

By 1956, Huang had had such an impact on the Central Conservatory of Music, the musical life of Beijing and nearby Tianjin that he was asked to start a Department of Conducting. His dream was to create, as he put it, “a Chinese School of Conducting.” What he had in mind was an approach to conducting that was uniquely Chinese, a “school of conducting” analogous to the schools which existed in other art forms in China such as the Peking Opera and its various “schools” which each feature unique singing and acting. 

With time and experience, Huang came to realize that his dream was “impractical, impossible and even unnecessary.” Even the “immutable” schools of the Peking Opera have changed and living in a global village as we are today, Huang finally understood that change is probably inevitable and healthy. 

The Department of Conducting at the CCOM had only a handful of students in its early years, most of them training to become choral conductors; while there were very few orchestras in China in the 1950s, there were a large number of amateur choirs.

Founding Father of the Beijing Symphony

Huang Feili (photo: right) became not only a respected teacher at the CCOM. but also one of the most prominent conductors in China. In the mid-1970s, he was invited to head up the ensemble that would grow into one of the finest professional orchestras in China, the Beijing Symphony. When he took it over, the orchestra was a student group created to accompany the Beijing Song and Dance EnsembleXianglin Li, head of the Department of Culture of the Beijing Municipal Government, asked Huang to lead and improve it. Shocked by what he heard at the first concert he attended, Huang described the experience with an expression Chinese orchestral musicians used at the time to refer to wrong notes: “There was artillery fire all over the sky.” 

Huang accepted Li’s invitation to lead and improve the Beijing Song and Dance Ensemble, but laid down several conditions: it must become a concert orchestra rather than an accompanying ensemble; it must be large enough to play the standard orchestral literature; and the administration must be run like a professional orchestra.

By 1985, under Huang’s leadership, the orchestra had improved to the point of becoming fully professional and was renamed the Beijing Symphony. Huang Feili then went back to his full-time job at the Central Conservatory, but continued to make regular appearances as a guest conductor with the Beijing Symphony until his final concert on February 26, 2009.

Western Orchestras Serve Communist Cause

Without a doubt, Maestro Huang Feili has made an enormous contribution to the creation of one of China’s finest orchestras. The other great conducting pioneer, by the way, was Huang Feili’scontemporary and friend Li Delun, the man who led the Central Philharmonic (later known as the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra) through the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution and thereafter, until his death in 2001.

After years of turmoil in China through civil war, war with Japan, and the communist victory in 1949, it appeared that the New China would be more just and more stable. This was not to be. Under Mao’s leadership, millions starved to   in the 1950s and the turmoil continued. Then in 1966, came the Cultural Revolution, which the leadership of China today recognizes to have been a misguided attempt to restore the ideals of the communist revolution. For artists and intellectuals like Huang Feili, it was a terrible time. The Central Conservatory simply ceased to function; there was no music teaching and there were no concerts. Huang and his colleagues were sent to various military divisions to learn from the army.

Finally, this period of madness gave way to the era of 'Openness and Reform.' Work at the CCOM resumed and China even began to make overtures to the West. Nixon and Kissinger arrived in 1972, and Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra soon after. In spite of all the public euphoria whichgreeted these developments, behind the scenes life was far more complicated and difficult for Chinese musicians. Li Delun tried to bend with the constantly changing political winds, but it was a soul-destroying process: “It was all a power struggle, all politics – Jiang Qing just used music…We were all used by her, to give her something to do. I worked hard, but in my heart it was difficult.” (Rhapsody in Red, p. 287)

China Welcomes Back the Best of the West

When Ozawa and the Boston Symphony visited China (photo: left) in 1979, it was a momentous occasion. Ozawa, born in China, had a special affection for the country and its people. He had already conducted LiDelun’s Central Philharmonic a few years earlier and he and Li Delun had become very close. Ozawa demanded to see Li, but the officials lied and claimed he was busy in the south. By this time Li had been stripped of all his positions and was out of favour with the government.

Huang Feili also got to know Ozawa during his many visits to China. Ozawa gave a master class for conductors at the CCOM and soon became a conducting icon for young Chinese conductors. HuangFeili has great admiration for Ozawa, but felt that his students venerated the Maestro for the wrong reasons. They loved his flamboyant style on the podium and soon began to emulate it. Huang spent a good deal of time trying to get his students to understand that what made Ozawa great was not just the podium choreography - that was the superficial part; the more important part was his grasp of the music.

Huang Feili’s Love of Western Music Continues to Bear Fruit

In 1987, Huang made a return visit to Yale University, his alma mater, and to Toronto, where I met him for the first time. The connection was made through Huang’s son, An-lun, now a professional musician and an exciting young composer living in Toronto. I had the honour of conducting the first performance of Huang An-lun’s Symphonic Overture No. 2 in 1989.

Remember the son Huang Feili had never seen when he agonized over whether to return to China in 1951? That was An-lun, a gifted young man who grew up in China in troubled times and who, like his father, suffered the misery of the Cultural Revolution. Huang An-lun today is one of China’s foremost composers.

Huang Feili is now 94 years old and living in Beijing. He was appointed conductor for life of the Golden Sail Youth Orchestra, but relinquished his conducting role with this orchestra four years ago. Every Saturday, however, he continues to conduct a rehearsal of the 80-voice Beijing Yuying Beimang Alumni choir, an ensemble that combines alumni from two schools founded by the American Congregational Church: Yuying (boys) and Beimang (girls) high schools.

Maestro Huang Feili did not create a "uniquely Chinese" school of conducting as he had originally dreamed of doing; he chose instead to train several generations of Chinese conductors well enough to lead their own orchestras around the world - an impressive achievement by any standard, but particularly given the social and political challenges faced by China in his lifetime.

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.

Photo of Maestro Huang Felli with Paul E. Robinson by Marita

This entry is an excerpt from the first (The Art of the Conductor: China) in an upcoming series of books by Paul E. Robinson tracking the musical journeys of noteworthy conductors of Western classical music in various countries around the world.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, 4 June 2012

This Week in Toronto (June 4 - 10)

A production photo of Einstein On The Beach by Philip Glass (composer), Robert Wilson (stage director) and Lucinda Childs (choreographer), the operatic centerpiece of Luminato 6

by Joseph So

The big news in Toronto this week is that Luminato Festival of Art and Creativity is once again upon us.  This is the sixth year of the Festival, and it runs from June 8 to 17. Since its first event in June 2007, Luminato has grown into an internationally recognized annual arts festival that specializes in the new, innovative, sometimes controversial but always interesting cutting edge events. In its relatively short history, it has already commissioned over 50 works and has featured 6,500 artists from over 35 countries. Its broad scope includes events from Theatre, Music, Opera, Dance, Visual Arts, Literature, Magic, Food etc.   For music fans, Luminato 6 is particularly exciting, because it is presenting the North American premiere of Philip Glass' Einstein On The Beach, directed by Robert Wilson with choreography by Lucinda Childs.  This opera has never been produced in North America (outside New York City) for a variety of reasons - first of all, its length of almost four and a half hours is a daunting challenge in itself. Three shows - Friday and Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Sony Centre. There will be a talk on the opera given by Luminato's new Artistic Director Jorn Weisbrodt in the lower lobby of the Sony Centre an hour before each show.   Other significant classical music event of the Festival is pianist Stewart Goodyear's Beethoven Marathon.  He is attempting to play all 32 of the Beethoven Sonatas - over 10 hours of music! - in one day.  Obviously this cannot be done in one sitting, as nobody has a superhuman bladder.  Goodyear will split it into three recitals to take place morning, afternoon and evening.  The concerts take place in Koerner Hall on June 9.  Another interesting musical event is the world premiere of Laura's Cow, a children's opera. It's presented by Canadian Children's Opera Company, and it tells the story of Laura Secord who, upon overhearing that the Americans were going to stage a surprise attack on the Canadian forces during the war of 1812, trekked through enemy territory to warn the British garrison.  She disguised her journey's true intent by travelling with her cow. The opera is composed by Errol Gay and the libretto by Michael Albano. Guest artists include baritones John Fanning and Andrew Love. All performances at the Enwave Theatre in Harbourfront. Previews on June 6 and 7, with regular performances on June 8, 9, and 10. Luminato is partnering with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to present Late Night: Shostakovich Symphony 11, a single performance to start at 10:30 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall. Peter Oundjian conducts this most incandescent of Shostakovich symphonies. There will be a party with live band in the lobby after the performance.  For details on these and other shows, visit

In addition to the Shostakovich Late Night show, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is also giving two other performances of Shostakovich, paired with the Schumann Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54 with pianist Jonathan Biss. Performances on Wednesday June 6 and Thursday June 8 at 8 p.m. in Roy Thomson Hall.  Peter Oundjian conducts.


Saturday, 2 June 2012

MIMC / CMIM Semi-finals Start with Excitement

By Wah Keung Chan

The Montreal International Musical Competition (MIMC / CMIM) semi-finals began last night with six strong candidates. La Scena Musicale’s daily coverage also began with live tweeting on the LSM Facebook page and the La Scena twitter account, with a comment about each singer.

In our detail review of each session on the blog, we will discuss each singer and give a grade out of 100 in vocal technique and performance.

Emily Duncan-Brown, soprano, Canada
GIACOMO PUCCINI * « Donde lieta usci » ~ La Bohème
LEONARD BERNSTEIN * « My name is Barbara », « Jupiter has Seven Moons », « I Hate Music », « A Big Indian and a Little Indian », « I’m a Person Too » ~ I Hate Music
JOSEPH HAYDN * « Berenice che fai? »

Starting about 9 minutes late, MIMC led off with Canadian soprano Emily Duncan-Brown whose voice was at once warm with a clean timbre. However, when it goes in the upper register, along with power comes a quick vibrato that is somewhat distracting. Her opening piece of “Donde lieta usci” from Puccini’s La Boheme was careful and measured to the point of conveying little feeling to the audience, although there were one or two lovely crescendos. She followed with a good performance of Bernstein’s song cycle “I hate music”; better musicality, but at times over sang the part. Over singing was quite the problem for most of the singers this evening. She finally came alive with an emotionally charged performance of Haydn’s “Berenice che fai?” Duncan-Brown was dramatic and convincing through the recitative and the long aria. A common mistake is to choose a work that is too long, and the ending didn’t quite sit well with the soprano.
Score: Voice 87, Performance 80.

Yuri Gorodetski, tenor, Belarus
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART * « Il mio tesoro » ~ Don Giovanni
SERGUEÏ RACHMANINOV * « Vesennie vody » | « Pokinem, milaya… »
VLADIMIR SOLTAN * « Oi, kalinushka, oi malinushka »
RICHARD STRAUSS * « Auf, hebe die funkelnde Schale » ~ Heimliche Aufforderung
PIOTR ILYITCH TCHAÏKOVSKI * « Kuda, kuda » ~ Eugène Onéguine

Not the best technician, Belarus tenor Yuri began with a fast yet nimble reading of “Il mio Tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The voice sits in his mouth and was at times nasal, and didn’t project very well. However, Gorodetski seem to come alive in the second set of Rachmaninoff songs. His voice sat better in a more natural placement, and more importantly, he brought nuance and emotion to the text. His performance of Vladimir Solta’s “Oi, kalinushka, oi malinushka,” which starts softly before a crescendo and ends softly again, was the turning point; it was a dramatic and touching interpretation and Gorodetski’s style started to grown on me. It suddenly dawned on me that Gorodetski is the Philip Philips (2012 Amercian Idol winner) of the MIMC, not the best technique, but has a certain musicality. After a good performance of Strauss, Gorodetski ended with a convincing portray of Lenski’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegian. The tempo was a bit fast for my taste, but was probably chosen to suit the tenor’s limited technique. The audience responded with rousing applause.
Score: Voice 77, Performance 90.

Eric Jurenas, countertenor, United States
ANTONÍN DVORÁK * « Zigeunermelodien » Mélodies tziganes
JONATHAN DOVE * « Dawn, still darkness » ~ Flight
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL * « Al lampo dell’armi » ~ Giulio Cesare

For me, American countertenor Eric Jurenas is a paradox. When he started Jonathan Dove’s “Dawn, still darkness,” he showed a good countertenor tone. However, too many high screaming lines resulted in a hoarse voice. His Dvorak songs sounded tired and he tended to over sing. More of the same in the Handel aria “Al lampo dell’armi” from Giulio Cesare. The crowd love it, but by the end, I concluded that Jurenas has only two dynamics, a medium soft unsupported sound and loud. My advice is to work on the dynamics in between and bring more nuance.
Score: Voice 80, Performance 85.

Sasha Djihanian, soprano, Canada
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART * « Deh vieni, non tardar » ~ Le Nozze di Figaro
FERNANDO OBRADORS * « El vito », « Al amor »
LEO DELIBES * « Les Filles de Cadix »
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL * « Oh sleep, why dost thou leave me? » ~ Semele
VINCENZO BELLINI * « Qui la voce sua soave » ~ I Puritani

Poised is the best word to describe Canadian soprano Sasha Djihanian, who represented Canada at the 2011 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She came out poised, with an inviting smile. Her five-second slow bow to the audience and jury however seemed contrived, perhaps something she learnt through the years; it’s a mannerism she should loose, as some audience members found her stuffy.
Nevertheless, when she started Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” from Marriage of Figaro, we heard the most professional voice yet in the competition; there was a clean, clear, well projected tone, with a perfect legato that cuts like butter. Moreover, it was a touching performance. A dramatic flare greeted songs from Obrados and Delibes, and she showed how to sing loud without shouting. Her Handel aria Semele was tender. Djihanian showed she has the voice for Bellini’s Puritani aria, but perhaps it was not such a wise choice, as she ran out of steam at the end of the long aria, as she had to cut her high ending short. The soprano recovered well enough in Strauss’s Cäcilie.
Score: Voice 95, Performance 90.

Miriam Khalil, soprano, Canada
BENJAMIN BRITTEN * The Tower Scene ~ The Turn of the Screw
HENRI DUPARC * " L'Invitation au voyage", " Le Manoir de Rosemonde"
GIACOMO PUCCINI * " Si, Mi chiamano Mimi" ~ La Boheme
FERNANDO OBRADORS * " Chiquitita la novia" ~ Canciones clasicas espanolas
FERNANDO OBRADORS * " Del cabello mas sutil", " Al amor" ~ Canciones clasicas espanolas

Canadian soprano Miriam Khalil showed good dramatics in the Britten, she sounded nervous as her voice was not sitting on the air. Same nervousness and unsupported sound was on show at the beginning of the Duparc, but in the middle of L’invitation au voyage, her singing improved and she showed dramatic flare. Khalil was very musical in Puccini’s “Si, Mi chiamano Mimi” from La Boheme, but she ran out of steam at the end. She recovered well in the Obrados songs, with some tender moments in the second song. Khalil has a warm timbre, but needs to improve her breath support to match her musicality.
Score: Voice 80, Performance 88.

John Brancy, baritone, United States
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS * « Bright is the Ring of Words » ~ Songs of Travel
VINCENZO BELLINI * « Ah ! per sempre » ~ I Puritani
ANTONÍN DVORÁK * « Koljias », « Nereidy » ~ Opus 50 | « Mé srdce asto v bolesti » ~ Opus 2
AMBROISE THOMAS * « O vin dissipe la tristesse » ~ Hamlet

Twenty-three-year-old American baritone John Brancy came out with a friendly smile and a present voice in the Vaughan Williams. The voice sometimes has a shaky vibrato, but Brancy brought lots of musicality to his singing. In the Bellini, Brancy exhibited a nice legato and style, which he carried to the Dvorak songs. The baritone finished with flare in the aria from Thomas’s Hamlet, ending with nice top notes with a tenor-like ring.
Score: Voice 85, Performance 90.

> Listen to the semi-finals live online: RADIO-CANADA.CA/CMIM

Labels: , , ,