La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

MISQA: Spells Tradition

By John Delva

In its third year, the Montreal International String Quartet Academy (MISQA) unites some of the foremost young string quartets from around the world to hone their skills through the guidance of experienced chamber musicians and concert performances. For its director, André J. Roy, the oral tradition—the sharing of knowledge between teacher and student—is one of the academy’s main focuses. This is not surprising seeing how many who have met the viola teacher highlight his affability. With prestigious faculty that includes Gerard Schultz and Günter Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet, Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet, Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet, as well as the Endellion String Quartet, participants are not short on mentors. I sat down with Mr. Roy and discussed the attention the academy has received, and how string quartets are similar to the NHL's Los Angeles Kings.

LSM: The MISQA has really taken off since its inception in 2010. How did it come about?

André J. Roy: It's about people coming together. The Cecilia String Quartet called me and asked if I'd consider being their coach. I was in touch with one of our great benefactors here, Constance Pathy, and she helped the Cecilia Quartet join McGill. She was very interested in founding an academy or something of the sort here in Montreal, but there we were in April and the professors I was looking for were booked two or three years in advance—they're big names. I was organizing the academy in May and June to be ready in August. It was absurd! I had a long conversation with Gerhard [Schulz], explaining what we wanted to do with the academy and he saw it as a place to grow and develop the next generation of string quartets. I was very lucky he accepted to do a few days that first year.

MISQA Director, André J. Roy
LSM: The academy's rapid expansion attests to its increasing success over the years. When did you know you had something special?

AJR: So we did the first academy. The Cecilia and I went to the Banff competition and, as if from a movie script, they went on to win first prize. It sparked interest from a lot of people asking, “Who are these guys in Montreal?”

LSM: What does the academy consider when selecting its participants?

AJR: Senior groups must be involved in the international scene, while the junior ones are quartets that will eventually be selected for international competitions.

LSM: And how do you go about choosing professors?

AJR: You know who's out there, then you talk to people a year or two in advance. We have [amongst eight professors] the two violinists from the Alban Berg Quartet and the cellist of the Cleveland Quartet: monumental quartets and musicians. They have all trained quartets who have won international competitions and are extremely devoted to teaching.

LSM: What does a typical workshop look like?

AJR: In the mornings, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., we have private coaching sessions. I always try to have two violinists, a violist and a cellist at least present during that week—if you have someone who has made a career at being a second violinist, they will know everything in the repertoire inside out. Then, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., one of the teachers will give a master class. The rest of the time [participants] practice individually and with their quartet.

LSM: What goals do the MISQA set for its participants? 

AJR: I want them to be in contact with the best practitioners out there. This is very much an oral tradition, which you can link to Beethoven and Shostakovich who have worked with string quartets. I also wanted this program to be in the image of Montreal: We always hear Montreal's a good mix between Europe and North America. I wanted people from Europe to benefit from what we do here and vice versa.

LSM: What kinds of challenges do performers encounter in string quartet writing?

AJR: Look at [the] Los Angeles [Kings] this year: Nobody expected them to do anything because they're a young team, but with a good coach and group synergy, they were able to win the cup. They don't have the best players, but they have an amazing team ethic. Same with string quartets: Each quartet has its own signature sound. There's a lot of giving involved and it's not about your own sound anymore. Your sound has to be part of a collective one, and that's the hardest thing to develop.

LSM: Most people are aware of the big name composers who contributed to the evolution of the string quartet genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Do you think there's a composer of string quartets out there who isn't given his or her fair due?

AJR: Thomas Adès is an amazing composer. For the performers, putting it together is a nightmare! Once a quartet embarks on a career, the chamber music series that will offer them an opportunity will want to hear Haydn, Bartók, Shostakovich, and so on. Once in a while they'll accept a modern piece, but not too often. String quartets have a repertoire they can offer during a given season, so if you're to spend half of your time learning a new piece—to be really good and keep being in demand—you have to make sure you'll be able to program it. For me, Adès or Wolfgang Rihm are not played enough, but they will be in the future when quartets have learned their repertoire. Every competition has a living composer write a piece, which is a way of having young quartets learn new music.


The MISQA runs from August 12 to 25.

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Sunday, 12 August 2012

Festival Orford 2012: Kuerti Goes Deeper and Nagano Plays Small Ball

by Paul E. Robinson

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in a minor K. 310
Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C major Op. 53 “Waldstein
Schubert: Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D. 960
Anton Kuerti, piano
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
July 28, 2012

Ravel: Trio in a minor for violin, cello and piano
Poulenc: Le bal masque
Dutilleux: Sonnets de Jean Cassou
Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat Suite
François Le Roux, baritone; Olivier Godin, piano; Marianne Dugal, violin; Sylvain Murray, cello; Olga Gross, piano; Members of the OSM
Kent Nagano, conductor
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
August 7, 2012

After more than 60 years of service, the Orford Arts Centre in Eastern Quebec (l’Estrie) has become one of the most venerable arts institutions in Canada. Founded by Gilles Lefebre in 1951, it is still going strong at the same location, tucked into one of the mountain passes on Mont Orford. This area is a magnet for skiers in the winter, and for for hikers, golfers and music lovers from surrounding cottages and the nearby town of Magog in the summer.

Three years ago, after a failed experiment in Knowlton, Quebec, it appeared that Orford would become the summer home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. On the evidence of this year’s programme, however, that dream also appears to have vanished.

Only ten members of the OSM showed up at Orford this summer to take part in a chamber concert. OSM music director Kent Nagano conducted his reduced orchestra in part of one concert and also appeared the next morning leading the student orchestra in a rehearsal. This was a far cry from what was billed three seasons back as “OSM Week at Orford!” So the OSM is apparently doomed to continue its summer wanderings, and Orford, at least to this music lover, appears somewhat diminished by its absence.

I can’t help feeling, in spite of the decent audiences for the two concerts I attended, that the Orford Arts Centre is in the doldrums these days. The place is still a refuge for gifted students, and major artists still put in an appearance from time to time to add lustre to the proceedings, but there is no sense of growth or fresh imaginings here; on the contrary, there is a sense of playing it safe and reducing risk. True, these are admirable qualities in a time of global economic crisis, but surely the programmers could come up with something more inspired than yet another celebration of Debussy, French music and Jacques Hetu.

Although artistic director Jean-François Rivest appears to have run out of both money and ideas, there is nonetheless some fine music-making going on at Orford and it is well worth a trip at least from somewhere close by in the Eastern Townships to hear it.

For example, Anton Kuerti (photo: right) has had a long association with Orford going back to its earliest days and he returned recently to teach and play the music he loves best. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata displayed yet again Kuerti’s fondness for extreme dynamic contrasts and he gave a virtual master class in realizing Beethoven’s pedaling instructions. A great performance! Schubert’s magnificent B flat major Sonata was also played with total mastery and a seemingly infinite variety of tonal shadings. Kuerti also found in Schubert’s rhythms not the usual tiresome repetition, but a wealth of nuance.

At the OSM chamber concert on August 7th, we heard two genuine rarities: Poulenc’s La bal masque and Dutilleux’s Sonnets de Jean Cassou. Both performances featured the extraordinary French baritone François Le Roux (photo: right). He was in great form and Nagano and the OSM musicians were with him every step of its surreal way in the Poulenc. This music dates from 1932 and shows yet another facet of the composer’s resourcefulness with instrumental timbres. The Dutilleux songs are dark and unsettling and Le Roux and pianist Olivier Godin gave them powerful performances.

Stravinsky’s l’histoire du soldat sounds somewhat incomplete without the text that was meant to be an integral part of it but the OSM musicians again demonstrated their virtuosity and attention to detail.

Ravel’s Trio received a competent performance but the playing of violinist Marianne Dugal and cellist Sylvain Murray seemed to lack passion and sensuality. Pianist Olga Gross offered greater intensity in her playing.

The Salle Gilles Lefebre has recently undergone some renovations and the results are impressive. The 544-seat hall has become much more attractive and the acoustics are superb.

The programme notes for both concerts were attributed to Sylveline Bourion and they were frequently incomprehensible. I doubt that the translation was entirely to blame.

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

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Saturday, 11 August 2012

Vocal Masterclasses and Concerts at 9th Festival Art Vocal

by Wah Keung Chan

The 9th edition of the Canadian Institute of Vocal Arts is well under way with 41 promising young singers, mostly from Canada and the US, studying under a top team of voice professionals led by Artistic director Joan Dornemann. The three-week program culminates in a two-week Vocal Arts Festival, consisting of five masterclasses and four concerts.

On August 6’s masterclass, Dornemann showed he talent as the voice whisperer, giving five young singers her wisdom to improve their performance. Vocal coach Claude Webster led the August 7 masterclass, while tenor Michel Sénéchal gave a lesson in French art song on August 8. Next week, the masterclasses will move to McGill’s Redpath Hall with star soprano Deborah Voigt on August 14 and soprano Dawn Upshaw on August 16.

Concert performances begin tonight, August 11, with Contest: The Voice is Right, a recital of Lieder and French melodies, on August 13, a production of Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias on August 15, and concludes with a Gala concert on August 18, all at the University of Montreal.

> Read: Opera Finish School


L’Institut canadien d’art vocal annonce que, pour des raisons de santé, la soprano Deborah Voigt annule le master-class prévu ce soir (le 14 août) 19 h 30 à la salle Redpath de l’Université McGill.

Les autres événements prévus aux calendriers jusqu’à samedi prochain 18 août se poursuivent normalement.


Deborah Voigt's masterclass scheduled for August 14 at 7:30 PM has been cancelled due to health reasons. All other events continue until August 18 as scheduled.

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Friday, 10 August 2012

Wicked in Montreal

by  Naomi Gold

Evenko and Broadway Across Canada are staging WICKED in Montreal's Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier until August 26, 2012. Composed by Stephen Schwartz and based on Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel, this musical tells the story of the witches of OZ before Dorothy arrived. Stephen Oremus is the music director while orchestrations are by William David Brohn. The book is by Winnie Holzman.

Tickets are available from the Place des Arts box office by calling 514-842-2112 or can be ordered online:  Prices begin at $52.49 and there are matinee performances on weekends.  In addition, there is a daily lottery in which winners can buy orchestra seats for 25$ each, cash only. To enter, go to PdA's wicket 2 1/2 hours prior to showtime and request the WICKED lottery. Winners will be announced 30 minutes later and must present valid photo ID.  This drawing is available only in-person at the box office, with a limit of two tickets per person.

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Saturday, 4 August 2012

Letter from Munich 2012: Siegfried, Goetterdammerung, Joyce DiDonato

Canadian tenor Lance Ryan generously applauded for his exceptional Siegfried

The Kriegenburg Ring (Cycle 2) continued with a Siegfried very much in the mode of the first two installments, one emphasizing the use of bodies, mostly in flesh-coloured underwear, as the basis for the sets. It worked well for the most part - ingenious and occasionally brilliant ideas, not always executed with the topmost finesse one has come to expect from this great opera house.  Kriegenburg's approach to Siegfried is to view this piece as the "scherzo" of the Ring, bringing a bigger than usual dose of humour into the proceedings. It worked beautifully in Act 1  - just loved the Forging Scene with the exaggerated, people-centered mechanics. The use in Act 2 of supernumeraries on wires to form trees for the forest scene was executed flawlessly. The forest bird, beautifully sung by Elena Tsallagova, and a mechanical bird perched on top of a pole carried by a supernumerary, brought out all the whimsy of this scene. The slaying of the Dragon - the head of which was essentially made up by a mass of naked bodies - was a visually impressive moment. Staging of Act 3 proved more problematic, particularly Scene 3 when the lovers meet. To this viewer, the acting of Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, as the anti-hero meeting his first female, bordered on slapstick, his characterization turned Siegfried into a veritable L'il Abner. He, and not Brunnhilde (acted with relish and sung with beauty of tone by Catherine Naglestad), was the reluctant virgin on the wedding night. A good actor, Ryan was able to bring it off, but somehow one wonders if this the right approach to the character?  Elsewhere in Act 3, the Wanderer-Erda scene quite well staged. She was surrounded by a large coterie of supernumeraries made up to look like "primitive" tribesman, aka the Yanomamo people of Brazil. Perhaps not exactly anthropologically or politically correct, but it proved at least interesting.  Like Rheingold and Walkure, the glory of this Siegfried was in the singing and the orchestral playing. Lance Ryan, handsome of face and slim of body, was a believable Siegfried. He also had amazing vocal and physical stamina for this punishing role, sounding fresh to the end and was able to match the Brunnhilde  note for note. Catherine Naglestad was an uncommonly  fine Brunnhilde, and the two of them had good chemistry.  The rest of the cast was the best one could hope for - Thomas Mayer followed his very impressive Walkure Wotan with a Wanderer of authority and depth of feeling. Jill Grove was a fine if slightly underpowered Erda. The conducting of Nagano, criticized in some circles as being a bit too leisurely which I find unjustified, gave a supremely lyrical reading of the score, an impressive achievement given it was his first Ring Cycle.

Catherine Naglestad (Brunnhilde) and Lance Ryan (Siegfried) receiving audience accolades 

Joyce DiDonato gave a lovely recital despite a bad cold; here taking a bow with her pianist David Zobel

The magnificent Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme receiving thunderous ovations after Immolation Scene
(All photos: Lawrence Lock)

The final installment was of course Goetterdammerung, arguably the most complex, technically and theatrically challenging of the tetralogy. It requires topnotch singers and a clear directorial vision to bring it off. Musically it succeeded in spades. I say that wholeheartedly by offering a personal testimonial of sorts. I suffered an unfortunate injury the day of the opera by running for the tram from the hotel to the National-theater. On that day, there was a detour due to the outdoor simulcast of the opera at Max-Joseph Platz. In my haste to catch the tram as fast as I could, I felt something rip in the back of my thigh. But missing the tram was not an option so I continued. I ended up with a huge rupture of my left hamstrings - as determined by an ultra-sound the following day - that left me hobbling for the rest of my Munich sojourn.  The idea of sitting through six hours of Goetterdammerung on the evening of having suffered this serious injury was rather agonizing, and it was.  But I can honestly say that the power of the Wagnerian score in the hands of Nagano and his orchestra, and of course the magnificent singing of the great cast made the ordeal actually quite bearable - I almost forgot the pain!  A baptism by fire to be sure, but it was worth it.  The next day, I developed a huge and scary hematoma, but that's another story... 

This Goetterdammerung was a stylistic departure from the other three segments in that there is a physical set used to depict the Gibichung Hall. The time is "contemporary", the single set, a multilevel structure appears to depict a big business concern and symbols of the current European economic crisis are everywhere, none more prominent than the Euro currency symbol as a rocking horse, a mildly amusing touch. The characters are finely if rather idiosyncratically, drawn. Alberich is a cigar-liquor pilfering kleptomaniac; Gutrune a rich, spoiled princess; Waltraute a victim of obsessive compulsive disorder as indicated in the incessant rubbing of her leg.  Some of these touches worked while others didn't.  The Norn Scene, staged in what appeared to be the aftermath of a nuclear accident, has contemporary resonance, even if the yarn was deliberately broken by one of the Norns, sort of taking some of the magic away.  "Money and Power Corrupt" is underscored by Kriegenburg, especially in the individual characterizations, like Alberich, Hagen, Gunther and Guturne. Hagen's call of the vassals brings forth not a cadre of warriors but a group of mobile-wielding suits, but once the novelty had worn off, it got tedious - how many cellphone salutes do we need?  Also less than convincing is the transformation of Guturne from a willful and glamorous socialite to a grieving widow. In Kriegenburg's vision, Gutrune has a more important role than in any previous productions I have seen, a bit too contrived and undeserving in my book. She's really the only Gibichung survivor, together with the "masses" at the end.   In fact, I find the denouement profoundly unimaginative and unsatisfying, as if Kriegenburg was running out of ideas. . 

At the end of the day, the most satisfying aspect of this Goetterdammerung was musical. Top vocal honours went to soprano Nina Stemme, who is the Brunnhilde of one's dreams today. This Swedish soprano is unquestionably the most astounding Brunnhilde since her countrywoman Birgit Nilsson - Stemme has an equally voluminous soprano but a warmer sound.  I was sitting in the seventh row in the middle of the orchestra, and at times my ears were ringing.  Her finely detailed characterization and dramatic intensity were astounding. Stephen Gould as the mature Siegfried matched her note for note, even if his delivery was excessively stentorian and lacked the lyricism of Lance Ryan. A late replacement, Eric Halvarson was a creditable Hagen, impressive in his Horn Call. Anna Gabler was an excellent Gutrune vocally and visually. Nagano's coaxed glorious sounds from the orchestra, in a well paced reading of the score. He, the orchestra and the soloists deservedly received repeated vociferous ovations from the appreciative audience. 

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