La Scena Musicale

Friday, 30 November 2012

A Grand Night of Singing: Report from the 2nd COC Ensemble Studio Competition

 Winners Circle: (l. to r.) Gordon Bintner, Charlotte Burrage, Andrew Haji (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

COC General Director Alexander Neef congratulating winners of the Second Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)


by Joseph So


Second Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition
6:30 pm Thursday, November 29, 2012
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre

Program: 
Kelsey Vicary, soprano - E strano...Sempre libera / Adieu, notre petite table
Nathan Keoughan, bass - Se vuol ballare / Vecchia zimarra
Aviva Fortunata, soprano - Ernani involami / Or sai chi l'onore
Charlotte Burrage, mezzo - Vois sous l'archet fremissant / Composer's Aria
Andrew Haji, tenor - Quanto e bella / Un'aura amorosa
Clarence Frazer, baritone - Mein sehnen, mein wahnen / Hai gia vinta la causa
Danielle MacMillan, mezzo - Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle / Torna di Tito a lato
Michael Marino, tenor - Questa o quella / Here I stand
Lara Secord-Haid, soprano - Regnava nel silenzio / Je veux vivre
Gordon Bintner, bass-baritone - Non piu andrai / Sibilar gli angui d'Aletto

Rachel Andrist, Steven Philcox / piano

Jury Panel - Liz Upchurch, Sandra Gavinchuk, Roberto Mauro, Wendy Nielsen, Alexander Neef (chair)

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Opera buffs love a good competition, to be sure. It's the excitement of hearing up and coming voices vying for prize money and glory that makes competition irresistible - to me, at least!  So I was really looking forward to the 2nd Annual COC Ensemble Studio Competition last evening. Ten aspiring singers got to strut their stuff, all well schooled, with beautiful voices backed by a solid technique, and a desire to tell a story, to communicate their art to an audience.  Some of them have that extra, intangible something called star power, musicality, charisma, whatever. It's that elusive quality that makes a singer an artist, and someone with the promise of a significant career. Competitions such as this one are designed to find that singer. 

The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was totally sold out, the steps completely taken, and with people lined along the railing on the 5th level.  And for the donors and VIPs, they were seated in a theatre-in-the-round arrangement a few feet from the performers.  COC General Director Alexander Neef opened the proceedings with a few remarks before handing it over to chorusmaster Sandra Horst, herself a former Ensemble Studio member back in the early 1990's.  She introduced the contestants. Each one spoke briefly to the audience followed by a selection of his/her choice of aria, followed by one chosen by the jury panel that was made up with COC people - Neef as chair, plus Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro (son of retired Canadian tenor Ermanno Mauro), Music Administrator Sandra Gavinchuk, Head of the Ensemble Studio Liz Upchurch, and teacher/former COC Ensemble member soprano Wendy Nielsen. 

Soprano Kelsey Vicary kicked off the competition with Violetta's lengthy (and daunting!) scena, E strano, a forse lui...Sempre libera. It was likely difficult to be the first to sing. She's certainly well schooled and musical. Vicary looks beautiful, has a good voice and the requisite high notes up to a E-flat. Her prominent vibrato has a tendency to take over, especially in the upper middle voice/passaggio. It caused the tone to lose focus and pitch in this long aria. Also, it was taken at a too leisurely tempo, making it difficult to sustain the tension.  A promising voice that is a work in progress.

Nathan Keoughan is listed as a bass, although he is to my ears more of a bass-baritone. A pleasant voice and good stage presence, but on this particular occasion, he had some difficulty with his top in both the Nozze aria and in Colline's coat song. A promising voice that needs more technical assurance.

Aviva Fortunata.  When she announced her choice of "Ernani involami", my ears perked up. This is a taxing aria for spinto voices (my favourite fach, incidentally) and a real show piece.  Fortunata has a large, beautiful, ringing, well focused full lyric soprano with distinct spinto aspirations. Her sense of pitch is excellent, and her breath-line is wonderfully long, a great asset in these big challenging Verdi arias!  It has a slightly cool timbre that is lovely for both the German and Italian repertoires.  She sang Elvira's aria very beautifully and excellent in technique.  The high tessitura of her second aria, Donna Anna's vengeance aria didn't faze her at all - again pitch perfect and tireless above the stave.  If I were to nitpick, I would have liked a bit more colours.  She has a nice mezza voce, which she should use more - ok, maybe not in Or sai which is sung full throttle all the time, but in the Ernani piece. Still, this is an exceptional voice and for me, the early winner.     

Charlotte Burrage.  A high mezzo with a lovely timbre, even from top to bottom, nice pleasant vibrato, and fine musicality. The Nicklausse aria was beautiful sung, with nice legato. She followed it with the Composer's Aria, a piece that taxes the upper reaches of a lyric mezzo range.  It also has unusual modulations that expose a singer's technique, especially without the support of a full orchestra.  Well, Ms. Burrage sang it beautifully. This is just the right voice for the Composer - brava!

Andrew Haji.  For followers of the U of T Faculty of Music, Andrew Haji is a familiar name.  How often does one find a tenor with a voice of such quality?  Voices like his don't grow on trees, that's for sure!  I remember how impressed I was when he sang the title role in the Rob Ford Opera last year.   It is bright, well focused, and sweet, just the right timbre for Mozart and the light Italian repertoire. I wasn't able to hear his Nemorino last week, but all reports indicate a big success. On this occasion, he sang Quanto e bella, and it was clear what all the buzz is about - it's simply gorgeous, his ingratiating tone much in evidence, all delivered with taste and rock solid legato.  His second piece, Ferrando's Un'aura amorosa, a test piece if there ever is one, was equally fine. Totally secure in his upper middle which is often a downfall of many a tenor in this very tricky aria.  So Mr. Haji is more a baby-Pavarotti than a Juan Diego Florez, but who cares?  The voice is a great one.

Clarence Frazer.  A lyric baritone with a well modulated, slightly covered and virile sound, technically secure and good musicality, Frazer is a fine singer.  He sang Fritz's Mein Sehen, mein Wahnen from Die tote Stadt.  This is a real lyric baritone's party piece, with a wonderfully evocative melody.  But it is also tricky - it tests a singer's legato and ability to sustain a slow piece. Frazer was very good, although I would have liked a more developed mezza voce and high piano - though I give him credit for not resorting to falsetto as many baritones do in this piece.  I would also liked better attention to the German text, he suppressed the 'k' in Zuruck, a small thing but important. The Count's aria was also beautifully sung. His voice (and his appearance) remind me a little of the former Ensemble Studio member, Adrian Kramer, a singer whom I liked a lot during his time at the Ensemble. With a bit more polish, Frazer would be an asset in any ensemble program. 

Danielle MacMillan.  A lyric mezzo of attractive quality, she sang the Page's aria from Romeo et Juliette and Annio's aria from La clemenza di Tito. Her timbre is a nice one, somewhat on the cool side, and I missed the whole palette of tone colours that should be part of the arsenal of the high mezzo voice. Her singing had a somewhat monochromatic quality, as a result. The playfulness of the Stefano aria didn't come out fully.

Michael Marino.  This competition was blessed with not just one, but two fine tenors.  Marino has a bright, high tenor of ingratiating quality. He also possesses an exuberant stage persona, and a small but slim built and a handsome face.  His Questa o quella was beautifully sung, and physically he would make a believable Duke. His top is glorious, totally secure, big, and ringing - that's half the battle right there!  Occasionally his production is a bit too forward or open, but it gives it that sunny and Italianate quality.  His second aria - picked by the jury - unfortunately was Tom Rakewell's Here I Stand - an acting piece that doesn't really show off the voice. I would have loved to have heard "Ich baue ganz" from Entfuhrung... o well.  Still, this is an outstanding singer. If he can reign in his exuberant nature, he will go far.

Lara Secord-Haid.  A lovely singer, physically and vocally. She sang Lucia's act one aria beautifully, perhaps not quite note perfect but very nice.  Then it was Juliette's Waltz, again well done. But I would have liked more colours to her tone, occasionally her vibrato became intrusive, but it was a minor quibble. She certainly had all the notes, plus a solid lower register, unusual for a high soprano. She just needs to be more expressive and really bring the text out.  Again, a work in progress of a very fine singer in the making.

Gordon Bintner. Whoever did the programming did Mr. Bintner a favour by putting him at the very end.  Not that he needed any help! This is a major singer and is clearly the best in this competition. He is tall, slim, handsome, moves well on stage, musicality and charisma to burn, has a glorious baritone that is sturdy yet expressive. In other words, this guy has the complete package. Any ensemble program would take him in a nano-second. As Alexander Neef said at the end of the evening that Bintner would be a scary Don Giovanni someday.  Well, I think that day is already here!  Heard him summer of 2011 at the Toronto Summer Music masterclass and he was certainly the best singer in the class. His Figaro aria was acted with flair and sung with firm, manly tone - bravo.  His Rinaldo aria - a role he sang at McGill - was fabulous with excellent agility for such a big voice. It is clear Mr. Bintner is enormously talented, and reminds me quite a lot of fellow bass-baritone Philippe Sly, who left the Ensemble to become the Adler Fellow at San Francisco this fall. Gordon Bintner would be the ideal replacement.

There you have it. Ten candidates, and ten fine voices.  Some are more ready for prime time than others, but all show great promise.  I sat beside my colleague Wayne Gooding, who happens to be my editor at Opera Canada.  We compared notes all evening, and we pretty much agreed that Bintner would take top prize, as he's the most outstanding of the field. The others were harder to rank.  We came up with four more singers, in no specific order - Aviva Fortunata, Michael Marino, Andrew Haji, and Charlotte Burrage.  As it turned out, the three winners according to the wisdom of the jury panel were Bintner, Haji, and Burrage.  These three were totally wonderful and completely deserving of being in the winners' circle, although I shed a tear for Fortunata and Marino - both were wonderful and deserve to win.  Afterwards, I went up to Aviva Fortunata and told her how much I enjoyed her singing.  I feel she has probably the rarest of the voices among the women. Spinto sopranos with her quality don't grow on trees. I am sure she, together with Michael Marino, are singers to be reckoned with in the future. Yes, it was indeed a grand night of singing. 

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Monday, 26 November 2012

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 26 - Dec. 1)

TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis returns to conduct Strauss (Photo: Dario Acosta)

November has been an extraordinarily busy month musically in Toronto, and this last week is no exception. One of Canada's favourite classical music conductors, Sir Andrew Davis, is return to his old haunts to conduct more Strauss. Sir Andrew is of course no stranger to Toronto, having served for many years as the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and now its Conductor Laureate. Sir Andrew has also become a favourite at the Canadian Opera Company the last two seasons. On November 28 at Roy Thomson Hall, Sir Andrew is conducting Strauss' Don Quixote, paired with Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the unusual start time of 6:30 pm. This is part of the Afterworks Concert Series, the rationale being - "why fight the rush hour traffic, hear some great music instead!"  Given the time limitations, this event is shorter than the full length concert. On Thursday 8 pm and Sunday Dec. 1 at 7:30 pm, in addition to the Strauss and Mendelssohn is Canadian piano sensation Jan Lisiecki playing the Schumann Piano Concerto. Lisiecki is now on the roster of Deutsche Grammophon and he has demonstrated at a young age that he is an artist to be reckoned with. Joining Davis and Lisiecki are violist Teng Li and cellist Joseph Johnson. This is my favourite event of the week. http://tso.ca/Home.aspx

Canadian piano sensation Jan Lisiecki plays the Schumann Piano Concerto with the TSO

At the grand age of 87, pianist-pedagogue Menahem Pressler is still going strong. He is of course the pianist and founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio. One of the great master musicians of our time, Pressler has left an indelible imprint not just on our concert stages but also in the development of many of the great young Canadian pianists. He is in town this week to give a masterclass of chamber musicians that is open to the public, on Tuesday Nov. 27 from 10 am to noon at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building on the campus of the University of Toronto.  On Monday Nov. 26, he joins the Cecilia String Quartet, the U of T Faculty of Music Ensemble-in-Residence, for an evening of music making. On the program are piano quintets by Schumann and Brahms.  http://www.music.utoronto.ca/events/calendar/mec1126.htm

Menahem Pressler is in town for masterclasses and a performance with the Cecilia String Quartet 

Cecilia String Quartet 

The Green Door Cabaret under the artistic direction of Robert Missen opens its 2012 season with a concert to benefit PAL, or the Performing Arts Lodge. Located on the Esplanade in downtown Toronto near the Sony Centre, PAL has long been the residence of retired musicians. Then as now, it housed many famous musicians, including at one time the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester. The headliner for this show is the premier Canadian cabaret singer Judith Lander, who is appearing with fellow cabaret artist Michael Hughes. Pianist/songwriter David Warrack, who wrote the lyrics and music to Interpretations of a Life, an album of very moving songs for Maureen Forrester and the two went on tour in the 1990s, is also going to be performing. The event takes place on Nov. 28 7:30 pm at the Lower Ossington Theatre. http://lowerossingtontheatre.com/



Cabaret singer Judith Lander and pianist/songwriter David Warrack are appearing in the Opening Night Gala of the Green Door Cabaret to benefit PAL (Performing Arts Lodge)


Israeli conductor Yoav Talmi, Principal Guest Conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra in Tel Aviv and Conductor Emeritus of the Quebec Symphony, is in town this week to lead the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in an interesting program that includes L'Arlesienne (Bizet), Roman Carnival Overture no. 9 (Berlioz), and the demanding Shostakovich Symphony no. 5 in D minor. The concert takes place on Nov. 30 8 pm at Koerner Hall.  Before the performance, students and faculty members of the RCM Glenn Gould School will be performing a Prelude program of chamber pieces in the lobby starting at 6:45 pm. http://rcmusic.ca/

Conductor Yoav Talmi leads the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5

A very interesting event this week is the Second Annual Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition.  When the predecessor of this Competition first started three years ago in honour of the late Canadian baritone Louis Quilico, it was an "internal competition" of COC Ensemble Studio members. Last year was the first time when it was opened to external candidates.  Winners, at the discretion of the COC, may join the Ensemble next season.  This year, the event is already sold out, but it doesn't hurt to give the COC a call - I understand there might still be standing room spaces available. There will be ten candidates in the competition, a few names familiar to Toronto area music fans.  Two names stand out for me - bass baritone Gordon Bintner (Regina, SK) and tenor Andrew Haji (London, ON). These two young artists are outstanding and will have excellent careers ahead of them.  Other participants are mezzo Charlotte Burrage (Woodstock ON), soprano Aviva Fortunata (Calgary AB), baritone Clarence Frazer (Toronto ON), mezzo Danielle MacMillan (Toronto ON), bass Nathan Keoughan (Charlottetown PE), tenor Michael Marino (London ON), soprano Lara Secord-Haid (Winnipeg MB) and soprano Kelsey Vicary (Niagara Falls ON). Artistic Administrator Roberto Mauro and COC Music Administrator Sandra Gavinchuk and soprano/voice teacher and former COC Ensemble Studio member Wendy Nielsen are on the jury panel, headed by COC General Director Alexander Neef.  http://coc.ca/Home.aspx

On Nov. 30 8 pm at the Metropolitan United Church, the august Elmer Iseler Singers will be presenting Handel's Messiah, the first of the season of many, many more Messiahs to come! It features a fine quartet of soloists in soprano Leslie Fagan, mezzo Lynne McMurtry, tenor Colin Ainsworth, and baritone Geoffrey Sirett, under the direction of Lydia Adams. This will get you in the mood for the Holidays!  http://www.elmeriselersingers.com/

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Saturday, 24 November 2012

Gunther Schuller: A "Renaissance" Musician Tells All!




Gunther Schuller: a Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty
University of Rochester Press: Rochester, 2011
664 pages

In the fall of 1959, I made my third visit to New York City. I was an ambitious young bass player making a pilgrimage to the ‘Big Apple’ to play for one of the most respected of bass teachers anywhere at that time, Frederick Zimmermann of the New York Philharmonic. Fred and I got on very well and, in time, became the best of friends.

I remember vividly that when I saw him in 1959, Fred was consumed with excitement about a new work for four basses written by a man named Gunther Schuller. When I finally got to hear the piece, I too became excited about it and about its composer. The story of the Bass Quartet and Fred’s role in its gestation is told at length in this first volume of Schuller’s autobiography, in which, to my delight, he praises Fred as a man, a musician and a painter. Fred died of a brain tumor in 1969 shortly after retiring from the Philharmonic; although his life’s work has not yet been fully appreciated, Schuller, in this autobiography, has noted its importance.

Schuller the "Renaissance" Musician 
At 85, Gunther Schuller looks back on a life of enormous accomplishments in many musical fields. He was appointed principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony at age 17 and went on to spend 15 years as principal horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. At the same time, he was writing music and by the 1960s had become one of the leading composers of his generation.

Schuller has always had a strong interest in jazz and before long, he was collaborating with the likes of Miles Davis, John Lewis (of MJQ), Charles Mingus (one of Fred’s students, by the way), Bill Evans, Gil Evans and many others. He was one of the first composers to bridge the gap between classical and jazz music, and in so doing, was credited with spawning the movement known as “Third Stream.”

As though not busy enough, Schuller also found time to write books, including one on horn technique and two on the history of jazz. He also penned a massive analysis of hundreds of recordings of orchestral music under the title The Compleat Conductor. He founded his own record label, his own music publishing company, had a major career as a conductor and was head of music schools in both Boston and Tanglewood.

This autobiography by a multi-talented musician is a fascinating documentation of musical life in America from about 1945 to 1960. Schuller knew nearly everyone of importance in musical circles in those years and was talented and curious enough to digest everything that he saw and heard about the business.

Conductors: Up Close and Personal!
From his first chair position in the Met orchestra he saw many of the leading conductors of the period at their worst and at their best. He is able to confirm that Fritz Reiner, for example, was just as mean and nasty as his reputation suggests. On the other hand, he recalls a 1949 performance of Salome under Reiner, with Lubja Welitsch in the title role, as one of the greatest experiences of his life. Then there was George Szell, a conductor known to be just as mean-spirited as Reiner; for him, Schuller has nothing but contempt, and he never forgave Szell for his relentless efforts to humiliate him.

One of Schuller’s heroes is Maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos. Admittedly, his admiration of Mitropoulos is coloured by the conductor’s enthusiam for Schuller’s own music; nevertheless, the author’s defense of this immensely gifted musician, who deserved better than he got from the members of the Met orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, is commendable.

Schuller comes from a long line of musicians. His father, a violinist, played under Furtwängler in Germany and went on to become a member of the New York Philharmonic. Gunther was sent to study in Germany when he was very young and learned to speak German at an early age. Since it was the late 1930s he also fell under the control of the Nazis for a time, and was even forced to join the Hitlerjugend. He might have been trapped in Germany over the course of the war had it not been for a terrible accident, in which he lost an eye, prompting his mother to fly to Germany to bring him home.

From High School Drop-out to French Horn Vituoso
Schuller was virtually self-taught as a pianist, horn player and composer and in view of his illustrious career, it came as a shock to this reader to learn that he was a high school drop-out. Equally shocking was the revelation that after only a handful of lessons and a couple of years of practice on the french horn, he was playing this instrument, not only professionally, but at the highest level! 

What do I mean by “playing professionally at the highest level?” How about as a member of the NBC Symphony performing the Symphony No. 7 by Shostakovich in New York with Toscanini conducting!

In short, Gunther Schuller is a prodigious musical talent. In this autobiography, to be sure, he is not above boasting about his accomplishments or quoting from complimentary newspaper reviews - he is not a shy or modest man; on the other hand, there would be little point in writing an autobiography of more than 600 pages unless the subject were very special indeed. Credibly, an unusually shy or modest man would neither have had the opportunities afforded Schuller time and again, nor had the nerve to take advantage of them so effectively.

Details May be too Much of a Muchness for Some
One of the potentially annoying features of Schuller’s book is his description of literally dozens of people as “close, personal friend(s).” How could one man have so many “close” friends? Well, he had an insatiable curiosity, and as noted, he wasn’t shy and he wasn’t modest.  He wanted to know things and he often introduced himself to new people for that reason: i.e. they could answer his questions and satisfy his curiosity. Making friends is clearly another of Schuller’s great talents: he spent his afternoons playing the Ring cycle in piano four-hand arrangements with jazz pianist Bill Evans because Lewis could take him further into the world of jazz; he insisted on meeting Furtwängler in Berlin in 1953 because he admired the man and wanted to know what made him a great conductor.

For someone like myself who greatly admires Schuller and wants to know everything about his life, such a long book is not long enough; I can hardly wait for volume two. Many others, however, will find Schuller tedious and self-indulgent. They don’t need to know the name of every mountain in the Swiss Alps nor be taken on a Cook’s tour of Europe, nor do they need long lists of films that Schuller saw as a teenager, 20-year-old or 30-year-old.

Even Schuller’s admirers must wonder about the veracity of some of his claims. He often mis-spells names (e.g., film director Paul Czinner [p. 362], jazz player Gerry Mulligan [p. 497]), and some of his facts are demonstrably wrong (e.g., Karajan never recorded Ives Unanswered Question [p. 627], nor did he conduct an all-French program with the Vienna Symphony in 1953 [p.543]). Schuller prides himself on his sports knowledge but writes about “Bob” Boudreau when it should be “Lou” (p. 43).

On the basis of this volume, one must conclude that Schuller either has total recall of everything he has done throughout most of his life - every piece of music he has heard, every sideman on every jazz concert he has heard, and every word that he and his future wife said to each other when they were courting in their early 20s; he alludes to the separate diaries he and his wife kept, but even diaries don’t usually record the kind of detail he recalls throughout this autobiography.

Doubts aside, one cannot come away from this book without being utterly convinced that the greatest achievement of this gifted and ambitious man, was his marriage to Marjorie “Margie” Black.

Schuller first met Margie in Cincinnati when he was a member of the orchestra and she was a voice and piano student at the Cincinnati College of Music. They fell in love, lived together in New York, got married and had two sons. She died of cancer 20 years ago. The courtship is recounted in great detail but then Margie suddenly fades into the background. Perhaps she will rise to prominence again in volume two. In any case, there is no mistaking the depth of Schuller’s love for Margie, or how much he misses her. “I am very lonely…The void left by her disappearance from my life is at times not only unbearable but also incomprehensible (p. 569).”

A Life Lived to the Fullest Measure!
Schuller presents his life story with unusual candor. He writes a good deal about his early years making it clear that he was a young man who wanted to experience everything life had to offer. He described himself as “an Epicurean, not only in matters of food and drink, but also in the whole range of human pleasures, from the intellectual to the sensual (p. 569).” When he toured with the Met he liked nothing better than to visit seedy night clubs and brothels. And later, accompanied by Margie, he loved to visit the fleshpots of Europe. Schuller is somewhat hyperbolic on the subject of sex but there is no mistaking its importance in his life.

Although love and sex often guided his thoughts and actions – a hyperactive libido is not uncommon amongst gifted musicians – they did not interfere with his career goals. Schuller worked extremely hard to improve himself as a musician, and while the book tells only the beginning of the story of Schuller the composer, educator and conductor, it tells us a great deal about Schuller as a young man and about the challenges of building a career in music during this period.

We learn that total commitment is required, a willingness to go anywhere anytime to work with older and wiser colleagues, a belief in oneself, and an understanding of what it means to be a professional musician – that is, showing up on time day after day, and being totally prepared for the job at hand. Music is an art form, but for a working professional it is also a job, which means that being ready and being punctual are almost as important as being talented.

Any young musician, no matter their instrument or career path, would do well to read Schuller’s A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty to understand the challenges that lie ahead and how to deal with them. Schuller’s The Compleat Conductor, is a must read for those considering a career in conducting.


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

Photo: Gunther Schuller conducts in the Tanglewood Music Shed c. 1970s (Photographer Unknown, Courtesy BSO Archives)


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Sunday, 18 November 2012

DSO/van Zweden Record LBJ Concert Drama in Dallas




Steven Stucky: August 4, 1964
Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Jaap van Zweden
Date of recording: May 6, 2011 (live)
Place of recording: Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas
DSO Live DSOL-4 (72 m 21 s)

In Texas, especially in Austin where he lived most of his life and where his library is located, 36th President of the United States ((1963-1969), Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ), is a legendary figure. The Johnson ranch, just outside the capital, is visited by thousands every year, and the library hosts major speakers and conferences.

LBJ was a native son of Texas who became president of the United States under horrendous circumstances - the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 on the streets of Dallas. It was the Dallas Symphony that commissioned a work to commemorate the Johnson centenary in 2008.

Composer Steven Stucky (photo: right) and librettist Gene Sheer came up with a “concert drama” as they called it, which binds together two important events in American history that defined Johnson’s presidency: the first, the finding of the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers in Mississippi; the second, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, half way across the world, which accelerated American involvement in the Vietnam War.

The deaths of the Mississippi civil rights workers moved LBJ to launch an FBI investigation and led to landmark civil rights legislation that ended segregation. For that, LBJ is remembered as one of America’s greatest presidents. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, on the other hand, prompted him to an overreaction to events that may or may not have occurred and ultimately sent tens of thousands of American troops to Vietnam to fight what was ultimately seen to be a futile and unnecessary war.

The Vietnam War ultimately destroyed LBJ’s presidency and quite possibly hastened the death of the man himself.

In conflating these two events, Stucky and Sheer have tried to capture the essence of the Johnson years in Washington; ultimately, Johnson is defined in the piece as a misguided figure who totally misunderstood America’s role in Vietnam and made the decisions that led to 58,000 U.S.  and 3.7 million Vietnamese deaths.

While history has been kind to LBJ on the civil rights issue, in the Stucky piece he is depicted as somewhat passive in the face of the killings of the three young civil rights workers. If the idea of the centenary commission was to honour LBJ, the donors to the project may well have been taken aback by this depiction of the President.

August 4, 1964 is not a great piece and it fails for a variety of reasons, starting with the libretto. If this were an opera, we would have characters like LBJ, his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (photo: left) and the mothers of the slain civil rights workers playing their historic roles, with LBJ at the center of it all as a troubled but ultimately tragic figure.

In real life, McNamara later admitted that he had failed to understand the Vietnam War and had made terrible decisions. He was a truly pitiful figure and could be rendered as a riveting character on stage.

But this work is not an opera. Instead, we have the above-named characters appearing from time to time singing more or less their own words as we know them, often in the Oval Office, with, at one point, a poem by Stephen Spender thrown into the mix; unfortunately, there is no clear dramatic arch to the text except that the work quotes Spender at the beginning and the end using poetic language that is really too abstract either to focus the mind or to touch the heart.

The characters in Stuckey’s piece never come to life, least of all Johnson; at the end, we have neither a new appreciation of his strengths and weaknesses nor a better understanding of his feelings about much of anything.

While using it not only as a unifying device in the work, but also as a commentary on the events depicted, I wonder if Sheer and Stucky really understand the Spender poem, which is clearly a tribute to the power of the solitary artist or activist.

Spender (photo: right) himself said that when he wrote it at age 21 he had in mind “Beethoven’s late quartets, movies by Eisenstein of heroic workers and so on, D.H. Lawrence’s ideas about sex and perhaps Michelangelo’s sculpture” (The Poetry Archive). While it seems obvious that Sheer and Stucky are applying this message to the three civil rights workers murdered in fighting for a just cause (they quote Goodman’s mother saying that “when my son was killed I put some lines on the wall of my apartment in New York City”), the work is ultimately about LBJ. Listeners might well take away the impression that the words of Goodman’s mother - “I think continually of those who were truly great” - were meant to apply to LBJ.

It seems to me that any composer writing a work of this kind must ask him/herself, “What is to be gained by having this text sung rather than spoken.” In the case of real people appearing in August 4, 1964 singing their own words, too often my response was “Nothing.” Even worse, in many cases, including some in this instance, when text is sung rather than spoken, intelligibility flies out the window.

Apparently Movement 11 – the penultimate movement - was a late addition and came to be known as “McNamara’s Lament.” While it alludes to McNamara’s latter day self-flagellation over the Vietnam War, and gives the concert drama, at least in small measure, a point of view it otherwise lacks, for many people who opposed the Vietnam War it will seem too mild a rebuke of government leaders who let American hubris get the better of them. Incidentally, as printed in the CD booklet, the name ‘McNamara’ is left off the sub-heading for Movement 11.

Without a better libretto, composer Stucky had one hand tied behind his back before he started. That said, the music itself is disappointingly mundane and unmemorable. To relieve the relentless mournfulness of the subject matter, the composer and librettist give us a somewhat contrived scene in the middle of the piece depicting the battle in the Gulf of Tonkin. Although skillfully written for soloists, orchestra and chorus, the music comes across as uninspired.

Despite my reservations about the quality of the piece itself, this recorded performance certainly makes the best possible case for the work. The chorus and orchestra produce a glorious sound and under Jaap van Zweden every detail seems to be in its proper place. The dynamic range is colossal thanks to van Zweden, the Meyerson Symphony Center and the recording engineers.

While I think August 4, 1964 has serious structural and conceptual problems, this concert drama is nonetheless an important reminder of the great and terrible events it commemorates.


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


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This Week in Toronto (Nov. 19 - 25)

Conductor Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra play Stravinsky and Haydn at Roy Thomson Hall (photo: B Ealovega)

Top news on the symphonic front this week is the much anticipated visit of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under the musical direction of Kent Nagano, for a single performance at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday Nov. 21 at the unusually late time of 8:30 pm. The centerpiece is Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, on occasion of the 100th anniversary of its premiere in Paris. Also on the program is Haydn's Symphony no. 94, the so-called "Surprise" Symphony. Rounding out the evening is Peter Maxwell Davies An Orkney Wedding.  Perhaps it's more imagined than real, but to the minds of Toronto music lovers, there has always been a friendly rivalry between the TSO and the OSM. So it's always fascinating to compare the two orchestras when the opportunity arises. This is an important event and not to be missed. There will be a pre-concert talk with Rick Philips in the lobby at 7:45 pm. 
French pianist Alexandre Tharaud plays Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major  

On Saturday and Sunday, the TSO presents a program of Haydn and Beethoven with guest conductor Bernard Labadie and French pianist Alexandre Tharaud in Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Major. This elegant and colourful work is not heard in concert halls all that much these days, as the spotlight tends to be on the super-virtuoso finger-breakers. The evening opens with Haydn's Symphony no. 101 "The Clock", and ends with Beethoven's Symphony no. 1.  Two performances, on Saturday Nov. 24 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and on Sunday Nov. 25 3 pm in the under-used but acoustically wonderful George Weston Recital Hall in North York, a perfect venue for these Classical pieces. http://tso.ca/Home.aspx

Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski makes his Koerner Hall debut on Sunday

A rare event this week (that coincides with the TSO performance on Sunday) is the Koerner Hall debut of Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in an all-Bach program. One of the most fascinating, intense, charismatic, uncompromising, and - yes, "eccentric" also comes to mind  - musicians of our time, Anderszewski astounded the musical world by walking off the stage in the middle of the Leeds Competition in 1990 when he wasn't happy with his playing at that moment. For that he was interviewed, written about, and Bruno Monsaingeon made a film on Anderszewski, The Unquiet Traveller (2008) that makes for fascinating viewing. It is available on the Medici label, or if you can understand Polish, you can watch it on Youtube! The program Sunday consists of English Suites No. 3 and 6, French Suites No.5 and the Italian Concerto.    For more information, go to http://performance.rcmusic.ca/event/piotr-anderszewski 

Britten fans will get a chance to see its rarely performed church opera, Noye's Fludde. To my knowledge, the last time this piece was heard locally was almost ten years ago in the Benjamin Britten Festival organized by the late Niki Goldschmidt. On that occasion, he conducted this opera in a church in the west end - I vividly recall attending it. I think that might have been his last conducting assignment.  This opera is being presented on Nov. 23, 24, and 25 at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre on Bloor Street near Spadina. Baritone Justin Welsh and mezzo Marion Newman are the soloists, plus R.H. Thomson as the Voice of God. http://www.noyesfluddeopera.com/

Portrait of Conductor Agnes Grossmann by artist Soheir Morcos

Austrian conductor Agnes Grossmann is of course no stranger to the Toronto music scene. She was the artistic director of Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy until two years ago. She is back in town this week, bringing with her the Taiwan National Choir, in a performance of works by Bruckner, Brahms and Schumann, plus Taiwanese folksongs. Friday Nov. 23 Koerner Hall 8 pm. http://rcmusic.ca/

As mentioned last week, Opera By Request's presentation this week is the wonderful Tchaikovsky opera, Eugene Onegin. As usual, with piano accompaniment at the College Street United Church, 452 College St. in downtown Toronto. Sunday Nov. 25 7:30 pm. http://www.operabyrequest.ca/upcoming/index.htm

Opera in Concert, the august group of presenting operas in concert format, has a new moniker, Voicebox.  This Sunday at 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre, it is presenting Armida by Rossini. It stars Raphaelle Paquette in the title role. This is one of those hard to cast operas with three (!) tenors. In this case, they are Edgar Ramirez, Christopher Mayell and Michael Ciufo. This piece is unlikely to be staged in Toronto any time soon, so this is a good opportunity to catch it. http://www.operainconcert.com/index.htm

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Thursday, 15 November 2012

DSO, van Zweden & Co. Present Britten's Prayer for Pacifism


by Paul E. Robinson



Olga Guryakova, soprano
Ian Bostridge, tenor
Dietrich Henschel, baritone
Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas
Dallas Symphony Chorus
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
Jaap Van Zweden, conductor
Paul Phillips, conductor (chamber orchestra)
Myerson Symphony Centre
Dallas, Texas
November 9, 2012

By the late 1930s Germany, out to build its empire, had taken over Austria and Czechoslovakia. By September 1, 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, it had become clear to the rest of the world that Germany would not be satisfied until it had conquered the whole of Europe and the Soviet Union, just as Japan was on a track to crush China and the whole of Asia. There is not much argument today about the need at the time to fight against Germany and Japan in what became known as World War II (1941-1945). Though the consensus is that the war was necessary, for British composer Benjamin Britten - as is clear from his magnificent “War Requiem” - no war can be “just.”

Great Britain’s Coventry Cathedral, dating back to the Middle Ages, was destroyed by the German Luftwaffe early in WW2  (1940). In 1962, a new cathedral, built right next to the ruins of the old one, opened its doors; for the occasion, Benjamin Britten was invited to write a major choral work, which he called the War Requiem.

Although seventeen years after the end of the war, there were still some who couldn’t forgive Britten for siding with the likes of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement with regard to Germany’s expansionism, the composer went a long way toward silencing his critics with the War Requiem. In its inspired blending of Catholic liturgical text and the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen, the War Requiem is a profoundly moving evocation of the horrors of war and the ultimate need for reconciliation between the parties to the conflict.

Conductor Jaap Van Zweden has been a fierce advocate of the War Requiem and made a recording* of the work last year in Holland. Last week in Dallas he presented this towering work in three performances. I heard the second one and it was magnificent. Van Zweden had chosen wonderful soloists. Tenor Ian Bostridge (photo: right) has sung the role all over the world and his expressive lyric voice very much recalls that of the man for whom the part was written, the late Peter Pears, Britten’s long-time partner and collaborator. Like Pears, Bostridge has an uncanny sense of how to fit words to music and vice versa. The style of singing is idiosyncratic, as is the music.

The German baritone Dietrich Henschel has had a major career as a lieder singer. His sensitivity to the meaning of the text and his ability to shape a phrase were ideal for the War Requiem.

About soprano Olga Guryakova’s (photo: right)  performance, there will probably be little agreement. Russian-sounding voices tend to do that to North American listeners. In my opinion, her vibrato was a little wide but her voice was strong and at its best, rich and commanding. It should be noted that the male soloists were placed next to the conductor at the front of the stage while Guryakova was in the choir loft.

The two choirs were superb in this difficult music and the orchestra played at the level we have come to expect when Jaap Van Zweden is on the podium. He had some capable assistance on this occasion from Paul Phillips, music director of the Meadows Symphony Orchestra at SMU, conducting the chamber orchestra. And last but not least, the Myerson enhanced both the intimacy and the grandeur of the War Requiem. Britten said that he preferred to hear the piece in a resonant, cathedral-like space and I suspect he would have approved of the Myerson.

It is sometimes assumed that since he wrote so much “sacred” music Britten must have been a devout Christian. That was not the case. He grew up in a milieu in which church music was a part of the aural landscape, as it were, and in which churches provided great opportunities for young composers, and he was attracted to certain Bible stories for their insight into the human condition. Although he very much admired the figure of Jesus, he did not believe in his divinity. With respect to the War Requiem, this means that Britten’s inclusion of a Latin liturgical text along with the poetry of Wilfred Owen needs to be understood in a special way.

The heart of the War Requiem is Wilfred Owens (photo: right) anti-war poetry, which paints a picture of misery and death, and castigates the institutions and leaders who sent millions to their death on the battlefields of Europe. In one of his poems, Owen retells the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last minute, Abraham substitutes a ram and spares his son. That is the Biblical version of the story; Owen sees it differently: “Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not do so, but slew his Son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

In the poet’s view the old men – politicians and religious leaders – are the ones who make these terrible decisions on the basis of geopolitical calculations and nebulous convictions about the will of God. Where was Owen coming from? He fought in World War I and was killed in battle seven days before the end of the war at the age of 25.

At such moments in the War Requiem, when Owen’s poetry cuts to the heart of the matter, the chorus often joins the male soloists as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the action, seemingly providing religious comfort in the form of Latin words from the Catholic mass for the dead. But such words are hollow; in promising that all will be well in life after death, they have been used too often to justify injustice and slaughter, and writers like Anthony Milner, quoted by Laurie Shulman in her notes for the Dallas performances of the War Requiem, have it backwards when they describe the War Requiem as “a setting of liturgical texts with poetical commentary.” The spiritual and philosophical core of the work is Owen’s poetry; the liturgical text provides the commentary and it is by no means reassuring in the face of the horrors and deception described by the poet.

This interpretation of the War Requiem has been expressed by Arthur C. Colman (Music and the Psychology of Pacifism: Benjamin Britten War Requiem): “The hope for eternal life that religion offers both ritually and emotionally through rebirth and renewal, the promise of God, that venerable covenant upon which Judeo-Christian civilization is based, is relegated to the darkest abattoirs of human history.”

It has often been noted that Britten’s music for the War Requiem is dominated by one of the most dissonant intervals in tonal music: the tritone. In early music, this interval was banned and given the name diabolus in musica or “the devil in music.”

The use of this interval is surely not just a technical choice on Britten’s part, but rather part of the very meaning of the work. It is another way in which Britten chooses to question orthodoxy and the means by which authority crushes and controls individuals. This is a theme that Britten returned to again and again in works like Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice, and most obviously in a discussion of the War Requiem, his anti-war opera Owen Wingrave.

There is reconciliation in the War Requiem, but it is between the parties to the conflict; the men who did their best to kill each other are at least reconciled in death. Organized religion does what it always does: assures each of the warring parties that they have God on their side; blesses the doomed young men as they head off to war; promises them eternal life when they come back in coffins.

The War Requiem needs to be played regularly in every country in the world to remind us that war is not ultimately about winners and losers, heroes and victims, but about man’s inhumanity to man.

*Britten: War Requiem. Evelina Dobracheva, sop., Anthony Dean Griffey, ten., Mark Stone, bar., Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Jaap Van Zweden (available on the Challenge label, or as a download from www.iTunes.apple.com/album/id1138411.


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


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