La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Beethoven & Britten at the Movies

by Paul E. Robinson

From left to right: Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Catherine Keener

A Late Quartet
Director: Yaron Zilberman
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman/Christopher Walken/Catherine Keener/Mark Ivanir
Music: Beethoven: String Quartet Op. 131

Moonrise Kingdom
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Bruce Willis/Bill Murray/Ed Norton/Frances McDormand
Music: Britten: Noyes’ Flood/Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra/Songs for Friday Afternoons/A Midsummer Night’s Dream (excerpts)

Films about classical music composers and performers are nearly always risible in the extreme. Think Song Without End (1960) with Dirk Bogarde as Liszt or Humoresque (1946) with John Garfield as an unlikely virtuoso violinist; that said, there are exceptions.

Milos Forman’s Amadeus (photo: right) practically re-invented the genre.

Consider the films that, while not “about” classical music, nevertheless use classical music as a major component of the soundtrack: good examples would be Visconti’s Death in Venice with the “Adagietto” from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony prominently featured in the soundtrack, or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) with a soundtrack featuring huge chunks of music by Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Ligeti and others.

Presumably, discerning directors choose to go “classical” for soundtracks of certain films, but for classical music lovers familiar with the music selected, their choices may appear both insulting to the composers (who…usually deceased… had no say in the matter!), and annoying to the viewer, who will often find the soundtrack more compelling than the story on the screen.

A Late Quartet is an intriguing new film about the relationships between members of a string quartet. Moonrise Kingdom, a story of children gone missing on an island, draws heavily on the music of Benjamin Britten. Both are excellent films and set new standards for the handling of classical music in movies.

While Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet does not claim to be a true story, it clearly draws on the experiences of some real life quartets, including the Guarneri (whose long-time cellist created problems for the remaining members of the group when he retired) and the famed Quartetto Italiano (also comprised of three men and one woman).

It has often been said that playing in a string quartet is like being married to three people; in fact, quartet members often spend more time rehearsing and performing together than they do with their spouses. While they ostensibly spend all that time together studying great music and perfecting their performances, “life” will inevitably intrude now and again.

In bygone days, the first violinist often formed the quartet and functioned as its leader. It was he who made the decisions about repertoire, phrasing, fingering and bowing and the other players rarely objected. Quartets today are generally more “democratic,” with all members having equal say in these matters.

The Emerson Quartet is one of the most respected quartets before the public today. From the beginning, its first and second violinists have alternated sitting in the first chair. In The Last Quartet, a credible conflict is set up when the second violinist (Philip Seymour Hoffman), without citing the example of the Emerson Quartet, decides that he has played in the shadows as second violinist for long enough, that his playing is every bit as good as that of the first violinist (Mark Ivanir), and that he ought to sit in the “Big Boy” chair at least half the time.

There are other potential sources of conflict inherent in the “quartet” structure; this is especially true if there is a woman involved. In The Last Quartet, the violist (Catherine Keener) is married to the second violinist (Hoffman) but she has a history with the cellist (ChristopherWalken) and is secretly in love with the first violinist (Ivanir). Add to this mix the fact that the first violinist is teaching the nubile young daughter of Hoffman and Keener. Most of these issues lie dormant until the cellist is diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and reluctantly concludes that he must retire. The concept here is that, while personal issues can be managed when the group is functioning normally and successfully, “functioning” for a quartet is an always fragile balance, that when disturbed, becomes very difficult to sustain.

It is always interesting to explore group dynamics in a film or television series, whether of a baseball team (A League of Their Own, Bull Durham), the White House (The West Wing), a monarchy (Elizabeth), a sales office (Glengarry Glen Ross) a prisoner of war camp (Stalag 17, Bridge on the River Kwai), or a string quartet.

Director Zilberman (photo: above right) has succeeded in bringing his characters to life both as individuals and as members of a fine string quartet.

One of Zilberman’ greatest hurdles in The Late Quartet was surely to convince the audience that his fine actors are also stellar musicians. That challenge could not be avoided; one can’t tell a story about a string quartet without seeing it in action.

We are told that each of the four lead actors worked intensively with coaches to learn how to hold instruments and bows, and how to play brief excerpts, but as everyone knows, it takes years and lots of talent to be able to play a violin, a viola or a cello. A few coaching sessions a Heifetz or Yo-Yo Ma does not make.

In a film, it is ultimately up to the director to make magic to establish credibility and to avoid embarrassing his actors, and in the case of The Late Quartet, I would say that while Zilberman is about 80% successful, he is, unfortunately, least successful when it matters most.

In the final scene of the film we see the quartet on stage playing Beethoven’s Op. 131, the cellist’s final appearance as a member of the group. With quick cutting, Zilberman almost pulls it off, but while we “hear” some excellent playing (from the Brentano Quartet on the soundtrack), what we actually “see” is some pretty clumsy miming.

Ultimately, The Late Quartet gives us little sense of what makes a quartet musically great nor what makes Beethoven’s Op. 131 great music…but, while the music is essential to this film, the human relationships depicted were the essence of it. This is a movie about music-making…not a movie about music.

Throughout the film, the quartet is working on Beethoven’s (photo: right)  Op. 131, one of his so-called “Late Quartets.” The choice of this music fits the story of the film but it really has no closer connection than that; the quartet could have been working on any piece by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, etc. and it wouldn’t have made much difference. If movie buffs see the film and rush out to buy CDs or downloads of Beethoven’s Op. 131, however, that would be wonderful!

Wes Anderson has been making films for over 20 years now and I have liked them all, with the possible exception of the early Bottle Rocket. In films like Rushmore, The Royal Tanenbaums and The Life Aquatic he gives us his own quirky view of life in the form of fairy tales. The colors are pastels, the acting style understated and stilted, the stories far-fetched yet somehow perceptive and insightful.

Anderson has done it again with Moonrise Kingdom. He doesn’t bother with back stories and his characters seem to make them up as they go along; whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. Most of his characters are misfits and liars but no more than your average fairy tale character. No wonder Anderson recently made a very successful animated film intended for children and families. Most of his other films threaten to cross over into the world of cartoons and animation at any time. This is not to say that they are unreal, although Anderson’s version of reality is more fantastic and childlike than most.

Whereas Anderson is known to use classical music in his films – bars of Ravel’s String Quartet, for example, in The Royal Tanenbaums - the sound track for Moonrise Kingdom is almost entirely comprised of music by Benjamin Britten. The music used here was originally intended for performance by or for children, and therefore perfectly suits a film featuring a boy and a girl as its lead characters.

Britten’s (photo: right) music has an air of innocence to it, and innocence is the essence of director Anderson’s vision in Moonrise Kingdom. The Biblical story of Noah and the Ark is in itself a tale of innocence and wonder involving man and the natural world, and in Noyes’ Flood, Britten captured its essence.

Anderson also probes man’s relationship to nature in Moonrise Kingdom and the use of Britten’s music underlines the fact that we are seeing this relationship from a child’s point of view. The use of bits from Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream also reinforces the fantasy elements in the film.

I have no idea whether Britten (d. 1976) would have approved Wes Anderson’s use of his music, but as an admirer of both artists, I found their collaboration immensely satisfying.

For those wanting more

Good films dealing with classical music are rare, but they do exist.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948): This great (black) comedy about a famous conductor driven mad by jealousy stars Rex Harrison and is directed by the legendary Preston Sturges.
Meeting Venus (1991): Hungarian director Istvan Szabo’s satire about the trials of the conducting profession stars Glenn Close and features lengthy selections of music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Taking Sides (2004): This film, also directed by Istvan Szabo, is based on a play about German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as he deals with uncomfortable questions from the American military authorities after the war.
As It Is In Heaven (2004): A touching Swedish film about a retired conductor who makes a comeback in a small town.
Quartet (2012): This new film, starring Maggie Smith and directed by Dustin Hoffman, is set in a home for retired musicians in England. I haven’t yet seen it, but advance reports have been  exceptionally positive.

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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Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Lisa Della Casa ( Feb. 2, 1919 - Dec. 10 2012)

Lisa Della Casa (Feb. 2 1919 - Dec. 10 2012)

These had not been a good last couple of days for the opera world.  The magnificent Swiss soprano, Lisa Della Casa, the definitive Arabella, passed away on Dec. 10.  

Here is Lisa Della Casa in Beim schlafengehen from Four Last Songs:

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Galina Vishnevskaya (Oct. 25 1926 - Dec. 11 2012)

Galina Vishnevskaya (Oct. 25 1926 - Dec, 11 2012)

The great Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya has now joined her beloved Slava (Mstislav Rostropovich) in heaven....  

Requiescat in pace.

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This Week in Toronto (Dec. 10 - 23)

Well, it's that time of year again!  The next two weeks can best be described as the 'home stretch' of Christmas programming when it comes to classical music.  On any given year in the GTA, we can expect at least dozen or so presentations of Messiah - plus the occasional French alternative, Berlioz's L'enfant du Christ among them - in venues big and small. There are more events than I can cover here, so this are just my personal favourites. This week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is programming an evening of popular Christmas-themed music with Canadian comedian Colin Mochrie narrating the Twelve Days of Christmas and 'Twas the night before Christmas. American pops conductor Jeff Tyzik leads the TS forces and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Chorus.  Performances at Roy Thomson Hall on Tuesday Dec. 11 at 8 pm, and Wednesday Dec. 12 at 2 and 8 pm.  Next week is the "serious" programming of Handel's Messiah, with conductor Nicholas McGegan returning to lead three well known Canadians, tenor Michael Schade, baritone Russell Braun and counter-tenor Daniel Taylor, plus a soprano new to me, Yulia van Doren as the quartet of soloists. The venerable Toronto Mendelssohn Choir lends their collective voice to the proceedings. Five shows altogether - Dec. 18, 19, 21, 22 at 8 pm, with Dec 23 at 3 pm.

If you favour a more intimate approach to the Handel masterpiece, the ever-popular Tafelmusik Messiah is always a great choice. Ivars Taurins leads soprano Joanne Lunn, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Aaron Sheehan and bass-baritone Douglas Williams. Four performances at Koerner Hall - Dec. 19, 20, 21, 22 7:30 pm, with the last one already sold out. The Sing Along Messiah on Sunday Dec. 23 at Massey Hall is an extremely popular tradition and as usual it takes place in Massey Hall. There's something about everybody joining in for the Hallelujah chorus that unfailingly puts one in the Christmas spirit.

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir is presenting A Festival of Carols on Dec. 12 7:30 pm at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Noel Edison leads the Mendelssohn Singers and the Elora Singers.

Other RCM/Koerner/Mazzoleni Hall events of note include the celebrated conductor Philippe Herreweghe leading a performance of Bach's sublime Christmas Oratorio, with Collegium Vocal Gent choir and orchestra. Performance on Friday Dec. 14 8 pm.  The inimitable Quartetto Gelato is giving its Christmas Concert the next day, Dec. 15 8 pm, also at Koerner Hall. RCM faculty members and piano duo Agnagnoson and Kinton are giving an all-Beethoven program at Mazzoleni Hall on Sunday Dec. 16 at 2 pm. The following Sunday at 3 pm, the Canadian Brass is appearing there in a program of Dowland, Bach Brahms, with a heavy dose of Christmas flavour.

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Monday, 10 December 2012

James Ehnes Plays Bach

Canadian violinist James Ehnes is no longer "an exciting young talent" but an international star. He plays regularly with the world's leading orchestras and conductors and his recordings invariably receive the highest praise. One of his most recent recordings in which he plays both Bartok Violin Concertos and the Viola Concerto (Chandos 10690) has had rave reviews.

In this video Ehnes plays Bach's Preludio and Gigue  from Bach's Partita No. 3 for Unaccompanied Violin. The performance was recorded in the studios of radio station WQXR in New York.

Paul E. Robinson

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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Austin Symphony Takes Stravinsky's Rite of Spring "Beyond the Score"

Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps (the Rite of Spring)
Gerard McBurney, narrator
Robert Faires, actor
Rick Rowley, actor
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay, conductor
Dell Hall, Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
Friday, November 30, 2012

For major orchestras, Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps has become standard fare, but for second and third tier orchestras it is still a huge challenge, for both technical and financial reasons: for the players, the rhythms and harmonies are difficult; for managers and boards, the costs for additional players and extra rehearsal time are not easy to swallow.

The Austin Symphony is a part-time per service orchestra, which nonetheless manages to play consistently at a very high level under music director Peter Bay (photo: right). They far exceeded even their own standards with this week’s performance of Le sacre du printemps.

The evening began with “Beyond the Score,” a multi-media introduction to the score, originally prepared for the Chicago Symphony by Gerard McBurney. After intermission we heard a complete performance of the piece.

Several seasons back, Austin heard a “Beyond the Score” presentation of Dvorak’s New World Symphony; it was very well received. The audience seemed to like what they saw and heard on this occasion as well.

In both the Dvorak and the Stravinsky presentations, McBurney made extensive use of actors to bring the piece to life. In Le sacreRick Rowley – better-known locally as a pianist on the faculty at the University of Texas – played Stravinsky, and Robert Faires, a well-known Austin actor and critic, played Nicholas Roerich, the man who conceived the sets and costumes for the original production of the piece in Paris (1913). McBurney provided narration, as Rowley and Faires discussed the creation of the new ballet.

To McBurney’s (photo: right) credit, we in the audience learned a great deal about the use of folk tunes – Russian and Lithuanian – and about Stravinsky’s imitation of Russian folk instruments in Le sacre. We also got a sense of the collaboration between composer and set designer. We never saw what was created, however; that is, costumes, sets, or choreography. This is odd since McBurney had a giant screen over the orchestra at his disposal and, after all, Le sacre du printemps was conceived as a ballet - not as a concert piece.

The “Beyond the Score” series was devised by the Chicago Symphony with McBurney as creative director. The idea was to “open the door to the symphonic repertoire for first-time concertgoers as well as to encourage an active, more fulfilling way of listening for seasoned audiences.” The concept is timely when orchestras everywhere are struggling to hold their aging audiences and attract new listeners.

“Beyond the Score” makes use of any media available on the piece presented, including videos, photographs, recorded examples and live dramatizations with actors. McBurney and the Chicago Symphony deserve enormous credit for bringing these projects into being and for sharing them with other orchestras.

For Le sacre, McBurney chose to concentrate on the roots of the music. This emphasis is entirely appropriate since Stravinsky’s music for this ballet was truly revolutionary, and we can all understand it better if we analyze its key elements and identify its folk roots. McBurney handled this part of his project with great skill and undoubtedly helped the audience prepare for the complete performance of the piece.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that while McBurney made good use of his giant screen to show us musical examples, much more could have been done to give us a sense of the costumes, sets and choreography. McBurney chose to give us dramatizations of conversations between Stravinsky and Roerich (photo: right), but failed to show us any of Roerich’s work, a vital part of the collaboration.

The actors read their lines with conviction, but I was puzzled as to why Rowley (Stravinsky) had a heavy Russian accent while Roerich (Faires) did not, when both men were, in fact, Russian.

From my vantage point in the first balcony (mezzanine), the images on the giant screen over the orchestra were washed out. On meeting after the concert, some friends sitting in the second balcony section expressed their annoyance at having had only a partial view of the screen; this may have had something to do with the placement of the screen as far as possible upstage, behind the considerably enlarged orchestra.

The paucity of visuals and some poor sightlines notwithstanding in the “Beyond the Score” part of the program, the symphonic performance of Le sacre  was excellent. Maestro Peter Bay was in total command of the intricate rhythms and inspired the Austin Symphony to give a vivid and dynamic performance.  

With the orchestra enlarged, the sound emanating from the stage had presence and impact. As required by the score, there were eight French horns, which Maestro Bay placed against the back wall. These projected an enormous sound, especially when in the "Ritual of the Ancients" they were required to play fff with the bells of their instruments in the air (Le pavillon en l’air). In the final section of the piece, scored for constantly changing meters, all the musicians in the orchestra showed enormous concentration and virtuosity.

For Those Wanting more…
Le sacre du printemps has been reconstructed and staged in our time by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer using some of Nicholas Roerich’s original costume and set designs. You can see it for yourself in a performance by the Mariinsky Orchestra and Ballet conducted by Valery Gergiev (BelAir Classiques DVD BAC041). 

There is also a fascinating performance of the score by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) presented on television as part of the orchestra’s “Keeping Score” series; it brilliantly combines performance; commentary on the choreography by MTT, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer; the printed score for viewers to follow; and pictures of Roerich’s sets and costumes. Excerpts are available at

For more on the work of Hodson and Archer visit their website at For more on Roerich visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York or the website

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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Sunday, 2 December 2012

This Week in Toronto (Dec. 3 - 9)

The big news this week is the appearance of Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa in recital at Koerner Hall, on Sunday Dec. 9 at 3 pm. She is playing works by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert (Lieder transcriptions by Liszt), Chopin and Prokofiev. She is a late replacement for the ailing Cuban pianist Horacio Gutierrez. She is an exciting performer, just go to youtube and look at her numerous clips.  Her Erkonig is stunning. Read more about this remarkable pianist at  For more information about the concert at Koerner, go to  

Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa visits Koerner Hall

One of Canada's brightest composers, Newfoundland native Dean Burry, composed the children's opera, The Brothers Grimm back in the late 90's. According to Burry's website, it has received 500 performances and seen by 120,000 children, mostly in school tours.  Its most recent COC tour has just been completed.  This week, the COC is putting on the Grimm Fest, two noon hour concerts celebrating the success of The Brothers Grimm opera, as well as the 200th anniversary of the fairy tales. According to the COC publicity material, the artists "weave a spell of musical enchantment featuring operatic classics and Disney favourites inspired by these timeless tales." The cast includes soprano Virginia Hatfield, mezzo Andrea Ludwig, tenor Michael Barrett, and pianist Jenna Douglas. 
The event is Tuesday Dec. 4 at noon, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. On Wednesday, there will be Fairy Tales from Faraway Lands. Egyptian-Canadian vocalist Maryem Tollar and others combine traditional and original music and movement inspired by stories and fairy tales from the Middle East. Be sure to show up early for a seat.

 Canadian composer Dean Burry's The Brothers Grimm is being feted 

With the COC and OA fall seasons over, opera fans who needs a fix can attend the Met in HD at your local cinemas. This week is Verdi's sublime opera, Un ballo in maschera, with an equally sublime cast - Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez, American/Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky.  The Met is using the original Swedish (as opposed to Boston) setting, although the music stays the same. Fabio Luisi is at the helm. Check to see if your local Cineplex has a screening.

The fabulous Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

Anton Kuerti, the dean of Canadian piano, is the soloist in Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major with the Ontario Philharmonic at Koerner Hall on Tuesday Dec. 4 at 8 pm. Also on the program is Brahms Symphony no. 4 in E minor. Marco Parisotto conducts.

Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti at Koerner Hall (Photo: Martin Tosoian)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra 

With Christmas just around the corner, we can expect a feast of Messiah's from venues big and small.  For something a little different, Tafelmusik is presenting a French Baroque Christmas Dec. 5 - 9 at the Trinity - St. Paul's Centre.  On the program is Marc-Antoine Charpentier's In nativitatem Domini canticum H. 416 and Messe a 8 voix et instruments, H. 3.  These baroque pieces will sound wonderful in that acoustic and will put you in the Christmas mood! Ivars Taurins directs.

Conductor Ainars Rubikis

For a small country, Latvia has certainly produced a disproportionate number of great classical musicians. Currently Elina Garanca is the most famous opera singer, but there's also Inessa Galante from a generation ago, and more recently Maija Kovalevska. Other famous musicians include Gidon Kremer, and conductors Mariss Jansons and Andris Nelsons. Young conductor Ainars Rubikis is the latest sensation to hit the musical world. He is the winner of the Third International Mahler conducting competition in 2010 and last year he won the Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award. He is now the Music Director of Novosibirsk State Opera House. This season, he is making lots of debuts, including the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the NAC Orchestra next May. This is definitely someone to watch.  It is an all-Tchaikovsky program - Symphony no. 1, Piano Concerto no. 2 with Alon Goldstein as soloist, and Suite from Swan Lake. Two shows, Wed. Dec. 5 and Thurs. Dec. 6 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

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