La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

In Memoriam: Rita Gorr (Feb. 18 1926 - Jan. 22 2012)

Photos (lower): Rita Gorr as Orfeo;

(top) Gorr signed my score of Les dialogues des Carmelites during her appearance as Mme. de Croissy at the Canadian Opera Company

In Memoriam: Rita Gorr (Feb. 18 1926 - Jan. 22 2012)

by Joseph So

The great Belgian mezzo soprano passed away last Sunday in Majorca where she had lived the last decades of her life. Gorr was born Marguerite Geirmaert, in Zelzate in Belgium, between Ghent and the coast. She studied voice in Ghent and Brussels, won first prize at the Verviers vocal competition in 1946, and made her professional debut in Antwerp as Fricka in Die Walkure the same year. (Interestingly, she bid farewell to her 60+ year career in 2007 as the Old Countess in Pique Dame, also in Antwerp)

From 1949 to 52, Gorr was a member of the Opera du Rhin in Strasbourg. After winning another competition in Lausanne in 1952, she made her debut at the Opéra-Comique and the Paris Opéra, singing such roles as Magdalena in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Delilah in Samson et Dalila, Venus in Tannhäuser, Charlotte in Werther, Mère Marie in Dialogues des Carmélites, Carmen, Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande, and Amneris in Aida. She was Mother Marie in the first recording of the Poulenc opera on the EMI label. Gorr made her debut at Bayreuth in 1958, Covent Garden in 1959, La Scala in 1960, and the Metropolitan Opera on October 17, 1962 as Amneris. In four seasons at the Met, she sang Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Eboli in Don Carlo, Azucena in Il trovatore, and Dalila.

Gorr's magnificent mezzo is best remembered for its incredible opulence, power and intensity. She had a wide repertoire from Baroque to Wagner to contemporary works. Her upper extension allowed her to assay the occasional soprano roles, such as Santuzza. She also recorded the Liebestod, although to my knowledge she never sang the role on stage. She is well represented on disc, with many superlative recordings. Among her very best output is her Ortrud in Lohengrin under conductor Erich Leinsdorf, and her Amneris opposite the Aida of Leontyne Price and the Radames of Jon Vickers under the baton of Georg Solti. She sang comparatively little in North America, and to my knowledge she sang only in Toronto once, as Madame de Croissy in the last Canadian Opera Company's revival of Les dialogues des Carmelites. She was in good company, with a cast that included Anne Sophie Schmidt (Blanche), Lauren Flanigan (Mme Lidoine), Elizabeth Vidal (Constance), Nadine Denize (Mother Marie), and Benoit Boutet (Chevalier de la Force) Even with such a great cast, Gorr's Croissy was the most memorable. To honour and enjoy the artistry of this great singer, here is the link to a concert from 1993 when Gorr, at the grand age of 67, sang with great authority and lovely tone "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" from Gluck's Orfeo. Requestiat in pace, Rita Gorr.


"RachFest" a High Note for Graf, Gerstein, and the Houston Symphony!


Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 1
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4
Kirill Gerstein, piano
Houston Symphony: Hans Graf, conductor

Jones Hall
Houston, Texas
Sunday, January 15, 2012

Symphony orchestras frequently mount “festivals” to package their wares more effectively, but I can’t remember ever coming across a Rachmaninov Festival, or “RachFest,” as they called it in Houston.

Composer Sergei Rachmaninov
There are usually two main reasons for classical music festivals: to celebrate artistic achievement and to fill seats. 
Whereas Beethoven and Mozart festivals have become so common and in the beginning at least were so lucrative that artistic purposes were almost beside the point, in the case of Houston’ s more venturesome “RachFest,” I would guess that artistic and monetary motivations were about equal.

The Houston Symphony may have had a third reason for programming its Rachfest. Since much of Rachmaninov’s symphonic repertoire involves piano, such a festival potentially requires more than one outstanding soloist. In this department, Houston’s RachFest turned out to be as much as celebration of pianist Kirill Gerstein, as a tribute to Rachmaninov. Gerstein played all four piano concertos in a period of three weeks - quite a challenge for even the greatest of pianists!

RachFest Might Have been so Much More
As exciting as the concept was, I would suggest that the Houston Symphony’s celebration of Rachmaninov with a multi-concert festival could have been somewhat more imaginative.

To start with, two of Rachmaninov’s best works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and Symphony No. 2, were not included. 

The Rachfest would also have provided an opportunity to showcase major Rachmaninov works such as The Bells and Vespers or, in cooperation with Houston Grand Opera or one of the local universities, one of the composer’s operas.

Why, I would ask, did the opening concert of RachFest open with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger Overture, rather than with one of the many shorter orchestral works by Rachmaninov?

Finally, I would suggest that more information on the Houston Symphony website, in the program book and in the lobby (posters, flyers etc.) would have significantly enriched the concert experience for many.

A Steady Beat Through Troubled Times
Maestro Hans Graf is now in his penultimate season as music director of the Houston Symphony, after which he assumes the title of Conductor Laureate. The consensus of opinion on his tenure appears to be that he has maintained the standard set by his predecessor Christoph Eschenbach.

Maestro Graf has lived through some tough years in Houston as the organization has struggled through a flood, a strike and the worst recession since the Great Depression. He may not have been the sort of charismatic leader who could bring new listeners to Jones Hall, but charismatic leaders are not always as sound musicians as Graf; in short, Graf has been a stabilizing influence for the Houston Symphony at a time when orchestras everywhere are floundering.

A Brilliant Rendition of Isle of the Dead
In this RachFest concert, Graf was not only an excellent partner for the amazing Mr. Gerstein in the piano concertos, he was also very impressive in one of Rachmaninov’s finest orchestral pieces, Isle of the Dead, which he introduced to the audience as the first performance of the work ever given by the Houston Symphony - an extraordinary oversight, given the importance of the piece.

Between 1880 and 1886, Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin did five versions of a painting he called “The Island of the Dead.” Before the downbeat, Maestro Graf directed the audience’s attention to a screen depicting one version of that painting, though not the specific one that had inspired Rachmaninov to compose Isle of the Dead.

This painting depicts a dark and rocky island with tombs on its cliffs. Approaching the island is a small boat in which we see a woman in a white shroud standing over a coffin. Böcklin never gave an explanation for the painting, leaving it to the viewer’s own imagination, and Rachmaninov has done the same with his tone poem Isle of the Dead, which opens with a musical evocation of the small boat rocking in the water as it moves toward the island. Bass instruments in a minor key and an unsettling 5/8 metre produce an appropriately dark sound for this long opening section, which gives way to a brighter more impassioned middle section, almost Wagnerian in its sweep as it builds inexorably towards a massive climax, returning finally to the morose music of the beginning.

Isle of the Dead is a magnificent piece that is surely one of Rachmaninov’s greatest achievements.

Hans Graf obviously loves this piece and gave a superb performance with the Houston Symphony, making the most of every detail, some of which were rendered by one of the world’s great horn players, William VerMeulen.The rich, golden colour of VerMuelen’s  playing is inimitable and the unique expressiveness of his phrasing was ideal for the Isle of the Dead.

Channeling Rachmaninov: Graf and Gerstein Get it Right!
Last week, at RachFest's opening concert, Gerstein had played the Piano Concerto No. 3. This week he paired the Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4, and next week he will conclude the festival with the Piano Concerto No. 2. 

Kirill Gerstein (photo: Marco Borggreve)
Rachmaninov composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 when he was still a teenager. It is a remarkable work for such a young composer. Understandably, while the composition draws inspiration from music by composers he admired as a youth, such as Liszt and Tchaikovsky, it already shows Rachmaninov's growing mastery of the instrument and contains some wonderful original melodies. Gerstein played with the appropriate youthful energy and brought great beauty of tone to the quieter passages. 

The Piano Concerto No. 4 was written 35 years after the first concerto and shows a remarkable stylistic evolution. By 1926, the world of music had changed drastically as composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky experimented with greater chromaticism and complexity in their music. Rachmaninov couldn’t embrace all the new developments, but he was listening. The Piano Concerto No. 4 is indeed more chromatic than his earlier concertos and moves away from the big romantic tunes that were his bread and butter, towards the use of smaller motivic elements. Gerstein and Graf perfectly realized the modernity of this new style, engrossing the audience from beginning to end.

There are young pianists who dazzle audiences with speed and power; Gerstein is not one of them. Significantly, when asked in the Q and A after the concert to name the pianists he most admired, Gerstein named Radu Lupu and Rachmaninov, both pianists renowned for their musicianship rather than for their feats of pianistic gymnastics. Musicianship is what the performance of Rachmaninov’s music requires; while technically demanding, it requires, above all, beauty of tone and phrasing. Gerstein has it all.

A magnificent concert and a fine celebration of a great composer! 

Encore a Nice Touch!
For an encore, Gerstein might have chosen to dazzle the audience with a Rachmaninov Prelude; instead, he and Graf sat down at the piano and played a charming early Rachmaninov Romance for four-hands

For Those Wanting More…
In the Q and A after the concert, I asked Maestro Graf about Rachmaninov’s own recording of the Isle of the Dead with the Philadelphia Orchestra. While the performance is stunning, the composer himself made cuts in the score for this recording. While Maestro Graf admitted that the recording did prompt him to consider making those cuts himself, in the end, he could not bring himself to deviate from the published score.

I had a second question about the Piano Concerto No. 4 score, of which there are several versions, including one produced by the composer late in life and used for a recording with Ormandy in 1941. Which version had Gerstein and Graf used for this concert and why? Graf answered that there are things in the 1941 recording with Ormandy that are not in the score used for that recording, and that even after the recording, Rachmaninov continued to make changes.

Gerstein wrote a blog about the concerto for the Houston Symphony website, which includes the following comments: “Maestro Hans Graf and I have enjoyed correspondence about some of these late additions. Pianist and researcher Leslie Howard, kindly shared a copy of an autograph page, housed at the Library of Congress, for figures 74 to 76 of the 3rd movement. I am happy that our performance this weekend will include additional counterpoint lines that are usually omitted from performance.”

To Screen or Not to Screen – That is the Question
The Houston Symphony, like many other orchestras is making extensive use of large video screens to enhance the concert experience. In Jones Hall there are two large screens at the front of the hall on either side of the stage. The idea is to give the audience close-up views of the soloist, conductors and members of the orchestra during the performance. While I personally think this is a wonderful idea, others find it distracting. For me, it is a case of using new technology to enhance the concert experience.

Those who attended this performance may have noticed that only one of the screens was in use. Why? Krill Gerstein gave the answer in the Q and A after the concert. Sitting at the keyboard, Gerstein had the right side screen directly in his line of sight. He found it distracting to be watching himself while he played. It was even more disconcerting for him since there is a short delay between the actual performance and what appeared on the screen.

Houston Arts District Surprises and Delights
At this concert and at the Alley Theater production of The Toxic Avenger this same evening, representatives of American Express were handing out free CDs and food and beverage vouchers worth $10. These freebies were given to any patrons who could show an American Express card, as part of American Express’s imaginative “Surprise and Delight” campaign. At the Alley Theater performance, patrons were given a free CD featuring music from the show. Jones Hall gave members of the audience free Houston Symphony CDs. These promotions appear to have been very effective marketing ploys for both arts organizations and for American Express.

Breaking News
The Houston Symphony yesterday (January 24thannounced details of its 2012-2013 season. As mentioned above, this will be Hans Graf’s last season as music director.

One of this coming season’s highlights will surely be a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck conducted by Graf. His farewell concerts in May, 2013 will feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection.

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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Monday, 23 January 2012

Rare Szymanowski with Austin Symphony and Emanuel Ax a Texas Treat!

Mozart: The Impresario Overture
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Moniuszko: Bajka (A Fairy Tale) Fantastic Overture
Szymanowski: Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for Piano and Orchestra Op. 60

Emanuel Ax, piano
The Austin Symphony, Peter Bay, conductor
Michael and Susan Dell Hall
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
January 13, 2012

We hear a lot about troubled orchestras these days. As the recession lingers on, ticket sales continue to be disappointing and donations are down. The orchestras that survive are the ones that tighten their belts and step up their marketing. They also tend to limit their programming to more popular fare.
The Austin Symphony has always prided itself on living within its means and in hard times, it is coping better than many other orchestras. In matters of repertoire, it treads carefully but occasionally allows conductor Peter Bay to shake up the mix. That was the case this week, with the audacious programming of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante.

The music of Szymanowski (photo: right) is definitely not part of the
standard repertoire, but he is an important composer. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see a production of his opera King Roger; I was struck by the theme of the work – the conflict between paganism and Christianity in Twelfth Century Sicily – and by the originality of the music.

Szymanowski was fascinated not only by the folk music of his native Poland, but also by the art and history of other cultures. His musical style has been called ‘Romantic Impressionism’ and while that is a fairly accurate descri
ption, it leaves out the spirituality and folkloric content of many of his works; in short, his was a unique voice in classical music in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

The Symphony No. 4, Symphonie Concertante, composed in 1932, had a major success at its first performance. Although it requires a virtuoso pianist, the orchestral part is more prominent than in the typical concerto; hence, the dual title of the piece.

In this Austin performance, soloist Emanuel Ax (photo: right) played with all the technical mastery the piece requires, fully exploiting its vast range of colours. In light of the fact that the orchestration is murky at times, the Austin Symphony could have used a little more rehearsal time, but on the whole this was a good performance of a work which should be heard more often.

Conductor Peter Bay came up with another Polish piece to set up the Szymanowski, but this programming was far less successful. Stanislaw Moniuszko (1819-1872) is at best a minor composer and his Bajka appeared to be a stop-start potpourri of forgettable tunes. Suppé did this sort of thing much better.

In the first half of the concert, Emanuel Ax gave a sparkling account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2; unfortunately, I still have ringing in my ears a superb performance of this same concerto from last October in Montreal. Till Fellner was the soloist with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony. That performance had everything, including the sound of an exciting new concert hall that does wonders for the string instruments.

All in all, it was a treat to hear the Szymanowski Symphony No.4, Symphonie Concertante and special kudos are in order for a soloist of the stature of Emanuel Ax for bringing it to Austin.

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 Conductorpodcast, Classical Airs.

Photo of Maestro Peter Bay with Austin Symphony members, by Marita

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Rob Ford: The Opera A Rip-Roaring Cautionary Tale

The principals of Rob Ford: The Opera taking a well deserved bow (l. to r. Conrad Siebert, Fabian Arciniegas, Eliza Johnson, Andrew Haji, Rosanna Murphy, Jamilynn Gubbe, Caitlin Wood)

Rob Ford: The Opera - a Rip-roaring Cautionary Tale

by Joseph So

University of Toronto Faculty of Music
New Music Festival
Composers: Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime, Saman Shahi
Librettist: Michael Patrick Albano
Conductor: Rafael Luz
Director: Erik Thor
2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012
MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building

Andrew Haji (Rob Ford)
Rosanne Murphy (Margaret Atwood)
Fabian Arciniegas (Father)
Eliza Johnson (Mother)
Elizabeth Polese (Remeron)
Andromahi Raptis (Paxil)
Anna Sharpe (Nardil)
Caitlin Wood (Homeless Woman)
Conrad Siebert (Cyclist)
Jamilynn Gubbe (Seagull)

Jerry Springer has one. So does Anna Nicole Smith. Not to speak of former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. So why not Rob Ford?

I am of course referring to high profile public figures as fodder for grand opera. Given that the operatic art form has always served as a vehicle for social and political commentary, it's only logical that our Toronto mayor would be given the operatic treatment - after all, Ford is, er, larger than life in more ways than one. Given such a controversial, even incendiary, political figure at the hands of young composers with their left-leaning, free-wheeling creative impulses, the end product is inevitably a funny and irreverent jab at the political goings-on of the Ford Nation.

The four members of the Student Composer Project (Massimo Guida, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime and Saman Shahi) each penned a section of the one-hour opera, with a pithy libretto supplied by well known stage director Michael Patrick Albano. It played to a capacity audience at Macmillan Theatre on Sunday afternoon. People started lining up hours (!) before the 2:30 p.m. show to ensure a seat. The audience was in a boisterous mood, cheering Michael Albano and Dean of Music Don McLean lustily even before a note of the music was heard.

In his libretto, Albano wisely stayed away from some of the more contentious personal issues of the mayor, instead focusing on matters of public record. In fact he treads rather carefully and with good reason - it's hard to make the darker sides of one's personal life funny. Except for the opening fantasy sequence of Ford's early life, the libretto sticks closely to the much publicized episodes - cutting the library budget, eliminating bike lanes, getting rid of the homeless etc. With devastating but not mean-spirited humour, the opera had the audience in stitches yesterday afternoon. The confrontation between Ford and the angelic Margaret Atwood drew the most belly laughs. Ford meets his comeuppance when he snatches the wings from Atwood, and presumably perishes, like Icarus, flying too close to the sun. Thus one could say Rob Ford: The Opera is more than just laughs but a modern cautionary tale of sorts.

Musically, it's a bit of a pastiche, with a number of literal quotations - there's even a direct quote from Parsifal in the Judgement Scene! The four composers are quite skillful in their (generally sparse) orchestration, sticking with tonal music and avoiding the intellectual - and thus potentially less accessible - approach. Worthy of particular praise is Massimo Guida's contribution in Scene's 1 and 2. He composes with a particularly strong melodic inspiration, his lyricism greatly enhanced by the excellent singing of Andrew Haji (Rob Ford). Under conductor Rafael Luz who gave a clear if not ideally taut reading of the score, the chamber orchestra played valiantly. No it wasn't note-perfect, but Rob Ford the Opera captures the imagination of the audience and as a piece of social commentary, it succeeds in spades.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 23 - 29)

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham returns to Toronto for a Koerner Hall Recital on January 28 at 8 p.m.

The Canadian Opera Company's Tosca opened to rave reviews last weekend, and with thirteen performances to go, there are plenty of opportunities to catch this excellent show starring Canada's reigning prima donna Adrianne Pieczonka in the title role. Partnering her is Carlo Ventre as Cavaradossi. Mark Delavan is the evil Roman chief of police Scarpia. Paolo Carignani conducts. The traditional production - a rarity for the COC - is a revival from just a few short years ago. Performances on Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m.

For those who caught the fabulous Iphigenie of Susan Graham last fall at the COC, you'll be happy to know she is back in town to give a recital with the great collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau, in a program of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Duparc. Jan. 28 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall. I also heard a rumour, as yet unconfirmed, that Graham will give a masterclass while in town. If I get more information, I will update this blog.

For ten days, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting a New Music Festival. The Festival opened last Sunday with the world premiere of Rob Ford: The Opera - a U of T students work that wowed the capacity audience - including yours truly - at McMillan Theatre. The centerpiece of the Festival is the music Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, who will be interviewed on Monday noon at Walter Hall. That evening at 7:30 p.m. in Walter Hall, the Gryphon Trio will play his music as well as several Canadian composers including Alexina Louie and Andrew Staniland. For details of the many activities of the Festival, consult

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, having just concluded its Mozart@256 celebrations, is offering an eclectic pairing of Bartok's inimitable The Miraculous Mandarin with the more traditional Brahms and Haydn. TSO's Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless plays the Haydn Trumpet Concerto, complemented by Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn. James Gaffigan is the guest conductor. Performances on Jan. 25 and 28 at 8 p.m. The show on Thursday Jan. 26 7:30 p.m. is without an intermission and features only the Bartok.

RCM's Royal Conservatory Orchestra under conductor Julian Kuerti is presenting Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 as well as Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2, played by Minjoo Jo, the winner of the GGS Concerto Competition. Also on the program is R. Murray Schafer's Dream-e-scape. The concert takes place on Jan. 27 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall.

Uri Mayer, the director of the Orchestral Program and the Resident Conductor of the RCM Glenn Gould School, is the new Artistic Director of the Toronto Philharmonia. He will lead his Orchestra in a concert celebrating Mozart at the George Weston Recital Hall on Jan. 25 8 p.m. Pianist Andre Laplante plays Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 K.467 in C Major. Also on the program is Symphony No. 40. For details, go to

An intriguing event is Amici Chamber Ensemble's Fashionista: Fashion as Art on Jan. 29 3 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio. It features the fashion of Canadian designer Rosemary Umetsu, who is well known for the concert gowns she has designed for many Canadian artists, including Isabel Bayrakdarian and Nathalie Paulin. Joaquin Valdepenas, Joey Hetherington and Serouj Kradjian are joined by accordionist Joseph Petric in a program featuring the music of Chausson as well as a newly commissioned piece by Alice Ping Yee Ho.

Last but not least is Wagner's Lohengrin, put on by Opera by Request. When's the last time Torontonians saw a fully staged Lohengrin? I think you'll have to go back to the mid 1980's COC production with Siegfried Jerusalem, Ellen Shade, Leif Roar and Janis Martin! Thanks to the audacious programming of Opera by Request, we'll get to hear it live, albeit with piano accompaniment, on Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The soloists are local Canadian singers the likes of Rachel Cleland (Elsa) and Andrew Tees (Telramund). William Shookhoff at the piano. If you love this opera - as I do - it's worth investigating. It takes place at the College Street United Church on 452 College in downtown Toronto. Tickets are very affordable at $20.