La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 2 February 2012

A Miraculous Musical Pilgrimage With Conspirare's Company of Voices

Talbot: Path of Miracles
Conspirare: Company of Voices/Craig Hella Johnson, conductor

St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas
Friday, January 20, 2012

Now in the middle of its 19th season, Conspirare's 24-member Company of Voices continues to be innovative and inspiring. Its latest presentation was the regional premiere of Path of Miracles, a 70-minute work by British composer Joby Talbot; a beautiful work, it was given a superb performance on this occasion by Craig Hella Johnson & Company.

Path of Miracles depicts the famous medieval Christian pilgrims’ walk from France to Santiago, in homage to St. James, one of Jesus’ disciples, and the patron saint of Spain. Legend has it that James evangelized in Spain, was martyred in Jerusalem, and his body then miraculously ended up Spain. His tomb was rediscovered there 800 years later and his remains were taken to their final resting place near Santiago.

The pilgrims’ path, known as the “Way of St. James” or “Camino de Santiago,” is a 780 km. walk and thousands of pilgrims still make the trip today, stopping along the way to have their official church passports stamped. While there are several different routes for pilgrims to take to Santiago, the one from France known as “Camino Frances” is the most popular. It is marked with yellow signs to keep walkers from getting lost and there are dozens of hostels along the way catering exclusively to pilgrims.

Musical Pilgrimage in Four Movements
Path of Miracles is in four movements, which represent the starting point, two stops along the way and the destination of the pilgrimage, Santiago. The composer takes the city of Roncesvalles as his starting point and this is the name of his first movement; for the record, however, the actual starting point of the Camino Frances is St. Jean Pied de Port, leading to a grueling 23 km walk over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles.

The text of this piece is by Robert Dickinson, with quotations from the Bible and from medieval sources. There are passages in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Basque, French, English and German, and this is entirely appropriate in a rite of passage involving pilgrims from many different cultures.

The opening of Path of Miracles is remarkable - a hymn of praise to St. James. The men of the choir begin on very low notes and gradually ascend by means of a vocal glissando, increasing in volume at the same time. Upon reaching their highest pitch, they are met by a huge wave of sound from the female voices of the choir; the combination is thrilling and rather frightening in its power. The movement then proceeds to tell the story of St. James.

Musically, Path of Miracles is difficult to describe. It is eclectic, to be sure, in its use of sounds and styles from the entire history of music. There is plainchant and polyphony. There are hymns, droning bass notes from Russian liturgical music and bouncy rhythms that seem entirely modern, yet never did I feel that the composer was simply parading his virtuosity or showing off the virtuosity of the choir performing the music; rather, I was convinced that he had simply found the perfect musical expression of his religious conviction and the text.

Path of Miracles is almost entirely a cappella, except for episodes in the first and last movements when high-pitched cymbals or crotales are used. It does have optional stage directions which were employed very effectively in this performance. From time to time members of the choir walked up the aisles of the church while singing and this had the effect of bringing the audience – literally – inside the music. At the very end of the piece, the male singers walked slowly out the doors at the front of the church and the female singers did the same at the rear. They sang as they moved and gradually the music died away into silence with the words “Holy St. James, great St. James. God help us now and evermore.”

While I have said that this piece was not about virtuosity, I must say that it makes extraordinary demands on the voice – difficult intervals, extremes of register, notes sustained over many bars, tricky rhythms, etc. – all of which the members of the Company of Voices executed with astonishing precision.

Composer Joby Talbot’s singular vision has found its ideal interpreters in conductor Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare’s Company of Voices.

For Those Wanting More…
Readers interested in learning more about the "Way of St. James" may find the following websites useful:;

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 podcast, Classical Airs.

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Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Toronto Symphony Orchestra Announces its 2012-13 Season

TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian

Highlights of Toronto Symphony Orchestra's 2012-13 Season

At a press conference this morning, Toronto Symphony Orchestra announced its 2012-13 season. As stated in the TSO press release, the new season is "one of new faces and new possibilities, alongside treasured and timeless masterworks." Its programming is certainly living up to that claim - the opening night combines old masters (Brahms Violin Concerto) with contemporary works (John Adams' Harmonielehre.) A number of great artists are returning after an absence of some years, as well as artists new to TSO and the city. There are also new appointments and new initiatives, underscoring the vitality and energy of this great symphony orchestra.

Conductors: A very strong roster of visiting conductors, among them Thomas Dausgaard, Jiri Belohlavek, Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, Kent Nagano, Bernard Labadie, Sir Andrew Davis, Nicholas McGegan, Johannes Debus, Robert Spano, James Gaffigan, Pinchas Zukerman, Stephane Deneve, Christoph Koenig, Bramwell Tovey, and Giancarlo Guerrero. It's especially exciting to have the Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek back after a long absence to conduct Beethoven Ninth (Feb. 2013). (He's of course going to be in town for the COC Tristan und Isolde a couple of blocks away at Queen and University Avenues.) Kent Nagano, much loved in Munich and Montreal, is bringing his MSO for a program of Haydn and Stravinsky (Nov.) And of course the TSO Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis figures prominently next season.

Pianists: It's a very strong lineup focusing on youth, among them Yuja Wang, Ingrid Fliter, Kirill Gerstein, Jan Lisiecki, Lise de la Salle; Joyce Yang, Alon Goldstein, Jeremy Denk, Jamie Parker, Jon Kimura Parker, and Charles Richard Hamelin (winner of the 2011 TSO National Piano Competition.)

Violinists: A tremendous lineup of Maxim Vengerov, Anne-Sophie Mutter, James Ehnes, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and our own concertmaster Jonathan Crow!

Vocalists: Baritones Gerald Finley (finally!) and Russell Braun, the huge-voiced Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang (a Cardiff winner), sopranos Erin Wall, Klara Ek, Layla Claire, and Measha Brueggergosman; mezzo Kelly O'Connor, tenors Michael Schade and Joseph Kaiser; and countertenor Daniel Taylor. Also a concert performance of La via breve brings a host of soloists including mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera.

TSO Goes Multimedia: Photographer James Westwater will photo-choreograph Smetana's Ma Vlast. Another natural choice for photographic treatment is Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; similarly, West Side Story will combine Bernstein's score with the newly remastered Robert Wise film featuring Jerome Robbins' choreography.

Canadian Content: During the New Creations Festival, a number of Canadian composers will have their works featured, among them Andrew Staniland, whose Dark Star Requiem made a powerful impression two seasons ago; Owen Pallett will contribute a new Violin Concerto.

New Positions/New Initiatives: Two newly formed positions, Resident Conductor and Affiliate Composer will be created, and the candidates will be named at a later date. The new appointees will work closely with TSO music director Peter Oundjian, Composer Advisor Gary Kulesha, the artistic staff and the TSO musicians. Perhaps one of the most novel and exciting initiatives is the commission of A Toronto Symphony: Concerto for Composer and City, a work for, by and about Toronto. This new work will premiere on March 9, 2013 during the New Creations Festival.

All in all, a very exciting season ahead!

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Les incontournables du printemps : OTTAWA

Par Hélène Boucher
Centre national des arts
C’est une œuvre magistrale de Carl Orff qui annonce la saison printanière du Centre national des Arts d’Ottawa. La cantate scénique Carmina Burana, alliant chœur et orchestre autour des élans poétiques sensuels et satiriques du 13e siècle, permettra d’apprécier la maîtrise du nouveau maestro d’origine vénézuélienne, Diego Matheuz, au pupitre de l’Orchestre du CNA. On entendra les voix de la soprano Erin Wall, du contre-ténor Daniel Taylor et du baryton Russell Braun. Les Danses de Galánta du Hongrois Kodály et Danzon No. 2 pour orchestre du compositeur mexicain Arturo Márquez complètent le programme. Deux représentations sont prévues, les 8 et 9 mars.
La Série Bravo Bostonian réserve un événement majeur, les 19 et 20 avril, avec les Concertos brandebourgeois de Bach. Sous la direction de Pinchas Zukerman, les musiciens de l’Orchestre du CNA accueilleront des invités spéciaux pour cet hommage à l’époque baroque.
Les amateurs de comédies musicales seront ravis d’assister à l’une des trois représentations du spectacle Les Misérables et autres succès. Du 10 au 12 mai, rendez-vous avec des chanteurs inspirés de la pure tradition de Broadway qui interprèteront des classiques de Claude-Michel Schönberg et Alain Boublil tirés des Misérables et de Miss Saigon. Avec l’ensemble vocal Ewashko Singers et l’Orchestre du CNA sous la direction de Jack Everly.
Ottawa accueillera plus de 500 artistes de la Saskatchewan et du Manitoba lors de l’édition 2012 du festival national Scène des Prairies. Du 26 avril au 8 mai, musiciens, comédiens, chorégraphes, cinéastes et autres créateurs se réuniront dans différents lieux de la capitale nationale pour exprimer leur art. À signaler, notamment, la visite de l’Orchestre symphonique de Winnipeg avec le violoniste James Ehnes, pour une soirée Tchaïkovski avec son Concerto pour violon et la Symphonie no 5. Une création du compositeur canadien Randolph Peters complétera le programme. Une présentation du Centre national des Arts.
L’ORCHESTRE symphonique d'Ottawa
Une Soirée symphonique printanière se déroulera le 21 avril afin de renouveler l’apport de l’Orchestre dans la communauté et de récolter des fonds. Rendez-vous convivial et élégant par excellence, l’activité comporte un dîner, un concert et un encan, dans l’environnement enchanteur de l’hôtel Fairmont Château Laurier. Les billets sont disponibles dès maintenant, au coût de 140 $ par personne.
Une autre raison de célébrer l’orchestre du chef David Currie : la saison 2011-2012 marque ses 20 ans d’engagement à titre de directeur musical. Et pour le fêter comme il se doit, la programmation permettra d’apprécier les grandes œuvres interprétées par l’OSO à travers le temps. Le 5 mars, un concert spécial se déclinera avec un double programme : Le Mandarin merveilleux de Bartók et Les Planètes de Holst. Ce sera l’occasion d’un rendez-vous entre les musiciens de l’OSO et ceux de l’Orchestre des jeunes d’Ottawa, qui célèbre pour sa part ses trois décennies d’existence.
 Le Chœur Bach d'Ottawa
Dix ans déjà pour le Chœur Bach d’Ottawa, qui propose un concert 10e anniversaire. Un hommage au maître du baroque, avec orchestre et chanteurs tels que Suzie Leblanc, Agnes Zsigovics, Daniel Taylor, Charles Daniels, Jacques-Olivier Chartier, Stephan McLeod and Daniel Lichti. Le 10 mars à 19 h, en l’église unie Dominion-Chalmers d’Ottawa.
l’Orchestre symphonique de Gatineau
La 5e saison de l’Orchestre symphonique de Gatineau et de son directeur artistique Yves Léveillé se clôturera le 31 mars prochain avec la 5e Symphonie de Mahler. Une soirée majestueuse, à la salle Odyssée de la Maison de la culture de Gatineau, réalisée en collaboration avec le Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Gatineau.

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Spring Highlights: Quebec City

By Michèle-Andrée Lanoue

Erreur de type 27
The ensemble Erreur de type 27, the “presence of contemporary music” in Quebec City incarnate, is collaborating with Oktoécho for a reading where theatre and music collide for the presentation of Chants du prophète. Part improvised and part written, the performance draws on the philosophical/poetic anthology Le Prophète by Khalil Gibran. This premiere from composer Katia Makdissi-Warren and playwright-director Hanna Abd El Nour will be performed at the Palais Montcalm on March 31 at 8 p.m.

Orchestre symphonique de Québec
Two orchestras, from the Conservatoire de musique de Québec and the music faculty of Université Laval, will join the OSQ on March 7 at the Grand Théâtre de Québec. Under the baton of maestro Jean-François Rivest, the three orchestras will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”, along with Richard Strauss’s Metamorphoses and Thus spoke Zarathustra.

After worldwide success, a multimedia production designed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be presented in Quebec City on March 21. The centrepiece of the multidisciplinary composition is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Actor Jack Robitaille, along with Jacques Leblanc as narrator, will stage a dramatization of the symphony’s composition. The piece will then be performed in its entirety, directed by maestro Jean-Michaël Lavoie.

The OSQ is presenting its four-part Mozart festival from April 1 to 4. Four concerts, featuring violinist Mayumi Seller and pianist Anton Kuerti, will evoke distinctive places and atmospheres. The festival will draw to a close with two key works of the Austrian composer’s repertoire: Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter,” and the Requiem.

The vitality of gypsy music is at the heart of the OSQ’s April 25 concert directed by Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Montreal violinist Alexandre Da Costa will play Ravel’s Tzigane and Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy. Also on the programme are Manuel de Falla’s Suite No. 1, The Three-Cornered Hat, and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8.

The OSQ will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina burana on May 30 at the Grand Théâtre de Québec. Conductor Jacques Lacombe and soloists Nathalie Paulin, Matthew White and Philip Addis offer a presentation enhanced with special effects for a reinvention of this classic. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is also on the programme. The audience is invited to Salle Louis-Fréchette an hour before the concert begins to learn about the historical context of the evening’s pieces.

Opéra de Québec
Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Falstaff (1893) will be performed in Quebec City on May 12 (7 p.m.), 15, 17 and 19 (8pm). In this Shakespeare-based comedy, directed by Jacques Leblanc with musical director Giuseppe Graziloli, intrigue abounds and vengeance, jealousy and humour all have their say.

Les Violons du Roy
One of Bach’s greatest masterpieces, the St John Passion, will be performed on March 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. in Salle Raoul-Jobin of Palais Montcalm. For the occasion, Bernard Labadie has brought together La Chapelle de Québec and a spectacular cast. Particularly of note are tenor Ian Bostridge and soprano Karina Gauvin. The same concert will be performed on March 25 at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Bernard Labadie and les Violons du Roy will perform Mozart’s three last symphonies on June 1 in salle Raoul-Jobin of Palais Montcalm. Symphony No. 39 in E flat major, K. 543, Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 and Symphony No. 41 in C major, “Jupiter,” K. 551 — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s symphonic last will and testament.

The OSM visits Quebec City
On March 28 at 7:30 p.m., the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and Kent Nagano will visit the old capital to give a concert in Salle Louis-Fréchette of the Grand Théâtre de Québec. On the programme: the overture of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, and Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with soloist Vadim Repin.

Club Musical de Québec
New York pianist Murray Perahia, a student of Vladimir Horwitz, is one of the great pianists of our time. He will be at the Grand Théâtre de Québec on March 20. Bach, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert are on the programme.

Translation: Ariadne Lih

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Monday, 30 January 2012

Susan Graham Recital Combines Artistry with Star Power

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and collaborative pianist Malcolm Martineau receiving audience accolades in Koerner Hall Recital (Photo: Joseph So)

Susan Graham Recital Combines Artistry with Star Power

by Joseph So

Sunday Jan. 28, 2012 at 8 p.m.
Koerner Hall, RCM, Toronto

Purcell: Tell Me, Some Pitying Angel
Berlioz: La mort d'Ophelie

"Mignon Songs"
Schubert: Heiss mich nicht reden
Schumann: So lasst mich scheinen, bis ich werde
Liszt: Kennst du das Land
Tchaikovsky: Nyet tolka tot kto znal
Duparc: Romance de Mignon
Wolf: Kennst du das Land

Horovitz: Lady Macbeth
Poulenc: Fiancailles pour rire

American Songs (announced from the stage)
Messager: J'ai deux amants
Porter: The physician
Duke: Ages Ago
Moore: Sexy Lady

Reynaldo Hahn: A Chloris
Stephen Sondheim: The Boy From

One of the highlights of the fall opera season was the appearance of American mezzo Susan Graham in the title role of Iphigenie en Tauride. Of course that wasn't the first time she sang in Toronto, as I recall her recital of American Songs (mostly Ned Rorem songs) in the Roy Thomson now-defunct Vocal Series a dozen years ago, as well as a date with the Toronto Symphony in Les nuit d'ete. But it took an operatic star turn to capture the imagination of Toronto voice fans. Simply put, Susan Graham is the complete package, a consummate artist of extraordinary gifts, a combination of gleaming vocalism, stunning technique, musical intelligence, communicative power, and stage allure. How often does a singer get a song written for her called "Sexy Lady" and actually living up to every word of the text?

On a blustery Saturday evening of high winds, slippery sidewalks, fender benders and road closures, Koerner was packed, a testament to Graham's drawing power. She didn't disappoint her fans one bit. In terrific voice, Graham took no time to warm up, singing the Purcell with lovely tone and clear diction. (For some reason, the second Purcell song, Mad Bess, was omitted) This was followed by Death of Ophelia by Berlioz. The French repertoire is Graham's forte - she's rare among American singers in her facility with the French language, which she speaks fluently and accent-free. Her care and attention to textual nuance was exemplary. The next six songs, all based on Goethe's text, was sung as a group loosely labeled as "Mignon Songs." It was good to hear "Kennst du das Land" by both Liszt and Wolf, the latter to many ears - mine included - the superior song. Graham sang these so exquisitely that there was spontaneous applause, quickly (and good-naturedly) shushed by the diva herself. Martineau, a collaborative pianist of the first rank, played the Wolf even more magnificently than usual, with stunning pianistic flourish and ample dramatic power.

The second half was made up entirely of American songs, with a combination of art songs and the more lighthearted "pop" repertoire. In the hands of Graham, the extended scena "Lady Macbeth" by Joseph Horovitz became a veritable tour de force as powerful as Verdi's. After this deadly serious piece, Graham switched gears into more fun stuff. With songs by Messager, Porter and Duke, and given her charmingly earthy stage persona, Graham had the audience eating out of her hand. Her final piece on the regular program, "Sexy Lady" - an autobiographical song written for her by Ben Moore, was a self-effacingly funny piece that defies description. By then, the audience didn't want to let her go. She rewarded "a perfect audience" with two encores - the exquisite A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn which she called her favourite song, and Stephen Sondheim's The Boy From... I am sure the audience would agree that this concert was well worth the price of braving the elements on a winter's night.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 30 - Feb. 5)

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho

The big news for voice fans this week is the Canadian Opera Company premiere of Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin, which is being billed as Love From Afar. Saariaho is one of a handful of contemporary composers whose works are regularly performed, and more importantly, revived. Her musical idiom is unique in its tonal palate, with its elusive quality that is at once adventurous but also accessible. Last year, several of her chamber and vocal works were featured in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Music Festival, with none other than soprano Karita Mattila interpreting a couple of the pieces. Saariaho's larger scale works, her operas, are also regularly staged. For example, both L'amour de loin and Adriana Mater received productions at the prestigious Santa Fe Opera. I was fortunate to catch L'amour de loin there in 2002 with the superb Canadian baritone Gerald Finley as Jaufre Rudel, Dawn Upshaw as Clemence, and Monica Groop as The Pilgrim. I wouldn't say it was an easy work upon first hearing, but I found that the more I delved into it, the more rewarding it became. That production, available on DVD, is visually striking but also quite static. What we are getting at the COC is the more recent production from Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp. (Quite incidentally, the Finley role was taken by another Canadian, Phillip Addis) In Toronto, we'll have the great Russell Braun - the terrific Orestes from last Fall's Iphigenie - as Jaufre Rudel, Erin Wall as Clemence and Krisztina Szabo as The Pilgrim. COC Music Director Johannes Debus, whose work includes a lot of contemporary music, is the conductor. If you are at all interested in new music, this is not to be missed. It opens on Thursday, Feb 2 at 7:30 pm, and repeated Saturday Feb. 4 at 4:30 p.m. If you are curious about Saariaho's music, the COC two noon hour concerts of her works. On Jan. 31 is a Chamber and Vocal concert with Canadian soprano Carla Huhtanen, and on Feb. 2 is From the Grammar of Dreams: Vocal Music of Kaija Saariaho. Soloists are members of the COC Ensemble Studio.
Be sure to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat. Meanwhile, the Puccini warhorse, Tosca, received rave reviews when it opened on Jan. 21. I caught the show earlier today (Jan. 29), and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was simply incandescent in the title role. The opera house was packed, proving that a tried and true verismo can still pull them in! On Jan. 31 7:30 p.m., the alternate Tosca (Julie Makerov) and Cavaradossi (Brandon Jovanovich) will get to strut their stuff. Both are very fine singers - Makerov of course is no stranger to Toronto, having sung Donna Elvira and Rusalka. Jovanovich was a terrific Siegmund in the Die Walkure I saw last June in San Francisco. Additional performance this week on Feb. 3 at 7:30 p.m.

This week, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra welcomes back its former music director Gunther Herbig to conduct Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, coupled with Shostakovich's Symphony No. 10. Herbig is among the best of conductors in these big Romantic/Post-Romantic pieces, and it's good to have him back. Anton Kuerti is the soloist in the Emperor. This is a great program. Two performances, on Thurs. Feb. 2 and Sat. Feb. 4, both at 8 p.m.

On Feb. 5, the Off Centre Music Salon is presenting its annual Schubertiad. This year's theme is The Composer Contemplates and Twitters, no doubt a bit of borrowing from social media! Soloists are soprano Charlene Santoni, baritone Vasil Garvanliev, and violinist Jacques Israelievitch, plus of course Boris Zarankin and Inna Perkis. This event also marks the launch of Boris Zarankin's new Schubert sonatas CD on the Doremi label. Sunday Feb. 5, 2 p.m. at the Glenn Gould Studio.