La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

American pianist Van Cliburn dies at age 78

Van Cliburn (July 12 1934 - February 27 2013)

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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dallas Symphony Raises its Game for 1st European Tour with Maestro Jaap van Zweden!

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major Op. 19
Stucky: August 4, 1964: Elegy
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Suite

Anton Nel, piano
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden
Dallas, Texas
February 22, 2013

For five years now, Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has been working steadily to build the Dallas Symphony (DSO) into a world-class orchestra.  Critical reaction in Dallas has been consistently glowing and when conductor and orchestra were featured at the League of American Orchestras Conference in Dallas last year, the reaction from the ‘movers and shakers’ in the industry was ecstatic.

Now comes the biggest test of all. In a few weeks, the DSO will embark on its first European tour with van Zweden on the podium. Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich and Hamburg will weigh in on what van Zweden has achieved. In preparation, the Dallas Symphony is honing its two tour programs on home turf; based on what I heard last week, there is reason for great optimism.

The first of the tour programs is devoted to music by Wagner and Richard Strauss, with an added dash of American content, in the form of Steven Stucky’s (photo: above right) eight-minute Elegy. In the Dallas concerts, Anton Nel was featured in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. In Europe, the Beethoven will be replaced by Korngold’s Violin Concerto with Hilary Hahn as soloist. Later this week, the DSO will test drive its other tour program, which features Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

DSO/van Zweden Wagner Glows from Within!
The music of Richard Wagner is part of Jaap van Zweden’s core repertoire. In Holland, he has already made complete recordings of Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal, each of them impressive for its command of structure and flow, and for a rare ability to balance complex textures. These characteristics were evident again last week in the Dallas Symphony performance of Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod. Van Zweden’s tempi in this piece were a little fast for my taste, but there was no denying the quality of the playing or the authority of the conducting.

From the opening bars of the Prelude, van Zweden made clear that this was music of great intimacy. The crescendi in the cellos were not overdone, and led inexorably, initially to the first strong accent heard only in the cellos (third phrase, bar 10), and then to the full-throated fortissimo (bar 17). All this structural context was beautifully illuminated by van Zweden, with extraordinarily refined playing from his cello section. As for the tempo: in these 15 bars, there are numerous rests and pauses between phrases. It does make excellent musical sense not to exaggerate these silences. While I agree that if the conductor takes too slow a tempo here, the arc of those 15 bars can be completely lost, I nevertheless believe that it could be preserved with a slightly more relaxed tempo than that taken by van Zweden.

That said, this Wagner glowed from within, from those yearning opening cello phrases to the final resolution of love and death at the end of the Liebestod. Van Zweden reminded us that this is not a Götterdämmerung-category climax, but something more human and profound. For all the passionate seething in the music, the final climax, while rich and all consuming, is restrained. The dynamic marking in the score is forte - not fortissimo - and certainly not fff.
There are no cheap effects in this music; van Zweden made sure his musicians understood that and they gave him a deeply felt, perfectly balanced climax. This was sublime music making.

Stylish Rendering of Early Beethoven 
The piano soloist on this evening’s program was Anton Nel (photo: right), an artist well known to those of us who spend a lot of time in Austin, Texas. Nel heads the piano faculty at the Butler School of Music and is known to be masterly in a vast repertoire. He plays frequently in Austin, where he was recently featured in the regional premiere at the Zach Theatre, of 33 Variations, a play which makes extensive use of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.  

Nel and van Zweden were remarkably attuned to each other in this performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with transitions and dynamics perfectly dove-tailed. Van Zweden and the DSO recently concentrated on compositions by Mozart for a two-week festival and this work paid off in this performance of the piano concerto, an early Beethoven piece.

Under van Zweden’s direction, the strings of the Dallas Symphony demonstrated how adept they have become at switching from late-Romantic Wagner to Classical Period Mozart and Beethoven. It is a completely different world of bowing, dynamics and articulation and few modern orchestras can do it convincingly. Anton Nel played beautifully throughout and his control of dynamics in the slow movement was outstanding.

One of Our Own: The Right Choice Better than None at All
After intermission came Stucky’s Elegy (from August 4, 1964), the one American work the DSO is taking to Europe, raising the question: “Shouldn’t American music be better represented on a foreign tour than with an eight-minute piece?” Absolutely. But then, Washington’s National Symphony recently went off to Europe without a single American work in its repertoire; inexcusable for the resident orchestra of the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital.

In defense of the Dallas Symphony, I will point out that van Zweden and the DSO gave the world premiere of Stucky’s August 4, 1964 in September, 2008, and took it to Carnegie Hall in 2011. Around the same time, they recorded the piece; in other words, they are hugely invested in this full-length concert drama, and this exciting eight-minute highlight is better than nothing, considering that European promoters find major contemporary works a tough sell in programs by touring orchestras.

In spite of its brevity, Stucky’s Elegy is a powerful and compelling piece, with some vivid contrasts between solo strings and mournful brass. Van Zweden and the DSO gave it a stunning presentation. European listeners exposed to this excerpt from the piece, may well be inspired to check out the complete work.

Dallas Symphony Truly in Top Form for European Tour
The concert finished with the performance of a suite from Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier. Several suites from the opera, which are played more often, give us little more than a taste of the merry waltz music. This suite, possibly put together by the young Leonard Bernstein, is more ambitious. Starting with the exuberant opening bars of the opera, it goes on to the Presentation of the Rose, then gives us much of the glorious final trio and duet, ending with the waltz music in all its unfettered high spirits. This suite has a wide range of moods and dynamics and represents a considerable challenge for a virtuoso orchestra.

No problem for the rejuvenated Dallas Symphony. One marveled both at the quality of the solo playing and the tightly unified ensemble playing. Van Zweden has made upgrading the strings a top priority and it shows. Few orchestras anywhere today can boast of so many topnotch musicians in its ranks. The two concertmasters, Alexander Kerr and Nathan Olson, both of whom contributed very distinguished solo playing to the Strauss performance, were backed up by equally fine players - Gary Levinson and Emmanuelle Boisvert (former concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony) – behind them at the second stand.

The horn section is also one of the glories of the “new” Dallas Symphony. The orchestra is actively looking for a principal to replace Gregory Hustis and is trying out candidates from other orchestras. In this concert, DSO Associate Principal David Heyde led the section in the Wagner and third horn David Cooper was the principal for the Strauss. Both were excellent, although Cooper had more to do and did it with exceptional confidence and phrasing. The entire section played with electrifying power and bravura.

Notably absent from this concert was another outstanding young principal player. Principal trumpet Ryan Anthony has been forced to withdraw temporarily due to illness. Let us hope this wonderful musician will soon return to take his rightful place in the orchestra. At last week’s concert and on the tour, his replacement is Manny Laureano, principal trumpet of the Minnesota Orchestra.

I’ll return to Dallas later this week to report on the orchestra’s other tour program featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.

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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Monday, 25 February 2013

ROCK OF AGES Rolls into Montreal

By Naomi Gold
Photo by Scott Suchman

Rock of Ages the jukebox musical, will wallop Montreal's winter blahs with its eight-show run at Théâtre St-Denis next week. Produced by Evenko and Broadway Across Canada, the play premieres on Tuesday, February 26, and features weekend matinee performances on March 2nd and 3rd.
This ode to 80s classic rock cum heavy metal glam promises to thrill theatregoers nostalgic for bad boy bands from days gone by. Rock hits by Styx, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, Poison and Europe, among others are featured.
Audience participation is de rigueur, and all attendees are urged to bring their air guitars. After all, the show set a Guinness world record for 'Largest Air Guitar Ensemble' which comprised 810 people (including audience/fans and cast).
For tickets call 514-790-1111 or click here: Prices start at $61.50.

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This Week in Toronto (Feb. 25 - Mar. 3)

Franz Welser Moest conducts the Vienna Philharmonic at Roy Thomson Hall (Photo: IMG Artists)

The big news in classical music this week is the appearance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Franz Welser-Moest at the Roy Thomson Hall for a single performance Feb. 27 8 pm.  Vienna Philharmonic is of course one of the most fabled of orchestras in the world and its visit is a highlight of the Toronto music season. On the program is Schubert Symphony No. 6 and Richard Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. This is a concert not to be missed.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra Conductor Peter Oundjian 

Saturday March 2nd (7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall) marks the start of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's annual New Creations Festival, a series celebrating new music.  While it's probably true that classical music lovers are a conservative lot as a whole, more and more of them are embracing contemporary works, and the New Creations Series is attracting an ever-increasing number of devoted and discerning audience members. The festival kicks off with an eclectic program consisting of Tod Machover's Jeux Deux, combining orchestra with disklavier and video projections; Mason Bates' Alternative Energy, and Arcadiac by Nicole Lizee, this last piece pays homage to "vintage images from arcade games of the 1970s and 80s."  Each performance has pre and post-concert events scheduled with informative presentations about the new works. TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian conducts. Details at

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki plays Chopin Etudes Op. 10 and 25 at Koerner Hall

At only 17 and still a student at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Canada's Jan Lisiecki is already on top of the piano world, playing at important venues and with a high profile DG contract under his belt. I recently interviewed Lisiecki when he was in town to record his new CD, for an article that will come out in conjunction with the release of the disc in the fall.  I was impressed by not only his marvelous pianism but also his maturity which is far beyond his years. On Sunday Mar. 3 3 pm, Lisiecki will give us a preview of his upcoming CD, a program of Chopin Etudes Op. 10 and 25. This is an extremely popular event and will likely sell out quickly.

The Faure Quartett

On Thursday Feb. 28 at 8 pm, Music Toronto is presenting The Faure Quartett, an ensemble from Karlsruhe with pianist Dirk Mommertz, violinist Erika Geldsetzer, violist Sascha Froembling and cellist Konstantin Heidrich. On the program is Richard Strauss's Piano Quartet in C Minor Op. 13 and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, arranged for piano quartet. Concert is at MT's usual venue, Jane Mallett Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre.

The Amici Chamber Ensemble is celebrating its 25th anniversary in a concert originally scheduled last November. In Le Bal Masque, clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas and pianist Serouj Kradjian are joined by many guest artists - soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, violinists Jonathan Crow and Marie Berard, violist Barry Shiffman, bass Jeffrey Beecher, and trumpeter Andrew McCandless among them. On the program are works by Beethoven, Chausson, Poulenc and Montsalvatge.

Tenor Colin Ainworth sings Janacek at Against the Grain Theatre

Against the Grain Theatre, known for its innovative, cutting edge productions, is presenting a rarely performed double-bill of Janacek's song cycle, Diary of One Who Disappeared and Gyorgy Kurtag's Kafka-Fragments Op. 24. In four decades of attending performances, I've only seen a single live performance of the Janacek and it was a straight concert performance, and I admit I am totally unfamiliar with the Kurtag work.  This is a rare opportunity and one not to be missed for the adventurous. The Janacek song cycle is sung in Czech and the principals are tenor Colin Ainsworth and mezzo Lauren Segal, two excellent artists. Others in the cast are sopranos Leslie Bouza and Sarah Halmerson and mezzo Eugenia Dermentzis. The Kurtag piece is sung in German with soprano Jacqueline Woodley accompanied by violinist Kerry DuWors. ATG creative team is Joel Ivany (director), Christopher Mokrzewski (musical direction) and Michael Gianfrancesco (designer). Two performances, Mar. 1 and 2 8 pm at the Extension Room, 30 Eastern Avenue.
Given that most people would be unfamiliar with the Janacek song cycle, I can highly recommend a documentary on this work narrated/acted/performed by British tenor Ian Bostridge. It is available complete, in 7 segments on Youtube -

Baritone Dion Mazerolle, a frequent guest of Opera York, is Danilo

Opera York, the company from north GTA, is offering Lehar's The Merry Widow this week. It's sung in English, with Quebec baritone Dion Mazerolle as Danilo and Anna Bateman as Hanna. The "second couple" is sung by Alexandra Smithers (Valencienne) and Ryan Harper (Camille). Veteran baritone Douglas Tranquada is Baron Mirko Zeta. Geoffrey Butler is at the helm. Two shows, Feb. 28 and Mar. 2 at the intimate Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on Yonge north of Major McKenzie - a bit of a trek but worth it!

Finally, for those who need more opera and don't mind the absence of an orchestra, Toronto Opera Repertoire offers fully staged operas performed by a mix of professionals and students. You can catch Tales and Hoffmann and Barber of Seville this week at the Bickford Centre, 777 Bloor Street West near the Christie subway station. Details at

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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch (1923 - 2013)

Wolfgang Sawallisch
(August 26 1923 - February 22 2013)

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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Love Songs: COC Ensemble & OdeM Atelier lyrique joint concert

Vive l'amour!
COC Ensemble Studio / OdeM Atelier lyrique Joint Valentine Day Concert
Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, 12 p.m.
Feb. 14th 2013

by Joseph So

Questa o quella (Rigoletto)  Jean-Michel Richer, tenor
O luce di quest'anima (Linda di Chamounix) Frederique Drolet, soprano
Porgi amor (Nozze) Karine Boucher, soprano
Voi che sapete (Nozze) Rihab Chaieb, mezzo
Sull'aria (Nozze) Karine Boucher, soprano; Sasha Djihanian, soprano
Deh viene non tardar (Nozze) Sasha Djihanian, soprano
Donne mie, la fate a tanti (Cosi) Cameron McPhail, baritone
Ah! leve-toi soleil (Romeo et Juliette) Jean-Michel Richer, tenor
Flower Duet (Lakme) Frederique Drolet, soprano; Rihab Chaieb, mezzo
O Mimi, tu piu non torni (Boheme) Jean-Michel Richer, tenor; Cam McPhail, baritone
Marietta's Lied (Die tote Stadt) Karine Boucher, soprano
Je suis Titania (Mignon) Frederique Drolet, soprano
Lippen Schweigen (Die lustige Witwe) Sasha Djihanian, soprano; Jean-Michel Richer, tenor
Timothy Cheung / Jennifer Szeto, piano
(l. to r.) Jennifer Szeto, Timothy Cheung, Cameron McPhail, Rihab Chaieb, Sasha Djihanian, Jean-Michel Richer, Karine Boucher, Frederique Drolet (photo: Karen Reeves)

For voice fans, an eagerly anticipated annual event is the joint recital given by the young artists of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio and the Opera de Montreal's Atelier lyrique. Thanks to the collaboration between the two opera companies, the artists from the OdeM were in town for a week of classes and coaching. This concert was the end result, a showcase for both the visitors and our Ensemble artists. What we heard was a well designed and attractive program, substantial in content for a 60 minute recital. Given operas are mostly (or so it seems!) about love in all its guises, what's more appropriate than a few arias and duets to celebrate Valentine's Day? A total of six singers and two pianists entertained the packed Amphitheatre with their art. They are all well schooled, with attractive voices and stage presence; all are either the finished product ready to step on any stage or well on their way. Pianists Timothy Cheung and Jennifer Szeto, also members of the Ensemble, did a nice job with the diverse repertoire. 

Tenor Jean-Michel Richer in Questa o quella (Photo: Karen Reeves)

There was quite a lot of fine singing. Kicking off the proceedings was OdeM tenor Jean-Michel Richer, in his second year at the Atelier lyrique. He told the audience that he recently made the transition from baritone. Well, he could have fooled me, as the voice was that of a true tenor, without any trace of baritonal timbre. With four pieces, he was well represented in this one-hour concert. His "Questa o quella" was sung with attractive, buoyant tone and not backing off any of the high notes. He returned with an impressive "Ah! leve-toi soleil" showing off his pliant and beautiful lyric tenor, complete with a nice mezza voce. He's clearly a Des Grieux in the making. He teamed up with COC baritone Cameron McPhail in a lively rendition of the Rodolfo-Marcello duet from Act 4 La boheme.  Possessing a robust, virile baritone and great stage presence, McPhail would make an excellent Marcello.

Mezzo Rihab Chaieb entertains the audience as the love-lorn teenager in Voi che sapete (Photo: Karen Reeves)

To my ears, soprano Frederique Drolet is a "soubrette on steroids" - a very light lyric with excellent flexibility, and judging by her "O luce quest-anima" from Linda di Chamounix. she's also fearless. She sang the daunting aria with bright tone and fine agility, a couple of glitches in the very treacherous cabaletta notwithstanding.  She returned and did beautifully in the Lakme duet with COC mezzo Rihab Chaieb. Drolet's last selection was another high soprano aria, "Je suis Titania" from Mignon, sung with sparkling tone, nice trills and a winning stage presence, a few tiny glitches aside. Of the COC Ensemble women past and present, I count Chaieb to be among the best actors, and she continues to develop. Her Sesto is no cardboard figure but a young man of flesh and blood - I was moved by her in the Ensemble performance.  Here, her voice, a high mezzo, blended well with the high soprano of Drolet.  As Cherubino in "Voi che sapete," besides singing with youthful tone, Chaieb was perfect as the love-lorn teenager. 


Baritone Cameron McPhail (Photo: Karen Reeves)

Hanna (Sasha Djihanian) and Danilo (Jean-Michel Richer) hamming it up in Die lustige Witwe (Photo: Karen Reeves)

Continuing with the Nozze theme, Karine Boucher and Sasha Djihanian offered the lovely Letter Duet. With two sopranos, their timbres are quite similar, and they blended beautifully. Boucher has a full-lyric soprano of attractive quality. Given that "Porgi amor" opens Act 1 scene 2 and the soprano has to launch into this cold without the benefit of recitativo, it's not an easy piece to get right. On this occasion Boucher had some fleeting pitch issues, but the lovely quality of her voice came through. Later she also sang the famous Marietta's Lied from Die tote Stadt. Her beautiful timbre is right in this ethereal aria, although one would wish more colours, especially a high pianissimo.  The concert ended with the "Lippen schweigen" from Die lustige Witwe (sung in English!), with Sasha Djihanian (Hanna) and Jean-Michel Boucher (a tenor Danilo) at their schmaltzy best. They had great chemistry together and captivated the audience. The other artists joined them as the "chorus."  It was a sweet ending to a beautiful Valentine concert.  

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Monday, 18 February 2013

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 18 -24)

Soprano Nathalie Paulin sings in Tafelmusik's Mozart Requiem (Photo: Sebastien Ventura)

Top on my list this week is Tafelmusik's presentation of the Mozart Requiem. Acadian soprano (and now Torontonian) Nathalie Paulin doesn't sing here all that often, so this is a great opportunity to hear her in Mozart. She leads a fine quartet of soloists - others are mezzo Laura Pudwell, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Nathaniel Watson. Ivars Taurins leads the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in four performances at Koerner Hall on Feb. 21, 22, 23 8 pm and 24 at 3;30 pm.

If you have missed attending the Canadian Opera Company's winter season of Tristan und Isolde and La clemenza di Tito, this week is your absolute last chance to catch these two fine works. Ben Heppner, the greatest Canadian heldentenor since Jon Vickers, is in marvelous voice and his singing in Act 3 moved me to tears. He is partnered by German soprano Melanie Diener as a wonderful Isolde. You can hear them on Feb. 20 at the Four Seasons Centre. The alternate cast of tenor Michael Baba and soprano Margaret Jane Wray can be heard on Feb. 23, the last performance of the run. Johannes Debus conducts.

Several of the 2012 Ensemble singers to perform on Thursday noon hour concert (photo: Chris Hutcheson)
On Valentine's Day, I attended the joint recital given by artists of the COC Ensemble Studio and the OdeM Atelier lyrique. It was a very enjoyable experience, hearing the beautiful, fresh, youthful voices, clearly voices of the future. (I will have more to say in a full review to come) COC Ensemble Studio members will be giving a recital of the songs of Richard Strauss, a fantastic composer for the singing voice - particularly sopranos! On Thursday, in a program called Strauss and Friends, they will be singing songs by Strauss, Brahms Wolf and Korngold. These young singers are wonderful and this is a very worthwhile concert to attend. Be sure to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

Conductor Steven Reineke (

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a pop concert this week conducted by the TSO pops conductor, Steven Reineke. In the program called Love Will Keep Us Together, soprano Betsy Wolfe and tenor Mike Eldred will sing selections by Porter, Berlin and Mancini. Three shows, on Feb. 19 at 8 pm, repeated on Feb. 20 matinee and evening. On Feb. 23 1:30 and 3:30 pm, the TSO is presenting a kids-friendly concert of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky (arr. Ravel) complete with puppeteers!  TSO Resident Conductor Shalom Bard is at the helm.
Tenor David Pomeroy makes recital debut at Glenn Gould Studio (

Tenor David Pomeroy, a former COC Ensemble Studio member who has gone on to a fine career, is giving his recital debut at the Glenn Gould Studio on Sunday Feb. 24 2 pm as part of the Canadian Voices series. I don't have program details at the moment but David will be singing songs by Handel, Beethoven, Duparc, Quilter, and De Curtis.  Sandra Horst is at the piano. I wonder if he's going to sing a Newfoundland ditty or two as encores - just wondering...

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Monday, 11 February 2013

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 11 - 17)

German bass Franz Josef Selig sings a recital of Schubert and Strauss (Photo: Anne Hoffmann)

The Canadian Opera Company's winter season continues this week with Tristan und Isolde (Thurs. Feb. 14 and Sunday Feb. 17) and La clemenza di Tito (Monday Feb. 11 and Saturday Feb. 16). Tristan has turned out to be the jewel of the crown in the COC season, thanks to the exceptional vocalism of Ben Heppner, and the wonderful playing of the COC Orchestra under the baton of COC Music Director Johannes Debus. Similarly, the singing in Tito is exceptionally fine. Tickets for the Monday performance of Tito are offered at reduced prices - call the box office or go online to for details.  Of particular interest to opera fans is the noon hour recital given by German bass Franz-Josef Selig on Tuesday Feb. 12, in a program of Schubert and Strauss. COC's Rachel Andrist is at the piano. Selig has one of the most impressive bass of our time, an enormous and imposing sound that is a cross between Rene Pape and Matti Salminen. It's not often that one gets to hear a bass voice in recital, so this is not to be missed.  On Thursday Feb. 14, to celebrate Valentine's Day, members of the COC Ensemble Studio and the OdeM Atelier lyrique join forces to present a noon hour recital Vive l'amour! This is a great chance for Toronto audiences to hear the Atelier lyrique singers. No program details of the two concerts are available on the COC website at this time. Both recitals at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre. Be sure to show up an hour ahead for a seat.

Soprano Erin Wall leads a strong quartet of soloists in TSO's Beethoven 9th Symphony

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a perennial favourite - Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, with a superb quartet of soloists, soprano Erin Wall, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor Joseph Kaiser, and bass-baritone Shenyang. Young British conductor Matthew Halls is at the helm. Three performances at Roy Thomson Hall, on Wednesday Feb. 13, Friday Feb. 15, and Saturday Feb. 16, all at 8 pm.

Gabriela Montero returns to Toronto for an evening with Music Toronto

One of the most unusual - and brilliant - classical pianists of our time is Venezuelan Gabriela Montero. Not only is she a superb pianist, her real-time improvisation based on audience input makes her a unique artist in the world of classical piano. Montero is making a welcome return to Toronto with a concert under the auspices of Music Toronto, in a program of Brahms and Schumann plus her trademark improvisation. Tuesday Feb. 12 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre.

COC Music Director Johannes Debus leads the RCM Orchestra in Mahler and Handel

COC Music Director Johannes Debus is likely the busiest conductors around town. Not only is he leading the revival of Tristan und Isolde, he conducted a Mozart concert at the TSO in January and he's leading the Royal Conservatory of Music Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, paired with Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks. Friday Feb. 15 at Koerner Hall.

For followers of the Met in HD events, this Saturday brings a new production of Verdi's Rigoletto. Director Michael Mayer resituates the story to Las Vegas in 1960! The is likely the boldest Regietheater yet attempted by the Met. Authentic? No.... Entertaining? Yes! Zeljko Lucic sings Rigoletto, Diana Damrau is Gilda, and Piotr Beczala is the Duke of Mantua. Be sure to consult your local Cineplex listing for show locations. The Met in HD sells very well in the Toronto area, so you may have to settle for the encore, but there are always returns.

- Joseph So

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Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Sacred Spirit of Russia in Texas

Craig Hella Johnson and soloists of the Conspirare Company of Voices

Music by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Gretchaninoff, Kastalsky, Martynov, Ippolitov-Ivanov and others
Conspirare Company of Voices
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor
St. Martin’s Lutheran Church
Austin, Texas
February 2, 2013

St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in downtown Austin was miraculously transformed into a Russian Cathedral last weekend as Conspirare presented a concert of Russian Orthodox liturgical music. It was astonishing to hear the 41 voices of the Company of Voices singing their hearts out with total command of both the language and the style of the music.

Conspirare’s artistic director and conductor, Craig Hella Johnson, (photo: right) has boundless imagination when it comes to programming; once again, he presented Austin audiences with some unusual and deeply satisfying musical nourishment.

The Russian Orthodox Church dates back to the Tenth Century (988 A.D.) and has its roots in the Byzantine form of Christianity. For much of its history, the music written for the Russian Orthodox Liturgy was required to be ‘a cappella,’ or unaccompanied. The music we heard in this concert was entirely ‘a cappella,’ and while some of it made use of the ancient Znamenny chants, most of it was written within the last 125 years. Stylistically, it is conservative as one might expect from a church so steeped in tradition; nonetheless, it was surprisingly varied and totally engrossing.

As Always, Meticulous Preparation
One of the world’s leading authorities on Russian liturgical music, Vladimir Morosan, acted as program advisor and consultant for this concert. He gave a pre-concert talk before last weekend’s concerts, and also wrote notes for the program book, which point out that over time “Russian church singing was enriched by stylistic borrowings from the Polish Baroque, the Italian stile antico, Viennese classicism, and German Romanticism,” and that women were finally allowed to sing in Russian Orthodox Cathedrals at the beginning of the 1880s.

Conspirare concerts often begin with a choral processional from the back of the church to the performing space in front of the altar. This somewhat theatrical device is entirely appropriate in a church and it was used to great effect in this concert of Russian sacred music.

What a way to begin a concert! It was thrilling to hear Tchaikovsky’s “Come, Let Us Worship,” surrounded by the singers. This happened again with even greater success later in the concert as the choir members sang from opposite sides of the church in an ecstatic performance of Gretchaninoff’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the “Sunday Communion Hymn” by Pavel Chesnokov.

There was music on the program by only one living composer, Vladimir Martynov (photo: right). Martynov was born in Moscow in 1946 and has had an interesting and varied career. Early on he dabbled in serialism and later started a rock group. He was then attracted to minimalism and from the 1980s on, he devoted himself to writing music for the Russian Orthodox Church. His best-known work is “The Beatitudes,” a piece that exists in many versions, including one for string quartet recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Nonesuch. 

The version we heard in Austin for three soprano soloists and ‘a cappella’ chorus, performed by the Company of Voices, was extraordinarily beautiful. The voices of the soloists soared and the choir provided a hummed background in perfect balance. Conspirare is recording this concert for release by Harmonia Mundi. I would venture to add that if they wanted to go in that direction, I am sure “The Beatitudes” could easily become a ‘hit single’ as a download.

Low Notes a Highlight!
One of the highlights of the concert was certainly Chesnokov’s “Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age,” a deeply affecting plea by a frail, elderly man for God’s help at a time when he fears his enemies will take advantage of his vulnerability. Chesnokov composed the piece for a basso profondo solo voice with choir, and the soloist is required to sing some of the lowest notes ever written for the human voice. Amazingly, Conspirare had just the man for the job - Glenn Miller, Director of Music and Organist at Kirk in the Hills (Bloomfield Hills, Michigan). Mr. Miller hit each note with accuracy and the most sonorous expression one could imagine.

Low bass notes are not unknown in classical music; perhaps the lowest ever written by an Eighteenth Century composer is to be found in Osmin’s part in Mozart opera’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” Mozart wrote a D almost two octaves below middle C. More than a century later, Mahler called for an even lower note –  a B flat more than two octaves below middle C. Chesnokov’s extraordinary piece has a C exactly two octaves below middle C.

One of the qualities that has long distinguished Russian choirs is the ‘blackness’ of the bass section. Basses in Russian choirs seem to be able to sing lower than their counterparts in other countries. This is one reason – another would be the difficulty of the language – that American choirs rarely sound convincing in this repertoire. But thanks to Mr. Miller and his colleagues in the Company of Voices, the concert of Russian sacred music we heard in Austin last week had exactly the unearthly Russian sound that the music requires.

"The Sacred  Spirit of Russia” was a glorious experience for me. I suspect that for many listeners in the audience at St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin last week, it was a jaw-dropping introduction to a rich tradition of inspiring and uplifting music.

For something more…
Vladimir Morosan has built a large collection of Russian choral scores and made many of them available as sheet music published by Musica Russica. Much of this music is available for sale on his website along with a wide range of recordings of Russian choral literature.

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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Monday, 4 February 2013

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 4 - 10)

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 4 - 10)

- Joseph So

Ben Heppner and Melanie Diener in COC's Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Michael Cooper)

This past week and the upcoming couple of weeks represent true nirvana for Toronto opera fans. The Canadian Opera Company's winter season is in full swing with Tristan und Isolde and La clemenza di Tito. I saw the opening Tristan and it turned out to be a truly memorable night at the opera.  Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, in great voice, finally got to sing his signature role in his adopted home town of Toronto. Making her role debut as Isolde, German soprano Melanie Diener proved that her voice is perfect for Isolde.  I heard her as Fiordiligi and more recently as the Marschallin, but to jump from that rep to Wagner is really quite daunting. But she proved on opening night that she is already an Isolde of one's dreams, singing with gleaming tone. Her stage presence is aristocratic and full of womanly warmth. Vocally she was tireless, the last note as beautiful and opulent as her first. Franz Josef Selig was a huge voiced King Marke and American baritone Alan Held a terrific Kurwenal. Conductor Johannes Debus, in his first T&I with only eight weeks notice, conducted like an old hand, coaxing torrents of gorgeous sound from the COC Orchestra. It was an evening I won't soon forget.  

Keri Alkema (Vitellia) and Isabel Leonard (Sesto) in La clemenza di Tito (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the opening of La clemenza di Tito, and it was equally memorable. Top vocal honours belonged to American mezzo Isabel Leonard as an incredible Sesto - great Parto, parto. Her excellence was matched by the others in the cast, notably Canadian tenor Michael Schade, newly slimmed down and sounding his old Mozartian self, as a dramatically riveting Tito. American soprano Keri Alkema, last heard locally as Giulietta in Hoffmann, outdid herself as a tremendous Vitellia. Former COC Ensemble member mezzo Wallis Giunta exuded star power in the supporting role of Annio, and current Ensemble soprano Mireille Asselin made a lovable Servilia. Bass Robert Gleadow, in full Roman military drag, was an imposing Publio. Fast-rising Israeli conductor Daniel Cohen, all of 29 years old, conducted an extremely impressive performance of this Mozart masterpiece. He did not allow space for applause after some of the arias, making sure the music was not impeded, at the same time he allowed daringly long pauses in important dramatic moments. The audience was generally well behaved, although at the end a few in the audience showed their displeasure towards the creative team, mostly Christopher Alden. Seeing these two terrific shows at the COC in quick succession makes me feel so lucky to be living in Toronto. Absolutely not to be missed - Tristan und Isolde (Feb. 8 at 6:30 pm with alternate cast of Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray); La clemenza di Tito (Feb. 7 and 9 at 7:30 pm).  

Additionally, a special performance with artists from the COC Ensemble Studio is on for Wednesday Feb. 6, with mezzo Rihab Chaieb (Sesto), Christopher Enns/Owen McCausland (Tito), Ambur Braid (Vitellia), Sasha Djihanian (Annio), Claire de Sevigny (Servilia), and Neil Craighead (Publio). This is a great chance to hear these stars of tomorrow.  All performances at the Four Seasons Centre.

German tenor Michael Baba as Tristan und Isolde on Feb. 8

American soprano Margaret Jane Wray makes her COC debut as Isolde (Photo:

Two notable events this week at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. American pianist, harpsichordist and conductor Stephen B. Hargreaves presents Variations on 1930, an intriguing program of Copland, Britten and Kodaly to Art Tatum's transcription of Tea for Two (Tues. Feb. 5).   On Thurs. Feb. 7, Albanian-Canadian pianist Rudin Lengo plays Liszt and Mussorgsky. Program details at  Be sure to show up an hour ahead to ensure a seat. 

With the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in hiatus this week, there is less symphonic offerings than usual. Tafelmusik has an unusual event this week, a special screening of the 1984 music Amadeus at their usual venue of Trinity St Paul's Centre on Friday Feb. 8 at 7 pm. It is labeled as Director's Cut, with Tafelmusik cellist Allen Whear as speaker. They are offering free pop corn but bring your own blanket and lawn chair!

For years, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music has been presenting "Opera Tea" in the afternoon, an informal event of opera scenes and arias with U of T students. On Sunday Feb. 10 2:30 pm at the MacMillan Theatre, baritone Russell Braun is conducting - yes, conducting instead of singing! - von Flotow's Martha. I don't know who the artists are but I am betting on the excellent tenor Andrew Haji singing "Ach so fromm" which he has sung so beautifully in the past. He is joining the COC Ensemble Studio for the 2013-14 season.

The Toronto Masque Theatre is presenting Les Roses de la Vie, a cabaret evening of music, song, poetry, film and movement, "evoking the magic and beauty of Paris."  It features tenor Colin Ainsworth, sopranos Teri Dunn and Agnes Zsigovics. Unfortunately the event is sold out but do call for returns.

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