La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 31 March 2013

This Week in Toronto (April 1 - 7)

Tenor Colin Ainsworth sings Tamino in Opera Atelier's The Magic Flute (Photo: Kevin Clark)

Opera Atelier, Canada'a premiere baroque opera company, opens its spring season with a perennial favourite, Mozart's The Magic Flute. The cast is a strong one, with a mix of Canadian and visiting guest artists.  Tamino is tenor Colin Ainsworth, who was so impressive in the recent staged avant-garde song cycle, Janacek's Diary of One Who Disappeared put on by Against The Grain Theatre. Pamina is former COC Ensemble Studio soprano Laura Albino. Rising star dramatic coloratura Ambur Braid with her extraordinary high register is Queen of the Night, a role she has previously sung in the special Ensemble performance of the COC.  (Look out for my article on her in the Spring issue of Opera Canada, to come out in early April.) Baritone Olivier Laquerre is the birdcatcher Papageno. Sarastro is Portuguese bass Joao Fernandes. David Fallis leads the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. The opera is presented in English with English dialogues - while this might offend some purists, but it does make the piece more accessible. In any case there will be English surtitles. It opens at the Elgin Theatre on Saturday April 6 at 7:30 pm, with a second performance on Sunday at 3 pm.
Soprano Ambur Braid sings Queen of the Night

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra swings back into action this week with two programs - a light classics show and one for kids. April 2 8 pm and April 3 (2 pm and 8 pm), the TSO is presenting a program on the Music from James Bond films, including Goldfinger, From Russia with Love, Diamonds are Forever etc. John Morris Russell conducts.  On Saturday April 6 at 1:30 and 3:30 pm, there are two Young Peoples Concerts suitable for children from 5 to 12. For more details, go to

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker gives recital in Markham

On April 2nd 8 pm, Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker is appearing at the Markham Theatre (now officially the Flato Markham Theatre) in Doing Rite by Stravinsky, obviously a play on words re Rite of Spring. It features Parker's own arrangement of the Stravinsky work. For a taste, go to  Also on the program is Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

Pianist Vestard Shimkus and soprano Elina Shimkus

The Toronto Latvian Concert Association is presenting the Canadian debuts of husband-wife team of Vestard Shimkus, pianist, and Elina Shimkus, soprano on April 3 at 7:30 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio.  The first half of the program will feature Vestard Shimkus in works by Richard Wagner, Janis Medins, Peteris Vasks and a new work composed by the pianist himself. The second half of the concert will feature soprano Elina Shimkus in works by Janis Medins, Lucija Garuta, Jazeps Medins, Jazeps Vitols, W.A. Mozart and G. Rossini.  This is a chance for Torontonians to discover these two artists new to Canada.
The tenors (Fraser Walters, Victor Micallef, Remigio Pereira, Clifton Murray)

The Tenors (once billed as the Canadian Tenors) is a Canadian phenomenon.  I admit I am familiar with only one of them, Victor Micallef who was once a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, and I heard his Tamino.  The other three are Fraser Walters, Remigio Pereira and Clifton Murray. They all have pleasant voices and engaging personalities. These guys will appear at Roy Thomson Hall on April 4 8 pm.  If cross-over is your thing, don't miss this concert.

Baritone Doug MacNaughton

On Monday 7 pm April 1st at Walter Hall, and on his 75th birthday, long time distinguished U of T professor of piano William Aide will give a recital of Beethoven Sonata Op. 10 no. 3 and the Chopin B minor Sonata. Joining him will be baritone Doug MacNaughton in Walter Buczynski's Letter to a Musical Friend, set to the poetry by Aide.

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Thursday, 28 March 2013

In Focus: Alwyn Mellor

Curtain Call of Siegfried from the Opera Bastille Paris with Alwyn Mellor (Brunnhilde) and Torsten Kerl (Siegfried)

Soprano Alwyn Mellor receiving audience accolades after Siegfried

Opera world's newest Brunnhilde shares her thoughts on singing Wagner

by Joseph So

The Wagnerian voice holds a special place in the hearts of opera lovers. An ideal Wagner soprano must possess an instrument of beauty, volume, dramatic expression and communicative power, not to mention sheer stamina to get through some of the longest roles ever written. She's also expected to bring out the inherent poetry in the text, and to make flesh and blood out of the many complex and nuanced characters she sings, be it Senta, Sieglinde, Isolde or Brunnhilde.  Given the daunting challenges, it's no wonder the list of fine Wagnerian sopranos is lamentably short. To that select company one can now add the name of soprano Alwyn Mellor.  A native of Lancashire,  Mellor studied at the Royal Northern College of Music and began her career at the Welsh National Opera.  She started her career as a Mozartian - I recall hearing her as a lovely Fiordiligi and Contessa at the Santa Fe Opera back in the late 1990's. Subsequently, Toronto audiences was introduced to her Donna Elvira with the COC. She was also an impressive Chrysothemis in Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre in 2007. By the time she sang the Strauss opera, one could hear that her full lyric voice had expanded beyond the confines of Mozart and had the potential of bigger things to come. Within a few short seasons, Mellor has re-invented herself as a Wagnerian soprano, singing her first Walkure Brunnhilde at the Longborough Festival in 2010, receiving excellent notices in the Daily Telegraph. It was soon followed by Isolde, the Siegfried Brunnhilde, and a concert performance of the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde. Critics praised her powerful vocalism and sympathetic stage presence.  Thanks to the wonders of the internet, the audio of the complete March 16 performance of Die Walkure can be accessed at  A video clip of the dress rehearsal of her Liebestod can be found at
Soprano Alwyn Mellor

Originally scheduled as the alternate Brunnhilde in the revival of Die Walkure and Siegfried at Opera Bastille this spring, the withdrawal of soprano Janice Baird led to Mellor taking on all fourteen performances over a two month period. It was a major career breakthrough for the British soprano, who is scheduled to bring her Brunnhilde across the pond to the Seattle Opera for three cycles of the Ring in August. Reviewing a performance of the Bastille Die Walkure, critic Henning Hoholt from called her Brunnhilde "oustanding," "powerful," "beautiful" and "warm."  During an intense rehearsal period back in February, I caught up with Alwyn Mellor via Skype for a chat. I asked her for her thoughts on singing Brunnhilde and on her career:

LSM: Congratulations on this big news!  Seven Walkure and seven Siegfried Brunnhildes - what a fantastic career breakthrough!  Fourteen performances in two months is a lot isn’t it?

AM:  Thank you. Yes it’s a lot, but I think it’s going to be a good warm- up for me for the Ring in Seattle. 

LSM: Does this mean your Mozart and Verdi days are over?
AM:  Not in every case, no.  But the last couple of years it’s been a lot of Wagner. It’s been good for me, building up my stamina for the Ring.  I still want to sing other repertoires because I am still quite young for the Wagner rep - I want to be able to sing for a long time!  I am going to do more Puccini and Strauss.  The problem is once you start to sing Wagner, this is what people want to book you for…

LSM: Let’s talk a little about your vocal transition. When I first saw you in Santa Fe, you were the Countess in Nozze and Alice in Falstaff. What made you decide to make the transition to the Wagnerian repertoire?
AM: It wasn’t a conscious decision but a natural development. I knew this would be the rep I would sing one day but I didn’t know when would be the right time.  I took time and did it gradually over the years, singing bigger and bigger things, trying out certain things to see if it’s the right time. I still think I am singing this repertoire as a lyric.  I feel this is not the end, not the only thing I can sing in my career.

LSM: So you consider yourself a full lyric instead of a dramatic soprano?
AM: Yes, I would say so… other people may hear something else. I still try to think of myself as (a lyric voice).  My voice is flexible and has what I need to do this repertoire at the moment.

LSM: Do you still sing Ariadne?
AM: I haven’t done it for several years but I would still sing Ariadne. Also Chrysothemis, and I’d love to sing the Kaiserin as well.

LSM: Ah, Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Do you find the center of your voice moving higher?
AM: Well, in certain ways… but the middle and lower middle parts of the voice have developed, and I managed to keep the top as well. Like with the Walkure, it lies quite low except for the Ho-jo-to-ho, and it feels more comfortable than when I first did it two years ago. 

LSM: Do you work with a voice teacher during your transition?
AM: Yes, I go to a teacher in Venice.  His name is Sherman Lowe, an American based in Venice. He also teaches my friend Susan Bullock. We did Elektra together in Toronto.  It was the beginning of the big change for me repertoire-wise.

LSM: Tell us your thoughts on singing Brunnhilde. You’ve done Walkure and Siegfried, but have you sung Goetterdammerung?
AM:  I've done Gotterdammerung in concert in Gothenberg with Kent Nagano. It was performed over 2 nights. 

LSM: Of the three Brunnhildes, who is your favourite? Or do you have one?
AM:  This is very difficult... because they are so different. As a most complete work, the best written vocally, I have to say it’s the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde.

LSM: Do you find the Goetterdammerung Brunnhilde the most difficult, the most strenuous?
AM: In a way, yes. But because I haven’t done it on stage, it is difficult to judge. It’s the most demanding, because of the extremes of the character. We see a Brunnhilde we never saw before, and (singing her) takes a lot out of you. And the vocal writing is very different. In a way it’s the best written for the voice, the most even. Walkure, except for the 'Ho-jo-to-ho', it’s quite low, while Siegfried is in the high end of the voice. Goetterdammerung is written in a good place vocally. Most sopranos who sing Brunnhilde find it easiest.

LSM: You have 14 performances, and in Seattle you’ll have 9 performances. How do you keep up your stamina?
AM: I don’t know… you have to ask me that after Seattle! (laughs)  This is a big year for me…I’m on unknown territory. I have to take each thing as it comes, and to make sure I get lots of rest, look after myself.  The performance is the most important thing - the audiences pay to come to hear us sing, and they want to see you at your best. My plan is to take care of myself.

LSM:  What about Brunnhilde as a character?  Do you feel you relate to the mythical Brunnhilde as a woman?
AM: That’s an interesting question. I think you’ll always find something of yourself in the character you portray. I think Brunnhilde has the most enormous journey as a person, starting as a young teenage girl in Walkure. By the end of  Walkure she has already experienced a lot. In Siegfried she wakes up as a woman instead of a god. In Goetterdammerung, we can see she’s a woman with a lot of pain and lots of anger. You have to draw on things from yourself, but you have to think of the bigger picture as well. I have studied all three, and it’s good to know what the journey is.  I think you have to draw on some of yourself, and also have to remember that she isn’t just one person, she has this enormous development during the Ring.

LSM: I’ve always loved the Walkure Brunnhilde.  In Goetterdammerung, she has a side that’s vengeful and angry in Act 2 that can be a little off-putting. She’s no longer the perfect heroine, is she?
AM: No, she’s not. Sometimes none of us are perfect and we are affected by different things that happened to us in life. She has good reason to feel like that, but I think as an audience we don’t like to see her like that because it’s not the Brunnhilde we’ve seen before. At the end of Siegfried, life is good and it’ll continue that way but we know that’s not true!  A lot of bad things are done to her and she’s completely betrayed.

LSM: Is the Bastille Ring your first complete cycle?
AM: No, Seattle will be, as I am not doing Goetterdammerung here because I’ll be in Seattle. 

LSM: Who is your Siegfried and your conductor in Paris? Have you worked with them before?
AM: It’s Torsten Kerl - no I haven't worked with him before. The conductor is Philippe Jordan, the Music Director at the Bastille. I worked with him 16 years ago - we did the Merry Widow together in Dublin. Our lives changed a lot since then!

LSM: Anything I've forgotten to ask you?
AM: I did Sieglinde for the first time last year.  I am happy to have both roles in Walkure, as it would be nice to do Sieglinde sometimes instead of Brunnhilde.  I love the music for Sieglinde - it's so beautiful.

LSM: Any plans to return to the COC?  You are fondly remembered for your Chrysothemis and Elvira...
AM: It would be great to come back - it's under discussion. I hope so...

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Monday, 25 March 2013

This Week in Toronto (March 25 - 31)

Esprit Orchestra gives the Finale concert of its 30th anniversary season (Photo: )

This being Easter and Passover Week, there are actually fewer "core" musical events, if you don't count the large number of Easter-associated concerts, made up mostly of Baroque and oratorio repertoires. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, for example, is dark.  However, there are still enough interesting events to keep music lovers occupied.  One concert of note is the finale of the Esprit Orchestra's 30th anniversary season, on March 28 8 pm at Koerner Hall.  This orchestra under the direction of Alex Pauk is a champion of new music in Canada. On the program will be pieces by Denis Gougeon, Erik Ross, Zosha di Castri, Marius Constant, and Jimi Hendrix. The Gougeon and Ross pieces are Esprit Commissions and World Premieres. The concert features Wallace Hallady on the saxophone and Ryan Scott on percussion.  For more information, go to the Esprit website at or the Koerner Hall website at

Composer Benjamin Britten

This being a special commemorative year for British composer Benjamin Britten, his music is liberally featured on many occasions. On Tuesday March 26 noon at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, artists from the University of Toronto Faculty of Music under the musical direction of Steven Philcox will present, as part of the noon hour Vocal Series,  Songs of Enchantment: A Britten Celebration. Voice and Collaborative Piano students will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Britten with his songs. The complete recital program can be found at   On Thursday noon, 14-year old Tony Yike Yang, one of a seemingly endless line of phenomenal piano wunderkinder, will get to strut his stuff in Feux d'artifice, a program of Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and Ginastera. Yang is a winner of the Bosendorfer International Piano competition, as well as the RCM Piano Concerto Competition.  Here is a sample of Yang's playing the Mozart piano concerto No. 20 available on Youtube  His program at RBA can be found at

Composer Christos Hatzis (Photo: 

The music of U of T Composition faculty member Christos Hatzis will be performed by the Gryphon Trio and the Penderecki String Quartet, including works from Constantinople and String Quartet No. 2 (The Gathering). Also included on the program is the premiere of On a Whim by Laura Silberberg. Monday 7 pm at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building on the campus of University of Toronto. 

Countertenor Daniel Taylor leads the U of T Schola Cantorum 

Countertenor Daniel Taylor, now on the U of T music faculty since last fall, will be directing the U of T Schola Cantorum and Theatre of Early Music in Jesu meines lebens leben, a concert featuring works by Buxtehude, Nicolaus Bruhns, and Johann Kuhnau. The concert takes place Sunday at the Trinity College Chapel, 6 Hoskin Avenue at 7:30 pm.

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Friday, 22 March 2013

Maestro Peter Bay/ASO: Heroic, Soaring Sibelius Second!

by Paul E. Robinson

Maestro Peter Bay (photo by Marita)

Beethoven: Leonore No. 2 Overture
Ginastera: Harp Concerto Op. 25
Sibelius: Symphony No. 2

Yolanda Kondonassis, harp
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay

Austin, Texas
March 8, 2013

It’s not often that one hears a harp soloist with a symphony orchestra. There are good reasons for that; most importantly, it is not a fair fight. The harp by nature can produce only a modest amount of sound, and is easily drowned out by even the smallest orchestra. The sound a harp makes is produced by the fingerpicking of strings and even a player with strong fingers can do only so much. Guitar sound is similarly limited. While in modern times, harp (and guitar) soloists have sometimes chosen to amplify their instruments, purists frown on this solution.

Ideal Compositional Textures Showcase Harp 
In Austin last week, Cleveland-based harpist Yolanda Kondonassis (photo: right) presented Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, one of few frequently performed harp concertos. There was no amplification and thanks to Ginastera’s very clever orchestration and conductor Peter Bay’s command of balances, the audience had no problem hearing the harp.

Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983) is Argentina’s foremost composer. Much of his music makes use of folkloric elements from his native country, but his compositional techniques were often extremely complex and experimental. Ginastera was also innovative in his use of percussion instruments. All these elements come into play in the Harp Concerto, and as mentioned earlier, Ginastera was unusually successful in creating ideal textures for showcasing the harp.

The first and last movements are full of sparkling colors and rhythmic ingenuity and Kondonassis played brilliantly. The slow movement, however, is to my mind the great weakness of this concerto. It seems to go on forever – aimlessly – and the harp cadenza that follows it does not really provide much of an opportunity for the soloist to shine.

Fidelio Overtures: No Contest?
The concert opened with another installment in conductor Peter Bay’s traversal of all four overtures written by Beethoven for his opera Fidelio. This concept is interesting in theory but not so successful in practice. Audiences can’t really appreciate how the composer rewrote and reorganized the thematic material unless the overtures are played back to back. Also, if the truth be told, the Leonore No. 3 Overture is Beethoven’s last word on the subject and far superior to any of the others; the Leonore No. 2 played at this concert sounds like a failed experiment by comparison.

Sibelius Performed with Joy and Conviction
The main work of the evening, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, was given a wonderful performance. It is curious how this composer’s reputation has ebbed and flowed. In his lifetime he was a veritable colossus, recognized almost universally as the greatest living symphonist. Then, in the latter part of the Twentieth Century his reputation faded and his music was consigned to the fringes of the repertoire.

I must confess that I have always been an ardent Sibelian. There are elements of Tchaikovsky in his early works, but on the whole, Sibelius was unique in his expression and in his compositional techniques. The Second Symphony is a case in point; the “vamping” in the strings at the beginning is fresh and unexpected, and the way Sibelius weaves the various motives of the movement into the recapitulation is inspired. Consider, as well, the lovely little cello solo in the Trio of the Scherzo. The joining of the Scherzo to the Finale is Beethovenian in its grandeur and the cumulative effect of the ostinato building to a magnificent peroration is still a wonder to the ears. Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony put this all this together with joy and conviction. The brass was heroic and the strings soared. Douglas Harvey (photo: right) was exemplary in his cello solo.

For Something More…
For lovers of Ginastera’s music, an important addition to his discography has just been released. The Pierian Recording Society (Pierian 0048) has given us two first recordings of major Ginastera compositions: the Concierto “Argentino” and the original version of the Piano Concerto No. 2. The soloist in both works is Barbara Nissman, with the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Kiesler. This CD also contains Ginastera’s Piano Concerto No. 1. All the performances are authoritative; Barbara Nissman has long been associated with the music of Ginastera and is the dedicatee of his final work, the Sonata No. 3.

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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Thursday, 21 March 2013

In Memoriam: Rise Stevens (July 11 1913 - March 20 2013)

Mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens (July 11th 1913 - March 20th 2013)

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jean-Willy Kunz Named Organist-in-Residence at the MSO

by/par Christine Lee

Jean-Willy Kunz:  Organist-in-Residence at the MSO
Nominated by a selection committee via a three-part audition, Jean-Willy Kunz will be the first Organist-in-Residence at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. In the first stage, Kunz charmed the audience with music from his native country, France, with a 30 minute organ recital at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church. At the Maison Symphonique, Kunz, joined on stage by concertmaster Andrew Wan, realized the imposed figured bass with such musicality that left the audience wondering if he was sight reading at all! In the final stage, organist, conductor and MSO musicians moved as one in two imposed ensemble pieces. Kunz’s ability to perform as a soloist and chamber musician was stunning.

Jean-Willy Kunz : Organiste-en-Résidence à l’OSM
Nominé par un comité de sélection à travers une audition publique en trois partie, Jean-Willy Kunz est nommé Organiste-en Résidence à l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. Durant la première épreuve, Kunz charme le publique avec une musique de son pays natale, la France, avec un réciatl d’orgue de 30minutes à l’Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Par la suite, à la Maison Symphonique, Kunz accompagne premier violon Andrew Wan avec la réalisation d’une basse continue imposée d’une telle musicalité que le publique se doutait c’était vraiment du déchiffrage. Pour la dernière épreuve, l’organiste, le chef ainsi que les musiciens jouaient comme un seul être dans les deux pièces imposées. Kunz se démarque comme soliste, et chambriste exceptionel.

Press Release


Montreal, March 18, 2013 – The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is happy to announced the nomination of Jean-Willy Kunz to the position of organist in residence. This nomination concludes an extended selection process led by a committee created specifically for the occasion. It also marks an important step towards the inauguration of the Grand Orgue Pierre Béique, which will take place on May 28, 2014 and will close the 2013-2014 season.

In addition to playing with the Orchestra during the season, Jean-Willy Kunz and will see to the development and the showcasing of the Grand Orgue Pierre Béique, notably through the coordination of concerts and organ recitals along with outreach activities. His mandate will also be to make this magnificent instrument better known thanks to programs designed to heighten awareness among the general public, young listeners and the upcoming generation (graduate students). He will answer questions of a technical nature from guest organists and partners and will be responsible for maintenance of the instrument in collaboration with Casavant Frères. The organist in residence is expected to take up his duties (2-year mandate) in November 2013.

Over 500 people attended the final auditions held at église Saint-Jean-Baptiste and at Maison symphonique de Montréal on Sunday, March 17.


Jean-Willy Kunz discovered the piano and the organ with Joseph Coppey at the Conservatoire de Grenoble and later studied organ with Louis Robilliard at the Conservatoire de Lyon. At the conclusion of his classical studies he expanded his activities and studied jazz piano with Mario Stantchev at the Conservatoire de Lyon and founded a saxophone-organduo with Frédéric Lagoutte. He returned to classical studies, in organ and harpsichord, with Mireille Lagacé at the Conservatoire de Montréal, and in 2011 completed his doctorate in organ performance with John Grew at McGill University.
Mr. Kunz earned second prize at the Concours international d’orgue in Chartres in 2008, as well as third prize and the Richard Bradshaw Audience Prize at the Canadian International Organ Competition in Montreal in 2011. He now divides his time between organ recitals, teaching a course in analysis and harmony at Université de Montréal,and concerts with the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec (where he is organist) and with the Caprice ensemble (where he is harpsichordist and organist).

Created specifically with the mandate of selecting the organist in residence of the OSM, the selection committee is made up of specialists in the organ field and of recognized musicians:

Kent Nagano, music director of the OSM
Pierre Grandmaison, tenured organist for the organs of Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal
John Grew, organist at McGill University and artistic director of the Summer Organ Academy
Olivier Latry, tenured organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and OSM organist emeritus
Jaquelin Rochette, artistic director of Casavant Frères
Noël Spinelli, cofounder of the Canadian International Organ Competition
Patrick Wedd, music director and organist at Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal

As organist emeritus, Olivier Latry’s duties will consist of performing with the Orchestra as soloist or presenting a recital annually, in addition to serving as music consultant for all organ programming. Moreover, he will evaluate the condition of the instrument on an annual basis.

The Grand Orgue Pierre Béique

The Maison symphonique de Montréal organ, which will be INAUGURATED ON MAY 28, 2014was designed and built on behalf of the OSM by the house of Casavant with the collaboration of architects Diamond Schmitt + Ædifica for its visual design, and will be the Orchestra’s property. This is a large organ intended for orchestral use, and is recorded in the books of the Saint-Hyacinthe builder as Opus 3,900. It consists of 109 registers, 83 stops, 116 ranks and 6,489 pipes.

It bears the name Grand Orgue Pierre Béique in tribute to the OSM founder and first general manager (from 1939 to 1970). An astute administrator and a committed music lover, Pierre Béique took over from Mrs. Athanase David, who had acted, since 1934, as secretary of the Board of Directors of the Société des concerts symphoniques de Montréal, the forerunner of the OSM.

The purchase of this organ was made possible courtesy of Mrs. Jacqueline Desmarais, who assumed the total cost and wished to perpetuate, through its name, the memory of Mr. Pierre Béique’s irreplaceable contribution to the OSM’s mission of excellence.

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The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal wishes to thank
Loto-Québec, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts de Montréal for their generous support.

Information: 514 842-9951 or

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is presented by Hydro-Québec.

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Sunday, 17 March 2013

This Week in Toronto (March 18 - 24)

Violinist Karen Gomyo plays Lalo with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo:

When it comes to classical music events this week, the cup truly runneth over, with multiple events happening at the same time at the more popular time slots like Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.  Top on my list is the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's two programs. On March 20 8 pm and 21 2 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, the TSO is presenting a program of Ravel, Lalo and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, with violinist Karen Gomyo as the soloist in Lalo's Symphonie espagnole.  TSO Conductor Laureate Andrew Davis makes one of his welcome returns to conduct. On Saturday March 23 7:30 pm and Sunday March 24 3 pm, Pianist Charles Richard Hamelin, winner of the 2011 TSO National Piano Competition, is playing the ever-popular Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. The rest of the program is chockfull of chestnuts - Wagner's Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin, and overtures to Fidelio and Don Giovanni, Suite No. 1 from Peer Gynt, and Sibelius' FinlandiaMelanie Leonard, Montreal native and Resident Conductor of the Calgary Philharmonic, is at the helm.

Glenn Gould School, the professional arm of the Royal Conservatory of Music, is presenting Mozart's Don Giovanni on March 20 and 22, 7 pm at Koerner Hall. Uri Mayer conducts the RCM Orchestra; Ashlie Corcoran is the stage director and Camellia Koo the set designer. The soloists are voice students of the GGS. 
Baritone James Westman sings Athanael in Thais (Photo: Dario Acosta)

Voice Box, formerly known as Opera In Concert, is presenting its final production this season, Massenet's Thais on March 24 2:30 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre. Soprano Laura Whalen is Thais, baritone James Westman sings Athanael, and tenor Adam Fisher is Nicias. This opera is hardly ever done, so a concert version is probably closest we're going to get in Toronto. The pianist is Raisa Nakhmanovich, and I am happy to see that the all-important Meditation, probably the most famous violin solo in the world, won't be played on a piano, but by violinist Carolina Herrera Sanchez!

Mezzo Wallis Giunta at Glenn Gould Studio (Photo: Barbara Stoneham)

As part of the Canadian Voices series, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, former member of the COC Ensemble and now a member of the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artists program, is giving a solo recital at the Glenn Gould Studio on March 24 at 2 pm. Ken Noda is the collaborative pianist. I'm not able to find program details. Unfortunately it clashes time-wise with the OIC Thais.

Yet another clash is the recital given by pianist Jonathan Biss, March 24 Koerner Hall 3 pm.  He is currently on a tour that takes him to San Francisco, Calgary, Costa Mesa as well as Toronto. He is playing a program of Schumann, Berg and Janacek.

Pianist Georgy Tchaidze plays with Cecilia String Quartet (Photo: Honens International Piano Competition)

Pianist Georgy Tchaidze, Laureate of the Honens International Piano Competition, will appear with the Cecilia String Quartet on March 23 7:30 pm at RCM's Mazzoleni Hall for an evening of chamber and solo pieces, including the Piano Quintet by Cesar Franck.

Canadian pianist Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa is giving a recital under the auspices of Music Toronto on Tuesday March 19 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre.  She had previously appeared in the Music Toronto Discovery Series. She is playing an eclectic program of classic (Mozart and Beethoven) and new music (Jeffrey Ryan, Lisa Cay Miller, Gregory Newsome, Rodney Sharman). The Sharman piece is particularly intriguing - a transcription of Tristan und Isolde.

Opera By Request is presenting Verdi's Rigoletto on March 23 at their usual venue - College Street United Church, 452 College (at Bathurst). There is no orchestra, just a pianist (William Shookhoff), singers, and lots of enthusiasm.  Gilda is soprano Sara Papini, a fine singer whom I've heard at Opera York last season. Marco Petracchi is Rigoletto and Pablo Benitez is the Duke.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

A Tale of Two Cities/ A Tale of Two Orchestras

Vivaldi: Concerto in C major for Recorder, 
Strings and Continuo RV 444
Vivaldi: Concerto in C major for Recorder, 
Strings and Continuo RV 443
Mahler: Symphony No. 6 in A minor
Erik Bosgraaf, recorder
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Jaap van Zweden 
Meyerson Symphony Center
Dallas, Texas
March 1, 2013

It was an interesting weekend. On Friday night, I heard the Dallas Symphony under its music director Jaap van Zweden performing Mahler’s massive Sixth Symphony at the Meyerson SymphonyCenter in preparation for its European tour. The next day I drove 250 miles down I-45 to hear a concert performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck, one of the last major concerts to be given by Hans Graf as music director of the Houston Symphony.

These two fine performances reminded me that week in and week out, Texas offers some of the most exciting music-making in the country.

In Dallas, whereas most of the evening was taken up with Mahler’s huge Symphony No. 6, which calls for an orchestra of about 120 players, Maestro van Zweden chose to open the concert with two very small pieces at the other extreme of the orchestral spectrum.

The contrast was startling and effective, and it brought to the fore Erik Bosgraaf (photo: right), a thirty-two year old Dutch artist - one of the most remarkable recorder virtuosos I have ever heard - who seems to have fingers as thin as toothpicks. How else to explain how he could rattle off the most difficult passages at lightning speed, on a tiny ‘sopranino’ recorder? How on earth did he find room on the instrument for all his fingers? Admittedly, he is a tall man and his height made the miniature instrument seem even smaller, but it was still a feat to behold. Van Zweden and the strings of the DSO accompanied as if to the manner born, with grace and accuracy.

Mahler's Massive 6th Symphony in Full Color!
After intermission we got to the main business of the evening: Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, dating from 1903-06. Due to its size and difficulty, the piece was not given its American premiere until 1947.

Mahler was of two minds as to the order of the four movements. The first time he conducted it with the scherzo second and the slow movement third, but later decided they should be reversed. He was also unclear about the instrument that should make the “hammer blow” sounds in the last movement, and left the number of blows to be struck uncertain.

For this Dallas performance, the orchestra followed the lead of the Chicago Symphony, one of whose members had created a wooden box using techniques borrowed from speaker design. The DSO had one constructed by the same maker and used it in the performance I heard.

Principal percussionist Doug Howard (photo: right) did the “hammer” honors with a dash of theatricality, getting to his feet a page or so before the blows are to be struck, then raising the huge hammer over his head and bringing it down on the box with all the authority he could muster. He wore gloves, presumably to cushion his hands and wrists, which made him look a little like an executioner! And how many hammer blows were there? Van Zweden decided that two were sufficient, whereas some conductors prefer three. No matter; one could argue that this issue is only significant if one gives these blows an excessively autobiographical interpretation.

Maestro van Zweden had already programmed the Mahler Sixth in Dallas a few seasons back and those performances were outstanding. It made very good sense to bring the piece back for further refinement and to show the results to Europe on the forthcoming tour; moreover, there is no doubt that the DSO is a better orchestra than it was a few years ago, thanks to major changes in personnel and forceful work by van Zweden on the podium.

From the opening bars of the first movement, van Zweden made it clear that the edgy intensity of the music was going to be fully realized. He and his players were totally involved and drove the music inexorably forward. There are moments of relaxation in the movement as well, and these were played with tenderness and beauty. The horn solos were very well executed by guest principal Gail Williams, formerly of the Chicago Symphony. The cowbells, unfortunately, were all but inaudible. The Andante moderato was sublime from beginning to end, with exquisite soft playing from the violins. The last movement was shattering in its ferocity.

All in all, a great triumph for van Zweden and the DSO in Dallas, and if the tour concerts come anywhere close to this standard, European audiences are in for something special.

Standing Ovation for Graf/HSO Wozzeck! 

Berg: Wozzeck
Roman Trekel: Wozzeck
Anne Schwanewilms: Marie
Gordon Gietz: Drum Major
Marc Molomot: Captain
Nathan Berg: Doctor
Katherine Ciesinski: Margaret
Houston Symphony Orchestra/Hans Graf
Jones Hall
Houston, Texas
March 2, 2013

While both the Dallas Symphony and the Houston Symphony (HSO) have had financial difficulties in recent years, each organization has pulled itself together and emerged with even stronger artistic credentials. The Eschenbach years (1988-1999) were a kind of 'Golden Age' for the Houston Symphony and after he left the orchestra struggled both financially and artistically; music director Hans Graf (above: lefttoughed it out, however, demonstrating true leadership and mastery of a wide repertoire.

Last week, Graf conducted a semi-staged performance of Berg’s opera Wozzeck. Musically, the results were at the highest level, with German soprano Anne Schwanewilms (photo: right) particularly impressive as Marie. The orchestra had been meticulously prepared and one often heard details lost in opera house productions.

The stage presentation, on the other hand, was disappointing. For these performances in Jones Hall, the orchestra was pushed to the rear of the stage to create a playing area in front for the singers, the direction of whose movements was little more than perfunctory.

This task had been assigned to Kristin L. Johnson, the HSO’s Director of Operations and Production, who seemed to have neither the imagination nor the skills to do the assignment justice. Statements in the printed materials accompanying the program offered the opinion that a concert performance of Wozzeck allows audience members to use their imagination more freely. That said, this opera nevertheless cries out for a vivid realization of theatrical elements; costumes, set pieces, lighting and stage direction that illuminates the story all have important roles to play in bringing Wozzeck to life, in a staged “concert” version as much as in a fully staged production.

Perhaps this Houston Wozzeck suffered from budget constraints, with more money going into orchestra rehearsal than to staging. Understandable - but in my opinion, the emotional impact of the piece was unfortunately undermined not by dollars, but by choices, such as somewhat mindless staging, and inattention to costuming and set pieces. Multi-media effects may have been beyond the budget, but could well have enhanced this presentation.

These observations aside, The Houston Symphony deserves credit for programming a complete Wozzeck in any form whatsoever. This work is still a tough sell for most symphony audiences, which makes this HSO presentation an anomaly, perhaps, considering that the performance I attended appeared virtually sold out and very few patrons left the hall until it was over. The HSO also went the extra mile in preparing promotional materials for Wozzeck; the video and the booklet were both truly illuminating.

Maestro Graf is coming to the end of his last season as music director of the Houston Symphony – he has been here 12 years – but he will return in future seasons as conductor laureate.

Next season the orchestra will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Former music director Christoph Eschenbach will return for two performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in May, 2014. Music Director Designate Andres Orozco-Estrada will lead four programs.

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.”


Sunday, 10 March 2013

This Week in Toronto (March 11 - 17)

British Composer Benjamin Britten (1913 - 1976)

This being March Break, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is having its one-week hiatus, and the Canadian Opera Company is in the early stages of rehearsal for the upcoming Spring Season opening of Lucia di Lammermoor. Currently the Four Seasons Centre stage has been taken over by the National Ballet of Canada for its presentation of Romeo and Juliet in its new version by Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. The music is Prokofiev's alternately fiery and lyrical score that is an audience's favourite. Performances from March 12 to 17.

2013 marks the centenary of the birth of British composer Benjamin Britten, and many companies are rushing to stage his works. The COC has programmed Peter Grimes with Canada's own Ben Heppner in the fall season. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music is presenting Britten's Turn of the Screw, for four performances at the MacMillan Theatre. It features students of the U of T Opera Division, conducted by Stephen Hargreaves with Michael Cavanagh as stage director. This is a good opportunity to hear voices of the future.

While the Brits have their Benjamin Britten centenary coming up, we Canadians have composer John Weinzweig, who was born on March 11, 1913, which is Monday. To celebrate, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music and Soundstreams are presenting the Weinzweig Centenary Concert with the Cecilia String Quartet performing the composers Violin Sonata, Cello Sonata, and String Quartet No. 3. It is at Walter Hall at noon and admission is free.

Canadian Opera Company's noon hour free concert series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is offering as part of its Vocal Series, Interactive Opera, a kids/family-friendly show on Wednesday March 13. Soprano and art educator Kyra Millan is leading an "interactive concert" of popular arias and duets, including fun vocal exercises and the opportunity to learn and sing the Papageno-Papagena duet. If you are young or young at heart, this is the event for you. Also participating is baritone Jesse Clark and pianist Christina Faye. Full program details at

Music Toronto, the august presenter of chamber and instrumental performers, is offering another concert in its Discovery series, the appearance of the Trio Fibonacci on Thursday March 14 8 pm at its usual venue of Jane Mallett Theatre. This ensemble is in residence at the Conservatoire de Quebec, and their specialty is new music. On this occasion, they are playing works by Laurie Radford, George Onslow and Ana Sokolovic.

I know this is not specific to Toronto, but if you are an opera fan, don't miss the Met in HD presentation of Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, an infrequently performed opera last seen at the Met almost thirty years ago. I do vividly recall seeing this on the stage of the O'Keefe Centre when the Met was last on tour to Toronto for the Sesquicentennial.  It starred Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, probably the only time they sang on the stages of the O'Keefe. (Scotto did sing in a COC orchestral concert around that time)  This time around, it stars Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek in the title role, and Marcello Giordani as Paolo. Marco Armiliato conducts. It's going to be the same gorgeous 1984 Ezio Frigerio production. Even companies with deep pockets like the Met are seldom producing grand productions on this scale now, so this is an opportunity to see this relatively rare work.  The event is on Saturday March 16 at 12 pm. Check your local Cineplex cinemas for availability of tickets. 

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