La Scena Musicale

Friday, 1 November 2013

TSO's Carmina Burana a thrilling Halloween Musical Fare

Review:  TSO's Carmina Burana a thrilling Halloween Musical Fare

- Joseph So

Carl Orff: Carmina Burana
Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings
Ades: Dances from Powder Her Face

Valentina Farcas, sop.
Nicholas Phan, ten.
James Westman, bar.
Neil Deland, horn
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir
Toronto Children's Chorus
Peter Oundjian, conductor

Roy Thomson Hall, Oct. 31st 2013

Got to hand it to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for spooky programming - Carmina Burana, the Orff masterpiece with its elements of fantasy, macabre and mystery, was perfect for a rainy Halloween evening.  It was the opening of three performances at the TSO this week.  What makes good Halloween programming, you ask?  I do recall once hearing on the radio a round-table about the scariest classical music, and the panelists voted for Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, Saint Saens' Danse Macabre, and Carmina Burana.  If I had been on the panel, I would have added 1) Schubert's Erlkoenig, 2) the restored ending of Alban Berg's Lulu with Jack the Ripper, and 3) the Robert Lepage production of Schoenberg's Erwartung many years ago at the COC, when "The Woman" hallucinates that people and trees etc. were coming out of the brick walls horizontally - a show that gave me nightmares at the time!  Well, no nightmares last evening, as the TSO Carmina Burana was wonderful and only engendered sweet dreams.

(l. to r.) Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, soprano Valentina Farcas, conductor Peter Oundjian, baritone James Westman, tenor Nicholas Phan (Photo: Joseph So)

The program also featured Dances from Thomas Ades' Powder Her Face, an opera with a salacious story about a nymphomaniac British duchess (I'll leave the details for some other time...). Oundjian and the TSO forces really brought out the angular jazziness of this piece - the first dance is sort of a 21st century take on Ravel's La valse. This performance is billed as the Canadian premiere, but the opera itself was presented by Opera de Quebec just this past summer, although I am not entirely sure if these incidental music was included in the performance. The Ades piece was followed by Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a totally different kettle of fish! American tenor Nicholas Phan was the soloist.  Given his single contribution in Orff was Cignus ustus cantat, Lament of the Roasted Swan, that lasts only about four minutes, it would be a waste of Mr. Phan's talent to have him here to sing so little. A Britten specialist, it makes sense to also program the Serenade on the same evening. Phan was last heard in town in July 2012 with soprano Kiera Duffy at the Toronto Summer Music Festival, as a replacement for soprano Christine Brewer who cancelled. I was impressed with Phan's performance last evening, singing from memory, with impeccable enunciation of the text, exemplary concentration and intensity of expression. At the beginning, his forte passages had some unsteadiness in Nocturne, but it disappeared after several minutes of warming up. Elegy and Dirge were both beautifully sung, with just the right plaintive tone for the funeral lament. The Sonnet that ended the work was delivered with heart-felt sincerity.  Incidentally, anyone wanting more information on this excellent singer and his thoughts on Britten should read the interview he gave to John Terauds on John's website < > You can also watch Phan singing Elegy and Dirge at  I would be remiss if I don't sing the praises of horn player Neil Deland, who was magnificent. He brought a full spectrum of tone colours to this notoriously tricky instrument. Loved the virtuoso coloratura display in Hymn; and the off-stage recapitulation of the opening passages at the end of Sonnet was magical.

Baritone James Westman (Photo: Rob Harris)

The centerpiece of the evening, Carmina Burana, was in the second half, making for a very full evening. TSO's Peter Oundjian gave a grandly eloquent reading of this extraordinary score, fully bringing out the many mercurial changes in moods, tone colours and rhythms, while offering excellent support to the Mendelssohn Choir and the Children's Chorus. The three soloists couldn't have been bettered.  Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas is a voice new to me. Sampling her many clips on Youtube, particularly the gorgeous Laudate Dominum, turned me into a believer.  The soprano doesn't come on until the last 20 minutes or so of piece. In her solos and duets with the baritone, her smooth, warm, ethereal tone was a pleasure, and a nice contrast to some of the abrupt and aggressive music that went on earlier. "Stetit puella" - and particularly the perfumed "In truitina" were just exquisite. Her high notes in "Tempus es iocundum" were stunning. Let's hope we will get to hear this wonderful soprano in Toronto again.

Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas

Of the three soloists, baritone James Westman had the most to sing. He dispatched his music with aplomb, from rock solid lows to powerful highs, not to mention a surprisingly mellifluous falsetto in "Dies, nox et omnia." Nicholas Phan's one moment in the sun was the "Roasted Swan" which he sang in a fearless full voice, unfazed by the fiendishl tessitura that goes up to either a D or an E-flat.  Not too many tenors can handle this piece so kudos to Mr. Phan!  And finally I must give my highest praise to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, surely a national treasure. Every time I see them, I always think - "they've outdone themselves this time." And then the next time I see them, I want to say the same thing. The hall was sadly not sold out, but the turn out was respectable, probably around 90%.  The audience was extremely appreciative, giving the performers many minutes of sustained applause. The artists deserved every second of it. Two more performances on Nov. 1 7:30 pm and Nov. 2 8 pm.

Soloists and TSO conductor receiving audience applause (Photos: Joseph So) 

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