La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Soaring "To the Still Point of the Turning World" with Conspirare Christmas 2013

Conspirare Christmas
Company of Voices
Ruthie Foster, guest artist
Craig Hella Johnson, conductor

Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
December 9, 2013

Now in its 21st season, Conspirare has clearly established itself as one of America’s finest chamber choirs. Based in Austin, Texas, its reach extends well beyond city or state borders through its recordings and tours. In Texas, one of the ensemble’s most popular undertakings is “Conspirare Christmas”, a series of seasonal concerts presented in the cities of Victoria and San Antonio, and culminating in a major event at the Long Center. This year’s Christmas concert was as fresh and imaginative as ever and featured the exceptional musical quality we have come to expect from Conspirare.

In addition to being a remarkably gifted musician, conductor Craig Hella Johnson (photo:right) is a man who appears to imbue everything he does with a spiritual dimension, always taking care not to impose one man’s faith upon another; that is to say, his desire to communicate through words and music is ecumenical, all-inclusive. Christmas is a Christian event, but for Johnson and Conspirare, it is also a time for people everywhere to come together to celebrate good things shared and to express hope for the future of mankind.

Conspirare’s Company of Voices comprised 24 on this occasion. The members of this choir are professional singers, first class soloists from all over the country who come together to perform as Conspirare (trans. “to breathe together”). Together and separately, they performed magnificently; Austin Soprano Mela Dailey, for example, contributed mightily in various solos, even delighting the audience with a turn on the drums.

Conspirare's Magical Musical Christmas Amalgam!
This season’s Conspirare Christmas concert combined a substantial selection of Christmas carols with gospel music, pop and traditional South African song. Guest artist this year was Austin blues and gospel singer, Ruthie Foster (photo:right). As a soloist and with the choir in a wide variety of songs ranging from Bottom of the River, I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free, Feeling Good, to Welcome Home (her own composition), and a well-deserved encore (a tribute to Nelson Mandela), Foster sang with spirit and soul!

As usual, this year’s Conspirare Christmas was not your “traditional” Christmas concert, although the spirit of Christmas (loving and giving) was there. The country and the world have changed, Johnson seems to be saying and we need to change with them if concepts like love, freedom and peace are to survive. We may be different, but we are all human, and we can connect if we but a special place. Through his unique and sensitive programming, Craig Hella Johnson continues to enrich the lives of his listeners through music.

The Spirit Journeys to a Special Place...
The program finale was  ‘I Could Have Danced all Night” from the 1956 Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical, My Fair Lady. A closer look at the lyrics for this song reveals very few “different” lines, among them the following: “I could have spread my wings”…”And done a thousand things”… “I’d Never done before.”

These lines relate to one of the recurring images (birds in flight) in this year’s Conspirare Christmas music selection - imagery that is a metaphor for the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and on a larger scale – for all relationships: we all need to experience the joy of falling in love, or of extending a hand in love to someone. Part of the satisfaction we take seeing Eliza and Henry in love is that it means that they have overcome their stations in life (taken “flight?”) and society to treat each other with respect, with love and with recognition of the other as being equal in every way. Through love there is no telling how many thousands of things we might do now that we had never done before. We need to spread our wings. And who knows, it could happen. “If music be the food of love…”

Reading Maestro Johnson’s own words on the overall Conspirare Christmas concept (below), one has to believe he is happiest when members of the audience let the words and the music work their magic, integrating with each personal life experience.

In my own case, for example, listening to the words and music of “I Could Have Danced all Night,” I was reminded of those heartbreakingly sad but joyful epilogues that Richard Strauss did so well at the end of his tone poems Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote and An Alpine Symphony, and again, at the end of his opera Arabella. It is that deeply human “looking back” on a life of success and failure, of love gained and lost, and a final understanding of the meaning of life itself. “Yes,” says the soul to itself,  “I could have danced all night, and perhaps I will again.”  But nothing, we are reminded, lasts forever. Enjoy every minute of it while you can, and be glad you did. Never mind “what might have been.”

Whew! Pretty heady stuff for a Christmas concert…but then that is Conspirare Christmas – ideas, a spiritual journey, and music - people coming together to experience the joy of this magical amalgam, perhaps opening up in this time and place to a concept of unity that might well change their lives….and perhaps, for at least a moment, coming away with smiles not only on their faces, but in their hearts.

...With the Inimitable Craig Hella Johnson at the Helm
Maestro Johnson conducted most of the concert from the piano, accompanying the choir with facility and an amazing command of styles. Because his back was to them, many listeners probably didn’t realize that it was Johnson’s voice they heard in Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s All the Way, a beautiful song made famous by Frank Sinatra in a 1957 recording. Johnson’s rendition was as tender and lovely as any I have ever heard.

As the concluding number every year, I Could Have Danced all Night has become a tradition at Conspirare Christmas concerts. If I am not mistaken - although this 2013 arrangement was slightly different from the 2009 version that I heard – this year’s rendition was still slow and dreamy rather than bouncy and joyful as it is in the Lerner & Loewe musical; clearly, Johnson has his own view of what the words and music are trying to tell us. After the concert, and in response to my question, he told me why he chose this song – in no way a Christmas piece – as the finale for all “Conspirare Christmas” concerts:

The "Dance" in the Maestro's Own Words…
“Conspirare Christmas is a Mischung that reflects a great breadth of human experience. Each year’s program is a “dance” between poetic text from different centuries, musical pieces and styles, and different perspectives and traditions.  Originally, around the time I first arranged this setting of I Could Have Danced All Night, I was reading poetry of T.S. Eliot (photo:right). It is meant to evoke what Eliot captures in these lines from the Four Quartets:  “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is[.]”

I Could Have Danced All Night quickly became a tradition our audiences look forward to each year. At Conspirare we like to keep things fresh, current and new, and also value the place of tradition during the holiday time. Conspirare Christmas is a place where we acknowledge traditions, and this is one of ours.”

The last Conspirare Christmas concert I attended was in 2009. My only negative memory of that concert then was the fact that the house lights were so low that it was impossible to read the text in the brilliantly executed program guide. I don’t know how things were done in ’10, ’11, and ’12, since I missed those concerts, but here we were again in 2013, with a carefully conceived and executed program book that gave us the entire evening’s Christmas music narrative…and I would venture to guess that many in the audience who would have liked to follow the words along with the music of the evening’s enlightening spiritual journey, had difficulty doing so…for lack of “light”. Ironic.

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, 16 December 2013

This Week in Toronto (Dec. 16 - 29)

This Week in Toronto (Dec. 16 - 29)

- Joseph So

Soprano Natalie Dessay now in a second career as a chanteuse, at Koerner Hall (Photo: Joseph So)

The new concert duo - composer Michel Legrand and soprano Natalie Dessay (Photo: Joseph So)

French diva Natalie Dessay made her Toronto debut on Sunday Dec. 15, not as an opera singer, but as a French chanteuse.  Like everything she does, Dessay is totally convincing.  She sang with a microphone, bantering with her concert partner the great songwriter Michel Legrand, backed by musicians from Les Violons du Roy.  The concert was late by about 20 minutes due to delay from bad weather, but it was worth the wait.  Every inch the diva, Dessay sang with passion and pathos and proceeded to charm the audience. I had my doubts before the concert - after all, how many opera singers in the past made a truly successful transformation to pop?  Not many....the only one that came to mind immediately was Eileen Farrell, but then she started out in pop. So many opera singers sing pop in a grand, operatic style that is so wrong.  Well, you can put Madame Dessay on the same level as Farrell. The French soprano was totally convincing, completely idiomatic in style and singing everything non-operatically. I would never have guessed in a million years that she's an opera singer. The concert also benefited from the inimitable Michel Legrand, who at 82 can still play wonderfully and carry a tune. Musicians from Les Violons du Roy was the backup band(!) - you can't get better that that. There is a second show Monday evening at 7 pm at Koerner Hall. Dessay the chanteuse is well worth experiencing. 

There is a huge array of Messiah presentations this next two weeks. The venerable Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting performances on Dec. 17, 18, 20, 21 at 8 pm and 22 at 3 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. The quartet of soloists are soprano Klara Ek, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, tenor John Tessier and bass John Relyea. All these artists are well known to TO. Ek wowed audiences earlier this season in her TSO debut as soprano soloist in the Brahms Requiem. Lawrence Zazzo was fabulous in the COC Orfeo two seasons ago. John Tessier has concertized widely and John Relyea was the Three Villains in the COC Hoffmann two seasons ago. They are all well worth hearing. They are joined by guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir

Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo (

Equally popular Messiah fare is Tafelmusik's baroque version. It stars Dame Emma Kirkby, making a welcome return to Toronto as soprano soloist. She is joined by mezzo Laura Pudwell, tenor Colin Balzer and baritone Tyler Duncan under the baton of Ivars Taurins. Performances on Dec. 18, 19, 20, 21 8 pm at Koerner Hall. As usual, there is the ever popular Messiah Sing Along in Massey Hall on Dec. 22 at 2 pm.

Soprano Dame Emma Kirkby (Photo:

Toronto Operetta Theatre's presentation this holiday season is Franz Lehar's Land of Smiles. It opens on Dec. 27, with performances on 28, 29, 31 (New Year's Eve Gala), Jan. 2, 3, 4, 5. For details, go to

Franz Lehar (1870 - 1948)

One of Canada's best young baritones is Phillip Addis, who recently made an auspicious debut as Schaunard and Marcello at the Canadian Opera Company La boheme. He is giving a recital under the auspices of Music Toronto on Thursday Dec. 19 8 pm at Jane Mallett Theatre. He is joined by his wife/collaborative pianist Emily Hamper in a program of Wolf, Britten and Poulenc.

Baritone Phillip Addis (Photo: Kristin Hoebermann)

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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Against the Grain's Messiah Offers Fresh Look at a Beloved Classic

Against the Grain's Messiah Offers Fresh Look at a Beloved Classic

- Joseph So

Handel: Messiah

Jacqueline Woodley, soprano
Krisztina Szabo, mezzo
Isaiah Bell, tenor
Geoffrey Sirett, bass-baritone
Christopher Mokrzewski, conductor
Joel Ivany, stage director
Jennifer Nichols, choreographer

The Opera House, 735 Queen Street East, Toronto
December 14th 8 pm 2013 

AtG Messiah curtain call (front l. to r.) Jacqueline Woodley, Krisztina Szabo, Christopher Mokrzewski, Joe Ivany, Jennifer Nichols, Isaiah Bell, Geoffrey Sirett (Photo: Joseph So) 

In a few short years, Against the Grain Theatre has built an enviable reputation as an "alternative" classical vocal music/opera initiative that offers a fresh take on beloved works the likes of La boheme, Turn of the Screw, and Le nozze di Figaro, as well as introducing relatively unfamiliar pieces like Kurtag's Kafka's Fragments and Janacek's Diary of Someone Who Disappeared. With the current Handel's Messiah, AtG is pushing the envelop once again by taking on this most venerable of English oratorios. This show is advertised as AtG's instead of Handel's Messiah. The music is intact albeit with slight cuts - "Pastoral Symphony" in Part 1 and a few more in Parts 2 and 3 performed together. What makes this Messiah different is the staging. To be sure Messiah has received stagings in recent years, as has several other Handel's oratorios including the upcoming Hercules by the Canadian Opera Company. This one however is a little different, as AtG has engaged choreographer Jennifer Nichols to create a series of movements to complement the music and the text. This is in many ways an audacious undertaking by AtG given the scale of the work, involving four soloists, a chamber orchestra and a chorus.  

The chosen venue is an old vaudeville theatre in South Riverdale improbably dubbed The Opera House. This smallish space probably sits not even a couple of hundred including the balcony. The stage is quite tiny, and with the orchestra in the front of the auditorium, there isn't a whole lot of room. While this theatre offers welcomed intimacy, the acoustics is not very lively, as far from a church acoustics as one could imagine.  And from my location - a great seat in the second row of the middle raised section - there was inexplicably a low hum of some sort of motor noise. Was it the heating system?  Unfortunately it was continuous and just loud enough to be bothersome. It also started 15 minutes late due to the inclement weather. A lot of us, I included, had trouble getting there - a futile wait of 30 minutes for a Queen streetcar was solved by a taxi. But, I think everyone sensed that they were going to witness something special, something well worth the effort, and everyone felt privileged to be there. So these minor annoyance didn't really matter in the end.  

And refreshingly special it was. First of all, there was much to enjoy in the excellent quartet of soloists. Former COC Ensemble Studio soprano Jacqueline Woodley never sounded lovelier, with a sparkling "Rejoice Greatly" of crystalline tone and feminine warmth, complete with a beautiful diminuendo high A. Krisztina Szabo brought the proper pathos to "He was despised." After some tentativeness in the forte passages of "Comfort Ye", tenor Isaiah Bell warmed up quickly and sang "Every Valley" with beauty and warmth, and delivered a poised "Behold, and see." This is a singer to watch, not just for his attractive stage presence but for his elegant tenor. Bass-baritone Geoffrey Sirett was a good sport in playing a riotous lost sheep in "All we like sheep have gone astray" eliciting gales of laughter from the audience.  He also brought plenty of gravitas to "Behold I tell you a mystery" followed by "The trumpet shall sound" ably accompanied by excellent trumpet obbligato.  In truth all four soloists were in excellent voice and acted with commitment. 

From what I can see, Nichols tailored her creative movements individually, based on each singer's physical limitations.  I have to say as a group, opera singers are not known for being particularly free with their bodies on stage. This was particularly true in the past with outsized singers.  Today, "park and bark" style is hopelessly out of style and singers are much more willing to accept adventurous choreography. Kudos to all four soloists for successfully navigating the labyrinth of choreographed movements while producing the sounds opera singers do. While I can't say I was able to make sense of all the choreography, the movements did not for the most part distract from the music and the text, and occasionally creating interesting tableaux that enhanced the audience's enjoyment of the work.

The talented Christopher Mokrzewski led the 18 musician chamber orchestra with a sure hand, offering well judged if generally brisk tempi.  Kudos to the Robert Venables and Ted Clark for their all important trumpet contributions.  And I must not forget the fabulous 14 person chorus that made such sounds of beauty and volume that one didn't think was possible given its modest numbers. At the end, the performers received well deserved, rousing ovations from the appreciative audience. For those of us who braved the season's first snow storm, we were amply rewarded by witnessing an immensely satisfying performance.  I don't think I will experience Messiah quite the same way in the future again.  

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Cette semaine à Montréal: le 16 au 22 décembre

Par Renée Banville

Le Messie de Haendel
Une version est présentée par l’Orchestre de chambre McGill, sous la direction de Boris Brott. Le contre-ténor Daniel Taylor sera de la distribution, avec Jana Miller, soprano, Rufus Müller, ténor, Alexander Dobson, baryton et le Christ Church Cathedral Choir, dirigé par Patrick Wedd. Cathédrale Christ Church, 16 décembre, 19h30 

Noël solo
Si les concerts intimes vous attirent, le Noël et ses délices de Christina Tannous est pour vous. Le pianiste Dominic Champagne accompagne la soprano dans un heureux mélange d’airs traditionnels, d’airs de compositeurs comme Poulenc et Fauré, de chansons américaines et de mélodies espagnoles. Maison de la culture Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, 12 décembre, 20h, Maison Brignon-dit-Lapierre (Montréal-Nord), 18 décembre, 19h. 

OM en tournée : le concerto sous toutes ses formes
Julian Kuerti, chef invité principal de l’Orchestre Métropolitain, dirigera le prochain concert de l’orchestre à la Maison symphonique le 13 décembre. Maestro Nézet-Séguin a mis au programme le Concerto pour orchestre de Bartók, œuvre qu’il aurait aimé diriger. Le Concerto pour violon de Beethoven sera interprété par le violoniste réputé Martin Beaver. Tournée dans les arrondissements : Saint-Laurent (17 décembre), Verdun (18 décembre), Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve (19 décembre) et Pierrefonds (20 décembre). 

Et paix sur la terre avec I Musici
Voici une belle occasion d’entonner vos noëls et chants préférés avec l’Orchestre de chambre I Musici, le Chœur du Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, les artistes de l’Atelier lyrique de Montréal et les jeunes chanteurs de l’école F.A.C.E. Soliste invité: Stephen Hegedus, baryton-basse. En première partie, les musiciens et leur chef Jean-Marie Zeitouni nous présentent des œuvres françaises et anglaises inspirées de la Nativité, dont la Messe de minuit de M.-A. Charpentier. Maison symphonique, 22 décembre, 20h. 

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