La Scena Musicale

Friday, 18 April 2014

L’Orchestre symphonique de l’Agora

Par Marc-Olivier Laramée

Chacune des grandes écoles de musique de Montréal a son orchestre symphonique. Par contre, rarement peut-on voir des collaborations entres ces formations. L’Orchestre symphonique de l’Agora est l’exception. Récemment créé, il regroupe des musiciens de l’Université de Montréal (UdM) ainsi que de l’Université McGill. Offrant aux jeunes musiciens la possibilité d’interpréter des œuvres du répertoire symphonique, sa vocation unique le distingue de tous les autres orchestres : soutenir les causes sociales et environnementales. Cette toute première saison se terminait avec un concert au profit de la fondation de l’Hôpital de Montréal pour enfants. En première partie, quoi de mieux que le chœur de l’école des jeunes de l’UdM pour ouvrir le concert avec des extraits d’opéra. Puis, le très connu Concerto pour violoncelle de C. Saint Saëns avec Noémie Raymond-Fiset comme soliste. En deuxième partie, le compositeur impressionniste Claude Debussy.

Le choix du chœur d’enfant pour ouvrir le concert était très approprié. Le chant était d’une justesse surprenante pour des enfants de cet âge. La pièce de résistance suivit, le concerto pour violoncelle. Finissante à la maîtrise, Noémie vient tout juste d’avoir la chance d’interpréter ce concerto à un cours de maître de nul autre que Yo-Yo Ma. L’auditoire a pu remarquer le travail fait à la suite de cette rencontre avec M. Ma. Ce dernier lui avait dit : « Lorsqu’on joue sur scène, il faut entrer en contact avec la musique et surtout le public. Il faut écouter l’orchestre ou le piano et laisser cours à la musique. » Ce fut le cas samedi soir. Dans le deuxième mouvement, à un certain point, le chef d’orchestre cessa même de diriger et laissa cours à la musicalité des instrumentistes et de la soliste. Ce fut un beau moment !

Debussy reçut un bel hommage. Le jeune chef Nicolas Ellis laissa paraître une connaissance approfondie de l’œuvre du compositeur français. Le Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune fut le clou du concert. En concert, les orchestres semi-professionnels peinent souvent à rendre justice à l’œuvre interprétée. Le nombre restreint de répétitions y est pour beaucoup. Dans le cas présent, les musiciens semblaient transportés. Le lien si important devant unir un chef et son orchestre était bien établi. La section des vents s’est démarquée par la solidité des solos : hautbois, basson, clarinette et, tout particulièrement, la flûte traversière. On pourrait qualifier cette interprétation de quasi parfaite. Pour terminer le concert, La Mer ! Une pièce qui mit Dutoit et l’OSM sur la carte des grands orchestres. L’Orchestre de l’Agora l’a bien exécutée malgré un manque d’unité dans certains passages. Le finale a confirmé la solidité des cuivres et des cordes. Jeune, mais solide. L’Orchestre de l’Agora est unique de par sa vocation, mais l’est tout autant de par ses qualités musicales.

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Electifying Korngold and Bach with Gil Shaham/Austin Symphony

Liszt: Les Préludes
Korngold: Violin Concerto
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7 in d Minor Op. 70

Gil Shaham, violin
Austin Symphony/Peter Bay

Austin, Texas

When the still boyish Gil Shaham comes bounding on stage, violin in hand, with a huge smile on his face, you know you are in for a special kind of music-making. Shaham, now 43, still seems the charming prodigy he was when he first came to international attention. Before playing so much as a note, he has the audience in the palm of his hand. This is clearly a young man who loves music and can’t wait to share it with everyone he meets. He shook concertmaster Jessica Mathaes’ hand so long and so hard I was afraid she might have to claim disability. Maestro Peter Bay also got the full Shaham treatment - before, during and after the performance. At one point during the performance, Shaham got so close to the podium, I thought a referee might have to be summoned to call a penalty for soloist interference.

There are soloists who take the stage with the measured pace we associate with royalty, and give the audience the merest nod of the head to acknowledge their applause. Such self-important folks are seldom seen to crack a smile; for example, Jascha Heifetz, one of the greatest violinists of his era, totally deserved his nickname, “The Great Stone Face”.

Soloist Gil Shaham
Shaham will have none of that. He knows as well as anyone that “serious music” is a serious business, and doing justice to Bach, Brahms and Beethoven and all the rest requires blood, sweat and tears; that said, he clearly subscribes to the notion that even “serious music” performers, are entertainers. Some – and he appears to fall into this category - even want to gift the audience with more than superb musicianship!

Standing Ovation/ Exquisite Bach
On this occasion, Gil Shaham played the Violin Concerto by Erich Korngold. The piece was written in 1945 for the afore-mentioned Heifetz but it is only in the last ten years or so that it has become truly popular; today, virtually all the leading soloists play the piece, with good reason. In addition to good tunes, many of them recalling scores that Korngold wrote for Hollywood films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and Deception, this concerto also has moments so funny that one could be forgiven for laughing out loud. It also supplies a virtuoso violinist with many opportunities to “strut” his stuff.

A recording of the Korngold Concerto 20 years ago featuring Shaham, Andre Previn and the London Symphony, remains one of the best readings on record of the piece. Shaham obviously still loves to play it - only last month he performed it in New York with Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic.

On this occasion, Shaham and his “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius (c.1699) gave us a passionate and authoritative Korngold Concerto with Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony supplying fastidious support. Balances were, for the most part, ideal and ensemble precision was excellent. Three “in-and-out” standing ovations brought Shaham back for an encore: unaccompanied Bach with beauty of tone, joyous rhythms and vivid ornamentation.

Antonín Leopold Dvořák
Melodies from Singing Winds 
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 also got careful treatment from Maestro Bay. This approach paid dividends in the many pages of touching lyricism in the symphony. The Austin Symphony winds took turns making the most of their many opportunities to “sing” Dvořák’s inspired melodies. The symphony, however, also has moments of raw power and intensity, and these passages were often underplayed in this performance. A case in point is the great climax toward the end of the first movement, in which Dvořák builds the excitement bar by bar into a ferocious fortissimo for the full orchestra. The key to building the climax here is increasing the tempo at exactly the right moments. For whatever reason, Maestro Bay appeared to totally ignore Dvořák’s marking “poco a poco accelerando,” and failed to summon anything close to the volume that building the climax bar by bar to its shattering conclusion requires.

The same could be said of the closing bars of the last movement, except that here the conductor needs to hold back the tempo to fully realize the spirit of Dvořák’s “Molto maestoso” marking.

The last ten bars of the symphony have another problem that each conductor must solve for him/herself. As written, the melody is given to the second violins and doubled by oboes, clarinets and bassoons. With the rest of the orchestra playing mostly fortissimo long notes, the melody can scarcely be heard. One solution is to have the louder instruments – trumpets, trombones and timpani - back off in volume to let the melody come through; this solution, however, drains most of the excitement out of these closing bars. Maestro George Szell, an authoritative interpreter of the music of Dvořák, solved the problem by having the trumpets play the melody along with second violins, etc. - a very effective solution, which many conductors have adopted. Maestro  Bay chose a middle course - horns doubling the melody - which worked rather well.

On this occasion, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony gave us a Dvořák Seventh that was carefully prepared, but to my taste, much too polite for the essence of the piece.

For something more…
While on exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, Gil Shaham recorded most of the major violin concertos in the repertoire. Today, nearly everything has changed in the record business and few artists are under either exclusive or long-term contracts.

Shaham now records mostly for Canary Classics. His latest release has the unusual title “Music to Drive Away Loiterers,” a title which refers to the recent discovery that if classical music is played in subway stations or shopping malls, people don’t hang around (i.e. “loiter”) and so there is less crime in such places. The CD includes some of the most beautiful music ever written.

For more about Erich Korngold visit; this website keeps close track of performances and recordings of Korngold’s music.

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, 14 April 2014

Cette semaine à Montréal : le 14 au 20 avril

Dans son effort pour préparer la relève musicale, le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, sous la direction de Lorraine Vaillancourt, propose en tournée Les Chemins de traverse, incluant la pièce Mutation de Denis Gougeon. Avec Noam Bierstone (percussions) et les musiciens du NEM. Maison de la culture Frontenac (14 avril dans le cadre des Lundis d'Edgar), Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur (23 avril) et Maison de la culture Côte-des-Neiges (24 avril). 
La Société de musique contemporaine du Québec réunit sur scène de grands solistes pour interpréter les dix mouvements du célèbre cycle des planètes de Gougeon. Une immersion cosmique proposée par Walter Boudreau et animée par Yannick Villedieu. Aussi au programme : Simon Bertrand, Pierre Michaud et une création d’Analia Llugdar. salle Pierre-Mercure, 17 avril, 19 h.
- Renée Banville

Miklós Takács
Miklós Takács dirigera le chœur d’UQÀM et celui de l’école Jean-François Perreault avec l’orchestre de la Société Philarmonique. Quatre cents chanteurs et musiciens réunis le 18 avril 2014, à 20 h 00, à l’église Saint-Jean Baptiste pour le traditionnel concert du Vendredi Saint. Au programme, le Requiem de Verdi.

Jean Marchand reviendra avec la comédienne Françoise Faucher pour le traditionnel concert du Vendredi saint Via Crucis de Liszt. Le 18 avril, 20 h.
- Renée Banville

L’Orchestre Métropolitain, sous la direction de Maestro Nézet-Séguin, présentera en avril un autre grand oratorio de Bach. Après l’Oratorio de Noël en 2012 à l’église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, l’OM interprétera La Passion selon saint Matthieu à la Maison symphonique. Plusieurs solistes de renommée internationale sont à l’affiche, notamment la soprano Hélène Guilmette, la mezzo Julie Boulianne et le baryton-basse Philippe Sly. Les ténors Lawrence Wiliford et Isaiah Bell ainsi que le baryton Alexander Dobson complètent cette distribution prestigieuse. Ils seront accompagnés par le Chœur de l’Orchestre Métropolitain. Maison symphonique, 19 avril.
- Justin Bernard

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Sunday, 13 April 2014

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 14 - 20)

This Week in Toronto (Apr. 14 - 20)

My concert picks this week - Joseph So

Pianist Helene Grimaud (Photo: Robert Schultze/Mat Hennek/DG)

Toronto Symphony Orchestra  The charismatic French pianist Helene Grimaud makes a welcomed return to Toronto, as soloist in the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. Also on the program are two works to do with Easter - Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture, and Messiaen's L'Ascension.  Andrey Boreyko returns to the TSO to conduct. Performances on April 17 and 19 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Director Peter Sellars

Canadian Opera Company's Hercules continues this week.  I saw this show twice - the dress rehearsal and opening night, and I must say Peter Sellars' re-imagining of this baroque piece works well. It is one of the most successful examples of Regieoper attempts undertaken by the COC.  The five principals are first rate, as is the orchestra under the inspired direction of Harry Bicket. Hercules is bass-baritone Eric Owens; mezzo Alice Coote sings Dejanira; countertenor David Daniels is Lichas; tenor Richard Croft sings Hyllus, and soprano Lucy Crowe is Iole. This show is an auspicious start to the COC spring season. Performances this week on April 15 and 19 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. There are also two noon hour concerts of note at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre - a piano recital by Philip Chiu on April 15. Billed as Music in the Time of War, it includes two pieces, by Bach and Pavel Haas, arranged by the pianist, plus  Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, known as the Stalingrad, and Le Tombeau de Couperin by Ravel. Details at  The other event features well known violinist Jacques Israelievitch and pianist Valentina Sadovski in a program of exquisite Russian violin gems, thus the concert title of Violin Caviar. and

This being Easter week, there is a plethora of concerts celebrating this important religious holiday. Several caught my eye. One is Toronto Mendelssohn Choir's pairing of Durufle's Requiem with Vierne's Messe Solennelle on Good Friday 7:30 pm at St. Paul's Basilica on Power Street. There is something to be said about experiencing great church music - in a great church! Here's a clip of the Durufle with the Mendelssohn Choir under the direction of Noel Edison - Quite a different kettle of fish - and very intriguing - is a "jazz-infused homage to Bach's St. Matthew Passion" put on by Soundstreams. On Good Friday at the Trinity St. Paul Centre. The Music at Metropolitan series of the Metropolitan United Church is presenting Bach's St. John Passion, with soloists Lesley Bouza, Daniel Taylor, Christopher Mayell, James Baldwin, Charles Davidson, and Clarence Frazer. Metropolitan Festival Choir and Orchestra conducted by Dr. Patricia Wright. 

Pianist Andre Laplante

If religious programming isn't your thing, you may want to try a piano concerto. Well known Canadian pianist Andre Laplante is playing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto No. 5 with the Kindred Spirits Orchestra under the baton of its music director Kristian Alexander. The concert takes places also on Good Friday April 18 8 pm, at the Markham Theatre north of the city.
Alternately, Opera Belcanto is presenting the ever popular Carmen. Performances on April 17 and 19 7:30 pm at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.  Their website seems to be undergoing renovation -

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