La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Worthy Sibelius Tribute in Austin, Texas

Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in the Long Center

Dukas: Fanfare for La Péri (1912)
Glazunov: Wedding March Op. 21 (1889)
Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor Op. 47 (1903)
Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 in E minor Op. 39 (1899)

Karen Gomyo, violin
Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO)/Peter Bay
Long Center for the Performing Arts
Austin, Texas
February 7, 2015

Composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1857)
This is going to be a big year for Finnish composer Jean Sibelius; born in 1865, 2015 is the 150th anniversary of his birth. Orchestras everywhere will be playing his music and there will surely be a plethora of new recordings. Conductor Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony Orchestra are already off and running with a recent concert featuring two of Sibelius’ major works, Symphony No. 1 in E minor, and the Violin Concerto in D minor, with the brilliant young American violinist Karen Gomyo as soloist.

Peter Bay could easily have made this an all-Sibelius concert by opening with Finlandia, the Karelia Suite or Valse Triste and the audience would have been delighted. Instead, he chose to play two short works by Sibelius’ contemporaries. Bay also had the interesting idea of playing them without pause; in other words, the end of the Fanfare for La Péri led straight into the Glazunov march. Musically, this was effective not only because the fanfare is scored for brass only and the Glazunov begins with brass, but also because the Dukas is only three minutes long and is apt to sound inconsequential on its own.

The Glazunov, a lovely, understated piece, is rarely heard. Bay and the Austin Symphony gave it a fine performance.

Soloist Karen Gomyo
Karen Gomyo plays the “Aurora, ex-Foulis” Stradivarius (1703) and the sound produced by this soloist and her instrument was stunning, especially on the G-string - a big sound analogous to fine wine: robust, with hints of peach and almond. Gomyo took some time to establish her authority in the first movement of the concerto. Like its great predecessor, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, the Sibelius Violin Concerto is written that way; it takes its time to really get going. During the course of the performance, it became clear that Gomyo knew what she was doing and had the sound, technique and depth of expression to give this concerto a very fine performance. Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony provided ideal accompaniment; however softly Gomyo chose to play, Bay and the orchestra could play softer and in the big tutti passages there was ample fire and energy.

Gomyo’s bio in the programme book revealed that she was “deeply interested in the “Nuevo Tango” of Astor Piazzolla”, so it was not surprising that she played some unaccompanied Piazzolla as an encore. A delightful piece, the audience loved it.

Sibelius composed his First Symphony in 1899. Having already written the massive Kullervo Symphony for soloists, male chorus and orchestra, and the Four Legends - both works based on episodes from the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala – he was, by age 34, a very experienced composer.

During his formative years, Sibelius travelled to Europe to further his studies. He spent some time with Busoni in Leipzig in 1890. The following year he spent even more time in Vienna. He had a letter of introduction to Brahms but the Great Man, well-known for his crankiness, refused to see him. Sibelius studied instead with Robert Fuchs and Karl Goldmark.

By 1897 Sibelius was well established as a promising composer in his native Finland; in fact, he was so highly regarded that he was awarded an annual pension by the Finnish government. Sibelius received this income for the rest of his life. Together with increasing royalties from performances of his music, Sibelius was able to devote himself solely to composition without having to worry about how he would pay for his next meal.

One of the first fruits of this financial independence was the Symphony No. 1. Unlike the Kullervo Symphony, the work is pure music. It tells no story nor does it attempt to depict any events. It is all about the presentation and transformation of musical ideas. This is an important point when discussing the music of young composers. One must try to imagine how hard it was for Sibelius to do away with the crutch of program notes that would explain what the music was all about and give it a structure. Most of his early works had been in this programmatic style; now he was attempting to write a major piece in which the music speaks for itself.

Maestro Peter Bay
The Symphony No. 1 not only speaks for itself; it speaks in an original voice. There are occasional distant echoes of Borodin and Tchaikovsky, but for the most part listeners in 1899 were hearing something new. Its opening bars, with a darkly beautiful clarinet solo over a soft timpani roll, are unprecedented in the history of music. Throughout the piece one hears melodies, textures and rhythms that are highly original. All the elements of Sibelius’ mature style as a symphonist are to be found in this symphony. Each of his later symphonies has a different and often more concentrated structure, but “the voice” is instantly recognizable as being that of Sibelius.

Peter Bay gave us a well-prepared and heartfelt interpretation of the Symphony No. 1. There are no metronome markings in the symphony, so the conductor has to work out the tempi for himself Bay’s tempi for each of the four movements seemed just right. Balances were excellent with brass and percussion given their head in all the right places. Well, nearly all the right places. It seemed to me that the final climax was a little underpowered. My guess is that Bay was holding back the brass and timpani so as not to cover the strings. To my mind, however, the power of this last climax is more important than the secondary parts being played by the strings.

On the whole, this was a worthy tribute to Sibelius. Perhaps there will be more to come from Bay and the Austin Symphony later in the season.

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.”


Monday, 9 February 2015

This Week in Montreal: February 9 to 15

Joyce Yang

This Week in Montreal: February 9 to 15

Orchestre de chambre i musici de Montréal
The Orchestra presents Quatre temperaments on Feb. 12 at Bourgie Hall. Pianist Joyce Yang will join the team and Jean-Marie Zeitouni will conduct. Use promo code La Scena to get a 15% discount.

Faculté de musique de l'Université de Montréal
On Wednesday Feb. 11, Le Cercle des étudiants compositeurs will present their compositions in CéCo II : L’aventure se continue. 7 :30 pm, salle Serge-Garant (B-484).

Chapelle Bon-Pasteur
Composer in residence, Jimmie Leblanc presents Lignes d’ombre et autres paradoxes lumineux with Duo Rockeys, which includes Katelyn Clark (harpsichord) and Luciane Cardassi (piano and electronic). Feb. 11, 8 pm.
- Renée Banville

Le Vivier
Jennifer Thiessen (baroque viola, viola d’amore) and Jean-Willy Kunz (harpsichord), perform Histoires d’amour on Feb. 12, 8 pm at Gesù.

L’orchestre lyrique de Montréal
For the second concert of its first season, the orchestra, under the direction of Simon Rivard and Ben Kepes, will perform Benjamin Britten’s Les illuminations. The orchestra will accompany soprano Éthel Guéret. The program also includes other pieces from the British composer as Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique. Feb. 12, 8pm.   
- Justin Bernard

French school at Arion
The Virtuose des Lumières concert is dedicated to the founder of L’école française de violon, Jean-Marie Leclair. Conductor and soloist, violinist Mira Glodeanu will inspire all of those who love the musice of Leclair. With Claire Guimond (flute) and Jean Marchand as guest speaker. Feb 13, 14, 15 at Bourgie Hall.
- Renée Banville

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This Week in Toronto (Feb. 9 - 15)

My Toronto Concert Picks for the Week of February 9 to 15

- Joseph So

For Toronto area opera and voice fans, the cup truly runneth over this week, with many fabulous opportunities to hear great singing.  First of all, there's Canadian Opera Company's Don Giovanni and Die Walkure continuing this week with performances on the Mozart on Feb. 12 and 14, and for Wagner on Feb. 10 and 13, all at the Four Seasons Centre. I caught another performance of Walkure last Saturday that marked the Canadian and role debut of American dramatic  tenor Issachah Savage. It was fantastic - here's my review of that performance -  I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities to hear Mr. Savage - with a voice like that, he will go far.  In the meantime, I wish Mr. Clifton Forbis a speedy recovery.

COC Ensemble Studio 2014-15

There are several exciting events this week at the opera house. The Christina and Louis Quilico Awards is happening on Monday Feb. 9 5:30 pm at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. This is in the form of a competition for the current members of the COC Ensemble Studio. The late Louis Quilico of course was a great Canadian baritone, and this competition is dedicated to his memory. This is a free event!  But you must show up at least an hour early to line for the possibility of a seat (or at least standing room) for the event.  Be prepared for a two hour duration. Here's the program details.  I can honestly say there are some great voices in the ensemble this year and this event is not to be missed!

Canadian soprano Jane Archibald is currently singing her first Donna Anna at the COC. Her sparkling coloratura is well known to Toronto audiences, having sung here many times, in Semele and Die Zauberfloete. Now we get to hear her dramatic side as Anna. I attended opening night, and her coloratura in Non mi dir was to die for. She is giving a recital, Songs of Love and Longing, on Feb. 10 noon hour at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Liz Upchurch is at the piano. On the program is a Mozart concert aria and songs by Faure, Strauss, and Quilter.
Canadian soprano Jane Archibald

After hearing Jane Archibald, take a break and then go to hear her Don Giovanni, Canadian baritone Russell Braun, singing the great Hugo Wolf song cycle, Italienisches Liederbuch, with soprano Monica Whicher. This takes place at Walter Hall at the University of Toronto's Edward Johnson Building at 7 pm.  Carolyn Maule and Steven Philcox are the collaborative pianists.

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki

This is a very big week for piano fans. On Wednesday Feb. 11 8 pm, the TSO presents Carnival of Animals. Pianists Emanuel Ax and Jan Lisiecki, join forces for Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. Also on the program are a new piece by composer in residence Kevin Lau, and the Saint Saens Carinval of Animals.  Peter Oundjian conducts.

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear

Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear joins Emanuel Ax and the piano duo Anagnoson and Kinton on Thursday Feb. 12 8 pm for The Orchestral Piano, They are playing Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis after themes of Carl Maria von Weber; Brahm's Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, and Ravel's La valse.
Pianist Emauel Ax

As part of its outreach, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a Community Piano Event, with none other than the great pianist Emanuel Ax as performer and mentor!  Pianists from the GTA including RCM and Regent Park School of Music students will get to play on the TSO's new Steinway piano - I mean, how cool is that! It is also a free event.  Kudos to the TSO for doing something so wonderful. The event is on Valentine's Day no less!  Saturday Feb. 14 at 10 am.

Tafelmusik has a very intriguing event this week, called House of Dreams, a program that combines music with fine arts, conceived by Alison Mackay with stage direction by Marshall Pynkoski of Opera Atelier fame. Works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Marais played against a backdrop of paintings by Vermeer, Canaletto and Watteau. Five performances Feb. 11 to 15 at Trinity St. Paul's Centre.

Toronto City Opera (formerly Toronto Opera Repertoire) under the direction of mezzo Beatrice Carpino and pianist Adolfo de Santis is presenting Don Giovanni and Un ballo in maschera this week and next. All performances at the Bickford Centre featuring local singers with piano accompaniment. The Mozart is presented on Feb. 11, 14, 20 and 22, while the Verdi on Feb. 13 and 15.

Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore is presented by Opera By Request, appropriately on Valentine's Day (Feb. 14)!  Performance at College Street United Church at 7:30 pm. At the piano is William Shookhoff.


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Cette semaine à Montréal : du 9 au 15 février 2015

Joyce Yang

Cette semaine à Montréal : du 9 au 15 février 2015

Orchestre de chambre i musici de Montréal
L’orchestre présente Quatre tempéraments  le 12 février à la salle Bougie. La pianiste Joyce Yang se joindra à l’équipe et Jean-Marie Zeitouni dirigera l’orchestre. Mentionnez La Scena et obtenez 15% de rabais.

Faculté de musique de l'Université de Montréal
Le mercredi 11 février, le Cercle des étudiants compositeurs présentera ses œuvres lors d’un concert intitulé CéCo II : L’aventure se continue. 19h30, salle Serge-Garant (B-484).

La rentrée à Bon-Pasteur
Compositeur résident, Jimmie Leblanc présente Lignes d’ombre et autres paradoxes lumineux avec le Duo Rockeys, composé de Katelyn Clark, clavecin, et Luciane Cardassi, piano et électronique. 11 février, 20 h.
- Renée Banville

Le Vivier
Jennifer Thiessen (alto baroque, viole d’amour) et Jean-Willy Kunz (clavecin) présentent Histoires d’amour le 12 février 2015 à 20h au Gesù. Selon les musiciens, il s'agit d'un « programme qui met en évidence les relations entre les musiciens et leurs instruments, entre les compositeurs et les interprètes et entre les musiciens eux-mêmes. »
L’orchestre lyrique de Montréal
Pour le deuxième concert de sa première saison, l’Orchestre lyrique de Montréal, sous la direction conjointe de Simon Rivard et Ben Kepes, interprétera Les Illuminations de Benjamin Britten. Dans ce cycle de mélodies, l’ensemble accompagnera la soprano Éthel Guéret. Le programme comprendra également une autre œuvre du compositeur britannique, Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Parmi les solistes, le chanteur Benjamin Butterfield et le corniste Louis-Pierre Bergeron. Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique. 12 février, 20 h.   
- Justin Bernard

L’école française chez Arion
Le concert Virtuose des Lumières est dédié au fondateur de l’école française de violon, Jean-Marie Leclair. Chef et soliste, la violoniste Mira Glodeanu inspirera tous les amoureux de celui qui fut le violoniste le plus éminent de son temps. Avec Claire Guimond, flûte, et Jean Marchand, conférencier. 13, 14, 15 février, salle Bourgie.
- Renée Banville

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Sunday, 8 February 2015

Dramatic Tenor Issachah Savage Makes Sensational Debut in COC Die Walkure

American Issachah Savage Triumphant as Siegmund in the COC Die Walkure

Joseph So

American tenor Issachah Savage (Photo: Kristen Hoeberman)

Among classical singers, tenors are considered a special breed - pace sopranos and everyone else! The famous Australian prima donna Frances Alda (1879 - 1952) even titled her 1937 memoir Men, Women and Tenors.  And when that tenor is beautiful and of a size and power suitable for the Wagnerian repertoire, it makes one sit up and take notice. Compared to the baritone which is closest to the male speaking voice, the tenor represents a high wire act, reaching up to high C and beyond in full voice. Anytime a promising tenor emerges on the operatic firmament, it's cause for celebration. Due to the illness of American tenor Clifton Forbis, the regularly scheduled Siegmund in the current COC revival of Die Walkure, he was replaced by his cover, fellow American Issachah Savage in the third performance of the run, on Saturday February 7th.

A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Savage studied voice performance at Morgan State University and Catholic University of America. He has been singularly successful in winning competitions, among them the 2012 Marcello Giordani International Competition and the Seattle International Wagner Competition last year. A few sound clips on Youtube and on the artist's website reveal a voice of beauty and clarion power. So when it was announced at noon Saturday that he would be singing, it really piqued my interest. The first voice in the opera belongs to Siegmund, and right away I was impressed by his warm, hall-filling, rich sound, accurate of pitch and used with a surfeit of musicality.  Undoubtedly there were some nervous tension, but he hid it well.  He grew in confidence as the performance continued, and the voice sounded splendid in the Four Seasons Centre. At his final curtain call, the roar of approval from the house was among the most impressive I've heard in my 43 years of attending COC performances. 

This performance clearly demonstrated that Savage's tenor is ideal as Siegmund. He managed the unusually low tessitura well. When the vocal line rises, his tenor is in its glory. Unlike many Wagnerian tenors who are basically pushed-up baritones, Savage is a genuine tenor, with a bright, forwardly placed sound, one that defines the term Jugendlich dramatischer Tenor. The gleaming yet warm sound is lovely, and it has the heft for the dramatic outbursts like the "Walse, walse" passage. If I were to quibble, he has the tendency to avoid the |e| vowel, replacing it with the |o| vowel. He changed it to the |o| in the second Walse, a note that's up a semi-tone and sits in a tenor's passaggio. He also modified it in the word Walsung (Blut) at the end of the Act. Singers do this to protect the voice above the stave, but it sounds more Italian than German. Perhaps this explain his affinity to the Italian repertoire, having sung Radames to great success in Houston. It's clear that this Siegmund was an extremely promising start, and it is going to take some time and more experience for him to grow into this role. 

Interestingly, I noticed that everyone sang particularly well, more comfortable and freer onstage, perhaps with opening night jitters out of the way, or perhaps with the excitement of an unscheduled debut of a colleague. Heidi Melton's gorgeous middle voice sounded great as Sieglinde. Dmitry Ivashchenko's dark hued bass was almost too beautiful for the role of Hunding, but he managed to summon up the requisite malice. Christine Goerke once again nailed her B's and C's in Hojotoho, and there was great depth and nuance in her acting, particularly in the long Abschied with Johan Reuter, their interaction really touched the heart.  The orchestra under Johannes Debus outdid itself; whatever balance issues on opening night was absent here. It was one of the most satisfying performances at the COC in recent memory. 

After the performance, Neil Crory and I went backstage to greet the debuting Mr, Savage. I found him to be very congenial, articulate, unassuming, aware of his huge talent yet remaining humble and modest. With his marvelous voice, intelligence and musicality, I dare say he will go far. I hope the COC will bring him back - after all tenor voices of this calibre don't grow on trees! I look forward to hearing him again in the future.  

Issachah Savage in a post-performance glow (Photo: Joseph So)

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