La Scena Musicale

Friday, 6 March 2015

Review: Call Me Debbie

Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva
Deborah Voigt
With Natasha Stoynoff (271 pp.)
New York: Harper Collins (2015)
ISBN: 978-0-06-211827-1

Confession time: when it comes to reading singers’ biographies, I’m a bit of a junkie. Like many passionate opera lovers, I am interested in the artist, but also curious about the person behind the artistry. A sub-genre is the autobiography or memoir, never mind a lot of these tomes listing a co-author or ghostwriter – one needs to read these volumes with a generous helping of salt. During my undergraduate, my first memoir was an old, dusty university library copy of Australian prima donna Nellie Melba’s Melodies and Memories (1926). Ghostwritten by her secretary, the book comes across as formal, stately, ladylike and not terribly interesting. A much more rewarding read was the wickedly funny Men, Women and Tenors (1937) by fellow Kiwi-Aussie diva Frances Alda. After plowing though this thick, 300-page volume, I was hooked.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times, the generally staid classical singers’ memoirs have evolved into something more daring, with more revelations and exposés and less of the nitty-gritty, boring bits that read like a tedious chronicle of past performances. To be sure, many are still not quite tell-all tales, or the narrative is so reverential that it sounds like something written by a publicist. The cynic in me couldn’t help a smirk at the title of a well-known Italian soprano’s memoir called “…More Than A Diva.” Industry insiders will easily recognize the ones that have been sanitized for public consumption, or the presence of glaring omissions regarding private lives, such as the recent book by a great African-American diva. Some artists use the memoir to settle old scores, such as the one by a famous Russian soprano. Perhaps it’s understandable why a singer gets evasive when it comes to personal details - after all a memoir is a sort of “performance” and few artists would willingly expose the underside of a life for scrutiny. For the few more forthcoming, the result can be a riveting read - Christa Ludwig, Barbara Hendricks, and Galina Vishnevskaya come to mind.

Now we have a new book that sets the tell-all bar very high indeed: Call Me Debbie by American soprano Deborah Voigt. One of the most celebrated sopranos of our time, Voigt in her prime was a superb Wagner and Strauss singer. To those lucky enough to have experienced her on the opera and recital stages, it likely left an indelible impression. (I use past tense because her instrument has changed with the passage of time, and she seems to have given up her core Wagner and Strauss repertoire in favour of musicals and one-woman shows) Before this book, we knew nothing about her private struggles as an artist and a woman. Born to a devout Southern Baptist, but sadly dysfunctional, family in Illinois, Voigt’s talent was recognized early. She recounts an epiphany at age 14 when she heard God telling her, “You’re here to sing.” To her religious parents, singing belonged only in church for the glory of God. This was just the first of many inner conflicts in her young life that likely contributed to her multiple addictions – to food, alcohol, and men.

In the book, Voigt chronicles in detail the ups and downs of her relationships with her parents, her struggles with an increasingly serious weight problem, and her tendency to fall in love with the wrong guy. To deal with all these issues in her life while juggling a demanding international career, Voigt developed a dependency on alcohol that became increasingly dire. While she managed to keep her alcoholism from interfering with her work, she wasn’t so lucky with the weight issue. The matter came to a head in 2004 when she was released from a Covent Garden Ariadne auf Naxos for being too heavy for “The Little Black Dress.” With a signed contract, she had every right to sing. Royal Opera chose to release her with full pay, and Voigt used the fee to pay for gastric bypass surgery. But a medical intervention is not a cure, and her old pattern of behaviour persisted. The narrative on how she passed out for thirty-six hours and woke up with unexplained bruises all over her body is chilling. The book graphically details her addiction issues and the slow climb out of the abyss through recovery, attending AA meetings and various rehabs. Reading her travails might satisfy the voyeur in some of us, but it also makes for decidedly uncomfortable reading. One gets a true appreciation of the fact that great singers like Voigt may have the voice of an angel, but many of them have feet of clay.

If there is a downside to Call Me Debbie, it has to do with having focused so much on the singer’s personal issues that there’s little room left in the book on her art – what made her famous in the first place. Other than some discussions of her signature roles of Brunnhilde, Sieglinde and Ariadne, heroines that are somehow tied in with the singer’s relationship and self esteem issues, there’s precious little about anything else musical. We learn little about Voigt the musician, about her approaches and insights into the music she sings. Yes there are the occasional tidbits on colleagues, all treated in a surprisingly genteel fashion – for example she adores Domingo and makes allowances for the great Luciano. Comments on Jose Cura’s oversized ego is about as catty as Voigt gets. The two evil mezzos with whom Voigt crossed swords remain nameless. At the end of the day, the book really isn’t about music, but addiction and recovery. Its tell-all style, written in a relaxed, archetypal American lingo (no profanities spared!) will endear it to the general reader, even if the person has little interest in opera. It makes the absence of an index and performance history almost irrelevant. It’s an absorbing and interesting read for anyone curious about Deborah Voigt, the woman and the artist. 

- Joseph So

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Thursday, 5 March 2015

Piano Hero 2015: Afterthoughts for Future Directions

Robert Rowat
Piano Hero 2015: Afterthoughts for Future Directions

By Jennifer Liu

This past January, hundreds of amateur pianists across Canada sent videos of themselves playing to CBC’s Piano Hero contest. Thomas Yu emerged as the winner of the competition, which included a voting component as well as a judging round. A periodontist by profession, Yu’s polished performance of the Schumann-Liszt transcription of Widmung received unanimous approval from the judges, including concert pianists Janina Fialkowska, David Jalbert, and Stewart Goodyear.

The final count totalled 243 video submissions from across the country, as diverse in style as the pianists were in background and experience. Video views topped 540,000, a testament to the CBC’s ability to reconnect with Canadian classical music enthusiasts and breathe new life into a field that is sometimes considered to be stagnating. It’s a winning formula for everyone: participants were able to showcase their playing, while the CBC improved its image as a supporter of the arts after recent cuts to its classical music programming.

Robert Rowat, project leader for the contest and community producer for classical music at CBC Music, offers an inside perspective on the competition’s logistics, as well as insights gained from the inaugural edition.

LSM: Can we expect another edition of Piano Hero in the future?

Robert Rowat: We were really impressed and encouraged by the level of participation in Piano Hero - not only by the number of people who entered, but also by the public's response. We will decide whether we will do a second edition in the next few months.

What lessons can be drawn from this year's inaugural contest?

RR: The primary lesson we learned was not to underestimate the amateur classical music community in Canada. When we decided to do this contest, we suspected that we might tap into a fun, engaged subculture, but we were not prepared for the overwhelming reaction. The amateur classical music community seems to be thriving, and is very present online and on social media, despite perceptions to the contrary.

The other major lesson we learned is that a music contest can be run entirely online. There are already several excellent competitions for classical musicians in Canada: Canadian Music Competition, OSM Competition, Honens International Piano Competition, Montreal International Musical Competition, to name just a few. We wanted to see if an entirely web-based contest, using video only, and making use of social media and online voting, could coexist with the other more traditional type of competitions. It's our hope that Piano Hero adds another, complementary dimension to this community.

Was the competition pitched in the same way to the anglophone and francophone communities?

RR: We approached the French and English communications in the same way. We used our extensive on-air networks to get the word out. We also spent some time contacting music schools and cultural institutions from coast to coast. And we used the social media networks of CBC Music and ICI Musique to reach the widest possible public.

How were the jury members selected?

RR: A few producers from CBC Music and ICI Musique had a brainstorming session on whom we should approach to be on our jury. We needed people with a profile in both English and French Canada. We also tried to think of pianists who would be supportive of a contest geared towards amateur pianists, and carried out entirely online. Our three jurors — Janina Fialkowska, Stewart Goodyear and David Jalbert — were very generous with their time and told us they had a good time judging the finalists.

Was there any difference of opinion between the judges when it came time to pick the grand prize winner?

RR: We used a mathematical judging system, to make sure the judging of the finalists was fair. When the results were tallied, we reached out to each juror to make sure they were happy with the winner, and all three expressed their satisfaction.

How did you come up with the concept of showcasing pianists exclusively?

RR: I was the project leader for Piano Hero, but a few key people conceived of it and worked hard to make it a reality. Guylaine Picard, executive producer at ICI Musique, played an important role throughout.

The idea to run an online video-based contest for amateur classical pianists was first discussed about two years ago at a meeting of CBC/Radio-Canada music producers. It was felt that the piano was probably the most ubiquitous instrument among amateur classical musicians, and would lend itself best to a video-based contest, partly because its solo repertoire does not need accompaniment.

So, did the contest live up to expectations?

RR: The outcome definitely exceeded our best expectations. We consider it to be a big win for the amateur classical piano community. We're really happy we decided to do it.

CBC is following up on the theme for open call for musicians with their 2015 edition of Searchlight, open to musical acts across all disciplines through March 29. 

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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Cette semaine à Montréal : le 2 au 8 mars

Ensemble Constantinople (Photo: J. Michel)

Cette semaine à Montréal : le 2 au 8 mars

L’Orient imaginaire par l’OSM
On a eu l’excellente idée, à l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, de commander une pièce à Kiya Tabassian pour un programme de concert qui compte aussi des œuvres de Saint-Saëns, Dukas et Strauss, en lien avec l’exposition Merveilles et mirages de l’orientalisme : de l’Espagne au Maroc, Benjamin-Constant en son temps (jusqu’au 31 mai au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) « L’œuvre est inspirée des musiques arabo-andalouses, dit Tabassian, mais je ne voulais pas faire des arrangements pour grand orchestra de mélodies traditionnelles.

Ça reste une musique très personnelle, mais avec les couleurs persanes qui m’habitent, et puis il y a aussi la voix de Françoise Atlan, avec qui je travaille depuis plusieurs années, et aussi Didem Bashar, qui joue du kanoun [instrument de la famille des cithares sur table]. C’est la première fois que je compose pour un orchestre symphonique, et c’est un grand plaisir, bien sûr. Je dois dire que c’est une œuvre qui me surprend moi-même! » L’OSM présentera L’Orient imaginaire le 4 mars à 20h et le 8 mars à 14h30 à la
Maison symphonique de Montréal.

À surveiller durant MNM
Du 26 février au 7 mars, la 7e édition du festival Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques présentera sous le thème "Environnements et nouvelles technologies" une trentaine de concerts dans 11 lieux différents. Quelques faits saillants:

À tout seigneur tout honneur, c'est la Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), productrice de l'événement, qui ouvre les festivités avec cette touche de démesure qui caractérise la vision de son directeur artistique Walter Boudreau. Le programme compte une vidéo-musique (Yan Breuleux, Soizic Lebrat - 2012), une pièce pour piano préparé (John Cage - 1945), des extraits du film Ce soir on improvise (Raymond Gervais, Michel Di Torre - 1974) et une réorchestration, par Boudreau et René Bosc, de l'œuvre radiophonique "injouable" Atlantide (1985), de Michel-Georges Brégent (Salle Pierre-Mercure, 26 février - 19h).

Il faut aussi mentionner le concert de l'ensemble Onix, du Mexique, pour un double concert multimédia (Agora Hydro-Québec, 4 mars, 21h et 23h).

N'oublions pas les évènements gratuits: les 150 voix des Papes hurlants de l'ensemble Mruta Mertsi sous la direction d'André Pappathomas (Complexe Desjardins, 29 février - 23h) ou les 100 guitaristes de l'ensemble Instruments of Happiness Extreme, célébrant le 100e anniversaire de naissance du légendaire guitariste Les Paul sous la direction de Tim Brady (même endroit, 7 mars - 15h).
- Réjean Beaucage

Frédéric Demers présente, dans le cadre du festival Montréal/Nouvelles Musique 2015, un programme déjanté. Au menu : électroacoustique et foisonnement de sons hyper vibrés avec trompette si bémol, cornet à pistons, trompette tibétaine, bugle et trompette naturelle, le tout enrobé d’un soupçon de théâtralité. Salle Hexagram, Université Concordia, 2 mars, 23 h.
- Renée Banville

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This Week in Montreal: March 2 to 8

Ensemble Constantinople (Photo: J. Michel)

This Week in Montreal: March 2 to 8

Adventures in the East
The OSM has commissioned a piece by Kiya Tabassian for a concert including works by Saint-Saëns, Dukas, and Strauss, to go with the exposition
Marvels And Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time (until May 31 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal). Says Tabassian, “The work is inspired by Arab-Andalusian music, but I didn’t want to do arrangements of traditional melodies for large orchestras.

It remains a very personal music, but with the Persian colours that live within me. There’s also the voice of Françoise Atlan, with whom I’ve worked for several years, as well as Didem Bashar, who plays the kanun [a type of tabletop zither]. It’s the first time that I’ve composed for a symphony orchestra, and it’s a great pleasure, of course. I must say that it’s a work that has surprised even me!” Adventures in the East performed by the OSM, March 4 at 8 pm and March 8 at 2:30 pm at the Maison symphonique de Montréal.

MNM Highlights
From 26 February to 7 March, the 7th edition of the Montréal/Nouvelles Musiques festival will present some 30 concerts in 11 venues on the theme: “Environments and new technologies”. A few highlights:

To give credit where credit is due, the producer of the event, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ), will open the festivities with the extravagance characteristic of its artistic director, Walter Boudreau. The program includes a music video (Yan Breleux, Soizic Lebrat – 2012), a prepared piece for the piano (John Cage – 1945), extracts from the film Ce soir on improvise (Raymond Gervais, Michel Di Torre – 1974) and a reorchestrization by Boudreau and René Bosc of the “unplayable” radio work, Atlantide (1985), by Michel Georges Brégent (Salle Pierre-Mercure, 26 February – 7 pm).

Mention must also be made of the double multimedia concert by the Onix ensemble from Mexico (Agora Hydro-Québec, 4 March, 9 pm and 11 pm).

Let’s not forget free events: the 500 voices of Les Papes Hurlants of the Mruta Mertsi ensemble, under the direction of André Pappathomas (Compexe Desjardins, 29 February – 11 pm), or the 100 guitarists of the Instruments of Happiness Extreme ensemble, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the legendary guitarist Les Paul, under the direction of Tom Brady (same place, 7 March – 3 pm).
- Réjean Beaucage (Translation Christine Lacroix)

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Ana Sokolovic on Serbian Folklore

Ana Sokolovic (Photo : Alain Lefort)

Ana Sokolovic on Serbian Folklore
By Viktor Lazarov

         Composer Ana Sokolovic is very well known to most contemporary classical music lovers in Canada. In its 2011-2012 season, the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec (SMCQ) dedicated its third Série Hommage to Ana Sokolovic and brought her music to new listeners in the far corners of the country. Today, Ana Sokolovic is an icon of the Canadian contemporary music scene - an artist whose work is a unique blend of two very distinct cultures.
         Ana Sokolovic’s success story is of special interest to me as we share the same background. My parents emigrated from Yugoslavia to Montreal in 1991, just one year before Ana arrived in Canada. Both my parents are artists and they became close friends with Ana back in the 1990s, when all three were graduate music students. (Incidentally, I gave my first solo performance as a young pianist at a joint concert of my parents’ and Ana’s students.)
         While there are many published interviews and articles about Ana’s life and work, I felt that two questions remained unanswered: the development of her early career in Canada and the specific aspect of Serbian folklore that is reflected in her music.
         I interviewed Ana in October 2014 at her home in Montreal; the original interview was in Serbian.

VL: What brought you to Montreal?
AS: In 1992, I left Yugoslavia for two very concrete reasons: the country’s political instability and the absence of a fulfilling career as an artist. I realized that all the efforts that my colleagues and I had put into changing the political situation had been in vain. I was drained of the energy I needed to compose music and I could see no future there for what I was truly qualified to do composing music. At that point I was ready to try my luck elsewhere.
         I remembered a childhood friend who was then living in Montreal. The idea to move to Quebec appealed to me because I had been a great Francophile my whole life. This turned out very well for me, as I consider Quebec a perfect mix of European culture and North American organization. I fit right in from my first day in Montreal and everything came easily to me here.

VL: Could you tell me more about that initial period after you came to Montreal?
AS: A year went by between the day I arrived and when I began my studies. Yet I used the time well by learning the languages, getting to know the city and the people… During my Masters, I met many performers and musicologists, as well as other composers. This was my first contact with Montreal’s musical circles.
         It would have been harder for me to start my life and career from scratch had I been already established in Yugoslavia. In my case, since I had nothing to look back at, it was easier to start from zero in a new place.
         I had many projects right away, but the piece that really kicked off my career was Ambient V for two violins. I wrote it for two friends of mine: Milan Milisavljevic and Marian Mosczak. They performed it at the CECO [Cercle des étudiants en composition], where my husband, Jean Lesage, then only a colleague, had heard it for the first time. He happened to be on the board of the artistic committee of the SMCQ and he liked my piece so much that he proposed they program it on a concert featuring Canadian composers who were born abroad. And so it was!
         How very lucky I was that my piece was performed at a professional concert only a year after its premiere! In terms of my career in Canada, everything truly started with that.

VL: I also wanted to ask you, what are the specific elements of Serbian folklore that inspire you?
AS: Growing up, I listened to classical music as well as pop and rock with my friends. Of course, I was aware of Serbian folklore, sort of peripherally, but never as a main focus - until I came to Canada. Interestingly, it all started with a critique of my piece Ambient V: a colleague wrote that my music had a sharp bite to it and praised it for its “Slavic soul.” As I considered myself a contemporary composer in the European tradition, I could not have been more offended! At the time, I didnt think that, artistically speaking, being modern and having an ethnic colour could go hand in hand. However, this phrase caught on and kept reappearing over the years. Suddenly I told myself that there must be some grounds for this assumption and I began to reconsider my original opinion. Perhaps there was something Slavic in my work, something in my music pertaining to the Balkans. Perhaps, this could even be a very good thing!
         And so I began to look deeper into Serbian folklore in search of elements that were at the heart of my music. As it turns out, very few of these actually had anything to do with Serbian folkloric music itself, but rather with the character of Balkan folklore: embodied in contradictions, extreme and opposite feelings.
         A perfect example of this can be found in Serbian medieval literature.

VL: Serbian epic poems?
AS: That’s right. Serbian epic poetry can be divided in three categories. Epic poems, which were mainly about the heroism and suffering of national heroes in the context of the rebellion against the Ottoman invaders. The second category is lyrical poems, where love is described in very abstract ways, from romantic love, to love between a mother and her child, or love between parents and the third generation… Finally, there are the lyrico-epic poems in which both of the two previous types coexist in one single type of poem. This cohabitation of extreme elements is unique to Serbian folklore and this is precisely what gives it its beauty and originality!
         In musical terms, this is evident in my music through the quick succession of dramatic and delicate elements and their coexistence.
         Another element which has had a lasting influence on me is the idea of the kolo [a traditional Serbian dance in which dancers make a circle, hold hands and twirl for a long time to the sound of rhythmic music]. This dance is usually performed at joyous occasions such as weddings or anniversaries, when people dance for hours at a time, fuelled by several drops of brandy. A type of collective trance takes place, where the dancers are led more by the rhythm than by the melody. This element of trance-like repetition is also something I want to express in my music.
         Finally, the Serbian language itself serves as a source of inspiration through its highly rhythmical qualities. In fact, the sound of the Serbian language changes throughout the country: it is more melodic in the North and becomes increasingly more dry and sparkly as you move down South. The sounds of this sharp, hard, glittery language continually fascinate me! My latest work inspired by the Serbian language is my opera Svadba - meaning “wedding” - for which the libretto was written in Serbian.

You can find an article on Sokolovic by Caroline Rodgers in our December-January 2011 issue. The article is available in French and in English.

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Sunday, 1 March 2015

This Week in Toronto (March 2 - 8)

Toronto Concert Picks for the Week of March 2 to 8

Joseph So

Siberian-born Russian violinist Vadim Repin makes his Toronto recital debut on March 6th 8 pm at Koerner Hall, in a program of works by Ravel, Debussy, Bartok, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Called the Russian Paganini thanks to his dazzling technique, Repin is appearing here with pianist Svetlana Smolina.

Violinist Vadim Repin

Toronto Symphony Orchestra's New Creations Festival that began last week continues with two major events. First is the North American premiere of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen's Let me tell you, to take place on Wednesday, March 4th 8 pm.  Also on the program is George Benjamin's Duet for piano and orchestra.  Peter Oundjian is the host and shares conducting duties with Benjamin. There's going to be a pre-concert performance of new music, an intermission chat as well as a post-performance event. Click here for more details -

Composer George Benjamin (Photo: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian)

For opera fans, the centerpiece of this year's New Creations Festival is the concert performance of George Benjamin's Written On Skin. This opera was a sensation at Royal Opera Covent Garden two years ago. Erica Jeal, my colleague at Opera (uk) where I'm the Toronto correspondent/reviewer, gave it a 5-Star in her review in The Guardian. Barbara Hannigan is joined by mezzo Krisztina Szabo, tenor Isaiah Bell, baritone Christopher Purves and countertenor Bernhard Landauer in this performance. Composer George Benjamin conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Saturday March 7 7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan (Photo: Raphael Brand)

Soprano Barbara Hannigan manages to squeeze into her busy schedule a Workshop for Singers, Composers and Librettists at Walter Hall on Monday March 2 2 pm.  Joining Hannigan is composer Hans Abrahamsen and librettist Paul Griffiths. The workshop focuses on Abrahamsen's new work, Let me tell you, which will have its North American premiere on Wednesday.

Soprano Nancy Argenta 

Another distinguished artist, soprano and baroque specialist Nancy Argenta, is in town to give a masterclass at University of Toronto.  Like Hannigan and many other Canadian opera singers - interestingly mostly women like Adrianne Pieczonka and Ingrid Attrot - Argenta studied with the great voice teacher Mary Morrison. Argenta's masterclass is on Tuesday March 3rd 10 am to 1 pm in Walter Hall.

Capella Intima and the Gallery Players of Niagara present the only Toronto performance of An Evening of Ancient Music, featuring rounds, catches, airs, and a concert performance of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Jennifer Enns Modolo, Sheila Dietrich, Emily Klassen, David Roth and Bud Roach are the soloists. Performance on Friday March 6 7:39 pm at Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor Street West.

Opera York  presents Mozart"s The Magic Flute, According to statistics from the last five completed seasons, Die Zauberfloete is the third most popular opera worldwide in terms of the number of performances (605), out of a total of 2,581 operatic works.  Only La traviata and Carmen are more popular. Canadian veteran bass Gary Relyea sings Sarastro, soprano Nicole Dubinsky is Queen of the Night, soprano Anne Marie Ramos is Pamina, Riccardo Iannello sings Tamino, and veteran baritone Douglas Tranquada is Papageno. Geoffrey Butler conducts. Two performances March 5 and 7 7:30 pm at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.

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