La Scena Musicale

Thursday, 17 December 2015

A Tale of Two Messiahs: Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Against the Grain Theatre

A Tale of Two Messiahs (Review)

Two contrasting yet complementary visions of the Handel Masterpiece enrich the Holiday Season

~ Joseph So

For Toronto classical music lovers, December is Messiah month. Given this is English Canada, the Handel masterpiece dominates the Holiday programming landscape, with a few other pieces (notably the Berlioz L'Enfance du Christ and Bach's Christmas Oratorio) sprinkled in between. When it comes to Messiah, for years the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was the main game in town, with its large orchestra playing on modern instruments, big-name soloists with volume to spare, and the terrific choral forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. When Tafelmusik presented its first Messiah 35 years ago with a baroque chamber orchestra on period instruments and reduced choral forces, it caught on immediately with those audience members yearning for a more intimate experience. Of course there are others which I've attended - and very much enjoyed - over the years, but for me, the TSO and Tafelmusik are the standards by which all other Messiahs are compared.

But now we have a third, a very interesting take, on this work. Against the Grain Theatre, under the direction of Joel Ivany, is just like its name suggests - an adventurous, iconoclastic, cutting edge company noted for re-imagining old standard repertoire. I've seen many shows from them the last few years, from Boheme to Marriage of Figaro to Uncle John (aka Don Giovanni). What they do is provocative and never dull - I wouldn't say everything works 100%, but when it does, it can really hit the bullseye.  AtG presented this very same Messiah two years ago. I attended the opening in the middle of a snowstorm, which was almost as memorable as the performance itself. Now it's been remounted at the more convenient Harbourfront Centre, with additional movement sequences by Jennifer Nichols. How do these shows compare?  Or is a comparison even possible?    

Sir Andrew Davis and the TSO receiving audience accolades (Photo: Joseph So)

I admit I'm a bit of an old guard when it comes to this oratorio. For the last 40 years, rarely a year went by without my attending a TSO Messiah. There's something viscerally comforting to be enveloped and cushioned by that orchestral and choral sound. The line up this year is particularly fine, with the beloved Sir Andrew Davis back again to give us his personal stamp on this piece. His version is musically rich, with some surprising sounds made by extra instruments - Sleigh bells, anyone? - and of course the bleating of the trombones in "All we like Sheep." I recall it was great fun.   

(l. to r.) John Relyea, Andrew Staples, Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong (Photo: Joseph So)

I attended opening night on Tuesday. Of the quartet of soloists, three are familiar to Toronto audiences - soprano Erin Wall is a resident of the GTA and has sung with distinction at the COC and TSO in the past. She returns for the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro next month. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong, previously seen as Angelina in La cenerentola and Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, returns as Calbo in Rossini's rarely performed Maometto secondo in May. And of course John Relyea's stunning bass and patrician stage presence impressed everyone last season as Duke Bluebeard. Only British tenor Andrew Staples is new locally. He sang with a British choral tradition sound - clear-toned and ingratiating without a lot of vibrato. Unlike many choral tenors, he has the necessary volume to fill Roy Thomson Hall.  His "Comfort Ye" was lovely, with fine coloratura. Then it was the mezzo's turn to shine in "But who may abide."  DeShong, diminutive on stage, is a low mezzo and bel canto specialist, with excellent agility. Her "Behold! A virgin shall conceive" was a highlight, as was the duet with the soprano, "He shall feed His flock" - their voices blended beautifully. 

It was good to have John Relyea back since he cancelled due to illness the last time he was in town for Messiah not long ago. Billed as a bass-baritone, Relyea is really a bass, especially now with maturity on his side. He brought the requisite gravitas to his music and sang an impressive "The Trumpet shall Sound." The soprano is the last of the four to take center stage in this piece, and Erin Wall sang with her customary pure, silvery tone, perhaps a touch more flutter at the top and more aspirated consonants than one normally hears from her.  I've noticed that the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir has a lot of new blood lately. I missed quite a few of the familiar faces of the past, but such is life! One constant however is the TMC's excellence with its trademark of smooth, homogenized choral sound, and Noel Edison, the choral conductor, sure knows how to coax it out of the 130 strong choir.  Sir Andrew's return to the TSO is always an occasion, and his version of Messiah, unveiled a couple of years back, remains enormously gratifying. He conducted with great affection and a firm hand. Roy Thomson Hall was close to sold out, and the appreciative audience gave the performers sustained ovations.       

(l. to r.) Stephen Hegedus, Andrea Ludwig, Miriam Khalil, Owen McCausland (Photo: Joseph So)

After a satisfying Messiah like the TSO's, it's like a full and delicious meal - one needs some time afterwards to savour it. But I booked the opening night show of Against the Grain's version the very next day.  Well, it couldn't have been more different.  If the TSO is traditional to a 'T,' the AtG is very much a 21st Century take on a work that's 274 years old.  Yes, all my life I've liked my Messiah in the symphony hall or in a church, but now I found myself increasingly drawn to unconventional interpretations. One of these days, I would like to see a large-scale, fully staged version in the opera house! With the AtG's presentation of 16 choir members and a chamber orchestra of 18 players, it made a surprisingly powerful impression, given its smallish scale. Part of the reason is that human drama needs to be acted out physically. It's fine to stand and sing in a reverent manner, as in a church service, but the injection of movement packs an emotional wallop. The choreography by Jennifer Nichols makes a strong statement. The stylized movements and gestures took some time to get used to, but after several minutes, everything seemed quite natural. I was particularly impressed by the commitment and the overt joy from the chorus. They sounded and looked like they lived every note and every word. Mind you, they don't approach the smooth homogeneity of sound and the precision one has come to expect from TMC, but these AtG guys and gals don't take a back seat when it comes to heart-felt expression.     

The Against the Grain Chorus (Photo: Joseph So)

All four soloists are well known to Canadian audiences. In this show, they are required to not just stand and sing but to act and move, often in unconventional ways. Also, the stage director Joel Ivany is not shy in injecting funny moments, eliciting laughter from the audience, unheard of in a Messiah even a few short years ago. Perhaps his staging of  "All we like Sheep" was a bit over-the-top, but the audience loved it. Of the soloists, I was most impressed by Owen McCausland's beautiful, clarion tenor. He also handled the coloratura well. I recall when he first joined the COC Ensemble, his stage manner was quite reserved, but look at him now, taking his clothes of (partially!) in "Ev'ry Valley"  Stephen Hegedus may not have the booming bass one has come to expect in his music, but there are plenty of compensation in other ways. He has a brilliant top which he put to good use.  His lithe body was put to good use by Ivany's staging, and kudos to him for the bravery of donning the gold lame body stocking at the end - it totally brought the house down. Andrea Ludwig's mezzo is on the small side and the lower register doesn't sufficiently project. However, in this small venue, she rightly refused to push and thus sang with much warmth and beauty. Soprano Miriam Khalil has a dark-hued, opulent-sounding soprano, sounding lovely, a few steely top notes notwithstanding. The soloists were ably supported by the fluent and confident conducting of Topher Mokrzewski, who drew beautiful sounds from the small orchestra. The large and enthusiastic audience, perhaps a bit younger than the usual oratorio crowd, gave the performers a rousing ovations at the end. 

Joel Ivany and Creative Team (Photo: Joseph So)

Two different approaches, each vital, engaging, and memorable in its own way. I wouldn't want to do without either one.  Additional performances of TSO Messiah Dec. 18, 19, 20 at Roy Thomson Hall.  Additional performances of AtG Messiah Dec. 17, 18, 19 at Harbourfront Centre.

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Monday, 14 December 2015

Cette semaine à Montreal : le 14 au 20 décembre

La soprano Kathryn Lewek

Trois versions de l’Oratorio de Noël de Bach
Les mélomanes auront l’occasion de choisir cette année parmi trois versions de l’Oratorio de Noël de J. S. Bach, qui compte parmi les plus lumineuses de ses compositions.
L’Oratorio de Noël fait partie du Festival Bach chaque année. En collaboration avec le Festival, l’OSM, dirigé par John Nelson, présente les cantates I, II, V et VI. Avec Kathryn Lewek, soprano, Robin Blaze, contreténor, Julian Prégardien, ténor, Gordon Bintner, baryton et le Chœur de l’OSM. Maison symphonique, 16 et 17 décembre, 20h.
Dans le cadre de l’intégrale des cantates de Bach lancée par la Fondation Arte Musica, I Musici interprète les cantates I, II et III, sous la direction de Jean-Marie Zeitouni. Avec Kimy McLaren, soprano, Mireille Lebel, alto, Steven Labrie, baryton et le Chœur du Studio de Musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM). Salle Bourgie, 19 décembre, 15h et 20 décembre, 14h.
Romantisme et exotisme à L’OM
Yannick Nézet-Séguin et le pianiste Jan Lisiecki se retrouveront le 20 décembre pour un concert teinté de romantisme nordique et slave avec Grieg et Rachmaninov. Maison symphonique, 20 décembre, 15 h. En tournée dans 4 arrondissements du 16 au 19.
Orgue à la Cathédrale Christ Church
Le 19 décembre, Patrick Wedd, organiste titulaire, interprète La Nativité du Seigneur d’Olivier Messiaen.
Orgue à l’Oratoire Saint-Joseph
Tous les Montréalais ont déjà vu de loin le dôme de l’oratoire Saint-Joseph. Mais combien sont déjà allés à l’intérieur ? On y trouve un splendide orgue Beckerath inauguré en 1960 qui compte cinq claviers, 78 jeux et 5811 tuyaux. Les dimanches après-midi, on y présente un concert gratuit à 15 h 30, avec projection sur grand écran. Pour le temps des fêtes, la série Noël à l’orgue présente Noël improvisé avec William Porter (États-Unis) le 20 décembre, le 27 décembre, Noël romantique, avec Julie Pinsonneault, et le 3 janvier, Noël français avec Jean-Michel Grondin. De plus, les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal présentent aussi un concert de Noël le 20 décembre à 14 h, dans la crypte.
Luminothérapie - du 10 décembre au 31 janvier
Les arts visuels font partie du paysage et du mode de vie des Montréalais qui ont la chance d’avoir accès, et souvent gratuitement, à de nombreuses facettes de cette expression artistique. Cet hiver, profitez de Luminothérapie, car non seulement vous avez besoin de lumière durant la saison froide, mais de plus vous pourrez partager, avec votre famille et vos amis, une expérience esthétique et quasi-hypnotique inoubliable avec toutes ces productions artistiques interactives hautes en couleurs.
Arts visuels à Montréal
Au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (MBAM), découvrez un volet de l’histoire artistique canadienne et montréalaise longtemps méconnu avec l’exposition Une modernité des années 1920 consacrée aux artistes du Groupe de Beaver Hall, présentée jusqu’au 31 janvier 2016.
Jusqu’au 10 janvier 2016, le Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) présente une exposition couvrant la carrière de l’artiste américaine Dana Schutz, dont le travail des dix dernières années a exercé une profonde influence sur la peinture contemporaine. Puisant dans les avant-gardes du début du XXe siècle, du cubisme synthétique et de l’expressionnisme allemand, l’art très coloré de Dana Schutz est une fusion de figuration et d’abstraction.
À voir également au MAC, Grosse Fatigue, une installation vidéo de 13 minutes de Camille Henrot qui lui a valu le Lion d’argent de la meilleure jeune artiste de la Biennale de Venise en 2013. L’artiste française propose une histoire de l’univers conjuguant des éléments d’histoire scientifique à divers récits sur la création du monde provenant de diverses traditions et cultures. Toujours jusqu’au 10 janvier, Patrick Bernatchez présente une exposition articulée autour d’œuvres tirées de deux grands ensembles de son répertoire, Chrysalides et Lost in Time. Le public y retrouvera l’essence de son travail qui aborde des questions liées à la vie et à la mort, à la décomposition, à l’entropie, au cycle des saisons ainsi qu’aux dimensions multiples du temps.
Au Musée McCord, jusqu’au 10 avril 2016, voyez Montréal dans l’œil de Vittorio, 50 ans de vie urbaine et de création graphique. Cette exposition est consacrée à l’artiste affichiste d’origine italienne Vittorio Fiorucci dont la carrière s’est échelonnée sur 50 ans. Arrivé à Montréal en 1951, il y découvrira sa vocation en expérimentant la bande dessinée, la photographie, les découpages et les collages. À travers la carrière de ce créateur humoristique, l’exposition retrace l’histoire culturelle du Québec des années 1950 à 2000 au moyen de 125 affiches, photographies, illustrations et bandes dessinées.
Une idée de sortie avec des jeunes de trois à neuf ans ? Emmenez-les voir Le cirque de Monsieur Lapin au Musée McCord. Dans cette exposition inspirée de la collection de livres à succès Monsieur Lapin des éditions Les 400 coups, les jeunes se livreront à une enquête pour retrouver les accessoires de cirque disparus un soir de première et ainsi découvrir les quelque 200 jouets et objets des collections du musée.

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This Week in Montréal: December 14 to 20

soprano Kathryn Lewek

Three Versions of Bach's Christmas Oratorio
Music lovers this season are fortunate to have their pick of three versions of J. S. Bach's Christmas Oratorio, one of his most luminous compositions.
The Christmas Oratorio is part of the Bach Festival every year. In collaboration with the festival, the OSM, conducted by John Nelson, presents cantatas I, II, V, and VI. With soprano Kathryn Lewek, countertenor Robin Blaze, tenor Julian Prégardien, baritone Gordon Bintner, and the OSM Choir. Maison symphonique, December 16 and 17, 8 pm.
As part of the Arte Musica Foundation's integral Bach cantata project, I Musici performs cantatas I, II, and III under the direction of Jean-Marie Zeitouni. With soprano Kimy McLaren, alto Mireille Lebel, baritone Steven Labrie, and the Chœur du Studio de Musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM). Bourgie Hall, December 19, 3 pm and December 20, 2 pm.
Romanticism and Exoticism with the OM
Yannick Nézet-Séguin and pianist Jan Lisiecki come together on December 20 for a concert tinged with the Nordic and Slavic romanticism of Grieg and Rachmaninov. Maison symphonique, Decmeber 20, 3 pm. On tour in four neighbourhoods from December 16 to 19.
Organ at Christ Church Cathedral
On the 19th, Patrick Wedd, principal organist, will play La Nativité du Seigneur by Olivier Messiaen.
Oragn at St. Joseph’s Oratory
All Montrealers have seen the oratory dome from afar. But how many have actually been inside? They’d find a splendid Beckerath organ inaugurated in 1960 that has five keyboards, 78 stops and 5,811 pipes. On Sunday afternoons you can hear a free concert at 3:30 pm, with an accompanying screening. For the holidays, the series Noël à l’orgue will present Noël improvisé with William Porter (United States) on December 20, December 27, Noël romantique with Julie Pinsonneault, and on January 3, Noël français with Jean-Michel Grondin. Also, on December 20 at 2 pm, the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal will present a Christmas concert in the crypt.
English Theatre in Montréal
Penned by English playwright Nina Raine in 2010,
Tribes essentially portrays families as tribes, whose members instill values, beliefs and language in their progeny. Tribes’ intellectually-inclined, Jewish/British protagonist family, is highly verbose, rather eccentric, somewhat dysfunctional and mostly entertaining. Youngest child Billy is born deaf, feels like an outsider and struggles to be “heard.” Eventually, he develops a relationship which enables him to fulfill his need for self-expression. This play ultimately celebrates the human spirit via love and language. A Segal Centre production staged through special arrangement with New York’s Dramatists Play Service Inc. Directed by Sarna Lapine. Nov. 29 to Dec. 20.
Luminothérapie – December 10 to January 31
In Montréal, visual arts are a large part of the city’s personality and way of life. The city is flush with art expositions all year long, most of which are free. To make up for the short winter days and brighten up the long winter nights, check out Luminothérapie, an interactive, colourful, and hypnotic festival of light, and best of all – it’s free! A great activity to share with friends and family.
Visual Arts in Montréal
t the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, discover a long unknown part of Canadian and Montréalaise history with the exhibition “Une modernité des années 1920“ about the artists of the Beaver Hall Group, on display until January 31 2016.
Until January 10 2016 the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC) is hosting an exhibition on the career of American artists Dana Schutz, whose work in the last ten years has had a profound impact on contemporary painting. Drawing on the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, synthetic cubism, and German expressionism, Schutz’s very colourful art is a fusion of figuration and abstraction.
Also at the MAC is Grosse Fatigue, a 13-minute long video installation by Camille Henrot, winner of the Silver Lion for promising young artists at the Venice Biennale 2013. This French artist presents a history of the universe combining elements from the history of science to stories about the creation of the world from various traditions and cultures.
Until January 10 Patrick Bernatchez will present an exhibition about works taken from two main collections of his repertoire, Chrysalides and Lost in Time. The public will discover the essence of his work, which deals with issues of life and death, decomposition, entropy, and the four seasons as well as the multiple dimensions of time.
Until April 10 2016 see the exhibition “Montreal through the eyes of Vittorio: 50 Years of City Life and Graphic Design” at the McCord Museum. This exhibition deals with Italian-born artist Vittorio Fiorucci, whose career spanned 50 years. Arriving in Montreal in 1951, there he discovered his vocation through comic books, photography, decoupage and collages. Through the career of this humoristic creator the exhibition traces the cultural history of Quebec from the 1950s to the 2000s through 125 posters, photographs, illustrations and comic strips.
Need an idea for something to do with children between 3 and 9? Take them to see Mister Rabbit’s Circus at the McCord Museum.  In this exhibition, inspired by the best-selling Mister Rabbit books (published by Les 400 coups), children will be able to follow an investigation to find the missing circus equipment on opening night and in doing so discover the 200 toys and objects in the museum’s collections.

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