Thursday, October 27, 2016

Norma at the COC and Mystical Landscapes

Last night (Wed. Oct 26) we attended the performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s opera, Norma, at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. 

Altogether the show was a more than adequate but less than transcendental version of this much beloved piece, but still worth the hike down the QEW to the Big Smoke.

The opera is set in Gaul in 50 B.C.E. and in this production actually takes place there and then as the librettist intended. I mention this because we have been present at performances of operas whose setting and period were changed, not always to happy effect.

We intentionally avoided hearing Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, in spite of the accolades which have been thrown her way. She was similarly praised for her interpretation of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux and we were disappointed as I wrote then.

The Norma this night was Johannesburg native Elza van den Heever. She sang all the words and notes and acted pretty well this uniquely demanding role. She studied in San Francisco and her career was launched when she won the 2008 Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition. She is having a great international career singing a wide variety of roles and styles.  Norma isn’t her cup of tea, though. A German approach still colours her bel canto singing. She doesn’t manage the line and evenness which is at the heart of the style. One reviewer described her as “a young Joan Sutherland” and that person must never have heard Dame Joan. (I did, from close up, on numerous occasions as a COC chorister.)

Mezzo Isabel Leonard, as Adalgisa, did the best singing of the evening and has a more even production and ability to execute the bel canto style than den Heever. I think she took the reserved temple acolyte a bit too far in her acting which was far too restrained but that could have been a directorial decision.

Tenor Russel Thomas sang Pollione and acted effectively. His repertoire is dominated by rather heavy tenor roles like Don José, Turiddu and Florestan. That’s the way he sang this Bellini role which is written nothing like the tenors in La Sonnambula or I Puritani. His approach, however, led to trouble with his really high notes (i.e above an A)  which were pushed and unpleasant.

Dimitry Ivashchenko, as Norma’s father, the high priest of the Druids, was unreservably excellent with a marvellous voice and convincing stage manner, rivalling Leonard for best singing of the evening.

The chorus was brilliant, especially in the breathtakingly fast “Guerra, Guerra” chorus.

The orchestra (conducted by Stephen Lord) and off-stage Banda (conducted, I presume, by my old boss, Derek Bate) were excellent as usual although the pit orchestra did overwhelm quiet singing by the principals on some occasions.

In closing, we also took in the Mystical Landscapes show
at the  Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a must for anyone with more than a passing interest in visual art. The admission is considerably less than you will have to pay to get to its next stop at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It includes some really stunning pieces by Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh and some lesser known artists including Eugene Jansson, four of whose big pieces make him my favourite previously unfamiliar artist.

Friday, August 12, 2016

From Tchaikovsky to Ravel at the Brott Festival

Last night we went to hear a concert in the Brott Music Festival Series. It was titled From Tchaikovsky to Ravel and included Ringelspiel by Ana Sokolovic, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5 in E minor and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Minor at the McIntyre Theatre on the Mohawk College Fennel Campus.

In past seasons I have attended as many as six of the Brott Music Festival concerts. The venues were local, most were presentations of real orchestral repertoire played by the excellent Academy Orchestra and reasonable priced. When I looked at this year’s season I was surprised to see that only this concert really interested me. The rest were either out of town, pops (Led Zepplin? Really?), chamber or operatic (I love the Pearl Fisher’s Duet and The Marriage of Figaro but I personally don’t need to hear them again.)

Ana Sokolovic on the cover of the Socan Magazine

They opened the concert with Ringelspiel. Ana Sokolovic is a Professor of Composition at the Université de Montréal, an eminent Canadian composer with an impressive biography. She is writing an opera for the COC 2019-20 season. This piece, (Merry Go Round in English), commissioned by the NAC Orchestra, is in five sections played without a pause. It is a somewhat programmatic portrayal of different sorts of ringelspielen. It is also an inventory of effects and extended techniques. Trombones and strings slide from note to note, cellos tap and rattle different parts of their instrument and so forth. It was likely a useful experience for the young musicians to have to incorporate these techniques into what is, no doubt, a challenging piece. Beautiful and engaging for this listener it was not. And so the apparent goal of some composers of Academic New Music to confound and alienate their public continues.

 Sara Davis-Buechner

Next came the Ravel concerto which I had come to hear. The soloist, Sara Davis-Buechner, has had a long and varied career and, as the program informed us, an active repertoire of more than one hundred concerti. She could certainly play this one displaying great virtuosity and enthusiasm. This concerto, though, requires a certain Gallic understatement and elegance which her playing lacked. Moreover, when she brought out dominant lines the others sometimes disappeared. The opening of the slow movement was nearly inaudible to us, in the middle of the floor barely under the balcony. I was prepared to be transported and was not. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by recordings.

The second half was the Tchaikovsky symphony. I’ve now heard the 4th, 5th and 6th in the last year. It could be worse, I suppose, I’ve avoided hearing any of the ballet suites. The strings handled the very busy scale passages with aplomb, the woodwinds and principal horn played the numerous solos beautifully and the brass were tastefully forceful at the climaxes. The first two movement were lead capably, aside from a few not-quite-unamimous entries, by Apprentice Conductor Kirk Kirzer and the waltz and finale by Boris Brott who is a master with this repertoire.

Maestro Boris Brott

Maestro Brott obviously works well with young players and I’ve never heard a performance at the Brott Festival that was less than first-rate. However, the auditorium wasn’t nearly full last night as it has been in the past. It’s hard to persuade folks to buy subscriptions (the lifeblood of any arts organization) when most of the repertoire or venues don’t suit. I’m sure the Festival team and board will look at their numbers and draw some conclusions. It would be a shame to lose this series which provides the only opportunity to hear professional-level orchestral music performances in the summer in our community.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Maometto II at the COC

We went to see the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Giacomo Rossini’s Maometto II last night (Thurs. May 6, 2016) at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. If you haven’t seen this show and aren’t planning to, I’d encourage you to reconsider. 

Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II

While his comedies (Il Barbiere, Italiana in Algieri, etc.) are the music by which most of us know Rossini, Maometto II shows just how effective a dramatic operatic composer he could be.

The composer uses the same formal musical devices and harmonic and melodic vocabulary in this piece that he does in the comedies. This is hardly surprising. He wrote 38 operas in the space of 18 years. He must have developed numerous formulas to have been so prolific. 

In some ways, this is a good thing for contemporary audience members. Anyone with more than a passing experience of the composer’s operatic music will have no difficulty with the idiom. It does result in some very long scenes which take a great deal of time to get over very little text and draw out dramatic moments to quarter hours.

This piece is not filled with memorable music and is certainly not a great opera on that account. What makes it worth seeing is the drama and, in this production, some extraordinary singing. 

Tenor Bruce Sledge, in his COC debut, sang wonderfully as Anna’s father Erisso. He has a much more substantial voice than one typically associates with Rossini tenors. He impressed me with his opening recitative and I wondered how he could manage the coloratura and high notes with such a sound. I needn’t have been concerned. It was a very impressive performance.

Bruce Sledge
Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was marvellous. This woman is in the Marilyn Horne mold. She has a beautiful contralto-ish voice with strong low notes, ringing high notes and impeccable runs and flourishes.

Elisabeth DeShong

Soprano Leah Crocetto, singing Anna, should have a spectacular career in Verdian dramatic roles (she will soon sing Aida). Hers is a lovely voice over which she exerts excellent control through the runs and vocal embroidery.

Leah Crocetto

Bass-Baritone Luca Pisaroni was well matched with this stellar cast. In addition to handling the vocal demands of this role he is a fine actor, for example, showing believable surprise when he first recognizes Anna in the first act finale. He seemed to be pushing his voice a bit for dramatic effect which must be a temptation in portraying such a dominating personality.

Luca Pisaroni

I was disappointed that tenor Charles Sy, singing Condulmiero, had only a couple of phrases in the first act because he sounded so good.

There are some odd features of the production. The Turkish army appear to be Ninjas, for example. There is a female dancer with a skull who moves through Maometto’s first scene. Why? She returns later, dancing and taunting Anna, dressed as a belly dancer. The Venetian soldiers have carbines with fixed bayonets in the opening while the Turks, who are about to defeat them, are armed with spears. It’s the only obvious anachronism in the opera.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the staging which is full of operatic clichés. For example, early on in the opera Erisso sings while the male chorus listen from the other side of the stage. During the interlude between the first and second verses they change positions, the entire chorus trooping across the stage and taking up an opposite symmetrical position, for no apparent reason. Later, three different characters go, one after another, to about the same place against the wall downstage right, turn away from the audience, put their hands on the wall and emote silently.

Crocetto has some difficulty moving elegantly on stage, rising from a kneeling position, for example. Perhaps the director should have been more sensitive to this in the staging.

The orchestra and chorus, conducted by Harry Bicket, were excellent as we have come to expect from the COC. 

There are three more performances of this show which closes on May 14. None of us is likely to have another opportunity to see Maometto II without traveling abroad. And there is some of the best singing I’ve ever heard live.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New Trumpet Concert at the HPO

Last night, Saturday April 16th 2016, we went to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play the final concert of this season at Hamilton Place. The organization carries on with further presentations in the spring, including four concerts in their What Next Festival of New Music. The conductor, on this occasion, was Eric Paetkau. He presently leads the Saskatoon Symphony and the group of 27 in Toronto, of which he is the founder.

They opened with the Elgar’s three movement Serenade for Strings. The string sections, with 38 players, are about as big as this orchestra gets. I’d never heard this piece before and, as a big fan of Elgar’s music, I was looking forward to it. A violinist himself, Paetkau elicited a nuanced performance. Unfortunately we rarely got to hear the lovely big sound of this orchestra’s strings as the overall dynamics were tamped down to the point where the pianissimos were virtually inaudible from our orchestra level seats. I wondered whether the conductor had gone out in to the hall at any point to listen.

The second offering was the world première of Abigail Richardson-Schulte’s Trumpet Concerto. The soloist was the orchestra’s principal trumpeter, Michael Fedyshyn. The piece was commissioned by the HPO and the group of 27. Richardson-Schulte writes approachable, eclectic modern music which often has a programmatic element. This piece, however, is absolute music, although its form tends to be episodic.

It is a successful concerto and a very nice piece, and should, like Richardson-Schulte’s previous hit, The Hockey Sweater, be programmed by many Canadian orchestras. There’s lots of variety and the motives out of which the work is constructed were recognizable enough on first hearing that there was no danger of becoming lost. An expert orchestrator, the composer employs striking colouristic features especially in the lovely opening of the middle movement in which simple gestures by the soloist are accompanied by contrasting chords and clusters from the orchestra.

The soloist is called upon to play C trumpet, Bb cornet and flugelhorn at different points in the work. Technically, the bore of the C trumpet is most cylindrical and that of the flugelhorn most conical and, thus, mellowest. In the second movement the sound of the flugelhorn was, indeed, more relaxed, but there was surprisingly little difference between the sound of the trumpet and cornet when the soloist switched back and forth between them in the finale. Fedyshyn handled the demands of the part fluently on all three instruments.

After the lengthy intermission, the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Unlike the Elgar that opened the concert, it was plenty loud in the appropriate places, as this composer’s music tends to be.

However much one likes Tchaikovsky’s music, with its frequent literal repetitions and rising sequences, it is crowd-pleasing music and the conductor and orchestra presented a stirring performance to which the audience responded with the obligatory standing O. (Indeed, some in the audience applauded each movement!)

The plan for the 2016-2017 season has been released and offers some interesting repertoire amidst pop and family concerts. A full 9 concert subscription can be had for as little as $19 a show.

Monday, February 8, 2016

New Conductor at the HPO

We went last night (Sat. Feb. 6/16) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place under their new Principal Conductor and Artistic Director, Gemma New.

Six conductors had been considered for the position to replace James Sommerville who had led the orchestra for almost ten years.

This concert presented three major modern works, two by two great Russian modernists, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a current raiser by Canadian Kelly-Marie Murphy.

Regional orchestras, like the HPO, rarely plan an entire program of pieces composed after the First World War. Any music that new is usually counteracted by more standard orchestral fare. 

I, for one, was delighted to have the opportunity to hear this conductor and orchestra in a program which was likely unfamiliar to many of the players and would challenge them artistically and technically in ways that older standard repertoire cannot.

My expectations were met, completely, by the end of the evening. I tried to avoid appearing to be cheerleading, but the concert really was that good.

Gemma New

They opened with Murphy’s A Thousand Natural Shocks written for the Vancouver Orchestra in 2000. It’s an overture-like piece which begins with an extended tympani solo (played to great effect by Jean-Norman Iadeluca) and features the three trumpeters playing, intermittently, on conch shells. It also calls for an off-stage flute solo and there’s a section for harp playing alone. Murphy’s idiom is very eclectic. The work reminded me at times of the rhythmic Bernstein of West Side Story (albeit an atonal one) and of the very best original cinematic music.

This is a highly effective work, a really good piece. It was clearly well received by the audience, and presaged a spectacularly virtuosic evening.

Next, Canadian pianist Katherine Chi played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Although it is in three movements, each is made up of short contrasting sections so the middle one is not, strictly speaking, a slow movement. The music changes mood and motion frequently and the composer, himself an impressive pianist and showy orchestrator, gives soloist and orchestra numerous opportunities to thrill the public.

It was, again, a very convicing performance. Chi is a really wonderful pianist who is at home in this repertoire. Conductor and orchestra, especially woodwind soloists, supporter her capably.

After the break, the orchestra played Shostakovich’s First Symphony. The piece remains a stunning, almost incomprehensible, achievement for its nineteen year old composer. Although the music sometimes brings to mind music of the Russian Romantic tradition, the young Shostakovich wrote a consciously modern piece, more inspired by Stravinsky’s music than that of the older Russian masters. His personal voice is already clear in the ironic music of the slow movement and the military allusions. A masterful and imaginative orchestrator, he uses all the tools to realize his musical vision across four contrasting movements.

The orchestra, playing under their new conductor who chose this work, gave an impressive reading of this powerful piece. New’s conducting style seems clear and balanced. I was able to easily follow her patterns and gestures. This must be have been an advantage for her, with so much of her career related to New Music. 

At the end, the audience rose, some cheering. The conductor gave solo bows to many of the principal players as the orchestra applauded her.

Gemma New has opened the latest chapter of the HPO story with a splash. She returns to conduct Cirque de la Symphonie on March 12. I will be interested to see how her voice influences the HPO’s choice of repertoire for the 2016/17 season.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mozart at the HPO

Recently, I had a phone call from the Hamilton Philharmonic enquiring why I had subscribed to fewer concerts this season than last. I explained that the season was very heavy on pops concerts, and I prefer to attend concerts of real orchestral fare. The caller seemed satisfied. Perhaps this was not the first time she had heard this explanation.

Having said that, I am pleased not to have the job of programming orchestral concerts in this market. There’s a segment of the audience, young concert goers and, perhaps, occasional ones, and regular but conservative ones who would be happy to hear the same standard 19th C. works over and over again, and will shell out for pops concerts, of whatever ilk. 

There are otherwise more discriminating concert goers (you may substitute a more disparaging descriptor) like me who really don’t want to hear the 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Fifth again, concerts of operatic bleeding-chunks or orchestrally accompanied pop songs.

Programming for such diverse potential audiences must be a nightmare but, sometimes, all’s well that ends well.

We went last night (Sat. Nov. 29) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic play an all-Mozart concert under the baton of Ivars Taurins.

The framing works were familiar ones; the Overture to Abduction from the Seraglio and the Symphony #40 in G Minor. It was the middle one which brought me to the concert, the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. It’s a work which I had never encountered before in concert or recording.

Whatever misgivings I had before hearing two very familiar pieces, no part of this concert was disappointing.

The Abduction Overture is one of Mozart’s shorter opera overtures. It is largely composed of melodic material that actually occurs later in the singspiel, like a Broadway overture. It features tympani and three percussionists who contribute the Turkish flavour that was so in vogue at the end of the 18th C.

The orchestra gave an exciting performance of the work and it was an ideal opener.

The Sinfonia Concertante is, at about 30 minutes, as long as the symphony which comprised the entire second half of the concert. It featured as soloists HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski and Principal Violist Chau Luk. The orchestra was reduced to 18 strings and a pair each of horns and oboes very like the orchestras of most of the Haydn symphonies.

It is a delightful piece and one can actually hear the difference in style of a work which was intended for a Paris orchestra and audience rather than Viennese ones. Taurins described it as a duet between soprano and alto voices but much of the imitative interplay between the soloists was at the octave so it was, to my ear, more like the soprano and tenor duets from the operas, like those between Constanze and Belmonte for example.

The soloists played beautifully and there was a nice sense of interplay between them. The violin projects better than the viola in this context, a consequence of register and acoustics rather than the actual volume the instruments produce, so the viola was sometimes harder to pick out of the texture than the violin. The soloists play elaborated versions of materials which are introduced in orchestral tuttis and I was impressed to see the basses playing sixteenth note passages in unison with the cellos at the same pace as the soloists.

Sitarski and Luk returned to their places in the orchestra for the second half Symphony. Taurins’ tempos are brisk. I don’t recall hearing the third movement Minuet played as quickly, with a contrasting slower tempo in the trio. He brings almost exaggerated dynamic contrasts and obviously strives to highlight important lines in the inner voices.

This conductor dances around and gestures more than we usually see at the HPO whether for his benefit, that of the players or of the audience I can’t say, but he was certainly effective. He attempted to conduct the symphony with only a little break between the movements and, even though he gestured to the audience, some insisted on applauding after each movement, even the slow one.  He also, alas, likes to talk.

It was, altogether, a very satisfying concert.

For my Hamilton readers, we have a very good professional orchestra and, as I keep hearing, much better than one would expect for a market this size. The Hamilton Place Great Hall is an excellent concert space. As noted above, many of their concert offerings are approachable to those who aren’t usually orchestral concert goers. Tickets start at only $10.00. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

La Traviata at the COC

We attended the Canadian Opera Company performance of Verdi’s La Traviata on Wednesday (Oct. 21) evening at the Four Season Centre in Toronto. We saw the First Cast including Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina, American tenor Charles Castronovo, and his countryman baritone Quinn Kelsey.

It was an ultimately successful performance although hardly without its faults, vocal and dramatic.

I have a long personal history with this opera having performed bits of Alfredo in concert, sung in the COC chorus in two different productions, witnessed several other performances as an audience member, and then prepared and conducted a bowdlerized version with children (!) singing some of the solo music and choruses. For all that I never understood what an unhappy and finally cathartic story this is until seeing this production.

La Traviata literally means “the lost woman”, but might more properly be translated as “the fallen woman” and, as was made clear through this Arin Arbus directed production, Violetta Valery is doomed from the opening curtain both by her moral turpitude and her failing health. In spite of living the high life of a Parisian courtesan, she is friendless and without family. When she moves out of Paris to live, in sin, with young Alfredo Germont, his father finds them and pleads with her to shame his family no further. She agrees and leaves Alfredo without telling him why. Back in Paris, he humiliates her and himself in public and in the presence of his father. Finally, after the misunderstandings are cleared up and all is forgiven, within minutes of her lover’s return, she dies.

Ekaterina Siurina has made a career of lighter soprano roles (i.e. Susanna, Gilda) than this one. Her first act was surprisingly under-sung and even dramatically under-involved. None of her high notes rang in the hall. She was sometimes covered by the orchestra even though the conductor kept them down. The Sempre Libera must be sung with abandon and wasn’t. With a lighter voice I expected the interpolated Eb at the end, but she didn’t sing it. 

Elkaterina Siurina

At the time, I feared she simply hadn’t the voice to sing this role. It was pleasant, but not convincing. But by the end of the performance it was clear she was simply being too careful. The role of Violetta gets progressively more dramatic as the opera goes on and the most dramatic singing is near the end, three hours on. Beginning in the second act she was much better, dramatically and vocally, and assuredly communicated Violetta’s suffering. She is going to have to figure out how to bring that intensity to all three acts.

Her real life husband, tenor Charles Castronovo is more baritonal and mature sounding than most Alfredos. He simply overwhelmed Siurina, at times, in their first act duet. In later acts, their voices matched much better. This production includes the usually-cut cabaletta following a fine rendition of Dei Miei Bollenti Spiriti and he sang it beautifully except for an ill-advised final high C.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey has the right voice for Germont. He has ringing high notes and the gravitas necessary to bring off the role. He sang a lovely Di Provenza il mar and the following cabaletta which I had never heard before. He does have some inconsistency in his sound, holding some shorter notes without vibrato, then releasing and opening on the longer ones. This was less evident later in there opera, presumably when he was better warmed-up.

Smaller roles were capably handled by James Westman (Baron Douphol) who sings Germont in the other cast, Lauren Segal (Flora), Charles Sy (Gastone), Aviva Fortunata (Annina), Robert Gleadow (Dr. Grenvil).

Second Act Party Scene

Marco Guidarini conducted the big orchestra (including a cimbasso) which was was excellent as usual as was Sandra Horst’s chorus. There were some dancers in the Gypsy and Matador scene and I have no idea what relationship their performance had to the singing. There must had been a sub-text to which we were not privy.

This very traditional production is beautiful and a fine musical rendering of Verdi’s masterfully dramatic score. It convincingly conveyed the pathos of Violetta’s character and situation. I recommend it.