Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Aida and Me

My wife and I watched a production of Aida from the Grande Théatre de Genève last week and I have been recalling music from the opera ever since. It is not the worst ear-worm one could have.

I first encountered Aida in a piano-vocal score when I was a student at Althouse College at Western University. I took the score of the opera, which I didn’t know at all, into a room with a piano and discovered that the tenor had an aria within a few pages of the opening of Act I. I banged it out on the piano and sang the opening recitative. Then I tried the aria which wasn’t too hard until it was. I didn’t realize that Radames is a very demanding role even for those who have the specific kind of voice for which Verdi was writing. It was a long time before I fooled around with the aria Celeste Aida again.

I did see two acts of Aida at the Arena di Verona some years later. I remember the tenor broke one of the Bbs in the aria and there were animals in the Triumphal scene. It started to rain mid-way through and, since I was supposed to sing in a competition a few days later, I went back to my hotel and slept.

Indeed it was about a year later that I actually had to sing music from the opera. I was in a production of Il Trovatore at the O’Keefe Centre as a chorister with the Canadian Opera Company. They decided to do a gala concert in which Birgit Nilsson was to be the guest artist. They also decided to do a concert rendition of the Triumphal Scene contracting the principal singers from Trovatore, which was in production at the same time, to sing the solos. I don’t remember how much of it we sang but I think it must only have been the opening which includes the famous march. I do remember being unhappy at having to learn so much music for a single performance especially since we we not paid extra for the concert since we were already under contract. The high point of the concert was Nilsson singing Dich, teure Halle, from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, near the end. It was damned impressive and the only time I ever heard her sing live. 

The Triumphal March in Sarasota Opera’s production of Verdi’s AIDA. (Photo: Rod-Millington)

So I wasn’t looking forward Aida when it was scheduled the next year. There is a lot of chorus singing in Aida. indeed, there’s a lot of everything in Aida: Melodrama, big voices, an orchestra with extra brass and plenty of incidental music for ballet.  Much to my surprise I enjoyed the production enormously. There were extra choristers to sing the prisoners and a bang-up cast including soprano Leona Mitchell and the marvellous mezzo Livia Budai as Amneris. 

I thought that would be the end of Aida and me but I encountered the opera again in a most unlikely way. 

I was, for 13 years, the conductor-chorus master of an elementary school music program of which, incidentally, I was not the music teacher. I had agreed, in my first year, to conduct an adaptation of the opera. I was very busy learning a new job, in a new school and all the musical preparation was undertaken by the music teacher. When my baton and I arrived at the podium almost none of the participants had ever worked with a conductor before and I spent much of the dress rehearsal and the subsequent performances being ignored by almost all the performers, the eldest of whom we eleven years old. 

During the instrumental music which begins the Triumphal Scene the entire student body, about 200 kids aged six to eleven years old, trooped in surrounding the audience, all in vaguely Egyptian themed costumes including one girl dressed as a pyramid. Three trumpets supplemented the piano accompaniment.  I was sitting on a stool so the public could see over me. As all those children all prepared to sing, one of my own Grade Three eight boys was standing close and directly behind me. There is a long ascending scale that precedes the chorus’ first notes and as I gave the downbeat for the singing to begin he came in singing forte, right in my ear, with the correct rhythm and words but with notes which were a good fifths lower than those Verdi had written and so had nothing to do with the harmony. It was a little unnerving. The kid, incidentally, is now a commercial pilot. His job description doesn't include singing in tune. The Aida and Amneris went on to be leading lights in the Hamilton Children's Choir. The Radames eventually went to seminary and is now a Presbyterian Minister and stand-up. 

When the King of Egypt asked Radames what he wanted as a reward for leading the winning army against the Ethiopians, the boy turned to the audience and announced, "I'd like to hear the Toreador Song from Carmen sung by John Fanning!" Met Opera Singer John Fanning, our special guest,  stepped from the wings and sang it. He was dressed as an elephant with a rubber mask trunk which made him look more like a giant mouse. 

Needless to say, the production was a hit. To be fair, most elementary school shows, regardless of their artistic merits, are considered to be entrancing by audiences made up mostly of the performers’ families.

The Grande Théatre de Genève TV production (Mezzo.TV) with which I began was pretty unconventional. It’s an important opera house, but a small one with fewer that 1000 seats. There were no animals. The chorus and orchestra were relatively small. Acrobats replaced all the dancing. 

All the Egyptians were made up with a blue stripe across their eyes. The King of Egypt’s bald head was painted gold. The costumes were all over the place, stylistically.  Some might have been strangely dressed ancient Egyptians but others wore glitzy quasi-nineteenth century uniforms. In the Nile Scene, Radames, in a leather jacket and dark trousers, might have walked in off the street in Geneva. Some of the female choristers wore headpieces so big they block out the view of performers standing behind them. 

For all that, the staging was pretty conventional. As you would imagine in such a venue, the solo singers were all very good. The Amneris, Anna Smirnova, was sensational with huge, beautiful voice. The Amonasro, Alexey Markov also sang and acted masterfully. I'd spend big money to hear either of them sing live. The normal sized chorus did a fine job.

If you get a chance to see this production on the flat screen, take it. You can spread if out over a couple of nights as we did. 

However it's produced, the Verdi's opera transcends. Nothing diminishes the power of what many regard as Verdi’s greatest opera and is my favourite of all his works. 

Copyright © 2020 David S. Fawcett

Monday, December 16, 2019

Two Devils

We've been getting the Mezzo arts channel on our cable as a free offering for a limited time and have been recording some of the classical offerings. Since they can be hours long it allows one to watch and listen in chunks. We listened, in half hour increments, to a truly spectacular performance of the Monteverdi Vespers from the Royal Chapel at Versailles. If you've never encountered the piece it's an engaging combination of Renaissance and Early Baroque styles, really unlike anything else in the repertoire. And the performers are sensational. You can find another version of it here.

We've also been making out way through Gounod's opera Faust from the Teatro Réal de Madrid. We watched the second act last night, one of the greatest acts in all of opera, with a marvellous cast of international stars.

Edouard de Reszke as Mephistophélès

Years ago, I suggested it as an opera to do (sort of, we always sort of did the operas) with the school program of which I was the conductor. It would have been great! The principal shot it down. It seems an opera including seduction, infanticide and a character, Mephistophélès, who is actually Satan wasn't going to fly as a kiddie opera.

So that's one devil this week.

The other turns up, surprise, surprise, in a Stephen King book.

I re-read King's masterpiece, The Stand, in the restored full length version. It seems the publisher couldn't do the book as King wrote it back in 1979. They weren't set up to manufacture such a long book. 400 pages had to go. King did the edit himself rather than let someone else do it.

Years later, they restored the passages that had been removed. In paperback it runs to 1149 pages.

I had to request it from the HPL twice as I couldn't manage to finish it in the first 3 weeks.

There are more than a dozen principal character. The plot, which begins with a terrifying, but plausible, medical disaster, ends with the battle between good and evil in the realm of magic and the supernatural.

I enjoyed it (again) but wouldn't recommend it as a place to start in King's enormous oeuvre. Carrie, maybe?

The devil in this case is The Walking Dude, Randall Flagg. As frightening a villain as anyone ever dreamt up. 

Two devils in one week. Do devils always come in threes?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Mozart and Mendelsson at the HPO

We went last night to hear the second concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s season at FirstOntario Place, conducted by Music Director Gemma New.

It opened with a world première performance of Alice Pin Yee Ho’s three movement work, Silk Road Fantasy. The composer spoke, briefly, before the piece, thankfully avoiding items that she had already covered in the published notes. 

The work is written for classical orchestra with the addition of a single percussionist. No Chinese instruments were played in this piece (they appear in other of her works). It incorporates musical references from various cultures, some of which were apparent on first listening. 

The quiet middle section was, I thought, most successful, often having the strings play melodies including portamenti up to and away from long notes in the manner of an Erhu, the Chinese two-string violin. This is relatively simple for a soloist (think of pop guitarists bending notes) but must have taken some rehearsal time to get eight or more players to do it in unison. It must be a regular occurence with New Music Orchestras. I heard it used, to different effect, in a Gary Kulesha symphony some years ago.

In the opening and closing sections there is a great deal of very noisy tympani and percussion which often obscured or completely covered whatever else was going on save the trumpets. I noticed the entire string section pizzicato-ing vigorously and completely inaudibly at one point.

Full points to conductor New who kept this unfamiliar piece together through her clear and accurate conducting. 

I’d like to hear the piece again, with the balance corrected, if the effect was, in fact, not what the composer intended.

They lost all but the strings and a pair each of horns and oboes for a performance of the Violin Concerto #5 (Turkish) by W.A. Mozart featuring Canadian violinist Timothy Chooi.

It’s a long and involved concerto by the 19 year old Mozart who, incredibly, wrote three other violin concertos, and who knows what other music, in the year proceeding its composition. It also features a cadenza in each of the movements. 

The 26 year old Chooi is an enormously accomplished  player with a beautiful sound thanks perhaps, in part, to the 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius which he plays. His quiet highest notes were exquisitely beautiful. Each of the cadenzas emerged inevitably from the music which proceeded it and was a tiny solo recital in itself. 

It was an enjoyable and satifsying performance by soloist and orchestra.

They finish the first half with the Theme from Schindler’s List by John Williams. It is a simple piece which repeats and varies the poignant melody which is introduced in its first measures. From the hands such an inventive and experience composer it is irresistibly engaging. It is also utterly unlike William’s Star Wars and Superman scores.

The second half was taken up by Mendelssohn’s familiar and popular Fourth Symphony, The Italian. I love this piece and was looking forward to re-engaging with it as each of the theme’s made its first aural appearance.

However Conductor New, microphone in hand, had decided to illustrate her thesis that it is, in response to Beethoven’s symphonies, a programatic and, thus, Romantic work. She had the orchestra play most of the main themes of each of the movement in turn, with commentary. 

So when they finally got around to playing the symphony the introduction of each melody was old news. I’m aware this is a very disparate audience and that there were elementary school students in the audience but the HPO does play educational concerts and I’d rather they only do this sort of thing there.

The performance, by the way, was just fine with up-beat tempos and lots of dynamic variety as there should be. 

Finally, I mentioned that there were some younger concert goers in the hall, although, from where I was sitting I didn’t notice any of them. Unfortunately, a woman sitting directly behind us, with her young teen daughter, brought her very young toddler son who fussed through most of the first piece. He eventually nodded off and she must have understood this wasn’t an appropriate place for such a young child as they decamped at the interval. How they got in past the ushers I can only imagine, since the published policy is to allow no one younger than five.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Tomato Tale. No music at all.

Last summer I bought six indeterminate grape tomato plants at Costco. They did splendidly. We had, literally, more tiny tomatoes than we could use and, when I took the plants down in October, they were still covered in flowers and unripe tomatoes. The plants also grew much bigger than we’d anticipated and, by the end of summer, they were an unruly mess.

This year I bought some seven foot tall rebars to use as stakes. Costco didn’t have the tomatoes I’d purchased last year so I went to Fortino (the local incarnation of Loblaws) and bought four pots of generic tomato plants; two that would have small fruit and two that would have slightly larger ones. There were two plants in a couple of pots so I ended up with six large pots of plants. I drove the rebars into the ground and, like a farmer, I waited.

The plants did very well. There were tiny green tomatoes sooner than I’d seen them last year. We tied them to the stakes. There were also, I noticed, a couple  of tiny tomato plants poking up from the ground beside the pots. Volunteers, gardeners call them. Seedlings from last year’s crop. I left them. Costs nothing, I reasoned. Maybe they’ll fruit.

I took the plants down today, filling a garbage can with leaves, stems and great tomatoes. I harvested whatever tomatoes were showing colour. Many of them will ripen on the counter. Can you guess which plants bore the most usable fruit? Even without a four week head start the volunteer plants (turned out there were two) had as much ripe fruit as the others even though the others were still covered in bigger, beautiful unripe tomatoes. 

My wife has already started the process of getting seeds from some of the volunteer tomatoes for next year. I’m sure there’s an esoteric lesson in this but I haven’t figured out what it is yet.

copyright ©2019 David Fawcett

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

No Vacation Pics Here...

We took a short road-trip vacation to Eastern Ontario last week and I’d like to share some of what we saw and our impressions of the cities we visited.

We used to drive, a couple of times a year, to visit my in-laws in Montréal. It’s a 7 hour drive if you don’t speed much and the weather and traffic are clear. The Xmas trips were invariably terrible. I don’t think we ever made the trip without experiencing seriously inclement weather. Since my in-laws’ passing, we miss the joy of a family reunion but not the drive.

Consequently, my passenger and I prefer to drive in shorter bursts and stop along the way. I’m also not as determinedly miserly as I used to be so, in spite of the absurd cost, we took the 407, a toll road, coming and going.

I put the auto-cruise on 110 km/h and we were in Peterborough in 2.5 hours. We stayed at what is purported to be the best hotel in town. It really is in a “park-like” setting and was otherwise okay. There was a decent breakfast in the morning (hint: always look for an included breakfast when travelling anywhere) but the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant so, using Trip Advisor, we chose one and headed into town.

There is a restaurant strip downtown but a little research showed that most of the establishments closed up in the late afternoon. We’re not much interested in burgers, sandwiches and pizza so we ended up at a recommended Middle Eastern place which had good food, at a reasonable price, but was really a take-out with a half-dozen tables. Can’t say that Chicken Shawarma on styrofoam would be my first choice…

A interesting detail of our visit is that there is a small tent city on the grounds of two downtown churches, accommodating the city’s homeless. I checked the local newspaper later and discovered they’d been evicted from a downtown park at the beginning of September and the occupants took up the offer to move into the nearby church yards. Dozens of marginalized people wandering the downtown and pan-handling at the LCBO and Beer Store don’t do much for Peterborough’s downtown’s appeal and city council knows it. The opioid crisis has hit this city hard.

The good news was the Peterborough Art Gallery where we saw a show of paintings by Eugenie Fernandes. She’s 78 now and has had a career as an author and illustrator of more than 100 published picture-books. There were 26 contrasting acrylic paintings in the show, each accompanied by an short, poem with an alphabetized title. A native New Yorker, she now lives in a “glass house” in the countryside nearby Peterborough, with her husband who was a long-time artist for the Sesame Street franchise.

Early and fed, the next day we set off for Ottawa along Highway 7. It’s a nice drive on a primarily two-lane road bordered by pines, poplars, some hardwood stands and a few picturesque lakes. One slows and drives through towns on the way. This year there were hardly any trees showing autumn colour.

I’d chosen a downtown hotel for access to the sights for which we’d come. I'll stay on the outskirts and commute in next time.

I missed the lobby and had to circle the hotel before I finally gave up and entered the underground parking. We found the lobby from there and checked in. Very helpful desk staff. The room was small, compared to suburban hotel rooms, most of the floor space occupied by the king sized bed. Microwave and an inefficient fridge. A huge television with proper HD service on almost all the channels. A desk, but no desk lamp. Other lamps wired into the wall so they couldn’t be moved. Real glass glasses, but only 2. The shower handle was loose and came off in one’s hand. Seriously?

We spent the afternoon at the National Gallery. If you’ve never visited it would be worth a look even if there were no paintings. It’s a huge glass building that echos the towers of nearby Parliament Hill. It was designed by Moshe Safdie who also designed Habitat 67 at Expo 67 in Montréal.

I visited one of the paintings that started me off in the appreciation of fine art, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Salutation of Beatrice.

We only took in the European and American collection this time. The gallery has the largest collection of Canadian artists in the world. We did spend some time in the Rideau Street Convent Chapel. The chapel was declared a historical monument and taken apart and put into storage in 1972 when the convent school was demolished and all 1123 pieces were reassembled inside the new National Gallery in 1988.

It turned out that the hotel didn’t have a proper restaurant. The bar became one in the late afternoon and early evening, I supposed becoming a bar again later. Typical roadhouse fare for the most part. I visited a couple of other downtown hotels and it was pretty much the same story. The few restaurants within walking distance of our hotel and that are open in the evening are more interested in selling beer than food, judging from the menus. Who'd have thought downtown Ottawa is a fine dining desert? We ended up eating burgers in a hotel restaurant that had only a small bar.

The next morning I went for the West Block tour to see the new Commons chamber. The site directed me to the new tourist office so I went expecting to see a pre-fab building since the Centre Block is being renovated and is closed to tourists as is the Parliamentary Library which is beautiful and the only part of the original Parliament Buildings which didn’t burn down in 1916.

I was very surprised to discover the new tourist office is a permanent, subterranean complex which includes a large and very stylish tunnel to the West Block. There is serious security, very much like in an airport although the employees are much less stressed and much more polite than any airport I’ve ever encountered.

The tour was worthwhile as I got to see what I came to see. The tour guide asked the group of about 25 where they came from and at least half were not from Canada. The spiel from the tour guide was quite a lot like my Grade 10 Civics class. “Canada has a bicameral parliament. That means…” When we visited a committee room he talked about the role of Parliamentary committees. I certainly didn't learn anything. 

I did learn, from one of the security guys, that the structure inside what had previously been a courtyard is not connected to the building at all. The steel pillars including those in the corners, which are outside the chamber itself but within the courtyard, support the roof. It could be taken down eventually but the renovations to the Centre Block will take at least ten years. 

We then headed off, down the 416 and across the 401 to Kingston. Hotel near the highway this time. We spent the afternoon on the Queen’s campus. The buildings are mostly neo-Gothic like so many North American universities, but city streets run directly through the campus unlike other universities with which I am familiar. Only McGIll is anything like it in my limited experience. At three in the afternoon the streets were crowded with students headed to where ever they presently call home. It seemed there were many more girls than boys just as the statistics on university attendance tell us.

We saw a beautifully curated show of a few Rembrandt paintings, and some etchings at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. There were also etchings and paintings by his students and teachers. There was also a costume exhibit that had several Canadian paintings (i.e. Leduc, Borduas, etc).

We ate at Eastside Mario's, pizza and pasta. By then we’d given up on fine dining.

The hotel was, again, okay. This is important to us, as our rhythm is to be out and about all day and rest in the evenings. Why they put big screen TVs in the rooms but don’t spring for HD service is beyond me. All the images are stretched sideways. Everybody seems overweight or like a Tolkien dwarf. 

The drive home was uneventful although the exit to the 412 tollroad that leads to the 407, in the midst of serious construction, appeared with no warning at all.

So I got to see lots of important art and the temporary Commons chamber but didn’t get to sample any really decent restaurant food whatsoever. The weather was perfect for long walks to get to the various attractions but I watched a Blue Jays game on TV that would have been better at home. Oh well.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The day after Labour day is coming!

I retired from teaching more than eight years ago and people sometimes ask if I miss it. I tell them, “No, not even a little.” I do miss leading a choir but that was always more to do with sharing my love of music and singing with children than it did with teaching and I did it, technically, as a volunteer on my own time.

I was reminded a few days ago of why I don’t miss teaching school.

There’s a park with a half dozen proper baseball fields three minutes from my house. There are kids' league games in the summer and I stopped for a few minutes to watch. There were four games going on at the same time. Six and seven years olds who will be in Grade 2 in a few weeks.

I watched as the coach of one of the teams, a thirty-ish man with shoulder length hair that would make many women jealous, came into the dug-out to get a kid who was supposed to be on deck. He patiently asked the boy to get a batting helmet and bat and get to where he was supposed to be. The kid, a smaller, slight very blonde child was not being cooperative. He eventually did as he was told but was clearly not happy. He didn’t want to bat. 

When he finally got up to bat he watched as the pitching machine tossed eight or so pitches at him. He swung at three and was called out. He drudged back to the dugout and sat down, if possible more dejected than he had been before.

On my way back home I stopped again and this time the coach was trying to get the boy to put on a different helmet because he was to cover the pitcher’s position and he was resisting this too.

For whatever reason this little boy didn’t want to play baseball. He didn’t want to be there at all.

“Where are the parents”, I thought. “Have they seen what’s going on here? What kind of parents compel a child to participate in a discretionary activity he doesn’t want to do?”

I imagined a father trying to toughen up a quiet, withdrawn child, or hoping to share an activity he enjoyed as a child, or possibly live vicariously through his son. But the kid didn’t want to be there.

How insensitive is that?

Later it occurred to me that the child’s behaviour reminded me of some boys I had tried to teach. They were passive aggressive and selfish. They were also, sometimes, openly defiant. This kid wasn’t but give him time.

It could be that he’s like that all the time, with everything, in baseball, school and at home. Maybe the parents are at their wits end after doing everything they could for him.

Which is it? A sensitive child compelled to do something he doesn’t want to do or a selfish little snot who’d rather be home playing Xbox.

I  really have no idea and I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with problems like that one any more.

Good luck, teachers. Have a great school year!

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Call for Jury Duty

I got my notice that I’d been called for Jury Duty at the end of February. I’d been called twice before and on both occasions, since I was teaching younger children and had letters of explanation from a former principal and a Justice of the Peace, I’d been excused.

I tried to research the process online and found only the videos provided by the government which talk up the value of the experience without really explaining what goes on for those called for jury duty before a trial begins. So I decided to post this recount of the experience for the benefit of anyone who might be going to have a similar experience.

This was a call from the Superior Court of Ontario so the details likely vary in other jurisdictions.

Jury Duty is an obligation of citizenship really akin to nothing in our system except a military draft. It is also an inconvenience to everybody, although a far greater one to some than others. It also pays not at all for the first 10 days and meagerly after that.

My appointment was at the John Sopinka Courthouse in the vary core of Downtown Hamilton. The building was originally a depression era post office but was renovated in the 1990s. I I arrived at the King St. entrance about 8:55 for my 9:00 call. The main entrance is on the other side of the building so there was no waiting in line. They warn you not to bring sharp objects in the letter you receive in the mail. You put your stuff in a tray and pass through a metal detector. A polite and patient Special Constable dug through my backpack.

The building occupies most of a city block so it was a long walk past the numerous, now shuttered, post office wickets to the elevators. As you can see in the photo, it’s a stunning lobby. I found the courtroom on the 6th floor. About 75 people were waiting in what looks just like an airport waiting area. There were only a few empty seats.

At about 9:15 two men took attendance using the numbers assigned on the documents we’d received in the mail. No names of prospective jurors are ever mentioned. About a dozen people hadn’t shown up. There’s no set penalty for not responding to the call for jury duty but you can be held in contempt of court. I suspect the names are simply put on the next list and the people are called again.

They finished taking attendance at about 9:40 and we were told to wait until the judge and other court officials and employees were ready. They finally called us in at about 10:10.

We were led into a a large, modern courtroom looking exactly like the ones you see on Canadian TV shows but with a glassed enclosure for the accused in the middle just in front of the padded pews for the public.

My first real surprise was that the accused was actually there as were the Defence and Crown Counsels. Later we learned that the trial would begin later that day, as soon as the jury had been selected.

The judge gave, what I am sure, was his standard lecture about the importance of serving on a jury, about how each of us, if chosen, would act as a judge. He also mentioned that it was  inconvenient for everyone but the cornerstone of our system of jurisprudence.

The next half hour was taken up with people asking, and often being excused, for various reasons. First were those who knew the accused and accuser, witnesses and the various police and court officials. Then they moved on to other categories including Canadian Citizenship (you must be a citizen to serve on a jury), inability to hear clearly, proficiency in reading and understanding English, extreme financial impact and so forth. Some people had documents to support their appeal others responded to the judges queries anecdotally. Many were excused. Several had their names put back on the ledger for the next call.

Then they drew jury numbers randomly from a wooden jar and called 15 of us to the side of the courtroom. In turn, the were instructed to look at the accused and he at them. Then the two counsels either approved or excused each prospective juror in turn. Those who were chosen were then asked if they would swear solemnly or on a Bible. About two thirds chose not to sear on the Bible.  

In my second surprise, more than half of the first group were refused by one or the other of the counsels.

They then called a further 15 people and repeated the process. By the time they’d chosen and sworn in 12 jurors only one of the second group remained. Thus, they had chosen 12 jurors from a randomly chosen group of 30.

At this point the judge announced that the jury would go to the jury room and the rest of us, about 50 people were thanked and excused.

I  wasn’t looking forward to serving on a jury but, if I’d been chosen, I’d have felt better about it than I had going in. It is an obligation and someone has to do it. Better it be someone educated and in possession of all their faculties. I have no doubt that some juries have a difficult and unpleasant time when one or more members isn’t up to the task.