Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alexandre Da Costa at the Brott Festival

We went last night (Thurs. July 20) to hear the National Academy Orchestra under Maestro Boris Brott, with violinist Alexandre Da Costa, at the McIntyre Performance Arts Centre at Mohawk College. I was there specifically to hear Debussy’s La Mer, which I only knew from an old recording, and the Rosenkavalier Waltzes which is a favourite of mine.

They opened with a big surprise for me, Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope. It’s a wonderfully varied 11 minute showpiece for orchestra. It sometimes sounds like modernist music, sometimes like film music with echos of Stravinsky. Remarkably, he wrote it when he was 20 years old and it was his first work for orchestra. If you have never heard it, it’s worth 11 minutes of your time.

It turned out the rest of the first half was violin showpieces, most of which are usually played as encores. 

Canadian composer Fréderic Chiasson is responsible for much of Da Costa’s music. He did all the orchestral arrangements for Stradivarius at the Opera, Da Costa’s album with the Vienna Philharmonic on Sony Classical. They played his Overture on a Theme of Vitali next.

I didn’t like the piece very much. It starts out with a splendid full string choir and this orchestra section does make a beautiful sound but from there the piece doesn’t develop much and is embellished with a lot of brilliant solo violin scales and arpeggios. It’s reminiscent of the many Respighi treatments of Baroque and Renaissance pieces for modern orchestra. But really, if you want to play Baroque music for solo violin and strings, I think Vivaldi wrote some.

Alexandre Da Costa

The Rosenkavlier Waltzes were not the piece I anticipated. This is a one movement presentation of the waltzes for solo violin and strings. Richard Strauss himself may have arranged it. It is interesting to hear the music played in the manner of the many 19th Century Viennese waltzes that were clearly Strauss’ inspiration, many of them composed by other guys named Strauss. After the initial shock, I really enjoyed the piece and performance. Da Costa is a tremendous violinist with a big sound and is an engaging performer. Brott led his mostly young orchestra in a nuanced and idiomatic interpretation.

Next came Massenet’s familiar Meditation from Thaïs and a spirited reading of De Falla’s La Vida Breve. They followed with an arrangement of Queen’s The Show Must Go On billed as Apertura: Lo spettacolo deve andare avanti. The less said about this the better, but it was an convincing demonstration of why pop songs, stripped of their lyrics, frequently serve so poorly as instrumental music. They closed off the first half with an encore, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, surely the only solo violin piece everybody can hum.

After the break came the Debussy. This composer’s pieces are really a test for orchestras. Although the ensemble is large (triple woodwinds with contrabassoon, trumpets and cornets etc.), the composer doesn’t use most of the instruments most of the time. The tuba player in Pelléas et Mélisande, famously, plays only about a dozen notes in a three hour opera. In this work there is a passage for cello choir and basses alone, for example. Brott must have spent a lot of time preparing to play this work and, while I wasn’t blown away as I had been during the Pictures at an Exhibition a couple of years back, I found it a convincing performance.

They finished with Ravel’s Bolero. It featured a couple of out-of-tune woodwind solos (not the ones Ravel detuned through orchestration) and two scoopy sax solos which I didn’t enjoy, although the rest of the audience clearly did, applauding loudly at the saxophonist’s solo bow. I do love two unison snare drums at the end.

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before in this blog. With a top price of $32 all these concerts at the Brott Festival are a steal. Young people and casual concert goers who perhaps haven’t heard the standard orchestral repertoire ought to be lined up for tickets but they aren’t. The crowd was so disappointing that Brott himself mentioned it in his comments. I suspect the festival is presenting concerts in Burlington and elsewhere as a result of crummy attendance in Hamilton just as Symphony on the Bay (previously Symphony Hamilton) has done.

For my part I’m an eight minute drive from Mohawk and ten minutes from the First Ontario Centre (previously Hamilton Place) and I’m only going to drive to the Burlington Centre for the Arts for something very special and different, and the two Beethoven programs of familiar music that come up next in this festival aren’t enought to persuade me.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Tosca at the COC

We went Sunday afternoon, April 30th 2017, to hear the première COC performance of Tosca at the Four Seasons Centre. We chose this performance first because we were anxious to hear diva Adrianne Pieczonka whom we last saw as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and secondly because the commute to Toronto from Hamilton has become so arduous and unpredictable on weekdays. That didn’t work out so well but I’m going to leave it at that.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca

It’s a very traditional production (a co-production with Norwegian Opera), with a very beautiful and effective set and appropriate period costumes. The orchestra, conducted by Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson, was first rate, especially the prominent brass parts like the unison horn figure that opens Act III. The chorus was excellent as usual although the balance between the off-stage singers and the orchestra and principals on-stage was off. The choir wasn’t loud enough and it sounded like there were two pieces going on instead of the chorus music acting as the harmonic foundation for the on-stage singing.

The staging was adequate but hardly outstanding. Scarpia (Markus Marquardt) turns on heel and walks upstage and off-stage, brushing past the priest before the Te Deum scene ends which is obviously implausible. He also attempts to grope Tosca’s leg at one point which is both unnecessarily creepy and at odds with the character otherwise established. Veteran basso buffo Donato di Stefano played and sang a convincing Sacristan, but I could have done without a sexual gesture which is, I think, not period. The director also doesn't have him pick up the votive candles which Angelotti has strewn around the stage and which is, surely, his job!

The physical interplay among Scarpia, Cavaradossi (Marcelo Puente) and Spoletta worked especially well. Joel Sorenson, playing Spoletta, is smaller than either of the other singers and there was quite a lot of pushing and shoving in Act II. Scarpia knocks Spoletta to the floor and steps on his throat after learning that the police were unable to find Angelotti (Musa Ngqungwana). We see Scarpia as a physical bully and understand why his underlings are so afraid of him.

Tosca, Adrianne Pieczonka, sang beautifully and acted effectively throughout. Some of the highest notes were not as perfect as one might hear on a recording. She sang the Vissi D’arte seated, not even rising for the climatic phrases which seemed a little odd. I’ve only heard her live in Italian repertoire and look forward to her Arabella in the fall.

Markus Marquardt has a pronounced vibrato which mars his singing. In the second act it seemed under better control especially when he wasn’t singing full out. He was more than adequate from a dramatic point of view and died well even if the character didn’t have a good death.

Tenor Marcelo Puente was a very dramatically effective Cavaradossi and did a wonderful job of the Act III aria (E Lucevan Le Stelle). He overheld some of the high notes (Vittoria, Vittoria!). He seems to me to be at the very edge of vocal weight for this role and yet he has sung Don José (Carmen) and Manrico (Trovatore) both of which can be done by heavier voices. He has played Rodolfo (La Bohème) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) which seem, to me at least, more suitable to his voice. Yet his agent’s site claims that he is working on Turridù (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Calaf (Turandot) which are ideally sung by more dramatic voices.

All the secondary roles were expertly sung and acted. The shepherd boy was sung by Clara Moir who was fine but didn’t sound like a boy. Better than a woman, I guess.

It would be worth going to hear this production only to hear Pieczonka, but, overall, it is much better than that. And if it’s among your favourite operas get tickets before the show is sold out. But beware! There is another cast of principals in alternate performances.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Central Presbyterian Choir to give first performance in 225 years of French Baroque masterpiece.

Everyone who follows “classical music” in Hamilton knows that Central Presbyterian Church is an important venue. They offer the Sundays at Three Concert series during Lent each year. The Hamilton Philharmonic and McMaster Choirs have chosen the church as a site for concerts.
There is an excellent church choir which sings interesting and challenging repertoire at services and in the concert series. There’s also a big and impressive organ and an organist who can show it off.

That organist, Paul Grimwood, and his choir and soloists are offering concert goers a unique experience this Good Friday evening (April 14, 2017).

They will be performing the Requiem for Louis XV by French Baroque composer François Giroust and the well-known Duruflé Requiem,

Music in the French court was an elaborate business with soloists, an 80 voice choir and orchestra, all on staff. Giroust received the job as Maître de Chapelle in 1775, and later became the Surintendant for all the music in the palace. He stayed on at Versailles as concièrge after the revolution, keeping bees and playing revolutionary songs on the palace organ until he died in 1799.

Jack Eby, the head of music at Bishop’s University, is a friend of Paul Grimwood. Eby did his doctorate in Paris on Giroust. He prepared the performing addition of the Requiem, score and parts, from the original, handwritten manuscript. It is that version of the work that will be performed on Friday night when Dr. Eby will be in attendance.

This piece was first performed on May 10, 1775, a year to the day after the death of Louis XV, at St Denis, the Royal Abbey north of Paris where all the Royal family was buried.

It was performed each year until shortly after the French Revolution and never since then. Not once. Not in France, not anywhere else.

So this Hamilton performance will be the first in 225 years.

A unique opportunity for music lovers of all kinds.

8:00 pm – Good Friday Concert.
Central Presbyterian Church,
165 Charlton Ave. West,
Hamilton, Ontario.

8:00 pm – Friday, April 14, 2017

REQUIEM: Maurice Duruflé
REQUIEM for LOUIS XV (1775):François Giroust

Tickets at the door or online.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sibelius 7 at the HPO

Last night (Saturday, March 11) we went to hear an extraordinary concert by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra under Music Director Gemma New.

Gemma New

It was extraordinary because it was comprised entirely of 20th Century orchestral masterpieces with the exception of one early 21st Century work, Kevin Lau's A Portrait of Lake Moraine. There was no featured soloist.

The strings were augmented to 10, 10, 8, 8, 6. The orchestra filled the stage of the First Ontario Concert Hall aka Hamilton Place.

They opened with Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and one bell. I don't recall hearing the orchestra play any music that could be even vaguely called Minimal or Minimalist (although Pärt's music hasn't much in common with that of Glass or John Adams.) The music begins quietly.  It was difficult to distinguish the individual string lines in the texture but that was, I think, the composer's intent. You are not supposed to be able to pick out individual parts, you are to listen to the overall effect. The music grows from within itself. It builds to a climax, the bell ringing from the back of the stage, and then dies away.

The stage was already set for Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which they played next. I'd been hoping to hear a live performance of this piece for years and I wasn't disappointed.

The harp, celeste and piano were in the middle front separating two equal string orchestras stage left and right. The rest of the percussion in their usual place at the back.

It's a symphonic scale work in four movements. There is a great deal of sometimes dense polyphony constructed from deceivingly simple motifs and fragments. The opening movement is a kind of fugue on a highly chromatic subject which is written with constantly changing metres.  It was fascinating to watch Gemma New conduct it. So minimal, so clear. The other movements are completely unlike the opening one although the subject returns in the finale. As the Concerto for Orchestra is for all the instruments, this work is a kind of compendium of string techniques and  effects. And the orchestra played it pretty well.  I would bet some of the string players spent a lot more time in the practice room this past week than they would usually do.

We spent the overlong interval watching the crew resetting the stage to a standard orchestral set-up and waiting for people to take their seats.

The second half opened with A Portrait of Lake Moraine. The composer spoke for a few minutes about the piece which he composed 15 years ago for a young composer competition which he won, sponsored by this very orchestra. He was nineteen. This was his first orchestral work, uncharacteristically melodic and consonant for Academic New Music and, very impressive.

They concluded with the one movement Sibelius Symphony #7. I haven't listened to much music by this composer (aside from the Violin Concerto and Finlandia) and what I have heard has not led me to listen to more.

This was written in 1924 and that makes Sibelius a contemporary of Stravinsky and Schoenberg but, while there are elements of modernism in his music, he is a late Romantic, more akin to Strauss and Rachmaninoff.

I suspect some of the work's popularity is due to its length. The symphony is made up of a number of short contrasting sections which are not obviously related. The music is masterfully and impressively orchestrated. You get a lot of beautiful Sibelius music in the space of about 22 minutes.

I did enjoy this performance. New managed the numerous transitions masterfully and the orchestra was with her the whole time. There was some very nice playing from the brasses (this is Sibelius, after all) especially acting Principal Trombone Catharine Stone.

The management and conductor tried an experiment which I will now judge a failure. They projected dozens of images of the Bruce Trail on two screens upstage right and left while the orchestra played the symphony.

This added nothing to our enjoyment of the music and was simply a distraction, adding nothing and quite divorced from the musical context. I beseech them not to try this again.

I thought, altogether, the orchestra played extremely well this highly demanding music and I commend Gemma New and the management for their courage in presenting it. We're not in TO and this is not the Toronto Symphony and you can hardly blame them for being generally cautious.

They are, nonetheless, building on the legacy of James Sommerville's tenure and New is taking the orchestra in an encouraging direction.

Black Capped Chickadee

P.S.: Not everyone was taken with the concert. The man sitting next to my wife exclaimed, after the Pärt, "What the hell was that?" When the photos began running during the Sibelius he started identifying the birds in the pictures, out loud by name, until his wife told him to be quiet.

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.