Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Another Conversation with Gemma New

I spoke with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, Gemma New about the Intimate and Interactive concert which was to be presented that evening (April 5), planning concerts and the HPO’s 2018-19 season.

HPO Music Director Gemma New

DF: How did you choose the music for tonight’s concert?

GN: I look at many different factors like a jigsaw puzzle. Shaker Loops (John Adams) is a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve seen in performed in other places and I’ve seen how powerful it is. Throughout my life I’ve seen a ton of concerts and heard lots of music and I think, that was great and I want to bring this piece to Hamilton. And you have always to think, every city is different, has different needs, what sort of music the audience is going to be drawn to and appreciate. 

First off we’re playing String Sinfonietta by Vivian Fung. Then Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Both of those pieces are inspired by Balinese Gamelan music. The two halves of the concert come together in the fact that music inspires or creates an opportunity for the listener to transcend spiritually.

DF: I can see there are peculiar challenges here where you have an established audience of concert goers and you wish to interest a younger audience too. So you have two kinds of audiences.

GN: At least. Everyone reacts to music differently. You have to have an informed opinion of what you think is going to work. I sit in the audience a lot getting ideas. Shaker Loops was the beginning of this concert.

DF: How many concerts in the upcoming season?

GN: The same as this year. There are nine mainstage concerts and we have two Interactive and Immersive concerts in March and May, We have two family concerts, and then we have the Literary Recital series and the Gallery Series.

In November we have the Remembrance Day concert. We like to alternate it between a more classical concert and the next year we do a more pops related. This year we’re doing music of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Scott Joplin. The Bach-Elgar Choir will be doing some favourite tunes, remembering WW I and the Golden Era of Jazz that came right after it. We’ve got a great singer, Doug Labrecque, who has performed with many major orchestras in the U.S. He’s really phenomenal and he’s funny and his voice is so strong and beautiful and he knows this repertoire inside out. I am so pleased we were able to get him here.

In the Holiday Concert we’re going to do Abigail Richardson-Shulte’s The Hockey Sweater (with Roch Carrier narrating) and we will also have the HPO Youth Orchestra on-stage performing with the full HPO.

We have a Tribute to the Beatles: With Love. It’s going to be close to Valentine’s Day. Darcy Heppner is the conductor and he’s bringing some special guests along. The concert last time sold out weeks before so we were anxious to bring him back.

DF: Do you have themes for other concerts?

I try to have a unified idea. Our community is diverse and I would like that, if you don’t know a lot about music or if you know a ton about music, you can relate to the program in some way. I like to combine the theme and the styles of music and the pacing of the program. All three of those things must work well. 

The first two programs are about passion and drama in music. We have Beethoven and Mozart and Gluck and Elgar. They wanted drama and stories and this personal energy to come through in the music. So we’ve got the Leonora Overture #3 (Beethoven), the Elgar Cello Concerto (Cameron Crozman plays), and Brahm’s Symphony #1. 

And then the next program is GluckThe Furies from Orpheus ed Euridice which is a scene from the opera in which the Furies say,” No, you shall not come into the underworld.” and he’s (Orpheus) playing and singing this most beautiful tune and finally they listen. Beethoven was inspired by this to write the slow movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and we have André Laplante playing it. Straight after then we have Antinomie by Jacques Hétu which I don’t know very well but our guest conductor Jacques Lacombe has specifically chosen it to fit in this program and he has a special relationship with Hétu and his music. And then Mozart Jupiter Symphony, #41.

DF: Thanks so much!

This interview was edited for length and continuity.

Here are the listings for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Mainstage 2018-19 season. 

October 20, 2018
Beethoven & Mozart
Jacques Lacombe, Conductor
Andre Laplante, Piano
Gluck: Dance of the Furies from Orphée et Euridice
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Hétu: Antinomie
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter)

November 10, 2018
From Broadway to Tin Pan Alley
Gemma New, Conductor
Doug LaBrecque, Vocalist
Bach Elgar Choir, Guest Artist
Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Band, Guest Artist

December 15, 2018
Home for the Holidays: The Hockey Sweater
Gemma New, Conductor
Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Guest Artist
Roch Carrier, Narrator
Holiday Favourites

January 19, 2019
Glorious Bach
Ivars Taurins, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Lance Ouellette, Violin

Selections by J.S. Bach including Concerto for Violin, Orchestral Suite No. 3, and music from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

February 16, 2019
From The Beatles, With Love
Darcy Hepner, Conductor
Experience your favourite Beatles songs arranged for live orchestra in collaboration with Hamilton artists.

March 16, 2019
Debussy & Holst’s The Planets
Gemma New, Conductor
McMaster University Choir, Guest Artist
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Debussy: Nocturnes
Holst: The Planets

April 27, 2019
Ravel & Stravinsky
Nathan Brock, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Rossini: The Barber of Seville Overture
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky: Jeux de Cartes

May 11, 2019
Mahler’s Fifth 
Conductor: Gemma New
Vivier: Orion
Mahler: Symphony No. 5

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Beethoven and Ehnes at the HPO

We went last night (March 17, 2018) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play to a full house at First Ontario Centre aka the Great Hall at Hamilton Place. I didn’t look over the program or read Leonard’s piece in the Spec before the concert which was called Beethoven & James Ehnes. Perhaps a Leonora Overture, then the Beethoven Violin Concerto? Some substantial Beethoven symphony in the second half. A lot of Beethoven in one program but some people can’t get enough Beethoven; Ludwig van Beethoven. (Try the last four words in Sean Connery’s voice.)

So we got a program and I sat and I began to read. I was mistaken, seriously mistaken. I should have known that Gemma New wouldn’t have programmed the unimaginative concert that I had expected. First would come a Christos Hatzis curtain raiser, Zeitgeist. Then Ehnes would play the  Samuel Barber Violin Concerto. Finally, I got one right: Beethoven’s Third Symphony, The Eroica ie. "heroic symphony" would close the concert.

We began, as usual with Conductor Gemma New and Executive Director Diana Weir’s welcome and acknowledgements, Gemma in her conducting togs and Diana in appropriate green. The composer, Hatzis I mean, the others being long dead, would also speak and introduce his piece which he did mostly rephrasing things that he’d already written in the program.

Zeitgeist, written almost 20 years ago is, according to Hatzis, a musical commentary on Postmodernism. The work is written for string orchestra and references numerous musical styles, some more obviously than others. It featured solo duet passages played capably by Stephen Sitarski and Elizabeth Loewen Andrews. It begins with a convincing imitation of an 18th century French Overture and drifts from that into various avatars of Academic New Music. At times I was more interested in watching New’s extraordinarily clear conducting of the complex key signatures than the music. The piece was interesting, nonetheless, and deserved another listening, perhaps at the beginning of the second half as is done in some New Music series.

The Barber Violin Concert came up next. The première dates from 1941 and  was conducted by Toscanini, no less. It is fully blown neo-Romantic in style, a tour de force for the violinist and a very beautiful work. It is also featured on James Ehnes’s Grammy winning CD along with the Korngold and Walton concertos.

James Ehnes and Strad.

It really was a wonderful performance. I have heard several very fine violinists play solo concertos over the last couple of seasons, at the HPO and with the Brott orchestra, but Ehnes’s performance seemed the most mature. The orchestra rose to the occasion and played exquisitely. Clarinetist Dominic Desautels and oboist Graham Mackenzie both had substantial solos and played them adroitly. Mackenzie’s, at the opening of the second movement, was especially lovely.

Ehnes then played, as an encore, a little J.S. Bach from the solo violin sonatas.
It was fascinating to watch all the violinists, and New, watch him.

The concert concluded with Beethoven. It’s hard to explain to listeners without much experience of “classical music” just how revolutionary this piece was and how different it must have sounded to a contemporary audience at its première, from the international style music which they had heard before. It was long, for the time. Beethoven’s first two symphonies clock in at about 30 minutes. The Eroica takes 45 minutes or more depending on the tempos. It is also complex, as Beethoven’s music often is, constructed not so much of themes and melodies, as the motifs that make them up.

The orchestra, under conductor New, gave a rousing performance to end a very entertaining evening. The horns (David Quackenbush, Neil Spaulding and Mikhailo Babiak) played the trio in the scherzo with gusto. Flutist Leslie Newman stood out playing the short, thought spectacular solo in the finale which must surely be in the flute orchestral auditions excerpts book.

The audience went home, surely satisfied. More people must be reading my recounts than I thought since no one in the big crowd applauded between the movements...

The orchestra is back April 19th under James Sommerville with another diverse and imaginative program. Conrad Tao plays the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3. They open with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc and finish with Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 From the New World.

It would be great if the orchestra could sell out this concert too. I encourage, implore, concert goers and potential concert goers, especially young people, to get out and support Hamilton's wonderful professional orchestra.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Half of an Abduction

I did something yesterday afternoon that I've never done before. I left a COC performance at the interval.

In this production, the company has responded to a question to which no one wants an answer: How do you make a Mozart singspiel boring?

Simple. Make the speaking as long as the singing. Make the play as long as the music. Turn a comedy into a pedantic exposition of the stage director's agenda.

I noted the performance time of the COC's Abduction from the Seraglio in the reminder email they sent. Three and a quarter hours. Seemed at little long. I've since checked: the Met production runs two hours, six minutes.

I'm not going to get into Wajdi Mouawad's rationale for his re-writing of the dialogue which is detailed elsewhere.

This performance opened with a long spoken scene introducing the characters and explaining the premise i.e. that the story would be told through flashbacks.

Then we got the overture. Pretty well every musical number was preceeded or  followed by a substantial amount of German dialogue.

Mouawad also turns the humourous characters (Blonde, Pedrillo and Osmin) into serious ones robbing the show of its comic relief.

Jane Archibald surrounded by little girls and the undead.
Photo credit: The Globe and Mail, Bertrand Stofleth.

As is usually the case with the COC, this production features first rate solo singers, fine chorus singing and brilliant orchestral playing. Unlike some other re-imagined shows (like Ballo in Maschera) the great musical interpretation didn't make up for the production's missteps which are too great.

The best singing I heard came from bass Garan Juric as Osmin. He's a good actor with an excellent bass voice. I'd love to hear his Sarastro.

Resident artist Jane Archibald was a capable Konstanze. She has thrilling high notes and convincing coloratura. It was, however, a little disconcerting to hear her voice disappear as she sang the descending lines in her showpiece aria, Marten Aller Arten.

Claire de Sévigné, on the other hand, matched Juric note for note in the comical low bit of their duet. She also pinned the high Es in her aria. De Sévigné is an impressive actress as well, a definite advantage for a coloratura soubrette. Maybe this is picky, but she's also a brunette. The character is called "Blondie."

Mauro Peter, as Belmonte, seemed uncomfortable at the outset but sang the numerous high G#s and As easily in his arias and certainly looks the part. I'd have liked to hear his spectacular aria, Ich baue ganz, but it was in the second half for which we didn't stay.

Owen Causland played a convincing Pedrillo and more than held his own in the trio with Osmin and Belmonte.

Raphael Weinstock portrayed Bassa Selim and Belmonte's father as well as this tedious script would allow.

I've since looked at the reviews of this production's première in Lyon and they are scathing. With such a warning, what was the administration of the COC thinking?

I am reminded of Monty Python whose last album was titled Contractual Obligation. Except that that album is funny. This production isn't.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Some marvellous music for a cold winter's evening.

Percy Grainger was collecting English folksongs in the early years of the 20th century with his phonograph. He recorded mostly older people who must have been remarkable performers and whose characters came across strongly to him through their performances. The experience impressed Grainger profoundly.

Thirty years later he set six of the songs for wind band in the Lincolnshire Posey. Each movement is an elaborate arrangement of the song but also a portrait of the person who sang it for Grainger all those years ago.

In it you can hear a composer at the height of his powers. His voice is unique and this work is almost symphonic, far longer and more substantial than his better known works like Country Gardens or his glorious setting of Londonderry Air.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Musical Transformations

Some music is just delightful.

This is one of those pieces. It’s uplifting and playful although it’s a serious work.

Oh, and it’s by a composer some would identify as über heavy: J.S. Bach.

Bach liked it so much he adapted it, so it turns up at least twice in his catalogue of almost 1100 works.

I like it so much I’m going to include three different YouTube records although, to get my point, it’s probably best not to listen to all 7’30” of it three times.

Unless you really like it.

It’s best known as the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto #4. In this version the orchestra consists of two recorders, a solo violin, string orchestra and harpsichord continuo. The harpsichordist just gets the figured bass line, which he uses fill out his part. He has to make it up.

Bach rearranged it as the Concerto #6 for two recorders, strings and solo harpsichord. He transforms the solo violin line and figured bass into a full blown harpsichord part which is all written out. The work becomes a showpiece for a virtuoso harpsichordist which, no coincidence, Bach was!

In this version the two recorders are replaced by a transverse flute and oboe. The music stays the same although Bach transposed it down from G to F.

Pianists have always played Bach’s harpsichord music. Glen Gould’s famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations are a case in point.

But a piano doesn’t even make sound the way a harpsichord does.  A harpsichord's strings are plucked, a piano's are struck.  It’s usually much louder than a harpsichord and has a marvellous dynamic range. The first ones were called forte-pianos because they could play loud and soft.

So when the Concerto #6 BMV 1057 is played by two recorders, strings and piano the piece is completely transformed into something like a piano concerto. In this version the recorders are replaced by transverse flutes. 

Some people will like it, some won’t. We have no idea what old Bach would have thought.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Retrospective Musical Tourism

Lots of musicians and classical music fans make a point of visiting places where famous composers lived and worked. Mozart’s homes in Salzburg and Vienna are both big draws. Lots of people, especially organists, try to visit the churches in Germany where J.S. Bach worked. It’s something like going to  the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Jim Morrison and other formerly famous folks are buried, but less creepy.

We were listening to our recording of one of the King’s College Choir’s Xmas albums and the Sweelinck Hodie Christus Natus Est came on. There’s a special place in my musical heart for this piece which I first sang as a first-year student under Deral Johnson at what was then The University of Western Ontario.

This was before the Faculty of Music moved on-campus so the rehearsals were still at the Silverwood Mansion, a healthy bus-ride from the main campus and right across the road from Western’s King’s College. It was, like so much of the other music I got to sing that year, a revelation, the pinacle of Netherland’s polyphony and only the second piece of Renaissance music in which I’d ever taken part.

I didn’t know anything about Sweelinck so we looked him up on the font of all knowledge, my iPad.

Sweelinck’s father had been the organist at the same church before him and his son followed him. This was in the late 16th Century when no one would be surprised to learn that butcher, baker or candlestick maker’s son would follow him in the family business. Apparently, it worked for musicians too.

Which church, you ask? The Oude Kerk (Old Church) on the Dam Square in Amsterdam.

And I Was There, not three months ago! We walked toward the Kerk while the carillion played Down by the Salley Gardens. We sang along, likely the only people there who could amongst the other tourists and the stoned and drunken mob of partiers.

I had no idea, at the time, who’d been the organist there 400 years ago but there you go. Een klein kerstcadeau.

Monday, October 30, 2017

L'elisir D'amore at the COC

We went to hear the COC”s production of L’elisir D’amore Sunday afternoon (Nov. 29, 2017) at the Four Seasons Centre. If it didn’t surpass my expectations, it certainly lived up to them.

It is a very conventional production despite the band pavillion and Red Ensign flags. Resetting the time frame and location of operas sometimes lead to peculiar anachronisms. When Adina reads to the town's people, who Dulcamara refers to as “rustici”, they implore her to continue because they are enjoying the story and they are illiterate. In this production she’s the librarian and, as is made clear in the staging, everybody, including Nemorino, can read. Makes you wonder.

It is also a very silly opera but I knew that going in. I’d forgotten that Adina, described in the program as “bookish and confident”, is also revealed to be a manipulative minx which makes Nemorino’s entrancement with her and eventual capitulation hard to stomach. But so much for the plot.

The young principals are all Canadians, former members of the COC Ensemble and seem headed for international careers (Gordon Bintner is already at Oper Frankfurt. Whether the company took a chance casting them rather then established international stars is a question for the box office but the audience enjoyed the show and laughed at the comic bits in the staging and the jokes in the surtitles.

Simone Osborne was a convincing Adina in voice and a surprisingly adept comic actress. I  believe we’ve seen her in four disparate roles and she’s never disappointed. She evidently sang Micaëla in the COC’s Carmen which seems an odd choice for a Lyric Soubrette. The role is better suited to a Lyric Soprano and I don’t hear her voice going that way.

Simone Osborne as Adina

Andrew Haji was an amusing Nemorino, Ice Cream Man. Some would credit him with the best singing of the night. He possesses a beautiful Lyric Tenor voice and his rendition of Una Furtiva was just lovely, even touching. Someone of his girth would, however, never be cast as a romantic lead in straight theatre. He’s a young guy and if he’s going to remedy the problem he’d better get on it. Knees don’t last forever.

Gordon Bintner was a very funny Belcore. Who’d have thought such a fine singer would have a gift for physical comedy? He can act with his eyebrows and even his legs and feet.

Andrew Shore sang and acted a really good Dulcamara. I suspect they left in some of the routine cuts to give him more opportunities. The duet he and Adina sing, which he’s supposed written, of a dottering senator with his eye on a young rustica was amusing. I checked his bio and he’s had a wonderful career singing mostly buffo roles but also some very serious ones at English National, The Met and Bayreuth.

Lauren Eberwein, a current Ensemble member sang Gianetta and was charming in her moment with the Women’s Chorus as she reveals her knowledge of Nemorino’s good fortune.

There are a couple of more performance before this one closes and, if you like comic opera and really good singing, this is a show for you.