Friday, July 31, 2015

Music of the Americas at the Brott Festival

I went Thursday (July 30) evening to hear a concert in the Brott Festival series at the McIntyre Theatre at the Fennel Campus of Mohawk College. This one was not as well attended as last week's Barber of Seville. On that occasion, all the seats in the centre section in front of the balcony had been sold as reserved and I sat off to the side under the balcony. Very few reserved seats were sold this evening and I was able to sit in Row 9, right in the middle where the sound was excellent.

I usually only attend classical-style concerts of whatever period. Renaissance to 21st C., it's all good for me. Pops concerts? Not so much. The Brott Festival provides lots of opportunities to hear the latter (about half of this year's offerings) but they really don't interest me.

I made an exception for last night's concert. I'd heard John Williams' pieces from Schindler's List before and thought it would be worth another live listening. Bernstein's overture to Candide is a brilliant work I always enjoy and the Academy Orchestra makes a wonderful sound in the 1100 seat McIntyre Theatre whatever they're playing.

Janna Sailor, Brott's apprentice conductor, opened the program with the Candide Overture and it was a very convincing performance. All the players must have spent some time in the woodshed because every note in the texture was absolutely clear in this familiar but demanding work. Full marks to this young conductor and especially to the various woodwind soloists.

Brott himself came on stage and described all the pieces on the program as lollipops. Everyone immediately knew what he was talking about. They'd be shorter, accessible works that would be at home in an orchestral pops concert. I couldn't say I hadn't been warned.

The second piece was Danzón from the Suite No. 2 by Mexican composer Arturo Marquez. Brott pointed out that the rhythms that pervade it, including a persistent claves part, are more Cuban than Mexican. The music has the shifted accents of commercial Latin music that so many find irresistible. There are also changes of meter and tempo. The percussionists appeared to be having a great time. This is a work I'd be pleased to hear again.

Next up was the Alexander Courage's Fantasia on Themes from Porgy and Bess featuring violinist Lindsay Deutsch.  Courage is best known as the composer of the theme for the original Star Trek series but had a lengthy career as a film and TV composer and arranger. He had a long association with John Williams and wrote this piece for Joshua Bell when Williams was the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Truth be told, I'd rather have heard Robert Russell Bennett's Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. It is a more satisfying musical take on the opera than the Courage piece but it doesn't have much of a solo violin part.

Fantasia on Themes from Porgy and Bess is like those 19th C. violin show-pieces based on themes from operas. Deutsch played brilliantly although she was sometimes entirely covered by the orchestra in forte passages.

Lindsay Deutsch

All sorts of superlatives have been used to describe her stage presence which, as a musician, I view quite separately from her ability to play the violin or interpret the music. She dances about quite a lot while she plays. Sometimes it almost seems choreographed. She also employs lots of facial expressions that some must interpret as reflecting her interpretation of the music.

It brought to mind a conversation I had some years ago with a certain singing teacher about art song interpretation. A singer must communicate, with their facial expression, the text they are singing. Some singers have difficulty doing this and instead resort to "making faces" that they have decided fit with the song. That was the impression I had of what this performer was doing, making faces to go with the music.

I think this, and the dancing about, detracted from the performance of the music rather than adding to it. This was repeated in the second half when she played the music from Schindler's List. In that work, standing so close to Brott (who often turned to face her) she played some notes so quietly that I suspect only she, he and the first stand violins could hear them properly. They were but a rumour to me.

Clearly, mine is a minority view. Maestro Brott, always the showman, really likes this performer whom he discovered in Los Angeles and who played here 11 years ago when she was 19 or 20. Many in the audience were bowled over and gave a standing O for a brilliant performance of what isn't a very consequential piece in the world of solo violin and orchestra music.

The second half started with two short genre pieces, I'm Jazzed and Della Rag, by American organist and entrepreneur Craig Zobelein. They're really quite charming lightweight music and would fit nicely in an orchestral pops concert.

They followed with the familiar Hoe Down from Aaron Copland's ballet Rodeo. Again, as in the Bernstein which opened the concert, the orchestra gave a clear and competent performance.

After the aforementioned music from Schindler's List orchestra played British Columbia from Alexander Brott's suite From Sea to Sea which was commissioned by the CBC in 1947. It has the sound of mid-century modernist music, tonal but with some interesting dissonance, rhythmic and taking full advantage of the full orchestra. It was pleasant to hear and a strong contrast to all the other music in the concert.

They finished with Argentine Alberto Ginastera's early suite from the ballet Estancia. This piece dates from Ginastera's first compositional period and is rather conventional compared to some of his later pieces. He wrote many film scores and this work often sounds, unavoidably, like movie music. The slow movement is lovely and evocative of a the sunrise before a hot day on the estancia, a cattle ranch. The rest of the suite is rhythmic and, especially in the finale, rather repetitive.

It's a bad sign for me when the most engaging pieces in a concert are the first two as was the case in this concert. I would really prefer to hear at least one extended work in an orchestral concert. It doesn't have to be a Bruckner symphony. The Bartók Dance Suite or Kodály's Galánta Dances would do nicely. Speaking of Bartók, I've been waiting years to hear a live performance of the Concerto for Orchestra.

Their next concert, Cirque du Festival, includes several familiar suites and aerial acrobats. They finish up on August 13 with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Orff's Carmina Burana.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I am a musician who shares his experiences and conversations through writing. I make no pretence of following professional journalistic standards of practice.


  1. well done.
    What are professional journalistic standards of practice?

  2. Mostly around due diligence for accuracy, avoiding libel suites, that sort of thing.