Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ensemble Lyrica @ Central Presbyterian

There's enough quality choral music for Christmas that you could program a different concert for a hundred years without repeating any. Solo music is a different matter. There's hardly any. I've written Five Christmas Ceremonies for high voice and piano. The poems are by Robert Herrick and three are religious, the other two secular. Any soprano, tenor or accompanist interested in seeing the songs can contact me. By Christmas next year the songs will be available from the Canadian Music Centre.

In any event, you know the choral season is busy when a choir presents a concert of carols and Christmas Music at 3:00 P.M. on a Saturday afternoon!

That's why I was at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton yesterday hearing Ensemble Lyrica, a 24-voice choir conducted by Brent Fifield, the organist at Trinity Anglican Church in Cambridge. They were accompanied in some numbers by Central Presbyterian organist Paul Grimwood.

Brent Fifield

This is a group of  27 enthusiastic amateur choral singers (including John Laing, who no longer conducts the eponymous singers) and a couple of others whose names I recognized. The choir was founded only in 2011 and gets by on bi-weekly rehearsals. I suspect that all of the participants sing, at least, in a church choir and some of them in another choir as well.

The choir was very well prepared by Fifield. The words were frequently intelligible in English, French and German (this is a rather live acoustic space, ideal for the big 80 rank Casavant organ).

As is often the case with small choirs of amateur singers, individual voices sometimes stuck out. There was occasionally some shoutiness from the basses. The sopranos make unnecessary crescendos on many of the higher notes in the manner of some trebles.

A half dozen of the choristers took turns as soloists giving some insight into the overall sound of the choir. There's a least one real young tenor (Matthew Bowman) and a good baritone (Peter Dooley, also probably a tenor) who matched soprano Stephanie Fifield note for note.

They sang 15 seasonal pieces in two short halves punctuated by an overly long interval.

Among the highlights, I heard, for the first time, Johann Eccard's Über Gebirg Maria geht, a lovely high Renaissance carol. Choir conductors who don't know this one should look it up.

There were two Vaughn-Williams pieces. Wither's Rocking Hymn and the Fantasia on Christmas Carols with Roland Fix as soloist.

They sang Michael Praetorius' two choir In Dulci Jubilo which was followed by Grimwood's rendition of Denis Bédard's showy organ variations on the same theme.

The choir performed HowellsHere is the Little Door. It's a pretty little piece, unlike the big, effusive Howells works with which I am more familiar.

I must mention Bob Chilcott's The Time of Snow. It's a lovely, quiet work. With Paul Grimwood at the piano for the only time, playing the vaguely Japanese sounding accompaniment, it made an effective contrast to all the other music. This is another work conductors should look for.

They finished with Imogen Holst's familiar arrangement of Here We Come a Wassailing.

All in all, I'll return in the spring to hear their next concert and other choral afficionados from this region should too. This is a good little choir. They are well prepared and sing interesting repertoire. This recital was free with a good will offering. What else do you want?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Requiem for Peace with Orpheus Choir

I made the trek down the QEW to Metropolitan United Church in Toronto on Saturday night to hear a performance of Canadian Larry Nickel's doctoral work, The Requiem for Peace. I'd been impressed by some of the work to which I had listened on line and was interested in hearing the piece live for both aesthetic and professional reasons.

Composer Larry Nickel

The performance was being conducted by Robert Cooper with whom I sang, as an undergraduate, in the Faculty of Music Singers (now UWO Singers) at what was then The University of Western Ontario (now Western University of Canada) under Deral Johnson.

The performers included the Orpheus Choir of Toronto, the MacMillan Singers from the University of Toronto (prepared by their conductor Hilary Apfelstad) and a seven player chamber ensemble consisting of flute, clarinet, oboe, harp, piano and two percussionists.

Solos were taken by the mezzo-soprano Michelle Sun and the eight Sidgwick Scholars, young singers who are the Orpheus Choir's leads.

The Requiem for Peace is in fifteen choral movements and two instrumental ones which introduce the first and second parts. The movements are in various languages (Latin, English, Hebrew, French, Russian, Dutch, German, Chinese, Japanese) and the texts are from the Latin Mass and assorted poets including Victor Hugo and Wilfred Owen to whose poetry Britten also set his War Requiem.

The Requiem for Peace was conceived for a large choir and orchestra. The pictures of the première look like a performance of Mahler's Eighth. Dr. Nickel created this reduced orchestra version of the work which was first performed by the Vancouver Chamber Choir of which he is a member.

Vancouver première for large choir and orchestra

The idiom is highly accessible. It's likely that only a few of the audience had listened to any part of this piece before, but it was very well received. Larry Nickel is an accomplished choral composer with scores of published pieces and dozens of recordings to his credit. This work, his longest and most elaborate, is a remarkable achievement.

The instrumentalists, all working professionals, played well and the choral preparation was first rate. English texts were not published in the program but,  most of the words were comprehensible, something which is often not the case in choral singing. Robert Cooper is to be congratulated.

Most of the soloists were merely adequate. It's not that they didn't sing accurately or that they had poor voices or technique, rather that this is a weighty work and, with a large choir, they simply hadn't sufficient presence. Baritone Tristan Jones and mezzo-soprano Jocelyn Fralick stood out among them. I'd like to hear this work again with older, more accomplished singers.

The performance was accompanied by projected images, compiled by Joan Nicks, an adjunct professor at Brock University. The pictures were chosen to fit the texts and enriched, rather than distracted from, the musical experience.

She also put together images to go with a fifteen minute segment of the CBC radio show Tapestry about the Requiem for Peace which was played before the performance.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rigoletto at Theatre Aquarius

We attended the Tuesday October 23rd performance of Opera Hamilton's Rigoletto at Hamilton's Theatre Aquarius sitting in the third row of the balcony.

This hall is an intimate space for opera (at about 750 seats) but, since it was designed for spoken theatre, the acoustics are not really live enough for unamplified music performances.

The sound and sight lines from the balcony are every bit as good as the seats in the orchestra and, certainly, preferable to sitting in the first few rows.

In this production the story is updated to the 21st Century and presented on a skeletal, but not minimalist, set. I'm usually partial to traditional productions but, at the end of the day, this approach worked for me and Director and Designer Michael Cavanagh is to be congratulated for a fresh look for this standard repertoire opera.

The opening scene is a corporate Hallowe'en party and the entire cast is costumed with the Duke and Rigoletto in the 16th Century garb one would expect in a period production, helping the audience to make the bridge from Victor Hugo to the present.

The second scene, however, is in Rigoletto's apartment where Gilda, in shorts and a fleece top is, presumably, surfing the Internet on her Macbook.

The four main players are all very good. Jason Howard, who has sung Rigoletto before, was dramatically convincing. He sang much of the role loudly which, while unavoidable in the Wagnerian repertoire which has been has recent work, is not desirable in some of this role or in a house this size. I've noticed this tendency of baritones in this house before (Hugh Russell and Alexandre Sylvestre did it last season in Il Barbiere). I know from personal experience that this is a difficult hall in which to sing since it sends nothing back to the singer. Nonetheless, singers should get out into the hall and listen to the others during the rehearsals to better understand the acoustics.

Tenor Gordon Gietz was an effective and credible Duke. He was sometimes out of tune in the upper middle of his voice but sported impressive and dependable top notes, including a lovely piano high B at the ending the reprise of La Donna e Mobile.

Lauren Segal
 did a expert job with the role of Maddalena. The character appears only in the final act but, with both her singing and acting, she persuasively portrayed this experienced woman who has been instantly captivated by the Duke. Her rich mezzo provided a favourable contrast to the other principal singers in the cast.

Finally, soprano Simone Osborne was surely the star of the show. She sang the coluratura role of Gilda simply and accurately. Her Caro Nome was stunning. Osborne's portrayal of the character was also convincing. There is little else to say. Watch for her when she comes to an opera house near you.

Bass Taras Kulish played both Monterone and the assassin Sparafucile. He's a good actor and contributed a ringing low F at the end of his duet with Rigoletto. Sadly his high notes tend to be pushed.

Chorus Master Peter Oleskevich must has taken the chorus to the woodshed after the not very complimentary review was published in the Hamilton Spectator Monday. Certainly, their singing was much improved over last year's Trovatore. The chorus was reinforced by the male comprimario leads.

All of the smaller role were well dealt with by Ben Covey (Marullo), Jason Hales (Matteo Borsa), Michael Rusnak (Count Ceprano), Iasmina Pataca (Giovanna), Countess Ceprano (Breanna Temple), Stephen Berryman (An Usher) and Rachel Weisdorf (A Page).

The orchestra, all first rate players from the Philharmonic played pretty well  under conductor and General Director David Speers. With only 30 musicians, I do miss the full Verdi orchestration. This is one of the few halls in which the singers on stage don't need to "put out" to be heard over the orchestra, rather, it's the other way around.

The Popera Plus concert in January features John Fanning. Four performances of Les Pêcheur de Perles are coming up in early March with Brett Polegato and Virginia Hatfield. Other cast members have yet to be announced.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Mindset

I watched The Searchers (1956) the other afternoon. I'd recorded it (from WNED in HD) earlier after checking with Rotten Tomatoes, my go-to source of movie info.

If you've never encounter it, Rotten Tomatoes offers percent approval ratings (two of them actually, one from their list of critics and another from their "members") on most movies you might consider seeing on TV, computer services or currently in the theatres. It's not foolproof, but is more dependable than one critic or your Uncle Bob.

Anyway, The Searchers is a John Ford Western starring John Wayne. Ford directed many Westerns, 14 movies with John Wayne and this one is considered his best. Rotten Tomatoes rated it 98%/86%. That's quite an endorsement.

John Wayne

Overall, I enjoyed the movie although some of it was cringeworthy. There's a romantic subplot that provides the comic relief, the scenes of which seem at odds with the rest of the film. The John Wayne character is an out-and-out racist but there is none of the contextualizing you would find in a contemporary film. Finally, it is a Cowboys-and-Indians Western. There are all sorts of conventions inherent to this genre. As a child I learned them watching TV series like Gunsmoke and Bonanza. Even though I had all the tools, the mindset, to understand this film, 56 years on, I wasn't as engaged as I expected to be.

Lorne Greene

Where does that leave a young person or someone from another culture, I wonder? Without any experience of Westerns (or only having seen more contemporary, revisionist films like Unforgiven) what might that person take from a screening of this film? They would lack the mindset to fully comprehend it, and consequently, to enjoy it.

What would you have to do to prepare a young person with no experience of older films and Westerns to view this movie? I suppose this is the sort of thing that's done in Film Courses and I had such an experience many years ago before viewing Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

Haunting image from Wild Strawberries

The number of people who take Film Courses in College or University is, however, vanishingly small, and I can't imagine that it would be a very high priority for many of today's youth, especially those who are first or second generation Canadians, coming from other cultures, and getting an education with the objective of making a living.

This brings me to the point of this blog post. We are going to see Rigoletto on Tuesday night. What would bring a young person with no experience of opera to such a performance? Indeed, if they came, entirely unprepared, what would they make of it?

Simone Osborne and Jason Howard in Opera Hamilton Rigoletto

I'm afraid they wouldn't be able to understand what there was to like about it. The very things that would hold the attention of a more sophisticated audience member (operatic singing and acting, the staging, the orchestral playing) might very well not impress them at all.

Today, most people experience perfect renditions of music from electronic sources. Listening to real people make music, unamplified, with acoustic instruments or voices is outside their experience.

The young people who will be in the theatre for Rigoletto will be some of the handful who have learned about opera from their families, their social contacts or in music class in school. The vast majority of this potential audience has no contact with any sort of "classical music" and no interest in it. They lack the mindset to perceive its beauty and intrinsic worth.

The simple truth is that conventional acoustic music making, be it opera, symphonic music or chamber music, is likely on its last legs. It is progressively growing more elitist (as its audience dwindles), less accessible and, for producers and patrons, more expensive. 

There are those who continue to fight to "expose" (unfortunate word) young people to "classical" music. I was one of those in my educational career and I know I made a difference in the lives of many children. But how much can one person do?

Here in Hamilton, Boris Brott continues to produced orchestral programs for school aged children and present them at Hamilton Place. I've been to his concerts (with a class of 9 year olds) who had a great time, but those in the Great Hall were a tiny proportion of the children who were eligible. The rest were likely back at school continuing their lessons in Literacy and Numeracy. Music isn't a very big priority in the Public Schools of Ontario these days.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Unique in New Music

May 13, 2013 will mark the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps. This work is among the most influential of all orchestral pieces and may be regarded as the wellspring of what most audiences think of as "Modern Music".

Nothing had been written before that was anything like it and Stravinsky (1882-1971), wisely, never wrote anything much like it again. It is full of non-tonal (i.e. unresolved or unresolvable) dissonances, driving irregular rhythms and adventurous orchestration, all of which were combined in an utterly new manner.

Everyone knows that it precipitated a near riot at its première but that might have had as much to do with Diaghilev's ballet which it accompanied as the music that was being played. Within a year Le Sacre triumphed as a concert piece.

We know that Stravinsky understood the value of innovation in music because he constantly changed the style of his pieces throughout his long career, even experimenting with Serialism in his later years.

Igor Stravinsky by Picasso

So what place does "uniqueness" play in the work of creatives artists like composers? It's clear that it is possible to have very fine technique and compose (or paint, sculpt or write) convincingly. It's also clear that if you are working in a commercial genre you can be very successful without doing anything very new at all. The work of film composers, commercial artists, genre novelists and popular musicians attest to that. Occasionally the singular talent of one of these artists people imbues her/his work with uniqueness and extraordinary success may follow. An example might be Michael Jackson (1958-2009). Readers can, no doubt, come up with their own.

Michael Jackson, unaltered

I've read, more than once, that one is encouraged to borrow or steal in the course of creating new works, and it is hard to see how that cannot be so. Labeling somebody's work as "derivative" or "influenced by something else" is hardly helpful since nothing (save one's own inner life) is learned sitting alone and musing. Nothing comes from nothing and so long you're not trying to pass off pastiche as something new, it's all part of the artist's growth.

The problem is, once you've managed to create something that's really new, how do you follow it? Some artists make a career out of reworking one or a few unique insights, over and over again. If the insights and technique are strong enough, and the artist's singular talent (see above) is too, a career can me made. I think of Philip Glass. Again, readers can probably think of their own example.

I made mention, last time, George Crumb who employed sounds coaxed from conventional instruments played in unusual ways. After you've included a suspended cymbal played with a violin bow or tympani glissandi (as Bartok did in the Concerto for Orchestra) in a piece, and everybody goes, "Ooh, that was cool," what do you do next? You can't very well use the same technique in the same way. On its own, the sound is meaningless. Do you try to discover other means of producing unusual sounds from conventional instruments? If you learn about them from a workshop or read about them, somebody else is sure to have used them already. You could cross over into Electronic Music perhaps? (You'd have a fair bit of competition there!) If your technique and talent aren't up to it you're not going to have much success.

I heard Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver a couple of years back (thanks to Jamie Sommerville and the What's Next Festival). I recall that it was inspired by the sounds a short wave receiver makes as you move the dial between the stations. I didn't realize at the time that Greenwood is a fan of Krysztof Penderecki which makes a lot of sense to me now. I thought at the time, as neat as it was, it's the kind of thing you can only do once. I'm going to listen to some more of Greenwood's music, now that he's an established film composer (in addition to his full-time job as guitarist of Radiohead) and see what his newer pieces are like.

Jonny Greenwood

In any event, the quest of creative artists for new ideas will continue as long as they aspire to make something innovative and different. Maybe some people out there will read this and imagine, tonight while asleep, the unique idea which will make their career. 

Pleasant dreams!

Monday, October 1, 2012

5 at the First

We attended a very entertaining recital Sunday afternoon featuring flautist Sara Traficante and pianist Shoshana Telner with guest artist (and series organizer) cellist Rachel Mercer in the concert series, 5 at the First, which is in its third season at the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton.

Sara Traficante

Concert programs require thoughtful preparation. It's not enough to prepare an appropriate amount of music, corresponding to the performers' desires. One has to present sufficient variety to engage both the performers and the audience. This is usually accomplished through choosing music in different styles and from diverse style periods (eg. Romantic, 20th C.)

As I perused the program I was struck that they had managed to plan a concert of mostly flute music without a single Baroque or Classical work. There would be no Trio Sonatas or International Style sonatinas.

I was eagerly looking forward to hearing the music they had chosen.

The Romantic Period is a bit of a desert for solo flute works, but Traficante and Telner played two Romantic Period pieces.

They played Carl Reinecke's Undine Sonata, that composer's best know work.  He was, in his day, a celebrated composer, pianist and teacher. He conducted the première of Brahms' German Requiem and played in the première of that composer's Piano Quintet. The music is reminiscent of Schumann with whom Reinecke studied. 

Later in the program they performed Phillipe Gaubert's Sur L'eau. Gaubert was an important flautist and conductor as well as a composer of, mostly, flute music. While the music is very much in the Romantic style, he lived until 1941.

Debussy's music was heard twice. Traficante played Syrinx, a short but  influential piece for solo flute. She stood far from the stage, as is customary. Telfer performed L'Isle Joyeuse, the solo piano showpiece, with appropriate exuberance.

Other music included Carl Vine's flute sonata. He is a prolific (6 symphonies) and highly successful Australian composer (of whom I had shamefully never heard) and I'll be listening to as many of his pieces as I can find. The music is constructed of tonal cells but is mainstream modern music, although not of the minimalist or series varieties.

They also played a  lovely short piece by Jacques Hétu, Aria opus 27, perhaps to include a little Canadian content.

Cellist Rachel Mercer joined them at the end of the concert for the work I had been most looking forward to hearing, George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (The  Voice of the Whale). Crumb was the star of American contemporary concert music in the early 1970s. I listened at the time to recordings of his pieces, like The Ancient Voices of Children, as I followed the huge, beautiful scores which combine conventional and graphic notation. I attended concerts of student works which were filled with pieces influenced by his. I was later amazed by a recording of the electric string quartet, Black Angels, played by the Kronos Quartet. Here it is played by Quatuor Béla.

 His music is typically rather spare and requires instrumentalists and singers to employ extended techniques to elicit novel or unusual sounds. In this piece, the flute, cello and piano are all amplified. The singers wear masks and perform on a darkened stage. 

Traficante sang as she played and later whistled and played glockenspiel. Telner played and plucked the strings inside the piano and used a metal strip to draw prepared piano sounds from her instrument. Mercer's part consisted mostly of overtones, although she and the other musicians did play a beautiful, lyrical passage in the concluding Nocturne section using the instruments conventionally.

The Crumb piece is very different from the others presented in this recital and, if only for that reason, was an appropriate choice. Any audience member who had never heard this sort of thing before was likely doubly impressed.

The problem, of course, is that much of the impact of pieces like this depend upon their effects. Unique ideas, whatever variety, are only unique once. That's not to say that this in any way negates the value of Crumb's music, but with what do you follow it?

Certainly the two of his prominent students with whose music I am familiar (Jennifer Higdon and Osvaldo Golijov) don't write music that sounds anything like his. Higdon, who won the 2010 Pulitzer Price for her Violin Concerto, is an American contemporary composer whose music is very eclectic and listenable. Jaime Sommerville and a Hamilton Philharmonic chamber orchestra did one of Golijov's pieces in a concert at Central Presbyterian last year and it was beautiful, lyrical and vaguely impressionistic. Neither composer's music reminds me of George Crumb's.

Having said that, the performers demonstrated courage and an adventurous spirit in programing Vox Balaenae.

In any event, I'd encourage anyone in the the Hamilton region with an interest in chamber music recitals to patronize this series. The performers are first rate, and, since the concerts are sponsored, the cost is only $15 for adults, a definite bargain.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Grandi Project

Singer-songwriters are a staple of contemporary music. One thinks of artists like Ron SexsmithLeslie Feist Sir Elton John or Neil Sedaka to name some of my favourites. You get the idea. One singer on stage with an accompanying instrument entertaining the audience with no assistance.

I think that's what's going on in this video. Imagine Alessandro Grandi, in the first decade of the 17th Century in Venice, where he was Monteverdi's assistant at San Marco, before an intimate gathering of gentlemen and ladies, singing love songs and accompanying himself on the Baroque guitar.

Now imagine a 21st Century singer, in this case tenor Bud Roach, recreating the music some four centuries later. He clearly loves the songs has prepared them in great detail. He even accompanies himself on the Baroque guitar.

He premièred my own cycle, Invictus: Five Henley Songs in March.

Bud Roach

The recording was made by the versatile Kirk Starkey who is also a wonderful cellist performing New Music, classical repertoire and with popular musicians. Kirk performed the opening movement of my Sonata for Amplified Cello and Electronics this past spring.

Kirk Starkey

Link to Grandi Video

Friday, August 17, 2012

An Introduction to Musical Minimalism

I remember hearing a Minimalist piece for the first time. I was sitting in the parking lot of Churchill Heights Elementary School in Scarborough more than 30 years ago. It had started to play while I was driving and I decided to listen to the end (in order to know what it was in those pre-internet days) which made me late for my class. The piece was In C by Terry Riley played by a saxophonist using a tape loop. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before.

The movement arose in New York in the 1960s at which point it was experimental music, outside the mainstream of contemporary academic music. The music was pretty austere at first. In its purest form, in which certain predetermined procedures are executed and allowed to run their course, it is called Process Music. In that way Process Music is somewhat akin to Serialism, although the controlled elements are much different as is the musical result.

Over time, composers who are identified as Minimalists have personalized the stylistic traits and content of the music. Different composers who employ minimalistic techniques as the primary organizing principal now produce very diverse pieces.

If the first of these recordings engages you, come back to this posting and listen to the others later so you don’t get listening fatigue. Each composition is worthy of fresh ears.

Here is a recording of Terry Riley’s pioneering In C. The piece is written for undeterminate musicians and is of indeterminate length although it tends to last about 30 minutes. This is somewhat shorter.

Steve Reich’s Double Sextet won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2009. It’s a lot more approachable than some of his earlier music.


I had the good fortune to attend a performance of Philip Glass's third “opera,” Akhnaten, at the English National in 1983. I’d already seen Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (which is accompanied by a Glass score, or perhaps the other way around) a couple of times so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I was gobsmacked! It was, absent any conventional narrative, utterly entrancing.

Here is the very well know piano solo piece that opens Glassworks, a chamber piece. He wrote it specifically to make his music more accessible to a general audience. He also collaborated with David Byrne, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon and Suzanne Vega on Songs from Liquid Days which featured Linda Ronstadt on vocals.

This brings us to John Adams. I've been listening to A Guide to Strange Places, which I really enjoy. His 1978 chamber piece (later arranged for string orchestra) “Shaker Loops” was a turning point in his compositional style. Each part repeats (loops) but each part has a different “period” i.e. length so the way they sound together is constantly changing. His opera “Nixon in China” seems to be entering the standard repertoire. Here’s the recording of his best known orchestral piece “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Wonder of Richard Strauss

One of the benefits of being a HPL user is Freegal music downloads. I get 3 free MP3 files each week from an enormous selection. The "search" function is very clunky and it can take a long time to find things but free is free and you don't want to be wasting iTunes downloads on music you're not sure you want to listen to repeatedly.

Since you only get 3 tracks a week, I often look for long pieces or movements. It'd take you months to get the entire Rachmaninov "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" since each of the 24 variations counts as one selection even though some are only a minute long.

Last week I downloaded 3 of Strauss's Tone Poems: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan and Till Eulenspiel, pieces I'd been meaning to listen to again for a long time.

Strauss was a highly capable, imaginative and detailed orchestrator. He wrote for a large orchestra which requires many string players both to balance the winds and because he so often writes divisi passages, especially for the 'cellos. Unlike Mahler, his contemporary, who frequently uses spare textures in the midst of his symphonies, Strauss usually writes for many players at any given time. He manages so much variety that the orchestrations are never boring.

Richard Strauss

Richard Strauss had an extraordinary musical life. The son of the principal horn player in the Munich Opera Orchestra he attended rehearsals there as a child. Hans von Bülow was impressed with a Serenade for Wind Instruments which Strauss wrote when he was 16 and took Strauss on as his conducting apprentice when he was 18. He composed, conducted and (beginning in the 1920s) recorded a great volume of music. He died in 1949 at the age of 85.

Strauss twice made the cover of Time Magazine

Strauss the composer is perceived differently by different audiences because he was so prolific and worked in different genres.

For orchestral music buffs Strauss is known as the composer of eight virtuosic tone poems, 2 Horn Concertos, an Oboe Concerto, the Suite Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme and other pieces.

Opera fans know him as the composer of some 15 operas, about half of which are still performed. A few (Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos) are in the standard repertoire.

Song aficianados love his lieder, written throughout his career, many of which are orchestrated.

By 1909 when he was composing Elektra, the musical winds of change were blowing strongly and  Strauss used a more "modern" harmonic vocabulary in addition to the leitmotives he had inherited from Wagner.

When I first encountered this opera in a 20th C. analysis class the music made me queasy as it wandered from key to key. Later, I watched 4 live performances at the COC (with Maureen Forrester making a spine tingling entrance as Klytaemnestra) and enjoyed it enormously, especially since this was the first COC production to include Surtitles.

It occurred to me years ago that, with Elektra, Strauss looked over the edge of the precipice (a precipice over which Stravinsky among others would enthusiastically jump a few years later) and decided he didn't want to go there. With his next opera, Der Rosenkavlier, he returned to the high romantic style which had served him in the tone poems and he pretty much stayed there for the next 40 years.

In any event, take some time to listen to some of Richard Strauss's music in the genres with which you aren't familiar. These three works will get you started.

I met Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche in excerpts as a baritone horn player in high school band. The original sounds better.

Some people claim this trio is the most beautiful music they've ever heard. Strauss certainly loved to write for sopranos. This is from a 1960 film with Elisabeth Schwartzkopf in her signature role as the Marschallin.

Finally, the last of the Four Last Songs, Im Abendrot, written in 1948. I looked for video with Jesse Norman but could find only audio recordings. This is pretty
nice though. I wasn't familiar with Soile Isokoski, the Finnish soprano who sings here, but she's having the "big career".

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Our Stratford 2012

We've taken in Cymbeline and Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the last couple of weeks. I enjoyed both shows and don't presume to make any comment on the plays, their productions or their execution.

I've recently listened to several CDs of film scores and am struck by the similarity between music composed for the cinema and music composed to be played during live performances of straight (as opposed to musical) theatre.
Composers have been writing music to be performed in the midst of plays for an awfully long time and some of it ( Grieg's Peer Gynt, Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream) has gone on to have a life of its own. Similarly certain film scores (John Williams' Star Wars etc. or Howard Shore's LOTR music) and numerous individual items from films (David Raksin's Laura, Mancini's Pink Panther) have survived the movies for which they were composed.

Steven Page

Steven Page (yes, that Steven Page) composed the music for Cymbeline. He's quite a capably composer in this idiom. The music was performed as a recording on which the composer played the various instruments. As, I supposed, should be the case, I was sometimes not aware of the music (and I'm always aware of music.). There's a rambunctious battle scene and Mr. Page must have pegged it perfectly. I knew there was music playing but it didn't distract from the action. There was also a lovely setting of "Hark, Hark the Lark", nicely sung and played until the staging derailed it. It was, on the whole, understated and nicely done.

Michael Roth

Michael Roth's score for Henry V was something quite different, something much more grand and cinematographic. In addition to pre-recorded music, including percussion and drones, there were four live brass players on stage (playing single valved "Aida" trumpets some of the time) and two drummers. The music sometimes began before scenes had ended (covering the dialogue, although that's hardly the composer's fault) and continuing through the scene changes. Actors sang in chorus on stage and there was pre-recorded choral singing as well. I'd love to know how the director and composer "spotted" the play (and Cymbeline too) to figure out exactly how many seconds of music were required and where it should occur. There's no SMPTE code for a play... or is there?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On the Value of Vocal Music in the Public Schools

Each of us lives with music every day. Be it incidentally, as in a grocery store or as an accompaniment to media, or intentionally and purposefully, music is all around us. Not everyone draws or uses arithmetic or even reads every day, but each of us listens to music. 

There is a path that can lead everyone to develop a  unique personal experience and understanding of music that will stay with us and enrich our lives. That path is through singing, especially in groups or choirs, and it is a path which is best taken in childhood.

At one time, in Hamilton, there were many opportunities for children to sing but these are far rarer now. If most children are to learn about music, and to sing, it must be in the schools.

Unfortunately, educational priorities and changes to scheduling have made it difficult for those interested in this apect of music education to find time for choirs and singing within the school day.

Here are some very good reasons for administrators to make the difficult compromises needed so that schools can have well conceived and implemented vocal music programs which lend extraordinary short and long term benefits to their students.

To begin with, singing in groups acquaints participants first hand with music that “doesn’t come out of earbuds”. Competent music educators always strive to employ varied music of the highest possible quality. In a choral setting it is possible to use quality repertoire almost immediately. A diverse musical experience is the only way to develop discrimination both as a performer and as a listener. It improves everyone’s life to be able to distinguish between music which is only a product, created to deliver an audience, and music which is more about artistic integrity. 

Next, there is the gestalt aspect of group music making, founded in the concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Choral singers, most not soloists themselves, participate in the recreation of music which is far more complex, and has deeper meaning, than they could possibly make on their own. Again, this benefit can be experienced with the youngest, least skilled singers.This is a big part of what keeps them coming back.

Choral singing in schools also engages children who would not otherwise be involved in group activities, like athletics. It creates an experience of belonging, sometimes for large numbers of kids. It allows children who might not otherwise do very well in school to find something at which they can excel. 

Finally, while singing in a choir, even (perhaps especially) as a child, one has the opportunity, repeatedly, to be engaged by the aesthetic experience, that ineffable quality of art that transcends normal life, the thrill of being in the presence of artistic beauty and knowing that one had a part in creating it.

The good news for administrators is that all of this is available at very little cost to the system. A capable teacher, a decent electonic keyboard and a library of materals that grow incrementally, and can be reused, are all that is necessary. No huge initial outlay of capital, no  on-going bills for repairs to equipment. The skills the children learn are transferable to whatever opportunities present themselves as the children grow older and move from school to school.

It seems self evident that if you wish people to make authentic connections to ideas or activities it is best done through engaging them directly and actively. For example, those children who play sports, even in an informal way, are far more likely to continue when they are older. Large numbers of them become avid spectators.

So it is with music. Little children who sing, grow into older children who sing. Adult choristers almost always started to sing as kids. So did most adolescents who excel in Middle School music. (Indeed, it would much more efficient use of resources if all children consistently arrived in Middle School band classes having already learned the basics or music making. I never met a child who coud not sing in tune and learned to play an instrument with much success.) Garage bands are full of boys and girls who sang in choirs in school, too.

Thus, music education through singing must be started early, in Kindergarten and Primary grades. Taught by qualified people who are themselves proficient singers, young children should learn to match pitches and sing appropriate songs with their classmates at a time when they have no prejudice against doing so. 

While they proceed through the grades, they continue to sing and build musical skills, as it is an established part of the culture and expectation of their school.

These children transfer their enthusiasm for music and singing to learning a wind or string instrument when the opportunity presents itself.

By the time they arrive at Middle School they will have learned the basics of reading music, because they relate to their personal musical experience, not because their teacher needed a written component for report cards.

Only a few of them will take music in High School and fewer yet study it in College or University.

Yet everyone who receives a quality choral education, even if that person never makes music again, will have established a personal conncection, through active participation and experience, that will enhance their life, every day, for their whole life.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bach-Elgar sing Rachmaninov Vespers

Hamilton's Bach-Elgar Choir combined with the Oakville Masterworks Chorus for 4 performances of the Rachmaninov Vespers (properly the All Night Vigil) and 6 Renaissance Motets at Melrose United Church in Hamilton and at ClearView Christian Reformed Church in Oakville. I attended the third of these performances on Friday, May 11.

The Rachmaninov piece is a 15 movement work for a cappella choir which takes more than an hour to perform. In this performance, only the Magnificat was omitted. The choir, a 4 part chorus including basso profundo, must sing in as many as 11 parts.

Sergei Rachmaninov

Most published a cappella music has piano reduction which is marked "For Rehearsal Only". It became clear how far out of their depth these choirs were when Bach-Elgar conductor Alexander Cann began to play along with the singers in the second section while Masterworks Artistic Director Charles Demuyuck conducted.

Put simply, this piece was too demanding for these choirs. There were tuning problems among the choirs, piano and soloists. The men were far from numerous enough as was most evident in the 4-part male voice passages.

I could only sympathize with those choristers who had put in the time to learn their notes and to read and pronounce the enormous amount of Russian text.

Tenor Stanislav Vitort was loud enough to be heard over the 120 choristers. He sang throughout with an overly dramatic approach which seemed at odds with the style one expects in a liturgical piece.

Mezzo Alla Ossipova was vocally impressive in her one short appearance, but gestured inappropriately with one hand while holding her music in the other.

One could speculate about why the Artistic Directors of these two choirs decided to perform the Rachmaninov. A better question is why they chose to sing it four times. They must have known it would be a hard sell. There were nearly as many performers as audience on Friday night and, I was told, it was the same in Oakville last weekend.

After the intermission the choirs, accompanied by 9 brass players, performed 6 Renaissance poly-choral motets by Palestrina, de Lassus and Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli.

The choirs did better with these pieces which are, to be fair, much less difficult.

As Mr. Cann pointed out, we do not know how these works were performed.
In this performance, the brasses played along with the choirs the entire time. I would have preferred that the choirs sing alone part of the time, the brasses play by themselves sometimes, perhaps having the instrumentalists answering a choir antiphonally. There are many possibilities. The pieces are rather similar to the modern ear and a little variety would have better engaged the audience.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Symphony Hamilton Piano Celebration

This concert, in the afternoon of Sunday, May 6, was presented to introduce the Burlington Performing Art Centre's new Kawai grand piano. It was played in two of the three works performed.

Andrea Battista was the chair of the Keys to the Future campaign to raise the money to acquire the piano for the BPAC. She usually plays second violin in the Symphony on the Bay, previously Symphony Hamilton. Today she was the soloist, not on the violin, but on the very instrument for which she spearheaded the funding.

She and the strings of the orchestra, conducted by Pratik Gandhi, played J.S. Bach's Third Concerto in D major.

Battista played very well indeed. Much of the familiar music of Bach is religious but, in this performance, I was reminded that Bach was also an extraordinary court composer. This was a truly moving performance of a sublime piece, portraying the shadings and moods Bach incorporated into this work which he surely composed to present himself as soloist.

Valerie Tryon next played the Lizst Eb Major Concerto, with the orchestra conducted by Maestro James McKay. I've no idea how often Tryon has played this piece but it must be into the dozens of performances. She wears the piece like a glove, tossing off Lizst's piano pyrotechnics by the handful.  Music of the Romantic piano masters is her specialty and it surely showed.

Once the brasses got past a squelched opening chord, the concerto unfolded as the composer intended, much to the delight of the audience.

In the second half, the orchestra played the Rachmaninov Second Symphony. I'll admit, at the outset, to having misgivings about Rachmaninov's orchestral music.

In the two very popular piano concertos (#2 and #3) of which I am personally very fond, the percussive qualities of the solo instrument, which plays most of the time, contribute clarity and rhythmic impetus. In the orchestral music this is missing. The textures are frequently thickly contrapuntal. For great stretches, the overall effect can be muddy and the development of the thematic material seems to lack definition. None of this is the fault of the performers or conductor.

In fact the orchestra's rendition of the piece was acceptably accurate and suitably Romantic. Kudos to principal clarinetist Zoltan Kalman and Concert Master Corey Gemmell, and to the horn section who rose to the occasion in their featured passages.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Te Deum with the Mohawk Choir

Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea to listen to the Prague Philharmonic and their choir perform the Dvořák Te Deum before I went to hear it performed. I wasn't familiar with the piece and I thought I might enjoy it more if I'd heard it.

As the composer intended, it's a big work requiring a standard Romantic orchestra, a correspondingly large choir and soprano and baritone soloists who can complement such forces.

The Mohawk College Community Choir performed it with rather more modest means. Accompanist Lucy Bledig substituted for the orchestra. There were two perfectly capable soloists and a choir of sixty all led by David Holler.

It's an impressive piece but, at about 20 minutes duration, it must be difficult to program and is not often heard.

Mr. Holler has learned the strength and limitations of this choir. They are really very well prepared. Breaths and final consonants are performed with good coordination. The choir makes an impressive sound when they singing loudly and Mr. Holler manages them when more subtle singing is required.

Ms. Bledig played the piano accompaniment well, but it's hard to do justice to an orchestral reduction of such a work which, in its original form, depends in large part on instrumental colour and effects like the solo tympani figure at the very beginning and brass fanfares.

The soloists fared better. Soprano Melanie Conly, surely possessing a lighter voice than the composer had in mind, sang expressively and gave her all when the music required it. The young baritone Fabian Arciniegas, was adequate in this situation, but his lower notes aren't yet ready for a full orchestra in a bigger venue. He also makes crescendos on all the longer notes, no doubt to maintain their sustain, but the notes sometimes end with a little push. Preparation with a good coach would surely eliminate this tendency which he mustn't allow to become a habit.

The result was rather less impressive than what Dvořák had in mind. It was interesting, but not convincing. Surely there is repertoire than would better suit this choir at this point in their development. I suspect the conductor was encouraged to program this Romantic piece in order to balance the repertoire in the practicum of the Doctoral program in which he is enrolled.

In the second half, they sang Fauré's Requiem, a work which I spoke of at some length back in November.

The tempos were generally faster than those I expect in this piece, but that's not necessarily bad. As I said earlier, Mr. Holler has learned what this choir can and cannot do and he knows as well as I what the standard tempos are, and it was a more convincing performance than the Dvořák had been.

Both soloists performed well. Ms. Conly gave a lovely, nuanced rendition of the Pie Jesu.

Numerous lines in this piece are indicated to be sung by a single section, accompanied by the orchestra (in this case, organ). The choir's tenors are not numerous so the basses sang along with them. Mostly, this worked out nicely yielding greater strength and homogeneity to the sound. Some of the basses ought, however, to have chosen not to sing the highest phrases and the sound became strained. Better to break into head voice than push up from the middle in this situation. Don't sing it if you can't.

This strategy worked out better with the women although, since they are far more numerous, I don't see why the sopranos should sing with the altos or vice versa. Better to respect the composer's wishes. (It's almost always better to respect the composer's wishes.)

Much of this program will be repeated on Sunday, May 6 at 3 P.M. at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church, 70 James St. N., Hamilton.

I won't be at that one, though. I'm planning to hear Valerie Tryon play the first Lizst piano concerto with Symphony Hamilton at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre at the same time!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Instant Première!

I've gotten used to a long lag between the completion of works and having them sung or played. It's sometimes been more than a year between the time when I've finished a piece and the date of the first performance.

So it's a bit of a surprise that my most recent work (the first section of a projected three movement piece), which I finished writing on Thursday, will be played by cellist Kirk Starkey next Thursday, May 3 at the Artword Artbar 15 Colbourne St. in Hamilton just west of James St. N. This event is part of the Catherine North studio's Lost and Found series.

I first heard Kirk play more than a year ago, in a recital he shared with his wife flautist Sarah Traficante.

Kirk is a fine cellist who is comfortable in many styles. In addition to classical repertoire, he's recorded with popular musicians and played on television sound tracks. He's also has considerable prowess working with computers and, expecially, in digital recording.

In his live show, Kirk mikes the cello and runs it through a computer and mixing board. The sound of the live cello can be processed, as the sound of a miked or electric guitar might be, and is also recorded and can then be played back in whatever manner the artist has decided.

It took a great deal of thought, planning and compositional innovation on my part and the resulting 5' 30'' of music that I wrote for Kirk is unlike anything else I have written.

And really, how often have I been able to attended a première of one of my works with a beer in my hand?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Strata Sings Whitacre

We attended the Earth Day Concert of the Strata Vocal Ensemble at MacNeill Baptist Church on Sunday April 22 in the afternoon.  MacNeill is close by McMaster University, on busy King St. so there is some ambient noise. It is, however, a lovely space seating fewer than 300 souls including the gallery, with a good grand piano and fine acoustics.

This chamber choir of 22 voices performed a well constructed and varied program. It's a very competent amateur group, none of whom is an accomplished soloist, who make a lovely sound when singing together. I'll recall some of the highlights of the concert and write at more length about one composer, Eric Whitacre.

They opened with a Palestrina motet, Sicut Cervus, which they followed with Ego, Flor Campi by Clemens non Papa. I've come to think that Renaissance choral music is often enjoyed more by the singers than the audience. Even when it's well prepared the textures are very homogenous to the modern ear and, after a while, it all begins to sound the same. Nonetheless, this music must be performed and heard, in a balanced program, and there wasn't too much of it on this occasion. In another concert, which I do not fondly recall, a choir performed the entire Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. That was too much.

The choir gave an impressive performance of Randall Thompson's setting of Frost's poem, Choose Something Like a Star, a beautiful piece with which I was not familiar and which I look forward to hearing again. Another lovely moment was Stanford's The Bluebird.

Their reading of the very difficult Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughn-Williams was marred by some tuning problems but, otherwise, made a good effect.

The choir also performed pieces for the ladies (Stephen Chatman's In the Glow of the Moon) and men alone (Larry Nickel's arrangement of Bruce Cockburn's All the Diamonds in the World with guitar).

The linchpin of the concert was Eric Whitacre's Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.

Eric Whitacre has become famous both through the widespread performance of his choral pieces (Sleep must be one of the most frequently performed contemporary choral works) and his Virtual Choir project. He is a handsome and, apparently, charismatic figure.

I have listened to his CD "Light and Gold" numerous times. It's performed by a small group of astonishingly accomplished English singers.

Many of Whitacre's works are slow and mostly homophonic with phrase endings characterized by cluster dissonances. An intelligent choral director wouldn't likely program two of them on the same program; they're too similar.

Leonardo Dreams is not a typical Whitacre piece although it includes his repertoire of characteristic choral gestures. It has more varied textures and includes silences, and changing tempos. It is in one movement of multiple sections, includes tambourine and drum, and some staging near the end, and lasts about 9 minutes. It's a challenging piece and I thought the Strata Vocal Ensemble gave a thoroughly competent performance. I'd encourage other directors of smaller choirs to include it in their programs.

It will be interesting to hear whether Whitacre develops his composition style over time or whether, having found something that works and has brought him great success, he will simply continue on in the same vein. It will also be interesting to see whether his works continue to be performed after the novelty wears off.

Only time will tell. We all remember W.A. Mozart. Salieri, not so much.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Trovatore at Opera Hamilton

I attended the April 15 performance of Il Trovatore at Theatre Aquarius with some trepidation. We WagJagged again and found ourselves near the right side of the house in Row E, which led to a much more satisfying opera going experience than sitting closer to the middle in Row B as we had for Il Barbiere in the fall.
Maestro Speers led a diminutive orchestra of 29 players which turned out to be perfectly adequate in this small space. I still had memories of the four front bell horns in Otello, at Hamilton Place some years ago, resonating in my ears, however.
It was thrilling to hear these four first-rate principals at close quarters, but not too close as had been the case for The Barber. It is, none the less, a very dry and difficult acoustic, orders of magnitude the inferior of Hamilton Place or the Four Seasons Centre.
Joni Henson was a fine Leonora. She hasn't the "floaty" pianissimos that one sometimes hears in this role (and are indicated in the score) but I personally didn't miss them. She possesses a beautiful full soprano, acts convincingly and has a physical presence that persuades us that the the Count di Luna and Manrico might both have fallen for her.
Amelia Boteva, as Azucena, started carefully (Stride la vampa is, after all, virtually the first thing she sings) but grew stronger as the opera progressed. She matched the other singers vocally and is a fine actor who melodramatically depicted  this over the top character.
Tenor Richard Margison has sung Manrico hundreds times and seemed more comfortable in this role than he did as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos when I heard him last at the COC. He sang and portrayed his character assuredly. I'd be remiss if  I didn't mention that he experienced every singer's nightmare, what seemed to be something on his chords during the Di quella pira, a harrowing experience both for him and this audience member. He was back in form for Act IV.
James Westman, as Conte di Luna was surely the star of the show. He has a beautiful baritone voice, with a secure ringing top and is tall and handsome besides. Surely he will soon be featured at Covent Garden and the Met.
A special mention to Mia Lennox-Williams who did an excellent job as Leonora's lady in waiting, Inez. She matched Joni Henson vocally when they sang together, no mean feat for a second mezzo.
The production is rather spare with a simple set and projections. The female chorus was adequate but the male chorus was simply awful and the staging and performance of the Squilli, echeggi la tromba chorus was unintentionally comical.
Manrico got the sequins on his coat entangled in the dying Leonara's wig resulting in giggles from the audience, in what is supposed to be a touching moment, as he attempted to get free.
All things considered, I've got to give full marks to Artistic Director David Speer for putting together this excellent cast of principal singers. These are, after all, the same singers one would hear at the COC, in a smaller house without the hassle associated with a trip to TO. Bravo.
It's unfortunate that other production values must be sacrificed to meet the company's bottom line. Building a subscriber base requires a commitment from folks who are not necessarily big opera fans and, for whom, really top notch singers may be less important than the general impression the production creates.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Invictus: 5 Henley Songs

These songs will receive their premiére performance by tenor Bud Roach and pianist Erica Reiman on Sun. March 15, 2012 at 3 P.M. at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton.

I encountered 2 of the poems Invictus and I am the Reaper in a collection of Victorian Poetry and was struck by how  modern sounding and straightforward was the the verse at a time when many English language poets were still employing convoluted grammar, thee, thou, and thine, and pastoral imagery in the manner of the Jacobeans.

I sought out more poems by this author (William Ernest Henley) and chose five which are contrasting in mood and form. Henley was an extraordinary figure; poet, newspaper editor, lifelong friend of Robert Louis Stevenson and (his foot amputated as a result of tuberculosis) the inspiration for Long John Silver!

These songs were written over a period of several years, all of them before the recent notoriety of the poem Invictus as a result of the film of the same name.

I tailored the musical vocabulary to fit the poetry. As a result the songs sound rather romantic compared to my other recent song cycles, Five Snow Songs (Archibald Lampman) and Six Zen Lyrics (various poets in English translations). Each of the songs was written in a distinc style to reflect the poet's mood. Invictus is powerful and expository. The Rain and the Wind is stormy. Madame Life's is cynical and hints at the music hall, Between the Dusk is languid and romantic. I am the Reaper is majestic, almost monumental.

Although written for a male singer there's nothing in the poetry to preclude a woman from singing them. They are available in High and Medium keys c/o the composer.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Liturgical Choral Repertoire

Everyone knows that, by and large, fewer people attend church in 2012 than did 30 or 35 years ago. When I taught a class of 25 children, typically only 1/4 of the kids went at all. Some parents might identify themselves as Christians, even name a specific denomination, but most of them didn't go to church or send their kids to Sunday school.

I've just come from a Choral Evensong at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. Presbyterians don't, as a rule, celebrate Evensong, which is a C of E service. At this church they do so once a year as part of a Lenten Concert Series.
The music included the Harwood Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in A♭and C. H. H. Parry's Blessed Pair of Sirens.

This is the sort of music which I never knew as a teen chorister in the modest United Church in which I grew up. It would have been too difficult, anyway, and it doesn't fit with the U.C. liturgy, such as it is.  I encountered Service Music much later as a choral mercenary in Anglican churches along with C.V. Stanford and Herbert Howells and all the other professional composers who worked in this tradition.
My question is: If this music isn't going to be performed in churches as a part of the liturgy (the purpose for which it was composed), when will it be performed?

It's too difficult for a great many Anglican church choirs and completely out of step with the Praise and Worship songs which are the repertoire of so many others. It doesn't fit comfortably into choral concert programs. Yet television audiences are bowled over when they hear it in the course of a Royal Wedding. They even check it out on YouTube or buy it from iTunes. Too bad most of us (including myself) can't be bothered to get out of our recliners because this music, along with choral singing in general, is dying the death of a thousand cuts.

Children don't sing in choirs at church (because they don't go) or at school (because it's not an educational priority.) If they sing as teens it's likely because of Glee. If they sing as adults, it's only because they learned to do so as children and teens and, as I noted above, people aren't doing that very much any more.

It's enough to drive a musician to despair.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Symphony on the Bay

I chose to spend 2 hours of this beautiful afternoon listening to Symphony on the Bay, previously Symphony Hamilton play an impressive and diverse program in their new home at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.

It's a block from the waterfront and a block west of downtown. The centre has a large lobby and the capacity is between 700 and 735 seats, depending on the set-up (i.e. whether there's a pit.)
It is a beautiful theatre and, with its light wood walls, is  reminiscent of the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on a smaller scale.
The sound is excellent. One of the ushers told me that he'd stood pretty well everywhere he could and the the sound was uniformly good. I sat on the opposite side of the house from the flute soloist and at times I had some difficulty hearing her, but she was nearly as far to the audience's left as I was to the right. The harp, only a metre closer to me was perfectly audible.

They opened with the Dances sacrée et profane, by Debussy for harp and strings. The soloist was Erica Goodman. It's not a work with which I was familiar but contains many of the attributes of other mid-period Debussy pieces like whole tone scales and adventurous non-functional harmonies. Erica Goodman must have played it many times and communicated the music very effectively. The strings played accurately, convincingly supporting the soloist.

She was joined by Suzanne Shulman (in a matching outfit!) for the Mozart Concerto for Flute and Harp. It never ceases to amaze me that a community orchestra is able to present high profile soloists who one might otherwise hear with performing with a professional orchestra. These soloists obviously have established a fine rapport and played the piece beautifully, especially the glorious slow movement. There were some tuning problems in the violins in the faster passages of the finale but, otherwise, the orchestra played well. 

The second half was the Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. I must admit to having outgrown my fascination with this composer in my 'teens and, even then, this isn't one of my favourite Tchaik' works. However, the orchestra has played it before and it showed. The opening brass fanfares were impressive. The strings achieved fine unisons in the running passages in the finale. The only tuning problems occurred, not in the violins where they might be expected, but rather in exposed 'cello melodies. Special kudos to principal bassoon Sandy Wilson and principal clarinet Zoltan Kalman, both of whom played wonderfully in their solo passages. It was, altogether, a impressive performance for this community orchestra.

Much of the credit must go to Maestro James McKay. His years of experience working with student and community orchestras have clearly taught him what repertoire is appropriate for the ensembles with which he works. It's very well to program overly difficult music simply because the musicians want the challenge and wish to have played more varied repertoire but when a conductor does that, he is taking a risk. McKay chooses the music carefully for this group ensuring that the orchestra is within its realm of expertise, neither annoying the audience with near misses nor potentially embarrassing the musicians.

Certainly, the new venue helped the orchestra to be better heard, and I'll go back to hear Valerie Tryon play the Lizst Concerto #1 and the Rachmaninoff Symphony #2 on May 6