Monday, December 2, 2013

The Xmas Choral Season Commences in Hamilton with the Mac Choirs

The Annual Yule Yell, as the Hamilton Spectator's former music critic Hugh Fraser dubbed it, has begun in earnest. Unfortunately, I started to hear Xmas music several weeks ago in stores and on television. Frankly, the second time I heard Gene Autrey sing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer was already once too many and that was long ago. Personally, I think there should be a law banning commercial use of seasonal music before American Thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, I took in the concert by the McMaster Choirs under Rachel Rensink-Hoff on Friday night at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton. It wasn't quite December yet but the choir, a credit course for some, must wrap up its activities before the end of the school term.

I've no official connection to McMaster but my wife taught there for more than 20 years and I accompanied her to many concerts by the Mac choir conducted by Philip Sarabura (now conductor of the Brantford Symphony and violinist in the Hamilton Philharmonic), David Holler (now conductor of the Fanshawe Choir, the Gerald Fagan Singers and the Mohawk Community Choir) and, at present, Rachel Rensink-Hoff. Each demonstrated his/her professional expertise and personal taste through his/her choice of music for this choir of about 100 members.

This time, it was a diverse program. They sang 4 different settings of O Magnum Mysterium (one in English). Except for three selections, the program was comprised entirely of modern music or modern arrangements (i.e. post 1970).  There was the celebrated O Magnum Mysterium by the Spanish High-Renaissance composer Thomás Luis Victoria, an elaborate sectional Ave Maria by Felix Mendelssohn with tenor solo, semi-choir and organ (expertly played by Central's Music Director Paul Grimwood) and The Three Kings composed by Canadian choral music icon Healy Willan.

Doctor Rensink-Hoff may have chosen so much music written specifically for the sort of choir she conducts (i.e. a university chorus) as an antidote to last year's seasonal offering, a full-blown performance of Handel's Messiah. In this concert she demonstrated that she is a highly skilled and knowledgeable choral conductor, eliciting a diverse and polished musical performance from her young performers.

 Professor Rachel Rensink-Hoff

She must have considered, in her programming choices (aside from the obvious consideration of difficulty) how the music would be received by her singers and the audience. No conductor is likely to choose repertoire which she knows will be disliked by either, however much she might like it herself. She is also a Music Educator and, even though many of her choristers are not singing in the choir for credit, she has a responsibility to provide them with a balanced and enriching musical experience and, although the program was very heavily weighted to new music, it was varied and of very high quality. Certainly, the performance suggested that the choristers enjoyed the music a lot.

She may not have given much thought to how the audience would react. This is, after all, a school choir and the audience must have been made up, for the most part, of the chorister's families who, as any music teacher knows, will be impressed with whatever their children sing. Any audience would have loved this concert and this one gave it the seemingly obligatory standing O.

My professional chorister's ear was most impressed by the 35 voice Women's Choir. Typically such a university group is made up of the women who, for whatever reason, aren't singing in the SATB group. They sang beautifully, notably in the three pieces (God Will Give Orders and All His Angels by Sarah Quartel and Nada Te Trube by Joan Szymko) with 'cellist Kirk Starkey. Conductor Rensink-Hoff clearly knows her craft to be able to coax such sound and interpretation from what might be her least promising singers.

As for the full choir, highlights included Vaclav Neylybel's Estampie Natalis (with percussion and Mac music professor David Gerry's piccolo), an exciting performance. I also enjoyed hearing such beautiful singing in the glorious O Nata Lux by American Morten Lauridsen.

It was, altogether, a very enjoyable evening of quality choral singing.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Interview with singer and actor Reid Spencer

Here's a link to my recent interview with Reid Spencer with whom I worked during my time in the chorus of the Canadian Opera Company. He's a fascinating fellow to talk to, especially for someone, like me, who has an interest in singing and the various form of musical theatre, which includes opera. Little of that discussion made it into this piece, however, which is intended for a much more general audience.

None the less, there's lots of interesting biographical information and the url of his website through which those who'd be interested in studying privately with him, or otherwise contacting him, can get in touch.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Falstaff at Opera Hamilton

I went to see Verdi's comic masterpiece, Falstaff, on Tuesday night. The buzz from the Spec columnist and online blogs was that it was a great show, but I'm sceptical and wasn't sure, based on my experience with other OH productions, what to expect.

John Fanning with Falstaff padding

What I got was a wonderful theatrical and musical experience. In this smallish theatre with a thirty-one piece orchestra the opera came off almost as a chamber piece from near the middle of Row E.

I was disappointed to see such a sparse crowd, especially since OH continues to make tickets to these Tuesday performances available for $30 on WagJag. There are two more performances (Thursday, Oct. 24 and Saturday the 26th) and if there's any possibility of getting to one of them I'd encourage you enthusiastically, but you won't get in for 30 bucks.

Falstaff is pronouncedly unlike any of Verdi's other operas. Verdi took a 16 year break after Aida, wrote Otello and then didn't write Falstaff until 6 years after that, at the age of 80. I wonder what Verdi had been listening to which resulted in the extraordinary solo ensemble writing which is so different from that of his other operas.

The principal demand in staging this opera, is to move the singers around on stage and provide interesting things for them to do while, at the same time, positioning them such that they can always see the conductor because so much of the music is complex and moves so quickly. The men's and the women's parts are often written as two teams in the numerous ensembles, sometimes scooting along simultaneously in different metres. It's quite possible to solve the problem with a static staging in which the players find their mark and stand on it. That was not the case last night.

Allison Grant's staging was detailed and followed, for the most part, Boris Godovsky's axiom that the movement in opera should proceed from the rhythm and structure of the music. There was lots of appropriate comic stage business but I didn't find that it distracted from the singing.The performers were always in sync which tells me that the stage director understood this challenge.

This is an ensemble piece and the ensemble singing was impressive. Moreover, the casting was appropriate both from a physical and vocal standpoint, and the voices complemented one another.

I didn't much like the spartan set which reminded me of community theatre. It got tiresome to see fully costumed people hiding behind parts of the set and laundry on a line. On the other hand, the entire production would probably fit in a box van. It is usually better to budget for really good singers and instrumentalists than elaborate sets.

Dundas baritone John Fanning sang the fat knight. He's got a big baritone voice and has sung the Dutchman in Der fliegende Höllander which is usually cast with a bass-baritone so that tells you something. He's sung Wotan in the Das Ring des Niebelungen, Mandryka In Strauss's Arabella (at the Met) and the villains in Les Contes de Hoffman among numerous other leading roles in major houses. Fanning had a really good night showing lots of different colours and dynamics in his singing and his top notes became freer as the evening went on.

James Westman, as Ford/Fontana, provided an excellent foil to Fanning's Falstaff. We last heard him at OH as Conte de Luna in Trovatore and I wondered whether there'd be sufficient contrast between his baritone voice and Fanning's. Fanning, the older singer who's sung lots of big German roles, has a broader, more mature sound and Westman's voice seems positively lyric in contrast. Excellent casting by David Speers and his team.

Soprano Lynn Fortin anchored the women's ensemble and was excellent both in her vocalizations and acting. It's a peculiar fact that neither Alice Ford or Meg Page (sung capably by Ariana Chris) has neither an aria nor a substantial duet to sing. This didn't prevent Fortin from holding the stage and the audience's attention in her scenes.

Lynne McMurtry expertly handled the role of Dame Quickly. James McClennan was an aptly blustering and vocally strong Dr. Caius. Jon Paul Décosse (Pistola) and Jeremy Blossey (Bardolfo) both sang excellently and played the characters broadly with lots of comic interplay.

Sasha Dijihanian was a delightful Nanetta singing some ravishing sustained high notes in her duets with tenor Theo Lebow as Fenton. He's a pretty feisty singer and I was pleased to hear his ringing top notes sounding every bit the Italian tenor.

Conductor and General Director David Speers got the most out of the orchestra and I didn't miss the big orchestra as I had in Trovatore and Rigoletto.

The new chorus master, Sabatino Vacca has solved the chorus problem, for the time being, by reducing the choir to sixteen voices. However, there's precious little chorus singing in Falstaff. Who knows what he'll do about Carmen (in April) which has a whole lot of demanding choruses?

If you've been reading these recounts you know I don't usually give such unreserved praise to opera productions. I've got to hand it to Opera Hamilton for this one, though.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Peter Grimes at the COC

We attended Tuesday night's performance of Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. The performance was not sold out. Indeed, the audience thinned out somewhat as the evening went on.

I'm not very fond of Britten's music (in spite of having performed quite a lot of it) and find the subject of this opera to be rather dreary. Britten adopted a kind of pan-diatonicism, gleaning his harmonic materials from the notes of his melodies and then adding polytonality (playing different streams of the texture in different keys). This results in music which is at once tonal and curiously harmonically static. To my ear, the music often doesn't have a clear tonal direction. You can hear this clearly in The Four Sea Interludes, adapted from the opera, which are a staple of the Twentieth-Century orchestral repertoire. Productions of the opera are mounted at major opera houses about as often as those other 20th Century operatic masterpieces, Poulenc's Les Dialogues Des Carmelites and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

On this occasion, all three acts were played on single set (the back wall of which is brought forward on the stage at one point). The set represents a church hall with a raised proscenium stage at the back. It looks very like a church or community hall or even an elementary school gymnasium but has windowed doors and clerestory windows on both sides and skylights in the ceiling allowing for very effective lighting effects, especially during the interludes in the opera.

The director's conceit is that George Crabbe (played by Thomas Hauff), upon whose poem the libretto is based, is there on stage imagining his poem coming to life and sometimes even interacting with the characters.

Ben Heppner

Last night, Tenor Ben Heppner took the title role. He had cancelled the première and wasn't in very good voice for last night's performance either. He warmed into it as the evening went on, though, and sang pretty effectively in the second and third acts. The role is a demanding one from a dramatic point of view and his acting certainly didn't suffer from whatever vocal discomfort he was experiencing. His portrayal of Grimes mad scene in the third act was very powerful.

Ileana Montalbetti

Soprano Ileana Montalbetti was cast as Ellen Orford. According to the program notes this is her first really big role. She was a dramatically effective Ellen and sang much of the role proficiently, especially when singing alone or with the orchestra, although much of it was full out. The broad vibrato of her top notes battled with Heppner's in their first act duet and affected the tuning of the women's quartet (with Auntie and the two nieces). She possesses a fine instrument, however, and I look forward to hearing her in other repertoire where this characteristic of her vocal production will be less critical.

Alan Held

Bass-Baritone Alan Held sang and portrayed Captain Balstrode, Grimes only friend, and was the outstanding individual performer of the evening with a strong voice and excellent dramatic skills. He's done big Wagner roles in major houses and it was clear from his performance that he'd be at home there as well.

I was also impressed with Peter Barrett playing Ned Keene, although all the singers playing secondary roles (five of them COC Ensemble products) were very fine. Special mention must go to American Mezzo Judith Christin as the laudanum addled town gossip, Mrs. Sedley.

The COC orchestra, under Maestro Johannes Debus played brilliantly. There was impressive ensemble playing from the brasses and lovely playing of the many dissonant passages in the high woodwinds (there's an Eb Clarinet in the orchestra). Concertmaster Marie Bérard and Principal Cellist Bryan Epperson both took beautiful solo turns.

The real stars of the night have to be the Sandra Horst's COC chorus. There's a lot of chorus singing in this opera and, as opera choruses go, it's pretty difficult music. They gave a nuanced performance, sometimes subtle and quiet (some stunning off-stage singing), sometimes very loud and dramatic. They portrayed, to a person, the Borough itself, as a dramatic character and Grimes' real theatrical adversary.

There are five more performances, closing on Oct. 26. I encourage you to attend one of them. This is, all things considered, a wonderful production and we're not likely to see this opera performed again in Toronto any time soon.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fine Arts Quartet at the AGH

I went to hear the Fine Arts Quartet last Sunday afternoon in the Tannenbaum Pavillion at the Art Gallery of Hamilton with some trepidation.

Fine Arts Quartet
Ralph Evans, Efim Boico: violins
Juan Miguel Hernandez: viola, Robert Cohen: cello

It interested me that they were going to play some relatively new music (by Corigliano and Glass). I had read the impressive ensemble's history so I knew they'd be really good players. It was in an attractive venue. I could be there in 15 minutes (even with Beckett Drive still closed) and I wouldn't have to pay for parking.

On the other hand, I'm no aficionado of solo string music in spite of having written considerable orchestral music. My experience as a beginning violinist at Teacher's College left me with the utmost respect for those who can coax beautiful sounds from bowed string instruments. For me, beginning to learn to play violin as an adult was an exercise in contortionism and few sounds (dare I say noises) are more unpleasant than those that come from the instrument of a beginning violinist.

The players were seated on a raised platform on the long wall opposite the floor to ceiling windows. The room was about two-thirds filled but I was told that they usually sell out. In this configuration there are, I estimate, 150 chairs. The sound is good, for string quartet at least, and even sitting in the back row I had a good view of all the players who were about 30 feet away.

They opened with the Beethoven Quartet in G Major, Op. 18, No. 2. This is Beethoven in mid-career when he was 29 years old. It's a cheerful piece with lots of contrast and reminded me of Piano Sonatas of the same period. So far as I could tell, the playing was really wonderful. I wasn't prepared for the range of articulations and dynamics, nor for the incredibly tight ensemble playing which continued throughout the recital.

They followed with John Corigliano's Snapshot: Circa 1909. It's a one movement piece inspired, Corigliano writes, by a photo of two children: his uncle with a guitar and his father holding a violin (he would grow up to be, for 25 years, the Concert Master of the New York Philharmonic). It's a thoroughly tonal piece in which the violist often plays pizzicato in imitation of a guitar. It provided an interesting counterpoint to the Beethoven which had opened the concert.

They closed the first half with the Philip Glass String Quartet #2 . I really like Glass's music and have heard lots of it including a dazzling performance of Akhnaten at the English National Opera. In this case there are four movements, adapted from incidental music for a stage work, Company, based on a short novel by Samuel Beckett. The music is typical Glass Minimalism, generated out of short arpeggiated figures that are presented at the opening of each movement, the "themes" being closely related. Each movement ended suddenly as if the players had run out of music to play.

After a break the performers played Franz Schubert's D Minor Quartet. It's called Death and the Maiden because the second movement is made of variations on the first section of the Schubert Lied Der Tod und das Mädchen.

The Fine Arts Quartet gave a tour de force performance of this piece which must be a pillar of the string quartet repertoire. It allows the performers the opportunity to display virtuosity both individually and collectively as Schubert the Romantic requires many tempi, dynamics and, most importantly, moods of them. I came away very impressed.

I'll certainly be back to hear more from this series. There are four more recitals in Chamber Music Hamilton's series this season.  They're $30 at the door and are all at the AGH, all but one on a Sunday afternoon.

I should mention that at the next concert on Sun. Nov 17,  the Cecilia Quartet will play the première performance of a new piece by Abigail Richardson-Schulte, the Composer-in-Residence of the Hamilton Philharmonic.

Incidentally, subscribers (and Hamilton Spectator readers) learned that the February 15th HPO concert will be the last for their conductor Jaime Sommerville. The Orchestra has already struck a search committee to find a new conductor.

It's too bad he's leaving. The orchestra has flourished under his leadership. He also established the What Next? new music festival and is an advocate for New Music. We attended their final concert in the spring and decided on that basis to become HPO subscribers!


Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Little About Cover Songs

Everyone knows what a "cover" is. Some singer or band has a hit and sometime later another artist records the same song in a different version. Sometimes the new version is a copy of the original. Sometimes, not. One of my faves is the David Bowie's version of the Beach Boys God Only Knows. It's very different from the original. A lot edgier.

In the case of the song which is the subject of this blog, I heard the cover version first, really liked it and only then did I become familiar with the original. I wish it'd been the other way around.

I had listened, many times, to Leslie Feist's cover of the Bee Gees disco hit, Love You, Inside and Out.

I didn't know the original until I looked it up on YouTube, but Feist's version is pretty neat.


I've a special place for the Bee Gees because the first professional band in which I played performed a medley of their 60s hits. I quit the band to go away to university and I didn't listen to the Bee Gees (or much other popular music) for years after that. I've never seen Saturday Night Fever and was only vaguely aware of the Bee Gees disco recordings.

Bee Gees in the Sixties

I should mention that the Brother's Gibb had a string of pop song hits in the late sixties, kind of disappeared, then returned with a vengeance some ten years later with a parade of disco hits from their Platinum selling album Spirits Having Flown, some of which are played in Saturday Night Fever, a dance-drama in which John Travolta played his breakout film role.

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

The original recording of this great song, has a mix of 1979 synthesizer sounds and acoustic instruments including strings, horns and percussion, accompanying Robin Gibbs' high solo vocals and two of his brothers singing the harmony lines (all in falsetto) all produced by Robert Stigwood.

It's just a pop song, but a helluva pop song. The lyrics are hardly great poetry but the same has been said of some of the standards in the Great American Songbook.

Pay particular attention to the rising string scale that usually follows words "inside and out" (beginning of the chorus) in sixteens (doh, re, mi, fah, sol---). I've linked to this version with the lyrics on purpose.

Twenty-five years on, Leslie Feist covered this song. This time it's mostly her voice and electronics. It's produced (and some of the instruments played) by Gonzalez who was Feist's collaborator and producer at the time. With today's technology, it's hard to know what acoustic instruments are there, but every sound, whatever its source, is clearly placed in the mix. Especially with headphones, the listener can pick out all the individual instruments.

What a difference in the sound! The clean and detailed 2004 version is very different from the "over the top" full Disco orchestration of the original, replete with doublings and reverb. There are so many different sounds mixed together in the original that it's sometimes difficult to figure out who's playing what.

The tempo is a little faster. The form of the song (including the shortened verse after the first chorus) and all the main features of the original arrangement are still there. You'll notice the ascending scale passage that follows the lyrics "inside and out" is played on a synth instead of violins.

The meaning of the lyrics is transformed when a woman sings the song. I'll bet that's what attracted Feist to the song in the first place (and that's why I suggested you read the lyrics, first time through).

Really good songs can be altered and re-arranged. Many pop songs lose their centre when they're pulled apart and reassembled. It was the arrangement and the total effect of all the components that was interesting, not the song itself.

Black Eyed Peas songs are like that. They're sectional, depending on changes of instrumentation and the band's two vocalists to hold the audience's attention. Songs like I Gotta Feeling wouldn't survive having their elaborate arrangements removed and being performed by one or two fully clothed performers.

Inside and Out, transformed into a ballad, might even stand up to a solo performance by one singer with a guitar. Someone like Feist. I'd like to hear that.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ian Parker Plays Gershwin at the Brott Festival

We attended the Crazy for Gershwin concert last night at the McIntyre Theatre at Mohawk College and came away happy and musically satisfied. There was a near capacity crowd of very enthusiastic concert goers.

I don't usually attend Pops concerts but I've been doing a personal study of Gershwin's music and this presented an opportunity to hear his Concerto in F played by Canadian pianist Ian Parker.

There was a lot of talking at this concert. This would usually annoy me but, this time, it was pretty entertaining. Boris is an inveterate raconteur and a familiar personality to most of the audience. He introduced and congratulated soloists and shared anecdotes and wisdom. For example, he spoke warmly last night of his relationship with Leonard Bernstein (whose apprentice he was) and of "Lenny's" dislike of West Side Story. He wisely warned us that the Symphonic Dances end quietly, not after the climax of the penultimate section. (Somebody started to applaud anyway!)

The evening opened with a charming spiel from the staffer Jacqui Templeton-Muir, welcoming the audience and encouraging us to buy tickets for one (or all!) of the remaining three fabulous concerts. This was followed by conductor Boris Brott himself introducing Composer-in-Residence Maxime Goulet who explained the dramatic and musical premises of the short animated film, Running, for which he had written the score.

Maxime Goulet

Boris donned the headphones (he'd already explained about the need to follow the click-track) and the orchestra played while the film was projected on screens to each side of the stage.

M. Goulet returned and talked about the next music which he had composed in a film music course in Los Angeles to accompany the closing scene of the film Hidalgo. (The original score is by James Newton Howard). Again, the orchestra played the music while the film was projected.

The two pieces are quite different. The Running music changes constantly and is often motoric, sometimes employing gestures and conventions which have been used in music for animation for decades. This is a serious piece, however, in the sense that it is extremely detailed and worked out with a clear understanding of developments in new music. It's a very convincing score which would bear listening to again.

The Hidalgo music is a more conventional orchestral film score echoing John Barry or perhaps John Williams. The film is a Western, so the broad melody and prominent strings and horns are conventions familiar to anyone who has listened to film music. It is, however, exactly what the scene required. You can watch and hear it here.

I think Maxime Goulet is a major talent. I've listened, on-line, to recordings of several of his works, both concert music and for media. He should have a long and successful career writing music for films or TV (he's already a successful video games score composer) if he can make the appropriate connections in the industry. My interview with him will be published in Greater Hamilton Musician Magazine in the coming weeks.

The first half closed with a spirited reading of the Gershwin Concerto in F. Gershwin composed it in 1925 hardly a year after the celebrated Rhapsody in Blue and before he began to study classical composition. It's a much longer and more involved piece than the Rhapsody. Themes recur in the middle and last movements. For all that, it often reminds one of the Rhapsody and, especially of the Three Preludes which were premièred a year later. Ian Parker played brilliantly. He really has a way with this repertoire. The orchestra sometimes overwhelmed the piano but that might just be an issue with this hall's acoustics. The first movement was conducted by Brott's apprentice Brendan Hagan who was exuberantly applauded at its end. Brott conducted the rest of the concerto. Much of the audience came to their feet at the concerto's end.

Ian Parker

The second half began with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. I heard a Brott-conducted performance of this piece many years ago in the Burridge Gym at McMaster University. Rich Little, who was also on the program, said Boris, dressed in a white suit, reminded him of the Man From Glad. I don't remember what Rich Little was doing there, but I fell in love with this piece.

It must be a great work to do with young players. It's demanding, full or complex rhythms, and very exciting, excerpting some of the most memorable moments from the Broadway show. Special mention must be made of trumpeter Daniel Mills. The percussionists were outstanding especially drummer Catherine Varvaro who also played trap set in the piece that followed.

Then Brott, his orchestra and Ian Parker rounded it out with the Rhapsody in Blue. Featured in the orchestra was clarinetist Afendi Yusuf who nailed the opening glissando. The standing and rhythmically applauding audience forced Parker to return and play an encore, a Chopin waltz.

These are premium concerts at a bargain price. The concert tickets are a little more than half what I am paying to hear the HPO next season as a subscriber, perhaps a quarter the price of a full-priced TSO concert. If you knew ahead of time what you wanted to hear, the tickets were available on WagJag for $19.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Aida at Brott Festival

Last night I attended the Aida concert performance presented by the Brott Music Festival at the McIntyre Centre for the Performing Arts at Mohawk College. It was an interesting and unique experience which I enjoyed although, apparently, not as much as many of the audience who gave it a standing O. Indeed, some of them stood to applaud at the end of the first half! I'm surprised at how often I see standing ovations, as if it's somehow expected.  I can't imagine what they'd do if they heard an extraordinary performance. (The McIntyre Theatre, a multi-purpose facility seating about 1100, has great sight lines and you can hear everything played or sung on-stage, but is absolutely dead and thus not an ideal venue for music performances.)

It is now 25 years since Boris Brott founded this festival before which he had been the long-time conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. This year he and his team will have presented 14 concerts from June through mid-August ranging from the Bach Brandenburgs to Broadway Heroes. Four more concerts remain this year. Among them, Ian Parker will play the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F next Wednesday, August 7 and a week later, on the 15th they wrap up with Mahler's Eighth Symphony (aka The Symphony of a Thousand).

Boris Brott

I had expected a full blown concert read-through of the opera and that's not what I got although, in retrospect, considering the audience (clearly not comprised, for the most part, of regular opera goers), the duration of the opera and the limits of the available forces what they did was more appropriate.

There was a narrator, Aubrey Boothman, who played Giuseppe Verdi, and filled in the story and sometimes clarified the plot. Translations of the sung text were projected on large screens to either side of the stage. During dance music and the Triumphal Scene there were video clips from a Metropolitan Opera performance.

Here's how it began. The narrator told the backstory of the opera and recounted the events of opening minutes of Act I. Then, without the music which precedes it, David Pomeroy launched into the Se quel guerrier io fosse! recitative with its accompanying brass fanfares and Celeste Aida, one of the most famous of tenor arias.

And that's what the evening was like.  We were done shortly after 10:00 P.M., including a lengthy intermission. Sections of the opera and some entire scenes (like the trial of Radames in Act IV) were omitted and their action replaced by narration.

Yet it worked just fine. The big arias, duets and trios were all sung and played as was most of the monumental music for which this opera is best known among those lovers of classical music who aren't necessarily opera buffs.

The aforementioned David Pomeroy was a sturdy Radames. He's sung Hoffman at the Met and is now singing spinto tenor roles in Canadian opera houses. He is well suited to this role, which demands heroic singing and not much subtlety, but sang some lovely quiet high Bbs in the closing trio.

The role of Aida is one of the most demanding in all of opera and if a soprano can sing it and look the part she's likely doing it in an opera house somewhere. The part was taken last night by veteran soprano Sharon Azrieli. She is at home with the role and can sing the pianissimo high notes that this role requires although last night she sometimes struggled to blend them with the rest of her voice.

Mezzo Emilia Boteva was outstanding as Amneris. I heard her as Azucena at Opera Hamilton last season and really enjoyed her singing and portrayal of the character. If anything, she was even better in this which displayed her high register.

Gregory Dahl was a very convincing Amonasro. He's a true Verdi baritone, his voice full and somewhat dark but with ringing high notes. I look forward to hear ing him again on the COC main stage as Silvano in Ballo in Maschera. He's also covering Mandryka in Arabella at the Met.

Most of the important role of Ramphis was cut in this performance which is unfortunate since Olivier Laquerre sang what was left of it beautifully. Michael York capably sang the short part of Il Re, the King of Egypt.

The Arcady Singers fared better than I expected, considering that there are only 26 of them. That's not nearly enough voices for this most monumental of all Italian operas.

The National Academy Orchestra was conducted by apprentice conductor Brendan Hagan and by Brott himself who has recently been named Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Petruzelli in Bari.

The National Academy Orchestra is a training orchestra with only six professional players who mentor their sections. It is, however, a very fine orchestra and played extremely well. It's a bit of a stretch, though, for two trumpeters to cover the parts in this opera which includes herald trumpets and an off-stage brass band in full productions!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Porgy and Bess: The Movie (sort of)

I recently read Oscar Levant's A Smattering of Ignorance, a collection of his anecdotes and opinions of musical life in New York and Hollywood in the 20s and 30s. It was a quick and fascinating read. One of the essays is entitled My Life: The Life and Times of George Gershwin.

Oscar Levant

Levant's reminiscences reacquainted me with the extraordinary life of George Gershwin, who began as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter and lived to become an acclaimed composer of concert music. He died, tragically, at the age of 39, in 1937, from a brain tumour.

George Gershwin

Everyone at all familiar with the repertoire for piano and orchestra will have heard the Rhapsody in Blue. There is also a Second Rhapsody, a Piano Concerto, and Variations on I Got Rhythm.

His orchestral works include An American in Paris and the Cuban Overture. There are also Three Preludes for solo piano.

Like so much really good music, any of these pieces is worth revisiting.

Gershwin studied composition only after his initial Broadway success (according to Levant most of the successful Broadway and Hollywood composers did). This led him to compose his most ambitious work, the opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed in 1935.

It's full of truly fabulous music, not all of which is as well known as Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So and Bess You is My Woman Now. Gershwin had the gift of vocal melody, whether writing for pre-existing lyrics or tunes to which words would be fitted later by his lyricist brother, Ira. In Porgy and Bess he composed a fully worked out orchestral score, the details of which are not evident in a piano reduction. Lush orchestration, counterpoint melodies and complex rhythms abound.

It was made into a movie in 1959 directed by Otto Preminger. Most, but not all, of the principal player's voices are dubbed. Sidney Poitier, for example, plays Porgy but the singing voice is that of Robert McFerrin (father of Bobby McFerrin), the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

I found the following recording on YouTube. The poster has substituted the stereo cast recording for the mono soundtrack of his copy of the film. Only the fifteen songs from the LP are here, but it gives some idea of what the movie (and opera, if you're lucky enough to see it live) is like. It's a little disturbing that the actors are so obviously not singing but that fault is hardly unique to this film.

I'm afraid you may have to follow the link to YouTube as I was unable to properly embed it in the blog.

According to comments that follow on YouTube, the film is currently unavailable. Disney, who owns it, won't spend the money to restore the negative. How sad is that?

Monday, April 22, 2013

HPO Fiesta Concert in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place

I was still buzzing the morning after hearing the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, under Maestro Jamie Sommerville in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place last night, Saturday, April 20.

It's been along time since we attended a full orchestra HPO concert. I'm not interested in Pops concerts or concerts that include 19th Century warhorses. But I'm not a typical concert goer. One can't fault the HPO or Sommerville for programming as they do. They have to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to put bums in the seats.

This concert was all 20th and 21st Century music by New World Composers. The older pieces are acknowledged masterpieces, a couple with which I am very familiar. The new pieces included a World Première and two modern orchestral showpieces.

They opened with Bernstein's Overture to Candide. The orchestration has undergone many editions but this must have been the 1982 "opera house" version for this 60 piece orchestra. Each time I hear it I am reminded of what an accomplished composer and brilliant orchestrator Bernstein was.

Leonard Bernstein

The performance was virtuosic. The woodwind playing throughout the concert was spectacular. In this piece, principal flute Leslie Newman deserves special mention. The Great Hall has wonderful acoustics for live unamplified music. There's a huge wooden curtain that is dropped behind the orchestra, in front of the stage, so the audience is in the same room as the players, as it should be. It's a shame Opera Hamilton can't afford to use this theatre because the acoustics for opera are excellent as well.

Great Hall of Hamilton Place

Sommerville requested a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the Boston Marathon explosions (he's also principal horn of the Boston Symphony)  before beginning the next piece on the program. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to experience the moment, surrounded by 1500 very quiet people. He'd commenced conducting the almost inaudible opening measures of the suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring without my knowing it. The effect was magical. It's a long time since I've heard this piece and I'd forgotten, frankly,  how much more there is to it than Simple Gifts. Thank you, Aaron Copland.

Aaron Copland

Michael Torke's Javelin came next. It was commissioned for an album of music celebrating the Atlanta Olympic Games. The composer weaves elements of jazz and popular music into a complex texture. The simultaneities (i.e the harmonies) of the piece at any given point are no more challenging to the listener than those in any piece of later tonal orchestral music (eg. Richard Strauss), but the music is not organized like earlier music. Themes are launched and followed by music which doesn't develop as one expects. I'd listened to a recording of this piece recently and really enjoyed it, but it was nothing to compared to this performance by this really good live orchestra.

Michael Torke

The second half opened with the familiar music of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue. Clarinettist Stephen Pierre played the jazzy opening glissando nicely and followed it with a lot more exaggerated articulations. I'd never heard done quite this way, so I checked out the Whiteman 1930 recording and this is the way that clarinet solo was played then, with Gershwin at the piano. Brilliant.

Canadian Pianist Lucille Chung played the piano solo. She's a very fine player, with a fabulous bio. I found her demeanour overly dramatic and animated. It certainly didn't make her play any less well.

The Rhapsody in Blue is a pretty hard act to follow and HPO Composer in Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte got the call. She first spoke at length about her three movement piece, City Syntesthesia explaining the program of this piece which was inspired by images. I liked the piece a lot, as I did Downstream, her chamber orchestra piece that had been premièred a week before. The demands (and rewards) of writing for full orchestra are different than those of a chamber piece and I did enjoy the lush sound of 40 excellent string players. The piece fit well in this concert.

This composition (and the aforementioned Downstream) are programmatic works which draw on extra-musical sources (eg. stories or pictures). I question the wisdom of discussing the "program" in such detail as Ms. Richardson did before the concert, as well as in the printed notes and in a least two interviews of which I am aware. Speaking as a composer, I would hope the audience would be listening to the music for its own sake, rather than trying to identify the particular cues which the composer has used to structure the piece.

They wrapped up the concert with a spirited performance of Fiesta by Peruvian composer Jimmy López. The work was described in the program as "four pop dances" and there was certainly lots of appropriate rhythm and percussion but this was not just a latter day Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. This piece, like Javelin, belongs within the mainstream of contemporary orchestral writing and employed the technique and sound of New Music.

Jimmy López

What a great concert! I'll be watching for the HPO to announce their 2013-2014 season. If there are more imaginative programs like this one, I'll be there.

For those of you with some time, here areYouTube performances of Javelin and Fiesta.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Strata Vocal Ensemble

I went to hear the Strata Vocal Ensemble at MacNeill Baptist Church in Westdale on Sunday, April 14 in the afternoon. They performed, under their conductor Gordon Adnams, a varied program of almost entirely unaccompanied choral pieces. It was an entertaining and musically satisfying afternoon in part because I experienced again, this time from the audience, music which I'd sung as chorister.

My university choral professor, Deral Johnson, would have approved of the choice of music. In the absence of a major work, he taught us to represent different style periods and languages in unified groups within a concert. The music for this concert surely fulfilled those criteria.


They opened with a three songs selection (out of forty possible ones) from the Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs) of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

A little Palestrina goes a long way. While he is the best known of the composers of this period, Palestrina's music is not usually regarded as the most interesting. Modern audiences are more likely to be engaged by music of Tomás Luis de Victoria or Orlando di Lasso. I once sat through a concert performance Palestrina's entire Missa Papae Marcelli and it was tedious, one movement hardly distinguishable the others. If this is a fault, it was that of the music, not the performers.


In any event, this set was the least successful in the concert. Individual voices were evident. The tenor parts seemed to soar often into the "tight underwear" range. The choir did not achieve the ethereal otherworldliness that the best performances of this music display. It was, however, their warm-up piece and the concert got steadily better.

The Four French Madrigals which followed were much more effective due, in part, to their more homophonic texture. They set offered plenty of contrast and included di Lasso's famous Bonjour, Mon Coeur.

They completed the first half with J.S. Bach's motet Lobet Den Herrn, alle Heiden, the most demanding work on the program. The choir was accompanied by Kirk Starkey, cello and Kate Ward playing a portatif organ. I know the piece well, having performed it as a Tudor Singer under Wayne Riddell. It's one of the standard works in this repertoire, one which every serious chorister aught to have the opportunity to sing. The choir fared well with the support of the accompanying instruments.

After the break, the choir sang four Stanford Latin motets finishing with the rightly popular Beati Quorum Via. The choir seemed at home with these pieces and gave a convincing reading.

They followed with Vancouver composer Stephen Chatman's Elizabethan Summer, lovely madrigal-like settings of three 17th C. texts. Again, the choir sang convincingly.

Stephen Chatman

Next came three chorus from Leonard Bernstein's incidental music to Jean Anouilh's play The Lark. It was wonderful to hear this music, so different from the other works, reminding me of singing this music a long time ago under the aforementioned conductor Deral Johnson.

The choir finished the concert with spirited performances of three spirituals, Goin' Home to God, Deep River and Ride the Chariot. They sang a second arrangement of Deep River as their encore.

I'd encourage choral music devotées to watch for the next outing of this choir. They sing well, the repertoire is interesting and varied, and McNeill is an intimate setting with a satisfying acoustic for choral and chamber music.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What New Festival at the HPO

I went Saturday, April 13 to hear a chamber orchestra concert at the Studio Theatre of Hamilton Place, conducted by Jamie Sommerville and featuring the very fine first-desk players of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro Jamie Sommerville

Last night's concert was sparsely attended reminding us of why last year's festival was cancelled outright. The audience was loud and appreciative and made up largely, I suspect, of the folks whose financial support sustains the orchestra.

The concert opened with Norbert Palej's Divertimento, which was the most beautiful music of the evening. His idiom is highly accessible and melodic. He combines long note value melodies with impressionistic underpinnings and sometimes regular, and at others times pointillistic, accompanying rhythms, all incorporated in a detailed texture. His affinity to vocal music clearly contributes to his musical style. The strings were featured and violist Elspeth Thomson made a fine effect when it came her turn to play the main theme.

Norbert Palej

They followed with brefs messages (2011) by the celebrated Hungarian composer György Kurtág. His music is of the lineage of Musical Expressionism (like the pre-dodecaphonic Schoenberg) and the concentrated style of Webern. He was also a close friend of György Ligeti. These were the most "difficult" works on the concert but, since they were short and concise, easily digested.

They closed the first half with Jordan Noble's Entropy. He's a prolific Canadian composer with numerous prizes to his name.  I would like to have heard the piece again (they played the première of Abigail Richardson-Shulte's Downstream twice). The piece begins very busily and energetically and the tempo slows, and the density of the texture decreases, as the piece winds down to a very quiet, almost static ending. The piece isn't very long and it was hard for this listener to determine how the musical material was organized on only one hearing.

Jordan Noble

The second half opened with the aforementioned première of Abigail Richardson-Shulte's Downstream. Her idiom is very eclectic and programatic. The motion of the piece was, appropriately, undulating and suggested dance rhythms at times. The middle slow section was very spare and included woodwind players disassembling their instruments in order to produce the sound of bird calls. She's a very imaginative composer.

Abigail Richardson-Shulte

The concert closed with Claude Vivier's Pulau Dewata arranged by McGill professor and composer John Rea. Vivier's music was influenced, even transformed, by his stay in Bali in 1976. In its original form the instrumentation is not dictated. The work provided a nice contrast to the other works on the program. It is sometimes almost minimalistic in its repetition of short musical fragments and features prominent roles for percussionists playing gongs and, especially, pitched percussion instruments like the xylophone.

The festival continues next week concluding on Saturday, April 20 in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place with the full HPO presenting a concert which will include Michael Torke's Javelin and the first performance of Richardson-Shulte's City Synesthesia. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bossa Nova, Baby

I remembered having seen a TV concert featuring the music (and piano playing) of Antônio Carlos Brasileiro de Almeida Jobim. You may not know his name, but you've certainly heard his songs.

I searched for a library recording of Jobim's music and chose the one at the top of the list, not realizing that it was famous. It was the first jazz recording to win the Best Album Grammy (1965) and is one of the most successful jazz recordings of all time.

It's called "Getz/Gilberto." There are only 8 songs although the 45 RPM versions of two of the songs are included. Most of the songs are by Jobim alone or written by him with a collaborator. The musicians include Stan Getz, tenor saxophone, Jobim on piano, João Gilberto, guitar and vocals, Sebastião Neto, Bass, Milton Banana, drums, and Astrud Gilberto, vocals.

Much of the music could be mistaken today for Smooth Jazz but when Getz takes a verse and solos we are transported into a different musical world.

I find the best of the songs, The Girl from Ipanema, Desafinado and Corcovado, utterly charming, even spellbinding. Jobim employs a sophisticated harmonic pallette including surprising modulations and, by way of chord substitution, clever and deceiving progressions on the short journey back to the home key. He studied composition with the same teacher as the great Heitor Villa-Lobos who wrote the Bachianas Brazilieras.

Moreover, the simple melodies use sevenths, ninths and thirteenths as often as roots, thirds and fifths. They sound easy to sing until you try it, the melodies constantly sounding dissonances at the top of the chords. Jobim accomplishes this without ever disturbing the overall graceful elegance of the music.

Take, for example, the opening bars of Ipanema. The chord in the lead sheet says F+7 (f-a-c-e) but the first three notes of the tune are g (the ninth), e (the seventh) and d (a lower neighbour tone to the e?). The first note of the bridge is f (the root of the tonic chord, Doh) but it's played over a Gb+7 chord, making it the seventh of the chord and the harmony of the bridge continues in that vein.

Yet it all sounds effortless and inevitable.

Another thing I found interesting is that the rhythm of the English lyrics differ from those established by the original Portuguese lyrics. Put simply, the original lyrics sound better even if, like me, you can't understand a single word.

A little aside. The English lyrics to Corcovado (Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars) were written by Gene Lees. A distinguished music journalist, lyricist and singer with whom I corresponded by e-mail some years ago, he was originally from  Hamilton. He passed away in 2010.

Unbelievably, the woman who inspire The Girl From Ipanema has made a career of it.

I'll leave you with Getz, Gilberto et al and that famous recording of Corcovado. So beautiful.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pearl Fishers at Opera Hamilton

I heard the Opera Hamilton Pearl Fishers last night and it was a satisfying evening of beautiful music and very fine singing. Most will be familiar with Bizet in his incarnation as a Hispanophile in Carmen and the incidental music to L'Arlésienne. It's interesting to hear him trying out the Orientalism that was fashionable in the Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.

This was also choir master and conductor Peter Oleskevich's last performance as he is leaving Opera Hamilton after 25 years.

The opera was played on a diagonally raked stage decorated minimally with three tall tree trunks and a candle covered altar. The same set served for each of the three acts. I don't doubt that the opera could be presented on a different extravagant set for each act, but for this company and theatre, this worked perfectly well. Stage direction was by Brian Deedrick, functional and workmanlike.

Nadir and Zurga (Tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez and Baritone Brett Polegato) were bare-chested, made up with tattoos and sporting peculiar dreadlock-like wigs. It was odd to see them so differently presented from the choristers, their friends and peers. Nourabad (Bass-Baritone Stephen Hegedus) was appropriately costumed as a Brahmin priest. Léïla (Soprano Virginia Hatfield) wore a flowing robe, displaying none of the magical appeal the character should have, and was veiled through much of the opera.
The chorus wore generic beige to off white Middle-Eastern looking robes or dress with head coverings including turbans.

We'd heard Ramirez before at Opera Hamilton, as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. He was a standout in that opera as he is here. He sang this Romantic music convincingly and sounded French. He isn't an especially effusive actor but was certainly convincing enough in this role. He and Polegato did a fine job of the First Act Duet whose music recurs throughout the opera. I hope he isn't convinced to tackle heavier roles any time soon. His voice is already plenty dark and perfect for the roles I have heard him sing.

Brett Polegato and Edgar Ernesto Ramirez in Pearl Fishers

Stephen Hegedus was on stage quite a lot but Nourabad hasn't much to sing which is, in this case, too bad. He has a fine voice and decent stage manner. It was great to hear such a good performer in such a minor role at Opera Hamilton.

I really wanted to like Virginia Hatfield as Léïla. She communicated the innocence of the chaste priestess showing off an electric smile from beneath the veil in her first appearance. The audience, however, has to believe this character to be so enchanting that Nadir and Zurga, from a distance, both fall hopelessly in love with her. Hatfield didn't project that kind of charisma. Moreover, she has a Light Soprano voice and this role calls for a Lyric. There is no way she could match the timbre and volume of the men. I hope to hear her again in more appropriate repertoire.

Virginia Hatfield as Léïla
Brett Polegato, the star of the show, certainly demonstrated why he has sung Pelléas, another important French baritone role, all over Europe. He has a beautiful voice including a glorious high register and fine stage presence. I'd like to hear him as Valentine in Faust.

The small orchestra (30 pieces) made a surprisingly good effect with nice solos from clarinetist Stephen Pierre, flautist Leslie Newman, and oboist Jon Peterson and harpist Erica Goodman.

The chorus was adequate most of the time, especially (as was noted elsewhere) when they were singing loudly. It was disturbing, though, when the male choristers seemed surprised at exposed entries. At one point they were all supposed to raise their arms in unison. They didn't. 

Opera Hamilton is back next season, again at the DuMaurier Centre (Theatre Aquarius). They are presenting Verdi's Falstaff in October, the Popera Concert in January of 2014 and Bizet's Carmen in April. Cast lists have yet to be announced; I hesitate to buy tickets for performances without knowing the names of the principal singers.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Power Trios

I watched the Jimi Hendrix Experience on YouTube the other day and it got me thinking about the practicalities of the guitar/bass/drums combination.

I followed up by viewing several other pieces by groups which share this instrumental combination. I included in this four-piece groups that include a lead singer who either doesn't play an instrument or does so only rarely.

The guitarists often play rhythm (i.e. chords with several notes) and leads (the melody) at the same time especially when there's no singing. Depending on the style, the effect can be pretty cluttered. It's often difficult to figure out exactly what notes the guitarist is playing, especially if he's employing distortion of one sort or another.

It there were another instrument playing notes in the range of the guitar, the result would be a mess.  However, the four strings of the bass are pitched an octave lower than the four lowest strings of the guitar. So long as the bass player stays out of the guitarist's range, only the guitarist has to worry about "saturating" that register. Here is Jimmy Page playing leads and filling in the holes while bassist John Paul Jones stays out of the way. Too bad Robert Plant can't sing the melody as he did in the recording. He doesn't even attempt the end of the chorus, leaving it to the audience!

In these trios, drummers often play on every eighth and most sixteenth-notes, especially in fills at the end of the phrases when the guitarist is playing longer values. Some of them (like the drummer in the Hendrix excerpt) play so much they seem to be "filling" all the time. If there were more instruments this would be intrusive, but in this context it works.

Many groups with this line-up play heavy rock or metal. Examples of guitar/bass/drums trios that can't easily be placed in those genres include The PoliceRed Hot Chili Peppers, ZZ Top and Rush.

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones apply the same principle. In this case the soloist, Fleck, (named by his parents for Bela Bartok) plays banjo. This band's arrangements are all worked out so the virtuoso bassist, Victor Wooten, plays higher notes only at times when he knows it won't muddy the texture. If you check out other of their pieces you'll see they really get around, stylistically.  Fleck has been nominated for Grammys in more different categories than any other musician.

I'll finish with Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey. This may sound familiar to fans of CSI: Miami.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Interview with David Speers

Before Christmas, I had a wide ranging conversation of nearly 90 minutes with David Speers, General Director of Opera Hamilton. He's a passionate advocate for opera, and the arts in general, in our community.  I distilled that encounter into a piece tailored to the readership of the Greater Hamilton Musician.

Editor Glen Brown further reduced the word count to make it fit in the print Annual Edition.

Here's a link to the on-line version.

On-line Greater Hamilton Musician Annual Edition

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Peter Jackson et al vs. J.R.R. Tolkien

I have a rather peculiar, if not unique, view of J.R.R. Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit. I read it aloud about a dozen times to children in my language class in the course of the career which I pursued parallel to my professional musical one.

I'd first made my way through The Lord of the Rings as a teenager and it's about the only Fantasy writing I've ever read.

Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen)

I encountered The Hobbit when I first read it aloud."Read-Alouds" are an intrinsic part of a balanced reading program and teachers frequently read favourite titles that are too hard for most of their audience to read themselves. I know teachers who read Children's Literature for pleasure and must admit that I could never stomach it. I tried to read two of the Harry Potter  series myself and didn't like them much.

The Hobbit is pretty slow going as a read-aloud. I had class set of the novel and offered a copy to children, usually better readers, who wanted to read along. It went over much better with boys than girls. A couple of times I just gave up with groups that hadn't the collective attention span to make sense of the long passages of description.

In any event, I went this afternoon to see the most recent Peter Jackson movie (3D IMAX), one of the perks of not having to work in the daytime. The theatre was surprisingly full of quiet, mostly older, people. No children.

This is an epic story, as is The Lord of the Rings which Tolkien wrote later. Lots of it is "over the top", but that's what's called for in any epic. Jackson and his team don't follow the book very closely at all. I'm quite sure that this would have bothered me more if I'd read The Hobbit more recently. As it was, I enjoyed it immensely although I'm not going to see it a second time any time soon.

I had read Ken Follet's The Pillars of the Earth and, not long after, I saw the TV mini-series. I was horrified. It seemed to be all hyperbole, the subtlety of the story completely written out. I watched it again recently on Blue-ray. No ads, no stopping and several years from the reading. I had a completely different impression. It was an impressive piece of story telling.

Matthew McFadyen from Pillars of the Earth

There's no doubt that adapting art from one medium to another is an incredibly challenging process and there's no winning. Artistic decisions must be made in virtually every frame: change the story, re-order it, cast actors who bear little (or no) resemblance to the characters in the original version, cram the dozen or more climaxes of a book which might take a week to read into a two hour film.

Someone, somewhere, will object to every one.

These are the decisions adaptors have to make in the course of producing an artistically and commercially viable product.

I watched Avatar again recently and the effects, CGI and otherwise, are jaw dropping. The same can be said of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, indeed of many current movies. It's all part of the repertoire of film makers these days and audiences expect to see it.

From James Cameron's Avatar

The difference, of course, is that these are brilliant films by experienced, dedicated film makers. The same technology is available to anyone, experienced, dedicated or otherwise, with the money to use it. Many crappy though technologically sophisticated movies have been, and will be made, and will disappear into the world of DVD and on-demand release.

In closing I'll mention Howard Shore's score. It must be a good one because, aside from the recurring quiet Celtic-inspired melody which I recall from the LOTR films, I don't remember any of it. You're not supposed to notice film music. Too bad for the composers, I guess.

Howard Shore