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!