Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Brilliance: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at the HPO

Brilliance: Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at the HPO

Midway through the ethereal slow movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto Saturday night, a single silver star drifted down from high above the stage and settled amongst the second violins. It was like a celestial comment on the playing of the soloist, Blake Pouliot. He’d have had the audience in the palms of his hands, if they hadn’t been full of violin. 
I hadn’t expect much of this concert built around this overly familiar concerto, a very short Canadian piece and a symphony I’d last heard performed by a student orchestra. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Pouliot really put on a show and I joined the other members of the audience who spontaneously rose to their feet as he completed the virtuosic arpeggios that bring the concerto’s finale to a close. I’d hoped for an encore but, on this occasion, didn’t get one. 

Pouliot is but 20 years old, as young or younger than the MacMaster footballers whom we watched play in the Vanier Cup. He is tall, with a forelock that falls over his face, like a latter day Paganini. He is completing his training in Los Angeles but began playing concertos with orchestras at the age of 11. A violinist to watch. 

While the Mendelssohn was surely the highlight of the evening, the rest of the program was nearly as exciting.

Conductor Stilian Kirov, who is auditioning for the Hamilton Philharmonic’s Music Director’s position, is a native of Bulgaria but has been the Assistant Conductor of the Seattle Symphony for the last three years. He first led the orchestra in a spirited performance of Canadian Composer Glen Buhr’s short overture Jyotir (Brilliance). It’s already 25 years since Buhr wrote it and deserves to be better known.  It was played, as its title indicates, at breakneck speed, and displays the dexterity of the woodwinds, most notably the piccolo which is exposed at the top of the orchestra. Percussionist Jean-Norman Iadeluca, playing tuned toms and a kick bass, was featured in the penultimate section.

After the break they played Beethoven’s Second Symphony. In spite of its number (he wrote nine symphonies) it is not an early work. Beethoven was 33 and in mid-career when he composed it. While not as familiar or often played as the later ones, it sounds a lot like them, especially the Eroica (#3) and the best known Fifth. This is why so many in the audience, familiar with its style, could so easily appreciate it and the beautiful, sometimes spectacular, playing of our wonderful professional orchestra. 

The orchestra will next play Verdi's Forza del Destino overture, Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and the Glazunov Violin Concerto. Theodore Kuchar conducts and Corey Cerovsek is the violin soloist. It’s on Saturday, January 17th at 7:30 and tickets are available at the orchestra’s website.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A tale of two composers

Once upon a time, in the years before the First World War, two musicians, sometimes together and sometimes apart, travelled throughout Hungary collecting folksongs and dances. They were ethnomusicologists, although the word hadn’t been coined yet. The subsequent musical direction of each was profoundly affected by their youthful enthusiasms. Their names are Béla Bartók and Zoltan Kodály.

The Hungary of that time was much greater than today’s. The eastern part of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire, it included some of present day Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Poland. Some of Imperial Hungary had even been part of the Ottoman Empire. The folk music was as diverse as languages. 

Bartók went on to become among the greatest composers in the tradition of Western Classical Music. Kodály is best known as the author of a landmark method for teaching music in the schools, but was also a brilliant and accomplished composer whose works are revered in Hungary.

I will share with you two orchestral works which demonstrate the extent to which their travels, collections and studies influenced their music. 

Bartok’s Dance Suite dates from 1923, the middle of his composing career. He has taken material which he collected and transformed for his own purposes. There is always a certain edginess, rawness perhaps, to Bartók’s music and there is plenty of each in evidence here. The tempo and mood of the piece shifts dramatically. Dances are presented, abandoned while contrasting music is played, and then return. Although it isn’t obvious, I have it on good authority that it is also very difficult for the orchestra and conductor. The work owes very little to the Late Romantic Music in which the composer was schooled. It is very much a work of the Twentieth Century.

Dances from Galanta is another orchestral tour de force based upon Eastern European folk tunes, but how different! While clearly a Twentieth Century work, there are echos Brahms and Lizst and Johann Strauss, of Hungarian Rhapsodies and and the Fledermaus Csardas. Kodály, like his colleague, chose and modified dances that fit his musical purpose. The form is similar to Bartók’s Dance Suite but the effect entirely different.

Each work is about 16 minutes in length. If you can listen to them together, I encourage you to do that. If you can’t spare that much time, listening to a few minutes of each will still make my point. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Classical and Popular Concerts are Two Different Things

Is there a way to attract a wider public to classical concerts? Much has been written about Bandur Brönnimann's response to a Jonny Greenwood interview. Here is my looney's worth.

The audience should feel free to applaud between movements. Because they feel like it? Any semi-literate person can figure out, through a cursory examination of the program, how many individual bits there are in a composition and when it ends. This is probably targeted at concerti, which frequently have showy first movements or symphonies whose movements are often long and have strong endings. What about ballet or dance suites? Song cycles? Do you really want folks applauding every movement? I've been in the audience for amateur performances in which that was exactly the case and the concert went on for-ev-er and it wasn't because the music was too long. All the music that has been written since Mahler began the practice of remaining quiet between movements more than a hundred years ago was composed with the expectation that there would be no applause to break the mood.

Orchestras should tune backstage. The strings, especially, like to tune where they can hear the other players. There'd have to be a big room available backstage. Otherwise it's everyone on his own with an electronic tuner. What about the necessary tuning between the movements of long piece? Will you be going off-stage to do it?

We should be able to use mobile phones (in silent mode). What for? I thought you paid money to listen to live players play live music, not to play with your phone.  The capture from you phone will be crappy anyway and you'll probably never look at it again. And the screen of your phone, in a relatively dark environment, is bright and distracting for everyone (who also paid money etc.) around you. Anyway, this is the opposite of mindfulness. If you really need to use your phone, go out in the hallway.

Programs should be less predictable. Well... You should at least play what you've programmed. If you want to tack a bonus piece onto the end of the first half or at the end of the concert I mightn't mind. But, frankly, I decided to come to this concert on the basis of your publicity. If you don't play the pieces I came to hear I'm not going to be very happy.

You should be able to take your drinks inside the hall. If your concert hall has cup-holders on the seats it's different from ones I've gone to. You're not going to die of thirst. It won't kill you to wait an hour for that lager. Spare the cleaners mopping up dried cola tomorrow or the venue having to have the fabric seats cleaned. Or you your neighbour's suit.

The artists should engage with the audience. That's what they're doing when they play music. There's already too much chatter at classical concerts. Don't give a performer (including, perhaps especially, a conductor) a microphone. Everyone knows what happens. Anything important enough to mention (aside from emergency announcements) can be written in the published program. Shut up, sit down and play.

Orchestras shouldn't play in tail suits. I couldn't care less. As long as they're dressed uniformly, so that no one player sticks out, I'm not interested in how they dress.

Concerts should be more family friendly. Some concerts are. They're called Family Concerts and are specially programmed for an audience that includes children. Otherwise, most children have neither the preparation nor the attention span required to sit through serious performance without fidgeting. And I'm sure your young Nigel has been going to concerts since he was knee-high but he's the exception. Children have to be trained and you can't start doing it at a TSO performance of Verklärte Nacht. Sorry to return to a theme, but other people have spent good money with certain expectations of their experience.

Concert halls should use more cutting edge technology. I expect the author is addressing the situation at his own orchestra's concert hall: big screens, real time video, etc. I'd be surprised if most symphony concert providers aren't looking into or haven't looked into all the suggestions he makes.

Every program should include a contemporary piece. Depends on the context. Speaking as a living, breathing composer, it's hard to have a problem with this. If, however, I went to see the Mozart Requiem or an all-Beethoven program I mightn't be wooed by a shorter-than-ten-minutes piece played first in the program or at the end. Just doesn't fit, somehow.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Have you 30 minutes? You owe it to yourself to listen to this!

Are you a musician or serious music lover? If you don't know this piece and have 30 minutes you owe it to yourself to listen.

I have loved the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 2 & 3 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini since I was a young musician. The music just sounds right to me, has always sounded just right. There's not a note out of place.

Rachmaninoff himself didn't call this a Cello Sonata i.e. a solo cello piece with piano accompaniment. He called it Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, preferring to show the equal partnership of the two players.

The piano writing is startlingly similar to that of the concerti. It's virtuosic, exploiting the full range or the instrument, technically and expressively.

The cello sometimes plays the role the violins play in the concerti, taking the themes while the piano accompanies. Sometimes it plays the orchestral cello lines, playing countermelodies in the middle register while the piano takes the leading ones. It frequently sings melodies, melodies sometimes chant or folk-like, or those that push forward and upward in repeated rhythms or sequences.

This work captures the same excitement that is to be found in Rachmaninoff's big works for piano and orchestra. Hearing it for the first time is like discovering a work which is strangely like that other piece that you already know yet different and unique.

Here's the sonata with the score for those of you who read music. It's the way I like to listen to music like this.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Enigma Variations, Grieg Piano Concerto at the Brott Festival

It was to be a special occasion, a concert in honour of the Maestro's and pianist's birthdays, each ending with a 0 (zero).

So we went last night (Thurs. July, 24) to the MacIntyre Theatre at Mohawk College to hear  Boris Brott conducting the National Academy Orchestra and to hear Valerie Tryon play the Grieg Piano Concerto.

The audience learned in Jacqui Templeton Muir's introduction, that she and Valerie Tryon (her sister) have been friends with Boris since 1971 when he was the Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic. Valerie has since played in each of the 27 seasons of the Brott Music Festival.

Valerie Tryon

Valerie Tryon has had a remarkable performing career performing as a recitalist and as a soloist with major orchestras since her student debut in 1953. She will leave for England shortly to begin yet another recital tour. Her recording of De Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will shortly be released. Since 1971 she has been based in Hamilton and had a long association with MacMaster University.

The National Academy Orchestra was founded by Brott in 1988. This isn't a student orchestra in the usual sense. It is described in the program as a "professional training orchestra", and is made up of advanced students and young professional players who haven't yet got an orchestral job. Judging from the wonderful sound and accuracy of the playing, Maestro Brott must have his choice of the crème de la crème of young Canadian instrumentalists. As well, the principal string seats are occupied by professional players. For example the concertmaster is Alex Read, principal first violinist of the Montréal Symphony.

They opened with a stunning performance of Elgar's Enigma Variations. The work is in 14 variations which are character pieces describing individuals from Elgar's family and inner circle. Whatever they are variations upon was never made clear by Elgar and no theme is ever presented. Apprentice conductor Ben Kepes led the first six sections and then Maestro Brott took over for the next eight.

The slow movements (including the celebrated Nimrod) are built upon a string choir foundation and the sound of the strings of this orchestra was magical. The several viola solos were played beautifully by Kitchener Waterloo Symphony principal Natasha Sharko. There were also passages of tutti brasses which, in this hall, could nearly lift you from your seat.

In the second half, they began with Psalm by Srul Irving Glick. The piece was commissioned by Brott for the HPO in 1971. It has some interesting contrasting passages but their relationship, one to the other, is not clear and the work, in spite of the detailed preparation and clear performance, seemed rather shapeless. Special mention must be made of trumpeter Kathyrn Clarke and hornist Jonathan Astley both of whom soloed to fine effect.

The final scheduled work was the Grieg. It is among Valerie Tryon's favourite concerti and she played beautifully, sometimes delicately and at others times with great panache. The orchestra responding thrillingly in their tutti sections. Principal cellist and Hamiltonian Rachel Mercer played her solos nicely with a fine full sound.

When it was all over and the audience had stood and clapped in unison at Brott's urging, Valerie Tryon returned and played, for her adoring audience, Lizst's Liebestraum #3, perhaps the best known of that master's solo piano works .

If you enjoy music for piano and orchestra, you'll want to hear Ian Parker play Rachmaninoff (The Second Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.) The orchestra is also performing the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. That's on Thursday, August 7th at the MacIntyre Theatre. The link in paragraph three will take you to the website.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Roberto Devereux at the COC

We saw Roberto Devereux at the Four Seasons Centre last night (Tues. April 29) and, in the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis there was a "whole lotta shoutin' goin' on". Perhaps not actual shouting, but too close for this opera goer.

I hadn't heard or seen this opera before, but with surtitles and a familiar composer (Donizetti) working in a standard form, preparation proved to be unnecessary.

It was presented on a single set, meant to evoke the Globe Theatre. There was a large platform that occupied most of the mid-stage around which most the action took place. This forced the singers to its periphery most of the time, either on the sides or right downstage. There was, as seems usual, some singing while lying down. At one point Devereux, in a duet with Sara, for no reason I could fathom, dragged himself across the platform as if his legs didn't work. In another peculiar choice, Nottingham apparently goes on to rape his wife after the end of their duet. I could also have done without the manikins in display cases during the overture and at the end of the opera.

This is an opera in the bel canto tradition. The phrase means, literally, beautiful singing but refers to much more than that for example, evenness and clarity of sound and articulation and tasteful absence of excess. What we heard in Hercules was bel canto. Much of what we heard last night was more appropriate to Trovatore or dare I say Tosca, far too heavily influenced by the style of singing that became acceptable later in the 19th century. Donizetti may not be Rossini, but he's not Verdi either and is surely not a verismo composer.

The main culprit was the prima donna, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Elisabetta. She has spectacular high notes and the ability to project her chest voice. She also has a middle voice which is not as strong. As a result, in a long descending octave scale, the top and bottom were loud while the middle didn't match. Moreover, last night at least, she wasn't able to manage the crispness and accuracy which the frequent coloratura in this repertoire demands. It simply sounded messy.

She is, however, an exceptional actress, and in the last act, when the coloratura pyrotechnics were over and the music was more dramatic, her vocal issues were no longer a problem. Indeed, she did some glorious pianissimo singing. The last scene, artificial and manipulative as it is, and made more so by this production, was truly moving and drew well deserved approval from the audience.

As the Duke of Nottingham, Baritone Russell Braun's singing in the first act suffered from similar problems. At one point, in the midst of some running passages, I actually lost track of what key he was singing in. Again, the runs were not clean and accurate while the highest notes were stentorian. I've heard him sing other repertoire beautifully and he has never sounded like that.

Tenor Leonardo Capalbo sang pretty well the taxing title role sounding like... an Italian tenor. He sings duets with both leading ladies and in ensembles besides, having to maintain a rather high tessitura throughout. He was obviously tiring by his final act scene, and no wonder.

Mezzo Allyson McHardy, as Sara, Duchess of Nottingham, came closer to bel canto than the other principal singers. Her first aria, in particular, was a breath of fresh air after Sondra Radvanovsky's. She did seem to be darkening and pushing on her lower notes as the performance went on and I wondered whether she and Braun felt the need to be louder to match the big sound Ms. Radvanovsky can produce. I think I'd like to hear McHardy as Cenorentola or Rosina in this theatre.

Allyson McHardy and Sondra Radvanovsky

Owen McCausland sang Lord Cecil nicely and Matt Boehler made some of the loveliest sounds of the evening in the few notes he had to sing as Raleigh.

The COC chorus sang well what little was asked of them and the orchestra played beautifully under conductor Corrado Ravaris.

The audience reacted rapturously at the end of the performance and I wondered whether they were wooed by the theatricality of the piece. I am more concerned with musicianship and singing and didn't stand at the end of this one.

Nonetheless, this production of Roberto Devereux should put bums in the seats. Judging by next season's offerings, heavy on the standard rep (Madama Butterfly, Falstaff, Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni) and Bluebeard's Castle, a proven hit, the company must have decided to concentrate on pot-boiling. Gotta pay the bills.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hercules in America at the COC

I was wondering how celebrated Stage Director Peter Sellars would make three hours of Baroque opera engaging. The answer is, he couldn't.

Peter Sellars

We spent an awfully long time at the Four Seasons Centre last night (April 16) watching  the COC's production of Georg Friderick Handel's musical drama Hercules. After the first 20 minutes or so I was seriously contemplating whether I'd have to leave at the interval. A substantial number of our fellow patrons did just that.

I'm reminded of Rossini's opinion of Wagner's operas, that he, "has good moments, but awful quarters of hours". Yes, yes, I went to university too, and I know all about Da Capo arias, but when the B section comes around for the second or third reiteration, it's time for some judicious cuts. One doesn't have to omit whole arias, just some of the repeats. After a couple of hearings, we've got the idea. This production could have come in under two and half hours and nothing, nothing would have been lost.

Much of the music was really wonderful. Hearing this unfamiliar work I was reminded of how truly brilliant a composer Handel was. So much variety with limited means. The orchestra, under Harry Bicket played beautifully bringing nuance and detail to the score. Sandra Horst's chorus was sensational, but more about them later.

Peter Sellars staging included quite a lot of lying on the stage while singing amongst a whole lot of musically unmotivated movement.  That's hardly surprising as one has to give the soloists and their stage companions something to do during the many solo arias. You can't really have them just stand (or sit) there. (This opera has only arias and choruses, no solo ensembles at all).

Some of the acting was naturalistic, some stylized. At one point, for example, Iöle put her arms around Dejanira's neck from behind making a snaking gesture with her hands (mirroring the snake mentioned in the text). Then she did it again when the music repeated. Then she did it again when the music repeated. I'm sure you get the idea.

As for the singers, Alice Coote as Dejanira was marvellous and I feel privileged to have heard and seen her again. She has a prodigious technique and acting skills to match.

Alice Coote

Soprano Lucy Crowe, as Iöle,  was also really first-rate, performing most of her first aria in an orange prison jumpsuit with a bag over her head. She mostly sang in the bel canto fashion as she would in other operatic repertoire but sometimes sang longer notes with a straight tone in the (probably erroneous) early music manner. I look forward to hearing her again, in different repertoire.

Lucy Crowe

I've been speculating as to why Counter-tenor David Daniels was cast as Lichas, as Handel chose a contralto. It might be to avoid having two mezzos in the cast. He sang well enough, his voice disappearing on the lower notes as falsetto singers' do. He was very effective acting and singing his last aria describing Hercules dying ordeal.

On the basis of his first act arias, I wasn't very impressed with Tenor Richard Croft's Hyllus. Then, in the second act, he sang a more lyric one with a higher tessitura and we got to hear his lovely Mozartean tenor. He is a very fine singer. I'm sorry now I didn't hear his Ferrando in Così fan Tutte in January. Why he spent the entire opera hobbling about on crutches was never made clear.

Ironically, Hercules is the shortest role in the opera. Bass-baritone Eric Owens was physically imposing but never produced the booming sounds I had hoped for. He also had to perform his final aria lying on his back, upstage, sometimes barking out the music, singing and dying theatrically.

Eric Owens

In some ways the COC chorus were the stars of the show. Sellars' approach to staging their pieces was unusual, to say the least. They performed choreographed gestures, in the manner of a children's choir, fitted to the text. Some of them were like Sign Language, others more like semaphore. In the contrapuntal passages they all did the movements with their own section, so sopranos, altos, tenors and basses all moved at the same time as their part, but differently from the other three. For the most part, I thought it looked silly. It didn't, however, detract from the excellent singing, so meticulously rehearsed. That being said, surely their performance of the Jealousy chorus at the end of the second act, motions and all, was the highlight of the night.

The chorus reaches skyward
Well, it's Roberto Devereux next. I wonder what surprises the COC has planned for that one?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater with a Cast of Hundreds

I went last night to hear a mixed program presented by the Mohawk College Community Choir who were joined by members of Fanshawe Chorus London (both conducted by U of T DMA candidate David Holler) and the Redeemer University College Sinfonia (led by Music Department Head Paul Thorlakson). The featured work, which was played after a short first half, was Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater featuring mezzo-soprano Jennifer Enns-Modolo.

The concert took place at West Highland Baptist Church on the West Mountain in Hamilton. The sanctuary, while not as big as it appears from the street, must seat 1200 people in a fan-shaped arrangement of padded pews on two levels. The acoustic, probably designed with microphoned speakers and an amplified Praise Band in mind, was very dry and not well suited to choral singing.

The Mohawk College Community Choir and Fanshawe Chorus London, both sizeable amateur groups, certainly benefited from being combined. As I discovered conducting school groups, unless you're leading the Vienna Choir Boys, a bigger choir is always better.

Redeemer University College Sinfonia is a mixed group which includes community orchestra players, Redeemer Music students, some high school players and a few professional coach-instructors.

They opened with Eclogue by Gerald Finzi, a work for piano and strings. Paul Thorlakson played the solo part very nicely. It's a very understated piece and the style of this most characteristically English composer was evident throughout.  In most student and amateur orchestras, strings, first violins in particular, face the most difficulty with challenging passages and tuning. Here they played surprisingly well as, indeed, they did throughout the concert.

 Johannes Brahms' Nänie, a short piece for four-part chorus and small orchestra, followed. The unforgiving acoustic sometimes revealed some unpleasant sounds from amongst the numerous sopranos, especially on the highest notes. The tenors, the most vulnerable section in amateur groups, fared better.

After the interval, the choirs and Jennifer Enns-Modolo, accompanied by a full Romantic orchestra, including 5 percussionists, performed the Jenkins' Stabat Mater. This composer has had success, first as a jazzman, then in composing advertising themes. He turned to concert music and his mass The Armed Man was a huge classical hit in 2008 on Deutsche Gramophon no less. Here's his best known music, Palladio, adapted from a De Beers Diamond ad.

The choirs sang pretty well although the choral parts didn't seem to be very demanding. The orchestra also coped capably with the music and, again, the strings played much better than I'd expected.

Jennifer Enns-Modolo sang her solo passages beautifully, the almost unaccompanied Incantation in particular. After this quiet movement, she demonstrated a big sound, especially in lower passages, when pitted against the choirs and full orchestra.

I didn't like the piece itself very much. Jenkins' confuses repetitions, with added flourishes and rising dynamics, for variation. Several of the movements could do with considerable pruning as the same musical themes returned, again and again. And the Mother did Weep, in particular, seemed interminable. The big tutti movements, especially the concluding Paradisi Gloria, included short sections that are repeated, over and over again, louder and louder, in a symphony of bombast, all accompanied by tympani, bass drum and two floor toms banging out the beat. Our ears were grateful for the dry acoustic there!

Considering the number of performances this work is getting, lots of influential musicians must like this sort of thing. Last night's audience jumped to their feet at the work's conclusion. But, to be clear, it doesn't employ the type of repetition used in Musical Minimalism. This is something far simpler and familiar from film scores where the primary interest is on the screen. Goodness knows, the time was long past for New Music to abandon the absence of an underlying pulse, but there must be a subtler and more interesting way to achieve it than music like this.

Paradisi Gloria: Final Movement of Karl Jenkins' Stabat Mater

Friday, April 4, 2014

Michael Kamen: A very talented guy

I've been watching (on Blue-Ray) the 2001 miniseries Band of Brothers which follows Easy Company of the American 101st Airborne Division from D-Day to the end of World War II. I've been struck by the elegant way the scoring of the series was handled by composer Michael Kamen.

Kamen, who died in 2003 at the age of 55 was a major league talent who was enormously successful in many musical endeavours. While attending the New York High School of Music and Art he formed the rock/classical fusion band the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble. He later attended Julliard and was a protégé of the incomparable Leonard Bernstein.

Michael Kamen became a go-to arranger and composer of popular music. He arranged the music and conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra on the recording of Eric Clapton's 24 Nights. He wrote Bryan Adam's Oscar-winning song Everything I do (I Do for You). I think his arrangement is largely responsible for the success of the Eurythmics hit Here Comes the Rain Again.


Kamen wrote the scores of a couple of dozen Hollywood films including the Lethal Weapon series, Mr. Holland's Opus and X-Men.

We are used to insistent, pulsing music beneath the action scenes in films. There is little of that in Band of Brothers. The battle scenes, full of the sounds of gun-shots, explosions and warriors yelling play without accompaniment. Music often plays instead during introspective scenes and in descriptive passages devoid of dialogue. With eight different directors working on the series, the decision to score the series this way must have been made jointly by the composer and executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. 

Here is the main theme music for the series. If you'd like to hear more, I've also linked to a recording of the two Band of Brothers suites. The music is played by the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Michael Kamen conducting, of course.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bach-Elgar Sings Vaughan-Williams and Fauré

I went Sunday afternoon, March 2, to hear the Bach-Elgar Choir perform the Vaughan-Williams Mass in G Minor and the Fauré Requiem at Christ Church Cathedral, the Anglican Cathedral on James St. N. in Hamilton.

The last concert that I attended by this choir was of the Rachmaninoff Vespers (an unaccompanied piece) and some High-Renaissance motets with brass. The Rachmaninoff Vespers were, I wrote at the time, too difficult for this choir which was combined, on that occasion, with the Oakville Masterworks Chorus. The choir's grasp of the music was so shaky that a pianist played some of the lines as one might in a rehearsal. The motets, which are far less demanding music, came off better.

This time was a much more enjoyable experience. While the Friday evening performance of the same concert was evidently sparsely attended, this afternoon there was a decent crowd in spite of the John Laing Singers having managed to schedule their concert in Dundas at the same time.

The Vaughan-Williams Mass is scored for a capella double choir and a quartet of soloists. The choristers sat in the stalls at the front of the church, the two choirs facing one another, the soloists (all of whom, but Bud Roach, were Bach-Elgar members) amongst them. It's really a lovely five-movement work with lots of imitative polyphony. The soloists are frequently treated as a semi-choir.

Soprano Heather Plewes had some fine moments in her exposed solo passages and Roach sang nicely his lines and the intonations which precede the movements.

Seating the choir in the stalls was an unfortunate choice. The sound was muddy and one wasn't able to hear the antiphonal dialogue at all, as the lines from both choirs mushed together. Still, there were some nice dynamic contrasts and well-managed transitions between sections and movements.

It wasn't until the second half of the concert, when the choir was on the steps facing the audience, that I could hear them clearly.

The Fauré was accompanied on the cathedral's organ by Michael Bloss. He performed this task as well as I've heard it done in several organ-accompanied performances of this piece. Sadly, this work is to the point of being over-performed in Hamilton. I've heard it three times in the past two years.

Conductor Cann chose tempos, throughout, which were somewhat faster than I am used to but they worked very well. The piece has such beautiful, often modally inspired, harmonies that there's a temptation to take all the movements very slowly, to dwell on the lovely moments. This might be acceptable in a recorded performance but a live one, with a less patient audience, is something else again.

The choir was in tune, which was especially noticeable in some of the aforementioned modal passages and in the frequent full and half-diminished harmonies which lend the work its peculiar flavour. The soprano sound was steady and the unison men's Hosanna in Excelsis was plenty loud and not over-sung.

The soloists were both excellent. Soprano Jennifer Taverner performed tastefully in the Pie Jesu which can be problematic for a grown woman to sing. The piece is a prayer and not at all operatic. Moreover, it was written for a treble (i.e. a boy with an unchanged voice) and sits uncomfortably in the voice for many women. If a conductor decides not to use a mature soprano and a quality treble isn't available, a very young soprano might be a good compromise.

Soprano Jennifer Taverner
Andrew Tees was outstanding in the two movements in which he sang. He's a bass-baritone with a big, dark voice (and an active operatic career) and made a much better impression in this work than the singers I'd heard in other recent performances.

Bass-baritone Andrew Tees
All in all it was a  musically satisfying afternoon. The Bach-Elgar seems to be moving in the right direction. The ticket prices have been reduced and are now in-line with similar organizations in this market. Their next concert, Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass and Bach's cantata Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott, will be performed only once in the cavernous Melrose United Church on Locke St., Saturday, May 24 at 7:30 P.M. This should improve the house and reduce the choir's costs.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Luminescence Concert at the HPO

Last night marked Maestro James Sommerville's last concert as the Principal Conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. So far as I know he has had a very good relationship with the players of the orchestra and, if last night's prolonged applause at the concert's end is any indication, he is adored by concert goers. He will return as a guest conductor next season. He has also championed new music through the What Next Festival which will apparently be held in mid-May.

They began with the Symphony in D Major by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges presented, one must presume, in honour of Black History Month. He's a fascinating character, a champion fencer, violin virtuoso, conductor and colonel in the Legion-St. Georges fighting against Louis XV during the revolution. He was one of numerous composers writing in the International Style which was most most effectively employed by Mozart whom Saint-Georges may well have met in Paris.

I remembered, as the first movement began, learning about Sonata Form as a teenager because the music followed the formula clearly. That's not to say the music isn't charming and elegant but that it reminds me of the numerous early Haydn symphonies for similar forces (i.e. strings, and pairs of horns and oboes); very nice but not too deep.

They followed this with the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb Major by the aforementioned Mozart. The soloists were Leslie Newman, Flute, Graham Mackenzie, Oboe, Eric Hall, Bassoon and Ken Macdonald, Horn. All but Mackenzie are regulars in the orchestra. He is Principal in the Windsor and Niagara Symphonies and has freelanced with the HPO.

The piece was lost and rediscovered, rearranged for clarinet, oboe, horn and bassoon by another hand, in the 1860s. Scholar Robert Levin "reconstructed' the piece, restoring the flute solo and rebuilding stretches of the orchestration which he thought questionable. This is the version which was performed last night.

It's a delightful piece and not at all like a classical concerto grosso, although the soloists do play without the orchestra some of the time. It is more like a piano concerto with the solo parts arranged for four winds, who are each given virtuosos turns and there is plenty of contrapuntal trading-off of phrases. It was entertaining to listen to the bassoon play parts which were every bit as intricate as those played by the flute. I thought I wouldn't have particularly wanted to be the horn player blowing this demanding part only a few feet from the principal horn of the Boston Symphony! All of the soloists were very impressive, reminding me of what skill and talent is found within the ranks of the players of this professional group.

After the break they played Ravel's Pavane pour une Infante Défunte. It must be, after the Bolero, his best known orchestral work. It is truly transcendent music. It seems timeless in the sense that time seems to stand still as the piece is played. The tempo is slow, but steady as a piece for dancing must be, yet it slows and stops, then starts again, and the movement doesn't stop, it is merely suspended. The strings sound was wonderful and Ken Macdonald shone again in the horn solos.

We were reminded, in Craig Coolin's excellent notes in the program, of Ravel's own words: "It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Velasquez at the Spanish court."

Las Meninas

They finished with Francis Poulenc's Sinfonietta. It's a four movement symphony full of the peculiar stylistic traits that occur throughout his music like short enigmatic phrases, unique modernist harmonies and occasional stretches of surprisingly romantic music. The orchestra gave a precise and detailed reading of this complex and varied work. In particular, there was some beautifully nuanced playing from Principal Trumpet Michael Fedyshyn.

There was a good crowd for this concert although the Great Hall was hardly sold out. I encourage Hamiltonians to get out and support this first rate orchestra and keep it in the black.

Many try to consume local food and I hope you also consume, at least some, local culture. After spending more than two hours in the car and paying more than $20 for parking earlier in the week in order to see Un Ballo in Maschera in Toronto, last night I parked for free and was in the car for little more than 20 minutes all told and I don't live downtown!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

COC Masked Ball at Four Seasons Centre

We attended the current COC production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera Tuesday evening at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. Nothing like a great Italian opera to warm a chilly Ontario evening. Lovely theatre, a promising cast, a full house. What could possibly go wrong?

So far as the music was concerned, nothing much. All of the principal singers were as good as you'd get in any major opera house. The orchestra, under Maestro Stephen Lord, played excellently and Sandra Horst's chorus were first-rate once more.

The combination of Barbara Ehnes set design and Jossi Wieler's stage direction, however, resulted in a bizarre night at the opera.

All three acts were played in what pretends to be the ballroom of a Southern American hotel in the 1960s but looks more like a garish snack bar in a bus terminal. The same set serves all three acts. It is the witch Ulrica's cave only by moving the furniture about and, with the addition of a couple of dangling lynched corpses, it serves as the gallow's field as well.

The action has been transplanted to the American South. The direction alters numerous elements of the opera as it would be performed in a traditional production including lots of silly or distracting stage business. Conte Riccardo and Renato are best buds complete with a "cool" hand slapping handshake. Oscar (a young man in Somma's libretto) is transformed into a flirty young woman who, in Act Three, is costumed in a version of Björk's notorious Swan Dress.

Björk is not in this production

The cast includes a mute woman in Jackie Kennedy-esque dress, complete with pillbox hat. She's Riccardo's invented wife but, not having read the director's notes, I spent most of the opera musing on who she might be and what she was doing in this opera. When the men "disguise" themselves to visit Ulrica they take off their jackets and ties and roll up their trousers to their knees. In the ballroom cum gallow's field scene, everyone is in their pyjamas or nightwear. The blind Ulrica turns up, with an open bottle of spirits, at the masked ball with her sight miraculously restored.

American tenor Dimitri Pittas was a bright-voiced Ricardo. He sang well but was tiring by the solo aria Ma Se m'é forza perderti when there was some insecurity in his high notes. The idea that misfortune is more grievous when it befalls those of high estate is integral to tragedy. In this production Ricardo may be rich and powerful but, on account of the direction, including some cringe-worthy buffoonery, and his aspiration to betray his wife, he lacks nobility. This weakens the drama.

Roland Wood was a vocally excellent Renato and dramatically convincing within the confines of this production. His singing of Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima was very impressive and his sound sometimes reminded me of Louis Quilico. (Sorry to those of you for whom this is sacrilege.)

Gregory Dahl capably portrayed a one-armed Silvano.  Giovanni Battista Parodi and Evan Boyer were entertaining and vocally perfect as the conspirators Tom and Samuel.

Simone Osborne shone as Oscar. She made the transformation of this role from young man to young woman work. She sang beautifully in both arias and demonstrated lots more juice in the ensembles than most soubrettes who sing this role. I found the amount of silly stage business she was required to do while other characters ought to have been the centre of the audiences attention distracting, but that's hardly her fault. I heard her last as Gilda in Rigoletto and she proved last night that she is a versatile actress as well as a fine singer.

Adrianne Pieczonka was breathtaking. Amelia is the only one who is allowed to be a tragic character in this production and the soprano was a startling contrast to everyone else on stage in spite of having to play most of the show in pyjamas and a robe. She managed to be believable in the midst of the absurd set and staging. This is her first outing in this role and she really did sing magnificently. It seemed that she never had to sing louder than mezzo-forte to get it done while some other singers competed with the orchestra. Her pianissimo singing was chilling.

Adrianne Pieczonka elegant even in pyjamas.

It is my contention that if a work of art requires explanation from another medium to be understood, it lessens its import. Art works ought to be able to be fully comprehended on their own terms without justification. This production requires the audience to have read the Director's Notes for it to make the effect the director intends and, even at that, it didn't work for me. 

Much of what unfolded on stage last night simply didn't ring true. Perhaps it worked better in Europe, where the production originated, where America is much more foreign than it is here and the incongruities might be less obvious...

You can't fault the COC for trying to be innovative and keep up with current trends in opera at other major international houses. However, I'm not inclined to spend big bucks to see "contemporary reinterpretations" that are as far off the mark as this one. I'll think hard about attending any Robert Carsen directed shows having been so disappointed in the bland production of Orpheo ed Euridice in 2011. I guess I'll add Jossi Wieler and make a list.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Desolation of Tolkien

Yesterday afternoon I sat through The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second instalment of Peter Jackson's elaborate adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. This Composer's Notebook post isn't about Howard Shore's score and I say sat through because the film, like the book, is episodic and I had no idea how much of the story I would be treated to before it ended.

This was complicated by additions to the plot (whether originating with the creative team or inferred from other Tolkien works I can't say) which postponed the inevitable destruction of Laketown by Smaug, the Dragon, until this time next year.

I'm not crazy about the book. I read the LOTR in my late teens and have re-read it a couple of times. But I first read the Hobbit aloud to a class of 11 year olds. I subsequently read it aloud to children perhaps a half dozen times. It's not an ideal Read-Aloud novel. It's overly long and wordy. But, because most of the characters are male, because it is a fantasy adventure and because it is so easy for boys to identify with the protagonist, it engages them in a way that most other books can't. It has mature world view, and literary and artistic merit. Reading such a book aloud to children was a way to share these values with my students.

Many of the criticisms of the first film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey were made precisely because the movie was much like the first part of the book. The book is a short epic and a picaresque adventure besides. It goes on for 365 pages of small type in paperback. Both film and book take some time to get going, even drag a bit. But the first part of the book is only the set-up and was never intended (as critics thought the film was) to stand on its own.

I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug less than the first movie because it's so unlike the novel. Characters are added like Tauriel, a female elf warrior, for example, who, armed with a bow, reminded me of the publicity shots of The Hunger Games.

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

There are orc battles, reminiscent of the LOTR movies. At one point, as Legolas bounced across a raging river, slaying orcs as he went, the viewer might easily be watching a video game. Legolas, incidentally, isn't a character in Tolkien's The Hobbit. He's introduced in the LOTR.

Orlando Bloom as Legolas

This time, Jackson has turned The Hobbit into another fantasy-action film, much like any other fantasy-action film.

It's one thing to write an original story, with an original setting and characters, as James Cameron did with Avatar, and quite another to take an established literary classic like The Hobbit and alter it so much that it hardly resembles its source beyond the broad plot outline.

It's what happened to the James Bond novels after the first two films. By the end of the sixties only the books' titles and Bond himself remained in the films.

Sir Thomas Sean Connery as James Bond

In the case of The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, it's my opinion that it's really too bad, but I will go back and see the end of the story at this time next year, as will millions of other paying customers. This film is, after all, commercial art.