Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mozart at the HPO

Recently, I had a phone call from the Hamilton Philharmonic enquiring why I had subscribed to fewer concerts this season than last. I explained that the season was very heavy on pops concerts, and I prefer to attend concerts of real orchestral fare. The caller seemed satisfied. Perhaps this was not the first time she had heard this explanation.

Having said that, I am pleased not to have the job of programming orchestral concerts in this market. There’s a segment of the audience, young concert goers and, perhaps, occasional ones, and regular but conservative ones who would be happy to hear the same standard 19th C. works over and over again, and will shell out for pops concerts, of whatever ilk. 

There are otherwise more discriminating concert goers (you may substitute a more disparaging descriptor) like me who really don’t want to hear the 1812 Overture or Beethoven’s Fifth again, concerts of operatic bleeding-chunks or orchestrally accompanied pop songs.

Programming for such diverse potential audiences must be a nightmare but, sometimes, all’s well that ends well.

We went last night (Sat. Nov. 29) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic play an all-Mozart concert under the baton of Ivars Taurins.

The framing works were familiar ones; the Overture to Abduction from the Seraglio and the Symphony #40 in G Minor. It was the middle one which brought me to the concert, the Sinfonia Concertante in Eb for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. It’s a work which I had never encountered before in concert or recording.

Whatever misgivings I had before hearing two very familiar pieces, no part of this concert was disappointing.

The Abduction Overture is one of Mozart’s shorter opera overtures. It is largely composed of melodic material that actually occurs later in the singspiel, like a Broadway overture. It features tympani and three percussionists who contribute the Turkish flavour that was so in vogue at the end of the 18th C.

The orchestra gave an exciting performance of the work and it was an ideal opener.

The Sinfonia Concertante is, at about 30 minutes, as long as the symphony which comprised the entire second half of the concert. It featured as soloists HPO Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski and Principal Violist Chau Luk. The orchestra was reduced to 18 strings and a pair each of horns and oboes very like the orchestras of most of the Haydn symphonies.

It is a delightful piece and one can actually hear the difference in style of a work which was intended for a Paris orchestra and audience rather than Viennese ones. Taurins described it as a duet between soprano and alto voices but much of the imitative interplay between the soloists was at the octave so it was, to my ear, more like the soprano and tenor duets from the operas, like those between Constanze and Belmonte for example.

The soloists played beautifully and there was a nice sense of interplay between them. The violin projects better than the viola in this context, a consequence of register and acoustics rather than the actual volume the instruments produce, so the viola was sometimes harder to pick out of the texture than the violin. The soloists play elaborated versions of materials which are introduced in orchestral tuttis and I was impressed to see the basses playing sixteenth note passages in unison with the cellos at the same pace as the soloists.

Sitarski and Luk returned to their places in the orchestra for the second half Symphony. Taurins’ tempos are brisk. I don’t recall hearing the third movement Minuet played as quickly, with a contrasting slower tempo in the trio. He brings almost exaggerated dynamic contrasts and obviously strives to highlight important lines in the inner voices.

This conductor dances around and gestures more than we usually see at the HPO whether for his benefit, that of the players or of the audience I can’t say, but he was certainly effective. He attempted to conduct the symphony with only a little break between the movements and, even though he gestured to the audience, some insisted on applauding after each movement, even the slow one.  He also, alas, likes to talk.

It was, altogether, a very satisfying concert.

For my Hamilton readers, we have a very good professional orchestra and, as I keep hearing, much better than one would expect for a market this size. The Hamilton Place Great Hall is an excellent concert space. As noted above, many of their concert offerings are approachable to those who aren’t usually orchestral concert goers. Tickets start at only $10.00. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

La Traviata at the COC

We attended the Canadian Opera Company performance of Verdi’s La Traviata on Wednesday (Oct. 21) evening at the Four Season Centre in Toronto. We saw the First Cast including Russian soprano Ekaterina Siurina, American tenor Charles Castronovo, and his countryman baritone Quinn Kelsey.

It was an ultimately successful performance although hardly without its faults, vocal and dramatic.

I have a long personal history with this opera having performed bits of Alfredo in concert, sung in the COC chorus in two different productions, witnessed several other performances as an audience member, and then prepared and conducted a bowdlerized version with children (!) singing some of the solo music and choruses. For all that I never understood what an unhappy and finally cathartic story this is until seeing this production.

La Traviata literally means “the lost woman”, but might more properly be translated as “the fallen woman” and, as was made clear through this Arin Arbus directed production, Violetta Valery is doomed from the opening curtain both by her moral turpitude and her failing health. In spite of living the high life of a Parisian courtesan, she is friendless and without family. When she moves out of Paris to live, in sin, with young Alfredo Germont, his father finds them and pleads with her to shame his family no further. She agrees and leaves Alfredo without telling him why. Back in Paris, he humiliates her and himself in public and in the presence of his father. Finally, after the misunderstandings are cleared up and all is forgiven, within minutes of her lover’s return, she dies.

Ekaterina Siurina has made a career of lighter soprano roles (i.e. Susanna, Gilda) than this one. Her first act was surprisingly under-sung and even dramatically under-involved. None of her high notes rang in the hall. She was sometimes covered by the orchestra even though the conductor kept them down. The Sempre Libera must be sung with abandon and wasn’t. With a lighter voice I expected the interpolated Eb at the end, but she didn’t sing it. 

Elkaterina Siurina

At the time, I feared she simply hadn’t the voice to sing this role. It was pleasant, but not convincing. But by the end of the performance it was clear she was simply being too careful. The role of Violetta gets progressively more dramatic as the opera goes on and the most dramatic singing is near the end, three hours on. Beginning in the second act she was much better, dramatically and vocally, and assuredly communicated Violetta’s suffering. She is going to have to figure out how to bring that intensity to all three acts.

Her real life husband, tenor Charles Castronovo is more baritonal and mature sounding than most Alfredos. He simply overwhelmed Siurina, at times, in their first act duet. In later acts, their voices matched much better. This production includes the usually-cut cabaletta following a fine rendition of Dei Miei Bollenti Spiriti and he sang it beautifully except for an ill-advised final high C.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey has the right voice for Germont. He has ringing high notes and the gravitas necessary to bring off the role. He sang a lovely Di Provenza il mar and the following cabaletta which I had never heard before. He does have some inconsistency in his sound, holding some shorter notes without vibrato, then releasing and opening on the longer ones. This was less evident later in there opera, presumably when he was better warmed-up.

Smaller roles were capably handled by James Westman (Baron Douphol) who sings Germont in the other cast, Lauren Segal (Flora), Charles Sy (Gastone), Aviva Fortunata (Annina), Robert Gleadow (Dr. Grenvil).

Second Act Party Scene

Marco Guidarini conducted the big orchestra (including a cimbasso) which was was excellent as usual as was Sandra Horst’s chorus. There were some dancers in the Gypsy and Matador scene and I have no idea what relationship their performance had to the singing. There must had been a sub-text to which we were not privy.

This very traditional production is beautiful and a fine musical rendering of Verdi’s masterfully dramatic score. It convincingly conveyed the pathos of Violetta’s character and situation. I recommend it.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Vox Metropolis and Buster Keaton

in Hamilton last spring, Vox Metropolis presented their newly composed soundtrack to Sherlock Jr., while the 1924 Buster Keaton film played and a short second half of varied repertoire.

I missed that one, so I went Saturday (Oct. 4) to Maple Grove United Church in Oakville to hear another presentation of a similar program.The Hamilton based classical and crossover trio group, composed of pianist David Jones, flautist Sara Traficante and cellist Kirk Starkey, are in the midst of a Southern Ontario tour. They are all multi-instrumentalists.

Buster Keaton was an actor/director who made a series of very successful silent comedic films in the 1920s of which Sherlock Jr. is one. This movie is short on plot but filled with truly amazing stunts and effects. Keaton conceived, planned and executed all of his own stunts, many of them truly death defying. It’s amazing he survived. He fractured his neck doing one of the stunts in Sherlock Jr. and, apparently didn’t notice.

Silent films were originally accompanied by a pianist or organist who watched the screen and played music from a standard set of memorized  pieces whose mood fit the action. Sometimes music was improvised to suit the scene.

Modern film scores are composed after the movie has been cut, that is when it is nearly finished. This score is of the modern sort.

The music, by David Jones, is as ecclectic as any piece you are likely to hear. It ranges from ascending passages of diminished seventh chords, exactly as you might have heard from a theatre pianist or organist 90 years ago, to an original waltz tune, some very jazzy passages, a nod to musical modernism with some quartal harmony, all neatly stiched together into a coherent whole.

There was considerable “Mickey Mouse-ing”, the technique in which the music moves in sync with the action on the screen. Anyone who has every watched Wile E. Coyote and The Roadrunner will know what I mean. 

Jones played piano and two different organs. Starkey played cello and guitar. Traficante played flute and performed the sound effects (train whistles, for example), although she plays alto saxophone in another of their concerts. All of this added variety to the texture.

You are not usually intended to be aware of movie music. It plays in the background and supports the film. This is a little different with the performers in plain view in front of the film. I’ll admit to losing track of the music sometimes while laughing at Keaton, but that’s what is supposed to happen with film music.

The second half started with a two movement Haydn trio. The music took off at breakneck speed and I was reminded of what accomplished performers these three musicians are. Each played briliantly in the familiar idiom of the European International Style which was ubiquitous in the second half of the 18th century.

They followed with Jones’ arrangement of Over the Rainbow, more properly a jazz fantasy. What a beautiful piece it is, taking this familiar, simple song and turning it on its head through changing metres and variation!

They finished the concert with a transcription/arrangement of Chick Correa’s Spain. Jones displayed his awesome jazz credentials, Starkey and Traficante keeping pace. The latter encouraged the audience to sing back the pianist’s phrases in the last section, involving everyone in the performance.

Vox Metropolis keeps innovating in yet another genre, pop music. You can hear them in this video accompanying Yer Yard, in Tunnel to the Reservoir.

I’d encourage readers to find the trio on Facebook and get out to hear them (and watch a film) when they come to a venue near you. Bring your kids.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Chopin and Beethoven at the HPO

We went to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s inaugural concert of the new season on Saturday evening (Sept. 19, 2015) in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place. 

The program was in keeping with the seemingly standard form of symphony concerts hereabouts: a short Canadian work, a concerto featuring a well-known soloist and an 18th or 19th Century symphony.

On this occasion the Canadian work would be Robert Rival’s Spring. Concerto soloist Janina Fialkowska would play the Chopin Concerto No. 1. The orchestra would play Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony in the second half.

Rival was the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence from 2011 to 2014. He holds a Doctorate in Composition from the University of Toronto and is presently on the faculty of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Spring, a short work for string orchestra, was written for the Ottawa Youth Orchestra in which the composer used to play violin. Rival writes in a very approachable tonal style. The opening motive even recurs as the subject of a fugue in the first section of the work. Spring was an unusual choice to open one of these concerts, which usually start with lots of brass and percussion, but it is an effective work by a composer who writes capably and idiomatically for strings.

Pianist Janina Fiaklowska, an Officer of the Order of Canada, daughter of a Montréalaise mother and a Polish father, has an illustrious professional career now stretching back through 40 years. She played with the Montréal Symphony at the age of 12 and won the first Arthur Rubinstein Master Piano Competition in 1974 which launched her professional career with Rubinstein himself as her mentor.

Through her long association with Chopin’s music, she must have performed this concerto dozens of times and that was in evident during this concert. She manages to make the long, running, chromatic scale passages that punctuate the phrases sing like coloratura. Her use of rubato is masterful and the clear, ringing passages of thirds, not to mention the extraordinary double trills, reflect a remarkable technique. By the energetic third movement rondo she was clearly enjoying herself. This was a fine opportunity to hear this unique performer.

The balance was sometimes off, the orchestra rendering the left-hand of the piano inaudible from where I was sitting. The orchestral tuttis are pretty bombastic compared to the lyricism and sophistication of the piano passages but that’s just Chopin, who wrote no other orchestral music than that of the two piano concertos. 

After the intermission the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. The even numbered symphonies are, on the whole, less dramatic than the odd numbered ones and are, consequently, less often performed. This is a pretty sunny piece.

The conductor for this concert, Bernhard Gueller, has been the Artistic Director and principal conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia since 1992. He had previously been the conductor of the Cape Town Philharmonic and the Nuremberg Symphony.

It was a spirited performance but not a very convincing one. The orchestra played the piece well enough. The dynamic contrasts were there as were the written articulations. The mood was pretty much the same throughout, however. The orchestra began a heavily accented dance after the slow, mysterious introduction to the first movement and carried on with it through the entire symphony, including even the slow movement. It was unrelievedly of one colour, lacking nuance, and might even have been boring if it hadn’t been Beethoven.

The four principal woodwind players stood out. Bassoonist Eric Hall and clarinetist Stephen Pierre were outstanding.

There are eight concerts left in the HPO’s 2015-16 season. Of particular interest, the orchestra’s new conductor, Gemma New, leads the orchestra in the Shostakovich First Symphony and the Third Prokoviev Piano Concerto on Feb. 6, 2015.

Hamiltonian popular musician Ian Thomas joins the orchestra for A Life in Song on October 17.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Brott Festival Grand Finale.

I went last night (Thurs. Aug. 14) to hear the National Academy Orchestra, Festival Choir and soloists, all under the baton on Boris Brott and his apprentice conductor Janna Sailor, perform Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana at the McIntyre Theatre at the Fennel Campus of Mohawk College.

It was an impressive performance by any standard. The Orff, however familiar to choral music fans, is a blockbuster piece. Brott was mentored by Bernstein, serving an assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, so he has unique ties to that master and his music.

Maestro Boris Brott
They opened with the Bernstein which is only about twenty minutes in length. This meant that even after Jaqui Templeton-Muir's long introduction the audience were out in the lobby for the intermission only 35 minutes after the lights went down.

I'd never had the opportunity to hear the orchestral version of this piece. Bernstein made a version with a much reduced orchestration so he obviously felt the choral and solo vocal parts were strong enough to stand without a big orchestra. I had, however, heard the Chichester Psalms recently, in a much more modest presentation accompanied by piano and a percussionist.

With the full orchestra we get the full flavour of the Bernstein of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and Candide, which is to say lush, full and rhythmic. In this version the instrumentalists are full partners with the choir, not merely an accompaniment. It really is a lovely piece which includes sections which are both very uplifting and meditative as suits the texts of the six Hebrew psalms on which it is based. The orchestra includes two harps which are central to the orchestration.

Stephane Potvin's chorus (an amalgamation of the Arkady Singers and the ad hoc Festival Chorus) were well rehearsed and better than simply competent throughout the concert. The balance between the 75 voices and the orchestra was problematic, though, with the orchestra frequently overwhelming the singers in spite of the improvised sound baffles over their heads. I suspect this had more to do with the acoustics of the stage rather than any lack of volume on their part and that there was nothing that could be done about it and, frankly, there was no room for more choristers even if they had had them. Most of the sopranos straighted out their tone and stood in for the children's choir in the Carmina.

To my surprise, soprano Lesley Fagan sang the 23rd Psalm solo. Bernstein intended it for a treble or a countertenor reasoning that David, the supposed author, was a man, expressing male sentiments. Brott said in the program that if Bernstein had heard Fagan he'd have approved. I never met Berstein, but I'm not so sure.

Lesley Fagan

I wouldn't usually mention concert attire, but she wore a dark ladies' suit, not unisex, but not a gown either. She sang tastefully and restrainedly as the music requires and probably more musically than any child could do. My impression (of course prejudiced by the composer's intentions) was that it was like listening to someone play a piece on one instrument that was intended for another, like a clarinet playing an oboe sonata. It can be beautiful, musical and immaculately interpreted and still not be quite right.

The work ends quietly after a short passage of unaccompanied choral singing and there was an intangible sense of peace in the hall before the applause. Very nice, touching even.

After the break there was more talk as the organizers and Brott presented awards to two of the orchestral apprentices and we finally arrived at the Carmina Burana. For those unaware, the orchestra includes two pianists and a half-dozen percussionists in addition to a full Romantic orchestra, a big chorus (necessary to balance all the sound from the instruments) and solos for soprano, tenor and baritone.

From the powerful opening O Fortuna it was clear that the participants were "all in" and we were to hear an exciting and enthusiastic rendition of the piece.

As much as there is to like about the Carmina Burana, it does have musical limitations. The choral writing is relatively simple with lots of unison singing and no true polyphony to speak of. The texts are strophic (i.e. verses) and there is a great deal of literal repetition, repetition with some orchestral embellishment or repeated statements, louder and more involved each time. That's nothing to do with the performance, that's just the piece Orff wrote.

Apprentice conductor Janna Sailor conducted the first section, ten numbers, and did pretty well except for a passage (repeated, of course) in the Ecce gratum, where she attempted to accelerate and only some of the chorus followed her resulting in a bit of a mess from which they quickly recovered.

Janna Sailor

The soloists were all very good. Baritone Cairan Ryan coped admirably with a part which is sometimes allotted to two different singers  He was expressive when it was called for and did some fine full-throated singing especially at the top of his voice.

Cairan Ryan

We're all spoiled by recordings and I would rather hear a darker, more heroic sound in this baritone part. There can't be many men that can sing it like that and they probably all have international careers.

Bud Roach sang the Roasting Swan and made the most of his short part. Few will be aware that Orff intended the Carmina Burana to be costumed and staged with dancers. It is thus appropriate that Roach acted out the song of a swan, spitted and roasting on an open fire, and not too pleased about it. In a very funny bit of business he carried, not the full piano reduction that the others had, but a tiny black book, to which he occasionally referred although he'd certainly memorized his three stanzas he had to sing. I don't know who Orff wrote this part for but it is very high causing whomever is singing it to exaggerate or strain to reach the top notes. Roach, a very light tenor, moved seamlessly from head voice to reinforced falsetto and came close to what I surmise the composer was after.

Bud Roach

Lesley Fagan had returned in a multi-coloured gown for the Carmina. She's an awfully good concert performer with an international career and demonstrated that in her singing last night.

Most of the soprano part is in the middle voice and is more challenging interpretatively than it is vocally since she is called upon to sing the same music several times. The soloist is judged, however, on a very short, almost unaccompanied passage at the end, the Dulcissime, in which she has to sing a high C# out of nowhere and then sing a passage of high, quiet coloratura. She nailed it.

So the Brott Summer Music Festival is done for another year and I mourn its passing. Tickets are getting more expensive but it is still a deal for exceptionally good music making. The hall was packed last night and the audience seemed to enjoy the show giving it the mandatory Standing O and keeping up the applause for longer than I can remember. Yeah, Boris!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Music of the Americas at the Brott Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay Deutsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Brott does The Barber of Seville

I went Thursday night (July 23) to see and hear Rossini’s comic masterpiece, Il Barbiere di Siviglia as part of the Brott Music Festival in the McIntyre Theatre at Mohawk College Fennel Campus.

I’d seen them do opera before, Aida two years ago, but that show was made up of excerpts and a narrator. This was to be presented with action and in costume but in front of the orchestra, thus without a set. This seemed like a reasonable compromise, certainly better than a concert performance. None the less, I was curious to see what sort of choices director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer would make.

I’ve always had difficulty reconciling Rossini’s Il Barbiere and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Il Barbiere, written later, is a prequel. Le Nozze is a continuation of the same story with some of the self-same characters that appear in Il Barbiere some ten years later in the plot. The vivacious, self-possessed Rosina from l Barbiere morphs into the tragic Contessa in the Mozart opera. To me, these two woman are not believably the same person at different stages of her life.

The explanation is relatively simple. Both operas are based upon Beaumarchais’s satirical late 18th C. French plays. Le Nozze is largely concerned with the relationships between nobles and their servants. Librettist da Ponte stays very close to the original French in his singable Italian text. This is something I discovered when I was preparing an English translation of some Le Nozze for a chldren’s show, comparing the libretto and the play. In Il Barbiere, Rossini’s librettist, Cesare Stervini, takes Beaumarchais’s premise and populates it with sterotypical Commedia dell’arte characters: Dr. Bartolo, the lecherous old man, Rosina, the bright, scheming soubrette and so forth.

So the characters in Mozart’s opera, like those in Beaumarchais’s plays, seem like real flesh and blood people whereas those in Il Barbiere don’t and were never intended to.

Incidentally, Il Barbiere was and Le Nozze would be good choices for Brott Opera’s purposes. While they are part of the standard repertoire of opera houses they are also frequently presented in opera studio and opera school settings both in complete performances and in excerpts. The arias are party pieces of many advanced students.

All in all, it was a remarkably satisfying evening. They started promptly at 7:30 and, even with one intermission, were done by about 9:45. The full COC production last year ran two hours and fifty-five minutes. So I wouldn’t even have been in car for the drive home until after 11.

The orchestra gave a stirring performance of the familiar overture and the presence of a full orchestra made a big difference in the overall effect of the performance. When I last saw the opera performed by Opera Hamilton at Theatre Aquarius it was with a seriously reduced orchestration.

In spite of not being in a pit, the orchestra never covered the soloists. When the 16 male choristers, standing behind the orchestra, joined the other players in the two acts finales they all certainly made a big, impressive sound.

The staging was entirely fitting given that there was no balcony for Lindoro to sing to, no ladder or staircase to climb and little furniture to toss about or fall over. There was appropriate staging and business, a little movement in time to the music and there were the usual pranks and sight gags. At one point, for example, the long suffering Berta, who has been offering drinks from a tray to no avail, has been ignored by all the other characters, stood alone at centre-stage. She looked perplexed for a moment and then sneezed on the glasses. It got a good laugh from the audience.

The singers were uniformly good both in singing and acting. On the opera-singing-food-chain, they are all one step below those who performed in the aforementioned Opera Hamilton performance but the show didn’t suffer for that.

Christopher Dunham was a charming Figaro, singing a spirited Largo al Factotum to begin the first act. He sang and acted the role with ease and confidence and, as Figaro must, he carried the show. He also actually played the guitar on-stage for Almaviva’s second aubade, and skillfully I may add.

Tenor David Menzies was a bright voiced Lindoro/Almaviva. His coloratura singing was clean and tasteful, his acting convincing. I was disappointed that he didn’t interpolate any extra high notes into his aria as is usually done. 

Jeremy Ludwig sang Doctor Bartolo, portraying him as a not-very-old fellow with respiratory problems. I found this an odd directorial choice. Usually, Rosina doesn’t want to marry him because he’s a creepy old man. In this case she doesn’t want to marry him because he’s a creepy, sick man. Ludwig sang the part well and did some very funny falsetto vocalizing in the singing lesson scene. 

Mezzo Charlotte Burrage was an understated but, ultimately, convincing Rosina. Immediately after the frenzied duet between Figaro and the Count, Rosina must make her first entrance and match their intensity in her celebrated aria, Una Voce Poco Fa. Burrage didn’t really do that. Her singing, however, grew stronger as the performance went on. On the other hand, she possess a lovely, lighter mezzo voice which is a better match for the lyric tenor with whom she so often sings than a more dramatic mezzo would be.

Baritone Keith Lam sang the duplicitous Basilio nicely and displayed a flair for physical comedy that kept him in the spotlight throughout his scenes.

Soprano Hélène Brunet stepped up, demonstrating a strong voice and comic sense in an entertaining rendition of Berta’s woebegone aria which separates the major scenes of the second act.

Baritone Aaron Durand capably sang Fiorello in the opening and the Police Officer in the two finales.  I look forward to hearing him again in a more substantial part.

Next season Brott Opera will present an opera highlights concert, as they did last week, and then the orchestra will move into the pit of the McIntyre Theatre for a performance of what is, perhaps, the greatest opera of them all, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Brott and the Academy Orchestra last performed it in a concert performance in 2004.

Like Il Barbiere and Le Nozze di Figaro, it is sometimes taken on in school and studio productions so it’s a good fit and young singers can tackle it successfully. You do need two outstanding bass baritones and a couple of very capable sopranos. Maestro Brott told the audience Thursday night that no fewer than 150 singers had auditioned for Il Barbiere in New York and Montréal so I have no doubt they will be able to find young Canadian opera performers who are up to the challenge.

The Brott Festival moves back into orchestral music next week with Music of the Americas including Violinist Lindsay Deutsch playing John William’s beautiful Suite from Schindler’s List.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Berlioz etc. at the Brott Festival

We made the seven-minute drive to the McIntyre Theatre at the Mohawk College Fennel Campus yesterday evening (July 10) to hear the National Academy Orchestra, under Boris Brott and apprentice conductor Janna Sailor.

The program included the incomparable Valerie Tryon playing Rachmaninoff's rarely heard First Piano Concerto and, for lovers of the standard orchestral repertoire, Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

The hall was almost full in marked contrast to their Bruckner concert which I attended three weeks ago at the Burlington Centre for the Arts. Valerie Tryon is always a big draw for Brott Festival patrons but these Hamilton concerts are generally well attended.

They opened with Jordan Pal's Burn. Pal is an established Canadian composer, the Composer-in-Residence of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, and has had works played by the Montréal, NAC and Vancouver Symphonies. This piece, rather like an overture, was marked by complex rhythms, numerous motives and very busy textures. If the piece gave the impression of being overly complex, it was in the nature of the composition rather than any fault of the conductor or performers. For all that, I found the piece relatively accessible (when compared to other works of New Music for Orchestra). I must again commend Maestro Brott for his commitment to promoting Canadian composers and new music.

I didn't think I'd ever have the opportunity to hear the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto in a live performance. He wrote it when he was 18 and revised it after he'd written his Third Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff loved it and couldn't understand why it wasn't much played. On the other hand, his Second and Third Concertos, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini are standard fare for pianists who can play them.

The work displays the pianistic pyrotechnics of his later music (he even simplified the piano writing when he revised it) but the musical ideas are those of a younger genius and virtuoso. He wasn't yet writing the long, ascending lyric phrases of his mature works. One can understand why the piece isn't nearly as popular as his later concerti.

Rachmaninoff was a large man with huge hands. Many who play his piano music employ considerable physical force in the numerous forte passages. Tryon's approach is more nuanced. She can bring the big crashing chords out of the piano when she chooses to but there is delicacy in her approach to playing all those notes that sometimes surprises.

As usual in a Brott/Tryon performance, the finale brought down the house.

After the break, the orchestra played Berlioz's Symphony Fantastique.

Berlioz was a brilliant orchestrator and very much into effects. He calls for four bassoons (as he does in Romeo and Juliet). One doesn't hear bassoon quartets very often. There are two tubas in addition to four trumpets and the standard three trombones and five horns. The opening of the slow movement is a dialogue between two oboes, one off-stage. There are two tympanists. I was concerned that all those wind players would overpower the strings of about the same number. But such wasn't that case. Much of the orchestration is surprisingly spare and the composer skillfully balances the forces.

I must confess to never having understood the popularity of this piece with audiences. It's more like a suite than a symphony. The first and third movements seem to meander. The second movement is a waltz which at least has a more apparent form. The fourth is the famous March to the Scaffold, the finale the Witches' Sabbath including statements of the plainsong Dies Irae. Premiered in 1830, it is early Romantic Period music, much more like Beethoven than anything else that comes to mind, but not a lot like him either. Berlioz voice is utterly unique. A Frenchman writing Germanic sounding music.

Janna Sailor took the orchestra through the first two movements. The first movement is, by its nature, bitty and shapeless but she got them through it without incident. She managed the rubato phrases in the second movement very nicely.

Brott took over for the last three movements. The March was appropriately stirring, the slow movement atmospheric and the finale impressive right up to the sustained brass chord that ends the work. Kudos to all the brass players who shone last night as they had in the Bruckner.

There was some very fine clarinet playing of very high and demanding parts by Juan Olivares. The exposed oboe parts were convincingly played by Aidan Dugan and Olivier Cowley.

There are lots more concerts in the Brott Festival program this year including popular ones and opera. Here's the link. The remaining purely orchestral concert is on July 30 and includes John Williams's Suite from Schindler's List, selections from Porgy and Bess (Gershwin), Ginastera's Estancia, the Dancon Suite No. 2 and a movement from Alexander Brott's From Sea to Sea.

They finish up on August 13 with Bernstein's Chichester Psalms and Orff's Carmina Burana.

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

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Songwriters: Jimmy Webb

The Sixties were a different time in the music industry. Radio play was still the only way artists became widely known. Top 40 stations still played music from a variety of genres. You could hear pop, commercial rock, Rhythm and Blues, and Middle of the Road artists one after another on the same station although some genres, like Country and Western, weren’t there yet.

I remember two songs in particular, both from one-hit-wonder bands, three years apart. I don’t suppose I shared this with anyone at the time as they are both rather sappy pop songs. One was a silly folky tune called Red Rubber Ball by The Cyrcle. The other was an overblown ballad called The Worst That Could Happen and it was recorded by Brooklyn Bridge. It's worth watching even a bit of the later song just for the outfits.

While doing some song writing study last week I discovered that The Worst That Could Happen was written by Jimmy Webb and was, in fact, a cover of a Fifth Dimension song. Incidentally, Red Rubber Ball was written by none other than Paul Simon with Bruce Woodly of The Seekers. The Seekers recorded Georgy Girl, the theme song from the British movie which made Lynn Redgrave a star.

I already knew and liked songs by Webb and Simon and, it seems, I was able to identify songs that I didn't know were theirs, recorded by relatively obscure artists.

In 2012, Webb was named President of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, recognition, by his peers, of a long and notable career. He replaced Hal David, Burt Bacharach’s lyricist. (If you don’t know who they are let me know; I’ll get to them in another post.)

Webb grew up in the rural South, son of a church pastor. By the time he was twelve he was playing piano in his father’s church where his mother played accordion and his father guitar. The only music allowed on their radio at home were Country and Western and White Gospel. When he was fifteen he bought his first record, Turn Around, Look at Me by his favourite singer, Glen Campbell.

His parents recognized his extraordinary talent and, when it was time for him to study music at college, his entire family relocated to Los Angeles. When his mother died, his father moved back to Arkansas but Jimmy Webb stayed in LA, eventually signing a song-writing contract with Johnny Rivers. Rivers, himself, recorded By the Time I Get to Phoenix in 1966.

Rivers was producing a vocal group, The 5th Dimension, for his own label. Five of Webb’s songs were included in their debut album Up, Up and Away including the title track. Guitarist Rivers and pianist Webb both played on the recording. Up, Up and Away is the exemplar of the sub-genre Sunshine Pop and won Grammys for Best Song and Recording of the Year in 1968.

Glen Campbell recorded By the Time I Get to Phoenix in 1967. It was an enormous Country Music hit and crossed over to the pop charts. It is among the most often recorded songs of the late 20th century. Even Frank Sinatra had a go at it.

When you see Campbell in some of the television clips, it’s easy to be dismissive of the fancy cowboy get-up and overblown musical arrangements. But he was a legitimate musician and originally made his living as a session guitarist. He played on dozens of recordings in the late 50s and early 60s. He was on all the Jan and Dean surf songs. He toured with the Beach Boys (playing bass and singing the high harmonies). He’s even on Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night.
He also had his own TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, as a result of his success on the Smothers Brothers show.

Jimmy Webb went on to have a long professional relationship with Glen Campbell who, you will remember, was already Webb’s favourite singer when Webb was at teen. Webb himself has since recorded more than a half dozen albums, some of which feature as guests many famous County Music artists.

As his early success with The 5th Dimension illustrates he was able to write successfully in other genres as well.

The wonderfully quirky MacArthur Park is perhaps the best example of this. It is an over-the-top crazy song with multiple sections and a psychedelic lyric in the chorus. It’s bombastic. The most famous recording featured actor Richard Harris, who wasn't a singer, reminding one of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. It was also recorded by Disco Queen Donna Summer.

In this Nashville Network talk show recording, Campbell sings it better than Harris and you get to hear him play guitar and not in his familiar Country and Western Style. I heard Campbell refer to it as "the greatest song ever written" on another clip, but it isn't even in the running IMHO and hasn't stood the test of time. The song may sound like a joke now, but it is well to remember that the past is a foreign land, and a strange place if you didn't live there. This applies to music and songwriter as well as anything else.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Mohawk Community Choir at St. Paul's

I went to hear the Mohawk Community Choir Sat. March 28 at St. Paul's United Church in Dundas. There were at least two local other choral concerts scheduled for the same time; A Howard Dyck-led Messiah in downtown Hamilton and Rachel Rensink-Hoff's McMaster Women's Choir on Locke St.

It is a source of frustration that we can go for weeks without any classical music events of any kind and then face the metaphysical challenge of being in two places at once. I missed last weekend's McMaster Choir concert to attend a Hamilton Philharmonic concert.

David Holler's Mohawk Community Choir (previously the Mohawk Singers, soon to be Chorus Hamilton) is a professionally-led amateur choir of about seventy-five voices.

David Holler

The important difference between this choir's concerts and that of others of a similar ilk in this region is the programming. There are no opera choruses here. Nor is there music of modern popular composers like Bob Chilcott. Mr. Holler concentrates on serious choral repertoire and programs a major piece in each concert, frequently singing in languages other than English.

The major works in last night's offering were the Ariel Ramírez's Misa Criolla and Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. He hired a percussionist (essential to the Ramírez and Bernstein) and used him in the opening number of last night's concert, Randall Thompson's The Last Words of David. This piece includes sforzando-piano singing, amongst other effects, and, with percussion accents, is an impressive curtain raiser.

They followed with Canadian Donald Patriquin's setting of the folk song Ah! Si Mon Moine. It was well performed but I prefer Harry Somer's setting.

The first half ended with the Misa Criolla. Ramírez wrote it in the early sixties, shortly after Vatican II allowed vernacular languages to be used in the Mass. He was an Argentine and includes Argentine folk song rhythms. The piece was very popular in its early years but seems dated now. Two University of Toronto undergrads, Conor Murphy and Daniel Robinson, did a fine job of the solo parts. I suspect they're both headed for a Masters and the U of T Opera School.

After a long break the choir sang Eric Whitacre's Five Hebrew Love Songs. This is not the Whitacre of Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine or Sleep. The Love Songs are earlier and more conventional for lack of a better word. They were accompanied by piano and violin and were lovely, challenging and well performed.

Eric Whitacre

They finished with the incomparable Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, also sung in Hebrew.The original version was composed for a large orchestra including two harps, solo quartet and treble singer. I watched an interview with Bernstein once in which he said that, when orchestrating, he wrote the harp parts first, then filled in the other instruments. He made a reduced version later for one harp, organ and percussion. For whatever reason, that's not what we heard last night. The percussion remained, but the harp and organ were replaced by one piano, played with extraordinary facility by Erika Reiman. There was no solo quartet and the treble solo was, against Bernsteins's express wishes, sung (very quietly) by soprano Clare MacPherson.

Leonard Bernstein

For all that, it was a very impressive performance of a piece which would challenge any choir and isn't heard very often.

The shortcomings of this group are common to most choirs of this kind and were already evident in the opening number. There are too many women for the men to balance. The soprano sound is thin and a little pinched at the top. They have difficulty with sustained singing.

Having said that, Holler is aware of these shortcomings and is working to eliminate them, which I can say with confidence having heard this group on several occasions over the past few years. The Mohawk Singers are getting better and are likely the best amateur adult choir in Greater Hamilton. They certainly sing the most challenging and interesting repertoire of any choral organization in town.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sci-fi Spectacular at the HPO

We went Sat. March 21 to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic play a concert of mostly film music from Sci-fi movies. The orchestra was under the baton of David Martin (who also played trombone) with featured trumpet soloist Larry Larson (who conducted while Martin played).

David Martin
Larry Larson

Both are accomplished soloists and this program is a partnership. Larson is, among other things, the principal trumpet of the KW Symphony. Martin played one season as first trombone of the Montréal Symphony and has a multi-faceted career which includes teaching at the Université de Montréal.

The Hollywood orchestras that record film scores are full of first-rate players who are able to produce super-accurate performances with minimal rehearsal. The original Star Wars music was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. The HPO rendered carbon copy versions of the scores and played beautifully throughout. It's especially enjoyable to hear a live performance of music which wasn't originally intended to be heard that way.

Two pieces of standard concert music were played. They began with a performance of the opening of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001: A Space Odyssey) which didn't miss the enormous orchestra and pipe organ the composer intended. They also played Mars from Holst's suite The Planets which is the source of much of the martial music film composers write.

There were two pieces not drawn from films. One was Martin's trombone rendition of When You Wish Upon a Star. He reminded us that John Williams has the orchestra plays the song in long notes at the end of E.T: The Extraterrestrial.

The second was Larry Larson's performance of an arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust lifted from Cliff Brown's 1955 album Cliff with Strings.
A bit of a stretch to get to the concert's theme but a very tasty, jazzy piece.

There was lots of John William's music on the program as you'd expect. He's a great composer. He seems to have an inexhaustible ability to imagine catchy, effective and appropriate themes. Does much of the music sound similar?Certainly, but, to the untutored ear so do many Haydn symphonies or Bach organ works. And don't forget, in addition to Star Wars and Indiana Jones he wrote the heart-rending score of Schindler's List.

They even brought Imperial Storm Troopers, Princess Leia and Darth Vader out for the Imperial March. The audience lapped it up. Me, not so much. It just distracted from the music.

An interesting choice was The Chase from Jerry Goldsmith's score to the original Planet of the Apes. It's a twelve-tone work and Martin had the cellos play a pizzicato version of the row for the audience to hear. Some of them even raised their hands when asked if they'd ever heard of Arnold Schoenberg. The piece stands up very well as a concert piece and was an effective contrast to the rest of the music, all of which was very melody driven.

Damn you! God damn you all to hell!
There was a Star Trek medley with music from the various TV series by four different composers. They also played a couple of cues from the original series. One was for a fight between Kirk and Spock and the music was reused in other episodes. Martin confessed something that confirms, in my eyes anyway, his extraordinary musical ability. The "fight" music is not available in written form at all. Martin had  faithfully transcribed the music, orchestration and all, from a recording.

That I don't have the typical listener's ear became very evident at opening of the second half. I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of TV themes but I can sing lots of those that I've heard, some from my childhood. The program told us we'd hear Marius Constant's short pieces that were used as the opening of The Twilight Zone. I knew immediately what to expect.

Apparently, many in the audience didn't. If you aren't old enough to watch TV in the Sixties that's understandable but if you were and watched TV? When the music started the buzz of recognition from audience members nearly drowned out the orchestra. Then, Martin recited Rod Serling's opening monologue so it was impossible to hear the music. Too bad.

The hall was nearly sold out last night, the biggest crowd of the season. For an orchestra struggling to build an audience, it raises a quandary. If a concert like this can be so successful, why not do it more often?

The answer is disturbingly obvious and possible intractable. The audience for pops concerts and the audience for orchestral concert music overlap, but are not identical. Straight serious music concerts don't usually draw the former. It's less clear who amongst the latter group attend pops concerts. Many people who are interested in hearing Brahm's Fourth Symphony, which the HPO will play the next time out, won't pay to hear a crossover vocalist like Basia Bulat (who has sung with the HPO) and aren't going to be tolerant of audience members who pull out their cell phones to take a photo, or talk off and on through the concert.

It'll be very, very interesting to see what the new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor will do to program the next season.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Chapman Stick

I'd hear of the Chapman Stick some time ago and was reminded of it the other day when somebody posted this video of Bob Culbertson's virtuoso performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on Facebook. I think you'll agree it's an extraordinary performance.

He demonstrates many of the possibilities of this instrument which integrates the potential for electronic instruments that were becoming available in the Seventies much as Les Paul had done with the electric guitar twenty five-years earlier.

I was interested to learn more about the purely technical aspects and abilities of the instrument. Fortunately Emmett Chapman, the instrument's inventor, is also there on YouTube. He doesn't play it nearly as well as Culbertson but his explanation is clear enough for me, at least.  

Monday, February 9, 2015

A little about composer Michael Torke

Some 25 years ago there was a controversy about a piece of New Music written in the style of Beethoven. I wasn’t listening to much recorded New Music in those pre-internet days. I was writing it and having it performed in live concerts. I never heard the piece which may be just as well since I’ve since read some of its execrable reviews. I’ve searched on-line for a recording, of even an excerpt, but to no avail.

I only realized a few days ago that the composer of that work was none other than Michael Torke. Mass (the piece that apparently sounded like Beethoven) must be one of his rare “misses” (even Beethoven missed with Wellington’s Victory) because most of his music that I have heard is extraordinary.

Torke has a unique musical voice. Whereas many New Music composers are concerned in large part with originality and distinctiveness, Torke takes, as his sources, familiar themes and textures. He then tumbles them up in structures which are not those of the styles of music from which they are drawn, resulting in pieces which are immediately engaging but not necessarily easily understood. He says that initial rehearsals of his music are very calm because the musicians see, on the page in front of them, notation and musical ideas which are familiar to them. 

Critics list his influences. Minimalism is one that I can credit, but, on the surface, Torke’s music shares very little with that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Jazz is also cited but, to my ear, his pieces have about as much to do with jazz as Stravinsky’s Ragtime has with Scott Joplin or Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk with minstrelsy. 

If I have a reservation about Torke’s music it is that, once a piece is launched, the tempo and mood usually remain pretty much the same throughout. This can be tedious at times.

Torke’s best known piece is Javelin which was written for the Atlanta Symphony at the time of the 1996 Olympics. It’s an overture, a ten minute curtain raiser and a pretty good introduction to his music.

But I’m recommending that you listen to Mojave, a sixteen minute concerto for marimba. I’m a big fan of piano concertos and this piece is quite a lot like one. The mallet player, Mike Truesdell, is a real virtuoso and the Brabants Orkest (don’t you love Dutch?) accompanies him wonderfully.

You’ll notice that he seems to have solved the minimalist quandary: How often can I repeat something before it’s too often? He gets it right.

If this piece inspires you, try to find a recording of another wonderful work, Bright Blue Music from Color Music. It was written before Mass and there are certainly echoes of Beethoven and other Nineteenth Century masters in it. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tchaikovsky at the HPO

We took in the Hamilton Philharmonic’s first concert of 2015 last night (Sat. Jan. 17) in the Great Hall at Hamilton Place. The second balcony was occupied by students and alumni of McMaster University as the orchestra continues its practice of reaching out to the wider community in an effort to build their audience and subscriber base.

The conductor was Music Director Candidate Theodore Kuchar. He’s presently the Music Director and Conductor of the Fresno Philharmonic and the Reno Chamber Orchestra. He has, in the past, performed the same role for the Janáček Philharmonic (formerly the Czech Radio Orchestra) and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. He’s also conducted recordings of more than 90 CDs.

The program was comprised of the overture to Verdi's La Forza Del Destino, Glazunov’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. On this occasion there were twenty violins to balance the full orchestral winds and percussion. 

They opened with the Verdi overture. There was good definition in the playing. Verdi’s counterpoint between the sections was clear. However, the brasses and percussion overwhelmed the strings when they played together. The overall effect seemed to lack cohesion and didn’t seem sufficiently lyrical. The oboe solos were handled nicely Jon Peterson.

I’d taken the precaution of listening to the unfamiliar Glazunov piece ahead of time. It’s in four movements but is played without a break. My impression at the end of the performance was the same as I’d had after listening to the recording. It’s sophisticated music, craftsmanly and well worked out, but not very memorable. The influential composer Rimsky-Korsakov was Glazunov’s teacher and Glazunov succeeded him as Principal of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Corey Cerovsek

Soloist Corey Cerovsek played beautifully although not as impressively as Blake Pouliot had done with the Mendelssohn concerto a couple of months ago. Some might be troubled by Cerovsek’s pronounced vibrato, although I was not. This concerto includes some marvellous overtone passages and also stretches of impressively executed double stops. 

After the break, the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s final symphony. I don’t enjoy Tchaikovsky’s music as I did when I was a young person and hadn’t a very wide musical experience. It is ideal music for someone just beginning to listen to serious music. Today I find it overly sentimental and unbearably repetitive. These are precisely the characteristics that appeal to those who love this music.

For all that, the orchestra made a fine sound throughout. The strings produced the lush sound the music requires particularly when the violins played unison lines. First bassoonist Melanie Eyers made the most of her solos. First clarinetist Stephen Pierre played convincingly throughout the concert. 

Some of the audience applauded each movement. This was especially annoying after the third movement march which ends triumphantly and should lead quietly and seamlessly into the tragic Adagio Lamentoso of the finale. I suspect many in the hall thought the symphony had ended. I wonder whether they were surprised or disappointed when the orchestra began to play again.

Altogether this was the least engaging of the four concerts we have heard this season although some of that is attributable to personal taste. Tchaikovsky is back in the next concert with the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, much shorter than a symphony and programmatic to boot. There will be a scene from the Berlioz Romeo et Juliette. Finally, they’re playing the First Suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Ballet. It’s a monument, an important work in the 20th Century orchestral repertoire. That, I’m really looking forward to!

Hamilton Philharmonic
Romeo and Juliet
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Great Hall
Hamilton Place