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.