Thursday, October 27, 2016

Norma at the COC and Mystical Landscapes

Last night (Wed. Oct 26) we attended the performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bellini’s opera, Norma, at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. 

Altogether the show was a more than adequate but less than transcendental version of this much beloved piece, but still worth the hike down the QEW to the Big Smoke.

The opera is set in Gaul in 50 B.C.E. and in this production actually takes place there and then as the librettist intended. I mention this because we have been present at performances of operas whose setting and period were changed, not always to happy effect.

We intentionally avoided hearing Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, in spite of the accolades which have been thrown her way. She was similarly praised for her interpretation of Elizabeth I in Roberto Devereux and we were disappointed as I wrote then.

The Norma this night was Johannesburg native Elza van den Heever. She sang all the words and notes and acted pretty well this uniquely demanding role. She studied in San Francisco and her career was launched when she won the 2008 Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition. She is having a great international career singing a wide variety of roles and styles.  Norma isn’t her cup of tea, though. A German approach still colours her bel canto singing. She doesn’t manage the line and evenness which is at the heart of the style. One reviewer described her as “a young Joan Sutherland” and that person must never have heard Dame Joan. (I did, from close up, on numerous occasions as a COC chorister.)

Mezzo Isabel Leonard, as Adalgisa, did the best singing of the evening and has a more even production and ability to execute the bel canto style than den Heever. I think she took the reserved temple acolyte a bit too far in her acting which was far too restrained but that could have been a directorial decision.

Tenor Russel Thomas sang Pollione and acted effectively. His repertoire is dominated by rather heavy tenor roles like Don José, Turiddu and Florestan. That’s the way he sang this Bellini role which is written nothing like the tenors in La Sonnambula or I Puritani. His approach, however, led to trouble with his really high notes (i.e above an A)  which were pushed and unpleasant.

Dimitry Ivashchenko, as Norma’s father, the high priest of the Druids, was unreservably excellent with a marvellous voice and convincing stage manner, rivalling Leonard for best singing of the evening.

The chorus was brilliant, especially in the breathtakingly fast “Guerra, Guerra” chorus.

The orchestra (conducted by Stephen Lord) and off-stage Banda (conducted, I presume, by my old boss, Derek Bate) were excellent as usual although the pit orchestra did overwhelm quiet singing by the principals on some occasions.

In closing, we also took in the Mystical Landscapes show
at the  Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a must for anyone with more than a passing interest in visual art. The admission is considerably less than you will have to pay to get to its next stop at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It includes some really stunning pieces by Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh and some lesser known artists including Eugene Jansson, four of whose big pieces make him my favourite previously unfamiliar artist.

Friday, August 12, 2016

From Tchaikovsky to Ravel at the Brott Festival

Last night we went to hear a concert in the Brott Music Festival Series. It was titled From Tchaikovsky to Ravel and included Ringelspiel by Ana Sokolovic, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony #5 in E minor and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G Minor at the McIntyre Theatre on the Mohawk College Fennel Campus.

In past seasons I have attended as many as six of the Brott Music Festival concerts. The venues were local, most were presentations of real orchestral repertoire played by the excellent Academy Orchestra and reasonable priced. When I looked at this year’s season I was surprised to see that only this concert really interested me. The rest were either out of town, pops (Led Zepplin? Really?), chamber or operatic (I love the Pearl Fisher’s Duet and The Marriage of Figaro but I personally don’t need to hear them again.)

Ana Sokolovic on the cover of the Socan Magazine

They opened the concert with Ringelspiel. Ana Sokolovic is a Professor of Composition at the Université de Montréal, an eminent Canadian composer with an impressive biography. She is writing an opera for the COC 2019-20 season. This piece, (Merry Go Round in English), commissioned by the NAC Orchestra, is in five sections played without a pause. It is a somewhat programmatic portrayal of different sorts of ringelspielen. It is also an inventory of effects and extended techniques. Trombones and strings slide from note to note, cellos tap and rattle different parts of their instrument and so forth. It was likely a useful experience for the young musicians to have to incorporate these techniques into what is, no doubt, a challenging piece. Beautiful and engaging for this listener it was not. And so the apparent goal of some composers of Academic New Music to confound and alienate their public continues.

 Sara Davis-Buechner

Next came the Ravel concerto which I had come to hear. The soloist, Sara Davis-Buechner, has had a long and varied career and, as the program informed us, an active repertoire of more than one hundred concerti. She could certainly play this one displaying great virtuosity and enthusiasm. This concerto, though, requires a certain Gallic understatement and elegance which her playing lacked. Moreover, when she brought out dominant lines the others sometimes disappeared. The opening of the slow movement was nearly inaudible to us, in the middle of the floor barely under the balcony. I was prepared to be transported and was not. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by recordings.

The second half was the Tchaikovsky symphony. I’ve now heard the 4th, 5th and 6th in the last year. It could be worse, I suppose, I’ve avoided hearing any of the ballet suites. The strings handled the very busy scale passages with aplomb, the woodwinds and principal horn played the numerous solos beautifully and the brass were tastefully forceful at the climaxes. The first two movement were lead capably, aside from a few not-quite-unamimous entries, by Apprentice Conductor Kirk Kirzer and the waltz and finale by Boris Brott who is a master with this repertoire.

Maestro Boris Brott

Maestro Brott obviously works well with young players and I’ve never heard a performance at the Brott Festival that was less than first-rate. However, the auditorium wasn’t nearly full last night as it has been in the past. It’s hard to persuade folks to buy subscriptions (the lifeblood of any arts organization) when most of the repertoire or venues don’t suit. I’m sure the Festival team and board will look at their numbers and draw some conclusions. It would be a shame to lose this series which provides the only opportunity to hear professional-level orchestral music performances in the summer in our community.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Maometto II at the COC

We went to see the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Giacomo Rossini’s Maometto II last night (Thurs. May 6, 2016) at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto. If you haven’t seen this show and aren’t planning to, I’d encourage you to reconsider. 

Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II

While his comedies (Il Barbiere, Italiana in Algieri, etc.) are the music by which most of us know Rossini, Maometto II shows just how effective a dramatic operatic composer he could be.

The composer uses the same formal musical devices and harmonic and melodic vocabulary in this piece that he does in the comedies. This is hardly surprising. He wrote 38 operas in the space of 18 years. He must have developed numerous formulas to have been so prolific. 

In some ways, this is a good thing for contemporary audience members. Anyone with more than a passing experience of the composer’s operatic music will have no difficulty with the idiom. It does result in some very long scenes which take a great deal of time to get over very little text and draw out dramatic moments to quarter hours.

This piece is not filled with memorable music and is certainly not a great opera on that account. What makes it worth seeing is the drama and, in this production, some extraordinary singing. 

Tenor Bruce Sledge, in his COC debut, sang wonderfully as Anna’s father Erisso. He has a much more substantial voice than one typically associates with Rossini tenors. He impressed me with his opening recitative and I wondered how he could manage the coloratura and high notes with such a sound. I needn’t have been concerned. It was a very impressive performance.

Bruce Sledge
Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was marvellous. This woman is in the Marilyn Horne mold. She has a beautiful contralto-ish voice with strong low notes, ringing high notes and impeccable runs and flourishes.

Elisabeth DeShong

Soprano Leah Crocetto, singing Anna, should have a spectacular career in Verdian dramatic roles (she will soon sing Aida). Hers is a lovely voice over which she exerts excellent control through the runs and vocal embroidery.

Leah Crocetto

Bass-Baritone Luca Pisaroni was well matched with this stellar cast. In addition to handling the vocal demands of this role he is a fine actor, for example, showing believable surprise when he first recognizes Anna in the first act finale. He seemed to be pushing his voice a bit for dramatic effect which must be a temptation in portraying such a dominating personality.

Luca Pisaroni

I was disappointed that tenor Charles Sy, singing Condulmiero, had only a couple of phrases in the first act because he sounded so good.

There are some odd features of the production. The Turkish army appear to be Ninjas, for example. There is a female dancer with a skull who moves through Maometto’s first scene. Why? She returns later, dancing and taunting Anna, dressed as a belly dancer. The Venetian soldiers have carbines with fixed bayonets in the opening while the Turks, who are about to defeat them, are armed with spears. It’s the only obvious anachronism in the opera.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the staging which is full of operatic clichés. For example, early on in the opera Erisso sings while the male chorus listen from the other side of the stage. During the interlude between the first and second verses they change positions, the entire chorus trooping across the stage and taking up an opposite symmetrical position, for no apparent reason. Later, three different characters go, one after another, to about the same place against the wall downstage right, turn away from the audience, put their hands on the wall and emote silently.

Crocetto has some difficulty moving elegantly on stage, rising from a kneeling position, for example. Perhaps the director should have been more sensitive to this in the staging.

The orchestra and chorus, conducted by Harry Bicket, were excellent as we have come to expect from the COC. 

There are three more performances of this show which closes on May 14. None of us is likely to have another opportunity to see Maometto II without traveling abroad. And there is some of the best singing I’ve ever heard live.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New Trumpet Concert at the HPO

Last night, Saturday April 16th 2016, we went to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play the final concert of this season at Hamilton Place. The organization carries on with further presentations in the spring, including four concerts in their What Next Festival of New Music. The conductor, on this occasion, was Eric Paetkau. He presently leads the Saskatoon Symphony and the group of 27 in Toronto, of which he is the founder.

They opened with the Elgar’s three movement Serenade for Strings. The string sections, with 38 players, are about as big as this orchestra gets. I’d never heard this piece before and, as a big fan of Elgar’s music, I was looking forward to it. A violinist himself, Paetkau elicited a nuanced performance. Unfortunately we rarely got to hear the lovely big sound of this orchestra’s strings as the overall dynamics were tamped down to the point where the pianissimos were virtually inaudible from our orchestra level seats. I wondered whether the conductor had gone out in to the hall at any point to listen.

The second offering was the world première of Abigail Richardson-Schulte’s Trumpet Concerto. The soloist was the orchestra’s principal trumpeter, Michael Fedyshyn. The piece was commissioned by the HPO and the group of 27. Richardson-Schulte writes approachable, eclectic modern music which often has a programmatic element. This piece, however, is absolute music, although its form tends to be episodic.

It is a successful concerto and a very nice piece, and should, like Richardson-Schulte’s previous hit, The Hockey Sweater, be programmed by many Canadian orchestras. There’s lots of variety and the motives out of which the work is constructed were recognizable enough on first hearing that there was no danger of becoming lost. An expert orchestrator, the composer employs striking colouristic features especially in the lovely opening of the middle movement in which simple gestures by the soloist are accompanied by contrasting chords and clusters from the orchestra.

The soloist is called upon to play C trumpet, Bb cornet and flugelhorn at different points in the work. Technically, the bore of the C trumpet is most cylindrical and that of the flugelhorn most conical and, thus, mellowest. In the second movement the sound of the flugelhorn was, indeed, more relaxed, but there was surprisingly little difference between the sound of the trumpet and cornet when the soloist switched back and forth between them in the finale. Fedyshyn handled the demands of the part fluently on all three instruments.

After the lengthy intermission, the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Unlike the Elgar that opened the concert, it was plenty loud in the appropriate places, as this composer’s music tends to be.

However much one likes Tchaikovsky’s music, with its frequent literal repetitions and rising sequences, it is crowd-pleasing music and the conductor and orchestra presented a stirring performance to which the audience responded with the obligatory standing O. (Indeed, some in the audience applauded each movement!)

The plan for the 2016-2017 season has been released and offers some interesting repertoire amidst pop and family concerts. A full 9 concert subscription can be had for as little as $19 a show.

Monday, February 8, 2016

New Conductor at the HPO

We went last night (Sat. Feb. 6/16) to hear the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra play in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place under their new Principal Conductor and Artistic Director, Gemma New.

Six conductors had been considered for the position to replace James Sommerville who had led the orchestra for almost ten years.

This concert presented three major modern works, two by two great Russian modernists, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and a current raiser by Canadian Kelly-Marie Murphy.

Regional orchestras, like the HPO, rarely plan an entire program of pieces composed after the First World War. Any music that new is usually counteracted by more standard orchestral fare. 

I, for one, was delighted to have the opportunity to hear this conductor and orchestra in a program which was likely unfamiliar to many of the players and would challenge them artistically and technically in ways that older standard repertoire cannot.

My expectations were met, completely, by the end of the evening. I tried to avoid appearing to be cheerleading, but the concert really was that good.

Gemma New

They opened with Murphy’s A Thousand Natural Shocks written for the Vancouver Orchestra in 2000. It’s an overture-like piece which begins with an extended tympani solo (played to great effect by Jean-Norman Iadeluca) and features the three trumpeters playing, intermittently, on conch shells. It also calls for an off-stage flute solo and there’s a section for harp playing alone. Murphy’s idiom is very eclectic. The work reminded me at times of the rhythmic Bernstein of West Side Story (albeit an atonal one) and of the very best original cinematic music.

This is a highly effective work, a really good piece. It was clearly well received by the audience, and presaged a spectacularly virtuosic evening.

Next, Canadian pianist Katherine Chi played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. Although it is in three movements, each is made up of short contrasting sections so the middle one is not, strictly speaking, a slow movement. The music changes mood and motion frequently and the composer, himself an impressive pianist and showy orchestrator, gives soloist and orchestra numerous opportunities to thrill the public.

It was, again, a very convicing performance. Chi is a really wonderful pianist who is at home in this repertoire. Conductor and orchestra, especially woodwind soloists, supporter her capably.

After the break, the orchestra played Shostakovich’s First Symphony. The piece remains a stunning, almost incomprehensible, achievement for its nineteen year old composer. Although the music sometimes brings to mind music of the Russian Romantic tradition, the young Shostakovich wrote a consciously modern piece, more inspired by Stravinsky’s music than that of the older Russian masters. His personal voice is already clear in the ironic music of the slow movement and the military allusions. A masterful and imaginative orchestrator, he uses all the tools to realize his musical vision across four contrasting movements.

The orchestra, playing under their new conductor who chose this work, gave an impressive reading of this powerful piece. New’s conducting style seems clear and balanced. I was able to easily follow her patterns and gestures. This must be have been an advantage for her, with so much of her career related to New Music. 

At the end, the audience rose, some cheering. The conductor gave solo bows to many of the principal players as the orchestra applauded her.

Gemma New has opened the latest chapter of the HPO story with a splash. She returns to conduct Cirque de la Symphonie on March 12. I will be interested to see how her voice influences the HPO’s choice of repertoire for the 2016/17 season.