Monday, December 18, 2017

Retrospective Musical Tourism

Lots of musicians and classical music fans make a point of visiting places where famous composers lived and worked. Mozart’s homes in Salzburg and Vienna are both big draws. Lots of people, especially organists, try to visit the churches in Germany where J.S. Bach worked. It’s something like going to  the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Jim Morrison and other formerly famous folks are buried, but less creepy.

We were listening to our recording of one of the King’s College Choir’s Xmas albums and the Sweelinck Hodie Christus Natus Est came on. There’s a special place in my musical heart for this piece which I first sang as a first-year student under Deral Johnson at what was then The University of Western Ontario.

This was before the Faculty of Music moved on-campus so the rehearsals were still at the Silverwood Mansion, a healthy bus-ride from the main campus and right across the road from Western’s King’s College. It was, like so much of the other music I got to sing that year, a revelation, the pinacle of Netherland’s polyphony and only the second piece of Renaissance music in which I’d ever taken part.

I didn’t know anything about Sweelinck so we looked him up on the font of all knowledge, my iPad.

Sweelinck’s father had been the organist at the same church before him and his son followed him. This was in the late 16th Century when no one would be surprised to learn that butcher, baker or candlestick maker’s son would follow him in the family business. Apparently, it worked for musicians too.

Which church, you ask? The Oude Kerk (Old Church) on the Dam Square in Amsterdam.

And I Was There, not three months ago! We walked toward the Kerk while the carillion played Down by the Salley Gardens. We sang along, likely the only people there who could amongst the other tourists and the stoned and drunken mob of partiers.

I had no idea, at the time, who’d been the organist there 400 years ago but there you go. Een klein kerstcadeau.

Monday, October 30, 2017

L'elisir D'amore at the COC

We went to hear the COC”s production of L’elisir D’amore Sunday afternoon (Nov. 29, 2017) at the Four Seasons Centre. If it didn’t surpass my expectations, it certainly lived up to them.

It is a very conventional production despite the band pavillion and Red Ensign flags. Resetting the time frame and location of operas sometimes lead to peculiar anachronisms. When Adina reads to the town's people, who Dulcamara refers to as “rustici”, they implore her to continue because they are enjoying the story and they are illiterate. In this production she’s the librarian and, as is made clear in the staging, everybody, including Nemorino, can read. Makes you wonder.

It is also a very silly opera but I knew that going in. I’d forgotten that Adina, described in the program as “bookish and confident”, is also revealed to be a manipulative minx which makes Nemorino’s entrancement with her and eventual capitulation hard to stomach. But so much for the plot.

The young principals are all Canadians, former members of the COC Ensemble and seem headed for international careers (Gordon Bintner is already at Oper Frankfurt. Whether the company took a chance casting them rather then established international stars is a question for the box office but the audience enjoyed the show and laughed at the comic bits in the staging and the jokes in the surtitles.

Simone Osborne was a convincing Adina in voice and a surprisingly adept comic actress. I  believe we’ve seen her in four disparate roles and she’s never disappointed. She evidently sang Micaëla in the COC’s Carmen which seems an odd choice for a Lyric Soubrette. The role is better suited to a Lyric Soprano and I don’t hear her voice going that way.

Simone Osborne as Adina

Andrew Haji was an amusing Nemorino, Ice Cream Man. Some would credit him with the best singing of the night. He possesses a beautiful Lyric Tenor voice and his rendition of Una Furtiva was just lovely, even touching. Someone of his girth would, however, never be cast as a romantic lead in straight theatre. He’s a young guy and if he’s going to remedy the problem he’d better get on it. Knees don’t last forever.

Gordon Bintner was a very funny Belcore. Who’d have thought such a fine singer would have a gift for physical comedy? He can act with his eyebrows and even his legs and feet.

Andrew Shore sang and acted a really good Dulcamara. I suspect they left in some of the routine cuts to give him more opportunities. The duet he and Adina sing, which he’s supposed written, of a dottering senator with his eye on a young rustica was amusing. I checked his bio and he’s had a wonderful career singing mostly buffo roles but also some very serious ones at English National, The Met and Bayreuth.

Lauren Eberwein, a current Ensemble member sang Gianetta and was charming in her moment with the Women’s Chorus as she reveals her knowledge of Nemorino’s good fortune.

There are a couple of more performance before this one closes and, if you like comic opera and really good singing, this is a show for you.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Arabella at the COC

We went to see the COC’s production Arabella at the Four Seasons Centre last Sunday afternoon (Oct. 22, 2017). The COC sends an email containing details of the performance and warnings to subscribers and I was especially glad to have had it on this occasion since it was the afternoon of the Waterfront Marathon.

Some people will find the story of this opera either silly or offensive. Count Waldner has gambled away the family fortune and he and his wife are auctioning off their beautiful eldest daughter, with her full knowledge, to wealthy suitors. While she ends up marrying the “man of her dreams”, her younger sister is set to marry a man who doesn’t love her and has just slept with her believing her to be Arabella!  

It is all too easy to criticize social norms of the past as we see often in contemporary media. Lacking historical and social context it can be difficult to understand attitudes and relationships of 90 years ago in a foreign country. Moreover, the libretto and opera date from 1929 and the opera is set in about 1860 so the librettist is satirizing Viennese society some 70 years earlier.

This opera, with a libretto by Strauss’s long-time collaborator von Hoffmannstal, is a play set to music rather than an opera in the conventional sense of a suite of pieces which outline a story, held together by recitative or other similar singing. This is the form of much German opera from Wagner onward. Some audiences, unfamiliar with this kind of opera, are put off by the dearth of stand-alone arias and ensembles.

Strauss operas, beginning with Rosenkavalier (1911), share a musical vocabulary with which I am familiar but I’d never heard Arabella. 

Erin Wall (Arabella) and Tomasz Konieczny (Mandryka)

I was entranced by the first act whose music is glorious and the next two acts were as good. Strauss wrote masterfully for voices, especially female voices, and was a brilliant orchestrator.

Unfortunately, the orchestra frequently covered the singers who became part of the musical texture rather than above it as one would expect. Whether the fault lies with Strauss or conductor Patrick Lange is difficult to know. The orchestral playing was excellent, as usual.

The singers were also very fine. Adelaide, sung by Gundula Hintz and John Fanning, a wonderful Count Waldner sang convincingly and were entertaining actors as well. Jane Archibald as Zdenka and Erin Wall in the title role were exceptional. Michael Brandenburg, as Matteo, has a sturdy, dependable tenor voice and provided appropriately melodramatic acting.

Tomasz Konieczny sang Mandryka, the romantic baritone role. He’s had a long career singing bass and bass-baritone roles, so this one is outside of his usual fach. He sang the numerous high F#s with authority but his highest notes are uncovered and a little shouty, unlike the rest of his voice.

There’s but one performance of this run left on Sat. October 28. The production has few faults and we’re not likely to see this piece presented again in these part for a long time. If you like Rosenkavalier, you’ll certainly like Arabella.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Alexandre Da Costa at the Brott Festival

We went last night (Thurs. July 20) to hear the National Academy Orchestra under Maestro Boris Brott, with violinist Alexandre Da Costa, at the McIntyre Performance Arts Centre at Mohawk College. I was there specifically to hear Debussy’s La Mer, which I only knew from an old recording, and the Rosenkavalier Waltzes which is a favourite of mine.

They opened with a big surprise for me, Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope. It’s a wonderfully varied 11 minute showpiece for orchestra. It sometimes sounds like modernist music, sometimes like film music with echos of Stravinsky. Remarkably, he wrote it when he was 20 years old and it was his first work for orchestra. If you have never heard it, it’s worth 11 minutes of your time.

It turned out the rest of the first half was violin showpieces, most of which are usually played as encores. 

Canadian composer Fréderic Chiasson is responsible for much of Da Costa’s music. He did all the orchestral arrangements for Stradivarius at the Opera, Da Costa’s album with the Vienna Philharmonic on Sony Classical. They played his Overture on a Theme of Vitali next.

I didn’t like the piece very much. It starts out with a splendid full string choir and this orchestra section does make a beautiful sound but from there the piece doesn’t develop much and is embellished with a lot of brilliant solo violin scales and arpeggios. It’s reminiscent of the many Respighi treatments of Baroque and Renaissance pieces for modern orchestra. But really, if you want to play Baroque music for solo violin and strings, I think Vivaldi wrote some.

Alexandre Da Costa

The Rosenkavlier Waltzes were not the piece I anticipated. This is a one movement presentation of the waltzes for solo violin and strings. Richard Strauss himself may have arranged it. It is interesting to hear the music played in the manner of the many 19th Century Viennese waltzes that were clearly Strauss’ inspiration, many of them composed by other guys named Strauss. After the initial shock, I really enjoyed the piece and performance. Da Costa is a tremendous violinist with a big sound and is an engaging performer. Brott led his mostly young orchestra in a nuanced and idiomatic interpretation.

Next came Massenet’s familiar Meditation from Thaïs and a spirited reading of De Falla’s La Vida Breve. They followed with an arrangement of Queen’s The Show Must Go On billed as Apertura: Lo spettacolo deve andare avanti. The less said about this the better, but it was an convincing demonstration of why pop songs, stripped of their lyrics, frequently serve so poorly as instrumental music. They closed off the first half with an encore, Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás, surely the only solo violin piece everybody can hum.

After the break came the Debussy. This composer’s pieces are really a test for orchestras. Although the ensemble is large (triple woodwinds with contrabassoon, trumpets and cornets etc.), the composer doesn’t use most of the instruments most of the time. The tuba player in Pelléas et Mélisande, famously, plays only about a dozen notes in a three hour opera. In this work there is a passage for cello choir and basses alone, for example. Brott must have spent a lot of time preparing to play this work and, while I wasn’t blown away as I had been during the Pictures at an Exhibition a couple of years back, I found it a convincing performance.

They finished with Ravel’s Bolero. It featured a couple of out-of-tune woodwind solos (not the ones Ravel detuned through orchestration) and two scoopy sax solos which I didn’t enjoy, although the rest of the audience clearly did, applauding loudly at the saxophonist’s solo bow. I do love two unison snare drums at the end.

I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before in this blog. With a top price of $32 all these concerts at the Brott Festival are a steal. Young people and casual concert goers who perhaps haven’t heard the standard orchestral repertoire ought to be lined up for tickets but they aren’t. The crowd was so disappointing that Brott himself mentioned it in his comments. I suspect the festival is presenting concerts in Burlington and elsewhere as a result of crummy attendance in Hamilton just as Symphony on the Bay (previously Symphony Hamilton) has done.

For my part I’m an eight minute drive from Mohawk and ten minutes from the First Ontario Centre (previously Hamilton Place) and I’m only going to drive to the Burlington Centre for the Arts for something very special and different, and the two Beethoven programs of familiar music that come up next in this festival aren’t enought to persuade me.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Tosca at the COC

We went Sunday afternoon, April 30th 2017, to hear the première COC performance of Tosca at the Four Seasons Centre. We chose this performance first because we were anxious to hear diva Adrianne Pieczonka whom we last saw as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera and secondly because the commute to Toronto from Hamilton has become so arduous and unpredictable on weekdays. That didn’t work out so well but I’m going to leave it at that.

Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca

It’s a very traditional production (a co-production with Norwegian Opera), with a very beautiful and effective set and appropriate period costumes. The orchestra, conducted by Canadian Keri-Lynn Wilson, was first rate, especially the prominent brass parts like the unison horn figure that opens Act III. The chorus was excellent as usual although the balance between the off-stage singers and the orchestra and principals on-stage was off. The choir wasn’t loud enough and it sounded like there were two pieces going on instead of the chorus music acting as the harmonic foundation for the on-stage singing.

The staging was adequate but hardly outstanding. Scarpia (Markus Marquardt) turns on heel and walks upstage and off-stage, brushing past the priest before the Te Deum scene ends which is obviously implausible. He also attempts to grope Tosca’s leg at one point which is both unnecessarily creepy and at odds with the character otherwise established. Veteran basso buffo Donato di Stefano played and sang a convincing Sacristan, but I could have done without a sexual gesture which is, I think, not period. The director also doesn't have him pick up the votive candles which Angelotti has strewn around the stage and which is, surely, his job!

The physical interplay among Scarpia, Cavaradossi (Marcelo Puente) and Spoletta worked especially well. Joel Sorenson, playing Spoletta, is smaller than either of the other singers and there was quite a lot of pushing and shoving in Act II. Scarpia knocks Spoletta to the floor and steps on his throat after learning that the police were unable to find Angelotti (Musa Ngqungwana). We see Scarpia as a physical bully and understand why his underlings are so afraid of him.

Tosca, Adrianne Pieczonka, sang beautifully and acted effectively throughout. Some of the highest notes were not as perfect as one might hear on a recording. She sang the Vissi D’arte seated, not even rising for the climatic phrases which seemed a little odd. I’ve only heard her live in Italian repertoire and look forward to her Arabella in the fall.

Markus Marquardt has a pronounced vibrato which mars his singing. In the second act it seemed under better control especially when he wasn’t singing full out. He was more than adequate from a dramatic point of view and died well even if the character didn’t have a good death.

Tenor Marcelo Puente was a very dramatically effective Cavaradossi and did a wonderful job of the Act III aria (E Lucevan Le Stelle). He overheld some of the high notes (Vittoria, Vittoria!). He seems to me to be at the very edge of vocal weight for this role and yet he has sung Don José (Carmen) and Manrico (Trovatore) both of which can be done by heavier voices. He has played Rodolfo (La Bohème) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) which seem, to me at least, more suitable to his voice. Yet his agent’s site claims that he is working on Turridù (Cavalleria Rusticana) and Calaf (Turandot) which are ideally sung by more dramatic voices.

All the secondary roles were expertly sung and acted. The shepherd boy was sung by Clara Moir who was fine but didn’t sound like a boy. Better than a woman, I guess.

It would be worth going to hear this production only to hear Pieczonka, but, overall, it is much better than that. And if it’s among your favourite operas get tickets before the show is sold out. But beware! There is another cast of principals in alternate performances.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sibelius 7 at the HPO

Last night (Saturday, March 11) we went to hear an extraordinary concert by the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra under Music Director Gemma New.

Gemma New

It was extraordinary because it was comprised entirely of 20th Century orchestral masterpieces with the exception of one early 21st Century work, Kevin Lau's A Portrait of Lake Moraine. There was no featured soloist.

The strings were augmented to 10, 10, 8, 8, 6. The orchestra filled the stage of the First Ontario Concert Hall aka Hamilton Place.

They opened with Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for strings and one bell. I don't recall hearing the orchestra play any music that could be even vaguely called Minimal or Minimalist (although Pärt's music hasn't much in common with that of Glass or John Adams.) The music begins quietly.  It was difficult to distinguish the individual string lines in the texture but that was, I think, the composer's intent. You are not supposed to be able to pick out individual parts, you are to listen to the overall effect. The music grows from within itself. It builds to a climax, the bell ringing from the back of the stage, and then dies away.

The stage was already set for Béla Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which they played next. I'd been hoping to hear a live performance of this piece for years and I wasn't disappointed.

The harp, celeste and piano were in the middle front separating two equal string orchestras stage left and right. The rest of the percussion in their usual place at the back.

It's a symphonic scale work in four movements. There is a great deal of sometimes dense polyphony constructed from deceivingly simple motifs and fragments. The opening movement is a kind of fugue on a highly chromatic subject which is written with constantly changing metres.  It was fascinating to watch Gemma New conduct it. So minimal, so clear. The other movements are completely unlike the opening one although the subject returns in the finale. As the Concerto for Orchestra is for all the instruments, this work is a kind of compendium of string techniques and  effects. And the orchestra played it pretty well.  I would bet some of the string players spent a lot more time in the practice room this past week than they would usually do.

We spent the overlong interval watching the crew resetting the stage to a standard orchestral set-up and waiting for people to take their seats.

The second half opened with A Portrait of Lake Moraine. The composer spoke for a few minutes about the piece which he composed 15 years ago for a young composer competition which he won, sponsored by this very orchestra. He was nineteen. This was his first orchestral work, uncharacteristically melodic and consonant for Academic New Music and, very impressive.

They concluded with the one movement Sibelius Symphony #7. I haven't listened to much music by this composer (aside from the Violin Concerto and Finlandia) and what I have heard has not led me to listen to more.

This was written in 1924 and that makes Sibelius a contemporary of Stravinsky and Schoenberg but, while there are elements of modernism in his music, he is a late Romantic, more akin to Strauss and Rachmaninoff.

I suspect some of the work's popularity is due to its length. The symphony is made up of a number of short contrasting sections which are not obviously related. The music is masterfully and impressively orchestrated. You get a lot of beautiful Sibelius music in the space of about 22 minutes.

I did enjoy this performance. New managed the numerous transitions masterfully and the orchestra was with her the whole time. There was some very nice playing from the brasses (this is Sibelius, after all) especially acting Principal Trombone Catharine Stone.

The management and conductor tried an experiment which I will now judge a failure. They projected dozens of images of the Bruce Trail on two screens upstage right and left while the orchestra played the symphony.

This added nothing to our enjoyment of the music and was simply a distraction, adding nothing and quite divorced from the musical context. I beseech them not to try this again.

I thought, altogether, the orchestra played extremely well this highly demanding music and I commend Gemma New and the management for their courage in presenting it. We're not in TO and this is not the Toronto Symphony and you can hardly blame them for being generally cautious.

They are, nonetheless, building on the legacy of James Sommerville's tenure and New is taking the orchestra in an encouraging direction.

Black Capped Chickadee

P.S.: Not everyone was taken with the concert. The man sitting next to my wife exclaimed, after the Pärt, "What the hell was that?" When the photos began running during the Sibelius he started identifying the birds in the pictures, out loud by name, until his wife told him to be quiet.