Saturday, December 8, 2018

Xmas, Christmas, Yule and Tiny Tim.

Again this year, I've seen Keep Christ in Christmas and Keep the Original Meaning of Christmas type slogans on cars and lawns, and in Facebook postings. This illustrates the silos of thought and ideas in which most people live.

It ignores that fact that in modern Canada, Christmas and the Christmas Season have at least four different meanings and it's a rare individual who embraces all of them.

The most obvious one is that of Santa Claus a version of a mythic story that was popularized by Washington Irving and Clement Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicolaus (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas) almost 200 years ago. It was later capitalized upon by Coca Cola and later by every commercial interest imaginable. It is prevalent because it dominates every kind of medium and enables the monetization of the holiday. For those who depend on the retail and manufacturing world, what could be more important than that?

Another comes to us directly from another 19th Century author, Charles Dickens. He documents the gross inequity of Victorian society in his novels and is seen now as a social activist.  Dickens also wrote dozens of Christmas stories. The most famous, A Christmas Carol, helped employees secure time off work at Christmas time and popularized the practice of giving to those who in need, aided by Christian Methodism and its offspring like the Salvation Army.

The third is the Nativity Story as told in two different versions in the Christian Bible. It portrays Jesus's birth happening in the most modest of circumstances, celebrated by lowly shepherds and a divine angel choir. His prestige is affirmed later by a visit from gift-bearing wise men. For many people, this means that children, like Jesus, should receive gifts at Christmas time. Somehow the Massacre of the Innocents and the escape into Egypt which follow don't get much play.

The last version is the actual origin of the mid-Winter festival which was co-opted by the Christian church as early as the third century. It takes place on the shortest day of the year. That was December 25 two thousand years ago. 

It is still called Yule in Scandinavia although it's spelled differently. It was called Saturnalia in the Roman Empire.

People lit candles and fires to keep the light through December as the days grew shorter. In northern Europe they brought greenery into their homes to remind them that nature flourishes while it sleeps and that spring always follows winter. They drank and they partied.

All four of these versions of Christmas have been mixed together and no two families or communities celebrated exactly the same combination.

Personally, I have not been in a church for religious reasons since I was a young teen. For me, it has always been about music. I have taken part in or attended concerts and even services too numerous to mention. I carolled for money and sang in church choirs, first as a volunteer and later as a mercenary. I taught hundreds of children and adolescents Christmas songs, secular and religious. If a school principal, in the interest of political correctness, had decided there could be no more Christmas songs at school I'd have stopped running the school choirs. A descendent of British immigrants, I did my part to preserve and share my culture and traditions.

I find the onslaught of Christmas songs and merchandising, which began after Hallowe'en this year nauseating and irrelevant. I'd rather they left it much later. 

As for the Christmas some people want to keep Christ in, why would anyone who isn't a Christian celebrate it? Some lapsed Christians attend and participate but they no longer believe. 

Different people, families and communities celebrate the holiday season in different ways. It would be helpful for everyone to respect the differences and the reasons for them.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"I don't really like classical music," he said

I’ve recently been getting to know someone who is in a class I’m taking. On learning that I’d been a “classical singer” he told me he doesn’t really like classical music.

I know him to be a university educated retired professional, an intelligent guy. He’s certainly entitled to like or dislike whatever music he wants. There’s lots of music I don’t like, why shouldn’t he? It got the music educator in me thinking, though.


The experience led me to consider why many people don’t like what they see as “classical music” even though they profess to love music and listen enthusiastically to other genres.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not with the music, per se, but rather with the listener and her/his expectations.

People listen, overwhelmingly, to some version of popular, commercial music. It doesn’t matter whether that music is contemporary or not it all shares certain characteristics which are lacking or disguised in much classical music.

To begin with, everyone identifies individual pieces of popular, commercial music as “songs” even when they aren’t, strictly speaking. What they mean, of course, is there are vocalists of some description, singing or speaking words and they are the most important element of the piece. The language, its rhythm and meaning (if you can make it out) anchor the listener’s experience.

Everybody knows some version of the story in which, at a stadium concert, the band begins to play the introduction to their big hit. The guitar kicks in with the opening rift and the crowd goes wild. Some bars later, after too many repetitions of the guitar riff, the lead singer starts in and a bunch of other people cheer and jump up and down. They second group, who paid big bucks to attend and have probably heard the song dozens of times, didn’t recognize it until the singer came in. Think about that for a minute.

Secondly, commercial, pop songs are overwhelmingly danceable. They have a strong, repetitious beat, reinforced by percussion, usually drums. Even if nobody would actually dance to them they encourage the listener to move with the music, to feel the beat. The music engages them physically in an uncomplicated way.

So if your approach is to listen to the singers, the lyrics and the beat, even well know, accessible classical pieces are going in one ear and out the other. For the most part they have no vocalists at all. Even when the rhythm and beat are consistent and straightforward it is rarely supported by drums the way it is in pop music.

There’s no doubt that part of this is an educational issue. Off the top of my head I’d posit that people who had music lessons or played an instrument, especially in some kind of ensemble like a school band are far more likely to “get” classical music. That kind of experience has become more and more rare for kids these days. 

I was told, a few years ago by a musical parent, that their son had done well in high school music and loved it, but had to drop it because there was no room in his Grade 11 timetable. University or college admission was the big consideration and he wasn’t going to study the arts. Other families have to choose between music lessons and athletics. Hereabouts, where ice hockey is king, that’s probably not a very long discussion.

I think this stinks. Classical music is an important part of our shared heritage along with visual art, architecture and literature and much else. That a great swath of the population have no understand of it is a travesty. That something which has so enriched my life is closed to them and that they couldn’t care less makes me sad.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Henry V at Shaw, Julius Caesar at Stratford.

We went Wednesday afternoon (August 8, 2018) to see Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

We knew, going in, that several of the principal male characters would be portrayed by women. We saw a gender-bending Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of seasons ago and wondered in what direction this one would go. Curiously, the actor who plays Brutus in this production played Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in the other.

Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar

Each of the women playing a male role was played by a very fine actor and, even in costume and make-up, none could be mistaken for a man.

The most interesting consequence of this was in the scenes between Brutus, played by Jonathan Goad and and Irene Poole who was Cassius. The two men are very good friends. This friendliness might be taken to be something quite different between a man and a women although Shakespeare may have been subtly implying a different sort of relationship between the two men.

It is, otherwise, a typical Festival Theatre production with beautiful and approriate costumes, lighting and original music (save a Dowland song which was interpolated late in the show).

Seanna McKenna was a marvellous Julius Caesar, the centre of attention in all of her scenes. We found the pacing of the production suspect. The actors spoke the text more quickly than it could be easily understood. Jonathan Goad was a convincing Brutus but some of his lines were impossible to understand. Michelle Giroux, as Mark Antony was more intelligible but rushed through the funeral oration, surely one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet, in a small part as Antony’s Servant, Amy Keating delivered her much of her speech lying prone on the stage but you could understand every word.

This show is a good, if not outstanding one, and worth the trip to Stratford.

On the other hand, We went Wednesday afternoon (August 15, 2018) to see Henry V at the Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival.

Except it wasn’t Henry V like you’d see it at Stratford or in a school production for that matter. I probably shouldn’t have read a scathing review in The Spec last week which lowered my expectations. We had decided that if it was as dismal as the review claimed we were going to leave at the interval. As it happened, we stayed until the end.

The cast of 11, 4 women and 7 men play all the roles, some taken by different players at different times. The men are Canadian WW I soldiers in an underground trench system somewhere in France. They play much, but not all, of the first three acts of Henry V to amuse themselves, some reciting and some reading, while the war carries on around them. In the second act all but one of the soldiers are injured and recovering in bed in hospital and the four women are nurses. The nurses, who spend much of the act tending to the injured soldiers, join in with the play-acting and the cast finishes the play.

So it’s not really a dramatic presentation of Henry V at all, much more akin to a dramatic reading or a concert performance of an opera. Moreover, the text is isn’t all Shakespeare. Actors do occasionally speak in their real 1916 voices explaining, for example, that the King is in disguise or requesting a prop.

As one would expect of a professional company the actors are generally very good, the women perhaps better than the men. Natasha Mumba was a standout as were veteran actors Gray Powell and Patrick Gallican.

The problem is that there’s not much drama. There’s hardly any staging relating to Henry V. Any moving about relates more to the “real” situation in the trench or hospital. And you would have to know Henry V very well to be able to follow its plot because the acting does little to support that play-within-a-play.

So this production is an experiment that didn’t quite work. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re comped. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Number 6 of my List of Albums that Make Me Happy, is Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

I saw the opera, almost by chance, in London in the spring of 1985. The ENO just happened to be playing it. I also saw Horne and von Stade in La Donna del Lago from the gods at Covent Garden about the same time and the same way. I found the Coliseum and bought a ticket for a great seat in the orchestra for top price, as I recall, £20. I knew who Glass was but hadn’t heard any of his music.

It was like no other opera, no other music, I had ever heard. Some would argue it’s not an opera but that’s what Glass and his collaborators called it and the ENO is an opera company.

It’s the third in his Portrait Series of operas following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. It’s musically more approachable than either of these. 

There’s no plot, as such. There’s not much action, either. The orchestra plays, the singers sing, much more like a staged oratorio than anything else. Beautiful costumes, great lighting and sets. Interesting staging. A group of wrestlers mimed a struggle in slow motion, far upstage, at one point, while the principals performed downstage.

The character Akhnaten, by the way, is sung by a countertenor. We know he was actually weird looking from statuary. In this context, the sound of Akhnaten’s singing is oddly otherworldly, appropriate for a pharaoh who attempted to transform Egyptian religion. The priesthood and his successor transformed it back, immediately he died.

I must have raved about the performance because I received the cassette album as a gift and I’ve listened to it many times although, I will confess, rarely from beginning to end.

My perception of that performance clouded my understanding of the nature of opera in general. 

The consensus is that opera is the synthesis of the various performing arts. There are actors (usually singers) portraying characters so it’s drama, a play if you like. As in a play, all the elements of stage craft can be present; costumes, sets, lighting, technical effects and so forth. There is solo singing and soloists singing in ensembles. There can be choral singing. There is instrumental music which can be accompaniement for the singing but is often also featured alone. There can be ballet or other dancing.

But is opera, then, drama or music or both at the same time?

It’s the composer whose name is attached to the piece. La Traviata by Verdi, not La Traviata by Piave, who wrote the words based upon Dumas’s play. With plays, it’s the author. Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Erin Shields.

Yet no one would argue that a recording of an opera, even a live one, is a faithful reproduction of an opera. It’s only the music. It’s the most important thing but without the ancillary elements of the performance, the things that make it opera and not a concert.

There are people who love opera and go to live performances and Silver City Met operas but wouldn’t cross the street to see a concert of opera highlights. ‘Cause, it’s not opera, right?

I’m posting this with just the first act music. If you’re interested there are videos of parts of performances available on YouTube.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Paradise Lost at the Stratford Festival

We went yesterday afternoon (Wednesday August 1st, 2018) to see Paradise Lost in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival. The Studio Theatre is at the back of the Avon on Waterloo St. and seats about 260. It has a small thrust stage and the seating is as steeply raked as were the seats in the Patterson Theatre which is now closed and will be rebuilt.

This is not Paradise Lost, the long 17th Century epic poem by John Milton, rather a reworking of elements of that story in modern form by acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields. Another of her plays, If We Were Birds, won the 2011 Governor-General’s Award for English drama.

Lucy Peacock, photo: Clay Stang

The principal actors play individual parts including Eve, Adam, God the Father, God the Son and Satan. The other seven in this cast of twelve each play two parts, one in Heaven and the other in Hell. The story is that of Satan, in the form of a serpent, persuading Eve to break God’s one rule, that she not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Eve convinces Adam to do it as well and then the two of them are expelled from The Garden (paradise) to live in suffering until they die.

This is a story told out of time. God the Father admits knowing what is (or was) going to happen but is unwilling or unable to intervene because he granted humans Free Will. The text is full of references to contemporary issues. Satan is well versed in what is happening in the audience’s present including issues like climate change and the building of pipelines and speaks directly to the audience in several monologues.

Shields manages to work a surprising amount of humour into a story which is both serious and metaphysical. In this matinée performance (also the première), attended by an overwhelmingly geriatric audience, there was some forced laughter each time an actor said something vaguely funny. This, mercifully, stopped after a few minutes. There was lots of laughter later however in response to genuinely funny bits and lines.

The angels put on a play, reminiscent of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to remind Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is, like Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, intentionally inept but it seems out of place in Paradise Lost.

Juan Chioran, in the role of God the Father, gave a controlled depiction of Shields’ character. He’s not on stage much and one has the impression Shields wrote the role largely as a contrast to Satan.

Gordon S. Miller was God the Son. Again, he gave a restrained portrayal, even when he is persuading his father to allow him to become human and die horribly in order to redeem humanity.

Eve (Amelia Sargisson) and Adam (Qasim Khan) were delightful with many humourous bits to play as well as touching ones. They played Shield’s scene in which they transform from innocent stereotypes to complex modern people beautifully.

Among the smaller parts, Sarah Todd, as Satan’s sort-of daughter Sin, was a standout with some of the most hilarious lines in the show.

Finally, Lucy Peacock carried the show as Satan. Shields wrote this as the central part in the drama and Peacock ran with it. Her monologues were engaging and her interactions with the various other players always convincing. We’d seen her a couple of weeks ago in Coriolanus and she owned the stage there, too. Here performance is the best reason to attend this play.

For all that, I wasn’t blown away by the play itself, although it’s hard to fault the production. Shields puts a balanced feminist spin on the story as one would expect from a contemporary woman playwright. I’m well aware of these issues and of other contemporary ones that she mentions and the play didn’t deepen my understanding of them. Frankly, I don’t go to the theatre to be educated, however cleverly, rather to be entertained and, by that metre stick, this one is good rather than great.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coriolanus at Stratford

I knew, going into the Robert Lepage production of Coriolanus, that it would be  something different from what one usually sees at Ontario's Stratford. Just how different I couldn't have imagined and I'm not done pondering.

I'd seen The Nightingale at the COC, another of Lepage's shows and it was, as I wrote then, unlike any opera performance which I had ever witnessed. Initially, I wasn't entirely convinced. Lepage, an obvious lateral thinker, employs devices which some might think gimmicky to alter the audience's experience of theatrical works.

If this had been another of Shakespeare's plays, one of the masterpieces, I'd be figuratively jumping up and down, raving about this show. The tragedy, Coriolanus, which we saw at the Avon Theatre yesterday afternoon (July 10, 2018), is not one of those plays.

So, I'll simply say that this production is not to be missed. I have never seen, or imagined, anything remotely like it.

Without giving much away, it's a full-blown multimedia extravaganza. The point is made at the very outset with a giant bust of Coriolanus which comes alive.

What exactly is this we are looking at? Live players, live video, recorded video, projections, a mobile frame around the stage and moving sets, are mixed together in such a way that, often, you simply can't tell. And actors are miked, at least some of the time. This is a show that was designed for the Avon Theatre's proscenium stage so everything is seen from in front, like watching a movie or big screen TV, which makes it easier to confuse the audience.

I've complained in the past that re-setting historical theatrical pieces in different periods rarely does anything more than provide a different look. It doesn't boost the drama. In this case the contemporary setting of a play which is supposed to have taken place in the 4th century B.C.E. is essential because the theatrical devices Lepage uses are so obviously contemporary. If your characters are texting, or watching an all-news channel in a bar, it'd better be set in the here-and-now.

As for the plot, Caius Martius, a Roman patrician and war hero, is named Coriolanus after winning an important battle against the Volscians. His tragic flaw is pride. He is uncompromising and views the lower class plebeians with disdain. After seeking the office of Consul at the urging of his noble friends and his mother, he manages to insult and attack everyone and is banished from Rome by the newly created elected plebeian Tribunes. In revenge, he allies himself with a former enemy, the Volscian Aufidius, attacks Rome, but in victory, makes peace and then is assassinated by Aufidius's lieutenant as a traitor.

There were several very strong appearances by veteran actors. Lucy Peacock, as Coriolanus's mother Volumnia, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance. She delivers the Shakesperian text with a  dominating mother's timeless power. Graham Abbey, as Aufidius, is seriously convincing in his scenes, using his voice virtuosically. Tom McCamus is sensationally entertaining as Menenius, Coriolanus's friend and Master-of-Ceremonies, always hitting exactly the right note of casual power and lightness. Stephen Ouimet and Tom Rooney are wonderfully political, and sometimes humourous, as the newly appointed plebeian Tribunes.

André Sills gives a one-note performance in the title role. He rants and insults the plebeians (as he must since it's in the text), seeming angry throughout much of the show but never as haughty or contemptuous as he should be. It probably wouldn't be as noticeable if so much of the rest of the cast hadn't given more varied portrayals. This could be due to the author's portrayal of the character in the script.  And any of what goes on on-stage could be the result of direction, not the actor's choices.

Yesterday's performance was sold out. This is a show which might well be extended beyond its current run but one never knows. It is truly a unique vision from Lepage's Ex Machina production company.

Get thee to Stratford! Purchaseth thou thine tickets. Taketh it from me.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cirque du Soleil Crystal and Interview with Steve Bach

We went Wed. June 20, to the First Ontario Centre (AKA Copps Coliseum) to see Crystal the mixed Cirque and Ice Dancing Show from Cirque Du Soleil. This is the 31st stop for Crystal and they are still extending the tour past the end of the year. There are 95 performers and crew that travel with Crystal. Cirque du Soleil presently has 19 shows playing including 8 in Las Vegas. 

Later, I had a chance to speak with band leader Steve Bach and asked him about the music in the show and his long career.

The French word for show is spectacle and that’s what Crystal is in the English sense, a spectacle, a public show on a large scale. 

There is skating; solos, duets and ensembles, choreographed by Kurt Browning among others. There are acrobatics, juggling and, like any circus, clowning. Performers move scenery around the ice surface before and during the scenes or numbers. Aerialists appear from above and interact with players on the ice. Acrobats do their stunts on the ice surface and never fall down!

The entire show is accompanied by a complicated and highly effective light show which includes projections on the main set at the back of the rink which help to illuminate the plot. Moreover, there’s often more than one thing happening on the ice or in the air and this distracts our attention from the players moving sets, props and equipment around.

Oh, and there’s music. Non-stop music composed by Maxime Lepage. Much of it is sequenced or pre-recorded but three virtuosic live musicians, doublers all, play along and alone.

The accompanying music is very ecclectic. Sometimes it echos klezmer, other times musette or popular song. At times it rocks along but most of the time, especially in the most active sequences, it is highly cinematic with booming drum tracks and lots of powerful subbass sounds that move a lot of air.

The band is led by American keyboardist/accordionist Steve Bach and includes the Spanish clarinetist/saxophonist/guitarist Camilo Motta and violinist Stepan Grytsay from Ukraine. All three performers are very skilled. Bach plays piano from behind the scenes and accordion on stage. Motta, primarily a Bb clarinetist, playes Eb clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone as well as guitar (and he skates!). Grytsay is the second violinist to play with this show and, Bach told me later, arrived with the score almost competely memorized.

There is a story, in fact a rather detailed plot, which was well worked out as the creative team developed the show. Its bare bones are narrated for the audience’s benefit but really, like in ballet and some opera, you’d be better off knowing the story before going to the show. Having said that, it would be very entertaining even if you didn’t get the story at all. There were lots of children in the audience and they clearly enjoyed it without really understanding what was going on with the plot.

The principal roles, both a version of the girl Crystal are played by Nobahar Dadui, who is from Burlington and American Madeline Stammen.

And yes, I did enjoy the show. In fact, I’ll gladly see another Cirque du Soleil spectacle when I have the chance.

The next afternoon I went back to the arena and, escorted by the company’s travelling press rep through the labyrinthine passage around the ice surface, found music director Steve Bach at his set-up. I spoke to him while the acrobats rehearsed on the icy stage just behind us. 

Bach has had a long career as a jazz pianist. You can see and hear him play with Stanley Clarke’s band at Montreux in the early 80s on YouTube. He was subsequently the staff composer and keyboardist for Reel Music in Los Angeles. During that time he recorded 7 albums of contemporary jazz and toured with his own band. He later played with Sérgio Mendes and was music director for Andy Williams at his theatre in Branson. He even played recently on a platinum dance-pop hit!

Steve told me he began to play accordion at the age of five and didn’t become serious about piano until he was sixteen and trying to get into a really good music school to study composition and “accordion wasn’t acceptable as a serious instrument.” 

I asked how he found his way into jazz-rock. He said, “When I was at Potsdam I had the opportunity to hear Chick Corea with Return to Forever. That was a watershed moment for me. I liked jazz but I thought jazz was Oscar Peterson, which it was, but when I saw Return to Forever, which is the combination of rock and jazz, I was just completely captivated and I fell in love with Stanley Clarke (laughs) musically speaking.”

Steve Bach ended up, at the age of 23, playing with Stanley Clarke’s band in two incarnations, the second of which recorded the highly successful album Rocks, Pebbles and Sand. He toured with Clarke and that band for a year, traveling the U.S., Europe and Japan.

I commented that he appeared to how worked constantly ever since. “Non-stop.’ he said, “but for a musician, when you’re freelancing, there are stops. Just because I worked for Andy Williams for six months (of the year) doesn’t mean the other six months are so great. It’s a struggle, as a freelance musician. My resumé is amazing and I’ve been so lucky. But even with that, it was never easy.”

The “orchestra pit” area is off to the side, very close to the ice surface but the music director faces away from the action. He is surrounded by the equipment and road cases and, aside from people who might be seated in poor seats, immediately above him, almost no audience members are even aware that he’s there controlling the live music of the show.

He doesn’t stay there though since he plays, with the other two musicians, from various locations in and around the set.

His accordion is a Roland V (V for virtual) is one with about 100 digital sample sets so that he can get a variety or sounds from like Tango, Alpine and Musette. It works just like an acoustic instrument. If you don’t push it, it doesn’t play.

I asked what the music looks like when he gets it from the composer, in this case Maxime Lepage. “ I can show you the parts,” he said, “and it’s pretty heavy classical stuff.”

Each of the players gets a stack of pages. Steve’s is a three-ring binder of punched pages printed from a notation program. Some of the music has been struck out because the numbers or parts of them have been cut. He requested that the composer include chord symbols above his accordion part. Some of what is written, he told me, is not exactly what he plays, particularly in the accordion parts.

The book rests on a stand above his two keyboards. White keys on the upper one are labelled with scenes from the show so they must work the presets. The lower one is a weighed midi controller. To his left are two video monitors. One of these displays the Ableton Live sequences, 132 tracks (although they aren’t all active all the time) and the other is a monitor of the action of the show taken from in front of the playing surface. 

Because all the sounds are relayed to the sound board and then the elaborate speaker system it was difficult to know what is sequenced or pre-recorded and what is actually being played live.
When I asked him he told me, “When you see us out there, we’re live, we’re playing.” The accoustic instruments are miked and the sound transmitted wirelessly to the sound board.

There is no bass player in the band, so most of the bass parts are pre-recorded. The easy (and cheap) way to do this would be with digital samples but Cirque du Soleil records a live player. Similarly, with a string quartet, live players were engaged and recorded in a studio. Those sequences are then placed in Ableton along with whatever percussion and sound effects. Some of sound effects are triggered from the stage, others from the front of the house to sync with the action.

There are also a couple of songs and, again, the singers were recorded before the show began to tour and the live musicians supplement the recorded tracks.

Only the leader ever plays from the “pit”. The other players, and Steve himself when he’s playing accordion or his giant grand piano on skates, are always out on the set with the other performers.

I asked how they keep with the recorded score. He showed me that each wears an molded ear-piece and a transmitter. I wondered must what elements of the show he gets to hear. He told me then pulled out two pair of headphones and played part of the score for me while he filled in the missing piano part. He hears himself, of course, the stage manager calling the show, the prerecorded music, his colleagues playing their parts and a click track to keep them all in sync. He also has a mike so he can “communicate with the band and the general stage manger who is calling the show.” 

There’s not much improvisation since the numbers are pre-recorded but there are parts, for example with the clowning, that are different each night and Steve plays those parts by ear as he watchs the performer. There are also passages during changes that need some music to fill the transition.

Finally, I asked how Steve became involved with electronic pop duo Empire of the Sun. Steve played and has a writing credit on their 2013 album Ice on the Dune, and for their Platinum hit Alive.

He told me, “There are two members of the band and Nick Littlemore, the producer, was actually the composer of a Cirque show called Zarkana. And I was the music director for Zarkana and Nick and I became friends. I never expected to play or write with him but I was doing sessions with him, working on the score. He said it was fun, said he had a studio ready and asked if I wanted to come and jam a little. Nobody was more surprised than me when he called and said, ‘You remember that thing we were doing? I think it’s going to be a single,’ and I was, like, no it’s not! It’s like winning the lottery. That song ended up being on Rolling Stone’s Top 100 songs of 2013. It’s crazy!”

This interview has been edited for length, clarity and continuity.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Anna Bolena at the COC

Yesterday afternoon (May 20, 2018) we went to see Anna Bolena performed by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

We included this opera in our package with some trepidation. As I wrote then, we weren’t very impressed with Diva Sondra Radvanovsky in Roberto Devereux and went to see Norma with the second cast to avoid hearing her again. 

Anna Bolena, however, was an opera I was anxious to see. I was a COC chorister in 1984 when Dame Joan Sutherland sang the leading role with James Morris as her Enrico and Judith Forst as Giovanna Seymour. It was a stellar cast and a memorable production. I wondered how much my memory of those performances would affect my perception of this one.

Very little, it turns out. I didn’t even remember the chorus numbers (which I had obviously memorized) although much of Anna’s music came back to me as La Radvanovsky sang it. Her voice and interpretation were so different from Sutherland’s that my remembrance of those long ago performances mattered not at all.

Sondra Radvanovsky

The Sondra Radvanovsky we heard four years ago seems to have been a different singer than the one we heard yesterday. Maybe she has since spent some time with her teacher. Maybe she was just having a bad day then.

Anna Bolena is a long and dramatic sing in the midst of a very long opera. But Radvanovsky had it well in hand. Some of her singing in the opening scene was a little under pitch especially when she wasn’t singing full out but all of this disappeared once she was properly warmed up. The coloratura was crisp and clear. Her highest notes really are almost unbelievably loud and beautiful. She’s also a very fine actor which just adds to the overall effect. The Mad Scene was very effective and full of touching details.

American Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn played and sang a wonderful Enrico. As a singer he is absolutely rock solid, fearless even. He has the bright placement of a baritone on top and the buzz of a real bass on his lower notes. He’s also a really good actor, which is critical in portraying this despicable character. He even brought that to the curtain call, gesturing to the audience to continue applauding him.

Keri Alkema, as Giovanna, matched Radvanovsky and Van Horn well in their respective duets. She’s not the actor that either of them is and seemed a little wooden compared to them on stage. She has a big, beautiful voice but has a rather wider vibrato than is ideal for in this music as it sometimes obscured the clarity of the fast moving coloratura passages.

Bruce Sledge, who has, in common with the other principals, a long, successful international career, is also not as convincing an actor as Radvanovsky or Van Horn but sang Percy’s high and demanding music nearly flawlessly.

Allyson McHardy, who sang with Radvanovsky in the aforementioned Roberto Devereux four years ago, sang the page Smeton. This role, really a contralto one, provides a really contrast to the two leading ladies who, in this performance, switched-off the high part in this duet. She portrayed convincingly a very young and foolish young man and sang his music, which has little of the pyrotechniques of the other two women’s music, very well.

Jonathan Johnson sang and acted capably as Enrico’s minion, Hervey.

It was great to see and hear my U of T Opera Division classmate Thomas Goerz as Rochefort, Anna’s brother. He sang this part very nicely and acted notably especially after being tortured in the penultimate scene.

The set is interesting, a kind of semi-cirular rotunda with two galleries high above the stage. The sections on the stage are on wheels and, by pushing them about, one is able to give a variety of looks. The costumes are colourful, period appropriate and effective.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris held the whole performance together, keeping the orchestra with the singers who sometimes need some flexibility in Bel Canto operas like this one. The chorus and orchestra were impeccable as usual. The women’s chorus in the second act, sung from galleries high above the stage, was especially beautiful.

The direction was generally adequate aside from a couple of notably cringe-worthy moments: One when Percy, for no understandable reason, throws Anna on her bed and apparently sets about raping her, mercifully interupted by Smeton, and, later, a tug-of-war between Anna and Enrico with their daughter, Elizabeth, as the rope.

Including Elizabeth, as a character in this opera is, I suppose, dramatically interesting. But Donizetti’s librettist didn’t and seems implausible that a child of three would have been present in such scenes. Incidentally, the yawning extra who played Elizabeth looked to be about 10 years old.

In any event, there a couple of performances of this show left on May 24 and 26.

If you’re interested in Bel Canto opera this production is as good as any you are likely to see anywhere in the world and you won’t have to brave Pearson Airport to see it. 

Monday, May 14, 2018

Bernstein at the HPO: Guest Column

I attended the final concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra ’17-’18 season on Saturday May 12th. Upon entering the hall I was excited to see the First Ontario Concert Hall stage completely filled with chairs and stands, promising a big sound. 

The program of XXth and XXIst century music was in no way avant-garde nor challenging (not like the delightful surprise of an Elliot Carter encore from Conrad Tao on April 19th!) 

The opening piece, Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, includes the famous Hoedown. Using American folk tunes, Aaron Copland followed exactly the pre-existing Agnes De Mille choreography and omitted one section from the ballet when compiling the concert version into the form of a symphony. It is a Pops concert staple.

The centre piece of the evening was the world premiere of Ronald Royer’s Dances with Percussion for timpani, drum set and orchestra, commissioned by Ernest and Laura Porthouse and dedicated to long-time HPO timpanist Jean Norman Iadeluca to celebrate his 70th birthday. Porthouse and Iadeluca have played together for years, including 560 duo performances! Contemporary music is always an attraction for me, and I frequently wish any new piece would be played twice, to really hear it. 

This work was interesting, especially the melodic solo timpani passages, something rarely featured. Based as it is on dances, from the Baroque to the Afro-Cuban, and with clear sections, it is very approachable. The two soloists are virtuosic players; having them at the front of the stage displayed some of the technical aspects of their playing, such as Iadeluca using both feet to tune the timpani. Other things didn’t work as well, for example the nearly-inaudible bodhrán. Overall, I enjoyed it, as the composer never fell into gimmicks but respected the musicianship of both the soloists and the orchestra.

I have heard some of the Arturo Márquez Danzón series before; it is based on Mexican dances and quite approachable; the composer doesn’t stray very far from his vernacular inspiration. The No.2 has become very popular, with Gustavo Dudamel taking it on international tours; it is also featured in the web series Mozart in the Jungle.

As for the Bernstein, it is a perennial favourite for orchestras looking to bring a Pops audience in and perhaps  have them listen to more demanding repertoire. The Symphonic Dances really show that West Side Story is as much a ballet as a musical. Orchestrated by Ramin and Kostal, who had worked on the film version, they use all the capabilities of a full complement of symphonic players. I expect we’ll hear this piece a lot this year, it being the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.

Expanded to 73 players, the orchestra’s playing was impressive and every bit as high-quality as the smaller versions have been. Lance Ouellette was concertmaster and had just enough solo passages to display his solid playing. Les Allt provided the beautiful first flute lines and Andrew Cho shone at first clarinet. The brass sections were also impressive. The strings created both expansive phrasing and energetic rhythmical playing 
under Gemma New’s usual crystal-clear and warm conducting. It seemed obvious the orchestra was in a celebratory mood!

All that dancy music had some people bopping around in their seats, which unfortunately meant that whole rows of the concert hall were vibrating, quite an annoyance.

This was an evening of light symphonic music, excellently played but no revelation. I would enjoy concerts that would feature perhaps one of these pieces in a program of deeper works. Next season’s line-up seems very interesting, as long as the HPO management doesn’t spring unannounced surprises on the audience, perhaps well-meant but very disruptive (like the pop singer at the aforementioned April 19th concert).

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Nightingale and Other Short Tales at the COC

When I returned home from yesterday afternoon’s (May 12) performance of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables I was asked what I thought. I said I needed to think about it. I’ve done that and I have learned a valuable lesson from Robert Lepage et al.

At the outset, I knew pretty much what I was going to see and hear. The show is iconic. The water in the pit, the puppets and the rest of the gimmicks have been documented in videos and elsewhere. The “other fables” are not operatic pieces: never were and were never intended to be.

I have my prejudices, though. When I go to the opera I expect to see… opera. I don’t like it when directors reset operatic pieces in the wrong period or otherwise play with conventions. Opera directors and other opera professionals are steeped in these pieces. They know them inside-out and have seen them numerous times. They're looking to do something different than they've seen before. Subscribers only see them, even the pot-boilers, once ever few years so don't need to revisit them differently. Moreover, most resettings don't serve the story, they don't add anything to the audiences' comprehension of the drama. Sometimes, as we saw recently in the COC's Abduction, they only serve the director's personal agenda.

And an opera performance isn’t a concert. I know the difference. I attend concerts, orchestral, choral and otherwise.

The musicians are on stage in this show, behind the singers, acrobats and puppeteers. The music of the first half is nine Russian Period Stravinsky pieces only one of which, The Fox, is explicitly dramatic. They are scored for various chamber groups. So it’s essentially a concert with costumed singers standing in front of a varying group of instrumentalists, supplemented by audio visuals.

The Nightingale is an actual one act opera in three scenes. The device here is that most of the singers carry an avatar, a small puppet representing themselves. From my vantage point at the front of the Fourth Ring, however beautiful those puppets are up close, they were two small for me to see clearly. I have no doubt those sitting in the front of the orchestra had a much different experience.

As I’ve come to expect in COC productions the playing, singing and acting were exemplary. There’s a huge orchestra for The Nightingale whose orchestration ranges from full-blown to very very sparse in the manner of Stravinsky’s then contemporaries Debussy and Mahler. I especially enjoyed the women of the chorus singing the Four Russian Peasant Songs with horn quartet, some of them with their feet dangling off the front of the stage in the water. Among the solo singers Owen McCausland who sang in the quartet of men in The Fox and returned as the Fisherman in The Nightingale was outstanding, as was artist-in-residence Jane Archibald as the Nightingale herself. But really, all the singing was first-rate. We also got to see and hear clarinetist Juan Olivares, in costume, play the 3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet. 

At what conclusion have I arrived? Crabby David was all negative because the first half of the show isn’t an opera. It’s a concert. But is it? There is other stuff going on all the time. Performers do a shadow show illustrating some of the stories. Acrobats move and dance with shadow puppets behind a back-lit screen. They are real, live performers aided only by the lighting. This is theatrical. It’s not opera but it’s theatre and opera, too, is supposed to be theatre.

If it had been a concert, just a concert, would I have enjoyed the music? Certainly! Excellent performances of pieces I’m unlikely to hear otherwise? What’s not to like?

So once I let go of my prejudices and just judged this unique theatrical experience for what it was, I discovered I don’t have a problem with The Nightingale and Other Short Tales. The first half is varied, interesting and engaging. Some of what was presented in that water-filled orchestra pit in the second half was not gimmicky but beautiful, entrancing and, sometimes, frighteningly chilling. The presentation is a collection of theatrical effects which enhance the music and acting, thanks to the genius of Robert Lepage.

There are three more performances, one this very afternoon (May 13/2018) and yesterday’s performance was far from sold out. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Ligetti, Bartòk and Dvořák at the HPO.

To make a connection between a concert of Eastern European orchestral music and Hamilton’s Black community’s history is a tenuous, but not impossible undertaking, as we learned last night at a concert of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Maestro James Sommerville, the HPO’s former music director, returned to conduct the orchestra in music of Ligeti, Bartók and Dvořák. He had a highly successful tenure here and was greeting enthusiastically by the HPO audience.

James Sommerville

As we arrived in the lobby of the Great Hall we could hear the Stewart Memorial Church Choir singing spirituals in the Mezzanine. This was a surprise but not entirely unexpected as we'd been warned of something similar in a piece in the Hamilton Spectator.

The orchestra opened with György Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. This piece was written in 1951 but not premièred until 20 years later due to Romanian government suppression. It is in four short movements and very approachable. This is early Ligeti, the folk influenced composer. The music is more akin to Bartók's than Ligeti’s later music written after working in the electronic music studio in Cologne alongside Stockhausen. That sort of Ligeti music is familiar to most people because Stanley Kubrick used some of it (Atmospheres, Lux Aeterna) in the 1968 film  2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a delightful and engaging performance. Concert Master Stephen Sitarski played the solos enthusiastically and I thought, several times, that he would rise from his seat and dance while playing them.

This was followed by a performance of the Bartók Third Piano Concerto played by American pianist, violinist, composer, and former child prodigy Conrad Tao. It is a really beautiful piece and much more accessible than his Concerto for Orchestra or Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste which we heard earlier this season. It is framed in the conventional three movements and draws on the folk elements that are so prevalent in his much earlier works. Tao is a jaw-droppingly accomplished player and his rendition of this concerto The orchestra responded with an appropriately inspired accompaniment which included some glorious string choir sounds and He was dressed in black jeans, a black t-shirt and black jacket, which he removed and placed on the floor while he played his encore, Caténaires, an insanely wild and complex work by Elliot Carter. 

Conrad Tao

The second half was originally billed as the Dvořák 9th Symphony, From the New World  but, alas, that wasn’t exactly to be. Jamie Sommerville, who had already spoken at the beginning of the concert, went on at some length about Dvořák’s interest in Afro-American and Indigenous music and Hamilton’s role as a terminus of the Underground Railway.

He then introduced Charmaine Robinson, a.k.a. Queen Cee who sang an amplified a cappella and sotto voce rendition of Go Down Moses (Let my people go). This song has no connection to Dvořák or the symphony. 

The orchestra then played the first movement of the symphony. At its conclusion, Queen Cee returned to sing, with the strings of the orchestra, Goin’ Home, a song the words of which were composed to a melody from the second movement of the symphony in 1922.

The orchestra then played the concluding three movements of the symphony. It’s a favourite of Sommerville's, not surprising since it has prominent horn-led themes in the first and last movements and his other job is Principal Horn in the Boston Symphony. The New World Symphony seemed markedly old-fashioned after the first half and the performance lacked its energy and intensity. The slow movement, however, featured a splendid rendition of the above-mentioned melody by English hornist Elizabeth Eccleston.

This concert was billed (and sold) as a program of Eastern European orchestral pieces. We avoid pops concerts. The two songs weren’t mentioned in the subscription materials on which I base my choices.

Moreover, whatever credibility the orchestra’s leadership believes it gains by associating itself with local cultural organizations, such performances could be given, as the choir's was, in the lobby prior to the orchestra's performance. It would then not interfere with the flow of a major symphonic work.
On Saturday, May 12, Gemma New returns to conduct a Bernstein tribute concert featuring music by Copland, Royer, Maraquez and Bernstein's own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Another Conversation with Gemma New

I spoke with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Music Director, Gemma New about the Intimate and Interactive concert which was to be presented that evening (April 5), planning concerts and the HPO’s 2018-19 season.

HPO Music Director Gemma New

DF: How did you choose the music for tonight’s concert?

GN: I look at many different factors like a jigsaw puzzle. Shaker Loops (John Adams) is a piece I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’ve seen in performed in other places and I’ve seen how powerful it is. Throughout my life I’ve seen a ton of concerts and heard lots of music and I think, that was great and I want to bring this piece to Hamilton. And you have always to think, every city is different, has different needs, what sort of music the audience is going to be drawn to and appreciate. 

First off we’re playing String Sinfonietta by Vivian Fung. Then Claude Vivier’s Zipangu. Both of those pieces are inspired by Balinese Gamelan music. The two halves of the concert come together in the fact that music inspires or creates an opportunity for the listener to transcend spiritually.

DF: I can see there are peculiar challenges here where you have an established audience of concert goers and you wish to interest a younger audience too. So you have two kinds of audiences.

GN: At least. Everyone reacts to music differently. You have to have an informed opinion of what you think is going to work. I sit in the audience a lot getting ideas. Shaker Loops was the beginning of this concert.

DF: How many concerts in the upcoming season?

GN: The same as this year. There are nine mainstage concerts and we have two Interactive and Immersive concerts in March and May, We have two family concerts, and then we have the Literary Recital series and the Gallery Series.

In November we have the Remembrance Day concert. We like to alternate it between a more classical concert and the next year we do a more pops related. This year we’re doing music of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Scott Joplin. The Bach-Elgar Choir will be doing some favourite tunes, remembering WW I and the Golden Era of Jazz that came right after it. We’ve got a great singer, Doug Labrecque, who has performed with many major orchestras in the U.S. He’s really phenomenal and he’s funny and his voice is so strong and beautiful and he knows this repertoire inside out. I am so pleased we were able to get him here.

In the Holiday Concert we’re going to do Abigail Richardson-Shulte’s The Hockey Sweater (with Roch Carrier narrating) and we will also have the HPO Youth Orchestra on-stage performing with the full HPO.

We have a Tribute to the Beatles: With Love. It’s going to be close to Valentine’s Day. Darcy Heppner is the conductor and he’s bringing some special guests along. The concert last time sold out weeks before so we were anxious to bring him back.

DF: Do you have themes for other concerts?

I try to have a unified idea. Our community is diverse and I would like that, if you don’t know a lot about music or if you know a ton about music, you can relate to the program in some way. I like to combine the theme and the styles of music and the pacing of the program. All three of those things must work well. 

The first two programs are about passion and drama in music. We have Beethoven and Mozart and Gluck and Elgar. They wanted drama and stories and this personal energy to come through in the music. So we’ve got the Leonora Overture #3 (Beethoven), the Elgar Cello Concerto (Cameron Crozman plays), and Brahm’s Symphony #1. 

And then the next program is GluckThe Furies from Orpheus ed Euridice which is a scene from the opera in which the Furies say,” No, you shall not come into the underworld.” and he’s (Orpheus) playing and singing this most beautiful tune and finally they listen. Beethoven was inspired by this to write the slow movement of his Fourth Piano Concerto and we have André Laplante playing it. Straight after then we have Antinomie by Jacques Hétu which I don’t know very well but our guest conductor Jacques Lacombe has specifically chosen it to fit in this program and he has a special relationship with Hétu and his music. And then Mozart Jupiter Symphony, #41.

DF: Thanks so much!

This interview was edited for length and continuity.

Here are the listings for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Mainstage 2018-19 season. 

October 20, 2018
Beethoven & Mozart
Jacques Lacombe, Conductor
Andre Laplante, Piano
Gluck: Dance of the Furies from Orphée et Euridice
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Hétu: Antinomie
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter)

November 10, 2018
From Broadway to Tin Pan Alley
Gemma New, Conductor
Doug LaBrecque, Vocalist
Bach Elgar Choir, Guest Artist
Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Band, Guest Artist

December 15, 2018
Home for the Holidays: The Hockey Sweater
Gemma New, Conductor
Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, Guest Artist
Roch Carrier, Narrator
Holiday Favourites

January 19, 2019
Glorious Bach
Ivars Taurins, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Lance Ouellette, Violin

Selections by J.S. Bach including Concerto for Violin, Orchestral Suite No. 3, and music from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

February 16, 2019
From The Beatles, With Love
Darcy Hepner, Conductor
Experience your favourite Beatles songs arranged for live orchestra in collaboration with Hamilton artists.

March 16, 2019
Debussy & Holst’s The Planets
Gemma New, Conductor
McMaster University Choir, Guest Artist
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Debussy: Nocturnes
Holst: The Planets

April 27, 2019
Ravel & Stravinsky
Nathan Brock, Conductor
Stephen Sitarski, Violin
Rossini: The Barber of Seville Overture
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor
Ravel: Tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky: Jeux de Cartes

May 11, 2019
Mahler’s Fifth 
Conductor: Gemma New
Vivier: Orion
Mahler: Symphony No. 5