Archive for November, 2006

ST.LAWRENCE STRING QUARTET with DAVID FINCKEL and WU HAN reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, November 30th, 2006

November 29, 2006

with David Finckel and Wu Han
Jane Mallett Theatre

The evening’s programme, received with wild enthusiasm, was chosen because of a child.

The SLSQ’s violinist Geoff Nuttal stayed home for the birth of his first child, so the Quartet started off as a trio with Erno Dohnanyi’s “Serenade in C, Op.10”, featuring the group’s newest member, Scott St. John. A duo followed with special guests, the Emerson Quartet’s cellist David Finckel and his wife, pianist Wu Han, collaborating in a spectacular performance of the “Sonata in D Minor, for cello and piano, Op 40”, by Dmitri Shostakovich. The quartet configuration was a warm one, with the viola of Lesley Robertson, and David Finckel doubling the SLSQ’s cellist Chris Costanza, in Anton Arensky’s all too rarely performed “String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35.”

Inspiration came to Dohnanyi naturally, according to the second of his three wives. His “Serenade” (1902) written on the threshold of his first maturity, reveals an inventive fertility and a wealth of ideas. The music is lyrical and vivacious, ornamented with that wry Hungarian sense of humour. Formally, it relies on the Romantic heritage, and as in the case of Brahms, reaches back to 18th century classical forms.

Tonally centred, the “Serenade” is a rich weave of motivic strands and chromatic excursions. The St. Lawrence trio’s playing was dramatic, heightening the frequent abrupt shifts of tempo, the sudden transitions between legato and staccato passages. The second movement offered an affecting interplay between Scott St. John’s long, dense, lyrical violin and Costanza’s pizzicato bass line. The cross harmonies and dramatic gypsy theme of the Rondo (Finale) were strong.

The Shostakovich “Cello Sonata” of 1934 belongs to the period when the composer was writing music considered conservative in its harmonics and classical in form. Op. 40 came to be known in Soviet circles as a “model for the new, socially acceptable type of expression.” Maybe. Nevertheless, if Stalin’s artsocrats had heard the interpretation David Finckel and Wu Han offered they might have raised their heavy hand to strike him down.

To Shostakovich’s gravely lyrical opening theme of the first movement, Finckel brings exceptional force, and Wu Han dramatic passion. In the concluding largo, the creepy catwalk piano and the cello moving slowly like an assailant on the prowl have a kind of parodic effect more familiar in the post “Lady Macbeth” works. The boisterous second movement was so exciting it left the audience, literally, gasping for breath.

During the intensely personal third movement and the cello’s gorgeous cantilena, the audience’s concentration was palpable. The allegro rondo-finale was a riot, a runaway stagecoach, a keystone cop-chase, a Katchaturian “Sabre Dance”, Wu Han smiling above her high stepping keys, Finckel sawing away at the fiendishly difficult cello part, and everyone having fun.

Anton Arensky’s 2nd String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 35, written to honour the late Tchaikovsky, is scored darkly for two cellos, viola and violin. It opens on a dirge-like theme by the cellos who pass it to the viola for a full bodied and energetic treatment. The second movement, variations on a song by Tchaikovsky, is stated simply and goes straight to the heart. It is elaborated by each instrument in turn, notably Finckel’s plucked strings, through impressively melodic and fluent up-tempo variations, that return eventually to the dirge like theme. The third movement opens darkly, develops a vigorous fugue on Russian themes reminiscent of Mussorgsky and Arensky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and moves to an energetic and celebratory conclusion.

For Music Toronto’s full Chamber Music Downtown schedule, visit

SOFIA GUBAIDULINA: A PORTRAIT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, November 29th, 2006

November 28, 2006
New Music Concerts presents
Sofia Gubaidulina: A Portrait
Glenn Gould Studio

Guest artists: Friedrich Lips, bayan; Patricia Green, mezzo-soprano; Michael Schulte, solo violin.

The public…comes to the concert to get impressions. The public strives for spiritual work. And it applauds composers and performers for presenting something that allows people to experience a state of concentration, to bring themselves into a state of wholeness, to cure themselves from the state of dispersal and disconnection that they suffer in everyday life.” Sofia Asgatovna Gubaidulina

Robert Aitken—flute, Steven Dann—viola, and Erica Goodman—harp, presented Gubaidulina’s “The Garden of Joys and Sorrows (1980/93)”. The players spun solo threads: the flute lyrical in a Debussyesqe way, but insistent and insinuating, the harp brittle, and the viola squeaking as if rusted. There follow passages sliding into unison as the tempo increases, giving the sense of the scurry of panicking creatures. The voice of the viola appeals for calm, the flute relaxes into lyrical meanderings, but the harp remains in distress, uttering a noisy jangle. An internal rhythm surfaces, almost like a donkey-trot, that soothes before rising panic and turmoil prevail momentarily, then subside into less dense textures, dissolve into unison and harmony and the clarity of silence. From that silence arises a concluding seven-note motif that sounded to me like a bugler’s “Reveille”. Into our awakened state, Steven Dann speaks these words from the “Diary” of Francisco Tanzer:

When is it really over? What is the true ending?
All borders are like a line drawn with a stick
of wood or the heel of a shoe in the sand.
Up here…there’s the borderline: All this is artificial.
Tomorrow we play another game.

As an interlude in the evening’s exploration of Russian spiritual struggle, we had Abigail Richardson’s concerto for violin and string quartet in three movements entitled “Upstream (2006)”, written for her husband, Michael Schulte who performed the solo violin part. Ms. Richardson, an affiliate composer with the TSO, writes:

“I think of ‘Upstream’ in several different ways: the individual moves against a current, sometimes with the current, sometimes faster. Sometimes the individual (being the violinist, of course) is witnessed from a different perspective, upstream—visible from a distance and getting gradually closer until arriving and suddenly disappearing. The violin actively fuels the current of flows along with it.”

The world of “Upstream” is dramatic, but in a charming way, full of pleasant contrasts and humour. Michael Schulte’s violin sings into the lyrical opening section. Later, he leads a fiddling solo and response pattern that recalls the broad pastoral canvas of Aaron Copeland. There follows an up-tempo pizzicato section that recalls the bouncy bits of early Shostakovich string quartets, but without the paranoia, underlined in dark strokes by Peter Pavlovsky’s bass. Schulte’s cadenza, improvised by himself, stands out distinctly from the ensemble’s dialogue. Occasionally, the piece develops a sameness of texture and colouration, a predictability of phrasing that mutes one’s pleasure, but those moments dissolve and the interest returns.

The evening was generously filled out after intermission by two major works, “Silenzio (1991)”, and “Hommage a T.S. Eliot, 1987/91”. The latter work, in seven movements, is richly scored for an octet and featured Patricia Green singing the recitation of Gubaidulina’s selection from Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. Horn (Joan Watson) and winds (Max Christie, Clarinet and, Kathleen McLean, bassoon) allowed the music to resound in a more voluminous dimension. Patricia Green’s rich voice added the authority of utterance, be it benediction, doom, or blessing.

Since this portrait of Gubaidulina has emerged due to Robert Aitken’s experience with her, let him have the last words.

“She went her own way, which is both extremely personal and extremely Russian…The national temperament never knows if it’s happy or sad…And sometimes the music she writes is very scary.

It takes you into a world that won’t allow you to be happy…You are going to notice a lot of texture. She does that a lot. But she has a very special way that makes it recognizable. You know immediately—that’s her. What she writes is stream of consciousness in texture. Like the drip, drip, drip of raindrops. It keeps your attention because you never know when the next raindrop is going to come.

The other thing she does in almost every piece is a kind of exploratory, stretching chromaticism…It’s like a kind of religious ecstasy—that climbing and reaching, reaching and straining to the top [of the chromatic scale]. She makes it to the top, and then comes the incredible, for us, relaxation. I think she satisfies the need of contemporary audiences to have contemporary music you can understand. Very often, contemporary audiences are frustrated because you can’t really understand what’s going on. She stretches you and gets you up there, but you do understand.

ESPRIT ORCHESTRA:SOPHIA PLUS reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 27th, 2006

November 26, 2006
Esprit Orchestra’s SOPHIA PLUS
Jane Mallett Theatre

Sophia Gubaidulina writes music that makes instruments “speak with instrumental…gestures.” These gestures may sound like the rustle of leaves, the gibber of monkeys, the groaning of heavily laden timbers—not like music at all. Nevertheless, attending to a performance of her music, one may feel visited by the ability of king Solomon to understand the languages of nature.

Gubaidulina’s compositions, “Seven Words”, and “De Profundis”, played by Esprit Orchestra and distinguished guest artists, may be branches of European musical traditions connecting her to Haydn. But it is out of Russian roots connecting her to Dostoevsky that Gubaidulina’s meditations on suffering redeemed through love spring.

Both works, inspired by biblical scenes, are dedicated to bayan virtuoso Friedrich Lips who played for us this night, solo, and as part of the Esprit Orchestra conducted by Alex Pauk. Much has been written about the idea of the cross being enacted at all musical levels of “Seven Words”. At another level, the visceral impact of the music on one’s imagination is also worth a few words here.

Cello wielded by Esprit’s Paul Widner and bayan (Russian accordion) in the masterly hands of Lips initiate a duet of whining and groaning over which the strings wave like a breeze detached from all earthly suffering. The duet resumes an intensely focused dialogue with cello writhing glissando up and down register, jerking away into pizzicato, while bayan heaves and bays like an animal in pain, coming to rest, exhausted, in a passage of hollow stertorous breathing. The strings rise in a clamour and it is as if one were witness to a heart undergoing trauma, breaking apart fibre by fibre; as if one were in a city undergoing the agony of an impending aerial firestorm. The bayan’s slow drones suggest incoming bombers, the cello utters the air raid siren, and a picture arises in the mind of a city, like Dresden, thrusting blackened skeletal ruins up to the sky. Cello, bayan, and strings gradually disintegrate into the sub audible and all tensions end.

The evening began with “Concertino for solo flute, three flutes, and string orchestra” by Brian Current, featuring the solo flute of Robert Aitken. Brian Current’s work is becoming widely appreciated for the experiments with irregular waves of accelerating and slowing tempos he calls ‘slanted time’. “Concertino”, an attractive and theatrical piece, situates the three flautists at the back of the room. The music, made up of two-note units that pass back and forth between flutes and strings played arco and pizzicato, is sometimes arranged in call and response pattern. The solo work seems fiendishly difficult, but Aitken makes it look easy, and the piece as a whole has a delightful feeling, free of any harshness. Alex Hooper, a film set designer, had this to say:

“I particularly liked the Brian Current piece. It made me feel as if I were lying in field in the middle of a hot, hot summer, with a million frogs and insects buzzing around because of all the textures. I thought it was wonderful. And I thought Robert Aitken’s flute playing was fantastic. It had so much character. The whole piece was fresh and light—just a very happy piece.”

Serge Arcuri’s 2006 concerto in four movements for piano and string orchestra entitled “La Foret des clameurs” offered a contrasting mood. The piece was commissioned by pianist Louise Bessette who performed it. Arcuri offers illuminating hints about the intention of the piece in phrases like “the joy of giving clamour to those who are voiceless,” and “ forests whose trees seem isolated creatures but are in fact joined by a network of roots.

The first mood initiated by a downward arpeggio on the keys accompanied by trembling strings is spooky, apprehensive and anxious. A tempestuous passage follows punctuated by percussive chords on the piano and terminated by a sudden break. The second movement spreads like a liquid stain through piano and solo violin into a mood of soft melancholy, a Satie-like simplicity, more lonely than distressed. The third movement is up-tempo, strings pizzicato, with a nice, jazz like ground bass line, piano percussive modulating almost to the level of human speech. The piece ends with Bessette’s piano seeming to set off sympathetic vibrations in the strings, and the whole texture of sound evaporates into the space. A robust experience from a composer better known for his electroacoustic music.

It is very much to our civic credit that Esprit Orchestra has joined with the TSO, the Music Gallery, the Goethe Institut, Soundstreams Canada, Toca Loca and New Music Concerts to celebrate the music of Sofia Gubaidulina.

THE MAGIC FLUTE reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, November 18th, 2006

November 17, 2006
Opera Atelier’s The Magic Flute, by W.A.. Mozart
Elgin Theatre, Toronto

Mozart’s masterpiece, spoken and sung in English, is a blessed event. There is a childlike simplicity in the opera’s telling of Tamino and Pamina’s adventurous path into the mysteries of Masonry and marriage. The dim lighting by Kevin Fraser, and Gerard Gauci’s earth-toned forest sets combine to create a dreamlike atmosphere of fairytales–“Hansel and Gretel”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “Mother Goose”, and the quirky world of Lewis Carroll.

Marshall Pynkowski’s direction of the antic characters—Papageno and Monostatos in particular—nudges the farcical elements of the material towards the realm of a Wayne and Shuster send-up of stuffy classics. His direction of the more ‘serious adult’ characters such as the Queen of the Night and Sarastro blends broad element of melodrama that recall the operetta’s of Gilbert and Sullivan. Jeanette Zingg’s choreography of the ballet sequences brings seasonal overtones of “The Nutcracker.” All this with music by Mozart played by Tafelmusik Orchestra, conducted by David Fallis in the elegantly restored Elgin Wintergarden, makes for a special kind of hit.

Penelope Randall-Davis, who makes a spectacular appearance in the sky as Queen of the Night, hits all her high notes. Olivier Laquerre presents his Papageno with fluid grace and a humour that endears. His vocal work flows naturally and without flaw. Gerald Isaac in the role of the villainous slave Monostatos is marvelously quick and razor sharp in his movements and vocal attack. Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye as the romantic leads are both beautiful, in good voice, and charmingly coordinated in Dora Rust-D’Eye’s costumes. Brilliant turquoise and gold costumes and sets gleam out as the heroic young couple emerge from the veiled, nocturnal world of their trials into the temple of Sarastro, played by Curtis Sullivan, whose masterful basso grounds this radiant court of solar wisdom.

This Opera Atelier production of “The Magic Flute” has been a hit worldwide for 15 years. One could assume they have the recipe just right.
If I have a second thought, it comes from feeling a certain slackness in my attention during the performance, as though a necessary tension were missing, an energy that originates in distance from the drama, awe at the grandeur of character and action. The very familiarity that makes this production so accessible and immediate may also be dimming some of this opera’s original grandeur.

Play until November 25, Elgin Wintergarden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto.
Tickets $30 to $125. For further information or to order tickets, call 416-872-5555 or visit and

VOGLER QUARTET OF BERLIN reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 17th, 2006

Thursday, November 16, 2006
Jane Mallett Theatre,Toronto

Violinists:Tim Vogler, Frank Reinecke; cellist, Stephan Forck; violist, Stefan Fehlandt.

Lutoslawski’s “Quartet (1964)” speaks volumes: cubes, spheres, vast rhomboid rooms, spiraling helical towers. Listening to this composition reveal itself through the instruments of the Vogler String Quartet is like having the parietal lobe of the brain probed: visual spaces appear—spaces where Calder mobiles dangle, de Chirico rooms meander towards infinity, Braque monoliths populate Easter Island.

The piece is opened by the first violin that utters solo squeaks not unlike amplified bat radar gone random, a tiny rusted hinge speaking to the breeze. The cello lows like an ox in pain, the ensemble flutters, flits in muted pizzicato, explodes like a hive of angry bees, undulating in a texture so dense not a breath is possible.

This composition belongs to the first in series of atonal works Lutoslawki began producing in the mid 60’s incorporating the aleatory ideas of John Cage. The music, printed on an elaborate system of fold-out pages, is a progression of architectural entities Lutoslawski spoke of as ‘mobiles.’ The score includes cues to the players signaling when mobiles begin and end. The process leaves some room for chance, as when a player rolls dice whose shape and numbering is fixed, though the result is left to chance.

One feels awakened and in awe of this music, so unsettling in its rawness, so sad in its humanity, offering a kind of consolation through the mastery one feels issuing directly from the mind of the composer.

One listened to Schubert’s last string quartet that followed intermission with ears shaped by the Lutoslawski. Vogler’s phrasing of Schubert’s bold variations produced broadly sculptured passages, voluminous spaces. The plaintive theme of the opening allegro, though sad, contains a masculine strength and determination that steers the mood away from melancholy. The movement’s minor/major changes work out towards a resolution that mingles sadness with gaiety, as in these lines from Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli”:

On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The exquisite ‘niggunlike’ melody that opens the slow movement, and the lighthearted children’s skipping game theme of the scherzo, are like masses of light colours outlined in strong, dark strokes by the cello. The final allegro, which recalls some of the ambiguous major/minor exchanges of the first movement, but with a heightened sense of drama, resolves in a dance rhythm that recalls the courtly world of Mozart.

This brings us back to our evening’s beginning and Haydn’s E-flat Major Quartet, Op. 64.No.6 (1790). Haydn’s work of this period, when he had returned from England as an international ‘star’ possesses, in Gerber’s words, “the great art of appearing familiar in his themes.” Serious emotion is laced with little laughing runs that reflect in the smiling eyes of the players. This neatly ordered structure gets its own joke.

Steve Kitt of Toronto spoke to us about the concert:

It was excellent Haydn. The Vogler is a smooth, well-oiled machine. But I have to say, I liked the Lutoslawski better. I’m glad Music Toronto presents music of this type. It was enjoyable and so full of emotion you could hear a pin drop. It was so fluid, and encompassed almost all possible sounds and feelings. The long pizzicato passage was amazing. I thought it was one of the better contemporary works that I’ve heard recently, to the extent that I would like to buy the CD. Yes, I enjoyed it.

This concert is presented by MUSIC TORONTO as part of its CHAMBERMUSIC DOWNTOWN SERIES, 35th Season, with the support of 5 anonymous donors, 4 Long-time Subscribers and the following: ACS-Buck, Canada, Ltd./Borden Ladner Gervais LLP/ Inco Limited/LeDrew Laishley Reed LLP/Roger D. Moore/ PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP

INTERNATIONAL GUITAR NIGHT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 12th, 2006

November 11, 2006
Featuring Andrew White, Antoine Dufour, Peppino D’Agostino & Brian Gore
Presented by Smallworld Music at Harbourfront Centre Theatre

The audience that dropped in to hear this international forty-fingered guitar-picking tune-up had a turned on night all right. The four composer/virtuosos originating from the U.S, Canada, the U.K., and Italy, collaborated in a program of solos, duos and a quartet, whose silky-steely harmonies captured and enraptured the house.

Brian Gore, founder of the IGN tour, opened the show with the mellifluous ripple of a Castilian-influenced composition of his own punctuated with rhythmic taps and thumps on neck and body of his Frantisek Furch Stonebridge guitar. His smile, as brilliant as his playing, magnetized the audience. He followed up with a composition played in a tuning that just happened one day while the pegs of his guitar fell against furniture. Gore’s music has that kind of happy acceptance. And humour there is in “Dutch Crunch,” a rhythmic tune celebrating potato chips with strums sweeping from the bridge up the fingerboard alternating with percussive chords.

Brian introduced IGN’s newest member, Antoine Dufour, who was in the audience at IGN’s concert in Montreal last year, got an audition after the performance, and was invited onboard. A winner in 3 major fingerstyle guitar competitions, Antoine’s approach, somewhat formed under the influence of Don Ross, mixes rock with classical, funky groove with folk. His composition “Funky-Tonk” tells you even by the title about the bright energy Dufour adds to the show.

Andrew White, now from Nova Scotia, bounced in under a black pork-pie hat with a raggish composition, elegant in its simplicity. He followed that with the best song in the program up to that point, a quick-fingered piece based on a Celtic drone highlighted with harmonics that puts him in a class with Tommy Emmanuel and Tony McManus.

The personality of the night was Peppino D’Agostino. Peppino fulfilled his claim that the solo fingerstyle guitar is a mini-orchestra. He opened with “Beyond the Dune”, a Macedonian- inspired composition in 7/8 time that progressed by a chordal melody full of the passion and drama of the Eastern Mediterranean. He followed that with the best single composition of the evening, his ballad “Close to Heaven”, a delicate, lacy number sonorous with bell-like tones.

Peppino also pulled off the virtuosic feat of the night with his arrangement of Brazilian composer Edu Lobo’s “Porteo”. Peppino blends Afro rhythms with the percussive beat of Flamenco ‘zapateados’, zingy slide runs and sounds that mimic the berimbao, a percussion bow used in capoeira, the Brazilian sport combining martial arts and dance. This Peppino accomplishes by ‘in-mid-flight’ tuning of his bass E string down and down and down again for a bass line effect, till he’s ready to bring all back home in perfect tune. We also liked the number Peppino wrote for his duo with Andrew White–who once lived in New Zealand–thus the title, “Kiwis and Tomatoes”.

The audience, which was composed of a large contingent of guitarists, rewarded IGN with several standing ovations. But let us give the last word to an audience member who was at her first guitar concert. Subhadra Vijaykumar, an international concert artist on the Carnatic violin who teaches at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Mississauga Campus, had this to say:
Subhadra Vijaykumar: I have enjoyed it. I really like Andrew White the most. He is a mature player. He brings mastery to what he was playing. He had the audience very quiet for most of the time, which always is a sign that the playing is of a very high standard.

STM: What elements did you find in common with Indian music?
SV: I am a novice when it comes to playing the guitar, but it reminded me of good music. At times when I heard a phrase and heard it repeated, it would remind me of Indian music. Some series of notes and phrases, progressions and dynamics that they played are similar to Indian music

I also enjoyed the percussion. I had no idea, until I heard Brian Gore play his first number, that the guitar was capable of being a percussive instrument. In the end, he produced all kinds of remarkable sounds. I am looking forward to hearing more.


The entire show is recorded on the New International Guitar Night CD

Peppino D’Agostino
Antoine Dufour
Andrew White
Brian Gore

Smallworld Music
Subhadra Vijaykumar