Archive for March, 2007

STEVEN OSBORNE reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Music Toronto Presents
Jane Mallett Theatre, Front Street, Toronto

Steven Osborne is a poet at the piano. His Liszt selections convey a sense of having “looked on beauty bare.” Osborne’s touch can be so soft and tender, one thinks of e.e. cummings’ line “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”

Many of the pieces on his programme move between extremes of feather-light pianissimo and thunder, which brings details of the music into sharp definition like” marble men and maidens” that remain “forever warm” on a Grecian urn.

“Haar”– Scottish for ‘sea-mist’–by Osborne’s schoolmate, James Clapperton, is made of fine trilling lines and single notes that fall and ripple bringing a sense of desire, muted but self-satisfied, like Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” that “comes/on little cat feet. /…sits looking/over harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on.

Osborne takes the B Minor “Rhapsody” by Brahms, made of tender triadic melodies enclosed by thick, crashing chords, through its rhythmic variations with broad dynamic shadings and fadings, like a turbulent mountain brook that trickles out of a spring, develops violent force down falls and over rapids, broadens and pools in the alluvial plain before merging with the ocean’s booming surf. Though the piece as Osborne plays it feeds the imagination, oddly the overall feeling is the luminous beauty of music abstract as the light in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty Bare.”

Osborne is the second pianist to favour Toronto with “Pictures at an Exhibition” as Mussorgsky wrote it, for solo piano. Vladimir Feltsman at a recent Amici concert demonstrated the raw power of the piece. The way Osborne played it, though no one hits the keys harder than he does, realizes the idea of ‘tone poem’: you get to see what he plays. The capricious ‘Gnome’ scurries. On the walls of the ‘Old Castle’, threadbare tapestries flap in the light breeze releasing a fine dust into the beams of sunlight. Children at play in the ‘Tuilleries’ quarrel in Osborne’s right-hand trills. Oxen plod in the hypnotic chord progression of his left hand. Chicks scatter and cheep in onomatopoeic trills shaded by hard repetitive chords. Two Jews, thin and heavy as Laurel and Hardy, harangue each other. Traffic in the ‘Limoges Market’ moves like a keystone cops sequence. The deep, slow drama of the ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Cum mortuis’ extends itself like a shadow falling in long, slow, soft, chords. ‘Baba Yaga’ dissonant and crazy as a boogie woogie staggers around comically on ‘fowl’s legs.’ ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ depicted ponderous in sonorous chords also swings its lyric melody until it is pounded shut.

Tonight’s recital is Osborne’s Toronto debut. Encore.

THE PENDERECKI STRING QUARTET reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Saturday, March 10, 2007
New Music Concerts present
The Music Gallery, Toronto

ANNUNCIATION (2005) for string quartet and live electronics.

Omar Daniel’s composition is iconic: blocks of sound sculpted into simple shapes juxtaposed dramatically, vibrating in sympathy with the figures of Mary and the Angel Gabriel in the projected slide sequence of six ‘Annunciation’ paintings from the Italian Renaissance. The music seemingly organized in serial tone rows pulses dynamically in the manner of the Russians, Stravinsky and Shostakovich, at times characterized by a deep drone threaded precariously by a single instrumental voice. Often slow and sad, sometimes shrill and unearthly, the tones suggest heavy, dark emotions of a situation in dire straits. The live electronics Mr. Daniel manipulates from his console are subtle, tending to hollow out the tones of the Penderecki’s instruments.

The presence of the sacred images on the large screen somehow stabilizes the emotionally disturbing quality of the music, as if messages from two realities, the sacred and the chaotic, behind our everyday sense of things were being brought forward as a temporary stay against confusion.

EVERYTHING WE SEE IN THE SKY (2005) for string quartet and digital signal processing

Laurie Radford’s composition is kinetic, like the track of a comet: fragments flocking in a space-time continuum. Radford’s electronics extend the timbral range of this string quartet into a dimensional shift that enhances our ability to imagine interplay and collision of sonics at the quantum level as well as the astral.

The Penderecki’s sounds are flattened and squashed, stretched and extenuated. Piercing and fading sounds, sliding and groaning sounds manifest weirdly from a matrix that approximates Appalachian sonics like the psychedelic bluegrass jug band from outer/inner space.

One has the sense of musical phrases being speeches, without narrative or political intent, by voices single and in unison, as if we are hearing a simulcast of the entire vocal production of the crew of a spaceship including moments of serious personal drama and episodes of collective accord. Truly a voyage and really a trip.

MIDAREGAMI (tangled hair) 2007 for string quartet and mezzo-soprano. Text by Akiko Yosana. Video design by Robert Drummond.

Veronika Krausas’ composition begins naturalistically: pizzicato plinks on the strings and on the screen filmed ripples like tracks of raindrops expanding in liquid spirals. Kimberly Barber sings: “ I see drops of rain/On the floating leaves of white lotus; in the small boat/ Where my lover paints.”

This sequence is followed by sustained single notes that call onto the screen elongated tubular forms marked with scaly sectional rings: we are in the world of CSI microscopy of ‘hair evidence’—hence the title, “midaregami/tangled hair. Ms. Barber sings: “Hair all tangled this morning-/ Shall I smooth it/ With spring rain/ Dripping from the jet-black/ Wings of swallow?”

The instrumental sounds become enriched, images cycle on the screen: of sky cloudy and serene, of wheat fields, hands, fields of flowers, electronic microscopic landscapes, fields of cellular and industrial debris. Ms. Barber vocalizes powerfully of fleeting love lost, of despair dissolving into nostalgia, as order dissolves into chaos that resolves into a ritual of cyclic return.

This composition with the image of “tangled hair” in the title, depicting a sequence of uncontrollable erotic emotions, has its roots deep in multilayers of formality. The 7 songs in the cycle have a syllabic count of made of 5’s and 7’s and relate to metrical and rhythmic 5 and 7 features in the music. The melodic line follows a minor pentatonic scale. The selection of basic pitches is based on information about the molecular frequency spectrum of the fragrance of rose geranium.

This musical presentation inspirationally sourced from Japanese literature, sub molecular microscopy, flowers and flesh, is its own mysterious ritual display, like Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. “Midaregami” moves our minds into what may seem to us like a future state but is also the present-already-moving-into-the-past of the artist and scientist. This collaboration around Ms. Krausas’ music might aptly be titled, “SuperString Theory.”

TRANCEPAINING (Black Wings Has My Angel) String Quartet No.3 (2007)

Piotr Grella-Mozejko’s composition is a tour de force of perpetual motion.”TrancePaining” has the members of the Penderecki Quartet sawing away at their instruments in strokes short and quick as hummingbird wings, rattling out the hoarse throated drone of martial snare drums, like the thunder of boots of an army of dreadful intent marching over a wooden bridge bringing it to the verge of disintegration and collapse. To get it, one has to imagine Philip Glass riding on the “Wabash Cannonball” rewriting Katchaturian’s “Sabre Dance” for string quartet and locomotive.

This is not exactly chamber music. It is music of political protest. To quote the composer, “TransPaining” is a voice of protest “against all those Hitler-like tyrants springing up in the south, east and west, using their often unlimited powers to bleed nations in the name of freedom. The music reflects the anger all those who believe in humanity must feel while witnessing the slaughter of the innocents.”

The stunning energy and commitment in the performance of this piece by the members of the Penderecki Quartet moved the piece past violence and righteous indignation towards a feeling of catharsis, a breaking of the trance, a dissolving of the pain.

The Penderecki Quartet commissioned all the pieces in this programme with funds from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canada Council for the Arts. Thanks to the vision and exertion of Robert Aitken and New Music Concerts Toronto was able to participate in this visionary programme.

HANDEL’S “WATER MUSIC” by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, March 9th, 2007

Thursday, March 8, 2007
Handel’s Water Music
Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre

About 8 in the evening of July 17, 1717, during the third year of his reign, King George I of England, boarded the royal barge on the Thames which was covered with boats filled with ‘persons of quality’. This river party, which included a barge holding 50 musicians, floated with the tide down to Chelsea where the King and his party were served dinner, returning to St. James Palace at 4:30 in the morning. During this time, the King commanded his musicians to play the hour-long large-scale orchestral suite we know as Handel’s “Water Music” three times, “twice before and once after supper.” Imagine!

Thanks to the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra directed by Jeanne Lamon, Toronto audiences are privileged to share the delight of royal and noble persons of so long ago. Since that time, Handel’s suite of 18 sections arranged in 3 movements has continued to delight widely. The D major movement in 3/2 meter subtitled “Alla Hornpipe” has been used frequently for television and radio commercials. The “Bourrée” from the F major “suite” has also become popular with audiences, particularly as theme music for the cooking show “The Frugal Gourmet.”

The excellence of Tafelmusik’s playing is so well established, it needs no elaboration here. What might be of interest would to speculate on what it is we are enjoying when we listen “Water Music” in a performance that transports us back to that fairy tale setting. What do we have in common with the people in that royal flotilla?

To answer these questions, I invite you to follow this look at the context in which the music was originally heard. How did a German composer connect with an English Monarch? How did the Elector of Hanover happen to become an English Monarch? What was the atmosphere in England when the ‘premier’ of this music occurred? In other words, what are some of the connecting realities that sustain the image we have of this serene, elegant, marmoreal music so suited to the tastes of a party of lords and ladies floating as if without a care in the world down the Thames on a midsummer night? And what do these realities have to do with us?

Handel and George Louis

While traveling in Italy looking for patronage contacts, Handel, a native of Brandenburg in Germany met a countryman, Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The Prince gave Handel hope of a position in the court of his royal brother, the Elector of Hanover, George Louis. In 1710, Handel showed up in Hanover and got himself appointed Capellmeister to the Elector. Since traveling composer/musician is a good cover for a spy, Handel was packed off to London to mingle with the court of George Louis’ second cousin, the English Queen Anne, who did not appear to be leaving a child as her successor.

The Queen had been pregnant at least eighteen times; thirteen times, she miscarried or gave birth to stillborn children. Of the remaining five children, four died before reaching the age of two years. Her only son to survive infancy had died at the age of eleven. Her sole relative to win the legitimate survivor lottery was George Louis of Hanover. Within months of Anne’s death, he moved to the front of the line of the fifty-two possible heirs to the throne of Great Britain. Handel was his man in Westminster.

Handel’s personal contact with the Queen’s physician, Dr. Arbuthnot, and his musical flattery of Anne by his composition of a “Te Deum”, a “Jubilate” celebrating a diplomatic victory, and an ode for the Queen’s birthday, won Handel royal favour. The Queen granted him an annuity of £200, and Handel also received assurance the salary would continue to be paid in the event that George succeeded to the throne. The success of “Water Music,” confirmed Handel’s place at the English court. By the age of 32, Handel had struggled to a success that Mozart, more than a half century later, would pursue his whole life without success.

England around the time of the Water Party.

George I was an unpopular king. He often visited his home in Hanover, and occupied himself with Hanoverian concerns. He spoke poor English, preferring his native German, or French. Since many believed that he was not fluent in English, George I was ridiculed by his British subjects, and many of his contemporaries thought him unintelligent.

The early years of his reign were turbulent if not exactly unstable. The personal resistance many English felt against him was joined by the serious political intrigue, resistance and rebellion in England and Scotland by the Jacobite party that still fought for the soveriegnty of heirs of the Stuart line. A rebellion in Scotland was put down in the second year of Geroge’s reign. Several years later, Spain sent out an invasion force that was defeated both in battle and on the seas by stormy weather.

His domestic political scene was disturbed by conflict between the Whig party George empowered over the Tory party that had been in power during Anne’s reign. This led to considerable infighting and was instrumental in bringing the economy near to collapse when the South Sea Bubble burst. During George’s reign, the powers of the monarchy diminished and actual power was held by a defacto Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

Perhaps, when we enjoy a performace of Handel’s “Water Music” such as this one given by Tafelmusik, we are sharing in the power that music has to let us float along in company with many other people like us and not like us, above the turbulence where we compete for survival. It may indeed be, as William Congreve wrote: “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”

THE GRYPHON TRIO by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

Tuesday, March 6, 2007
The Gryphon Trio with Joan Watson
Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The highlight of this MTO “New Music Celebration” with the lustrous Gryphon Trio was a piece the Trio commissioned last year from Jonathan Berger. Poetically titled “Tears in Your Hand”, it opens with a dramatic series of non-melodic piano runs and slashes of strings in note values alternating short and long, slow and quick. The mood is anguish subtilized to gossamer weightlessness along the strings while Jamie Parker’s lightest of hands on the piano tolls a sustaining tenderness.

Many passages are short and abruptly truncated, leaving spaces as if the sad, lost music might try to escape from a bewildering maze. It should come as no surprise to learn that The title, Tears in Your Hand alludes to a line from the Yiddish song “Unter Dyne Vyse Shetern”, (Under Your White Stars) by Abraham Sutsever written in 1943 in the Vilna Ghetto.

The Gryphon players’ individual control of tone and dynamics and their ‘one-mind’ display of perfect unison created a sharpness that allowed us to experience the excitement of Berger’s dramatic and varied composition.

Gary Kulesha’s “Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano” which had its world premiere last night, is a passionate piece in a gentle mood, opening with the bittersweet voice of guest Joan Watson’s horn calling clear and melodic; these motives are developed in counterpoint between Parker’s gentle-handed piano and Annalee Patipatanakoon’s intense violin. There is some wonderfully comic writing for the piano in the second movement, which Parker offers in a burlesquey, cartoony style. Generally, though, the piece did not reach the expected impact level of a Gryphon performance.

Anton Arensky’s “Piano Trio No.1, in D Minor, Op.32 (1894)” was elected to close this “New” Music Celebration. The first movement gives a lot to the violinist who makes lovely if not exciting music. The “scherzo” is bouncy and good-humoured. It ended with a musical joke that everyone in the audience ‘got’ and all of us chuckled in unison. Roman Borys plays the cello part of the first theme of the “Elegia: Adagio” very wistfully in a “those were the days, my friend, I thought they’d never end” mood. The second theme is even lovelier, evanescent and bubbling like a brook that carries reflections of willow over a gleaming bed of mottled pebbles. The musicianship of the Gryphon Trio here is transparent and detailed. The finale brings images of a worn and worldly traveler exalted by suffering subsiding at last into a calm safe harbour.


Saturday, March 3rd, 2007

March 3, 2007
Amici presents
Glenn Gould Studio,Toronto

Vladimir Feltsman, pianist extraordinaire, inclines to drama. He introduced the music of the late Galina Ustwolskaja as “the darkest universe in 20th century music.” His playing with the Amici ensemble brought her music as if out of a dark hole into the concert hall. During the third movement of Ustwolkskaja’s “Trio”, Feltsman played scales like a madwoman in a small room pacing the floor from the window to the door.

Joaquin Valdepenas contributed to the complex rhythmic structure simple, lyrical clarinet lines extenuated to unearthly breathlessness. Jonathan Crow created accordion-like harmonic textures with his violin, at times sounding like a mother keening over the body of her baby as it passes out of this world of suffering , her mind floating tethered by a filament above the remote edge of sanity.

Feltsman’s piano dominated the closing moments of “Trio”. He struck with deliberate intent chords tolling like big bells, chords falling like rocks onto a highway, chords falling like blows of a riot cop’s club, like the prison door whose closing tone edges into silence.

The “Six Duets” by Rheinhold Glière, performed with precision and zest by Jonathan Crow and David Hetherington, offered a welcome glimpse into what the Soviet mind considered ‘normalcy’. As Rick Phillips says in the programme notes, Glière’s “ music fit the Soviet ideals so well that it was piped over loudspeakers at subway and train stations.”

Each of the six seemed more beautiful than the one before. Here is old world charm: elegant counterpoint, pleasing melody, folksy Russian warmth, complex but clear harmonies with touches of modern dissonance. In the “Cradle Song”, the duo of violin and cello reached a level of synchronized gentleness worthy of great respect. Amici’s tones were exquisitely clear, but rounded, without a trace of harsh or shrill. Throughout, their control of dynamics and tempo was outstanding. If the CBC’s recording of this performance were to be piped into the TTC trains, that would truly be a better way.

The first movement of Harry Freedman’s “Lines for clarinet solo in three movements” has an ostinato two-toned motive that goes “tip/toe”, “tip/toe”, then runs legato like a long-legged mouse up the drapery. In the second movement, Valdepenas blows dreamy, syrupy, slow, hollow tones. His control is such that the notes and runs are shaped vividly without edge or seam. The third movement is Poulenc-ish, puckish and comic, as if a dialogue of two querulous friends of widely different ages. A fine piece of music given virtuoso treatment.

Vladimir Feltsman closed the concert and brought down the house with his totally committed performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s
“Pictures at an Exhibition” in its original version for piano solo. Feltsman’s attack was an attack. His bottom had barely touched the seat when his hands struck the keyboard. His performance was a drama in black and white: as in great photography, we are astonished by the clarity of white, the depth of black, and from these dramatic extremes arise the 256 subtle pleasures of the grey scale.

As an artist, Feltsman exposes himself, naked and twitching in every nerve, locked on to the target–the music in his mind. It is as if the music comes out of him and forces its way into you. I have enjoyed Valèry Gergiev live conducting a performance of the popular transcription this piece by Ravel, but the entire Kirov Orchestra could not muster the force aroused by this solo pianist.