Archive for May, 2007

AMICI by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

Friday, May 25, 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

Armenian folk music sings like a mockingbird perched on the junction of Europe and Asia. The songs bring intimations: of caravans rolling through barren stretches, of vines and calligraphy curling in silk and warm porcelain, of wild-haired children, dogs, and the balanced walk of dark-eyed women among men with rifles and priests in black gowns.

Isabel Bayrakdarian’s rich soprano, bright as birdsong, is perfectly matched to the music as she pours out the melodies of “Seven Armenian folk songs by Reverend Gomidas”, arranged by Serouj Kradjian. The songs reflect love: of mother and child, of homeland threatened by genocide, of a shy, flirtatious girl, of spiritual contemplation, and of village revelry.

Bayrakdarian is accompanied by the composer on piano and members of the Amici Trio, whose every instrument colours and shapes the shifting moods of these songs. David Hetherington’s cello, like a riverbank, guides the nostalgic flow; Joaquin Valdepenas’ lugubrious clarinet gets the klezmatic dances airborne; Serouj Kradjian’s passionate, liquid piano joins with the violin of Ben Bowman in the trilling legatos that transport the music into the realm of prayer.

Of all these unsurpassable instrumental voices, Bayrakdarian’s is the most miraculous. Her voice, whether gleaming with love in “Keler Tsoler”, or humming away her sorrow in the lament “Karoun A”, penetrates its meaning into your heels.

There were two instrumental pieces in the concert: “Trio for clarinet, violin and piano” by Aram Katchaturian, and “Trio for violin, violoncello and piano (1952) by Arno Babadjanian. The Katchaturian begins languidly on a pastoral note, develops a sequence of monastic pacing familiar from the compositions of George Gurdjieff, and after many alterations of mood and tempo, delivers a finale of vibrant harmonies textured like a hand-knotted rug.

The Babadjanian “Trio” is beautifully romantic, alternating between the melancholy nostalgia reminiscent of Lloyd Webber’s “Memories” and the hectic frenzy of Katchaturian’s “Sabre Dance”, the latter mood focused by Serouj Kradjian’s passionate piano.

Hetherington, Bowman, and Kradjian received a huge and well-deserved standing ovation.

More ovations and encores for this concert crowned a great season for Amici with jewel of Ms. Bayrakdarian’s guest appearance.

STEVE REICH @ 70 by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, May 25th, 2007

May 24, 2007, MacMillan Theatre, Toronto, presented by SOUNDSTREAMS

The concert started with two pieces Reich composed half a lifetime ago, in 1973: “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ”, and “Six Pianos”, pictured here in performance.

“Music for Mallets…” marked the end of Reich’s interest in writing ‘phase’ music, and initiates his interest in making more ‘beautiful’ sound by mixing timbres of various instrumental voices, and mixing long held tones, vocal and instrumental, with short eighth notes. Here he also pairs instruments, like the xylophones, against one another to produce canonic sub-patterns. Listening, one thinks of West African drumming and Balinese gamelan.

“Six Pianos” is in a style softer in texture. Reich has instruments of the same timbre playing against one another. The blend of timbres acts as a background out of which sequences of sub-patterns emerge.

In both pieces, you find yourself dealing with monotony: patterns repeated until they emerge as shapes, proto-living entities. Their reappearance induces a kind of hypnosis. The variant sub-patterns guard the mind against madness.

The works are percussive. Mallets hammer sonic shapes flat, flatten orchestral colours too, till the ears ring. What emerges in the mind are structures of galvanized iron sheets tattooed with a lacework of rivets: music that is trying to make the best of life in our developing global monoculture.

“Daniel Variation (2006)”, Reich’s most recent work is also global in its scope. It commemorates Daniel Pearl, “the American Jewish reporter, kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.” Huge gong tones open a sonic space that is pierced by an astringent vocal chorus.

The text is from the Book of Daniel: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (modern Iraq) is asking Daniel to interpret his dream of terror: “I saw in a dream. Images upon my bed & visions in my head frightened me.” (Nebuchadnezzar eventually went mad and behaved like an animal, crawling naked on all fours and eating grass).

Annalee Patipatanakoon and Roman Borys of the Gryphon Trio, as well as Marie Berard and Douglas Perry, joined their strings to the ensemble and took the melodic lead in the second and fourth movements which Reich wrote in awareness that Daniel Pearl played jazz and bluegrass fiddle.

It is good that Reich was inspired by his awareness of Pearl’s musical taste to write humanizing harmonies into his this music from a dark time.

ESPRIT ORCHESTRA FINALE by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, May 14th, 2007

May 13, 2007
The Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

The photo depicts a public celebration of enigmatic love. The enigma begins with Mignon, a young female singer devoted to the hero of Goethe’s novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

Two hundred years later, a vocal work entitled “Letters from Mignon” by R. Murray Schafer, sung by mezzo-soprano Eleanor James, was premiered by the Calgary philharmonic.

Last night, 20 years after its premiere, Ms. James performed “Letters to Mignon”, this time with Esprit Orchestra under the baton of Alex Pauk. Schafer identified the ‘Mignon’ letters as “letters from Eleanor to me…celebrating our love for the first time in public.” Evidently, he enjoyed the performance.

Shauna Ralston also excited the audience with her virtuoso performance of “Grandma’s Sore Back,” three compositions by Douglas Schmidt based on a book of children’s stories about disobedient children. The first section is a solo performance of startling chords, eerie slides, and the application of two bows. The second section is bouncy bowing backed by xylophonic staccato punctuated with percussive cracks like the sound of a major bone snapping.

The third section is built up of snare drum rattle, locomotive cello chatter in an ascending series that culminates into a scream, and strings rising like a storm of angry bees that alternately drone and crash. Ms. Ralston’s cello slides and whines over rolling piano thunder and drum rattle, her tempo ever accelerating till, without warning, she lays down her black carbon fibre cello and walks off the stage whistling a very catchy tune. Needless to say, the audience caught the tune and whistled it to call Ms. Ralston back for her ovation.

After the first intermission, Shauna Rolston played Ligeti’s “Concerto for Cello and Orchestra”, with the Esprit Orchestra exquisitely conducted by Alex Pauk.

The virtuosity of Ms. Ralston and members of the orchestra, particularly Tom Hazlitt on bass and Erica Goodman on harp, served up a feast of exotic timbres and sonorities, including the extended silences that ended the movements.

After the second intermission, Joanne Kong, doubling on prepared piano and amplified harpsichord, supported by celesta, harp, cowbells, woodblocks and kitchen bowls, led the Orchestra in Michael Colgrass’ “Side by Side”. The thin, tinny timbres of this rhythmically based piece that ticks like a clock, whistles and plinks and hiccoughs, combine to create a highly textured impression I’d dub Harpo Marx with bats in his belfry playing on a movieola piano.

This concert was the “red hot finale” to Esprit Orchestra’s first “New Wave Composer’s Festival.” With the backing of several major sponsors, it looks like this orchestra, which is celebrating its ‘Silver Anniversary’, will be here to catch and cradle the next wave of new work, next year, same time. Cheers.

TOKYO STRING QUARTET with JAMIE PARKER reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, May 11th, 2007

May 10, 2007
Music Toronto
Jane Mallett Theatre

The Tokyo String Quartet gave a finely etched performance of Robert Schumann’s “String Quartet in F, Op. 41. No. 2”.

They treat the lyrical theme of the first movement with vigour, reflecting the abrupt mood shifts of the bipolar disorder that would eventually lead the composer to madness and early death.

The second movement is flowing; falling tones sigh through five variations of the theme, including a playful pizzicato passage and a mind-stilling viola solo by the Quartet’s founding violist, Kazuhide Isomura.

The scherzo is swirly, opening with a notable cello solo by Clive Greensmith, and bubbles along in bouncy, droney, plinky bits of violin arpeggios. The finale went wonderfully fast, with abrupt Beethovenesque change-ups jutting up like rocks among the clearly flowing lines of a Zen garden.

This closing concert of the 35th Season of Chamber Music Downtown was all Schumann, a solid choice of programme with variety in the textures. “Marchenbilder for viola and piano, Op. 113” is an initmate piece of writing. It depicts four fairytale scenarios. In the first, the viola initiates motives that the violin imitates creating a soothing mood as if an elegant pair of dancers were gliding across an enchanted ballroom floor only to fade away at the final pluck of the string.

The second bounces a bit like a horse racing through the “William Tell Overture”. It has a songlike structure, showy but good-natured and charming. The third is darker, more dramatic, with the viola buzzing like a bumblebee in virtuosic flight while Parker’s piano bubbles lightly behind towards an unresolved ending.

The finale is sleepy, dark and Mahlerish, with an authentically mysterious tenderness as if the music were moving us into the embrace of a languorous death.

The “Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op. 44” is the first major chamber work in this form that Schumann literally invented. Here Jamie Parker gets to display the force of his touch on Schumann’s almost celestially lovely melodies, developed with the Tokyo’s legendary ensemble work. Notable in this first movement are the closing moments like a dark bolt shot from the cello straight into the heart of the audience.

The second movement is a hesitation marche funebre that alternates with lyrical flowing passages, the piano tender, the viola gritty, making for a richly textured tapestry of sound that nicely balances variations with thematic repetitions.

The scherzo is fast, brilliantly built on bald piano scales. The finale is a toe-tapper, percussively treated by piano and strings, contrapuntal and varied, the parts always distinct, bringing forward the inventiveness Schumann employs in the service of his love of changes. Schumann’s humour also comes through.

One’s final impression of Schumann from this meeting of the Tokyo and Jamie Parker is bell-like clarity. They will meet again at Music Toronto next season.