Archive for October, 2007

Amici: “Lyric Discoveries” Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Sunday, October 29, 2007, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.


An afternoon with Amici means time with high ranking players. Joaquin Valdepenas joined Dianne Werner to perform “Sonata for Clarinet and Piano,” (1945) by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), a composition they have recorded for RCA Victor (Red Seal 87769).

Weinberg was a protégée and lifelong friend of Shostakovich, which means he had some very hard times during the Stalin years. The first movement opens with the clarinet playing lightly, legato, over a 3/4 piano beat in quasi-carnival colours that darken into a disturbed, hectic and shrill mood of alarm, before the clarinet settles into an ambulatory pace, lyrical, but with overtones of foreboding.

The second movement is gentler, modulating between wheedling klezmeric runs of passion and protest, and sections that blend folksong melodies with serious modern, dissonant textures. The finale is introduced by a moody piano solo, into which clarinet arpeggios slither. Piano chords crash down around it like bombs on a convoy. Piano run climbs up the register and fade into comp chords as the clarinet solos quietly out of earshot.

Stephen Sitarski joins David Hetherington and the principal cello and viola of the TSO, Winona Zelenka and Teng Li, for a recital of “String Quartet in A Minor Op.35” (1894) by Anton Arensky (1861-1906). Arensky was mentored by Tchaikowsky for who he composed this unusual quartet as a memorial, with a second cello to emphasize the elegiac mood.

Arensky’s sense of melody is fluent and singing, his rhythmic patterns are unusual and his works show a sharp sense of instrumental colour. The first movement throbs with passion alternating with an almost Mozartean gaiety. These players give the music the sense of being responsive as if it were alive.

The second movement a theme by Tchaikowsky and variations, a form in which Arensky excelled, goes straight to the heart. The finale is a fugal development of a Russian patriotic hymn, reminiscent of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Beethoven. It’s structure is confusing, and though the sections have great individual beauty, it seems a long time passing through alternating funereal and celebratory moods until final, quite awesome, orchestral crescendo.

Brian McDonagh’s “Quintet for Clarinet and Strings” subtitled “Quaestiones Disputae”, premiered earlier this year, embodies the ecstasy and frustrations of medieval philosophers who lived “in pursuit of that which cannot be understood….” The flight of the clarinet has a seemingly aleatoric path like an observer’s view of bat maneuvers amidst a drone of insects in the gathering dusk.

The showpiece of the afternoon was Erwin Schulhoff’s ” String Sextet” (1924), with Erika Raum and Stephen Sitarski on violin, Steven Dann and Teng Li on viola, David Hetherington and Winona Zelenka on cello. The piece opens in tones of Bartokian conflict and anxiety, a swirl of emotion as if a stricken butterfly were spiraling down out of space into silence. Utterly engaging and beautiful. In the second movement – Tranquillo Andante – a creaky mid-register keening backed by darker tones emerges like the voice of a lost being, wandering ghost-like but not quite despairing, calling out of flittering chaos.

The energy of Schulhoff’s original minimalism manifests in the third movement with the sounds of the massed energies of machines moving toward a goal with purpose and locomotive drive despite high register complaints that are eventually drawn into the main thrust. Anxious violas lead the way in the fourth movement with dark rumours that are picked up by solo cello touching off a hubbub of muted tones, hushed conversations and furtive asides. These subside into an atmosphere of fog insinuating itself into the stones of waterfront alleys and dockside streets.

Opera Atelier’s “The Return of Ulysses” Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

Saturday, October 27, Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

Monteverdi’s “The Return of Ulysses” is about the reconciliation of an estranged, middle-aged couple. The youth and exceptional beauty of the cast directed with unrelenting style by Marshall Pynkowski, is the yeast that makes this production rise and shine like a fresh croissant baked from an old recipe.

The story is based on the second half of Homer’s “Odyssey” which recounts the struggles of “Odysseus”, aka “Ulysses, to return to Ithaca, his island home kingdom with his treasure following the sack of Troy. His wife, Penelope, has her struggles too. She has been wondering why her husband has not returned more than 10 years after the war in Troy was won. And, she is besieged by three suitors for her hand that she wants to keep at bay without making them into enemies.

Despite the mythical and heroic dimensions of the story, Monteverdi emphasizes the humanity of his characters, their essential frailty. They are pawns in the hands of various gods, Jove, Neptune and Minerva, who are engaged in a drama at their own level. Pynkowski directs so that from the opening scene, the frailty of the protagonists seems natural and engaging, not merely the formal subject of a spectacle. We are moved by Penelope’s suffering—her hopelessness and depression. We are moved by the helplessness of shipwrecked Ulysses who finds himself stranded on a beach without possessions.

Monteverdi’s score, plangently performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and The Toronto Consort under the baton of David Fallis, is the high performance engine that carries us on an exhilarating ride through these emotional scenarios that are made beautiful and somehow cheerful by the high-spirited performances of singers who can move and act, and dancers who convey intelligence in their movements.

Jeanette Zingg’s dancers move in patterns lively and quick as a tank full of tropical fish. If one had to be singled out, it would be Jeremy Naismith. The palette of vocal colours blend without exception to please the ear. Olivier Laquerre’s Ulysses is strong and warm; Carla Huhtanen as Minerva has an electric authority; Stephanie Novacek’s rounded tones reveal Penelope’s griefs as if they were inclusions held in amber; Lawrence Wiliford, as Eumaeus, the faithful retainer, is ubiquitous, flashing and lithe.

The opera is 400 years old, based on a book about 3000 years old. The production values are very today—scenes are made of shots that change constantly and quickly. A trio of characters will appear first standing together; after a few bars, they will pose themselves sitting in a cluster on the ground; a few bars later, they will be in a kneeling pose, and then standing, and then moving to cluster on stage right. And so on.

The music is even-paced, the action is slow, but the cinematic flow is quick and lively. The result is a charming elegance that is natural, but like art, a bit more golden than life itself. Stage productions of this caliber are why we have theatre—to get a bit more out of life than we can on our own. A lot more, in this case.

“The Return of Ulysses” continues October 28, 30, November 1, 2, 3. For complete details click here

Janina Fialkowska by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, Jane Mallett Theatre. Sponsored by Music Toronto.

Fialkowska’s playing is pure song: no showy hand, head or face jive: what you get is the music. Her account of short works by Mendelssohn, Schubert and Chopin was lucid, and in every part of the flow, you get a sense of her grasp of the whole.

Schubert’s “Piano Sonata in G, D. 894”(1826) is built of highly contrasted materials: lovely high register melodies that Fialkowska plays as if on a silver whistle, and dense chord textures that crash in the dark end of the register, ominously sustained by pedal, like the long reverberations of thunder.

One is tempted take this contrast of moods into a reflection on this period of Schubert’s life, when he was frustrated in his every attempt to get his work performed publicly in concert or opera hall because, as one publisher wrote him,” the public does not yet sufficiently and generally understand the peculiar… and somewhat curious procedures of your mind’s creations.” Schubert, already feeling the disease that would kill him in two more years, took this pronouncement of doom lightly. As he wrote to a friend, “I have no money at all, and altogether, things go very badly with me. I do not fret about it, and am cheerful.”

Accordingly, under the deftness of Fialkowska’s touch, the light musical line is drawn out against the louder, darker accompaniment, like the flight of a butterfly following a mountain brook through a primeval forest. A flavour of Ragtime, a musical style that also wears trouble lightly, seems to appear in the second theme of the first movement. Surprise here is tempered by the fact that Scott Joplin lifted much of his harmonic vocabulary from Schubert.

Mendelssohn’s” Four Songs Without Words”(1833), are thematically light and in a popular vein. Fialkowska’s fluid and sensitive playing brings out highly wrought drama in these songs. “Op. 38. No. 6”, written shortly before his marriage and subtitled “Duet”, has a low and midrange mellow melody working with a rolling accompaniment that is rhythmically interesting. “Op.67. No. 4 (Spinnerlied)” is a terrifically musical mimesis of what sounds like the flight of a bumblebee, but is intended to refer to the action of a spinning wheel.

Fialkowska’s devotion to Chopin is legend. Chopin’s music is passion and drama recollected in tranquility. Fialkowska’s engrossing rendition of the “Scherzo No. 1. In B Minor, Op.20.” in particular, makes vivid the alternation of dramatic and lyrical ideas, and turbulence of passion. Her keyboard runs have the sense of lovers in flight, pursued by great forces, separated from each other, seeking refuge, together. The melody of “As Time Goes By” and the film “Casablanca” come to mind, as parts of the popular modern legacy of Chopin, his life and his music, the music of great lovers caught up in great events.

New Music Concerts : “William Bolcom for Two Pianos” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 8 pm, The Music Gallery, Toronto.

How often do you come out of a new music concert humming a tune that seems even lovelier the next morning? William Bolcom’s “Through Eden’s Gates”(1969/1994) will do you like that.

Bolcom (1938-), a one-time serialist composer in the vein of Stockhausen and Berio, a student of Milhaud and Messaien, let the 60’s revival of ‘ragtime’ get under his skin. He cross-bred it with pop, folk, Latin, late romantic salon, and ‘serious’ musical idioms, till his own musical style emerged, a music about which one writer has said, “You’re never certain what’s around the corner—but you sure as hell know when it arrives.”

The Bergmann’s, Elizabeth and Marcel, as you can see, are an attractive couple, one that combines virtuosic dedication with the instincts of professional entertainers who love their music. They opened this recital (recorded complete on a Naxos CD 8.559244 ) with the lovely “Recuerdos”(1993), three sexy, catchy pieces based on 19th Century Latin American folk dances blended with ragtime into a captivating 14 minutes, characteristically Bolcom, full of harmonic surprises, sonic eruptions, bouncy basslines, leaps, and tricky rhythms. The Bergmanns’ sense of syncopation, blurring, slurring and delaying of phrases, their modulations of tempo and dynamics articulated the amazing detail of Bolcom’s music.

There followed a Bolcom masterpiece–“Frescoes”(1974). Bolcom’s flambouyant composition requires the pianists to improvise parts of the score and to double on harpsichord and harmonium, sketching in broad quick strokes wild figures of this highly organized collage inspired by the visionary frescoes of the English mystical poet/painter, William Blake (1757-1827).

In the opening segment entitled “War in Heaven”, the stereo effect of two pianos is made especially vivid by deliberately unsynchronized playing. Elizabeth’s piano thundering tone clusters fortissimo is answered by Marcel pumping out solemn churchly organic strains on a harmonium. As Elizabeth turns away from the piano, her contributions to the left ear desaturate down to pale, wispy tones of the harpsichord and one begins to feel as if on a carnival ride through the ‘Haunted Chapel’ and ‘The Monkey House’.

From time to time one or both players is tinkering away inside their instruments and the geometry of the sound fabric becomes unstable, hard to locate in space, the auditory equivalent of holographic mobiles, shifting from the colours of harmonic chords to dissonant minimalist series, the booming of fist on piano keys, the mournful moan of harmonium, all running down to silent rest. Here is a page of the score.

Bolcom’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in One Movement”(1993) alternates passages of his tough, dissonant, ‘pre-ragtime’ style with lovely, lyrical, Chopinesque melodies and, thank goodness, syncopated bits of eroded ragtime, blues, and Greek rhythms. Though ‘entertaining’ because of Bolcom’s infinite variety, the piece comes off as ‘serious’ music and is allowed to end by fading away.

Which bring us full circle, to exit this review “Through the Gates of Eden.” What could Bolcom have had in mind in describing his work as a piece that “conjures the image of Adam and Eve calmly cakewalking their way out of Paradise.” It sounds like the spirit of Mark Twain remarking in his democratic way that it was like high-stepping through the swinging doors of a saloon, arm in arm with your lover, warmed by the good times, but after all, it is closing time.

This event is co-sponsored by New Music Concerts and The Music Gallery

Esprit Orchestra at 25 by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

This event was a major milestone gala, but let us talk about the music first. Esprit Orchestra’s founder and director, Alex Pauk, conducted his own composition, “Portals of Intent”(1993). It is scored for the entire 35 piece orchestra, including 7 percussionists and what seemed to be an 18 piece wind section flanking the stage on two sides. Big sound.

It is of interest to know the work was inspired by a reading of books on Meso-American sorcery by Carlos Castaneda, and focuses on this author’s ideas about using ‘will’ or ‘intent’ to remain ‘awake’ or ‘lucid’ in the dream state as a way of achieving rapid locomotion in the real world.

Flute, bells, and harp solo voices ripple out and merge with windy stirrings of strings: rattle of percussion, braying of brass, locomotive beat of timpani and piano, all dissolve towards meditative tranquility, resolve into engorged sonorities of orchestral complexity and subside again, suggesting a weave of moods, feelings and states of awareness. The fabric is a freely patterned circulatory system of colours, simultaneously teasing and engaging.

Alexina Louie’s “Shattered Night, Shivering Stars” (1997) was composed for a limited palette of small orchestra that excluded harp, brass, piano, and included only one percussion. Louie explores orchestral colours and textures, chord clusters that expand out of a single pitch into an orchestral colour field.

As the title suggests, there is a stellar, cosmic but fragmenting design to the work, so the musicians are called upon to employ many extended techniques, twittering, chittering, scraping, bowing on vibraphones, and temple bells, breathing into flutes, bending and gliding on strings, creating an outer space atmosphere.

The piece is based on a poem by Pablo Neruda that is about the devastation left by the loss of love, so in effect, it is a kind of blues: the slow grind of despair, the sense of being stranded, alone, in the vast space of interstellar darkness, the pitches extenuated away from any possible resolution, all these emotional elements find a home away from home in the pleasingly novel context of Alexina Louie’s composition.

John Rea describes his “OVER TIME (1987) for orchestra,” as ‘geometric music.’ The challenge it poses is how to write music based purely on instrumental colour without reference to melody or changes of theme and harmony. He works with timbres or colours that spiral through kaleidoscopic changes.

His sounds give visual impressions such as swirls and waves, be it of water, leaves, or grasses, ripples of wind and water swept sands, the dance of shadows and light everywhere. It is pleasant and fun to listen to for a while, but like many forms that rely on a minimized palette, the inevitable repetition is always flirting with monotony. Rea’s abrupt percussive conclusion is effective in clearing all cobwebs from the mind.

Alex Pauk deserves much credit for showcasing two works by older New Music composers: the late Tristan Keuris of Holland’s “SINFONIA” (1974), and “TABUH-TABUHAN” (1936) by the late Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. The latter work is of interest because it incorporates Balinese musical materials. It is scored for orchestra and 2 pianos, vigorously managed by Peter Longworth and Andrew Burashko.

These performances demonstrate once again, that there is no limit to the load Alex Pauk will shoulder in order to bring music he considers worthwhile in full scale display to his public. Therefore, it is fitting that on this night when he is celebrating the success of the 25th season of Esprit Orchestra, he should be awarded the Canada Council’s $50,000 Molson Prize.

St. Lawrence String Quartet @ W M C T Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 19th, 2007

Ecstasy, agony, and the triumph of expression: these are the hallmarks of two of the quartets the St. Lawrence String Quartet performed before a sold-out house this afternoon. One of these is Cesar Franck’s “D Major”, written during 1890, the last year of composer’s life: this composition reconciles in expression several of Franck’s monumental struggles.

One struggle was in the realm of the erotic. Franck’s lifetime was ruled by discipline and discretion. He worked as a church organist, a music teacher and composer who cultivated strict classical genres. At the end of this life of service and virtue, like the fictional hero of “Death In Venice”, and like the composer Janacek, Franck was consumed by a hopeless passion for a young girl. The “D Major”, said to be a record of this fatal attraction, is one of the few of Franck’s compositions that was received with favour by the public, and that, for a long while after his death, was more popular than any of Beethoven’s string quartets. Ecstasy, agony, and the triumph of expression.

Franck’s other struggle was to reconcile his Classical formal idealism with the harmonic innovations of the late Romanticism of Liszt and Wagner. This string quartet is fortunate in being able to align the monumentality of the former with the sweeping lyricism and emotional intensity of the other side of Franck’s nature. It inspired Marcel Proust to devote many pages to describing how this music captivates his characters in “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu”. Debussy and Ravel were inspired by Franck’s example to write their own string quartets.

Suffice it to say that the 50 minute recital by the St. Lawrence String Quartet transmitted the power of this fabled composition.

Robert Schumann’s “String Quartet in F Major, Op. 41, No. 2″ is similar to the Franck in that it reconciles in expression a pair of struggles involving both love and musical tradition.

Schumann was severely depressed and drank heavily during a two-month separation from his wife Clara. He found solace in contrapuntal exercises and a study of the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart. He shared these studies with Clara on her keyboard when they reconciled.

There followed a burst of creativity in 1842 that yielded three string quartets. All three quartets go beyond imitation of the Viennese Masters. The progress is reflected in the more conversational tone of Schumann’s contrapuntal dialogue in which each instrument ‘has something to say’ in the total discourse.

The solos in the second movement by Scott St. John’s 2nd violin and Lesley Robertson’s viola were especially beautiful. Christopher Costanza’s cello work throughout, and his brief, vigorous solo in the third movement were especially pleasing.

Haydn’s “String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No. 2,” (1795), is part of the composer’s response to the set of string quartets dedicated to him by Mozart in 1782-85. Geoff Nuttall’s leadership is evident in this piece where the entertaining alternations from soft, slow passages to eruptions of passionate vigour are signaled by Nuttall’s dramatic postural and heavy breathing cues.

Speaking of heavy breathing, and not to stray far from our dual theme of art and the erotic, this quartet belongs to a time in Haydn’s life when he was turning away from a very successful preoccupation with opera towards instrumental music, while enjoying his extramarital passion for Luigia Polzelli, a young, married Italian soprano.

Haydn’s music is a triumph of expression where the ecstatic is framed by humour, and his innate sense of balance transforms private agony into vigour and creativity. If there is agony in Haydn, he makes it dance.