Archive for March, 2008

Mooredale Presents Kristine’s Kompanions reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Sunday,March 30,2008,Walter Hall, Toronto

It is a rare day and a good day when you get to hear an entire concert based on two of that Cinderella of instruments, the viola. The first piece was a world premiere entitled “Encounter for Two Violas” composed by the eminent pianist Anton Kuerti, husband of the late Kristine Bogyo, whose legacy Kristine’s Kompanions honour.

Kuerti’s short composition is a strong-themed dialogue, lyrical in style; its wistful sadness is enriched by the timbre of viola and a hint of Bartokian complexity. The performance by Sharon Wei and her fiancé Scott St. John was marked by an intense concentration on detail and moments where a relaxed pleasure flared.

At the beginning of this Mooredale Concert season, Mr. Kuerti as Artistic Director promised to give ‘his day on the stage’ to “Louis Spohr, who during the 19th century was considered one of the 10 greatest composers of all time.” Spohr, who was also a conductor, is now often remembered as the man who said that the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was “so monstrous and tasteless and, in its grasp of Schiller’s Ode, so trivial that I cannot understand how a genius like Beethoven could have written it.” Forget about it.

Kristine’s Kompanions, with Olivier Thouin leading as first violin, gave a tender and passionate account of Spohr’s Grande Quintetto in G Major Op.33, No, 2. The composition follows Mozart’s innovation of finding room for a second viola’s voice, especially in the exposition of the scherzo. His themes and arrangements are immediately pleasing if slightly predictable, the exception being the closing Allegro which is a bit more melancholy than the previous parts and is strongly marked by a Spanish rhythm boldly and beautifully defined by the cello of Chris Costanza (substituting for Winona Zelenka).

Costanza’s contribution in punctuating tempos with his subtle pizzicatos stands out in my mind. Strongest among my impressions is the leadership of Olivier Thouin who was so visibly responsive to the sensuality of the music and alive to transitions of mood and tempo. His work seemed to provide shadings of colour and grading of tempo that were much appreciated.

Thouin yielded first chair to Erika Raum for the afternoon’s highlight: Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516. Mozart’s writing relies on the first violin to hold interpretation together during a performance, and Ms. Raum’s precise, sparkling, somewhat feisty energy kept the harmonic complexity of this late Mozart piece poised while it explored a range of deep and often dark feelings.

The mood of the opening Allegro is sorrowful and uneasy, built of sighs, gasps and a descending melodic line that remains plaintive even at the conclusion. The first violin is remarkably sensitive to the ‘piano’ passages particularly during the second theme. Costanza’s cello and the violas deepen the chiaroscuro duskiness. The brief Menuetto is heavy-footed, slowed by strong rhythmic third beat chords marked by the cello. The Adagio, though sombre, brightens with an imitative dialogue between Raum and Costanza and some offbeat comments by Wei’s viola. The closing Allegro picks up the pace and Ms. Raum leads the ensemble into a welcome access of the gaiety we depend on Mozart to provide.

Art of Time’s “Shakespeare:If Music Be…” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

March 28, Enwave Theatre, Toronto

Art of Time’s evening inspired by Shakespeare ended with Ophelia: the windmills of her mind rolling unconfined in Peggy Baker’s limbs across the darkened heath of stage amid flashes of light and rhythmic thunder of John Cage’s “Ophelia for Solo Piano” played by AoT’s artistic director Andrew Burashko.

Shakespeare’s words have inspired a lot of music and dance. There are at least 16 operatic versions of Hamlet, including one recently performed in Paris by the Peking Opera. First among the many composers to ‘operate’ Shakespeare was Hector Berlioz. Burashko acknowledges Berlioz by placing dramatic scenes between Beatrice and Benedict of the bard’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in the middle of his programme, interspaced with music from Eric Korngold’s “Suite to Much Ado…”(1920). Of the 24 “Romeo and Juliet” operatic versions, Burashko chose Prokofiev’s as the centre of the opening sequence of the evening, because of it’s youthful, brash, lyrical energy.

What I found most interesting about this kind of carefully structured crossover program is how it leaves the mind free to move out of focus. For instance, during Monica Whicher’s beautiful recital of “Songs from Shakespeare” composed by Eric Korngold, my mind fortuitously chose to perch on the musical line of the piano accompaniment. During the scene of Romeo and Juliet before parting, enacted by Marc Bendavid and Cara Ricketts, the energy of their passionate young bodies told me more of the story than did their recitation of Shakespeare’s words.

Tom McCamus read a text by Jorge Luis Borges that amused the mind with the idea that because Shakespeare was ‘nobody’, his protean imagination was propelled through a controlled delirium of character changes. But the verbal play of Borges, and the music of Prokofiev, were for me mere background to the sequence of protean changes choreographed by James Kudelka and rolled out in a Pas de deux by dancers Piotr Stanczyk and Rebekah Rimsay.

Actions may sometimes speak louder than words. But how is it that the word ‘Canada’ can move an audience to laughter? as it did last night when Tom McCamus read this opinion by Voltaire: “Shakespeare is a drunken savage with some imagination whose plays please only in London and Canada.”

It is true that in Canada we like Shakespeare. No less a maven than Mavor Moore has said that Shakespeare is “the most important playwright in Canada.” But there is no shame in that since Shakespeare appears to have colonized most of the world, even Russia, where he is the most produced playwright, ahead of Chekhov and Pushkin.

With this production of “Shakespeare: If Music Be”, Andrew Burashko and the Art of Time Ensemble continue their pathfinding tradition of making art without borders, art that globalizes the mind, is tasteful and rich for the senses, and that nourishes to the spirit.

Michel Gonneville & Protégés @ New Music Concerts reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

Michel Gonneville’s students regard him as an exceptionally open-minded teacher. He encourages them to be more themselves, to be rigorous in shaping their work, and he promotes them to ensembles and patrons.

Gonneville is grateful to his students. They are his teachers: they teach him that “music can be made out of anything.”

Each of the young composers made music out of unique sonic materials. While several of them are political by inclination or implication, Nicholas Gilbert tries “ to forget about the world.” He composes because he is a composer, not because he has beliefs. His “Réflections circulaire…etc” for two violins, a prelude to Gonneville’s string quartet, is ethereal, lyrical, remarkable for glissandos, drones and dynamic rhythms like the tracks of an airborne insect.

Frans Ben Callado, feels under attack by the sellers of ‘art’, writes music he describes as ‘an outcry’. His “Black Boxes, Op.30 (2008)” draws title and sonic inspiration from air disasters. Performed by a nine person ensemble of brass, winds, strings and percussion, it is vivid, spacey music with a big sound, lots of ideas, including the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Very exciting music.

Charles-Antoine Fréchette wrote his “Pureté violée” as a commentary on the contemporary ‘rape of silence’. Inspired also by an actual victim of abuse, the piece relies on winds and percussion (prominently, a device made ofpop bottles and empty beer cans) that sigh, rattle and clank, suggesting structures in a state of collapse.

I thought of Oliver Sack’s, the neurologist who writes about ‘amusia’, the condition where brain damage can suppress the ability to recognize musical sounds, so that Mozart sounds like ‘pots and pans scraping across a tile floor.’ But in this case, Fréchette makes what sounds like the scraping of pots and pans sound like very good music, fulfilling Gonneville’s discovery that “music can be made out of anything.”

Maxime McKinley’s “Wirkunst-Nijinski (2007)”, inspired by the great Russian dancer’s labyrinth-like notebook drawings, was the most kinetic piece of the evening, had a beat, called very interesting sounds out of David Hetherington’s cello, combined hammered church bell sounds with high pitched ref’s whistle and ended peacefully as a requiem.

André Ristic’s “Trigger-Partita (2008),” performed by himself on sampler with Robert Aitken on amplified flute was the most amusing piece in the concert. The flute was sometimes Debussyian, lyric, and sometimes technically extended to outer space. Against this, the sampler emitted burps, cricket chirps, chicken clucks, car horns, cartoon ‘boings’, gunfire, and human vocal ejaculations.

Benoit Coté’s “Pan-toutt(2007), largely for brass and piano, is a lovely piece, solid and optimistic, as the composer himself appears to be, built up gradually and surely with bold strokes and patches of musical colour applied to a broad canvas thickly with a pallette-knife.

The evening closed with the 21 piece New Music Ensemble and guests playing Gonneville’s “Le Cheminement de la baleine (1998).” The piece’s dedicatee Jean Laurendeau on the ondes Martenot and Max Christie on clarinet were the soloists. This music has a Bartokian complexity of texture, often undulates like waves of the whale sounds it celebrates, and imitates the celestial choir, vocal clamour, and high pitched panic associated with the mysterious outpourings of these profound creatures.

It would be wrong not to express some appreciation of the astonishing musicianship of the New Music Ensemble players who seem natively competent to harvest, year after year, the crop of new sounds brought to them by emerging composers. They are: Max Christie, Douglas Stewart, Keith Atkinson, Michele Verheul, Fraser Jackson, Michele Gagnon, Stuart Laughton, Ian Cowie, Scott Irvine, Rob Carli, Stephen Clarke, Rick Sacks, Trevor Tureski, Ryan Scott, Fujiko Imajishi, Carol Lynn Fujino, Douglas Perry, David Hetherington, Peter Pavlovsky, Robert Aitken, musical director.

Shannon Mercer’s Music in the Afternoon reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, March 7th, 2008

Thursday, March 6, Walter Hall, Toronto

Shannon Mercer, soprano, and Steven Philcox, piano, performed a generous, hand-in-glove 24 song recital. Ms. Mercer sang in five languages other than English, mostly sad songs, because they were love songs, though thank goodness for the French who know how to be lively even while love is unrequited.

At the start of each song, Ms. Shannon seems to empty herself of affect and locks onto a character, staying fully ‘in character’ until the end of the song. For the most part, the programme called forth serious, sad faced, disappointed-looking personae who held themselves like statues. It was a great and pleasant surprise to see how animated and feisty and fun she could be during the hilarious encore entitled, “I’m tone deaf.”

Her voice is rich, clear, flexible and satisfies the needs of each song. The recital began, affectingly, with Mozart’s concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” in which the woman assures her lover that she will not give herself to another and forget him despite his suggestion that she do. There follows Ms. Shannon’s portrayals of characters from Schumann’s “Liederkries, Op.39”: a woman who can only dream of her lover, the witch Lorelei misleading a knight in a cold wood, a weeping bride, and a lover wandering alone in a starlit wood.

Bellini’s chamber songs for voice and piano “Sei arriette” have the lilt and flow of Italian, are highly dramatic and operatic in their portrayal of amorous melancholy and longing for death. These also were presented rich in their beauty, but it was not until Ravel’s “Vocalize-étude,” and Bizet’s “Ouvre ton coeur” that the Ms. Mercer’s demeanor was allowed to melt into gestures and smiles.

Leaving the question of demeanor aside, we enjoyed her musicianship and the interpretive acumen she showed during this recital. Technically, Ms. Mercer seemed to have everything: impeccable diction, a remarkable evenness of tone through her entire range, the flexibility and sense of color that allowed her to move easily from the refined world of Poulenc’s ”Metamorphoses” to the more vernacular, theatrical styles demanded by Walton’s ”Three Songs”, especially ‘Old Sir Faulk’ with a touch of ragtime in the music and “ a touch of lunacy” in the text.

Ms. Mercer is the latest recipient of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto Career Development Award, and this recital was clearly an opportunity for a display of enthusiastic mutual appreciation between artist and sponsor.