Archive for April, 2008

OPERA ATELIER’S “IDOMENEO” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Saturday, April 26, Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

Waves agitated to murderous fury by raging winds—Neptune’s display of his power—and the calm that follows when he is appeased—also Neptune’s display, symbolize the emotional range of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan War—itself a reflection on earth of a divine dispute—Mozart’s first masterpiece looks at a quartet of hearts torn by conflict.

The captive Trojan princess Ilia (Peggy Kriha Dye) can not give in to her growing love for Idamante, the heir of Idomeneo who was a leader of the Greek coalition that destroyed her family and country. Idamante (Michael Maniaci), who senses the love in Ilia, is lacerated by her refusal of his love; he is also bewildered by the coldness his father appears to show him for no good reason. Idomeneo (Kresimir Spicer), victorious in battle, and recently saved from death by drowning has a reason: he is tormented by a promise to sacrifice his son to Neptune as payment for the mercy shown to him and his drowning crew. If it were possible to measure the depth of despair, then deepest in it would be Elettra, the Greek princess who has lately murdered her mother in revenge for killing her father and is on the boil again, this time because Idamante loves not her but her rival, Ilia, who is of the enemy.

This ‘sacrifice opera’, rich in pathos, because the humans are bound to submit to the will of the god, and for the same reason less rich in dramatic tension, resolves in the third act when Idamante learns the truth of his role and willingly offers to be his father’s victim. His noble obedience pacifies Neptune. The happy lilt of Mozart’s music embraces cast and audience alike, except for the unhappy Elettra, played magnificently in her operatic debut by Measha Brueggergosman, who’s final aria expresses fury beyond the limits of sanity.

We have come to expect outstanding productions from Opera Atelier and we get what we come for. Kresimir Spicer’s tenor was remarkable for a kind of speaking voice naturalness that makes his Idomeneo likeable as well as believable from his first entrance. Spicer goes from strength to strength unleashing the astonishing power of his voice in the prayer to Neptune to punish him alone. Peggy Kriha Dye as Ilia, often alone on the stage, as in the opening aria where she laments her fate, sings beautifully in Act III to the breeze of her nascent love for Idamante, her gestures always gracefully shaped.

Michael Maniaci’s unique soprano astonishes by its integrity and sensitivity. To my ear though, it is not always satisfying to hear a soprano male voice in dialogue with a soprano female voice. Maniaci’s acting is in the mannered style of the Marshall Pynkowski’s direction, and then some, strong in the outstretched arm department. Measha Brueggergosman’s Elettra is perhaps the most difficult role in Mozart. She must intermit futile, imperious rages with her few tender moments as in “Idol mio”, and despite her tender feelings, she draws little sympathy her way. There is no withstanding the electricity of her presence on the stage, nor the richness of her instrument.

The Atelier ballet under Jeanette Zingg, the Opera Atelier chorus, and the Tafelmusik Orchestra conducted by Andrew Parrott, create an environment of extraordinary elegance and privilege. The music, song and dance, sets,costumes and lighting form a living porcelain bowl that has the power to contain the volatile substance of operatic emotion so that we may feel the painfulness of the quartet of torn hearts without discomfort, indeed, with pleasure. Quite the magical formula!

CONTINUUM presents: COMMON CHORDS reviewed by David Fujino

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

April 20, 2008, The Music Gallery

Concerts with themes are tricky things.

In the case of “Common Chords” — a musical theme if I’ve ever heard one — we expected to hear a concert of similar sounds and similar musical preoccupations this evening.

But the music was not similar at all; and I know the applauding audience was okay with it.

The first piece, “About Scales” (1979) by Rudolf Komorous was a solo vibraphone line that alternated with dense held chords. This later translated into slow seesaw lines played by a cup-muted trombone, flute, and piano. Their sonorities often evoked the voicings of Gil Evans with their tonally ambiguous major-minor sounds. All in all, it was human, spare, and essential music.

Martin Smolka’s “O My Admired C Minor” (2002) repeated episodes of piercing strings and a screechy clarinet that kept showing up in the audience’s face. When a single note passed from cello to percussion to piano, and we identified with the resultant drawn-out sustenuto, everything, it seems, melted into the waiting chords. The music then stopped; and the flute’s final 2-note figure returned everything to silence. This piece had the pungency of a tightly-written essay.

But the standout composition this evening was Cassandra Miller’s “Goose Food” (2008) as it proved to be the most programmatic and dissimilar composition of them all.

It paired Robert Bringhurst’s recorded reading of Haida myths with flocks of high peepings from the piccolo/clarinet/strings, and it didn’t always work.

And especially for those of us interested in language, the tendency of the winds and strings to overpower and interfere with
Bringhurst’s spoken text was at first frustrating and then mostly irritating. In near total contrast, the orchestrated deliquescence and
pulling apart of sounds were truly arresting and mightily impressive, but you started wanting more of this amidst the sliding and slipping vaudeville that the piece increasingly had become. We appreciated the obvious craft and dedication and enthusiasm; unfortunately, the piece also grew to be distracting.

Thankfully, there was no time for distraction in the heroically paced performance of Gyula Csapo’s “Huacas” (2008) in which the valiant soprano Carla Huhtanen fully met the challenge of singing a text in Spanish, Aztec, and invented texts; a challenge which also required her to hit the stratosphere and then meld her ardent voice into the composition’s by now liquid flow.

“Huacas” (like “Goose Food”) was a language-and-music piece, but here Huhtanen was spotlighted by the composition so she could step forward confidently and tell the saddening story of the conquest and destruction of the Aztec civilization by the Spanish priesthood.

Amidst tempestuous swells and the marking time of the tympani and tubular chimes, Huhtanen sang bravely and defiantly against the overwhelming forces of fate and impending doom. The way she fought back against certain death with the life force of her songs was close to heroic.

But in the final reckoning, here back on earth, the concert truly was a success because of the supreme finesse and musicianship of all the players, the singer, and the conductor Gregory Oh, who brought these very different compositions to life and in the process — who knows? — maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t, reveal their common chords …

Rudolf Komorous (Canada), “About Scales” (1979), flute, trombone, violin, viola, vocal, piano, percussion
Martin Smolka (Czech) “O My Admired C Minor” (2002), flute, clarinet, violin, viola, piano, percussion, CD
Cassandra Miller (Canada) “Goose Food” (2008), flute, clarinet, violin, vocal, piano, percussion, CD +*
Gyula Csapo (Canada) “Huacas” (2008), flute, clarinet, violin, vocal, percussion, soprano +*

+ = World premiere
* = Canada Council for the Arts commission

Continuum ensemble with Carla Huhtanen (soprano) and Gregory Oh (conductor), Anne Thompson–flute, Max Christie–clarinet, David Archer– trombone, Benjamin Bowman–violin, Angela Rudder–viola,Paul Widner–cello, Laurent Philippe–piano, Ryan Scott–percussion & synthesizer, Trevor Tureski–percussion

David Fujino is a writer, actor and occasional trumpet player working out of Toronto. His reviews of music, theatre and dance may be found at The Live Music Report. More information about Mr. Fujino is available at this site.

Anton Kuerti’s Beethoven Program reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Sunday, April 12, 2008. Walter Hall, Toronto.

Anton Kuerti described the ‘material’ Beethoven used for his “Diabelli Variations” as the equivalent of a discarded fragment you would find ‘on a cutting room floor.’ From this “cobbler’s patch of a waltz” Beethoven made what is arguably his greatest composition for the piano, especially if you look past the sheer virtuosity to its “lyrical insight, the tender, lovingly shaped subtle magic.”

Mr. Kuerti disassembled the first few bars of the opening turn of Diabelli’s waltz and then demonstrated how these motives pervade the whole of Beethoven’s “Variations.” The opening turn, a few bars in the tonic, a few in the dominant, a sequence of modulations, a descending fourth and fifth and a repeating element, represent almost the entire store from which Beethoven grew his “magical garden.”

Beethoven’s supreme confidence animates the story of how the “Variations” came to be written. Diabelli, a minor composer but a major music publisher, composed a brief waltz and invited 51 composers to contribute a single variation each for a publication Diabelli intended to print as a charity project. Schubert, Czerny, and the young Liszt were among the composers who responded. Beethoven, typically, was so insulted to be lumped as one among 51 that he undertook to compose 33 variations and a coda.

Beethoven, a master of key modulations, chose to stay within the single key of C Major till the final section where he made one variation into a fugue in E Flat and a sequence of three in C Minor. Mr. Kuerti took great care to demonstrate the variety of Beethoven’s subtle inventions, the allusions, humour, and parodies, his exquisite use of canon and fugue, but noting that often “analysis can be more sophisticated than the music,” he invited the audience to listen to the performance.

All of the qualities Mr. Kuerti catalogued in his introduction appeared in the performance: the overall sense of architecture, the humour, the equality of articulation in both hands, the loving attention to subtle shifts of energy, the power passages held in balance with intelligent lyricism, and above all, the sense that after much thought, Mr. Kuerti has no doubt about what he is doing. The result for me was an absorption in the pleasure of listening that took me out of this world, into that golden world of poetry.

Anton Kuerti is Artistic Director of Mooredale Concerts. To find out more about this excellent concert series and to get discount pricing on next year’s series, goto.

Premieres and the Jules Leger Prize reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008. New Music Concerts, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

Alice Ho (Hong Kong/Canada 1960) says her “Angst II (2006)” describes the intense anxiety you might feel if you were trapped in a space like an underground garage. Her music is drama. She is not concerned with form, but with the organic flow of imagination. The music, scored for strings, winds, brass, percussion and piano, arises sporadically like physical gestures: spurts, dashes, snaps, strums, drums, blarings, ringings, and ejaculations of sound that echo, reverberate and fade into space. David Swan at the piano led the action and reaction with an insistent high register tremolo that vibrates like a wire in the blood. Very impressive music.

Rodney Sharman (Canada 1958) composed “Incantation (2007)” on commission by bassoonist Kathleen McLean, who played it with an ensemble of harp and string quartet. In contrast to Alice Ho, who admits being susceptible to inspiration from her environment but has no interest in form, Sharman’s music comes out of him wherever he happens to be; he has a compelling melodic sense, and in the case of this piece, employs the repetitive form of incantation. The word ‘beautiful’ came to mind quickly after the opening bars. The five-note melodic refrain of the bassoon sings, and the sighs of a chorus of strings blow like wind among the brittle lines of the harp. The work is rich in emotion.

Juan Trigos (Mexico/Canada 1965) is open to all kinds of forms and influences. The title of “Ricercare de Camara VI (1998-99)” refers to Trigos’ interest in ‘ricercare’, an early Baroque ancestor of fugal counterpoint. Trigos also pays homage to Spain through his use of abstracted elements of flamenco and the sense of ‘Son’ or regionally distinct styles of playing in this piece for guitar and chamber orchestra. The music appears as a scattering of sonic blocks of rhythm punctuated by various percussive impacts. The ringing of church bells, the bray of clarinet, the blare of brass hedge the highly inflected virtuosic performance of soloist Dieter Hennings’ guitar. Overall, one gets the pleasant feeling that Trigos is very sure of his writing.

Chris Paul Harman (Canada 1970) developed his work “Postludio a rovescio (2006-07)” from a piece he’d written for solo violin based on the Passacaglia for solo violin by Heinrich von Biber. The present work, scored for winds, piano, guitar and mandolin, harp and strings, is technically very complex in its orchestration, but comes across as delicate, elegant, with the light and rippling purity of sustained notes resolving into an ethereal beauty. Mr. Harman is this year’s winner of the Jules Léger Prize presented cooperatively by The Canadian Music Centre, CBC/EMR, and The Canada Council for the Arts.

So Jeong Ahn (Korea/Canada 1956) wrote the most imaginative piece of the evening. “SUB (2008)” is her homage to the Toronto ‘SUBway’–“a wonderful source of a variety of attractive sounds, [and] also a place of communication, where people from all over the world meet in a kind of daily ritual performance like a concert.” So Jeong Ahn’s music is a way of freeing herself from the suppressive influence of ‘other people’s business’ and getting on with ‘her business’, which is locating and experiencing the various personae that live in her alone. Her motivation and her music are courageous, engaging and wakeful. Her use of extended techniques (tapping on the mouthpiece of the horn, the silent breathings of accordion and trombone), the sequences of taped ‘live’ voices and ‘live’ footsteps, her imitation of the squeal of cars coming around a curve of track, and the rush of energy in huge, hollow spaces, kept the mind of this listener in a state of constant delight.

At this time when serious music is being ‘right-sized’ into to the lowest common denominator of media market produce, one has to celebrate the musical community that focused on this evening’s offering by New Music Concerts which is dedicated to bringing out the best, for us and in us.

Beaux Arts Trio Final Tour at WMCT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 11th, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008. Walter Hall, Toronto.

53 years after founding the Beaux Arts Trio, one of the great chamber ensembles of this or any era, pianist Menahem Pressler, his Trio colleagues, violinist Daniel Hope and cellist, Antonio Meneses, are making the Trio’s farewell tour.

The Toronto programme consisted of two of the most beautiful pieces you’d ever hope to hear, Beethoven’s “Archduke” and Schubert’s Op.100. Pressler is pictured here introducing the third piece, “Work For Piano Trio” by his friend Gyorgy Kurtag. We see Pressler cautioning the audience that the piece is a kind of meditation, as demanding for audience as it is for the players, and if we listen carefully, we might gain some insight into our selves, and if we miss it, they will have to play it again. The piece is a series of tone sequences that the instruments played solo, duo, and trio, the notes, as it were, suspended in silence. The audience listened, and there was no need to repeat it.

The Trio glided through the “Archduke” as smoothly as a canoe over the reflections of spruce in the waters of a deep lake. Pressler conducts from the piano, caring deeply about the music, his face as sensitive as his fingers, his expressions feeding and being fed by the energy of his colleagues. Daniel Hope played his violin with short strokes, almost without vibrato but sweetly, with perfect control, and always in agreement with Meneses’ cello.

In the dirge that followed the leisurely piano solo of the third movement, the strings generated an unheard of sense of tenderness and rest that the piano swept into a dance during a finale that was a playful exchange of carefree imitations among all three players.

Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E Flat Major, D 929″ received it’s first enthusiastic review a month after his death in the autumn of 1828. The reviewer wrote:” It is no ordinary spirit that speaks to us from it; it is new, original, great, strange, penetrating, powerful and tender….”

The mood throughout is elegiac, even nostalgic, poignant with a sense of drama that is weirdly enhanced by the cyclical reappearance of a haunting theme based on a Swedish song “See the Sun Go Down” Schubert had heard in Vienna a year before his death. As if moving to the simultaneous rhythms of life and death, there is a beat and a melody that are taken alternately by the piano and the strings: the mind cannot tell which is more compelling, the melody or the beat. The music moves between elegy, march and dance, between major and minor keys. The times alternate between 6/8, 2/2 and 2/4, but the tempo remains constant.

The music competes with itself, increasing in velocity towards the finale where dramatic conflicts disintegrate into a comic harmony and a cathartic apotheosis.

Reflections on the National Jazz Awards by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

April 9, 2008, Palais Royale, Toronto.

Congratulations to Bill King and the NJA crew for bringing in this elegant seventh edition of an event that generates recognition and the warmth of social connections in the jazz music community.

The light of recognition that the NJA beamed at the work of jazz pioneers in Canada was reflected onto the ‘next generation’, who added their own radiance. Foremost among them was Nikki Yanofsky. She sang, “When you wish upon a star,” and left no doubt in my mind that among the many brilliant artists in the room, she was ‘the’ star. When she belts out a tune, her energy, virtuosity and taste just take you away.

Brandi Disterheft, just Junoed and still young compared to fellow nominee, bassist Dave Young, led her Quartet and guests through the chores of house band, but made some really new music with their opening number. They managed to generate a big band sound while vocalist Sophia Pearlman and Chris Gale on sax wailed an African chant with a complex multi-percussion line jolting in the background and under that the groaning rumble of Brandi’s bass. Music from the gone world.

There was a tribute to three recently late greats: Doug Riley, Jeff Healey, and Oscar Peterson. The musical tribute to Healey was a version of the 1928 standard” If I Had You,” played by guitarist of the year Reg Schwager. Quiet, unassuming, like the man himself, this performance seemed magically touched by the greatness of the late Lenny Breau.

The most interesting moment of the evening for me was the closing line of Geoff Chapman’s speech acknowledging his sixth consecutive win in the ‘Journalist’ category. He said, “Don’t get me wrong: next year, choose somebody else.”

There is indeed a sense that the nominees selected in each category by a committee of industry leaders constitute a ‘chosen few’, and that the awards tend to circulate or stagnate in the pool of these ‘chosen’ despite a wide and expanding public balloting system. It may be that this apparent anomaly will fix itself over the years as we cultivate more big fish in this country’s jazz pool. It may also be that the whole NJA process will naturally become a bit less GTAcentric.

Click here for a list of the winners of the NJA 2008 Awards

Wasn’t it that icon of jazz broadcasters and perpetual award winner Ted O’Reilly who used to close his radio show “The Jazz Scene” with the words “Think good thoughts.” Well, I like to think about the thoughts expressed by Céline Peterson and Ben Riley: that their late, great, honouree fathers, Oscar and Doug, “were looking down on us” with a grin. This is what I’m talking about.