Archive for May, 2008

Scelsi:Sound in Three Dimensions reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Thursday, May 29, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Scelsi’s music is primal, in the sense that it directs the attention to first levels of sound as expression: the cry of a baby, or its first conscious explorations of the mouth/throat apparatus; the call of greeting or seeking in the dark; ceremonial or ritual utterances, the wail of pain from grief or mishap.

In fact, two of the major ensemble pieces in the program, “I presagi”(1958), and “Yamaon” (1954-58) are ‘about’ mishaps, the destruction of a Mayan city. The five pieces for solo or two female voices are vocalises, songs without words, and tend to be organized in units around a single pitch elaborated through microtonal shadings, harmonic allusions, and variations in timbre and dynamics.

Listening to Carla Huhtanen produce the outcries of “Lilitu”, (aka. Lilith, the female storm demon reputed to have been Adam’s first wife) lifted me out of this world. The spontaneous logic of her vocal attack, without vibrato, with exaggerated vibrato (both finely honed), crying, chanting, wild and then fading to a low, dying whisper, took me back to my own primal experiences. Though it was like no other music, it made perfect sense, and was totally enjoyable.

This was followed by “Okanagon” with Sanya Eng on Harp, Ryan Scott conducting from the tam tam, and Brian Baty on double bass. The techniques of all three instruments are extended to produce a flow of other dimensional spaces filled with grating resonances of varied textures. Very engrossing and enjoyable.

“Sauh I and II” has the interplay of Huthanen’s soprano and the rich mezzo of Lynne McMurtry working out a quasi liturgical message of sound. Often the rhythmically pulsing harmonies of the live voices sound like they are coming from a synthesizer but are still somehow human, and often sad. Such performances make one feel that words are overrated.

The other vocalist of this great evening was bass-baritone Alex Dobson, working with an ensemble of bass instruments. Concert curator Wallace Halladay on baritone sax led this rumbling representation of battle, chaos, and destruction, giving it a kind of jazzy flavour. Dobson’s powerhouse song with out words was perfect jive for this setting, and I know that if Ornette Coleman had been there, he would have loved it.

The evening was presented by New Music Arts Projects, Daniel Taylor, as part of SoundaXis ’08. Gary Kulesha conducted “Yamaon”, Tony Gomez conducted “I presagi” with members of the Toronto Wind Orchestra. Andrew Staniland provided electronic realization for “Litanie”. Musicians not named in the text of this review are: Greg Bruce, alto saxophone; Lisa Griffiths, contrabassoon; Rob MacDonald, mandolin.

Talisker Players: The Voyage Out reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Tuesday, May 28, 2008. Trinity St. Paul’s, Toronto.

Talisker Players’ “The Voyage Out” is an elegant musical cruise through the realms traveled by poets Robert Louis Stevenson, W.B. Yeats, and Etel Adnan.

The song cycle composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1904 on nine poems of Stevenson’s, my personal highlight of the evening, was sung by Alexander Dobson. His rich baritone allowed the poet’s deeply felt and beautifully balanced language to unfold like scenes carved in ivory and teak. Dobson’s performance compares favourably with the benchmark by Gerald Finley who sang the cycle at the Vaughn William’s Anniversary Concert in the Brighton Dome a few weeks ago, though the older singer has more fine silver and less brass into his voice. Peter Longworth, who joined his piano to the Talisker String Quartet, provided a necessary flow of light that sparkled in Stevenson’s “bright ring of words”

Derek Holman’s cycle of songs “Daybreak and a Candle-end” composed for Alexander Dobson and the Talisker Players (who premiered it this evening) is based on five poems by W.B.Yeats. Perhaps the expectation of hearing music to match magnificent poems like “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Sailing to Byzantium” created a filter in my mind, but I could not ‘get’ what the music was supposed to be doing with the poetry except to bring it down. Dobson over articulated and overpowered the text. The string quintet sounded squeaky as Holman’s shifting tonalities and irregular metres flattened the sense out of Yeats’ harmonies. Halfway through the final poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” I had the good fortune to hear Yeats’ portentious lines “and therefore I have sailed the seas and come/To the holy city of Byzantium” come through. Clarity and pleasure continued to flow through the next stanza, until the amputation of the final lines that are the apotheosis of Yeats’ sacred song. I cannot imagine what Holman had in his lower chakra that inspired him to cut off Yeats’ final verse, because, as he says “To me the poem reaches a compelling conclusion in the third verse.”

The opening half-dozen notes of the bass-clarinet in Gavin Bryars’ “The Adnan Songbook” intimated that I was going to like this piece, and Monica Whicher’s performance sealed it, despite my feeling that the music seemed at times, too much for the words. Etel Adnan’s poetry is phrased in plain language (“The sun came in,” ” I went to the drugstore,” “we are not scared”); her statements are cryptic, her structures free flowing in a zenny way. Nothing about them suggests song. Yet, Bryars has woven them into a texture of his dirge like, droning harmonies that set your teeth on edge and soothe at the same time. The extended instrumental for viola that segués into Song III makes a totally convincing unit. Kevin Barrett’s classical guitar harmonics in Song VII, so delicate and ephemeral, stay in the mind. The harmony of B flat clarinet and strings in song VIII is gorgeous. Monica Whicher’s transparent soprano gave voice to the intimate and sometimes weird feelings the music was sharing.

Stewart Arnott provided continuity with genial readings of various prose texts that left behind memorable phrases such as “the incurable contagion of travel, “ and “the ache of unused energy” which somehow account for the restlessness that makes us leave the comforts of home for testing by the road.

The Talisker Players are:
Valerie Sylvester & Kathryn Sugden, violins
Mary McGeer and Karen Moffatt, violas
Laura Jones, cello: Eric Lee, Bass
Peter Stoll, clarinet/bass clarinet

Stage Director: Jessie Fraser
Stage Manager: Patti Marshall

Recent EMI/Virgin Classic Releases reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Brahms | Double Concerto in A minor Op.102 & Clarinet Quintet in B Minor Op.115 Virgin Classics 3951472 •

This is a benchmark recording of two pieces inspired by friendship. Brahms composed the Double Concerto as a gift to his estranged friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom Brahms had let down during Joachim’s divorce by siding with the virtuoso’s wife. Joachim accepted the gift, performed the piece, and their connection was renewed.
Brahms wrote the Quintet for Richard Muhlfeld, the virtuoso who connected the aging composer to the full possibilities of the clarinet, “the voice…of heroic love.” The Quintet is one of the last things Brahms wrote.

What makes this a benchmark recording is the feeling of ‘connection’ apparent in the Concerto from the first statement of Gautier Capuçon’s smoldering cello sparking off brother Renaud’s violin, and sustained with gripping intensity through the melting tones of soloist Paul Meyer in the Clarinet Quintet.

Though the works are middle and late Brahms respectively, the Capuçon’s, their Quartet, and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under the direction of Myung-Whun Chung combine to allow a youthful freshness of surprise to sing in the phrasing of the soloists. The sharply contrasted sense of detail in this performance is recorded with telling fidelity.

The musicians
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Myung-Whun Chung
Paul Meyer (clarinet)
Capuçon Quartet

Herbert Von Karajan | The Legend
EMI Classics •

“Time that with this strange excuse/ Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.” W.H.Auden.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the 20th Century’s most successful musician, the conductor, Herbert von Karajan. He is the top-selling classical recording artist of all time. He helped bring the London Philharmonia into existence: he founded the Salzburg Festival, and was elected in 1955 conductor for life of the Berlin Philharmonic. He flew jet planes, skied and sailed with a professional’s ease, and his gift for mimicry made him fun at parties. To celebrate his life, EMI Classics has issued Karajan: The Legend, a two disc set of 19 passages from recordings he did with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The selections focus on Von Karajan’s penchant for music of the Romantic tradition in Europe, embracing Ravel, Puccini, Berlioz, Smetana, Weber, Wagner, Smetana, Sibelius, Dvorak, and so on. This recording illustrates the legendary abilities of Von Karajan, namely: to create consistent and increasing tension through large arcs of phrasing, to make large orchestral forces play like chamber groups, to create immensely powerful sonorities without any harshness, and most remarkable of all, to conduct without appearing to interpret the music. As Carlos Klieber put it, “He simply plays the notes. It’s a kind of black magic.”

So what is it that his musicianship will earn Von Karajan time’s pardon for? His ten year membership in the Nazi Party (1935-45). During the period when Bruno Walter, and Otto Klemperer were forced to flee Fascism, when Erich Klieber and Toscanini chose voluntary exile, Von Karajan benefited from the vacant positions these more principled musicians left behind. And though Arthur Rubenstein, Isaac Stern, and Itzhak Perlman refused to play with him, the present verdict of history is that the Von Karajan legacy is about his conducting, not about his character.

If you are interested in listening to exquisitely refined orchestral performances, vibrant with power and polished to a marmoreal smoothness, you will enjoy this centenary celebration album.

CD’s Noted and Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, May 7th, 2008

Top of the pile is singer/songwriter George Meanwell’s second solo album entitled “Late”. There is a lot of continuity with his first album “Another Street”, which I reviewed for The Live Music Report: the songs are intelligent, thank goodness for that, in the folksy-but-cool manner of Mose Allison, Dylan, Lyle Lovett and Leonard Cohen. The songs are interesting, the musicians, The Loss Leaders and guests are impeccable, the arrangements are full of variety intended to wake you up rather than lull you to sleep in a particular sound groove. I like it very much.

These are the tests “Late” has passed: I listened to it in bits, driving around Toronto, and I wasn’t quite convinced until I listened again, all the way through, on a drive to Ottawa, and I was sold. It is a terrific album, one song better than the next. The opening tune-“What have you done with my heart” is so good, it ought to be a big hit.

I played it for my son-in-law, who likes Blue Rodeo and he liked it. I played it for my 16 year old grandson who likes Kanye West and Bob Marley, and he liked it. I like to let this tune haunt my head, which it does, quite a bit. And somehow, rythmns or bits of melody of the other Meanwell tunes are called to join the party in my head.

Lines and titles of these songs mostly about tender but endangered love, might give you a sense of the elegance of Meanwell’s mind. “Let’s do lunch in my car,” rhymes with the Buckaroo Bonzai mantra “Wherever you go, there you are.” From the title song, there is: “Memory and appetite tend to inflate/This evening let’s eat a little bit late.” And these lines from the hit candidate: “If I’m sad I won’t know till I cry/What have you done with my heart.”

Behind it all is Meanwell’s flexible, gentle, capable voice giving music to words that feel sincere. This honest work is shared by Meanwell’s band, The Loss Leaders, which includes Rick Whitelaw, Ray Parker, Chad Irschick and Dave MacDougall.

George Meanwell’s albums are available at