Archive for June, 2008

Art of Time Ensemble SONGBOOK II: Steven Page reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

June 20,2008, Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

I like writing “I am Andrew Burashko’s greatest fan.” The shows he creates around Art of Time Ensemble excite me. His best idea, so far, is to raise pop music to the level of chamber music.

For some reason, these days, I do not enjoy listening to pop music, probably because musically I’ve lost interest in it. Too repetitive. It’s like your favourite breakfast flake or granola. If the ABC flavour hits your sweet spot, you get into that groove, and some ABC in your bowl hits the spot every time. My pop music spot seems to have worn off—none of it really touches my any more. It’s kind of sad, but that’s how it is.

The trade-off is I have grown a huge and tender spot for art music, especially chamber music. All it takes to hit my sweet spot is a great voice, adventurously crafted music, and a fine ensemble. That’s what I get with SONGBOOK II.

The particular ingredients of my pleasure are: Steven Page using his voice like a tenor; some unusually thoughtful pop songs with intelligent lyrics, each arranged in rich tones with gutsy changes by a different high class arranger, played with gusto by a chamber sextet with some of Canada’s best musicians at the oars. What a trip!

The first half of the program offered four songs chosen and sung by Page backed by the whole ensemble, and Prokofiev’s “Sonata in F minor for violin and piano” with Burashko and Steven Sitarski. The most musically interesting song was Elvis Costello’s “I Want You,” arranged by jazz/rock/classical saxophonist Robert Carli. It had a recognizable Costello sound but enriched and enhanced with weird discordant sequences, Sitarski bowing ghostly sounds ‘sul ponticello’, and Page singing the phrase ‘I want you’ so softly at one point you’d believe he might be whispering it on his dying breath.

Page’s own “Running Out of Time”, co-written Barenaked Lady colleague Ed Robertson and arranged by Cameron Wilson, violinist with the doomed CBC Radio Orchestra, has some upbeat piano runs by Burashko, works itself through Phil Dwyer’s clarinet into an ardent frenzy, and gives full voice to Page’s bravura tenor. A very high moment, followed by ‘something a little different’: four movements of a Prokofiev minor key violin and piano sonata.

This dark, intense, brooding work rises to peaks of excitement and passion that you feel as starkly contrasting textures of the music. Fast violin scales scamper over blocky piano chords, sometimes like fleeting lizard feet, sometimes like tremulous winds whistling among gravestones. Lyrical passages alternate with bitter dissonances; tentative passages build to explosive climaxes. Flow, staccato and virtuosic pizzicato contribute to unceasing surprise and delight for the musical palate.

Here is an unexpected effect. The Prokofiev was such a dose of the what I call, perhaps from prejudice, ‘the real thing’, that the ‘pop’ performances after intermission paled a bit by comparison no matter how good they were in their own right. I began to notice a kind of uniformity of mood in the songs and the textures of the arrangements. Also, Page, known for his articulation and tonal range did not seem well served by the sound setup that seemed to blur the words and keep his voice corralled in a brassy, somewhat airless register. Nonetheless, pleasure flowed.

Stephin Meritt’s “ For We Are the King of the Boudoir” got Steven Page to clown in front of a mirror and the light comic opera quality of the piece made me laugh, which is a good thing. Who but Phil Dwyer would have the minerals to arrange the tone rows of a tune co-written by Philip Glass and Paul Simon and make it sound like Glass but different? Rob Piltch added some memorable woodwindy electric guitar riffs towards the end.

Composer Gavin Bryars took on re-arranging Leonard Cohen’s waltz “The Singer Must Die,” with its incredible lines like in ‘the hinge of her thighs, /where I have to go begging in beauty’s disguise’. Jane Siberry’s “The Taxi Ride” arranged by Glen Buhr came off as passionate, imploring, and desperately real. Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” arranged by Robert Carli had an interesting opening with moaning low strings covering a single note piano ostinato, rising through dissonant wildwood guitar percussive riffs to a crescendo/decrescendo on cello and clarinet that brought the audience to its feet whooping and hollering.

As the I Ching would say “Grace has success. Perseverance furthers.”

Brott Summer Festival: James Ehnes Plays Mendelssohn reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

Saturday, June 14, Hamilton

Felix Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” began life as a collaboration of prodigies. The composer was sixteen and had already written eleven symphonies and his Octet Op. 20, when he met the fifteen year old violinist Ferdinand David. Some years later, Mendelssohn was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, chose David as his concertmaster and began thinking of writing a concerto to showcase the talents of his friend. Some time later, Mendelssohn conducted the première of his concerto with David as soloist.

Last night, at the opening of the 20th Brott Summer Music Festival, two Canadian prodigies, conductor Boris Brott, and violinist James Ehnes collaborated in a performance of the “Concerto” that was memorable for its sheer pleasurableness. Ehnes’ work contributed to our pleasure by a sensitive attack supported by control and a thrilling purity of tone. Brott has a remarkably nurturing personality: he pleases by the effortless authority of his just-so conducting, and by beaming a sense of happiness with his players, soloists and orchestra alike.

The National Academy Orchestra of Canada that Brott founded almost twenty years ago is the nest from which hundreds of Canadian musicians have launched successful professional careers. For example, the concertmaster, Robert Uchida, is now concertmaster of Symphony Nova Scotia. The NAOC’s associate conductor, Martin MacDonald, recently was appointed Resident Conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia. Congratulations.

MacDonald opened this evening’s concert conducting Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No 3, Op. 72b.” Under his baton, the orchestra gave a very convincing performance of the energetic, triumphal passages of this work. After the solemn introduction that dragged a bit and suffered initially from creaky brass and wind work, MacDonald guided the smooth ascent towards the ‘Overture’s’ magnificent concluding crescendo.

Maestro Brott took the podium and led Beethoven’s “Symphony No.4 in B-flat major, Op. 60” with a firm hand, bringing a lively, lyrical experience out of this classical, Haydnesque work, and marking it with his own attractive sense of playfulness. I particularly enjoyed the rounded, rolling, flowing winds in the exposition of the ‘Adagio’ as well as the concluding flute solo ornamented with horns and timpani.

The highlights of this exhilarating evening came from the virtuosity of James Ehnes. Within the general excellence of his playing, my recollection of the ‘cadenza’ dwells on the rich range of the tones issuing from his instrument: whisker thin bowings ‘sul ponticello’ and gritty double stoppings. His tremolos, spell-binding in their articulation, contributed much to the high contrast sense of drama. Also, one remembers the tenderly singing tones as Ehnes takes up the theme of the darker ‘Andante.’

Since this review began with a nod towards the idea of musical friendships, I conclude by agreeing with a musical friend of mine who believes that the only thing equal to a good performance of a new musical work is a great performance of an old work. Just so.

A Pair of Piano Music CD’s reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, June 9th, 2008

Brian Agro,”Procession of Ornaments” Tomas Bachli, piano. 14 tracks.Percasso 26. Link to Percasso.

It takes a lot of listening to explore the depths of this third solo piano album by Canadian expat in Berlin, Brian Agro. The pieces are imaginative miniatures, mostly 1-3 minutes with a couple around 5 minutes, played in an attentive, crystalline fashion by Tomas Bachli. Each has its own mood built up out of melodic, simple yet complex elements. If there is an overall energy, I’d have to use words like reflective and enigmatic but there are often cheerful highlights touched by mischief. There are ocassional moments, as in ‘Prétudes’ Part I and II, when a feeling of heaviness bordering on monotony arises.

The work is published on the Percaso label and is classed as a kind of avant/jazz, but the music brings to my mind the elegant keyboard ruminations of Ravel and the illusionary play of Debussy. Agro has a good ear, good taste, and a sensitivity to fine gradations of feeling, all reflected in his idiosyncratic chord structures. His miniatures repay repeated careful listening but also are also enjoyable to have around while you work or relax.


Simon Trpceski,“Debussy: Images”.EMI Classics 5099950027224.

Simon Trpceski’s 4th album for EMI is marked by his understated but flawless technique and a kind of objective sense of the music that releases the freshness nascent in the (amply recorded) solo piano music of Debussy. I have enjoyed repeated listenings of “Images: Bks I and II” because Trpceski’s style brings out both mysteriousness and passion that are substantial in the floating vagueness of Debussy’s middle period music, following the transfer of his affections from his first wife to Emma Bardac.

Nowhere is the freshness of Trpceski’s approach more evident than in the over-exposed “Claire de lune” which one hears as if for the first time, due to the thoughtful musicality of his phrasing. One has the sense of a lovely sea-breeze blowing through French doors that open onto a patio overlooking a moonlit sea murmuring of endless love.

“L’isle joyeuse”, from the same happy period, is crisp and extraverted in its unfolding. Here the passion is clothed in high spirits and the virtuosity required is characteristically under the control of Trpceski’s good taste. There are examples of Debussy’s earliest ornamental salon music–the “Arabesques” of 1891, and the dramatic, playful 6 sections of the suite “Children’s Corner” dedicated to his daughter Chou-chou and full of impish good humour (“Golliwog’s Cakewalk”) but fine enough to serve as a piano method work (“Serenade for the Doll”).
Trpceski has recorded Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and several Russians. I had the good fortune to hear him in a Toronto performance that included some later Brahms that would be worth having on disc.

Penderecki String Quartet: Intra/Introspections reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Saturday, June 7, 2008. The Music Gallery

On a hot summer night, a concert of ‘new’ music with a breeze of mischief and humour blowing through it is cool news. We begin with pair of offerings for voice and piano by John Cage. Formally mocking form, composer/pianist Riccardo Piacentini and soprano Tiziana Scandaletti first adorn the silence with gestures and then perform strongly around a text of “Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce.

The Penderecki String Quartet brought their exciting intensity to an important work by Riccardo Piacentini, his “For Four (Part IV) for String Quartet (1994).” The piece is a texture of horizontal and vertical elements, highly coloured and strongly contrasted in their details, as if irreconcilable differences were searching for agreeable combinations. Thus the music mixes pizzicato with discordant unison drone bowings, relaxed tempi churning into states of alarm, powerfully intense passages that dissolve into squeaking, gibbering, ghostly tones that fade away. One feels somehow involved in a personal confession and struggle against restraint, a journey towards unfetteredness.

Penderecki’s “String Quartet No.2 (1968)” that followed also expresses a sense of unrest, in this case political struggle of the late 60’s. My overall impression of the sonic landscape of this piece is the high whine of a swarm of mosquitoes out of which individual voices emerge at speed and with great intensity–an image that could be translated into stellar spaces. The piece has the energy of newness.

The String Quartet No.3 (2000) by Ada Gentile spatializes sound carefully so that despite its drive, the work achieves a sense tranquility and equilibrium that can be felt directly in the gut. In particular, Simon Fryer does his job at the cello with an eyes-open, heads-up style that contributes a wide-awake feeling to the music. Gentile’s “La giornata di Betty Boop for voice and piano (2006)” in five sections, has Piacentini at the piano wearing a tail, a dog collar and leash while Scandaletti outfitted like the cartoon character prances and sings to ‘Boby’ her doggie six funny texts by Sandra Cappelleto, leaving the audience in high spirits.

The most lyrical and accessible piece of the evening, Andrzej Panufnik’s “String Quartet No.3, Wycinanki (1997),” has five distinct focal areas, one for each movement, namely: volume, rhythm, pizzicato, virtuosic power, and expressive intensity. I especially liked the singing spirituality of the final movement with it’s rich-voiced wistful Bartokian harmonies. The final work of the evening, Piacentini’s “An Mozart for voice, string quartet, piano, ‘foto suoni’ (2008) which premiered here, also has some traditional elements, namely a couple of passionate Mozart’s songs behind Piacentini’s complex inventions.The work has great charm as well as novelty, and Scandeletti let out her vocal range to a great advantage.

Following this soundaXis event, pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico was honoured by the League of Canadian Composers for her outstanding contribution to the musical culture of this country.

Transmission Confirmed reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, June 6th, 2008

Thursday, June 5, 2008. The Music Gallery, Toronto.

Transmission is the name of six dedicated Montreal musicians who overcame nightmarish scheduling problems to gather here because they very much wanted to play this challenging chamber music program.

Brigitte Poulin and D’Arcy Philip Gray teamed up to play my favourite piece of the evening, “Quatre Pièces febriles (1995)” for marimba and piano.

Composer Georges Asperghis describes it as “a game of mirrors…games between dry attack and their resonances…games where one gets lost not knowing who is who and what is what.” A piece by Asperghis is always amusing: this one is like one of those animations where your mirror image takes on an independent life and imitations fall in and out of synch, often echoing with unpredictable delays, rather than mirroring, as if your reflection were developing intelligence, knowledge of you, and a sense of humour as the piece develops. The incredible sense of timing between the players and some beautiful mellow tones of the marimba remain in the mind with great pleasure.

I also enjoyed Tristan Murail’s “Treize couleurs du soleil couchant (1978)”. Murail, a student of Messiaen and an admirer of Ligeti, is known as the composer of ‘spectral’ music—music based on the analysis of the natural acoustic qualities of sound as a way of avoiding the serialism of Boulez, Stockhausen, and so on. This particular piece expresses his fascination with the changes of colour and light of a sunset.

Murail expresses this musically through the sounds of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano which each have defined structural roles within the sonic layering of this composition. The quiet parts of the composition based on the resonance of one or two notes gently take over the mind.

The mood grows excited to the level of hysteria, generating spectacular textures, though I preferred the passages where the energy melts into an enveloping fullness. Also interesting were the concluding combinations of Lori Freedman’s eerie clarinet sounds ground into a mix with hoarse, gritty violin work by Clemens Merkel and Poulin’s piano thunder that suggested the wistfully sad aspect of sunset. It is striking how wonderful is the silence at the end of such an energetically intense piece.

The evening began and ended with compositions by Boulez and Xenakis for the full ensemble including Guy Pelletier on flutes and Julie Trudeau on cello. “Plekto (1993)” by Xenakis is a confrontation of strong materials of contrasting textures, meters, and chording whose overlapping variations suggest hostile aggression, such as one associates with land-and-sky war. The satirical, hallucinatory and horrifying albeit riveting paintings of Goya, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud came to mind. This music is not shy. It ended with a bray and a loud bang and the audience loved it.

This concert was a New Music Arts Project presented as part of soundaXis ’08 and will be rebroadcast several times in the coming months on CBC radio 2.


Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Thursday June 19-Wednesday, July 2. 2008 TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival. Tickets and programme details are here.Friday June 20 and Saturday June 21. The Songbook II will feature Steven Page (of the Barenaked Ladies) and the Art of Time Ensemble. Enwave Theatre, Toronto. For ticket and programme details click here.