Archive for November, 2008

Esprit Orchestra “Inspired by Traditions” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Sunday, November 23, 2008, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

Alex Pauk fused his remarkable Esprit orchestra into a machine with 75 moving parts to produce the 4 minute roller-coaster ride entitled “Short Ride on a Fast Machine”(1986) by John Adams. A concert opener if there ever was one, I think of it as a kind of minimalist update of the 1945 hit “McNamara’s Band,” where “The drums go bang and the cymbals clang and the horns they blaze away” while “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” fueled by nitroglycerin with a meth-amphetamine addict at the wheel laps the track. Good fun.

R. Murray Schafer’s [click on photo] piece “Dream Rainbow, Dream Thunder”(1986) looks back to the music of Wagner as it is honoured by the ‘fantasyland castle’ built by ‘Mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria. A visit to this castle and Schafer’s subsequent early morning reverie at the keyboard in his own log cabin on a lake in the Haliburton Highlands brought the piece into being.  The opening minutes of this evocative work is a swelling of flutes, brass, winds and strings suggesting a romantic landscape that appears and dissolves in mists intimated by rippling harp lines and burbling vibes. The call of horns give the illusion of distant forests and the clarinets seem to be telling a story of enchantment.  This is a traditional romantic subject treated in a modernistic, avant-garde manner. Schafer’s own words about the work are worth quoting here: “ Dream Rainbow, Dream Thunder joins yesterday with days of long ago, and tomorrow with days that will never be.” The work was recorded on the recently defunct CBC label by Alex Pauk and the Esprit Orchestra.”

Valentin Silvestrov’s “Dedication Symphony” (1991) is strongly oriented toward ‘melody’ that he sees as a kind of ritual breathing and singing. After the orchestra opens with massive, resonating chords and sporadic blasts of brass, the violin soloist, Marie Bérard does a magical job of ‘singing out’ the melodies throughout the three linked movements. Her ‘calls’ are held in lingering, melancholic echoes by the orchestra that repeat and amplify repeated waves of sound. The second movement’s core is a solo violin melody so lyrical it inspires imitation by the birdlike flutes and deeply rooted forest groans that disintegrate like darkness fading into dawn. The third movement, which proved much too long for my powers of concentration, lumbered in a slow uniform tempo like a prehistoric sloth that all-too-gradually fades into extinction serenaded exquisitely by a solo violin melody that itself passes into palpable silence. Silvestrov uniquely blends melodic romanticism with atonality and a minimalist aesthetic to make a music that could guide the patient listener on a spiritual journey.

This evening came to a happy conclusion with Aaron Copland’s youthful “Piano Concerto #1” (1926). Jagged, jazzy, pulsing with Paris of the 20’s, American jazz, rag, boogey, and couldn’t-care-less-modernism, this 20 minute concerto in two sections shows Copland in command of all the musical traditions he’d learned under the great teacher, Nadia Boulanger, and using it all in the service of his own, native talent.  Andrew Burashko, pictured above, totally engages Copland’s muscular rhythmic shifts and tricky tempo twists, wrestles them to the mat and stays on top during the discordant cadenza in dialogue with two muted trumpets. This rich and varied work, incorporating slow blues and snappy Broadway show music that was originally panned by critics has become the party tune of present day concerts.

Yamagami and Longworth @ WMCT reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Kaori Yamagami was fortunate this afternoon to have Peter Longworth as her partner on the piano. He has a light touch, a vital sense of rhythm, and a down to earth approach that grounds Ms. Yamagami’s volatile sensitivity. He is unassumingly expressive, never gilds the lily, doesn’t hold back but offers his support to the challenges she meets. It was apparent they worked well together from the opening bars of Beethoven’s 4th Cello “Sonata in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1”, as Longworth’s delicate melodic figures outlined the depths of the cello’s fluid outpourings. By the ‘Adagio’, those depths, darkened by a sense of tragedy, expanded into a contrapuntal expression of playfulness. Towards the closing bars of the Finale, both partners seemed to be having fun.

Ms. Yamagami opened the concert boldly with Ligeti’s “Sonata for Solo Cello.” Composed in Hungary in 1953, it was suppressed after a single radio broadcast, and had to wait until 1983 for its concert debut, and another seven years for its first recording. Since that time, the “Sonata” has become increasingly popular, working its way into the standard repertoire and even becoming a qualifying test for the 2005 Rostropovich Cello Competition in Paris, at which event Ms. Yamagami won the prize for most promising musician.

The deep, sliding drone of the opening motif (repeated throughout the piece), sets a mood of passion almost paralyzed by its own intensity. The elegiac beauty of the first movement alternates with the high speed double and triple stops of the second movement that conjures a mood of hysteria barely held in check by repeated quotations of the dominant motif of the first movement. This is a gorgeous, compelling work, and Ms. Yamaguchi demonstrates her emotional understanding and impressive control as she negotiates steep, hairpin shifts in rhythm and tempo.

The afternoon developed the mood of solemn lamentation so native to the cello’s voice with the world premier of Larysa Kuzmenko’s four movement work, “Fantasy for Solo Violoncello,” commissioned for Ms. Yamagami by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. The first movement, dedicated to the late cellist Christine Bogyo, so extenuated the anguish of a wounded soul that it drew Ms. Yamaguchi’s facial expression downward into a Kabuki grimace.  The ideas in the ‘Allegro Vivace’ pursued each other like a swirl of insects in dialogue with itself. The ‘Adagio’ is delicate, fragile, beseeching and peaceful before it descends into discord and lamentation. The concluding ‘Allegro’ returns the mood to the fleet, airy dialogue introduced in the second movement.

One had to smile at the lightness and melodic charm of the mid-period Beethoven’s “Variations” on the duet concerning true love that Papageno and Papagena sing in the first act of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The interplay of parts is pure enjoyment, expressing the cheer of a world in good order. Following a descent into a subterranean minor, Mr. Longworth’s impeccable sense of time leads the way back to the sparkling sunshine.

The duo returned us to the shadowy realm with “Meditation Hebraique,” the fervent, liturgical response to the Torah that Ernst Bloch composed for cellist Pablo Casals in 1924.  The cello’s deep cantorial invocation floats over the piano’s rolling bass ostinato. The music of intense questioning that surrenders to prayer seemed to move Ms. Yamagami close to tears, while the leonine Mr. Longworth maintained his stalwart air.

Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” that closed the concert was delightful, full of sunshine and subtlety, lyricism and excitement. This 1932 work, drawn from the composer’s 1920 Ballet, “Pulcinella” is based on a score by the 18th century master Pergolesi, and has become a staple of the cello bravura repertoire. Ms. Yamagami responded to the unusual demands of this witty, dislocated work with zest, grace, and humour.

Upon reflection, one must appreciate the broad vision of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto for sponsoring such an enriched program.

Montreal Stockhausen Project @ New Music Concerts reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

Saturday, November 15, Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

For New Music Concert audiences, the name of their most frequently mentioned composer is Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007).  During the ‘90’s, Stockhausen personally trained Montreal flautist Lise Daoust and four of her students, and tonight they gave a concert devoted to works he composed as part of a 25 year operatic project entitled “Licht [Light]”.

It has been said of Stockhausen that he is the “creator of sound with more direct access to the divinely-inspired rhythms of the universe than a mere composer could ever hope for.” His absorption into the spiritual dimension of music was inspired in 1951, when the 23 year old Stockhausen heard a recording of Olivier Messiaen’s piano piece “Mode of Values and Intensities,” which he described as “incredible star music.” Subsequently he went to Paris to study with Messaien who taught by showing “how he understood the music of others and how he worked himself.”

Stockhausen quickly understood how Messiaen’s single notes could be organized by applying Schoenberg’s serial principle to every dimension of sound: pitch, duration, loudness and tone color. The serial principle enabled Stockhausen to free sonic materials from the gravitational pull of time and associative meaning, enabling him to hear how even the most unlikely materials might become improbably rich sound sources.

Lise Daoust [click on the photo] costumed as ‘Spirit of the Flute’ played the solo work  “Flautina”. The piece consists of 12 main pitches spread over the entire combined range of flute, piccolo and alto flute. The changes between instruments were bridged by sung and hummed notes. Daoust elicits the ‘coloured rests’ by making rushing noises, kissing noises above the mouth-hole with key-slapping, tongue- clicks and sighing, flutter- tongued rushing noises alternating with irregular staccato spitting noises and voiceless whistling.  The overall effect, beyond the obvious virtuosity, is of great purity and a sense of freedom, as if Debussy’s ‘faun’ had escaped from his afternoon haunting ground into a more open story.

François Duval [click on photo] dancing and blowing sublime bluesy sounds on a basset-horn appears as Eve in “Ave”. He is accompanied by an invisible alto-flute played seductively off-stage by Chloé L’Abbé [click on photo] who eventually appears and engages him in a virtuosic duet/pas-de deux, moving in the space effortlessly with “daring positions, dancing virtuosity, humor, with much charm and with erotic allusions, ending with a tender kiss on the hand. [Stockhausen].” The polyphonic counterpoint of their often urbane instrumental sounds, mingle with more primitive operatic vocalizations of hissing, growling, kissing, stalking, whimpering, chattering, and ululating.

Geneviève Déraspe [click on photo] gave us “Entfuhrung [Abduction]” for piccolo and electronics. It’s not often we get to hear a 15 minute solo for piccolo that stays mostly out of the shrill registers. The music is totally gentle and without the slightest aggression. The notes merge with each other and emerge eventually as speech–smooth fluid and convincing in wondrous harmony with the electronics that gurgle in a background that sometimes resembles jungle sounds complete with Messiaenic birdcalls. I could go with Stockhausen when he writes” “Whoever hears this musical spiral will be abducted into a magic world.”

The finale of the evening, pictured at the top, was “Kathinka’s Chant as Lucifer’s Requiem”, played by Marie- Hélène Breault on flute accompanied by electronics. It is worth mentioning that Mlle. Breault was awarded a first prize by Stockhausen himself for her interpretation of this piece.

This is a dark, philosophical work having to do with the transition from life into death and perhaps beyond that—and intended as a European “Book of the Dead.” It is highly formulized around concepts like 24 stages, 6 senses, 6 layered tracks of spatial polyphony controlled phase shifts, 11 trombones, 7 signals of the high F, to be listened to over 49 days and so on.  Mlle. Breault’s flute begins with deep tones rolling in syncopated rhythms against a watery electronic background that shifts focus all over the room but constantly sends out sounds like that of children’s wild laughter. She takes up positions around the quadrants of two onstage clocks. The music is spacious, solemn, austere, ending on a dire note that rises to a shriek. Palpable silence follows and in that she walks off the stage.

What finally impresses, and what we applaud, is the vast vision of Stockhausen’s musical world and the commitment he commands from artists who get what he is doing and who are willing to keep transmitting that energy to audiences.

Marc-André Hamelin at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Marc-André Hamelin is renowned for the demon speed of his finger work and his many recordings of difficult piano compositions. More importantly, at speed and in difficulty, Hamelin commands a smooth legato and a flexible sense of tempo. His playing last night in the intimacy of the Jane Mallett theatre was remarkable for a spontaneity that brought out the polyphonic and rhythmic richness of a program that was varied yet unified by a sense of song.

His two Chopin selections, “Ballade in A-flat”(1841), and “Barcarolle in F-sharp” (1848) are taken from the folk song tradition. Hamelin’s own compositions, two études, are based on songs by Goethe and Tchaikovsky. The Godowsky piece (1920) works up waltzes by Strauss (transcribed and published by Hamelin’s father) on the subject of “Wine, Women, and Song.” Weissenberg’s “Sonata in a State of Jazz” (1982) is based on popular song forms including tango, blues, charleston and samba. Finally, Haydn’s sonatas are never far from the sound of the human voice. Hamelin’s playing always reminds us of the human utterance that underlies all music.

His account of Haydn’s early “Sonata No. 38 in F” was full of charm, purity, rich tone colours and subtle variations. The ‘Adagio’ so evocative of remembering, suggested a kinship with Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” The darker, more highly contrasted Sonata No. 55 in B-flat” had a kind of wildness in it that brought to mind a saying attributed to Mr. Hamelin’s teacher Russell Sherman: “ One should play the piano only if one can do so in a manner that has a streak in it of personal wildness and conviction.”

Hamelin in a state of jazz is Hamelin using his considerable chops to have fun, and that is how he comes off during his leap from Haydn into Alexis Weissenberg’s four part “Sonata in a State of Jazz.”  The moody riffs of the ‘tango’ are elegant Ellingtonian, urbane Gershwinian, piano bar on Mars music. The dissonant chords of the ‘charleston’ sound like Cecil Taylor and breathe that breaking-out jazz feeling. The ‘blues’ movement is balladic, melodic, sweet and sour. The ‘samba’ is hurried, choppy, angular, fractured and the mind clings to fragments of melody in this maelstrom of rhythmic textures.

The Chopin ‘Barcarolle’ tells a story in a frilly way and carries you off into the tale of a throbbing heart that surges with passion and ebbs into resignation to rise again in a minor key on some floaty finger work to a steady state of tender passion. The ‘Ballade in A-flat’ is full of rainbows and dramatic rhythms, “like someone whose speech becomes fiery with enthusiasm.”

Hamelin’s own “Étude No. 8, “Erlkonig” (after Goethe) 2007” is remarkable for the fact that the music follows the words of the text so closely that you can almost hear the syllables and sentence rhythms behind the music which resembles the strums of a harp around the lyric utterance of a bard. His “Etude No. 7, after Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby for the left hand (2006)” employs the reverse of guitar picking technique appears. Hamelin plays most of the melody with the thumb of his left hand and the chords with the fingers. The music is tonal, melodic and sweet.

Melodic and sweet with a dash of the wild and strange is how I would thumbnail this resounding evening.

OPERA ATELIERS’ “Abduction From the Seraglio” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Audiences have come to expect delightful surprises from Opera Atelier productions. Our confidence was rewarded right from the ‘Overture’ of Mozart’s “Abduction From the Seraglio” by a brilliant sequence of skits (one of which is pictured here) that tell the back story of the opera. We see Turkish pirates attack a British ship, leave the noble Spaniard Belmonte (Frédéric Antoun) for dead, but carry off his fiancée Kostanze (Amanda Pabyan), and their servants, Pedrillo (Lawrence Wiliford), and the Englishwoman Blondie (Carla Huhtanen) as slaves to the court of the Grand Turk, Selim Pasha (Curtis Sullivan).

The hallmark of an Opera Atelier production is a kind of gaiety that comes from direction that blends more closely than is usual in opera the skills of acting, dancing and stagecraft with the talents of the featured vocal artists. Thus synchronized, the energies of the production conspire with a composer like the young Mozart to buoy up even dark and weighty situations like  enslavement. It is as if the spirit of Shakespeare’s Ariel were intoxicating the characters to lighten up from within.

There is also the incredible lightness emanating from Mozart who wrote to his father that he was so delighted by the book that he completed the music for Kostanza’s first aria and the terzet that closes the first act in little more than a day. His stated working principle was that though “rage oversteps all moderation, measure, and bounds…music must not; … and music even in the most awful places must not offend the ear, but give pleasure; that is music must always remain music.”

This opera, written in 1781, as Mozart was in the process of dealing with his own liberation from father and ecclesiastical patron, is the first of his humane comedies where reconciliation and forgiveness replace punishment and revenge. He accomplishes this by suggesting amendments to Stéphanie’s text, and by making an alliance between his music and Italian comic opera.

Opera Atelier directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse-Zingg emphasized the classic commedia dell’ arte elements that make lighthearted fun instead of tragedy out of the collision of Christian and Muslim worlds. Even when Belmonte is caught in the crime of attempting an abduction from the seraglio, Selim Pasha not only forgives him but sets him and his party free. And all is well.

But here’s a little rub. Somehow, after the overture, and despite excellent performances by all the principals, the production somehow leaked energy, especially until the intermission partway through the second act. Some of the lack could be put down to opening night stiffness: the awesome Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra seemed to slacken the pace a bit, the dancing was not always quite synchronized. Throughout, the non-singing Selim Pasha was arrayed to look more like a genie out of a bottle than like a head of state. The bilingualism of the Turkish court in which the dialogue was spoken in English but the Arias were performed in German somehow worked to break the flow of the moment, at least for me. These were problems coming from the direction.

Amanda Pabyan conveyed with conviction Konstanze’s anguish over her separation from her fiancé, Belmonte, and her steadfast refusal to resist the Pasha Selim (her abductor) with dignified grace. She controlled the dynamic contrasts demanded of her agile voice during her showpiece aria “Martern aller Arten.” Carla Huhtanen in the role of Blondie, the perky maid, sparked with her mistress as sisters in the European female cause, and she succeeded in being bubbly, vivacious and dominant in her relationship with her boyfriend Pedrillo, played by Lawrence Wiliford an appealing tenor with an attractive stage presence.

Gustav Andreassen brought charisma and comic timing to the role of Osmin, the pasha’s thuggish overseer. I sometimes held my breath in passages where his booming voice plumbed the depths of the role’s cruelly low tessitura, but we never lost him. The scene of his first introduction to alcohol and a lively scene between him and Blondie, who instructs him on how to treat European women, got plenty of laughs.

Frédéric Antoun was appealing in voice and appearance as Belmonte. He succeeded in portraying the beating, loving heart so dear to Mozart in the aria “O wie Angstlich, o wie feurig’. Gerard Gauci’s set designs provided a wealth of impact that did not fade as the acts proceeded, though the corner benches were overused by couples exchanging confidences. Kevin Fraser’s lighting was cheerfully ambient. Margaret Lamb’s costumes, artfully suggest commedia dell’ arte elements, and the dancing always provoked pleasure, especially during the mock-torture scene.

Performances continue through to November 15.

Brian Current: “This Isn’t Silence”: a CD review by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

November 4, 2008

Brian Current’s music is beautiful and interesting. The beauty part is the sound forms that are immediately recognizable as pleasing. You listen and you relax into a state of pleasure. His passages seem, in the words of Keats, “almost a recollection,” as if you were already familiar with them. But you are not. That’s the interesting part.

Current’s music has the quality of good improvised jazz, an ongoing sense of variety in the presentation of the familiar: novel timbres, orchestration, and above all, novel tempos—the ‘slanted time’ that has been his signature.

Interesting is synonymous with exciting. Current’s music is a fine blend of intensities rising from the naturally pleasing, like birdsong, bells, whistles and waves, to stronger sonorities that vibrate the nerves towards a zone of protest, like jalapeno does. The title piece goes furthest in that direction.

“For the Time Being” performed by the CBC Symphony under Bramwell Tovey is just gorgeous. “Concertino for Flutes and String Orchestra” features virtuoso Robert Aitken.” Current’s work is becoming widely appreciated for the experiments with irregular waves of accelerating and slowing tempos he calls ‘slanted time’. “Concertino”, an attractive and theatrical piece, as I recall from it’s premier, situates the three flautists at the back of the room. The music, made up of two-note units that pass back and forth between flutes and strings played arco and pizzicato, is sometimes arranged in call and response pattern. The solo work seems fiendishly difficult, but Aitken makes it look easy, and the piece as a whole has a delightful feeling, free of any harshness. Composer Evan Ware eloquently notes how the “…tangible, diaphanous…music flows in and out of time, sweetened by honeyed anachronisms.”

“Kazabauza”, premiered in Toronto by Alex Pauk’s Esprit Orchestra, and an earlier signature composition “Symphonies in Slanted Time”, also recorded here with Esprit Orchestra, have a kind of built-in fading wave structure that modulates between the beautiful and the interesting. “Kazabazua” is exciting music, finely grained, dense stretches of sound released by huge percussive shocks into a poignant quiescence. In his commentary, Mr. Current speaks of experimenting with “ constantly accelerating tempos…as if written for a metronome that only gets faster. The piece phases through cycles of momentum to renewal.

Highly recommended listening.
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