Archive for March, 2009

NMC’s Roger Reynolds and his Protégés reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, March 30th, 2009

March 29, 2009, Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto

The works of Roger Reynolds are written for an ensemble of instrumentalists and a computer musician. Part of Reynolds’s compositional technique is to choose some passages performed by the instrumentalists for digital capture in real-time. This information is generated into algorithms that the computer musician then interweaves as part of the living performance.

This evening, we heard the world première performance of Reynolds’s A Mind of Winter (SEASONS CYCLE II d) 2009, a 12 minute piece with Robert Aitken on Flute, David Hetherington on Cello, Rick Sacks on Percussion, and Jaime Oliver on electronics.

The instrumental trio develops musical ideas around ‘musings’ that Reynolds associates with Winter and Old Age, such as “solitariness, glitter, freezing and distance/ recurrence, grieving, grotesquery and resolution.” The electronics, sometimes as a contrapuntal voice within the performance, sometimes as a soloist, comment on these ideas. Electronic commentary emanating from the surround sound system seems like the voice of space itself, especially during those times when the musicians are motionless, as if frozen. The feeling of it is not so much ‘other-worldly’ as ‘higher-worldly’. The instrumental music seems to become liberated into a larger space, and though the message of A Mind of Winter is heavy, the feeling that develops is unburdened and carefree.

David Felder says he learned from Roger Reynolds how to create a ‘singing room’: that is, how to rework the resonance of instruments electronically into a sonic environment, a virtual concert space in harmony with the instrumental performance. Felder’s 17 minute octet (including computer musician J. T. Rinker) is entitled partial[dist]res[s]toration (2001-03).  The seven brief movements derived from poetic imagery of writers like Neruda, Creeley, and Daumal, have a peaceful feeling. Strings, winds, percussion and piano tones articulated live are expanded electronically and get stripped of their usual tonal associations. The tinkle of piano and percussion, drone of winds, creak of strings are exalted; individual voices are alternately etherealized and re-individuated. The overall sense of the piece is harmony in the midst of diversity.

Juan Campoverde of Ecuador and Chicago was encouraged by Reynolds to look to other forms, mainly literature, painting and pre-Colombian patterns in pottery and textiles as continuous sources of musical content.  The sounds of his Illuminations (2007) come in bursts—swarms of winged things with the voices of oboe, cello, clarinet, piano, vibes and strings float like reflections on moving water, suggesting lines of light etched by acid on a metallic space.

Chaya Czernowin of Israel is indebted to Reynolds for her intuitive trust in metaphors that appear out of nowhere. Her Winter Songs II: Stones (2008) is a gutsy piece that seems to come from deep in the earth. It is composed for a low register septet (bass flute, bass clarinet, bass trombone, cello, tuba, viola, contrabass, three amplified percussionists), and is inspired by the death of a friend.  Listening, I thought of a splash of sea lions vocalizing on a rocky island during a storm. The solidity and outline of this imagery seemed, during the 17 minutes of their passage, to dissolve and expand like successive drops of coloured inks dropped into water.

The most purely beautiful piece of the evening was David Swan’s solo performance of Noturno para Chopin “in memoriam” (1995) by Antonio Borges-Cunha of Brazil who also accompanied the piano with an offstage accordion. The gentle, intermittent notes of the piano seemed to spawn shadows, vibrations, ripples and subtle life-forms in the concert space.

The evening concluded with a 35 minute performance of  a major Reynolds composition, The Angel of Death [DS] (19989-2001). This complex and overwhelmingly powerful work seemed to disengage my proprioceptive awareness and induce a strange kind of bodily disorientation. The electronics seemed to be suggesting metaphors and similies for things that don’t exist, or don’t exist yet in our world, or are on the verge of coming into existence.

There was much food for astonishment in this concert, not the least of which is the commitment and talent of the conductor and the musicians of the New Music Concerts Ensemble who were able to realize beautifully in a short time six new compositions involving almost 90 minutes of fiendishly difficult music. Their names are listed below.

Douglas Stewart, Dianne Aitken, Robert Aitken–flutes,Max Christie, Michele Verheul–clarinets, Joan Watson—horn,

James Gardiner, Robert Venables–trumpets, Ian Cowie–trombone, Scott Irvine–tuba

Rick Sacks, Trevor Tureski, Ryan Scott–percussion,

Fujiko Imajishi, Parmela Attariwal–violins, Douglas Perry–viola,

David Hetherington–cello, Peter Pavlovsky–contrabass,

David Swan–piano, Robert Aitken—conductor.

Marianna Humetska @ Gallery 345 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Tuesday, March 24, Gallery 345, Toronto.

Marianna Humetska has a powerful pair of hands that made something magical out of Ravel’s “Oiseaux Tristes”. Ravel himself described this earliest of his piano solos for Miroirs (1904-05) as a work that evokes “birds lost in the torpor of a very sombre forest, during the hottest hour of summertime.” There is a Keatsian ripeness to the work that Ms. Humetska brought out, as if she were making the vibrations of Ravel’s sombre forest resound in the wood of the Steinway. Ms. Humetska’s articulation of Ravel’s initial slowly dropping single notes conveyed the otherworldly atmosphere of a Japanese ghost print.

Her playing of the wild and free “Aubade of the Jesters” (also from Miroirs) that Ravel introduced to a meeting of Parisian Apaches in 1905 simply rocked. Ms. Humetska smiled as she tore through Ravel’s sensual Spanish flamenco rhythms, redolent of guitars and castanets. This was a welcome recovery from the nervousness that rushed her articulation of the evening’s opening piece, Bach’s Italian Concerto. This difficult work transcribed for piano from a two-keyboard instrument gives solo inventions to the right hand and orchestral contrasts to the left. It makes further interpretive demands because of the subtly mocking irony that Bach reflects onto the ‘Art Galant’ style that was becoming popular. While Ms. Humetska’s energy seemed to overwhelm some of the subtleties of the work, losing some of the dynamic contrasts, she did catch the wonderful melody of the ‘Presto’ as well as the agility of its dancing rhythms.

The major work of the evening was Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, written in 1834 and revised in 1852.  Like the variations of Beethoven and Chopin, this work is based on a borrowed theme Schumann uses as a musical cell that he transforms freely in exploring his path of polyphonic complexity and technical possibilities for piano writing. As the grave, minor key theme moves through its dirge-like opening variation, Ms. Humetska rolls the following Nocturne into a staccato Vivace, driving Schumann’s neurotic emotionality with great vehemence towards a painful edge. This she explores in the darkest tones of the keyboard during the eleventh variation, and finishes by rousing the mood skywards in a jubilant triumphal Allegro. She also shared her obvious enjoyment of the lovely melody and flambouyant colours of Schumann’s love song Widmung.

Encores were much in demand, and Ms. Humetska generously gave two—all of them sonically surprising—including a passionate arrangement by Mikhail Pletnev of selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, and some Bach that sounded like it was arranged by Chick Corea and played by Jerry Lee Lewis.

Ms. Humetska, who lives in the Ukraine, is going on tour of Eastern Europe with Michael Pepa and Les AMIS Concerts. Whenever she comes back, let us hope she plays again in Edward Epstein’s Gallery 345, the most elegant salon setting in Toronto.

Mooredale Concerts presents Kolja Lessing reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009, Walter Hall, Toronto.

Kolja Lessing is a versatile, adventurous musician who performs as a pianist and violinist, though rarely can he be found as pictured here, accompanying himself on both instruments at the same time.

At this recent Mooredale concert, Lessing did play his vintage violin in a compelling performance of Anton Kuerti’s 1998 composition Partita for solo violin (dedicated to Lessing). He followed that with a solo performance of a remarkable piece, Epitaffio per Alban Berg for piano (1936) by Wladimir Vogel (1896-1984). Lessing’s solos, imaginatively combined in this photograph, were the inner selections in a program enclosed by Lessing on violin accompanying master pianist Anton Kuerti in two rarely played pieces: Mendelssohn’s Sonata in F minor for piano and violin, Op.4 (1823), and Ferrrucio Busoni’s (1866-1924) Sonata in E minor for violin and piano Op.36a (1898). The charm of a Mooredale concert, apart from the opportunity to hear Kuerti play and make any music sound superior, is that the programs put lesser known gems on display to refresh our enjoyment in music of all periods.

The teenage Mendelssohn’s Sonata for violin and piano (1823) has lived in the shadow of his 1838 Sonata in F Major since Yehudi Mehuin discovered the later work during the 1950’s. Nonetheless, played feelingly by Lessing with Kuerti whose touch on the keyboard is like diamonds on velvet, the second movement has a Moonlight Sonata mix of tenderness and passion that is satisfying to the mind. The finale, ‘allegro agitato’ has the two instruments engaged in an elegant pursuit over imitative passages and harmonies that have a cheerful, fortissimo hustle before sliding home in a sudden, smooth pianissimo.

Lessing’s performance of the four movements of Kuerti’s Partita opens with an ‘allegretto’ that utters a marginally melodic progression of phrases in a plaintive voice mixed with an urbane playfulness that is characteristic of the composer even when he teaches.  The subsequent ‘Boureé’s’ balanced phrases (sort of tweedle dee/tweedle dum) sound like a conversation with oneself. The slower ‘Sarabande’ is emotional—quite sad, actually. The final ‘Gigue’ moves determinedly forward by small steps and quick spurts that verge on a feeling of dance. This well-played performance revealed a composition that is approachable and full of subtle interest.

I liked Vogel’s Epitaffio per Alban Berg for piano that builds from percussive introductory single note patterns into similar patterns of chords evolving a complex narrative structure of increasingly dense textures. The final section regresses to the opening, bare materials, evolves distinctly jazzy progressions, and moves dramatically to conclude with a bittersweet spooky softness that fades away into the longest held silence you could imagine before Lessing let the applause break out.

After intermission, Kuerti and Lessing presented a well-received performance of the seldom played but appealing Busoni Sonata in E minor. Composed in the great Romantic style at a time when Strauss, Webern, and Schoenberg were preparing the great dissonant shift of the 20th Century, the work appeals to our traditional sense of unity in variety. For instance, there are a couple of motives that appear throughout the work that give unity. It appears in the first movement in the quiet introduction followed by the second motive—an undulating piano phrase, and both reappear in the middle section. For variety, the second movement is a breathless Tarantella.

The two motives also appear in the huge third movement, but the dominant structure there is a four note theme from Bach’ chorale ‘Wie wohl is mir’ which both instruments take through four variations followed by a fugue of mounting excitement that tapers off into a mood of tranquility during a coda recalling the introduction. This performance was shapely, rounded and as satisfying in a basic way as a Renoir.

There is more about Kolja Lessing in this link.

Soundstreams presents LES JEUNES SOLOISTES reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

Tuesday, March 3, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto

What you are looking at in this photograph is four women weeping deeply while they sing to four men who look on with degrees of studied indifference. This is one tableau from the late Claude Vivier’s Love Songs (1977). The agonizing search for love which directed and ended the expat Canadian Vivier’s life at 35 is here musicalized in brilliant settings of texts in German from Novalis and Hesse, in Latin from Virgil’s Eclogues, in English from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the nursery rhymes “One, two, buckle my shoe, etc”,“Hickory dickory…etc”, and “Twinkle, twinkle little bat…etc”. All parts and all languages are sung simultaneously as the piece goes along at prosodic speeds ranging from infantile stammer to the hysterical, with or without tremolos, coloured by coughs, breaths, whistles, whispering, terrible laughs, moans, groans and shrieks. The atmosphere is totally insane and irresistibly engaging because the musical blending of these elements is convincing from the start, and the performances are bull’s eye every bar of the way.

I say bull’s eye because the Vivier was the last sequence in a program during which Les Jeunes Soloistes, conducted by Rachid Safir established themselves as a group of such integrity that the Paris Opera gives them free hand in choosing the content of three concerts per year. Such is their knowledge and facility that this evening’s program (typically) prepared the ground with 8 Madrigals from Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) settings of poems by Petrarch and Gian Battista Guarini. Next we were taken to the year 2001 with 4 songs from Régis Campo’s series Les blazons du corps féminin(Crests of the Female Body), in this case ‘the mysterium,’ ‘the nipple’, ‘the charm’, and ‘the heart’. Campo’s texts are from 16th Century French poets who competed in the composition of a strange anatomical atlas. From here, a backward and forward leap to the early 20th Century and Trois Chansons by Claude Debussy based on texts by Charles d’Orleans, prince and poet who was imprisoned in England after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Next to Maurice Ravel who published in 1916 three songs on texts he’d written himself. Then fast forward 60 years to Vivier. The experience of journey in this concert was as rewarding as the deeply layered and richly textured part-singing itself

Following his principle of treating voices instrumentally and assigning one voice for each part of any polyphonic vocal chamber piece, M. Safir guides his ensemble to performances that are precise, finely crafted, and distinctively individual (for some songs, he will substitute singers of the same range to get a particular vocal colour). This kind of precision also allows the ensemble to manage deconstructed modern texts or to deconstruct and distribute the syntax of older texts as in Campo’s “Blazon du beau tétin”: “di bi di bi di bi/ té té té té tin tin tin/ t t t t.”

The concert as a whole flowed like a river of vibrations, passionate and witty, in which once could immerse oneself and come out rejuvenated.

Classical Music Consort presents HAYDN’S LONDON SYMPHONIES:Part Two reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Saturday, February 28, 2009, Knox College, Toronto.

Smiling players and heads in the audience moving in time to the music say “Haydn is fun”. And why not? The first movement of Haydn’s 94th Symphony opens with a lyrical passage in waltz time and builds up a gently rocking rhythm that glides on the smooth hum of low-register strings. The famous second movement is based on an eight bar tiptoe version of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” disrupted by the “Surprise” Paukenschlag blast of timpani and brass intended to “wake the ladies and make them jump.” The four variations of the theme that follow also contain some stormy work from trumpets and timpani, and a notably charming passage of solos for oboe and flute. The raucous “Minuet and Trio” move quickly, approaching a jokey scherzo tempo, and stir up associations of elephants cavorting under the big top. The final “Rondo” is propulsive Haydn that concludes with the roar of a timpani solo that signifies the good time being had by all.

Haydn’s 97th Symphony is the last in his series of festive trumpet and drum symphonies.  In the manner characteristic of the “London Symphonies”, the 97th makes full use of every instrument section. Conductor Ashiq Aziz is able to exploit Haydn’s witty harmonic combinations and exciting effects even with his ensemble playing on modern instruments. The throbbing slow introductory material is nicely interwoven with repeats of the vivacious martial fanfare section and the lilting second subject in waltz time, with notable contributions from the bassoon and oboe. The slow movement introduced by strings and punctuated by woodwinds and horns is varied before a very satisfactory repeat in the minor key highlighted by the flute. Good humoured highjinks and the farcical runaround motions of comic opera colour the third movement and the “Finale.”

The profound effect on Haydn in London of news of the death in Vienna of his friend Mozart in December 1791 is contained in Symphony 98 in Bb. The slow introduction to the first movement, the unusual depth of feeling in the anthemic “Adagio” second with its moving cello solo, and the 11 measure solo of lilting keyboard arpeggios may all have reference to the passing of this “indispensable man.” Haydn’s grief, most starkly expressed in the second movement, is uplifted in the “Minuet and Trio” by the swinging sound of the trumpets and drums (omitted from the second), and in the triumphant “Finale.”

The Classical Music Consort under Ashiq Aziz is developing into an ensemble that reliably delivers a steady flow of pleasure. We have six more Haydn “London” Symphonies and the six Quartets of Opus 71 to look forward to this Spring and Fall in this series of Haydn Bicentenary Celebrations.