Archive for October, 2010

Opera Atelier’s ACIS & GALATEA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Saturday, October 30, Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

The agreement of Handel’s music and the English libretto by John Gay, one of foremost poets of the Augustan age, is one of the joys of Acis and Galatea. Words and music from early 1700’s are all about how measure and balance inform emotional expression. The joy here is in the calm state of equanimity the audience comes to enjoy: “By Music, minds an equal temper know,/Nor swell too high, nor sink too low.”

This concern with form illuminates Marshall Pynkoski’s direction to his players, and the choreography of his co-director Jeanette Lajeunesse Zinng. The series of attitudes that, for instance, the shepherd Acis (Thomas Macleay) strikes while declaring his love and longing—one hand to the heart the other to the horizon— form a vocabulary and syntax that recall the poses of the classical stage depicted in visual art. The postures and dance steps we enjoy are based on the forms of the Baroque suite: Minuet, Sarabande, Bourrée, etc.

The music performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of David Fallis is as if issuing from a single voice. Music, dance, singing and acting, each finely tuned, all coordinated, create a stylistic impression that is the signature of Opera Atelier. This style is as unmistakable, in its way, as Elvis or the Beatles.

Gerard Gauci designed the whole production, set and costumes, for the three principals in a single location, each wearing a single costume. The production as a whole and the individual scenes remain clearly in the mind at this time of writing. What more need I say about that.

There is a downside to balance and equanimity: it can be a little boring, especially when the musical form of aria a capo gives room for what sometimes seem like endless repetitions of the words. Also, the fact that there are only two actions in this drama—the death and the transfiguration of Acis—both coming at the end of the second act, prolong the the initial sense of uniformity to an uncomfortable degree. But the entrance of the villainous monster, the one-eyed man-eating Polyphemus, in the second act, gets the juices flowing.

João Fernandez’s earthy basso and clownish manners enters like the proverbial bull who gets the china-shop rocking. When he comes on to Galatea, Mireille Asselin turned off the charm of her bright, thrilling soprano, and put him down with the tones of a high-school queen. Then the puckish Damon (a brilliant Atelier production composite of two characters), attractively played by Lawrence Wiliford, puts the three principles to sleep and provokes each one to act out their true feelings until the inevitable happens: Polyphemus kills Acis, and Galatea grieves until Damon reminds her that she has divine powers, and she transforms her dead human lover into an immortal river-god.

The death of Acis, Galatea’s grief, and the consolation of his transformation, are profoundly moving. Also moving and memorable are Damon’s warning to Acis that the joys of love are momentary, but to measure the pains of love “life is too little.”

Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea plays until November 7, 2010.

Justin Time CD “the Jazz Passengers (reunited)” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

I read in the liner notes: ” You are an anomaly, an anachronism, an anthead, even. You read liner notes. No one reads these any more.”  Hey, I just said I read them.

These people are crazy. Look at the photo of them. They don’t give a damn. I like that. They sound like they don’t give a damn, like they are having fun, and they are dead-on good at making music. I listened to this album in the car three times already, once in city traffic and twice on a road trip. I still like them.

They break themselves up like Zappa and the Mothers of Invention do in We’re Only In It For the Money. They move in a funky groove like Kevin Breit in Folk Alarm 4. The music is convincing: so is the talking, the acting, the goofing around.

The album is well put together, tongue-in-groove, tongue-in-cheek. I can’t get their “Spanish Harlem” out of my head. Their “Reunited” sneaks up on me everytime and takes me captive. The originals, “Wind Walked By,” “Seven,” “Button Up,” and “Tell Me,” are by Roy Nathanson who supplies Sax and some vocals. Elvis Costello and Deborah Harry supply vocals, and Marc Ribot resupplies the guitar riffs as he did twelve years ago on the last (pre-re-united) Jazz Passenger album after a great run of albums that started in 1987.

I wasn’t a fan then, but I am now.

For the antheads who still read liner notes, the personnel on this album are:

Curtis Fowlkes: trombone, vocals; Roy Nathanson: alto and soprano saxophone, vocals; Bill Ware: vibes; Bradley Jones: bass, vocals; E.J. Rodriguez: drums (1-6, 8, 9); Sam Bardfeld: violin (1-7); Marc Ribot: guitar (1-6); Elvis Costello: lead vocal (1); Deborah Harry: vocals (8, 9); Susi Hyldgaard: lead vocal (7); Rob Thomas: violin (8, 9); Russ Johnson: trumpet (7); Tanya Kalmanovitch: viola (7); Ruben & Patricia Munne: intro dialogue (7).


Art of Time Ensemble’s Abbey Road reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Iconophiles we are: we love icons: Love!Love!Love! Everybody loves the Beatles, always have and always will. Why not? Everything about them is beautiful, smart, and funny.

Abbey Road, 41 years old this month, and its eponymous location/studio where George Martin produced the Fab Four’s magical records is also an icon that continues to sell itself as well as very high-end amplifiers and speakers.

The Art of Time Ensemble, Andrew Burashko’s elite crossover hit squad, got a standing ovation when they killed Abbey Road again last night, as they did one year ago, not by covering it, but by recreating it.

Maybe knowing how the songs were ‘supposed to’ sound impeded my appreciation of the two opening numbers— Martin Tielli’s awkward treatment  of “Come Together”(Lennon/McCartney) arranged by Roberto Occhipinti, and Sarah Slean’s smooth but somehow unsatisfactory take on George Harrison’s “Something” arranged by Gavin Bryars. I felt these tunes were over-arranged, their tempos cloyed and self-conscious. But the sepulchral John Southworth, doing Cameron Wilson’s arrangement of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”(Lennon/McCartney) rang my bell. Here the original and the originality of the new came together.

The first number to sound a lot like the original was the golden-voiced Steven Page’s “O Darling”(Lennon/McCartney), arranged pretty straight by Shelley Berger for AOT’s enhanced chamber/jazz ensemble. Page ornamented his rendition with a hurting bluesy B.B King-cum-Johnny Ray colour-scheme that sent the audience applause meter right to the top.

Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” arranged by James McGrath, gave  Kevin Hearn a chance to sing something simple at the normal tempo, which was nice for a change, and featured musical director Burashko laying down some happy ragtime piano riffs. Alejandra Ribera, acting uber-crazy-in-heat, out-Janiced Joplin with her gut-bucket screaming of “I Want You”(Lennon/McCartney). Robert Carli’s arrangement, one of the best of the ‘creative-with-a-difference’ takes, gave Rob Piltch some nice guitar passages, and also caused me to wonder that the song-list as a whole, so incredibly varied to this point, could have been written by just one team.

The second half of the show featured the singers we’d already heard, plus Andy Maize, harmonizing medleys of the last half of the tunes on Abbey Road. “Because the World is Round” (Lennon)arranged by Jonathan Goldsmith as a kind of canon at the usual tempo got some beautiful harmonies going with the trio of Maize, Slean, and Southworth. Goldsmith’s arrangement of “Here comes the Sun” introduced some cool sax, percussion and piano riffs. Kevin Hearn and Steve Page nailed the harmonies of “You Never Give Me Your Money”(Lennon/McCartney), keeping to the original tempos and vocal stylings. Kevin Fox’s arrangement of “Sun King”(Lennon/McCartney) was slowish and barely recognizable. (Interesting side-note: the Egyptian icon for the Sun-King is a beetle).

The thing about The Beatles music is not so much that it was/IS interesting, but that it made/MAKES you feel happy. And that’s what happened when Steven Page’s voice in trio rang out Robert Carli’s arrangement of the line “Once there was a way to get back homeward, Once there was a way….”; and all seven singers joined in to sing “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight, A LONG TIME.” A wave of happiness free from all doubts surged through Koerner Hall. Everybody felt it. Then we paid homage to Her Majesty, ‘O Yeah’.

Amici Chamber Ensemble 2010 Season Opener reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Sunday, October 17, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

The three Amici opened this season with Trails of Gravity and Grace, a commissioned piece by Allan Gordon Bell (1953-). The five brief movements are a kind of tone poem on the flight of hawks riding thermals on a perfect day in Saskatchewan. Some of the sonic patterns refer to natural sounds in a minimalist way (as Ann Southam does in her Pond Life), especially Serouj Kradjian’s contemplative raindroppy piano sounds in the third movement about “rain that does not reach the ground.” Throughout the piece, Bell’s score drew novel thrums, flutters, and drones from David Hetherington’s cello, as well as a surprisingly nice double-stopped melancholy tune in the first movement. The second movement opened with a cascade of notes falling from Joaquin Valdepeñas’ clarinet like small birds. The finale, played ‘energetico’ was the least cryptic section and gave the most pleasure with its novel sonorities and harmonies of 32nd note foot-tapping runs  showcased by the perfect timing and crystal articulation of these three Amici’s.

Happily, the Amici’s dug up a unique arrangement for piano, violin and cello of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9, written originally for solo piano and subsequently arranged by flautist Franz Doppler and revised by Liszt himself who was then in the process of learning how to arrange his piano compositions for larger ensembles. No. 9 was a knees-up crowd-pleaser with its high-spirited gypsy romping stomping dance-rhythms played with very obviously tongue-in-cheek rubato by violinist Benjamin Bowman who sat in for Valdepeñas.

After intermission, this lucky audience was treated to a one hour session of transcendingly beautiful music—Schubert’s Octet in F, D.803. The ensemble was joined by five players—all principals in leading orchestras. They made music that brought out in Schubert’s natural singing voice the sweetness of Mozart and the drama of Beethoven. Schubert composed this work while he was enduring a suicidal depression because of a terminal health diagnosis and the collapse of his hopes for musical success;but what appears in the music is cheerful classical order enlightened by lyrical flights of song and lightfooted dance tempos. However, as in Mozart, the attentive ear can tune into the river of tears that flows politely beneath the surface. This is nowhere more clear than in the clarinet passage that introduces the second, adagio, movement. Since the work was commissioned by a Count Von Troyer, who played the clarinet, many of the more plaintive or ‘personal’  sounding passages are written for this instrument.

The fourth movement is interesting because its main theme which is developed through seven variations sounds like an aria of light opera music, which it is—being from one of Schubert’s several operas that were never really performed. The point of interest is that in these variations what we hear is not complaint, but rather how Schubert makes his ‘failures’ dance.  Also in the finale, which Schubert opens like a symphonic drama over the tremolo rumble of bass and cello, he has the clarinet and bassoon subsequently introduce a jolly opera buffa theme that somehow looks ahead to the improbable world of Gilbert and Sullivan. The movement ends with a brief backward glance to the darkness at the beginning, before a headlong rush into a final resolution.

I Musici de Montréal & Katherine Chi reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, October 4th, 2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010, Walter Hall, Toronto.

To open Mooredale Concerts’ 22nd season, I Musici offered a program of musical entertainment, fascinatingly complex yet light-hearted, and a couple of beguiling discoveries. The first discovery is Vania Angelova, a Bulgarian composer who works out of Montreal. Her short composition Pagan Dances on Burning Coals begins with bass and cello grunting like bullfrogs while the higher strings whine like mosquitoes. These sonics are layered over a primordial pulsing rhythm and an enchanting staccato melody that combine to remind one of the bluesy, manic sadness of Shostakovich.  The whole ensemble of 12 strings close the piece in unison with a long, wonderfully greasy tongue-in-cheek portamento slide.

The second discovery is Katherine Chi, gold medalist of the 2010 Honens Piano Competition. Ms. Chi sat in with I Musici bringing her control and warmth into Turina’s  romantic and richly harmonic Symphonic Rhapsody Op.66. She got to show flashes of her technical power in the brief scherzo allegro vivo section before blending back in with the ensemble.

Ms. Chi showed her chops in a solo performance with a piece written during the Golden Age of Pianism, Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss Jr. This show-off piece, full of lightning figurations, arpeggios and change-ups as themes of long beloved waltzes are constructed, deconstructed, and subtly reconstructed adorned with contrapuntal inner linings in motley colours was a treat to hear. Although there is not a hint of clowning in her stage presence, Katherine Chi’s treatment brought out all the fun in this outrageous piece, as though the spirit of Victor Borge were in the hall.

The afternoon was filled out with the satisfaction of hearing two old standards performed with heart and the singing intonation of this excellent ensemble: Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor, Op. 20, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major, Op.48. The beautiful opening chords of the latter demonstrated the balanced tone of this ensemble. The waltzes of the 2nd movement and the transition to the 4th movement were quite sublime.

The next Mooredale Concerts presentation, October 31, is the Afiara String Quartet and pianist Wonny Song – both winners of the 2010 Young Canadian Musicians Award. The Afiaras also won second prize and the Szekely Prize for Beethoven at Banff last month.   Details here.

Sony Centre Opens with Cirque Etoile’s iD reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Friday, October 1. 2010, The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.

iD is energy, “a cauldron of seething excitations.” Yes it is. Contortionists, flippers, poppers and lockers, rollerbladers, trial bikers, aerialists, jugglers and trampowall fliers rocked by the blast of an electronic soundtrack like subatomic particles dressed in their Harajuku best out in an urban space defined by a video collage of grafitti and old movies.

iD is identity, instinct trained to fit into a social matrix, even to go beyond anonymity and become  a somebody by a display of talent, as the characters do in this very loosely updated take on Bernstein’s West Side Story. 

On display here are bodies that jump, climb, and balance as if the space of the stage were not subject to the laws of gravity: bodies that move themselves or throw each other in the air with the ease and precision of balls in the hands of a juggler. The timing and flight-patterns of these quasi-angelic bodies evolve in balletic variations that sometimes go beyond stunt into the realm of art. It’s quite a high.

If you’ve seen iD and you love somebody who hasn’t seen it, get them to go.

iD has five more evening performances at the Sony Centre: Oct 2,7,8,9, and an October 3 matinee.