Archive for November, 2010

Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven @ Koerner Hall by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Stewart Goodyear’s powerful account of four ‘named’ Beethoven sonatas brought out new meaning in each one. The “Tempest” is tempestuous. Goodyear let us hear that. Written in the ‘fatalistic’ key of D Minor, the opening theme offers two diametrically opposed tempos—largo, quiet and questioning— joined to a driving allegro that fulfills what Beethoven offered as the performance note, ” The piano must break.”

The insight Goodyear brings to the drama created by these contrasting states is in the spaces he allows. It is as if the struggle in Shakespeare’s play—between Prospero who works quietly to maintain dominance on the island, and the raging lust and intrigue of his enemies—pivot around the unwobbling space of the peace that resides in the natural heart of the island and in the pure hearts of Miranda and Ferdinand.

Listening to Goodyear’s two hands running the fast and the slow arpeggiated chords of the Finale allegretto into a marbled perpetual motion brought to mind the surging waves of music made by Philip Glass and other Minimalists. In this performance, it seems Goodyear bridged the hypnotic intensities of modern music and the music of Beethoven choosing to strive in his music for the impossible.

It is said that the Sonata in C Major, Op. 53, “Waldstein“, known by the French as “L’Aurore” for its light and serenity, was composed on a piano with an extended upper register. This brought the breadth and drama of the concerto to the sonata. Goodyear’s account brings out in the “Waldstein” the tonal richness, the idealism and lyrical dialogue of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, also written in 1805.

There is a melodic simplicity in the exposition of the first movement that compares with the nursery-rhyme rhythms one habitually hears in Mozart. The Adagio molto’s  gorgeous theme is repeated ostinato like a benediction passing into rhapsody. The concluding Allegretto moderato builds such tension in its 40 bar long flow of trills that we learn the meaning of ‘release from tension’ when Goodyear switches the pace to a clipped, spring-loaded trot.

Goodyear’s delicately played introduction to the “Moonlight” Sonata in C sharp minor moved very slowly, hypnotically, in undulating arpeggios. The Scherzo by contrast sped along like a keystone cop car-chase, which in its turn was sharply contrasted by the invigorating drama of the third movement. Goodyear obviously gave a lot of thought to contrasts and how to bring them out at every level of the music—tone, colour, dynamics, mood, and so on.

With the “Appassionata” in F minor Goodyear hit it out of the park. From the volatile start-and-stop rhythmic scheme of the introduction that prefigures the opening motif of the Fifth Symphony, to the Presto finale’s pounding blur of fury, Goodyear never backs away from the heroic challenge of this music.

What is new about this performance are the spaces where Goodyear allows Beethoven’s defiance to relent and to manifest redeeming emotions. The central section of the Andante second movement is played as if  improvised, jazzy, almost ragtime. And towards the end of the third movement, where the liquid flow of passion seems to be outrunning the pursuit of fate, he drops the music into a space of gentleness and peace, before punching out the last triumphal chord.

James Campbell & New Zealand String Quartet by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 26th, 2010

Thursday, November 25, Walter Hall, Toronto

James Campbell says he has played the Mozart Quintet in A Major for clarinet and strings, K.581 about 350 times, and each time he finds something new in it. The Quintet has been a living presence with me for more than 50 years, and after Campbell’s collaboration with the New Zealand String Quartet, I have no hope of hearing it played better.

The concert began with Campbell and pianist Paul Stewart’s performance of Sonata No.1 in F Minor for clarinet and piano by Johannes Brahms.The duo match each other in gentleness of tone during harmonic passages and especially in unison passages that occur frequently at the end of phrases in the opening “Allegro appassionata.” The music, composed during the final few years of Brahms’ life, sings deeply of love discovered and love lost in the passage of time, and laments that the best of times are behind us.

The slowly flowing “Andantino” has the wistful langour of Jean Renoir films and Impressionist paintings of lovers boating. The inner parts of the “Allegretto grazioso” and the finalVivace” express  more gaiety in the sparkling piano without abandoning the deepening shade of the clarinet’s chalumeau register, both musicians keeping meticulous time at every turn.

Reflections on the endurance of love for what has passed was given a different expression in the world premiére performance of  Phil Nimmons’ composition “Time Revisited” for clarinet and piano. A clarinetist himself, Nimmons, at 87, is considered the ‘Dean of Canadian Jazz’. He wrote this piece as a memorial to his late wife and their 52-year marriage. Nimmons explained that the melodic content was developed in musical intervals of 2,5, and 7, based on important dates in the marriage.

“Time Revisited” opens with a dramatic reference to the reality of sudden loss: choppy piano chords and a shrill, talking clarinet repeat ostinato phrases that tail off softly into suspended silences. A rhapsodic feeling develops in long-breathed lines that wander slowly into soft dark music of an anguished clarinet in dialogue with a lonely piano. Later, jazzy discords develop a sad and blue mood punctuated by controlled shrieks that fade “into memory and quiet acceptance.” When the music stopped, a sense of dignity remained in the hall.

After intermission, we had another ‘world premiére’ of backward-looking homage. Timothy Corliss’ Raven and the First Men honours Bill Reid’s sculpture of the same title (which appears on the back of the Canadian 20 dollar bill). This five-part composition is very fine work—warm and accessible, variously textured in keening, quivering, squalling, droney sonics punctuated by pizzicatos and wonderful glissandos that surge in wave after wave of music to an exciting climax. Standing ovation for this work commissioned by the WMCT. The music is beautifully synched to a film in which the camera pans slowly over the golden-toned textures and furrows carved into the wood of Bill Reid’s sculpture.

The rest is Mozart. Even before Campbell’s clarinet entered the moderately paced “Allegro” with its liquid flights of skylarking the first of three themes, Rolf Gyelsten’s resonant cello and his wide-awake demeanour caught my attention and held it through all four movements. The exquisite Larghetto—the heart of this achingly tender piece—begins as an aria for the mellow clarinet shadowed by the cello singing harmony. In the second section, Helène Pohl’s soothing first violin joins in a duet that enlivens the clarinet into a delicate rapture, while the muted strings spread an irridescent glow.

Gillian Ansel’s viola leads the “Oranges and Lemons” theme that opens the “Scherzo” bringing the mood to earth with glittering dance rhythms, and in the secondTrio” the clarinet solos a humorous aria over the strings. The final “Vivace” is a five-part variation that sounds like a chamber opera— gay in the first variation led by the two violins, bouncy in the second, mournful in the third, with a virtuosic clarinet cadenza in the fourth, and a fifth that goes teasingly slow to prepare the surprise of the climax.

Shoko Inoue @ Gallery 345 by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010, Gallery 345, Toronto.

Shoko Inoue navigated a nine-foot Baldwin through the turbulent waters of two Schumann grand sonatas, the F sharp minor, Op. 11, and the F minor Op.14.  To express the wonder of the journey she opens in her playing, I’m drawn to Leonard Cohen’s lines, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/ You can hear the boats go by…/ And she feeds you tea and oranges/ That come all the way from China…”

Ms. Inoue plays barefoot, which is a way of bolding the notion that she is in touch with her instrument. This preference also supports the improvisational nature of her style, which suits the loose, improvisational structure of the F sharp minor, Op. 11. This early sonata (1835) has been described as a novel that chronicles the early stages of Schumann’s quest to win his future wife, the pianist and composer, Clara Wieck, away from her formidable father.

In Ms. Inoue’s playing of the opening movement, you can hear dire, conflicted tones, tender gay and lively passages referencing Clara’s ballet music, the passionate impulses of the composer’s earlier “Fandango” , and passages of slow, sensual romance, all further elaborated in the stormy, brilliantly colourful development section. A melancholy reprise closes this movement, and is succeeded, without a break, by the Aria.

This second movement draws its lovely, romantic theme from A Song Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. Ms. Inoue excels in articulating detail in the darker passages and in endowing her high notes with a sense of impermanence and death that haunts even the most blissful passages—a mark of her intuitive intelligence.

The music flows into the quirky, declamatory stream of the Scherzo that features an ecstatic but calm second subject and a driving, dramatic Intermezzo at its core. The final Rondo brims with melodic variations that reflect the agony and ecstasy, the bluster and bliss of Schumann’s alter  egos—Florestan and Eusebius. Ms. Inoue explores the depths of the dark end of the keyboard, recalls and interrogates the idyllic second theme of the first movement before resolving the tale with some strange harmonics and closing it off with a brilliantly virtuosic coda.

Ms. Inoue’s account of Schumann’s  F minor Op.14 (1836-1853) released a flood of feeling so intensely polarized that by the final movement I began to pick out hints of  other harmonically enriched melancholy love-songs such as the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Her playing revealed the mercurial nature of Schumann’s mind that  can slide in a few bars from a Chopinesque romance into a gnarly tangle of paranoia and thence into the tiny, innocent voices featured a few years later his own Kinderszenen (1838).

Ms. Inoue mentioned that the brilliance of this work can be appreciated by realizing that many of it themes are simply Schumann’s variations of a single melody devised by Clara. The effortless flow of variations feels like Schumann’s way of using scale runs and arpeggios to overcome emotional complications, as a hunted hare switches and shunts to escape the dogs whose relentless tread we hear repeated in chords of “Doom” during the third variation of the Scherzo.

An energetic, syncopated Finale reaches the end of this voyage with a touch of the majestic—beyond happy and sad.

Amici Ensemble’s LEVANT by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Sunday, November 23, 2010, CBC Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto

This exhilarating program of music by 20th Century composers was inspired by the notion of ‘Levant’, i.e. ‘land of the rising sun’, which in France around 1497 indicated the Balkans and the Middle East. This afternoon, ‘Levant’ indicated music based on Arabic scales that alter the flats and sharps we are used to in Western European music, giving Balkan, Middle Eastern, Klezmer and Spanish Gypsy music—all derived in part from Arabic roots—a distinctive exotic flavour.

Marko Tajcevic’s Seven Balkan Dances for clarinet, cello, and piano is an elegant gallery of miniatures. In the first one, behind the drone of the cello (David Hetherington) we hear the jingle of ankle-bells in the trilling of the piano (Serouj Kradjian) and clarinet (Joaquin Valdepeñas). The second dance is more vigorous and dramatic, like Bartok’s “Bear Dance,” with a charming touch of Klezmer in the clarinet part. The third has changing time signatures and sounds like the querulous dialogue of complaining lovers. The fourth is mournful, the cello singing a dirge to a lonely piano. The fifth is a quick-step celebration, the sixth is funny—like a sad clown, and the seventh is a wild, whirling march.

Ben Bowman sat in for Gayaneh Tchebodarian’s Trio for violin, cello and piano.  This female Armenian composer is known for her dramatic but melancholy style, and true to form, this piece opens with a dancing piano melody at odds with the percussive and bitter-sweet voices of the other instruments. A passage recalling Alexander Borodin’s theme from the second movement of his String Quartet in D (popularized as “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” in the musical Kismet) broadens the emotional flow in the direction of romance, and the climax of the work is wild.

This same trio of musicians performed Rabin Abu Khalil’s darkly passionate Iberian tango-flavoured Arabian Waltzrio, a lively, well-structured work in veiled 3/4 time. Following that, Serouj Kradjian perfomed solo the eponymous highlight of the concert, Osvaldo Golijov’s Levante, a vaguely deconstructed suite of Cuban rhythms that morphs into a tango. There is more weird humour in the fact that Golijov arranged this piano work from a chorus he’d written for his Requiem,The Passion of St. Mark, introducing the scene of the Last Supper. Serouj’s masterful control of the dancing change-ups of tempo and mood suggested that ‘The’ Supper was quite a party where possibly in a corner of the room you might see Xavier Cugat cupping Pepito his chihuahua.

The second half of the concert offered more traditional works, all superbly played, including Alexander Glazunov’s Oriental Reverie for clarinet and string quartet. This is a tightly textured fabric of sound as if woven of linen and wool embroidered with silk that dissolves into the transparency of silence after a thrilling viola solo by Steven Dann. We also enjoyed Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op. 34 for clarinet, string quartet & piano, which featured Klezmer themes and some very warm clarinet work by Valdepeñas.

One of the more substantial and interesting works was the Trio for violin, cello and piano (1975) by the recently deceased Syrian composer Solhi Al-Wadi. The first movement is memorable for the quirky ostinato rhythm behind a theme that references Shostakovich’s signature 8th String Quartet. The slow movement is dissonant and mournful—the strings buzz like an autumnal fly dying over piano chords that pound out doom like shutters in the wind. After a lively dissonant dance, the mournful complaint reappears in the keening strings, fixing the attention and allowing it to fade away into a kind of peace.

The peaceful aspect of the afternoon’s musical offering was surely highlighted by three of the Sacred Dances for solo piano attributed to the Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. The phrases of the first one are arranged in balanced pairs that move in a stately gait suggesting a narrative dialogue that develops like a border ballad—by incremental repetition. The second is hushed with bright highlights as Kradjian’s trilling right hand ripples over an hypnotic ostinato. The third sends a tender, penetrating energy through the mind, arouses a sense of cheefulness, and evokes a definitive silence. Mr. Kradjian for his part approached the material respectfully, displaying a technique that seemed the very definition of gentle dynamics.

Eonnagata at Sony Centre by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010, Sony Centre, Toronto.

There is a scene in Eonnagata where the character performs writing with an instrument shaped like the plume of a feather that could just as easily be a curved sword held blade up. The writing implement is illusory, the act of writing is illusory because it is being performed paperless, directly onto a table, and the person writing is illusory—being a disowned French spy whose gender is the central illusion of this entertainment.

The title, Eonnagata, unites the name of a person—the Chevalier d’Éon (who lived in the 18th Century), and the term for a cross-dressing Kabuki actor—‘Onnagata’. While this extraordinary work is rooted in the mystery of gender, it comes to flower in addressing the question of the illusory nature of all our lives, regardless of gender, and the sadness that comes when we recognize the reality of this illusion.

Emblematic of this sadness is the fate of the Chevalier d’Eon who performed brilliant diplomatic services—disguised as woman—for Louis XV of France, but who became stranded in England during the French Revolution, was refused a pension  for  services rendered or access to the revenues of the d’Eon family properties, and died a beggar. If there is a moral to this story it is that in the end we cannot count on how we hope others see us: in the end all we have is the mystery of how we see ourselves.

Two of this productions co-creators and performers are from the world of dance—ballerina Sylvie Guillem, whose dancing is magical, and choreographer Russell Maliphant. One is also constantly aware of the magical contributions of Alexander McQueen’s androgynous costumes–kimonos that open to give birth to a second, other-gendered figure, framework crinolines over body leotards veined like da Vinci drawings. Michael Hull’s lighting contributes strikingly to the sense of illusory space: his lighting tricks turn solid characters into shadowy ghosts and, in one instance, light and shadow falling on an open space gives the impression of a prison.

However, the sequence of more than 25 scenes, and the brilliant transformations of scenes aided by only a few props—tables that become cages, that become mirrors, that lose their surfaces and become abstract frames, swords that become pens, costumes that become sets—all the million transformations of monkey—this is the genius of Robert Lepage, who also does a pretty good job of acting and dancing.

Eonnagata relies totally on effects that create wonder rather than excitement. The narrative is slow-moving and quite ceremonial. The music is eclectic and apt. Many of the movements are slow, hyper-controlled motion as in Butoh, and like the gender issue at its root, the final effect  of Eonnagata is unclassifiable and therefore haunting.

Vladimir Spivakov & The Moscow Virtuosi reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Thursday, November 18, Roy  Thomson Hall, Toronto.

It is a pleasure to write about an ensemble so full of excellences. One notices from the start of Boccherini’s Casa Del Diavolo, Op.12 the purity of the Moscow Virtuosi’s sound that approaches the timbre of a period orchestra. Their melodic lines and phrasing were sharply delineated, the colours richly vibrant. Maestro Spivakov led them seamlessly through the tapestry of moods—tender, sprightly, turbulent, eerie and vernal Vivaldiesque.

The Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9 in E Flat Major, K271 “Jeunnehomme” is widely regarded as the “first unequivocal masterpiece of the classical style.”  The sequence of themes strikes the ear as constituting an opera without words. This impression is reinforced by the drama that develops between the voices of the orchestra and the soloist, in this case, Alexander Ghindin.

Mr. Ghindin possesses a technique that effortlessly mirrored the emotional complexity of the young Mozart’s genius: the joyful audacity, the unpredictability, the shift in the second movement to exquisitely wistful sadness that develops during the rhythmic cadenza into anguished intensity that, in turn, passes through the complex affective layering of the “Finale” to resolve as tenderness. Somehow the sense of emotional conviction peters out during the “Finale” which began to feel rushed, as if the speed and fluidity of Mr. Ghindin’s technical display overwhelmed the feeling of the music.

Was he tempted to play into the palpable adulation radiating from the bouquet-toting cohort of Toronto’s quarter million strong Russian community that packed Roy Thompson Hall last night? The two encores seemed to confirm this impression: Rossini’s “Figaro Cavatina” sounded like it had been arranged by Rachmaninoff, and Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca” came off in parts like a Russian idea of ragtime.

The music after intermission, Spivakov conducting with bow and  baton was pure soul, dark and wonderful.  As soloist, Spivakov opened Alfred Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin, Chamber Orchestra and Harpsichord (1968) with a brief 12-tone solo that is swallowed by a thick orchestral soup of sound behind which the harpsichord grinds like a hurdy-gurdy.

The work maintains deep feeling while displaying a skin of shifting textures and styles. One hears locomotive cellos, organ tones, insect drone and buzz, the wiry clatter of harpsichord, atonal melodies, minimalist chord progressions and Prokofievian animal marches—a virtuosic complexity that fades away into perfect peace with a muted pizzicato of Spivakov’s violin as final punctuation.

It is an understatement to say that Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet in C Minor is meaningful. The composer confessed to shedding tears during its composition, and it was played at the composer’s funeral in 1975. With the composer’s musical signature embedded in the principle theme, this work contains Shostakovich’s feelings of grief and outrage over Fascist atrocities during the war, and similar feelings engendered by the persecutions he endured from the Communist hierarchy because of the modernist tendencies of his music.

Deep sadness, the wildness of grief, the rebellion against oppression, fugitive panic, defiance of authority, mockery, despair, the eeriness of paranoia, and love of country are all made vivid in the original quartet and in the version for chamber orchestra prepared by Rudolf Barshai with the composer’s collaboration in 1960. If a dark, bitter brew is to your taste, the beauty of this work is unsurpassed. Spivakov and his Virtuosi realized its entire palette of feeling, to say the least, and astonished by the graduated dynamics of their collective bowing.

Following this bloodbath of deep feeling came half a dozen encores that reminded everyone how much fun it is to have live musicians play familiar tunes for you.