Archive for November, 2010

Mario Romano Quartet’s VALENTINA: CD review by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010.

Mario Romano and his crew on this very listenable album show deep musical roots. Tunes written in the 40’s and made famous in recordings of the 50’s and 60’s. Solid bop arrangements by Mario himself, who is at home with Miles, and Coltrane, Dizzy and Bill Evans. Mario’s own style at the keyboard owes a lot to McCoy Tyner’s vocal approach to soloing that comes down through Chick Corea.

It’s a Beatles tune that stops the show for me—a 7 minute take on Lennon/McCartney’s “Norwegian Wood.” Listening to the languid introduction for the first time, you don’t hear the melody coming, so it’s a delightful surprise when the bass-line goes uptempo and Mario’s rich right hand on the keyboard brings in a swinging melody line with some cool complexities and a touch of blue. Very original.

Many of the tracks are ornamented by Latin rhythms. Pat LaBarbera on sax is often breath-taking, if you listen for it. Roberto Occhipinti, who wrote one of the tunes—“Via Romano”— is a pillar of strength throughout the album, and Mark Kelso’s work on the drum-kit is always tasteful. Kristy Cardinal’s pure voice does right by Mario’s own tune “Those Damn I Love Yous.”

The album will repay many listenings. I know. I’ve done it. There is also an inspiring backstory to this CD if you care to search for it. More details on VALENTINA here.

CCC Toronto International Piano Competition 2010 Winners reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

” Who do you like to win this thing?” a colleague asked me in the Koerner Hall lobby before the Finals of this first year of the Competition organized by the Chinese Cultural Centre of Greater Toronto. I replied, “Whoever plays the Ravel” (Piano Concerto in G Major).

When the second contestant, 27 year old loose-jointed Kirill Zvegintsov began relaxing  into the first gay, reflective, dissonant, exotic, oriental-sounding section, I felt confirmed. Maestro Kerry Stratton made the orchestra setting very comfortable for him. The long trilling lines of Zvegintsov’s piano ran with the natural clarity of a babbling brook through the jazzy landscape of downtown traffic the brass was laying down—perhaps a nod to Gershwin, perhaps an expression of Ravel’s love of Basque and Spanish dances.  The Debussyesque Adagio, ornamented by a faunish flute part, created a sublime feeling of relaxation—swelling and rippling like the shadow of clouds on a lake. The third movement, Presto, is a carnival wherein the orchestra and piano chase each other at virtuosic velocities. Zvegintsov’s playing, as ever, is sparkling, audacious, and assured. But, the jury will award him second prize.

Third prize went to Vakhtang Kodanashvili, who’d chosen from the jury’s list Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op.23. Kodanashvilli, at 32, the oldest contestant, had to really pound the keys to be heard in this intimate hall above the thunder of maestro Kerry Stratton’s orchestra. When he had a chance, passim, and during the cadenzas of the first two movements, Kodanashvilli showed a lot of sensitivity and delicate nuancing of colour and dynamics, as well as impressive prestissimo work. And in the closing “Allegro con fuoco” his responsiveness to startling changes of tempo and rhythm were gratifying. But, despite its virtues, his performance of this piece, which could be thrilling in the hands of a Van Cliburn, was not.

20 year old Jiayan Sun’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op.16, in four movements began quietly, but was strangely moving. Sun showed his assured sense of rhythm in the playful, dancey passages that led up to the first cadenza. He executed this extraordinarily long and difficult cadenza convincingly—with sparkling highlights, detailed darks and warm middle tones. His work with the orchestra was often thrilling. In the third movement, a satiric “Intermezzo”, Sun demonstrates maturity beyond his years in making himself perfectly at home with the sardonic mockery and grotesque wit of the writing. He softened the opening dark, brassy march, through a liquifaction of the ivories into the lyrical cakewalk that ends the movement.

Finally, Sun’s control of dynamics during the fortissimo tirade that opens the “Allegro tempesto” despite the notes and chords that jump maniacally up and down the keyboard, settled most questions about his dominance of this competition. The concluding cadenza, a lyrical, dissonant lullaby and the long diminuendo of pianistic wavelets dissolved any remaining doubts I was harbouring, and brought the audience to its feet in an unequivocal declaration of the competition’s favourite. No surprise, the jury concurred. Jiayan Sun took the $15,000 first prize, with the prospect of a year of concert bookings.

Gidon & Kremerata Baltica @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The glorious acoustics of Koerner hall is a ‘volumizer’ that allows a twenty-four player chamber string orchestra to achieve the amplitude of a full orchestra with clear fidelity.

Kremerata Baltica began the evening with a stunning exploration of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. The opening measures of the first movement are chugging locomotive chords in low register over which the violins emit a high-pitched whistle. Then follow lyrical pastoral strains succeeded by a conversation between agonized strings and the first violin that resolves into an elegiac mood. From this, a passionate drama blooms and subsides into a hushed finale.

The ‘adagio’ that follows is an undulating, dissonant flow initiated by the cellos and the second violins. This develops through a dialogue of screaming and shushes towards an eerie, controlled, throbbing utterance that drifts into a slow jazz walk to the end of the movement. The final ‘allegro’ is a toe-tapping ‘rondo’. It brings back the chugging locomotive chords raised to a thrilling fullness, a comic pizzicato section, and a climactic conclusion whose triumph is somewhat qualified by the muttering of low register strings.

The Schumann Violin Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (orig. for cello) in A minor presents a sound-scape ruled by very different geometries than the Cubist planes of Bartok’s work so angular and dissonantly coloured. This is a work built out of song-like passages with a drive derived from a sense of freshness and good humour just touched by the sublime.

Gidon Kremer enters as soloist, and though he doesn’t exactly conduct, his presence subdues the amplitude of the orchestra and we are focused on the ostentatious brilliance of his playing. The long, lyrical melodic lines, often repeated thoughout Schumann’s lengthy exposition conjure a  landscape familiar from Romantic painting. Kremer’s virtuosic bowing evokes emotional depth in the first two movements, and high spirits in lively interchange with the orchestra during the accompanied cadenza towards the end of the final ‘rondo’.

This combination of liveliness and surprising emotional depth marked the five shorter pieces by composers, mostly contemporary, that made up the second half of this well balanced program. These works happen to be from Kremerata’s new Nonesuch album, De Profundis. The title piece, a spiritual drama similar in energy to the Bartok Divertimento is by Lithuanian composer Raminta Šerkšnytė (b.1975). The drama represents a mind descending into an abyss and rising by staccato fits and starts on its journey towards transcendence. It is both odd and brilliant how well this contemporary composition pairs with Schubert’s  melancholy “Minuet in D Minor”.

Maestro Kremer holds centre stage for the Schubert and the remaining pieces including Arvo Pärt’s Passacaglia (2007). Pärt‘s work also follows well on the Schubert and dances in bow-strokes like graphite on rough paper towards an astonishing sonic explosion of string and bells from Andrei Pushkarov’s vibraphone. Gorgeous! The cleverly titled After Glenn Gould for string orchestra (2010) by Hungarian Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer wittily alternates the rich processional of polyphonic Bachian counterpoint with really weird, atonal, dissonances as anguished as anything from Bartok. Then Astor Piazolla shows in Melodia in A minor and Fuga how a funereal Argentinian tango can rise on a vibraphone gone wild into music that actually made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

The sedate Koerner Hall audience rose to its feet and went wild, were granted two encores as interesting as anything on the program: but to know about them you had to be there.

Alfred Brendel at Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Tuesday, November 2, Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The question that Alfred Brendel asks and answers is: “Can absolute music, without the assistance of words, movement, or the stage, be funny?”  His answer, articulated partly in speech—elegant and scholarly—and partly from the keyboard is—absolutely yes, though some composers are less capable of being funny than others.

Haydn and Beethoven are funny because they work within conventional forms that they love breaking. Their works offer a steady flow of the musical equivalents of an overweight, top-hatted man slipping on a banana-skin.  Mozart’s purely instrumental music could be funny because it is full of surprises, but it is not funny because he suprises us with what we expect, as opposed to Haydn who is funny because his surprises are unexpected.

Schubert’s music tends toward singing which is not in itself funny unless funny words are there. Schumann, alone among the Romantics, is good-homoured. Chopin, Liszt and Wagner are humourless, as is Dvorak despite his famous Humoresque. It is difficult to be funny if you are after the sublime. According to Brendel’s logic, ‘funny’ is the sublime in reverse.

As for modern composers, all Brendel finds funny about the music of Satie are his titles. Brendel mentions only two funny modern composers— both inclining towards grotesque humour—Gyorgy Ligeti ( Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures), and Mauricio Kagel. Despite his polemical stance supported by deep and solid scholarship, Brendel admits that ‘funny’ is personal. Personally, I find Poulenc amusing and Shostakovich hilarious.

Most of Brendel’s comic musical illustrations were from the works of Haydn and Beethoven. The third movement of Haydn’s Sonata No. 60 in C major, Hob.XVI:50 begins with ‘laughing and bouncing stacattos’, includes a wrong B chord slipped in following an inappropriate C#. These  breaches of classical order could be considered mistakes, were they not ‘veiled by apparent innocence’ and surrounded by ‘hopping and skipping staccatos’. Haydn’s final Rondos are described as ‘playful and wanton’, the product of a temperament that ‘cannot be restrained because it comes from good health’ and is supported by the classical belief that ‘the world is good or could be so.’

Brendel characterizes Beethoven’s music as a ‘steady flow of paradoxes’ coloured by ‘comic irreverance’, ‘ridicule’, jeering at emotions and forms even in minor keys. He illustrated copiously from the Diabelli Variations in which he finds ‘superiour laughter’ and every variety of comedy. Despite the impenetrable gloom that is thought to have enclosed Beethoven in later life, Brendel finds in the music a flow of humour that prevails over the darkness.

This was a privileged glimpse into the details of musical composition through the mind of a man who possesses the scholarship and practical expertise to articulate his findings so that we can share in an intimate enjoyment of the music he brings into focus. His presentation wasn’t all that funny—Victor Borge, where are you?— but I would love to read Brendel’s book when it comes out.

Mooredale’s YCM Award Winners Concert reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010.

What pleasure when the opening measures of a first listening to a young ensemble promise consummate performance, and that promise is kept! Adrian Fung’s sure hand on the cello guides the Afiara String Quartet into Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op.59.1, and establishes a tone that becomes a beacon for the voyage through this work and, after intermission, through Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, Op.57. How good was the Afiara’s Beethoven? The seasoned audience in Walter Hall could not hold back their applause, many people rising out of their seats, after the first movement, the second and the third. As for the Shostakovich, the “Intermezzo:Lento” brought tears to the eye.

Wonny Song sat in at the piano for the Shostakovich and provided a dramatic opening measure which is answered by the Quartet in unison, and when the parts begin to unfold, his piano contributes a  three-note obbligato accompaniment that expresses charm, clarity and light. Mr. Song’s tone is crystalline, and his contribution becomes especially brilliant during the tempestuous “Scherzo” and the boisterous “Finale” when his piano’s slightly dissonant crystal ringing suggests the timbre of a xylophone.

As the featured soloist, Mr. Song performed three short pieces. Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60, a romantic, gently rocking boat song, offers a gentle-paced sensitivity, some more darkly-coloured passionate passages, and a slightly eerie conclusion. The “Andante Spiniato” portion of Op. 22 was pleasing because of Mr. Song’s trademark soft touch that brought out the impressionistic lyricism of the music. His occasional loss of detail in dark ‘forte’ passagework throughout his recital was redeemed by the strong polish he achieved in the headlong runs of the “Polonaise” section.

Since this concert is also something of a celebration, it is worth mentioning that the Afiara String Quartet were the 2nd place winners and the audience favourite at the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competion, where they also won the Szekely Prize for the best performance of a Beethoven or Schubert Quartet. The Afiara share this year’s Young Canadian Musicians Award with Wonny Song.


Monday, November 1st, 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 8 PM. ALFRED BRENDEL LECTURE. Koerner Hall. Details.
Thursday, November 4,  8 PM. PRAZAK QUARTET, Music Toronto. Jane Mallet Theatre. Details.
Friday, November 5, 8 PM. GIDON KREMER & KREMERATA. Koerner Hall. Details.
Thursday, November 18, 8 PM. VLADIMIR SPIVAKOV & MOSCOW VIRTUOSI, ALEXANDER GINDIN (PIANO), Roy Thompson Hall. Details.
Sunday, November 21, 3 PM. “LEVANT”, AMICI CHAMBER ENSEMBLE. Glenn Gould Studio. Details.