Archive for January, 2011

Esprit Orchestra Concert: THE RIVER reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Sunday, January 30, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

The melodic lines of Giya Kancheli’s Styx are long and slow flowing like its namesake river.  Styx opens with two harmonic masses—a choral chord imitated by the orchestra—threaded by the voice of Teng-Li’s viola singing a thin cantabile melody, innocent and sad. The music expands in concentric circles of sound, rhythms that ripple out and out in nuanced timbral rings suggesting a post-human continuum beyond time.

Kancheli subjects his calm flow to opposing forces: sound blocks come to rest in resounding silences, are punctured by deafening motivic flashes, cadential outbursts, galloping  passages that recall the grotesque ribaldry of Orff’s Carmina Burana. Binding these contrasts is the fine wire of the viola’s quiet voice.

This strange work—a dirge in memory of two composers—invokes both the calm of death accepted and the excitement of vivid memories. Ostinato phrases sparkle in exchanges between brilliantly paired instruments: piano and celeste, viola and horn, chorus and gong. Hymns change places with Georgian folk-songs, bits of Shakepearean dialogue, ritual nonsense, and invocations of the names of the deceased. There is much beautiful sadness here, no whimpering, and this 35 minute epic ends with a bang on the word “Joy”.

Keeping in mind that the standard of performance for Styx (1999) is violist Yuri Bashmet with the Musicians of the Marinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev, I  was able to enjoy without distraction Teng-Li’s performance with the Esprit Orchestra and Elmer Iseler Choir conducted by Alex Pauk.

The evening’s program jumped forward in mood and in time to Douglas Schmidt’s Discouraged Passion (that Esprit premièred in 1999). This percussively rhythmic, high-spirited work is based on a 19th Century Brazilian tango lyric sung by a lover who is breaking up with his girlfriend because he hates the way her family abuses him.

Schmidt on his bandoneon, the hand organ traditional in South American brothels and popularized by Astor Piazzolla, adds  a chuffing virtuosic bounce to the staccato  harmonies of the orchestra and the recitative of the Singers. The pounding pianism of Stephen Clarke behind some of Schmidt’s descending chords was specially exciting. This work was fun, but the performance seemed to lose a bit of steam about halfway through its 15 minutes on stage.

Jose Evangelista’s Symphony Minute (1994) has the 4 traditional movements and accomplishes its mission in 7 minutes. Like Debussy, Evangelista inclines away from development of his themes: he gets them out there and it’s done. His movements are recognizable and very well constructed. There is a delightful quality to his work—derived in part from the humour connected to relief at how quickly symphonic time passes here. There are some enjoyable harmonic passages involving horn and cello in the first movement, and intriguing Moorish themes by the winds in the slow movement. Alex Pauk’s conducting was  fine, bringing out all the orchestral textures in noticeable relief, however at times a bit more forte than I required.

The Elmer Iseler Singers led by Lydia Adams performed Györgi Ligeti’s 9 minute Lux Aeterna for unaccompanied sixteen-part mixed choir. With sopranos, altos, tenors and sometimes even basses singing the same sequence of notes separated by small time intervals, the focus of the work is mostly on vocal timbres and textures emerging from and dissolving into a floating harmonic cloudstream. The phrase ‘choir of angels’ comes easily to mind.

Under Ms. Adams’ direction individual vocal textures were more distinctly defined and therefore rougher than I am used to hearing: the soprano tones in particular had very sharp edges which I did not enjoy, while the prominence of the basses in the final blocks was grand. Nonetheless, Lux Aeterna held the audience in a rapture of attention from start to finish.

Ghost Opera by Tan Dun @ Soundstreams reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Tuesday, January 24, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Tan Dun is a colossus. Like Bach and Shakespeare whose voices he fuses into Ghost Opera, Tan Dun can let you glimpse the big picture—how all things flow in harmony.

The performances that opened this Sino-Western fusion concert had their own excellences and warmed the audience to receive Tan Dun’s blockbuster. The most enjoyable was Dorothy Chang’s Lost and Found (World Première), with Les Dala conducting combined chamber ensembles and Gregory Oh at the piano. Ms. Chang’s five part work had an easy flow, lyrical melodies, jazzy moods, contemplative moments, some melancholy passages, impressionistic interludes where pipa and erhu blended uniquely with accordion.

It required no effort to imagine water dripping into a forest pool, sparkle of sunlight on water, languid breezes, bending reeds, birdsong, lengthening shadows, flowers opening in slow motion, snails in progress along a blade of grass. The long suspended silence at the end was the best tribute to the power of Ms. Chang’s composition.

Qian & Yan by Chen Xiaoyong was also performed by two full ensembles: Toronto’s Accordes String Quartet, enhanced with winds and accordion, sat in with Taiwan’s Chai Found Music Workshop on the following instruments: Erhu (two-stringed Chinese violin), Di (Chinese bamboo flutes), Guzheng (Chinese zither), Pipa (Chinese lute), Yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), Ruan (Chinese banjo or guitar).

The sounds were a blended sequence of clicks, squeaks, squawks, creaks, whistles, ticks, pings, slides, scrapes, and whines. Not so pretty but very interesting in a couple of ways, especially if you are willing to forget about what you already like in music and are willing to open, listen, and learn. It was interesting to hear how naturally the instruments of the Accordes ensemble blended their timbres and sonics with the Chai’s. It was interesting that the mix sounded not Western or Chinese but “alien”.

Traditional European chamber music is thought of as a conversation among individual instrumental voices. Traditional Chinese music, this night added to the program as a solo by the Chai ensemble as a contrast to the fusion theme, sounds like instruments in chorus blending their individual voices into a whole. The alien effect in Qian & Yan occured because the instruments did not sound like individual voices or like aspects of a blend.

The various instrumental sounds had no identity except as units being assimilated to a sonic entity that was growing — like “The Borg” in Star Trek, but not sinister, merely alien and rather friendly, like “E.T.” I think my words agree with the composer’s own when he says “the beginning point of music is the ending point of word, the design of the sound can show feelings of the most innermost kind.”

Ghost Opera for String Quartet and Pipa (1994) is as crazy as the village in which Tan Dun grew up. “My whole village was crazy…Instruments were improvised:pots and pans, kitchen bowls and belts.” His mind is a natural stage for a dialogue between Bach and ghost opera traditions, between spirits and natural elements, between past and future, between musical instruments and sounds of moving water, rocks and paper. Everything is everything else and the transformations happen because Tan Dun is aware of the underlying harmony. Because he makes this awareness directly available to the listener,  his musical ideas can be totally outrageous and instantly delightful.

David Hetherington is sawing away at a Bach fugue on his cello, while Steven Sitarski is banging rocks together and altering their tone by opening and closing his mouth. Hui-Kuan Lin twangs out a folk-song on her pipa which Carol Fujino picks up on her violin and the tune gets layered in with the Bach. Intermittently Doug Perry shouts “Yaou!”, chatters and hisses significantly, Hui-Kuan-Lin sings the lament of a little cabbage that lost its parents and the four Western string players dip gongs in water bowls, bowing the bowls and add their whine to the sound of the water dripping back into the bowl. From behind a gauze screen we hear the voice of Shakespeare’s magician Prospero reciting the line “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Bach merges with the sounds of water and disappears.

This program of music as good as it gets is a kind of coup for Soundstreams Artistic Director Lawrence Cherney because three of the composers (Tan Dun, Chen Xiaoyong, and Chen Yi) grew up during the repressive Cultural Revolution, and were classmates in the first composition course given at the Central Conservatory in Beijing after the Revolution ended. They each have something genuine to say about “music that is refreshingly new yet rooted in ancient traditions.”

Tan Dun will be conducting his Water and Paper Concertos at the Toronto Symphony orchestra in late May of this year. Link

Hélène Grimaud @ Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in A Minor, K.310. Hélène Grimaud made it new by tempering the insistent rhythmic drive of minor chords with dynamic gaps of quiet that somehow made the musical edge more cutting. The dissonance of Mozart’s craggy phrases began to suggest the hectic gestures of a mind veering along the edge of an emotional chasm. This is the music of 22 year old Mozart, destitute in Paris, separated from his lover, watching his mother die in misery.

Ms. Grimaud’s demeanour reflects the music. Intensity bends her head toward the keyboard. During passages that ease the tension, such as during the long Andante, she opens her face to the ceiling as if drinking in light. Throughout both moods her concentration embraces the entire hall. During this movement that sings one graceful aria after another, it seems that Mozart exhausts his stock of grieving, so the Finale takes off in a 2/4 gallop, light and lyrical albeit still in minor. Ms. Grimaud’s reading of this work has the clear line and distinct colours of a heartbeat—a signature that marks the works that follow.

Alban Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1. Ms. Grimaud’s program is the playlist of her latest CD, Resonances (Deutsche Gramaphone 00289 477 8766). The keynote work which she plays after the Mozart was composed 130 years later, in 1908 by the 23 year old Alban Berg as his apprentice piece after years of study with Arnold Schoenberg. She regards this short (11 minute) composition as the keynote because “it concentrates in a single movement everything that constitutes a Classical sonata movement.” Also, because it explores the limits of tonality,” it is where Mozart’s music “comes to full fruition.”

Berg’s first phrase floats up like a question. It opens an impressionistic flow of chromatic tones, improvisational, dramatic moody, the textures alternately emphatic and dreamy. The future of jazz is here—Monk and John Lewis—riffing amid suspended silences. Ms. Grimaud’s body dances to the music as it builds and releases waves of intensity into space.

Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in   B Minor, S.178  If Berg’s Opus 1 is the program keynote, Liszt’s only piano sonata provides the meat. This single-movement sonata, like Berg’s, and also in B minor, is instrumentally operatic like Mozart’s. From the dramatically slow, deliberately carved descending scale in Ms. Grimaud’s left hand flow four increasingly energetic and dramatic themes that are worked into a grand architecture that runs for 30 minutes. It is an important work. Richard Wagner loved it, Brahms slept through it, and aspects of the keyboard fingering were studied by Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

When others, such as Brendel or Markus Groh play it, I hear echoes of Chopin: when Grumiaux plays I do not hear those echoes—it is all Liszt. Passages that seem to transform light into dark are epic, not lyric; in the thunderous cloud of left hand chords crystalline sparks ripple and wink. Hints of passion, Faustian drama, repeatedly transform into running passages of pure music in pursuit of its own protean forms till an ostinato of church bells rings in a slow dissolve.

Béla Bartók: Six Romanian Folk Dances, BB 68.  Brilliant programming to follow heroic grandeur with song and dance music—Bartok’s setting of authentic folk songs of about a minute or less, starting with the “Stick Dance” in which a young man kicks at the ceiling, moving through a “Sash dance,” a “Stamping Dance,” a Polka, and a “Fast Dance.” Ms. Grumiaud’s gifts—respect for the placement of each phrase, clarity of line, and heartfelt colouring—let Bartok close the charmed circle of this recital.

Resonances (Deutsche Gramophone 00289 477 8766).

raW: Chamber Music by James Rolfe reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Continuum Contemporary Music project on Centrediscs CMCCD 16210 released on Monday, January 18, 2011 @ Gallery 345, Toronto.

James Rolfe has been generating music—abstract, choral, and operatic—that for 20 years has been winning him commissions, prestigious prizes, and performances galore. In recognition of part of Rolfe’s contribution to music we have this CD of selected chamber music pieces 1991-2004.

The 11′ title track “raW (2003)” sets out all martial as rhythmic variations on spastic fife and drum riffs. Then there’s a delicate lull that moves on taut, tentative feet like a wounded sparrow hopping and pecking before the snarling snares resume their march, discordant and sardonic in the mood of Weill or Zappa. Terrific stuff! Rolfe’s program notes are illuminating: ” raW was written by filtering J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley’s War…Burning Spear’s The Invasion and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The technical bits are interesting too, but you’d have to get the CD for them.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen joins Laurent Phillipe at the piano and Ryan Scott on percussion for “Simon and Garfunkle & the Prophets of Rage (1993)”. This is a kind of ‘songspiel’ number— the lyrics distinctly separate and separated, which Huhtanen utters in truncated, oddly rhythmic chunks lightly bound by the ostinato instrumental. The resulting hammered rage makes an absorbing sonic array.

“Freddy’s Dead (2004) is a 3 ‘ vignette also based on a Bach theme (from Musical Offering, BWV 1079) that is “sped up…squeezed down…and otherwise mutilated”. Carol Lynn Fujino’s violin joins the piano and Paul Widner’s cello to produce a musical flow like a flooded river in full spate freighting debris—natural and household—that tumble in random, repeated patterns with a clocklike regularity. “Devilled Swan” is a wonderful mix of chimes, whistling tea-kettles and clownish drums.  “Fete de la Faim (1991)” has Huhtanen back singing fractured phrases by Rimbaud against an ensemble augmented by Max Christie’s clarinet, Angela Rudden’s viola and Ann Thompson’s flute, Gregory Oh, conducting.

The remaining titles on this album —“Drop,” “Squeeze,” and “Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!” — ought to reinforce the notion that Rolfe’s music is full of fun for folks who enjoy having their musical boundaries tickled.

Mercer-Lee Duo Benefit Concert @ Gallery 345 reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Saturday, January 15, 2011. Gallery 345, Toronto.

This newly formed duo of cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Vanessa May-lok Lee play well together, and at times make the music sing. Ms. Mercer, whose work I have enjoyed in many settings, plays with great concentration in a style that strikes me as bold and daring. Her demeanour when she plays is generally severe, but when she relaxes and smiles, an underlying humour shines out. Ms. Lee is new to me, yet she clearly has musicality and confidence in abundance. Her piano balances the cello nicely most of the time, especially her timing, though her dynamics sometimes seem a bit forceful.

They offered a program of 15 songs (to use iTunes lingo) of popular works grouped musically as Mañuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Españole, Sonata No. 1 in A major Op. 13 by Gabriel Fauré, Astor Piazzola’s Le Grand Tango, and three ‘jazz’ pieces by Nikolai Kapustin (b.1937). Piazzola’s Tango, the last piece on their program is where Ms. Mercer smiled, but I was smiling already because it rocked. The previous pieces, by Kapustin, allegedly jazz, brought to mind Ellington’s phrase, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz is about improvisation, is about freedom, and Kapustin’s work, despite a few bluesy bits, was kind of like swinging a dead cat.

Fauré wrote two cello sonatas late in his life, but this youthful work, Op. 13, from his post-student days, is a transcribed violin sonata. The first movement has lovely melodic ideas. Mercer-Lee played the andante sweetly, a beautiful imploring tone pouring out of the cello. The third movement showed off the Duo’s virtuoso technique and concluded by bringing a delightful flash of humour to this ‘serious’ music.

De Falla’s themes, sing, dance and tell stories in the styles of various Spanish regional traditions. They showcased the Duo’s versatility and power to transmit the pleasures of proven beauty. This is especially interesting in the context of Ms. Mercer’s interest in the music of new composers like Uri Brenner and Ernst Reijseger who holds and plays his cello like a guitar.  Althought the Duo subtitled this concert— ” Latin and Jazz Travels,”—their real musical journey may be just around the bend.

This was a Save the Children Benefit Concert, sponsored by the National Association of Japanese Canadians Endowment Fund.

Tokyo String Quartet’s Late Beethoven Reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Quartet in E-flat, Op.127 (1824-25).

The first movement opens with a majestic declamation that dissolves into a slow, flowing introduction. The ensemble’s sound is  rich, yet each part has a halo of space around it. The tempo is tender, with a bit of sparkle that sets off the sweetness of the theme in Martin Beaver’s first violin. The dark harmony from Clive Greensmith’s cello remains well forward in the mix, perhaps in honour of Beethoven’s patron who was a cellist. This study in contrasts that so disappointed Beethoven’s 1825 audience and mystified his musicians seems perfectly understood, at least by the players, tonight.

The Adagio, a theme and variations, is at first crying-sad. The second variation bounces along over a martial beat struck staccato by the cello. When the lyrical sadness returns, it seems to hurt even more. The remaining four variations alternate these moods, generating a  compelling gravitational pull, as if in imitation of Beethoven’s will to harness to a single yoke his pain and his power.

His melancholia resolved, musically, at least, Beethoven writes a Scherzo and Finale that skip, race and dance. The Finale begins with a nod to the sweet and tender first movement before setting off in a vigorous, propulsive fling of high spirits that invokes the gaiety of Haydn and Mozart.

String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 130 with Grosse Fuge ending, Op. 133 (1825).

The  B-flat is a kind of monster with five movements and a Finale that is almost half as long as the previous five combined. It is flooded with fresh melodies, “intoxicated with fantasies” (as a contemporary put it) and riddled with original technical effects. The first four movements certainly reflect what historians define as a period of enthusiastic energy due to remission of the multiple pathologies that were bringing Beethoven towards his personal finale.

The first movement contrasts tempi and metres: an Adagio in 3/4 followed by an Allegro in 4/4. The moods—vigorous and tender, extended and broken—are suspended in classical balance that displays the rich colours of this ensemble of players.

The Presto follows, fleet and light-footed. It climbs and slides like Puck in an aerial jig that winks out so whimsically the audience had to laugh.  The Scherzo starts out sighing in counterpoint of first violin and cello, expands into a lighthearted, delicate weave of clearly distinct voices that seems to be narrating a ballad or tale of enchantment. The unnameable wonder of childhood is in it, as well the most amazing musical variations. The folkloric mode continues in the fourth movement, a quick-step dance tempo, that brings us further into the iconic world of merry-go-round magic.

From this emerges the Cavatina, first in the lower instruments.  Kazuhide Isomura’s viola,  Kikuei Ikeda’s 2nd violin and Greensmith’s cello play strongly separated themes that suggest the mythical melody of the Scherzo, but slower and swelling with tears. Beaver’s first violin enters its staccato melody in a stammering, choked voice. The harmonies that develop have a funereal drone. One thinks of the sweet sadness that comes during reflections on a life that is ending. One thinks of William Wordsworth’s phrase “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

It is well-known that the concluding Fugue is so overwhelming that Beethoven’s publisher convinced him to take it out, publish it as a separate piece (Op. 133), and to replace it with a more normal sounding Allegro. The Tokyo String Quartet played (and recorded) Beethoven’s original configuration.

The Grosse Fugue has music that suggests the harmonies of Newtonian space: clockwork wheels that power gears that power smaller and larger wheels; pistons, axles, rods and driving wheels. In the quiet solo voices you can hear the buzzing of flies in empty rooms, wierd, lonely, freaky, dissonant interstellar frequencies, and the strong, obsessive rhythms of human religious rituals. And, as John Keats might have it, beyond Beethoven’s final “Heard melodies are…those unheard…[played] Not to the sensual ear, but…to the spirit ditties of no tone.”

On April 14, 2011, The Tokyo String Quartet return to Music Toronto. They will perform the remaining three Opus numbers that complete Beethoven’s final cycle of String Quartets.