Amici Ensemble & Wallis Giunta “In The Shadow” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 4th, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011. Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

The theme of Amici Ensemble’s final program for this season, entitled “In the Shadows” is good music by composers who are now overshadowed by composers who wrote great music. Beethoven wrote great music. Louis Spohr wrote good music, was as famous as Beethoven for a while, but was largely forgotten except for a few ‘good’ pieces that people still like to hear.

Wallis Giunta sang Spohr’s Six German Songs, Op. 103 for voice, clarinet and piano. Ms. Wallis’ voice has authentic presence, which she blended with the voices of Amici’s Joaquin Valdepeñas’s clarinet and David Hetherington’s Cello. The music they made together flowed in muted colours reflecting lyrics that lament love that cannot be expressed, love that cannot be attained, love that can be enjoyed only in dreams.

The performance was beautiful, the songs are settings of über-sentimental German poems, and it’s a bit beyond me why people would still be interested in putting fine energy into outworn poetic and musical ideas. But that’s kind of the point of the program: some music keeps hanging around precisely because it never pushes the musical envelope—even of its own time, and classical music audiences, by nature and nurture conservative, tend to like falling back on a bit of easy-listening music.

The Beethoven piece that cast a large shadow was Twelve Variations on the theme “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Opera “The Magic Flute,” Op. 66,  for cello and piano. It has the youthful, quirky, horny, unpretentious energy of  Mozart’s Papageno in it, and the creativity of a young Beethoven experimenting fearlessly with one of the popular tunes of his day, pushing the envelope by arranging it for the combination of piano and cello which was almost unheard of in 1796.  Serouj Kradjian’s spring-loaded piano makes this music dance in tandem with the rich flow of David Hetherington’s cello.

After intermission, Anton Webern (1883-1945) was the giant chosen to cast his shadow over music in early 20th Century Vienna. Webern, along with Schoenberg and Alban Berg pushed European music out of the tonal envelope into 12 tone territory. His early work, Three Little Pieces Op. 11 for cello and piano (1914) was by far the most interesting work on today’s program. Webern’s opus is astonishingly concise and concentrated. Although not yet fully 12-toned, it is music without repetition of pitch or sonority, and the three movements are so short they need to be measured in seconds: 69″, 21″ and 62″ respectively.  Nonetheless they rivet the attention, refresh the mind, and bring about a meditative sense of rest.

Carl Frühling (1868-1937) wrote Romantic music, was forced by economics to spend most of his time as an accompanist, and died obscurely in poverty. Most of his music was lost. Frühling’s Trio in A minor for Clarinet, Cello & Piano, Op.40 was rediscovered about 10 years ago by cellist Steven Isserlis. The Amici Ensemble was among the first to record this work, which is so well-made, and despite being ‘unfashionable’ is very beautiful, especially for the melodic themes of the first two movements, and throughout for the rich orchestration of Frühling’s Brahmsian style. It’s really only in the final movement, so symmetrical, balanced and elegant, that one gets a sense of decay, — the sentimental attachment to the dying style of “Vienna before de Vore.” That said, my recording of Frühling’s Trio has a few more listenings in it.

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Art of Time Ensemble’s “War of the Worlds” reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

April 1st, 2011

Thursday,March 31, 2011. Enwave Theatre, Toronto.

Bernard Herrmann put music to more than 20 Hollywood movies. To honour the centenary of Herrmann’s birth, The Art of Time Ensemble put a movie to a suite of Herrmann’s film scores. Dan Parr composed the suite, entitled Herrmannthology, and Tess Girard crafted a really interesting film out of her mix of live and still footage from Herrmann’s most iconic films which include: Hitchock’s Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much; as well as Citizen Kane, Cape Fear, The Ghost of Mrs. Muir, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

The list goes on, and the point of of bringing attention to the list of Herrmann’s scores is that he made the music that is in the back of the mind of every one who ‘went to the movies’ since 1940, as well as all the generations who watched and listened to Herrmann’s music on television behind episodes of Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Have Gun Will Travel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Clint Eastwood’s first big exposure, Rawhide.

Herrmann’s music is the definition of ‘Iconic’ for his era (he died in 1975, hours after finishing the score for the Scorcese/De Niro film Taxi Driver). As Ms. Girard’s elegant film mix shows, the defining emotion of those films is —!!!FEAR!!!—: Cary Grant running for his life from the pistol-packing pilot of a crop-dusting biplane; Janet Leigh peering beyond her windshield-wipers as she unknowingly drives to the motel where Anthony Perkins waits to slash her shower-curtain; Jimmy Stewart waking in terror from a dream of falling; Robert Mitchum with a stranglehold on Gregory Peck.

Dan Parr’s Suite arranges Herrmann’s most familiar themes into a formal structure that brings out their obsessive, murky, drama-laden qualities, while still keeping the originals’ lighthandedness, in the way excellent urbane music by Hindemith, Poulenc and Kurt Weill can be. Some of the finest musicians in the country, with Andrew Burashko in his conducting debut, make this a dynamic listening experience. Tess Girard’s film mix follows Parr’s music seamlessly to the point where her flow of images provide a helpful visual cue for the music’s ‘recapitulation’ and ‘coda.’ Her imaginative skills in editing, double-exposing, mirroring and masking add considerable art and structure to the overall impression of real quality in this particular part of the evening’s entertainment.

Another of Herrmann’s iconic undertakings was being musical director of The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio-broadcast hoax, that simulated a real-time news bulletin covering a holocaustic Martian invasion of New Jersey. Burashko’s idea was to recreate on stage the CBS radio studio from which Welles and his Mercury Theater crew frightened America by bringing as-it-is-happening news of an ET invasion of their homeland into their homes. Burashko acquired the original script Welles used and assembled an A-team cast starring Don McKellar and Nicholas Campbell for this ingenious and amusing period-piece.

As the audience in the Enwave Theatre drift back to their seats after intermission, the stage is set and lit, the actors, in character, are lounging around in the CBS studio waiting for their director to arrive and the broadcast to begin. The director (McKellar) arrives with seconds to spare, cues the Announcer (Marc Bendavid) to introduce “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra” (actually the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann–played by Andrew Burashko) doing a rendition of “La Cumparsita” from a remote hotel ballroom. The characters make sly faces at each other as McKellar initiates a series of cues to ‘interrupt’ the music with bulletins from the Announcer about unexplained airborne ‘disturbances’ around Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and increasingly lame explanations of these disturbances by Princeton astronomer Prof. Pearson (Campell) which downplay the life on Mars theory.

After a few first night fluffs, the acting settles into a pretty convincing groove. Burashko’s directing is sharpest in the shifts between the characters pretending to be broadcasting a straight music show and pretending to be reporting on a disaster that they are in the process of simulating. These tongue-in-cheek flows provide some of the evening’s highest moments. There is almost no emotional material in the play, nothing going on between the characters, and whatever emotional interest there is in the script, is a hoax. This circumstance kept the production, so truly fancy in its footwork, from ever really taking off. That said, what most amused was the ingenuity of the storytelling and the balletic flow of sound effects from foley artist John Gzowski. And beyond that comes the morning-after-effect of an Art of Time Ensemble production: the feeling of having been in a zone of talent that is alive and ambitious and expanding without set boundaries.

The War of the Worlds is presented in association with Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage. It runs to Sunday, April 3. Visit artoftimeensemble.com for tickets.

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Marc-André Hamelin Concert at Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

March 30th, 2011

Tuesday, March 29, 2011. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

Marc-André Hamelin’s picture of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.53 in E minor, Hob.XVI:34 is like a platinum print with strong blacks, delicate, clear whites, the grayscale tones all present but vividly separated.  Hamelin plays the slow movement with remarkable intimacy, as if he were the composer picking out an improvised melody, lingering on a note, pausing after an interval, and generally getting into a peaceful, easy feeling. He dovetails into the  quick and delicate Scherzo, ramping up the dynamics and following with awesome decelerandos. You can just see those little Meissen figurines rotating on their wind-up bases.

Schumann’s 21 part piano cycle, Carnaval, opens with a combination of triple forte bass chords, Bam-Bam-Bam, and a slow curve that signals the bipolar span of the composer’s musical associations. These associations include portraits of Schumann’s two girlfriends (Ernestine and Clara), Commedia dell’arte characters (Pierrot, Harlequin), fellow composers like Chopin and Paganini, Schumann’s alter-egos (Eusebius and Florestan), and a biblical ‘League’ of imaginary friends. Hamelin’s playing bring this material to life on the stage of imagination.

The apparent potpourri of Carnaval’s one-minute compositions is held together by a four-note motif and the irresistible flavours of street music that look back to the bell canto of Bellini and forward to the rags of Scott Joplin and William Bolcom, the salon music of Paolo Tosti, and the music-hall operas of Kurt Weill. Schumann’s rich mix enchants and fascinates as Hamelin makes it skylark to lyrical heights and march in grotesque parades of figures whose skulls grin out beneath the flesh.

After intermission Stefan Wolpe’s Passacaglia Op. 23 (1936/1971) showed Hamelin’s comfort with barely melodic atonal advanced serial technique writing. These variations on 11 all-interval basic rows over a bass ostinato sample the chaos that lives on the borders of order: it takes a lot of listening to feel the inherent musical unity. Hamelin’s fearless account opened that door.

The two concluding works were sublimely melodic, one serene and the other tempestuous: together they underlined the unity of Hamelin’s well-crafted program. Gabriel Fauré’s Nocturne No.6 in D-flat Op. 63 (1894) has a straight-forward argument in four parts. The first is a wistfully coloured line of melancholy tones that flows easily into the second part’s bucolic mood like a Jean Renoir film with Edith Piaf singing “When the World was Young.” The third part is an even more flowing Debussyesque 10-note arpeggio that ripples into a concluding song that recalls Paulo Tosti’s Pierrot singing of “How many tears it takes to make a gay Pierrot.”

Hamelin includes a nod to Franz Liszt’s bicentenary with Réminiscences de Norma, S. 394 (1841). These are seven arias from Bellini’s opera Norma (1831) that Liszt arranged as an elaborate fantasie for solo piano. The music is grandly, deeply, melodramatic and embellished with advanced techniques that Hamelin handles with a care for the beauty and correctness of tone.  It’s always nice when a performance is so powerful the audience is compelled to curb its enthusiasm to applaud for a respectful interval. That’s what happened, and then the audience let loose, long and strong, and earned two encores.

The War of the Worlds is presented in association with Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage.
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John Williams in Concert at Koerner Hall reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

March 28th, 2011

Sunday, March 27, 2011. Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Listening to John Williams play the music of Villa Lobos with his guitar pressed to his heart is like roaming the halls of Versailles: one becomes part of the magnificence.

Williams plays the opening notes of 5 Preludios, A.419 with just the sprinkling of vibrato he needs to show his personal emotion and his control. His technical perfection appears in the living sound of his Smallman guitar whose richness and delicacy of tone he never mars with string-slides. Williams moves without apparent effort along enchanting melodic lines, through the blinding arpeggios of the second Preludio, down the slower, darker progressions of the  third into the dramatic fourth that balances the dark bass notes from his thumb against the fingers’ crystalline harmonics and finely graded glissandos.

Following this rich, Romantic, canvas, Williams sketches a Chaconne by François Couperin that proceeds at a dignified pace like the train of a veiled doncella flowing over marble stairs. Three portraits from El decameron negro by the modern Cuban  Leo Brower (b. 1939–) come next. “El…guerrero [the warrior]” is executed with cross-hatched strokes, dense amelodic runs, swellings and broad textured swaths of sound. The dramatic melody of “La hueda de los amantess…[flight of lovers]” moves against a slow, chromatic ostinato baseline, and disintegrates into flights of arpeggiated figures and blinding flurries of voices that call out to each other. The third portrait, of a lady in love, sensuous, languid and energetic by nature, sings through the guitar’s voice about the rich, unutterable complexity of feeling that possesses her.

The program after intermission was even more personal. Williams offered some anecdotes of his late friend, the African guitarist Francis Bebey, three songs from a self-produced album of Williams’ own compositions From a Bird, and a tribute to Bebe. Attractive, colourful music, rhythmic, complex in structure and playfully virtuosic.

Williams devoted the rest of the set to seven short compositions by Agustin Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944), the Paraguayan composer whom Williams continues to champion as the outstanding guitarist/composer of his time. Barrios’ music reflects the strength of the classics: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, live in his pieces for guitar. Williams executes La Cathedral, Julia Florida, a pair of waltzes and Un sueño en la floresta with impressive displays of musicality as his thumb picks out arpeggio patterns and his fingers make waves of repeated notes that roll like a silken standard in the wind.

In his seventieth year, John Williams continues to be the “foremost ambassador of the guitar”. He is faster than ever in his fingerwork and unhindered in his way of joining dignity and enthusiasm in his playing. I would love a second close encounter in this setting with this John Williams next year.

Jane Coop Mooredale Concert reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

March 20th, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011. Walter Hall, Toronto.

Jane Coop is without hesitation. She sits down and without a pause begins playing Beethoven’s charming Sonata in E major, Op. 14.1. Her phrasings in the lively opening theme are deftly carved and smoothly tapered, bringing out the flow of melody and the gnarly turns of the chords her left hand repeats. There is a nervous energy to her playing which produces highly contrasted dynamics, crisp, brightly coloured, somewhat hard-edged lines and colours. The Scherzo that follows functions as a slow movement, but Ms. Coop maintains a tense high-contrast mood that she relaxes towards the end, but resumes again in the final Rondo Allegro.

Her account of Beethoven’s 15 (Eroica) Variations and Fugue in Eb major, Op. 35 is interesting. Ms. Coop’s ‘Introduction’ is exploratory, as if she is curious about how this thing works. The first variation is faster in tempo: she plays it freely and quite forcefully—in the high-contrast manner of the earlier Sonata. Towards the middle of the work, the variations soften—seeming romantic in the way of young love, and from there develop, through highly chromatic passages, a wistful, almost melancholic absorption. The concluding Fugue restores her idea of Beethoven’s dominant, controlling energy.

Ms. Coop’s Scriabin, in this recital, is very different from her Beethoven. Scriabin’s music has a heavy obsessive, ‘ostinato’ element, to which it seems Ms. Coop responds by relaxing into a delicate lyricism that becomes almost impressionistic in the second Etude, though nervous tension and contrast reappear in the third.

She keeps Scriabin’s Sonata No. 3 in F# minor, Op. 23 surprisingly and pleasingly in the middle of her dynamic range, soft pedaling the two-note descending left hand figure on which the entire work is threaded. There is a dire force in the second movement that she drives down into a open, spacey area where it is allowed to float. The third movement is her best, with some lovely summery musings that flow seamlessly into the return of the obsessive ostinato  that thunders darkly as the work slides presto towards the Finale’s abrupt end.

There is a consistent thread of intelligence in Ms. Coop’s reading of Beethoven and Scriabin that she maintained in the gentle Chopin Mazurka of her encore.

2011 Juno Award Nominationed CDs: a Selection by Stanley Fefferman

March 16th, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011.

The Juno’s are coming this weekend. Here are a few of my words in support of win-worthy CD’s.

Armenian culture should have as many words for sadness as the Inuit people have words for snow. The sadness I am speaking of is not depression, but more like sensitivity keyed-down to a mood of  tender reflection. The Amici Ensemble, inspired by it’s newest member, pianist Serouj Kradjian, put their impeccable musicianship behind this offering of Armenian music that plays directly to our spiritual part. One track—Arno Babadjanyan’s, Trio for voice, clarinet and four cellos, sings to us in the celestial voice of mezzo-soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. All the nominated albums in the CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE are totally worthy, but I am putting my shoulder to the wheel for Armenian Chamber Music (Atma Classique  #: 2609 ).

Playground is Mark McLean’s 40th record since his professional debut in 1998, but his first as leader. I have listened to this album at least seven (7) times, all the way through, while driving my car, for the pleasure of its company. Playground is a beautifully produced album, not just a playlist. Mark’s sure-handed drumming always sets the pace. Kelly Jefferson’s mellow-rich-cool, Coltrane-toned sax leads the way for the first few tunes. Then David Braid’s crisp piano picks up the pace and lets in some funk. On that note the non-funkier-than guitar of guest Kevin Breit takes the album to a whole new level. And it goes on from there, adding Robi Botos on piano to the mix of tuneful, richly embroidered, and tasteful jazz, solid and totally today. I have to wonder why Playground didn’t get a nomination (independent label?) for INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR.  It should have.

My first nomination for next year’s (2012) CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE is guitarist Sylvie Proulx’s Sirocco.  The music is contemporary, with an affinity for Spanish, Afro-Cuban and Brazillian music, flavoured with  jazz and folk traditions from Euopean Baroque, Turkey and North Africa. Ms. Proulx’s technique and musicality are a joy to experience. Sirocco is on the Centaur Records label.

Speaking of guitar music in the category of music that stays in the mind irrespective of the Junos of this or any other year, there is IMAGES – Rob MacDonald (Guitar), Madawaska String Quartet, Peter Pavlovsky (Double Bass). The piece that stays in the mind is a percussive piece entitled Full Circle, written for solo guitar by Andrew Staniland. Images is a Rob MacDonald all-Canadian New Music composers project including Nocturne, for guitar, viola and cello by Omar Daniel, Love Song, a string sextet for guitar, double bass and string quartet by Peter Sculthorpe, and the title work Images for guitar and string quartet, composed in 2005 by Christopher William Pierce. This is a daring album, and if there were an award for MOST DARING ALBUM, Rob MacDonald would certainly deserve a nomination. Right now, the best I can do is this plug. Learn more about Images which is available at The Canadian Music Centre.

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