Archive for April, 2009

Music Toronto presents The Tokyo String Quartet reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

Thursday, April 30, 2009, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

What’s new and exciting? The Tokyo String Quartet playing Beethoven’s early Quartets! These pieces have the energy of a twenty-something Beethoven who was making a name for himself in Vienna as an exciting pianist. They radiate the confidence of a composer who has already published piano and string trios, sonatas for cello and piano (including the “Pathetique”), and who was ready to take a bite at the big apple of string quartets dominated by Haydn and the ghost of Mozart. The Quartets of Op. 18 sing of this radiant energy, and in them there also sounds the retreat, the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” of Beethoven’s ability to hear the world around him. These are the elements of musical drama that the Tokyo String Quartet makes vivid with the highest standard of fidelity.

Tonight they performed the final three quartet of this Opus. Martin Beaver’s first violin opens the “Allegro” of No. 4 in C Minor with mournful, rising upper register intervals that burn with longing, perhaps for deliverance from the curse of deafness intimated by the unremitting dark strokes of Clive Greensmith’s cello. The richness of this music takes over the mind and one can barely restrain the urge to applaud after the first movement. The second movement, “Andante scherzoso” is a kind of blue tune that works itself out in counterpoint as a canon and has the feeling of laughing just to keep from crying. There is a kind of tense pussy-footing repressed energy interwoven with a ticking-of-time measure that is quite thrilling. The “Menuetto” is colourful and controlled. The “Finale,” a rondo with a gypsy bounce that nods to Haydn, is based on fast and furiously paced fiddling that lifts the spirits and the imagination to a festive scene.

The Quartet in A. Op. 18, No.5 is said to be modeled on Mozart’s quartet in the same key, K. 464. Mindful of Mozart’s supremacy in blending character and music, you can hear in Beethoven’s work the cadences of a highly ornamented melody telling a story for musical theatre satirizing the encounter of worldly doom that stalks a naïve youth. The darkish emotionality of the poignant second movement sings and dances, while the more restrained third movement, a “Theme and variations” marked ‘Andante cantabile’, sings with a kind of homesick heart that looks ahead to Schubert. The “Finale” opens with a carefree melody but dies away singing a farewell motif.

The opening theme of the 6th quartet in the series has the gaiety of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as the first violin flies over the plodding cello. The second theme is slow and serious, preparing the way for the famous “La Malinconia” movement in the third. The “Adagio” begins slowly in a mood of relaxation induced by the interplay of violins, but the second theme, announced by the groaning cello introduces previously unheard weird harmonies  that darken further as the key goes into minor. From here, the music jerks into a vigorous, rhyming scherzo, celebrating normalcy, as it were, and out of that, without warning, enters the music of sorrow made manifest: “La Malinconia.” Time hanging heavily on it like chains of captive who can barely drag himself along to his doom. The music sounds the rusty hinges of a huge door slowly shutting out life, enclosing weakness and despair.

The drama that follows is signature Beethoven. Light blasts in, darkness dims it; gaiety and dance re-surge, only to collapse into brooding depression. After several of these alternations each mood begins to take on the qualities of the other until a rich harmony becomes clarified. The movement ends in the wild riot of a prestissimo, a flight so rapid it brings in its wake the question, ‘a flight from what?’.

This was a performance that excites the imagination and whets the appetite for next year’s series in Toronto when the Tokyo String Quartet will illuminate the string quartets of Beethoven’s middle period.

ShowOne presents The National Philharmonic of Russia reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Tuesday, April 29, 2009, Roy Thompson Hall, Toronto

Maestro Spivakov’s style of conducting is elegant and flowing as he demonstrates from the podium a full range of emotions. The orchestra follows like a ship before the wind. The string sound has a lustrous beauty; interjections of the winds and horns are perfectly clear; the low-register basses and brass add rich photographic blacks to the musical picture. The program of overly familiar compositions turns out to be full of springlike excitement and fresh insights.

The first of four pieces from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, “Montagues and Capulets,” is a space in which power circulates like the strutting Boyars entering the feast in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Taking the same theme, the woodwinds manipulate it to introduce the youthful lovers as gentler reflections of their hostile clans. Their playing of the “Death of Tybalt” echoes forward and westward 25 years and predicts the amazing textures, harmonies, and moves of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Under Spivakov’s baton, this orchestra shows a mastery of transitions, swift yet finely graded, that bring out new understandings of musical dramas. In the last third of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, as the final statement of the lover’s theme dissolves into the pounding music of clan violence that destroys them, you can hear how the power a family accumulates mutates into pride and how that pride darkens into a walking sense of doom out which, strangely, pours a melting stream of love that gleams for a short time and is overcome.

Denis Matsuev refired the concerto “that was heard ‘round the world”– Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, Op. 1 (Van Cliburn ‘fired’ it first in Moscow during the height of Cold War and won the International Tchaikovsky Competition). Matsuev took charge of the work with sparkling finger work in the rolling introduction, then got deeply involved with the moody cadenza that soon followed. His Steinway, selected and borrowed for the occasion from Remenyi’s, rang like a bell. The orchestra worked with him bringing spring colours, fresh and vibrant, to Rachmaninoff’s earliest work. Between them, they developed a dramatic interpretation of the rhapsodic themes that was delicate, with a youthful fleetness.

The short slow movement, Chopinesque and Disneyesque, moved without rest into the ‘Allegro scherzando/vivace’. Matsuev, ever the showman, came out of the gate like a rabbit, melted down a bit during the following romantic section (redolent of Grieg), and rebuilt a dazzling pace towards a coherent and satisfying climax. His encore, a kind of black and white Sumi-e heavy ink-brush variation of a theme from Peer Gynt stunned the audience deeper into ecstasy. Spivakov offered three encores of music that danced and made us feel we were at a party and having a really good time.

Opera Atelier’s THE CORONATION OF POPPEA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Saturday, April 25, 2009, Elgin Wintergarden Theatre, Toronto

Every scene in this outstanding production is organized (by Gerard Gauci, Dora Rust D’Eye and Kevin Fraser) to look like a painting whose highly mannered style satisfies the eye without sacrificing artistic purpose. That purpose is to stage a daring opera in which Monteverdi (and others) join exquisite music to Busenello’s brilliant libretto honouring the amorous union of two repellent characters from Roman history: Nero, sung by the incomparable male soprano, Michael Maniaci, and Nero’s second Empress, Poppea, beautifully portrayed by Peggy Kriha Dye. What is daring about this opera is that the music (by Tafelmusik) suspends our disgust at the devastating actions of the pair of moral monsters described by the text and lets us feel the power of the attraction—call it love (in some sense, divine love)— between them.

The prologue has Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg’s dancers behind a screen in filmy attire gracefully circling a dimly lit stage in total silence, suggesting that they are supernatural beings, attendants on the gods of Virtue, Fortune and Love (Cupid) who vie for supremacy over human affairs. Cupid claims the story of Nero and Poppea will verify that she rules. Through this device, we are ushered into the mind of 17th century Venetians who were enjoying a cultural furlough from the Church by contemplating models of conduct from classical antiquity. We in turn, are invited into a break from any kind of theatrical realism, into a world that is seemingly quaint, with it’s gods, emperors, lutes,recorders and other continuo instruments, yet totally familiar at least from television dramas set in the haunts of the grossly overprivileged in Vegas, Miami, and L.A.

Michael Maniaci’s Nero, under the direction of Marshall Pynkoski, is regal in his postures and flowing gestures,  sometimes melting down under the power of sexuality into infantile attitudes of rage and need (brought to the limits of propriety where he celebrates with Lucan the news of Seneca’s death). Maniaci’s voice is unforgettable: imperious, penetrating, tender. His duets with Poppea are a high point of the opera. Peggy Kriha Dye, her voice rich and flexible, goes easily through the full range of Poppea’s emotions: convincingly fickle with Ottone, her-lover-being-discarded, seductive and submissive with Nero, manipulative in bringing about the death of the philosopher Seneca. Joao Fernandes as Seneca has some of the best lines, and the sound of his basso rivals the authority of Maniaci’s soprano.

Olivier Laquerre sings and acts and postures impeccably as Ottone who maintains his dignity in desperation even as he switches his love from Poppea to Drusilla who loves him, and lends him her dress for a failed attempt to murder Poppea. Longtime favourite soprano, Carla Huhtanen, brings a bright, sharp clarity and liveliness to her roles as Fortune and Drusilla. Kimberly Barber as Ottavia  brings home the pathos of Nero’s discarded Empress and also shows the power of her clutches to Ottone, forcing him to attempt the murder of her rival. Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre, in the role of Ottavia’s nurse, earned the distinction of bringing the audience right into her lap and making us giggle.

The tradition of Opera Atelier under the particular direction of Marshall Pynkoski and his talented partners twice a year gives us entertainment like no other. The closing tableau, strikingly lit by Kevin Fraser, shows Cupid falling asleep in the lap of his/her mother Venus, who has forgiven his/her excesses in causing the action of the play. The tableau also hints at Poppea’s historical  fall from her imperial seat when Nero kicks her to death while she is pregnant with his child, and then causes her to be deified. Around this energy circle the glorious harmonies of the full Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chorus till the darkness descends.

Recent Recordings reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Ann Southam, Pond life, Centrediscs (CD 1318), 2009. Christina Petrowska Quilico, piano.

Ann Southam’s Pond Life is water music. There are four pieces of fast moving water music with titles like “Noisy River,” Commotion Creek,” and “Fidget Creek,” that Southam wrote for virtuoso pianist Christina Petrowska Quilico as a follow-up for the success of their earlier collaboration, Rivers. At the core of this album are 16 works that express the variety of life in still waters.

Intermittent groups of notes like rain drops that collect and fall from needles of pine branches into a pond ripple out sonic waves and fade into silence. The notes are like living beings that cluster and dissolve. One can hear in this music the teeming life on both sides of the water’s surface. Tiny fish dart and hang and dart again, bugs skitter on the shining water skin that breaks when fish lips pop through to swallow a fly. In some pieces, there is the sense of the kind of silent liveliness that appears in a single drop of water put under a microscope.  Miss Southam captures the textures of breezes and the flow of clouds across the waters, the sparkle of light and suffusion of shade.

She achieves an effect of lyrical introspection using minimalist methods that allow the mind to relax into a sense of familiarity with material. Petrowska Quilico’s sensitive touch and grasp of the shifting tempi and rhythms surely guide the listener’s ear through the subtle changes. This is Petrowska Quilico’s 18th CD as a soloist, most of them devoted to the works of living Canadian composers. Anyone interested in living music from this country, or anyone open to being guided by music along a spiritual journey will enjoy this album .

Maria Callas Vissi D’arte: The Puccini Love Songs. 2 CDs Emi Classics: 2 16102 2

When Callas sing Puccini, I hear Callas. Her voice is inescapable. If the tonal qualities of soprano voices are described in terms of precious metals, the richness of gold, the purity of silver, the instrument that Callas possessed is watered steel—the secret metal of edged weapons from Damascus, Toledo and the Katana makers of Japan. Like these weapons, prized for their preternatural  sharpness and polish. Ms. Callas’ voiced is also marked by the characteristic texture of watered steel, a faint wave-pattern  of alternating dark and light stripes that makes it unmistakable.

To honour the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, EMI is re-releasing the best of a collection of the great diva’s studio and live performance recordings: 24 arias on 2 Cds. The 11 studio arias from Manon Lescaut and La Bohème are roles she never actually performed on stage. The 5 Tosca arias are Callas in her best voice. These and the 5 arias from Turandot allow Callas to reveal the tensions coiled within her nature: fiery sensuality, the melting tenderness, the shrewish jealousy, the imperious iciness. Mimi’s death scene in Bohème is made all the more convincing for the shrillness that edges her voice; Callas’ innate sense of drama makes the suicide of Cio-Cio San in Butterfly a singular experience.

There is a softer, gentler, more seductive side to Puccini’s music that we miss here, and we also miss the roundness of stereo on this remastering of mono originals. Nonetheless, for dramatic truth that cuts like a knife through soppy notions of the feminine, the Puccini of Callas remains classic.

Puccini, La Bohème (Live from the Met), Gheorgiu/Vargas, DVD, 2008.

New York audiences have loved Franco Zeffirelli’s La Bohème at the Met for 28 years. Now EMI has put Puccini’s anthem to 20 something singles on DVD for everyone to enjoy. Audiences who followed Seinfeld, and Friends on TV will feel right at home with the romantic life of Puccini’s unmarried urbanites who are short of cash, long on hormones, a combination that puts loyal camaraderies in conflict with sexual disloyalties.

Behind the comfy television stereotypes are Puccini’s gritty ‘bohemian’ stereotypes that make the story even more trenchant because they embody the dreams of middle-class college students who, for a time, want to be starving artists freezing in a garret, loving and losing freely, celebrating life with temporary immunity from long-term consequences. La Bohème says it all about that stage of life as Zeffirelli’s earlier iconic success, Romeo and Juliet, says it all about an earlier stage of life, teenage lovers who live with their parents.

Puccini’s music comes right from the heart, is beautifully orchestrated, and follows the drama of common characters who express larger than life emotions in full lyric flow of melodies as affecting and memorable as any from popular musical theatre. Not surprising that Jonathan Larson borrowed characters, storyline and melodies from Puccini for his 1994 award winning musical, Rent. Puccini, like Charles Dickens, had that combination of common touch and dreams of the heart that bring audience pleasure to the fullness of tears.

The casting is ideal with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas in the principle roles. Both possess truly beautiful voices. Gheorghius’s voice has an opalescent, fragile timbre that conveys a hint of Mimi’s terminal lung disease. Vargas has a bright, lyric sound that lands lightly on the high C in “Che Gelida Manina”. Both artists display musical intelligence and an unmatched chemistry that shows in their acting. It is great to have a camera zoom in to catch the sincerity of emotion in their facial expressions, especially Mimi’s sexiness that ripples through every part of her body as she and Rodolfo prepare to leave for the first time the room in which they fell in love.

Every one of the principals is attractive, sings beautifully, acts well. The sets are monumental, the camera work exemplary, audio is great, and the bonus backstage moments hosted by Renee Fleming round out a recommended without reservation rating.

Kristy. My Romance. 12 tracks. Alma Records(ACD11082).

Kristy Cardinali sings straight. Her voice is clear, she stays within her range, and her phrasing is neat, though she could develop a bit more flow. She respects the songs she’s chosen, and her choices show excellent taste. Ms. Cardinali’s song list is 100% classic. At least four were recorded by Sinatra and Nat King Cole in the ‘50’s.  American Songbook authors include Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, Burke and Van Heusen. Backing her are a cream dream team of Metro musicians: on piano, Robi Botos; on bass, Don Thompson; on flugelhorn, Guido Basso; on guitars, Kevin Breit, to name a few. This is a very listenable album and a solid basis for a promising career.

NMC presents The Wit of Jurg Wyttenbach reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009, Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto.

Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, curator, and all-around music-man, Jurg Wyttenbach brings Toronto fine gifts from his native Switzerland, a country not known for its music.  As curator, Wyttenbach showcases songs: songs from a little-known collection of Scottish, Irish and Welsh folksongs that Beethoven set to music during a 10 year commission with an English publisher; some European folksongs set by Beethoven, including two ‘Boleros’ and a variation on a Ukrainian ‘bandura’ air. Wyttenbach himself arranged three of Beethoven’s ‘British’ folksongs, and seven of Mussorgsky’s ‘Nursery’ songs which he regards as special, ‘in the moment’ works.  We enjoyed a handful of Wyttenbach’s own compositions: five song creations, a mock-heroic duel pitting flute against clarinet, a ‘Sonatina’ for solo piano that Wyttenbach performed himself, and his Divisions for Piano and Nine String Instruments that he conducted from the piano. Wyttenbach’s wit is to bring new song and colour to our musical culture.

In response to Wyttenbach’s ‘eclectic and challenging’ vocal repertoire, vocal consultant Mary Morrison selected three singers (funded by Roger D. Moore) who were right on. Melinda Delorme, singing in Russian, lifted the room into the realm of pure pleasure as her supple soprano dramatized fully the spirit of Mussorgsky’s children-in-a-nursery.

Mezzo Kathleen Promane sang the most beautiful song of the evening—Beethoven’s melancholy love song “Air Cosaque”, accompanied by Fujiko Imajishi (violin), David Hetherington (cello), and Wyttenbach on piano. She joined the same instrumentalists and smooth-voiced soprano Xin Wang to produce some elegant duet harmonies in Beethoven’s “Three Folksongs (Duetti)”, and Ms. Promane sang solo, often near the bottom of her register in a style close to sprechtgesang with composer Wyttenbach and Robert Aitken on flute in three love songs based on poems by Ilse Lasker-Schuler.

Soprano Xin Wang joined her voice in elegant dialogue with David Hetherington’s cello, sliding together down glissando passages and the bumping over the weird broken down phrasing of the four ‘dramolets’ that Wyttenbach composed on texts by American iconoclast e.e. cummings. If there was a musical highlight to the evening it was Ms. Wang singing three Beethoven folksongs arranged by Wyttenbach for flute, cello and harp (Erica Goodman), making sparkling music.

In a pre-concert talk with Robert Aitken, Wyttenbach spoke about his style of composition that included the difficult lessons of the second Viennese school (minus atonality and serialization) along with more audience-friendly extra-musical techniques such as “musical actions, scenic collages, and instrumental theatre.” In “Flute Alors” Robert Aitken and clarinetist Max Christie appear to menace, each other in a musical duelette that includes threatening words and gestures, verbal and musical insults (repeating ‘musicien’ over and over till it begins to sound like ‘maudit chien’). The music itself reminds me of the flow of shapes in a Norman McLaren film, squiggles, squirts, raspberries and farts, playful and funny, and also not-so-funny.

Wyttenbach made some allusions in conversation to his serio-comic vision of things. Speaking of his interest in love songs he said, “Love is not so funny, sometimes.” And speaking of a piece involving a clown, he said, “In the end, the clown is completely alone.  Elsewhere, he says,” I use musical and scenic means in an attempt at showing existential problems.” But he says this with a twinkle in his eye and his mouth set in a grin that reminds me of Frank Sinatra, who resolved existential problems with the musical phrase, “do(o)-be(e)-do(o)-be(e)-do(o).

There will be a lot more Wyttenbach wit in a Lecture-Recital, Monday, April 20, 7 PM, at Gallery 345, 345 Sorauren Ave. Further details

Notes on Composing: 5 Collaborations in Film and Music reviewed by David Fujino

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

March 2, 2009, Isabel Bader Theatre, Toronto.

“Images Festival 2009″ kicked off with a diverse programme of film and video artists in five collaborations with composers from Canada and the Netherlands.

The large, pulsing, flashing screen of Daichi Saito in “Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis” was the canvas for Malcolm Goldstein’s furiously swooping, bowed violin sound interventions. Alone on stage he played ardently to the screen’s rapid stroboscopic changes in light. Goldstein’s on-beat bowing eventually established a rhythmical drone underneath the single and combined voices that kept slipping out from his violin, and when the persistently blinking screen images — black silhouetted trees and tree trunks amidst sparkling and bright foliage — began to slow down, and the red and blue images started to visibly melt in front of our eyes, Goldstein sympathetically slowed down and then fell silent in the dark theatre. It was a fine structured improvisation with film.

Two films leisurely played side-by-side in “2 Cameras @ Sea” by composer
Oscar van Dillen and artist Clive Holden. The films’ narrator and the Continuum ensemble’s live playing made for a wistful sound score that started with a percussive clarinet/piano note and gradually took on a suspended quality with restless undertones. The left hand film was a black-and-white and sometimes blue image of a beach. The right hand film was black-and-white and sometimes a magenta image of a beach.
Both films had a dog. Much of this depicted the unspoken feelings between a boy and a father — all to the sound of rushing water …

“ONCE NEAR WATER: Notes from the Scaffolding Archive” by senior video
artist Vera Frankel and composer Rick Sacks is an artist’s interrogation of
a society that would reduce a city’s quality of life. As a lament for lost
space and place, this collaboration gained instant authority from its
voice-over woman narrator and a changing text that was superimposed upon tracking shots of Toronto streets, its people, and the construction of office towers in downtown Toronto. The loosely drifting pentatonic/gamelan/Asian-inspired sounds supported the pace of Frankel’s almost journalistic images and words. But when “Write, grieve, advocate, reminisce” appeared on the screen, the true nature of the political and emotional responses of Frankel and Sacks became clear.”… our city was once near water … by the time you read this, the person you know will be gone.” “Transience was all.”

After Intermission, “Behind the Shadows” drew us back into a moody
collaboration between composer Martin Arnold and artist Christina Battle.
Her images came from cinema and the man and woman walking on the screen were revealed in lightning-like flashes which later changed into two-colour abstract shapes. The late night whistling of pianist Laurent Philippe carried through most of the piece and, to these ears, gave it a Brazilian (bossa nova) big city lonely feel and emphasized the distances between people. Bat-like then gull-like forms flew from right to left across the screen, and after an image of a woman’s face beside an image of concentric circles made some gasp, the (careful) squeaks and peeps from violin and flute interacted above a piano/vibraphone/low clarinet drone.

But there was nothing (careful) about Guy Maddin’s “Glorious” — a mad black and white filmic celebration of all things physical and sexual, that homed in on glory holes as ‘dreamed’ in the film’s first section, “Father’s Dream”. The Continuum ensemble’s gong helped deliver visual punchlines but otherwise the crisp piano, tuba, and percussion defined and propelled much of the film’s other sections like “Desktop Family Organizer”, “The Shoes”, and the brief and funny “Obedience of the Children”. In this Maddin world, filled with bare-breasted voluptuous women, guns, and gangsters dressed in brimmed hats and white wife-beaters, it’s a well lit array of phalluses that finally stand out, waiting for glorification in the final section, “Six Shooter”.

Wow.

That was some pushing against context.