Paul Lewis CREDIT MolinaVisualsOn the last Thursday afternoon of July in a warm St. Andrew's Church (hand-held fans were provided) as part of Stratford Summer Music, British pianist Paul Lewis introduced what he called “true peaks of the piano repertoire,” Beethoven's last three piano sonatas. He spoke to his congregation as it were, those of us privileged to hear this supreme interpreter of Beethoven and Schubert, describing how he saw the pieces he was about to play.

The concert turned out to be the highlight of the summer.


Heddy Honigmann

As she prepared for her next film, Heddy Honigmann graciously took the time to answer several email questions prompted by her superb documentary about the Royal Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary season, Around the World in 50 Concerts (now on view at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until August 21).


Double bassist Dominic Seldis of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra In her captivating documentary celebrating the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element.

The movie concentrates on four of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist, bassoonist and double bassist, as well as concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg.  Each of Honigmann's subjects describes what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentinian taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing in a youth orchestra provides self-worth and to the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play, and now leads that orchestra (the Soweto Youth Orchestra); to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play the Symphony No. 2 and Stravinsky's The Firebird, we see his tears.

Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And she gets inside the orchestra by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. You really get a sense of what it means to be a symphonic musician on tour.

Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons, the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony and Violin Concerto, Verdi's Requiem, Mahler's First, Second and Eighth, among others. The emotional connection is intensified by Honigmann's subjects' evident joy in music.

Honigmann's direction can take on a musical life of its own. For example, there is a section that begins with a dinner conversation between the flutist and the bassoonist. The flute player reveals that he is easily moved by folk music, that the melancholy nature of the tango makes him feel warm; he finds folk music in The Rite of Spring, Mahler and Dvořák. Suddenly it's the next day and the film has taken us into the bassoonist's hotel room where he's calling home. As we hear the famous minor key funereal version of the Frère Jacques folk song in Mahler's First Symphony, the camera seamlessly pans through the streets of Buenos Aires ending up in the concert hall where the orchestra is playing the Mahler – it's a very musical montage that grows organically out of the material.

The power of music to elevate, soothe and communicate is at the core of this moving documentary.

Around the World in 50 Concerts plays August 14 through August 21 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.


 

The Borromeo String Quartet: (from left) Nicholas Kitchen, Yeesun Kim, Mai Motobuchi, Kristopher Tong

The tenth anniversary season of Toronto Summer Music reached a significant climax August 6 with two concerts late in the afternoon and into the evening. Robi Botos and Béla Bartók, two Hungarian-born émigrés to the New World, were appropriate poster boys for the well-conceived and multi-layered 2015 TSM festival just concluded.

Right from the opening concert concentrating on the music of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, two children of immigrants to the United States, who fused elements of the old and new worlds in their compositions, to the Botos Shuffle Concert tribute to Oscar Peterson and the Borromeo String Quartet's traversal of the complete Bartók string quartets (in the course of one transformational evening), TSM more than met their conceptual theme of “The New World.”


Pedja MuzijevicThe American Avant-Garde concert July 28 at Walter Hall marked the midpoint of Toronto Summer Music's tenth anniversary season. It's been a diverse, well-planned festival so far with the promise of even more treasures to be unearthed before it ends August 9.

The numerous open rehearsals, lectures and masterclasses, all free and open to the public, are a welcome addition to the wide variety of concerts by mentors, fellows and special guests that have become the hallmark of this musical oasis where formerly not much bloomed here in past Julys and Augusts.


Garrick OhlssonAmerican pianist Garrick Ohlsson brought his considerable musicianship and imposing physical presence to Koerner Hall July 23 as Toronto Summer Music wrapped up the first week of its tenth anniversary season.

Before intermission the program was devoted to the first two of Beethoven's final three piano sonatas. Op.109 began with a bright sound, almost jagged at times, that became limpid with the return of the opening theme. As Ohlsson continued, he harnessed his power, choosing not to rush a series of slow builds that led to an ethereal echo. A deliberately calibrated Prestissimo announced the serene theme and variations of the third movement, which progressed from strength and an unflinching forward motion through heavenly trills, then veered between bliss and agitation before ringing out in a kind of triumphant life force that marks so much of Beethoven.


Neil Young

Journey through the Past (1972), the invaluable collection of footage from 1966 to 1972 documenting the early years of singer-songwriter-guitarist-filmmaker Neil Young's prodigious career, peels back the layers of the onion that was at the centre of 1960s counterculture. Built around a trip to Nashville, the film cuts between old footage of Buffalo Springfield classics For What It's Worth and Mr. Soul, by Stephen Stills and Young, respectively; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young elevating Young classics Ohio and Southern Man; manager Elliot Roberts worrying about concert ticket prices going up to the colossal price of $10; Crosby analyzing the Nixon-Billy Graham ruling class nexus; and outright hippie talk from Stills (“We reassure ourselves with words. Someday the reassurance won't be necessary. Soon.”)


Amy Winehouse – Somerset House July 2007. Copyright: Rex Features

In 1998, 14-year-old Amy Winehouse was already a confident, talented performer who considered herself a jazz singer. In a video at a friend's birthday party she revealed her admiration for Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett and Thelonious Monk. She would die 13 years later, a victim of alcohol poisoning, her body ravaged by bulimia, crack cocaine and heroin, her principal personal relationships with her self-serving father, her drug-addled husband and her exploitative manager all stacked against her profound creative life.


(from left) Timothy Nishimoto, Dan Faehnle, Nicholas Crosa, Phil Baker, China Forbes, Thomas Lauderdale, Anthony Jones. Credit Malcolm CookThe Portland-based trans-genre 10-piece band (plus vocalist) Pink Martini turned the Roy Thomson Hall stage into a sophisticated nightclub/dancehall/cabaret venue as it entertained a capacity crowd with 18 songs spread over two hours including intermission. Led by two former Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, Pink Martini has been acting as the unofficial house band of the United Nations since its first independent album Sympathique broke out in the late 1990s.

That album is still the bedrock of their appeal. Half a dozen tunes from it (from Bolero to Brazil) anchored the show June 30. Bolero's opening iconic rhythmic figure played by four percussionists backed the sweet violin of Nicholas Crosa which started the stately progression of the melody from violin to piano to trombone.


Morton Subotnick performing Silver Apples of the Moon at Moogfest 2012 in Asheville, N.C.

A light and fog pre-Apocalypsis vision of mid-20th-century industrial detritus, the bones of the Hearn Generating Plant – its worn steel girders exposed along with its upper floors towering over pools of muddied water that were like giant stepping stones to be avoided – welcomed 82-year-old electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick to its environs June 20 at the Luminato Festival for a historic performance of his seminal 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon.


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