EARLY MUSIC: Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie

It's a rare pleasure to hear Jean-Philippe Rameau played in North America, even though most music played today owes the man a heavier debt than is typically acknowledged. Rameau was a contemporary of J. S. Bach who began his career as a harpsichord virtuoso, composing three books of solo keyboard music, and his compositions for solo harpsichord rank as some of the most difficult and the most rewarding music composed for the instrument. Mid-career, Rameau became a music theorist and, along with Bach, an advocate of equal temperament. Rameau is probably most remembered today for his discovery that tonal music is made up of chord changes rather than intervals between notes, a tenet of music that still remains with us and is a guiding principle of classical, jazz and rock.

It's somewhat curious then, that after considerable success in two separate fields of music, he turned to writing opera at the age of 50, and stranger still that he would continue to do so after his first opera courted controversy and a fairly frosty critical reception.

The reasons some of the French public hated Rameau's operas hardly matter now. His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie was performed over 130 times during the composer's lifetime, proving once again that there is really no point in listening to critics. But it was certainly a pleasure to hear Voicebox's Opera in Concert series reviving Hippolyte for Toronto audiences Sunday afternoon at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, in a staged production with the help of Toronto's Aradia Ensemble. Despite the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday, Voicebox managed to draw an audience of over a hundred listeners. Clearly there are a few people in Toronto who either appreciate Rameau's status as the father of modern music or are aware that opera is less tedious, and involves less standing around waiting for something to happen, than professional football.

French opera is hard to do well, and Rameau is not kind to players. Aradia and Voicebox did a fine job of interpreting a difficult composer. Besides having a great band backing them up, Voicebox had a stellar lineup of soloists and a truly phenomenal choir to do justice to an under-appreciated composer. When this company puts on a fully orchestrated production, beautiful music happens. One wish though: the soloists had more than enough volume to dominate the orchestra. Could the band have been bigger? Or at the very least, louder?

Scaramella - November 30, 2013

Charles I of England, finding himself strapped for cash and having no way of raising funds, decided to prorogue Parliament for eleven years and rule England by divine right. This proved to be something of a bad idea, as an increasingly outraged aristocracy rebelled against the Crown, plunged the country into civil war for nine years, and had Charles beheaded.

Against this violent and chaotic background, England's cultural life should have ground to a halt, and although the period can hardly be described as a Golden Age (the artists of the time were more worried about staying alive than their own artistic development) it is nevertheless one of the most exotic periods in English music history. The English of the early mid-17th Century developed the rules of Renaissance composition so far as to be barely recognizable as Renaissance music, and while in (say) Italy, the new Baroque style featured new musical genres like opera and new techniques of composition like monody, and an independent bassline, the English had an eccentric and completely unique style of music quite unlike anything else in Europe.

It's repertoire that I would argue deserves to be performed more often, and I was glad to have the chance to hear Scaramella introduce Toronto audiences to the music of the English 17th Century last Saturday night at Victoria College Chapel. The program featured some excellent, hitherto-unknown composers that ought to be performed more often, including John Hingeston, Simon Ives, John Walsh, and Godfrey Finger.

Also on display were some eccentric English forms of the period. Lyra viol, a style of viola da gamba where the instrument plays full chords and is tuned in scordatura, was particular to England, and Ives's compositions for solo lyra viol were a much-appreciated part of the program. Theme and Variations (“Divisions on a Ground”) were also a favourite of the English, as were trio sonatas with continuo. Other strange beasts on display were the sonata by Henry Butler, with solo violin and viola da gamba parts, and the Jenkins fantasia, which had a lyra viol part as part of a chamber ensemble playing chords along with the organ. I'm happy to hear a Toronto-based taking a chance on some repertoire that's not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and shedding some light on a turbulent period in history.

Scaramella's next concert is Saturday February 1 at 8pm in Victoria College Chapel, and features music composed for Viennese double bass and natural horns.

Brief Lives

tariq kieran-brieflives-1g9a2957-b compressedQueen Elizabeth the First thought farts were hilarious. I learned this, and many other scatalogical facts about England in the 17th century, from “Brief Lives: songs and stories of old London,” a co-production between Toronto Masque theatre and Soulpepper currently playing as part of the Global Cabaret Festival at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. William Webster, himself a founding member of Soulpepper, stars in Patrick Garland's one-man cabaret staging of John Aubrey's manuscript Schediasmata: Brief Lives. Aubrey is credited with founding the biography as a literary form, and should probably be lauded as the true father of the celebrity tell-all as well. Although he delights in lurid anecdotes involving famous people -- his text was never intended for publication, one should point out-- “Brief Lives” is a fascinating look at life in England from the Golden Age of Elizabeth I through the Civil War and Restoration, brought vividly to life by director Derek Boyes and featuring songs from the period by musicians Katherine Hill, Terry McKenna, and Larry Beckwith.

Read more: Brief Lives

The Women’s Musical Club of Toronto: Duo-Pianists Bax & Chung

Please click on photo for larger image.

bax chung 3Walter Hall was filled October 17 for the first concert of the 116th season of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. The husband-and-wife team of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung brought the enthusiastic audience to its feet with the centrepiece of their varied recital, Stravinsky’s original transcription for piano four hands of his second ballet, Petrushka. Bax spoke to the audience mentioning the work’s origins as a rehearsal piece for Diaghilev’s dancers and then added an anecdote about his own obsession with it since he was eight years old.

Bax had been studying and thinking about this version for several years when the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival suggested he and Chung team up for a two piano/four hands concert in 2004. The two weren’t yet married but had known each other since meeting at the Hamamatsu International Piano Competition in 1997. Bax had finally found a partner for a piece of music he had literally been carrying around for almost two decades. A more elaborate version of the story can be found in a piece he wrote for the Huffington Post earlier this year.

Onstage at Walter Hall, each pianist sat on the edge of a piano bench turned 180 degrees and placed side by side. Chung, sitting closer to the audience, played the primo part, while Bax manned the pedals and reached in between Chung’s hands on several occasions. Even turning the pages of this cravenly complicated score was a feat of legerdemain.

Without the colours of the orchestra in play, the rhythm comes much more to the fore in this version. Chung’s prodigious accuracy was uncanny. And the two players’ cohesion in maintaining their togetherness in the face of enormous technical challenges was remarkable as they conveyed Stravinsky’s ingenious emphasis on the beat in his transcription. Whether capturing the full orchestra feeling in Scene IV (“The Shrovetide Fair [Towards Evening]”), the captivating depiction of dancing puppets or the otherworldly ending, Bax & Chung’s performance was brilliant --even as Chung played right on top of Bax’s fingers or Bax reached far into the upper register over Chung’s hands.

bax chung 1After intermission, each pianist revealed a solo side before reuniting for their arrangement of a group of tangos by Astor Piazzolla. Bax delivered clear-eyed melodic lines in Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2 and his own arrangement of the composer’s Vocalise in C-sharp Minor, Op. 34, No. 14, perhaps most familiar as a violin encore. No chickens were harmed in these non-schmaltzy performances.

Chung then took to the piano in two Scriabin preludes and two etudes by Ligeti. She brought out the lines of Op. 16, No.1 in B impressively and made the dreamy evanescence of Op. 11, No. 21 in B-flat memorable. The Ligeti pieces, Nos. 11 and 10 from Book II, were conveyed with great clarity, the pianist skillfully singling out the melodic line above the African-based rhythms of No. 10, which, curiously enough, resembled those of Petrushka.

The Piazzolla tangos – on the basic score of which, as Chung put it in her introduction, the duo improvises -- found Bax playing the primo part with Chung doing the pedalling. The melody carried the first, “Lo Que Vendra,” while the couple’s understated romanticism literally and figuratively – Chung looks knowingly at Bax before he moves into a slow elaboration of the tune -- shone through in “Milonga del Angel.” One of the composer’s major works, “Libertango," brought the printed program to a satisfying conclusion. Here the arrangement was more complex and the duo’s interplay more back and forth and intricate, though no less intimate. The encore, Piazzolla’s Tango No. 2, proved to be a bittersweet farewell to two new musical friends.

On November 19, Signum Classics will release Bax & Chung’s new CD with music by Stravinsky, Brahms and Piazzolla.

A Slow-Motion Rave - The FLUX quartet performs Morton Feldman’s String Quartet #2

It is not everyday that you have the opportunity to sit and listen for five and one half hours to one slowing unfolding piece of music.  But that’s exactly what was happening at the Music Gallery in Toronto on October 14 as part of their X Avant VIII New Music festival.  The piece is called String Quartet #2, quite a nondescript title for something so epic, written by American composer Morton Feldman in 1983.

Undertaking this discipline of mind and body was the FLUX quartet from New York, who perform this ritual about once a year.  And what I heard via the grapevine after the show was that the players noted how attentive the Toronto’s audience was, with much less moving around than in other performances they’ve given. 

Read more: A Slow-Motion Rave - The FLUX quartet performs Morton Feldman’s String Quartet #2

Toronto Summer Music Festival: The Minimalist Dream House Project

labequeIn a concert August 1 in Koerner Hall that lasted four hours including two intermissions, pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque were joined by four younger musicians in a wide-ranging exploration of minimalism, arguably the most influential musical trend of the last 50 years.

Trying to place minimalism into a context that could resonate with some audience members, Toronto Summer Music Festival director Douglas McNabney said that it began in the art world as a reaction to Abstract Expressionism while in music it took the form of structurally simple, tonal and rhythmically regular pieces, in contrast to the serialism that had alienated much of the classical audience by the middle of the last century.

Read more: Toronto Summer Music Festival: The Minimalist Dream House Project

Stolen Moments: An Evening with the Mark Murphy Quartet - October 2, 2012

photo 2Watching Mark Murphy slowly weave his way through the Old Mill dining room to the stage, leaning on the arm of a helpful young man, is surely a testament to his own comment, “I’m eighty”. As he was seated carefully on his chair centre-stage with his music stand close by, I felt the wistful sadness of seeing this icon, a survivor of the classic era of jazz and one of a select few who can call themselves an innovator, on the decline. Yet Murphy’s first words to the audience were fully disarming and the opening phrase of ‘What Is This Thing Called Love’ completely erased my uneasiness. His is still the voice we know and love.

His characteristic tone – the way he almost cries out his notes, how he dips into his lower register then soars effortlessly into his falsetto – is clear and energetic. Age has not diminished his breath control, his ability to hold a straight note or his time feel. He sings with a seemingly careless ease.

His trio of relatively young players supported him flawlessly, consisting of Alex Minasian on piano, and two Canadians, Morgan Moore on bass and Jim Doxas on drums. Doxas’ sensitive style was particularly impressive, with seamless dynamic phrasing and flowing sounds that seem to simply appear.

Murphy is an expert craftsman who squeezes all there is from every syllable of a lyric. And squeeze the lyric he did on his aching performance of another Cole Porter standard, ‘I've Got You Under My Skin’. He introduced Porter as being "the best" and a "consummate composer" because he "controls all parts of the music", referring of course to Porter composing the chords, melody and lyric of each of his songs. While Murphy sang his unorthodox arrangement the room was silent. It was a spacey, tense version of the standard with an almost skeletal accompaniment by Murphy's trio. This spacious style, reminiscent of Shirley Horn with languid back-phrasing, with supremely relaxed, painfully slow tempos and with a nuanced approach to the lyric, was a recurring theme throughout the night.

Other notable ballads included ‘Turn Out The Stars’ (Lees/Evans), half-sung, half-spoken with strong hints of beat poetry, the devastatingly evocative ‘Again’ (Newman/Cochran) and a flirtatious version of ‘Fotografia’ (Jobim) which Murphy reprised later in the night using a different set of lyrics. Stepping up the tempo ever so slightly in George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Stairway to Paradise’, Murphy demonstrated his uncanny ability of taking an old fashioned lyric and filling it with meaningful, modern feeling. He finds the delicacy of the idea, expressing it in the lighter and darker shades of a life rich in experience.

Well-known for his improvising, Murphy's scatting is both playful and direct at the same time. His somewhat mumbling syllables are really expressions in time, tone and intonation, and remind me of another jazz icon, Betty Carter. Murphy makes no distinction between interpreting a tune and improvising. He sings a little of the head then suddenly strays into his own melodies, throwing in ad lib lyrics and scatting. While performing ‘Stompin' at the Savoy’ at a quick, eyebrow-raising tempo for anyone familiar with the words, he tripped himself up by back-phrasing too far, and losing the lyric. He caught up by scatting a wee bit, and humorously playing the age card. It was charming when he sang, “What is this – I’ve gone to the other song again, haven’t I?”  He also touched on and improvised around his own famous lyrics in Oliver Nelson’s tune ‘Stolen Moments’ and Horace Silver’s ‘Senor Blues’.

During the break, Murphy sat amongst the audience shaking hands and signing autographs. We were delighted to have a little conversation and a picture with him.

The second set opened with Herbie Hancock’s ‘Maiden Voyage’. An indulgent, elongated ending set the tone for the rest of the show when Murphy interjected “Then suddenly everybody falls out of the boat” and went into an abstract scat. He obviously felt relaxed, with a glass of red and white on the go and sharing stories like the one about Tallulah Bankhead’s papier de toilette.

For his final song Murphy recalled the mood of longing and loss created in the movie Brokeback Mountain, then proceeded to perform a heartbreaking rendition of ‘Too Late Now’ (Lerner/Lane). It became clear that Murphy had masterfully created a mood of his own that evening, indulgent and tantalizing. After the warm welcome of the first set, we were treated to a tiny glimpse into his personality. At any moment he could plunge us into a new emotion, or surprise us with a pleasantly mischievous comment.

Murphy hadn't performed in Toronto in thirty years until this appearance October 1 at the Old Mill as part of the JAZZ.FM 91.1 Sound of Jazz Concert Series. He brought with him an expertise that could only be acquired from his impressive career which, at this point, spans six decades. He is currently working on a new recording with New York City vocalist Amy London, and his next Canadian dates are November 20 & 21, 2012 at the Jack Kerouac Festival in Quebec City.

Einstein On The Beach: An illuminating Luminato premiere

Robert Wilson’s and Philip Glass’s seminal opera, Einstein on the Beach, made its triumphant Canadian debut Friday at the Sony Centre in a production that defies convention to this day, 36 years after its first performance. Filled with contemporary 1970s pop culture references from Patty Hearst to Mr. Bojangles to a list of NYC radio station WABC deejays, Einstein is both a timeless piece about time and a spacious piece about space.

Two days before opening night in a fascinating panel that uniquely chronicled the work’s origins by the three principal creators – dancer/choreographer Lucinda Childs is the third -- Wilson said its inspiration was “20th century god Albert Einstein.”  He explained that long duration plays always interested him – the production runs 4 hour and 20 minutes  -- and that he saw opera as an expression of its Latin origin “works” as in “including all the arts.”

Einstein comprises four acts and five brief  “Knee” connective interludes (Wilson calls them “close-ups”) and runs without intermission. The audience is welcome to come and go as it pleases. (Curiously, no one in the row I was in near the back of the Sony Centre’s main floor left their seats during the entire performance – except to stand at its conclusion.) The current production is the fourth since 1976 and the first since 1992. I was fortunate to attend the second at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984, a mesmerizing experience as I recall. Based on that memory and recordings from the 1970s and 1992, this Luminato incarnation is indisputably the most musically proficient of the lot.

Wilson’s conceptual starting point for the opera, he explained at the panel, was a classical structure -- a theme and variations built around three images (a train, a trial and a field that would host a space machine). This solid foundation enables each scene’s individual elasticity to flourish. Wilson advised his audience not to look for meaning but to just get lost in it, quoting Susan Sontag: “To experience something is a way of thinking.”

Yet, Wilson did reveal that “On the Beach” alludes to the atomic bomb (specifically to the impending nuclear holocaust in Nevil Shute’s novel of the same name), that the train image is there because Einstein liked trains and that the lines of light, which slowly move in a myriad of ways throughout the opera, refer to time and space.

Wilson, trained as an architect, kept a notebook filled with drawings which were his ideas for Einstein’s visual content. When Glass came to compose the score at the piano he kept Wilson’s notebook in front of him. “The music came easily,” Glass said, attributing Einstein’s continued freshness after more than three decades to its being unlike any of their other collaborations.  “It’s sui generis,” he said.

Einstein appears in several guises throughout the work, as a young chalk-wielding theoretical physicist and as a sailing afficionado, for example, but most memorably as a violinist wearing what was (apart from the Beatles’ mop tops) arguably the most iconic hairstyle of the mid-20th century. The wig was worn by the prodigious Jennifer Koh (who played Spring and Summer from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with the TSO in March as part of a “What Makes It Great” concert).

In an impressive evening filled with time-bending stagecraft, energetic dancing that seemed to embody the “E” in Einstein’s most famous equation and unparallelled musicianship from soloists, chorus and instrumentalists led by Michael Riesman, Ms. Koh’s vibrant playing ranged from her forceful impeccably phrased repetitive cycles of notes -- a touchstone of much of the opera -- to the warmth of the haunting second theme in Knee 4.  

Two days earlier at the panel, Glass explained that the violin becomes a touchstone since the most important thing for a musician was that Einstein played the violin. As to why many of the lyrics consisted of solfege syllables (doh re mi) and numbers, Glass recalled that it started as a teaching device to get the singers used to his idiosyncratic tone palette and complex time signatures. Wilson happened to walk in on a rehearsal and expressed his pleasure with the “lyrics”.  Glass kept them, the result of “my clumsiness and Bob’s naivete.”

Two more standouts in Friday’s performance were Andrew Sterman’s compelling tenor saxophone solo in Act 4, Scene 1 which soared Gato Barbieri-like as twenty-one people moved onto the stage individually or in pairs, stop-frame style and Kate Moran whose rendition of  “Prematurely Air-Conditioned Supermarket” elevated Lucinda Childs’s eight lines of Laurie Anderson-like seemingly trivial consumerist insights into high performance art. That most of it was delivered while lying on a bed in front of a judge in the second trial scene (Act 3, Scene 1) only made it more remarkable. It was my personal show-stopping moment.

2012.06.08: WholeNote Blog: “Laura’s Cow”

As part of Luminato and of Canadian commemorations of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus is presenting the world premiere of Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord. The 70-minute opera with music by Errol Gay to a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano is a charming work written to include all levels of the 200-voice CCOC from oldest to youngest plus three professional singers.  Told with abundant humour and imagination, this is an opera destined to last beyond its specific occasion to become a permanent part of the CCOC repertoire.

As with other historical characters who have become the stuff of legend, there is some disagreement about what Laura Secord actually did and how.  Albano sticks to the most accepted facts that Laura, née Ingersoll, (1775-1868) moved with her loyalist family from Massachusetts to Upper Canada.  In 1797 Laura married James Secord and settles in Queenston.  James, a sergeant in the 1st Militia, was wounded in during the Battle of Queenston Heights.  The Americans sequestered property, including the Secord farm, to billet their soldiers.  On the evening of June 21, 1813, Laura overheard the Americans planning a surprise attack on British troops led by Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams that would lead to American control of the Niagara Peninsula.  Her husband still incapacitated from his wound, she set out alone to walk the 32 kilometres through enemy territory to warn FitzGibbon herself.  She took a cow along with her so she could claim she was taking it to sell at market.  She collapsed a short distance from Decew House, FitzGibbon’s headquarters, but was able give her warning in time, leading to a British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

Albano’s begins the opera in the present with a school class preparing a play to celebrate Laura Secord during their study of the War of 1812.  Suddenly Laura herself (Emily Brown Gibson) appears to tell the children and their surprised teacher what really happened.  It transpires that what “really happened” actually involves quite a lot of fantasy but those fantastic elements are what will attract children to the story and help enliven the history.  A Balladeer (Andrew Love) becomes the narrator to set scenes and jump from one episode to the next.  He first appears as a square dance caller to lead into the scene of James Secord (Ivan Yordanov) courting Laura.

We shift from the human world to the animal world of the Ingersoll farm with its choruses of goats, sheep, chickens and pigs that introduces in grand style Laura’s Cow (Marta Herman).  A life-sized Trojan cow is pulled in out of which Herman pops to deliver a humorously bluesy number consisting entirely of the word “Moo”, after which she leads the barnyard animals in a boisterous charleston.  The scene is so much fun it is really beside the point to ask why Errol Gay has identified the animals with music one hundred years in their future, except that one sub-theme of the opera is that animals are more advance than we are because they are much more aware of their environment.

The most fascinating scene of the opera is also the most dramatically and musically advanced.  Laura, who feels helpless after James is wounded, goes to a church service where the congregation – men on one side women on the other – are singing a hymn.  In between verses, the chorus sings directly to Laura to be prepared to do something important when the time comes.  The effect is psychologically astute since Laura wonders whether it is God or her conscience speaking to her.

As we know, the occasion does arrive and urged on by her cow, Laura does take action.  Albano dramatizes her 32-kilometre trek by having her journey overseen by Ojibwe-speaking Native Guides and by her encountering various animals along the way – a bear, a colony of industrious beavers, a pack of untrustworthy coyotes and a herd of trustworthy deer.  At Decew House, Albano brings out the detail that the British soldiers won’t at first take Laura seriously until she defiantly insists on seeing FitzGibbon (also Andrew Love).  His praise of her gradually builds into a massive chorus encompassing the entire cast in praise of Laura, of Canada and of ordinary people having the power to do extraordinary things.  It is a wonderfully uplifting sequence and beautifully sung.

The overall nature of the opera is most reminiscent of Benjamin Britten first opera Paul Bunyan (1941), with its singing animals and eclectic mix of mood music and period-inspired tunes.  Gay draws a wide range of effects from the 14-member orchestra.  Its orchestral interludes sometimes sound Debussyan, sometimes like that of the great European exiles who scored so many films in the 1940s.  Gay is keenly aware that music for a children’s chorus must be clearly rhythmic and melodic.  His arias grow out of the atmospheric music but the textures are perfectly judged to suit the voices they are meant to accompany.  Besides the remarkable church scene and the rousing finale, perhaps the single loveliest song is the one about the wedding veil that he writes for Laura’s maid-of-honour Emma (Jacoba Barber-Rozema) that is filled with both the joy and sadness of a friend seeing another move on to another stage in life.

Emily Brown Gibson, who has been a member of the CCOC for six years, has a strong, clear voice that will surely acquire more fullness when it matures.  She gives a very winning portrait of Laura, not as an overblown figure, but as a good, seemingly unexceptional person who sees what is the right thing to do and does it.  All the flamboyance of heroism Albano and Gay give to Laura’s Cow.  Marta Herman is a delight throughout.  Her mezzo-soprano combines brightness and depth and her acting has the panache to make her character the most memorable in the opera.  Andrew Love has a heroic baritone and fine acting abilities which help explain the long list of opera engagements he has lined up in the future.

Special praise must be given to costume designer Lisa Magill who has found ingenious solutions to the many challenges the opera poses.  Her cow outfit for Herman is exceedingly witty.  She has pants and a blouse with a black-and-white splotch design, white rubber boots with black toes and a pink shoulder bag decorated with a row what look like pink basting bulbs.  The beavers are also wonderful with their brown mining hats, brown overalls with dependent quilted tails and wooden sticks, sandpaper and trowels for dam-building.  Her designs along with Fred Peruzza’s specialty props make the show a visual as well as musical pleasure.

CCOC Artistic Director Ann Cooper Gay conducts the orchestra and the singers with verve and precision.  Especially notable is how clear the diction is across the board – something that is hard to find even in all adult companies.  If you’re looking for a Luminato event for you and your family, this is an ideal one to choose.

©Christopher Hoile

Laura’s Cow runs at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre, 231 Queen’s Quay West, Toronto, June 7-10.  An alternate cast to the one discussed sings on June 8, June 9 evening and June 10 afternoon.  For tickets or more information visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

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