Interview with Michael Patrick Albano

 

In March the Opera Division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its move to the Edward Johnson Building.  From March 20 to 23 the Opera Division will present Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring (1947), which was the first opera to be presented in the building’s MacMillan Theatre back on March 4,1964.  

This event provides an excellent occasion to look back on the past 50 years of the Opera Division.  Michael Patrick Albano has a fine perspective to offer since he came to Toronto in 1974 to study with Herman Geiger-Torel, who had been the Opera Division’s stage director since 1946 and was still the artistic director of  the Canadian Opera Company he had co-founded in 1950.  Albano is currently a senior lecturer and the resident stage director at the Opera Division, having directed over 40 operas for it including the Canadian premieres of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue, Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Kulesha’s The Last Duel.

The Edward Johnson Building was built because the Faculty of Music’s old premises could no longer accommodate the expansion of music programs in the 1950s.  In a recent interview, Albano explained the importance of the MacMillan Theatre to the opera division: “It is essentially a fully equipped opera house.  It has its present design because Geiger-Torel was associated with both the school and the COC.  At the time the COC had nowhere to rehearse, so Geiger-Torel urged the construction of such a large stage to give the COC somewhere to rehearse.  It is due to the foresight of Geiger-Torel and the other founders of opera in Toronto that the school has such a unique space.  Its stage is comparable in size to that of the current Sony Centre with a pit for up to 60 musicians, but it has an intimate auditorium with only 815 seats.”  This is ideal for students, as Albano notes, because: “With developing voices it’s great that they’re in a space where they don’t feel that have to over produce.  In the current economic climate the MacMillan Theatre simply could not be built today.”     

The MacMillan Theatre and the opera programming at the opera division are the two chief areas of study at the Division.  Albano has asked former students, as he did recently with John Fanning, what that they found most beneficial at the Opera Division and all of them agree that it is “being able to sing a full-length role in costume in a real theatre with an orchestra in the pit.”  He adds: “Just giving them the experience of singing in a real opera house, which is rare in North American opera schools, is something you don’t want forced upon you when you first have a professional job.”

Changes have occurred over the past 50 years.  The Opera Division introduced the use of surtitles in its 1999 production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, and, as Albano says, “has never looked back.”  Audience members have said they like surtitles even with English-language productions, and this will be the case with Albert Herring.  A partial effect of surtitles has been the gradual move away from the double and triple bills that the opera division used to perform to a concentration on full-length works. “The attraction for the students is doing a full-length role from beginning to end,” Albano says. The attraction for the Opera Division is the chance to present works on the edge of standard repertory like Chabrier’s L’Étoile or Britten’s Paul Bunyan that both complement the offerings of the COC and are ideal vehicles for developing voices.

 

As Albano notes, the Opera Division does its programming from the opposite point of view from a company like the COC.  “Unlike a professional opera company where they decide on the repertory and then engage the singers they want, we have to look at the roster of singers in our two-year program and decide what will work best for them.” 

Another change, begun in 1987, was the institution of programs for operatic répétiteurs and for student stage directors.  For Albano, this reflects the changing times since when he arrived and said he wanted to direct opera, no one knew what to do with him.  Now he is encouraged that the Division has so many applications for the stage direction program they can’t accept them all.  To him this is just a sign of how excited younger people are in opera as an art form.  Maria Lamont, the first graduate of the stage direction program, now has a career working for De Vlaamse Opera and is Robert Carsen’s choice for staging remounts of his work.  

In 1997 a student collective formed that was interested in writing operas.  Now opera writing has become a course.  Unique among other North American opera schools, the students at the Opera Division are able to see their work through from composition to a full staging.  The student-written Rob Ford the Opera was such a runaway success in 2012 that it proved there was a hunger among audiences for new opera in Toronto and a hunger for young singers to perform it.

The Opera Division has always offered acting classes for singers but over the years, as Albano notes: “They have become more codified and structured to give modern performers what they need to know.  The classes involve both practical instruction such as stage fighting and movement to role interpretation and the awareness of opera as theatre.  Gone is the era of ‘park and bark.’  Instruction has evolved with what the public now demands.”   

In summarizing what has changed, Albano says: “The huge difference to me in the evolution of the program is an effort at versatility, versatility, versatility.”  This means the introduction of works outside the 19th-century core repertoire to include the baroque as well as brand new operas.  This means training singers to be more versatile as performers.  This means offering the possibility of connecting with opera not just as a performer but as a composer and a stage director.  And this means exposing students to as many outside influences as possible through guest directors like Joel Ivany, who will direct Albert Herring, or guest conductors like Les Dala, who will conduct it.  As Albano says, “Versatility is important because the more versatile you are the more likely you are to be employed.”  All in all, Albano concludes, “I am very optimistic about the future.  The art form itself is in a healthy place.”

Albert Herring plays March 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30pm and March 23 at 2:30pm at the MacMillan Theatre.  For tickets call 416-408-0208 or visit performance.rcmusic.ca.


Quartetski Does Stravinsky

The opening concert of the Music Gallery’s X Avant New Music festival began with a huge explosion of energy Friday, October 11. The high-octane sounds coming from the Gordon Grdina Trio set the stage for the Montreal-based Quartetski and their retake of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  As I mentioned in my October WholeNote column, this work caused a riot when it premiered 100 years ago in Paris.  As I was sitting listening to the brilliance of this reworking of the original, I couldn’t help but wonder how those audiences of 1913 would respond.  I imagined Stravinsky himself with a huge wide grin dazzled by the eclectic palette of sounds, many of which would have been unheard of in his day. As for the audiences?  Perhaps so shocked and stunned they wouldn't be able to move, let alone begin a riot.   

quartetskiblogBut back to the music and its brilliance.  For starters, there was the instrumentation:  viola da gamba, violin, drums and eclectic percussion, various sound/noise objects, electric guitar with effect pedals, bass clarinet and soprano sax. But it was the seamless movement between scored sections and improvisation that captured my attention. The referencing of the original music was unmistakable -- the familiar melodies and the driving rhythms.  But with the addition of improvisation, the individual virtuosic skills of each player shone; they approached their instruments as full-on sound generators including saxophone multiphonics, the bowing of the tailpiece of the gamba and a scratchy LP recording.  One of my favourites was a DIY noise machine made by putting a stick in a styrofoam ball and placing it on a moving potter’s wheel, with the styrofoam ball acting as the sound resonator. You can see this white ball on the left in the photo. 

After the concert, I asked the group’s founder and viola da gamba player Pierre-Yves Martel about how this piece came together.  He told me that after listening to various orchestral versions, he studied  the two-piano reduction created by Stravinsky. He proceeded from there to make an arrangement based on each player’s skills and unique talents.  One of his fascinating ideas was to use various lines from the orchestral score that would not normally be heard so distinctively -- such as the tuba and flute parts.  His creation was then brought to the group and honed into its final form through a collective process of improvisation and revisions. 

To give you a taste of the imaginative melding of score and improvisation, here's a clip of the opening four minutes, thanks to  Joe at Mechanical Forest Sound. It begins almost imperceptively with static-like sounds before we hear the familiar haunting opening melody. Then hold onto your hat as the sonic roller coaster kicks in.

To read more about Quartetski and listen to other audio clips go to quartetski.com.

From the Height of Romanticism to the Birth of Modernism: Valery Gergiev Conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra

Please click on photos for larger images.

In a historic concert at Roy Thomson Hall on October 6, Valery Gergiev led his Mariinsky Orchestra in a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s first three ballet scores. It is unlikely these three masterpieces of early 20th century music had ever been heard before in Toronto on the same program. According to the Carnegie Hall notes for a similar concert in New York several days later, Stravinsky himself conducted all three there in 1940 but used a suite version of The Firebird rather than the complete work that Gergiev programmed. By performing all three scores as they were first heard in 1910 (The Firebird), 1911 (Petrushka) and 1913 (The Rite of Spring) and in chronological order, Gergiev gave us the rare gift of the rakish composer’s progress from the height of romanticism to the birth of modernism.

valery gergiev foto stina gullander sr

Gergiev conducted without a baton but each of the fingers on his right hand, seemingly independent, directed the tempo and entrances, while his fluttering left hand occasionally rose to sweep his thinning hair back into place. The result was faultless, precise tuttis contrasted with transparency when appropriate, whether in woodwind interplay or solo strings. (In a New York Times Magazine profile from 2009, the principal clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra [Gergiev’s other musical child], revealed that it is the conductor’s expressive face, from the eyes to the mouth, that is the real source of his power).

The Firebird is a rich, colouristic playground of narrative that demands impeccable playing from every corner of the orchestra. From the early solo viola to the violin that announces the first trumpet solo, followed by the muted French horn’s entrance and the full horn section’s dialogue with the strings, to the oboe-clarinet-bassoon tune that leads into the strings’ mournful lament, the first half of the piece was a shining example of the conductor’s controlled reading of the score.

And so it continued, with the strings’ extraordinary precision from tremulousness to sudden stops, abrupt mood swings and consistent ensemble runs, in the face of the brass’ yattering exclamations and the soulful bassoon and beautiful final French horn solo, the string playing was never overblown or sentimental. Gergiev built the climax slowly; it was steady and heady until the tempo picked up and the brass triumphed leading to an immediate standing ovation.

 gergiev and orchestra of the mariinsky theatre 1

After the first of two intermissions, Petrushka began with an impetuous rush before moving into the bucolic hemisphere of the country fair and the iconic dance-like flute solo that seemed to announce Stravinsky’s move from the 19th to the 20th century even as the cornucopia of folk rhythms and melodies confirmed it. A bonus of the 1911 version of the piece was the extensive use of the piano, both solo and in dialogue with the flute in particular. Apart from a brief trumpet solo that lacked the control that was so evident throughout this momentous concert -- which began at 2:15pm and finished at 5:05 -- the orchestra shone in the composer’s generous solo writing.

And as the snare drum motif led into a sumptuous conflation of tune and tutti followed by a de facto oboe and string quintet that moved into unbridled lyricism, Gergiev made sure to emphasize the bass notes in advance of the pure joy that ends in the proverbial whimper, always allowing the interior voices to be heard.

The Rite of Spring, arguably the most rhythmic orchestral music since Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, followed the second intermission. Here the wonderful transparency of the orchestra brought out the cacaphony of the score, the sinuous viola solo (from a violist who, charmingly, couldn’t stop smiling whenever he soloed) and the languor transformed into rancour. Two exquisite moments of silence held by Gergiev’s outstretched right hand caught an audience so attentive that not one cough was heard. The clarity of the whole orchestra was remarkable as Gergiev made the pagans dance.

Toronto was fortunate to be one of only four cities (Chicago, New York and Washington were the others) to hear the Stravinsky program on the orchestra’s two-week tour of North America. During the tour, Gergiev also conducted two operas at the Met, Shostakovitch’s The Nose and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. After a concert with the Mariinsky Orchestra in Montreal on October 4, Gergiev conducted a matinee of Onegin in New York on October 5, before the concert at Roy Thomson Hall the following afternoon. Whew.

 

Sound Art Making a Splash at Nuit Blanche 2013


Sound and art installation World Without Sun by Christine Davis, from Nuit Blanche 2012.Now in its eighth year, Toronto's adaptation of the all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche is right around the corner. From 6:51pm tomorrow (Saturday, October 5) until sunrise the city will be invaded by contemporary art projects – visual art, multimedia works, film, and of course, sound and music installations. It's Toronto in an alternate reality – slightly weird, quite impressive and buzzing with artistic enthusiasm. In other words, a must-see.

In the plethora of curated and independent projects on the streets tomorrow, music and sound art can get lost in the commotion. Here are a few promising-looking projects for the music-loving night owl this weekend.

A Touch of Light – Canadian Music Centre. For this year's “white night” the Canadian Music Centre has organized 12 hours of live piano performances by some of the best in local and Canadian talent – accompanied by a brilliant light installation of over 100 incandescent light bulbs that process the music visually. It's all night at 20 St. Joseph Street – check out more info here.

Film and music are pairing up this year as well, with film and live music duos presented by both TIFF and art collective Negative Industries. TIFF’s Strange Science/City Symphonies pays tribute to the age of silent cinema at the Bell Lightbox, with a series of silent films with live piano accompaniment (details here).                                                                                          

Negative Industries, stationed at Church of the Redeemer at 162 Bloor St. W., presents a “science musical documentary” that synchronizes multiple screens of video with music, sound and live performance (here).

Music Box – John Dickson. Part of the curated PARADE exhibition along University Ave., Music Box is a kinetic sound sculpture – a mechanical float that creates a cacophony of musical noise. Using actual instruments and powered by a central motor, this installation is being described as reminiscent of a surreal, noisemaking cuckoo clock. Seems worth checking out – details about the project here

New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA) and Artscape Wychwood Barns are also participating in the fun this year, with a project by Lawton Hall at 601 Christie St.  Entitled This Place is No Place, it’ll be a night-long installation of found images and mechanical sounds, fashioned into a multisensory, imaginary landscape. Plan to be there at 9pm, 11pm or 1am – at these times, you’ll find improvisatory performances using the installation as a musical instrument. For new music fans, it’ll definitely be worth checking out.

Finally, less in the music-realm but simply too much fun to omit are My Virtual Dream and Echo Chasm, interactive multimedia installations that intend to immerse participants in sound and the creative process. Baycrest Health Sciences and U of T’s Faculty of Medicine are setting up shop outside U of T’s Pharmacy Building with “The Virtual Brain” – a computer designed to catalogue and diagnose brain activity that has been hijacked for one night to create an audiovisual virtual dream experience. By sending brain signals wirelessly through headsets, participants get the chance to co-create a collective dreamscape of music and colour.  All the info here. With Echo Chasm, a project set up at the Royal Bank Plaza on Bay Street, participants can interact with echoes of themselves through video and sound installation.  Watch and listen to your previous self – details here.

Those are just a few picks of sound art to watch (and listen!) for this Saturday night.  Scotiabanknuitblanche.ca has details about all of the myriad projects underway tomorrow – so if you have a hankering for some contemporary art and music (or just have trouble falling asleep), take to the streets of the city and explore – perhaps we’ll see you there!

Nic Gotham (1959-2013): Jazz Saxophonist, Composer of Most Performed Canadian Opera - Obituary and Concert Review

nic gotham 2The title of John Terauds’ July 28, 2013 blog reads, “Composer and jazz musician Nic Gotham left eclectic legacy in Canada and Latvia.” Those stark words all too briefly sum up the career of Nicholas Ivor Gotham, cut painfully short at 10:12pm July 25, 2013 in Toronto.

The previous night Gallery 345, on Sorauren Avenue in Toronto, hosted an unusual, celebratory concert of Gotham’s music. Some 200 friends and fans jammed into the long gallery space, attracted by Nic’s selected compositions which were played by a large ensemble of his Toronto colleagues. Among the works performed were excerpts from Oh, Pilot (2000), a chamber opera for four singers with thelibretto and direction by Baņuta Rubess. The heartfelt tribute evening wrapped up with a 2009 video of the cheeky James in Peril  “from the soundtrack to an imaginary Bond film” with Gotham rendering a passionate-yet-cool post-bop-inflected sax solo with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra.

Read more: Nic Gotham (1959-2013): Jazz Saxophonist, Composer of Most Performed Canadian Opera - Obituary...

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