There is always a threat that productions of opera come to resemble a kind of museum. Companies see the productions of new works as a risk, while Carmen and La Traviata will always fill the house. Fortunately Tapestry Opera is one of several companies that focus on the production of new work.
Christian Petzold's Phoenix (currently at TIFF Bell Lightbox), a haunting tale of obsessive love set in Berlin just as WWII has ended, is a kind of inverted Vertigo with subtle twists of character that undulate to a score based on Kurt Weill's Speak Low (“Love is pure gold and time a thief”). Nelly (Nina Hoss, masterful), a concentration camp survivor, her face badly disfigured by gunshot wounds, has been rescued by Lene (Nina Kuzendorf) of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. She's anxious to find her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), a piano player she sang with before she was apprehended in the fall of 1944. Despite strong indications that Johnny's character resembles his namesake in Weill's Surabaya Johnny, Nelly seeks him out after reconstructive surgery on her face. He's working in a bar called Phoenix, convinced his wife is dead, when she discovers him. To underscore his nature even more, two cabaret performers sing Holger Hiller's Johnny du Lump (Johnny You Scoundrel). Johnny's struck by the resemblance Nelly (she calls herself Esther, after her sister who did not survive the war) bears to his wife and concocts a scheme whereby she will pretend to be his wife in order for him to collect her inheritance in return for a lump sum payment.
Music was pivotal and the primary focus of eight films in this year's Hot Docs, the 22nd edition of that essential Toronto institution.
In her captivating documentary celebrating the Concertgebouw's 125th anniversary year (2013), Around the World in 50 Concerts, filmmaker Heddy Honigmann focuses on the human element. Despite its title, the movie concentrates on three of the orchestra's musicians, a percussionist, flutist and bassoonist and concertgoers in three cities on the tour: Buenos Aires, Johannesburg and St. Petersburg. Each of her subjects talks about what music means to them, from the orchestra members who play it, to the Argentine taxi driver who can't live without it; to the Soweto girl for whom playing a youth orchestra provides self worth and the man who fell in love with the violin as a poverty-stricken child, learned to play and now leads that orchestra; to the Russian with a connection to Mahler's music so personal that when he hears the Concertgebouw play Symphony No. 8, we see his tears. Honigmann's camera lingers on faces. It's the main way she draws us into her subjects. And with the orchestra she gets inside by keeping her camera on the instrumentalists even after they play; it's unusual to see musicians at rest this way. Mostly conducted by Mariss Jansons the film is carried by a judicious use of Bruckner's Seventh, Rachmaninov's Paganini Variations, Stravinsky's Firebird and Mahler's First and Second, among others.
Evgeny Kissin held an appreciative audience in his thrall May 1. Roy Thomson Hall was filled from top to bottom including the choir loft and dozens of stage seats for the Russian-born pianist's first solo recital in Toronto in 15 years. Three rows of seats on either side of the stage marked the outer edge of an umbrella of light that illuminated Kissin as he put his inimitable stamp on Beethoven's “Waldstein” Sonata, Prokofiev's Sonata No.4, three nocturnes and six mazurkas of Chopin as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.15 “Rákóczi March.” The Prokofiev, which ended the concert's first half, elicited a spontaneous standing ovation. The final notes of the Liszt at program's conclusion generated even more response, four standing ovations, three of which resulted in encores, culminating in Prokofiev's March from the Love for Three Oranges. It was an adoration complete with whoops, cheers and even a spate of unified rhythmic clapping.
A highly charged, fully packed Koerner Hall audience greeted the appearance of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and his Montreal-based Orchestre Métropolitain for their Toronto debut April 24. In a brief introduction to the concert's first half, Nézet-Séguin spoke of his 15-year relationship with the orchestra and the “French colour” they would bring to the evening of English music he had programmed.
Elgar's Enigma Variations had an intensity that revealed the architectural solidity of the piece. Wonderfully balanced full chords proceeded via a series of crescendos. There was sentiment without sentimentality (swells were swell) and a jocularity that foreshadowed the Edwardian Age about to dawn. (The work was composed just at the end of the 19th century.) With each variation dedicated to a friend or loved one (the first lovingly portrays the composer's wife), Elgar's creation is filled with tenderness and nostalgia. Its pastoral qualities (for King and Countryside you might say) were epitomized by a wind choir supported by strings. The famous Variation IX, “Nimrod” was dedicated to the memory of Paul Desmarais, a great supporter of the orchestra. The slow build begun by the flute and oboe duet buttressed by low strings reached great and stately heights before suddenly disappearing into the air, like fluttering insects in the wind.
Ann Cooper Gay was born, raised and educated in Texas. There are two photographs that she digs out on cue to prove to disbelieving Canadians that she is truly a Texas girl. The first is a shot of her adolescent self in her backyard proudly carrying a rifle. The second confirms that she was a majorette in college, baton included. How this Texan became a prime mover and shaker in the Toronto music scene is an incredible journey.
Cooper Gay, 71, recently announced that she is stepping down as executive artistic director of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. In her life she has been a pianist, organist, flutist, opera singer, elementary school teacher, college instructor, instrumental conductor and choir director, not to mention social activist, master of languages and a talented tennis player. No one who knows her believes that Cooper Gay will actually settle into a life of quiet retirement. Somewhere she will find a place to make music.
Ancestors on Cooper Gay’s maternal side arrived in Texas by covered wagon before it was even a state. Her paternal ancestors guarded cattle trains headed for the military, which included supplying the command of George Armstrong Custer.