Queen 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.
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Walter 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.
After 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.
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.
Koerner Hall is celebrating its fifth anniversary this season. During these years, the beautiful recital hall has become an integral part of Toronto’s cultural life. The man who oversaw the launch of the hall, and who is responsible for its programming, is Mervon Mehta, the Royal Conservatory’s executive director of performing arts.
Mehta, 53, comes from music royalty. He’s the son of famed conductor Zubin Mehta and soprano/voice teacher Carmen Lasky Mehta. Grandfather/conductor/violinist Mehli Mehta was the founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, uncle Zarin Mehta was executive director of the Montreal Symphony, Ravinia Festival and the New York Philharmonic, while cousin Bejun Mehta is an internationally acclaimed countertenor. There are also many Mehta cousins scattered around the world who are engaged in music activity of some sort. Mervon Mehta himself is a man of many talents, first as an actor and later as an arts administrator.
Mehta sat down with Paula Citron for a wide-ranging and candid interview that lasted for over two hours. The following Q&A reflects the who, what and where of Mervon Mehta.
You certainly had a peripatetic early life that included Vienna, Liverpool, Saskatoon and Philadelphia, before finally settling in Montreal where you grew up. Why all the travelling? My parents met as music students at Vienna’s Hochschule. We left when I was six months old. My dad was appointed assistant conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic after winning an international conducting competition there. Because my parents had no job prospects and no money when that appointment ended, we went to live with my mother’s parents in Saskatoon. When it was clear that Saskatoon wasn’t going to jumpstart a career, we moved to Philadelphia to be with my father’s parents. We slept on their couch. My grandfather was a member of the Curtis String Quartet and taught at the University of the Arts. My dad got a lucky break when he was called to replace a conductor at the Montreal Symphony, which led directly to his becoming the music director of the MSO. Maybe the board thought that an Indian conductor was exotic and sexy.
Who was Giuseppe Verdi and what makes him unique and different from that other fellow born in the same year of 1813 — Richard Wagner? Verdi was from Italian peasant stock and therefore strong, healthy, tough and stubborn, and lived a long life of 88 years (unlike Wagner who was plagued with ill health throughout his life and died before the age of 70). This toughness, coupled with great ambition, enormous talent, almost boundless energy and shrewd business acumen, enabled him to write ten operas in just seven years, one for each major opera house in Italy; and by the age of 40 he became the talk of his nation, rich and respected. He was also a pleasant man who was kind to his parents and his wife, but also a bit shy and wary of publicity. He was no egotist, womanizer or debt-ridden spendthrift like Wagner, but rather a patriot and great supporter of a unified Italy who shared his wealth generously and was charitable to the less fortunate.
Born october 10, 1813, Verdi was, in a word, the right man for the right time. Italy had been a very musical nation from time immemorial. As early as the 16th century opera was “invented” by an Italian, Monteverdi, albeit in a primitive form, but it continued to be developed by a succession of composers who glorified the singing voice through a style called “bel canto.” By the early 19th century there were masters like Bellini and Donizetti and countless lesser composers, now forgotten, who became great celebrities providing the finest musical theatre entertainment the Italian public craved. They were followed by Gioachino Rossini, a musical wunderkind who took the helm and became enormously rich with some 60 very successful operas. However, after the death of his wife in 1845, Rossini retired from the opera scene, Bellini was dead and Donizetti in an insane asylum, so there was a vacuum ready to be filled. And it was this country boy, this Giuseppe Verdi who filled it.
Lotfi Mansouri, who led the Canadian Opera Company from 1976 until 1988, died in San Francisco on August 31 of this year. He left an indelible mark on the COC. When I interviewed him for The WholeNote seven years ago, he said right at the start of our conversation, “Opera really is the most wonderful art form in the world!”. That passion for opera shaped his work, and his life.
In the international opera world Mansouri will be best remembered for inventing Surtitles. The idea of projecting a translation of the libretto during an opera performance, like subtitles on a television broadcast, came to him while he was at home in Toronto with his wife Midge, watching an opera on TV. His idea revolutionized opera-going. It allowed audiences to understand what singers were singing while they were singing. The first outing for Surtitles was on January 21, 1983, during Mansouri’s staging of Elektra for the COC, when they appeared on a screen above the proscenium at the O’Keefe Centre (later renamed the Hummingbird Centre, now the Sony Centre). Opera history was made in Toronto that evening.