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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.

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

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

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.

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