gamin playing the saenghwang

Joseph Macerollo

The recent Soundstreams “Squeezebox” concert on February 10 was a surprisingly playful and inspiring display of music for several fixed-reed instruments, including the accordion, the bandoneón (an instrument associated with the tango music of Argentina) and the Korean saenghwang.

 Gamin playing the Saenghwang

The evening began with three of the evening’s performers giving a short demonstration of the characteristic sounds of their instruments. The saenghwang was immediately compelling, as the performer, gamin from Korea, introduced the unique sound of her instrument played by blowing through 17 bamboo pipes mounted vertically in a windchest. The pleasures of sitting in a café with accompanying tango music were evoked by the strains of the bandoneón, performed by Argentinian virtuoso Héctor del Curto.

Héctor del Curto

Then suddenly, in the midst of a short demonstration by accordionist Michael Bridge, the doors at the back of Trinity-St.Paul’s Centre began to rattle loudly and in walked accordionist Joseph Macerollo dressed like a circus barker. Macerollo is renowned for his pioneering work in raising the profile of the accordion in the concert hall. Shouting at the others onstage, he proceeded to interrupt and eventually take over our attention as he walked toward the front, all the while telling us the mythic Cretan story of Ariadne, Theseus, the Minotaur and the labyrinth. Thus began R. Murray Schafer’s work from 1978, La Testa d’Adriane.

On the stage was a colourful enclosed cabinet with a circular object on top, covered by an equally colourful scarf. Macerollo lifted the scarf to reveal the lifeless head of Adriane, performed by soprano Carla Huhtanen. He proceeded to awaken her with his sounds, following up with a dialogue between accordion and an array of vocal shouts, percussive utterances and bel canto outbursts. I had been eagerly awaiting the performance of this work, as I had very vivid memories of its premiere back in 1978 when New Music Concerts presented the piece at the MacMillan Theatre with Mary Morrison performing the role of Ariadne. Part of the appeal for me personally was the unique approach to vocal writing that Schafer displayed in this work, which is an example of an entirely different form of vocal writing that had gained prominence in the late 1960s and 70s with pieces such as Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III for a singing actress and Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs For A Mad King.

But back to the accordion and the rest of the program, which featured two other pioneering works for the instrument composed by Alexina Louie and Marjan Mozetich, both commissions for CBC’s Two New Hours. Each work was originally composed for Macerollo in combination with other instruments; we heard Louie’s Refuge from 1981, performed by its original trio of Macerollo, Erica Goodman(harp) and Bev Johnston (percussion).  A new commissioned work by Anna Pigdorna, based on the mating dance rituals of birds-of-paradise, was displayed both musically and choreographically between gamin on the saenghwang and Michael Bridge on accordion. As she walked from location to location within the hall and on stage, gamin’s performance was spellbinding, completely embodying the female partner of the dance, testing and ultimately rejecting the advances of the male partner.

Equally compelling throughout the evening were the various interludes between pieces. While set changes were being made on stage in darkness, the spotlight shone on different soloists in various parts of the hall, each one in turn playing more traditional repertoire for their instrument. One highlight for me was hearing gamin play a different more nasal-sounding instrument up in the balcony, walking from one side to the other as she played. It was again like a ritual dance bringing all the ears of the hall into one focused and intimate moment. I highly recommend watching her video performances to experience for yourself her mesmerizing abilities as a performer: gamin-music.com/video.

The evening ended with a lively and upbeat tango set of pieces by Astor Piazzolla, performed by del Curto along with Tania Gill on piano and Timothy Ying on violin.

Lady in the Van BannerMaggie Smith - Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The Lady in the Van, the engaging film by Nicholas Hytner, based on Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir of his 15-year relationship with an elderly woman who lived in a van parked beside his front garden in North London’s Camden Town, benefits from a lively performance by Maggie Smith as “The Lady.” Fractious though she may be, with an upper-class hauteur that makes her prickly sense of entitlement almost charming, it’s her backstory, once we eventually come to understand it, that engages our sympathy and tugs at our emotions. Bennett turned his book into a play starring Smith in 1999, so she clearly owns the role. Coincidentally, after The Madness of King George and The History Boys, it’s the third time Hytner has successfully directed a Bennett adaptation of a Bennett play.

Maggie Smith. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

The movie opens with black and white footage of a young woman performing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1. Even though Smith’s character, Mary Shepherd, cannot bear classical music -- she attacks a quartet of diverse street musicians playing at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony early on -- we discover that she had been a piano student of Alfred Cortot’s in France before WWII. And that she had her love of music literally beaten out of her -- as she was playing Chopin -- by nuns in the convent where she was a novice. Our first clue that music had something to do with Shepherd’s mysterious past, comes when she visits a seniors’ club and enjoys listening to a young woman perform Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90, No.3 D899. The pianist is Clare Hammond, who also stands in for the young Miss Shepherd in the several excerpts from the second and third movements of the Chopin concerto, playing with a sensitive poignancy in the Larghetto Romanze and a restrained delicacy in the Vivace Rondo.

Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett (left) with director Nicholas Hytner. Photo Credit: Nicola Dove Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Among the artistic types who populate Gloucester Crescent, the leafy street where most of the film takes place, is the widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, but it’s the eccentric outsider Bennett, who shares centre stage with Shepherd. He’s presented onscreen as two sides of himself, the knowing writer and the misfit who cycles around and engages his neighbours in small talk.

The writer side of the equation is constantly offering advice to his other half while commenting on the screen goings-on. It’s a clever device that bears fruit in the film’s final frames.

The formidable supporting cast -- Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay as the neighbours -- includes History Boys’ alumni James Corden, Dominic Cooper, Russell Tovey and Samuel Barnett in brief cameos. But it’s Maggie Smith’s touching portrayal that stays with you long after.

The Lady in the Van opens at the Cineplex Odeon Varsity Cinema February 5 for an extended run.

OneNightOnly.jpg

In one sense (and lucky for all of us), One Night Only isn’t one night only – its sold-out official opening is tonight (Thurs Jan 28) on the mainstage at the Factory Theatre (Bathurst and Adelaide) and it runs Tuesday to Sunday till February 14. But every one of those performances will be unrepeatable, which makes it a laughter-filled thrill ride unlike anything I’ve seen.

The show’s ingredients are enticing enough: a five-piece stage band combo with serious chops (under the musical direction of keyboardist Jordan Armstrong); six of the city’s finest improvisers, most of them Second City alumns; a couple of canny pit singers; a spotlight operator with nerves of steel; a motley array of props and costume bits (flowers, police hats, scarves, ribbons, mustaches ...); a few chairs, a table or two.

A well-rehearsed opening ensemble musical number gets things going, showing off the cast’s beautifully forged triple-threat credentials, and setting what feel like impossibly high musical standards for the rest of the evening. But what follows is different, every time the show is presented.

The formula will be familiar to those of you who are followers of improvisational comedy, but perhaps less so to the other audiences I hope this show will attract. Three audience members are trapped in the glare of the follow spot, one after the other,  and asked to offer up suggestions for the evening’s plot – a technique known in the improv trade as “pimping the audience.”

At last night’s preview, the asks were “an exciting Toronto location,” a “recurring nightmare” and “something that really intrigues you.” The reponses were St. Lawrence Market, failed high school exams and drug cartels. Without further ceremony we were off on a mesmerizing two-hour romp (including 15-minute intermission) that wove together the lives of a paperless, lame, immigrant flower seller (Ron Pederson), a mustachioed and skirted police chief (Jan Caruana), along with his burly, butchy sidekick (Carly Heffernan) and flower-seller-besotted daughter (Ashley Botting), with a couple of Etobicoke pot-dealing hosers (Alex Tindal and Reid Janisse) seeking greener pastures completing the cast of characters who came to life before our eyes.

It’s not the formula that is unique – genre-based scene play of this type, from the sophomoric to the super skillful, with and without music, takes place in venues like Comedy Club, Bad Dog, Second City and various classes and schools, formal and informal, around the city, all the time. What is different about this version of it, is the ensemble artistry on display. And it’s that, more than anything else that makes me say go see this show, whether you be a classical musician or a jazzer, or a mainstream WholeNote reader who has never been to an improv show, or someone like me who needs no persuading that improv is ART in the best and liveliest sense of that all-too-often stultified word.

There’s a core improv concept known, at least theoretically, even to dabblers like me. It’s called “Yes, and-ing the offer ...” It means that if you walk into a scene and say to me “The parrot on your shoulder is giving me really dirty looks, Pete.” then I don’t block the offer by saying something like “What parrot?” or “Do I know you?” Instead, after a delicious moment of terror something falls out of my mouth like “Yes, well, what do you expect, Rita, after what you did last night?” – and bingo, the roller coaster ride is under way.

So if you are a performer who finds it hard to stray from the pre-arranged, or an audience member who thrills to those moments when well-rehearsed performers find themselves face to face with the unexpected and survive the encounter, go see this show. What you’ll see is a masterclass in delighted playful fearlessness, by performers, musicians and actors alike, at the top of their collective game. You’ll learn something new about ensemble work. (Oh, and you’ll get to laugh your ass off.)

Photo Credit -  Chia MessinaMusic Toronto has always specialized in piano recitals and in concerts of chamber music, particularly string quartets. Once a year, however, the organization offers a vocal recital. These recitals are part of Music Toronto's Discovery Series, oddly, perhaps, since many of the singers featured, like the soprano Erin Wall (in the 2012/13 season) or the baritone Phillip Addis (in the 2013/14 season) do not need to be discovered any more. I think this is also true of Andriana Chuchman,  although most of her performances have taken place in western Canada or in the United States (including four appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as well as several performances with the Lyric Opera of Chicago). She was a student at the Ryan Opera Center in Chicago and also at San Francisco Opera's Merola program. She has not appeared in Toronto often, but I have vivid memories of her stunning Olympia in Tales of Hoffman for the Canadian Opera Company a few seasons ago.

Chuchman chose a demanding program for her January 21 recital at the St. Lawrence Centre. It included songs in five languages (German, French, English, Russian, Ukrainian) – six if one counts the Puccini encore. She began with four songs by Robert Schumann, in which there was passion but also restraint. These were followed by two of Henri Duparc's greatest songs (Chanson triste and L'invitation au voyage) which were impassioned and not at all restrained. The first half of the program ended with Pat Nixon's monologue from Nixon in China by John Adams, a soliloquy which gave us a very different aspect of Chuchman's artistry.

Chuchman is proud of her Ukrainian heritage and has often said that it is that heritage which makes her singing distinctive. I think it would be difficult to pinpoint that influence but there is no doubt that she was at her very best with the Slavic songs that comprised the second half, both the Russian romances by Tchaikovsky and the more modern Ukrainian songs which closed the recital. 

Craig Terry, the pianist, is the music director of the Ryan Opera Center and an assistant conductor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He has collaborated with many eminent singers and has recorded with three of them (Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe and Nicole Cabell). The support which he gave to the singer was exemplary.

BergeronSylvain BergeronThe lute, the archlute and the theorbo are soft instruments and it needs an exceptional player like Paul O'Dette or Jakob Lindberg to make a solo recital work. In Canada we are fortunate to have two such players: Lucas Harris and Sylvain Bergeron. Harris is based in Toronto and we have in recent years been able to hear him play with ensembles like Tafelmusik. Bergeron lives in Montreal but he too has often played in Toronto, with Tafelmusik and the Canadian Opera Company among others. This concert at St. David’s Anglican Church on January 10, however, was his first solo recital in Toronto. As he himself wryly put it: "Better late than never."

The contents of his program were contained in the early 17th century manuscript lute book of Gioseppe Antonio Doni, preserved in Perugia. Not much is known about Doni but he appears to have been an amateur player who wrote down pieces that he could use as exercises. Many of these are anonymous compositions but there are also movements by Andrea Falconieri, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and Arcangelo Lori. Many  are dances (galliards and courantes); others are chaconnes and toccatas, with one passacaglia.

In his recital Bergeron followed the format of his recent ATMA CD, Livre de Luth de Gioseppe Antonio Doni. Of the almost 100 pieces in the Doni Manuscript, he chose 25, He grouped the music in five sections, according to their tonality: F Major, G Minor, B-flat Major, G Minor again and C Minor. Restricting himself to flat keys, he pointed out, meant that he did not have to retune after each suite. What I carried away from the recital more than anything else were Bergeron's superb sense of rhythm, his sensitiveness of touch and the expressiveness of his playing. Thirty or 40 years ago early music performances tended to be strictly metrical. Now rubato is no longer a dirty word and, provided there is a clear sense of the underlying beat, the kind of rhythmic flexibility which Bergeron provided is to be welcomed.

These hour-long concerts are presented by the Toronto Early Music Centre (PWYC). In the next recital on January 31at 2:30pm, Patricia Ahern will perform solo violin works of the German Baroque: Bach’s Partita No. 2 and Telemann’s Fantasies Nos. 8 and 9.

BravissimoKrisztina SzabóFor several years Roy Thomson Hall and Attila Glatz Productions have jointly presented “Bravissimo,” a program of the most famous arias, ensembles and choruses in opera, on New Year's Eve. Care has always been taken to achieve a balance between Canadian performers (usually well-known to Toronto audiences) and foreign singers (generally new to Toronto). This year the number of soloists was pared down to four, one for each voice category.

The most impressive of the singers was the mezzo Krisztina Szabó. We have heard her a number of times in the last few seasons, with the Canadian Opera Company (in Schoenberg's Erwartung and, more recently, in the COC's triple bill of Monteverdi and Monk Feldman) and with Against the Grain Theatre (in their Schubert-Messiaen program). This recent concert, on December 31, 2015, gave us an opportunity to hear her in more familiar repertoire. That included Musetta's Waltz from Puccini's La Bohème, a role more usually sung by a soprano (although it is in Szabó's repertoire) as well as the Habanera and the Seguidilla from Bizet's Carmen. What a formidable Carmen she would make! She sang the middle line in Mozart's Soave sia il vento from the first act of Così fan tutte and the lower part of the Flower Duet from Delibes' Lakmé. In both cases she gave her part a stronger vocal presence than is normally the case in performance.

The soprano Karina Gauvin has not performed in Toronto for some time and her return was a pleasure. She is noted for her Handel and Mozart and there was a great deal of Mozart and one Handel aria (the first time Handel has been featured in a “Bravissimo” program) but there was also Delibes' Flower Duet as well as O mio babbino caro from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. The baritone, Lucio Gallo, impressed me, particularly in Iago's Credo from Verdi's Otello and in Scarpia's monologue Tre sbirri from Puccini's Tosca. I was less impressed by the tenor, Stefano La Colla. He gave a strong performance of Calaf's aria, Nessun dorma, from Puccini's Turandot, with a good sense of dynamics but elsewhere his singing was unremittingly loud. Verdi's Celeste Aida suffered especially.

Orchestra and chorus were good. They could be described as ad hoc ensembles but a look at the cast list would indicate that most of their members came from the COC Orchestra or Chorus. There were several encores, the last of which was Auld Lang Syne. In the past that was merrily sung by the Canadian singers as well as by many in the audience. The Italian singers were generally noplussed, however, by that exotic tune. This year La Colla and Gallo were carefully briefed. That made sense, though I regret the passing of a quaint older tradition.

BerliozPaxStephanie MartinFew musicians have made the contribution to Toronto's musical life in the last 30 years that Stephanie Martin has: as a keyboard player, singer, teacher and composer. As the conductor of the Pax Christi Chorale, she has given us performances of a number of little-known works such as Elgar's The Kingdom and Parry's Judith.

L'enfance du Christ by Berlioz is better known than either of these; yet chances to hear a live performance in Toronto, and I suspect in English Canada, have been few. I suspect that one of the reasons for this is the difficulty of finding singers who can handle the French text with ease. In the performances of it at Grace Church-on-the-Hill, December 5 and 6, that problem was avoided as three of the solo parts were sung by outstanding French-Canadian singers: the soprano, Nathalie Paulin, as the Virgin Mary, the bass, Alain Coulombe, in the role of the charitable Ishmaelite (as well as in the smaller part of the patrol commander Polydorus); and the baritone, Olivier Laquerre, as Herod. The other two parts were taken by the tenor, Sean Clark (in the major role of the Narrator and the smaller role of the Centurion), and the baritone, Matthew Zadow (as Joseph). They too were very fine (and their French was excellent).

The printed program placed the story of the flight to Egypt in the context of the present Syrian refugee crisis. Insisting on a work's topicality is often rather forced, but in this case it was entirely justified.

Musically the performance I attended December 6 was a triumph. The work was quite rightly given without intermission and accordingly had real momentum. The finest moments were the duets between Marie and Joseph in scene five and the interchange between tenor and chorus at the end. The orchestra could be described as a pick-up group but it included several well-known Toronto musicians and the combined effect of solo singers, choir and instrumentalists was entirely successful.

My only reservation pertains to the dances. I liked the dancers well enough and the choreography was inventive but I was not convinced that the dances added much to the audience's experience. On one occasion, during the lovely trio for two flutes and harp, the dance was rather distracting.

NaganoKent Nagano

If there is a connection between these two stellar concerts in the last week of November -- the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and the Apollon Musagète Quartet -- perhaps it’s that the OSM’s concertmaster Andrew Wan and principal cellist Brian Manker are themselves members of a notable string quartet, the New Orford. Or perhaps it’s because the OSM’s transparency and sense of ensemble, on display in their Roy Thomson Hall concert November 25, in portions of  Stravinsky’s Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.10 in E Minor, Op.93, are qualities characteristic of the best string quartets.

The OSM evening began with the Suite for Orchestra, Harpsichord and Organ, a selection of four movements taken from Bach’s Orchestral Suites Nos.2 and 3 and arranged by Mahler. In fact, at the world premiere in 1909, Mahler himself conducted the New York Philharmonic from the harpsichord; Kent Nagano chose to conduct the OSM from the podium without a baton.

Read more: Concert Report: OSM at RTH; Apollon Musagète Quartet at Music Toronto

TaynaTagaqJosephBoyden

In Al Purdy Was Here dozens of literary talking heads led by Margaret Atwood bring the charismatic Canadian poet Al Purdy to life with anecdotes, reminiscences and first-hand history but it's the copious video evidence of Purdy himself that makes the best case for his unique voice. The fate of Purdy's Roblin Lake A-frame in Prince Edward County is the starting point for this thorough documentary directed by former Maclean's magazine film critic Brian D. Johnson and written by Johnson and his writer/editor wife Marni Jackson.Elevating the proceedings are a number of songs inspired by Purdy's poetry that mainly succeed in their genre cross-pollination. Standouts include “Say the Names” performed by violinist Jesse Zubot, Giller Prize-winning novelist Joseph Boyden and the extraordinaryTanya Tagaq, who internalized Purdy's words (as spoken by Boyden) transforming them into raw emotional energy. Sarah Harmer performed her song about a place where music and art are welcome, the melancholic, moving, “Just Get There,” on the old upright piano in her house. Bruce Cockburn's “3 Al Purdys” ends the film, offering the singer-songwriter's own inimitable take on the poet, summing up the previous 90 minutes in a song.

Read more: Music and the Movies: Al Purdy Was Here; Hitchcock/Truffaut; Brooklyn

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