Laszlo Nemes’ intense, intoxicating, immersive debut feature, Son of Saul, won the Grand Prize (the silver medal, if you will) at Cannes this year. A few days ago it took the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Now it's poised to win the Academy Award in the same category.
The 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.
For 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.
Few 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.
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.
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.
Mavis! Is Jessica Edwards' inspirational film on the life of Mavis Staples, whose unique voice brought joy and happiness to millions as the most prominent member of the Staples Singers, a family act led by and directed with great foresight by Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Roebuck Staples grew up on a Mississippi plantation that also fostered the great bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton; Staples learned blues guitar from Patton, later incorporating it into his gospel music, thereby crossing a line that had never been crossed before.
The Staples Singers had a vast influence on people from Bob Dylan to Martin Luther King Jr. Dylan recalls hearing them as a 12-year-old: “Sit Down Servant made me stay up for a week,” he said. Why Am I Treated So Bad, which Pops wrote after he attended King's Montgomery Alabama church, was the Civil Rights leader's favourite song.
Informative talking heads (Bonnie Raitt, Chuck D, Levon Helm, Prince and more), a strong working relationship with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy (who revived her career after her father's death in 2000) and historical perspective from biographer Greg Kot combine with priceless archival footage to present a vivid picture of a musical force of nature.
Kot pointed out that her life touched on seven musical eras beginning in Chicago with Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Mahalia Jackson as neighbours. Raitt described her as “sensual without being salacious.” The Staples Singers were among the most popular gospel music acts (when gospel music was hugely popular in the post-WWII years). They had a style that harked back to the 1920s plus a deep tremolo that was electric when combined with reverb guitar.
Footage from a 1963 Westinghouse TV show, Folk Songs, and More Folk Songs, amusingly quaint, featured Dylan and the Staples; later appearances on television with Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton are no less culturally rich. Mavis appeared with The Band in The Last Waltz and recorded with Levon Helm and Steve Cropper. And brought her own gravitas to Prince's music (“Prince called – can you imagine?”).
Mavis! Plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema November 13-19 and December 7, 10, 14 and 17.
Director Jessica Edwards will participate in Q&As on November 13 at 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and on November 14 at 4:00 p.m.
The most musical film I saw at TIFF 2015, Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, is a visual and aural poem filled with truths and lies, imaginatively linked by the writer/director/narrator’s familiar persona.
Her Rat Terrier Lolabelle’s death sparks a lighthearted yet serious reminiscence that mirrors Kierkegaard’s maxim, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” as it pertains to her wondrously talented pooch. The lovable and talented animal doesn’t mind hearing her owner’s hypnotic cello figure for the 70th time.
Anderson learns to feel sad without actually being sad as she deals not only with Lolabelle’s death but that of her mother and husband (Lou Reed) as well. Reed is never mentioned but appears at frame’s edge in a home movie taken in Central Park and briefly as a doctor in a hospital scene. His song Turning Time Around ends the monologue after nearly 75 minutes and carries on through the final credits (which finish with a dedication to his “magnificent spirit”). It’s a touching acknowledgement of a significant part of her life the loss of which she obviously is unwilling to fully confront. Meanwhile her dry sense of humour carries the narrative as she showcases Lolabelle’s talent at the piano and “a pretty good Christmas record” that she and her pet produced.
Her whimsy masks a serious undercurrent. Humour is apt to appear in unlikely places that gently jar the viewer’s mind but always crack a smile; she uses 8mm home movies, dollar-store animation and her own drawings to further layer her artistic mien.
The soundtrack’s major instrument is Anderson’s voice. However filtered it may be, it’s always ultra-present, the perfect elastic vehicle for her insights, bemused observations and grains of Buddhist teachings (which reminded me of John Cage’s Indeterminacy).
Heart of a Dog includes musical excerpts from several of her pieces—The Lake and Flow from Homeland (2010), Beautiful Pea Green Boat from Bright Red (1994), Rhumba Club from Life on a String (2001) and excerpts from Landfall (2011) with the Kronos Quartet. The music interrupts, comments on, bumps up against and fuses with the narration; it’s an essential component of this fanciful, uplifting film.
Heart of a Dog is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Benjamin Grosvenor returned to the Jane Mallett stage October 13 and exceeded all expectations. In a program that, for the most part, looked back to the Baroque from a Romantic sensibility, the 23-year-old British pianist displayed his unique voice in a field crowded with talented performers.
Grosvenor memorably took the fugue from Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue Op.35, No.1 from evanescence through emboldenment and back. The prelude from Op.33, No.3 was spellbinding, its quiet lyricism a hushed beauty; the fugue a capricious romp. Bach’s Chaconne, from the Partita in D Minor for Violin BWV1004, as transcribed by Busoni, doubled down on the evening’s backward glance by evoking its twin spirits with haunting results, the pianist’s attention to dynamics never overdone. Franck’s Prélude, chorale et fugue continued to build sound worlds with compelling pianissimo passages and a well-structured approach. The chorale harkened back to the Mendelssohn and the Bach-Busoni.
Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin moved the program into the 20th century even as it retained the baroque rearview-mirror quality of the evening. Grosvenor, characteristically hunched over the keyboard, brought clarity and dreaminess to the Prélude; a great delicacy to the sonic marvel that is the Fugue, with its notes seemingly bursting into air; a prismatic elegance, lovely bent notes and well-defined rhythm, with a hint of mystery, to the Forlane; a touch of frenzy in the Rigaudon, a touch of melancholy within the polished framework of the Menuet and a raciness to the raucous Toccata.
With Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli the tenor shifted to the romantic embellishment of the Italian popular song. Embellishing the opening Gondoliera also meant capturing its essence; the Tarantella was wild with its repeating notes, tone clusters and arpeggiated runs. Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Gershwin’s Love Walked In brought the evening to a sublime and logical close, as it echoed the popular song motif of the Liszt. Grosvenor is a unique creator of sound, worlds within worlds, attentive and nuanced. A riveting experience.
David Perlman goes on the road to talk with soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.
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