David Perlman talks with Gordon Mansell of the Organix concert series.

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Opera Atelier mounted the North American premiere of Armide (1686) by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 2005 to celebrate its 20th season.  Now OA has revived the production of this work, often considered the pinnacle of 17th-century French opera, in an enhanced version even more opulent than it was before.  It is a visual and musical feast that OA has been asked to take to the Opéra Royal de Versailles May 11-13, 2012 and to Glimmerglass Opera July 21-August 23, 2012.

The story, based on an episode of Torquato Tasso epic Gerusalemme liberata (1581), is set during the First Crusade and, as one might expect, depicts the Crusades as a battle between Good as embodied by the Christian knights and Evil as embodied by the Muslims.  What is quite surprising is that Lully’s librettist Philippe Quinault takes a more complex view of his characters than is present in his source.

Read more: 2012.04.17: WholeNote Blog: “Armide”

We have two new videos from the Conversations@TheWholeNote video series.  In these episodes David Perlman talks to Catherine Wilson of Ensemble Vivant, and Jan Lisiecki.


Jan Lisiecki

Catherine Wilson

The word “new” is a curious one, for what exactly is meant when we call something new? New in relation to what? The dictionary defines the word new as “recently made, created, or invented; recently introduced and previously unfamiliar; something that has not been used by anyone else.” In juxtaposition to this there is the age-old quote from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Last night, Thursday March 1, 2012,  the Toronto Symphony Orchestra launched the 8th season of their “New Creations Festival” at Roy Thompson Hall with an array of offerings - a pre-concert chamber orchestra performance in the lobby, the four featured symphonic works in the concert hall, and a post-concert jazz performance/party back in the lobby. The overall theme for this year’s festival is “Europe and Canada” - a broad sweeping umbrella under which Hungarian composer and conductor Peter Eötvös, this year’s guest curator, offers his selection of new sounds to Torontonian ears.

Playing with this idea of “new,” each of the four symphonic pieces presented its own set of contributions and questions. For Canadian composer Brian Current, he sees part of his role as a composer as advocacy work, creating music that reflects what it is to be alive at this time. The concert began with “This Isn’t Silence,” a composition Current wrote fourteen years ago in 1998. Since that time, Current told the audience, the title has become a mantra, a way of reminding himself and others of the importance of listening to what contemporary music is communicating and that it not be relegated to the background or considered irrelevant.

As I attuned my ears to the orchestral sounds of “This Isn’t Silence,” there was a relentless energy that accumulated as the piece progressed, reminding me of what I’ve often experienced while engaging as a concentrated listener in urban-based soundwalks. It was an orchestral city soundscape full of sudden changes, percussive attacks, and loud roars. As the work drew to its close, there was a form of serenity that emerged, yet not without the presence of a low rumbling undertone, reminiscent of the omnipresent motor drones we are all exposed to on a daily basis. If orchestral music can challenge us to become more aware of what our ears and bodies are unconsciously listening to in our everyday environment, then this is one way it can address the underlying assumptions our culture ascribes to — an indifference towards urban sonic design and an unquestioning tolerance of industrial noise. The composer’s music thus becomes a voice of awareness and barometer for the times in which we live.

The concert then transitioned into an exquisite performance of Claude Vivier’s poignant work “Lonely Child,” which was written in 1980. As Canadian-born soprano Barbara Hannigan began to sing the opening lines of the lullaby “Bel enfant de la lumière dors, dors, dors, toujours dors (Beauteous child of light sleep, sleep, sleep, forever sleep), I felt the purity of her tone penetrate right into the layers of my flesh, a reminder of the intense power that sound can have on the body and something I’ve not often experienced with bel canto singing. As the libretto transitioned from French into a sonic language created by Vivier himself, the delicate fragility of the sounds continued to create a haunting soliloquy on the yearning for love. A shift then occurred as the soloist opened up into her full-bodied and mature voice to make a fervent plea to be granted eternity.

In preparing for the performance, Hannigan consulted with the original performer of the work who worked closely with Vivier at the time. She was advised to dwell in both the child’s world and in the more passionate and “somewhat desperate world of an adult.” Her ability to use a full timbral range to delineate both these places in tandem was the brilliance of her performance. These soul-infused vocal sounds combined with the intense orchestral spectral textures brought the listener face to face with the timeless and universal human quest for unconditional love and acceptance - a story that has been told in countless ways and forms throughout the centuries. Although this work by Vivier is over 30 years old, it stands as a testament to what can happen when the human spirit opens up fully in order to communicate messages from other realms and worlds. One can only imagine what visions and innovations this Montreal-born composer would have dreamed had he lived beyond his 35 years.

The most recently composed work of the evening’s performance was Peter Eötvös’ “Seven (Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts) for Violin and Orchestra” (2003). Rooted in the traditions of European composition, this homage to the seven pioneering spirits who lost their lives while pursuing a collective dream derived its structure from various permutations of the number 7. Reaching back as far as the 16th century to the experimentations with sound and space practiced by Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli, Eötvös chose to disperse 7 violinists within the entire space and to divide the remaining 49 musicians on stage into 7 groups, with two groups of the low register double basses anchoring each side. With the solo violinist on stage and the remaining 6 in the upper balconies, these choices were made to evoke the impression of the 7 astronauts hovering in space.

Working with space as a compositional parameter immediately sets up an acoustic experience that could be seen as unusual or innovative. However the use of massive forces arrayed in multiple, spatially separated groups was an important practice that set the stage for the shift from the Renaissance to Baroque idioms over four centuries ago. In electroacoustic music, the use of an ‘orchestra of loud speakers’ set up in multiple locations within a space is standard practice, creating a complete surround sound experience and offering the composer the possibility of creating multiple layers of movement. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare instrumental and electroacoustic music on this point, but working with spatial ideas is certainly a potent way to dynamically open up and bring change to the orchestral experience.

The European/Hungarian component of the evening came to a conclusion with the final work by György Kurtág with his “Messages for Orchestra, Op. 34.” composed from 1991 to 96. Like Eötvös, Kurtág is a leading compositional voice in Hungary, and this work exemplifies their close ties. At a turning point in Kurtág’s career, he worked with art psychologist Marianne Stein who encouraged him to develop his own personal voice. This was no doubt an influencing factor in the writing of these intimate symphonic ‘messages’, as they are a form of sonic communication to his fellow Hungarian musicians: Peter Eötvös, Alfred Schlee, Albert Simon, and Zoltán Jeney. In a style reminiscent of Webern, all the musical elements are scaled down to the essence so that we as listeners receive an imprint of each of these individuals. In introducing this work, Eötvös emphasized that the core of Kurtág’s vision was to convey ‘pianissimo’. He went on to give the audience an opportunity to hear the dynamic differences in a short sequence played first on a grand piano and then on an upright piano using the mute pedal. This concept of pianissimo however refers to more than just dynamic differences, as it is also a metaphorical way of describing a style that seeks to go to the very heart and reduce the musical elements to their core. The importance of personal intimacies and formation of community becomes a central focus in these delicate works.

The intent of the New Creations Festival is to give the citizens of Toronto an opportunity to hear the visions and sonic formations of composers influenced by our current times. We can see from these four works that while the way musical elements are treated and organized may differ, there is something universally human and elemental that unite these four composers from Canada and Hungary with the vast array of musical expressions that have motivated the human creative spirit throughout time. During the intermission, Barbara Hannigan gave us an insight into her own creative process in preparing a work for performance. For her, it matters not if the work is contemporary, classical, baroque, or any other style. What motivates her as a performer and artistic communicator is the overall architecture of the work that provides her the space to create her own images, associations and memories.

The concert also provoked for me an additional consideration to this question of what constitutes a ‘new creation’. With the multiple challenges and crisis points currently confronting our collective society, does musical practice maintain business as usual? What effect does the past year of global uprisings and desire for democratic rights have on our creative expressions? How can our new creations contribute to the current movements of change?

When asked about the reasons for why the Occupy Wall Street Movement happened when it did, New York political organizer and activist Yotam Marom stated: “It feels like something has been opened up, a kind of space nobody knew existed, and so all sorts of things that were impossible before are possible now. Something just got kind of unclogged”. With the strong winds of transformation swirling around all levels of society, it is ultimately necessary, I believe, that the creative spirit take a leading role. As the New Creations Festival unfolds, both listeners and creators alike must keep their ears attuned to the ground to see if what we are hearing and creating provides an opening for new possibilities, dreams and directions in resonance with the broader cultural currents.

333993_313419255382941_112877605437108_922501_755864424_oOlga Kern is a 30-something virtuoso pianist from Russia, whose North American fame became assured in 2001 when she won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. She was in Toronto recently as part of a duo tour with distinguished violinist Vladimir Spivakov, a fellow Russian a generation older than she. The two of them played a sold-out recital (!) at Koerner Hall on Thursday, February 23, presented by local Russian-Canadian impresario Svetlana Dvoretskaia’s Show One Productions. Sonatas of Brahms and Franck anchored the serious bill, along with neoclassical Stravinsky (Suite Italienne) and the moving Spiegel im Spiegel of Arvo Pärt.

It proved a recital of understated perfection. Spivakov is an immaculate, restrained fiddler with silky light tone, and Kern accompanied him almost deferentially. Their playing was gorgeous, in a coolly dignified way. A rapt audience of predominantly Russians soaked it all up with reverence.

A day prior, Kern had presented a keyboard master class at Robert Lowry Piano Experts, inaugurating what is hoped to be an ongoing series of occasional piano master classes at this Leaside piano dealer. The spacious upstairs salon showroom was a lovely venue, and the piano was no less than a $200,000 Bösendorfer Imperial nine-and-a-half foot concert grand (on which Kern played her duo recital the following evening at Koerner Hall).

Three piano students were selected for this public learning forum, each of whom had been a prizewinner in the North York Piano Festival: 11-year-old Coco Ma of Toronto, high-school age Amadeusz Kazubowski-Houston of Waterloo, and adult Ricker Choi of Toronto. Each of them proved an extremely well-trained and flexible pianist, capable of enduring Madame Kern’s constant reproaches in front of an audience of perhaps eighty.

Kazubowski-Houston, a ponytailed, seemingly inward fellow of fifteen, offered the Chopin Fantaisie in f minor: his name and career I will enjoy following over the coming years. His technical equipment is already solidly in place, but more importantly, he offered welcome tenderness and poetry in this work, more than the martial heroics Kern kept stressing.

Coca Ma played the songful Ballade No. 3 of Chopin admirably for a young girl; she will grow into its emotions. She deserved a medal for putting up with a stern Russian lady towering over her and shouting commands like “More relaxed!” Maybe when you’re eleven years old and a talented pianist you’re used to being shouted at.

Ricker Choi, about the same age as Kern, presented a fascinating biography. He began the piano at age 13, then dropped it altogether at age 18 for a decade of studies in business and eventual work as a financial analyst.

Nowadays he is back to pursuing the piano with a vengeance, despite his day job in the banking industry. He is one of the pack of current hotshot adult amateur piano contestants who travel the globe to compete against other part-time pianists in international amateur competitions, and he has the trophies to prove it.

Choi played Liszt’s brash First Mephisto Waltz with clinical precision, spare pedaling, and clear engagement. Then it was time for Kern to critique his rendition almost bar by bar, and re-sculpt it to suit her taste. She observed that Choi was employing myriad tiny adjustments of tempo for expressive effect, and this annoyed her - and so he gamely adapted to a more metronomic version of Liszt’s dance.

Clearly Olga Kern is not someone for whom teaching represents the give-and-take of ideas; instead she proved an old-world European autocrat. On the plus side, we did experience a woman consumed by music, who frequently gestured, and sang, and demonstrated at the piano. She devoted ample time to each of the three participants, and went through their scores in detail. She was not cruel in her remarks, just grim and arbitrary.

Let’s hope future master classes will be more nourishing.

 

junoThe biggest round of applause  at the Juno nominations announcement yesterday was not even directly related to the music: it was that the awards, taking place in the nation’s capital on April Fool’s Day, will be hosted by…William Shatner!  Warm applause also ensued after it was announced that rock group Blue Rodeo will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In terms of the actual nominees, there was no clear frontrunner, with 6 acts tied at first with 4 nominations apiece: City and Colour, Dan Mangan, Drake, Feist, Hedley and Nickelback.

Needless to say (for those who know our magazine) none of the aforementioned frontrunners were reviewed in The WholeNote, but a few hearty bravos  are in order, nevertheless, to our hardworking crew of CD reviewers who have, out of the 35 classical and jazz nominees this year, already reviewed 27 of them in our DISCoveries section, (with three more to be reviewed next month!) A list of all the nominees in the five categories we routinely cover is provided at the end of this blog post, with embedded links to the ones we have already reviewed.

Before that, a couple of particularly WholeNote-Worthy Nods:

● 2 nominations for Montréal conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Orchestre Métropolitain, in the same category, no less!

● 2 posthumous nominations in the Classical Composition of the Year category: Ann Southam’s Glass Houses #5 and Jacques Hétu’s String Quartet No.2.

● Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage suite is played (in part or in whole) in 2 of the recordings nominated in the Classical Recording: Solo or Chamber Ensemble (thank you, Google!)

And now, here are the nominees in the classical and jazz categories, with embedded links (in blue) related reviews already published in The WholeNote. (To view all Juno categories, visit www.junoawards.ca)

CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: SOLO OR CHAMBER ENSEMBLE

Canadian Brass Opening Day*Universal

Brahms On Brass

Louis Lortie Chandos*SRI

Louis Lortie Plays Liszt

Marc-André Hamelin Hyperion*SRI

Liszt Piano Sonata

New Orford String Quartet Bridge*SRI

Schubert & Beethoven

Susan Hoeppner Marquis*EMI

American Flute Masterpieces (to be reviewed March 2012)

CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: LARGE ENSEMBLE OR SOLOIST(S) WITH LARGE ENSEMBLE ACCOMPANIMENT

Alexandre Da Costa/Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Acacia Classics*Universal

Daugherty : Fire and Blood

James Ehnes Chandos*SRI

Bartók Violin Concertos

Jean-Guihen Queyras Harmonia Mundi*SRI

Vivaldi Cello Concertos

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain ATMA*Naxos

Bruckner 4 (to be reviewed March 2012)

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Orchestre Métropolitain ATMA*Naxos

Florent Schmidt- La tragédie de salomé

CLASSICAL ALBUM OF THE YEAR: VOCAL OR CHORAL PERFORMANCE

Jane Archibald; Orchestre Symphonique Bienne; Thomas Rösner ATMA*Naxos

Haydn Arias

Karina Gauvin - Marie-Nicole Lemieux Naive*Naxos

Handel: Streams of Pleasure

Le Nouvel Opéra ATMA*Naxos

Caldara : La Conversione di Clodoveo

Marie-Josée Lord; Orchestre Métropolitain; Giuseppe Pietraroia ATMA*Naxos

Marie-Josée Lord (to be reviewed March, 2012)

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Daniel Taylor Analekta*Sélect

J.S. Bach: Cantatas 70 & 154; Concerto 1060; Orchestral Suite No. 2

 

CLASSICAL COMPOSITION OF THE YEAR

Ann Southam Centrediscs*Naxos/CMC

Glass Houses #5

Derek Charke Centrediscs*Naxos/CMC

Sepia Fragments (from Sea to Sea, St. Lawrence String Quartet)

Heather Schmidt Centrediscs*Naxos/CMC

Piano Concerto No. 2

Jacques Hétu Independent

String Quartet No. 2

Jeffrey Ryan Naxos

Fugitive Colours

VOCAL JAZZ ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Diana Panton Independent*eOne

To Brazil With Love

Fern Lindzon Independent

Two Kites

Sonia Johnson Effendi*Sélect

Le carré de nos amours

Sophie Milman eOne

In The Moonlight

The Nylons Linus*Universal

Skin Tight

 

CONTEMPORARY JAZZ ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Chris Tarry Nineteen Eight

Rest of the Story

Colin Stetson Constellation*Outside

New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges

François Bourassa Quartet Effendi*Sélect

Idiosyncrasie

Hilario Duran & Jane Bunnett Alma*Universal

Cuban Rhapsody

Phil Dwyer Orchestra feat. Mark Fewer Alma*Universal

Changing Seasons

 

TRADITIONAL JAZZ ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Dave Young Quintet Modica*Independent

Aspects of Oscar

David Braid Independent

Verge

Kirk MacDonald Orchestra Addo

Deep Shadows

Mike Murley Septet Cornerstone*Outside

Still Rollin’

Oliver Jones Justin Time*EMI

Live In Baden

 

Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Ralls' The Aldeburgh Connection (http://www. aldeburghconnection.org) turns 30 February 19 2012. The WholeNote's David Perlman spoke with them late January 2012.

October 15, 2011: David Perlman, Publisher of The WholeNote Magazine in conversation with bass-baritone Mark S. Doss (www.marksdoss.com). Topics include his recent performance as Thoas in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Gluck's Iphigenia in Tauris, early role models and teachers, his practice regimen, working with different directors and teaching music therapy at the Michigan State University in East Lansing.

The Gypsy Princess
by Imre Kálmán, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
December 28, 2011-January 8, 2012

For its New Year’s show, Toronto Operetta Theatre is presenting its third production (not its first as I mistakenly stated in my December column) of Imre Kálmán’s most popular operetta, The Gypsy Princess (or as it was known at its 1915 premiere in Vienna, Die Csárdásfürstin)..  It has one great tune after the next, with no lack of that typical Hungarian dance, the csárdás, and a plot that moves forward less because of artifice than because of the interplay of complex human emotions.  The current TOT production has much to recommend it, particularly the stunning performance of Lara Ciekiewicz in the title role, but when I saw the December 30th presentation, halfway between the premiere and the big New Year’s Eve gala, the show still seemed a bit rough around the edges.

The story uses certain clichés of Viennese operetta plotting--a comic couple balancing a serious couple and difference in class as a bar to marriage--but librettists Leo Stein and Béla Jenbach have found a way to emphasize the human side of the conflicts so that characters and the community on stage seem much more real than is sometimes the case in operetta.  For one thing, the title character Sylvia Varescu (Ciekiewicz) is a cabaret singer herself.  Prince Edwin (Keith Klassen) is in love with her, but she doubts whether he has the courage to stand up to his parents’ disapproval of his marrying not just a commoner but, even worse, a stage artist.  Meanwhile, her manager Count Bonifazius or “Boni” (Ian Simpson) is trying to get Sylvia started on a tour of America.  Edwin doesn’t want her to leave so what can he do to stop her but propose?  Boni, who has never taken Edwin’s passion seriously, doesn’t want to cancel the tour and so produces an announcement Edwin’s parents have prematurely had printed announcing his engagement to their choice for his bride, Countess Stasi (Elizabeth Beeler).  The mood for everyone except Boni gets very dark before events work themselves out.

Ciekiewicz has a clear, strong voice and a delightfully pert personality ideal for Sylvia.  She also can dance.  This must be the first time I’ve ever seen a soprano hit her high note while doing the splits!  She and Klassen’s Edwin have a chemistry on stage that makes the frequent tiffs and reconciliations of these two highly strung individuals seem quite natural.  Klassen’s tenor has darkened over the years in a way that has allowed him an even greater range of expression.  This plus the rapport between the two makes the slow minor key waltz “Where Are They Now?” an unexpected highlight of the second act.

As the traditional parallel comic couple, Boni and Stasi are not typical at all.  Stasi, in a surprising notion for 1915, proposes an open marriage to Edwin as the solution to their problem in the “Swallow Duet”.  Beeler’s scintillating presence lights up the whole second act.  She gives Stasi a fascinating personality, a seeming outward nonchalance hiding deeper feelings underneath that makes you pay special attention to her every word.

As Boni, Simpson simply cannot match or the other leads.  Though I have enjoyed other performances of his, his acting style is completely different from that of the others.  He adopts the consciously artificial line delivery one often hears in musicals rather than the naturalistic style the others use here.  Although he played Boni the last time the TOT staged Die Csárdásfürstin, he plays Boni as a stereotypical comic figure rather than the complex one the librettists have created.  While he may be the main source of humour in the operetta, his motivation for ruining Edwin’s proposal to Sylvia are completely selfish.  I’d like to see a bit more chagrin in him when he recognizes the effect of what he’s done.  I’d also like to see some kind of change in him when changes from the devil-may-care rake of Act 1 who does not believe in love to a man hopelessly enslaved by it in Act 2.

In secondary roles, Stefan Fehr is excellent vocally and dramatically as Baron Ferencz or “Feri”, friend to Edwin and Boni.  Mark Petacchi, though much too young for the role, gives a solid performance as Edwin’s father Prince Leopold.  In contrast, Eugenia Dermentzis as Edwin’s mother Princess Anhilte indulges in a bit too much posturing and should give some hint of the hypocrisy of her opposing her son’s marriage to Sylvia.

As usual director and designer Guillermo Silva-Marin has managed with carefully selection of props, furniture and patterned lighting gobos to conjure up the exciting backstage of a theatre for Acts 1 and 3 and the contrasting formal world of Edwin’s parents in Act 2.  Due to an evident enthusiasm for the music, conductor Derek bate uncharacteristically allowed the TOT Orchestra to play at too high a volume in the Act 1 so that most of the words went missing.  By Act 2, however, the balance had been corrected and the words were clear.  The choral singing was lovely throughout.

TOT has not staged Die Csárdásfürstin since 1997 so fans of Viennese operetta in general, and of Kálmán in particular, should not hesitate in seeing the show, especially with such a delightful singer as Ciekiewicz as Sylvia. The show is so full of good tunes that you’re certain leave with waltzes, galops or csárdások still dancing in your ears.

©Christopher Hoile

 

 

December 28, 2011  WholeNote publisher David Perlman chats with mezzo Wallis Giunta in Toronto, among other things about her current four day Toronto working holiday (Attila Glatz Productions opera spectacular "Bravissimo" at Roy Thomson Hall New Year's Eve), about life in the Lindemann program at the Met, and about where Rufus Wainwright fits in to her upcoming March 1 Music Toronto recital.

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