mcferrin1On Saturday August 13 at 11am, Brampton’s Rose Theatre filled with an enthusiastic crowd, many of them educators and vocalists of various musical backgrounds, to attend a workshop by 10-time Grammy winning artist, Bobby McFerrin. Marty Starkman, the event's executive producer, was thrilled with turnout. "The workshop was supposed to hold 96 people in the studio, but demand moved it to the main stage as 150 people had signed up and paid entrance."

It’s extremely difficult to describe McFerrin’s priceless musical abilities, particularly his facility with vocal improvisation, without extreme hyperbole. Simply put, there is no one alive who compares to this 61-year-old master, who sings everything from Bach to bebop in the blink of an eye, effortlessly gliding through a miraculous four-octave range (“I started out with 3½ octaves and had to really work hard to get to four.”) McFerrin’s musical insights and demonstrations aside, what made this workshop particularly endearing was the man’s humility.

Read more: ART OF JAZZ PRESENTS BOBBY MCFERRIN IN PERSON

Today is the launch of our new (and we hope ongoing) video blog series, The WholeNote Summer Studio. To launch the Summer Studio WholeNote publisher David Perlman interviewed Douglas McNabney, the artistic director of the Toronto Summer Music Academy and Festival.  Here are the videos (Hit Read More for more videos):

1. Opening Night Gerstein Gilmore

Read more: Summer Studio - Series #1 - Toronto Summer Music Festival

More ink has been spilled and more words set down on the circumstances of Mozart’s justly famed Requiem in D Minor than the work itself, which is unsurprising but detracts from experiencing the musical magic..

It’s indisputable that the dying Mozart in 1791 finished only two (Introitus, Kyrie) of its dozen sections, leaving the next eight (through the Hostias ) in the form of sketches, fragments and marginal notes, among them just eight bars of the gorgeous Lacrima. The final three movements didn’t exist. Concurrently he had been working on operas La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflote.

The composer had been commissioned by a mysterious patron to write a requiem mass for the dead and was keen to try his hand at this elevated church music form, as well as the vast sum he was promised. As he became weaker through illness it was suggested that he felt he was writing a requiem for himself.

Mozart’s wife Constanze asked her husband’s pupil, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the instrumentation and create the missing final trio. That’s where many arguments began that have lasted to the present day, with alternative completions vying for authority.

See what I mean? I was almost swayed from my enterprise, which was to review the actual music live, in a delightful pastoral setting (albeit the modern custom-built Gambrel Barn, with rear doors open, at the southern edge of Elora town).

The Elora Festival chose the back-in-favour Sussmayr version for its 32nd anniversary opening night concert July 8  – and it was a triumph, with Elora Festival Singers number swelled to around 60 voices, a biggish orchestra and with indefatigable conductor Noel Edison in full command, displaying an intimate knowledge of the sacred texts and demonstrating with vigorous, jabbing hand movements precise directions to all on stage, in particular urging the string sections to achieve new heights of meticulousness and passion.

Of course, up front and personal in this oratorio are four soloists – and who in Canada is better in this role (and in the many others she essays) than soprano Karina Gauvin? Though Requiem aria opportunities are virtually absent, her ever-exquisite rendering of the text, her high notes delicately shimmering and middle notes plumply adorable, she was simply mesmerizing.

In such company mezzo Jennifer Enns Modolo, and young colleagues tenor Christopher Mayell and baritone Matthew Cassils were clearly less of a force than Gauvin. Yet Modolo was always smooth and secure vocally with clear understanding of her role, while Mayell’s clean and spirited tones appealed as did the manner in which Cassils handled the very low ranges favoured here that few baritones can sustain. When singing together, the quartet was powerfully effective.

The full house, ensconced on seats much improved from early days and with feet on a floor leveled to avoid the flooding that erupted one year, was clearly enthusiastic about the contribution of the choir, in full, charged voice from the start and very responsive to Edison’s leadership, which as always was concerned to find the right balance in volatile music that careers quickly from fury to anguish.

That earthy balance was noticeable alongside the clarion calls of the Kyrie before all became energized in the ascent through Dies Irae. The Tuba mirum featured elegant trombone playing by Rachel Thomas behind Cassils, the Rex tremendae majestatis lovely choral harmonies, the Recordare appropriate expressions of high drama, the Confutatis a model passage of dynamic contrast.

The heartache that is the Lacrimosa was conveyed in every note, appealing rolling choral passages and sheets of sound distinguished both the Domine Jesu Christe and the

Hostias, which were followed by heavyweight offerings of the Sanctus and Benedictus. Emotional commitment on the part of performers and audience peaked with a most moving Agnus Dei and Lux Aetana..

Outside, senses newly stimulated by munchies and fireworks, it was a joy to recapitulate that joyous experience as well as the earlier renditions of unfamiliar verses of “God Save The Queen” and “O Canada”.

However, that pleasure could not possibly have been signaled by the utterly lifeless pre-intermission presentation of Mozart’s over-familiar Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. Best forgotten.

The festival continues through July 31, including a presentation of the Handel oratorio Israel in Egypt July 29. Also performing: pianist David Jalbert, Matt Dusk. the Cecilia and Madawaska String Quartets, singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, the Talisker Players with tenor Lawrence Wiliford, soprano Leslie Ann Bradley, the Swingle Singers, cellist David Eggert, entertainers Michael Burgess and Rebecca Caine and many more, with special nights for the music of Telemann and Arvo Part. Info: www.elorafestival.com.

 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival is about to wrap up another successful 10-day run and I managed to catch only a few of the 350 acts, and, as usual, not nearly as many as I'd have liked.

img_1743Without doubt, the highlight for me was the Aretha Franklin concert that opened the fest on Friday June 24. Given the Queen of Soul's recent health issues and her reputation for cancelling concerts, I wasn't holding my breath. Earlier in the evening I'd had dinner with some of the local horn players who were performing with her that night, and they weren't able to provide any clues as to how she was doing. It seems the rehearsals aren't attended by Ms. Franklin, but rather recorded for her to rehearse to later in the privacy of her hotel suite. So when she hit the stage looking great and sounding even better, it was a relief and joy to watch the 90-minute plus show.

img_1766Next night I was psyched to hear my favourites from the disco era, Average White Band. The group still boasts two of its original members from the 70s--Alan Gorrie and Onnie McIntyre--so the risk that this would be a tired rehashing of old hits was there. But the band was tight and energetic and uber funky. Since they opened the two-band bill, they had the tough job of warming up the audience, who, though appreciative, stayed seated for most of the show. So it wasn't the off-the-hook dance party I had expected it to be.

img_1789It wasn't until much later in the night that the party broke out. The veteran Stax! outfit started their show by appearing on stage with literally no introduction, then eased their way through a solid Southern, low-key handful of tunes. Guitar player and founder of the band, Steve Cropper, was gracious and warm commenting "What the hell took us so long to get here?" It wasn't until the clock struck 11 and front man Eddie Floyd came on that the energy shot up and the crowd was on its feet dancing and singing along to hits like "Knock on Wood."

img_1798The next night I'd heard a rumour that a funky jazz trio was holding sway at The Rex hotel for two nights. I got to the packed bar to find a mostly young crowd lapping up the Bobby Sparks Trio. Sparks' has a modern yet throwback sound--more analog than digital--as Leslie, Hammond and Moog were the main sources for the lead man's extended grooves. Drummer Jason Thomas and bass player Michael League's considerable skills featured equally in the band's trippy, funky 70s-style show.

dsc_0847Monday was a tough choice with master singer Kurt Elling in town, but I instead opted for master guitarist Paco de Lucia at the newly refurbished Sony Centre. De Lucia's awe-inspiring guitar technique proved to be undiminished as he opened his show with a solo classical piece before gradually bringing his 7-piece band to the stage for a set of traditional and nuevo flamenco. Although all the elements were there - passionate singing, fierce dancing from Farruco and phenomenal performances from all the players - the show felt bloodless and impersonal. Then when the band finished its 90-minute show and refused to do an encore despite repeated exhortations from the devoted crowd, the show was ultimately a disappointment.

dsc_0867In sharp contrast was de Lucia's opening act - jazz harpist Edmar Castaneda. "Jazz harp?" I thought, "This will be weird." And although at first it was a little odd, Castaneda's skill and enthusiasm won us over, using elbows, fingers and arms to coax multilayered, percussive sounds out of the traditional Colombian instrument. More importantly, Castaneda was, despite a slight language barrier, funny, engaging and grateful to be able to be doing something he clearly loves to do.

The 2011 TD Toronto Jazz Festival continues until Sunday July 3 with lots of diverse acts including Bootsy Collins, Jayme Stone and culminating in a show by Canada's young jazz sweetheart, Nikky Yanofsky.

img_1739The great Aretha Franklin opened theTD Toronto Jazz Festival last night with a free concert in downtown Toronto. This was one of the first concerts she’s given since recovering from a serious (undisclosed) illness for which she was hospitalized last year, so there were doubts about how she’d perform. But she showed the thousands of people who packed into the marquee and spilled into David Pecaut Square that she’s not called the Queen of Soul for nothing.

In fact she could be the Queen of Blues, Gospel and Jazz too, as she appropriately opened the first set with the be bop classic “Cherokee” and later paid tribute to saxophonist James Moody, who had passed away late last year, with an impeccable version of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” a vocalese written by Eddie Jefferson set to Moody’s solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love.”

She treated us to a string of her classic hits like Carole King’s “Natural Woman,” “Think,” and “Day Dreaming,” as pretty much everyone in the audience filled in all the background parts along with her five singers.

Franklin took us to church as she sat at the piano for a meditative “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” that evolved into a double-time, down home testimony, before moving into a sweet and simple version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.”

img_1753The 69-year-old Franklin was relaxed, gracious and in great voice, only showing some strain at the end of the over hour-and-a-half concert as she sent us off into the night with a heartfelt version of “Believe.” We believed.

The Kronos Quartet’s second Koerner Hall concert on June 11 followed the same two-part format as the first: five works for string quartet alone, and then a set featuring the guest group led by the Afghan rubab (plucked lute) virtuoso Homayun Sakhi.

Sakhi proved to be at the top of his game rendering all the salient parts of an exhilarating Afghani version of Purya Kalyan, a raga introduced to Afghanistan by Hindustani musicians. The featured work this evening was however Sakhi’s very effective multi-sectional work Rangin Kama (2008) scored for Sakhi’s trio and Kronos. Backstage after the show I overheard Sakhi lightheartedly admonishing his fine tabla player, “I’m going to have to give you a speeding ticket!” Suffice it to say that there was more than one speedy soloist on the stage that night.

I found Kronos Quartet the next day at the Luminato festival stage in a cool and breezy David Pecaut Square. This time they alternated possession of the stage with Toronto’s Annex Quartet who recently joined the Kronos in a residency at Carnegie Hall.

Among the open-air concert’s delightful surprises was the premiere of Montreal composer Nicole Lizee's new work for Kronos “Death to Kosmische.” To those familiar with Lizee's compositions it will come as no shock that she made very effective use of a hand-held portable vinyl record player manipulated by one of the Kronos musician, turntablist style. Her retro-electronica sounding score even used a vintage looking synthesizer to amusing effect. Thanks to the multiple video cameras trained on the performers and projected on the large screen all in the two thousand or so audience could clearly see the boys with their electronic toys, having fun – as were we.

I can’t but reflect in retrospect on the peaceful music-filled outdoor atmosphere I was part of in downtown Toronto. The same night in Vancouver thousands were rioting in the streets, burning, looting and harming fellow citizens.

The inclusiveness of the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire has inspired many. It prompted The New Yorker to opine that Kronos is taking the “self-conscious “classical” string quartet,” retooling it to “become a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.”

We had a lesson in contemporary culture several ways on June 15, in the last of the Kronos concerts at the Jane Mallet Theatre. This time their guest was pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man. Kronos began with Canadian premieres of string quartets by American minimalist masters Terry Riley and Philip Glass and the well-known Chinese avant guard composer Tan Dun. The three movements of “The Cusp of Magic” by Riley proved to the most substantial work of the set, replete with ritual rattling, and a scene from the nursery complete with amusing toys and recorded baby sounds.

The second half of the concert showcased the final and grandest premiere of Kronos’ Toronto residency. The four-part A Chinese Home was conceived by Wu Man, David Harrington and opera director Chen Shi-Zheng. Verging on mini-opera in scope A Chinese Home is part string quartet arrangement of Chinese songs, part travelogue, part history and part social commentary. The entire work was accompanied by a well-conceived and executed video illustrating the themes in each part. The versatile Wu Man played expressive pipa throughout, with flashes of virtuosity when called for. She also sang a knock-dead version of an early 1940s Shanghai torch song in a smoky alto, dressed in a cheongsam (Part 2, “Shanghai”).

The opening section “Return” showcased nine arrangements of Chinese regional and Buddhist liturgical melodies deftly demonstrating that the pipa can coexist harmoniously with the string quartet.

“The East is Red” part 3, in contrast, featured a series of arrangements of music popular during the time of Chairman Mao’s rule, the musicians dressed in requisite Mao jackets. There was a moving moment at the end of Wang Xiren’s song “The Sun Is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Closest.” The song was composed to mourn the absence of the formerly omnipresent Mao, giving voice to the grief and bewilderment of millions, yet when Kronos musicians stood up air-bowing their imaginary instruments with the strains of the laudatory song continuing on the PA, an air of irony also descended.

The closing section “Made in China” was the most surreal and performance oriented of them all. The programme notes state, “At the moment, China’s most widely diffused cultural products are toys.” Leaving their string instruments and Mao jackets behind, the four Kronos musicians systematically disgorging the contents of four large suitcases: moving, flashing and buzzing electronic toys. They literally filled the stage with them.

All the while on stage right Wu Man played screeching power chords on a plugged-in purpose-built electric pipa suggesting the inescapable noise of construction and urban life.

The seen-it-all Toronto audience loved it. They called the artists back for three “curtain calls” (the Jane Mallet has no curtain).

As David Harrington put it, "I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be."

In a world of declining audiences for classical music and faltering orchestras, clearly he’s onto something - right.

For the better part of last week the Kronos Quartet were collectively resident artists at Toronto's Luminato Festival. They seemed to be gigging all over town - twice at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, at the Janet Mallet Theatre, at the festival stage in David Pecaut Square, and even at a branch of the Toronto Pubic Library and an elementary school.

The globetrotting San Francisco-based string quartet was working hard and living up to the high artistic bar it has set itself over its 37-year career. Your intrepid musical explorer attended four of their Luminato concerts. I listened closely, spoke to some of the performers, took notes and came away mighty impressed.

[Photos of its T.O. residency: http://www.luminato.com/2011/kronos]

Kronos’ raw stats certainly are impressive. Commissioning over 700 works, it has enriched the string quartet repertoire with works by leading composers such as Tan Dun, Arvo Pärt, George Crumb, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. It has released over 45 albums and performed all over the world.

The music industry and international arts organisations have been paying attention too. Recipient of a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) for Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, earlier this year Kronos was the recipient of both the prestigious Polar Music Prize (Sweden), and the Avery Fisher Prize (USA).

Perhaps Kronos’ most singular achievement has been its dedication to in-depth collaborations, both with the world's foremost composers as well as with musicians from outside the Western classical music mainstream. In its long and productive career Kronos has embraced the most orthodox of the avant guard, the classical and folk music of other cultures as well as jazz and popular music of many stripes.

A short list of the global musicians Kronos has worked with is instructive as it is mind-boggling. It includes the Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle; Ástor Piazzolla; Mexican rockers Café Tacuba; Azerbaijani mugam singer Alim Qasimov; the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks; Afgani rubab master Homayun Sakhi; Björk; Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq; Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Chinese American pipa virtuoso Wu Man. I find it impossible to name another quartet with a more richly accomplished inter-cultural track record.

Where did the hunger for cultivating creative relationships with such a vast range of artists originate? Kronos founder David Harrington provided an insight June 11th on the Koerner Hall stage. He told us that as a teen he scoured a map of the world looking for the geographical sources of the string quartet music he was playing. To his surprise it all appeared to come from one city - Vienna - moreover it was composed long ago by men with Germanic names. Harrington began to wonder what music composed in other places and at other times sounded like.

This long-ago realisation still seems to have a resonance for Kronos, serving as a catalyst for its genre-bending creative projects.

Of course Kronos is not the only established “classical” ensemble to have performed with world music stars. All too often however such projects focus on the immediate rewards offered by the lowest common musical denominators and the composite results fall flat, the rewards offering meager musical pickings. Kronos on the other hand has managed to avoid the numerous pitfalls of fusion (which some purist wags have dubbed confusion) and to present collaborative musical results of a very high quality.

How do they do it? Each of the four Kronos concerts I attended was a veritable master class on the state of the art of this collaborative genre.  So let’s see what we can learn.

Kronos’ opening show at the Koerner Hall on June 10 set the pace with a series of works for string quartet followed by a collaborative work.  Their first set began with Aheym (2009) a motoric and monochromatic composition by rock group The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner. Pleasing arrangements of Greek, Egyptian and Iraqi songs followed. The highlight of the set for me was the arrangement for viola solo of the alap (introductory movement) from raga Mishra Bhairavi, originally performed and recorded by the Indian sarangi master Ram Narayan. Stylistically speaking Kronos violist Hank Dutt’s elegant and elegiac solo wafted far from Narayan’s brilliant original Hindustani khyal-inflected performance. But when Dutt finally landed on the high tonic, a satisfying serenity descended on the hall.

In the second half of the concert, Alim Qasimov and his ensemble moved to the stage with Kronos. Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana are leading exponents of the Azerbaijani art music tradition, which includes sung poetry, known as mugam.

Their resulting work entitled “Rainbow” illustrated Kronos’ collaborative methodology. The quartet parts were scored by arranger Jacob Garchik referencing the harmonic and melodic language of Rimsky-Korsakov, Bartók and Glass, while Alim Qasimov arranged five works from the Azerbaijani repertoire. Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington mentioned to the audience that the concert was the result of 9 months of interactive work. It showed.

For me the outstanding aspect of this work was hearing the searing emotionally charged solo vocal flights of Alim and Fargana which brought not a few in the audience to tears.

 

I had the pleasure and honour of hosting the emotionally-charged final concert of the Exultate Chamber Singers' 30th anniversary season at Grace Church on-the-Hill on Friday, May 13. The program was just over an hour long and was as close to perfection as one could hope to experience. The atmosphere was heightened due to this being John Tuttle's final concert as the choir's Artistic Director. The church was full of the choir's loyal audience, plus additional friends, colleagues and alumni who came to mark the occasion. From the opening notes of Palestrina's "Exultate Deo", it was clear that the choir was "on" and that this was to be an extraordinary night of music-making. The sophisticated and celebratory counterpoint was clear and energetic, the choir's appearance and sound was warm and relaxed, and Tuttle's signature rhythmic drive was in full flight. The celebrated Canadian composer Derek Holman was on hand for the premiere of his "A Canticle, A Prayer and A Psalm", written especially for the occasion. The choir negotiated this challenging and engaging work with seeming effortlessness and serenity. It came off beautifully and it was a moving sight to have Holman come to the front of the church at the conclusion of the piece to shake hands with Tuttle, sharing a witty aside together and smiling broadly. The choir then launched into the longest work on the program: Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil, op.47, more commonly known as the "Vespers". By the second or third movement of this 15-movement work, we had all been transported to another time and place. As the piece unfolded, the choir's phrasing, burnished sound and "groove" got stronger and stronger. It was truly a first-rate performance and a gift on so many levels: from choir to conductor, conductor to choir, organization to audience. We all felt connected and elevated by the experience. As the final exultant chords of the work faded, the audience stood and cheered this first-rate choir and their remarkable conductor. Tuttle left the chancel briefly, then returned to collect his choir and take them off. We continued to applaud, and continued, and continued. Finally, Tuttle appeared at the back of the church to acknowledge us, though it was clear he was uncomfortable...for him, of course, the music speaks for itself and that's the end of it. Thankfully, we were able to continue the celebration in the Parish Hall of the church, where the choir had organized a classy reception. Giles Bryant, longtime friend and associate of Tuttle's and a frequent guest of the choir's, hosted a brief program of speeches, which included a video "greeting" from the choir's new conductor, Karen Grylls, from New Zealand. There were other speeches from Peter Tiefenbach, Michael Rowland and, finally, a gracious few words from Tuttle himself. There were more than a few tears in the room....it was the end of a special night of music-making and celebration among a close-knit community that values music-making at a high level. I left the church marveling at how expertly and beautifully Tuttle and the choir had executed a first-rate concert and party. It will live in my memory for many years to come.

Have you ever thought about learning to play a musical instrument but never got around to it because you were too busy with work or family activities? It’s never too late. If you are retired or pondering about what you will do when retired, taking up a musical instrument might just be the entry into a new phase of your life. You may have taken piano lessons and enjoy playing to entertain yourself, but that can be a solitary pastime. Playing in an ensemble could open up a new social dimension to your life as well.

Last fall Wholenote reported on the formation of two new community ensembles for beginners, or those reconnecting after many years away from music. Now, less than nine months later, both of these groups have developed to the stage where they are presenting inaugural concerts this spring.

Most recent medical research indicates that one of the keys to a healthy and fulfilling life in retirement is to keep active. In particular, it is crucial to keep the brain challenged. What better way to do that than to learn to play a musical instrument in a non-threatening situation with a group of like minded individuals who soon become part of a new social circle. For both of the groups mentioned the socializing and sharing of treats during the break in rehearsals has become an important component of their transformations into the world of performance. Visit one or both of these concerts and see what you might do with music in under a year.

The New Horizons Band, organized by Long and McQuade Music and directed by Dan Kapp, will be performing at the CBC Glenn Gould studio Thursday, May 19 at 7:30 pm. This is a full concert band which has grown to almost 50 enthusiastic members. This first public performance is appropriately titled “The Beat Goes On.” For information Phone 416-531-4506.

The other beginners’ group is Resa’s Pieces Strings, organized by Resa Kochberg and directed by Ric Georgi. Their “Gala Debut Performance” will take place Sunday, June 5 at 7:30 pm at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, 10268 Yonge Street. As the name implies, this is an all string orchestra. If trumpet or saxophone are not your thing, then perhaps a cello or viola might be more to your liking. For information go to www.strings.resaspieces.org.

The Canadian Opera Company closes its 2010/11 season on a high note with Orfeo ed Euridice, its first-ever production of an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87).  The production created by Canadian director Robert Carsen for the Chicago Lyric Opera is beautiful in its stark simplicity and the singing by the cast and playing of the COC Orchestra under Harry Bicket is exquisite.

Gluck’s opera, the first of his so-called “reform operas”, exists in two versions--the original version in Italian that premiered in Vienna in 1762 and the second version written in French and expanded to suit French tastes that premiered in Paris in 1774.  We in Toronto are quite fortunate to have had the chance to see both versions performed by Opera Atelier--the Italian version in 1997 and the French version in 2007.  The French version with its major expansion of the ballet sequences is eminently suited to Opera Atelier’s aesthetic of integrating dance into the opera.  The Italian version, in contrast, is deliberately more severe, following Gluck’s goal of restoring opera to its origins as sung drama.

Carsen’s production reflects the severity of Gluck’s vision in Tobias Hoheisel’s set that consists only of a raked gravel-covered rectangle backed by a blank cyclorama, reminiscent of the minimalist productions of the Wagner operas by Wieland Wagner in the 1950s.  Carsen has updated the action to sometime in the present and to somewhere where women still wear headscarves daily.  Hoheisel’s palette throughout is entirely black, white and grey, with the only colour coming from the the flowers strewn on Euridice’s grave or the yellow of the flames seen in all three acts.  The austerity of the production is reinforced by Peter van Praet’s lighting which set low in the wings causes the singers to cast shadows across the entire stage or through frequent backlighting that makes us see much of the action in silhouette.  Both techniques, of course, underscore the imagery of the opera about a man who travels among the shades of the underworld to bring back his dead wife.

Carsen has made the work more abstract than Gluck’s original.  Gluck’s librettist Raniero de’ Calzabigi did not follow the Greek myth when he gave the story a happy ending.  So Carsen is justified in modifying the story further.  His Orpheus is no longer a semi-divine musician, but rather an Everyman responding to the death of a beloved wife.  He has no lute or musical instrument of any kind.  The one object associated with him is a switchblade that represents his recurring despair and desire to take his own life.  He subdues the shades of Hades not through the magic of his song but through the intensity of the love it represents.

Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo, last seen as Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009, gives a magnificent performance vocally and dramatically.  His voice is rich, strong and full of expressiveness and his acting is as highly detailed as that of a fine actor.  Though Harry Bicket’s intent was to conduct the work without breaks for applause except at the ends of acts, the audience could not restrain itself after Zazzo’s moving account of “Che farò senza Euridice?” in Act 3 and burst into bravos and applause.

Isabel Bayrakdarian, seen earlier this year as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, is a radiant Euridice, darkness beneath the bright tone of  her voice well-suited to conveying the character’s confusion and distress.  Ambur Braid, a new member of the COC Ensemble Studio, was a genial crystal-voiced Amore, dressed to reflect Orfeo’s inner self in Act 1 and as Euridice’s inner self in Act 3.

Under Harry Bicket, the COC Orchestra made their modern instruments sound  as much like period instruments as is possible and played with the same precision and lightness of touch as the finest period ensembles.  It was almost impossible to believe the orchestra also plays Verdi and Wagner, but then one of the late Richard Bradshaw’s great achievements was to make the COC Orchestra so adaptable.  As usual, the contributions of the COC Chorus were beautifully judged and full of emotion.  The 2011/12 season opens with another Robert Carsen production of Gluck, Iphigénie en Tauride.  If it is as deeply considered as his Orfeo, the next season should begin as nobly as the present season as ended.

 

 

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