KhouryKalenderbannerArt songs delivered in a full-on operatic register within a small resonant space such as Mazzoleni Hall can be hard to take, I’ve learned this Sunday.

On the program at the RCM’s intimate, chapel-like hall were French the mélodies with their Orientalist flair, as well as a selection of Lebanese and Turkish folk songs in new arrangements chosen by the two singers, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender. Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist accompanied from the piano, and for one Ravel cycle Nora Shulman (flute) and David Hetherington (cello) joined the mezzo onstage. It was a well-programmed concert, diverse and thematically unified at the same time.

Joyce El-Khoury (c) Fay FoxEl-Khoury, Lebanese-Canadian soprano highly in-demand internationally as Violetta and Mimi, is a singer of exceptional glamour and stage presence. Her voice is opulent, with a beautiful upper top, but it did not seem like El-Khoury recalibrated it for the more contained, subtle and withholding recital genre. Most of the singing, whether that was the intention or not, came through as fairly loud—and I was seated in the last row. On that level, Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from Shéhérazade sounds almost irate. ‘Île inconnu’ from Berlioz and Gautier’s masterwork Les nuits d’été was a very loud statement, rather than a cheery invitation to voyage that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But things changed in part two of the concert, in El-Khoury’s program of Lebanese songs which she introduced and which are personally meaningful to her. As if by a magic wand, there it was: the real song intimacy. As if a camera zoomed in to a private moment between friends. This was an entirely different singer, very much capable of pianissimi, full of thoughtful inwardness, implicit rather than explicit, and generous.

Beste Kalender. Photo by Codrut ToleaMezzo Beste Kalender was more consistent. A fine French diction and rich dark timbre enhanced every song. Seductive and mischievous in ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ by Fauré, Kalender added some wicked castanets playing to her gamut in Ravel’s ‘Zaïde: Boléro’. She was particularly memorable in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, alongside the flute and the cello. ‘Nahandove’ is unusually sensuous, even for a French song, and it would be fair to describe it as, in fact, sexual (‘Arrête, ou je vais mourir / Meurt-on de volupté’). It, and the third song ‘Il est doux’, are voiced by a male narrator. He greets the female lover in the first, and orders female servants gently about in the third, but the middle song ‘Awa!’ is an outburst and a warning against such men. ‘Do not trust the white men’ is its refrain, and the verses explain what will happen when they arrive on distant shores and settle.

In part two, Kalender presented a selection of Turkish songs. One among them, ‘My Nightingale is in a Golden Cage’, she explained, was Kemal Ataturk’s favourite, so she would sing it in homage to the Turkish statesman—the modernizer and secularizer of Turkey after the end of Ottoman Empire and the republic’s first president.

The two women finished the program with Delibes’ mega hit from opera Lakmé, The Flower Duet.

The Royal Conservatory presented “Mazzoleni Songmasters: L’invitation au voyage,” featuring soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender, on November 11, 2018 at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Toronto.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto.

organbannerPhoenix OrganDigital organs are a contentious topic amongst pipe organ aficionados. Until recently, the term “electronic organ” was unlikely to imply a high-quality instrument, and digital instruments were scorned as poor substitutes for the grandeur and acoustic superiority of an authentic pipe organ. In recent years, however, rapid advances in digital sampling quality, memory capacity, and processing speeds have made electronic organs a more viable substitute for their acoustic counterparts, giving these digital instruments an increasingly prominent place in music programs around the world. Frequently considered by churches facing the renovation or restoration of an existing, ailing pipe organ, the quality and affordability of digital instruments make them practical alternatives for large cathedrals and smaller churches alike.

Such is the case at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church, which recently installed one of Canada’s largest digital organs as a replacement for their 70-year-old pipe organ. The new instrument, built by Phoenix Organs, is described by director of music Edward Connell as “a masterpiece of modern organ technology,” for it contains three renowned pipe organs in one: the Willis organ of Hereford Cathedral, the Cavaillé-Coll organ of Notre-Dame de Metz, and the Müller organ of St. Bavo. Rather than being approximate reproductions of these magnificent historical instruments, the Phoenix organ is loaded with digital samples, recordings of each note of each pipe from the original organs themselves (tens of thousands of individual sounds), which are arranged and manipulated by the digital processor within the organ. These sound samples are integrated into the organ’s mechanical console so that the performer can control individual pipes through the same methods that one finds on an authentic pipe organ.

And who better to play this new instrument’s inaugural recital than one of the finest organists in the country? On October 30, St. Timothy’s welcomed Matthew Larkin as he played a wide-ranging program intended to display the international capabilities of the organ. With works by Bach, the English composers Howells and Elgar, the French organists Franck, Vierne, and Duruflé, and the Ottawa-based Andrew Ager, Larkin’s virtuosity and musicianship were on display as much as the new instrument itself. Maurice Duruflé’s Prélude et Fugue ‘sur le nom d’Alain’ was particularly thrilling, as the opening prelude’s fast fingerwork and clearly-presented thematic material (Duruflé quotes Jehan Alain’s famous organ work Litanies) paired beautifully with the increasingly dramatic fugue, all of which was brought to life through the sounds of the Notre-Dame de Metz pipe organ.

William Boyce was a student of Handel in London, and his Voluntary in D Major was the vehicle for exploring the Willis tubas of Hereford Cathedral. An opening adagio played on flutes gave way to a Da capo-style trumpet tune, displaying the impact and breadth of sound present in the Willis’s high-pressure reed pipes. The one disappointment of the evening was that we were unable to hear the Müller organ of St. Bavo, in the Netherlands. This instrument, built in 1738, received complimentary reviews from none other than Handel, Mozart, and Mendelssohn, and the opportunity to hear Bach played on this historical organ sound set was enticing. Unfortunately, a computer error resulted in only a partial load of the data, so that we heard the modified mean-tone temperament of St. Bavo and the equal-tempered organ of Hereford simultaneously. This technical error (and its corresponding cacophony) could not be remedied despite numerous memory resets and reboots of the system, so Larkin continued with Bach on the Hereford organ sound bank. Although a different timbre and temperament than originally intended, the Bach was very well done, particularly the articulation and phrasings within the chorale trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns Wend.

Although the new digital organ at St. Timothy’s has some technical issues that still need to be resolved, it should soon be a worthwhile addition to the Toronto organ scene. And despite the curveballs thrown his way by the organ’s computer, Matthew Larkin demonstrated that he is indeed a master of his craft; his ability to create maximum impact through technical interpretation and instrumental manipulation is second to none, and he was able to adapt and give a performance that was convincing from beginning to end.

St. Timothy’s Anglican Church (North Toronto) presented organist Matthew Larkin in concert on October 30, 2018.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

Toronto Musical ConcertsThe score of Merrily We Roll Along is considered one of Stephen Sondheim's best – and yet when the show debuted on Broadway in 1981, it was a notorious flop, lasting for only 16 performances. There were probably several reasons why the show didn't work, but most importantly in the opinion of most critics and scholars was the decision of Sondheim and director Hal Prince to cast very young performers, performers too young to have the experience and skills to play characters who start in their 40s and finish in their early 20s. For Merrily (and the original play of the same name by earlier Broadway legends Moss Hart and George Kaufman, on which it is based) begins at the end of the story of three showbiz friends, disillusioned in their financial success, and goes back in time 20 years by stages to the moment when they started off in New York, idealistically full of hopes of dreams.

Revivals, from concerts to full productions, have usually reversed the original casting scheme,  casting instead older performers of the right age for the beginning of the show who are able to navigate the journey back to their youthful selves. Toronto Musical Concerts did the same in their concert staging at the Al Green Theatre on October 17, and it works. Even with the performers using scores on music stands with only limited staging and bits of choreography, the show comes alive. The brilliant witty book by George Furth (who had earlier collaborated with Sondheim on the hit Company), interwoven with Sondheim's music and lyrics, combines cynical comedy with trenchant social observation as well as the ins and outs of both romantic love and the love between great friends.

Michael De Rose as Franklin Shepard stood out with his strong rich voice and presence. Ryan Kelly was appealing as his writing partner Charley Kringas, with his comic timing and great ability to 'youthen' over the course of the play. Lizzie Kurtz as Mary Flynn, the third of the central trio, captures the warm but acerbic Dorothy-Parker-meets-Carrie-Fisher quality of the girl in the trio and her journey from alcoholic disillusionment spiced with unrequited love for Frank back to excited, unblemished hope and ambition.

The concert, an Equity collective, was a bit rough on the opening night with the sound not balanced until partway through, and performers not always certain how best to position themselves to be amplified by the microphones positioned in front and overhead. The petite Lana Carillo as Gussie, Franklin's Broadway star wife, was often particularly hard to hear. On the other hand, the energy and commitment of the company was unquestioned and by the second half all was coming together, with songs such as “Old Friends,” “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” and “Opening Doors” sounding particularly strong.

The wonderful 2016 documentary about the original production of Merrily We Roll Along—called Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened—left me hoping to see a new production of the full show in order to explore its full potential. This TMC concert confirm the quality of the book and score and that the backward story arc is not only intriguing but an effective storytelling technique. In doing so, it whets the appetite even more for a full production of this brilliant but rarely seen musical.

Toronto Musical Concerts presented Merrily We Roll Along in concert on October 17 and 18, at the Al Green Theatre, Toronto.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

In Real Life, performed by artists from the CMTP at Sheridan College.There is almost nothing more exciting for a lover of musicals than to be at the birth of a new show, and on the afternoon of Monday, October 15 at Toronto’s CAA Theatre, I was witness to the first public steps of not just one but four new musicals currently in development at the Canadian Musical Theatre Project (CMTP) at Sheridan College.

The October 15 performance was the third of three days of CMTP's Festival of New Musicals, a relatively recent event created to showcase not only new shows in development but also the phenomenally talented graduating students of Sheridan College's justly famed Musical Theatre Performance program.

The brainchild of producing artistic director Michael Rubinoff, the CMTP is an international incubator for the development of new musicals (launched in 2011) – and also a brilliant training ground for Sheridan's student performers, where they learn to engage with living composer/librettist teams on new works in the earliest stages of creation. The combined energy and dedication of all the artists involved was palpable in the theatre on the 15th, as was the interest and excitement of the audience.

For about three and a half hours we were treated to the (shortened) first acts of four completely different musicals, each unique in story, theme, musical style and directorial approach. Directorial approach? Yes – for one of the unexpected delights of the afternoon was the depth and quality of what we were seeing. While the performance had been advertised as a “staged reading,” it proved to be on the top end of that definition: each piece had been clearly rehearsed in depth and was given a polished, choreographed presentation, so that we were seeing both the material and the performers at their highest potential, even though the performers had their scores on music stands throughout.

Shared with us in order of what seemed to be readiness for production, the afternoon began with Erik With a K by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey, a lightweight, fun and spoofy review of the life of composer Erik Satie in bohemian, fin de siècle Paris, built around the theme of Life vs. Art.

Stars of Mars, a stand-up comedy meets The Martian meets sci-fi coming-of-age story, followed, with a book by popular comedian Ashley Botting and young composer Daniel Abrahamson. Brought together by Michael Rubinoff, their talents matched up to create a fast-paced, fun look at a potential first colony on Mars that the audience really enjoyed.

With the third piece, In Real Life by Nick Green and Kevin Wong, we moved into weightier material. Set in a dystopian future owing some inspiration to films such as The Matrix and Logan's Run, In Real Life centred around a young man, entrenched in a rigid computer-controlled study environment, who is shaken out of his routine with the news that his mother has died and left him a video message. The music and book worked seamlessly together to tell this engrossing story, and Ali Joy Richardson’s direction/staging tellingly contrasted the rigidity of the computerized study world with the freedom the hero finds in the dark web as he tries to unravel the meaning of his mother's message. 

Kelly V. Kelly, performed by artists from the CMTP at Sheridan College.Last on the program, Kelly V. Kelly, based on the true story of a mother in 1915 who had her daughter arrested for doing too much tango dancing, would seem on the surface to be an absurdist comedy but proved to be something else altogether: an engrossing mother/daughter battle with emotions swirling around the stage in the path of the tango dancers, yet not without its own share of comedy along with the drama and romance.

With a book by well-known actor Sara Farb and music and lyrics by the prolific Britta Johnson, Kelly V. Kelly is the third of three musicals by Johnson being developed as part of The Musical Stage Company's Crescendo Program (the first two were Life After and Dr. SIlver: A Celebration of Life). Beautifully staged by expert director Robert McQueen, this excerpt left me wanting to hear more.

All four shows are full of potential, as are the young performers who brought them to life. I look forward to seeing them all as they go out into the world and develop further – and for anyone who enjoys musicals, I highly recommend this festival as something to watch for in future seasons.

The Canadian Musical Theatre Project (CMTP), based at Sheridan College, presented its Festival of New Musicals from October 13 to 15, at the CAA Theatre, Toronto.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals. 

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