The St. Lawrence String Quartet at the 2017 TSM opening concert. Photo credit: James Ireland.Toronto Summer Music (TSM) began its second decade with an electrifying performance at Koerner Hall by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on July 13. It was the first time in its storied history that the quartet had performed in that fine acoustic space and they made the most of it, seemingly expanding their audience to many who had never heard them at their usual venue, the Jane Mallett Theatre. The appreciative whoops that accompanied the standing ovation that followed R. Murray Schafer's String Quartet No.3 just before intermission and the fervid applause that greeted the conclusion of Beethoven's String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp Minor, Op.131 were an appropriate response to the SLSQ's passionate music-making.

First violinist Geoff Nuttall refrained from introducing the evening's opening work – Haydn's String Quartet No.25 in C Major, Op.20, No.2 – in favour of saluting Schafer (who was in the house) as the great living composer he is. Nuttall encouraged the audience to sing along while leading the SLSQ in Happy Birthday in honour of Schafer's 84th birthday, which falls on July 18. The quartet is currently in the midst of recording the set of six Op.20 Haydn quartets for a free online release later this year. Their affection and familiarity with the opening work was evident from the clarity they brought to the humorous development of the first movement (almost cartoonish at times) in the context of an otherwise serious statement made by the wisp of a main theme. The sombre Adagio of the Capriccio was built on a strong foundation and featured a striking tuneful solo by Nuttall. The Minuet had a fine lightness and a fleeting hint of modernity while the concluding fugue was enlivened by the SLSQ's superb ensemble playing.

The SLSQ playing the second movement of R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No.3. Photo credit: James Ireland.The Schafer began with an impassioned cello solo, with cellist Christopher Costanza alone on stage. Soon he was joined by the offstage viola echo of Lesley Robertson. Nuttall appeared left rear followed by second violinist Owen Dalby on the right. The musical disconnection was finally resolved when Dalby was reunited with his fellow quartet members who had by then retaken their customary positions in readiness for the vocalisms that defined the Allegro energico second movement, sounds that wouldn't be out of place in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. The third movement, hinting of Bartók, with butterfly trills and meditative chants, ended with Nuttall’s sublime mystical solo violin exiting stage right.

Beethoven's Op.131‘s simple four-note opening phrase was soon transformed capriciously by overlapping tunes which are generously melodic. Fragments of lyricism constantly evolved, building on a series of temporal plinths as the breathtaking midpoint of the fourth movement was announced with understated ecstasy. From there the piece took a frenetic turn, before the brief warm respite of the sixth movement gave way to the finale, where, consumed by its own rhythmic force, it showcased its beauty unabashedly.

Nuttall announced the encore: “1771. Haydn Op.20, No.1. Affettuoso e sostenuto.” This glorious (and gloriously played) slow movement written during the first year of Beethoven's life brought the evening to a satisfying, and cyclic, conclusion.

The SLSQ's program harkened back to their 1992 win in the Banff International String Quartet Competition. In an inspired pairing, TSM will present the 2016 winners of the competition, the Rolston String Quartet, in their Toronto debut, on July 24 at Walter Hall. I look forward to hearing the music that brought them their victory.

The Toronto Summer Music Festival opened on July 13, and runs until August 5.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Part 2 of a 2-part series, where WholeNote writer Karen Ages attends Ottawa’s Music & Beyond – and gains new perspective on a familiar city.

The Diefenbunker entry tunnel. Photo by the author.July 8: It's Saturday late afternoon and I'm meeting a friend to drive out to the Diefenbunker in Carp, about a half-hour west of Ottawa. We arrive early for an event, hosted by Ottawa’s Music & Beyond festival, titled “Beyond the Bomb: Music of the Cold War.” There's a community brass band assembled on the helicopter landing pad nearby, providing a nice diversion while we await admittance.

It's my first time here and I'm not sure what to expect. A nondescript, shack-like structure juts out from the side of a grassy hill, making it anyone's guess what lies beyond. When we finally enter, I'm amazed by the extent and complexity of the whole thing. I'd heard of the Diefenbunker, and imagined it might consist of a couple of rooms below ground, providing food and shelter for the Prime Minister and his family in the event of nuclear war. I had no idea that it was in fact designed to house the federal government and certain military personnel in case of such an attack. Built between 1959-1961, the Diefenbunker is a multi-level complex of many rooms complete with everything needed to communicate with the outside world (it was in use for over 30 years, then decommissioned and cleared of its contents in the mid-90s – so the furnishings of today's museum had to be re-acquired).

We enter through a long tunnel and are greeted by the sounds of Victor Herbiet's saxophone. Beyond are various rooms, where musicians give mini-concerts as audience members wander in and out of their midst. Theremin virtuoso Thorwald Jørgensen and pianist Valerie Dueck occupy one room, playing Rachmaninoff's Vocalise when I enter. Percussionist Zac Pulak and his xylophone are set up in the Federal Warning Centre, a room complete with rows of old rotary phones labeled “civil defence” or “nuclear defence.” Guitarist Roddy Ellias plays works by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, in the War Cabinet Room. A room simply called Requiem serves as a memorial to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; here harpist Caroline Léonardelli and flutist Pascale Margely play traditional Japanese music. Bassoonist Ben Glossop occupies the CBC Emergency Broadcasting Studio playing excerpts of Shostakovich with the aid of a reverb machine. Pianist Christopher Kornienko is taking requests in the Morgue (not sure exactly what this room's intended use was, but that's what it's called), and has the audience spellbound by his rendition of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. And way underground (I'm now donning my sweater) in the cavernous Bank of Canada Vault which was built to shelter our gold reserves, cellist and festival artistic director Julian Armour, with pianist Frédéric Lacroix, play works by Robert Fleming and a Japanese folk song arranged by Gabor Finta. There's free food, drink and a jazz trio playing in the cafeteria. Obviously not all of the music is from the Cold War period, but it's a unique experience all the same. We are greeted by a full moon as we exit the bunker on this fine summer evening.

Quartetto Gelato's accordionist Alexander Sevastian.July 9: Quartetto Gelato, Canada's classical quartet whose repertoire spans opera to tango and beyond, draws a full house at St. Matthew's Anglican Church in the Glebe area of Ottawa. Founded 25 years ago by violinist and tenor Peter De Sotto, this ensemble blends virtuoso playing with its own brand of presentation and humour, and has been wowing audiences worldwide. There are too many works on the program to list, all arranged for the ensemble, highlighting the spectacular talents of each member. Four-time world champion Alexander Sevastian plays a “bayan” style accordion, and his fingers fly effortlessly across the 227 buttons. My favourite bit of the concert is a piece called Pipes, a traditional bagpipe tune arranged by the group's oboist, Colin Maier. The feat that we witness in this piece is Colin's ability to circular breathe. He plays the entire tune, which uncannily imitates the melismatic sounds of a bagpipe, in what seems to be one breath, without once taking the oboe reed out of his mouth! Everything on the program is played from memory (which is a feat in itself), and cellist Greg Gallagher, who is relatively new to the group, does a fine job too.

July 10: By contrast, on July 10, another quartet, Constantinople, gives an early evening concert in the beautiful sun-lit atrium of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, situated on Sussex Drive beside the Saudi Arabian embassy, across from the Ottawa River. The building serves as a de facto embassy for the Aga Khan. Opening remarks are delivered by Amirali Alibhai, head of performing arts at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum, whose mission is “to build bridges between cultures through the arts”. The concert, titled “Itinerant Gardens,” is described as “a poetic encounter between strings and voice, from the epics of the Mandingo Kingdom to the music of the Persian court.” The ensemble itself represents a meeting of cultures: there's a seven-stringed viola da gamba, a 21-stringed Kora (African harp) played by Ablaye Cissoko of Senegal, a four-stringed long-necked Persian setar played by Kiya Tabassian, and various gentle-sounding percussion instruments. The music in this concert is meditative, sublime, and beautiful in an understated way, all arranged by Tabassian and Cissoko, who also provide vocals.

There's time for a quick bite before I head over to First Baptist Church for the 7:30 concert. The aforementioned theremin virtuoso Thorwald Jørgensen is again joined by pianist Valerie Dueck, for a full-length program that also includes violinist Marc Djokic and percussionist Zac Pulak. The theremin has incredible range, at times sounding eerily similar to a double bass or cello, a violin or even a human voice. Jørgensen started out as a percussionist, but desiring to play an expressive instrument and inspired by the recordings of Clara Rockmore, switched to theremin. The five pieces on the first half were all written for theremin, and include Distant Shores, by Jørgensen himself; employing voice and a loop pedal that captures and repeats live sounds, the piece evokes the ebb of waves on a shoreline, complete with seagulls. Re-turning, by Daniel Mehdizadeh (who is in the audience), is an enchanting work for theremin, marimba and vibraphone. The second half of the concert features works not composed originally for theremin but that are well suited to it, such as Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte and Pièce en forme de Habanera, Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras No.5 and of course, the Rachmaninoff Vocalise. The most impressive however is Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee -  Jørgensen's remarkable hand dexterity makes this the most convincing and bee-sounding version of this piece that I've heard!

July 11: It's noon and I'm again at First Baptist for part three of the “150 Years of Music in Canada” series. Elaine Keillor is back with four piano works by composers born in the 1800s; the first is by George W. Strath, who claims to have studied with Mendelssohn, and was the first to obtain a PhD in music from U of T's Trinity College. This is followed by a work by Charles A. E. Harris of Ottawa. Next are two pieces that evoke the marching band: Cave of the Winds by R. Nathaniel Dett, who was born in Ontario but spent most of his professional life in the US and was the first African American to earn an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College; and Imperial Native March by Job Nelson, an Indigenous composer of the Nisga'a Nation. Following are works for strings alone or with piano. The only living composer on the program is present – Jan Järvlepp explains that In Memoriam was composed in the palliative care unit of a Mississauga hospital where his brother lay dying. This moving string quintet is performed by Marc Djokic and Jasper Wood, two of Canada's best violinists, violist David Marks, cellist Julian Armour and bassist Paul Mach. Another moving work, performed by Wood and pianist Frédéric Lacroix, A Child's Cry from Izieu by Oskar Morawetz (1917-2007), was inspired by the transport of children from the French town of Izieu to Auschwitz (for more details see This is followed by lighter fare – Morawetz's arrangement of Dvořák’s Humoresque and works by Healey Willan and Sir Ernest MacMillan.

Thorwald Jørgensen plays theremin in the National Gallery. Photo by the author.In the evening, I attend the National Gallery Soirée. The National Gallery of Canada, one of our country's finest art galleries, becomes a literal playground for musicians of all sorts – as the audience wanders the gallery, we encounter not only the artwork on the walls but music that is contemporary or thematically related to it. A flutist is costumed identically to the one in a painting in front of which he performs. A harpist (one of three this evening) plays French music near paintings by Monet and others. Jørgensen and his theremin are stationed in a room of 20th-century art. There are also Baroque dancers, Inuit throat singers, two choirs, an Indigenous singer/drummer...and so on. The highlight for me is hearing the glorious Capital Chamber Choir perform in a large room with a high ceiling – the sound is truly astonishing. In the Great Hall, a jazz trio performs as festivalgoers sip wine.

July 12: It's my last day in Ottawa before heading back to Toronto and part of me feels I should attend to other business rather than hear more concerts, but I'm overcome by a sense of FOMS (Fear Of Missing Something), so hop on my bike and head downtown. Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal is at Church of St. Barnabas. This early music vocal ensemble consists of three women, two men and a lute player. They present a concert titled “Of Love, Drinking and Revelry”, madrigals and chansons of the Renaissance. Part One consists of love songs by Monteverdi, Banchieri and Luis de Narvaez. Part Two features drinking songs – there's one attributed to Henry VIII, another by Banchieri in which the singers imitate various animals, with cuckooing, meowing and barking – as well as songs by Lassus and Pierre Attaingnant. Part Three features contemplative songs by Arcadelt, Gibbons, Hassler and Dowland. Part Four is titled “Folies” and features a work by Gesualdo and Part Five presents songs of hope by Dowland and Sermisy. I am struck by the smooth velvety blend of the voices, the impeccable intonation and expressiveness of this wonderful ensemble. The church acoustics are a perfect fit too.

The Bennewitz Quartet. Photo credit: Kamil Ghais.Lunch, then I head over to Dominion Chalmers to hear the Bennewitz Quartet, a string quartet from the Czech Republic. “Lost in the Holocaust” is the first of three concerts they'll be giving at the festival and it's their first time ever performing in Canada – and hopefully not their last! My earlier sense of FOMS was warranted – these guys are magnificent players, both individually and as an ensemble. The program features works by three composers, all born in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who perished in Nazi death camps: Viktor Ullmann's String Quartet No.3 Op 46; Erwin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet, described by the second violinist  as a Dadaist work; and the String Quartet No.2 Op 7 by Pavel Haas, a complex programmatic work with descriptive movement titles. The quartet is joined by percussionist Zac Pulak in the final movement. All of the works have profound beauty and are masterfully crafted. It's sad to think of what these composers might have achieved later – Ullmann and Haas were in their mid-forties when they died, Schulhoff in his fifties. The Bennewitz formed in 1998 and consist of Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violins, Jiří Pinkas, viola, and Štěpán Doležal, cello.

For what will be my last concert of the festival, I head back to Church of St. Barnabas in the evening to hear a harpsichord recital by Mélisande McNabney. There's a small but very enthusiastic audience for this concert of 17th- and early-18th-century French repertoire, mostly inspired by other instruments and transcribed for harpsichord by the composers or McNabney herself. I'm blown away by not only the technical mastery of her playing, but by the remarkable expressivity with which she realizes the works – the harpsichord is limited in that there's no sustain pedal and no variation in volume, but this doesn't matter in the hands of this very accomplished and sensitive musician. The program consists of works by D'Anglebert, Rameau and Forqueray. After the concert, McNabney gives an informal “show and tell” of the instrument for the curious.

The festival continues until July 17, including a recital by mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta on July 14 and a not-to-miss performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on July 16 . For more information on what's coming up, and other concerts I've missed, visit

Born in Ottawa, Karen Ages is an oboist and music writer based in Toronto. She can be reached at


Members of the Silk Road Ensemble at the Aga Khan Museum on June 29, 2017.In my September 2015 WholeNote article on the Silk Road Ensemble, I explored the historic idea of the trade routes “collectively referred to as the Silk Road, an interconnected web of maritime and overland pathways, [which] have for centuries served as sites for cultural, economic, educational, religious – and purely musical – exchanges.” Such ‘silk roads’ encouraged the exchange and development of ever-evolving cultural hybridities, which in turn have shaped the complexion of today’s transnational musical world. Revisiting that notion at the close of the 20th century, the Grammy award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma proposed Silkroad as the name of his new non-profit organisation. Inspired by his global curiosity and eagerness to forge musical connections across cultures, disciplines and generations, that project has since grown several branches.

The first of its projects has proved to be the very successful performing and recording group Silk Road Ensemble (SRE). Under the artistic direction of Ma, the group seeks to “connect the world through the arts,” presenting musical performances and educational programs, and fostering radical cultural collaboration around the world. Its mission? To represent “a global array of cultures…creating new forms of cultural exchange.”

No strangers to north Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum – especially since the museum’s intercultural mandate neatly dovetails with SRE’s – eight of the ensemble’s members returned to the space last month for a multi-day residency (though without Yo-Yo Ma himself). Embracing the spirit of inclusion, their stay included a community workshop/jam on June 27 with close to two dozen Toronto world musicians. SRE wrapped up its residency with a well-attended public concert on June 29, in the museum’s domed 340-seat auditorium. The show was divided into two distinct sections, both of which featured Kayhan Kalhor, the group’s renowned Grammy award-nominated kamancheh (Persian bowed lute) soloist and composer.

 Kayhan Kalhor (left) and Sandeep Das.The first half was titled Jugalbani, the common North Indian classical music term for duet, in which tabla virtuoso Sandeep Das joined Kalhor in a long, seamless improvisation. Kalhor was at his intense best, exploring elements of Persian classical music yet fluidly incorporating Kurdish folk melodies, a fusion he is known for. I was impressed by his extensive use of not only advanced bowing but also plucking, tapping and syncopated strumming techniques on the kamancheh, extending its expressive capabilities toward those regularly employed by Hindustani instrumentalists. Joining his playing effortlessly with Das’s, it became clear during the course of the performance how their duo was “like a meeting of two lost cousins,” as Das reflected in an earlier interview. Their duet in turn evoked sombre, peaceful, competitive, playful and joyous moods.

For the second half of the concert, a stripped-down SRE was represented by a string quartet, string bass and percussionist, in addition to kamancheh soloist Kalhor. The first of two extended compositions was American composer Colin Jacobsen's Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged. Inspired by both Azeri mugham melodies and the 14th-century Italian laude genre, it received a vigorous rendering here, led by more brilliant playing from Kalhor.

Kalhor wrote his own composition, Silent City, to commemorate the destruction of the village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan by Iraqi armed forces in 1988. The composer noted, “I chose to base the piece on an altered A-minor scale, using Kurdish themes to remember the Kurdish people.” Beginning as an improvised lament, the work ends in a triumphant Kurdish dance in 7/8, framed in a satisfying complex harmonic setting.

The SRE workshop and final concert suitably complemented AKM’s current exhibition: Syrian Symphony: New Compositions in Sight and Sound, which runs until August 13 and for which SRE is an associate and creative partner.

I visited Syrian Symphony in anticipation of the SRE concert. In it, leading Syrian artists and musicians collectively explore themes of conflict, the struggle to protect the region’s cultural heritage, displacement and the determination to rebuild via large-scale painting, media arts and recorded music.

As well as experiencing emotionally moving images and music, visitors are further invited to interact with the exhibit. They can add selfies to those taken by newly arrived Syrians in Canada, and can place “icon discs” onto frames mounted on the gallery wall. These simple yet effective actions allow visitors to form personal connections to the current Syrian situation, and to the people caught up in its tragedy.

Members of the Silk Road Ensemble performed in concert at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, on Thursday, June 29 at 8pm. For more information about the Aga Khan Museum’s programming and current exhibition, visit

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at


Coming back to Canada last month after two and a half weeks in Versailles, Paris, and London gave me rather severe culture shock for a while, but there were shows I knew I wanted to see before they closed in order to catch up with the Toronto music theatre scene – particularly because all three took a new look at classics for the stage.

Onegin by Veda Hille and Amiel Gladstone, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs, June 4

Daren A. Herbert and Hailey Gillis in Onegin. Photo credit: Matt Barnes.Onegin began life as an epic poem by radical Russian writer Alexander Pushkin that, first published in serial form between 1825 and 1832, became a hit with the reading public. It also foreshadowed Pushkin’s own death, with the famous duel between the title character and his best friend Vladimir Lensky. In 1870, Tchaikovsky was asked to turn Onegin into an opera, which also became a huge success (and is still a reliable hit today). Tchaikovsky was also affected personally by the story: apparently not wanting to make the same mistake as Onegin, he divorced his wife and then married a young student who had written him a passionate love letter – another of the anchoring events of the original. So, from the beginning, Pushkin’s tale had a profound effect on all those who came in contact with it.

At the start of the musical, presented by the Musical Stage Company at the Berkeley Street Theatre last month, all this history is mashed up into the opening numbers, performed by the cast as if they are a group of strolling players in a cafe inviting us, the audience, in to drink and take part in a rollicking romantic Russian tale – with audience participation. One character even tells us: “yes, it’s that kind of show.”

The first named character we meet is Lensky, a young poet who introduces us to the rest of the characters – finishing with his best friend Evgeny Onegin. It felt unusual to have Lensky so front-and-centre, yet Josh Epstein is so strong in the role that he rules the stage, bringing great energy to the scene. Onegin himself is described as a rake and a loner and yet very attractive; award-winning performer Daren A. Herbert inhabits the role with insouciant style, seemingly channeling Will Smith with a dash of Rex Harrington. The tongue-in-cheek travelling montage is hilarious and sets him up perfectly as the hero to be caught – and to be wary of.

When female lead Tatyana, played by Hailey Gillis, meets him, she falls in love immediately – and Gillis is so transparent in her emotions that she takes us with her every step of the way. In all versions of the story Tatyana’s ‘letter writing scene’, where she decides that in spite of all common sense she is going to write to Onegin to tell him that she loves him, is central. In the musical it becomes the heart of the story, in the form of Tatyana’s brilliantly performed, six-minute song “Let me die.” Gladstone and Hille’s stated goal of creating a song that “could be sung by a teenager today” was met completely, Tatyana even picking up and playing a guitar part way through, as any modern teenager in the throes of first love might do.

The tragedy begins with Onegin turning down Tatyana, telling her that “marriage is not for him, although if it were, she would be the one he would choose.” It gets worse when, out of pique, he flirts with her sister Olga, the fiancée of his best friend Lensky, leading in turn to Lensky challenging Onegin to a fatal duel.

Up to this point I was completely captivated by the story and performance and expected to have my heart thoroughly broken in the second half. Somehow, however, the final quarter of the show, where Onegin meets Tatyana again, did not have the effect on me that I expected. Looking back I think it may have been a result of the direction of the title character – or perhaps, missing material. In the ballet version of the story, Onegin has powerful melancholic solos that make achingly clear his sorrow and emptiness after Lensky’s death. While the musical gives Onegin moments to express this, there wasn’t ever a full song where we were given a personal connection with his pain.

What does almost work is the reprise and turnabout of “Let me die,” now sung by Onegin as he writes to Tatyana helplessly declaring his love for her while she, now married to another man, agonizingly turns him down. Gillis does a lovely job of showing us a Tatyana who has matured into an elegant woman with beauty and poise, who almost gives way to her reawakened love for Onegin – but again, there was something missing in the balance of the scene so that it felt more her story than his and not an equal tragedy.

Those caveats aside, this is a wonderfully energetic, young indie-rock version of Onegin that deserves a longer life. I left feeling a bit unsatisfied but still impressed and affected strongly enough by the show as a whole to buy the cast album on my way out. It will be interesting to see how this Onegin fares as it goes out in the world to other theatres, beginning with this production’s next stop at the 900-seat theatre of the National Arts Centre. It needs some tweaking in my opinion, but with that it should have a long life as the latest theatrical version of a beloved tragic story.

Porgy and Bess In Concert at Soulpepper, June 2

Troy Adams, Neema Bickersteth, Thom Allison, Jackie Richardson, Walter Borden and Alana Bridgewater, in Porgy and Bess In Concert. Photo credit: Daniel Malavasi.Also on my “must-see” list was Porgy and Bess in Concert, presented by Soulpepper for a very short run in the Baille Theatre. This was a very different case of a classic revisited: not a new version of a classic, but rather a new showcase for parts of it.

Again a tragic tale of love found and then lost, the glory of Porgy and Bess is the Gershwin score. Who has not heard some version of the lullaby “Summertime,” the biggest break-out hit song? Other songs are equally ensconced in the musical theatre canon: “I Loves You, Porgy”, “Bess, You Is My Woman, Now”, “There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and more.

From the beginning, Porgy and Bess  has proven to be – as director  Mumbi Tindyebwa writes in his program notes – “a lightning rod for conversations around race and representation in the arts, questions that are very much alive in our artistic community today.” Gershwin famously insisted on having a fully African-American cast for his 1935 Broadway premiere, refusing to allow any company to perform it in “blackface”. There has also been some discomfort with the story itself being seen as a stereotypical depiction of African-American life. Both issues were addressed in the format of this production. Although advertised as Porgy and Bess in Concert, it was actually at once both less and more than that. It was not the full musical presented in concert format, but rather a selection of the main numbers along with other songs popular at the time of the show’s writing. Narrated by Walter Borden (from a script written by Richard Ouzounian), the framework provided interesting information on the original inspiration for the material, as well as its development from folk songs, to the novel and play by Dubose Heyward, to the musical/opera by George and Ira Gershwin.

Performing the songs in a tight jazz/blues quartet were some of Toronto’s top jazz, blues and gospel performers: Troy Adams, Thom Allison, Neema Bickersteth, Alana Bridgewater, and Jackie Richardson. While the singers were all strong, I wish they had not relied so heavily on microphones instead of letting their voices soar in the great ballads and duets of what is essentially, and was originally meant to be, an opera.

It was an informative and enjoyable evening, though not exactly what I had been expecting. Perhaps the title should have been something more along the lines of “Exploring Porgy and Bess in Concert.” There is a growing appetite across North America, if not also further afield, for concerts that incorporate a scripted framework with some staging and visual elements. One need only look at the success of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series, which explores the inspiration behind various symphonic works, or closer to home, Alison Mackay’s scripted shows created for Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort. The “in concert format” is also an inexpensive way to keep older and more obscure musicals in the public eye and happily, Soulpepper has promised more concerts in this style in upcoming seasons.

A Streetcar Named Desire, John Neumeier. National Ballet of Canada, June 19 at the Four Seasons Centre

Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté in A Streetcar Named Desire. Photo credit: Karolina Kuras.Of the three “classics revisited” last month, this was the most recent classic, though a revisiting from the 1980s, and also – to me – the least successful of the three. Iconic American playwright Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire is a revered classic of the American Theatre, and though less universal than the other two, equally a tragic tale of love and lives lost,  known so well from its great impact and success on both stage and film. Who doesn’t know the famous quote of Marlon Brando agonizingly yelling “Stella!”?

There have been a number of ballet versions of the play, but this seems to be the only one that is not a straightforward retelling and instead a comment upon, or reaction to, the original material, as choreographer John Neumeier has said himself in interviews. His primary departure from the original play is to create an entirely new first act, where Blanche, from a bare iron bed in a sanitarium, revisits her past. In a sequence that feels much too long and vague we are shown the beginning of the tragic downturn of her life on the discovery that her husband is in love with another man, followed by his suicide and the decline and fall of her family. It’s an interesting idea but not totally successful, and not helped by the presence of three men in and on and around the bed with Blanche, clearly not part of the wedding or family scene but not clearly belonging anywhere else except, perhaps, in her mind, which ultimately is what we are supposed to realize. Accompanying this act are sparse recorded solo piano pieces by Prokofiev,   simple and enigmatic.

In the second act of the ballet, Neumeier returns to the well-known plot of the play, with Blanche visiting her sister Stella, now married to Stanley Kowalski, in New Orleans. The music choice here was completely apt, switching from the more romantic Prokofiev to the jarring and jazzy music of Alfred Schnittke, which the choreographer has said he found perfect for his purposes. Here we see Blanche trying to orient herself to the very different, rougher, modern, working-class style of life that she finds there.

Less dreamy than the first act, the action is faster but still lingers a bit too long in various parts: the boxing scene with Stanley and Mitch for example, and particularly the uncomfortably long and explicit yet stylized rape sequence. These scenes also felt dated for me, and would probably be choreographed quite differently today, even if by the same choreographer. The most effective scene I found was the heartbreaking pas de deux sequence between Blanche and Mitch that begins with a shy presentation of roses, grows to an increasingly romantic sharing of possibility, and then degenerates – after the interruption by Stanley “telling” Mitch of Blanche’s past – into Mitch leaving Blanche broken and in despair. Piotr Stanczyk was in good form as a strident and masculine Stanley, Svetlana Lunkina was delicate and fragile as Blanche, but the standout performance for me was Donald Thom as Mitch, elevating this secondary part into a new revelation of character and story – a striking example of how, in all three of these shows, a classic narrative can be reimagined and redefined with each new production and performance.

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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