The NSO, Chorus Niagara, and soloists in performance on May 21. Photo credit: Robert Nowell.Sometimes, there is nothing better I can say about a performance than thank you. For the inspired interpretation, the energetic musicianship, the blended mustering of forces, and a musical alignment that allows a performance to be exceptional – thank you to the NSO, soloists, and Chorus Niagara.

On Sunday, May 21, the combined ensembles brought a deep satisfaction to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, providing an interpretation that was lively, proficient, and moving. Mahler’s 2nd is not the type of piece that a musician shows up to and taps away at; more often than not, it requires a depth of understanding and connection in order to journey. Mahler is unique in his ability to compositionally build and carefully deemphasize. The NSO showed itself very capable of providing this connection. Bradley Thachuk, conductor of the NSO, showed great control and expression in his work.

The first movement was disciplined and contained. It is also a big movement, with portions that rival the explosive final movement. It is easy for an ensemble to lose itself in the texture of Mahler and forget that there is much more to come. Thachuk’s tempi and spirited conducting kept the NSO moving briskly without stumbling. The last movement, in my opinion, is truly one of the most moving, devastating and triumphant pieces of music ever written. The NSO did not disappoint – in fact, they elevated this music with great soul. There are several solos and features throughout the entire work – too many to mention individually. They were all well-executed, from piccolo- and flute-bird singing, to the harp at the end of the Andante, to the clarinet Scherzo; to the trombone-and-tuba funeral dirge. There was much to like about this performance.

The vocal soloists provided masterful integration throughout the texture of the work while providing the necessary energy to drive the lines above the large orchestra and choir. Allyson McHardy’s mezzo-soprano was warm and inviting. She began the fourth movement with the gentle caress of her voice. Her interpretation of the fifth-movement text “Dein ist, ja dein” was strong and certain. The duet near the end of the fifth movement combined Allyson’s mezzo with soprano Lida Szkwarek. Szkwarek was light and her voice matched perfectly with the voices of Chorus Niagara, providing a delicate highlight instead of a glaring solo. Her measured control and emotional delivery were most delightful. When combined, the two soloists provided an exhilarating rush that drove into the choir with their final minutes of rising power.

My one reservation about this performance was the crash cymbals. In the 2nd, Mahler uses these to great effect at the start and end of his biggest moments. There are few sounds that evoke waves of crushing sound quite like crash cymbals. The standard cymbals in this performance could have easily been doubled for greater effect, allowing that extra bit of sonic disturbance to drive those quintessentially Mahleresque moments of devastating catastrophe.

Chorus Niagara was articulate and balanced. The choir provided a powerful accompaniment to the large orchestra, never feeling buried or missing. Their German was on point and very audible. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre is a wonderful venue that allowed the choir to excel. Bob Cooper, conductor of Chorus Niagara, is well-known and well-versed in choral music, and his preparation was very evident. Mahler’s 2nd is notoriously absent of vocal music until the mezzo-soprano solo in movement 4, and even in the choral movement, no. 5, there is no singing until about almost half way through – but the final ten minutes of the work are transcendent because of the choral writing. Chorus Niagara managed to start singing after all this time with great blend and intonation, providing an inviting sound. Not only adding to the thickness of the orchestrations and density of the sound, Mahler’s choral lines, sung aptly by Chorus Niagara, provided the music at this moment with a visceral human quality.

At the end of this work, with its driving force of choral and orchestral power, I could not help but feel changed by the experience. The NSO is a gem to enjoy and continue to watch. As they head to their 70th anniversary season, I’ll be sure to trek out to FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre again soon. I think you should too.

The Niagara Symphony Orchestra presented Arise!, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, “Resurrection,” with Alyson McHardy (mezzo-soprano), Lida Szkwarek (soprano), Chorus Niagara and guest choristers (with conductor Robert Cooper), on Sunday, May 21, 2017, 2:30pm at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

 

The Toronto Consort, in rehearsal for Helen of Troy. Photo c/o the Toronto Consort.Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, were moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

 

 

Stephen Schwartz.What an inspiring evening! I have always loved musical theatre, so to have the opportunity to meet and spend 100 minutes listening live to one of today’s musical theatre greats was an opportunity not to be missed. Presented by the Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective (CMTWC) in association with ASCAP on Sunday night at Mirvish’s Panasonic Theatre, multi-award winning composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz sat onstage in conversation with Michael Kerker of ASCAP in a casual but structured talk about his career highlights (and funny moments), interspersed with illustrating performances by some of Canada’s top musical theatre talent, including Cynthia Dale (Meadowlark from The Baker’s Wife), Charlotte Moore (Children of Eden from Children of Eden) Erica Peck and Danielle Wade (For Good duet from Wicked), Chilina Kennedy (Day by Day from Godspell), a choir made up of Sheridan College students, and a breathtaking performance of Corner of the Sky from Pippin by emerging star Jahlen Barnes, all under the musical direction of Joseph Tritt.

Schwartz at the piano.Perhaps the most enchanting part of the event was the master himself at the piano, whether starting the evening off with the bilingual Chanson from The Baker’s Wife (which seguéd into a discussion of how you properly start a musical), treating us to a mash-up combination of Colours of the Wind (Pocahontas) and When You Believe (Prince of Egypt), or – one of my favourite things all evening – a mini masterclass on how to write an “I want” song using Jule Styne’s I’m the Greatest Star from Funny Girl as a starting point and then taking us through the creation and development of Elphaba’s The Wizard and Me from Wicked.

For a hugely successful, award-winning composer/lyricist, Stephen Schwartz was disarmingly charming, self-deprecating, and funny. It also became clear that he's a good teacher of what he does. In fact, he had spent the previous Saturday teaching a masterclass for the CMTWC as part of the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop, where two Canadian musical theatre writing teams presented 50 minutes of their new works and received feedback from a panel of Broadway experts: Schwartz, Joe DiPietro (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, Elf) and Michael Kerker, the Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP.

A performance from the evening.The Sunday evening performance I witnessed felt like both a culmination and synopsis of this workshop process, as we were treated to stories from Schwartz’s career, from his early creations of Godspell and Pippin, to his collaboration with composer Alan Menken at Disney on such hits as Pocahontas and Enchanted, to his more recent musical Wicked. The evening culminated with a showstopping performance of Day by Day from Godspell by Chilina Kennedy with Schwartz on piano and the Sheridan College choir as backup. An encore from his newest creation in Denmark, a new musical about the life of Hans Christian Andersen, sent me off into the night delighted and inspired.

“An Evening with Stephen Schwartz” took place at the Panasonic Theatre on Sunday, May 7 at 7:30pm.

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.

 

 Tafelmusik MusicDirectorDesignate Elisa Citterio 01 HighRes Credit Monica Cordiviola BANNERTafelmusik music director designate Elisa Citterio. Photo credit: Monica Cordiviola.Audiences in Toronto expect that a Tafelmusik performance will be pleasing, well-executed, and committed to artistry. Their performances of Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, at Koerner Hall May 4 to 7, were no exception.

We saw the two creative heads of the organization at play, with Elisa Citterio (artistic director designate) leading from the principal seat in Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 and then choral conductor Ivars Taurins leading, with Citterio as concertmaster, for the Mozart Mass in C Minor. As Toronto audiences get to know Citterio, we’ll have to see how she balances the rigours of historical performance with opportunities for creative licence in her work with the orchestra. These concerts provided a good chance for Tafelmusik’s devoted audiences to get some early clues about Citterio’s future tactics with the ensemble.

The Haydn opened the concert with a fast-paced, precise, fluffy jaunt. As the master of the symphony, Haydn provides work that is both playful and orderly. The first movement, Adagio – Allegro, showed a disciplined yet not emotionless interpretation. The syncopation amongst the high strings helped shape much of this sound. (In the pre-concert chat, Citterio noted that this was a new piece for both her and the orchestra, thereby providing a level playing field for Tafelmusik to align under their new leader.)

The orchestra is a great size for Haydn. During the performance of the symphony, Citterio, who was mostly aligned to face the orchestra, gave the audience two knowing glances. Near the beginning of the second movement, the Adagio, she gave us a look that I read as a playful “Enjoyable? Yes!” The cadence with double pizzicato at the end of this movement revealed the precision and structure of the orchestra. In the fourth movement, the Presto, we got a second look from Citterio, which felt like “Here we go!” driving the energy straight to the end. An awkward page turn in this movement was the only odd event that stood out of a pleasing performance.

The precision of Citterio’s Haydn in the first half initially left me confused at Taurin’s comparatively heavy-sounding interpretation of the Mass in C Minor. Mozart, known for his lovely, light, vocal runs, flows best in my opinion when not encumbered by heaviness. That isn’t to say that heaviness isn’t needed at times in the effect of the piece. The heavy interpretation was well suited to the “Qui Tollis”: this stirring, flowing liquid gold poured out of the choirlike a cone of sound shaped around the gorgeously luscious alto section.

In the more agile runs of the “Quoniam” and “Jesu Christe,” and “Cum Sancto,” the vocal lines were audible but, for me, diminished by the thickness of the orchestrations and the sustained playing in the orchestra. The sustains in these parts, whether in instrument, choir, or soloists, held over, covering much of the intricate work happening underneath; work, in my opinion, that is more interesting than the long notes. The sopranos of the choir, often leading fugues throughout the piece, were delightfully focused and pleasing throughout the work.

There was a shift after the tuning prior to the Credo. The sound was distinctly lighter and brighter. Soprano Julia Doyle, on the “Et Incarnatus Est” was exquisite. Taurins shaped and supported the soloist with a remarkable woodwind accompaniment. The remainder of the concert was a pleasing middle ground of the bright and light with the heavier sound as with the contrast between the two directors and the two composers, it was an exciting balance.

Tafelmusik continues to provide incredibly high-quality music for audiences the world over. With Citterio at the helm from September,  we have much to look forward to, including that grandest of choral works, the Bach Mass in B Minor.

Follow Brian on Twitter @bfchang Send info/media/tips to choralscene@thewholenote.com.

 

 

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