Cellist Elinor Frey.The Toronto Music Garden has presented Summer Music in the Garden, a series of free open air concerts throughout the summer, since 2001. On Sunday, July 23, Montreal-based cellist Elinor Frey, an artist who has appeared several times in the series, returned with her duo partner, the Italian harpsichordist Lorenzo Ghielmi. They brought a program of German music from the mid-eighteenth century, most of it appearing on their recent CD titled The Berlin Sonatas on the Belgian Passacaille label.

The program was beautifully presented, in spite of the constant threat of rain and a persistent breeze. The conditions did not prevent a large crowd from gathering in the Music Garden, and the event staff skillfully added just enough amplification to make all the music and the artists' commentaries entirely clear. Frey played her five-string Baroque cello, an instrument that adds an E-string above the usual top A-string. Such cellos were common in seventeenth and eighteenth century European court orchestras, and were particularly suited for virtuoso playing in high registers. Frey demonstrated this with her own instrument by playing two solo violin pieces by Franz Benda, a composer who spent 63 years in the service of Frederick II “the Great” of Prussia. Benda's Progressive Exercise no.25 and his Caprice no.16 were both elaborate, extroverted showpieces that transferred beautifully to the five-string cello.

The Toronto Music Garden.Frey and Ghielmi collaborated in three sonatas, by Carl Friedrich Abel (1723–1787), Carl Heinrich Graun (1704–1759), and Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732–1795) – all examples of the so-called “language of sensibility” (Empfindsamkeit) from this time period. At the concert, Frey described this stylistic approach as “an expression of sadness, anger, wrath, joy, love, and praise.” The style, she said, calls for “various changes in dynamic, both abrupt and subtle, at the service of beautiful melodies and expressive fantasy.” The many interpretive shadings found in all these sonatas, as displayed by Frey and Ghielmi, yielded a delightful range of expressive music. The two artists were an ideal duo, both showing their individuality within a perfectly balanced sense of ensemble. The program was rounded out with Ghielmi's subtly nuanced harpsichord solo, the Fantasia in A minor BWV922 by J.S. Bach. This was Summer Music in the Garden at its finest!

In the coming weeks, Summer Music in the Garden will offer a great variety of diverse musical performances, including Fiddling in the 21st Century, Eh?!, with traditional fiddlers Anne Lederman, Emily Stam and James Stephens (August 10); Fire and Grace, with violinist Edwin Huizinga and guitarist William Coulter (August 24); and the season finale, the Ton Beau String Quartet (September 17). See the details for these and many other excellent performances in our listings, or at: http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/summermusic/performances/.

Summer Music in the Garden runs until September 17 in the Toronto Music Garden.

David Jaeger is a composer, producer and broadcaster based in Toronto.

 

Angela Hewitt at the Westben Barn. Photo credit: Stephen Dagg.Rashaan Allwood in performance on July 21. Photo by the author.Last weekend from July 21 to 23, Campbellford’s Westben Arts Festival pulled out all the stops to curate an immersive piano concert experience. From mainstage performances at the Westben Barn, to their new “One-of-a-Kind Experiences” series fostering a novel approach to listening for sounds, to generous opportunities for artist interaction, it appears that artistic director Brian Finley and his team have assembled a winning formula for innovative piano programming.

Setting the tone on the evening of Friday, July 21, Rashaan Allwood presented a recital of piano works by Olivier Messiaen alongside a multimedia slideshow. The performance alternated between selections from Catalogue d’oiseaux and Petites esquisses d’oiseaux, video soundclips of birdsongs represented in the music, and painted depictions of the musical scenes by Avery Kua, commissioned especially for the performance. The stage became an interactive museum exhibit showcasing interactions between nature, birds, and natural phenomena, and Allwood was an insightful, enthusiastic ornithological guide through it all. Juxtaposed against Campbellford’s birds chirping along in real time, the presentation felt almost like a country adaptation of John Cage’s atmospheric 4’33”.

At the piano, Allwood’s tonal palette enriched the experience in colourful ways. Guided by Messiaen’s indications, he evoked brilliant, crystalline cascades as well as sound masses when called for. I would have liked to savour the pauses for longer: though there are no concrete storylines in these Messiaen works, there were tangible moments of tranquility which could have been contrasted even more against turbulent scenes.

All told, was there a takeaway impression from the performance? Not exactly—like the sounds of nature, it was a fleeting event to be relished in the moment. A result that Messiaen himself would have approved of.

Jan Lisiecki in performance on July 22. Photo by the author.On Saturday afternoon, it was Jan Lisiecki’s turn to take centre stage. Born in Calgary to Polish parents, his heritage courses through his playing. Pianists would appreciate the “Winter Wind sweep” he infused across the afternoon’s program—it is a tension-heightening sensation that Lisiecki is able to draw out from sequences of notes, and a hallmark of his playing in this concert.

Here, the acoustics in the Westben Barn posed a challenge, favouring certain pieces over others in Lisiecki’s program. I’m not sure he would have been satisfied with the results of the Bach, despite his efforts to bring it to life. There is an undeniable intellect to Lisiecki’s playing, the same one that allowed him to skip three grades in school: he took much of the Partita No. 3 at a chipper pace, recalling a Gouldian nimbleness and precision. It was evident that he was striving for a sparkling tone, but in this particular space the acoustics backfired on the superimposed, fast-moving textures; they came out as a scramble of notes. But what brilliance could not be drawn out, Lisiecki compensated for with gorgeous “Winter Wind sweeps” in the rising basslines.

In the Chopin Scherzo No. 1, Lisiecki took liberties with its clear-cut structure: he demonstrated his expertise in Polish dance forms, infusing the calm middle section with a mazurka stilt. In a performance that wasn’t otherwise striking, was this a Revolutionary move? The audience was enthralled and gave him full applause heading into the intermission.

Resurfacing on stage, Lisiecki took on an entirely different character for the second half, which was delivered much more clearly than the first. Assuming a calm, assured maturity, the Chopin Nocturnes Op. 48 were introspective and searching: the changing moods of the first nocturne were seamlessly navigated, and in the second nocturne the pain was clear and earnest. With the four Impromptus Op. post. 142, Lisiecki sucked the audience into his and Schubert’s world. The third Impromptu in B-flat Major was a standout in the set, evoking a carefree jaunt in the park with tuneful whistling.

Angela Hewitt in performance on July 23. Photo by the author.On Sunday, Angela Hewitt stepped onstage to reassert her reputation as a pre-eminent Bach interpreter of her generation. Each performance resembled an intimate diary entry, meticulously crafted at the piano. The six opening Scarlatti sonatas allowed everyone to ease into the Barn’s acoustics; when it came time to play Bach, Hewitt had already weaved a personal sound world. She created for herself a bubble of meticulous attention to detail within a compact dynamic range, spinning an illusion of expansive contrasts. It is interesting to compare her approach towards creating musical interest with Lisiecki’s from the day before: the former opted for varied articulation and less extremes in volume, while Lisiecki favoured the reverse. As a result, there was a stately character to Hewitt’s Bach, and the Barn’s acoustics were masterfully transformed into that of a closed Baroque palace.

An interesting phenomenon was how Hewitt’s closing Gigues were tentatively executed in comparison. Repeated usage of pedal simultaneous with an unsettled left hand were observed, as was an odd tempo fluctuation in the right hand. The closing Beethoven “Moonlight” Sonata also showed kinks in its armour. Was this an indication of flagging stamina? Even if so, after such an authoritative conception of Bach, this was easy to forgive—especially with Hewitt performing on a piano whose tone had been unravelling as the afternoon advanced (an issue Lisiecki had also encountered during his performance).

Angela Hewitt at the Westben Barn. Photo credit: Stephen Dagg.As a whole, in this weekend snapshot the Westben festival—now in its 18th season—seems to be hitting all the right notes, as they continue bringing music to a tight-knit community of enthusiasts. “We remain really, really excited about the future,” enthused Finley on the weekend. He hinted at programming ideas for future seasons, including concerts running through the night: “This has given us some real courage to pursue these special experiences that are [within] music and beyond, in this beautiful area. So we’re dreaming hard!”

Westben’s summer festival series runs until August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit www.westben.ca.

Jennifer Liu is a recent graduate in piano performance, and has written on classical music for La Scena Musicale, The WholeNote magazine, and Musical Toronto.

 

HOGTOWN's Laura Larson (Louise "Lulu Hearts"), Karen Slater (Maddy Foster) and Emma Wiechers (Anastasia). Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz.(HOGTOWN's Laura Larson (Louise "Lulu Hearts"), Karen Slater (Maddy Foster) and Emma Wiechers (Anastasia). Photo Credit: Sam Gaetz.)

Last Friday was the 21st of July, 2017, but for a couple of hours it was also a summer night in 1926 in prohibition-era Hogtown – aka Toronto the young and gritty. About 18 months ago I had made the exact same time travel trip, walking through the doors of Toronto’s historic Campbell House to see the very first dress rehearsal of Sam Rosenthal and Drew Carnwath’s HOGTOWN: The Immersive Experience, a new site-specific show designed to fit into the many rooms of Campbell House on one hand and, on the other, to bring to life as many aspects of life in 1926 Toronto as possible. It was fun but still at an early stage of figuring out how many characters to include and how to combine and interweave all the storylines. Last summer the show was developed further and revived, and now, this summer, a new version has just opened, streamlined and focused and with some great musical additions.

No more than sixty people can attend at once, and the night I was there, there were about forty of us. After a casual pre-show in the courtyard where various characters interacted with the audience, we were gathered into the house and split into three groups to experience the three foundation scenes of the main storylines. On the main floor in the dining room, we met the two rival mayoral candidates, ambitious social reformer Sam McBride and incumbent Thomas Foster; McBride’s wife; various Toronto movers and shakers; and the kingpin of the night, suave and conniving union boss Bob Delacourt. Partway downstairs was the gambling den, and a bit further down the speakeasy, home to hostess Carl-Mays, the White Hot Jazz Band, and dancers who captivated with a gloriously 1920s song-and-dance number. Up at the top of the house was the meeting for the women’s Temperance League, a fiercely led group of women fighting to maintain prohibition and make sure that the prohibition candidate is elected, and in between were bedrooms, parlours, staircases and hallways, where the action used every available space.

It was great fun being immersed in the Toronto of the twenties, with prohibition and illicit drinking raging, gangsters and politicians rubbing elbows, politicians' wives and daughters up to various shenanigans, a mild-mannered reporter – our MC for the start of the evening and in love with the daughter of one mayoral candidate – tracking down a story, the innocent and not so innocent famous ( including baseball star Tommy Burt) and unknown (including two young flappers skipping out on other responsibilities to join the speakeasy as dancers for the night), with everything tuned up to a high stakes pitch on the eve of the election.

The first incarnation of the show was very much a theatre piece that included music only in the speakeasy location. Now, music has percolated up and through the house: original compositions by music directors Douglas Price and Paul Humphrey added to period standards to flesh out characters and relationships and give new impetus to various plot points. When I spoke to director and co-writer Sam Rosenthal after the performance, he said that in the first year audiences had really responded to the musical scenes and he wanted to build on that to see how it might strengthen the experience as a whole.

Sam Rosenthal (HOGTOWN's co-creator/director) and Jorge Molina (Gil Shwartz). Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.(Sam Rosenthal (HOGTOWN's co-creator/director) and Jorge Molina (Gil Shwartz). Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.)

Since for the first three scenes of this show, you’re on your own to decide where to go and what to watch, I didn’t get to see all the songs – sadly missing a gangster number in the gambling den – but I did see some wonderful new pieces: a Gene Kelly-esque duet about family expectations for baseball player Tommy Burt (Eric McDace) and aspiring reporter Ronny McBride (Saphho Hansen Smythe), a fun solo by flapper Lulu (Laura Larson) about how to navigate society, the fabulous “Temperance Tantrum” led by powerhouse head of the temperance league Mary O’Grady Hunt (Tara Baxendale) with stylized character breakout solos for her outwardly demure daughter Eleanor (Jaymee Fuczek) and for wild radical board member Pauline Drabble (Andrea Irwin), and Eleanor’s period-flavoured “Got A Lot’ song in the speakeasy where she dares to bet on a horse race. The numbers were all fun, well sung, and brilliantly choreographed by Nicola Pantin. Not all the new numbers were true to the style of the 1920s, and sometimes felt composed in a later (1940s) or more contemporary musical theatre mode. Somehow this still worked, as the period was so strongly evoked at the beginning of the show, and by various numbers throughout, including “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” a knockout solo by Arinea Hermans as Toni Swift.

The last new character number I saw was the moving final song, sung by speakeasy hostess Carli-Mays Johnson after she has been told she has been traded to a Chicago crime boss as part of a big Bob Delacourt deal. Michelle Piller was both hard nailed and heart breaking,   evoking a magnetic combination of Bebe Neuwirth and Patti Lupone, a rich ending to that character trail. At that point we were all gathered up to the ballroom for the finish of the evening and a wrap of the story, capped by a full company number sung in the courtyard.

For a lover of musical theatre this new version of Hogtown is a delight. I wonder, though, if more traditional theatre lovers would feel the same way. Some of the grit and darkness of the earlier version is subsumed by the innocence of the musical numbers, so the creators/producers have an interesting dilemma on their hands; they are in a very interesting place of having experimented with going in a musical direction and needing to decide whether, in future editions, it will be more a play with music or more of a full-blown musical. ‘Finished’ or not, however, Hogtown is a great way to spend a couple of hours and a fun window to Toronto’s past. I know that I would like to go again to follow some of the other storylines and see some of the numbers I missed this time around.

HOGTOWN: The Immersive Experience plays at Campbell House until August 20. For more information and to buy tickets you can visit www.thehogtownexperience.com or http://www.campbellhousemuseum.ca

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.

Soloists (from left) James Ehnes, Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow with the TSM Festival Orchestra. Photo credit: James Ireland.In the WholeNote podcast that editor/publisher David Perlman and I did earlier this year, Jonathan Crow, the Toronto Summer Music Festival’s artistic director, called James Ehnes “the greatest violinist Canada has ever produced.” Last week, Ehnes’ four-day sojourn with the Toronto Summer Music Festival provided ample opportunity for local audiences to experience his playing for themselves – and served as a shimmering showcase for a peerless Canadian performer.

The first of Ehnes’ appearances, a chamber music masterclass that he hosted on July 16 for fellows from the TSM Academy Chamber Music Institute, began with Fire, the first movement of Kelly-Marie Murphy’s wildly intense, rollicking piano trio, Give Me Phoenix Wings to Fly. Ehnes praised the Academy musicians for their enthusiasm, musicianship and commitment to a piece of music that he was hearing for the first time. “For something written so freely, it’s very precise in how to create that freedom,” he observed. “The more you’ll play it, the more you’ll be aware of the details.”

It was his own attention to detail that marked his solo recital the next evening at Koerner Hall. Opening with Bach’s Partita No.1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 and closing with Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004, Ehnes’ playing featured a smooth, singing tone and exquisite, relaxed openness. He scaled the heights of the second partita’s famous Chaconne in a moving performance that touched the power and the glory of the music, from its complex passagework and mesmerizing broken chords to moments of delicate beauty. In between was an astonishing performance of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No.3 in D Minor, Op.27 “Ballade.” Ehnes brought a soulful power and seemingly effortless technique to this complex and lyrical six-minute piece built around a three-note motif.

The morning of July 19, Ehnes played the Ysaÿe for an enthusiastic audience of children, many of them budding violinists, in the first-ever TSM Festival Kids Concert. The hour-long event was a sneak preview of the Bach Celebration concerto program that evening, with Ehnes, fellow violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan, harpsichordist Christopher Bagan and the TSM Festival Orchestra playing the first movement of the three-violin concerto and Ehnes and Crow the third movement of the Concerto for Two VIolins in D Minor, BWV 1043. Mooredale Concerts Music & Truffles engaging host Joanna Kellam kept the proceedings moving without talking down to her audience as she questioned each of the soloists. Ehnes, for example, after explaining that “all violinists are sort of obsessed with Bach,” compared his solo recital to taking a free throw in basketball, and playing a concerto to passing to the ball to a teammate. After Ehnes and Crow played the Allegro from the concerto, Kellam had them play it Lento (lugubrious), Presto (spectacular, but inappropriate) and Vivo (animated and hammed up) to illustrate the difference between the tempo markings.

James Ehnes with TSM Festival Orchestra cellist Jaesung Lim. Photo credit: James Ireland.Later in the day at TSM’s special “Bach Celebration” concert at the Church of the Redeemer, Ehnes and Crow were once again well-matched, as they exhibited impressive togetherness and all-round excellence. The evening opened with Ehnes performing Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041. His singing tone and the ease and strength of his playing again stood out in the profound loveliness of the Andante and the playful, sunny Allegro Assai. His commanding technical prowess was evident in the jubilant Allegro of the Violin Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1952R.

The concert came to a thrilling conclusion, when Ehnes joined Crow and Wan in a performance of Bach’s Concerto for Three VIolins in D Major, BWV 1064R. The concerto’s third movement proved to be another life-affirming shout of joy, leading to the coup de grace: the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No.3, with Ehnes, Crow and Wan taking the violin parts. It was a fitting end to Ehnes’ TSM Festival activities, and an experience that all who were there will remember for a long time.

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

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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