citterio cropTafelmusik's music director Elisa Citterio. Photo credit: Monica Cordiviola.The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra closed its season Sunday afternoon with Beethoven on period instruments. It was the fourth iteration of this bill and nearly filled the 1,100-seat Koerner Hall. The program was guest-conducted by Bruno Weil, a distinguished German musician with a well-deserved reputation as a probing interpreter of Viennese classics.

Jeanne Lamon, music director from 1981 to 2014, ceded that title to Elisa Citterio from Italy, who joined the orchestra at the start of this season. On Sunday, Lamon was back as guest concertmaster, so that Citterio could play the Beethoven Violin Concerto: the Mount Everest of violin concertos, and not a work one usually associates with period instruments.

Every classical music lover knows the Beethoven Violin Concerto, but few know the work in a sound the composer himself would have recognized. Citterio and Weil applied themselves to the lofty rhetoric with spirit and without inhibition or apology. Citterio in particular added an indefinable element of soul and serenity that lifted her performance well above the realm of hidebound “authentic” recreation. From her first entry, she revealed a vital engagement with the music that was anything but dry, thanks to her temperament. In the lengthy opening movement (which never sounded long) she scanned the soaring phrases with sensitivity to harmonic underpinnings, and resisted lapsing into mechanical recitation.

The sound of the timpani (kettledrum) a crucial structural element, had a zesty “bite” to it. Cadenzas were not the customary ones by Fritz Kreisler, but composed by Carlo Citterio, Elisa's brother. The siblings collaborated to adapt the cadenzas to her own ideas. (The one for the Finale was just a bit long.)

Tempos were brisker than usual, as Weil cultivated heightened clarity and transparency of inner parts while faithfully tracing the drama. In Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6, which ended the program, the vernal score sounded freshly-minted, especially the outer movements. Weil conducted the opening stanza almost as a sequence of upbeats, the pungent woodwinds springing to life. The “Awakening of joyous feelings upon arrival in the countryside” was actually joyous, not too heavy.

Though the three middle movements didn't scale the same heights, the Finale again showed Weil as a fount of rhythmic and stylistic energy, a musician to his fingertips. Meanwhile, the Tafelmusik orchestra gave every indication that it likes (even loves) what it does. As it gets set to embark soon on a three-week tour to Australia, one can only wish that its spirit will persist – alongside the relationships with Elisa Citterio and distinguished guest conductors such as Bruno Weil.

Tafelmusik presented “Beethoven Pastoral Symphony,” featuring violin soloist Elisa Citterio and guest director Bruno Weil, on May 3 to 6 at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Stephen Cera, a pianist, journalist and concert programmer, played recitals with Jacques Israelievitch not long before the untimely death of the late TSO concertmaster. He lectures widely about music, writes about international classical music events for MusicalAmerica.com, and maintains a blog at www.stephencera.com.

Gerald Finley - photo by Sim Cannetty-ClarkeGerald Finley has a baritone which casts a bass shadow. A voice dark and ripe and opulent that doesn’t lighten gladly, but the ear won’t mind two hours of it because Gerald Finley the dramatic interpreter and wizard of inflection comes with it.

Finley and one of the most in-demand accompanists today, Julius Drake, presented a German and Russian program at Koerner Hall this past Sunday, April 22. The first part assembled poems by Goethe set to music by Beethoven and Schubert, two almost exact contemporaries (the older man died 1827, the young one the year after) whose songs however belong to two different eras. Beethoven is not known for his vocal music and next to Schubert’s songs his come across as plainer, simpler melodies, playful or curious rather than stirring. In Finley’s hands the songs grew to become little scenes, delivered smoothly in his precise enunciation.

Schubert’s Goethe was a different Goethe. The set was capped with arguably the best known Schubert song, the infanticidal Erl King, but began with the long Prometheus lied, D 674. The Prometheus of this poem is defiant, not yet punished by Zeus, proudly creating humans after his own image. At the time of its creation the song could have signified political rebellion against the powers of the state, or personal rebellion of young creative men against their fathers, but the text has lost much of its resonance for audiences of our time and is potentially overlong and self-important. Not here: again, Finley worked his magic with the text and the song became a meaningful cri de coeur.

An den Mond (To the Moon) stood out from the set by its languid pace and silvery lyrics, while An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) swept though in a gallop.

The secondhalf, all-Russian, was shared between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky’s four songs came out as positively moderate next to the Rachmaninoff set. Rachmaninoff gives the pianist a lot to do, and is no stranger to a sweeping cinematic statement. An orchestra might have been present in the downers-with-high-dramatic-peaks O nyet, molyu, ne ukhodi! (Oh No, I Pray, Don’t Leave), O, dolgo budu ya (In the Silence of the Night), and Na smert chizhika (On the Death of a Linnet) but it was indeed just these two men onstage. A lot of chiaroscuro is required there, which Finley created through sensitivity to the text rather than vocal timbre (which stayed consistently as dark as plush velvet). Julius Drake from the keyboard supplied Romantic excess where Rachmaninoff calls for it.

One number in the Rachmaninoff set was actually fun: Sudba (Fate) – a song in which the singer voices more than one persona, in the vein of Schubert’s Erlkönig – had Finley (and us with him) delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of fate knocking on various people’s doors. The final song in the official program was the astonishing and astonishingly exaggerated Vesennye vody (Spring Streams), which starts by cranking up to 10 and stays there for its remaining two minutes. But Finley and Drake made it sound almost natural.

The encore was reserved for songs in the English language – Barber, Copland, Healey Willan, and a Britten arrangement of The Crocodile, a folk song recounting how a man ended up eaten up by the gigantic reptile and spent ten years inside it, “very well contented.”

As was the audience on this night.

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake presented a recital program on April 22, at Koerner Hall, Toronto. They continue to tour this program to Washington DC, Georgia and NYC. Finley will have an extra stop in Montreal, with pianist Michael McMahon (Info).

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

banner cropEvan Buliung and Hannah Levinson in Fun Home. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.Tuesday April 17: a wonderful night of superb theatre with high expectations met by a brilliantly crafted musical, as the Musical Stage Company's excellent production of Fun Home opened under the umbrella of Mirvish productions at the CAA Theatre.

The Broadway production of Fun Home won numerous Tony Awards in 2015 and also marked a number of firsts, including having the first female team to win the Tony for best score, and being the first musical to centre on the story of a young lesbian. With book and lyrics by playwright Lisa Kron and score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Caroline or Change), Fun Home captures the mind and heart right from the start, pulling us into a deeply personal but also universal story of family and figuring out one's true identity. Filled with an often surprising yet delighting combination of comedy and tragedy, unexpected vulnerability and goofiness, the story is told through a blend of dialogue and song that rings incredibly true, the songs themselves seeming to emerge necessarily from moments of heightened emotion in the text. The cast are all strong: the main character, Alison, is portrayed at three different times in her life, and the three Alisons, naturally enough, stand out from the rest in their almost uncanny ability to be the same character at different ages. This is the central structural concept of Fun Home – that the heroine of the story is played not by one but by three performers, letting us connect with her at three different ages, and not just one at a time, but often with two or even all three together.

(L-R) Sara Farb, Hannah Levinson and Lauran Condlln, as the three Alisons in Fun Home. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.The musical begins in the present time with Alison Bechdel, 43-year-old cartoonist, sitting down at her desk to draw, but finding that she is “stuck” – turning to journals and memories of the past in order to figure out how to go forward into the future. The biggest or most central part of that journey is trying to figure out how much she and her father are alike. As she starts to draw and remember at the same time we hear her say:

“Caption: My dad and I were totally alike.”

Then she starts a new drawing:

“Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike.”

And this catapults her back to her childhood, as the oldest of three children in a house lovingly restored by her rather obsessive father who also runs the family Funeral Home – which all the family refer to as the “Fun Home,” hence the title of the show.

The first thing we see is the young Alison demanding her father help her to play “Airplane” – a wonderful image of togetherness and freedom, an image picked up again at the end of the show in a very satisfying way. Like all families, theirs isn't perfect, and we experience with Alison her early yearnings not to dress in frilly dresses and her father trying to keep her true to the model of the perfect little girl much as he himself has hidden the fact that he is gay behind the facade of a proper father and family man. What works wonderfully is that the adult Alison, our narrator and bridge into the past, is actually there in the living room with Small Alison, experiencing her memories again as if in the flesh, sometimes on the sidelines but sometimes walking through remembering.

We also meet Alison as she goes to college, where she first discovers she is a lesbian and eventually tells her family. Sara Farb is remarkable as this “Middle Alison”: powerfully present, but extraordinarily vulnerable and real. Her big song, Changing my Major, soars through the theatre like an anthem, funny and powerful at the same time in its capturing of discovery and joy.

Hannah Levinson as Small Alison is a wonderfully confident performer with a clear strong singing and speaking voice, and is immediately believable as Alison in embryo. Her anthem Ring of Keys was beautifully heartfelt. Laura Condlin as Alison at 43 – in her first musical – is a strong attractive centre, keeping us engaged and invested throughout in her investigations into the past.

The surrounding cast all have their moments to shine and all are strong in director Robert McQueen's subtly realized production. It is a musical, yes, and traditional in that it has scenes of dialogue with songs interspersed, but it is also the story of a real, quirky family, dealing with difficult emotions and issues. That this family feels so real whether speaking or singing is a tribute to the company as a whole, as well as to the creators of the piece.

One song that stood out for its goofy reality – highlighted by Stephanie Graham's brilliantly real choreography – was Come to the Fun Home, the “commercial” that the young Bechdel siblings have made up for the family funeral home and perform for themselves, complete with coffin. Liam MacDonald as little brother John is an energetically spontaneous presence here and in all his scenes.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's best-selling and acclaimed autobiographical graphic memoir, Fun Home is a chamber musical that explores big and difficult issues but is also a joyous affirmation of life.

The Musical Stage Company production of Fun Home, presented by Mirvish, runs until May 20, 2018, 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.

The JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, in performance at JAZZ LIVES on April 11. Photo credit: Bill Beard, c/o JAZZ.FM91.On April 11, JAZZ.FM91 presented “JAZZ LIVES: A Century of Nat ‘King’ Cole” at Koerner Hall. JAZZ LIVES, for the uninitiated, is the moniker given to JAZZ.FM91’s “premier fundraising concert,” and the theme for this year’s iteration – which was the event’s 14th annual occurrence – was, as the title suggests, a celebration of the great pianist/vocalist Nat King Cole, born (nearly) a hundred years ago in 1919. Although past JAZZ LIVES concerts have featured notable international guest stars such as Gregory Porter, Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny, the performers on April 11 were mostly local musicians, and provided an illuminating cross-section of artists who have found a place in the extended JAZZ.FM91 family. While the tribute format gave the evening a clear conceptual framework and enabled a variety-show structure, it was, ultimately, the individual artistic choices of the participating musicians that made the evening memorable and reaffirmed the central position that JAZZ.FM91 holds in the Toronto jazz scene.

The evening started with pianist Robi Botos, who played a beautiful solo rendition of “When I Fall In Love” before embarking upon a bouncy, medium-up, 7/8 version of “L-O-V-E” with drummer Mark Kelso and bassist Marc Rogers, which was capped off by brief quote of “It’s Only A Paper Moon.” Placing Botos’ performance at the beginning of the program was an intelligent choice: it effectively set the tone for the rest of the night, illustrating that, although the event was a celebration of Cole, it was also a celebration of the unique abilities of the performers in attendance.

Following Botos, Drew Jurecka and Mary Margaret O’Hara each performed (individually) with the house band, made up of Kelso, Rogers, guitarist Eric St-Laurent and pianist Lou Pomanti, after which Bill McBirnie took the stage for a version of Poinciana, eschewing the slower ballad version recorded by Cole in 1961 for the iconic Vernel Fournier groove from Ahmad Jamal’s 1958 “At The Pershing: But Not For Me” album. After a cool, understated version of “Straighten Up and Fly Right” from singer Danny B, Jackie Richardson took the stage to perform “Nature Boy” with Bill McBirnie and the house band. Richardson has a powerful, dynamic voice, with excellent control throughout her considerable range. She performed two additional songs – “Steal Away” and “Every Time I Feel The Spirit” – and was able to effectively ramp up the excitement during her time on stage, providing one of the night’s clear highlights, and resulting in a standing ovation from the audience as she closed the first half of the event.

Of particular note in the second half of the concert was the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, led by musical director Jules Estrin, which performed “Orange Colored Sky” with Jurecka and “The Late Late Show” with Ori Dagan. The Youth Big Band, in its tenth year of operation, is a free educational program for qualifying middle- and high-school students, providing the opportunity to play in the big band and to participate in a variety of workshops and performances with top music educators and guest artists. The group displayed maturity far beyond its years, particularly in the rhythm section, which generated exciting, propulsive time, and in the saxophone section, led by lead alto saxophonist Jacob Chung, who took an impressive solo on “The Late Late Show.”

Other second-set performers included The Heavyweights Brass Band, who began the set by playing in the audience and gradually making their way to the stage, vocalists Alex Pangman, Lori Cullen, and surprise guest Marc Jordan, who, after remarking on the value that JAZZ.FM91 brings to the community, sang a compelling, stripped-down version of “The Nearness of You.” Pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo also performed, playing a sweet, rhythmically strong version of “Let’s Fall In Love” that blended some of Cole’s more traditional stylings with a few modern touches. The evening culminated in a return of most of the performers to the stage for a version of “Route 66,” led by Richardson, with enthusiastic audience participation.  

JAZZ.FM91 presented “JAZZ LIVES: A Century of Nat ‘King’ Cole” on April 11, at Koerner Hall, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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