Following up on his article on ballet and opera interpretations of Pinocchio in our summer issue, Peter Goddard talks with three Canadian artists who sang key roles at the 69th annual Aix-en-Provence Festival this July.

Julie Boulianne in Pinocchio by Philippe Boesmans, staged by Joël Pommerat at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2017. Photo credit: Patrick Berger / artcompress.It's not just the music that’s over following the finale of any Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, the 69th edition wrapping up a week ago. So's the paper trail, with its voluminous programs with marathon resumes about each artist and their multiple past triumphs. Aix means you can show how you made it; that you have a past.

Aix also means you'd better be willing to risk it, according to the musicians I talked to. Exiting festival director Bernard Foccroulle was himself entirely surprised by what Dmitri Tcherniakov revealed in this year's Carmen. “I was not sure it would work out like this,” he told me. Rising Canadian bass-baritone, Philippe Sly, talked pre-festival about “the company's living vision,” about it being “the rehearsals I enjoy the most, not the performance.”

Aix's inclination toward the experimental fits perfectly with how new singers view careers, says Canadian mezzo Julie Boulianne, whose Aix debut this year had her singing the dual roles of the nightclub singer and “bad boy” in Philippe Boesmans' world premiere Pinocchio.

“This is a world now ruled by the stage director who has a lot of power,” says the Montreal-based mezzo. “Aix really makes a point of having extraordinary and inventive new productions. So as a singer you have to be ready to change a lot of your conceptions. You have to be adaptable to make these shows work. We're not stuck in this big form of music of the conventional opera in conventional houses.”

As it turned out, Boulianne didn't suit the character director Joël Pommerat had initially imagined and created for his original stage play of Pinocchio – so, true to Aix form, they had had to come up with something new. “Building an opera becomes a different thing, something you don't expect,” says Boulianne. “We had to find something that [worked], something suited to my personality. It turns out the audience loved it. I love it that we're constantly re-thinking and re-visiting. It's what keeps opera alive.”

We're talking at the Café de l'Archevêché in sizzling heat, where two days previous, in the same spot, I had met with Paris-based Canadian soprano Marie-Ève Munger, who was the dazzling coloratura fairy in Pinocchio.

 Marie-Ève Munger in Pinocchio by Philippe Boesmans, staged by Joël Pommerat at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2017. Photo credit: Patrick Berger / artcompress.“One of our first conversations in rehearsal was, ‘who is the fairy? What is a fairy?’” said Munger at the time. “We knew who Pinocchio is, who the father is. All the other characters are easier to grasp. But even at the first rehearsals we didn't know who the fairy was. But we knew that there are moments of great lyricism in Pinocchio. The music is fairy-like. It's magical. The rest of the score is like (Debussy's) Pelléas et Mélisande, with text over gorgeous music. But there's also coloratura almost in the tradition of (Léo Delibes') Lakmé. It helps that we're trained now to be ready to end up doing everything.” (Like Boulianne and Sly, Munger graduated from McGill University's Schulich School of Music, opera's one-city farm team.)

She added: “As a singer you have to be confident, especially these days when everybody wants to be original. I've made my mark doing a lot of weird projects. I like to be involved in world premieres, something that brings classical music out of its shell a bit, lets it reinvent itself, even just a tiny bit. I find that fascinating and important.”

As if she'd been listening in to our conversation, Boulianne remarked somewhat later: “I really think I'm part of what will make history, something that offers a different way of comprehending the tale of Pinocchio. To me it's a revolutionary way of thinking about it – and meaningful.”

The 69th Aix-en-Provence Festival ran from July 3 to 22, featuring productions of Bizet’s Carmen, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Cavalli’s Erismena and Boesmans’ Pinocchio, as well as an opera-in-concert presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Peter Goddard, music, film and visual arts critic for the Toronto Star with a National Newspaper Award for criticism, is the author of The Great Gould, due out this summer from Dundurn Press.

 

W. Eugene Smith looking out over Sixth Avenue.Thelonious Monk in the Jazz Loft.Sara Fisko’s invaluable time capsule, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, captures bohemian life in the Flower District of New York City from 1957 to 1965 when acclaimed LIFE magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith rented space in a commercial building and wired it for sound. (He recorded his life there, and American history at the same time, on 4,000 hours of tape.) The heart of the film is contained in the three weeks of rehearsal that led up to Thelonious Monk’s tentet’s Town Hall concert in 1959.

Thelonious Monk (left) and Hall Overton.Smith’s next-door neighbour on the fourth floor of 821 Sixth Avenue, Hall Overton, a Juilliard professor and composer of classical music who enjoyed playing jazz at the upright piano in Smith’s loft, arranged Monk’s tunes for the historic gig. Fisko’s documentary reveals a fascinating discussion between Monk and Overton as Monk questions what Overton has done to his tune Little Rootie Tootie. Countless jazz players studied with the chain-smoking Overton and considered his teachings invaluable. Bassist Chuck Israels says he was “broadminded, a musically educated guy who was easy to be attracted to.” The young Steve Reich was another student: "I want you to write a melody that more or less follows these shapes [that Overton had drawn],” Reich recalls of his first lesson there. “You’ll learn a lot. It’s very easy to go [Reich makes a gesture that goes diagonally down from top to bottom].” Reich says that there were so many photographs filed in the loft that “you felt all the walls were leaning in on you.”

Saxophonist Phil Woods, who was a member of the tentet, is one of several talking heads remembering the era. (“People complained about Monk’s intervals,” he says.) Bassist Steve Swallow, pianist Carla Bley, composer/instrumentalist David Amram and drummer Ronnie Free are among those who amplify what the multitude of photos suggest and fill in the context. Jam sessions (several of which are excerpted in the film) often mimicked the sounds of the street traffic below, ending at dawn with many of the participants walking outside just as the day’s flowers were being delivered to shopkeepers to sell. Tenor saxman Zoot Sims, one of many who loved to jam in the loft, is remembered for his prodigious playing. The scene brought out artists like Salvador Dali, writers such as Norman Mailer, even Ultra Violet (who, as an Andy Warhol Superstar, would have her life in Warhol’s loft chronicled in a different way).

As well as the Little Rootie Tootie tape, there are six Monk tunes that buttress the soundtrack, with support from Art Blakey and Clifford Brown, Erroll Garner and selections from the American Songbook. Smith always listened to music (usually classical) while he worked – he had a collection of 25,000 LPs. Furtwängler and the VPO (Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony), Rubinstein (Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu), Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and opera taped from the loft radio appear on the film’s soundtrack. Fishko also gives us a snippet of Overton giving performance instructions to the noted violist Walter Trampler in a rehearsal for the LP of Overton’s Sonata for Viola and Piano.

W. Eugene Smith looking out over Sixth Avenue. The window was “his proscenium arch.”Fishko provides just enough backstory of Smith’s pre-loft fame to give a romantic context to his loft lifestyle: the way Fishko puts it, Smith’s leaving his family and everything his Life work (he quit the magazine in 1954) had brought him behind in a northern New York City suburb (the village of Croton-on-Hudson) was something he couldn’t avoid. And the filmmaker put the thousands of photos she had on hand to good use in giving an insight into the obsessive artist, known as a pre-eminent photo essayist in the years before television and video became the journalistic record.

Smith’s printmaking techniques were legendary; his reputation followed him to the loft where one of his assistant’s jobs was to calm visitors whom he had no time to see. Diane Arbus and the young Larry Clark, however, did visit and there are photos to prove it.

Smith’s inevitable flameout – his son talks about his father’s paranoia and suicide calls – led to his leaving the loft in 1971, but Fishko’s shepherding of his photographic legacy and audio tapes has produced an invaluable record of a bygone era.

The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith plays at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema August 4 to 10.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

Following up on his article on ballet and operatic interpretations of Pinocchio in our summer issue, Peter Goddard takes a whimsical look back at the 69th annual Aix-en-Provence Festival this July, and the imaginative opera productions it had on offer.

As the calendar ticks over into August, another fabulous season of France’s Festival d’Aix-en-Provence passes into operatic history: 5 new productions…one opera in concert…36 performances.
All that remains for me is the dilemma of how to come up with a 'report from the scene' summary of the festival this from a festival that is now synonymous with artistic and poetic licence in its offerings and stagings. Ah well, maybe a quick nap will help…I’m sure I’ll think of something…

Bizet walks into a bar – Woden's Paradise Lounge (“To Die For Half-Price Wednesdays.”). Already a bit juiced, he barely manages to get up on the stool. “Old war wound,” he grunts. “Iraq One or Two?” asks the bartender. “Franco-Prussian One,” Georges says. “National Guard.”
Grimacing in pain, the composer nevertheless looks very pleased with himself while surveying the place. Looking around he sees – well,wouldn't you know? – Stravinsky, just five stools down, pointing to his long-stemmed glass and in the act of ordering another of his famous Stravinsky Martinis. He too looks smug, as he snaps “make it neat and quick” to the slow shuffling bartender.
The bartender – fellow-Russian Leonid Kinskey, in his role as Sasha, the barman in Casablanca – rolls his eyes as he measures out Stravinsky's vodka by the quarter ounce, as the composer demands. “Carefully!” Sheeh. For a Russian this Stravinsky is very fastidious. Sasha misses movie drinking buddy Rick.
Bizet raises his milky glass: “To you, Igor Fyodorovich.” Stravinsky nods, a wan smile on his closed lips, like a shark in the moment before chomping down. Igor Fyodorovich nods at the praise, but offers nothing in return.

The 69th Aix Festival, just ended, provided a hit for both. Each saw a spanking new modernist interpretation for their overly familiar scores.

“To festivals,” says Georges, moving close so they can clink glasses.
“And their royalties,” says Stravinsky, clinking away, watching the news scroll on CNN – anachronism is ordinary at Aix – and ordering another round.

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at Aix-en-Provence. Photo credit: Patrick Berger / artcompress.Bizet's Carmen was re-imaged by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov as a modernist psychodrama where everyone is in therapy, under state scrutiny, or is enduring both. British director Simon McBurney's take on Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress – where Norway’s Eivind Gullberg Jensen replaced wrist-injured conductor Daniel Harding critiques soulless Hollywood, instead of William Hogarth's squalid London.

“I must say,” said Bizet, trying to buddy up to Stravinsky, “that American tenor they found for your Tom Rakewell…”

“Paul Appleby,” nods Stravinsky, the Hollywood veteran who knows good casting when he hears it.
“Sung wonderfully,” says Bizet. “And the set was as white a white as Utrillo at his chalkiest.”
“All very right and fine,” says Stravinsky, pointing Kinskey's way for another martini. Igor is suddenly engaged. “But you got the great publicity. I mean, having that warning about violence before the show was brilliant.”
He turns around in his seat, pontificating the Carmen disclaimer to the otherwise almost empty bar.
“Tonight's performance contains scenes that may seem like actual danger,” Stravinsky mock-orates.
“‘Actual danger.' That's edge. That's contemporary, Georges. That's what I want.” He takes another tight-lipped sip of his martini. “That's derrieres in seats.”

Bizet's Carmen at Aix-en-Provence. Photo Credit: Patrick Berger / artcompress.The CNN ticker tape continues to roll…95% seat capacity…373,145 tickets sold…14 concerts….The sound of “hurrahs,” and “bravissimo” and otherwise unidentifiable thumps can suddenly be heard from the private party in the room upstairs.

“It's the 17th century we have to worry about though,” says Bizet, trying to be heard over the racket. “The 17th century is the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition of opera. It's everywhere, sneaking up behind you.”
“So I hear. Something by Cavalli – Hipermestra, I think, a good piece – was at Glyndebourne this year,” says Stravinsky.”WIlliam Christie directing while noodling on the harpsichord.”
“William Christie is always noodling on the harpsichord,” says Bizet. “It's the stamp of quality. The 17th century is now getting better press than…”
“You and the 19th century?” says Stravinsky.
And you and the 20th too,” says Bizet, suddenly sounding sober. “Even the 21st isn't doing too badly. Philippe Boesmans' Pinocchio is more drama per musica than what I'd call opera. But it felt new and fresh.”
“Because of Joël Pommerat's script and direction, not the sound effects,” says Stravinsky through pursed lips.
“Face it Igor Fyodorovich, your Rake and my ‘Habanera’ aren't the news this year. It's what's happening today or happened in the Early Baroque,” says Bizet. “It's Cavalli's Erismena. I envy Cavalli's tunes, and the earthiness of the orchestra – I wanted that for my L'Arlésienne Suites – the rough sound of fiddles scratching – no polish here – the trumpets…”
Bizet rattles on, not noticing that Stravinsky is paying zero attention, instead staring with fascination at the only other customer in the bar, a short figure in a coat far too heavy for Heaven, the poor creature's shoulders heaving as if deeply weeping.
“And Cavalli's cast,” says Bizet, now in full flight. “Francesca Aspromonte, the Italian soprano in the title role – the performance of the season! – and Susanna Hurrell as Aldimira and good lord, the spectacular breakdancing Polish countertenor, Jakub Józef Orliński, it was…”
But Stravinsky is gone. Leaping from his stool, Bizet follows the Russian who is approaching the weeping stranger. Stravinsky prods his shoulder. The figure turns abruptly, weeping changing into convulsive laughter. The Russian leaps back. It's Mozart.
Bizet leaps back, too.
A beat of silence. An eternity of understanding. They all know.

Philippe Sly, in Mozart's Don Giovanni at Aix-en-Provence. Photo credit: Pascal Victor / artcompress.Meant perhaps to be the festival's big hit, French director Jean-François Sivadier’s Don Giovanni was the festival's one downer. Giovanni's feral lust its relentlessness one of the sure things in all of opera had a Justin Bieber so-sorry whinging to it.
Still, rising Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly sang wonderfully despite feeling somewhat ill early on, and even improvised a weird dance routine, in response to understanding that operatic hell had opened its doors for him. This Don became a girl's night out led by Italian soprano, Eleonora Buratto, as Donna Anna, one of the festival’s other major finds.

Tugging on Mozart's shoulder, Stravinsky says: “W.A, it happens to us all.” Mozart turns with a near-hysterical laugh. “Igor, you old rip-off bastard, you don't get it, do you?” he says and turns back to his smartphone screen, thumbs flying frantically. (To think, his parents once worried that with his fingers he might become a pool player.) “This couldn't be better for me and that's all that matters. Me.”
Stravinsky is miffed. But Bizet is curious, peeking at what Mozart is texting: ‘Disaster. Does no one remember the Dons of Cesare Siepi or Nicolai Ghiaurov? Now there was testosterone…fiddle with my work at your peril.’

Is that the voice of Bernard Foccroulle, Aix supremo leaving the festival at the end of this year, breaking in from overhead on the vast flat-screen TV monitors from above the bar? "The dominant idea here," says Foccroulle, "is that opera is a living art form…Sivadier's set more Breck Girl than Brechtian…"

“This’ll teach them,” says Mozart, now muttering wildly to himself. “I don't need my music 'interpreted' by anybody.” “Texting? Hmmm,” Bizet thinks. Wait till he tells Offenbach at their next golf game. And from down the bar comes the sound of Stravinsky ordering another martini.

The 69th Aix-en-Provence Festival ran from July 3 to 22, featuring productions of Bizet’s Carmen, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Cavalli’s Erismena and Boesmans’ Pinocchio, as well as an opera-in-concert presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

Peter Goddard, music, film and visual arts critic for the Toronto Star with a National Newspaper Award for criticism, is the author of The Great Gould, due out this summer from Dundurn Press.

 

Violinist Andrew Wan and pianist Angela Park in performance on July 26. Photo credit: James Ireland.Andrew Wan, concertmaster of Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) and violinist along with Jonathan Crow in the New Orford String Quartet, was a logical choice to participate in this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM), the first under Crow’s artistic direction.

Before Crow introduced Uriel Vanchestein’s Les Veuves (The Widows) to begin TSM’s July 26 concert before a full house in Walter Hall, Wan stood up to congratulate his quartet partner, saying he was like a brother from another mother. They’re both consummate musicians, dedicated, versatile and passionate. On July 20, the day after Wan’s first TSM public appearance (performing with Crow and James Ehnes in Bach’s Concerto for Three VIolins BWV 1064R), he spent an hour in an open rehearsal with fellows of the TSM Academy working on Korngold’s Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op.15. His passion for Korngold’s “very complex piece, very gnarly, very romantic,” as he described it to the audience in Walter Hall, was evident from the way he handled the beautiful, soaring melody of the slow movement from the first violin chair, and the powerful bowing that propelled the ad hoc Academy members as they played the piece together for the first time. “That’s pretty crazy,” Wan said, turning to the audience, when they finished. (There are 54 changes of time signature in the Adagio alone.) When a problem with a specific bar bothered the cellist, Wan immediately said: “Why don’t we isolate it?” A rhythmic question was solved by counting out three bars, ending with the troublesome one. At one point Wan had everyone sing a few bars before playing them. (Wan’s quicksilver intelligence and problem-solving directness resembled similar traits Crow brought to the open rehearsal of the first movement of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” String Quartet a week later in Walter Hall, when he was in the first violin chair with another group of Academy members. Talking quickly so as not to waste time, Crow used a cellphone metronome to try out different tempos, had various combinations of instruments play in pairs to concentrate listening, tailored the quartet’s sound to the larger venue of Koerner Hall where the performance would take place August 4, and slowed down a climactic passage to better hear its components and check intonation.)

L-R: Andrew Wan, Joseph Johnson and Steven Dann, in performance on July 26. Photo credit: James Ireland.At the July 26 concert, Wan played first violin in Les Veuves, and together with Crow, violist Steven Dann and cellist Desmond Hoebig, produced a rich and polished tone in Vanchestein’s programmatic tale of an Indigenous woman who takes revenge on lumberjacks who destroy the trees that surround her home. Wan then joined pianist Angela Park in Oskar Morawetz’s hyper-romantic Sonata No.3, which served as a bold, rhapsodic vehicle for his sweet, fulsome, highly coloured tone. Dohnányi’s Serenade in C Major for String Trio, Op.10 followed with Wan, violist Steven Dann and TSO principal cellist Joseph Johnson blending their individual voices and precise playing in what served as a compelling argument for the primacy of live performance.

After intermission Crow, Park and cellist Desmond Hoebig took on Dvořák's resplendent Piano Trio in F Minor, Op.65 with Crow and Hoebig trading melodies, with gorgeous violin tone and limpid cello sensitivity, while Park supplied a balanced support on the keyboard. Even more than in Les Veuves, there was a sense of the connection between the Orford and the New Orford string quartets (Hoebig was the cellist in the Orford’s last years before taking up the principal cellist post in the Cleveland Orchestra) and of the generational torch being passed. The spontaneous standing ovation was well-deserved.

Andrew Wan and Jonathan Crow in performance at the July 27 Shuffle Concert. Photo credit: Gord Fulton.Late the next afternoon, on July 27 (just 30 minutes after Crow’s Death and the Maiden rehearsal), Wan and Crow got together for an hour-long Shuffle Concert dubbed “Concertmaster Duo” at Heliconian Hall. Wan recalled his first meeting with Crow at Orford in Quebec, one summer in the early years of the new century. Wan was a student and was struck by “this tall blond dude who had just played the hell out of the violin part of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.” Within a few years they were friends and part of the New Orford String Quartet. “We annoy each other endlessly,” he joked.

The concert began with a sonata for two violins by Jean-Marie Leclair, the Baroque violinist/composer who founded the French violin school. The two concertmasters were a matched pair, exhibiting a light touch and a tightly coiled tone, characteristics that were even more pronounced in a vivid interpretation of a handful of Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins. A selection of Berio duos, inspired by the writing styles of other composers, followed: the first, based on Bartók, opened a door to several of these miniature character studies, all of which oozed charm and humour. The violinists’ technique was on full display in Seven Proximities by Quebec’s Maxime McKinley; their virtuosity and musicianship shone in Prokofiev’s epic Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op.56 with its long lines, mysterious mood, devilish passagework, slow and sultry slow movement and jocular finale. Schnittke’s clever Moz-Art (on K416) for Two Violins was played with verve. Their version of Mozart’s Turkish March put a bow on a lively 60 minutes of music that is rarely heard live. The concert was another essential component of the cornucopia that is this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival.

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

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

 

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.

 

RashaanAngela Hewitt. Photo credit: Bernd Eberle.This summer, Campbellford’s Westben Arts Festival once more beckons audiences to their corner of the great Canadian outdoors. From July 21 to 23, their “piano weekend” holds special appeal for piano lovers—if the names Angela Hewitt, Jan Lisiecki or Rashaan Allwood don’t ring a bell, this is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the current generation of Canadian pianists who continue to carve their niche.

A veteran pianist who has performed on various continents, Angela Hewitt is looking forward to playing at Westben on July 23. If the sold-out performance is any indication, the audience is also anticipating the date. “I haven’t done a summer tour in Canada for many years, so it’s nice to be doing one again,” Hewitt shared with The WholeNote earlier this month. “Summer festivals like this [at Westben] are very popular and rightly so. Hearing music in a setting other than the standard concert halls is always a special treat when it’s organised well. People appreciate the intimacy and the excitement of it all.”

Jan Lisiecki. Photo c/o CBC Music/Deutsche Grammophon.Fellow pianist Jan Lisiecki will perform at Westben the day before Hewitt, on July 22. His program includes works by Schubert, Schumann and Chopin—pieces with ample grandeur to fill a large concert hall—but he has no qualms about the shift to outdoor performance. “Performing in nature reflects entirely what Canada is about,” Lisiecki explained to The WholeNote. “It is not only an urbanized country—most of our land is pure beauty. To be a part of that and to create beauty in music is simply a great joy.”

Playing outdoors brings a veritable breath of fresh air to the listening experience. “Many unexpected things may happen,” continues Lisiecki. “Being close to nature means that you also enjoy the sounds and responses from birds, or simply the wind rustling through the leaves. It is a completely different way of engaging with classical music.” Mother Nature also works its magic on the artist: “I think it creates a better bond between the performer and the audience, and it feels more at ease—less strict, more flexible.”

Rashaan Allwood.Rounding out the piano lineup, Rashaan Allwood will make a two-part appearance in an innovative program that plays directly to Westben’s natural surroundings. In an evening concert on July 21, Allwood will present two major birdcall-themed anthologies by Olivier Messiaen. The following morning, audiences will be invited for a stroll in Westben’s backyard among birds and other wildlife, with musical commentary by Allwood.

Messiaen is known for evoking birdcalls in his compositions, and Allwood believes the composer strove to capture the raw, unembellished sounds found in nature. “Rather than trying to impose my own musical standards of beauty on the birds, I just hear them as what it is: crazy, sometimes manic, but sometimes sweet,” Allwood says. “You hear the chaos and the polyphony of nature—eight birds singing at once, leaves rustling in the wind.”

His affinity for the music of Messiaen was an acquired taste. “I was confused at first! But I knew that I loved Messiaen, so I thought there must be something here!” he adds. It turns out the key to understanding his music lies outside the practice room: “A big thing for me was learning that to make good music, you have to experience things; otherwise, you have nothing to draw on. So then I got really interested in ‘what else can I learn from outside, instead of trying to get better by just sitting and practising for a long time?’”

Compared with Messiaen’s untouched treatment of the sounds of birds, Allwood finds that other composers like Liszt, Ravel, or even Beethoven repackaged their impressions of nature. “When Liszt hears birds, water, or other natural elements, I feel he wants something very light, beautiful, pretty. He takes those words, and tonicises them to music.”

Despite his reputation for sometimes writing difficult-to-approach music, in an era where processed products seem to be losing their appeal, Messiaen could be food for the soul. What is the key to accessing his soundworld?

"Listen not in the same way we listen to music, but the way we listen to nature,” says Allwood. “Take it all in and let it wash over you, like a soundscape.

“I think we’re often worried about new things, because we don’t know if we’re going to like it,” he continues. “When you give people something they can contextualize, the audience gets just as excited [as they would with more mainstream music]. I think it’s actually quite possible to engage them in an hour of Messiaen, despite the non-believers.”

Here in our own backyard, there is still fresh ground to be charted for classical music—and events like these are a compelling step in that direction.

Westben’s summer festival series runs until August 6 in Campbellford. For more information, visit www.westben.ca. Stay posted at www.thewholenote.com for more updates from this year’s Westben festival.  

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.

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.

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