Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Heart of Robin Hood

There's much excitement going on at the Royal Alexandra Theatre these days.  The audience is invited into Sherwood Forest for a telling of the Robin Hood tale, but with a few twists.

I happened to attend on Opening Night, something I've never done before.  It was as a result of that evening being a convenient date more than wanting to go to the opening.  Being prevented from entering the theatre until about 15 mins before the show was suppose to start didn't make for a comfortable start to the evening.  The waiting area by the mezzanine doors was packed and hot.  Finally we got inside and a look at the stage.  There was no curtain (perhaps the reason for the delay since no warm ups etc. could be hidden from the audience) and what looked like a rather short stage area before the grass slopped up into a very steep hill disappearing into the fly space.  There was a band playing onstage with lots of energy, and a small pond completed the set.

When the performance started the purpose of the hill became clear, the actors and musicians slid down it, and effortlessly hopped to their feet at the bottom!  The stage didn't look very wide and thankfully they always stopped short of the audience (perhaps the material changed adding a bit of a brake).  I imagine it would be quite a visual from the front row seeing these people speeding down a hill towards you.  A few actors also climbed back up the hill using hidden hand and foot holds.
The Set with the hill open

Starting in the forest, we meet Robin Hood (played by Gabriel Ebert) and his merry men, who steal from the rich for themselves and have a pact that no woman ever be allowed to join their group.  Setting up a dramatic irony problem right there.

Meanwhile at the castle (which was created by cantilevered platforms folding out of the hill),
Izzie Steele as Marion
Marion (the lovely Izzie Steele) isn't happy.  Her sister wishes to marry but being the younger can't until Marion has first.  The King is off fighting in the crusades and Prince John (Euan Morton) provides the perfect suitor for the sister to push on Marion.  Marion wants none of that and escapes to the forest with her guardian Pierre (joyfully played by Christian Lloyd).  There she meets Robin Hood, is upset he doesn't do what the legend says (giving the stolen plunder to the poor), and sets herself up as Martin, fulfilling the legend.  It is Martin, not Robin, who we see in the expected green tights and feather cap.

Marion is enticed back to the castle to prevent the execution of two children by marrying John.  Robin goes to rescue her and the fairy tale has a happy ending.  His switch in opinion of women happens awfully quickly though.

Several characters, including Marion's sister in a nice dress, end up completely drenched in the pond. I'm sure the costumers are thrilled at having to deal with that each day.  There are some oddities.  It's not really a musical, Robin refuses to sing regularly, and I couldn't understand most of what the musicians were singing, so I have no idea if it was relevant or not.  Parts are gruesome.  I get that John is evil but I don't need to see him extract a guys tongue on stage to have the point emphasized.
Robin/Marion in flight

Things happen in the air, I'm not sure I'd really call it aerial work as most involves people just hanging there.  The duet with Robin and Marion isn't very interesting.  One of the funniest sort of aerial moments was Little John (Jeremy Crawford) held aloft in a basket using a henchmen that they'd killed as a puppet so John would think he was still alive.

Robin and Martin
It was an entertaining evening, and I did enjoy the "Matrix" slow motion style fight moments.  I would have to agree with the Globe and Mail review.  I hope it has a good run on Broadway, but not really sure where it fits in.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Celtic Christmas with Leahy

The Toronto Symphony went Celtic for Christmas this year.  I almost didn't go having found the concert a few years ago with a similar theme somewhat boring, but I'm certainly glad I did.

Donnell Leahy and Natalie MacMaster
(all photos from TSO Facebook page)
The special guest this year was Leahy.  Headed by Donnell, he was joined by two of his fiddling brothers (I'm not sure what the relation was with the pianist and drummer), his wife the incomparable Natalie MacMaster, their six children, and a few of their cousins.

Steven Reineke
With Steven Reineke at the helm, the TSO got the Christmas theme rolling with a rich and dense "Holiday Overture".  They played my favourite arrangement of "Winter Wonderland" (by Ralph Hermann) and a familiar but not overplayed version of "Carol of the Bells".

Reineke's arranging skills were featured in a gospel take of "Go Tell it on the Mountain".  Vocals were provided by the Etobicoke School of the Arts, the standard choir for the TSO Christmas concerts.

Step Dancing
Leahy took the stage with enthusiasm and infused the audience with their spirit.  Highlights were the introduction of the children step dancing in the last piece before intermission.  At each phrase of the music another youngster, getting younger and younger danced out for their turn in the spotlight.  The audience leapt to their feet at the end.

Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph (there was also a Joseph Michael) at 7 years old made his TSO solo debut playing "Silent Night" on a small fiddle.  As Donnell said it only took him about 40 more years (as Leahy was making their debut as well) to get to the same spot.  The rest of the children also demonstrated their music skills joining Michael for "Away in a Manger".  Donnell was very gracious, thanking the TSO for the opportunity for multiple generations to have the experience of playing with a wonderful symphony.

As always the evening concluded with a sing along.  But wait!  There was an encore with one of my favourite songs.  The entire Leahy clan, the TSO, and choir joined forces for the very fitting "Christmas in Killarney".

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What Makes The Four Seasons Great?
I enjoy Rob Kapilow.  I learn more about music in an hour of his talks deconstructing a piece then I did in all of my high school music history class.  Granted that classes didn't focus on the same things, but it was so boring compared to the enthusiasm and insight Kapilow provides.

He was in town as part of the Toronto Symphony's "Exposed" series.  The piece of music in question: Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, "Autumn" and "Winter".  Apparently several seasons ago he covered "Spring" and "Summer".  Unfortunately I missed that concert. Chee-Yun was the guest violinist and is a beautiful player.  In the Q&A after the concert she told us she had started learning the piece in middle school, a "long, long time ago".  My understanding of her story, which I hope I heard correctly, was that the violin she was playing was from 1669 and was actually buried with a guy for a while.  Obviously it has been well looked after since then as it still has the original varnish.  She's decorated it a bit by adding a glittering fine tuning post and mute, which was a gift from a student.  They matched her shimmering dress and shoes.  She doesn't practice in the heels though :)
Chee-Yun (

While we're on the subject of violins, someone asked about the one played by concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky.  His was made in 2008 by a friend in Salt Lake City.  Talk about old meeting new.

But let's get to Vivaldi.  I had no idea The Four Seasons had accompanying poetry!  Granted, it's not great poetry which has led some to believe Vivaldi wrote it himself.  Given how well it fits the music, that makes sense to me.  I also never thought about "Autumn" and "Winter" each having three movements.  I generally classified The Four Seasons itself as a piece with 4 movements, never thinking they were further divided.
A highlight in the deconstruction of the first movement of "Autumn" was the seven ways Vivaldi makes music sound drunk, including a cello that can't find the beat paired with double stops in the solo violin.  Kapilow also pointed out examples of sequencing where the same pattern is repeated higher or lower.  It was fun to listen for this and be able to recognize it elsewhere as well.  In the second movement the orchestra goes to sleep, not literally, but the music has descending arcs as if each time they can't get back to the top note to repeat the pattern.  The concluding movement is made exciting by the dotted rhythm which we sang out along with Kapilow.  A boring version using a straight rhythm was demonstrated by the orchestra with the instructions to play it in as dull a manner as possible.  There's nothing quite like a little rhythmic pattern to add interest.
The poetry of "Winter" is perfect for the music.  So we could see this the appropriate lines of text were projected above the orchestra in the second half of the concert where they performed the full piece.  The trembling notes represent shivering while the solo violin breaks in as the "bitter blast of a horrible wind".  This then gives way to ", constantly stamping one's feet".  It's so easy to hear what's happening with the words put to it.  The second movement text opens with "to spend restful, happy days at the fireside".   Musically this is matched perfectly by the lovely solo melody, while the pizzicato in the orchestra is the rain outside.  Ice arrives in the third movement "to walk on the ice, and with slow steps to move about cautiously for fear of falling".  Then "to go fast, to slip and fall down" represented by the downward running notes.  It finishes with "that's winter, but of a kind to gladden one's heart".  At Kapilow said, how very Canadian.  Here's hoping this winter is like movement two more than three.

Vivaldi has always been one of my favourite composers, but this work is even more enjoyable now that I know more about the music, and all you have to do is listen.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Best of the Beatles

What do you do with The Beatles?  "Best of" can be a misnomer as each listener has their own definition of "best" and their favourite tunes.  A fact that was not ignored and even acknowledged by a member of Rajaton saying that he hoped peoples favourites were included in the show.

But let's go back a step.  The TSO Pops season opened with Finnish guest vocal group Rajaton in an evening of Beatles music.  Known for their acappella work, Rajaton were mostly accompanied by the fine Toronto Symphony, except for "Lady Madonna" in the second half and "Eleanor Rigby" as an encore.  It seemed an odd choice for an encore as it's not a very happy ending to the evening.  Although as a vocal showcase it was impressive.  As it turned out, "Let It Be" was a second encore which actually concluded the evening.

Principal Pops Conductor, Steven Reineke's approach to the Beatles was to program the album Sgt.
Steven Reineke
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
 in its entirety as the first half.  The second half featured a selection of number one hits.  The Sgt. Pepper era is not my favourite of the Beatles music.  A lot of the songs from the album I don't know.  I enjoyed "When I'm 64" which was probably my favourite.  "With a Little Help from My Friends" will always remind me of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's 2009 performance at the National Arts Centre gala, a year after he won re-election with a minority government.  Not that I was there but it made the papers and, as with everything else, it's on youtube.

Features from the second half included "Yesterday" (interesting to hear with a slight Finnish accent), "Ticket to Ride", "She Loves You", "Penny Lane", "All You Need is Love", and "Hey Jude".  The transition between these last two was great with the trumpets picking up the "Hey Jude" tune.  I probably will never understand the appeal of that song, but it did get the audience singing.  Rajaton had tried to get us clapping along earlier and it worked briefly but then fizzled.

As always the orchestra wasn't left out.  The evening opened with what I believe was Reineke's arrangement titled "Ed Sullivan Welcomes the Beatles".  It was a medley of the five songs the Beatles played on his show in February 1964, "All My Loving", "Till There Was You" (apparently they didn't know this was Meredith Willson's song from The Music Man until much later and never sang anything from Broadway again), "She Loves You", "I Saw Her Standing There", and "I Want to Hold Your Hand".  The orchestra also opened the second act with "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da".

There were some audience members who had also been at Maple Leaf Gardens when the Beatles played Toronto in September 1964.  50 years later, the appeal of their music has clearly not waned.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Starting the 14/15 Season with the TSO

Saturday night I attended my first concert of the  TSO season.  As Peter Oundjian explained, he decided to open the season with a program to showcase the orchestra, ie: no special featured soloist.  It was titled Arabian Nights.

The evening opened with one of my favourite pieces, which never fails to conjure up images of Torvill and Dean in my mind...yep, it was "Bolero".  Snare drum player John Rudolph was moved to a place of honour in the centre of the orchestra, rather than remaining at the back in the percussion section.  The orchestra started so quietly it was hard to tell that the piece actually had started.  It took a moment for people to stop fidgeting and strain their ears for that familiar beat.
Torvill and Dean Bolero Program
I've seen the TSO perform this before, but it's such a great piece to watch being played.  There are still times when I'm looking around asking myself, what instrument is that?   The extra saxophone player had the quickest instrument swap completing the melody on one sax then switching to the soprano sax and picking it right up again.  "Bolero" grows so subtly and smoothly that by the time it gets to the end it's just a fantastic climax.

The second piece was another I'd heard before, but really like.  As I hear it more the other sections are starting to grow on me, but I still love the finale.  This was 1919 suite of "The Firebird", shorter than the other suite Stravinsky also wrote from the ballet score.  As Mr. Oundjian said in his introduction it has the same pull to your feet as the Bolero.  I was more inclined to get to my feet after Bolero, but perhaps that's just a personal preference.

There were multiple player switch-outs in the winds and brass for various pieces.   It was nice to see a lot of familiar faces in one evening.  Congratulations to the newest brass player, Steven Woomert, winning the Associate Principal Trumpet position and replacing his father Barton who retired last season.

"Scheherazade" by Rimsky-Korsakov, the teacher of Stavinsky, closed the program.  This piece seems to be programmed often, yet I've never gone to see it.  This time though it was accompanied by two others I new I liked, so there was no doubt it wouldn't be a great evening of music.  Concertmaster Jonathan Crow played the violin solo sections beautifully.  The very high note near the end, that slightly misplaced could have been very cringe worthy, was of course perfectly placed and sustained.  In all the pieces there were brief solos in the sections which I always enjoy.  An arrangement of the third movement, "The Young Prince and Princess" I've played before in quite a small ensemble.    It was thrilling to hear that theme as it was meant to be, played by 30 violins in perfect pitch.  "The Sea" section of the final movement is so cool.  I had no idea what the section was called but was thinking, wow this really sounds like the sea.  Kudos to the crash cymbal and bass drum players.  Timing the wind up and impacts seems like it could be pretty stressful.  Having not read the program, but knowing that it was somewhat based on the 1001 Nights, I was sucked into a story through music.  It doesn't get any better than that.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Crazy for You at the Stratford Festival

All photos from Stratford site
I've never had an easy answer to the "what is your favourite musical?" question.  However,  I think I'd probably say Crazy For You.  Scratch that, I know I'd say Crazy For You.  After seeing it again today (for the 3rd time and if time or ticket deals allow I'd go again without hesitation) I'm confident in that.  The music of Gershwin, a fantastic story with a happy ending, and high energy dancing, it doesn't get any better than that.  Each time I see it, there's something else I notice.  Maybe the cast is adding things or making small changes to keep it fresh for themselves, but if the moments really weren't there before it's wonderful since it keeps it fresh for the audience too.  Moments like Bella going to pour a drink and opening his hand to show there's no glass there, or the banter between Bobby and Polly in "I Got Rhythm" like the line "Show me what you got" as they have a mini dance off, are perfect.

Franklin in New York
Josh Franklin is wonderful as Bobby Child.  I first saw him as Billy Crocker in Anything Goes last summer in Toronto.  He's also played Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys (and got to perform a set from that show in A Capitol Fourth!).  There seems to be a trend with him playing characters who have names starting with 'B'.  Perhaps Bobby in Company is next on his to do list?

I first saw Crazy for You when it was in Toronto 20 years ago (oh my, was it really that long ago?).  That production I saw at least twice, maybe three times.  Camilla Scott starred as Polly Baker, and maybe I'm biased because she was the first I saw so I draw comparisons, but I think I preferred her to Natalie Daradich.  Natalie is good, has a great voice, and lovely dancing, I just have fond remembrances of Scott in the roll.

"Naughty Baby"
While I am comparing productions, there were a few things I missed in Stratford's.  "Stiff Upper Lip" had no pointe shoe tap dance section that I still remember clearly along with the climbing chairs stacked on the table.  The reference in the Stratford production to Les Mis by mentioning the stacked chairs looked like the French Revolution helped make up for it, but alas there was no climbing on them.  Lank (played by Shane Carty) and Irene's (played by Robin Hutton) "Naughty Baby" number didn't seem sleazy enough.  I know, it's a family show musical, but Irene in a satin nightgown helped add that element, in a somewhat subtle way, to the Toronto production.  Lank certainly got his distain for Irene across with his line delivery though.

The performance I think I had trouble buying into the most was Lally Cadeau as Mrs. Child.  I'm not sure why, maybe subconsciously to my mind she'll always be Janet King (sorry Ms. Cadeau), and so I didn't find it believable.

"I Got Rhythm"
The choreography was great!  Huge shout out to Donna Feore.  Her use of the stage was fantastic.  It was also fun to recognize some steps that were taught in my tap class this year.  "I Got Rhythm", the closing to Act I, didn't have the spoons, dancing on corrugated tin, or playing a saw like a violin from the Toronto production, but honestly I didn't miss it by the second viewing.  It's different, but there's SO MUCH going on and so many amazing dance feats showcasing the fantastic cast, what's not to like?

Overall the use of the stage was well done.  The sets were varied and easily gave the New York City and Deadrock Nevada feel.  The big white ball, appropriately lit as the sun or moon, was fun too.

Green tutus
Most of the costumes were also great.  The show girls in pink were perfect, exactly what I expected for "Nice Work if You Can Get It".  For a moment I was a bit worried when the opening had Bella Zanger's girls in these green, funky, flat, tutu things, but it got better.  Josh Franklin even pulls off Bella's pink suit with style.  Although he's handsome enough to pretty much look good in anything.

I had forgotten some of the dialogue and the wit that is interspersed throughout the show and found myself burst out laughing when Bobby takes a large step away from Lank when Lank says to him,  "You are close to an idiot" :)

The interaction between Franklin and Tom Rooney (who plays Bella) in "What Causes That" was absolutely hilarious.  The audience was in stitches.

The sound levels were also perfect.  For a while I thought the singers might be unamplified and had to look really hard to find the mics.  They are getting so small these days!  Franklin's was almost completely hidden in his side burn and most of the ladies I couldn't see at all. I assume they were hidden in or under their wigs.  The sound was always pure and never over powering.  Taps were amplified when needed (such as Bobby's dancing solos) but mostly just showed the dancers skill in having clean and precise sounds.  They made it look easy.

The cast recording is now available and I expect it's really good especially if they used or augmented the 20 or so musicians who were already in the pit.  Even 20 is a large number compared to what tours with a Broadway show these days, so it was super nice to hear the richness of the Gershwin score.  Unfortunately the orchestra was back to being hidden behind the stage unlike in 42nd Street a few seasons ago where they were visible on a balcony.

Finale - the happy ending!
I always use the speed at which the audience gets to their feet as a gauge of how much they enjoyed the performance.  Standing ovations were almost immediate.  It was also nice to see genuine looks of appreciation from the actors.  I hope they had as much fun doing the show as I have had watching it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

10th New Creations Festival

A many months late, Happy New Year!  It was a slow winter for my attendance at musical events, and the first concert I went to was the opening of the 10th annual New Creations Festival with the TSO.  The concert, titled Adams: Doctor Atomic, included the title work as this years featured composer was American John Adams.  Unfortunately he wasn't on hand to do the conducting honours, but was schedule to arrive in time for some of the later concerts.

I don't know what was different this year, but I found myself liking the music.   All of it, even the opening lobby entertainment by The Glenn Gould School of New Music Ensemble, was enjoyable.  "My Twentieth Century" the pre-concert Ensemble piece was different, sure, but the mixture of poetry and music worked for me.

Kevin Lau
The concert began with a new work by affiliate composer, Kevin Lau, "Down the Rivers of Windfall Light".  It's based off the Dylan Thomas poem Fern Hill, about a child escaping into their imagination. Maybe it was the premise or the fact I was listening to the cast recording of Alice in Wonderland on my drive down, but it reminded me of that story.  I didn't find it weird, but programmatic with an overarching story that was understandable.  The brass was exquisitely used and one five note theme reminded me of the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It had some interesting instrumentation in the percussion section, even a rain stick.

Completely switching gears, Adams' "Doctor Atomic Symphony" was up next.  It's a 25 minute, single movement work based on his opera of the same name
about the making of the atomic bomb.  The scenes evoked are of the test site: the electrical storm that occurred a few hours before the test, a ritual "corn dance" by Tewa Indians, and the poem "Batter my heart, three person'd God" that inspired the naming of the site "Trinity".  At times it was bombastic and at others excruciatingly longing.  Andrew McCandless played the trumpet solo beautifully, as did the other brass soloists on the horn, trombone, and tuba.  In the percussion section were some things I hadn't seen before.  There was a huge set of chimes that had a set of stairs up to them, two thunder sheets, and cymbals being played by running a bow along the edges.

Magnus Lindburg
The last piece was "Piano Concerto No. 2" by Magnus Lindberg, featuring guest soloist Yefim Bronfman, who didn't look very much like his picture in the program.  Moments reminded me of "Rhapsody in Blue", and there's no doubt he's a powerful pianist.  Perhaps it was because of where I was sitting, but it sounded like the orchestra overpowered the piano at times.  The cadenza, written very late in the composing process, was impressive.  It was not my favourite piece of the night, but got a rousing ovation and multiple curtain calls.

For an analysis by a real critic, try the National Post.