Thursday, December 24, 2009

Beethoven and Another Premiere

December 12th marked my second TSO trip of the month. A performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony (#6), and a world premiere of a new violin piece commissioned by Robert McDuffie and the TSO from Philip Glass. It's a modern take on Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Technically it was the third time it was performed, since the TSO had done in at the Wednesday concert, then Thursday at my other favourite place, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. According to a few reviews the Glass piece stopped the show. Which is perhaps why they reversed the order and played the Beethoven first.

It was the first casual concert that I'd attended...half hour earlier start, no intermission, and a party in the lobby afterwards. We didn't really stay for the party, but the straight through performance worked well. It was also the first time I saw Peter Oundjian conduct. He's ok, certainly not boring to watch or bad, and he shared with the audience a bit of history on how he knew McDuffie (back when they were both at Julliard and recognized each other while wanting to purchase the same steak at a grocery store...who knows if it's true or not). I always like it when conductors interact with the audience.

As for the music, well you'd have to mess up Beethoven a lot for me to dislike it. I think Symphony 6 is my favourite. It's just so lyrical and really gives the feeling of the countryside. Not being a huge fan of violin solo works, I'll admit to finding the Glass piece a little long. Amazingly played though. How someone can memorize a 45 minute piece is beyond me! The style is repetitive, although there were enough new themes to keep it mostly interesting. I do like the combination of solo "songs" and then the orchestra movements. Perhaps a bit more guidance as to what theme might be winter, spring, summer, fall is needed for me. Although part of the point I expect is that the audience decides for themselves. The double stops were great! Something I'd never heard before.

All in all an enjoyable evening out.

More later, as my December with the TSO continues.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Concordia Pops Christmas

Tonight was our last concert before the Christmas break, and in my opinion it was the best so far. The audience at Thorton View was certainly the most engaged. The oboist wasn't there so the other 1st clarinet and I played the solo in Linden Lea (because our music had the cues) and we nailed it! Booyah! It was certainly the best I had played most of the pieces. There's still a few that are easy to get lost in, and we don't really get cued for entrances, although the getting lost doesn't happen while counting rests so I'm not sure it would really help anyway.

The Christmas music is fun to play, although it feels long. Particularly the last sing along piece where the audience gets to join and sing along (did you expect them to do something else? :) ). It seems to never end and my cheeks are aching by the end. The overall tone was really good tonight and the acoustics in the room sounded very nice.

So a few weeks with no official rehearsal, yet new music was handed out, hence no rest from the practicing.

Looking forward to hearing more of the Toronto Symphony and Handel's Messiah next week though. More about last weeks Beethoven's 6th and the world premiere of Philip Glass's Four Seasons to come. Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dvorak, Tovey, McCandless, world premieres, and the TSO

December 2 was another great concert night. Beginning with a side note: Section R6 in the mezzanine is really quite good. You can see the whole stage and are close enough to see exactly who's playing. I had a great view of the principal clarinetist, and could see his fingers moving. End side note.

The conductor for the evening was Bramwell Tovey, conductor for the Vancouver Symphony among others. His voice I was familiar with from the series of CBC podcasts on Beethoven's 9 Symphonies, where he also played parts of the symphonies on the piano, so obviously talented and knowledgeable. His talent extends into being a pretty impressive composer as well. The first half of the concert included his "Urban Runway" and "Songs of the Paradise Saloon". As a conductor he definitely knew the music. He didn't open the score of "Urban Runway" until half way through the piece and then didn't really turn pages once he did open it. The intimate knowledge that comes with being the composer I suppose.

"Urban Runway" looked hard to play, particularly with watching the drummer. At one point the trumpet player had to take out the mute, turn the page, and get ready to play again in very short order. There also didn't seem to be one set of instruments that maintained the melody for long stretches (violas did for a bit apparently as a reminder of "the pre-owned grunge look") yet you could still pick out a continuous musical line. It was good modern music and totally had the sense of walking down a street looking snazzy!

"Songs of the Paradise Saloon" is a trumpet concerto commissioned for the TSO's Principal Trumpet Andrew McCandless, and this was it's world premiere. It ended up involving a C-trumpet, 2 fugal horns, a cornet, piccolo trumpet, and various mouthpiece he had hidden in his pockets to keep them warm. A longer piece than "Urban" yet equally enjoyable. A sort of theme and variations type which I always enjoy and it had some definite hummable melodies. It was great that Tovey and McCandless introduced the piece by explaining a bit about where it came from (based on a scene in Tovey's in progress opera "The Inventor") and how it developed. This intro concluded with "for those who have been to a pub you can imagine your own scenarios [referring to people one may meet there], for those who haven't, you can decide after this if it's somewhere you'd like to visit". If pubs had that kind of music it's somewhere I'd go!

The 2nd half was Dvorak's "New World Symphony". I've been anxious to hear this performed in full since the Largo movement was featured in "A Chorus of Hits" (further discussed here). I listened to parts of it on youtube for the first time before going to the concert and was surprised to hear some themes I recognized from John Williams music. The 3nd movement has some sequences of notes that likely influenced "Dual of the Fates" and the 4th movement starts as "Jaws" does. Although this was much more noticeable in the youtube version than live. The Largo was again beautiful (aside from the people who decide that's when they need to cough! ), with a duet between the oboe and clarinet I hadn't noticed before. The more lively movements were also fun to watch and listen to.

Something I'd like to know though. The principal clarinetist, oboist and a french horn (I don't believe the principal. He sat in the section beside us during the first half.) didn't play the first half, yet did perform the second. Why would they not want to play a world premiere yet want to play a symphony they've likely played many, many times over the course of their career? If anyone would care to fill me in on how this stuff works for orchestral musicians and what they can pick to perform, I'd be interested to know.

Stay tuned for notes about Beethoven's 6th next week and the first time I finally get to see Peter Oundjian conduct.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Night of Fast Fingers with the TSO!

Last night I went to the "Best of Benny Goodman" concert with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and some amazing guest artists! This year would have been Goodman's 100th birthday, hence tributes seem to happening at several orchestras (NACO has theirs scheduled for January, although with a different clarinetist).

Jeff Tyzik (principal pops conductor of the Vancouver Symphony among others) conducted with Dave Bennett providing the awesome clarinet stylings which are apparently as close as you can get to the Benny Goodman originals. I was particularly surprised to arrive in the hall and find what I would call a glockenspiel but what is apparently a vibraphone sitting centre stage. Peter Appleyard who has been performing for 65 years and spent 8 of those touring with Benny Goodman (he's now 81 years old) performed throughout the first half primarily with a "swing band" consisting of Reg Schwager (guitar), John Sherwood (piano, who according to Bennett, drives from St. Catherines to wherever they play), Dave Young (bass, this guy didn't stop the entire show!), and Terry Clarke (drums, who incidentally is playing with Young this weekend in the NAC's "Celebrating Oscar Peterson" performance). Aside from some string accompaniment, the orchestra didn't do a lot in the first half. Although it was nice to see one of the basses and first chair cello player swinging with the music. It's always an added bonus when the musicians appear to be engaged and enjoying themselves, whether they're playing or not.
They played a bit more in the second half, which also included vocalist Carol McCartney singing "Why Don't You Do Right?" and "Blues in the Night". She has a lovely voice and it was a nice addition to the concert.

So a short rave about Dave Bennett. His tone is incredible when loud or soft, I don't know how his fingers can move so fast. Jumping the bridge is no challenge and his range is glorious. Certainly no controlled squeaks, pure tone the whole way. At one point he was acc-
enting a single low note then jumping to quick, high runs and I had to check if the clarinetist in the orchestra was playing, it sounded so much like two people. He never had a bit of music and had funky shoes :)

Peter Appleyard was equally enjoyable to watch and listen to. He's hands moved pretty fast at times too, and that was with 4 mallets in them! I believe it was "Sing Sing Sing" where he tried to get the drummer to bite and finish off a phrase he started. It's easy to sing yet impossible to describe in words, but in short the drummer didn't, and the audience had a chuckle. Speaking of the audience, during intermission he went up to the mezzanine and talked to some people he obviously knew, including a gentleman and lady all dressed up in the front row. It was a bit far to tell for sure but I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was TSO music director Peter Oundjian.

Jeff Tyzik didn't have a lot to do during all the solos, yet joined in the subtle swinging to the beat from the podium. Where we were sitting off to the side in the balcony we had a great view of Bennett and could see more of how Tyzik related to the orchestra than you would if you were seated directly behind him. He complemented the orchestra several times and gave credit to all the musicians. He's not in the running to become my favourite conductor, but enjoyable to experience none the less.

I do have a question for the TSO though. In the program they publish the names of the orchestra members, but in this case it certainly didn't reflect who was on stage. For example, only 2 trombone players are listed (and one of those is marked as being on sabbatical), yet I believe there were 4 on stage. There was a young guy in the middle who almost looked like a teenager, but who obviously was good enough to play with the symphony! But alas, no information on who these extra performers are. It would be nice if all additional musicians were somehow listed in the program, perhaps at the end of the bios.

All in all a great evening out and a change to "sing sing sing" all the way home!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Ahhh! Sudden Performance Anxiety Increase

Tonight was my second performance with the Concordia Pops. Having practiced this week I felt much more prepared. Once I got there though, I found out the other first clarinet wasn't going to be able to play leaving myself playing the first part, and the other gentleman playing the second. Suddenly the pressure has just seriously increased! There's parts where I know the clarinet is sort of hanging out there, so I was a bit worried.

"Sine Nomine" by Vaughan Williams went well. Although about half way through the first moment of Handel's "Water Music Suite 1", during a woodwind solo I started thinking hey, this is going well and promptly got lost. :( Not having a lot of experience (it's been about 4 weeks since I started) hearing all the parts together I had trouble re-orientating myself to get back in. But I did, and the rest of the movements went a bit better.

Smetana's "Polka from The Bartered Bride" I still need to work on. I don't know how anyone could really dance to that. Is there a video of the opera anywhere that would show the action during the music? I wonder if they actually dance to it. It's not really your traditional "om pa pa" polka beat. On the other hand, I quite enjoyed "The Moldau". Probably my favourite of the pieces.

"Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael sounded ok until a violin entrance 3/4 of the way through. A bit of a grind your teeth moment, not terribly in tune. I did learn that Carmichael's first name was Hoagland, and he was named after a circus troupe who was staying at his house. I suppose it could have been worse, and it's certainly helped make him distinctive in the music world.

This week it's all about learning Christmas music in preparation for the next 2 rehearsals before 2 more concerts. Yay Christmas music! (alas, no Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Music to Movies: Guys and Dolls

One of the things I love about the pops concerts I've attended is how they expand my interest in types of music. This often moves into the world of movies, particularly since pops concerts often feature music from movies and musicals.

My first experience with Pops was "Those Glorious MGM Musicals" (NACO-Everly conducting, March 2003). After this concert I wanted to see all the movies the wonderful songs came from. It wasn't until about a year ago I was actually able to embark on this mission. Although, after re-watching "Singin' in the Rain" I got side tracked by Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly (Great entertainers! Just check out: Sitting Dance, Shall We Dance?, What Chance Have I With Love etc.) and went looking for their other movies (unfortunately not all of them appear to be available :( More on my movie musical watching in another post). Other classics have made the consistently growing list as well. One of these was "Guys and Dolls", with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

I first watched this movie (starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, and Vivian Blaine-reprising her role of Adelaide from Broadway) a while ago and honestly didn't like it very much. I was waiting almost the whole movie for the one song I knew, "Luck Be a Lady", and was rather disappointed that it wasn't sung by Frank Sinatra! Although, the set of the New York street was recognizable from "That's Entertainment" which was neat.

However, this past week I took the 1992 Broadway cast recording (Peter Gallagher, Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, and Josie de Guzman) out of the library. For two days I listened to it repeatedly and discovered something interesting. I actually started to like the music more and more! Frank Loesser is certainly worth a second listen. Some of his most famous songs I've liked for ages without knowing the composer. For example:
Luck Be a Lady
Heart and Soul
Baby It's Cold Outside
A Bushel and a Peck (also from Guys and Dolls, but dropped out of the movie version).

The melodies and lyrics are enjoyable and quite witty at times. "If I Were a Bell", "Guys and Dolls" and "Adelaide's Lament" are now added to the list of songs I quite enjoy.

Having a new appreciation for the music I re-watched the movie. It was much more enjoyable this time. The music fit and even advanced the plot, the characters were more interesting, and I will never cease to find it amazing how in the span of two hours a man and woman can go from hating each other to getting married. Aww, the wonderful world of movies. :) I do wonder how much of the plot was changed from the stage show...obviously the core would be the same, but was there a brawl in the bar in Havana on stage?

Conclusion: Guys and Dolls grows on you and I'm very much looking forward to the NACO's "Guys and Dolls In Concert" in February!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reviews: Pops Plays Puccini and A Chorus of Hits

I had already put everything the library had by the Cincinnati Pops on my "to listen to" list, but as far as my interest went, the Pops Plays Puccini CD was at the bottom of the list. This all changed Oct 24 2009. That was the evening I went to "A Chorus of Hits" with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, Jack Everly conducting.

At first glance I expected to enjoy the first half of the program more than the second. It had popular tunes like "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, "The Sleeping Beauty Waltz" (which turned out to be the Walt Disney version with words), Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Requiem: Pie Jesu", "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof, "Duel of the Fates" from Star Wars, and concluded with Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus". In short, mostly pieces I recognized and knew at least some of the words to.

The second half included opera, which I've never particularly cared for as it's typically too high to understand and often not in English making comprehension impossible. But, Wow! Even with just a short introduction to the plot of Madama Butterfly to provide context for "The Humming Chorus" at the end of Act II and the orchestral "Prelude to Act III", I was amazed at how beautiful and enjoyable the music by Puccini was. As was mentioned by Maestro Everly, he certainly has a way with melody.

Just to conclude the concert discussion before moving onto the CD I was going to actually write about, the rest of the second half was equally amazing. Everly's own arrangements are typically show stoppers for me, and while "Two On The Emerald Aisle" (a medley from Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow) won't be one of my most memorable, it had some great moments with the chorus "going home with Bonnie Jean". "Polovtsian Dances" by Borodin also added to my time at the library post concert as I searched for (and found!) a recording. I also spent time reading the all knowing Wikipedia to learn it was from another opera, Prince Igor, yet themes are used in "Stranger in Paradise" from Kismet. The pure choral version of Dvorak's "New World Symphony: Largo" was hauntingly beautiful. Before the chorus performed the piece Mr. Everly read the back story of how in a women's POW camp a chorus was started where they arranged pieces from memory (including this one), rehearsed in secret, and continued until too many of them had died. Knowing this has definitely added depth to the meaning and changed the way I will hear this piece from now on. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture"- enhanced choral version, had it's Canadian premiere with this concert. They sang more than the recording I had heard not long before with the Cincinnati Pops, but still more orchestra than chorus. It certainly had everything though: chimes, chorus, simulated cannons via a big bass drum, a good attempt to recreate Tchaikovsky's original plan for a grandiose performance. A great conclusion which brought the people to their feet and forced an encore of "Climb Every Mountain". Wonderful concert all around!

Going back to the original topic...that concert sparked me to get Pops Plays Puccini earlier than I otherwise would have. It's subtitled "Puccini Without Words", and for an introduction to great themes from opera, it's perfect. I've listened to it repeatedly and never fail to get caught up in the soaring feeling of Gianni Schicci: O Mio Babbino Caro, and the ever popular Turandot: Nessun dorma. It includes both the Humming Chorus and the Orchestra Prelude to Act III from Madama Butterfly, so I get to re-live at least part of the concert. I've read plot summaries to some of the other operas featured, which include Tosca and La Boheme, but I still like the pieces from Butterfly the best. Perhaps I will eventually progress to versions with words, although for just enjoying great music and melody, this recording is excellent.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

1st Concordia Pops Performance

A few weeks ago I joined a Pops Orchestra as a second first clarinet. The repertoire is a mix of light classics and more popular pieces. My favourite is The Moldau by Smetana. I've loved this piece since having to study it in high school music class. The version we played has tricky fingering in places but actually sounds similar to the full 12 minute version I have by who knows what orchestra. We also played his Polka from The Bartered Bride. Ok piece, but the way I play it is certainly schlocky (ditto for the Andante and Allegro from one of Mozart's Sonatinas-my fingers haven't caught up to the brain seeing the notes yet in the allegro part). Granted I've only had the music for about 3 weeks, but more practicing is definitely necessary.

Thankfully tonight we left out Sophisticated Ladies, which is a medley of tunes by Duke Ellington. There was no drummer and as our conductor put it, "the only way this piece will swing would be on the end of a rope".

So here's to a week involving more practice time before our second performance next week.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I've been going to do this for ages now, and as usual procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday. Hence some of the posts will likely refer to events from the past. But comments always welcome.

The reason for starting this blog is to have an outlet for sharing my thoughts on all the wonderful music I've been enjoying lately.

Perhaps a short background:
I love the symphony! It all started back in 2002 with Pops concerts and the National Arts Centre Orchestra conducted by Jack Everly in Ottawa. From there I've come to the Toronto Symphony who's main Pops conductor was Erich Kunzel, which naturally led me to the Cincinnati Pops. Additionally, I discovered Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops through online radio of all places. So what you can expect to find in future posts is musings on various recordings, concerts, musicals, and maybe even few movies thrown in.

And now...on with the show!