Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas with the TSO

The calender year ended on a fitting note with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Christmas Concert.  The program was included in the same book as the one for Messiah, so I was anxiously awaiting this for about a week.  It included some of my favourites, so with just a quick glance I knew it was going to be good.  At the beginning of Dec. I remember saying that I hoped something from The Polar Express would be included in one of the several Christmas concerts I've attended.  Well it took until the last one, but "Believe" made the TSO program.  Fitting I suppose since the guest artist this year was tenor Mike Eldred, although I really was hoping for the orchestral suite from the movie.

Steven Reineke returned as conductor in what is perhaps going to become standard for these concerts.  He mentioned he'll be back next year with Canadian Brass.  Lots of his arrangements were used as well.  On another note, there was more festive attire on stage than decorations around Roy Thomson Hall.  The lobby had 3 hanging wreaths and that was it!  Their decorators need to visit the ISO :)

On stage there were two lit trees, red and green spotlighting and the orchestra which had multiple members liven things up by wearing red or green, Santa hats (more on that later), and funky Christmas ties.  Award winners in the tie area were principal cellist Joseph Johnson with what looked like Santa and principal trombone Gordon Wolfe with reindeer.  One of the trumpeters had French horns on his tie, and one oboist had a bright red sweater.  There were likely more, but those were who I noticed.  Oh I almost forgot, the winner of the most sparkly tie was definitely Maestro Reineke.  His tie had a stripe of glitter down the centre that shimmered in the lights.  Even Mike Eldred commented on it and Steven replied he was helping out the Canadian economy by purchasing it (Thanks Steven!).

Anyway, on with the musical part of our program.  The "Holiday Overture" started with a series of Christmas song quotes that went by too fast to really pick them out.  A longer version of "Hannukah, O Hannukah" was very recognizable though.  Through the concert I felt sorry for the percussionist who got saddled with the long strand of sleigh bells, they looked heavy and tiring after a while.  Yet he never got off the beat!

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" led into "Winter Medley" which included at least "Winter Weather", "Winter Wonderland" and "Let in Snow".  There wasn't a part for the string bass section in this one, but they were bopping along.  It's nice to see musicians enjoying the music.

The next two songs I'd never heard before.  The first was "Christmas 'Round the World" and the second "Give Your Love for Christmas".  Steven introduced "Give Your Love" which he found in the New York Pops library and has Google and Wiki searched but can't find where it's from.  I would have thought being associated with 4 orchestras one of the librarians would be able to track down some info on it.  It's a pretty song with a nice message and the chorus sang it beautifully.  After spending some time doing Google and public library catalogue searches of my own I've come to conclude "Christmas 'Round the World" is rarely recorded and only Mike seems to have done it.  For all I know, it could have been written for him.  It's on his Christmas CD "Let it Begin" and is a great song!  Sort of a smooth jazz type feel.  Check out itunes or here for a preview .

Flipping back to the orchestra, they played what I've come to consider my favourite orchestral version of "Winter Wonderland".  It's a rather over played song this time of year, yet this arrangement by Ralph Hermann has a great beat, doesn't drag, incorporates different styles (the standard full orchestra with lots of brass, some light weight flute runs, pizzicato strings, and finishes with a march), and just isn't boring!  It's also on the Yuletide Celebration CD by the ISO :)

Mike then read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" accompanied by the orchestra performing Randol Bass' setting.  I really like the main theme in the music, it reminds me of something you might hear at Disney.  A band version with minimal strings is here.  One of the best parts is the timpani at the line "down the chimney St. Nicolas came with a bound".  In fact just as a piece of music without the narration I think it would be quite enjoyable.

The first half concluded with a piece I first heard on AccuHolidays performed by the Cincinnati Pops, "Little Bolero Boy" (a sampling of their version can be found here).  At the time, I recognized the mixing of "The Little Drummer Boy" and Ravel's "Bolero" but didn't know it had it's own distinct name. I figured it was just a different "Drummer Boy" arrangement.  Anyhow, the piece was being introduced by Steven when suddenly the percussion section transformed themselves from straight-laced musicians to festive overload!  The sleigh bells guy I mentioned earlier had on a full Santa beard with his Santa hat, and the snare drum player had dawned a Santa hat, with reindeer antlers and a blinking red Rudolph nose!  Steven turned around ready to start, faced this, and had to relax, chuckle and get his bearings again.  He then said to the audience it was featuring "Rudolph on the snare drum".  Had I known then what I know now I would have gotten a much bigger kick out of that comment.  It turns out the principal percussionist's, and incidentally snare drum player, name is John Rudolph! :)  Anyhow, the piece is great, and I don't know how Steven managed to get through it with the blinking red nose staring back at him, especially since it didn't blink in time!

The second half began with one of my favourite songs, "We Need a Little Christmas".  In fact a few nights ago I watched Mame, the movie this song is from, for the first time, .  I think Angela Lansbury would do (and likely did on Broadway) a better job of the title character than Lucille Ball, but it was enjoyable.  Mike returned for "Silver Bells" and added a nice prelude verse.  Unfortunately I can't remember any of it to try to find it again, but it was a pretty and fitting addition.

The definitive version of "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson featured just the orchestra again.  I LOVE the bass line part in this!  This version is by the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams.  The good bass part starts about 1:53.  A different take on "Jingle Bell Rock" was performed as well.  It started with a trio of phenomenal solos by the clarinet, trumpet and trombone players who stood up and let loose.

Things then quieted down with the orchestra taking a break while Mike sang the Nat King Cole standard "Cradle in Bethlehem" accompanied by Tony (I didn't catch the last name) on solo guitar.  It was lovely. Soft and sweet, reminiscent of the Yuletide Celebration encore.  Evidently no Christmas concert is complete (especially with a tenor or soprano guesting) without "O Holy Night".  But I was glad that "The Christmas Song aka Chestnut's Roasting on an Open Fire" was NOT on the program.  I've heard it all over this year, and the break was nice.

Another composition by Randol Bass titled "Glory to God" (obviously a full orchestra version was done rather than just the piano in the linked clip), which was another new one for me, preceded the "Christmas Sing Along".  It's great fun singing with a full orchestra!  Continuing with the more sacred theme, the pieces included "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Hark the Harold Angels Sing", "Joy to the World" and concluded with "Silent Night".  Steven wished everyone peace and love for the holidays and the concert almost ended on this very quiet, almost reflective note.  But a quick rousing chorus of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" was thrown in, and I left the hall singing.

If you weren't in a festive spirit after these 2 hours, then you really are Scrooge, because what more could you ask for than great Christmas music on Dec. 23rd :)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Toronto's Biggest Messiah

My Christmas music season continued back in Toronto on Dec. 16 with the world premiere (I was at the real thing this time, the first concert) of Sir Andrew Davis' (the TSO Conductor Laureate) new orchestration of Handel's Messiah.  Since there really is no quintessential version of The Messiah and Handel himself changed it several times, likely based on what instrumentalists and soloists were available at the time, this is another in a sequence of expansions.  However, it's one I particularly like!  I think last year it was marketed as "Toronto's Favourite Messiah", but with the new larger orchestra and the rather subjective nature of calling it the "favourite", I'd say "biggest" is pretty hard to argue with.

In his program notes Maestro Davis, who also conducted, says his "aim has been to keep Handel's notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements."  I for one love the fuller sound of the brass and woodwinds.

There were times when the added percussion didn't exactly seem to fit.  A few small cymbal rolls that were suppose to symbolize the fluttering of angels wings were odd sounding.

The trumpet solos and duets by Andrew McCandless and the other trumpeter soared as they played from the balcony above the choir beside the organ console.  The extra orchestral sound and the 152 voice choir gave a powerful feel to the "Hallelujah Chorus" that I felt was lacking the last time I saw the TSO perform Messiah.  There was also an awesome clarinet solo by Joaquin Valdepenas at the start of "I know that my Redeemer liveth" to start Part 3.  The second clarinetist was a guy I haven't seen before.  He looked really young, maybe a member of the Youth Orchestra?

For a more professional review I will point you to the one from the Toronto Star.  I hope this gets recorded soon.  I haven't purchased a full version of Messiah, and I think this one is a keeper.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yuletide Celebration Part 4: Aftershocks

After getting back to the hotel after the evening show I went on the computer and downloaded the pictures I'd taken.  They turned out pretty well, as you've seen samples of so far.  I also checked out the ISO blog thinking that maybe I'd post my first Yuletide memory for the contest which I thought ended at midnight Dec. 4.  Turns out it ended 5 pm Dec. 3.  But I figured what the heck, I'd submit a short post anyway, more to say "Thanks for a great show" than to really enter the contest.  The results of my post can be found here.

I didn't think much more about it.  I left Indy the next day after the matinee and a day later, after changing routes home because of the snow forecast, arrived home.  Unpacking my computer, I noticed a new ISO blog post announcing the winner of the contest - the post was my first choice as well, "Yuletide Quarrels Being Won by a Child".  But Jessica Di Santo (Communications Director who was in charge of picking the winning selection) had also listed several honourable mentions.  I completely missed it the first time I scanned the list, then actually read what she'd written.  My post was listed!  I think my jaw literally dropped.  I must have re-read the post about 10 times to make sure that even with a typo in my name, the link was to my post, all the details fit, and it really was me she was talking about.

The honourable mention prize was a Yuletide Celebration poster autographed by none other than Jack Everly and Sandi Patty!  In my opinion this is was better than first prize :)  I received an email from Jessica the next day which confirmed my post was selected and she mailed the poster on Dec. 8.

I've been anxiously checking the mail every day since then.  Alas, 2 weeks later it still hadn't arrived and I gave up hope of it coming in time for Christmas.

Last night after returning home from visiting friends, I was handed a gift to open.  I was tired and unless it was new pajamas I wasn't all that interested in opening anything until the morning.  It was a long package, definitely not pajamas, and kind of tube like.  I pulled off some of the paper and noticed a mailing type barcode sticker, and then an address label with the ISO logo at the top!  All drowsiness quickly disappeared, and I extracted the tube from the wrapping and then the poster from the tube.  It had arrived Christmas Eve day when I was at work.

You know ISO mailings have this ability to come at the ultimate times.  The Yuletide Celebration CD I received last year arrived Dec. 1, just in time to kick off my official Christmas music listening season.  And now, the poster arrives in the nick of time for Christmas Day.  Amazing!
Thanks again to everyone at the ISO and I am now exclaiming as I sign-off out of sight "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Yuletide Celebration Part 3: The Show

The actual concert begin with an invitation to "Join us on an exciting Holiday Adventure"...which may have been a tad cheesy but hey, why not?

The curtain rose revealing the orchestra fairly far back on the stage via the use of raisers with the brass section and timpani in a balcony of sorts. (picture from 2004 production)
ISO photo via Daniel Rodriguez site
Maestro Jack Everly looking very classy decked out in tails, and then Sandi Patty appeared in a gorgeous gown (one interview mentioned 10 dress changes, I could spend ages just describing them, if I remembered all the details, alas no picture taking allowed.  But there were red, green, red with white fur trim-for White Christmas of course-, blue, and perhaps a few more) to open with "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" accompanied by the remainder of the company.

Next was a song I feel is not Christmas (even if technically it does mention sleigh bells), Rodgers and Hammerstien's "My Favourite Things" from The Sound of Music.  I was prepared to just enjoy it anyway when after the first few lines the lyrics changed to list Yuletide Celebration favourite things!  No more "girls in white dresses" but flying reindeer puppets and dancing Santa's.  It would be awesome of someone would post this version's lyrics.

This led extremely well into a montage segment of clips from past Yuletide shows.  The orchestra begin playing John William's, "Somewhere in My Memory" from Home Alone as a screen lowered and the Yuletide singers appeared.  Previous specialty acts (Tony Hoard and Rory, Martin Preston as Liberace-both appearing in Baltimore's Holiday Spectacular this year), past hosts (Maureen McGovern-2009, Sylvia McNair-2003, Daniel Rodriguez-2004), and former conductors (Keith Lockhart 1992-93) were shown. Well deserved applause began when a photo of Jack appeared listing him as conductor since 1994 (16 years, wow!), and continued for Sandi's photo listing the 5 years she's hosted.  Alas, the evening audience seemed more appreciative than the next day matinee where this illicited no applause :(  The lyrics of the song though are a perfect fit for this years show which includes magicians in addition to music "...Christmas joys all around me...all of the music, all of the magic"

"Some Children See Him" with Sandi and Company was next.   Aside from being pretty, I honestly don't remember much about it this piece.  The linked version is closest rendition to the ISO's I could find on youtube.

The orchestra then took centre stage with "Here We Come a Caroling".   It was the same version that's on the Yuletide Celebration CD and it was really fun to see it performed live when I'm so familiar with the arrangement.  I was bopping along from my seat :)

One of the highlights of the concert was "We Three Kings" performed by the Yuletide Gentlemen.  This was absolutely incredible!  Seven guys in tuxedos walked out at an angle from each side of the stage and started singing.  14 voices all together, nothing fancy, just straight forward power.  The verses were done by 3 bass soloists.  Two I'm able to pick out of the program by their pictures (Mark Gilgallon and Andrew Nolen) but I'm not sure who the third is (I'll guess Ben Crawford, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong).
Andrew, Ben and Mark
The third one also did the "I Love a Piano" solo in "White Christmas" (keep reading there will be lots more details on that).  Anyway, by the end when they lined up at the front of the stage and, completely synchronized, turned first to one side of the audience, then the other, finishing with a final step apart of their feet (a simple move that worked so well to emphasize the rich arrangement), the audience had begun a rousing round of applause.  A bit of a show stopper.  There really is no other word for it than powerful!

Perhaps because one can only take so much seriousness, some light-heartedness followed with "Shopper's Lament" and the Yuletide Ladies.
All bordered pics from interview with Mike Runyan
Sung to the tune of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" the ladies lamented Christmas shopping, children's pestering, injuries in the Colt's starting line up, and something about the Dunkin Donuts always being known as Rosalyn's.  Being an out-of-towner, I figured not comprehending only one Indy joke was pretty good.

Les and Dazzle, the guest act of the year, are a father-daughter magic team.  Les plays it straight and Dazzle is extremely enthusiastic would perhaps be a way of describing it.  They were introduced by Jack who referred to Dazzle by saying "well she's just glad to be part of the act".  They were featured in Mysterioso as well, and did exactly the same magic tricks.  Considering they were probably my least favourite part of the show (primarily because I'd seen the act before), I was glad the accompanying music was at least a Christmas medley.

Quite a good one in fact with a quick quote from "You're a Mean One Mister Grinch", and more complete versions of "Rudolph", "Most Wonderful Time of the Year", "Up on the Housetop" and I'm sure lots more.  The ball-balancing-on-handkerchief section near the end of the act, which is a bit of "my ball's bigger than your ball" competition between the two of them, was to a re-worked version of "That Old Black Magic" that included Yuletide lyrics.  The arrangement was by Wayne Barker, who's done other things for Jack and Symphonic Pops Consortium shows (actually a neat article is here about his work on She Loves Me over the summer), and if he wrote the lyrics too he's even more talented than I thought (again would love to read these again.  Post someone?).

It's said that you can tell a good writer by the transitions between thoughts, well if you extend that to telling a good show by the transitions between the numbers, this one excelled.  The strip closet, with curtains in red and white to resemble a stocking, had Dazzle replaced with none other than a tap dancing Santa.  This introduced what closes every Yuletide Celebration Act I (well at least all ones I've heard about)  The "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" tap dancing Santa's with their Rockette style kick line.  Dazzle even got into the line, and demonstrated she can really dance!  Check out this clip from a few years ago for a taste of the dancing Santas (no Santatizer this year, but once that finishes, the tap dancing takes over).  As an aside: This story from Jack about the Santa-tizer creation was written up in the program.
And with that it was suddenly intermission.  The first half flew by!

Since it's something apparently one has to do, I had gotten a sampling of the cookies available for an intermission snack.
No they weren't all eaten, one actually made it all the way home in it's entirety.  My conclusion: it's hard to go wrong with sugar cookies and gingerbread and I'll agree it's definitely part of the whole Yuletide experience.

Act II began with a recorded "Welcome Back" message from Jack, giving an intro to the world premiere (well I would have seen the 2nd and 3rd performances, but I suppose this Yuletide series of concerts are the world premieres) of his (Fred Barton is also credited as arranger) "A Tribute to Irving Berlin's White Christmas".  Indeed it is true, that no holiday season is complete without at least one viewing of the iconic film.  The curtain rose on the orchestra and Jack sporting the red Santa version of the tails jacket.  It's great fun to see everyone involved in the festive spirit :)  The 15 min or so mini-version of the movie and musical that followed was all the fun with none of the will they/won't they aspect from the story (although in 1954 Hollywood musicals, does the guy ever not get the girl? so maybe there never really was any "won't they").  The key musical upbeat numbers were all included beginning with "Happy Holiday" and "Snow, Snow, Snow" both with the whole company.  Then the same dark haired guy from "We Three Kings" came out and sang the opening verse to "I Love a Piano".  I read somewhere, perhaps in a biography on Irving Berlin, that he wrote it so the word piano would be over two syllables rather than three (ie: pia-no, not pi-an-o).  Personally I prefer the three, and that was how it was sung here.  Dancing ladies then joined him with little white grand piano props, and a male tap dancer did a great job with his dance solo.

Maintaining the dance theme, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" came next.  It began with Sandi serenading a couple who did some foxtrot style dancing.  Then the orchestra demonstrated their skill at cohesiveness while conductor-less as Jack left his spot on the podium, extended his arm to Sandi, and showed that dancing is also on his list of many talents!  He looked quite comfortable during his turn around the floor, I'd say easily surpassing Bing Crosby with gracefulness, as they moved very smoothly together.  After returning to his traditional place, he flipped a few score pages and picked up as if there had never been a dancing interlude.

No White Christmas compilation would be complete with "Sisters" and it wasn't forgotten here as Sandi and all the ladies flipped around the feathers.  I wonder if the same orchestration was used for this as for the version that appeared in Irving Berlin: Ragtime to Ritzes.
A lovely solo by Sandi of "Count Your Blessings" followed before the production number style finale.  The whole company joined in for "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" which led into five singers performing the often skipped verse of "White Christmas".  Sandi then returned, wearing the red dress with white fur trimming from all the promo photos, for the chorus as the snow machines on stage and in the audience started whirring!

The line that popped into my head was Bob Wallace saying to Phil Davis at the end of the movie as they're opening the doors at the back of the stage/barn "you made it snow in here pal".  The audience was invited to join in the singing at the end and it was easy to imagine being right in the movie!  My opinion: a very, very successful world premiere!

A change of pace followed with Sandi introducing the return of the Wurlitzer organ, which after undergoing a 5 year refurbishment, rejoined the Yuletide concert last year.  I saw both Donna Parker (evening show) and Martin Ellis (next day matinee) have the organist honours performing "Nutcracker Fantasy", a medley of songs from, you guessed it, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.  I believe I recognized sections from the Overture, March, Trepek, Coffee, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Waltz of the Flowers, although there were probably more.  Martin wore a vest fully covered in glittering Christmas items.  Very festive!

The curtain closed again while the organ console was moved off stage and Sandi introduced the only piece to be performed at every single Yuletide Celebration, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".  While there is music to the entire poem (see previously mentioned CD), she spoke the text unaccompanied until Ma and Pa "sprang from their beds to see what was the matter".
Not a great image, but only one I could find

The whole cast, including bears as toy soldiers, a panda, and a gingerbread man, were involved in acting out the story, and the reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh were walked down the main aisle by puppeteers.  Puppet Santa became real after sliding down the chimney.  He smoked his pipe and pulled presents out of his sack, before "laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose".  Everyone waved as puppet Santa and reindeer "flew" down the opposite main aisle.  All of a sudden a moon dropped out of the wings and a shadow of Santa's sleigh and reindeer was passed in front of it.  I chuckled to myself as the same comment about full moons and set designs entered my mind :)

"All I Want for Christmas Is You" which followed, allowed the cast to let loose with the singing and dancing.  The two female soloist's belted out their parts with high energy and it was a great "wake up audience, the show's not over" moment.

Another chance of pace followed with one of my favourite acts of the evening.  Mike Runyan is the ISO librarian and has been credited as an arranger in programs of several concerts I've attended in the past.  I remembered reading on an ISO blog post by one of the orchestra members that he played the harmonica so I was quite interested to see what "A Cowboy Harmonica Christmas" would bring about.
from Lou's IBJ Blog

In short it was charming.  Mike started with a semi-mournful sounding "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" accompanied by the orchestra, complete with the "clip-clop" of horses hooves.  He transitioned to "Rudolph" and with Dazzle's help, kept finding new harmonicas of all different sizes in a box, although I think she "helped" make one disappear.
There were quotes from the "Orange Blossom Special" (which was awesome!), Up on the Housetop (on a teeny-tiny harmonica), the first line of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" (so fast you'd almost miss it), and "Holly Jolly Christmas".  The music and schtick never stopped and it was incredibly fun to watch.

The concert concluded with a return to the serious and reminder of the true meaning of the season.  Sandi Patty and company performed "One God" (the link is an extremely long compilation version but has some nice NASA Earth pictures),
which had a neat "Wonder as I Wander" melody quote at the end before heading into the classic "O Holy Night".  This link is to the real thing (although not the shows I was at), hopefully it stays posted for a while.  Perhaps a bit intense, but an impressive performance.

There was polite applause as the singers and dancers took their bows, and an immediate standing ovation when Sandi walked back on stage.  The orchestra got a rousing applause too, which was certainly warranted!  Obviously expecting this, there was an encore :)  After everyone was re-seated, Sandi thanked Duke Energy, the title sponsor who must have put up a lot of money to fund the show, and promoted live music by saying everything we'd heard was completely performed live, even off stage vocals weren't pre-recorded.  Maybe that's why I love symphonic music so much, what you see is what you're getting, nothing added, nothing taken away, and you get the true sense of how talented the musicians and performers are.

She continued my saying that not everyone will make it home for Christmas but they'll be there in spirit (a subtle reminder of all the deployed members of the armed forces) and she and Mike Runyan performed a very poignant version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas".  I agree completely with Lou's view that the combination of performers, instruments and arrangement transcended expectations.  


So with a final "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and a re-appearance of Santa to say he'll see everyone on Christmas Eve, the 25th Anniversary Yuletide Celebration performance was complete.

The whole concert was classy (save for Dazzle's dress at the end :) , see above picture) and the music fresh, nothing felt like a re-hash of an old, well worn Christmas carol.  There was a great balance in the variety of elements, nothing too much over the top, and always first rate quality.  I'm so glad I went, and while it may not become tradition (I'll see what/who ends up on the program for next year before making that decision), my first Yuletide could not have started with a better version.

Congrats to everyone involved and thank you for making this a wonderful experience for everyone in attendance!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Yuletide Celebration Part 2: Arrival

Prior to actually getting to Indy, a stop was made to visit a friend in Illinois.  I had checked the forecast and was anticipating 40% chance of rain (but really hoping for none, because nothing ruins a Christmas feeling like rain).  Imagine my surprise at waking up the day of the show (Dec. 4) to 6 inches of SNOW!

Still having to drive the 2 hours into Indianapolis made this a bit of a worry, but that quickly faded after a quick morning trip out and finding the roads were in pretty good shape.  We arrived in good time and I started doing downtown parking lot research.  Google maps is awesome for this, especially street view so you can see exactly where the entrances are.

I picked a parking garage that had a cheap rate according to some site about parking in the city, and figured out how to get there.  We arrived early and found it was even cheaper than on the website!  The ISO has a deal with the lot for $3 parking!  How great is that!  The trick being that all the spots up until about the 4th level are reserved.  I'm pretty sure this is where all the people who work at the Hilbert Circle Theatre park.  I'll guess this includes musicians and others.  There's also this handy little walkway from the garage to a back door of the theatre with music notes etched in the concrete!

It was too early to go in yet plus it was night and Monument Circle was all lit up with the worlds largest Christmas tree, so I took pictures and froze.  But there was snow, and Christmas lights, and horse drawn carriages, and Nutcrackers and Toy Soldiers in place of regular boring concrete posts, so it was worth it!

As one of the guide books said "Stop and take a picture of the Circle, everyone else does", and indeed there were lots of people out taking pictures, and walking around.  I'm not surprised there were several ISO "Best Yuletide Memory" Blog posts about marriage proposals occurring here.  It's pretty impressive.

The doors to the foyer of the theatre were open so we entered to escape the cold and ended up having a wonderful conversation with the security guard.  He's retired, works there part time, and is originally from Nashville, TN.  I wish I had gotten his name, he was so pleasant.  We chatted about the concert and somehow it came up that Samuel Banks who played with the ISO for 5 years is now second bassoonist with the Toronto Symphony, and he remembered him!

The foyer was decorated with huge wreaths and you could see beyond the glass doors into the theatre lobby, but when you actually went in, there was a WOW feeling.

First a massive decorated Christmas tree, and the garlands hanging from the railings, a quartet singing Christmas carols, reindeer and a Christmas tree mingling with the people.  I had fun just watching from the upper level, looking down at all the people taking pictures by the tree, all the little girls in their best dresses.  I noticed two sisters, twirling around as their skirts spun out to make a bell...aww I remember those days.

On the main floor you can actually see right into the theatre.  The walls are solid only half way up, then it's glass.  Great place to work, you can enjoy the show no matter where you are!

We found our seats without a problem.  As part of the castle set though there was a curtain, so no watching the orchestra saunter in, as they tend to do, although you could hear them warming up.  Just a note: that bar does mess with your view if you're on the aisle.  But otherwise great seats.  You could even see the numbers on the stage (I believe there were 14 of them) as markers.

What struck me about the whole thing was everyone was in a good mood.  From those mingling in the lobby to people climbing over others to get to their seats.  No one seemed stressed or upset, and were chatting and waving to people they recognized.  With all the children around I don't recall hearing anyone even wimper, never mind cry.  Amazing atmosphere!  Definitely everyone had a high dose of Christmas spirit.

The programs were another marvel.  No 4 paper pages in the middle of a standard booklet here!  A full glossy, THICK (111 pages in fact) book, over half of which is dedicated to Yuletide, from both memories and photos from past performances, to notes from Jack Everly about his new "White Christmas" creation.

The "White Christmas" themed display in the lobby was from his personal collection and included original posters from the movie,
a signed poster from the Broadway cast of the musical,
Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Danny Kaye dolls (wonder what happened to Vera-Ellen?),
and the first page of the score, signed by himself and Fred Barton who was also involved in the arranging.  I doubt it lasts very long, but 4 bars in the clarinet part goes to B flat concert with no sharps or flats...I like this :)

With that we've run out of time...the shows about to start!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Yuletide Celebration Part 1: The Anticipation

I'm not entirely sure when my desire to see the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's Yuletide Celebration concert started, but it's been at least several years, and intensified when last year on Dec. 1 the Yuletide Celebration CD arrived.  I think I listened to it once at day the entire month!   It hasn't been taken off my ipod since, and during a couple of sweltering days through the summer I would listen to "The 12 Days of Christmas" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" and mentally escape to the snow :)

For a few years I've been doing the math based on Yuletide being mentioned in NACO program books as part of Jack Everly's bio, for what year would be the 25th and since all I had to work with was usually something like "now a 23 year tradition", and I think it remained that for 2 seasons in a row, I was never entirely sure if my math was right.  So this year when it was being promoted all over the ISO site as the 25th Anniversary I knew it was going to be a great time to attend, especially with Sandi Patty hosting, and set about making it happen.

Months ago actually I did some preliminary research: Google mapping, hotel checking, forecast guessing, and CAA travel book reading about the city (which I then put in such a safe place I can't find it).  When tickets went on sale I decided the first weekend in December was the best choice weather wise in hopes that winter wouldn't have arrived too strongly yet.   Then came Hilbert Circle Theatre research: seating maps viewing, Google image searches for inside the theatre, posted on a blog of someone who'd been to a recent concert, and finally emailed the ISO directly with a few questions.  In the end I chose seats in the second row of the Dress Circle off to the left side (facing the stage).  So tickets purchased, all that was left was waiting, sort of.  It was an exciting day when the tickets arrived in the mail, but solidified that I still had all the other details to work out.

This post was going to be made prior to leaving for the USA but things got pushed to the last week and with researching hotels again, working extra hours to make up for the days away, planning what to take, and how to get there, it's a few days afterwards.  But oh well.

One of the best things actually was following the ISO Blog.  They started a contest for posting your favourite Yuletide Celebration memories sometime around the beginning of November.  I learned about all the things you have to do when you go to the concert--take a picture by the Christmas tree, have a sugar or ginger bread cookie with milk or cider at intermission, watch for the flying reindeer during "The Night Before Christmas", wait for the Tap Dancing Santa's which always close Act 1, check out the world's largest Christmas Tree in Monument Circle, get all dressed up and have a fantastic time!  The best post in my opinion (which incidentally ended up winning the contest) was "Yuletide Quarrels Being Won By a Child".

So with tickets purchased, plans for where to stay made, a CAA Trip Tik in hand, downtown Indianapolis maps printed, ipod loaded with Christmas music it was time to go!

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Beethoven at his Pleasant Best

Since I'm behind again, the Yuletide Celebration posts that will follow this one are sure to be long, and this was short concert, here's the highlights.

Who:
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Afterworks Concert
Nicholas McGegan conducting
Tom Allen hosting

What:
courtesy of TSO
Camille Saint-Saens-Cello Concerto #1 in A minor, performed by new principal cellist Joseph Johnson.
In a brief chat with the host following his performance he mentioned this is a piece most cellists start with, and indeed when he asked the cello section how many had begun with it, all raised their bows.  It hasn't been done with the TSO in 15 years, but is a very beautiful piece of music.  Mr. Johnson is starting to grow on me, and I do like how he seems happy at the end of a performance and smiles!  The orchestra gave him (and the guest conductor) a rousing applause when he finished, so they obviously liked them both.

Beethoven-Symphony #8 in F major
The very personable conductor and host gave some background on this piece prior to playing it and the orchestra even played snippets from each of the 4 movements.  I really like that, since the jokes that only serious musicians and students of Beethoven might get, are made accessible to the general music lover.  Turns out there are lots in this piece.  

The first movement begins with no introduction, it's right into the first theme, and ends rather abruptly with a restatement of the tune, but that's it.  Unlike the final movement which has several false endings.  You think he's ramping up for a big finale, and suddenly the tune reappears and he plays with it a bit more.  Apparently the recapitulation is almost as long as the main statement in that movement.

The second movement is shortest and jokes about the recently invented metronome.  The woodwinds have this incessant "tick" throughout, and I'm sure are very glad it's less than 4 minutes long.  As described by Bramwell Tovey in his CBC podcast on this symphony the break in of the double basses gives the feeling "oh turn this darn thing off".  The third movement is Beethoven's final ode to a minuet and trio with a hard French horn part, but a really nice mix of it with the clarinet, and whatever other instrument makes up the trio.  I was too busy watching the clarinet to notice :)

When:
Nov 24 (see I told you I was behind :) )

Where:
As usual, Roy Thomson Hall

Why:
I'm working on seeing all of Beethoven's symphonies performed.  There are 9 and I've now seen 3 (#5-with the famous "da da da duh" opening, #6-the Pastoral, and now #8-short, pleasant, concise, and funny!)

How:
tsoundcheck, is there any better way?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Back to the Ballet with Cinderella

Other than The Nutcracker, I don't think I've been to a full ballet with sets (which for the ball were sort of art deco style), fancy costumes (kind of flapper/1920's with white pointe shoe versions of Dorothy's ruby slippers), and a whole 2 hour story telling experience.

Sonia Rodriguez as Cinderella (all photos from National Ballet of Canada website)
That changed Nov. 18 when I took advantage of the National Ballet of Canada's DanceBreak program and ended up with Ring 3 seats to Cinderella.  In a surprise twist to the evening, Sonia Rodriguez danced the part of Cinderella.  I've wanted to see her perform for a while, so that was a great switch.  When I was on a Sergei Prokofiev kick a while back, I listened to the score and didn't particularly like it, but seeing the dance and watching the music being played completely changed my perspective.  The conductor for the evening was Martin West, a guest conductor from the San Francisco ballet.  Unfortunately I couldn't really see through heads to watch him very much.  Additionally I wasn't able to spot the new concertmaster Benjamin Bowman.  After seeing him perform last season as a guest soloist, I was hoping to see him again, but he didn't seem to be there.  The clarinetist though was amazing!  I had a great view of him, and will assume it was principal Max Christie.  There are so many clarinet solo type lines throughout the score and his tone, clarity and speed was perfect.  Ohhh to be able to play like that!

We arrived just in time for the pre-ballet chat with Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer.  His explanation provided more depth to the story than I ever thought possible.  While still a fairy tale, at the hands of choerographer James Kudelka it has become so much more.  Some may consider what Lindsay said reading too much into a simple story, but I like it!  Cinderella has become more than just a nice girl who doesn't do anything and ends up getting a fancy, rich life with a prince.  Instead she remembers what it's like to be loved, and shares that love with other around her.  Even after being tormented by the stepsisters and ending up on the floor crying, she offers hospitality to the old women (aka: Fairy Godmother) who can barely bend over.  A reminder that with all our problems, there's someone with more, so be grateful for what we do have and share it.

The stepsisters are not portrayed in drag as other productions sometimes have them, but maintain a self-centered attitude, unwilling to expand their horizons to anyone else.  I agree with Lindsay that it's better to chuckle at their comical ways recognizing the humour in having done similar things ourselves, rather than laughing at them, which makes us no better than how they treat Cinderella.  For example, when learning to dance (some funny moments, particularly in odd looking lifts with the dance instructor prior to the ball) or trying to attract the attention of a particular guy (they have great solos at the ball with their escorts trying to prevent them from throwing themselves at the Prince).
At the Ball

Lindsay also brought out the theme of conformity,  that today people want to conform to what society says is best, keeping up with the Jones, and getting their 15 minutes of fame.  All the ball attendees (particularly the stepsisters) are quite eager to pose for the photographer at the beginning of the ball in Act II.  The awkward movements, particularly of the men, gives a mechanical feel.  Indicating these people aren't the real thing, they're putting on what they think society wants so they can get ahead but aren't being true to themselves.  Outward beauty is the goal, rather than the inward beauty Cinderella has that extends out from her touching others.  Indeed as the garden fairies return near the end of the ball (prior to the Prince and Cinderella's pas de deux I think) they have fans and the "fake" attendees get blown away in the wind, leaving Cinderella and the Prince.  A reason was also proposed for why the Fairy Godmother tells Cinderella to leave the ball by midnight.  That being, if you stay too long amongst people who value only the material things, if can affect you as well, hence the reminder of midnight to not be negatively influenced by these people, but stay true to yourself.

Guillaume Cote as the Prince
In the end, the Prince goes around the world (which is a phenomenal sequence of dances with the Prince and his aides against a blue sky and white cloud background, where they meet individuals from various places - a Spanish dancer, a Japanese girl in a kimono, even an Amelia Earhart take off) trying to find Cinderella, and eventually finds her in his own backyard.  They reject the wealth and fame the world has to offer, content with the simplicities of a small wedding and life.  James Kudelka is quoted in the program about his creation saying, "...the ballet [shows] the possibility of creating a new and intimate world that has nothing to do with being rich and famous.  That's why it's not about the Prince elevating Cinderella to glory, as in traditional versions.  In a way, she elevates him."  Here's hoping that being open to new experiences and sharing with those around us will result in everyone meeting their special someone.  (PS:  to whoever my someone is, I'm still waiting to meet you :) )

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSO at the Weston

Way back on Nov. 14 (hence this will be a whirlwind review since I'm 3 concerts behind) I continued what is turning into a real music month by attending a Toronto Symphony concert in a new location with a new friend.  Several times throughout the season the TSO vacates Roy Thomson Hall in favour of the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  While paying the parking meter I ran into a few musicians actually.  I would have expected parking to be provided for them, but they were parking on the street and paying like the rest of us.  tsoundcheck tickets aren't usually offered for concerts at the Weston, but I guess they had a lot of empty seats, so we were able to attend for the cheap rate :)  Our seats were on the floor level however, and near the front which limits what you are able to see of the actual orchestra.  The stage is smaller and the musicians seemed a bit squished in places, but they were able to squeeze in a piano at centre stage for Dvorak's "Piano Concerto in G Minor".

The program opened with Glinka's lively "Overture to Rusian and Lyudmila" (a really fast version is linked here) then the piano concerto performed by  Natasha Paremski.  She played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #2 last season (May 2009) with guest conductor Xian Zhang, as a blonde and now is looking just as pretty as a brunette.  But that's beside the point, boy can she play!  All I know of Dvorak's is the "New World Symphony" (#9 I believe), and Peter Oundjian mentioned in his introduction that part was quoted in the concerto, I tried hard, but not knowing what part to listen to, I clearly missed hearing the quote.

Next came an odd piece.  A cello concerto written by Witold Lutoslawski in 1969/70.  I'd say I'm still working on furthering my appreciation of music from the classical and romantic eras and haven't expanded to contemproary yet because I didn't like it.  There was practically non-existent melody, lots of dissonance, and conflict.  That's the point actually.  The composer wrote "The relationship [between soloist and orchestra] is one of conflict...the orchestra provides the element of intervention, interruption, even disruption."  My favourite part was the all out brass interruption section.  Not pretty but forceful.  Colin Carr was the guest cellist, and he called this work one of the best pieces not just for cello but ever.  Well, I'm glad he has an appreciation for it, but it was lost on me.   He was extremely energetic in his playing however, going so far as to knock the first row violins music off the stand.  Good thing it was at the very end and they had finished playing.

Lastly was what I had wanted to attend for...Stravinsky's "Suite from The Firebird".  Only discovering at the NACO Gotta Dance concert a few weeks ago that The Firebird was a ballet (I don't know what I thought it was before, but I've recognized some of the themes for a while, as they tend to crop up in various places.  Fantasia and TSO Halloween concerts for example.  Oh and of course youtube.  Here are parts you may recognize) I was quite looking forward to this.  I wasn't disappointed, although it would have been more thrilling to be able to have a view of the full orchestra not just the front rows.  I have since listened to the full ballet music and it's all great!  Obviously the themes in the Suite are most recognizable, but I love the intensity and the beauty of the various sections.  Since it's a ballet it's a given there's a Prince, and he rescues Princesses with the help of this bird.  It's ballet, plots are what they will be, it's all about the music anyway :) and this ended the concert on a high note!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

NACO Off to a Dancing Start

Gotta Dance opened the NAC Orchestra Pops season on Nov. 4-6.  I'm sure this program has evolved and variations are done different places but back in 2000 Gotta Dance was also part of the season, in what could have been one of Maestro Everly's first performances with the NAC Orchestra.  Anyway, the orchestra and now Principal Pops conductor Jack Everly got a strong welcome by the audience as they began with what I've come to expect and adore at these events, an original Jack Everly arrangement titled to match the program as the "Gotta Dance Prelude".  I picked out "Shall We Dance" from the King and I, "Hernando's Hideaway" from The Pajama Game, and "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady.

Next came the first set of ballet music from two of Tchaikovsky's (lol, just noticed they typo'd his name in the program!) ballets: the very famous "Sleeping Beauty Waltz" (of which a vocal version is in Disney's movie and "A Chorus of Hits"), and the "White Swan" pas de deux from Swan Lake.  This was Tchaikovsky's first ballet and was a failure in it's first staging partially because the score was considered too symphonic!  Making it perfect for a symphony orchestra :)  Jack (side note:  I have an enormous amount of respect and admiration for Mr. Everly, but for the sake of brevity and having heard him introduce himself as "Jack" I'm going to start using that for these posts recognizing that we're really not that familiar and no disrespect is intended) did a brief summary of the plot preceding the pas de deux where the Prince ("there's always a Prince") goes hunting at night.  At night...hunting...bows and arrows...good thing no one requires ballets to be plausible.  However, there was a full moon and evidently "set and lighting designers love a full moon" (considering he also studied set design in university, I'd say he has the knowledge to know).  Enter Patrick Lavoie and Jillian Vanstone, artists with the National Ballet of Canada, who performed the pas de deux exquisitely.  My dance friend attended with me, so I take her word on this!  Personally I think they deserved more rousing applause, but people seemed to prefer the still to come Lombard Twins.  The "Berceuse (or Lullaby) and Finale" from Stravinsky's Firebird were part of the second half.  It appeared that Jack didn't look at a score for most of the ballet pieces, which isn't surprising given the 14 years he spent focused on that repertoire.

The stage techies then came out and "rolled up the lake" (the flooring that had been put down for the ballet dancers) getting heckled by Jack that it was taking them so long, as he described the plot of The Band Wagon.   There's so much back story that could be discussed to set up "Dancing in the Dark" though that the stage techies could have taken ages.  The movie version starred Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, (which is great, I highly recommend it!), while Fred and his sister Adele starred in the original Broadway musical.   Jack mentioned the autobiographical nature of the movie and Astaire's life and the original movie orchestration (which they used!) by the amazing Conrad Salinger at MGM who gave everything he did a distinct sound.   From reading Astaire's autobiography I also remember him being worried that Charisse was too tall for him as a dance partner, although with the park bench and deep knee bends used through the actual dance in the movie, it was rather hard to tell.

Next things switched from the orchestra to the "song and dance man".   Jack mentioned Dick Van Dyke as one of the last in a long line featuring the greats like Donald O'Connor (one of my favourites) and Gene Kelly (who he actually almost forgot to include).  Stephanie Cadman and Mark Cassius took on the rolls of Albert and Rosie (on Broadway played by Van Dyke and Chita Rivera) to perform "Put on a Happy Face" from Bye Bye Birdie.  Quite likely the Broadway original was better than the movie version, although Van Dyke did reprise his role and made the movie watchable.  Mark Cassius was cheery enough and succeeded in drawing his lady and the audience into the song.  He was also very pleasant and considerate when I met him in the lobby after the show (thanks to him and Stephanie for their autographs!).  Stephanie also returned in white tie and tails during the second half for a tap solo to "Shakin' the Blues Away", incorporating such quick turns she shook her hair loose of it's pins.

Dancing continued tango style with ballroom dancers Nikolai Pilipenchuk and Natalia Skorikova (who've been on Dancing with the Stars) performing to Porter's "Begin the Beguine".  Not having looked at the program just before the show and having forgotten this piece was on it, I spent the time marvelling at their dancing while trying to figure out what the song was!  Finally at intermission I was able to stop wracking my brain.  In the second half, they put their acting skills to further use in the more serious "Libertango" by Astor Piazzolla (linked to the YoYo Ma version, did you know he made a whole CD of Piazolla's music?  It's a good listen).

The Lombard Twins combination of what I'd call tap/hip hop/popping seemed to be the top audience pleaser.  They performed to "Escualo" in the first half and "Chant and Fugue" in the second, both by Piazzolla.  Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki had his work cut out for him with all the violin solos throughout the evening and shed his jacket for what seemed a pretty demanding roll in "Escualo" which I'd say he executed beautifully.

The orchestra took centre stage again with a suite from "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" from Rodgers and Hart's 1930's production On Your Toes.  I'm familiar with this from it being featured in the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music which had Gene Kelly (who also re-choreographed the ballet for the movie and changed the ending to have the dance hall girl and hoofer get shot) and Vera-Ellen dancing the rolls.  Check it out.

Post intermission was another Everly arrangement of "Big Band Dance Hits".  The beginning seemed to quote "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy and the wonderful "In the Mood" also featured prominently.  The orchestra even got to shout something out in the middle, which from my own experience and from having asked the conductor himself, is often a challenge to get them to do.  They seemed to embrace it though, but I couldn't make out what was actually said.

"Jellicle Ball" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's long long running show Cats was included in the program as well.  From Jack's slightly cynical introduction I'd say he isn't a big fan of the musical, referring to how there's "always a touring production of those pussycats somewhere".  However, he conducted the piece with his usual enthusiasm and energy, and while there may be a non-existent plot (honestly I've never seen the show, however I listened to a full cast recording the week following the concert and wasn't that impressed.  Maybe it needs the context of the performance, but I'd tend to agree with reviewer Mark Andrew Lawrence "Happily the finale arrived and we are told (finally) what the point of this show is: "A cat is not a dog." I lost three hours of my life to learn that???" --full review here) the "Jellicle Ball" is a fun piece of music.

The concert concluded with "Lord of the Dance" a fantastic piece with full orchestra!  The O'hare Irish Dancers and students from the Sue Fay Healy School of Irish Dance provided the lively soft and hard shoe step dancing.

Post concert, the conductor and most of the guest dancers were kind enough to chat and sign autographs in the lobby.  Judging by the number of people waiting to share a quick word I'd say Jack is extremely well liked it Ottawa.  It was an honour to speak briefly with him and many thanks for the autograph etc. as well! It made my night :D

Friday, November 12, 2010

Halloween with the TSO

Welcome to the second in my series of belated blogs.  This is for the Toronto Symphony Creepy Classics Concert (wonderful alliteration isn't it?) which I actually attended ON Halloween.  Talk about appropriate.  This concert was the debut of conductor Alastair Willis with the TSO, who has a delightful accent no doubt gained from having lived (or perhaps still living) in England, although he was born in the USA.  The music was of course superb, but what I really loved was that the orchestra was in costume, including the conductor as Dracula.  And some of them got really into it!  Alas I didn't take my camera and multiple Google images searches isn't revealing anything, but I will mention some of the best.  Then move on to the actual music.

Probably the most elaborate, and certainly what got the most applause was the trumpet section who appeared in full KISS regalia, complete with black leather, white faces and shaggy hair looking quite like the original (pictured).
It was rather difficult to tell exactly who they were under the make-up, but I'll guess they were the four trumpeters in the program (Andrew McCandless, Barton Woomert, James Gardiner, and James Spragg).

There were several clowns, a werewolf in the cello section, and a genie, new dad (in bathrobe with towel over his shoulder and toting around a doll), and blue spiked headpiece adorned the French horns.  The tuba player was the Tooth Fairy complete with white tutu and dental pliers for extraction.  I believe the entire double bass section was in costume.  Jeffrey Beecher hobbled across the stage as an old man with glasses, white hair, a multi-footed cane with tennis balls on the bottom and balloons.  Having never seen the movie, I'm not sure, but maybe he was the old man from the movie Up.  He tied the balloons to the top of his bass and they stayed there the whole concert.  I noticed him actually smiling at the end during the audience applause and he's usually rather serious looking.  I guess it's hard to be serious in costume.  They all seemed to be having fun with it, taking pictures with other orchestra members like the new assistant principal bass, Kristen Bruya who looked like a white cloud with a spider on her head.  Teng Li (the principal violist) was a yellow bird and even had a little beak.  She "crowed" the arrival of morning at the end of Saint-Saens "Danse macabre" where concert master Mark Skazinetsky, who was dressed as a devil, played the solo violin parts representing "Death".  Interestingly enough the harp (played by a mad scientist) which was to strike midnight at the beginning, struck 13...mistake or just having fun with a Halloween type number?  Given that the Maestro had mentioned the piece started at midnight, I expect most people were counting and caught that slip, if it was one.  After the piece, Alastair asked Mark how he liked playing Death.  Mark replied it was hot work and he needed a shower.  At which point the orchestra burst in with the music from the shower scene in Psycho.  Previously they had also played "Prelude" from the movie and in that introduction it was mentioned how originally Hitchcock had wanted silence for the scene but after hearing Bernard Herrmann's music (the entire score of the film uses only the string sections), agreed it was much scarier with it.  So it was fitting that the little snippet made the concert somewhere.

Some of the other music included was Bach's "Toccata" from Toccata and Fugue in D Minor played by organist Patricia Kruegar (wearing a pointy witches hat).  It was the first time I'd heard the big organ in Roy Thomson Hall, which was really neat.  One of my favourites The Sorcerer's Apprentice was included as well and one of the percussionists was in a red robe sporting the Mickey Mouse sorcerer's hat, complete with ears.
I never noticed how the melody jumps from clarinet to oboe to flute before, and of course the bassoons have the most recognizable part that thanks to Disney brings to mind marching broomsticks.  Speaking of bassoons, Sam Banks (previously mentioned here) was wearing a straw hat and had cock-eyed picture frame over his face and shoulders, almost like it had been broken over his head.  I'm not sure I understood the exact look he was going for, but I really liked how he got the picture frame to be in that position.

The contrabassoonist was dressed as Franz Lizst who, if he weren't dead, would be 200 years old next year.  Apparently he was a bit of a rock star in his day and would slowly pull off his white gloves finger by finger then throw them on the floor before playing, causing women to faint.  The young pianist Todd Yaniw entered the stage wearing white gloves and did as Lizst would have, although from what I could tell there was no fainting.  He then played Lizst's Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra, essentially 17 mins of variations on the Dies Irae, but he played so well it was an enjoyable 17 minutes.

I quite liked Alastair Willis as a conductor and communicator with the audience.  Some of his stories seemed geared to the younger members of the audience, but he was informative about the music and enjoyable to watch throughout.  Prior to several pieces he picked out key parts (for example, the clarinet solo theme of the beloved in "March to the Scaffold", and the section that represents the guy loosing his head and it rolling into the basket), and had the orchestra play them so when they performed the whole piece you could pick out the themes.  I've never caught the head rolling part before although I've heard Symphonie Fantastique several times.

The lighting department did well creating the mood throughout the concert.  The stage went dark for the pieces that started at midnight and slowly brightened over the piece as dawn approached.  The program concluded with an encore beginning and ending in the light unlike most of the others, John William's "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter.  It was a fitting ending to an enjoyable afternoon of great "creepy" music.  Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

TSO Pops Season Beginnings

Almost a month late with this review, and behind by 3 concerts as of this past weekend, so I will try to keep it short.  But there was so much good stuff that happened this day!

Way back on Oct. 19 the Toronto Symphony opened it's Pops season with Steven Reineke guest conducting Broadway Divas!  Side note: when this concert was originally advertised I believe the title was Wicked Divas which makes sense given that the two soloists, debuting with the TSO, previously played the leads in Wicked on Broadway, although not at the same time.  Julia Murney was Elphaba , while Jennifer Laura Thompson was Glinda.

What was especially fun for me, was getting the chance to see an open rehearsal the afternoon of the show.  It's the first Pops open rehearsal the TSO has done and I hope there are more to come.  It amazes me that with one run through they put the whole show together and they never went over any part more than twice.  Often it was just transitions and some of the beginnings that were repeated.  With just a few comments from the conductor, the second time the orchestra played the section you could hear the changes right away, obviously signs of true professionals.  In the concert that evening it was great to be able to pick out the parts they'd gone over and they sounded even better.  The vocalists were pros too.  You'd never had known at the performance that Jennifer wasn't feeling well and they cut out a bar at the end of "I Could Have Danced All Night" to make it easier to hold that final high note.

Before they'd begin a piece Steven would pass along some instructions or make sure things had been corrected in the parts.  For example, in one piece all the B's in the bass part were suppose to be C's, and from what I gathered from musician replies, that had been corrected.  After they played through the piece, usually continuously, he didn't stop in the middle very often, there were sometimes questions.  A few that I recall involved someone asking something very specific about their part in the opening "Overture to Gypsy", and Steven's replying being he was conducting off the piano score, so couldn't really tell them (and here I thought only the small orchestra I play with had that problem).  His reply to a question from the drummer about what he really wanted the rhythm to be was particularly funny since Steven told him "don't play what I wrote" in a piece he had arranged.  The percussion section seemed to get the most direction and/or questions from the podium, often about what equipment they had to work with or whether they had all the parts when Steven would notice something missing.  For example, the timpani player ended up playing the shaker in "Conga" to cover things off.  One piece that I can't recall any comments on other than, "thanks for humouring me by going through that" was "Selections from Carmen".  I expect that's a piece that appears semi-regularly on light classics concerts, so wasn't at all new to the orchestra.

"Conga" however, quite likely was new.  Before they played it at the rehearsal the principal trombone, Gordon Wolfe, asked how badly they had to play it before Steven would take it off the program.  He laughed and jokingly said they'd better watch it, it was his arrangement and everyone loves the Conga!  After watching the first try of it, particularly the trombone part that had some pretty rapid slide work going on, I can understand his comment.  It sounded a bit rough the first time through, but got better as they worked on sections and that night in performance it sounded great!

Following the open rehearsal there was a Q&A session with second bassoonist Samuel Banks who joined the orchestra in 2009.  He was very personable, and answered questions on how he started on the bassoon (was bored with the bass clarinet), how the orchestra prepared for the concert (they got the music about a week in advance, the bassoon part was fairly straightforward with lots of written in metronome markings so he practiced with those), and how he feels about Pops concerts (he enjoys the genre, gets a chance to swing, and isn't about making a statement as a jazz musician just to present great music).  Previously he played with the Indianapolis Symphony for 5 years and after finding that out I had to ask if he was on my favourite Christmas CD (which I've started listening to already) but he just missed the ISO Yuletide Celebration recording beginning with the orchestra the fall after they recorded it that summer.  Too bad, it's fantastic, and I bet it was a lot of fun to be part of the creation process.

Several hours later, it was time for the performance!  So now a few notes about that.  It opened with an interesting arrangement of the "Overture from Gypsy".  Personally I prefer the original Jule Styne version beginning with the cymbal crash and timpani roll, although according to the liner notes of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" those elements aren't actually in the score.  The orchestra had lots of opportunity to show their skills with "Carmen", "Ragtime", "Conga" (which sounded awesome! no need to even consider pulling it from the program), another Reineke arrangement "I Hear a Symphony: Symphonic Sounds of Diana Ross" obviously an assortment of songs made famous by her including "Stop! In the Name of Love", and  Concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky was featured in "Over the Rainbow".

The Divas engaged in minimal bad diva behaviour but had fun with each other and the audience.  Julia performed a funny rendition of "Ring Them Bells" originally written for Liza Minnelli and Jennifer soared over the high notes in "Think of Me" from the Phantom of the Opera.  The program concluded with them each channelling their Wicked rolls for "Popular" and "Defying Gravity" then coming together in "For Good".  An interesting choice for the end of the concert in that it's a quiet showstopper not a huge orchestral big bang type.  Even the encore "I Will Never Leave You" from Side Show (which I'd never heard of until reading the linked wiki article. It's cool it helped the career of Hugh Panaro-previously blogged about here and here), is a quieter song, although fitting given what it followed.  

If anyone from the TSO happens to read this, thanks for a great opening to the Pops season, and I hope the first Pops open rehearsal was a success from your perspective and more will be planned for next year.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Night of American Music

The Oct. 9 concert titled Rhapsody in Blue included two pieces from Samual Barber, the "Overture to Candide" by Bernstein and the title piece featuring guest pianist Jon Kimura Parker who apparently has been guesting with the TSO for 25 years.  The evening began with a great pre-concert chat by Rick Philips where we found out how Gershwin came to write "Rhapsody in Blue" as well as some stories about Barber and Bernstein.

"Overture to Candide" was a rousing start to the evening.  From the choir loft seats it's great fun to watch the conductor.  I'd never seen the string players have to pull stray hairs off their bows before, but there were a few who did after this piece.  There was also a guest concertmaster, Jonathan Carney.  He's the regular concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony.  An interesting note, the BSO's Pops season opened Oct. 7, and why anyone would want to miss Maestro Everly and Gotta Dance is beyond me, but then I'm not a trained musician, mearly a fun loving amateur.  Mr. Carney's style seemed a little flamboyent to me, at least more than I usually recall seeing from the other TSO associate and assistant concertmasters.

Next up was "Symphony #1" by Barber.  Maestro Oundjian introduced this piece (I do love how there's talking in casual concerts!) and mentioned it's rarely performed because people don't quite know how to program it.  After hearing it, I've decided I'm not a fan.  It's interesting I suppose, but it didn't really resonate with me.  The evening's concert was dedicated to a cousin of the Oundjian family, making the very famous Barber piece, "Adagio for Strings" especially poignant.  No one could ever accuse Mr. Oundjian of being stoic on the podium, he feels what he's conducting, and while I often have trouble finding a downbeat, the orchestra produces beautiful music with his leading.  At one point he made a gesture that looked as if he was drawing a bow across a violin.  It's not hard to tell that is his instrument.  There's one very pregnant pause in the piece and the audience was told that in a previous concert some people had thought the piece was over and started clapping, however he felt sure that wouldn't happen tonight.  And indeed, with that reminder, it didn't.

The program concluded with the much more upbeat "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin.  This piece was named by Ira and originally was going to be "American Rhapsody", however with other names around like "Study in Gray", it became "Rhapsody in Blue".  Gershwin was asked to compose the piece by Paul Whiteman for a concert called An Experiment in Modern Music in 1924.  He hadn't been working on it and with 5 weeks left, on a trip to Boston for out of town tryouts for a musical, he developed the piece.  Gershwin wrote a piece for 2 pianos.  The second piano part became the orchestration.  Apparently Gershwin was mostly self taught and asked Ravel and Stravinsky if he could study music with them.  Ravel's response was "why would you want to be a B class Ravel when you can be an A Class Gershwin?". Stravinsky asked how much money he made, and when Gershwin laid out a 6 digit figure, Stravinsky said "I should be studying with you".

Now back to the actual performance of the piece.  Peter Oundjian introduced Jon Kimura Parker and explained they attended Julliard at the same time, but only met at their graduation ceremony (their guest speaker was Aaron Copland and neither were really paying attention) since they were seated beside each other.  Not a lot of names come between "Ou" and "Pa" so the alphabet brought them together.  They joked around a bit, mentioned the glissando in the clarinet at the start of the piece and how when the clarinetist slid it for the first time (it wasn't originally written that way) it was liked and since then the clarinet player pretty much does what he likes that sounds good.  At this the oboe player looked like he was laughing and the clarinetist gave a quick shake of his head.  However, it sounded really cool, and is something I'm going to have to read about how to do, this may make runs a lot easier ;)

There was an instant standing ovation at the conclusion of the piece.  For an encore Mr. Parker took the microphone and said "when you play with an orchestra you've got to have...", sat down and started playing "I've Got Rhythm".  After being presented with flowers, and there still being a standing ovation, he went back in time, but stayed in the same country, concluding the evening with "Solace" by Scott Joplin.