Sunday, March 28, 2010

March Music Month continues with a Spanish Flare

March 25th it was back to the TSO for an evening of Joaquin's and Hector.  The program featured Joaquin Turina's "La Oracion del torero" otherwise known as "The Bullfighter's Prayer", Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez", and "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz.

I was prepared for Symphonie Fantastique, having even gone to the basement the night before and dug out my grade 12 music notes to re-familiarize myself with the story line.  Yes, I know you're all thinking...what? she has grade 12 music notes?!?  What can I say?  I'm a bit of a pack-rat.  I even found all the clarinet test pieces I played that year.  I need to try playing those again to see if I've gotten any better...but I digress.  I knew the Symphonie story involved the artist drugging himself with opium in an attempt to commit suicide but not quite getting there, and that the main theme represented "his beloved" and was characterized by an idee fixe.  But the beginning movements I had forgotten about, so it was nice to read my rather short synopsis of "Reveries and Passions", "A Ball", and "In the Country", the first three movements.  "The March to the Scaffold" is where my memory started kicking in, since this is where he dreams he's killed his beloved and is executed.  "Dream of the Witches' Sabbath" has the idee fixe return but morphed in a grotesque way.  I believe Berlioz used the word grotesque himself for describing it, and so that has continued ever since in any description I've read.

Before the concert Rick Phillips had a Pre-Concert Chat, where he described what I mentioned above, as well as the first 2 pieces of the evening.  He read Berlioz's own descriptions of each movement which was really neat to hear.  The first movement introduces the beloved theme about 5 minutes in.  The whole symphony is slightly autobiographical since Berlioz was infatuated with an actress (apparently to the point of stalking her) and eventually married her, although it wasn't really a happy marriage and they continued their separate lives.  Then in the second movement you hear snatches of the idee fixe as if the artist was capturing glimpses of his beloved across a room.  He's all alone in the third movement, which takes place in the country, and is quite a pretty reflection at times.

This piece uses a large orchestra, maybe that's part of why I like it so much.  The stage was full!

There were 2 sets of timpani, 8 basses, 2 huge bass drums (one played by the principal keyboardist, so it was neat to see her playing a different instrument), 4 bassoons, 2 harps, 4 horns, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, plus the other brass, woodwinds and strings.

Great symphony all around with a bit of everything.  It tells a story, contains a theme you can follow and notice how it changes, there's some very pastoral type sections reminiscent of Beethoven's 6th Symphony (it was written 3 years after his death and was quite ahead of his time), unique playing techniques with the string players using the wooden side of their bows to hit the strings, and great power.

The first two pieces were also really good.  "The Bullfighter's Prayer" was just for the strings, and the "Concierto de Aranjuez" for solo classical guitar and a small orchestra.  The soloist was Pepe Romero, making his TSO debut, part of the famous Romeros Quartet which initially was his father and 3 sons, although members have since changed, but are still all from the Romero's family.  The second movement of the Concierto was instantly recognizable, having been used in various other venues.  But that's what's so great about going to the symphony, you get to hear the whole thing, and discover that the famous section is just the tip of the ice burg to a great piece of music.

The conductor for the evening was Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos.  An older gentlemen obviously well versed in this music since he used a score only for the "Concierto".  He first guested with the TSO in 1970!  So quite a range from first time performer to veteran.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Mysterioso! So much to say.

Today marks 1 week since I saw "Mysterioso: Music, Magic, Mayham, and Mirth" with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, conducted by the wonderful Jack Everly, in Ottawa. Since then I've made notes, thought about it often, read others blog, discovered some background info, googled some of the magic tricks, and am still debating what sort of things I should write here. There's several options given the breadth of the program, I mean the Maestro himself described it as a "laundry list"!

But a rather classy laundry list it turned out to be. Considering strictly the entertainment aspect, it's probably one of the best shows I've attended. One of the first things I did when I got back to my computer was try to find where it was being performed again and if there was some way I could get there. Alas, there's nothing coming up. It debuted in Indianapolis last season, played in Baltimore the week before Ottawa, is planned for Edmonton in October, and Toronto is a big question mark since they don't have Mr. Everly scheduled for next season (gasp! No idea what they were thinking! But I'll probably have more on that next week). Anyhow, the conclusion I came to for what to write was to try and focus on smaller elements that haven't been mentioned in other blogs without giving away too much of the show. Bear with me, here goes. If you'd like some more details on the show's creation and specific acts (with pictures!) here's a great article that appeared in Magic Magazine.

As always the concert was filled with great arrangements and medleys. The "Mysterioso Overture" started with something I recognized and yet totally can't place. Of course I promptly forgot the melody so I haven't a hope of finding out what it was. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" was also featured along with either the theme song from "Bewitched" or "I Dream of Jeannie".
The "Mysterioso Entr'acte" arranged by Everly, contained the other one. The "Entr'acte" was great! Among others, it contained "Substitutiary Locomotion" from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a theme from Harry Potter, "Bibbidi, Bobbidi, Boo" from Cinderella, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from Mary Poppins, the "Adam's Family" theme complete with orchestra snaps, and "Ghostbusters" including Mr. Everly turning to the audience, providing the narration, and pausing for the shouting of "Ghostbusters" in answer to "Who you gonna call?"

Another main orchestral piece of the evening was the "Spellbound Concerto". This is rather eerie sounding, but then what else is to be expected from something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie? It was enhanced by the playing of a theremin, which was really cool to see played live. A very, very unique sound is created without every actually touching either of the two antennas. One controls the pitch and the other the volume.

The more serious magic of Joseph Gabriel and his scarves to doves, doves to scarves (made all the more amazing when I read he had to use local birds since his weren't allowed to cross the border), cards into and out of thin air act , moved onto the hypnosis of an "audience member".

This person was the winner of "an experience", and she certainly entertained the rest of us. The "winner" was asked some of her favourite singers and then to sing a song, something perhaps from her childhood. She thought about this for a while and picked "The Sound of Music". The result reminded me of the theme from the old Mastercard commercials.

My take on that ad for the moment that followed:

Gasoline to Ottawa (round trip) - $60
Ticket to the NAC - $12.50
Look on Jack Everly's face when she turned to the orchestra after picking "The Sound of Music" and asked "Do you know that one?" - PRICELESS!

His expression was a perfect "are you kidding me?" and after a long pause he finally said, "yes but I think more importantly our pianist knows that one" and the piano started in with the opening chords.

They (Everly, Joseph Gabriel and the "audience member") demonstrated they're pretty good actors but once the singing under hypnosis started it didn't take long to figure out that the "audience member" was Christina Bianco who impersonated the vocal and performance stylings of Celine Dion, Bernadette Peters, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Leanne Rimes, and Renee Fleming with amazing accuracy. She returned as herself in the second half to perform "It's Magic", "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered", "Neverland" from Peter Pan and "Defying Gravity" from Wicked. Some interesting trivia, Peter Pan starring Mary Martin was broadcast live on NBC in 1955, the first of this type of broadcast. This prompted Rodgers and Hammerstein II to be asked to create a musical for TV. They created Cinderalla which was shown live in 1957 on CBS starring Julie Andrews. They signed with CBS instead of NBC since CBS had already arranged for Julie Andrews and they wanted to work with her.

The orchestra struck up "S'Wonderful, S'Marvelous" to start the comedy magic of Les and Dazzle. Highlights of their act had to be the strip closet and the disappearing duck. That's right, we went from doves to a duck. I wonder if it was allowed into Canada or borrowed like the doves?

Intermission provided a
n opportunity to enjoying the theming of the stage. Big posters hung above the orchestra featuring the magicians of the evening as well as some classics from previous eras (The Great Leon-grandfather to Les Arnold, and Harry Houdini to name two).
There was even one titled "Back by Popular Demand: Maestro Jack Everly, The Magician of Music, Mystery, and Mirth". Created from what appears to be a modified promo photo (courtesy of the BSO website), although they made him look almost sinister by adding shadowing to his face.

However, leaving out the "magic" part didn't keep him out of the less musical yet still magical, portions of the evening. "The Great Everly" demonstrated his magical "feet" by first making his right, then left foot disappear. The set up was perfect and so there were calls of "both feet" from the audience, and sure enough, he complied. Not the most jaw dropping magic of the evening, but a neat interlude. The gravity defying cuing of the string sections was also pretty impressive (for pictures see the Magic article mentioned above).

Personally I really liked the "William Tear Overture". Complications of the English language allow this to mean either William is crying or being torn up into pieces. I read it as the first, which made no sense until the act started. Joseph Gabriel tip-toed onto the stage, snuck up to the podium, and snatched the score. Les appeared and a tug of war with the sheet music, which was now unfurled across the stage, began. The orchestra continued as Maestro Everly left the podium and walked across the stage following the music and cuing the musicians as he went. However, the score tore in half. The result was a pause of the music while he went from one half to the other. Eventually, the sheets were all ripped up, and he gave up and walked off while the orchestra played various parts of the Overture at the wrong time and in the wrong place (which must be rather hard to do when you're used to performing it properly). Thankfully Dazzle appeared with a glue bottle and magically the score suddenly reverted back to it's previous attached state in time for the orchestra to finish the piece together. I suppose this was more situational magic that was musically entertaining if not leaving you with the "wow" awe factor, but I enjoyed it.

That "wow" factor was initially established by Joseph Gabriel, added to by Les and Dazzle, but solidified by the quick change artists David and Dania who closed the show. They left you with the "how did they do that?" dumbstruck look on your face as she changed dresses before your eyes in seconds. Amazing. A quick youtube search will find videos of their performances on America's Got Talent a few years ago.

It was a fantastically entertaining evening. The magic ranged from the simple to complex, although always well executed without getting cheesy and the NACO was showcased which is always great. Next up for the pops segment of Symphonic March Madness "Pops Goes Vegas" with the TSO!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Start of March Music Month

I'm very excited about this month! There are lots of things going on in my music circles and it all started last night with the Toronto Symphony.

Since the tsoundcheck program is so awesome, and reasonably priced, I decided to take in a concert program of elements I was not familiar with. The concert consisted of Sibelius' Suite from King Kristian II, Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor, a Chorale by Magnus Lindburg, and the backbone of the evening, Elgar's "Enigma" Variations. My first step was to find some youtube versions of the Piano Concerto, and the Enigma Variations. Discovering that I at least recognized the opening theme of the concerto, and the famous "Nimrod" variation, I got tickets without really knowing what else to expect.

As usual, live music beats any recording, well that's my opinion. There's something to be said for watching the music being made. Overall, the evening was filled with lyrical melodies and lots of moments where it was nice to just close your eyes and let the sound sweep over you. I really enjoyed King Kristian II which had lots of full string sounds. Having played some simple arrangements of Grieg's dances, it was nice to hear the Piano Concerto, his only significant large-scale composition (according to the program notes). The soloist, Lars Vogt, was animated and an excellent musician.

The piece that seemed an opposite to the others was the Chorale (after J.S. Bach "Es ist genug"). Now I know nothing of the original Bach, having never heard it, but this piece seemed to lack the lovely melodies found in the rest of the evening. Indeed the composer of the work says "I have always considered my music as non-melodic, in the sense that melody arose out of the harmonies which I never though of as having a tonal quality. In Chorale I have my harmonies, but suddenly there is a melody on top." It was different.

The highlight for me in the Enigma Variations, was "Nimrod", although I really liked the 10th variation as well. According to the program notes, it represents a "charming young girl with an unfortunate stammer". I will need to listen to the whole thing again, and probably repeatedly, to completely appreciate all the other great parts. The 14 variations are all based on elements of Elgar's life, the first being his wife, the last himself, and in between there's a sea voyage, country squire, 18th century house, even a friend's bulldog.

Next up it's back to Ottawa Pops with Mysterioso: Music, Magic, Mayham, and about throwing it all in there! Can't wait!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Concordia's Spring Season

Tonight marked the second concert of Concordia Pops spring season. The music is a nice mix, although I am partial to the lighter stuff of the second half which includes Highlights from The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady, a nice Jerome Kern medley, and Belle of the Ball by Leroy Anderson (composer of Sleigh Ride). Belle of the Ball needs a bit more work, but it's being pulled out of the performance list, so reprieve!

The first half starts with John William's Olympic Fanfare written for the Los Angeles Games in 1984. The first clarinet part matches the trumpet fanfare line and is fun to play. Alas, it doesn't come close to the version played at the Vancouver closing ceremonies, we take it a bit slower. By the way, anyone know if that was the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra that played at the opening and closing ceremonies?

The pieces then move into a few dances, specifically Slavonic by Dvorak, and Norwegian by Grieg. These make me sweat as there's some exposed clarinet parts, but my confidence is growing with each performance. I've discovered swabbing at the midpoint of the concert though really helps get the gurgle out. Sleeper's Wake by Bach is one of those flowing really pretty songs that doesn't require staccato articulation. Since I'm still working on getting that aspect cleaner, this is a good thing. Other than some fingerings that need conversion to autopilot (great analogy put forth in a recent NACOcast "Practice Makes Perfect" between flight and practicing), it gets played fairly well. Except when I miss my cues (sorry Mr. Conductor!).

Week off next week since it's March Break, but must not lose motivation to practice or the autopilot will never be engaged!