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.