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!

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