Saturday, December 31, 2011

TSO and Christmas with Canadian Brass

2011 concert attendance concluded with the Toronto Symphony's Christmas Concert.  This year it again featured Canadian Brass, conducted by Steven Reineke.  Mr. Reineke is always entertaining, but this year wisely took a back seat to allow Canadian Brass members Chuck Daellenbach (tuba, and founding member from 1970) and Brandon Ridenour (trumpet) perform most of the intros.  To quote a review from the Toronto Star "no one came to Roy Thomson Hall to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, very fine though they were" which is likely very true.  Some of the "very fine" orchestra only and orchestra/choir (the Etobicoke School for the Arts Chorus was also on hand) numbers were "Carol of the Bells", "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", and Mr. Reineke's chestnut of the season, "The Best Christmas of All" from a 1996 TV movie called Mrs. Santa Claus.

"Carol of the Bells" was an arrangement by David Hamilton which is also on my favourite Christmas CD by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.  You hear so much more though when it's performed live.  The beginning had percussionists on two xylophones and the chimes, which sounded awesome and larger dynamic ranges than I recalled from my ISO version.  The music for Mrs. Santa Claus was composed by Jerry Herman (of Mame and Hello, Dolly! fame) and starred Angela Landsbury (incidentally she also starred in Mame).  "The Best Christmas of All" is a sweet song with a catchy tune, emphasizing the family/being together aspect of the holiday season.

The Men of Canadian Brass (Chris, Achilles, Chuck, Eric, and Brandon) with their
24 caret gold plated instruments
Canadian Brass entered to their signature "Just a Closer Walk with Thee".  The three other members making up the group are trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos (the newest member), Eric Reed (horn), and Chris Coletti (trumpet).  Interesting to note, not one of the current members are actually Canadian.  Chuck could be considered honorary having called Toronto home for many, many years, but the rest are from New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Greece!  However, all are extremely talented, some hold positions with other orchestras, and are even composer/arrangers.  So if they want to promote the "Canadian" name, there will be no complaint from me!

Gene Watts
Highlights of the Canadian Brass numbers were Chuck's feature, the melting "Frosty the Snowman", an ensemble piece with the chorus called "The Angel Choir and the Trumpeter" where Chris rocked the piccolo trumpet solos, and "Saints Hallelujah" emphasizing Achilles mellow trombone.  Tuesday night founding trombonist Gene Watts, who Achilles met back when he was 10, was in the audience.  He was introduced before "Saints" and received a round of audience applause.  He's probably the player who most Canadian Brass followers would remember as making it a trombone signature piece.

In the second half the strings were dismissed as Canadian Brass joined forces with the TSO brass section (including trumpet and trombone principal players) to play two arrangements by Stan Kenton.  Kenton switched up the big band sound by replacing the saxophones with more brass, and the sounds of "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" were different yet a welcome variation on the traditional.  The combined brass sounds was magnificent.

It was a wonderful concert and Canadian Brass picked up at least one new fan, as the friend I went with purchased some of their music.  The gentlemen were very generous with their time, signing autographs after the show.  They have the best autographs I've seen, each incorporating some aspect of the instrument they play. (photo to come)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memphis: The Musical

Fresh from Broadway is the first National Tour of Memphis, which recently made a brief stop in Toronto (so technically it's a North American tour).  The story takes place in the 1950's during a time when radio was one more segregated element in the southern USA.   I had no idea that "race music" stations were relegated to the edges of the band, typically where the signal was not as high a quality.  Mainstream stations may have had a rhythm and blues program, but based on how the musical pokes fun at this program on a white station, they were essentially a joke; not really playing black music.

In the musical, a guy named Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who likes black music ends up in the wrong area of town at a black nightclub.  He convinces them he likes their music, and isn't interested in anything other than promoting it, well except for Felicia (Felicia Boswell).  She's a black singer, and sister of night club owner Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), with whom Huey falls in love.  His promise of getting her singing in the centre of the radio dial is the driving force of the first act.  The sudden expansion of black music, now being called rock and roll, onto radio, TV, and the aftermath of the Huey/Felicia relationship is the subject of Act 2.

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
The story line is lively, intense, thought provoking, tender and touching all at the same time.  We see the change in characters preconceived notions about people, (namely Huey's mother played by Happy McPartlin), who are different and a younger generation that embraces the music and change.  It's sad to think that all this happened barely a generation ago.  Things don't get as far as a lynching but there's intense opposition to Huey and Felicia being together.

Unfortunately, there isn't a fairy tale ending.  Felicia's story has a happier finale than Huey's as she makes a career as a singer in New York.   By trying to force too much, too fast change wise in Memphis Huey ends up losing all the progress he made professionally.  Although I like to think he gets back on the right track at the end with a little help from old friends.
Huey and cast in final scene
The music follows the same mix of emotions.  The score (musical as well) won a Tony award in 2010 and is by founding member of Bon Jovi, David Bryan.  I particularly liked the upbeat "Everyone Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night", Felicia's heartfelt "Coloured Woman", and the song that eventually makes it on the radio in the centre of the dial "Someday".  Maybe I was just in an overly sappy mood, but "Memphis Lives in Me" brought tears to my eyes as everything Huey had falls apart.  There wasn't a member of the cast who left you feeling let down with their voice or performance.  They are all top notch talents.
Felicia singing live on the radio
(photo by Joan Marcus)
The show has now left Toronto, but should it make a return appearance and you're looking for a mix of catchy music and story with heart, check out Memphis.

Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

The current National Ballet of Canada's version of The Nutcracker was created in 1995 by choreographer James Kudelka.  I saw this version shortly after it debuted, and wasn't too impressed.  The story line has been twisted from what I'd call "the original" (although there have been so many variations, maybe there is no more "original"), and at that point having a party in a barn seemed completely weird and out of place.  Now, 17 years later, I figured it was time to give it another shot.  Plus who can resist the fantastic Tchaikovsky score performed live?

( &
At the Dec. 15 performance the Sugar Plum Fairy was principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson and Peter, a stable boy (aka: cavalier/the Prince in the second act), was Steven McRae.  He is a guest artist from The Royal Ballet who also appeared with the National Ballet last season in Alice in Wonderland.

Prior to the performance was a short skit by a grown up Misha and Marie (the two children replacing Clara and Fritz in this version) who recall the magical Christmas Eve that we, the audience, are about to see.  It was a great intro for children to the story (and for people who were expecting "the original").

Uncle Nikolai (danced by an unrecognizable Robert Stephen under the beard, hat, and 10lb costume) takes the place of Drosselmeyer, although is just as eccentric a character.  His female counterpart is the children's nurse, Baba (Alejandra Perez-Gomez)  This couple become a duke and empress in Act 2.  Other than some swapping of characters, and relocation to a barn, the party is still the majority of Act 1, followed by the growing Christmas tree and Mouse King fight.  What I do miss at the party is the duet of the wind up dancing dolls presented by Drosselmeyer.  This versions speciality party dance numbers involve a horse, and another with two bears (one on pointe shoes, the other on roller blades).
Otherwise, the children dance, the adults dance, and Peter dances.  In other versions I don't recall Peter being a main part of the party scene.  I remember him not really showing up until the Nutcracker magically comes alive when the clock strikes midnight.  There were some fun parts I didn't remember: the capture/release of a rat, and snow ball fight come to mind.   The mice that crawled out from under the children's beds were adorable.

The snowflake waltz which closes Act 1, is one of my favourite scenes.  I adore the music, and I love they symmetry of the dancers as they create complex patterns and dance amongst each other.  Elena Lobsanova, McGee Maddox, and Aarik Wells were the Snow Queen and her Icicles trio.

Highlights in the second act were the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (exquisitely executed, although hopping on one foot on pointe has got to be a killer) the Spanish Chocolate, and Arabian Coffee dances.  The double pas de deux in Coffee was very well done, there were even double fish lifts.  The Trepek involved Peter and there was no Chinese Dance.
Heather Ogden as the Sugar Plum Fairy
There was a lively segment involving chefs preparing a feast for Marie and Misha, including leaping over the table, and another adorable piece for the students of the National Ballet School as sheep.  In place of a Dewdrop Fairy, a bee started off the Waltz of the Flowers.  Peter and the Sugar Plum Fairy fall in love and the resulting pas de deux was lovely.  I'd classify it as more traditional in the purpose being to show off the ballerina, but he had plenty of other opportunities to shine.
Empress Baba and Sheep
I still prefer the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Nutcracker and wouldn't want to make this a yearly tradition, but once every 5 or so years, it's worth checking out.

Friday, December 23, 2011

TSO Begins the Season of Tchaikovsky

With no real facts to back this up, I'll say that Tchaikovsky's music is performed most often in December.  Granted I expect most of those performances are of The Nutcracker.  The National Ballet of Canada alone is putting on 26 shows this year.  But the Toronto Symphony helped begin the season of Tchaikovsky on Dec. 8 (I saw the Dec. 10 performance) with nary a sugar plum fairy in sight, and a full evening of Tchaikovsky's music.  In place of a dancing Cavalier they had the dashing, almost 36 year old (his birthday is Jan. 27, the same day as Mozart), Canadian violinist James Ehnes.

Mr. and Mrs. Ehnes
Rick Philips hosted a pre-concert chat about the music of the evening and some background on Mr. Ehnes.  He started the violin at age 4; his father is a musician and his mother a dancer; his wife is also dancer (so any kids he has are genetically destined to go down an artistic path); he plays the piano, and is a car buff.  The owner of two 1979 cars, a Ferrari and Corvette, he decided to teach himself auto mechanics after car repairs became too expensive.  His technique to accomplish this was to take apart the Corvette bolt by bolt and put it back together again.  As Philips said "Don't you hate people like this?".  Perhaps yes, on paper anyway, but after seeing him perform he doesn't come across as having any sort of ego.  The music flows out of him and while some of his movements may be intense and not entirely effortless, they're totally invested for the purpose of the music, not added as an extra flamboyance.

The first piece on the program was the polonaise from the opera Eugene Onegin.  I was surprised I recognized it.  Polonaise is just a dance with a specific rhythm pattern (long, short, short, long, long, long, long) but it was lively and fun.  Click here for a link to the scene/dance from the opera.

James and Peter Oundjian backstage on
Jan 2011 Florida tour
Next was the Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 35), one of the famous ones in the violin repertoire.  It received scathing reviews when first debuted.  The worst from Hanslick who said the violin was "beaten black and blue", it "stunk", and the slow movement was lyrical before being interrupted by the "bombastic final movement" .  Apparently Tchaikovsky could recite the entire review for the rest of his life.  Thankfully saner heads have prevailed and it has became a beloved piece, understandably so.  It's exciting!  A virtuosic show piece that makes no apologies for it.

One of the highlights of the first movement is the cadenza in the middle (which Tchaikovsky actually wrote rather than leaving it up to the soloist), that has lots of double stops at an almost frantic pace.  At the end Ehnes looked at his bow and had to pull off broken bow hairs.  The piece has a fiddle like sound to it, particularly in the final movement which is reminiscent of a cossack Russian dance.  For an insightful discussion on the piece by none other than James Ehnes himself (complete with instrumental demonstrations) check out this link.  The audience was on their feet immediately and wouldn't settle without an encore which turned out to be Caprice 16 by Paganini.

Post intermission things moved onto Symphony #2 in C Minor.  Apparently there's a popular joke where a professor asks a class of music students how many symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote.  A student in the back row puts up his hand and answers "Three, sir.  Numbers 4, 5, and 6."  All this to indicate that his other symphonies are not often performed.  Number 2 is nicknamed "The Little Russian" since it has a basis in Ukrainian folk song.  This is no longer politically correct since the Ukraine is now it's own republic, but there's still historical significance.

The opening begins with a horn solo, excellently performed by TSO principal horn Neil Deland, and there were great clarinet solo/duets with various other wind instruments.  The lively fourth movement was my favourite and reminded me at the start of the "1812 Overture", which wouldn't be written for another eight years.  There are parts that remind me of his Nutcracker music as well, although that didn't debut for another 10 years after the "1812 Overture".  Great composers never throw any ideas away perhaps?  It was extremely enjoyable to hear this uncommon symphony performed with such devotion and skill.  Looking forward to hearing more of the Tchaikovsky symphonies and concertos featuring Mr. Ehnes.  Go Canada!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mary Poppins: The Musical

The story of super nanny Mary Poppins has been around since 1934 when P.L. Travers wrote the original book.  Since then it has transformed into a Walt Disney movie (1964) starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and now a Broadway musical.  As a side note, Julie Andrews had not done a movie before Mary Poppins as her career had been on the stage.  She was reluctant to take the role.  However after losing the part of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn, the role Andrews originated on the stage, she consented.  Come Academy Award time her choice was vindicated as she won the best actress Oscar for Mary over Hepburn.  The most recent incarnation combines elements from both the movie and the book into a Broadway musical, which is currently on tour in Toronto.

Ashley Brown as Mary
I went in to the show with high expectations, particularly for whoever had the role Mary Poppins having heard Ashley Brown (the originator of the role on Broadway) in several other symphony concerts.  In this case I was not disappointed, Rachel Wallace was a great Mary.  Neither was I unsatisfied with Bert (Nicolas Dromard), George Banks (Laird Mackintosh, who also played the role on Broadway and back in the day was Raoul in the Toronto Phantom of the Opera), Winifred Banks (Elizabeth Broadhurst), or the ensemble.  The personalities of the children were much more obnoxious than in the movie.  Perhaps this was to further the transition the entire Banks family undergoes.  Add a fast speaking tempo and an annoying whine to a high pitch young girls voice, on top of an English accent, and Jane (Annie Baltic) was quite often difficult to understand.  I didn't have quite the same problem with Michael (Reese Sebastian Diaz), although he had fewer lines.

17 Cherry Tree Lane interior
(Photo Joan Marcus)
The set (designed by Bob Crowley) for 17 Cherry tree Lane was pretty nifty.  It folded open at the front in the fashion of a dolls house and recalled to mind the opening of several Disney fairy tale animated films which used the turning of storybook pages.  The front view was the main room, and included a staircase which Mary magically slid up.  Turning the house around revealed the kitchen.  To move to the nursery the roof lowered to the stage.  By maintaining the scale of the house, this was the smallest set and gave the nursery a cramped feel.  The advantage was when the action moved to the roof, it opened up a great expanse for the sky, and dancing over rooftops.

Special effects weren't overdone and were positioned to enhance the story, not just act as gimmicks.  This included the flying, definitely a necessity in Mary Poppins, but was limited to Mary, kites, and Bert tap dancing across the stage proscenium.

Supercalifragisticexpialidocious (
I would be remiss to not address the music.  Most of the Sherman brothers' songs from the movie were included ("Chim Chim Cher-ee", "The Perfect Nanny", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "A Man Has Dreams", "Feed the Birds", "Lets Go Fly a Kite" etc.) although often with altered lyrics to fit different plot situations.  "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" for example occurred in a shop of words rather than a sidewalk painting horse race.  Enhancements here included the addition of a whole theme which allowed an entire dance number to unfold around the premise of spelling this word with 18 consonants and 16 vowels.
LHS: youtube RHS: Rachel Wallace and Nicolas Dromard as Mary and Bert
"Step in Time" which had Bert and the chimney sweeps tap dancing over the London rooftops was also retained from the movie to fantastic effect.  The beginning slow tempo with silhouetted sweeps against chimneys (especially the one who was balancing on one foot while holding his broom) was eye-catching!  Oh, to be able to tap like that.

Laird Mackintosh, Blythe Wilson as 
Mr. & Mrs. Banks
The additions of "Practically Perfect" as a solo for Mary, "Anything Can Happen" and "Being Mrs. Banks" slipped into the theme of the Disney canon as if they'd been there forever.  I liked the tighter story line with Mr. and Mrs. Banks having some clear character development in addition to the children. Bert acting as a narrator worked well and gave him some fun moments, like the opening of the second act where he "paints" on the curtain.  His character is so sweet (or maybe the actor who plays him is part of the charm as well).  At one point Mary gives him a kiss on the cheek.  A kiss he returns at the curtain call.

Steffanie Leigh & Nicolas Dromard
(Photo Joan Marcus)
One disappointment was that the orchestra pit was covered :(  All that could be seen was the conductor.  But that's hardly the reason one goes to a musical, and if this one continues to be as popular as it is, maybe there will be a return visit to Toronto at some point.  For an entertaining and enjoyable evening with foot tapping songs and even a message behind the magic, it is practically perfect!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Romeo and Juliet: The Prokofiev Ballet

Part of the National Ballet of Canada's 60th anniversary season includes a newly choreographed, and hence world premiere, of Romeo and Juliet which I saw on Nov 20, 2011.  The choreographer is Alexei Ratmanky and it was enchanting.

My opinion of Prokofiev, based on very limited experience with his music, is that his best work is in ballet, and Romeo and Juliet trumps his score to Cinderella.  Maybe if dance was put to Symphony #5 (the only other of his works I've listened to in its entirety) I'd appreciate it more as well.

Heather and McGee as Romeo and Juliet
The cast I saw included first soloist McGee Maddox as a buff, sexy Romeo, who lifted his Juliet like a doll.  He seems to have a number of lead roles this season (he's also the Prince in the upcoming Nutcracker) so perhaps a principal dancer promotion is in his future.  From what I saw, I'd say it's well earned.  Heather Ogden is beautiful and portrayed a dainty, naive Juliet.  You could believe the character development from the lighthearted playing with Lady Capulet (Joanna Ivey) and her Nurse (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) at the start to the desperately in love and heartbroken women by the finale.

The costumes were of the early Renaissance period with the ladies in long dresses and the men in puffy sleeved, rich fabric short shirt/jackets and leggings.  In one of the crowd scenes the women appeared to float across the stage since their feet were hidden and they moved so smoothly.  Really an incredible effect!
I'll just mention a few of dance highlights.  In Act 1 Romeo and his friends, Mercutio (Jonathan Renna) and Benvolio (Christopher Stalzer), attempt to sneak into the ball held by the Capulets.  The costumes with each leg of their pants a different colour added an element of humour, as did the music.  They danced all together, in pairs, and in and around each other, wearing masks of course.  Nothing at all sissy about these guys!

The balcony scene pas de deux in Act 2, obviously one of the most famous scenes in any Shakespeare play, was danced as a true partnership.  The man's job included more than just showing off the ballerina and included a variety of steps.  It was like the choreographer knew which ones would make me think "oh that was so neat, let's see it again" and repeated most of those moments.

Near the beginning of Act 2, where there's a townspeople scene that included dancers credited as Carnival Men.  These were 4 guys dressed in black and white and danced to a section of music that had a wicked clarinet part!  Apparently it's called "Dance with the Mandolins" Watching the clarinetists in the pit was amazing.  It was fast, and short, and so precisely played!

The sword fighting was another highlight.  Tybalt was played by principal dancer Jiri Jelinek, and you couldn't ask for a better personification.  You could tell he meant business just by the way he strutted across the stage.  It took several draws of his sword before I realized there was no sheath, yet just the way he held in by his side in one hand, it looked like it actually was hanging and he was just resting his hand on the hilt.  Jonathan Renna also acted his character well.  In fact he received a very loud ovation at the end.  He was witty and taunting towards Tybalt when fighting, just asking for it!  His first death scene was long, drawn out, very stereotypical milking the moment on stage.  It completely suited the fact that shortly after he jumped right up again as if to say "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated".  When he was finally killed, it was a less melodramic.

The thrust that kills Tybalt was exceptionally realistic.  A bit of the magic was lost in that he could be seen visibly breathing after he was dead.  Romeo and Juliet on the other head were completely still when they died.  Although they hadn't just danced quite as demanding a scene.  I don't recall in the play where they are actually alive at the same time in the vault.  I was expecting Romeo to find Juliet, expect that she really was dead, drink poison and die.  Then Juliet was to awaken, find him dead and stab herself.  However, after Romeo has poisoned himself but before he dies Juliet woke up.  Talk about a heart breaking moment when you realize you jumped the gun, could have lived happily ever after, and yet are dying.  The poignancy of the moment wasn't lost on the audience.

The final bows begin with Heather and McGee which was a nice touch, reassuring anyone unfamiliar with the story (is there anyone still out there like that?) or any children (there were quite a few in the audience) who might think they were really dead, that all is well.
Juliet's Bedroom scene (
A wonderful afternoon at the ballet was had by all, even if the Four Seasons Centre was quite cold.  I think they could do with turning up the heat/down the air conditioning.  The draft at my feet left them frigid.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

TSO's High Profile Guest Artist
Lang Lang began a two week stay in Toronto on Nov. 9, where he performed all five Beethoven Piano Concerti linked in concerts with Beethoven symphonies.  In addition to his performing, he engaged in outreach concerts and teaching opportunities with many groups of local school children.

I attended the concert which featured Beethoven's Piano Concerto 2, and Symphony 7 on Nov. 17.  It was quite an exciting evening, beginning with the first time I've seen Jonathan Crow as concert master since it was first announced at a concert I attended last season.  The young, handsome gentlemen are taking over the seating along the edge of the stage.  Crow is quite tall and the violin almost seemed small in his hands.

The first piece on the program was "Tibetan Swing" by Bright Sheng a Chinese-American who was in the audience for the Canadian premiere of his work.  It started off minimalistic then added groups of instruments until there was a cacophony of sound.  I didn't particularly enjoy this part, but preferred when it quieted down again.  For me there was too much going on to understand much of anything.  The trombones (particularly Gord Wolfe) were fun to watch though.  While muted they were engaged in very quick full slide motions, which sounded like ducks quacking at times.  Probably not the effect the composer was going for, however he was welcomed up on stage for a series of bows at the conclusion of the piece.
After a brief break for a stage shift and musician swap, Lang Lang arrived to start off the Beethoven portion of the evening.  He has a somewhat flamboyant style, moving with the music and sweeping his arms at times as if joining in the conducting while he waited for the orchestra to finish the introduction.  At the moment I don't remember much about the actual piece.  The second movement, the Adagio, particularly near the end was sleep inducing, although I'll blame this on my tired state and the lyrical beauty.  It was not boring.  His pianissimos are remarkably quiet giving him the ability to produce a wide dynamic range without having to pound it out of the piano.  The bouncy-ness returned in the 3rd movement, which was followed by an almost full house standing ovation.  Although it wasn't an instantaneous jumping of the crowd to their feet.  One lady from the audience passed a bouquet of flowers to Lang Lang who kissed her hand in thank you.  He then pulled one bloom from the group and presented it to Peter Oundjian.  With no end to the applause in sight Lang Lang passed the bouquet to Teng Li (I think), the principal violist, and returned to the piano for an encore.  But not before Oundjian attempted to hand him back the single flower.  A funny gesture that showed the rapport they have developed over the years.  I have no idea what the encore was.  I'll guess Liszt because that's what Lang Lang's most recent CD consists of, but it really is a pure guess.

Next up was the real reason I wanted to attend this concert.  I'm working at seeing all the Beethoven Symphonies, and this crossed off number 7.  Perhaps I said this before, but whatever one I see last becomes my favourite and this was no exception.  There's a very energetic "amsterdam" rhythm in the first movement that keeps the piece motoring along.  Then the gorgeous yet simple theme in the second movement.  Beethoven did a lot with 4 note patterns, case in point Symphony 5, and it created some very memorable and emotional music.  The fourth movement was almost a frenzy but held together and built to a brilliant finish.  In fact the audience was faster in rising to their feet at the conclusion of the symphony than for the piano concerto!  Myself included.  I was wide awake again for the trip home humming the first movement theme the whole way.

As an added bonus, there was in intermission chat with principal keyboardist Patricia Krueger.  A few interesting tidbits: her favourite instrument to play is the triangle (which she does quite enthusiastically), and the Roy Thomson Hall organ has 5000 pipes!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Toronto Symphony Went Off to See the Wizard
For this Halloween seasons concert the TSO tried a new approach.  Rather than a generic concert with creepy musical pieces, they went all out for an event: a showing of the classic MGM film The Wizard of Oz, with all musical accompaniment provided by the live Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  This review is late in the hopes that I could find some pictures elsewhere on the web, as I was without camera.  As luck would have it, google came through and as you'll see, there were some very creative people in attendance.
The program would appear to be the brain child of producer John Goberman, who also created the Symphonic Night at the Movies series (which includes Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies which opened the National Arts Centre Orchestra's Pops series a few weeks ago).  Oz with Orchestra debuted in the summer of 2005 at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) conducted by Emil de Cou.  Mr. de Cou was on hand for this concert as well, making his TSO debut.  Currently the Music Director for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, he was the associate conductor at the NSO and a former conductor of American Ballet Theatre for eight years each.  There's something about conductors who've had experience in ballet, maybe it's the required clarity for that type of job, or maybe it's just the genre of symphonic programs in which I tend to see them, but they're engaging to watch.  As an amateur musician who has fun trying to determine time signatures from a conductor's beat pattern, this clarity is particularly welcomed.

Another intriguing aspect of this maestro's work is his position as music consultant to NASA!  He's conducted several programs, include a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing and 20th anniversary of the Hubble telescope launch.  Let's bring him back to Toronto with that concert!  It would have awe inspiring images to accompany the music.

But let's return to the movie.  The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939 starring Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man), and Burt Lahr (Lion).  The stories surrounding this cast are quite interesting.  Initially, Shirley Temple may have been considered for Dorothy given her popularity at the time.  Bolger was originally to be the Tin Man but wanted the part of Scarecrow having entered vaudeville after being inspired by Fred Stone who he had seen play the character in 1902.  He won over the producer with his fluid style and swapped parts with Buddy Ebsen, the original Scarecrow.  Unfortunately Ebsen had a severe reaction to the aluminium powder make-up.  During application he had breathed it in, and it had coated his lungs.  He ended up hospitalized in critical condition and never returned to the film.  Enter replacement Jack Haley.  Filming continued with the make-up changed to a paste and a layer of white greasepaint applied first to avoid the same problems.  Ebsen's voice is actually the one heard in the ensemble songs, as Haley only re-recorded solo numbers and lines in songs.

You don't realize how much music is in a movie until you have the musicians playing the score right in front of you.  The songs (by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg) are obviously what people remember, yet the back score, which can be easily forgettable when watching a movie at home, came alive.  Herbert Stothart who was the house composer for MGM wrote it and incorporated themes from the songs as well as classical music.  I had never noticed that until the scene when Dorothy was escaping from the witches castle and Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" started; very fitting for Halloween.  There were occasions when the balance between the movie and the orchestra was off.  The sound effects were still part of the movie and the tornado wind drowned out most of the music during the flight to Oz.  It was also possible to forget that the musicians were even there, a testament to how much in-sync they were with the movie.

It's been many years since I've watched The Wizard of Oz, and I wasn't prepared for the audiences enthusiastic response.  There were cheers for Leo the Lion's roar at the start, Toto's escapes, laughs at the Lollipop Guild (I'd forgotten how campy some lines actually were), boos for the Wicked Witch of the West, and applause following "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".  It was also quite a spectacle on a huge screen in HD.  The colour after the sepia tones of Kansas totally popped.  Whoever decided on the use of colour only in Oz made a fantastic choice.

Costumes were encouraged, and audience and orchestra alike took that to heart.  A few of the notable ones follow:

Principal Bass Jeffrey Beecher as the Yellow Brick Road and Assistant Principal Bass Kristen Bruya as the Tin Man.
Bassoonist Sam Banks as the Tin Man, Contrabassoonist Fraser Jackson as Dorothy, and the trombone section with their crazy wigs and tie die shirts.
Cellists Emmanuelle Beaulieu Bergeron as the Poppy Field and Roberta Janzen as Dorothy.
Concertmaster for the evening, Marc-Andre Savoie, in full curly hair lion head piece, violinist Etsuko Kimura as the Wicked Witch complete with green face, and second violin Wendy Rose (I think) as Somewhere Over the Rainbow (the sign on her head says "somewhere").
Tuba player Mark Tetreault was the best member of the Lollipop Guild I saw.  Alas, no photo.

Not to be left out, here's a few of the audience costumes (taken from the TSO's photostream on Flickr

A group making it a family affair.
A very authentic looking Witch of the West.
Another take on the Yellow Brick Road.

In this era of remakes and updates, sequels and prequels (don't get me wrong I love the music in Wicked!), it was a great experience to return to the ultimate Oz movie in such a great venue!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2011 TSO Pops Season Opener

Steven Reineke
The 2011/2012 season is the 90th Anniversary of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  They opened their season with Christopher Plummer reading Henry V, and the Pops series started on October 4 with some more big names.  Conductor Steven Reineke returned to present Hollywood Hits, with guest vocalists Jodi Benson and Hugh Panaro.

Jodi was the voice of Ariel in Disney's The Little Mermaid 26 years ago, and is still on the job.  If Barbie in Toy Story sounds anything like Ariel, it would be because Jodi was the voice of her as well.  Her only appearance in a live action movie was as the receptionist Sam in Enchanted (which incidentally featured a few other ladies who voiced Disney Princesses) She also originated the role of Polly in Crazy for You on Broadway, and was nominated for the best actress Tony award.

Hugh Panaro's major claim to fame is likely his role as the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, which he is currently reprising on Broadway.  He is one of the few (depending on where you read it, some say only) performer to have played Raoul AND the Phantom.  There is a Toronto connection as well.  He was Gaylord Revenal in the controversial production of Show Boat that opened the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts (before the head honchoes at Livent got in legal trouble) back in 1993.

The concert opened with the 20th Century Fox fanfare, fitting to start off movie music, although the roar of Leo the MGM lion would work as well, before moving into "Hooray for Hollywood".  The vocal stars were introduced through "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails/Steppin Out" (there really is nothing quite like Irving Berlin) as a duet then were showcased in solos.  Hugh smoothly, and in classic crooner style sang his way through Porter's  "Begin the Beguine" which I just recently learned had words.  The piece doesn't have the standard 4 bar phrase format (it is actually 108 bars long rather than the standard 32 bar song form of the time) making it harder to instantly stick in your head the same way a Berlin tune will, for example.  However, I've heard it enough now that the melody has become familiar and it's one of those pieces you can always hear something new with each listen.  The line in the piece "an orchestra's playing" is always smile inducing when sung with a full orchestra on stage, and this concert was no exception.

Jodi returned for "Over the Rainbow" and I wasn't feeling all that impressed.  The light, airy but still rich Ariel voice disappeared as she switched on the belter style and it had too much vibrato on the high end for my taste.  Particularly in a song such as this.  In fact, the concert as a whole hadn't really impressed me yet.

The following two orchestra pieces changed my mind!  I've heard "The Trolley Song" as a solo (classic Judy Garland Meet Me In St. Louis of course), a small ensemble (it was in the first symphony concert I attended "Those Glorious MGM Musicals" with the NAC Orchestra), and a full chorus ("A Chorus of Hits" same orchestra), but I can't recall seeing a strictly orchestral performance before.  This one was fantastic, although with the arrangement being by Conrad Salinger there really was no doubt it wouldn't be.  There were lots of chimes, and bells, and it had the rich, lush sound he's known for.  From my seat I could see the first violin music and talk about some serious runs!  It didn't go unnoticed by Mr. Reineke either, as he quipped to the violins after the piece "enough notes in there for you?"  They didn't seem to have any problems with it though.  Continuing with classic orchestrations, the next was by Robert Russell Bennett, who worked on many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, including The Sound of Music.  There were melodies in this arrangement not in the movie (perhaps "No Way to Stop It" from the Broadway version) and it was interrupted by audience applause during a switch into the slower "Edelweiss" and "Climb Every Mountain" section (incidentally exactly like the version in this clip, which sounds like a similar arrangement although pretty bad playing when compared to the TSO).

After that I was engaged, and was drawn in even more with Hugh's performance of "Sit Down You're Rocking the Boat".  He played Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls In Concert, and it was fun to see him as Nicely Nicely Johnson.  His enthusiasm and theatrics were especially entertaining.  Jodi returned with "The Way We Were" by Marvin Hamlish, before they joined forces with Primus: The Amabile Men's Choir to conclude the first half with "Circle of Life".  The Lion King was recently re-released in 3-D and was #1 at the box office 2 weeks in a row!  Pretty impressive for a re-release. Go Disney :)

Post intermission things were restarted out west with Elmer Bernstein's "Main Title from The Magnificent Seven".  This piece was on the program in the first and only concert I saw Erich Kunzel conduct in person and so will always remind me of him.  I finally got around to watching the movie this past summer, and it's a classic, but I think made even better because of the music.  Orchestral pieces in the second half also included the theme from "the best Hitchcock movie, Hitchcock never wrote" which would be "Charade" and because a Hollywood Hits concert just isn't complete without something by John Williams, his "Raiders March" from Raiders of the Lost Ark.  There is only 1 person who has won more Academy Awards than Williams (who has over 40).  Walt Disney himself!

But before returning to Disney music though we stopped in Kander and Ebb territory with pieces from Cabaret.  Hugh is amazing!  He continued to show his versatility by putting on this fantastic accent and announcing in "Wilkommen" style that "Roy Thomson Hall is bee-u-tiful, the TSO is bee-u-tiful, the conductor is bee-u-tiful", which got Steven laughing.  In another Judy Garland link, only this time via her daughter, Jodi channeled Liza Minelli for "Cabaret" wearing a pretty stunning red dress.

Combining again they sang a subdued and sweet rendition of "Moon River".
"Moon River" (
Having Ariel in person (wearing a fitting mermaid style blue gown), required of course that "Part of Your World" be sung, although Jodi seemed genuinely happy to do it, saying it's a song she loves and doesn't get tired of performing.  She even noticed a young girl with a Sebastian (the crab from The Little Mermaid) toy in the audience and commented how sweet it was.  I was interested in whether this would be a movie sounding performance or the more grown up Jodi we'd been seeing throughout the evening.  It ended up being a bit of both, beginning with the Ariel innocence but growing up as the song progressed.  This song was also the source of the most humour for the night and almost started late.  After the introductory chatting between Steven and Jodi, he turned around, cued the orchestra, and his baton went flying into the viola section!!  The orchestra, true professionals they are, kept right on playing as Jodi started laughing, and someone in the viola section passed his baton back.  Jodi made the comment "that's life theatre" and Steven said "it happens" which sent Jodi and the audience into another set of giggles.   Amazingly she refocused just in time for her entrance.

The "it happens" moment ( as above)
Not to be outdone in the signature song department, Hugh, tieless and looking dashing in a black shirt and jacket (alas I can find no picture from this song), walked out to the opening chords of "The Phantom of the Opera" which segued into "The Music of the Night" (link is to his performance on a CBS news show).  I've heard (not all in person) several Phantom's: (Michael Crawford, Colm Wilkinson, Gerald Butler, Ted Keegan, and whoever performed the 4 times I saw the Toronto production), but none had the smooth voice, suave character, versatility in acting, precise diction, pure power, vocal range or dynamics as Hugh Panaro!  It was absolutely stunning and concluded with an almost immediate and incredibly well deserved full house standing ovation!  I haven't seen that happen mid concert at any that I've attended so far, and I expect it's even more rare at one classified as Pops.  There are not enough positive adjectives to describe how awesome it was.  If I make my first trip New York while he's still playing The Phantom, that WILL be the Broadway musical I go see!

4th dress similar to this
The evening could have ended there, although I'm not sure the audience would have let go without a solo encore, but there was still the real finale to the evening, "You Can't Stop the Beat" from Hairspray.  Dressed in her fourth gown of the evening, this one a pastel tie die pattern, Jodi was committed to the dancing.  Hugh was a bit more standoff-ish, but by the second encore ("Mamma Mia" then "Dancing Queen") they were trying out some synchronized disco moves.

With a beginning to the season like this, I can't wait for the next Pops event!  In case any TSO decision makers ever happen to find this, bring Hugh Panaro back ASAP!  I vote for Rags to Ritzes: A Tribute to Irving Berlin :)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Chess: The Musical

Who would have thought a musical about a board game would be good?  I first discovered Chess: The Musical because of a piece from this concert, and found a recording of a concert version from 2008 starring Idina Menzel and Josh Groban.  I didn't read the plot synopsis first and it took a few listens to figure out who was who, but I loved the score.  At first listen it wasn't hard to hear some of the same type sounds as in Mamma Mia! (Chess is composed by ABBA composers Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus with lyrics by Tim Rice), but after a while it tends to take on its own character and the "everyone ends up happy" ending from Mamma Mia! disappears to the much more somber one of Chess.  Anyhow, when it was coming to Toronto after touring the UK and before a possible transfer to London's West End, it was on my "go see" list right away.

In short the story takes place at the World Chess Championships in Merano, Italy and Bangkok, Thailand one year apart.  The Russian (Anatoly Sergievsky) and The American (Freddie Trumper) compete, not just at chess, but for the Hungarian, and originally Freddie's second, Florence Vassy.  With behind the scenes scheming by Anatoly's compatriot Molokov, and the journalist Walter de Courcy, Anatoly's wife Svetlana arrives adding to the complications.  The Arbiter acts as a sort of narrator.

Character positioning in "Deal (No Deal)"
The best way to classify the set is "multi media" as newspaper headlines, names (possibly of former world chess champions?), and the journalist Walter's (played by James Graeme) reports appear on the backdrop.  The raised centre stage platform is completely LED lights lending itself to anything imaginable and providing a cue to different locations.  The hotel rooms had full white floors, the Arbiter's solo was funky flashing arrows in red, and a central aisle was created for the arrival of Svetlana.  It was put to best use when divided into squares for "Deal (No Deal)" which involves a series of duets between the major players (Molokov and Florence, Florence and Anatoly, Anatoly and Svetlana, Molokov and Walter, Walter and Freddie, link is to the concert version without the squares).  Each stood in a square and, depending who they were having a conversation with, they would move to the one that was lit.  It was incredibly simple, yet very effective.

Musicians as chess pieces during Molokov and Walter's duet
"Difficult and Dangerous Times" (
As for players, well London casts seem to be something special.  The musicians were completely integrated into the play, playing instruments while walking around, sitting at the side, even lying haphazardly across the stage.  No hiding in a pit, they represented chess pieces.   As the song "The Story of Chess" says "King, and queen and rook.  And bishop, knight and pawn...", each was there.  The knights even had horses tails.  The Black Bishop played clarinet and saxophone, there were a few types of accordions, pawns mostly played strings (it was odd to see cellos playing standing up).  The flute player (pawn I think) had one section where she lay down and stood back up again, all while playing.  It was kind of funny to see the bass and cello players with their instruments lying on top of them as they played, granted most of that was strumming or pizzicato, but still completely not what they must be used to and as a result quite intriguing to watch.

And the voices...Wow!  At times Shona White who played Florence sounded like Idina, but what stamina.  The character is on stage almost the entire time, and the majority of the action is through song, this isn't a straight dialogue rich musical.  I particularly liked her "Mountain Duet"(concert version again; Duet starts ~ 8:43) with  Tam Mutu as Anatoly.  He didn't have Josh Groban's distinctiveness but an incredible voice with perhaps even more nuance to it.  There was some overacting at the end of "Endgame" where he breaks down and the sobs seemed a bit forced, but other than that he exuded Russian character and completely sold the part.  His rendition of "Anthem" to close Act 1 was poignant.

Svetlana and Anatoly
Svetlana was performed by Rebecca Lock and from the first note of her singing "Someone Else's Story" (starting ~ 10:19) when she arrives in the second act, it was heavenly.  Her voice was so clear with a sweetness missing from the character of Florence, it instantly drew you in.  The different vocal styles complemented each other in the ironic Florence/Svetlana duet "I Know Him So Well" where they sing about how well they know Anatoly yet both have reached completely opposite conclusions about what he needs.

The Arbiter (
Then of course there is the trumpet playing Arbiter, always walking with slow purpose, somewhat ominously, anywhere he goes, using his instrument for dramatic effect as well as playing.  David Erik sported the shirtless, floor length leather jacket with style and ease, showing off a defined if not completely ripped 6-pack.  "One Night in Bangkok" has the cast in their skivvies, some showing more than one might want to see.

James Fox as Freddie, the egomaniac American, was easy to develop disdain for.  However, when he broke out the guitar and accompanied himself in "Pity the Child" you suddenly were given a different glimpse of the character.  Acted out, it's so much easier to feel understanding and sorry for him, than from just a recording.

Freddie and Florence in "Commie Newspapers"
Apparently Chess has had a rocky history of stage productions, so I highly recommend catching this one before it disappears across the Atlantic again.  Even without the stereotypical happy ending, it leaves one with an admiration for the performer and the knowledge that because Florence is a strong character she won't be down for long and will get back in the game, of life, if not chess.