Sunday, February 27, 2011

NAC Broadway Across Canada: CATS

From Feb. 8-13 the North American touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats stopped in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.  First performed in London in May 1981, and moving to Broadway in 1982, a film version was made in 1998, and since 2003 it's been on tour.  Talk about a long history, and one filled with award winning highlights.  In 1983 it won 7 Tony's.  Most of which make sense, but "best book" I'm not so sure about.

We just made it to our amazing seats (row E, right in the centre) as the lights were dimming (thank you Winterlude road closures), but we made it!  I went with a dancer friend, and my conclusion is it's a dancers show.  She found the choreography a bit repetitive and not as interesting as previous versions, but agreed the acrobatics were mostly impressive, especially for a touring production where a lot of the performers would have a musical theatre background rather than be purely trained dancers.  The music is obviously good, although they hid the minimalist orchestra (~6 musicians on keyboards, guitar, bass and drums) behind the stage, and I do like a richer orchestra sound with real strings.  The make-up was fantastic, as was the ability of the performers to stay completely in character with decidedly feline motions.

"The Naming of Cats" was tricky to understand at times, given that about 27 people are saying the same thing at the same time, which diction wise is a challenge.  But overall the singing was extremely well done.  It's one of the first times I've understood the verse of "Memory", so kudos to Kathryn Holtkamp.  "The Jellicle Ball" is probably my favourite piece music wise, although I also like "Macavity" and "Mr. Mistoffelees".  The Rum Tum Tugger character was over the top, which I suppose is the point, and Matthew Taylor's characterization I'd say was a complete combination of Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley.

The changing of the set for the pirate play within a play of "Growltiger's Last Stand" was well done.  As was the spaceship light type thing which descended during the overture and reappeared to take Grizabella to wherever she gets "reborn".  Although I found its similarity to a UFO perhaps too amusing.  The lighting throughout was a highlight actually; from the flashing "eyes" during the overture, to the Christmas type strands they had running from the lower boxes to the stage.  I also had to chuckle at the the flying tire and the "a cat is not a dog" line in the finale, which the actors were singing in all seriousness yet seems so obvious.

Overall, I wouldn't claim it as my favourite show, but I had an enjoyable evening even if the plot is a bit sketchy, and I'm glad I took the opportunity to see the performance.  The score does come alive when accompanied by the action on stage.  Additionally, by considering the plot in segments, some of which don't have all that much to do with an overarching story of Grizabella being accepted, it was quite entertaining, and isn't that the point of a musical?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

NAC Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall

The annual trip for the National Arts Centre Orchestra, under the direction of Pinkus Zukerman, to Toronto was Feb. 5 where they performed an almost all Beethoven program.  The pieces performed were Peter Paul Koprowski's "In Memoriam Karol Szymanowski", and the Beethoven's: "Symphony Number 2", and Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major "Emperor".  Jonathan Biss was the guest pianist.

Personally I went for the Beethoven Symphony, and that really was the piece I enjoyed most of the evening.  I did appreciate the introductions by CBC Radio personality Eric Friesen, and Maestro Zukerman was enthusiastic and personable in a way I had not expected.

The first piece demonstrated the composer's protest against war and oppression.  Being written in 1963, I classify it as modern music, which is an area I'm still working to appreciate.  It had its moments, but was not my cup of tea.

Then the Beethoven!  The introduction by Mr.'s Friesen and Zukerman were enthusiastic and engaging.  Asking for Maestro Zukerman's take on the piece, Eric (and the audience) were treated to a quick demonstration of why the fourth bar (apparently typically the weakest) was the strongest, as he cued the orchestra and the strings played from the start to about bar 5.  Looking to reference something at the end, Mr. Zukerman had to look at the music of concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, since the conductor music stand was empty.  He conducted without a score, so it's obviously a piece he knows well.  An interesting side note, they brought their own conductors podium, complete with what in Southam Hall is complementary red carpeting.  Given Roy Thomson Hall's primarily wood and beige tones, it was an interesting, but not completely out of place, accent.

The section I know best of Beethoven's 2nd is the opening of the fourth movement.  This contains the "back flip" theme, so named by Rick Phillips in his pre-concert chat.  It is used as the theme for the NACOcast, so I found it quite fitting it was the NAC orchestra performing the piece.  I believe the host of the podcast, Christopher Millard, was indeed playing first bassoon.  But in addition to the familiar theme, I quite enjoyed the entire symphony.

Some of the names I know
At intermission while chatting with the girl next to me, who had also come alone, I learned she was there for the final piece, the "Emperor" piano concerto.  She mentioned that her piano professor had said she needed more power to play Beethoven, and personally she preferred playing Mozart.  I'd have to say power was not a problem from the young guest artist.  Jonathan Biss comes from a very musical family and it turns out that Mr. Zukerman knew both his parents before they were married.   Some of the tunes throughout the concerto had a passing familiarity to them, but nothing really jumped out at me.  The second movement is beautiful and I can see why it could be used as a funeral song.

Post concert there was a group playing in the lobby for the "after party".  They were quite enjoyable, although completely different from the classical music just experienced.  It was a great evening, even if I didn't see Christopher Millard at said party to tell him how much I enjoy his podcasts.  I can tick another Beethoven Symphony off my list as well.  I'm not sure I have a favourite, the latest one I've heard seems to hold that position for a while.

Thanks for coming to Toronto NACO, hope to see you again next year!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Mozart @ 255

Since at least 2005 the Toronto Symphony has been celebrating the month of Mozart's birthday with a Mozart festival, numbered based on what would have been his age.  This year I attended the last show of the series on Jan. 30 entitled Mozart's World.  The orchestra was set up differently from the usual layout.  The first violins were in the usual place, but the seconds sat on the opposite side of the stage facing them.  Beside the 1st's were the cellos, and then the violas beside the 2nd's with the basses behind the cellos.  I'm guessing with was the typical layout in Mozart's day?  Bassoons, clarinets, horns, minimal brass and percussion rounded out the rest of the orchestra, coming and going as called for by the pieces.

The concert opened with the overture to Les Horaces, an opera by Salieri!  Certainly part of Mozart's world, although as it turns out not as detrimental to Mozart as things like the movie Amadeus would have one believe.  For some great back story on Mozart and Salieri check out the Jan. 17, 2011 NACOcast episode.  As conductor Peter Oundjian said at the end of the overture "so you've now heard a public performance of music by Salieri.  It's really quite good.  The rest of the opera wasn't so we stopped here".

The afternoon also included one of Mozart's most famous pieces "Eine Kleine Nechtmusik", the "D major Concerto for Double Bass" by Johann Baptist Vanhal performed by principal double bassist Jeffrey Beecher, and Mozart's "Concerto in C major for Oboe", performed by principal oboist Sarah Jeffrey.  The performance concluded with Haydn's Symphony 8, "Le Soir".   I really enjoyed hearing the other 3 movements to "Eine Kleine", the opening Allegro is so familiar that it's easy to forget there's a Romance, Menuetto and Rondo which follow.

courtesy Silk Road Project site
The double bass concerto was awesome!  The music was very relaxing yet not sleep inducing.  Being in a lower range it didn't carry the way a flute can soar over the orchestra but the balance was well executed in that the orchestra didn't over power the solo and let Jeffrey shine.  Who knew the bass had the range that it did?  At times it seemed more in the range of the cello, and even higher when he was playing at the very end of the finger board.  I believe there was a cadenza at the end of each movement and he really demonstrated what an excellent bass player can do with the instrument.  It's a shame it's not used virtuosically (if that's even a word) more often.

William Littler, a journalist with the Toronto Star, hosted an intermission chat with Jeffrey in the lobby.  Peter Oundjian had mentioned he, as a violinist, looked at the bass like driving a city bus around a Formula 1 track.  Jeffrey modified this to how he thought of it more as a Hummer.  When asked why these bass pieces aren't performed more often, he slightly insulted previous bass players by saying perhaps they didn't gain as much skill as they could have on the instrument to be able to perform some of the concertos written.  Of which I think he said there are only three; two by Vanhal and one by someone else.  His bass is from 1690 and the owners can be traced all the way back to its origins.  If he has to travel, he drives with the bass or it gets its own seat on the airplane.  Understandably, something that valuable does not get put in checked luggage.  Since the TSO just returned from touring Florida, I wonder if he borrowed an instrument or took his?  I always enjoy seeing musicians outside of the stage lights, and Jeffrey demonstrated his amiable nature while discussing his work with YoYo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and his teaching job.  Thanks to him for taking the time to share with the audience more about himself and bass playing.

courtesy TSO
After intermission Sarah Jeffrey showed off her beauty as well as that of the oboe.  She looked very pretty in a long black dress.  One would never know she had a 3 month old baby (she's married to a French horn player) unless Peter Oundjian had mentioned it.  I've often considered the difference between the oboe and clarinet to be the more nasal sound of the oboe compared to the hollowness of the clarinet.  However, in higher ranges and in the hands of a real professional the nasal goes away and it can have a more flute like quality.  Her cadenzas were also impressive.

I don't recall hearing a full Haydn symphony before.  In fact all I know about Haydn was that he wrote a ton of them and a friend of mine did a project on him in grade 9 music.  She actually attended this concert with me, but couldn't remember much about Haydn either.  I enjoyed "Le Soir" and need to look up the other symphonies Peter mentioned, "Le Matin" and "Le Midi".  Again the balance between the orchestra was well executed.  There were violin (1st and 2nd), cello, and bass solos at various points, and all could be heard clearly.  The final movement, "The Storm", really sounded like one.  I'm glad it stayed in the hall and we didn't walk out to thunder, lightning or snow!

Looking forward to Mozart@256!