Saturday, March 26, 2011

"Everything is Beautiful at the Ballet"

Piotr and Sonia Rodriguez
(from National Ballet of Canada website)
March 9 was the opening of the National Ballet of Canada's newly re-staged version of Don Quixote.  Based on the Cervantes novel (which also inspired The Man of La Mancha) and set to a bubbly, high flying score by Ludwig Minkus it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening!  Having recently watched A Chorus Line, the title of this post is a line that came to mind several times throughout the night.

Prior to all ballets at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is a ballet talk.  The one for this series of performances was hosted by ballet master and Don Quixote re-stager, Lindsay Fischer.  I've attended his talks before, and find them very insightful and preparatory for the following ballet.  This evenings was no exception.  He always has some interesting insight into the human spirit.  He candidly admitted to having started the book prior to a previous production, never finishing it, but forged through when Karen Kain asked him to create some new dances for this version.  Near the end he discussed how ballet is great at demonstrating relationships but not so good at expressing text.  As a result there is a fair amount of mime.  He gave us a quick primer demonstrating "I love you", "married" and one of Don Quixote's lines of "I am a seeker after nobility, and beauty, and piety.  But you don't find those women very often."  Just standing there talking, he could be anyone, but as soon as he moved his arms in demonstration there was no doubt he was a dancer!  Talk about fluidity! Full talk linked here.

I was wondering if I would understand the story, but even without the talk or reading the plot summary in the program, I needn't have worried.  The story line was quite easily followed through the dancing which was amazing.

Piotr and Greta (from Toronto Star)
The principal dancers for the evening were Greta Hodgkinson as Kitri and Piotr Stanczyk as Basilio the barber.  Basilio was scheduled to be performed by Guillaume Cote making his debut in the role.  When the announcement was made about the change prior to the performance there were audible groans and disappointed noises from the audience.  Admittedly I was looking forward to a debut performance, but really enjoyed Piotr's.

I was sitting in Ring 3, in a single chair off to the side which turned out to be an awesome location.  I could see into the orchestra pit, had a great view of David Briskin conducting (who also on occasion uses a sweeping beats 3-4, maybe it's a ballet conductor thing), and the clarinetist Max Christie (who had some lovely solos in Act 2).  Mr. Christie even managed to roll out his wrists while still playing.  I couldn't see who was in the concertmaster seat, but the program has Benjamin Bowman listed as being on leave and Akemi Mercer as the guest concertmaster.  Mr. Bowman was just announced as concert master last season, and suddenly he's on leave?  After being blown away by his performance in the ballet I attended last season (that blog is here), I was hoping to see him again.

Piotr from 2006 production
(from National Ballet of Canada website)
As for the actual dancing, well I'm certainly no expert, but I was impressed with the dancers sense of rhythm which they demonstrated through claps and snaps in addition to dance.  There's a scene were Don Quixote thinks a windmill is a gypsy and attacks it.  The windmill wasn't terribly convincing with big palm branches for blades.  The pyrotechnics after he knocks the blades off with his spear were cool though.  This then leads into Don Quixote's dream sequence where he imagines his love Dulcinea looks like Kitri who dances with wood nymphs (it's ballet, you must suspend belief).  This scene reminded me of the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from The Nutcracker.  The dancers were all in white stiff tutus and the style seemed similar,  very pretty and dream like so the point was made.

The ballet had all the elements of a good story, acting, music, and energetic dancing by all parties.  I'm looking forward to attending more ballets.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Electronica Meets Orchestra

March 5 was the second of three concerts in the 7th season of the Toronto Symphony's New Creations Festival.

Essentially works by composers who aren't dead.  Given my previous experience with contemporary music I was skeptical I'd enjoy this.  But John Adams, who's name I've come across in various other orchestra calenders and arts critics reviews, was conducting (his TSO conducting debut) and one of his own works was included,  so I figured, why not try something new?  The performance included 3 pieces: "Torque" by Gary Kulesha (a prominent Canadian composer), "Liquid Interface" (Canadian Premiere) by Mason Bates and "City Noir" (Canadian Premiere and TSO co-commission) by John Adams.

The first that hit me when I walked into the hall, was the amount of stuff on the stage!  I've never seen so many percussion instruments!  There were about 5 different xylophones, glockenspiels, vibraphones etc.  Most interesting were a big white drum like what you'd put ballots in to mix them up for a draw (used in "Liquid Interface" which may be classified as a wind machine) and a little room of  pot lids.  Ok, well not really but that's what it looked like (see photo).  Also 2 harps, and by the end of the evening 6 French horns, 4 clarinets, and 4 trumpets.

Pardon my poor grammar, but for my enjoyment factor 2 out of 3 ain't bad.  Being a casual concert, there was a host, in this case TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian, who introduced the pieces, which is especially nice to have for contemporary items.  He mentioned Mr. Kulesha's passion for fast cars (a Porsche Carrera specifically), and "Torque" growing out of that.  Indeed in the program notes the composer admits that the "image of rapidly rotating wheels (or tires) was in my mind throughout the writing of the work.  This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that I was shopping for a new car during the creation of this composition.  And it may or may not be related to the fact that I acquired a very fast car halfway through the writing process...", that car no doubt being the Porsche.  I really liked this piece!  Indeed the image of a car existed throughout and I was thinking it would fit in well with the Disney Hollywood Studios stunt car show.

Mason Bates (TSO website)
Next the "electronica" for the evening appeared.  If all contemporary pieces were like "Liquid Interface" I think I could say I like contemporary music.   Things with a clear theme really help.  In this case, that theme was water.  But as composer Mason Bates said in his description of the piece the temperature continues to rise throughout so you get water in all forms, not just liquid.  Mr. Bates, located between the strings and percussion, added the electronic bits, often with a techno type beat, via a laptop and large keypad.  It started with ice and real sounds of Glaciers Calving (also the name of the first movement).  Conductor John Adams had an ear piece for this first movement and when asked by Peter Oundjian afterwards said it was a click track for precision.  "Scherzo Liquido", the second movement, had electronic water droplet sounds and if I recall correctly ran right into the third and fourth movements.  "Crescent City" included hurricane, thunderstorm, and ocean parts which "relaxes into a kind of balmy, greenhouse paradise where we end the symphony in "On the Wannsee"" (from composers program notes) which featured ambient dock sounds recorded on Lake Wannsee.  The symphony concluded with the water evaporating.  Throughout there were snippets of melody that could be followed which I particularly enjoyed.  What I've heard previously in contemporary music is the use of random beats and rhythmic contortions to drive the piece, giving one the idea a pretty melody is dead.  I'm glad that's not he case.  The percussionists, particularly Mr. Rudolph (who also played a mean washboard) and the other mallet keyboard players, got a workout with 4 mallets quickly moving all over the keys.  Quite exciting to watch.

John Adams (
After a quick musician change with additional horns, and several principal musicians arriving (such as oboe, trombone, trumpet, and French horn) there was a short chat between Mr. Oundjian and Mr. Adams about the creation of the piece.  Apparently "City Noir" was commissioned for the first concert by the LA Philharmonics new music director, Gustavo Dudamel.  So Mr. Adams combined the Los Angeles hollywood feel and his enjoyment of noir films into a piece that he said is similar to a movie score but without the breaks that usually come for the dialogue just when the score is getting interesting (for an interview with him about the piece go here).  I'd say interesting is a good word for it.  It followed more closely the rhythmic drive I mentioned before at points which tends to be when I get distracted.  Perhaps a noir movie accompanying it would have helped me.  There were well executed solos by a guest saxophonist, Timothy McAllister and principal musicians Andrew McCandless (trumpet) and Gordon Wolfe (trombone).  I also enjoyed watching Adams as a conductor.  His beat patterns were mostly easy to follow and there was no lack of energy or enthusiasm from him.  At the conclusion of the piece the musicians eagerly joined in the applause which I tend to use as a gauge for how well they liked the person on the podium.  I'd say he was a welcome guest conductor and indeed Mr. Oundjian had said previously that the orchestra had enjoyed rehearsals and hoped he would come back again soon.

As a first time attendee to the New Creations festival, I look forward to reading more about what next years might have in store.

PS:  I came across this as well.  The TSO got great reviews in the New York Times!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Winter Escape with the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra

February 22 I had the opportunity to experience yet another orchestra.  Knowing I was going to be escaping the cold weather at home and heading for the warm climate of Florida I planned ahead and discovered that the Naples Philharmonic was performing Broadway's Leading Men, conducted by none other than their Principal Pops Conductor Jack Everly!  How perfect is that?  Warm weather and what's guaranteed to be an enjoyable show.

Outdoor Box Office
A short note about The Philharmonic Centre for the Arts, which is both an art museum and the concert hall for the orchestra.  It's an intriguing place.  The first thing that hit me was free parking!  Something you never have in Toronto!  Second to that was the outdoor box office.  It's amazing what gets done in warm climates that I would never even consider!

Inside there were a few rooms with sculptures to peruse, alas no picture taking was allowed so the art images are from the Phil's website.

The best pieces (in my totally unqualified to judge opinion) were on the stairs going up to balcony level.  They were musical in nature and one was titled "Symphony for the Deaf" and was a mass of various instruments.

The somewhat creepy Sentinels were in the lobby rather than outside in the garden area (maybe they get taken in for the winter).

The Sentinels
The funky red chandelier by Chihuly reminded me of Medusa and hung in the area above some other sculptures.

Chihuly Red
Our seats were in one of the side boxes.  Hayes Hall is carpeted in lush forest green, and each box only has 8 seats.  There's a rather exclusive feeling associated with opening the heavy full door (no curtains here) from the hall into the box.  The seats were decently comfortable as well.  The box directly across the theatre from ours had only 2 people but other than the back edges of the orchestra seating it appeared to be a fairly full house.  The orchestra seemed rather squished on the stage and I'd put the average age as quite young.  It was nice to see a strong female contingent particularly in the woodwind and brass sections.

The performance opened with a signature Everly arranged "Overture" which included, among others, themes from "If I Were a Rich Man" played by concert master Glenn Basham, "Where Is the Life That Late I Led", "Ol' Man River", and "The Impossible Dream".  The overture itself covered over 5 different musicals.  The following four pieces introduced each of the leading men vocalists.  Jacob Clemente, the 13 year old current Broadway Billy Eliot, sang and tap danced through "When I Get My Name in Lights" from The Boy From Oz; Ted Keegan, a former Broadway Phantom, sang "Maria" from West Side Story; Heath Calvert, another Broadway veteran, gave a well sung but rather plain rendition of "This is the Moment" from Jekyll and Hyde; and Ben Crawford (same one mentioned in previous Yuletide post) wowed the crowd as Prof. Harold Hill announcing "Ya Got Trouble" from The Music Man.  Perhaps I was underwhelmed by "This is the Moment" because I had read reviews of Ashley Brown's Broadway with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from the weekend before which had Ben Crawford's rendition garnering an ovation.  So I was expecting him to also perform it here.  However, I don't think either of the other gentleman could have put across "Ya Got Trouble" in quite the same excellent fashion.

The orchestra was featured playing "Selections from Oliver" before the leading lady, in the person of Brynn O'Malley, took the stage in a nod to Julie Andrews with "Le Jazz Hot" from Victor-Victoria.

Closing the first half was the other Everly arrangement of the evening, "Leading Men Medley".  He has this amazing ability to cover the best parts of a song and fit them all together so well that you hardly notice the transitions between them.  Out of the 10 songs covered there were only 2 I didn't recognize.  The orchestra introduction was "Luck Be a Lady" which led to "Guys and Dolls" sung by Ted, Ben, and Heath.  Following was "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" and "I Have Dreamed" before Jacob joined them in a leather jacket singing "Summer Nights" from Grease.  The song has some interesting chuckle moments coming from a 13 year old.  A mini John Travolta he's not, I'd say his dancing is superior to singing, but he's still got a huge career ahead of him.  Ben took over with "Some Enchanted Evening" which HAS to have bass singer for the song to have weight (for example), and it was perfect.  Camelot and My Fair Lady were featured through "If Ever I Would Leave You" and "On the Street Where You Live" before they finished together with a vocal of "The Impossible Dream".  Talk about a great closing to the first half.

Intermission was interesting.  Typically nothing happens on stage.  The odd musician may remain and practice some parts, and the librarian swaps out the music on the conductors podium, but that's about it.  There was much more activity this evening however.  Two gentlemen (presumably at least one was the librarian) placed a green notice and piece of music on each stand.  My own wild speculation abounded, but really the only reason for adding more music to an already full concert is that something is being replaced.  Indeed after "Seventy-Six Trombones" highlighting the brass section particularly, Jack turned to the audience and all was explained.  Brynn was very much under the weather and unable to perform the "Love Duet Medley" (she would return for the finale), so to feature the orchestra and since no leading men concert would be complete without West Side Story they were going to replace it with the  "Overture to West Side Story" (played much better than this link, but I believe it was a very similar arrangement).  He continued with, "the orchestra has not rehearsed this.  See you at the end".  Unrehearsed or not, they must have been familiar with the music because Jack did not slow it down.  In fact it was one of his most lively conducted numbers of the night!  The transitions between sections of the piece may not have been as clean or tight as they could be and I'm not sure if all the percussion was bang on (although with the off beats it's hard to tell at the best of times), but there was a lovely horn solo in "Somewhere".  Given the extremely energetic "mambo" shouts from the orchestra the enthusiasm from the podium paid off.  Jack's breathlessness at the end was well deserved.

Jacob continued to demonstrate his dancing skills in "All I Need is the Girl" from Gypsy, before Ted tapped back into his Phantom days performing, as described by Jack, "the most romantic song from the musical".  I really liked the arrangement which began with the imposing instrumental "The Phantom of the Opera" as Ted walked out slowly to centre stage before it softened into "Music of the Night".  It's been a long time since I've seen the Phantom, yet his rendition took me back.  All the nuances were there right down to the wrist motion at the "close your eyes and surrender" line.  "Selections from La Cage aux Folles" was inexplicably dropped, yet the musical was still represented with Ben's "I Am What I Am" rendition.  *sigh* he has a voice one could happily listen to all night.

The evening of great music concluded with the powerhouse from Les Miserables.  A medley of "Look Down"and "At the End of the Day", as part of the orchestral intro; "On My Own" exquisitely sung by Brynn, I would never have been able to tell she wasn't felling well; "Stars" (one of my favourite lines in the whole musical is "and so it has been, and so it's written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price", I just love the melody there) where Ben got to return to his Javert understudy days; Ted matched Brynn with a poignent "Bring Him Home"; and the entire cast and a 14 voice male chorus joined in for the powerful "One More Day" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" finale.  I wonder if this will be part of the Do You Hear the People Sing? concert celebrating the music of Boublil and Schonberg which Jack's debuting with several orchestras (NACO and Baltimore so far) for the 2011/12 season?  If so, it's definitely worth going to see.

Broadway's Leading Men is also making a stop next month in Ottawa with the NAC orchestra.  It is however going to lack Ben Crawford.  But hopefully will include a healthy Brynn and some great love songs.  So GO!