Saturday, April 23, 2011

Broadway's Leading Men Reprise

Jack's back!  I expect it's not unplanned that Maestro Everly avoids Canada during the winter months.  Technically Indianapolis (where he spends December conducting Yuletide Celebration) and Baltimore (which had a February Pops concert) aren't exactly "southern" states, and this past year Indianapolis had snow before Toronto, but I know if I had the chance to visit regions south of the Mason-Dixon line (he's also Principal Pops Conductor of the Naples Philharmonic in Florida), I'd pick January-February to do that over May-June.

Ben Crawford
But it's April, the beginning of spring, and hence a return of Jack to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, accompanied by the cast of Broadway's Leading Men.  I was quite excited when the NAC website posted the official program and it had Ben Crawford listed rather than the artist previously announced.  With that I decided to take in the April 9 performance.

Brynn O'Malley
(Broadway World)
Additionally, I figured Brynn O'Malley wouldn't be sick twice, so "Love Duets" would be included.  And really the music is so great, it's totally worth seeing twice! (for the first time review go here).

Heath Calvert
Indeed "Love Duets" was included and featured 7 different pieces.  Not quite the "875 romantic songs" promised in the tongue in cheek intro, but exquisitely performed by cast.  Heath Calvert proved here he's the epitome of the romantic leading man, and his voice melded so well in the duets with Brynn.  These included "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma! and "All I Ask of You" from The Phantom of the Opera.  Even Jacob Clemente (taking a week off from Billy Elliot on Broadway to do the Ottawa series of concerts) got in on the action with a solo performance of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" from Gigi.  There's something about giving a song to a performer for the soul purpose of taking it out of context that adds humor and somehow works with the audience.

Jacob Clemente
In case you didn't read the previous post, Jacob is 13, and the song was originally sung by Maurice Chevalier at the age of 70.  This tactic was used earlier, with equal effect, when Jacob sang "Summer Nights" from Grease in the "Leading Men Medley".

Highlights of these concerts are what I've dubbed "Everly Interludes".  These would be the times when Jack faces the audience to introduce the pieces, or even to promote the upcoming season.  The promotion always occurs this time of year, and he has this half serious/half sarcastic way of reminding everyone that "we love subscriptions.  Individual tickets are nice, but we love subscriptions".  His description of next season (prefaced by a smiling "It's going to be great!  Of course you haven't heard me say that before?") included the finale which is "featuring the music of ABBA".  This triggered an instant "Oooooo" from the audience.  And just because it was so good, he said it again, and on cue was rewarded with an even stronger "Oooooo".  His response? "You're so easy" :)

I don't know if there was a different audience vibe, or the evening was going better personally, but Jack was much more talkative than in Naples.  Following "Seventy-Six Trombones" he announced it was National Trombone Week (turns out it actually was when I Googled it afterwards) and the trombone section waved their slides in acknowledgement of audience applause.  Jack proceeded in a bit of a deadpan voice and, glancing at the viola section, said that "next week is International Viola Week, so we'll all be celebrating that".  In keeping with violas being the brunt of most orchestral jokes (could someone tell me why?) there was little audience reaction and we went from being "so easy" to a "tough room".

Ted Keegan
The other great part of "Everly Interludes" is the music history that just pours out.  I always learn something interesting.  For example I didn't know that Oliver! was included in David Merrick's many Broadway production credits.  Or that the "West Side Story Overture" (which was now part of the real program, not a last minute substitute as in Naples) was actually Leonard Bernstein's original but in out of town pre-Broadway tryouts Jerome Robbins (director and choreographer and one of the original idea men for an updated Romeo and Juliet story) decided that the show shouldn't open with a traditional overture, and it was dropped.  Bernstein's friend Maurice Peress gave it a symphonic treatment.
Personally I love the arrangement.  It leaves out the over done "Maria" and since that song is already included in this program as a solo for Ted Keegan, it was nice to not have it revisited in the "Overture".

Searching for songs afterwards led me to some new places this time.  There were a few pieces I didn't know from the medleys and on this hearing scribbled down enough of the words that internet searches proved helpful.  This highlights another aspect of Jack Everly concerts that are intriguing.  The music is not a rehash of what everyone knows.  The songs I didn't recognize turned out to be "Anthem" from Chess, "Muddy Water" from Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, "Wait Till You See Her" from By Jupiter, and "My Heart is so Full of You" from The Most Happy Fella.  A rather eclectic group.  Chess is from the same composers as Mamma Mia! (ie: former ABBA members) with lyrics by Tim Rice and was created in the early 1980's.  The song is actually about the character's homeland of Russia, yet out of context with no background knowledge I thought it was about a girl, and that context fits too.   Big River, also from the 1980's, has a much lighter storyline and from youtube searches seems to have quite a history in amateur productions.  Jumping back in time, By Jupiter was the last full length work by Rodgers and Hart, making its Broadway debut in 1942 starring Ray Bolger (best known these days as the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz).  Between these two time frames came Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, which has enjoyed several revivals since the 1956 beginnings.  I've since listened, several times, to the 2008 in concert recording of Chess, featuring Idina Menzel and Josh Groban, and am now interested in seeing the production when the London cast comes to Toronto for the 2011-12 Mirvish season.  So it's all connected.

I couldn't completely leave the NAC orchestra out of a review, and they continued to be amazing throughout the evening.
Sitting where I was limited my view of those in the back, and in this regard they tended to slip further to the back of my mind when another performer was involved, which typically doesn't happen when I can see more of them.  In their stand out orchestra only pieces however, it was an opportunity to really listen and pick out what instruments were featured, like the horn solo in West Side Story.  Whoever was sitting on the end seat in the 2nd row of violas (from checking bios with pictures on the NAC website, I think it was David Thies-Thompson) was quite enjoyable to watch.  He seemed to be having a good time along with concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki who was almost out of his chair on several occasions.  The beginning of the "Les Miserables Medley" had so much going on it sounded like the orchestra wasn't together at times.  No one (that I could see anyway) had a worried expression flash across their face, so I'll put it down to delay of sound reaching me, and my lack of knowledge :).  Thanks to all the gracious performers for another wonderful evening at the NAC!

Monday, April 11, 2011

A Celtic Celebration or Cape Breton Ceilidh

Cape Breton Island (
My TSO week rounded out with a Pops concert on April 5 featuring guest conductor John Morris Russell (JMR for short, and newly named conductor of the Cincinnati Pops) and guest artists the Barra MacNeils!  When first announced it was titled A Celtic Celebration, which somehow in the weeks leading up to the performance was renamed to Cape Breton Ceilidh.  Maybe they were hoping to capture more interest and sell more seats, since there were lots empty on Tuesday evening.  I always find it disappointing to look around the hall and see sections with only half a dozen people (the right Parterre for example).  The TSO is a phenomenal group, and true Pops concerts draw a different crowd, but that crowd is suppose to just be different not fewer.  Hopefully the Wed. performance produced closer to a full house.

The set up for the orchestra was different.  There was a piano between the violins and the conductor and a fewer number of strings in general.  This made for salutes from JMR towards concertmaster Mark Skazinetsky in recognition of the orchestra rather than the traditional handshake.  I had trouble getting into this concert.  The opening "Fantasy on Scottish Melodies" didn't have enough lively melodies to get me instantly engaged.  It was well played but didn't radiate energy to me via the music.  JMR was a bundle of energy throughout the evening and it got better at the end of the first half.

Two of the Barra MacNeils added their vocals to the more upbeat "An Irish Party in 3rd Class" from Titanic.  The classic "Londonderry Air" or with a twist of French as JMR's son apparently calls it "London Derriere" (also commonly known as "O Danny Boy") was played beautifully, but is another slow, soothing piece.  Maybe to try and inject some life into the audience (or maybe just me), the "Irish Medley Sing Along" featuring "MacNamara's Band", "My Wild Irish Rose", "Sweet Rosie O'Grady", "Harrigan", and "When Irish Eyes are Smiling", came next.  The singing wasn't very audible from my seat.  Maybe the other attendees were like me and didn't know most of the tunes, or had forgotten them since St. Patrick's Day.  One does wonder if this concert could have been programmed a bit closer to that day to cash in a bit more on the theme.  The highlight for me in the medley was "The Irish Washerwoman" instrumental.  JMR descended the podium, danced a wild jig that made me worry for his balance, and this theme and energy got me involved.

A re-orchestrated version of "Simple Gifts: A Celtic Dance" making it's world premiere, followed and featured the Gilchrist Canavan Irish Dancers.  Made famous by Michael Flatley and Lord of the Dance this was a good closing to the shorter than normal first half.

The second half featured the Barra MacNeils.  There is no doubt they are a very talented family covering  the piano, fiddle, accordion, guitar, flute, some sort of small bagpipe type thing, percussion, and throwing in vocals and even step dancing for good measure!  Again it seemed to take a while for the audience to be drawn in.  The first attempts at having them clap along fizzled shortly after it started.  Maybe it was the laid back Cape Breton personality and introductions to pieces that weren't terribly engaging that took a while for the audience to connect with.  Although the the one that involved one of the brothers practicing his Gaelic and having someone reply in kind was entertaining.  Highlights of their set for me were "Longest Day" written by one of the MacNeils about the summer solstice, "Caledonia" beautifully sung by Lucy, "Puirt-a-beul" (aka: Mouth Music) and the final "Step Dance Medley" where 4 of the siblings got in on the dancing action along with a reprise by the Irish Dancers.  Even JMR was featured in that piece, playing the spoons :)  By the end they had the audience, and me, with them.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What Makes it Great?

The second in my week of TSO evenings was What Makes it Great?  Beethoven Symphony 1.  Part of the Exposed Concert series, the concert takes a piece of music, dissects it in the first half by taking the audience inside the music, and then the orchestra performs the full piece in the second half.  The whole idea I think is incredible, there's always so much going on in music that I wonder what I'm missing.  This idea is obviously something that guest conductor Rob Kapilow believes in, and his enthusiasm is infectious.  Interestingly enough, the latest (March 29, 2011) NACOcast interview is with him!  I'm an avid follower of the NACOcast, although a bit behind at the moment.  When I first saw that a new episode was posted, the name of the interviewee didn't mean anything.  However, when I saw it again today, it clicked and I listened right away.  His insights and ability to throw out quotations is impressive.

As for the concert, things were somewhat different as soon as you walked into the hall.  The usual conductors podium was a larger platform with a keyboard set up off to the side.  The orchestra was also noticeably smaller than Wednesday night, given that Beethoven didn't have as much to work with.  The only percussion used is the timpani and since trumpets didn't have valves when Symphony 1 was written their note range was limited, so they are used sparingly.
Mr. Kapilow (having listened to the NACOcast, he doesn't like the title "maestro"), walked out on stage to standard applause and quickly began an introduction to himself and Beethoven.  He has a rapid fire way of speaking, and the difficulty of keeping up with note taking were I a student in his lecture hall struck me.  He never slowed down and everything he demonstrated had meaning.  One quotation (courtesy of his former composition teacher Nadia Boulanger) that would be repeated multiple times throughout the evening was, "A genius can not help but be original.  Therefore a genius need only attempt to imitate to be original."  Given that this was Beethoven's first symphony, there's some throw back to Haydn tendencies that audiences of 1800 would have recognized.  But in Beethoven's genius, he can't help but be original through the imitation.

Beethoven was about what an idea could become, rather than what it currently was and his ideas and developments are laid out on top of the music, not hidden.  Mr. Kapilow described this as Beethoven's music "becoming, not being".   He explained the history of what audiences would have expected to hear at the debut of the symphony by incorporating his own "boring" segments of music for the purpose of counteracting the surprises in what Beethoven actually wrote.  He made everything completely understandable and easy to follow for a general audience, while not alienating those with more musical background.  Quite honestly, I don't think I stopped smiling the entire evening.

The decomposition started with the third movement, technically a scherzo given the tempo, but called a Minuet and Trio in homage to the Haydn and Mozart symphonies which came before.  He took the first few bars, a theme of 4 notes (hmm, seems like a theme with Beethoven, opening of Symphony 5 anyone?), and demonstrated how Beethoven condensed it naming the rhythms "short long, short long, short short short short long" so everyone totally "got it".

Another example of condensation, is in the second movement; the second violins start with fugue type theme, then cellos take over with 6 notes, followed by the basses playing only the first 4 notes.  But now it's determined to not be a fugue but has developed to a full theme.

The evening was not without humour either.  The first movement begins with two chords (not in C major, the key of the piece, incidentally) which sounds like an ending.  Indeed the orchestra played the 2 chords, stood up and bowed :)  The start of the fourth movement has the strings playing a scale, adding an extra note each time which Mr. Kapilow explained as them searching for the right note but not being able to find it.  The cellos (ok, technically celli) then try to "help" in the search.

These are just small demonstrations that I recall, hopefully correctly.  As enthralled as I was with the presentation, most examples have slipped through the recesses of my mind already.  Too much information...I should have taken notes :)

To close, I leave you with this thought from Mr. Kapilow, there's a great difference between hearing and listening.  To make classical music exciting, "all you have to do listen".

Saturday, April 2, 2011

TSO Goes to France

This concert, on March 30, marked the start of 3 trips to the TSO in 1 week.  They programmed a lot of good stuff all together this week.  Officially titled Thibaudet Plays Liszt, the program was almost exclusively music by French composers (except for Liszt who was born in Hungary) and featured French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and conductor Stephane Deneve.

Opening with a lesser known work by Paul Dukas (of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" fame) "La Peri, poeme danse" is a ballet and was the final score Dukas wrote.  It had light airy moments, lots of trembling strings, and frantic sections.  Frantic and fast were recurring themes of the evening.  However, the beginning of this piece threw me for a loop because I recognized it!  The opening brass fanfare is used in the Walt Disney World "Impressions de France" music from EPCOT which I have heard many, many times.  I went back and found the fanfare buried about 7 minutes in.  So now I know one of the composers used in the compilation.  For an interesting fanfare performance check this out.

Next Maestro Deneve introduced "The Shining One", a piece written for Jean-Yves Thibaudet by Guillaume Connesson, which apparently captures Mr. Thibaudet's style of playing.  Technically a contemporary work, in that Mr. Connesson is still living, still I really liked it!  Maybe "new" music is growing on me.  Anyhow, the title is from a superhuman character in the fantasy novel The Moon Pool from 1912 written by Abraham Merritt who was "the [American] equivalent of our own Jules Verne" according to Connesson.  Indeed there were times throughout that it had a very sci-fi feel to it.  Maybe that's why I liked it.  The thought crossed my mind that it might fit into Sci-fi Spectacular quite well.

A quick side note about the performers.  My first thought when Maestro Deneve appeared was that he looked like Penn Jillette (not just with the hair but his stature as well), the outspoken magician from Penn and Teller. Although his personality when he spoke seemed the exact opposite.  Obviously well liked by the orchestra, he was engaging to watch even if his hair was somewhat distracting (it's now even longer than in the photo).  He's the current music director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, a post which TSO music director Peter Oundjian will fill beginning next season.

Mr. Thibaudet walked out on stage in a slim cut suit, and pointy shoes (what can I say, my seat was on the main floor, I was at shoe level) and all promo photos of him I've seen do not do him justice.  They seem so somber, yet he was smiling and seemed genuinely happy to be there, giving the Maestro a hug after his performances and acknowledging the orchestra.  For comparison, on the left is the picture in the program, and on the right one I found with a quick google search.  Personally, I think the right is much more flattering.

Back to the performance, oh wait, it's time for intermission.  Typically a dull time of the evening, but tonight William Littler was chatting in the lobby with Canadian composer Gary Kulesha on the subject of contemporary music.  A few of this thoughts, which follow, made a lot of sense to me.  Since recordings have become so prevalent, people have come to like what they know, and aren't always willing to take a risk on something new.  He said that people don't "get" contemporary music on a first hearing, so there needs to be something in there that will make them want to hear it again.  Heck, I have that problem with classical and even pops music sometimes!  I previously blogged about not particularly liking Frank Loesser on first hearing.  But it contained something that made me listen again, and it's amazing what can grow on a person.  Additionally he gave permission to not like new music.  People often feel they should like it when it's ok to say, I didn't really enjoy that.  When asked about how players respond to new works, Mr. Kulesha catagorized it this way:  5-10% of an orchestra will love playing new music, 20-30% will absolutely despise it, and the rest are professionals and will just play it.  However, he also brought out that playing new works makes players better.  Apparently the TSO typically plays slightly behind the beat of the conductor, yet in new works can have razor sharp precision and be right on top of it.

Post intermission was "Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra".  With the main Dies irae (Day of Wrath) theme running through it and lots of keyboard gymnastics to watch, I quite enjoy this piece.  It was performed at the TSO's Halloween concert as well and was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to this concert, to hear it again by a well known pianist.

The evening concluded with "La tragedie de Salome" by Florent Schmitt.  Originally written as a ballet and limited to the 20 member pit orchestra, when Schmitt had the opportunity it 1910 to expand it using full orchestral colours, he did so; also shortening the score by half to create the current symphonic poem which he dedicated to Stravinsky.  Stravinsky quite liked the work, echoing parts in his "Rite of Spring".

It has some of the frantic and fanatic elements mentioned earlier, but also great contrasts.  Played in two movements, the first ended with such power that there was some applause.   Considering some pieces with movements don't pause between them, I was wondering if it was the conclusion as well.  Without fully turning around Maestro Deneve held up 2 fingers indicating that there was still another part to go.  He didn't seem upset, some orchestra members looked amused, and it did lighten up the mood a bit before settling into the conclusion.