Saturday, June 25, 2011

Last Night of the Proms

The penultimate concert of the TSO season was a spectacle.  Anyone who has said Canadians fall short in the patriotism area when compared to our counterparts south of the border (admittedly I have been one of these), was not in Roy Thomson Hall this past Wednesday evening.

The Last Night of the Proms concert with conductor Bramwell Tovey has been a tradition for I don't know how long, although this is the first year I attended.  Unfortunately, Maestro Tovey's mother passed away last weekend, so he had to cancel and return to England.  I imagine finding a replacement for a concert like this proves rather tricky.  Not only does the conductor need to know British music, they need to connect with the audience in that Pops concerts way, and it would help if they had ties to the country the Proms originated in.  Well the TSO struck gold with Maestro Grant Llewellyn, a Welshman (a fact he reminded the audience of regularly throughout the evening) who's bio describes him as "renowned for his exceptional charisma, energy and easy authority in music of all styles and periods", all skills he demonstrated in spades.  The subtitle of this years concert was "A Royal Wedding Celebration", for the marriage of Kate and William, the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

I know very little about the real Proms in England, except it's a series of concerts on the Promenade, and the last night of the concerts is a more relaxed atmosphere featuring British hits (see here for the wikipedia explanation).  The Toronto celebration started before you even entered the hall with the 48th Highlanders of Canada Pipes and Drums bagpipe regiment playing outside.  There were also lots of people with flags and sporting fancy hats.  I had no idea this was part of the event or I would have gone hat hunting or at least brought the tiny Scottish flag we have by our fireplace.

The concert started with "O Canada", then "God Save the Queen", during which the audience respectfully stood and sang along.  Maestro Llewellyn said he had spoken with Bramwell Tovey and had been instructed to ensure we all had a good time, then dove into the Wedding Celebration with Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  It's nice to hear there's more to this piece than the usual segment played a weddings.

Next up was the "English Folk Song Suite" by Ralph (pronounced the proper British way as "Rayf") Vaughn Williams.  Garnering a laugh from the audience at the proper pronunciation Llewellyn said he didn't know why people found that funny and humourously singled out a lady near the front to explain it to him.  She couldn't and he continued by reading the lyrics of the three songs in the suite..."Seventeen Come Sunday", "My Bonny Boy" and "Folk Songs from Somerset".  Having recently been introduced to several other pieces by Vaughn Williams, I found these quite a departure, definitely more light hearted, and wonderfully enjoyable.

We then moved onto Scotland, for Hugh S. Roberton's "All in the April Evening".  As a reminder again of his background Llewellyn said he felt very comfortable with this piece because it was about sheep, and being a Welshman that was something they have a lot of (linked version is complete with sheep).  At this point the 2nd chair violinist handed him a small stuffed sheep.  Laughing he took it, looked at it suspiciously and said "he looks a little nervous" before placing the animal behind him on the conductors stand.  The 2nd chair cellist then stood up and reached out to pet to sheep.  Llewellyn turned around with a somewhat stern "did I say you could touch my sheep?" as the cellist cowered behind his cello.  Quickly relenting the Maestro reconsidered with "actually you can have it, it's a ram".  This sparked another round of laughter from the audience.  Finally able to continue the introduction, the piece is actually about the crucifixion of Christ and is for unaccompanied chorus sung by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, he turned around to begin and was faced with this ram.  Picking it up and looking unsure where to put it, he settled on the floor.   After placing it he pointed down as if ordering him to "stay".  Not everyone could see this given the position of the flag behind the podium, but it cracked me up again.

The first half concluded with Sir Hubert Parry's "I Was Glad", the song to which Kate Middleton walked down the Westminster Abbey aisle (see link), and a Llewellyn public service announcement that those without flags would feel left out in the second half, so they should go contribute to the TSO education fund by buying one at intermission.  Advertising his point, he walked down the red carpet of the stage with a Welsh flag over his shoulder.
TSO stage
Beginning the second half was a piece any graduate is extremely familiar with (as well as any high school band member who's played at commencement), the "Pomp and Circumstance March".  During which Will and Kate, wearing their wedding day best, took a stroll down the red carpet performing the royal wave.  At their appearance the Choir pulled out green branches to recreate the trees that were in Westminster Abbey for the wedding.  With the audience on their feet, the "Royals" led in the singing of "Land of Hope and Glory".  They chatted a bit with Llewellyn who congratulated them on their marriage.  He then wanted to acknowledge those couples in the audience who had been married (to the same spouse, "call me old fashioned" he said) for more than 50 years.  I wasn't expecting very many, but there were a lot!  Probably about 15 or so people standing.  He increased it to 60 years, and there were still 5 or so on their feet.  At 65 he had about 3 couples left, and dedicated the next song, "Love and Marriage" to them.

A short summary of "Excerpts from An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise" is that it starts with some really bad playing in the strings, gets worse at about 4:30am when the trumpets come in after having had too much to drink, and finally turns pretty when the sun rises.  "Songs that Kept Us Going" was prefaced by Llewellyn as "containing songs you may know and want to sing, but don't".  Although admitting you can't keep a Welshman from singing he said to be aware that sudden changes may occur and don't annoy your neighbour.  Indeed he turned and cued the audience at times, mouthing the words enthusiastically for "White Cliffs of Dover", "Bless Em' All" and "We'll Meet Again".

Apparently there's a Toronto tradition linked to "Fantasia on British Sea Songs" and someone told the new conductor this existed but failed to mention what the tradition was!  So as he said anything could happen.  And it did!  After the introduction he turned to the orchestra to be greeted by an empty principal trumpet chair.  The piece starts off with bugle call and couldn't start until Andrew McCandless was found.  Suddenly from the back of the hall the trumpet rang out.  Facing the orchestra again Llewellyn found concertmaster Etusko Kimura holding what liked like a 1/2 size violin.  "The Sailor's Hornpipe" proceeded as she scraped out the medley, hitting sour notes along the way on this tiny violin.  She switched back to her usual, as it continued getting faster and faster.  Then the choir started the wave!  It easily went around the mezzanine level and through the balcony, but due to the horseshoe nature of the hall the main floor seats were pretty much left out.  Recognizing this, the conductor led them in their own version at the end of the segment while admonished the balcony levels for being so invested in the wave we failed to speed up our clapping.  So we clapped faster as they played the segment again.  The next section was to depict women saying goodbye to their sailors and the choir continued their shenanigans by pulling out the handkerchiefs and balling.  Another segment began with a clarinet solo, which I was actually hoping to hear, but evidently the choir finds the clarinet a dull instrument as they pulled out every other thing they could to do, including playing string games.  I've probably mixed some of these up, but it had the audience in stitches and the conductor going along for the ride.  Even some orchestra members seemed to have trouble keeping a straight face.  It was all in good fun, and came together in a rousing version of "Rule Britannia" as Kate and William reappeared.
Llewellyn asked what Kate had gotten "her hubby" for his birthday (Prince William's birthday actually was on June 21) and she indicated that perhaps he had missed it but she had played him a song on the French horn, and indeed she had picked her way, in her wedding dress, through the percussion section and slipped into her seat for "Love and Marriage".  Impossible to miss.  The Maestro indicated it was just the beginning of many more years of horn playing, at which the brass section broke up laughing.  I'm thinking I got the joke, but am not going to read too much into it. ;)  As it turns out Kate was being portrayed by soprano and TSO utility horn player Erin Cooper-Gay.
Baritone Jesse Clark was William.
Facing the audience for a final time they led in the singing of "Jerusalem".

Just when you thought the concert was over, they obliged with an encore of "I'll Be Seeing You", one of my favourite songs which can be done in so many ways to suit any mood (see the Deep Space Nine episode "It's Only a Paper Moon" for example).  This version included a recorded message from the then Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret on a BBC radio program wishing goodnight to children who were being evacuated from London during the World War.  It was a touching ending to an evening filled with fun.  It was so much fun in fact that my father, typically not a symphony going guy, wants to go back next year!  My much beloved Pops are having wonderful effects.

Orchestra members in the spirit of things
On another note, Frank Morphy the 2nd oboist and TSO member since 1972,  appeared during the second half sporting a shirt with the slogan "Retired: Don't Ask Me To Do a Darn Thing".  I'm guessing that might have been his final concert, as the TSO now has a 2nd oboe audition notice on their website.  Happy retirement!
He wasn't the only one switching attire.  Others donned hats, several ladies tiaras, and the previously mentioned 2nd chair violin even had on a veil!  It's always awesome when the orchestra gets into a show.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Late Night TSO and Mahler 5

Wow!  Just WOW!  For so many reasons.
1. I'm starting this post within minutes of returning home from the concert.
2.  The TSO has a new concertmaster.
3.  Mahler is epic!

Tonight was the third in a series of concerts featuring Mahler's Symphony 5. As part of the Toronto Luminato festival, tonights was Late Night: Mahler 5 with a 10:30pm start time, and consisted only of the 70ish minute symphony.  I'd class it as a casual concert given the orchestra plain black attire.  Personally, I think one trombonist took the casual thing too far...a black sweatshirt, really?  Not even a terribly nice looking one.  The black shirt with jacket favoured my some of the gentlemen is classy, or even the more casual black dress shirt with the cuffs rolled up to the elbows (*sigh* one of my favourite looks on a guy) that bassoonist Sam Banks was sporting is fitting.  On the other hand I noticed more fancy dressed audience members than I'd classify as normal.  Ok, end wardrobe digression.

Walking into the hall right away something was different.  I'll call it mood lighting which tends to only show up at Pops shows.  However, lighting was used very effectively throughout the evening.  Case in points:  The symphony opens with a trumpet fanfare solo, and a spot was placed on Principal trumpet Andrew McCandless.  During the slow movement featuring just strings and the harp, the lights on the brass, winds, and percussion were dimmed.

If the lighting wasn't enough to catch your attention, as the orchestra members began to take their seats, where they were sitting would have.  The layout had the basses (all 8 of them...told you Mahler was epic!) on the left side of the stage, behind the first violins and cellos which had been moved from their usual stage right position to beside the first violins.  The violas were pretty much the same, maybe shifted over slightly, and in the usual cello spot were the second violins.  There was also the fact that the score sitting on the conductors stand was about 2 inches thick!

Jonathan Crow (
10:30pm arrived, the concertmaster for the evening, Jonathan Crow as per the program, appeared and the orchestra went wild...well as wild as an orchestra gets.  It's not uncommon to applaud a guest concertmaster but this foot stomping went beyond the usual.  Since this is the 2nd or 3rd guest I've seen this season (beginning with Jonathan Carney for Rhapsody in Blue back in Oct 2010, and a few weeks ago at Rachmaninoff Rhapsody David Bowlin) I anticipated a new hire would be announced shortly for the concertmaster chair which has been open for as long as I've been a regular attendee (so at least 2 years).  I didn't expect that "shortly" to be less than a minute.  Conductor Peter Oundjian followed Mr. Crow on stage and announced he was the new TSO concertmaster!  From a quick search, it would appear he has had quite the career with the Montreal Symphony joining at 19, and becoming concertmaster (the youngest to hold that position in any North American orchestra at the time) at 25 continuing through 2006.  Since then he's been more focused on chamber music, but is now the new concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra!

As for the actual piece.  I said after the season opening Mahler Symphony #2 "The Resurrection" that youtube didn't do Mahler justice.  A sentiment which I will strongly echo again!  It's just not possible to have the same experience listening to any recording as you get from being in a concert hall filled with people, and an orchestra consisting of 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 7 French horns, 3 oboes, 3 bassoons, 3 clarinets, the previously mentioned 8 basses, and a percussion section complete with gong, timpani, bass drum, and crash cymbols (just to name a few), and the usual strings.

The first of the five movements is a funeral march, but such a pretty one.  The overriding theme, if one must find one, is a journey from darkness to light.  Dynamics play a huge part in what I've heard of Mahler.  Each movement, save for the fourth slower and string based Adagietto which was a love letter to Mahler's wife Alma, had pianissimo and fortissimo alternations and it made complete sense for the winds to put in ear plugs when the horns let loose, sometimes even raising their bells.  Additionally,  this was sometimes done by the clarinets, and oboes as well.  Given the weight and length of the work I don't even know where to begin at describing sections I loved.  I don't remember where they were (for a "real" review of a performance earlier this week, see this).  There was a small violin solo part Mr. Crow played, looking forward to seeing him featured more next season, and string pizzicato sections that were fun to watch and added variety.  In the Allegro Finale, the switch into a major tonality was thrilling.  It really felt like the journey was complete.  As described by Herbert von Karajan " forget that time has passed...The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath."  Somewhere, perhaps in the second movement, there was this great entrance by the brass that actually did have me holding my breath, as well as the Finale.

I have never seen a Toronto audience on their feet so quickly.  I'd say it was one step before "leaping to their feet", but it was the fastest and most complete standing ovation I have yet seen.  It lasted for 3 sets of bows and acknowledgement of the brass, horn, percussion, and wind sections.

The season is technically not complete, but this is the final concert conducted by Peter Oundjian, the final full classical work, the final performance by the new concertmaster (the program lists current associates sitting first chair for the next few weeks), and I'll venture a guess, the final to feature a full conglomerate of principal players.  So what a fitting bookend to a season that started and ended with epic Mahler!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists

The TSO continued its season of mini-festivals with Rachmaninoff and the Impressionists.  The purpose of this one being to showcase how musicians who were contemporaries of each other produced quite different music.  The evening's program was "The Isle of the Dead" by Rachmaninoff, "Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra" by Debussy, Dukas "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", "Les offrandes oubliees" by Olivier Messien, a composer I had not heard of before, and concluded with Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini".  A perfect mix of music!

Gabriela Montero
The evening was already off to a wonderful start since I had a new companion to go with me who has real bona fide musical knowledge, unlike my limited repertoire, and who has played Debussy and Messiaen works before.  Unfortunately our seats were pretty bad for the type of concert.  Being off to the ride side when there's a piano piece scheduled is typically never a good thing, but the lid of the grand piano pretty much completely blocked guest soloist Gabriela Montero from view.  Additionally in the clarinet concerto, Maestro Peter Oundjian seemed to move the same way as soloist and TSO principal clarinet Joaquin Valdepenas, allowing for only quick glimpses of his finger work.

Maestro Oundjian began the concert with an audience chat as usual, and explained how Rachmaninoff had an obsession with the Dies irae (day of wrath) theme which showed up in both pieces of his on the program.  He then asked to borrow the fiddle of assistant concertmaster (David Bowlin, a guest, was sitting first chair) Mark Skazinetsky and played the theme.  I've never heard him play before!  I know he's doing Bach's Double Violin Concerto next season with Itzhak Perlman, so maybe he's starting to ease into performing again.  He played maybe 15 notes, and got a foot stomping ovation from the orchestra, quipping he'd pay for it later.

One of the interesting elements of "The Isle of the Dead" was the meter of 5/8.  Quite an different feel it gives to a very moody piece, but I really liked it.

Joaquin Valdepenas
Being an amateur clarinetist I really wanted to closely watch Mr. Valdepenas hands.  Alas as mentioned above, this didn't work out to well.  What I did see was inspiring, and his!  I wish I had a smidgen of the talent.  During one run up a scale I audibly sighed, so smooth, so even, so perfect.  As for the piece as a whole, I wouldn't class Debussy as one of my favourites but there were lots of unexpected changes and it was 7 minutes of being completely entranced.  Even better he returned to his orchestra seat for the second half of the concert.  I would love to hear him do Mozart's Clarinet Concerto at some point.

The TSO should be getting good at "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" having played it at the Halloween concert (that review here) earlier this season.  However, it was quite different under the baton of Mr. Oundjian.  He had complete fun with it!  One advantage of my seat was a great view of the conductor.  He started it off very slowly, and the first hint at the main theme floated between the clarinet, oboe, and flute passing off so effortlessly that without seeing the musicians it would be hard to pinpoint who was playing.  At the start of what I'll call the second section, after the rapid bits and just before the bassoons take over with the full theme, Oundjian again took his time with the short segments.  They hung in the air moving the audience to the edge of their seats anticipating what was coming next.  The expression on his face showed he was having fun with it.  The bassoons (Michael Sweeney and Sam Banks) let loose on the theme with contrabassonist, Fraser Jackson, leaning onto the first intro note when the theme returns near the end giving added emphasis.  A wonderful, unhurried, rendition full of play and joyfulness.  The musicians seemed into the fun as well, I noticed Pat Krueger going wild with the triangle.  I was so swept up in the music that the visions of Mickey Mouse almost disappeared entirely :)

Following the intermission chat with Gary Kulesha (Composer in Residence) and Mark Skazinetsky about Rachmaninoff and his contempories came the somewhat dissonant "Les offrandes oubliees" (The Forgotten Offerings) by Messien.  The piece is in three parts beginning with what's labelled as "Very slow, pained, profoundly sad" and is meant to represent Christ's suffering on the cross.  Apparently most of Messien's works have religious connotations.  The middle section I can only describe as a cacopheny of sound.  I noticed principal trombone, Gordon Wolfe, reposition the sound blocker behind the contrabassoonist's head, and I understand why!  The description for this segment was "Fast, ferocious, desperate, panting".  The final part was strings only, and not even all of them played.  Much quieter and depicting "the Bread of Life and of Love" it was stirring and pretty but unfortunately I was starting to hit sensory overload, and found parts repetitive since I really didn't know what to listen for.  I can tell when I'm losing concentration because I notice audience noises.  I heard a lot of coughing and program shuffling in this last bit.  Unfortunate people can't be silent during the quiet parts.

Finally it was time for the showpiece of the evening, "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini".  I have great love for this piece and some history.  It was on the program of the first classical concert I ever went to.  The National Arts Centre Orchestra was playing "Symphonie Fantastique" which was the primary reason I went, and this was the other piece on the program.  I don't know who conducted, or who the soloist was, but I know exactly where I sat, who I went with, and that when they got to variation 18 the whole thing clicked as to why it sounded so familiar!  Well that and then realizing the dies irae theme was in both pieces explaining the combination in programming.  I was not disappointed by the TSO's version this evening either.  What I noticed was that I focused more on the orchestra part than the piano, probably because of the lack of visibility of the soloist (although principal violist, Teng Li and another musican who weren't playing the concert came and sat in front of us for this piece, so they must agree they're good orchestra watching seats).  Variation 18 was beautiful as it should be.

The audience provided a standing ovation and Gabriela Montero graciously acknowledged the orchestra before taking a seat for an encore.  A gifted improvisationalist she requested a theme from the audience and received Gershwin's "Summertime" as a reply.  After playing this a few times she completely twisted it into a rich texture providing only brief glimpses back to what it was at the beginning.  It was pretty jaw dropping.  Then she did it again.  Taking the theme of "Hockey Night in Canada" (she had requested something Canadian, and you KNOW that when that request is made "Hockey Night" is going to be thrown out there).  The person could not sing it though so one of the violinists played it for her, garnering another round of applause.  Ms. Montero ended up only taking a small snippet but that was again twisted and turned into a rich sound completely disguising the original material.

During the end of "Paganini" I noticed a gentleman in the front row taking notes (and here I thought I was the only one who did that).  Figuring he was a critic I googled for a concert review when I got home and indeed it was John Terauds of the Toronto Star.  For a more "educated" review, his can be found here.

There are now more happy memories to add to the history I have with the "Paganini Rhapsody".