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!