Saturday, December 31, 2011

TSO and Christmas with Canadian Brass

2011 concert attendance concluded with the Toronto Symphony's Christmas Concert.  This year it again featured Canadian Brass, conducted by Steven Reineke.  Mr. Reineke is always entertaining, but this year wisely took a back seat to allow Canadian Brass members Chuck Daellenbach (tuba, and founding member from 1970) and Brandon Ridenour (trumpet) perform most of the intros.  To quote a review from the Toronto Star "no one came to Roy Thomson Hall to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, very fine though they were" which is likely very true.  Some of the "very fine" orchestra only and orchestra/choir (the Etobicoke School for the Arts Chorus was also on hand) numbers were "Carol of the Bells", "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm", and Mr. Reineke's chestnut of the season, "The Best Christmas of All" from a 1996 TV movie called Mrs. Santa Claus.

"Carol of the Bells" was an arrangement by David Hamilton which is also on my favourite Christmas CD by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.  You hear so much more though when it's performed live.  The beginning had percussionists on two xylophones and the chimes, which sounded awesome and larger dynamic ranges than I recalled from my ISO version.  The music for Mrs. Santa Claus was composed by Jerry Herman (of Mame and Hello, Dolly! fame) and starred Angela Landsbury (incidentally she also starred in Mame).  "The Best Christmas of All" is a sweet song with a catchy tune, emphasizing the family/being together aspect of the holiday season.

The Men of Canadian Brass (Chris, Achilles, Chuck, Eric, and Brandon) with their
24 caret gold plated instruments
Canadian Brass entered to their signature "Just a Closer Walk with Thee".  The three other members making up the group are trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos (the newest member), Eric Reed (horn), and Chris Coletti (trumpet).  Interesting to note, not one of the current members are actually Canadian.  Chuck could be considered honorary having called Toronto home for many, many years, but the rest are from New York, Michigan, Indiana, and Greece!  However, all are extremely talented, some hold positions with other orchestras, and are even composer/arrangers.  So if they want to promote the "Canadian" name, there will be no complaint from me!

Gene Watts
Highlights of the Canadian Brass numbers were Chuck's feature, the melting "Frosty the Snowman", an ensemble piece with the chorus called "The Angel Choir and the Trumpeter" where Chris rocked the piccolo trumpet solos, and "Saints Hallelujah" emphasizing Achilles mellow trombone.  Tuesday night founding trombonist Gene Watts, who Achilles met back when he was 10, was in the audience.  He was introduced before "Saints" and received a round of audience applause.  He's probably the player who most Canadian Brass followers would remember as making it a trombone signature piece.

In the second half the strings were dismissed as Canadian Brass joined forces with the TSO brass section (including trumpet and trombone principal players) to play two arrangements by Stan Kenton.  Kenton switched up the big band sound by replacing the saxophones with more brass, and the sounds of "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" were different yet a welcome variation on the traditional.  The combined brass sounds was magnificent.

It was a wonderful concert and Canadian Brass picked up at least one new fan, as the friend I went with purchased some of their music.  The gentlemen were very generous with their time, signing autographs after the show.  They have the best autographs I've seen, each incorporating some aspect of the instrument they play. (photo to come)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Memphis: The Musical

Fresh from Broadway is the first National Tour of Memphis, which recently made a brief stop in Toronto (so technically it's a North American tour).  The story takes place in the 1950's during a time when radio was one more segregated element in the southern USA.   I had no idea that "race music" stations were relegated to the edges of the band, typically where the signal was not as high a quality.  Mainstream stations may have had a rhythm and blues program, but based on how the musical pokes fun at this program on a white station, they were essentially a joke; not really playing black music.

In the musical, a guy named Huey Calhoun (Bryan Fenkart), who likes black music ends up in the wrong area of town at a black nightclub.  He convinces them he likes their music, and isn't interested in anything other than promoting it, well except for Felicia (Felicia Boswell).  She's a black singer, and sister of night club owner Delray (Quentin Earl Darrington), with whom Huey falls in love.  His promise of getting her singing in the centre of the radio dial is the driving force of the first act.  The sudden expansion of black music, now being called rock and roll, onto radio, TV, and the aftermath of the Huey/Felicia relationship is the subject of Act 2.

Felicia Boswell and Bryan Fenkart
The story line is lively, intense, thought provoking, tender and touching all at the same time.  We see the change in characters preconceived notions about people, (namely Huey's mother played by Happy McPartlin), who are different and a younger generation that embraces the music and change.  It's sad to think that all this happened barely a generation ago.  Things don't get as far as a lynching but there's intense opposition to Huey and Felicia being together.

Unfortunately, there isn't a fairy tale ending.  Felicia's story has a happier finale than Huey's as she makes a career as a singer in New York.   By trying to force too much, too fast change wise in Memphis Huey ends up losing all the progress he made professionally.  Although I like to think he gets back on the right track at the end with a little help from old friends.
Huey and cast in final scene
The music follows the same mix of emotions.  The score (musical as well) won a Tony award in 2010 and is by founding member of Bon Jovi, David Bryan.  I particularly liked the upbeat "Everyone Wants to be Black on a Saturday Night", Felicia's heartfelt "Coloured Woman", and the song that eventually makes it on the radio in the centre of the dial "Someday".  Maybe I was just in an overly sappy mood, but "Memphis Lives in Me" brought tears to my eyes as everything Huey had falls apart.  There wasn't a member of the cast who left you feeling let down with their voice or performance.  They are all top notch talents.
Felicia singing live on the radio
(photo by Joan Marcus)
The show has now left Toronto, but should it make a return appearance and you're looking for a mix of catchy music and story with heart, check out Memphis.

Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker

The current National Ballet of Canada's version of The Nutcracker was created in 1995 by choreographer James Kudelka.  I saw this version shortly after it debuted, and wasn't too impressed.  The story line has been twisted from what I'd call "the original" (although there have been so many variations, maybe there is no more "original"), and at that point having a party in a barn seemed completely weird and out of place.  Now, 17 years later, I figured it was time to give it another shot.  Plus who can resist the fantastic Tchaikovsky score performed live?

( &
At the Dec. 15 performance the Sugar Plum Fairy was principal dancer Greta Hodgkinson and Peter, a stable boy (aka: cavalier/the Prince in the second act), was Steven McRae.  He is a guest artist from The Royal Ballet who also appeared with the National Ballet last season in Alice in Wonderland.

Prior to the performance was a short skit by a grown up Misha and Marie (the two children replacing Clara and Fritz in this version) who recall the magical Christmas Eve that we, the audience, are about to see.  It was a great intro for children to the story (and for people who were expecting "the original").

Uncle Nikolai (danced by an unrecognizable Robert Stephen under the beard, hat, and 10lb costume) takes the place of Drosselmeyer, although is just as eccentric a character.  His female counterpart is the children's nurse, Baba (Alejandra Perez-Gomez)  This couple become a duke and empress in Act 2.  Other than some swapping of characters, and relocation to a barn, the party is still the majority of Act 1, followed by the growing Christmas tree and Mouse King fight.  What I do miss at the party is the duet of the wind up dancing dolls presented by Drosselmeyer.  This versions speciality party dance numbers involve a horse, and another with two bears (one on pointe shoes, the other on roller blades).
Otherwise, the children dance, the adults dance, and Peter dances.  In other versions I don't recall Peter being a main part of the party scene.  I remember him not really showing up until the Nutcracker magically comes alive when the clock strikes midnight.  There were some fun parts I didn't remember: the capture/release of a rat, and snow ball fight come to mind.   The mice that crawled out from under the children's beds were adorable.

The snowflake waltz which closes Act 1, is one of my favourite scenes.  I adore the music, and I love they symmetry of the dancers as they create complex patterns and dance amongst each other.  Elena Lobsanova, McGee Maddox, and Aarik Wells were the Snow Queen and her Icicles trio.

Highlights in the second act were the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (exquisitely executed, although hopping on one foot on pointe has got to be a killer) the Spanish Chocolate, and Arabian Coffee dances.  The double pas de deux in Coffee was very well done, there were even double fish lifts.  The Trepek involved Peter and there was no Chinese Dance.
Heather Ogden as the Sugar Plum Fairy
There was a lively segment involving chefs preparing a feast for Marie and Misha, including leaping over the table, and another adorable piece for the students of the National Ballet School as sheep.  In place of a Dewdrop Fairy, a bee started off the Waltz of the Flowers.  Peter and the Sugar Plum Fairy fall in love and the resulting pas de deux was lovely.  I'd classify it as more traditional in the purpose being to show off the ballerina, but he had plenty of other opportunities to shine.
Empress Baba and Sheep
I still prefer the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Nutcracker and wouldn't want to make this a yearly tradition, but once every 5 or so years, it's worth checking out.

Friday, December 23, 2011

TSO Begins the Season of Tchaikovsky

With no real facts to back this up, I'll say that Tchaikovsky's music is performed most often in December.  Granted I expect most of those performances are of The Nutcracker.  The National Ballet of Canada alone is putting on 26 shows this year.  But the Toronto Symphony helped begin the season of Tchaikovsky on Dec. 8 (I saw the Dec. 10 performance) with nary a sugar plum fairy in sight, and a full evening of Tchaikovsky's music.  In place of a dancing Cavalier they had the dashing, almost 36 year old (his birthday is Jan. 27, the same day as Mozart), Canadian violinist James Ehnes.

Mr. and Mrs. Ehnes
Rick Philips hosted a pre-concert chat about the music of the evening and some background on Mr. Ehnes.  He started the violin at age 4; his father is a musician and his mother a dancer; his wife is also dancer (so any kids he has are genetically destined to go down an artistic path); he plays the piano, and is a car buff.  The owner of two 1979 cars, a Ferrari and Corvette, he decided to teach himself auto mechanics after car repairs became too expensive.  His technique to accomplish this was to take apart the Corvette bolt by bolt and put it back together again.  As Philips said "Don't you hate people like this?".  Perhaps yes, on paper anyway, but after seeing him perform he doesn't come across as having any sort of ego.  The music flows out of him and while some of his movements may be intense and not entirely effortless, they're totally invested for the purpose of the music, not added as an extra flamboyance.

The first piece on the program was the polonaise from the opera Eugene Onegin.  I was surprised I recognized it.  Polonaise is just a dance with a specific rhythm pattern (long, short, short, long, long, long, long) but it was lively and fun.  Click here for a link to the scene/dance from the opera.

James and Peter Oundjian backstage on
Jan 2011 Florida tour
Next was the Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 35), one of the famous ones in the violin repertoire.  It received scathing reviews when first debuted.  The worst from Hanslick who said the violin was "beaten black and blue", it "stunk", and the slow movement was lyrical before being interrupted by the "bombastic final movement" .  Apparently Tchaikovsky could recite the entire review for the rest of his life.  Thankfully saner heads have prevailed and it has became a beloved piece, understandably so.  It's exciting!  A virtuosic show piece that makes no apologies for it.

One of the highlights of the first movement is the cadenza in the middle (which Tchaikovsky actually wrote rather than leaving it up to the soloist), that has lots of double stops at an almost frantic pace.  At the end Ehnes looked at his bow and had to pull off broken bow hairs.  The piece has a fiddle like sound to it, particularly in the final movement which is reminiscent of a cossack Russian dance.  For an insightful discussion on the piece by none other than James Ehnes himself (complete with instrumental demonstrations) check out this link.  The audience was on their feet immediately and wouldn't settle without an encore which turned out to be Caprice 16 by Paganini.

Post intermission things moved onto Symphony #2 in C Minor.  Apparently there's a popular joke where a professor asks a class of music students how many symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote.  A student in the back row puts up his hand and answers "Three, sir.  Numbers 4, 5, and 6."  All this to indicate that his other symphonies are not often performed.  Number 2 is nicknamed "The Little Russian" since it has a basis in Ukrainian folk song.  This is no longer politically correct since the Ukraine is now it's own republic, but there's still historical significance.

The opening begins with a horn solo, excellently performed by TSO principal horn Neil Deland, and there were great clarinet solo/duets with various other wind instruments.  The lively fourth movement was my favourite and reminded me at the start of the "1812 Overture", which wouldn't be written for another eight years.  There are parts that remind me of his Nutcracker music as well, although that didn't debut for another 10 years after the "1812 Overture".  Great composers never throw any ideas away perhaps?  It was extremely enjoyable to hear this uncommon symphony performed with such devotion and skill.  Looking forward to hearing more of the Tchaikovsky symphonies and concertos featuring Mr. Ehnes.  Go Canada!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mary Poppins: The Musical

The story of super nanny Mary Poppins has been around since 1934 when P.L. Travers wrote the original book.  Since then it has transformed into a Walt Disney movie (1964) starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke and now a Broadway musical.  As a side note, Julie Andrews had not done a movie before Mary Poppins as her career had been on the stage.  She was reluctant to take the role.  However after losing the part of Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady to Audrey Hepburn, the role Andrews originated on the stage, she consented.  Come Academy Award time her choice was vindicated as she won the best actress Oscar for Mary over Hepburn.  The most recent incarnation combines elements from both the movie and the book into a Broadway musical, which is currently on tour in Toronto.

Ashley Brown as Mary
I went in to the show with high expectations, particularly for whoever had the role Mary Poppins having heard Ashley Brown (the originator of the role on Broadway) in several other symphony concerts.  In this case I was not disappointed, Rachel Wallace was a great Mary.  Neither was I unsatisfied with Bert (Nicolas Dromard), George Banks (Laird Mackintosh, who also played the role on Broadway and back in the day was Raoul in the Toronto Phantom of the Opera), Winifred Banks (Elizabeth Broadhurst), or the ensemble.  The personalities of the children were much more obnoxious than in the movie.  Perhaps this was to further the transition the entire Banks family undergoes.  Add a fast speaking tempo and an annoying whine to a high pitch young girls voice, on top of an English accent, and Jane (Annie Baltic) was quite often difficult to understand.  I didn't have quite the same problem with Michael (Reese Sebastian Diaz), although he had fewer lines.

17 Cherry Tree Lane interior
(Photo Joan Marcus)
The set (designed by Bob Crowley) for 17 Cherry tree Lane was pretty nifty.  It folded open at the front in the fashion of a dolls house and recalled to mind the opening of several Disney fairy tale animated films which used the turning of storybook pages.  The front view was the main room, and included a staircase which Mary magically slid up.  Turning the house around revealed the kitchen.  To move to the nursery the roof lowered to the stage.  By maintaining the scale of the house, this was the smallest set and gave the nursery a cramped feel.  The advantage was when the action moved to the roof, it opened up a great expanse for the sky, and dancing over rooftops.

Special effects weren't overdone and were positioned to enhance the story, not just act as gimmicks.  This included the flying, definitely a necessity in Mary Poppins, but was limited to Mary, kites, and Bert tap dancing across the stage proscenium.

Supercalifragisticexpialidocious (
I would be remiss to not address the music.  Most of the Sherman brothers' songs from the movie were included ("Chim Chim Cher-ee", "The Perfect Nanny", "A Spoonful of Sugar", "A Man Has Dreams", "Feed the Birds", "Lets Go Fly a Kite" etc.) although often with altered lyrics to fit different plot situations.  "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" for example occurred in a shop of words rather than a sidewalk painting horse race.  Enhancements here included the addition of a whole theme which allowed an entire dance number to unfold around the premise of spelling this word with 18 consonants and 16 vowels.
LHS: youtube RHS: Rachel Wallace and Nicolas Dromard as Mary and Bert
"Step in Time" which had Bert and the chimney sweeps tap dancing over the London rooftops was also retained from the movie to fantastic effect.  The beginning slow tempo with silhouetted sweeps against chimneys (especially the one who was balancing on one foot while holding his broom) was eye-catching!  Oh, to be able to tap like that.

Laird Mackintosh, Blythe Wilson as 
Mr. & Mrs. Banks
The additions of "Practically Perfect" as a solo for Mary, "Anything Can Happen" and "Being Mrs. Banks" slipped into the theme of the Disney canon as if they'd been there forever.  I liked the tighter story line with Mr. and Mrs. Banks having some clear character development in addition to the children. Bert acting as a narrator worked well and gave him some fun moments, like the opening of the second act where he "paints" on the curtain.  His character is so sweet (or maybe the actor who plays him is part of the charm as well).  At one point Mary gives him a kiss on the cheek.  A kiss he returns at the curtain call.

Steffanie Leigh & Nicolas Dromard
(Photo Joan Marcus)
One disappointment was that the orchestra pit was covered :(  All that could be seen was the conductor.  But that's hardly the reason one goes to a musical, and if this one continues to be as popular as it is, maybe there will be a return visit to Toronto at some point.  For an entertaining and enjoyable evening with foot tapping songs and even a message behind the magic, it is practically perfect!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Romeo and Juliet: The Prokofiev Ballet

Part of the National Ballet of Canada's 60th anniversary season includes a newly choreographed, and hence world premiere, of Romeo and Juliet which I saw on Nov 20, 2011.  The choreographer is Alexei Ratmanky and it was enchanting.

My opinion of Prokofiev, based on very limited experience with his music, is that his best work is in ballet, and Romeo and Juliet trumps his score to Cinderella.  Maybe if dance was put to Symphony #5 (the only other of his works I've listened to in its entirety) I'd appreciate it more as well.

Heather and McGee as Romeo and Juliet
The cast I saw included first soloist McGee Maddox as a buff, sexy Romeo, who lifted his Juliet like a doll.  He seems to have a number of lead roles this season (he's also the Prince in the upcoming Nutcracker) so perhaps a principal dancer promotion is in his future.  From what I saw, I'd say it's well earned.  Heather Ogden is beautiful and portrayed a dainty, naive Juliet.  You could believe the character development from the lighthearted playing with Lady Capulet (Joanna Ivey) and her Nurse (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) at the start to the desperately in love and heartbroken women by the finale.

The costumes were of the early Renaissance period with the ladies in long dresses and the men in puffy sleeved, rich fabric short shirt/jackets and leggings.  In one of the crowd scenes the women appeared to float across the stage since their feet were hidden and they moved so smoothly.  Really an incredible effect!
I'll just mention a few of dance highlights.  In Act 1 Romeo and his friends, Mercutio (Jonathan Renna) and Benvolio (Christopher Stalzer), attempt to sneak into the ball held by the Capulets.  The costumes with each leg of their pants a different colour added an element of humour, as did the music.  They danced all together, in pairs, and in and around each other, wearing masks of course.  Nothing at all sissy about these guys!

The balcony scene pas de deux in Act 2, obviously one of the most famous scenes in any Shakespeare play, was danced as a true partnership.  The man's job included more than just showing off the ballerina and included a variety of steps.  It was like the choreographer knew which ones would make me think "oh that was so neat, let's see it again" and repeated most of those moments.

Near the beginning of Act 2, where there's a townspeople scene that included dancers credited as Carnival Men.  These were 4 guys dressed in black and white and danced to a section of music that had a wicked clarinet part!  Apparently it's called "Dance with the Mandolins" Watching the clarinetists in the pit was amazing.  It was fast, and short, and so precisely played!

The sword fighting was another highlight.  Tybalt was played by principal dancer Jiri Jelinek, and you couldn't ask for a better personification.  You could tell he meant business just by the way he strutted across the stage.  It took several draws of his sword before I realized there was no sheath, yet just the way he held in by his side in one hand, it looked like it actually was hanging and he was just resting his hand on the hilt.  Jonathan Renna also acted his character well.  In fact he received a very loud ovation at the end.  He was witty and taunting towards Tybalt when fighting, just asking for it!  His first death scene was long, drawn out, very stereotypical milking the moment on stage.  It completely suited the fact that shortly after he jumped right up again as if to say "rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated".  When he was finally killed, it was a less melodramic.

The thrust that kills Tybalt was exceptionally realistic.  A bit of the magic was lost in that he could be seen visibly breathing after he was dead.  Romeo and Juliet on the other head were completely still when they died.  Although they hadn't just danced quite as demanding a scene.  I don't recall in the play where they are actually alive at the same time in the vault.  I was expecting Romeo to find Juliet, expect that she really was dead, drink poison and die.  Then Juliet was to awaken, find him dead and stab herself.  However, after Romeo has poisoned himself but before he dies Juliet woke up.  Talk about a heart breaking moment when you realize you jumped the gun, could have lived happily ever after, and yet are dying.  The poignancy of the moment wasn't lost on the audience.

The final bows begin with Heather and McGee which was a nice touch, reassuring anyone unfamiliar with the story (is there anyone still out there like that?) or any children (there were quite a few in the audience) who might think they were really dead, that all is well.
Juliet's Bedroom scene (
A wonderful afternoon at the ballet was had by all, even if the Four Seasons Centre was quite cold.  I think they could do with turning up the heat/down the air conditioning.  The draft at my feet left them frigid.