Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Merry TSO Christmas

Tree in Metro Square
outside RTH
The TSO Christmas Concert this year featured guest conductor Jeff Tyzik and narrator Colin Mochrie.  The concert contained typical festive fare with some twists.

The first twist was the opening "A Christmas Overture" which was "Deck the Halls" played in the styles of Mozart, Gabrieli, Count Basie, and Stravinsky.  So cool!

The second was a gorgeous version of "Gesu Bambino" which Tyzik arranged and featured two soloists from the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra on violin and cello.  I particularly liked how he wove in melodies from "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire" giving added interested to the somewhat repetative theme in the main piece.

John Rudolph (
The third was "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer Rag" and featured percussionist John Rudolph on a xylophone that was decorated with Christmas lights.  The piece itself was fun with some impressive playing.

The fourth was a selection of Chanukah songs.  The only one I recognized was the ever popular Dreidel song but the others were really nice and there was a great clarinet solo played by YaoGuang Zhai.  The Festival of Lights has some great music and it was enjoyable to hear some extra variety this time of year.

The highlight of the evening though was the concluding "The Twelve Days of Christmas: A Pageant".  This piece was apparently part of the Youth Symphony concert last season and received such great acclaim that it was moved to the main series event this year.  Arranged by Richard Hayman for the St. Louis Symphony, where he worked for 45 years, the TSO is only the second orchestra to have the piece in their library.  Major coup, it's so much fun! (well from the audience perspective anyway, hopefully the orchestra likes it as well).  Narrated by Mr. Mochrie, who did a bang up job of having a dead pan reaction to the flirting calling birds, and interacting with the children who decorated him with eight sets of 5 golden rings.  

The large cast, including Holiday Dancers and the Etobicoke School of the Arts Chorus, embraced their parts enthusiastically, perhaps none moreso then the 10 lords who leapt down the aisle from the rear of the hall.  The orchestra played various segments that fit each day such as (based on my best guesses) The "Theme from Romeo and Juliet" by Tchaikovsky for Day 2's turtle doves, "Aloutte" and the "Can-Can" for Day 3's French hens, "The Wedding March" for the 5 golden rings, "Odette's Theme" from Swan Lake for the Day 7 swans, "Old MacDonald" and "Turkey in the Straw" for eight maids a milkin', "Trepek" from The Nutcracker for the Leaping Lords, and an "Artist's Life Waltz" by Strauss for the nine ladies dancing.  The conclusion with 11 pipers from the Highland Creek Pipes and Drums piping through the choir loft playing "Scotland the Brave" followed shortly there after by 12 drummers drumming the theme from "The Bridge Over the River Kwai" was fantastic.

It's a rather long piece that took up a substantial portion of the second half, so perhaps this need not become a yearly undertaking but maybe it's something the TSO could make tradition by reprising every few years.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Return to Yuletide Celebration

Finding myself with some days off at the beginning of December, I decided on a road trip to the best concert for getting in the Christmas spirit, Yuletide Celebration with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra!  Two years ago I made the trip for the 25th anniversary concert (that review here) and while I wasn't expecting the elaborateness of that milestone, the 27th version came pretty close.

Justin Stahl, Lobby
The lobby decorations were as gorgeous as ever, and the cookies just as delicious.  Entertaining concert goers and showing off the Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ to great effect was Justin Stahl who played before and after the concerts.  When leaving I noticed his closed music book, it was the "Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook" which I also have! (although anything I've played didn't sound nearly as good).

Angela and Ben
The show opened with a new arrangement of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" by music director and maestro, Jack Everly.  It had English lyrics, Latin lyrics, and even the "wonderful, councillor..." quote from The Messiah.  Featuring the whole cast, it also served as an introduction to the voices of the hosts, opera star Angela Brown and Broadway leading man Ben Crawford.  I've seen Ben in other Symphonic Pops Consortium concerts, and have always enjoyed his voice.   This concert was no exception.  Angela and Ben joked around introducing each other with Angela playing the opera diva and claiming herself as sole host because she's from Indianapolis, which garnered audience applause.  At the matinee I attended however, Ben's announcement at being from Tuscan, Arizona created a stronger audience reaction.  Maybe he stacked the crowd with friends and family.  Being an out of towner I cheered for him :)

Anthony Kniffen & Grinch
After a solo by Angela of "Sleigh Ride" (because really what concert is complete without the Leroy Anderson classic, which incidentally was written in Georgia when the temperature was 105 deg. F) the orchestra was showcased in a medley from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I haven't watched the movie in years and wasn't recognizing anything.  Then all of a sudden I noticed the tuba player, Anthony Kniffen, disappear from his spot at the back of the stage balcony.  He reappeared centre stage wrapped in a sousaphone and wearing a Santa hat to play "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch".  The Grinch himself (he was wondering around the lobby earlier), even poked his head out from the window above the stage drumming his fingers together in an evil fashion.

Ben and cast decked out in Christmas bling
The costumes and gowns were extravagant, and none more so than Angela's dress for "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" from Elf: The Musical.  It was all gold and so glittery under the lights it was hard to look at.  Ben, by contrast was wearing a classic black tux and was accused of needing some Christmas bling.  He obliged by removing the tux to reveal black sequined pants and a red sparkly jacket.  The singers and dancers all sported major sparkles and glitter during an energetic dance interlude.  I hadn't heard anything from Elf before, but quite liked this and the selection later of "There is a Santa Claus".  That piece has a lyric about Rudolph's nose really glowing and a red spot light swept around the hall to emphasis the point.  It was a simple but effective bit of lighting design.

Christmas Eve Radio Highlights
The highlight of the first act for me was being taken back to December 24, 1942 for the "Christmas Eve Radio Broadcast".  A WISO sign descended from the stage complete with "On Air" and "Applause" indictors.  After a jive style dance number to "Hark the Harold Angels Sing" (or at least part of it) by Anne Nicole Beck and Joseph Perkins Jr., Ben and several Yuletide ladies performed "Fum, Fum, Fum".  The "broadcast" then officially started complete with an ad for Hazel Bishop lipstick.  I looked it up and it was the brand of the first non-smear lipstick although it wasn't an incorporated company until 1950.  But who says you can't adjust history to suit the needs of a show? :)  The catchy Chiquita Banana jingle was part of the segment as well, complete with Ben in a grass skirt and coconut bra.  Three singers with great harmony did an Andrew's Sisters style song similar to "Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy" only about "Roly Poly Santa Claus".  Mike Runyan (ISO librarian) was featured with his "Cowboy Harmonica Christmas" that contains half a dozen harmonicas in various sizes and songs such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "Up On the Housetop", and "Holly, Jolly Christmas".  That was one of my favourite parts two years ago and it was really fun to see him again.  The segment concluded with Angela singing a touching rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" with harmonica accompaniment.

The traditional tap dancing kick line of Santa's brought down the curtain for intermission.  The second half opened with "The Enchanted Toy Shoppe" a feature which I believe was new at last season's concert.  Angela began by telling the story of a toy maker and how one magical night his toys came to life.  She also sang the beginning of "Once Upon a December" from Anastasia (Liz Callaway was a host last year and the singing voice of Anastasia in the movie, which may have influenced the song choice, but it fit in well).  The fairy waved her wand to a slow version of the "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" theme bringing the toys to life.   Included in the toys were a music box dancer and doll, who danced, en pointe even, to something by Tchaikovsky from "Swan Lake" I think.  By magic a juggler (Cirque de la Symphonie artist Vova Tsarkov) stepped out of building blocks that were stacked together before our eyes.  I liked the following rag doll segment the best of the Cirque acts.

Check out that Statue of Liberty style tiara!
(Angela photo from her facebook page)
Alina Sergeeva as the doll 'danced' with the juggler as he picked her up and she flopped back over into incredible positions that showed off her amazing flexibility.  The way she carried momentum and flopped at the slightest touch was so realistic of how a doll would behave.  "Hedwig's Theme" was used as the music for extracting the aerial silks artist (Rachel Bowman) from the "empty" Toy Parts box.  Then Ben returned to sing "Somewhere in My Memory" for the silks act.  It's a lovely song and the move where the aerialist wrapped herself in the silk and then fell as it unravelled always make me catch my breath.  The variety of pieces that appear in arrangements by Jack Everly and company is second to none!

Presumably while they cleared the Toy Shoppe props away behind the curtain, Angela took the front of the stage and performed "My Simple Christmas Wish".  Apparently this is a popular cabaret act song, but I was unfamiliar with it.  Some lyrics were changed to be family friendly and a new line about not being Oprah so don't look under your seat (a joke about Oprah giving gifts away to audience members) shot by so fast it took a second to process, but once people got it, there were giggles.

Not to be outdone, the curtain opened on a now empty stage and Ben walked out to sing "Believe" from The Polar Express.  The most popular version is likely with Josh Groban, but I much preferred Ben's.  Groban's seems heavy to me, but Ben had hope and a bit more lightness, not to mention his wonderful voice.

Zach and Jack
An exciting instrumental version of "Good King Wenceslas" featuring ISO concertmaster Zach De Pue was introduced by Jack Everly.  He said the lyrics were added to the tune in 1853, and a new Christmas song was born, but we'd never heard it like this.  So true!  The arrangement, by Alex De Pue (Zach's brother), had more notes than it seemed possible to play and ones higher than I thought a violin could hit.  It was great to see a little Time For Three style jammin' going on!  Check out the same arrangement with Alex playing the fiddle accompanied by a hammered dulcimer (it's better with full orchestra but I was excited to find the arrangement in any form!).

Not that the audience needed any waking up after that, but the ensemble got their own lively number with "All I Want for Christmas is You".  The highlighted voices weren't all my taste, but the guys shoes sure stood with white inserts sure fit the Christmas bling criteria.

Slowing things down Angela and Ben combined forces for "The Prayer" with Ben taking the Italian part of the duet and creating a beautiful deep sound.  Their voices and talents were highlighted the best here.

Full cast in "The First Noel"
Ben continued with the beginning of "The First Noel" singing it straight and with meaning, until the curtain rose on a stained glass style backdrop and the full cast joined for the concluding verses and chorus.  After an almost instant standing ovation (the powerful arrangement by David Clydesdale almost draws you out of your seat) we were seated again and treated to an acapella "Silent Night" by Angela before joining our voices with everyone else's for "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".  I love singing with a full orchestra!

Thank you to all the friendly people I met (and especially to one I still haven't), the performers and everyone behind the scenes who work together to create such a wonderful show.  My mission was accomplished, Christmas spirit attained and should anyone be in the need for some I highly recommend this method of acquisition!  Because it's really true that...

(All photos except where noted from the Indianapolis Symphony, some via The Examiner and The Star.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Montreal Symphony in Toronto

New Maison Symphonic.  Similar in look to The Four Seasons
Centre in Toronto.   They are both designed by architect
Jack Diamond (
This season, in addition to having an exchange of venue with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony also has one with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  On November 21, the MSO was at Roy Thomson Hall, and the previous Sunday the TSO was trying out the new Maison symphonique in Montreal.

The evening of the 21st started with the always interesting pre-concert chat hosted by Rick Philips.  This evening he had MSO conductor, Kent Nagano as a guest.  They discussed Haydn's work and how it has fallen off the programming radar of the larger orchestras in recent years.  Nagano described how he had this great idea to do a Haydn cycle.  He was all excited and pitched it to the box office and marketing departments.  Unfortunately they were less than enthused not being sure how to sell that sort of concert.

The Haydn on our program was Symphony No. 94 "Surprise".  It's one of the first of the last group he wrote (104 symphonies in total) referred to as the London Symphonies.  Getting the okay to actually program a series of Haydn works, the next issue to tackle by Maestro Nagano was, what do you pair with them?  His choices for the "Surprise" were "An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise", and "Le Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring").  He programmed these selections because they also have dance themes that can be bombastic and beautiful, and perfectly complete ideas and ones that leave you hanging.

The symphony opened with an Adagio cantabile first movement and light airy theme.  The second movement begins innocently enough, although I imagine the entire audience was on the edge of their seats awaiting the "surprise".  The sudden fortissimo about 30 seconds in occurred, but I was underwhelmed by it.  The pianissimo just before the section was so excellent that I think the forte could have had a real punch to it, but given the anticipation of the moment I was expecting more.

I believe at least part of "An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise" was on a TSO program not that long ago. (The Last Night of the Proms from June 2011 to be exact)  The comma in the title makes me giggle, as if the piece was too short so the "with sunrise" was an afterthought.  The humour in this piece has to do with the deterioration of the dance theme as it goes from the flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and violin depicting the results as the amount of whiskey ingested by the wedding guests increases.  I like how the strings can mimic the sound of bagpipes.  The final call of the real bagpipes, decrescendo as the night fades and crescendo as morning breaks completes the picture.

4 bars from the Rite of Spring, 4 change in time signature
The "Rite of Spring" ending the evening in startling fashion.  Honestly I didn't know much about it other than the changes in time signature are legendary.  In the pre-concert chat I was reminded it was actually a ballet, the premiere of which was also legendary for "provoking the most notorious riot in twentieth century music" (as per the program notes).   I wasn't sure what to expect, but really wasn't expecting what it was or the subject matter (Part 2: The Great Sacrifice involves maidens performing secret rites with one doomed to die).  There were disjointed melodies that seemed to come out of nowhere and disappear without feeling complete.  Some of them were beautiful and lyrical while some of them were very dissonant.   The dynamic range was well varied.  I can now say I've seen and heard another of the classics.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Beethoven Triple Concerto

There's a wonderful magazine in Toronto about all things music called The WholeNote.  Each month they publish, there's a Music's Child feature.  On this page is a picture of a musician as a child, and a rhyme or short clue about them.  Readers then take their best guess as to who the person might be.  The remainder of the page contains an interview with the previous month's "child".  Very rarely do I have any idea who the person is, however September's was the new Toronto Symphony Concertmaster Jonathan Crow.  On a lark I sent in my guess.  I was surprised when I got an email saying that I had been one of the people to guess right and would I like tickets to the TSO concert that would feature Jonathan Crow in Beethoven's "Triple Concerto" for piano, violin and cello.  I readily accepted.  So thank you very much to The WholeNote for treating me to a night of music!

The concert on Nov. 15 was headed by TSO conductor Peter Oundjian and in addition to featuring Mr. Crow, had guest pianist Andre Laplante, and guest cellist Shauna Rolston, Canadian's all!  However, before the Beethoven, there was a piece by Pierre Mercure called "Triptyque".  Written in 1959 it was pretty good for contemporary music.  I'd like to see the score and actually compare the opening Adagio with the concluding Adagio since the final one is the exact reversal of the first, or retrograde in musical terms.

Up next was the Beethoven.  It's an interesting choice of instruments to feature and the only concerto Beethoven wrote for multiple solo instruments.  The more prominent of the solo parts is also given to the cello, rather than the violin or piano.  The dynamic contrasts in the orchestra were exceptional, the pianissimos were barely heard.  Of the trio I think I liked the piano part the best, even if it was limited.  I heard the piece described as having some of the bubbliest music Beethoven wrote, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it was all pleasant with a fun trading/echoing of parts between the instruments.  It was also funny that even standing on the podium given to the cellist, Ms. Rolston was about the same height as Mr. Crow who was standing on the floor.  His violin looks so small in his hands.

The evening concluded with the not often played Shostakovich "Symphony No. 12" subtitled "The Year 1917".  I've heard recordings of Symphony No. 11 and found it emotionally exhausting with the heavy and sad subject matter.  No. 12 used a few of the same themes and while the slow movements were smooth and mesmerizing I liked the finale.  The power that crashed over you with 8 basses, 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, 3 oboes, 3 bassoons, loud timpani and cymbals, and a full compliment of violins, violas, and celli all playing at the same time was thrilling.  It also woke me up enough for the drive back home.  It was a great conclusion to a long day.    Thanks WholeNote!
Full stage and full house, great to see

Friday, November 23, 2012

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

Last season the National Ballet of Canada premiered Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and it sold out!  So I was very pleased they decided to bring it back this year for a longer run and made plans not to miss it.

Opening with Carroll reading to Alice and her sisters
(Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
The evening began with the always enlightening and philosophical ballet talk by Lindsay Fischer, ballet master.  He took the audience through the various tableaus that form the basis of the story.  It began with Alice and her sisters playing while her mother is preparing for a grand tea party.  Because ballet isn't ballet without a love interest with which to dance a pas de deux, Alice and Jack, the gardener's boy, like each other.  However social norms of 1862 time period and Alice's mother, forbid her from having anything to do with Jack.  This is particularly true after she gives him a tart in return for the red rose he mistakingly put in with the white ones for her mother.  What I particularly loved was that Lewis Carroll was a guest at this party.  The "real life" part of the story wove in how the book of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland actually came about.  Carroll wrote them at the request of his friend's daughter Alice, after he was entertaining the girls for the day and told them these great stories.

Aleksandar as the White Rabbit
(Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
Suddenly at this party things begin to change, Carroll becomes the White Rabbit (both parts played by Aleksandar Antonijevic) and Alice follows him down the jelly dessert in the middle of the table, an interesting twist on a rabbit hole, to Wonderland.  Multi media was used well throughout the performance.  It really gave the feeling of falling into or rising out of a hole without going over the top or being overused.  The scenes of growing, shrinking, crying and floating through tears, of which my best recollections are from the Disney movie, were all there.  Sonia Rodriguez played Alice at the performance I saw and did a wonderful job of acting the little girl who eventually learns about life and grows up.

The action truly never ended.  The idea that in a good movie you don't even notice the music was so true here.  A shame in a way because the music was so good, but it fit the dance and story so well it melted in rather than stood out.  The orchestra was big with the percussion filling the entire back of the pit and there were two harps!  The White Rabbit theme reminded me of segments from Bernstien's West Side Story score.  After a crazy scene in a fiery kitchen hidden behind the innocent needlepoint claiming "Home Sweet Home", Jack returns, only as the Knave of Hearts now, with a tray of tarts.  They hide in the cottage while the bad tempered Queen of Hearts (Alice's mother) looks for him to chop off his head.

Eventually the magician at the garden party appears as the Mad Hatter.  If one wants to read into the meanings behind what Alice could be learning with each encounter, the Hatter teaches Alice about time.  One doesn't grow up just by waiting out time, because time can be divided however one wants.  This is demonstrated to great effect by having the Mad Hatter tap dance!  When was the last time you saw anything other than ballet slippers and pointe shoes at a ballet?  It was great.  In fact Rick Mercer even got in on the action for The Rick Mercer Report, where he learned a little tap.  Check it out here.

Sonia as Alice and the Cheshire cat
(Photo by Bruce Zinger)
Alice meets the cheshire cat who exists in pieces held by dancers dressed in black, so his various parts glow in the black light.  Here the mime conversation, as explained by Mr. Fischer, was the cat asking her where she wants to go.  Her response is anywhere but here.  The cat replies, then it doesn't matter which road you take.  Philosophy on the simple level, yet she learns that it's not the road that matters but you guide your own path.  Alice also takes part in the croquet game with the Queen complete with dancing flamingo croquet mallets.  In the Queen's court the corps du ballet costumes were so well done with the card tutus.
Corps as cards
(Photo by Bruce Zinger)

Jiri as the Caterpillar
(Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

One of the final characters Alice meets is the caterpillar, danced by Jiri Jelinek.  An exotic dance, that reminded me in a way of the Coffee dance in The Nutcracker.  It even had a more refined version of 'the worm'.

The Queen and card dancers not doing so well
In the garden the Queen wants to display her dancing skills and has trouble finding any willing partners.  The four gentlemen reluctantly agree and each tries to get out of it by having the other take their place.  Coined the "tart adagio" (a take off of the "rose adagio" in Sleeping Beauty) it takes the real life worry of the rose adagio suiters who don't want to screw up for the prima ballerina playing Aurora, and converts that into the situation of these gentlemen not wanting to screw up and hear the horrible "off with their heads" cry.

To add some tension the Knave is accused of stealing the tarts and he and Alice have a reprise of the pas de deux from the opening tea party scene.  I like when the choreography repeats, especially a really intricate move, and this dance had that and was beautifully executed by Guillaume Cote who was playing the Knave.  Eventually Alice decides to stand up to the Queen for him, and say the Knave didn't steal any tarts, she gave it to him.  By taking a stand she pushes over the house of cards and they come falling down as she falls back up the rabbit hole and back to real life.

The ending was very well done.  It jumped to modern times with Jack and Alice, now a couple, reclining on a bench when Alice suddenly wakes up and describes the dream she just had about the book she was reading.  A gentleman walks by and Alice seems to think he's familiar.  He takes their picture, and then sits down on the bench vacated by Alice and Jack.  The curtain falls as he scratches his ear in the fashion of the White Rabbit leaving one with the question, was it really only a dream?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Whirlwind of Music

Shamefully this is being written in November and back dated a month (wow, so behind) so it shows in the correct month drop down menu.  So way back on Oct. 14 the Toronto Symphony offered a Whirlwind of Music program.  We started in Germany with the first movement of Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony No. 4", then moved on to Italy for Vivaldi's "Concerto for Bassoon in F Major" and Rossini's "Overture to William Tell".  After intermission we went to Austria for the "Overture to the Magic Flute" by Mozart, then back to Germany for Mendelssohn's "Konzertstuck No. 1 for Two Clarinets", before finishing the trip with the second and fourth movements of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7".

Joshua Weilerstein
The concert was conducted by the incredibly energetic (ah, the joys of youth) Joshua Weilerstein.  He's accomplished a lot in his 24 years, completing graduate studies in conducting and violin, assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and has had conducting gigs all over the world with orchestras such as the BBC Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Danish National Symphony to name a few.  He had an excellent rapport with the audience, provided interesting tidbits about the pieces and added humour by defining an intellectual as one who can "list to the William Tell Overture without thinking of The Lone Ranger".  True not a quote created by him (wikipedia credits it to Jack Guin of the Denver Post) but fun nonetheless.

Michael Sweeney
Highlights of the concert for me started with the bassoon concerto.  I enjoy the sound of the bassoon, but often find it difficult to pick out from the full orchestra unless it has an obvious melodic line.  So it was really nice to hear principal bassoonist Michael Sweeney take centre stage.  In fact it was an embellished version of the concerto that Mr. Sweeney created himself.  A rather prolific concerto writer with over 500 to his credit and more than three dozen for the bassoon, I've always liked that Vivaldi probably wrote most of these works for the female students at the Venetian orphanage where he worked.

L: Valdepenas, R: Zhai
The spotlight continued to be on principal players when new TSO clarinetist YaoGuang Zhai joined the veteran Joaquin Valdepenas for the "Konzertstuck (or Concert Piece) for Two Clarinets".  What impeccable tone, articulation and ability they both have that showed off the versatility of this wonderful instrument (sorry, I'm biased since that's my instrument too).

Clearly I'm no intellectual because I thought of The Lone Ranger, but I had no idea the "Overture to William Tell" had four sections and is 12 minutes long!  As a whole it's a great piece, and a shame so much gets forgotten about because of the popularity of the final gallop.  It opens with a section called Prelude: Dawn featuring only the cellos and basses, then the full orchestra joins for the Storm.  The third section, Call to the Cows, is the pastorale calm after the storm and features the English horn, before  transitioning to the brass filled finale.

It was a lot of variety packed into an fun filled afternoon concert.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Some Enchanted Evening with the TSO

Tuesday evening the Toronto Symphony opened its Pops Concert Series with new Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke at the helm for an evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits.  At first glance in the new, all glossy pages program (which had the side effect of condensing the piece order list to 1/2 a page!) I wasn't entirely thrilled with the pieces listed.  It seemed like a rehash of what's typically done at Pops concerts.  However my opinion changed once things got started.  While some of the these pieces are well worn and typical fare the vocalists made them come alive again!  Additionally some pieces often done by soloists were done by the choir combination of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto and the University of Toronto MacMillan Singers.  There were even a few included that often get overlooked.  "We Kiss in a Shadow" for example,  I don't recall ever hearing before. Obviously it's been a LONG time since I've watched The King and I.

The arc to the evening was chronological.  Reineke briefly described the plots of each musical and mentioned some of the historical significance Carousel and South Pacific had being the first to include subject matter regarding abuse, sexism and racism.

Ashley and her husband Daniel
looking lovely at their wedding
I have no complaints about any of the singers, they all had good voices, Ashley Brown though is spectacular!  Just wow!  She looked stunning as well in two lovely gowns.  Total side note: I couldn't help noticing a ring I didn't remember before.  Turns out she's been married almost a year (thanks google) and congrats Ashley!

I've heard her before and was so excited she was going to be coming to Toronto.  In fact all the singers were making their TSO debut.  In addition to Ashley was Aaron Lazar, and it was great to see Canadian talent on the program with Jonathan Estabrooks (see his interview regarding this concert here).

The choirs were highlighted as well, beginning with "It's Grand Night for Singing".  They also got to show off their whistling skills in their other main numbers "There is Nothin' Like a Dame" and "I Whistle a Happy Tune".  "Nothin' Like a Dame" was probably the most enjoyable selection as they passed around a mike singling out individual lines.  There was one guy in the front row who stood out even before his solo with his apparent enjoyment and great expressions.  It's great fun watching people like that.  Back in the audience, I don't think the young gentlemen in front of me had heard the song before because he was cracking up at some of the more humerous lyrics.

Carousel was apparently Richard Rodgers favourite musical and is Reineke's as well.  Here Ashley embraced a variety of vocal styles from the twang of "June is Bustin' Out All Over" to the serious romantic "You'll Never Walk Alone".  Later in The King and I section she shared the loving romantic "I Have Dreamed" with Jonathan for probably my favourite piece of the evening.  Such a wonderful combination of melody and voices.

Jonathan (
While a bit repetitive with the gestures in "Soliloquy", Jonathan showed impressive stamina throughout the 7.5 minute long song, which follows the character's wondering over all the fun he could have with a son, lamenting that his child may be a girl,  deciding that might not be so bad after all, and resolving to do all he can to support her!  I think it's one of the first times I haven't been bored by the full version and the ending was just as powerful as the start.

Aaron Lazar
South Pacific selections in the second half allowed Aaron to reprise his Lt. Cable days (he performed the part at the Hollywood Bowl) with a nice rendition of "Younger than Springtime".   Jonathan got the ever popular "Some Enchanted Evening".  If I closed my eyes at the start of "A Wonderful Guy" I could have sworn it was Kelli O'Hara singing.  It diverged from there, but Ashley started out so similarly.

It's always nice when the orchestra gets its chance to be centre stage as well.   Here they were featured in the opening "Orchestral Interlude" which included segments of songs that weren't elsewhere in the show such as "Everything's Up to Date in Kanses City" (from Oklahoma) and "Shall We Dance?" (from The King and I).  The second half opened with the "Waltz" from the 1957 made for TV movie Cinderella.  Rodgers and Hammerstein took that project just to work with Julie Andrews and we all know what became of that collaboration.  It was a nice to hear the waltz live with full orchestra and I had forgotten that "10 Minutes Ago I Met You" was part of it.  I couldn't resist quietly singing along.  It was actually the Lesley Anne Warren remake from 1965 that I grew up watching and remember having to fast forward the commercials.

Hill Twirl
The evening concluded with the final R and H collaboration The Sound of Music.  The "Prologue and the Sound of Music" performed were the arrangement from the film.  It's been a while since I watched it but the start of "Prologue" sounded like dissonant contempoary music at times, with the flitty flutes (reminiscent of birds) and chime of church bells.  The horns calling with the mellow opening line "what will this day be like, what will my future be" in "I Have Confidence" was just enough to pull it back into context.  When Ashley walked to the front of the stage to start "The Sound of Music" I was so hoping she'd do the Julie Andrews twirl at the top of the hill, but she didn't.

After Jonathan's "Edelweiss" solo he invited the audience to participate in the second time through.  Nothing beats singing with full symphony orchestra!  The vocalists then all joined together for the concert conclusion "Climb Ev'ry Mountain".

After a standing ovation and several sets of bows, the orchestra returned to their seats for an encore (yay!) of "Do Re Mi".  At the first line from the choir of "Let's start at the very beginning" there was applause and cheers from the audience!  I absolutely agree it would have been no trouble to sit through the entire concert again.

I will venture that the A-list of symphonic pop artists isn't huge (well ok, maybe it is, but I've only been exposed to a limited number, so still think it's small) and Reineke and Ashley have worked together before so let's hope that this is only the beginning of her collaborations with the TSO.  Hmm, how about a dream team concert?  My votes go to Hugh Panaro, Ashley Brown and Ben Crawford...could you imagine an evening with them...heavenly!

Kudos also to the sound mixer.  It was perfect!  The singers didn't sound over amplified that I've sometimes noticed before, and their voices were melded beautifully with the orchestra.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

NETworks touring production of Disney's Beauty and the Beast was recently in Toronto.  This one I wasn't going to miss.  I have fond memories of the previous incarnation back in 1995 at the Princess of Wales Theatre.  That might have actually been my first time in that theatre.  The recent version was brought by Dancap, not Mirvish and there were some large differences.

By its nature a touring production is generally not as elaborate as one settling into a location for a more lengthy run than a few weeks, but being familiar with the latter it's hard to get the preconceived notions out of my head.  Additionally I am intimately familiar with the music on the Broadway cast recording, so the first thing that hit me was the lack of lush and full sound in the overture.  With a grand total of 6 strings (2 each of violin, cello and bass), 2 brass (trumpet and French horn), 6 reeds, keyboards, and percussion in the pit, there's just no competing with the larger orchestra that would have been used in studio.  Next up was the different narrator in the "Prologue".  The haunting voice and ending vocal sneer at "for who could ever learn to love...a Beast?" was sorely lacking.

The village set
The smaller, simpler sets worked well enough, just not what I was expecting.  The curtain as the castle door was rather flimsy looking given it is suppose to be a fortress, and the town street of three houses/businesses that kept swirling around had a dizzying effect.

tower/balcony during
The inside of the castle had twisted vine type stairs that were interesting since at first glance you weren't sure how it would be used, the stairs were hidden within the twists.  However, these flipped around regularly as well, making it look like they were making the most out of the little they had.  It worked for the Beast's "If I Can't Love Her" solo to close Act One when he climbed the tower inside then the set flipped around and it wasn't that hard to imagine he was outside on a balcony.

various portals during rehearsal including colourful books
In contrast, the second act library scene lost the grandeur of a huge library by having brightly coloured books on portal drapes fly in.  There was only a small shelf of books behind Belle and the Beast during the reading of King Arthur that fit the characteristics of the rest of the sets.

Be Our Guest number
As scenes go "Be Our Guest" was the one that most closely resembled the original I remember, complete with audience showering ticker tape.  What I did miss was Cogsworth calling out "oh no, not the kick line" just before the end.

Emily as Belle
The costumes were impressive, particularly Belle's golden ball gown.  The enchanted objects were pared down slightly which didn't have a negative effect except for Cogsworth.
L: Costume on Broadway
R: Costume similar to tour

The brown velour type material looked a bit tacky, and I think a larger real clock portion could have helped.  However, James May was a great Cogsworth.

Michael as Lumiere
Lumiere's flaming hands used the 'blow air on material with an orange light to create fire' type look (a more technical description I'm sure exists I just don't know what it is).  This could have been more convincing if the colour wasn't quite so orange and if the flame extended further beyond the wick.  While Michael Haller had the candlestick characteristics down, he also added a rather thick French accent making him difficult to understand at times.

Matt as Gaston
I was not disappointed by the vocal talent though.  Matt Farcher as Gaston had the necessary biceps, cleft in his chin (real or drawn in, it was hard to tell) and a glorious voice (my favourite of the voices actually) which made "Me" and "Gaston" some of the highlight numbers.  Of course the dancing in the bar has stuck with me since I saw the original show.  I love the idea of having the mugs act like tap shoes for the hands.  Fantastic choreography!

Dance in the bar (
Jimmy Larkin as Lefou was very bouncy and I'll guess it was the same actor who gave the enchanted carpet his athletic twists and flips in"Be Our Guest".  I found William A. Martin unconvincing in the role Maurice.  His gray hair and bushy eyebrows looked fake which probably didn't help, but I just didn't buy him as Belle's father.

The lovely Emily as Belle and Dane as the Beast
As for the title characters...Emily Behny was a true beauty in the role of Belle.  Her voice could sound a bit shrill at times, but perhaps that was due to a microphone/amplification issue.  She soared over the final notes in "Home" effortlessly.  There was also an extra song in the second half I hadn't heard before.  After the Beast lets Belle go and she's back at the cottage with her father she sings "A Change In Me".  It was added in 1998 when Toni Braxton played Belle and it stayed in the show.  It shows Belle's character has been changed as well, not just that of the Beast.

Dane as the Beast
And how about that Beast...while I wouldn't perhaps classify Dane Agostinis as your drop dead gorgeous leading man (although he looks more so the part in real life than as the Prince at the end, probably the long haired wig), I enjoyed his voice and portrayal of the Beast.  When he got to the low register in "If I Can't Love Her" I got shivers.  The higher ending of the song didn't come quite as naturally and I'm not sure I completely believed he was tormented at having no hope of loving someone.  He didn't seem devastated enough, but I'll take that rather than having it over acted.

In conclusion I'm glad Dancap had the show stop in Toronto and I'm glad I took the opportunity to see it.  If the rumours I've heard are true that Dancap isn't going to continue next season, their contribution to the Toronto theatre scene will be sorely missed.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Diamond Jubilee Proms

The Toronto Symphony 90th anniversary season concluded (well practically, there was one more concert featuring the guest trumpet soloist a few days later) June 20th with the standard The Last Night of the Proms.  This year there was the added theme of celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year.  As I've been very lax in getting this written, it covers highlights only.

Conductor Bramwell Tovey, who was absent last year, was back and making her TSO debut was trumpeter Alison Balsom.  Rounding out the cast were soprano Laura Whalen and baritone James Westman.

The concert opened with a special appearance by the Fort York Honour Guard and Fife and Drum group who stood guard on stage during "O Canada" and "God Save the Queen".  The orchestra then continued with the "Crown Imperial March" which is one of my favourites.  Maestro Tovey was very engaging with the audience, particularly the late comers as he started to tell us about the piece "most of you have just heard".  He also promoted the volunteer committee's flag selling efforts at every opportunity.

One of the most humorous parts of the evening was when he asked those in the audience who were bearers of the large flags where they were from.  The first few who proudly displayed the Union Jack or St. George's Cross were from Lake Simcoe, Bobcaygeon and Toronto.  It took a few more people to find a true Londoner.  Perhaps the best response, that even had the orchestra laughing, was "Quebec".  Tovey replied he was looking forward to hearing them sing the finale "Jerusalem".

Alison Balsom
Ms. Balsom, wearing a lovely white gown, started her part of the evening festivities with the well known "Trumpet Voluntary" then moved onto the "Prayer of St. Gregory".  What an amazingly beautiful sound!  When she returned in the second half, this time in a stunning red dress, with "Casta Diva Variations from Norma" by Vincenzo Bellini I think everyone's jaw was on the floor by the end.  How anyone can play that many notes with so few breaths is astounding.  I don't know of many trumpet guest soloists, and she's definitely one worth having back.

The red, white, and blue wardrobe theme was concluded by Ms. Whalen who had the blue gown and for the finale wore the Kate and Prince William flag from last year's concert as an additional shawl. Not to be outdone was Mr. Westman.  After demonstrating his vocal skills with "The Lost Chord" and "When Britain Really Ruled the Waves" he complemented his Union Jack handkerchief by revealing his Canada flag boxers.

Luba Goy as Queen (
A special guest appearance was made by Queen Elizabeth II herself (in the form of Royal Canadian Air Farce actress Luba Goy).  She was accompanied by several hobby horse riding RCMP officers who managed to keep a straight face while she chatted with Tovey and indicated "60 years is a long time to be on the throne".  It took a second for the double entrendre to sink in and the audience laughter to start.

Mr. Tovey arranged several selections for the evening including "A Novello Rhapsody" consisting of parlour songs such as "I Can Give You the Starlight", "Waltz of My Heart", "Music in May", and "We'll Gather Lilacs" by Ivor Novello sung by Ms. Whalen and Mr. Westman.  In a tribute to Mr. Tovey's mother who passed away last year and the World War II veterans, of which there were a few in the audience, he played the piano in his own arrangement while Ms. Whalen sang "(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover".  It was a tender, touching and quiet rendition that would have been easier to be sucked into without the distracting coughing from the audience.

The concert was bittersweet in that The Last Night of the Proms tradition is going on hiatus for a few years.  It was 20 years ago that Bramwell Tovey made his TSO debut, and I'm not sure how long after that the Proms started, but he's probably been the conductor of the concert since it's inception.  He shook hands with not just the concert master but all the front row players, then went to the bass row which consisted of the older veteran players he's probably known for most of those years.

I've only attended twice, but I like that the concert is a mix of Canada Day and Remembrance Day combined.  It's fun, and funny, but with its share of poignant and important moments as well.  The Wed. evening performance was quite full and I expect it will be missed next year.  So in the words of the encore song, until the Proms and the next TSO season return, "I'll Be Seeing You".

Thanks to everyone who made the 90th season a joy to attend!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

TSO Goes Outside!

For the first time in a decade the Toronto Symphony ventured outside the comfy confines of Roy Thomson Hall.  They didn't go very far, just next door to Metro Square (well ok, David Pecaut Square, it was renamed last year), but it was a departure from the norm none the less.  From what I saw and heard, it was a departure welcomed by fans.  But let's go back a bit.

June 17 was the finale of the 6th annual Toronto arts festival called Luminato.  This year is also the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812 which has sparked interest both north and south of the border.  It's a war both sides think they won.  In Canada it's remembered because we got to DC, burned down the White House and repelled an American invasion.  In America it's remembered for the defence of Fort McHenry in Baltimore which inspired the writing of their National Anthem.  So I was eagerly awaiting the results of a co-commissioned piece from the TSO and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) by Philip Glass, a native of Baltimore.  How would this play out with both sides thinking they're the victors?  How patriotic a piece would an American write and would it be something Canadians could really care about?  But really there isn't anything wrong with each side winning.  No one really wins in a war, and it ended with each side occupying some of the others territory which was ultimately given back, so let's celebrate that both sides developed a stronger national pride and call it a day.

An added quirk was that this piece was receiving a joint world premiere.  Not that you'd know that from the BSO promo material, although various other US articles have mentioned the TSO.  But the 7pm BSO concert of other American music included the Glass piece as well.  It would have been fun to be a fly on the wall to see if the TSO was mentioned at the BSO concert.  They were in Toronto.

After welcoming and thank you speeches from Luminato people, and concert master Jonathan Crow (very cool to see him back again for this concert) led the orchestra tuning, the concert opened with Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man".   Eventually the camera crew figured out what shot showed the brass so their image finally made the screen.  Hidden at the back of the orchestra with all the audience on a rather flat ground limited our view substantially.  There were a few brief imperfections, but I love this piece and it didn't hurt the overall grandeur of it.

(From Luminato facebook page)
Upon conclusion we heard piccolos in the distance.  Was this aural competition or part of the show?  The answer quickly provided itself as the players and honour guard complete with muskets marched in and up to the stage.  The audience and part of the orchestra stood while both the Canadian and American national anthems were performed (you can bet that didn't happen in Baltimore!).  I know there are some Americans in the orchestra, but I'd guess that "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't a piece Canadian Maestro Peter Oundjian has often been called upon to conduct.

As the soldiers marched away CBC personality Tom Allen announced them as the "Fort York Honour Guard ladies and gentlemen, keeping out invaders for 200 years".  And we're very thankful they did :)

Philip Glass
Finally it was time for the much anticipated "Overture for 2012".  There was a video introduction by composer Philip Glass who could not have looked less energetic or enthusiastic for the piece.  Does he dislike it that much?  My gut reaction: seriously dude we helped pay you for this, the least you could do is look happy we're debuting your work!  The piece itself wasn't bad.  It was typically minimalist with lots of repetition and a brassy melodic line that transfered a bit throughout the orchestra.  There was the underlying motor of the driving incessant, not quite arpeggio rhythmic patterns.  At times it got boring, and I was hoping for a change in pattern, often one came shortly after.  It was suppose to be a 12 min long piece and seemed longer than the closer to 5 it was, which I'm not sure is a good thing.  I'll second Tim Smith's comments in his blog regarding the BSO's performance "can we get some money back?"

Tom Allen, one of the highlights of the evening with his humorous and information introductions, returned with an invitation for the audience to imagine:  To imagine that we were to go home after the concert and find a job offer waiting for us.  The job is in New York and pays six times our current salary.  So we go, and then end up leaving for a church organist position in Iowa (I wonder if it was River City?).  This is what Dvorak did.  He discovered he didn't like city live and ended up in Iowa where the entertainment one summer was an Indian Medicine Man Snake Oil type show.  He went to every one to absorb the music and incorporated the themes into his most popular symphony.  That would be Symphony No. 9 "From the New World".  The TSO then played the 4th movement.

Moving onto some Canadian music, the first piece was by Malcolm Forsyth (incidentally the father of NAC Orchestra principal cellist Amanda), and was inspired by his first trip to the barren beauty that is Canada's far north.  The orchestra played "The Dance" from his orchestral suite Atayoskewin which is the Cree word for "sacred legend".  Youtube lacked a quick search result for the piece, but the NAC musicbox came through.  Take a listen here.  At times it reminds me of Copland's "Rodeo", particularly the first few bars.

View of audience from the back of the stage
(from Luminato facebook page)
Mr. Allen then tested our knowledge with a multiple choice question, who wrote the music for Lord of the Rings?  Was it John Williams, someone else I don't remember, or the Canadian Howard Shore who won three Oscar's, scored the film Mrs. Doubtfire, and suggested the name "The Blues Brothers" to Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi?  Not a tricky question to figure out.  They played a short suite excerpt from Lord of the Rings.  Having only seen the movies once I'm not familiar with the music.  It was good, but perhaps I'd find it more epic if I knew it better.

Maestro Oundjian dedicated the next piece to all the cyclists who go wizzing around the city.  Less than 4 bars in I figured it out as "The Flying Theme" from ET.  Very fitting :)

Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" is a masterpiece (well in my opinion).  Mr. Allen began by describing an invasion by a force that thought they'd get in, meet little resistance, take over, and be out of there by winter.  I, along with others I'm sure, assumed he was talking about the War of 1812, until he continued by saying that was what happened with France and Russia.  France thought it would be no problem to take Moscow, and Tchaikovsky's piece is celebrating the Russian defeat of Napoleon and his army. "But the parallels are similar.  So when you hear "La Marseillaise" that's them, and the bold brassy trombones, that's us!"  I'm not sure if the TSO played the full version (the recording I have runs 17 mins and includes the rarely performed vocal part), although it sounded like they did, and it didn't feel like 17 mins.  I'm also not sure if the carillons in the final section were recorded because I couldn't see if there were chimes on stage, but if it was live they were perfect.  Often I find the sound of the bells random, but this fit and the balance was superb.  They got to the climax and would you believe it FIREWORKS shot off behind the stage!  Who needs military cannon fire?  These were impeccably on the beat, and could not have have been better!  The finale even had a few extra shots that exploded in the air rather than just the single straight up shooting star type.  A Capitol Fourth (which concludes with an abridged version of the "1812 Overture" every year as the fireworks begin) could not have done it better!!
1812 Overture Finale Fireworks
(from Luminato facebook page)
The audience was on their feet immediately, not a begrudging out of obligation or slow standing ovation from this crowd, it was the real thing.  We were treated to an upbeat encore that I couldn't name but had a stick in your head tune that stayed with us all the way home.

I hope concerts like this become a tradition with Luminato and the TSO, there was a great turnout, great music, and thankfully the rain almost held off, but the few sprinkles only resulted in the opening of umbrellas, people didn't leave.  A testament to a thrilling evening of music.