Saturday, March 31, 2012

Russian Romantics

Those Russians, they knew how to write music!  Even with Tchaikovsky not considered one of the Mighty Five (his music was considered too "western" and not "Russian" enough) and Rachmaninoff living 50 years too late (his style was pure romantic when the musical tastes had moved on) an evening of Russian music is not to be missed.

Adding to the interest factor for the TSO concerts on March 24-25th was the debut of two young artists.  The first was conductor Nathan Brock, a native Torontonian and graduate of the University of Toronto.  Since 2009 he's been the Assistant Conductor for l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal.  He's conducted the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra in the debut last season of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but never the TSO.  As an added bonus on the 24th he was presented with the Heinz Unger Award by the Ontario Arts Council.  It's an award of $8000 given every two years to highlight the career of a young to mid-career Canadian conductor in memory of conductor Heinz Unger.

The second guest was cellist Joshua Roman.  He looks about 16, but is actually closer to 28 and has had a pretty impressive career thus far.  Before embarking on solo endeavours he spent two seasons as principal cello with the Seattle Symphony, a position that he won at 22 years old!  He also was the only person to play an unaccompanied solo in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra Carnegie Hall 2009 debut.

But back to the music.  The evening began at the beginning (*singing "a very good place to start"*, sorry couldn't resist) with a composer that is considered by many to be the first important one in Russia, Glinka's "Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila" (listen here).  An incredibly bouncy piece if ever there was one and a finger workout for the strings.  Doing a quick listen to some other versions on youtube I agree with the comment on this one that the tempo is just right.  Some of the others go way too fast.  The TSO's didn't feel rushed at all, so I'll guess it was more along these lines.  Mr. Brock didn't use a score and had some violent hand motions, but it can sound that way at times.

Catching his breath, Mr. Brock discussed the pieces, the history of the Russian composer and how he was glad to be debuting in Toronto.  Then attention was turned to Alexander Borodin's "Polovtzian Dance" written for the opera Prince Igor.  By far the most popular segment of this is what was given words in the musical Kismet to become "Strangers in Paradise", but the whole thing is a really quite beautiful especially the clarinet parts :)  Principal keyboardist Patricia Krueger said in an interview that she enjoys playing the triangle when she joins her percussion colleagues on the other side of the stage away from the piano, and indeed she played it with enthusiasm here.

Tchaikovsky appeared via "Variations on a Rococo Theme", with cello soloist.  I enjoy theme and variations pieces and this one seemed particularly fun in that the players seemed to be enjoying it.  In I believe the second variation there's an echo back and forth in the same styles between the solo cello and violins.  Mr. Roman played his part then glanced at the violins as if saying "ok, your turn.  Beat that."  Variations change mood though and it went from light hearted fun to more series and somber, which was also very convincing played.  It's also been used as ballet music to a work called Reflections by Gerald Arpino, check it out.

"Capriccio espagnol" by Rimsky-Korsakov opened the second half.  It was originally written as a violin concerto and remnants of opportunities for violinist showmanship still exist.  This piece had segments I recognized.  Oh to be able to play like the clarinetist at the beginning here.  But really I know parts of this because Torvill and Dean skated to it in a paso doble number.  Who knew that before that performance no one had thought of the girl representing the cape to the guys matador?

A vocalise is a song without words and Rachmanioff arranged his "Vocalise" as a real vocal version, for various instruments, and full orchestra.  Relaxing and beautiful, nothing else to say.

Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" was originally written for piano, complete with the Promenade theme between each segment to represent changing location in the gallery. That theme started the piece before we stopped to look at The Gnome, Dispute Between Children at Play, Polish Oxcart, Baba Yaga and The Great Gate of Kiev.  I've liked the Promenade ever since it showed up in my high school music book.  Principal trumpet Andrew McCandless joined for this piece and trombonist Gordon Wolfe switched to a baritone for parts as well, which I don't think I've ever seen before.  You never know what might happen at a TSO concert!


Century of Broadway

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Pops Series continued with A Century of Broadway on March 20-21.  Featuring guest conductor Jeff Tyzik and two vocalists making their TSO debut, the concert delivered as promised.

The evening began back in the days of operetta, and the Jeannette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movies around the 1920's and 1930's.  Guest vocalist Christiane Noll showed the start of her versatility in styles with "Come Boys" from Student Prince.  We were first introduced to Doug LaBrecque (a former Toronto Phantom, and another of the few to have played both the Phantom and Raoul) via "Stout-Hearted Men" from New Moon.  These are both operettas I've never heard of by Sigmund Romberg, but ones that paved the way for the musicals that were to follow.

And the first musical to start the definition of the next era was the 1927 Showboat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.  The version included in the program focused on the love songs "Make Believe", "You Are Love", and "Why Do I Love You" with the only shout out to the famous "Ol' Man River" being in the orchestra.  Really it requires a deep bass singer to do it justice, so likely for the best it was an instrumental.

Robert Russell Bennett
Orchestrator to the famous of the next group of broadway greats Rodgers/Hammerstein, Lerner/Loewe, Berlin, Gershwin etc., Robert Russell Bennett's skill was demonstrated in a very complete medley from My Fair Lady.  Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote a musical in 1946 called St. Louis Woman, which produced the standard "Come Rain or Come Shine".  I thought this was done by Lena Horne at some point, but it would appear (according to wiki) that while she was desired for a role in the musical, she didn't record the song.  Judy Garland did, so perhaps it's her version that comes to mind when I think of it.  The arrangement in the concert, by Wayne Barker, wasn't the slow, melancholy version I remembered, but an upbeat one with a copacabana type feel.

The highlight of the first half was selections from the golden age of musicals Guys and Dolls, South Pacific, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, and Funny Girl.  Adding a twist, they performed it Backwards Broadway style with Christiane singing "Luck Be a Lady", "If I Were a Rich Man", and "Some Enchanted Evening", obviously songs by male characters.  Doug countered with "Cock-eyed Optimist", "Some People", and "People" made famous by the likes of Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, and Barbra Streisand.

Doug LaBrecque
The second half continued the journey through the decades picking up with the overture to the 1957 West Side Story, moving through Coleman/Field's 1966 Sweet Charity, to 1975 Kander/Ebb's Chicago.  Chicago opened the same year as A Chorus Line which swept the Tony awards, so it wasn't really popular until the revival years later and that popularity has continued with the 2002 movie version.  Doug performed "Mr. Cellophane" which had these sideways leans that had me wondering how'd he do that without falling over?

Christiane Noll
What would the recent musical world be without Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber?  Christiane was kind enough to explain what was going on in A Little Night Music at the time that "Send in the Clowns" is sung, providing an out of context song much more emotional impact.

After a quick shout out to the Jersey Boys where the orchestra got into the spirit of things with the bass players twirling their instruments, the concert concluded with Phantom of the Opera.

After the operetta opening, I was expecting Christiane to have a more Carlotta voice than Christine, but she managed such an innocence and vulnerability in Think of Me, it was incredible!  For the second time this season "Music of the Night" closed the evening.  Each Phantom brings something different to the song and while Doug nailed the top note, I felt it was over acted and preferred Hugh Panaro's rendition.  Still it was an enjoyable evening of great pops music that threw in new songs and twists on the old standards.

The Sleeping Beauty

As part of its 60th anniversary season, the National Ballet Canada included the classic ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.  According to the always enlightning pre-ballet talk by ballet master Lindsay Fischer it is the ballet that all other classical ballet is based on because it's the only one that had the transcript saved and taken out of Russia.  No notations of the time period exist for any other ballets, so choreographers have gone back to The Sleeping Beauty as a guide book of how the originals might have been, then of course taken artistic license.

At the performance I saw Greta Hodgkinson was Aurora and a guest principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, Evan McKie, was Prince Florimund.  Mr. McKie actually is from Toronto and trained at the National Ballet School.  These performances marked his first performances here as an adult.
Greta and Evan (

There were some unique quirks at the performance as well, beginning with the overture.  The orchestra started playing and continued for quite a while with no curtain raising.  In fact it seemed like they even repeated a section.  A few moments later a stage hand appeared in the pit and for the first time ever I heard a professional orchestra stop playing.  An announcement was made that there were technical difficulties and to keep our seats.  About 5 minutes later, the orchestra got the signal from the stage and started again a few phrases before the curtain up cue.  This time, it went up without a hitch.  The disappointing part was that in the final act the Pas de Cinq was cut.  I assume this was because of the extra time taken due to the difficulties at the start.  The Bluebird and Pussycats still made their appearances, but there were no Diamonds, Silver, Emerald or Gold except in costuming.  Even having never seen the ballet before, it wasn't hard to put together that the different costumes and lack of those dancers having solos didn't match the program.

Tchaikovsky's score is timeless.  The Russians really knew how to write cool clarinet music.  A sentiment which is shared by National Ballet Orchestra clarinetist Max Christie.  In a recent WholeNote article he described The Sleeping Beauty music as "terrifying.  It never lets up.  [I] have to practice for it."  As for Prokofiev and his Cinderella score, Mr. Christie calls it fun because it contains "wicked stuff for the clarinet".  That was my consensus when I saw the ballet as well.

What did surprise me was that the famous musical theme, popularized in the Disney movie where it was given lyrics (Disney version here), wasn't danced by Aurora at all, but by the Corps/Ensemble at the start of the 16th birthday scene.  The most memorable part of Act 1 is the Rose Adagio.  Danced by Aurora it contains a series of balances that take a lot of guts on the dancer's part as well as demonstrate that Aurora is growing up and being able to handle a more balanced life.  They were all well executed by Ms. Hodgkinson.  There were a few other variations that I found especially exciting as well.  One was the Fifth Fairy Variation.  It's danced with index fingers outstretched, the idea being that it represents electrodes and she is giving the gift of energy and vitality to the baby princess.  The end of the Sixth Variation features a very challenging hop and pirouette type step performed repeatedly.  This fairy is giving the princess the gift of grace; both grace in elegance and grace under pressure, since the dancer has to make it look like the dance is no challenge at all and she did an excellent job.

I also liked the Naiads number with the Corps de Ballet.  The patterns they created were very unique.
National Ballet of Canada
Now if only finding a prince was as easy as falling asleep and waiting!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

2012 New Creations

March came in like a lion, and brought with it the 8th annual Toronto Symphony Orchestra New Creations Festival.

The first piece in this first concert in a series of three was "This Isn't Silence", an intriguing title.  The first half in fact was all Canadian, including the guest vocalist.  Composed by Brian Current in 1998 when he was only 26 years old, "This Isn't Silence" was named from a direction he had written in the score during a bar of rest while a percussionist needed to change instruments.  Contemporary music is still something I don't adore, in fact most I don't even like.  This piece fell in the don't like category although he gave a passionate description of how he came to write it in discussion with TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian prior to the performance.

(photo by: Dale Wilcox)
I believe it was composer in residence Gary Kulesha who once said the goal of contemporary music is to have people hear something that makes them want to hear it again.  The next piece had that.  By composer Claude Vivier, who died in 1983, "Lonely Child" was written in 1980.  It includes a soprano part and Barbara Hannigan fulfilled the job with a dedicated embodiment of the song sentiment (see interview with her regarding this piece here).  Vivier was an orphan who in later life tried to find his birth mother.  The lyrics are part French and part a language he made up himself.  At times throughout there would be this gorgeous chord so distinct from the dissonance, and something like you'd hear during a space theme movie.  These I wanted to hold on to and imagine a lilting, floating melody line above.  But, all too soon they retreated to the ether.

Peter Eotvos
(photo by: Dale Wilcox)
The second half switched to the Eastern European portion of the evening.  The conductor throughout was Peter Eotvos (please imagine the double dot accents over the o's) who has developed a name for himself in the interpretation of contemporary music.  Also a composer the second half opened with the piece I was most looking forward to hearing, "Seven (Memorial for the Columbia Astronauts) for Violin and Orchestra".

Guest violinist Akiko Suwanai provided the solo violin part while the other 6 violins played from the front of the balcony, one in each side section.  Peter Oundjian remarked that not only is it a difficult feat to not be hearing and seeing as well as on the stage but they also have to deal with vertigo!  I had great hopes for this piece and love the idea of a memorial piece of music, unfortunately I was not impressed.  The layout of the orchestra was completely novel.  There were 49 musicians, instruments interspersed with each other in 3 rows to create 7 groups of 7 players.  But I found it very dissonant as is most contemporary music, but without anything I'd really want to hear again.  The program notes indicate that each astronaut is represented by a personal dedication cadence.  I wish these had been pointed out, because I was unable to hear any differences and the cadence was suppose to illustrate the musical cultures of each, such as India for Kalpana Chawla and Israel for the first Israeli in space, Ilan Ramon.

The evening concluded with "Messages for Orchestra" by "Hungary's leading living composer" according to the program, Gyorgy Kurtag.  It is a series of 6 vignettes paying tribute to other Hungarian musicians.  The first in fact is titled "Letter to Peter Eotvos".  It must be odd to conduct a piece that's meant to represent you, although Eotvos said it suited him when he introduced the piece.

That concludes my take on this odd evening of music.  With all that said though, I'm looking forward to next year and the creation of "A Toronto Symphony" which will be debuted.  It's a collaborative work between the TSO, composer Tod Machover of the MIT media lab, and the people of this fair city!  Check it out, and get involved.  Let's make next seasons New Creations Festival, one that can not only be respected from a technique standpoint but enjoyable music for the masses.

Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Heights
It had rap, hip hop, a hoity toity character who's favourite stance was hands on hips, a non-equity cast, and I liked it!  Honestly I know very little about equity other than assuming equity = good quality.  I need not have been worried.  The voices blew me away, the dancing to my untrained eye was top notch, the character of Vanessa could have had a bit more dimension, as the hands on hips routine got old after a while, but these things in no way diminished the performance aspect or emotional involvement on my part.

Way back on February 9 (hence why this review is shorter than usual, I don't remember details) I saw In the Heights at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.  It was a last minute decision to go and I only knew that the show had won some Tony awards (including the biggie of Best Musical in 2008) and the brief summary that was on the website.  What I couldn't understand was that the final tour date had happened almost a year ago, which I suppose indicated the Toronto production was not the original post Broadway tour.  But really it didn't matter.

The set was a street in Washington Heights, New York with the Brooklyn Bridge (ok, I'm guessing, but a bridge none the less) in the background, brownstone type buildings complete with balconies (important for the Romeo and Juliet type scene at sunrise, although with a happier ending) and businesses on the ground floor.  There wasn't a large open stage area, but the cast is rather small (12 main characters and a few additional ensemble players) and they made the most of the space they had.
The plot is about family and home.  The creator Lin-Manuel Miranda based the opening on "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof and considers home the main theme (read more here).  While the characters are immigrants from various places and Spanish peppers the lyrics and dialogue they suck you into their lives with aspects easily reflected, if not in your own, then in the lives of those around you.  Subject matter includes parents wanting what's best for their children, children worried about living up to expectations of themselves and others, racial tensions, gossip, wanting to escape, realizing you're home, love (what's a musical without romance?), having courage to make changes, and a caring Grandmother figure who oversees it all and dispenses words of wisdom.

Characters Benny, Nina, and Usnavi
At the performance I saw (hopefully I'm getting these right they listed performer replacements too quickly for me to catch at the top of the show) Robert Ramirez played the roll of Usnavi, the narrator and owner of a bodega; Virginia Cavaliere was Nina, the daughter of Kevin and Camila who own Rosario's a taxi and limousine service, who's just returned for the summer from Stanford; and Kyle Carter as Benny, an employee at Rosario's who likes Nina.  The hip hop/rap style opening "In the Heights" by Usnavi describing life was understandable (which I automatically assume all rap isn't) and had quite witty rhyming at times.  Nina's soliloquy type "Breathe" took my breath away.  The actress has a beautiful voice and I hope makes it big in the future.  Benny's song "Benny's Dispatch" talking to the drivers on the road and fighting with the Spanish/English language barrier was funny.  It has a line "honk your horn" that is stuck in my head, for no good reason except I like the associated incredibly simple melody even though there's nothing special about it.

I was disappointed the program didn't list the songs or mention the band.  It's always great to take a peek into the pit at intermission.  This one might have had about 5 people: the conductor who also played keyboards, a wind player with saxes, a flute and clarinet all around him.  another keyboardist, brass player and guitars/bass.  There are clips here of some of the songs which are bouncy or heartfelt and fit into the storyline moments so well.

Here's to last minute decisions turn out to be fun evenings, cheers!