Sunday, April 22, 2012

NAC Orchestra Fills Roy Thomson Hall

Continuing a 15 year tradition, last evening the National Arts Centre Orchestra from Ottawa returned to Roy Thomson Hall with a casual concert hosted by CBC personality Eric Friesen.  In a special treat, NACO music director Pinchas Zukerman was also a performer, featured on the viola in Telemann's "Concerto in G Major for Viola and Orchestra" and Bach's "6th Brandenburg Concerto".

Charles "Chip" Hamann
(Photo by Pat McGrath)
However, before being transported back to the era of Bach and Schubert we heard a piece by Quebec composer Jacques Hetu (1938-2010), commissioned by the NAC Orchestra in 1977.  Called "Antinomie", which is the opposition between one law or principle or rule.  It started with a lovely oboe solo by Chip Hamann introducing the theme and went downhill from there.  While I enjoyed it more than any of the pieces at this years New Creations Festival it still had a dissonant and "contemporary" sound at times.

Violin vs. Viola
In the chat before the Telemann Concerto, Eric Friesen asked Maestro Zukerman the difference between a violin and viola.  His response, "a viola burns longer".  I suppose he's heard them all.  Not dissuaded, Friesen asked again and about why the viola doesn't get more respect.  For the first time, I got an answer to the question I've had for ages.  For a long time it wasn't considered a solo instrument, in fact the Telemann is expected to be the first piece for the viola, and was composed around 1716-1721.  The viola also has different string tuning from a violin (C-G-D-A rather than G-D-A-E) making it a perfect 5th below the violin and a perfect octave above the cello, so it doesn't have the top of a violin or the bottom of a cello, making it a bit of an oddball, and the source of orchestra jokes.

Zukerman started playing the viola at 15, when at a summer camp his teacher said, "it'll be good for you".  He demonstrated different bowing techniques between how he'd play a violin vs. the viola.  Essentially the viola had longer strokes, and slower movements.

The actual piece, in 4 movements (I thought concertos were usually 3, but I suppose there are no rules) had its lively and slow sections.  It was neat that TSO cellist Winona Zelenka was sitting first chair and provided great support to Zukerman's viola solos which were almost like duets with the cello at times.  For years the TSO bassist was Joel Quarrington, who now plays with NACO, and they were chatting during the stage layout switches.  I wonder how much it actually feels like old times to be playing with someone you used to.

Principal NACO cello Amanda Forsyth joined for "Brandenburg Concerto No. 6", which is written for no violins.  Zukerman thought Friesen sounded too sad when he said that, rather than excited to not have the "screeching fiddles" (his term) around.  There were about 6 violas, 3 cellos, a bass and harpsichord.  I really liked the cello trio sound and the two violas chasing each other in a round, one started just a fraction of a beat after the other.  The violins were not missed as the typically lower, supporting instruments took centre stage with lively as well as darker sounds.

Christopher Millard
Franz Schubert wrote "Symphony No. 3 in D Major" at 18 years old in 1815!  It opens on a held single note, a D, similar to a Beethoven symphony where you aren't entirely sure what key you're going to be in.  However, the slow introduction gives way to a more lively allegro showcasing the wind section, specifically the clarinet, played beautifully by Kimball Sykes.  Actually the clarinet gets some great moments in duets with the oboe and bassoon.  Without lots of other things burying the sound, I was able to pick out Christopher Millard on the bassoon, I quite like the sound.

Being a casual concert there was a party in the lobby afterwards.  A few of the musicians were wandering around, I caught I glimpse of Zukerman, concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki, associate Jessica Linnebach, and principal trumpet Karen Donnelly.  With Mr. Millard recently passing over the reins as host of the NACOcast I was hoping to see him and chat for a moment about it, but alas, no such luck.

Thanks for making another trip to Toronto NACO!  Looking forward to next year.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Updated Fairy Tale
A movie about animated characters has gone, left and is now touring after Broadway.  Well there have been cats, phantoms, drag queens, beasts, beauties, nannies, so why not an ogre or two?

A touring company of Shrek: The Musical recently stopped by Toronto.  I debating for a long while whether I wanted to see it.  Finally after listening to the music on YouTube, which I found charming, I decided to go.  Before the performance I got a copy of the Broadway cast recording and listened to it repeatedly.  Having not seen the movie for quite some time there was enough in the songs to put the story line back together and I found all sorts of material that made me smile.

Merritt David Janes and the Duloc Dancers
The actual production included even more of these humourous tones that made the story entertaining for the adults, and particularly those familiar with other musical theatre.  For example, Shrek and Donkey sing "The Travel Song" which in the recording has a shout out to Puss in Boots, but also in the show had some animals spinning around a wheel while "Circle of Life" played.  The sets, particularly in this song were nothing fancy, a tad tacky compared to the others even, with just a piece of cloth being pulled clothesline style as the characters "walked" in front of it.  Otherwise, while still simple, the sets were effective, as trees moved around the stage, and one backdrop gave great perspective to Lord Farquaad's dungeon during "The Ballad of Farquaad".  I'm not sure if it's brought out in the movie or not, but on first hearing the line "Father was Grumpy" full of double meaning cracked me up, as did Mr. Janes' antics on his knees as the "compensating for something" (according to Shrek and Donkey) Lord Farquaad.  His ending of "What's Up Duloc" with the "no one's going to bring me down" quotation from "Defying Gravity" in Wicked was very prominent and there were moments from A Chorus Line in there too.  The Les Miserables allusion was impossible to miss in "Freak Flag" where the red Les Mis flag was replaced with a green one featuring a variation on the famous Cosette symbol, it was flown proudly at the end of "Freak Flag".

Andre Jordan (
Andre Jordan was great at portraying the "chatty as a parrot, more annoying than a mime" sidekick.  He showed off his skills in the aforementioned "Travel Song" and I particularly liked his "I'll Cover You" and "Take Me or Leave Me" from Rent segments in "Don't Let Me Go".  Another example of the theatre references. (links are to the Broadway version with fancy turn table set)

Liz Shivener
When Liz Shivener as Princess Fiona launched into "I Know It's Today" (one of my favourite songs!) I thought I was listening to Sutton Foster from the Broadway cast.  She sounded so similar!  What at incredible voice and only 24 years old!  "Morning Person" with her over exuberance in singing with the bird and dancing with the deer were certainly unexpected from just listening to the music.  As were the tap dancing rats.  The rats on the dancers shoes were so good just peaking out under the curtain before "growing".  I have no idea what happened above the characters knees, I was too busy trying to identify tap steps from their feet.  It was hard to tell if they were wearing tap shoes, but the sounds didn't always seem to be matching the feet, so I'll guess the taps were dubbed in to give it a bigger sound.  Ms. Shivener was also very believable as a feisty princess.  Really I think Fiona was the highlight of the show for me.

Lukas Poost getting "shreked"
But what about Shrek you say?  Well Shrek was an ogre, albeit with a very nice voice courtesy of Lukas Poost, another up and coming star at 23.  He had a booming sound in "Big Bright Beautiful World" was appropriately crude and charming throughout and both nailed and drew you in to "Who I'd Be" (link is Ben Crawford singing, who took over the roll on Broadway from Brian d'Arcy James.  I adore Ben's voice!  In real life it's way better than the quality here).  Shrek and Fiona's one-up manship duet "I Think I Got You Beat" reminded me of the Irving Berlin songs where the two sections are sung at the same time and magically fit together. Not to mention the quirkiness of both sets of lyrics: Shrek to Fiona "you're just whiny, I had a flaming hiney" (in reference to the "mobs with pitchforks, [who] burned [his] britches, see the scorches").  Personally Shrek's being sent away at 7, wins hands down over Fiona missing her prom.

I went to check out the orchestra pit during intermission and was surprised to find the conductor, Kevin Casey, chatting with kids in the front row and others who came for a look too.  Typically the orchestra doesn't seem to interact at all with the audience, especially the conductor.  He was asking them about their favourite musicals and how they liked the show so far.  Even the drummer got into it when one of the kids said they hadn't heard him, so he said he'd play even louder and break a few sticks.  One of the reed players (with about 3 saxes, a few clarinets, flute, and possibly something else) had a book beside his chair.  Joanne Fluke's "Blueberry Muffin Murder".  I don't think I've seen anyone else read that series besides me.  A good choice of fluff reading to pass the time you're not playing.  I didn't detect any missing sounds, so I guess he  didn't get too involved in the "who done it" to miss his entrances.

The show is fun, even if the scene with the Dragon got a bit repetitive with the going around in circles, probably a larger stage would have helped.  It's not a fantastic piece of Broadway marvel to break any new boundaries, and with the pop references who knows if it'll be fresh 10 years from now.  But as Shrek said it's about time fairy tales were updated and this update fits the bill.