Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I Heard the People Sing

This weekend I headed back up the corridor (as VIA Rail calls it) to Ottawa for the NAC Orchestra's tribute concert to composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricist Alain Boublil.  Known to pretty much everyone as "those guys who wrote Les Miserables".  While that has been their greatest success so far, they've done a lot more as well.  In preparation for attending the Canadian debut, (the concert has already played in at least Indianapolis, Baltimore, Dallas, and Pittsburg) I went searching for cast recordings.  Miss Saigon (1989) I listened to in its entirety (all 1 hr 47 minutes of it) while stuck in traffic last week and Martin Guerre (1996) the following day.  The Pirate Queen (2006) I couldn't find on CD so borrowed a childrens book that gave me the story line since it's based on the real Irish chieftain Grace O'Malley.  So I felt somewhat prepared.  Nothing beats a performance LIVE though!

All the vocalists were making their debuts with the NAC orchestra and what a line up of stars familiar with the material.  Starting with the most experienced, Terrence Mann was the original Broadway Javert in Les Mis, Lea Salonga created the role of Kim in Miss Saigon, Eric Kunze was Marius on Broadway (opposite Lea Salonga's Eponine) and Chris in Miss Saigon, Kathy Voytko was the standby Grace for The Pirate Queen, and Marie Zamora played Cosette in the original French production of Les Mis (and is married to the lyricist :) )

As always, the concert opened with an overture, no snappy title, just "Overture".  It was short with one line quotes of songs that would be expanded on later.  One that stood out was "Bring Him Home" which had a very high oboe part that Chip Hamann sent soaring.

The overture ran right into the Miss Saigon segment beginning with the chorus singing "Bui Doi".  An excellent choice to start.  It created the emotion and sense of longing covered in the plot and placed the musical firmly in the time around the Vietnam War.  Even not knowing anything about the story, it provided the background needed through lyrics like:

"Like all survivors I once thought, when I’m home I won’t give a damn 
But now I know I’m caught, I’ll never leave Vietnam.
War isn’t over when it ends, some pictures never leave your mind.
They are the faces of the children the ones we left behind.
They’re called Bui-doi.
The dust of life, conceived in hell and born in strife.
They are the living reminders of all the good we failed to do.
That’s why we know deep in our hearts, that they are all our children too"

Terrence Mann
Of course this is also accompanied by a lovely melody sung by Terrence (check out Indy's version).  Wow, his voice!  I don't know what I was expecting when he walked out (not looking all that much like his program head shot), but if all he did was sing, it would have been worth it.  However he also provided much of the entertainment value of the evening.  

Jack compared Alain and Claude-Michel to Rodgers and Hammerstein then had the audience practice pronouncing their names.  We must have sounded pretty good as Terrence declared that we had "good French".  Jack's reply, "well we are in Ottawa not Thunder Bay, they're good at this stuff".  He then proceeded to describe that in addition to Miss Saigon being a modern version of Madame Butterfly (the only opera I'm interested in seeing and the Canadian Opera Company doesn't have it planned next season :( ) inspiration came from the craziness of beauty pageants and indeed that's where the title came from and what "The Heat is On In Saigon" is a precursor too.
Lea Salonga

Another inspirational source was a photograph of a mother trying to pass her child to an American soldier.  I'm pretty sure I've seen this photo and yet now can't find it.  Lea's performance of "I'd Give My Life For You" where Kim sings about her son was so heartfelt.  She then lightened the mood with a story about when the show was in rehearsals.  She was cast at 17 after a world wide search for a girl who could look 15 yet had the vocal chops to hit a high E flat.  Knowing nothing of love, the director one day got so fed up with her ineptitude in a love scene that he told her to get out of the bed, and proceeded to get in with the guy playing Chris and demonstrated how to make love to a man, as Lea said 
"a w k w a r d".    Then added that since then she's learned a lot on her own and having fallen in and out of love, the romantic songs have developed more meaning.  Her duet with Eric of "The Last Night of the World" couldn't have been better.  It was neat to see second clarinetist Sean Rice pull out a saxophone for the few sax solo lines.

Kathy Voytka
Eric then introduced a song that will be added to the 2013 revival of Miss Saigon called "Maybe".  It's for the character of Ellen, Chris's wife once he returns to the US.  I get the feeling in the original development there were several songs tried and cut for this position in the plot where Ellen has just met Kim, so this is another chance to find the perfect one.  Personally I like the melody of "Now That I've Seen Her" from the original London cast recording, but I wouldn't say any more than "Maybe".  It was Kathy's first solo of the night and I continued to be impressed with the vocalists.   

She introduced Terrence again to sing "The American Dream", a song by the Engineer who would do whatever was needed for him to get ahead.  Right away this was going to be fun as Terrence put on a pair of sunglasses saying "check it out", and proceeded to pat the violas on the head, and twirl another's hair, before getting stared down by Jack and turned his affections back to the audience.  My favourite line of this song is "bald people think they'll grow hair, the American Dream".  It makes me smile every time.
Terrence as "the Engineer" with the ISO (Photo: Thomas J Russo)

On a personal note I'm very glad Miss Saigon was created.  Not that I've ever seen it or consider it my favourite musical, but because it resulted in the building of the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.  A theatre big enough to hold a helicopter on stage was needed and so back in 1991 construction started.  The theatre opening with Miss Saigon in 1993.

Marie Zamora
(Photo: Maggi Wunschi)
Terrence joined together with Jack to describe how Alain or Claude-Michel (I'm afraid I can't remember which, probably both actually) liked musicals, and saw a bunch in London/New York because France had no musical theatre scene to speak of.  So they combined forces and decided "why not France, why not now", and started their first "small, in the box" venture with the topic of the "very simple" French Revolution.  "Small" being in jest of course as this work featured an orchestra of 52 with an additional 40 performers.  The musical was The Revolution Francaise, and as Jack slightly butchered the pronunciation of "Francaise" and went to repeat it, they both chimed in "I'm/You're from Thunder Bay".  Rehearsed or improvised (which I think it was) it got the appropriate audience laugh :) The song introduced the audience to Marie, who sang "Au Petit Matin" as Marie Antoinette the morning she learns she'll be going to the guillotine.  My French is no where near good enough to understand any of what she sang, but it didn't matter, her clear soprano got the point across.  

Eric Kunze
Marie's French introduction to Eric for the title song in Martin Guerre I was actually able to follow.    I wasn't a fan of the recording, granted this was one of the better songs, and it got even better with Eric singing it.  I wasn't sold on his voice after the earlier duet, but really enjoyed the emotion and power he brought to this song.  The following duet with Marie "Live With Somebody You Love" sealed the deal.  The final song in the Martin Guerre section was "Land of Our Fathers".  The 1999 cast recording doesn't include this piece (unfortunately that's the only copy the library has. Actually I figured I was lucky to even find that one).  It was part of the London production from 1996 and according to wiki the show was reworked before coming to the US with 40% of the material being new.  Yet still never made it to Broadway.

Up next was a testament to the fact that what gets written doesn't always make the show.  Jack said that putting together a musical is like CSI, in the end you have a whole pile of dead bodies, or in the case of Alain and Claude-Michel, songs.  "I Saw Him Once" was originally a song for Cosette, however Les Mis was running about 3 hours and 40 minutes so something had to go.  Marie's lovely soprano fit it just right.  Lost from Miss Saigon was "Too Much For One Heart" because the director said "there is no good theatrical reason for Kim to sing ANOTHER ballad".  So it became the duet "Please", and Lea said they still regret the change.

The first half ended with a song that has been recorded a huge number of times (something like over 200)  and has over 5000 various versions on youtube.  Kathy and Lea sang yet another variation, inspired by Glee, of "I Dreamed a Dream".  Really I don't think the "popular" twists do the song justice.  It doesn't need any vocal ornaments, but can completely hold its own being sung straight.  But maybe I'm just a purist.

The second half opening Entr'acte was decisive Irish fiddle music.  I wonder if concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki got some tips from Natalie MacMaster when she was there earlier in the season for the crazy solo he had very much in Celtic style.  Turns out The Pirate Queen came about because Riverdance producers approached Alain and Claude-Michel with the idea to dramatize the story of Grace O'Malley.  Kathy described Grace as a sailer and chieftain, who met the Queen and saved Ireland.  All in a days work.  She then sang "Woman" which is a great "I am woman" empowerment song.  Without missing a beat she switched to the other end of the emotional scale evoking vulnerability at she and Eric sang "If I Said I Loved You".  The "Finale" included the chorus and had the lead characters get married!  What's this a happy ending?  Well I don't know the whole plot, so maybe someone else dies and it's a mixed happy ending like Les Mis, but a happier conclusion than Miss Saigon.

Marie Zamora
The opening of the Les Mis overture began, and 30 seconds in abruptly stopped with Jack saying "But before all that...".  Talk about getting the audience on the edge of their seats with anticipation then pulling the plug!  It was while watching  a revival production of Oliver in London that Alain realized an epic novel could successfully be adapted to a musical.  Going home he started to re-read Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and ideas jumped off the page.  That's how it all started, and the first song they wrote was "On My Own" or more accurately "Mon Histoire".  Marie started in French with Lea joining in with the English...quite a combination that worked very well.

No need for plot summaries here, Lea, Kathy and Marie adopted the characters of factory workers upset at Fantine, a unknowing audience member being cast in the part as they directed their anger to her, in "At the End of the Day". (See following link from ISO performance.  Same cast except for Stephanie J. Block replacing Kathy and Peter Lockyer in place of Eric)

Terrence continued to be the comic relief of the evening, this time accompanied by Kathy as they embodied the inn-keeping Thenardiers.  After kicking Eric out for not having any money, Kathy turned her charms on Jack while Terrence did a little pick pocketing.  Yosuke was enticed by her as well and joined in the dancing unlike Zach de Pue who played it straight (just watch until after "At the End of the Day", it's hilarious!)

Marie, Eric, and Lea reprised roles they've played (Cosette, Marius, and Eponine respectively) for a beautiful version of "In My Life".  The backdrop grew darker and white lights appeared when Terrence returned for "Stars".  What a treat to hear it from the Broadway original Javert!  There was a bit of echo added to the mic, which added a different dynamic, but I don't think the singers needed it.  The song was created to provide background on why Javert is so obsessed with finding Valjean.  I can't imagine Les Mis without it, it's my favourite song.

Perhaps the most iconic piece, which probably has more renditions than "I Dreamed a Dream" is "Bring Him Home".  The version I'm most familiar with is Colm Wilkinson's who originated the role in London and on Broadway, but I think I preferred Eric's rendition.  The start of the challenging high note had an ever so slight wobble, but was quickly corrected and ended beautifully.

The entire cast reassembled for "One Day More".  A powerhouse arrangement, similar to the one at the end of Broadway's Leading Men actually, that had the people on their feet almost instantly.  After applause for the vocalists and the orchestra, none other than Alain Boublil himself took the stage for a bow.  It was a nice touch he was there for the Canadian premiere.
Final bows with Alain
(unfortunately Lea out of frame on far right)
But really they couldn't leave without singing the concert title song, and as the orchestra started again, and the audience took their seats the finale of "Do You Hear the People Sing" began.  The lyrics are invitational and it was all I could do not to join in, it just felt like the audience should have replied with "yes we'll join in your crusade, we will be strong and stand with you...".  In any case I left the theatre singing and I'm still catching myself humming it and other songs from the show.  It was a wonderful concert.  If anyone at the TSO is reading this, add it to the list of those I highly recommend bringing to Toronto!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Out of This World Finale: The Planets

My week of practically living at the TSO concluded on May 10 with the last in their series of concerts that included "space" music.  This one highlighted "The Planets" by Gustav Holtz.

The concert, conducted by music director Peter Oundjian, opened with "Canzon per sonare" by Gabrieli. It's a really cool piece just for brass.  Originally written for 4 trumpets and 4 trombones, it was performed by 2 horns, 4 trumpets and 2 trombones placed on either side of the choir loft!  It's an example of antiphonal music where a musical setting is played alternately by two groups, hence the placement of the instrumentalists.  It was one of the highlights of the evening.

Joaquin Valdepenas
Switching from brass to woodwinds, the next piece was John Corigliano's "Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra" with the solo performed by TSO principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas.  The composer was in the house and was invited on stage to describe the piece.  His father was concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and personally knowing the clarinetist, Stanley Drucker, and his skills Corigliano decided on a piece that used the entire orchestra, had an unprecedentedly difficult opening cadenza and a slow movement filled with emotion involving a duet between concertmaster and soloist.  Apparently when first presented to Mr. Drucker he looked at the opening, closed the score and said "I can't play this".  Obviously he learned it, and with something like 150 notes in the first few measures (I haven't seen the score, this was the comparison given), it's become something like running the 4 minute mile...once one person has done it everyone wants to.  Mr. Corigliano said he's been in universities where students will stick their heads out of practice rooms and say "listen to this", then play the opening cadenza.

It's an interesting piece.  There's a lot going on and it fit my definition of "good contemporary music" by having enough there I'd listen to it again, however I was really more engrossed in watching Mr. Valdepenas play, what quality of sound over ALL registers.  The final movement continued the antiphonal theme by having some of the brass (at least 3 of the horns and likely the trumpets) separated from the orchestra.  In my section of mezzanine we had a French horn player at the back.  Definitely a different way of hearing things.  I expected to be deafened but sometimes wasn't even sure if they were playing.

While I wanted to hear the clarinet concerto, my real reason for going to the concert was "The Planets".  Pretty much every year in high school our band teacher would pull out "Jupiter", we'd badly sight read through it (as I recall the clarinet fingerings in the opening were rather tricky) and she'd collect it and put it back on the shelf.  Such a shame really, because I think with some work we might have gotten in playable.  The centre slow section always went better than the beginning :)  Going back even further my first memories of "Jupiter" was at the Ice Show one season at Canada's Wonderland.  I believe it was a pirate theme routine that used the music.  Wow, useless information, think what important stuff I could remember if I could forget things like that!  Point being, the piece and I have a history and I really like it.  However, I've never heard all seven movements (Earth is excluded and Pluto wasn't a planet in 1914-1916 when the piece was written and interestingly enough has recently been removed from the list again).

It begins with "Mars: The Bringer of War", then a very contrasting movement with "Venus: The Bringer of Peace".  "Mercury: The Winged Messenger" is light and peppy and probably my second favourite.  Then is the famous "Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity".  Things slow down dramatically after that, and since I was already tired, I found it incredibly easy to just close my eyes, enjoy the sounds, and started to drift off.  "Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age" is incredibly beautiful.  "Uranus: The Magician" picks up in tempo and has sounds that reminded me of the suite from "The Day the Earth Stood Still".  Neptune has always been my favourite planet and "Neptune: The Mystic" is slow, calm, and relaxing, but perhaps since I'm not as familiar with these last few, they tended to blend into each other.  The conclusion of Neptune with the ladies chorus singing offstage and slowly fading away as the door to the stage is closed gave the feeling you were floating away the with the voices.  Unfortunately I couldn't just float back home to bed, driving required waking up again.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gershwin and Beyond

May 6 I was back at Roy Thomson Hall for Gershwin and Beyond.  It was to be conducted by Joana Carneiro however due to a shoulder injury she was unable to lead the series of two concerts.  Substituting was American Edwin Outwater.  He had conducted a concert earlier in the season I had wanted to go to but didn't so it was nice to have another opportunity.  Until I read his bio I didn't realize he's the music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

The concert opened with Bernstein's "Overture to Candide", which seems to be the selection of choice for opening light classics concerts.  As usual it was joyously played.  Really I don't mind if it's performed a lot, it's one of my favourites.

In the introduction to "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra" Mr. Outwater explained it was part of John Adams opera Nixon in China.  It comes from Act 3 when the President and Chairman Mao, along with their wives are dancing, probably at a ball.  He described the piece as starting with a bit of important business going on, then switching to a classic 1950's Hollywood sound before concluding with percussion sounds reminiscent of an old record with the needle sliding off and up.  It was funny as the young conductor indicated "well that's what I've been told.  I don't know records." :)  The ending didn't really sound like the needle lifting to me, but maybe I just need to hear the real thing again for comparison.  The record I remember playing as a kid was You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and I think the old record and player is still around somewhere.

The first half ended with the always enjoyable "Rhapsody in Blue".  Written by George Gershwin I believe originally for 2 pianos, it was actually orchestrated by Ferde Grofe.  It's true that this piece has become widely recognized.  As Mr. Outwater said "people know it from all sorts of places, like the tunnel between Terminal 1 at Chicago's O'Hare; Neon and Gershwin you might say."  So true!  Admittedly when I haven't been in a hurry in Chicago I've enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the tunnel.  But it wasn't always the soothing, relaxing piece we consider it today.  In its day it would have had things to make the previous generation gasp.  The guest pianist was Todd Yaniw, who I would consider a prodigy having made his debut with the Edmonton Symphony at 13.  Now 26, he's recently received a Master's degree from Rice University studying with another TSO regular Jon Kimura Parker.  As always, it opened with the fantastic clarinet solo by YaoGuang Zhai.

O'Hare Tunnel
Opening the second half was a fanfare inspired by Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man", but written by Joan Tower and titled "Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman".  Back in March the Baltimore Symphony had a program which included both of these.  A good idea, although I think the "Common Man" would have overshadowed the "Uncommon Woman" merely by being more recognizable.  It was a good fanfare, one I'd like to hear performed again.

Barber's "Adagio for Strings" has been paired by the TSO with "Rhapsody in Blue" before.  It's always a stirring piece but it bothers me that people find the quietest pieces and moments within them to start coughing.  Someone should do a study on the reasoning behind why one cough triggers 15 more from other people around the hall.  I have to force myself to focus on the music, get sucked back into the beauty and try to ignore what's going on around me.  No one clapped though in the spot where there's a pause when people sometimes think the piece is over.

The finale was by Aaron Copland, "Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo".  As part of his intro, Mr. Outwater said something akin to the following "Copland's music is considered by conservative politicians in my country to be an example of pristine America.  I guess they didn't know he was a gay, Jewish socialist from Brooklyn!"

The piece is in four movements Buckaroo Holiday, Corral Nocturne (a pun on chorale), Saturday Night Waltz, and Hoe Down.  The first and finale are fast and light hearted and my favourites.  I haven't seen the suite performed before, but would love to again.  The audience clearly enjoyed it and applauded after each movement which was considerately acknowledged by the conductor rather than just ignoring it; the benefit of a casual concert I suppose.  There was even a burst of applause in the middle of Hoe Down, although the indication from the podium at that point was a skeptical expression as if to say "we're not done yet".  It was great to hear the audience enjoying it, and I'll guess the orchestra didn't mind too much, they had just yelled "yee haw" :)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Toronto Symphony Goes Sci Fi

April was a LONG month.  I think I survived it out of anticipation for the series of Toronto Symphony Orchestra concerts May 1-2.  I wonder if when they planned the timing of this concert they knew all the "space-y" things that were happening that week.  For example, it contained the day when Star Wars aficionados get to say "May the Fourth Be With You" and this weekend was the return of the super moon, when the moon is at its closest point to Earth.  Bring Jack Everly to the podium, and I'm very easy to please otherwise, but add to his knowledge, charm, and energy a program of science fiction music...well I'm so glad May finally arrived!

Sci Fi Spectacular did not disappoint.  Perhaps a disclaimer first.  I've seen this concert before, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  However, I don't think it has sounded better than the three (yes I went to all of them with various friends...have to keep getting more people hooked on the symphony and Pops is my methodology :) ) shows over the two days.

Where to start!  How about with night one.  It was good, but not great, there was no knock your socks off feeling.  Half way through the opening "Star Wars: Main Title" I felt like it was loosing steam.  Cymbal crashes and trumpet fanfares just didn't have the power and volume I was expecting.  Perhaps evidence of the single rehearsal these programs typically have (I'll assume the same is true here and they rehearsed Tuesday morning with the first concert that night) there were moments of slight staggered entrances from basses and muddled brass entries.  It was nice to see some principal players that don't always do the Pops concerts in attendance.  Including both principal clarinetists!  The reason they were there became clear in the second half, keep reading.

These small issues worked themselves out, and I was thrilled with the volume Wednesday afternoon.  Perhaps I just needed to sit closer.  With seats in L4 right over the strings, the trumpets and horns were gloriously clear, all entrances sounded precise (save one, more on that later), and I could see the music!

A Jack Everly program is not complete unless it includes one of his own arrangements.  "Lost in Syndication" filled that role and included themes from at least nine different sci fi television shows.  I doubt this concert will be shelved any time soon but in short there's a contest of sorts related to the contents of this piece, so answers to that helped me figure out some of the themes, but people seem to always recognize and name the same four ("X-Files", "The Jetsons", "The Twilight Zone", "Lost in Space").  I also recognized both "Stargate SG-1" and "Atlantis" (I think) which left three more.  I was at a loss for how to determine them.  Problem solved when one of the violinists was warming up with this piece open!  Talk about picking themes from various eras and locations, the second segment was "Space 1999" a British show from 1975 which lasted two seasons and had a different theme in season 2.  The one played was season 1 and in a much improved orchestration to the original.  "My Favourite Martian" and a brief quote of "The Outer Limits" were the remaining two.  My playlist can now be completed!
As Jack pointed out the show really was a tribute to John Williams, with his music making up half the program.  Concerts drive me to the library and this was no exception.  After the NAC version in 2009 I sought out Somewhere in Time and rewatched all the Star Wars.  Thursday I went to get ET: The Extra Terrestrial.  All I remember of seeing this as a child was one scene where the house is all in plastic quarantine and it freaked me out so much I've never watched the movie again.  I think it's time for a re-watch with a new perspective.  Besides having ET described as a "little guy who got back to the ship too late, but just wants to go home, and all he had to do was call and the others would come get him" (paraphrased, the direct quote was much more eloquent) is just too endearing to not want to see how the  details of the story play out.  It's not hard to tell why it's one of Jack's favourite all time scores, and he conducted with a "palpable sense of involvement" (to borrow a great phrase from Baltimore Sun writer Tim Smith).  The TSO played it beautifully garnishing them what looked like a heartfelt thank you and rousing audience applause.
From the poignant flying theme and action, we moved to pure romance involving time travel.  Christopher Reeve plays the fellow who falls in love with a leading lady from another time (Jane Seymour), and Christopher Plummer as "Captain Von...oops I mean the villain" also stars.  John Barry is probably best known for his James Bond music, but the love theme from "Somewhere In Time" is him at a romantic best.  The movie is based on the book "Bid Time Return" which was optioned by Universal and actually got made.  (Total aside that image is exactly like the one at the end of Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel with Anne and Gilbert on the bridge, right down to the angle of his neck!)

Supermen (George, Christopher, and my personal preference, Dean Cain)
Taking us back another year to 1978 Jack described how Christopher Reeve revitalized the super hero/comic book genre by not being the slightly pudgy George Reeves Superman from the earlier TV show.  He then threw out the random factoid "did you know that George Reeves was one of the Tarleton twins in Gone with the Wind?" I couldn't hear the reply from someone in the audience but it caused Jack to laugh at himself saying "I've got no where else to go with that" and pulled things back on track with the "Superman March".  Not the first time that happened either.  Earlier in the day when he mentioned Reeves by name it was followed with "there's a quiz later, take notes, I'm just full of this stuff".  And maybe that's why I enjoy these concerts so much, it's live and never the same twice.

As a special guest was Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek, Mr. George Takei!  The wonderful music "literally transported" him down from the Enterprise and he provided some background on what was going on at the time Gene Roddenberry was creating Star Trek.  The ship was to be a metaphor for Spaceship Earth with Uhura representing Africa, Sulu Asia, Kirk North America, with Chekov from Russia and Scottie from (where else?) Scotland to round things out.  Given the civil rights movement, Cold War, and Vietnam War happening in the real world, combining this group of people and showing how diversity could work together was a pretty radical concept for the time period.  He also pointed out that with James Doohan (Scottie) and William Shatner (Kirk) both being Canadian, Canada was really over represented :)

After using the phrase "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" as many times as possible, Mr. Takei introduced a "crew member with an angelic voice who had just beamed down, Lt. Kristen Plumley".  Ms. Plumley arrived in original series uniform and they chatted about the "star ship Thomson" feeling like home with the "mothership" hovering above.
Inside Roy Thomson Hall
She also mentioned the diversity of Toronto architecture and, having had a chance to see the ROM by the Wednesday evening performance, had one of the best lines of the night when she compared the building to a crashed spaceship!  The audience laughter and applause was enthusiastic in what I will take to be agreement (mine sure was).  I hadn't considered that before, but what a good description!
Royal Ontario Museum
She stuck around to sing the vocal line in the original series theme with Mr. Takei's wonderful deep voice adding "Space, the final frontier..." but you know the rest :)  Then the orchestra took over with the best arrangement (by Calvin Custer) I've heard of Trek themes (Some wonderful soul has provided proof of this here...go TSO!).  Deep Space Nine and Voyager come alive when one gets to watch it played by a full orchestra...ah, just stunning music!
The second half opened with the "Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey".  The movie where you left the theatre saying "wow, that was fantastic, but what was it about?"  Jack discussed how it's common for directors to put a music temp track to a movie to give composers an idea of the type of music they would like (composers of course hate this).  Anyhow Stanley Kubrick put a temp track of classical music together and showed it to Alex North, the composer.  North went away and composed a 90 min symphonic score.  He came back, Kubrick said thanks, it was put with the film, and as far as North was concerned that was that.  Then the movie was released, with the original temp track.  Apparently North and Kubrick parted never to speak again.  The Alex North score has been released, so that's now added to my "to listen to" list.  At the matinee this piece wasn't blooper free.  In fact it had the most glaring oops I've heard from the TSO.  The last three notes were meant to be separated,  whether conductor liberty or an actual rest in the music I don't know, but someone (in the cellos perhaps? it was definitely strings) missed the break between the third and second last notes and came in early.  One time only mistake, that night it was perfect.

In keeping with the theme of aliens coming to earth, Richard Dreyfuss had "encounters, close ones, of the third kind" and the TSO provided the appropriate suite of music.  The violins made these incredibly eerie sounds by holding a note then sliding their fingers up or down the string.  So creepy!  The five note theme makes an appearance as well, although plays a much expanded role in the movie.  This piece is so much better live than any recording I've found.  In order to hear the fading out of that five note theme as it's transfered between the woodwinds at the end, you have to have the volume way up, or be in a very quiet location.  Seeing it performed though, you know exactly where it is!  What I don't remember hearing was the brief quote of "When You Wish Upon a Star" which is in recordings.  According to wikipedia Spielberg wanted that to play over the closing credits, but was denied permission.  Perhaps that's why Kristen Plumley sang it as a solo, so not that out of place after all.

With the brief introduction of "this next piece is the most poignant and profound that John Williams wrote" audience snickers from those who had read the program started.  At the opening clarinet trio of "Cantina Band" from Star Wars, the rest of the audience joined in realizing the tongue in cheek nature of that description.  Clarinetists Joaquin Valdepenas, YaoGuang Zhai, Joseph Orlowski, and bassoonist Fraser Jackson precisely played the lighthearted, cooky piece which had a fantastic drum solo as well.

Takei and Plumley from same concert
with Detroit Symphony in March
The evening returned to a somber note with six short selections from the 1951 movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still".  George Takei returned to give Klaatu's departure speech, which has elements as relevant today as when they were written over 60 years ago!  Jack gave a brief plot summary of the aliens who come to earth, land in Washington, DC ("because it's Hollywood so where else would they land?") and as Klaatu exits his ship and reaches for a gift, he's shot since the people have seen his ship coming on radar and are terrified.  The rest of the movie is about how people deal with fear.  This was the first Hollywood score by Bernard Hermann who went on to become famous with his music for Hitchcock films.  He actually started in radio on the East Coast and did "War of the Worlds" with Orson Welles.  When Wells went west for Citizen Kane, he took Hermann with him.  There are times when at the end of a piece in that moment just after the conductor relaxes and before the applause starts when there's a feeling of awe that hangs (This is not the same silence or feeling that comes from wondering whether the piece or just the movement is over and whether one should clap).  It's a silence when the "wow what did we just hear" thought bubbles can almost be seen over people's heads.  I've heard it last longer, you could easily pick out the one person who started clapping first, but this piece had that moment.  In fact it was actually my TSO newbie friend who commented on it.  It's a wonderful thing to experience and quite difficult to describe.

Even harder to describe is the energy that existed by the end of the Wednesday night show.  I've heard it said performers feed off audience energy, and I'm sure that's what was happening.  Even I felt energized by it.  I mean this music is demanding particularly the brass parts.  Although you wouldn't know by listening, the mark of the master is making what's hard appear easy and that was the TSO.  When was the last time four trumpeters were on the stage and playing the entire concert, or five French horns?  Kudos to trumpeter James Gardiner!  This was now the end of the second show that day and it ended even stronger than it started.

Jack also seemed more animated and that was poured into "Duel of the Fates" and "Throne Room and End Title" from the Phantom Menace and Star Wars respectively.  The orchestra was game and it was clean, tight, powerful and thrilling when he broke out his glowing light saber baton!  The phenomenal and appreciative audience were quickly on their feet ending a fantastic final evening of music.  As always Jack graciously acknowledged the orchestra at every opportunity.
Final bows
My one disappointment with the ending was the lighting.  The NAC orchestra did this the best.  On the last cut, of the last piece when Jack finishes with the "light saber" in the air, the lights went out!  A darkened stage with just stand lights and this orange glowing baton creates a wonderful mental image as you walk out the door with "Duel of the Fates" and Sanskrit running around in your head.  The NAC also had lasers, but given the very open nature of RTH, I can understand possible logistic issues for that.  But a black out would have been so effective!

Originally when I saw it was the "Sci Fi" show coming this year, I was hoping for something different. But I'd forgotten what a wonderful showcase it is for pure symphonic music.  There's not a chance for the orchestra to be relegated to roll of back-up band for a singer, the whole evening keeps them front and centre.  Not to mention how the futuristic subject matter really did suit one of the last pops concerts for the 90th TSO season, having started with 100 years ago on Broadway.  Jack concluded by saying that it's always a pleasure to be back in Toronto, so even though he's not scheduled for next season, I hope talks are underway for the one after that!

For perhaps a less biased review, you can check out the National Post's opinion here.  Personally I'm shocked that they felt a Pops concert worthy of review, but if it draws more attention to the Toronto Symphony I'm all for it.

Thanks to all involved for a wonderful series of sci fi concerts!