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.