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?