Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ashley Brown Joins the TSO for Christmas

The TSO Pops Christmas is a tradition that helps get everyone in the holiday spirit.  This year Ashley Brown joined the celebration as the guest vocalist.  There aren't enough adjectives to describe how great she is and how well she hosted the concert.  Apparently it's a program she jointly created with TSO Pops conductor Steven Reineke, well at least the vocal parts.  Ashley mentioned collaborating a year ago on creating medleys and introducing Steven to a new song, a feat she was particularly proud of given his vast knowledge of the music world.

One of the collaborations was the "Holiday Hits Medley" which closed the first half.  It was a mix of popular songs from the radio that are rarely heard in a concert setting.  Backed with a strong percussion section, Patricia Krueger on piano, and the rest of the orchestra Ashley demonstrated her pops singing style.  The medley started with Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You", moved to "Hard Candy Christmas" delivered with a twinge of Dolly Parton twang, and finished with the always popular "Feliz Navidad".

I can't believe I missed
her red shoes in this photo!
Shifting back to earlier in the program, Ashley brought a Judy Garland swing sound to "Winter Wonderland Medley" and even wore shiny ruby slippers :)  Cindy Lou Who's version of "Christmas, Why Can't I Find You" from The Grinch and "The Secret of Christmas" (popularized by Ella Fitzgerald, this was the song Ashley introduced to Steven) were touching and tender.

There were also multiple times where Ashley was just herself as she talked about her family, the meaning songs held for her, and sang in her beautiful clear voice.  One of my favourites was "Yes, Virginia" which is from a
musical created in partnership with Macy's based on the popular letter to the editor of the New York Sun.  It's a great song and she's clearly no stranger to interacting with children as she invited kids from the audience to join her on stage as she sang.

Ashley's final song, "O Holy Night", proved there was no need to visit Yuletide Celebration with the Indianapolis Symphony this year.  She sang the same arrangement I expect Yuletide host Sandi Patty did and it was fantastic!
Santa getting in on the
conducting action!

The orchestra wasn't left out and showed their skill with steadfast tempos and dynamic variations in "Little Bolero Boy" (one of my favourites), and got swinging to show off the brass in "Jingle Bell Rock".

Yet another wonderful Christmas concert with everything except "Sleigh Ride" (which I heard someone else comment on when leaving).  But that's okay because dropping it every now and again leaves room for some new music, and I thoroughly enjoyed the new pieces I hadn't heard before that were included this year.  Merry Christmas!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Beethoven and Strauss

In my quest to hear all the Beethoven symphonies live, I attended the Toronto Symphony concert that included Symphony #4 on Nov. 20.  That was what I went for, but as usual found some other hidden gems.  The conductor for the occasion was Sir Andrew Davis, conductor laureate of the TSO.

The program opened with "Overture to The Consecration of the House".  The title struck me as familiar, yet I can't say I recognized any of the music.  Doing a bit of research I discovered I'd heard it as part of Jorma Elo's ballet Pur ti Miro performed by the National Ballet of Canada in 2010.  It's one of the few overtures Beethoven wrote that was meant to be a stand alone piece and is pretty impressive, not to mention great ballet music.

I can understand why Beethoven's 4th symphony doesn't seem to be performed all that often.   It doesn't have the same draw of #5 or scope of #9.  It's good music, but I think I needed to read more of the notes or know more about the form to deeply appreciate it.  I did like the opening where the rich chords jump keys and don't give you any idea where it's going.

Guest soprano Erin Wall joined the orchestra for "Seven Early Songs", by Alban Berg.  The songs had a nice variety with a love theme throughout.  The English translations were a welcome addition to the program.  I'm not usually a poetry person, but this series I actually read again.
Erin Wall (photo by Josh Clavir)

The evening ended with "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche" (or "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks") by Richard Strauss.  This was probably my favourite of the evening.  Till Eulenspiegel was a quick witted prankster, and apparently a real German peasant who died around 1350.  What jumped out at me  was the horn solo which I'm familiar with from its use in one of my favourite versions of the "12 Days of Christmas" by the Indianapolis Symphony.  There's a story in this piece of music as well that I should have read the notes for in advance to fully appreciate.  Lessons learned for the next concert.

Professional review of the concert can be found here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Disney Strikes Again with Aladdin

I recently saw the new Disney production of Aladdin, subtitled "The New Musical".  Getting tickets was a bit last minute so there wasn't a lot of anticipation, but I did have "A Whole New World" running through my head all day.

The story line is roughly the same as the movie, and doesn't take itself too seriously.  A new addition are three friends of Aladdin (Babkak, Omar, and Kassim) who act as narrators, reprising "Arabian Nights" with various verses to advance the story.  The lyrics are quite humourous even pointing out that they're going to use the split stage effect to keep the action flowing.  One funny line that may play better when the show gets to Broadway was somthing like "they're tourists, they'll clap for anything".  I didn't hear so much as a giggle.  But then it's likely the majority of the audience were locals and not tourists, something I expect may be different in NYC.  Adding these storytellers is an interesting technique and generally it works.  What I'm not sure works though is the literal personification of Iago.  He comes across more like LeFou from Beauty and the Beast than Jafar's evil sidekick with his own agenda.  Likewise the three friends supplant the faithful sidekick Abu, and the magic carpet doesn't show up until needed for the all important flight of wooing (the Genie provides it as part of Aladdin's wish to become a prince).  All understandable changes given the difficulty of turning animated objects into real elements on a stage.

Aladdin in the market
The sets were impressive.  Agribba grew out of the desert with swirling buildings that were able to give various sky lines including one looking out over the city as Aladdin and Jasmine escape to his loft.  There they sang an extra duet "A Million Miles Away" which is a really nice song, that may be new or maybe was cut from the original movie.  Another extra song was "Proud of Your Boy", movingly sung by the handsome Adam Jacobs as Aladdin.  It appeared in several different reprises and I believe was one that was cut from the film.

I was anxiously awaiting what they were going to do with the Cave of Wonders and sort of expected to be disappointed.  Never underestimate Disney and production numbers.  Wow!  That scene worked on all levels.  The outside was impressive, then as Aladdin entered the cave, and our viewpoint switched as well, the sets were staggered as they flew in from the sides giving the impression of moving deeper inside and everything started to shimmer gold.  He gets trapped of course and rubs the lamp to read what's written on it and the Genie swirls up from the ground!

James Monroe Iglehart, the Genie, sounded a bit like Robin Williams at times when he reached the
Genie in the Cave of Wonders
higher register of his voice, and a few of the gags from the movie were included.  So now that Aladdin has met Genie: Cue production number!  It had waiters appearing from the back and the wings, a table magically producing food, dancing girls stepping out of gold pillars, Aladdin disappearing and an energetic tap number that I think surpassed "Be Our Guest".  The Genie was phenomenal.  He delivered magic tricks (pulling a special Mouse out of a hat), and a medley of Disney songs that was awesome!  Whoever re-wrote "Friend Like Me" deserves a prize.

Jasmine in the market
Jasmine was beautiful, although to be nitpicking I found the swinging, dangling earrings somewhat distracting.  Courtney Reed has a great voice and as if sneaking out to the market wasn't enough to show her independence she gets a solo number ("Call Me a Princess") showing her spunkyness at refusing her suitors.  No animal sidekick for her either though; pet tiger Rajah was replaced by the much easier to train ladies in waiting.

The second half peaked with "A Whole New World".  Disney learned from Mary Poppins: The New Musical in regards to the creation of a night sky.  The garden walls pulled back as Aladdin and Jasmine flew in front of a large moon and sky that twinkled and swirled in the background.  Moving larger lights then appeared as actors, almost completely hidden in the dark, gave the sky depth and the carpet flew closer to the front of the stage.

In the garden pre flight
The stars switched to planets which weren't quite as effective in hiding the actors twirling them, but added more colour.  The carpet provided a surface for a few spot lights to illuminate Aladdin and Jasmine while still remaining quite dark itself.  Ending back on the balcony garden, they dismounted and shared a first kiss...cue "awww" moment :)

The "awww" is short lived though, as Jafar appears and drags Aladdin off for trespassing in the Princess's quarters.  Jonathan Freeman as Jafar had the voice from the movie picture perfect.  And why shouldn't it?  He was the voice in the movie!  I haven't seen the film in years and wouldn't have picked it out though.  It was the cackle that triggered recognition.

Sultan, Iago, Jafar
It was nice to see a Sultan less bumbling than the animated one.  Another plus was that he didn't have enough stage time to make me frustrated enough to want to shake him out of Jafar's spell.  Clifton Davis played the Sultan in a way that though blinded to Jafar's selfish ambition, there was still hope he'd be capable of fighting Jafar if he recognized what was going on.  Jafar's evil was toned down, maybe a bit too much.  His reveal of Aladdin's true status of street rat to the palace didn't seem like a particularly big deal.  The Genie, now fulfilling Jafar's wishes, arrived and granted the wish to make him Sultan.  Jafar's black robe "magically" becomes white matching everyone else (most of the cast was on stage for the wedding already wearing fine white clothes).  Maybe there were technical difficulties, but the platform Jafar was on only rose about a foot, so he really wasn't all that imposing.  There was no snake, and the snake staff didn't even have glowing eyes (surprising given the ease of using LED lights these days).  Aladdin didn't have to fight Jafar, and Jafar's wishing to be the most powerful genie was almost too easy.  His decent into the lamp though was well done.

The final dance number had the whole cast getting a chance to strut their stuff with a few Bollywood style dance moves thrown in to some snippets of "A Whole New World".  The Genie appeared decked out in Hawaiian shirt and small suitcase ready to travel the world.  Unfortunately he didn't say he was headed for Disney World :)

On the way out I overheard someone say the sets were good, the orchestra played the songs well (there were 18 players in the pit, a good size, and the three trumpets were great!), but they ruined the rest.  I completely disagree.  There may be room for improvement, some tweeking perhaps to a rather long battle of Babkak, Omar, and Kassim's with the palace guards in their attempt to rescue Aladdin.  But it's accompanied by the good song "High Adventure" and some funny schtick.  Besides, this is the purpose of out of town tryouts, to figure out the best show possible.  I think it will only get better, but check it out and form your own opinion.  It's in town until the beginning of January before heading to Broadway.  May it have a long run and tour again, because it's worth going to see twice.

Photos from unless otherwise indicated

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

National Ballet of Canada Stages a Classic

I didn't want to let the opportunity to see the classic ballet Swan Lake pass by, yet not wanting to spend a considerable amount of money (ballet tickets are one of the most expensive in town), I opted to try for a rush ticket.  That didn't exactly work out but standing room did!  The absolute cheapest way to see some pretty fantastic ballet!  The rough story line of Swan Lake is well known.  My favourite version is the one told by Tchaikovsky himself (well how it could be imagined he'd tell it) in Tchaikovsky Discover's America.  There was some deviation from that since choreographers take license and obviously there are sections of music purely for the opportunity to put a solo or group number, but I enjoyed it.

Act 1 is the Hunting Ground where Siegfried (Piotr Stanczyk at the performance I saw) is melancholy even though it's his birthday.  So what else to do in a ballet, but to dance and try to cheer up the Prince.  The program notes describe the dances as "growing increasing unsettling and violent".  This is true, but one of the most exciting parts was the wench (Jordana Daumec) being thrown between the knights and servants.  There's actually only that one main female dancing part in Act 1.  The rest is a chance for the men to show their power with leaps and jumps.

What surprised me the most was that the famous theme from Swan Lake didn't have any swans dancing to it!  It is first heard in Act 2 when Benno (the Prince's friend) and Siegfried are walking through the forest going hunting for the swans.  There's not really any dancing to it at all, it's more scene change music as trees fly in and out symbolizing their travelling to the marsh.
The company (Photo by Bruce Zinger)
Now the swans get to dance, and here the artists of the ballet were awesome!  This is what I came to see, about 20 dancers in the classical white tutus floating around the stage.  We meet Odette (Sonia Rodriguez) and the duets between her and Siegfried were impressive.  If only all it took to fall in love was one dance.  In these duets the fantastic playing of the orchestra was especially apparent with cello and violin solos.  I do love how Tchaikovsky has various instruments take over a phrase and passes it around the orchestra.  The fact that it can sound like one instrument is a testament to the skill of the players.

Rebekah Rimsey as the
Hungarian Princess from a
previous performance
(photo by David Cooper)
Act 3 is in the ballroom where Siegfried is being forced to choose a wife from four princesses: Hungarian (Stephanie Hutchison), Russian (Elena Lobsonova), Spanish (Tiffany Mosher), and Italian (Shino Mori).  Each of course gets a dance and a chance to woo the Prince.  They were all good and I liked how the styles fit the country.  The Italian was my favourite though, maybe because I also recognized that bit of music (which seems to also be called the Neapolitan Dance).

Of course Siegfried has already fallen in love, so can't choose one of the princesses.  But, surprise, suddenly there's another lady, dressed in black, who looks exactly like Odette!  Unknown to Siegfried it's actually Odile, brought by the evil villain Rothbart.  Of course they dance and here Sonia was deliciously sensuous and seducing.  If Siegfried wasn't already in love with her, he would have been!  The black swan pas de duex is where the 32 fouette turns come it and to my untrained eye Sonia looked spot on.  The ballerina gets all the glory but Piotr's set of turns just after it were pretty stunning too.  (Similar choreography here, with a different ballet company)

Siegfried's choosing of Odile brings calamity as he's betrayed Odette, and a flood sweeps through killing everyone.  This was the moment where I was most awed and it was by the use of a simple piece of silk.  The silk was used as the water and was held on the sides by dancers and swept in circles causing people to be engulfed or ejected.  Then just as quickly as it appeared, Rothbart arrives, grabs the silk in the middle and it collapses in spectacular fashion as he runs off stage with it.  Simple yet so effective.

Artists of the National Ballet
(photo by David Cooper)
Back at the lakeside for Act 4, the host of swans have now turned black and dance (the famous Tchaikovsky melody reappears) while Siegfried stands at the back on the driftwood/rocks pining for Odette.  She forgives him but a storm appears.  Siegfried fights Rothbart and when the dust clears Odette is left to mourn her dead Prince.

Not a happy ending, but with the wonderful music and dancing it was a very happy way to spend an afternoon.  The National Ballet is bringing it back in March so there's still a chance to check it out if you missed it.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Carmina Burana For Halloween

There were no witches, ghosts or goblins on the Roy Thomson Hall stage this October 31.  Just a group of people dressed up as musicians, with none pretending to be something they aren't.  This Halloween the TSO was more formal, performing three works that culminated with "Carmina Burana".  It seems like this has been programmed recently by all the other orchestras I follow, so I was anxiously awaiting the chance to hear it.  It was so good I tried to get tickets to go again, but the Saturday night was sold out.

The evening started with the audience being wished a "Happy Hallowe'en, if such a thing is appropriate" by maestro Peter Oundjian.  "Dances from Powder Her Face" by British composer Thomas Ades, received it's Canadian premiere to open the concert.  It had just enough lyrical bits to outweigh it being another odd contemporary piece.  It's one I could sit through again.  Oundjian mentioned in his introduction that it had some tango moments in the style of Astor Piazzolla which I was listening for.  There were a few near the end, although brief enough that just when you're looking forward to it going somewhere, it changed and disappeared.

Music by Benjamin Britten seems to be popular everywhere this season since it would be his 100th
Phan and Deland (Photo by Josh Clavir)
birthday.  Tenor Nicholas Phan (who would return again in "Carmina Burana") and TSO Principal Horn, Neil Deland, were the soloists in "Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings".  The piece is sung in English to six poems by various writers including "Pastoral" by Charles Cotton, "Nocturne" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Elergy" by William Blake, and "Sonnet" by John Keats.  The styles varied and I really liked the opening and closing horn solos, which were played beautifully.

Finally after intermission, what I had been waiting for.  The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir filled the loft and launched into the opening "O Fortuna" with power.  How could you not with a full orchestra and two concert grand pianos on stage!  I hadn't read the text before and had no idea it was actually broken up into three segments (Spring, In the Tavern, and The Courts of Love) after the opening Fortune, Empress of the World.  The sections within the segments range from powerful and deep, to the somewhat silly "The Roast Swan Sings" (although maybe there's something profound I'm missing).  Phan added a few gestures that provided a humerous interlude to lighten what is otherwise a pretty serious piece.
TSO and soloists (
Joining Phan were soprano Valenina Farcas and baritone James Westman.  The baritone seemed to have the most to do and all had awesome voices.  Today we hardly bat an eye at some of the text regarding drinking and love, however I would think that in the 12th and 13th centuries when the manuscripts, from which the lyrics are taken, were written there would have been a different reaction.  Although a lot can get by in the name of art.

Hopefully the TSO brings this piece back again soon.  I know I'd love to hear it again!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Symphony Meets Circus

A symphonic concert is typically meant to be a feast for the ears and less so for the eyes.  That wasn't the case on October 15 at the  opening concert of the Toronto Symphony Pops series.  Cirque de la Symphonie was in town and there was plenty of eye candy in addition to wonderful playing.  

Principal Pops Conductor Steven Reineke, looking classy as always, and the TSO opened the program with "Festive Overture" by Shostakovich.  I've seen this on multiple programs but have never attended those concerts.  Now I know why it's popular.  It has a great opening fanfare that fit the circus theme of the evening.  Perhaps what thrilled me the most though was hearing a very short transition melody in the lower brass about 40 seconds in that is identical to that used in a piece called "Christmas Prelude" (from the ISO Yuletide album) as a transition into "Deck the Halls".  No doubt musicians playing "Prelude" for the first time would get the in joke right away.  It may take me a while longer (ok, like 4 years longer) but I was excited to piece the two segments of music together.

The Cirque artists acts were set to classical pieces that one has likely heard, at least in part, before.  There were a few I didn't recognize but then ones like "Capriccio espagnol" by Rimsky-Korsakov (featuring Mark Skazinetsky with the violin solo) accompanied by Aloysia Gavre and Sagiv Ben Binyamin with an act that was a bit tango dance, balancing, contortion and hat swapping.

Aloysia and Sagiv (Photo by Matt Gade)
Aloysia reappeared to close the first half of the program with an aerial hoop routine to "Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah".  This was stellar!  She didn't just flip or hang from the hoop while suspended, she got is swinging!  The tight spin while hanging from the hoop and flying off the floor was dizzying and exciting to watch.
Aloysia (Photo by Matt Gade)

The second half opened with a no less impressive, but less death defying than flight, quick change act.  This featured the mime and juggler Vladimir, and Elena Tsarkov (who would later perform a lovely
Elena in Clair de lune
(Photo by Matt Gade)
balance/contortion segment with exquisite movements that fit the music of "Clair de Lune" beautifully).    

Then the evening really entered the acts with a major "wow" factor.  Sagiv started his aerial rope routine to "The Ride of the Valkyries" by hoisting himself all the way up the thick rope using just his arms!  He then hung, spun, twisted and even flew over the orchestra landing what looked to be very close to the cello section at one point.

Christine and Alexander
Alexander Streltsov and Christine Van Loo performed a duet on aerial silks to the "Valse" from Swan Lake.  Dressed in white with red silks they were impressive.  He flew over the orchestra and audience and she ended the routine by wrapping the material around her waist and slowly spinning back down to the stage.  That's always a crowd pleaser.

The most stoic act was the finale Jarek and Darek, the gold covered strongmen.  Set to "Finlandia", they walked out to a small platform centre stage and proceeded to demonstrate amazing feats of strength and balance.  They fluidly moved between hand holds and other positions including a single handed balance by one on the others head!
Jarek and Darek (

It was an exciting spectacle and I don't know how the orchestra was able to concentrate on what they were playing but it sounded as good as it looked!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Shrek: The Musical with LOT

The Lower Ossington Theatre (LOT) is a company I'd heard of but never experienced.  That changed when a friend was in town and I was looking for something to do.  We attended Shrek: The Musical on its opening weekend and I was suitably impressed.  I'm not sure how to describe LOT, maybe as a semi-professional company?  It's definitely a step above community theatre.  The performers were young and mostly graduates of theatre programs in the Toronto area.

Di Rosa as Shrek
I'd seen a touring production of Shrek when Dancap was still around, and while that was scaled down from clips I'd seen from the Broadway version, in terms of sets the LOT production was scaled down again.  However it didn't suffer for it.  It was at the Randolph Theatre and the side balcony seats don't have great sight lines.  One side of the stage was mostly cut off.  Had I paid full price for the seats I would have been disappointed.  A lot of the action did take place in the centre and one good thing about those seats was being able to watch the band.  They were on the other side of the balcony above the stage.  A small group of musicians (3 keyboards, bass, guitar, 2 winds, trumpet, trombone and percussion) did an admirable job even though some of the brass lines didn't always feel very secure.  It was also very smokey.  I'm not sure if they'd just tested the smoke machine but there was a definite haze in the place that didn't dissipate.

Nash as Fiona
The vocal talent of the performers was fantastic.  Andrew Di Rosa as Shrek, sounded just like Brian D'arcy James!  The accent was perfect and his voice full and rich.  He was great!  

Michelle Nash proved an equal partner as Princess Fiona handling the singing, acting and dancing, including my favourite part (the rat tap), with skill.  The Donkey really helps make the show and nothing was lacking from Mark Willet.  His timing with Shrek was always on and he showed his excellent vocal talents in "The Travel Song" and "Make a Move".  Koodos also to Andrew Soutter as Lord Farquaad for his knee dancing.
Soutter as Farquaad with ensemble Knights

The sound had some problems on occasion with mics not being switched on soon enough and varying volume levels as well.  This showed up mainly with the ensemble cast rather than the principals and hopefully was fixed at later performances.  

Shrek continues through Oct. 19, so grab your freak flag and enjoy a fun show. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Anything Goes in Toronto

Wow!  That's the first word that comes to mind after seeing, and being delighted by, Anything Goes, which is currently playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre.  For this show I wasn't a last minute ticket buyer.  I knew I wanted to see it ever since the Tony Awards broadcast where Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney led the cast in a wonderful tap dance to "Anything Goes".  It was worth the wait.  My familiarity with the title and the song came from the 1956 Paramount movie version with Bing Crosby, Donald O'Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and JeanMarie.  I knew the musical plot was different from the movie, but it still had a great Cole Porter score, with some additional songs that may not have been Porter creations, and a great dance number with O'Connor and Gaynor to "De-Lovely".

Cast in "Anything Goes" (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Anyhow, I went into the musical knowing the music (I had sought out a Broadway cast recording, and found the one from the late 80's with Patti LuPone), but not the plot.  It's quirky, with characters changing names, and clothes, all over.  But if it doesn't put you on the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next (and there is a little bit of that.   When leading man Billy finds himself in the brig with a wedding to stop, "how are they going to get out of this one" did cross my mind.), it certainly does with production numbers.  The act one closer "Anything Goes" is huge, and the act two opener "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" topped it.  While this is a touring show, there's nothing that looks scaled down giving that impression.

The fullness of the show extends to the action in the orchestra pit as well.  Filled with 15 or so local musicians, playing who knows how many instruments (peeking in at intermission there were as many types of clarinets and saxes as I know of), they dazzled in the overture and entr'acte.  The three trumpet players particularly were wonderful.  The jazzy, screamer style playing in the entr'acte warmed them up for "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and they really blew me away.
One moment in the overture that stood out was a completely seamless transition from a held note in the clarinet to that same note in the trumpet.  They matched perfectly before the trumpet went "brassy" (probably not a word, but it's really hard to describe sounds) with it.  A smile hit my face as I thought, oh how smooth, and it didn't leave for the rest of the show.  Well ok, the smile started before then when conductor Jay Alger took the podium wearing a captains hat, which he discarded then donned again post intermission.

Reno and Lord Oakleigh in "The Gypsy in Me"
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What to say about the cast?  There's nothing left wanting from any of them, so I'll just mention a few.  Rachel York as Reno Sweeney can do anything.  Her voice is big and bold; her comedy with Moonface Martin in "Friendship", and elsewhere throughout the show, never falls flat; she can dance with the best of them; and somehow manages to keep a straight face while Edward Staudenmayer as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh let out his inner gypsy in "The Gypsy in Me".

Josh Franklin
I'll take Josh Franklin (who plays Billy Crocker) as a leading man anytime.  He looks dashing in a tux, and only slightly less so in the too short pants he tends to "borrow" while trying to hide in plain sight.  His voice is also lovely to listen to, from the lively "You're the Top" duet with Reno, to the ballads "Easy to Love" and "All Through the Night".

The solo song for Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #13 and played by Fred Applegate, is "Be Like a Bluebird".  It's a song I never quite understood from the plotless cast recording.  He sings it trying to cheer Billy up when they're in jail and it has one of the cutest lighting effects.  The "bluebird" is a blue light that flutters over Moonface and even "lands" on his fingers.  It's funny to watch Billy's stoic face as Moonface acts rather silly.

Chuck Wagner (
A face that was a surprise to see in the program was that of Chuck Wagner playing the Captain of the USS American.  He was the Beast in the Toronto production of Beauty and the Beast when it first opened here in 1995.  His head shot in the program has to be 15 years old, but he's gotten more distinguished with age, and still has a gorgeous voice (check out some of his singing on his website).  It's not hard to tell he enjoys his work.  In the ship nightclub scene during "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" he was dancing enthusiastically from his spot on the steps.

Anything Goes deserves the 4/4 stars it got from the Toronto Star (review here) and any other accolades that have been thrown its way.  It just got extended for another week, and is worth seeing.  Get thee to the theatre!

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Invitation to the Dance

Conductors Andrew Grams and James Gaffigan have been on my "to see" list since they were both on the NACOcast back in March 2010.  Host Christopher Millard had them pull questions out of a hat to answer.  I'm pretty sure Gaffigan has been to Toronto, I just haven't made it to the concert.  So my task to see them both started on June 22 when Andrew Grams conducted the last series of TSO 2012/2013 season concerts titled Invitation to the Dance.

The concert opened with the title piece by Carl Maria Von Weber.  There's a story that plays out as the cello, being the gentleman, asks the lady, the woodwinds, to dance.  She says maybe, eventually agrees and they dance!  At the conclusion they go their separate ways and fade away.

"Carmen Fantasie" was written for the 1945 Joan Crawford movie Humoresque about a virtuosic violinist.  Sixteen year old Kerson Leong, making his TSO debut, certainly fit the bill.  Based on themes from Bizet's opera Carmen, there's no lack of great content and Leong had the whole orchestra and audience applauding when he finished.
Leong and the TSO (TSO photo)

The first half finished with the always popular "Can-Can" from Offenbach's operetta Orpheus and the Underworld.  I've played an arrangement of this piece and whether listening or playing it has been forever converted in my mind from the words I knew as a child "can can can you do the can-can..." to the Straight No Chaser lyrics from their "Christmas Can-Can", "it's time to do the Christmas can-can if you can't can't dance well that's ok, not going to do the kickline..." etc.  Great song really no matter how you think of it.  One of those tunes guaranteed to stick in your head.

Andrew Grams (
Having been a violinist with the New York City Ballet, Grams said he'd played about 300 performances of The Nutcracker.  Yet he still is able to like Tchaikovsky and conduced a "Suite from The Sleeping Beauty".  It featured the intrduction of the Lilac Fairy, the Waltz (known to me as "Once Upon a Dream" from the Disney version), and the Rose Adagio.

Grams also shared that one of the common questions he's asked is what's his favourite music to conduct?  He said that people expect a young person like himself to say Mahler or Shostakovich.  But he really likes polkas and waltzes because they're the most fun!  He got to have fun and brought the audience along with him as the concert concluded with "On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz" by Strauss Jr. and "Radetzky March" by Strauss Sr.

"Radetzky's" was the other reason I wanted to attend this concert.  It was the recessional all through high school for commencement so we played it a lot and I was looking forward to hearing how it should sound.  I wasn't disappointed!  It's one of my favourites.  I had no idea there was a whole audience participation tradition though.  It took a bit to get the hang of the dynamics but finally we followed the conductor and got it right.

In addition to being the season ending for the TSO, it was the last concert for second trombonist William Cross, who is retiring.  He was acknowledged with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Thanks to the Toronto Symphony for another great season.  See you in September!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

MGM at the NAC Completes a Cycle

Ten seasons ago Those Glorious MGM Musicals debuted at the National Arts Centre.  I was in the audience attending my first symphony concert.  The rest, as they say, is history.  Thursday June 20 Jack Everly was back on the podium, at the venue, and with the concert that hooked me.

With each viewing there are different stories and new things to see and hear.  The content of this program was the same as the Naples Philharmonic version, except with a new guy in the song and dance man roll, David Elder replaced Nick Adams.

David Elder
( )
David's first number "Steppin' Out With My Baby" was entertaining if not as athletic or high flying as Nick's.  Although I enjoyed David's interpretation of Groucho Marx's "Lydia Oh Lydia" more.  His "Singin' in the Rain" at the end of the program was joyous and always one of my favourites.  The others in the cast were Nick Fitzer, Scott Hogsed, Kathy Voytko, and Dan'yelle Williamson.

Let's see, new stories from Everly this time around were in the introduction to a medley from "Meet Me in St. Louis".  Originally the casting was to be Gene Kelly and June Allison, however when Kelly broke his ankle and the role went to Fred Astaire they re-cast the leading lady as well.   Judy Garland was deemed a better fit for Astaire.

The final piece in the opening half was a "Hollywood Hit Parade" medley which featured "You Stepped Out a Dream" from Ziegfeld Girl; "Easy to Love" which I'm familiar with from Anything Goes, however was introduced in the musical Born to Dance and allowed the orchestra to show their skills free from vocal additions; "Wonderful Day" from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, "Most Unusual Day" from A Date with Judy; "San Francisco" which was sung by the choir and from the movie by the same name; "Be My Love" from The Toast of New Orleans, was the first song sung by Nick in a powerful tenor voice; "Get Happy" from Summer Stock the Garland classic, was again performed beautifully by Dan'yelle.  It concluded with "Sing Hallelujah" from Hallelujah! and had costuming direct from patriotic America, by design or not I don't know (the ladies wore lovely red and blue ball gowns while the gentlemen were dashing in black tuxes).  It wasn't quite the "360 hits" mentioned in Everly's intro, but it covered a lot of the wonderful classics.

Peter Webster
Following Kathy and Dan'yelle's "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" duet, Jack took a moment to say how fitting a piece that was because a 41 year veteran of the orchestra was retiring.  Violist Peter Webster was coaxed to his feet to take a bow while the audience enthusiastically recognized him for his contributions.

The "That's Entertainment" encore, is perhaps a piece that's growing a bit thin with entertainers.  Jack started by saying how it was Kathy's favourite song so they had to include it in the program.  Meanwhile she's motioning that it's not her favourite at all.  I enjoyed it for the conclusion of "Hip Hooray, the Canadian way..."  It was a nice touch.

With that a cycle of sorts has been completed for me, going back to the same show having spent a wonderful 10 seasons of experiencing all orchestras have to offer.  I have no intentions of stopped now, there's always much more to hear!  Many thanks to the orchestra and program who started it all.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

High and Low Guest Artists

On June 6 the TSO performed a concert titled Joshua Bell and Edgar Meyer, artists who play instruments at opposite ends of the sonic spectrum.  My reasons for wanting to go were to hear (in no particular order):
-  the acclaimed Bell who I'd heard about, including the busking in the Washington DC subway story
- "Appalachian Spring" because I like the piece and haven't ever heard a great recording of it
-  "Pines of Rome" because I heard the name of the composer, Respighi, mentioned in an interview and turns out this is one of his famous pieces.
The heart of the concert, according to the program, was the "Concerto for Violin and Double Bass" composed by bassist Meyer with Bell in mind.

The evening opened with "Appalachian Spring".  It was "wow" for me.  Soft and soaring in all the right spots.  The layering at the start of the strings and the winds was spot on.  I've never heard it clearly before because recordings are always so quiet I have to turn up the volume and then when the dynamic changes and the tempo picks up it blows you away, and not in a good way.  The balance live was perfect.  Associate Principal clarinet Yao Guang Zhai seemed to have a good time with the solos and I love that the "Simple Gifts" melody appears in the clarinet first.  In fact there were notable clarinet parts in every piece.

Bell and Meyer during the concerto (TSO photo)
The concerto followed with Meyer adding a bit of a casual flair to the evening dressed in shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, bow tie and suspenders.  There was some dissonance in the piece, but enough to peak interest as to where it was going to go, and most often satisfactorily resolved.  I particularly liked the melodic theme and rhythmic drive in movements 1 and 3, named "Quarter Note = 135" and "Half Note = 80" respectively.  The theme from the third particularly got into your head and I heard people humming the theme at intermission.  Meyer's bass looked smaller than the others in the orchestra and had an extended finger board on one side allowing him to get to the upper end of the basses 6 octaves and into the register of Bell's violin part.  The middle movement was more reflective, fitting in that it was a memorial to a student they both knew at Curtis.

Post intermission Joshua Bell got his solo chance to dazzle in "Tzigane, rapsodie de concert for Violin and Orchestra" by Ravel.  Honestly all I know of Ravel is "Bolero".  This was completely different and Bell demonstrated his very impressive skills elegantly.

Finally, "The Pines of Rome".  Honestly I was expecting to recognize more.  I've had the same
problem with recordings of this as with "Appalachian Spring" since there is such dynamic contrast.  It involves a large orchestra; there were 8 basses, 3 trombones and 3 trumpets on stage plus another 2 of each above the choir loft.  There's something about a huge brass sound that's thrilling, particularly when it builds like the final movement "The Pines of the Appian Way".  I could have sat through the entire concert again right away.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

West Side Story With Orchestra

Getting in on the movie of the year (several orchestras have had it on the program recently), and following up on the successful Oz with Orchestra from last season, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra played the score to West Side Story live, accompanied by the movie, at the end of May.  For me the movie was indeed secondary.  I don't much care for the plot (what can I say, I'm a sucker for happy endings), but adore the music!  The dancing is worth watching too.

50 years after it's debut in 1961 MGM released a restored, high definition print of the film.  It's pretty stunning.  I watched an older DVD not that long ago and didn't notice some things, but the colours just popped out in the HD version.  Of course watching it on a huge screen above the orchestra might have helped too.
High flying Jets  (MGM photo)

The tech behind the concert is impressive as well.  A sound technology developed by Audionamix was "taught" to distinguish between the orchestral score and all the other sounds in the movie.  The score was removed and everything else (vocals, sound effects etc.) remained.

But there was a problem with the score.  Namely there wasn't one.  The original musical arrangements for the film were lost.  Research uncovered papers from the original orchestrator Sid Ramin, conductor/music director Johnny Green, director Robert Wise and producer Walter Mirisch that were used to piece together a new score.

Then of course the conductor needs some indications of what should happen when in order to keep everything synchronized.    In addition to a click-track, in fact the orchestra wore single ear headphones for the concert, conductor Steven Reineke had a monitor playing the movie with timing indications superimposed.  Quite simply these were bars that moved across the screen.  I found myself watching that more often than the big screen.  From what I could determine the white bars and flashes were a steady beat, a green bar was start, red for stop, and magenta bars for tempo changes.
TSO pre concert

Regardless of how it's heard, the music is the best part of West Side Story.  But there really is something special when it's played by a live orchestra.  Unfortunately I couldn't see the brass section because of the screen, and there's so many good brass parts.  Nothing I heard though indicated any problems.  In fact the French horn solo at the end of the opening credits and to close the first half, was spot on.   The percussion was certainly on top of things as well.  I imagine the rhythms in the mambo section of "Dance at the Gym" aren't easy at the best of times but when it has to be spot on with the film, it seems it would be an extra challenge.  That piece and "America" are probably my favourites from the movie and they were perfect to my ears, as was the whole evening.  It was touching and a testament to how much the audience enjoyed the concert that they cheered for Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and others in the credits.

Next year they're doing Casablanca.  Stay tuned.