Friday, April 26, 2013

TSO and Photo Choreography

I made the notes on this concert ages ago and realized I never actually posted them.  So without further ado, on April 17th the TSO and guest artist Gil Shaham were featured in a program called My Homeland.  

I've loved "The Moldau" (a movement of "Ma Vlast" or "My Fatherland") since having to study Smetana and program music in high school.  Funny how dissecting music doesn't ruin my enjoyment of it in the same way as dissecting literature.  When the TSO put "Ma Vlast" on the program I jumped at the chance to hear "The Moldau" as it should be played and the rest of the work in its entirety.

Gil Shaham
(credit: Christian Steiner)
The concert opened with Mozart's "Turkish Violin Concerto No. 5".  Gil Shaham had entertaining facial expressions and sometimes seemed to be playing directly to conductor Peter Oundjian. When Mr. Shaham was not playing he looked like he could have been dancing to the music in his head.  The smiling, friendly personally he displayed was very fitting for the quick light dance style piece.  It was a shame that after the first movement we had to wait so long for the late comers to find their seats.  Oundjian even commented "there's some lovely seats up here" and pointed to a few in the front row.  I recognized more of the music than I thought I would and it's probably my favourite of the violin concertos I've heard.

Prague (
Recognizing more than I expected happened with "Ma Vlast" as well.  There was what some people would call a gimmick to the performance.  Two gentleman, James Westwater and Nicholas Bardonnay spent June and October in the Czech Republic taking photos and then fit them to the music.  The end result was pretty astounding and they coined the term "photo choreography" to describe it.  While the orchestra played, the images were projected on three screens above them.  The images weren't meant to tell the same story that Smetana's program music was, but just match/create moods and feelings.
I loved and recognized the opening movement titled "The High Castle".  This was paired with images of what I imagine was Prague, as well as castles and forts on green hills against a gorgeous blue sky.

"The Moldau" was my favourite and fittingly the photos were mostly of water.  At one climax just
The Moldau (
before the section in the music where the river starts to flow through the city and the melody changes, the somewhat suspensful music was paired with photos of a group of people in various canoes and kayaks going down some rough water beside a water fall.  Some people made it, some capsized but it fit the music absolutely perfectly!
The movement "Sarka" or "A Princess" was paired with images of churches and cathedrals, all very regal looking.  Prior to the performance when Oundjian described the piece, he gave the most details about this section which he admitted to liking very much.  It's the story of a girl who hates all men (at which point he quipped "nothing really changes does it").  She poisons them all and they start falling asleep, "starting with the second bassoon".  Sure enough in the music there were a final series of calls that started with the bassoon so perhaps that's what he was talking about.

The images for an "Encampment" took on a darker tone moving to World War Two and opening with a picture of a swastika.  There were historical pictures from a concentration camp with the more graphic being held in slight shadow, never coming into perfect focus but getting the point across without needing to be.  The music switches abruptly between dark and light and to counter the darkness were images of peace.  One was even of a wall with John Lennon's picture and hearts.

This isn't the first piece that has been paired with images by Westwater and Bardonnay.  I didn't think that it detracted from the music, and it wasn't hard to focus on the orchestra and not watch the pictures.  However, that isn't the same opinion held by others.  "Ma Vlast" with photo choreography was a co-commission and had its debut in Scotland with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  This is a review of that performance where the photo aspect is lambasted in the comments,
All I can say is experience it yourself before making a judgement.  I'm glad I found the review after I'd already seen the performance.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Off to See the Wizard

Back in November 2012, the Canadian public voted on who they wanted for the lead in a new Andrew Lloyd Webber production of The Wizard of Oz.  Over a series of weeks people tuned in to Over the Rainbow on CBC to watch the very talented cast of Canadian young ladies compete for the job.  In the end Danielle Wade came out victorious.  A few weeks ago I went to see the show.

I didn't have super high expectations having gotten a ho hum review from a friend, but I was quite impressed and really enjoyed it.  To begin, Danielle was a fantastic Dorothy, her voice is lovely and she brings the right mix of young girl trying to find her place in the world combined with the courage to handle her time in Oz.  At times I was even reminded of Judy Garland.  Sure Danielle probably has lots more to learn when it comes to acting, but what she knows works well in the role.  Her attempt to walk across the stage during the tornado was very well done, you'd really think she was facing a wall of wind.
Danielle as Dorothy in Kanses

I have high praise for the music aspect as well.  Webber didn't take anything major out that would be expected by fans of the movie (well ok "If I Were King of the Forest" could be considered major by some, but it was never my favourite song so I really didn't miss it), and the additional music and songs fit the style as well.  The biggest new song would be the finale in Oz "Already Home", however I particularly liked what they did with Dorothy's meeting of Professor Marvel.

Cedric Smith as Prof. Marvel
His song, "Wonders of the World" was witty and who knew Cedric Smith (known to me from his years as Alec King on Road to Avonlea) could sing?  The small orchestra in the pit couldn't duplicate the lushness of the original MGM orchestrations but they held their own giving a larger sound than expected for only 12 players.  Their names were listed in the program and it was cool to see the French Horn player was Erin Cooper-Gay, who often can be seen as an extra musician in the horn row of the Toronto Symphony.

The opening scenes in Kansas could have been slow and dull, but the under current of "Nobody Understands Me" where Dorothy laments her life and Toto's fate if Miss Gulch gets him, the farm hands try to get a generator (that looks like Maurice's invention from Beauty and the Beast), started, and Uncle Henry and Aunt Em worry about the chicks, kept things moving along at a good pace.  The use of technology for the tornado was impressive.  When the projected image of the funnel cloud filled the stage and items were shown swirling along for the ride then "hitting" the stage, they bounced back up!  Someone thought to incorporate some physics!  It added a certain degree of realism rather than having the items just disappear above or below the projector sight lines.

The farm hands Hunk, Hickory, and Zeke who would become the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion in
Oz had hints in their Kansas lines of what was to come.  They were vague enough to not give anything away for people who weren't familiar with the movie, but were a smooth way of slipping in that little something extra for people who knew.

With the Wizard
As for the vocal talents of Mike Jackson (Tin Man), Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), and Lee MacDougall (Lion), they were impressive in their "If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve" solos, and had decent mannerisms for their characters, although I doubt anyone can reproduce the rubber-ness of Ray Bolger.  I particularly liked that they gave the Tin Man tap shoes.

Ensemble in Emerald City
Another area where thought was evident was the costuming.  By dressing the ensemble of Munchkins in high waisted, puffy dresses or pants with flat shoes it shortened their appearance, especially once Dorothy was in heels and beside the statuesque Robin Evan Willis as Glinda the good witch.  Switching tactics for Emerald City, the same people appeared to grow instantly by giving the ladies heels and lower waisted dresses and jackets.

There was the required flying by the monkeys and witches with mostly hidden cables.  Dorothy got in on the action with her capture by said monkeys, and the harnessing was smooth and hidden with enough other action on the stage that attention was not focused on her awaiting the take-off.

The set for the Wicked Witch of the West's castle wasn't my favourite.  The door to Oz was more
Wicked Witch
imposing than the scaffolding like tower Dorothy was locked in.  Lisa Horner did a fine job with her  additional solo song "Red Shoe Blues".

There will forever be comparisons between the MGM movie and any recreations of The Wizard of Oz story, but I think this one works well with the combination of old and new brought to life by a great Canadian cast!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Music of James Bond

Bond through the years

Conductor John Morris Russell, another of my favourites, returned to the Toronto Symphony this past week bringing with him the original scores from some of the best music in the 23 James Bond movies.  Composed by various people such as John Barry, Monty Norman, David Arnold, and even John McCartney, the person who really gave Bond his sound was someone not nearly as well known, arranger Nic Raine.  It was those arrangements the TSO brilliantly performed, and appeared to have an enjoyable time doing it.  

The night opened with the "James Bond Main Theme" before
Capathia Jenkins
moving on to some of the hits from the Sean Connery era.  Guest vocalist Ron Bohmer made his TSO debut singing "Thunderball" to great effect.  Capathia Jenkins followed with "For Your Eyes Only", also her debut performance.  She has a gorgeous sultry voice that totally suited the James Bond style.  I think that was my favourite vocal song of the evening, although Bohmer's "From Russia With Love" was a close second.  Both singers, but especially Jenkins, seemed so pleased with the audience reaction and generously indicated their thanks to the audience and orchestra.

As usual the orchestra was not left out.  They played a short suite from Dr. No, complete with a recorded voice over of the most famous line in movie history (according to Conductor Russell), "martini, shaken not stirred".  

Mrs. Peel
Opening the second half was a series of orchestral selections featuring guest saxophonist John Johnson and brassy solos by trumpeter James Gardiner.  It started with the "Soul Bossa Nova" better known as the theme from Austin Powers, then moved to the piece that started the spy-fi genre, the "Peter Gunn Theme".  Russell broke in to continue the history and stories he was providing between pieces to discuss the appeal a character named Mrs. Peel, who "wore leather and kicked butt", had for a young boy growing up in Ohio.  The orchestra followed with the theme from the TV series The Avengers.  

Ron Bohmer
Also included were Mission Impossible with it's identifying 5/4 time, the Pink Panther, and the theme from Shaft where Bohmer reappeared in his own leathers.

Moving on to more recent Bond movies, Jenkins sounded just like Adele singing "Skyfall" then switched to Gladys Knight for "Licence to Kill".  "The Look of Love" from the original Casino Royale had Russell get in on the non conducting action to join Jenkins for a classy slow dance.  Bohmer returned a final time to sing "You Know My Name" from the Daniel Craig as Bond version of Casino Royale.

Of course one couldn't leave until perhaps the most popular Bond song, made famous with the Shirley Bassey vocals but left as an orchestral encore piece, was played.  The evening was brought to a final close with "Goldfinger"!

Check out a photo of the TSO in rehearsal
TSO rehearsal with Maestro Russell (