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
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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.