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.