La Scena Musicale

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: March 29 (Walton)

1902 - William Walton, Oldham, England; composer

Biography and more
Article (La Scena Musicale, Jan. 2002)

Violinist Kyung-Wha Chung plays Walton's violin concerto, 3rd mvt. (special concert celebrating the 80th birthday of the composer; André Previn conducting)

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: March 28 (Ramey, Serkin)

1942 - Samuel Ramey, Colby, U.S.A.; opera bass-baritone

Wiki entry

Samuel Ramey as Zaccaria in Verdi's Nabucco (Paris, 1995)

1903 - Rudolf Serkin, Eger, Bohemia; pianist

Wiki entry
Short bio/pictures

Rudolf Serkin plays Beethoven - Waldstein Sonata, 3rd mvt. (1965)

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: March 27 (Rostropovich, Labadie)

1927 - Mstislav Rostropovich, Baku, Azerbaijan; cellist and conductor

Wiki entry
Slava (La Scena Musicale, May 2007)

Rostropovich plays Bach Cello Suite No.1 - Allemande

1963 - Bernard Labadie, Québec City, Canada; conductor (Les Violons du Roy)

Short bio/pictures
Interview (La Scena Musicale, Sept. 1997)

Bernard Labadie conducts Pieter Wispelwey and Les Violons du Roy in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, 3rd mvt.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Alfred and the fruitcakes

I first realised there was a problem with Alfred Brendel when, a decade ago over dinner with the Menuhins, he muttered 'you made an intellectual of me,' and turned his head away.

I knew what he was on about, just about. Some time before, I had written a playful op-ed dividing pianists into two categories, eggheads and fruitcakes. The first are balding brainboxes who commune with Schopenhauer in their down time. The other category is full of nuts like Vladimir de Pachmann, who carried a smelly sock that he claimed belonged to Chopin, and Vladimir Horowitz who only gave recitals at 4pm and lived on a diet of Dover sole.

On balance, I reckoned, Mr B belonged to Category A. Apparently, he has never forgiven me.

Last weekend in a Guardian quiz, he was asked: 'What is the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?' Alfred Brendel replied: 'Cerebral pianist (Norman Lebrecht).'

Well, I guess no critic gets it right all the time, but when an artist cites Stendhal and Bunuel as his leisure pastimes and Peter Brook as his most admired living person, it might be reasonable to suggest that he has a whiff of bookishness about him, no matter how wacky an eccentric he would like to seem.

Even in his last season of playing concerts, I don't see Mr B coming on stage in a polka-dot tie and tutu. He is certifiably sane and fit for purpose, which is more than can be said of one or two younger colleagues. He is also unbendingly serious in his approach to music.

I am truly sorry for having cut him to the quick. I certainly didn't mean 'intellectual' in the English, pejorative sense, meaning someone not fit to be seen on BBC television.

Alfred, this is an apology. If you promise to play another couple of years, I'll upgrade you in my next piece to fruit-and-nut. Deal?\

Source: Artsjournal

Royal Opera House in HD: Frederick Ashton's Sylvia

Given the wildly successful Metropolitan Opera at the Movies venture instituted by the visionary Peter Gelb in December 2006, other opera companies are jumping on the bandwagon. La Scala and San Francisco Opera have started their own series at selected movie houses in Europe and the U.S., and Opera Australia is rumoured to get in on the action soon. Sadly none of these shows are available in Canada.

But not to worry – the venerable Royal Opera House (Covent Garden) is bringing its products to Canadian movie theatres. In a joint venture among Royal Opera, Opus Arte, and Digiscreen, the best of opera and ballet from ROH are making their way to the Empire Theatre chain across Canada. It begins this coming Sunday (March 30), with a showing of the late Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia, starring the recently retired Royal Ballet prima ballerina Darcey Bussell. It will be followed by the terrific production of Carmen (April 19) starring the fabulous Anna Caterina Antonacci in the title role, and new tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann as Don Jose. Other productions in the initial offering include three more ballets – Romeo et Juliette (May 24), Tales of Beatrix Potter (June 7) and The Sleeping Beauty (July 21). It appears that ROH is bringing its most popular and accessible shows, with the best singers and dancers, to its line-up. I have seen the Carmen and it really is a great performance - Antonacci and Kaufmann burned up the stage! It is not to be missed.

Yesterday I attended the press screening of Sylvia at the Empress Walk Theatre in North York. Like the Met shows, this ROH performance is in HD, although unlike the Met, everything in this line-up is pre-recorded. In fact this performance of Sylvia is several years old. Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton first conceived this work for the Royal Ballet in 1951 as a one-act ballet for Margot Fonteyn. It was last performed in 1965. Shortly before his death, Ashton expressed the wish to revive this ballet. Royal Ballet's Christopher Newton recreated the ballet based on photographs and sketches in honour of Ashton. Now the role of Sylvia was taken by Royal Ballet's most famous ballerina, Darcey Bussell.

Set to a score by Leo Delibes, Sylvia is your typical Romantic ballet. Shepherd Aminta is in love with Sylvia, who accidentally kills him with an arrow meant for the God Eros, who in turn shoots an arrow into Sylvia. The upshot of this is her falling in love with the dying Shepherd. Meanwhile, the lecherous Orion kidnapped Sylvia for his harem, but she escapes. Eros brings Aminta back to life and the two lovers are re-united. The 1951 version by Ashton was only one act, but later he expanded it to three short acts. The screening yesterday was short and sweet, lasting only two hours, even with a 20 minute intermission. For the opera fans among us, this intermission is for wimps since we are used to sitting through long operas, like the marathon six hours of Tristan und Isolde the previous week, but never mind....

Taped some years ago, Bussell was at the height of her powers here as Sylvia. Her dancing has clarity, precision, and a luminosity that is of the highest order. Partnering her is the Aminta of Roberto Bolle, a fine dancer though somewhat below the level of Bussell. Thiago Soares is a macho Orion, while Martin Harvey is a rather precious Eros. Graham Bond's conducting is good if a bit anonymous, perhaps to be expected in this genre of ballet. The sets and costumes are expectedly sumptuous. Unlike the live Met telecasts which are by satellite and thus subjected to the vagaries of weather and other factors, these ROH shows are pre-packaged in hard discs sent to individual theatres. As a result, the picture and sound are flawless.

If there is one criticism, it is the dim quality of the picture. I am told that this is due to the limitation of the projection equipment. Still, I wish someone can explain to me - if a regular movie can be so bright that it is blinding, why are these telecasts , whether it is the Met or the Royal Opera, so dim? I was told by a theatre manager last year that the technology will catch up and everything will be different in a couple of years. For me, it can't happen soon enough. For now, we should be grateful that we can see these performances without having to travel acrosss the Atlantic. Yes, the lack of "real time" and intermission features mean it is less exciting than the Met telecasts. In fact, the performances offered by ROH are all available on DVD, but there is something to be said about seeing it in a huge screen that most of us cannot duplicate at home! So for now, I will be happily attending these shows.

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Today's Birthdays in Music: March 26 (Boulez, Backhaus)

1925 - Pierre Boulez, Montbrison, France; composer, conductor

Wiki entry
Grove bio & more
Boulez in Conversation (La Scena Musicale, Nov. 2002)

Pierre Boulet conducts his Le soleil des eaux (Elizabeth Atherton, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Barbican Hall, London, 2005)

1884 - Wilhelm Backhaus, Leipzig, Germany; pianist

Wiki entry

Wilhelm Backhaus Plays Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 - 2nd movement (Vienna Philharmonic, Knappertsbusch conducting, 1962)

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: March 25 (Bartók, Toscanini)

1881 - Béla Bartók, Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary; composer, pianist, ethnomusicologist

Wiki entry
A Composer at the Next Station (La Scena Musicale, Sept. 2004)

Bartók - Piano Concerto No. 3 (Part 1). Andras Schiff at piano, City of Birmingham Orchestra, Simon Rattle, conductor (1997)

1867 - Arturo Toscanini, Parma, Italy; conductor

Wiki entry
Toscanini online

Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, 1st mvt. (Carnegie Hall, 1952)

Overture to Verdi's La Forza del Destino (Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1944)

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: March 24 (Malibran, Luxon)

1808 - Maria Malibran, Paris, France; opera mezzo-soprano and composer

Wiki entry

Cecilia Bartoli on Maria Malibran (more Bartoli than Malibran)

1937 - Benjamin Luxon, Redruth, England; opera and concert baritone

Wiki entry
Short bio/pictures

The Marriage of Figaro, Act 2: Benjamin Luxon as the Count (with Te Kanawa, Cotrubas and von Stade; Glyndebourne, 1973)

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Met in HD: Tristan und Isolde

The current run of Tristan und Isolde at the Met has had more than its share of high drama, and not always the desirable kind. It all began with the indisposition of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. This was supposed to be the much anticipated reprise of his Tristan, one of his most celebrated roles. And he was paired with soprano Deborah Voigt in her first Met Isolde. With these two great singers, supported by Wagnerian luminaries Matti Salminen and Michelle DeYoung, it was a highly anticipated event.

But things did not go smoothly from the start in this ill-starred revival. Heppner was feeling unwell throughout the rehearsal period, suffering from chills and fever. Doctors in New York misdiagnosed it as a "simple" case of virus. According to news report, he flew back to Toronto to undergo tests at the North York General Hospital. He was subsequently diagnosed as having a blood-borne infection that has abscessed in his pelvic region, requiring heavy doses of antibiotics and a surgical procedure to drain the infection. Heppner is still scheduled for the remaining two performances this coming week, although the chance of his singing is unknown. He was replaced in the orchestra rehearsal and the final dress by another Canadian, tenor John Mac Master, who was picked to sing opening night. I heard the broadcast on Sirius Radio. Reportedly suffering from allergies, Mac Master struggled in the middle and lower parts his voice, particularly during the lengthy Act 2 Love Duet. He was able to summon sufficient resources and sang an honorable Act 3. In the end, he had to face, undeservedly, boos from a few members of the Met audience at the final curtain. However, it should be noted that the second solo curtain call, he was met with only cheers.

Given the unfortunate reception for Mac Master, the Met management felt it necessary to find another cover. American tenor Gary Lehman, who has had Wagner experiences but had not sung Tristan previously, was quickly pressed into service. He sang the second performance and was well received by the audience. Like a comedy of errors, it was Voigt's turn to get sick. She walked off the stage during the Act 2 Love Duet due to stomach upset. The curtain came down the the performance resumed shortly with her cover, American soprano Janice Baird. Baird is a well known Wagnerian in Europe and is scheduled to sing Brunnhilde for Seattle in summer 2009. Both leads had a success in the second performance, but the drama didn't end there. The staging of the opening of Act 3 has Tristan prostrate on a raked stage with his head pointed downstage. In the third performance, a malfunction of the stage machinery sent Lehman into the prompter's box, close to the open flame which was part of the staging. The performance came to a grinding halt. Lehman was not hurt and the performance resumed in about 8 minutes with no further incident, thankfully.

With the string of mishaps, the fourth performance yesterday, telecast in movie theatres worldwide, understandably put the production team and the more knowledgeable members of the audience on edge. I am happy to report that everything came together and the result was a terrific performance witnessed by a large international audience. Deborah Voigt appears to have regained a few pounds of the huge amount of weight she had lost. While not everyone agrees that weight and voice have any direct relationship, all I can say is that in her case, she sounds better than she has been since her gastric bypass surgery two years ago. For my money, her modest weight gain now may well have contributed to her improved vocal estate and overall stamina in this punishing role. The voice is better supported, and the top firmer and less shrill. The first of her two high Cs in the beginning of the love duet was particularly strong. Throughout the opera, she sang with gleaming tone, in crystal clear German (unlike the mushy German of Michelle DeYoung, the Brangaene), only tiring during the Liebestod. That last ten minutes found her struggling with flat intonation, particularly near the end, when she fought hard to stay on pitch and largely not succeeding. This is forgivable given the overall quality of her performance. Her acting was more involved than I had previously experienced. She was partnered by American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who has a notable career in Europe, including Bayreuth, in the heldentenor fach. Scheduled to make his Met debut as the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2009, this performance marked his unscheduled debut, and it was an auspicious one. His Tristan combined beauty of tone with impressive stamina, unflagging in his vocalism throughout the lengthy delirium scene in Act 3. His acting was less interesting, but given he had no rehearsal, it was understandable.

The rest of the cast was strong. Eike Wilm Schulte sang firmly as Kurwenal; Michelle DeYoung an unusually youthful Brangaene, more sisterly than matronly. She started tentatively and sounded underpowered, but quickly warmed up to give an estimable performance. And it was a pleasure to hear the magnificent "black bass" of Matti Salminen as King Marke. It appears age is finally catching up with this great singer, evidenced by an incipient slow vibrato that has crept into his voice. But he is still head and shoulders above the others. James Levine has been much praised in Wagner and for good reason - his conducting has all the power and sweep one has come to expect and he managed to make the five and a half hour opera go by in a flash.

Now to the production itself. I saw this in the house some years ago with Heppner and Eaglen; and that run was subsequenly telecast and released on DVD. I have to say I am not too fond of the Dieter Dorn-Jurgen Rose production, which I find idiosyncratic and visually unsuited to the video camera. With this new attempt which draws upon new HD technology, some of my original complaints have been dispelled. Canadian Barbara Sweete, hired by Peter Gelb to do the telecast, liberally employed split screens and multiple images. It has the effect of creating movement in the opera where there is none. Remember we are dealing with an essentially static work, accentuated by a minimalist, highly formalized production. Sweete succeeded in introducing a certain visual variety. When the multiple images first appeared in Act One, I found the effect striking. But by Act Two, its frequency had increased to such an extent that it was almost distracting - a case of too much of a good thing perhaps. Unlike others who have commented negatively on this, I *liked* the concept of multiple images when it is used judiciously, and in a way that does not impede the drama and the overall context of the piece. Given this technique is still in the experimental stage at the Met, some of these issues will likely be resolved out in future telecasts. On this occasion, there were breathtakingly beautiful moments throughout - particularly memorable was the closeup of the two lovers on a dimly lit stage during a quiet moment near the end of the love duet. Moments like that are simply not accessible to the audience in the theatre, no matter how powerful the opera glass! In the theatre when I last saw the production, the two lovers were seen in silhouette, given the back-lit stage. There was simply no visual nuance possible. In fact, one critic (who shall remain nameless) made the nasty remark that the silhouettes of Heppner and Eaglen looked like two large sacks of garden leaves! What I am driving at is that this production poses special challenges for the live audience and the TV camera. Given the constraints, I thought the videography of this telecast was superb.

Technically, this performance as seen at Cinema 6 at the Sheppard Grande represented the first time that the satellite transmission was flawless - no frozen picture, no distorted sound, just five and a half hours of pure enjoyment. If I were to quibble, strangely the sound in Act 3 was much louder than Acts 1 and 2, and near the upper limit of human tolerance. Other than that, I have no complaints. So kudos to the Met and Sheppard Grande. Let's hope this continues!

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Today's Birthday in Music: March 23 (Minkus)

1826 - Léon Minkus, Vienna, Austria; violinist, composer (ballet music)

Wiki entry
Short bio

Excerpt from La Bayadère (Opéra de Paris)

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