La Scena Musicale

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 26 (Hewitt, Koussevitzky)

1958 - Angela Hewitt, Ottawa, Canada; pianist

Biography (Encylopedia of Music in Canada)

Angela Hewitt plays Prelude and Fugue in f# minor, BWV883 from J.S. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, Book 2.

1874 - Serge Koussevitzky, Vyshny Volochyok, Russia; conductor, double-bassist


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Friday, July 25, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: July 25 (Forrester)

1930 - Maureen Forrester, Montreal, Canada; contralto, teacher, administrator

Biography (Enclycopedia of Music in Canada)
Je me souviens de Maureen Forrester (La Scena Musicale, February 2006)

Maureen Forrester sings:

"Urlicht" from Mahler's 2nd symphony, 4th mvt. (orchestra directed by Glenn Gould, 1957)

English folk song "Blow the wind southerly" with John Newmark at the piano (CBC broadcast, 1965)

"Che puro ciel" from Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Charles Mackerras directs the orchestra)

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Letters from Munich: Jonas Kaufmann liederabend

Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl
Greetings from beautiful Munich! I arrived Tuesday morning for a week of wonderful music. With the Munich Festival in full swing, summer time here is a feast for opera lovers. This year is even more special because it is the 850th birthday of the city. Among the celebrations is the re-opening of the exquisite Rococo Cuvillies Theatre. We Canadian journalists are fortunate to have scheduled a private tour of this theatre, so I will have more to say in a few days.

Our Munich sojourn got off to a terrific start, with a lieder recital by the fast-rising tenor Jonas Kaufmann. It sold out days in advance. By six o'clock, there were quite a number of desperate people milling about outside the Prinzregententheater, with “suche Karte” signs in hand, hoping to get lucky. Those in possession of a ticket were treated to a remarkable display by an artist in his vocal prime.

Kaufmann is that rare breed - a budding heldentenor with gorgeous tone and great technical facility, not the least of which is a completely secure top register. He has total command of his voice, from the tiniest pianissimo to full throat forte. Everything is executed with utmost taste and musicality. Being tall, dark and handsome doesn't hurt either. Born in Munich, Kaufmann mostly sings elsewhere – in Zurich where he lives, in Covent Garden where he is a big star, and in New York and Chicago where he has loyal fan bases. Munich is very proud of its native son and Kaufmann was vociferously applauded when he entered. The applause only grew throughout the two hour concert.

Kaufmann opened with Schubert's Die Burgschaft, D. 246, which showed off his story-telling skills. Only a native German speaker is capable of such clarity of diction, coupled with lively acting that comes with a full understanding of the text. The long aria is really a mini-opera, and he held the audience’s attention throughout.

He followed the Schubert piece with Sieben sonette nach Michaelangelo, Op. 22 by Benjamin Britten, written for the tenor Peter Pears, Bitten’s partner in life and in art. The tessitura is very high, designed to show off the best part of Pears' voice. From the words of the opening song, “Si come nella penna” Kaufmann's tone rang out, fully bringing out the dramatic nature of the text. His Italian may not have the incisiveness he had in the German songs, but it is still pretty darn good. His singing had great variety, with all the requisite chiaroscuro one could want. Kaufmann was unsparing with his high notes, particularly his remarkably secure pianissimi, but he never resorted to a falsetto like some dramatic tenors. The baritonal timbre of his sound recalls a young Jon Vickers, although unlike Vickers, Kaufmann never croons. He always incorporates the chest register into his head voice. Judging from his concert and his Don Jose from Covent Garden, he is the premier jugendlich dramatic tenor voice in front of the public today.

After a 30 minute intermission, Kaufmann returned for an all Strauss program, in keeping with the Festival theme. He began with a most expressive "All mein Gedanken" – what a joy to the ear! Similarly, his "Du meines Herzens Kronelein" had lots of lovely soft singing. He brought out the humour in "Ach weh mir ungluckhaftem Mann", and the audience responded with spontaneous applause - unusual in Germany where the ever respectful audience always waits until the end of a group to applaud. "Ich liebe dich" was sung in an unusually declamatory manner, a little unusual for a love song. The vocal line is very emphatic, and the piano accompaniment curiously echoes the introduction to the presentation of the rose in Die Rosenkavalier.

If there was a fly in the ointment, it was the over reverberant acoustics in the Prinzregententheater, accentuated by the fully opened piano lid. Sometimes Helmut Deutsh’s ever-excellent playing was a little loud. Deutsch was/is Kaufmann's teacher, and the two performed with great rapport, with much communication and mutual trust.

Of all the Strauss songs Kaufmann sang this evening, I have two favourites. One was "Heimliche Aufforderung". I know some women singers tackle this, but for me this is a man's song, and Kaufmann's singing here has a certain, full throated, 'let it rip' quality but also plenty of sensitivity. My other favourite was Sehnsucht: wonderfully sustained, high piano soft singing in the last verse. If I were to allow myself a third favourite, it would be Cacilie. This closed the formal concert, showing once again his thrilling top.

The evening ended in many, many shouts of bravo and the two were called back time and time again. The inevitable encores began with Breit uber mein haupt, delivered in a straight forward, honest fashion. I have a soft spot for Beverly Sills' singing of this with orchestra, in half voice only, and very, very slow. Not at all authentic, but still very beautiful. The name of the second encore escapes me, but the third was Nichts. Kaufmann even offered a fourth encore. He gave unstintingly and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity to hear a wonderful artist at the height of his powers. As if a two hour concert wasn't tiring enough, Kaufmann signed autographs after the show. I didn't stay but one of my Canadian friends, a huge Kaufmann fan, lined up for autographs and photo ops, and I am sure I will get choice pictures from him soon!

I will have more to report after the Ariadne tomorrow.

Joseph So

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Letters from Munich: Arabella

Marlis Petersen (Zdenka) and Pamela Armstrong (Arabella)
Photo credit: Wilfrid Hoesl

My operatic feast here in Munich began last night with a performance of Arabella. We arrived at the theatre and found a dreaded white strip of paper in the program, signaling a cancellation. Soprano Anja Harteros was indisposed and Pamela Armstrong, an American, replaced her. I was so looking forward to hearing the much celebrated Harteros, a German soprano of Greek parentage and a Cardiff Singer of the World winner a few years ago. She sung to great success at the Met in recent seasons but I have not managed to catch her live. As for Armstrong, I only knew her as the Nozze Contessa and Rosalinda from Fledermaus – a well schooled, stylish singer with a beautiful sound.

The company has retired the 1977 production of Arabella, the one I was familiar with during the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau-Julia Varady era. The "new" 2001 production is more symbolic than representational, more in keeping with modern-day theatre design and direction sensibilities. Call me a traditionalist - while I found that it had its moments, it didn't touch the heart like the old production.

The curtain opened to what looked like an attic. The stage floor was severely raked and covered in papers (unpaid bills!). An auctioneer began appraising the furnishings and workmen took pieces off stage. A quirk in the direction: the Adelaide-Fortune Teller scene had Arabella onstage observing the proceedings, something I’d never seen before. The Fortune Teller was costumed more like a "lady of the evening" than your conventional gypsy fortune teller. I am sorry to report that as Arabella, Armstrong sounded underpowered in the middle and lower registers and tentative in her delivery. I was in the 10th row, but I had trouble hearing her middle and lower registers. But she got stronger as the evening went along, in the end delivering a beautiful last act aria. Physically she is not ideal as the heroine, especially in this production. She has gained weight since the last time I saw her, a bit plump and short, looking rather matronly, especially compared to the tall and willowy Harteros. Physically Armstrong and Marlis Petersen (Zdenka) aren't the best match. Armstrong's voice sounded smaller than the fabulous Marlis Peterson as Zdenka, resulting in a musically unbalanced Act One duet Aber der Richtige. The conductor (Stefan Soltesz) stopped the orchestra afterwards for applause but there was none.

I don't want to give the impression that Armstrong was a bad Arabella. She is a fine singer with a lovely voice perfect for Strauss in the Schwarzkopf mode. But at least on this occasion, it lacked impact in the theatre, and her overall portrayal was under-energized. To her credit, she got better and better, and her finest moment was Das war sehr gut at the end. She opened the aria with really lovely, pure tones which finally won me over. But perhaps for some of the more critical members of the audience, it was too little, too late.

To my eyes, the unit set did not work all that well for Act One and lacked grandeur for Act Two. A bed was left in stage center. I suppose in post-modern deconstructionist discourse, Arabella is all about sex, but do we really need a constant reminder? Mandryka was Bavarian evergreen Wolfgang Brendel. I first heard him in the 1980s at the Met; he was in possession of one of the most beautiful baritone voices at the time. Now well into his third decade of singing, the voice is still in good shape, but inevitably it has lost a certain amount of vocal sheen and richness. His technique didn't have quite the freedom of the past, and his vocal production is a little stentorian, lacking a full palette of tone colours. But given the nature of Mandryka's character, I thought Brendel did well. Unfortunately, the audience didn't agree with me, and he was greeted with some boos. More shocking was the persistent booing of Pamela Armstrong, who didn't deserve such boorish behaviour from a small segment of the audience. She is a lovely singer and there was much to enjoy in her performance. Perhaps an announcement before the show would have curbed some of the boo-birds - afterall, she stepped in with a couple of days' notice to save the performance, and Arabellas don't grow on trees!

The rest of the cast was exceptionally strong, notably Alfred Kuhn as a wonderfully dotty Graf Waldner. His voice is typical of a comprimario, but it is steady and without the wobble one often encounters in superannuated house singers. And what acting! He pretty much stole the show. Marlis Peterson made a totally believable boy, and her soubrette sound was ideal as Zdenka. A strange quirk in the direction by Andreas Homoki: in the first encounter between Zdenko (Zdenka) and Matteo, he/she has her hands all over Matteo's body and he doesn't bat an eye. Perhaps this is the director's way of introducing a homoerotic element to the story? As Matteo, Will Hartmann, whom I only know from his Tamino, hit all the high notes. He sang everything without having to yell in his ridiculous Strauss tenor role. The other suitors (Elemer, Dominik and Lamoral) were all fine, as was the silly role of Fiakermili, sung with great flair by Sine Bundgaard.

The best part of the performance was the wonderful orchestral sound under the firm direction of Stefan Soltesz. The overall performance, though not quite up to festival standards, was good and I am glad I saw it.

Joseph So

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Letter to the Editor: Classical Radio

Dear Mr. Wah Keung Chan,

Several years ago I wrote two articles that were published in your publication. Since then, I’ve witnessed the demise of classical music on both the CBC’s TV and Radio Networks. There is now precious little in the way of classical and jazz programming on the TV airwaves. Why aren’t there any live or recorded remotes from such events as the Montréal Jazz Festival and the Festival du Lanaudiere? I have read your articles concerning the CBC Radio Two in the May and June issues of your publication. I recall stating in one of my articles that in 1992, Ms. Margaret Lyons, then a manager of CBC Radio stated: “There is too much classical music on CBC Radio!” Her statement is rapidly becoming true, much to the chagrin of classical music lovers across this country. I confess that I am becoming annoyed at what is being executed by CBC Radio management. As a result I am tuning increasingly to WNED-FM at 94.5 MHX in Buffalo, New York, as well as the various classical and jazz channels on my XM satellite radio tuner. Additionally, I have re-discovered vinyl records. This January I started employment with a new CD re-issue company in Toronto, called Heritage Choice Records, founded by Marc Berstein. The company’s mandate is to re-issue cantoral, opera and classical 78 RPM recordings onto CDs, for sale to any interested parties.

While in Montréal for the Festival du Son et Image in April, I visited Le Colisée du Livre on rue Ste. Catherine E. Their second floor is a treasure trove of old LPs. In Kingston, there is a record shop called Brian’s Record Option at 382 Princess Street. They have more classical and soundtrack records than I’ve seen in a long time. I noticed that vinyl records and vacuum tube amplifiers are making a big comeback in Montreal. I counted no less than seven high-end audio retailers. Toronto electronics retailers seem more oriented to mass-market audio and home theatre installations. I like the warmer sound of vinyl and vacuum tubes, since they evoke memories of my childhood in Montréal. During that era, I started my serious listening habits with classical music. Even though I was bitten by the rock bug for a few years, I’m now returning to classical, jazz and blues music as much of the current popular roster has no interesting material (at least, not to me). Have you ever tried ‘returning’ to vinyl? If so, beware. It can become addictive.

Also, while in Montréal for this year’s Jazz Festival, I noted that Radio Couleur-Jazz had made tremendous improvement in its transmitter coverage. I can now receive a clear signal in Point Claire, about 15 miles from the transmitter on Mount Royal. I am also pleased the CJPX's sister station CJSQ-FM is on the air in Quebec City at 92.7. In Burlington, WVPR-FM 107.9 is now all news and talk programming from NPR and the BBC. This leaves Montrealers with no over-the-air access to NPR classical programming. NPR’s program, Music Through the Night, is always a welcome relief to nighttime listeners. Toronto readers can receive this program over WNED-FM 94.5 in Buffalo, New York. I would recommend that your readers investigate the XM Satellite Radio Service, as it really fills a void left by the demise of classical and jazz programming in CBC’s Radio Two and Espace Musique.

I still look forward to each new edition of your publication. It is still an important link in coverage of jazz and classical music events in Québec and Canada.

Dwight W. Pole
Toronto, Ontario

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Today's Birthdays in Music: July 24 (di Stefano, Bloch)

1921 - Giuseppe di Stefano, Motta Sant'Anastasia, Italy; opera tenor

Obituary (The Guardian, March 3, 2008)

Giuseppe di Stefano sings "La fleur que tu m'avais jetéefrom Bizet's Carmen (1956)

1880 - Ernest Bloch, Geneva, Switzerland; composer

Brief biography and pictures

Ernest Bloch's Concerto grosso No. 2, 3rd mvt., Allegro (Zuercher Akademie Kammerensemble, conductor Christopher Morris Whiting)

Violinist Yuri Beliavsky and pianist Daniel Beliavsky perform "Nigun" from Bloch's Baal Shem Suite (University of Wisconsin, 2004)

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 23 (Berwald, Cilèa)

1796 - Franz Berwald, Stockholm, Sweden; composer


Berwald's Symphony No. 4 in E flat, 3rd mvt. (Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra)

1866 - Francesco Cilèa, Palmi, Italy; composer


Jan Peerce sings "È la solita storia del pastore" (Federico's Lament) from Cilèa's L'Arlesiana (Vienna Festival Orchestra, conducted by Franz Allers, 1965)

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Borrmeo Quartet performs in Vancouver

Although the Bartók String Quartets are securely placed in the standard chamber repertoire, complete performances are something special. In a poignant homage to the Vancouver Recital Society's now defunct Chamber Music Festival, the Boston-based Borromeo Quartet played on July 20, in circumstances as untypical as the project.

The venue was a large home on the edge of Vancouver's sprawling northeast suburbs. Most of the audience traveled an hour from the downtown core, listening to a pre-concert lecture aboard a motor coach. This almost rural setting and the perfect summer day held all hundred participants in a shared intimacy.

The music was impressive. The Quartet played in Tokyo last month and plans to record the works in the near future. First violinist Nicholas Kitchen followed the full score on a laptop but the rest of the ensemble opted for traditional parts. The Borromeo Quartet produced a suave, blended sound, which made the First Quartet sound all the more Romantic. By the time Bartók found his idiom, the players had adjusted to accommodate the raw energy and rhythmic drive of the composer.

Hearing all six quartets in six hours was demanding; such intense music packs an emotional wallop. The integral approach made Bartók's ideas and connections all the more powerful. The charm of the setting played its part as well. In the ‘night music’ movements of unsentimental evocations of nature sounds, it seemed like the Fraser Valley birds and bugs were counting bars and entering on cue.

David Gordon Duke
Vancouver, BC

Today's Birthday in Music: July 22 (Albanese)

1913 - Licia Albanese, Bari, Italy; opera soprano

Profile (San Francisco Chronicle, 2004)

Licia Albanese sings:

The Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (1951, Leopold Stokowski conducting)

"Stridono lassù" from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1951)

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: July 21 (Kuerti, Stern)

1938 - Anton Kuerti, Vienna, Austria; pianist, teacher, composer

Interview (La Scena Musicale, April 2008)

1920 - Isaac Stern, Kremenetz, Ukraine; violinist

Obituary (NY Times, Sept. 2001)

Isaac Stern plays and conducts Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 3, 3rd mvt. (1984)

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Today's Birthday in Music: July 20 (Paik)

1932 - Nam June Paik, Seoul, South Korea; avant-garde composer and video artist


Unprotected music: Nam June Paik - "Solo for Violin" (Donaufestival, Krems, 2007)

Nam June Paik at the piano with Charlotte Moorman playing the cello

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