La Scena Musicale

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: August 23 (Krenek, Primrose)

1900 - Ernst Krenek, Vienna, Austria; composer


Späte Zeit, op.114 for Cello, Piano and Tenor

1904 - William Primrose, Glasgow, Scotland; violist


William Primrose plays Walton's Viola Concerto, 1st mvt. (William Walton conducting)

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Sparkling Ariadne auf Naxos closes Toronto Summer Music Festival

Photo: Melinda Delorme (Ariadne) and Steven Sherwood (Bacchus)

Thanks to conductor Agnes Grossmann and her Toronto Summer Music Festival, local opera lovers enjoyed a high calibre, fully staged opera in the dog days of summer, something that had not been possible until the last couple of summers. The offering this year was Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. A connoisseur's piece, Ariadne represents Strauss at the height of his powers, a clever juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy, filled with sublime melodies for the four principals. I had the good fortune of attending the opening night of Munich Opera's new production of Ariadne last month, starring Canada's own Adrianne Pieczonka. TSM's Ariadne might not be on the same grand scale, but on the "enjoyment meter", it was right up there.

Seen on opening night (August 14), it featured an excellent quartet of principals, headed by soprano Melinda Delorme as Ariadne. During her tenure as a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, Delorme was rather overshadowed by her more high profile colleagues. She never received the plum roles, with the possible exception of Aksinya in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk two seasons ago. This Ariadne really showed what Delorme is capable as an artist. Becomingly costumed, Delorme sang powerfully and with stamina, her bright tone ringing out impressively in the McMillan Theatre. Yet she is also capable of delicacy and nuance, as her nice pianissimi in "Ein schoenes War" amply demonstrated. I heard her "Es gibt ein Reich" at the Ensemble Farewell Concert in June. Back then it was a work in progress, but now her singing was altogether lovely. Her German was very good, as was almost everyone in the youthful cast - kudos to diction coach Adi Braun.

Sharing top honours with Delorme was Erica Iris Huang as the Komponist. Her high mezzo has the right timbre for this role and her portrayal of the impulsive, idealistic Composer was spot on. If I were to nitpick, her high pianissimo needs greater security and the same beautifully rich tone colours as her middle voice. I look forward to hearing more from this singer.

Zerbinetta is one of the greatest coloratura soprano roles in the repertoire. Her 11 minute "Grossmachtige Princessin" is an acid test of vocal technique and endurance. Soprano Desiree Till has a small but pretty voice to match her petite stage presence. Though hampered by an unattractive costume, Till was a fine Zerbinetta, singing her big aria with nice tone and sure sense of pitch, all the way up to a totally secure high F. The only thing lacking in her voice is a decent trill, not at all in evidence on opening night. Much of Zerbinetta's music requires a well developed trill. Hopefully it is something Ms. Till will work on in the future.

While Strauss may have lavished his best music on the female voice, he was singularly cruel to tenors. Just about all Strauss tenor roles - from the Kaiser in Die Frau, to Menelaus in Die Aegyptische Helena, Matteo in Arabella, or Bacchus in Ariadne - are ridiculously high. Dramatically these characters aren't terribly rewarding either, so the biggest challenge in any Ariadne production is finding a good Bacchus. Tenor Steven Sherwood was a workmanlike Bacchus. His voice has a pleasant timbre, although a bit small and didn't sufficiently project, especially when paired with a big-voiced Ariadne. Still he acquitted himself honourably.

The rest of the cast was strong, with kudos to the terrific trio of Rhinemaiden-like Nymphs of Anna Bateman (Najade), Laura McAlpine (Dryade) and Ada Balon (Echo), their voices blending beautifully. Also deserving of mention was the sturdy baritone of Gene Wu as the Musiklehrer. The youthful comedians sang and acted with enthusiasm, with Stephen Bell an amusing if stereotypically swishy Tanzmeister.

The production is quirky, but it's par for the course when it comes to modern stagings of Ariadne auf Naxos, surely one of the most likely candidates for postmodernist updating! Overall I feel the direction by Austrian Titus Hollweg was good. (Incidentally he did a superb job as the Major Domo) The Prologue, set in the lobby of an "island resort", works surprisingly well. Using the same basic set for the Opera proper however is more problematic. Furnitures are covered with white sheets, signs set askew, giving it an appropriately dusty, disheviled look. Have we wandered into the living room of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations? Onstage is Ariadne's wedding cake, which she samples, eliciting snickering from the audience. There were more belly laughs from this audience over the antics of the comedians than I have ever experienced in the many Ariadnes I have seen. Yes this is a comedy to be sure, but is it really that funny? A surfeit of rip roaring laughs takes away from the profundity of this work as far as I am concerned. Another misfire is the shadow play right in the middle of Zerbinetta's great scena. In this sublime musical moment, we don't need any irrelevant staging to take the attention away from Zerbinetta herself. On the other hand, the arrival of Bacchus, standing behind the cutout of a cardboard ship's captain uniform is suitably pompous and amusing.

The musical side of things were commendable. Agnes Grossmann gave a precise, tightly controlled reading of the score, perhaps a little metronomic at times, as in the orchestral prelude to the entrance of Bacchus, but overall her conducting was enjoyable. The opening minutes of the Prologue was marred by some balance problems, with the brass and woodwinds overwhelming the strings. But things settled down quickly soon after and the youthful orchestra played well, a few sour notes from the horns notwithstanding. All in all, an audacious but highly rewarding production of a scintillating opera. I look forward to the offering next summer!

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Today's Birthdays in Music: August 22 (Debussy, Stockhausen)

1862 - Claude Debussy, St-Germain-en-Laye, France; composer


"L'Isle joyeuse" played by Desislava Bobrina (Sofia, Bulgaria, 2006)

Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 (Maria Bessmeltseva & Paris Paraschoudis, violins; Jesse Griggs, viola; Heather Scott, cello)

1928 - Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mödrath, Germany; composer

Obituary (The Times, UK, Dec. 8, 2007)

Klavierstück XI, played by Aloys Kontarsky

Gruppen, for three orchestras (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra: Simon Rattle, John Carewe, Daniel Harding, conductors; 1998 performance)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: August 21 (L. Boulanger, Janet Baker)

1893 - Lili Boulanger, Paris, France; composer

Women of Note

Lili Boulanger's Psalm 24 for chorus, organ and orchestra (Monteverdi Choir and London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner conductor)

1933 - Janet Baker, Hatfield, England; opera and concert mezzo-soprano

Biography and pictures

Janet Baker sings:

"Che farò senza Euridice?" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (studio performance, 1982)

Schubert's "Who is Sylvia?", accompanied by Murray Perahia (at Covent Garden)

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: August 20 (Bernardi, Vengerov)

1930 - Mario Bernardi, Kirkland Lake, Canada; conductor

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

1974 - Maxim Vengerov, Novosibirsk, Russia; violinist

Official website
Cordes sensibles (La Scena Musicale, Nov. 2002)

Maxim Vengerov plays "Ballade" by Ysaÿe

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: August 19 (Enescu, G. Schwarz, A. Monk)

1881 - George Enescu, Liveni, Romania; composer, conductor, violinist, pianist, teacher

Biography and pictures

TRAFFIC String Quintet plays Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody (live concert, Bucharest, 2008)

1947 - Gerard Schwarz, Weekawken, U.S.A.; conductor

Biography and pictures

Gerard Schwarz rehearses the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Louis Gruenberg's Violin Concerto (Koh Gabriel Kameda, violin; Tokyo, 2002)

1942 - Allan Monk, Mission, Canada; opera and concert baritone

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

Allan Monk and Marilyn Horne sing "Ai capricci delle sorte" from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri (Metropolian Opera, 1986)

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: August 18 (MacMillan, Salieri)

1893 - Ernest MacMillan, Mimico, Canada; conductor, composer, organist, pianist

Biography (Encyclopedia of Music in Canada)

1750 - Antonio Salieri, Legnano, Italy; composer and conductor

Truth or Fiction?

Diana Damrau sings "Sento l'amica speme" from Salieri's Semiramide

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bel Canto "Greatest Hits" Program Thrills Audiences

The second in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 by Paul E. Robinson

Although Festival Bel Canto had its official inaugural concert in Knowlton, Quebec on Friday, August 15 with a recital by Jennifer Larmore, one could argue that the real opening came the next night with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) making its first appearance and with a program that amounted to a virtual bel canto –“Greatest Hits.”

American soprano June Anderson provided star power and was joined by members of the Opera Studio of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in operatic excerpts from works by Donizetti and Rossini. There were copious excerpts from the Barber of Seville by Rossini, and shorter arias, ensembles and overtures from various Donizetti operas including L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor. The best-known piece on the programme was undoubtedly Rossini’s overplayed warhorse, the William Tell overture.

If the idea was to send the audience members away with a smile on their faces and a desire to hear more bel canto then the festival organizers certainly achieved that goal; all the performances were at least competent and some were even memorable. To my taste June Anderson provided the musical highlights beginning with an exquisite ‘Piangete voi…Al dolce guidami’ from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The duet with English horn was especially beautiful. Later came an aria from Rossini’s Otello. Verdi’s Otello is, of course the finest opera ever written based on this Shakespeare play but Anderson and Nagano reminded us that parts of Rossini’s Otello are also well worth hearing from time to time. Members of the OSM matched Anderson’s finely-controlled expressiveness with notable obbligato contributions.

Santa Cecilia Academy’s Maestro Carlo Rizzari Shares Podium With Nagano

Kent Nagano, the OSM’s music director, shared the podium with the young Italian conductor Carlo Rizzari. This was another example of the festival’s collaboration between the OSM and the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. Rizzari is the assistant conductor of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, a distinguished and wholly professional ensemble connected with the Academy. Rizzari proved to be highly competent if a little flamboyant in his gestures especially as compared to the austere Nagano. But then Nagano is a special case. Like the legendary Fritz Reiner, Nagano is a minimalist who gets maximum results. More on that subject in a later blog.

The young singers from Italy acquitted themselves well, although I doubt that we were seeing any stars in the making. Although Italy prides itself on being the country that gave birth to bel canto and often suggests that it produces the finest current practitioners, one might justifiably question that claim; Jennifer Larmore and June Anderson are both Americans. That too is a subject for a later blog.

Making Music in a Tent an Acoustical Conundrum

I have now heard two concerts in the Chapiteau Tibbits Hill, the tent especially constructed for Festival Bel Canto 2008, and I can offer at least a preliminary assessment of its acoustics. As one might expect, a canvas tent seating 600 with nothing like a proper shell to reflect sound on the stage is not going to sound like Symphony Hall in Boston or the Musikverein in Vienna. It will not even sound like Place des Arts in Montreal. It is, after all, a small tent. Classical music needs space and it needs reflecting surfaces. For symphony orchestras a big shoebox design usually gets the best results. The size of the tent also forced Nagano to reduce the size of his orchestra to about 50 players. Fortunately, that is about the optimum size for an orchestra specializing in bel canto repertoire.

With all of this in mind Nagano and the festival organizers prepared themselves to improve on nature by bringing along a sound system. All the instruments are miked and a sound engineer at the back of the tent tries to mix the sound as best he can to produce a pleasing effect. At the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal for “Norma, the result was far from pleasing. In fact, it was harsh and unmusical. But that is why orchestras (and sound engineers) have rehearsals. Last night the sound quality was much improved.

In quiet passages the winds sounded focused and clean. I was reminded of the classic RCA recordings from the 1950s in which wind solos were always prominent and not recessed somewhere at the back of the orchestra. Solo cellos sounded fine too in the beginning of the “William Tell” Overture. When the music got loud, however, the strings virtually disappeared and we were often left with a brass band effect. Unfortunately, this is a criticism often made of the orchestral writing of Bellini and Donizetti at the best of times. The last thing a conductor wants to do is emphasize this quality.

Kent Nagano is a very perceptive musician and no doubt he was very much aware of the problems of making music in a tent. Between the “Norma” rehearsal on Friday and the bel canto highlights concert last night he had obviously had a heart-to-heart with his brass players; they were now playing nearly everything at about half the normal dynamics. Another factor that should be mentioned is that in taking bel canto as his theme for the festival Nagano was interested not only in celebrating the glories of the human voice, but also in learning as much as he could about bel canto orchestral playing. With this in mind he hired violinist Riccardo Minasi, a specialist in early nineteenth-century performance practice, to work with the OSM string players. Minasi was particularly involved in the Norma rehearsals but his approach is probably going to be reflected in every Nagano-conducted performance of music from this period.

Nagano’s new approach undoubtedly means less vibrato and a more sustained and inflected melodic line, analogous to bel canto singing. It also means trying to achieve a much lighter, less Germanic style of orchestral playing.

Lighter, More Authentic Approach Makes a Virtue of Necessity

The best example of what Nagano has achieved so far was on display last night in his conducting of Rossini’s William Tell overture. With modern instruments and the size of today’s orchestras this piece is invariably done today in a “hell for leather” fashion for maximum noise and excitement. But in the early nineteenth century orchestras were much smaller and orchestral instruments capable of producing much more limited volume. The trombones we hear blazing away today in the “Storm” section of the overture had much smaller bores in Rossini’s day and produced a far lighter and more blended sound. Cynics might say that Nagano made a virtue out of necessity by going for a lighter approach last night but in fact his search for a lighter, more authentic bel canto orchestral sound is real. More on this subject after I attend the Norma performance next Sunday.

Incidentally, those attending one of the Norma performances in Knowlton should look in the OSM brass section for another example of Nagano’s search for authenticity. Instead of the usual tuba, you will see a large and strange-looking trombone called a cimbasso; apparently, Bellini called for it in Norma and Verdi was also very fond of it.

Breaking News From Knowlton

At last night’s concert, Marco Genoni, Honorary Chairman of Festival Bel Canto 2008, announced from the stage that the OSM will be performing a free concert in the park in Knowlton on Saturday, August 30. As Mr. Genoni put it, the orchestra “wishes to give something back to the community” in return for its generosity and cooperation in hosting this new festival. Perhaps this was another way of saying that the festival organizers were responding to criticism that most tickets for their concerts were sold out far in advance and few “local” music-lovers had a chance to attend any of the major offerings. If so, credit is due to festival organizers for being sensitive to host community concerns and for acting quickly.

> First Report

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Report from Bel Canto, New Music Festival in Quebec

The first in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 by Paul E. Robinson

In a feature article last week, Christopher Huss of Le Devoir chose the heading “Knowlton, le Glyndebourne du Nouveau Monde?” (Knowlton, Glyndebourne of the New World?). Even with the question mark attached, this was heady stuff. Knowlton is a charming but tiny town (population: 5,000) in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, with scarcely a single memorable concert to its name let alone a world-class festival. What is going on here?

Festival Bel Canto was created almost overnight by the combined talents and energy of two men: Kent Nagano, music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (OSM), and Marco Genoni, a Swiss businessman who has a home in Knowlton (Lac Brome). Late last year Nagano came to Knowlton as Genoni’s guest and before the visit was over they had inspired each other to launch a new festival. The initial inspiration had a lot to do with the natural, unspoiled splendour of the area – “One of the most beautiful places in the world” Nagano enthused at his Press Conference at the festival site held just hours before opening night – and its proximity to Montreal.

But reality usually sets in a few days later when the visionaries float back to earth and face the problem of finding the money. In most cases, that is the end of it, especially when the dream involves an orchestra and major artists. But Nagano and Genoni are not most cases. Genoni formed an advisory group of Knowlton residents and among them and their friends they found the money. The game was on!

For Nagano and Genoni it was not enough to create a festival with Nagano and his orchestra as the prime focus. They had bigger dreams. One idea led to another and before long they were in touch with Bruno Cagli, director of the famed Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. Cagli is one of the greatest living authorities on Italian opera, and particularly that period – 1820-1840 – in which Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini produced their greatest works. This is often called the Age of Bel Canto although the term is also used to describe virtually the whole history of singing in Italy.

For Nagano and Cagli the term will be used primarily in its narrower sense at their new festival. Thus, the major event at the inaugural festival will be Bellini’s opera “Norma”, and music by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini figures in almost every concert. The festival runs from August 15 to August 24 and features some of the biggest stars in opera, and all of them have excelled in this repertoire. Not only will they be heard singing this music but they will take time to give master classes too. The vision of Genoni, Nagano and Cagli is not only to create a major festival but to include in its activities an important teaching component.

Opening night at Festival Bel Canto was filled with excitement and anticipation. Patrons and donors rubbed shoulders with local folk and there were even two former prime ministers in attendance (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin). The site itself is in a field overlooking Lac Brome. Patrons leave their cars at the famous Canards du Lac Brome (Brome Lake Duck Farm) and are taken by bus to the site, about a five-minute ride. The performance space is a white tent seating about 600. The shuttle system worked remarkably well on opening night and avoided the problem of where to park nearly 300 cars, especially if it rains and cars are stuck in fields turned into muddy swamps. The tent is not an ideal acoustic for classical music but on opening night it worked well enough. A sophisticated sound system is in place to enhance the sound coming off the stage but Nagano said that this was put in mainly to guard against disaster. For this first festival they had no idea what the sound would be like and wanted to have other options.

As expected on such occasions, there were speeches and more speeches and finally we got to the music. And there was something else. Master of Ceremonies Kelly Rice, a CBC Radio Music producer, asked all the participants in the festival to come on stage together so that when Knowlton residents saw them in town going to the grocery store or sitting in a pub they would recognize them and say hello. This was a fine gesture and an important one if Knowlton is going to embrace this strange encroachment on their idyllic community.

Still another inspired Nagano gesture. This evening was advertised as a recital featuring American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore but before she came on Nagano conducted two short pieces with a small ensemble of recent prizewinners in OSM competitions. The idea was to 1) give pride of place to the musicians of the future who will inherit the festival, and 2) underscore the pedagogical aspect of the festival. For this purpose Nagano chose two short pieces in keeping with the festival’s theme: Boccherini’s very familiar Menuet and Rossini’s little-known “Serenata per piccolo complesso.” Both were played with skill and style by Nagano and his young players.

Jennifer Larmore opened her program with Rossini’s delightful “La Regata Veneziana.” Larmore never loses sight of the fact that she is an entertainer - a point she also emphasized at her master class the next day. She exudes joy and enthusiasm when she takes the stage and she uses her face and body with great skill to tell us about the characters she is portraying and the stories in the music. She is so good at this aspect of her art she could easily have a career as a mime if she ever decides to stop singing.

“La Regata Veneziana” is delightful and funny and Larmore did everything she could to bring it alive for us, but she would have been even more successful had she explained the piece beforehand or had the texts been included in the program. Another option might have the use of the surtitle equipment being used for the festival’s “Norma” performances. Surtitles would be equally effective for vocal recitals.

But make no mistake. While Larmore is a superlative actress, she is also possessed of an extraordinarily beautiful voice. What is more to the point at this new festival is that she knows how to create the beautiful line and toss off the virtuoso requirements demanded by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. She gave us excerpts from operas by all three bel canto masters and threw in some Mozart for good measure.

Larmore was in equally fine form the next afternoon as she led a master class devoted to bel canto at Chapelle Saint-Édouard. Some talented young singers presented excerpts from operas by Bellini and Donizetti and Larmore worked with them with obvious love and commitment.

On Saturday morning in the same venue singers from l’Atelier lyrique de l’Opera de Montréal offered their takes on excerpts from more operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. For each of the events in the chapel there were about 70 people and they seemed to enjoy what they heard. Both events were free.

In my next blog I’ll be able to report on the first concert at the festival involving the OSM. On the basis of what I have heard so far, anyone with the slightest interest in Italian opera should be in their cars and headed for Knowlton. Kent Nagano, his colleagues and friends are in the process of creating something very special.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music, both available at For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Today's Birthday in Music: August 17 (Tomasi)

1901 - Henri Tomasi, Marseille, France; composer and conductor


Concertino in E major (Tatiana Pimenova - flute, Yana Tratsevskaya - piano; Zurich 2008)

"Tryptique", 3rd mvt. (recital at McGill University, Montreal, 2006)

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