La Scena Musicale

Friday, February 20, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 21 - 27)

Conductor Charles Dutoit

The highlight this week is the welcome return of Charles Dutoit to the Toronto Symphony to conduct a concert version of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust (Feb. 26 and 28, 8 pm, at Roy Thomson Hall). Despite the very striking Robert Lepage production mounted at the Metropolitan Opera that was shown as part of the current Met in HD series, this piece is problematic as a staged work due to its static nature. Here we will have a performance as originally intended.

Heading the cast is a trio of operatic veterans - mezzo Susanne Mentzer as Marguerite, bel canto tenor Gregory Kunde as Faust, and Sir Willard White as Mephistofeles. Also featured is a rising star, New Zealand bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu in a supporting role. Mezzo Mentzer has sung at the COC in the past, and I have heard her on a number of occasions in Santa Fe. A noted Rosina, Cherubino and Octavian, among other roles, Mentzer has moved - perhaps too soon - to character mezzo parts in recent years, as the voice is still in fine shape. It is good to know that she has not left the leading roles entirely behind her and I look forward to her Marguerite. Having made his name in the bel canto repertoire, tenor Gregory Kunde has branched out to a broader repertoire as his voice has grown in size and heft, including a very fine Aeneas in Berlioz's Les Troyens a few season's back. He is known for his handsome stage presence and high notes to burn, which I had the pleasure of hearing several seasons ago in a Santa Fe Opera Ermione. I also recall his Camille in Merry Widow for the COC more than 20 years ago. His voice is undoubtedly very different now, and he will have the power and presence to be a creditable Faust. Completing the trio will be Sir Willard White. He is the Wotan in the current Ring at Aix en Provence, so it will be interesting to hear him in a French role.

Elsewhere in the concert scene, violinist Midori will give the third of her performances of Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Toronto Symphony on Feb. 21, 7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. A frequent visitor to Toronto, Midori has a huge local following. Also on the program is Schumann's Spring Symphony. Saturday's performance is called a "Casual Performance", starting a half hour earlier than usual, and part of the program is cut, in this case Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. After the show, there will be some sort of entertainment in the lobby, usually a Jazz Ensemble. Leading the TSO is Czech guest conductor Jun Maerkl.

Finally, for something different, check out the world premiere of Ines, a chamber opera inspired by Portuguese Fado music. The composer is Canadian James Rolfe of Beatrice Chancey fame, with a libretto by Paul Bentley. It is a tragic love story based on the Portuguese legend of Ines de Castro, with the story adapted to Toronto's Portuguese community experience in the 1960's. Soloists are Giles Tomkins, Shannon Mercer, Thomas Goerz, and Elizabeth Turnbull, all well known in the Canadian music scene. The show also features Portuguese Fado singer Ines Santos. There are five performances at the Enwave Theatre in the Toronto Harbourfront (Feb. 21, 25, 26, 28, and March 1). Call Harbourfront Centre Box Office at 416-973-4000 for tickets, or visit or

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Debussy : Préludes pour piano, Livres 1 et 2

Ivan Ilić, piano
Paraty 108.105 (75 min 40 s)
*** $$$$

Le choix audacieux d’aligner les 24 Préludes de Debussy dans un ordre tout autre que celui dans lequel ils ont été publiés fait espérer l’avènement d'un artiste aux idées musicales originales. Ivan Ilić, jeune pianiste serbe installé à Paris, affiche une technique à peu près impeccable, suit scrupuleusement les indications métronomiques et exécute les rythmes, complexes, avec une souplesse louable, mais jamais on n’entend chez lui l’ombre d’un travail de sonorité; les forte sont claqués, même sous le sans dureté clairement indiqué par Debussy, et les piani sont inexistants ou détimbrés. On se demande comment un pianiste vraisemblablement aussi compétent qu’Ilić peut jouer avec une telle froideur et une telle inconscience de ce qui passe, ou plutôt ne passe pas les micros. On attend le chant, la résonance dans les géniales pages de Debussy, et on se surprend à entendre mourir des sons sans vie. Bruyères et Les danseuses de Delphes sont particulièrement pénibles, mais ce jeu impassible sied curieusement bien aux préludes plus humoristiques; Minstrels et General Lavine – eccentric sont même assez réussis. On attend en vain une vraie atmosphère, un contraste, une couleur, un élan. L’exécution parfaite et morne d’un bon élève, exempte de toute poésie.

- Camille Rondeau

Buy this CD at

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Mark Padmore and Imogen Cooper Bring Schöne Müllerin to Lincoln Center Recital Debut

By Barbara Sealock

English tenor, Mark Padmore, will make his Lincoln Center recital debut on February 25 with Schubert’s masterpiece, Die schöne Müllerin, in partnership with countrywoman and “poet of the piano”, Imogen Cooper.

Padmore’s voice, praised for “excelling in tenderness…ideally dulcet, with a hint of Italianate vibrancy,” is a fitting choice for the two-week Opening Nights celebration and debut of the newly re-envisioned Alice Tully Hall.

Fluent in widely-ranging periods and genres, from Bach cantatas and Baroque Opera to Benjamin Britten—his 2008 Peter Grimes performance under the direction of the late conductor, Richard Hickox, resulted in a Grammy-winning recording—Padmore has an uncommon gift for illuminating the soul of the music and the most subtle of poetic insights.

This he accomplishes with what critics have praised as “musical and spiritual acumen finely honed, his own pensive persona, so perfectly attuned to the sentiments he conveys, and daring to sing very quietly, drawing his audience into a very private devotional world…which has “moved everyone in the packed hall.”

It is somewhat surprising to learn that Padmore, for all his virtuosity, postponed Lieder performance until his forties, when he felt sufficiently prepared to embrace it. By the time he arrives at Lincoln Center, he will have sung Die schöne Müllerin about 50 times and is amazed every time that “when we set out on the journey, the jaunty music it starts out with can take you to the places it goes.”

Die schöne Müllerin is, to me, one of the really great pieces of music—right up there with the great works of literature and painting. It’s a very naive, sort of folkloric-like tale, with some archetypes thrown in. But it is enormously touching.”

“Basically, it‘s about a naïve young man who sets out on a journey with great enthusiasm, and his sensibility is very intense—attuned to nature and to what’s going on around him—but he falls in love at first glance with the miller’s daughter, really not giving himself a chance to even get to know her. He’s so taken with life and love, and of course she goes off and falls in love with the huntsman, the virile man. And the young man can’t compete and falls into depression, which leads to suicide. I think I find that it often provokes tears in an audience because they identify somewhere deep with dashed hopes and naïve expectations that this guy had of life.”

Well-known for their individual careers in concert halls around the world—Cooper is a distinguished champion of Schubert—the Padmore-Cooper musical partnership is comparative new, beginning at Festival de Valloires in northern France in 2006 at the suggestion of BBC/Radio 3 producer, Adam Gatehouse, a mutual friend and festival organizer. Although primarily a solo artist, Cooper had a well-established collaboration with Austrian baritone, Wolfgang Holzmair, praised as “one of the greatest living partnerships in song.”

“I had known Imogen for awhile but we had never actually worked together,” says Padmore. “She was, I think, a little bit suspicious about starting another collaboration with another singer, but I think Imogen and I did click very much. We performed Die schöne Müllerin that first year and then in 2007, we did Schwanengazang and last year for the first time, we did Winterreise. So it’s the kind of collaboration that’s occasional, but very, very fruitful. She’s a very stimulating, thoughtful musician with lots of ideas.”

Cooper, whose interpretations of Schubert, Mozart, Schumann, and a host of new composers are world-renowned, was brought up at a time when tradition held that solo pianists stick to solo performance, and venture into collaboration at the risk of being seen as a jack-of-all-trades. “Happily,” she says, “that is not the case anymore. Musicians in their 20s and 30s are doing everything and nobody thinks the worse for it. Now I play collaborative repertoire with a fresher mind and depth of understanding than I would have at age 25. I don’t feel I am an accompanist, rather a partner.”

Padmore would agree. “I don’t think either Imogen or I would think that we’ve arrived at a complete interpretation for all time. Rather, we just try and get into a state where, in the moment of performance, you can access all the things you’ve talked about—all the ideas you’ve had, and any one of them might influence the performance that particular night.”

Die schöne Müllerin is a big span of music to listen to, but I feel that in a good performance, you’re taken on a journey, both by the pianist and the singer. And with the translation, it should be possible to really follow what is going on. If it’s done well, and you allow the music to speak for itself—really, really speak, with its great skill and communication—I think that it is absolutely as powerful as any experience you can have.

“I don’t want people to come away and say, ‘Oh, Mark Padmore was amazing,’ so much as, ‘God, this music—I’ve never heard any music like that. I’ve never realized what a great piece it was.’ “That, I think, is the biggest compliment that can be paid.”

Barbara Sealock writes about classical music for periodicals and classical music websites

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rosenkavalier in Paris - February 4, 2009

A rare Parisian standing ovation paid tribute to the starry assembly of voices for Richard Strauss' most popular opera, Der Rosenkavalier. When Christian Thielemann, the Munich Philharmonic's music director, spoke of "a galactic cast," he was using only a measure of hyperbole. With fewer gold-standard artists and more world stages chasing them, it is not easy to get so many in one spot at one time. Oddly enough the main draw, mega-star Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, made the fewest waves as the evening progressed. It was the conductor's night to shine.

Assembled for three staged performances and a HD video recording while opening the Winter season in Baden-Baden, the troupe travelled to Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for a single concert version on February 4, witnessed by this writer, with a final concert performance in Munich a few days later. In Baden-Baden, one of the rich legacy of productions from the late producer Herbert Werneke, seen in Paris and Salzburg, was re-staged for the occasion.

Fleming, while her trademark golden tones were in plentiful supply, never seemed to occupy the role of the princess facing painful transitions and the arch of Strauss' musical line was only hinted at. The French mezzo Sophie Koch's Octavian, however, was detailed and opulent and her portrait of the young knight was full of blossoming life. The Second Act duet between Octavian and Sophie, sung radiantly by no less than soprano Diana Damrau, was, for many, the highlight of the evening. There were special discoveries in the secondary roles. Soprano Irmgard Vislmaier as the maid, Marianne, made surprising impact even next to Damrau. The rich baritone of veteran, Franz Grundheber, now over 70, made Faninal sound ageless but still could not erase my memories of Derek Hammond-Stroud's definitive rendering of this role.

The baritone Franz Hawlata sings his Lerchenau-lite so often he probably gets mail in the Baron's name. His lower register lacks warmth or weight when needed - which is rather often in this role - and fails to satisfy, however intelligent the delivery. The Italian Singer, in keeping with the "galactic" level, was no less than Ramon Vargas whose aria was delivered with such easy Italianate elegance that only Luciano Pavarotti could rank above it in my memory. As Annina, star mezzo Jane Henschel was clearly having fun as was her Valzacci, tenor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake. The Philharmonia Chorus of Vienna helped out as did, in the final scene, The Children's Chorus of the Helmholtz School in Karlsruhe.

Near the top of most "favorite orchestra" lists, the Munich Philharmonic was, this night, a master ensemble with a singleness of purpose, rich sound and the sensitive interaction characteristic of the great orchestras. Playing with ardor and technical brilliance, you could even hear a touch of classic Viennese Schlamperei. This word, which is best translated as "sloppiness" describes the loose, familiar playing of a typical Viennese orchestra. It could even have been a soupçon too much during the mighty sounds of the "Presentation of the Rose." Otherwise, the passion between conductor, orchestra and singers, all carefully balanced, in bringing this score to life was always vivid in the hall. Christian Thielemann, now just 50, is regarded as a leading Strauss interpreter and the sheer musicality he can draw from the orchestra makes any appearance in your city an event not to be missed. It is easy to imagine audience members holding on to the memory of this evening for years to come.

- Frank Cadenhead

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