La Scena Musicale

Friday, March 6, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 7 - 13)

Nicole Cabell's Debut Disc on Decca. Cabell sings a recital at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday March 8.
(Photo: Decca Records)

With the weather finally warming up this weekend, it's time to come out of hibernation and sample some of the music around town. This Saturday at the Cineplex movie houses, we have a continuation of the Met in HD season with Puccini's Madama Butterfly. This production is significant in the history of the Met Opera in more ways than one. It ushered in the Peter Gelb era when the opening night performance was shown live on big screen in Lincoln Center and in Time Square (!) in September 2006. The Gelb regime represents a new marketing and promotion direction that has brought opera (and the Met) to the masses. It was a brilliant stroke of audience outreach. It is also important to remember that this Butterfly replaced the super-realistic and old-fashioned Zeffirelli production, complete with cherry blossoms and Suzuki washing clothes in a little stream in front of Cio Cio San's house! Very quaint but alas also very dated. This new Butterfly incorporates a lot more contemporary theatre aesthetic in the Met's design and staging. Now for the first time it is going to be transmitted worldwide via the Met in HD theatre chains. The original star soprano, Chilean Cristina Gallardo-Domas, has been replaced in the eleventh hour this week by American Patricia Racette. Pinkerton is Italian tenor Marcello Giordani and Sharpless is American baritone Dwayne Croft. This is definitely NOT to be missed, if you can still get a ticket!

American soprano Nicole Cabell gives a recital at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday as part of the RTH Vocal Series. It won't be easy following in the footsteps of the magnificent La Bartoli who wowed the Toronto audience, even if not one of the local critics. But Cabell is well worth hearing. She burst onto the opera scene by winning the Cardiff Singer of the World several years ago. She combines a lyric soprano of beautiful timbre with a willowy and attractive stage presence. I saw her Musetta three years ago in Santa Fe opposite the Marcello of Canadian baritone James Westman. In the few short years since Cardiff, Cabell achieved the near impossible for a young singer these days - a recording contract with a major label, Decca. Her debut album garnered critical acclaim when it appeared two years ago (see photo above). Her RTH program includes songs by Liszt, Obradors, Guastavino, Bernstein, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Spirituals, with Spencer Myer at the piano.

Another interesting recital this week is that of Canadian soprano Joni Henson. A graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music, Henson was a member of the COC Ensemble Studio, where she sang a number of high profile mainstage roles - Gutrune in the COC Ring, Fiordiligi, Elisabetta in Don Carlos (two performances replacing an ailing Adrianne Pieczonka), and most recently the Foreign Princess in Rusalka. Her instrument is unusual in that it has true spinto weight, with dramatic soprano aspirations in the future. It is powerful and rich, with a very lovely middle register. At the Music Toronto "Discovery" recital (Thurs. Mar. 12, 8 pm St. Lawrence Centre), Henson will be singing Beethoven's Ah! Perfido and Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder, both pieces tailor-made for her voice. Also on the programs are Britten's cycle On this Island, and Oskar Morawetz's Songs from the Portuguese. Stephen Ralls is at the piano.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Opening Nights at The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Two Paris Theaters - Two Opening Nights

First Night: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro," February 25, 2009

by Frank Cadenhead

Getting there is half the fun. Coming up the escalator at the l'Etoile metro station, the Arc de Triomphe fills the entire field of vision. I turn and walk down the Avenue Champs-Élysées, appearing in the background of uncounted tourist photos. Turning right at Fouquet's restaurant, I continue past the Hotel Georges V (the crowd was trying to catch a glimpse of the band AC/DC.) After a left turn at the American Church it is only two blocks to the theater, where, standing in front, you have an unobstructed view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine.

The theater is legendary. Opened in 1913, it is classic Art Deco style with crystal ornaments by Lalique himself. Only months after opening its doors, young Stravinsky was crawling out the back window to escape the angry crowd after Nijinsky danced his Sacre du Printemps. Historic names has been on stage there: Josephine Baker, Balanchine, Maria Callas. Elton John, Maurice Chevalier, Wilhelm Furtwaengler to sample a few. A recent makeover - taking up the auditorium carpets and installing more wood - has warmed the normally dry acoustics but it is still a ideal theater for the voice (even though the Orchestre National de France has been calling it home since its founding in 1934.) While mainly a venue for visiting soloists, orchestras and ballets, it does stage a four or five operas each season which, by their quality, are usually high on "must see" lists.

Last night it was the fourth revival of a production of Nozze di Figaro by veteran director Jean-Louis Martinoty which has been around for the past decade. Normally with Rene Jacobs and the Concerto Koln, this run features Marc Minkowski and his early music band, Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble. With a particularly young cast this night, it compared well with others in the series with more established names.

One "regular" in this production is baritone Pietro Spagnoli. His Almaviva is polished to perfection after multiple appearances and his expressive gifts make him a critical part of the mix. Others returning include the solid bass Antonio Abete as Bartolo and the radiant mezzo Anna Vonitatibus as Cherubino. But it was the Susanna of Olga Peretyatko (Operalia laureate 2007) and the Contessa, Maija Kovalevska, (Operalia 2006), making her French debut, which most interested me this night. While the TCE usually features Mozart, baroque opera and bel-canto, the exceptions include Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. The 2007 performances featured Peretyatko as Anna Truelove and won her critical laurels. Her Susanna was a delight, with an ease of musical delivery belying her age and a self-confidence on stage that suggests a important career in the making. Kovalevska, from Lithuania, has all the vocal gifts necessary for her role and her "Dove sono" was enchantingly sung. But, with a lingering lack of definition in the role itself, her Contessa is still a work in progress.

An appearance by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, as Don Basilio, is always an occasion; this veteran is one of the last remaining trained in traditional French vocal style and his light tenor always glistens. A "haute-contre," he has made a career of Monsieur Triquet from Onegin plus roles like Rameau's Platée, the wonders of which the French have only recently rediscovered. New Yorker Amanda Forsythe made a strong impression as Barbarina and mezzo Sophie Pondjiclis was obviously having fun as Marcellina. Vito Priante, as Figaro, has a clear, flexible baritone but did not seem comfortable in the role and had a tendency to bark.

The director, Martinoty, was present for hands-on direction of this revival and all the characters had clear theatrical definition. The stage was filled with a variety of outsized reproductions of museum art (the long list of works is in the program) which served to accentuate the themes of the acts and the players moved behind and around them during the action. The costumes were richly attractive and traditional. What was apparent, more that usual, was the complex interaction between classes, portraying this with such gusto that would have made Mozart's upscale audiences squirm. Marc Minkowski and his orchestra have been together for a few decades now and are a well-oiled machine. He conducts with brisk tempos - like most 'historically informed" groups - but with an infectious passion about the music that always raises the temperature in the hall. The happy opening night audience threw bravos all around. More important for the artists, it happens that the theater's current director, Dominique Meyer, is taking over the Vienna State Opera in 2010 and a success here might be important for their future.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Mendelssohn at 200 Still Thrills and Inspires!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

Felix Mendelssohn and sister Fanny

Composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) has often been denigrated for being blessed with a life that was too easy. Great composers, the theory goes, have to struggle; that’s what makes them great. Well, of course, this is nonsense. Whether he struggled or not to create the music the world continues to love, Mendelssohn, at 38, died far too young. He might have left us so much more to enjoy.

I attended a Mendelssohn Festival last spring and an all-Mendelssohn concert just a few weeks ago. At each event, one of the major works was the Octet for Strings, and taking part in each event was the incomparable Miró Quartet.

It is always a special pleasure to hear a live performance of the Octet – Mendelssohn was only sixteen when he wrote it – but having heard two excellent performances of this astonishing masterpiece within a matter of months, I was inspired to pen a Mendelssohn tribute, a timely tribute, for the composer was born 200 years ago this month.

From Jewish Activism to Christian Conversion
Felix Mendelssohn’s father was a Hamburg banker and his grandfather the famous philosopher and Jewish activist Moses Mendelssohn. Felix’s father Abraham was Jewish in name only and religion meant nothing to him.

At the time, first in Hamburg and later after the family moved to Berlin, there was no particular discrimination against Jews but such discrimination was a part of history and could reappear at any moment.

Abraham’s wife Leah had a brother who had converted to Christianity and continually urged his sister and her family to do the same. Abraham and Leah finally agreed, more out of convenience than conviction, and had the children baptized.

Felix was seven years old when he converted, and thereafter parents and children called themselves Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, adopting the Christian last name of Leah’s brother Jacob. Abraham went along with this change of religion, but he was clearly uncomfortable in abandoning the faith his father Moses had worked so hard to celebrate.

Large Score Oratorios a Testament of Faith
For all practical purposes Felix lived his life as a Christian and became an ardent believer. His oratorios Elijah and St. Paul were the work of a man of Christian faith. These were the largest compositions Mendelssohn ever attempted, and in his lifetime they were widely admired, especially in England where Mendelssohn had become a frequent visitor.

These large-scale works are not nearly as popular today, although some individual arias and choruses are wonderful. The tradition of grand choral works has passed, and to many modern listeners, these pieces seem dutiful and sorely lacking in drama, rather than inspired.

Speaking personally, Elijah and St. Paul are not the works of Mendelssohn that I would carry with me to that dreaded ‘desert island.’ I would, instead, be sure to take with me the Octet, the Violin Concerto and the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies. Although these works are very different, they all have in common a capacity not only to lift the listener out of depression, but to send him/her away, filled with hope and optimism. What a splendid legacy for any composer!

Devastated Mendelssohn Succumbs to Deadly Depression
Mendelssohn was a prodigy often compared to Mozart. Both showed uncommon talent for music while little more than toddlers. Both children were giving piano recitals and composing music before they were ten years old. “The Little Berliner,” as the young Felix was called, was only twelve years old when he was introduced to Goethe as one of the 'Wunderkind' of his time.

In adulthood, Mendelssohn’s career was that of travelling virtuoso and conductor. For many years, his home base was Leipzig, where he became conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts. He married Ceçile Jeanrenaud in 1836 and fathered two daughters and a son. By all accounts it was a very happy marriage.

Mendelssohn had a lifelong confidante in his older sister Fanny (pictured above with Felix), a fine musician and composer in her own right. When she died suddenly in May, 1847 he was devastated to the point where he was unable to enjoy music, let alone compose. A few months after her passing, he had recovered to the point where he could write some short pieces and the String Quartet in F minor Op. 80. Not surprisingly, this was some of the darkest and most unsettled music he ever wrote. After this brief recovery from despair, came a terminal relapse. Mendelssohn, after a series of strokes, died on November 4, 1847, a mere six months after his beloved sister.

A Shower of New Recordings Will Doubtless Freshen the Lecacy
In this 200th anniversary year of Felix Mendelssohn’s death, there will doubtless be all kinds of tributes from the record companies.

One of the first to appear is from Deutsche Grammophon and features violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Early in her career Mutter recorded Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (DG 463 6412 ). Now, nearly thirty years later, she has recorded the work again (DG B0012533). This time her collaborators are Kurt Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Mendelssohn actually wrote the piece for Ferdinand David, then concertmaster of the Gewandhaus. Mutter gives an authoritative and beautiful performance, and perhaps under Masur’s influence plays the slow movement a little faster than she did years ago.

This recording is unique in being sold in CD and DVD versions on separate discs, but in the same package. I am not sure I understand the concept, but I guess it gives the listener more options.

In addition to the Violin Concerto, both the CD and the DVD include two other performances of music by Mendelssohn and featuring Mutter. She is joined by former husband André Previn and cellist Lynn Harrell for the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor Op. 49, and with Previn she plays the Violin Sonata in F major.

Both are excellent performances, but I was simply astonished by the quality of Previn’s playing. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this year, and to see him on stage conducting these days is to see a man in obviously failing health.

It’s difficult to believe the Previn in this DVD recorded just a few months ago is eighty! The Mendelssohn D minor Trio is no picnic for the pianist, and especially in the scherzo and the finale, his hands seem to be in constant motion. His body scarcely moves and there is little or no facial expression, but that’s pretty much the way he’s always played the piano. The fingers, however, fly! Fly, and hit the right notes!

Adding to These Classic Performances You Won’t Want to Miss!
If you like your Mendelssohn with more personality and ‘edge of the seat’ excitement, I recommend the terrific performance of the D minor Trio by Martha Argerich and the Capuçon brothers recorded live at the Lugano Festival in 2002 (EMI 5 57504 2).

As far as recordings of the symphonies are concerned, I have many favorites. Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic recorded all the symphonies and I greatly admire the sensible tempos – why do so many conductors take the “Italian” symphony so fast these days? – the long lines and the beautiful textures (DG 477 7581). The second movement of the Reformation only comes into focus at a slower tempo. It is fashionable to denigrate Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 2 (Lobgesang), but the Karajan recording comes close to convincing us it is a masterpiece.

I have long treasured Casals’ wonderful recording of the Italian symphony with the Marlboro Festival Orchestra (Sony SNYC 46251). It is slow and mannered but what depth of expression and exuberance! Not to be missed. The CD also contains a marvelous performance of the Octet.

Worth seeking out is John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Italian and Reformation symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG 459 156). Terrific playing and a fresh look at these great works! The disc also contains the revised version of the Italian symphony.

Mendelssohn was thought to be a facile composer who tossed off major works in a matter of hours; in fact, we now know that he was plagued with self-doubt and often revised his compositions.

Fanny felt that his first thoughts were usually the best and cautioned him against this frequent revision. In the case of the Italian symphony it is difficult to understand why he would have been moved to rewrite what to most observers is one of his finest compositions. Because he did, we can hear the revisions and judge for ourselves which is the better of the two versions.

For another recording of the Scottish symphony – one that has been widely admired for many years and deservedly so – check out Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony (Decca 466 9902) in a spacious and grand performance from 1960.

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

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