La Scena Musicale

Saturday, March 14, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Mar. 14 - 20)

The Silk Road Ensemble brings their unique program to Roy Thomson Hall (March 19 and 20, 8 pm)

While this column is about classical music in the Toronto area, I can't help but mention the appearance of Art Garfunkel, of the iconic Simon & Garfunkel fame, on March 14, 8 pm. Interesting that the Roy Thomson Hall website lists him as a countertenor! I must say this is the first time I heard him referred to as such. He still has a big following among us Baby Boomers :-) For ticket information, go to,2 and follow the link.

The other exciting event this week is the appearance of Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at RTH (March 19 and 20, 8 pm). According to information on the Ensemble with its multimedia presentations has performed in 25 countries in more than 100 venues, ranging from concert halls to stadiums to museum galleries, in festivals around the world. Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, this project is "a catalyst promoting innovation and learning through the arts". Their vision is to "connect the world's neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe." If you have not experienced their performance before, I urge you to give it a try. For tickets, go to,3 and follow the link.

The premiere early music group in Toronto, the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under Music Director Jeanne Lamon, is performing Handel's Ode to St. Cecilia March 12 -15 at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre. I believe there has been a cast change, with Canadian soprano Nathalie Paulin replacing British soprano Sophie Daneman. Others on the cast is alto Vicki St. Pierre, tenor Rufus Muller, and bass Peter Harvey. For ticket information, go to

On the recital front, the Aldeburgh Connection is presenting A James Joyce Songbook (March 15, 2:30 pm in Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto). The quartet of soloists are soprano Katherine Whyte, mezzo Lynne McMurtry, tenor Michael Colvin, and baritone Peter Barrett. The Sunday Series is intelligent programming at its best - "each show is set around a theme, be it literary, musical, or historical, weaving the musical selections around interesting readings from letters, diaries, newspaper clippings, and poetry." Complimentary tea is served at intermission. Tickets can be ordered by telephone at: 416 735-7982.


Friday, March 13, 2009

Hong Kong Arts Festival Ends on a High Note!

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

The 37th annual Hong Kong Arts Festival ended this week after a very busy month which featured 125 performances and eight world premieres. The organizers reported that the average attendance was a very healthy 94%. There was lots of dance and theatre – a Peter Hall production of Pygmalion was among the highlights – but many more musical events. No fewer than four orchestras were invited this year: the Chicago Symphony (Haitink), the Northern Sinfonia, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra (Koopman) and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (Metzmacher). I arrived in Hong Kong just in time to hear the last of these ensembles, and its two concerts were a mixed bag.

Sound and Interpretation Problematic in Metzmacher’s Bruckner

The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) Berlin played in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, a hall seating about 2,000 in a circle surrounding the performers. From my balcony seat, the orchestra had lots of presence and the reverberation was reasonably long and quite flattering; however, the best acoustics in the world don’t help much when the air conditioning system is so noisy.

Ingo Metzmacher opened the first concert with the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin and the soft upper string lines at the beginning of the piece were almost inaudible. The same thing happened at the beginning of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony later in the evening. Something needs to be done about this problem or world-class performers will simply find excuses to avoid Hong Kong.

I have long admired the DSO Berlin, as far back as the days when it was called the RIAS Symphony under Ferenc Fricsay. More recently, Kent Nagano was the music director and to judge by the recordings, he got excellent results. On this occasion, there was no doubt about the very high quality of the orchestra and I heard some especially fine horn and double bass playing.

Metzmacher is more problematic than his orchestra. His leadership was impressive in Webern’s Passacaglia and the Berg Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff, but his Bruckner was disappointing.

There is a formidable tradition of Bruckner conducting from Furtwängler through Jochum, Böhm, Karajan and Tennstedt; for such conductors, Bruckner not only created monumental musical structures, but also sought to express deep thoughts about his religious faith. For Metzmacher, Bruckner is apparently a less gifted relative of Carl Maria von Weber. To put it another way, this was ‘Bruckner Lite’ - one trivial rustic tune after another, with no depth of feeling whatsoever.

Metzmacher hurried through the Seventh Symphony as if he had a plane to catch. Climaxes in the middle of the slow movement and at the end of the first and last movements never came close to the ecstatic heights the music requires. With this kind of conducting, Bruckner’s music will soon disappear from the repertoire.

When Metzmacher turned to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, he conducted with more fire, but again there was a decided lack of flexibility and poetry. In both major symphonies, Metzmacher seemed to think that loud endings are crude and vulgar. He went out of his way to make the last chords actually less powerful than what had come before. Instead of avoiding vulgarity, the effect was to make the endings anti-climactic and unsatisfying.

Soloists Struggle with Hall Acoustics
Another major problem in the first concert was baritone Matthias Goerne. He has gained a well-earned reputation as a lieder singer. Perhaps he was indisposed on this night, because he was virtually inaudible through much of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. He also seemed to have trouble sustaining phrases.

Guest violinist Christian Tetzlaff also seemed to struggle to be heard in the Berg concerto. As does Goerne, Tetzlaff spends a good deal of time playing in the realm of sotto voce; this is very dangerous territory for a soloist when a big orchestra is at work behind him in a less than ideal hall.

Objectively speaking, the acoustics in the HK Cultural Centre could have been to blame for some of these auditory problems.

Metzmacher Takes ‘Encore’ Literally!
Curiously, as an ‘encore’ after the Bruckner at the first of the DSO Berlin concert, Metzmacher repeated the Wagner Lohengrin Prelude he had used to open the concert. What was the point? To remind us how much Bruckner was indebted to Wagner? Or perhaps to remind us how effectively the air conditioning noise had drowned out the soft opening of the piece at its first playing? I don’t think I was the only audience member who would rather have heard some other music.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Architecturally Bland
I will have to reserve judgment on the acoustics of the HK Cultural Centre, having heard only two concerts from pretty much the same seats; on the other hand, I have no doubt whatsoever about the architecture of the place. While the site chosen for the Centre is surely one of the best locations in Hong Kong – right next to the Star Ferry dock in Kowloon with a fantastic view of Hong Kong, especially at night – the building itself is hideous beyond belief. Basically, it is a beige wall of bricks with no windows and no imaginative embellishment to break up the ugly emptiness. The nearby Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Museum of Art are equally uninspired structures.

The interior of the Cultural Centre, happily, is a feast for the eyes, fairly overflowing with colorful posters of productions past and present, contemporary art exhibits, and performance videos.

Hong Kong Philharmonic to Perform Later this Month
I will be back at the HK Cultural Centre in a few weeks time to hear a concert by the HK Philharmonic. I look forward to hearing how the orchestra has evolved from the semi-professional band I knew forty years ago – I actually played double bass in the HKPO for a short period – into the fully professional ensemble headed today by the eminent Edo de Waart.

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

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hong Kong 40 Years Later: A Homecoming and a Transformation

By Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

It was in 1966 that Marita and I first arrived in Hong Kong. The trip out from Canada was our honeymoon and a post at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) was my first job. We were young and adventurous, looking for an exotic life – and we found it. We spent three happy years here and then left for other challenges. Yes, we are back! This week, 40 years after we left it, we returned to Hong Kong and to HKU where I gave a lecture on Leopold Stokowski.

Forty years later, what has changed, and what if anything, has survived of the world Marita and I knew in the mid 1960s?

On a superficial level Hong Kong today is a modern miracle, a far cry from the colonial outpost caught in a time warp that it appeared to be in 1966. In those days, the planes landed at Kai Tak Airport, little more than a runway stuck into the middle of the harbor off Kowloon. It was a precarious place to land and some flights inevitably ended up in the water. Today, planes fly in and out of a much safer airport on Lantau Island. Arriving passengers are whisked into the city via a wonderfully smooth and quiet express train, or by taxi over a suspension bridge that is an engineering marvel. In Hong Kong itself, 7 million people are transported to and fro by an incredible combination of escalators, interconnecting walkways, and a super-efficient network of buses.

Life on Three Levels and Gone are the Lawns
Most of Hong Kong island is a mountain and most people live somewhere on the side of that mountain (Central, Mid-levels, or the “Peak”). This means that cars and other vehicles are always going up or downhill, or around a switchback. If one is on foot, one is always either climbing up or down endless staircases, or stopping to catch a breath. In our 1960s Hong Kong, there was still a community of shacks on the hillside (right). If shacks still exist somewhere on the island, we didn't see them.

The HKU campus in those days was lush and green, with more lawns than buildings. My office overlooked the inner courtyard of the main building on campus. This 1912 Edwardian building still stands, and continues to be an important part of campus life.

Upon arrival in Central (downtown on Hong Kong island), I was overwhelmed by the vast number of high-rise office buildings and modern shopping complexes. So much of the old Hong Kong has been rearranged, hidden behind grander structures or simply bulldozed, that I was completely disoriented.

Marita and I are staying at Robert Black College, a residence for visiting scholars situated at Mid-Levels on the Hong Kong University campus. The campus fronts on Bonham Road but ends well up the hill at University Drive. Robert Black is on University Drive and to get to the main academic building one heads downhill through the entire campus which, 40 years after we left it, is jammed with buildings where beautiful lawns used to be. Going downhill to the campus from Robert Black is a breeze; it’s heading back up that’s literally a ‘drag’ - a climb ideally accomplished with the assistance of several sherpas and a mule or a mountain goat.

Forty years ago the climb was not so very different for us, because we lived at No. 3 University Drive. No. 3 no longer exists; it was demolished about ten years ago to make way for a sizeable Graduate Centre.

Hong Kong University Department of Music Debuts in the 1980s

In 1966, HKU was a small, prestigious institution. I was there to lecture in Philosophy, but my first and last love was really music, and I gravitated towards it whenever I could. No Department of Music at HKU? No problem. I persuaded the Department of Extra-Mural Studies to let me give some courses in music. No professional orchestra? Again, no problem. I would form one. Before long I was spending many nights and weekends filling the air with music and talk about music; it was well into the 1980s, however, before the powers that be at HKU came to their senses and created the Department of Music which today is a vibrant part of university life.

I am currently completing revisions to my Stokowski book and the new version will be published later this year. With Stokowski on my mind, I proposed to the music department at HKU a lecture called “Leopold Stokowski: the Limits of Interpretation.” They liked the idea and this past week I delivered the goods to a packed house – or should I say, a packed ‘room’, an assembled throng of 20, which was in fact as large a group as the room could accommodate.

The attendees included some formidable folk, one of whom was Mak Su-yin, who once worked for me at CJRT-FM in Toronto and is now in charge of academic studies in music at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts.

Another listener with a Toronto connection was Deborah Waugh, a percussionist who studied with members of Nexus and who is now a staff member in HKU’s Department of Music.

Chan Hing-yan is a composer and Associate Professor in the department. He recently completed a piece for harp and shared with me how much he had learned from Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s harp compositions. In his opinion, Schafer – with the help of Toronto Symphony harpist Judy Loman – has written some of the best harp music ever. I had no difficulty agreeing with him.

Another attendee was Ron Hill, a former staff member in the Geography department at HKU who, in retirement, appears be one of the busiest double bass players in Hong Kong. He delivered the sad news that one of our best friends in our Hong Kong years, Professor Robert Lord, had recently passed away. Robert’s academic fields were Russian literature and linguistics, but he was a skilled violist as well. We enjoyed making music together.

It is inevitable after all this time that inquiries about old friends frequently bring answers we don’t want to hear or believe. And so we also learned from Ron that another great soul is no longer with us: Mary Visick, an old China hand who did more than her share for the appreciation of literature in the Far East.

The Peak Tram and Lunch at The Lookout
Our second day in Hong Kong we took the famous Peak Tram to the top of the mountain with US attorney Yee Ling, a former student of Marita’s (Ying Wah Girls’ School), as our guide. In the days before air-conditioning “the Peak” was where the rich folk went to escape the summer heat. More recently locals and tourists alike have been making the trip to get a breathtaking view of Hong Kong beneath them and Kowloon and the New Territories in the distance across the harbor.

On this trip we were amazed to see that the size of the harbor has shrunk. So much land has been reclaimed for new buildings that there seems to be far less open water.

The Peak Tram has been around since 1888 and it is not really a tram at all. It is more correctly called a ‘cog railway’ or ‘funicular.’ The cars run on tracks at a very steep angle but they are being pulled up the hill on a cable. It sounds like a dubious activity but the fact is this railway has never had an accident.

This was not the best day for viewing the panorama. Visibility was about 100 feet when we ascended, but during lunch the heavens opened and it rained heavily for half an hour. Then all at once the clouds parted and we could suddenly see for miles. We seized the opportunity to take a lot of pictures and we had no sooner finished, than the clouds closed in again. Our timing had been perfect.

In 1966, the view from The Peak had been magnificent! Good thing too, because there wasn’t much else to see or do up there.

Today there is the Peak Tower - a combination shopping mall and viewing platform. There are now also at least half a dozen restaurants. On Yee Ling’s recommendation, we chose to dine at the oldest one – the charming Peak Lookout Restaurant - and found it to be excellent. We were delighted with the lamb curry and Tandoori chicken. If it hadn’t been raining, we might have done some serious walking after lunch; the government has created the Hong Kong Trail which meanders through 30 miles of country parks including the area around the Peak.

An Old Friend, a New Memoir, and Reflections on History
As a Canadian, I cannot think about Hong Kong and its history without paying tribute to the brave men who tried to defend it against the Japanese invasion in 1941. The small British garrison was quickly overrun, along with the contingent of Canadian soldiers sent in as reinforcements. It was disgraceful that the Canadian government allowed them to be sent to almost certain death. There were never enough soldiers to stop the Japanese but the politicians wanted to look as if they were doing something simply to cover their own backsides. Many Canadians were brutally killed during the attack and others were put in internment camps at Stanley or Sham Shui Po. For some of these soldiers death must have seemed far preferable to the three years of internment they endured. They were badly treated and many died of beatings or malnutrition.

Many local residents were interned with the defending forces, including the remarkable Solomon Bard. Solly was a medical doctor and a musician whom I was honored to know during my sojourn in Hong Kong. Now 93, he has a new memoir – Light and Shade - coming out this month. I will discuss it further in one of my future blogs.

37th Hong Kong Festival of the Arts
The Hong Kong Festival of the Arts is currently underway and in my next blog I will give a report on it. The Chicago Symphony under Haitink has already been here and in the final week French actress Juliette Binoche is appearing with British dancer Akram Khan in a unique show called In-I. In-I is primarily a dance event and Binoche deserves a lot of credit for attempting to go beyond her accustomed comfort zone as an actress. Also coming up are two concerts by the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Ingo Metzmacher.

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

Add to Technorati Favorites

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 9, 2009

Michael Ignatieff: An open letter

Dear Michael Ignatieff

As a former colleague of yours on the BBC's Late Show in the 1990s, I want to draw your attention to a Canadian phenomenon which, though you are not yet prime minister, can be significantly remedied by your intervention. There may even be some votes in it.

You can guess what I'm referring to. It's the top-down dumbing down of arts and culture.

Canada is a country that punches creatively above its weight. Its diversity of authors -from Margaret Attwood and Carol Shields to Josef Skvorecky, Mordecai Richler and Ying Chen - are read the world over. Its musicians are widely heard and its theatrical style is distinctive. Like Britain, Canada has nurtured a national cultural renaissance by means of an enlightened state broadcaster and modest amounts of public subsidy.

Those gentle boosters are now in jeopardy. CBC Radio has converted its classical station to pick 'n' mix, and its classical presentation to low populism, demolishing cultural confidence.

To cite one current example. CBC is asking listeners to choose 49 Canadian songs to send to President Obama. Michael, could you ever imagine such cultural cringe at the BBC?

Another instance: the Canada Council for the Arts is scrapping subsidy for controlled-circulation literary and music magazines. I can't figure out the bureaucratic reasoning from afar and I should declare a tiny interest: my weekly column appears without fee on a website linked to one Canadian publication. These magazines nurture the grass roots of art. Scythe them down, and not much will grow tomorrow.

What can you do as leader of the opposition? Easy. The squeaky bums in broadcasting and arts councils (we have the same types over here) respond very swiftly to comments from an opposition leader shortly before an election. The bums don't want to lose their seats.

One speech, Michael, that's all it would take. One speech urging Canada to smarten up and stop dumbing down would put more heart into the arts and more arts in the world than a pack of Medicis. One word from you, and the bureaucrats will go upmarket.

Think about it. With a positive signal to Canada's creative furnace, your Liberals would stand for innovation and enlightenment, as distinct from the numbskull Conservatives. To borrow Isaiah Berlin's famous metaphor, you would be the fox and they the hedgehog - tomorrow's roadkill.

Forgive this intrusion from abroad. I have no right to interfere in Canadian affairs, except to wish the best for its arts. My justification is John Donne's: no man is an island. Canada's arts are important. If they shrink, the world suffers. They help to define what you and I would call civilisation. Get behind them, Michael, before the election.

With best wishes

Norman Lebrecht 

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Opera York's Tosca inaugurates the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre

Soprano Mirela Tafaj (Tosca) and tenor James Ciantar (Caravadossi) in Opera York's Tosca at the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre
(Photo courtesy of

by Joseph So

North Toronto's fledging opera company, Opera York, celebrated a milestone on March 5 when it opened its spring season with Puccini's Tosca. What made this event special was the opening took place in its new artistic home, the new Diamond and Associates designed Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre. Located on Yonge Street north of Major Mackenzie Highway, in the heart of Richmond Hill, this handsome building is designed by the same architectural firm that created the bigger and glitzier Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the home of the Canadian Opera Company in downtown Toronto. The new, 615 seat Richmond Hill performing space, with its clean lines and predominance of wood trim, bears resemblance to its bigger sister. What is even more felicitous is the wonderful acoustics of this new hall. I had the pleasure of experiencing it last evening, when I attended the second performance of Tosca. Albanian-Canadian soprano Mirela Tafaj starred as the Roman diva Floria Tosca, partnered by a brand-new tenor, James Ciantar, in his professional debut in a principal role. Singing Scarpia was baritone Nicolai Raiciu. Sabatino Vacca led the Opera York Orchestra. The sound in this hall is rich and full, and the size of the venue is perfect for small scale opera and symphonic performances, as well as plays. This venue is an important addition to the cultural life of the Richmond Hill community, 45 minutes drive north of downtown Toronto.

Given the recessionary times, money is tight everywhere. So it was extremely commendable that Opera York managed to put on a very good show. (I was told that the March 7 performance was just six seats short of selling out) It began with the three principals, led by soprano Mirela Tafaj. Since her arrival in Canada, Tafaj has sung Musetta with Opera Ontario, Mimi and Micaela with Opera York, Violetta with the Toronto Opera Repertoire, appeared on the Montreal Opera stage in a Gala concert, as well as a number of concerts and recitals, including the Toronto Mozart Society and the LSM Gala Concert several years ago. As Tosca, her attractive stage presence and dark-hued soprano was ideal. On March 7, she was in excellent voice and acted with passion and authority. Her spinto soprano has the requisite weight for the climactic moments, complete with five very big high Cs. She was also able to scale her big voice down impressively in the quieter moments, giving us an exquisitely sung "Vissi d'arte." Tenor James Ciantar turned out to be a real find. A student in the studio of retired Canadian tenor Ermanno Mauro, Ciantar can be considered a neophyte, still in the early stages of his development as an opera singer. He has a very impressive, Italianate tenor with an easy top - that's half the battle right there! His "Recondita armonia" was very good, with excellent high notes. The basic voice is a fine one; what he needs now is to work on a more solid mezza voce, develop more vocal discipline and not get carried away, and to hold back and save for the climaxes. With further study and seasoning, Ciantar with go far. The third principal was baritone Nicolae Raiciu, who is a member of the COC chorus and has covered and sung solo roles there. A darkly handsome Scarpia, Raiciu was perhaps not quite menacing enough, but he was a solid Roman chief of police. He also did double duty as the stage director! I would be remiss if I did not mention veteran baritone Douglas Tranquada as a highly amusing (and scene-stealing) Sacristan. Also, this was the first time I have ever seen the Shepherd Boy singing his little ditty right onstage!

Given the limited budget, set designer Frank Pasian did quite a nice job with the traditional sets. It would have been evern more effective if the lighting changes weren't so abrupt at times. The orchestra under Sabatino Vacca was uneven, but he managed to hold it together, with only a stray note here and there. The tempo in Act One was on the slow side but it picked up later on. The surtitles had always been the Achilles heel of OY, but this time, it worked well, a few shadows notwithstanding. All in all, an enjoyable evening at the theatre.

Labels: , , ,