La Scena Musicale

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Met Player Free Weekend Ends May 3

This weekend, the Metropolitan Opera is offering a free trial of its Met Player, which is an online streaming service that allows access to over 200 audio video performances including 20 of its recent HD productions from the first three seasons of The Met: Live in HD series.

The trial started on May 1 and ends on Sunday, May 3. Visit to register, no credit card information is required.

For more information, read the press release. will review the Met Player in a future blog.

Wah Keung Chan

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This Week in Toronto (May 2 - 8)

Soprano Laura Claycomb as Tytania in the Houston Grand Opera/Lyric Opera of Chicago/Canadian Opera co-production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Photo: Felix Sanchez

Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo, COC's Oberon

The last production of the COC's 2008-9 season, Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, opens on May 5 and continues until May 23, in eight performances at the Four Season's Centre. It will be an "updated" production from Houston Grand Opera, directed by Neil Armfield. It stars American countertenor Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon. This will be Zazzo's belated COC debut, as he was originally announced to appear three seasons ago in Rodelinda. Soprano Laura Claycomb, last seen as Gilda in Rigoletto, returns as Tytania. Also of interest is the return of German baritone Wolfgang Holzmair as Demetrius, in a bit of unconventional casting. Holzmair made an unscheduled - and largely unannounced - debut two seasons ago in two performances of Cosi fan tutte as Don Alfonso, replacing Pavlo Hunka, near the end of the run. I look forward to hearing him in Toronto again. Also returning is soprano Giselle Allen, who was Marie in COC's last Wozzeck. Former Kansas City Symphony music director Anne Manson conducts.

On Tuesday May 5, Newfoundland's Duo Concertante will give a free noon hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, in the Four Season's Centre. The duo of violinist Nancy Dahn and pianist Timothy Steeves is launching its new CD, It Takes Two, with this free concert. It also appeared previously in a live performance at the New Classical FM 96.3 on April 8th. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early to get a seat, as these concerts are almost always full.

Today (May 2) in over 30 theatres in Canada, Montreal distributor DigiScreen presents Royal Ballet's production of La Bayadere (The Temple Dancer), as part of The Royal Opera House’s international Opus Arte Cinema series. It stars three of ballet's biggest stars - Tamara Rojo, Marianela Nuñez and Cuban superstar Carlos Acosta. I plan to attend the show at Empress Walk cinemas in North York.

Lieder fans will love Off Centre Music Salon's German-Spanish Salon on Sunday, May 3 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. It stars the wonderful baritone Russell Braun, sopranos Monica Whicher and Lucia Cesaroni, with pianists Boris and Inna Zarankin.

Finally I want to report on the superlative concert I heard last Tuesday at Roy Thomson Hall. It was the National Philharmonic Of Russia led by Vladimir Spivakov, with guest soloist Denis Matsuev. I recall reading somewhere that Spiavkov was asked personally by Putin to put this touring orchestra together, as a means of keeping the great Russian talents at home. It is comprised of many great virtuosi picked from various Russian orchestras. Svetlana Dvoretskaia, the impresario of Show One Productions, brought the orchestra to Toronto for its Canadian debut. I don't have any statistics to back it up, but judging by casual observation, the audience was at least 80% Russian, if not more. It was a completely packed house, with people sitting even in the choir loft. There was also a palpable sense of excitement in the lobby before the concert.

The program began with Anatol Liadov's The Enchanted Lake, Op. 62. The hushed and evocative orchestral passages reminded me, of all things, passages from Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, except Liadov is more tonal. A very beautiful piece that I hope to hear again. That was followed by the centerpiece of the first half, Rachmaninoff's No. 1, with Matsuev. Since his win of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998, Matsuev has appeared around the world, in all the great venues the likes of Carnegie Hall and La Scala. I have to confess that of the three Rachmaninoff concertos, No. 1 is my least favourite. However, Matsuev's stunning technique and fluid phrasing was impressive, and he was expertly supported by Spivakov. Embarrassingly, the audience applauded after the first movement, even when Spivakov kept his hands raised to discourage the misdirected enthusiasm. Frankly I don't think he was amused by the rather gauche audience behaviour. He noticeably did not pause between the second and third movements to avoid a repeat.

The second half consisted of two pieces with the Romeo and Juiette theme, that of Tchaikovsky's Fantasy-Overture, and the meatier Four Pieces from the Romeo and Juliet Suite by Prokofiev. To me, this was the heart of the evening. I am at a loss to come up with superlatives to describe the sound - and the conducting - of these two pieces. The waves upon waves of incredible sound - and energy - coming from the stage was staggering. Ever the showman, Spivakov's conducting was so colourful that I couldn't take my eyes off him. His movement was fluid - he waved his arms like he was imitating a crane taking off! There were four encores, all chestnuts, that had the audience in a frenzy - many, many ovations and lots and lots of flowers, to be sure. This sort of audience response is rare in Canada but very common in Europe, particular the former Soviet Union. Spivakov's conducting reminds me of a racecar driving behind the wheel of a Ferrari - he could do anything he wanted with this orchestra! Simply amazing to watch and listen. Let's home that Show One will bring Spivakov and the superb NPR back to Toronto in the not-too-distant future.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Schiff Concludes Beethoven Sonata Cycle in San Francisco

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

I first met András Schiff in1984, when he appeared as guest artist with the CJRT Orchestra in Toronto, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It was a joy for me to collaborate with such a gifted young musician. He had all the musical skills imaginable, but he had more. He was curious about everything, and each performance was a voyage of discovery. He later did me the honor of attending my performance of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony (May, 1986) at Roy Thomson Hall, and returned the following season to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (March 22, 1987), again with the CJRT Orchestra.

Many years have passed since our first meeting, and András Schiff has long since been recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation. He has been highly praised for his Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Beethoven; one of his current projects is performing all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order in major cities around the world. I caught up with him for the last three sonatas in a recital at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on April 5. It was an unforgettable experience.

In an interview about Beethoven's last three sonatas, Schiff describes them as “a splendid combination of order and freedom,” and that is exactly how he played them. Each marking in the score was carefully observed but not in a dry, scholarly way. Every bar had the feeling of improvisation. In fact, Schiff so completely inhabited the spirit of the music that at times I had the sense that Beethoven himself was improvising on his own melodic and rhythmic ideas. This is a fanciful idea to be sure, but the point is that Schiff is able to lift this music off the page and make it sing and dance in wholly convincing ways.

Together with the discipline and freedom of his playing, Schiff brings to bear a remarkable understanding of how this music should sound. There are many young keyboard lions at work today who can play fast and loud; few of them can approach Schiff in his ability to generate intensity without banging.

The popular image of Beethoven as angry and unpredictable has some basis in fact and some of that unbridled energy is occasionally expressed in his music. The first movement of Op. 111 is certainly forceful and impassioned; Beethoven even marks the episode Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Some pianists approach such passages with something approaching violence. But while the emotion is real and personal, it is expressed within the most meticulously disciplined music ever composed. The supreme achievement of Schiff’s Beethoven is to balance the wide range of emotion with the intellectual complexities.

Schiff has thought deeply about this music for a very long time, and about how best to present it on a concert program. Not only did he play the sonatas in chronological sequence; he played the last three without intermission. Furthermore, he never left the stage during the course of the concert.

The idea conveyed by this presentation format was that we should think of these three sonatas, not as movements of the same large work, but as a triptych. They were composed as a group between 1820 and 1822, and while they are thematically independent, they share a common approach to musical problem-solving and exploration. Beethoven’s last major work for piano solo was still to come – the massive Diabelli Variations – but as a group, these sonatas represent Beethoven’s last word in composing for piano in the sonata form tradition of Mozart and Haydn.

The first sonata in the group – Op. 109 in E major – is an ideal point of departure. It opens quietly and with music which seems easygoing and uneventful. This is Beethoven musing at the keyboard - vamping, as it were - getting the fingers warmed up while he organizes his thoughts. Schiff caught just the right improvisatory feeling in these languid opening bars and in the stop-start music which follows. A wake-up call comes in the quick and stormy minor-key scherzo, but the heart of the matter is in the last movement; a theme and variations. The theme itself is one of Beethoven’s most heartfelt utterances, and Schiff played it with simplicity and sensitivity. Variation II recalls the dreamy opening of the first movement, but the variations gradually become more complex in their figuration. In the sixth and last variation, Beethoven builds a remarkable aural texture combining thirty-second note figuration with continuous trills, often in both hands simultaneously. This was something completely new in music, and Beethoven’s listeners must have been astonished. Schiff built this movement with extraordinary control and clarity.

The Sonata Op. 110, in A flat major, is emotionally more profound than its predecessor, especially in the Adagio section, but it is also a technical marvel. For me, it all comes together in the two fugal sections interrupted by a deeply moving reprise of the Arioso dolente. The slow sections are heartbreaking, but so too in a different way are the climactic moments in the fugal sections. Joy through tears, we might say. Schiff’s performance was as fine as I have ever heard, or expect to hear.

There is more turmoil and heartbreak in Op. 111. Here again, the subtlety and beauty of Schiff’s playing in the Arietta perfectly revealed the profound emotion in the music. In the last movement, as in Op. 109, Beethoven again uses the device of continuous trills to extraordinary effect, and Schiff’s playing was magical. Listeners who want to hear a sense of struggle in late Beethoven would have been disappointed. Schiff makes it sound easy. But make no mistake, this is some of the most difficult piano music ever written. Schiff’s technical mastery is truly amazing. More importantly, it is only through this technical proficiency that we get to appreciate Beethoven’s music as a unique amalgam of form, feeling and beauty.

After the concert, scores of listeners lined up in the lobby at Davies Symphony Hall to have Schiff sign copies of his recordings. I suspect that these fortunate music-lovers will treasure their personalized mementos for years to come.

András Schiff has recorded all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Volume VIII, recorded in Germany in 2007, contains the last three sonatas (ECM Records ECM 1949).

Photo by Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times

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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La Scena Musicale May 2009 Mai

[Version française ci-dessous]


Last month, I attended the 11th Annual Vanier College Big Band Benefit, dedicated, this year, to the Women of Vanier. The rousing performance by the young ensemble directed by Jocelyn Couture was recorded by CBC Radio Two for Music Monday, an annual demonstration of love of music in elementary and secondary schools, to be held this year on May 4, 2009. Last year over 700,000 youths took part, boding well for the future of music. As I was watching the stage, I was surprised by the all-female trumpet section, and I felt encouraged by the changing times; when I played in high school, all the trumpeters were boys. How coincidental then that our May issue focuses on Women in Jazz, meeting Jazz composer and bandleader Maria Schneider and singer/pianist Patricia Barber.

For the thirteenth straight year, La Scena Musicale, Canada's most wide-reaching and well-respected classical music and jazz magazine, will once again celebrate the summer season in music. This year, our work seems more important, in view of the economic crisis and how much festivals contribute to local economies. The $100 million in federal funds for festivals is welcome, and we hope they are given fairly and used wisely.

This month, we feature our annual national focus on over 130 Canadian jazz, world and folk music festivals (plus several spring classical music festivals). Next month, our June national issue will be dedicated to over 90 classical music and Canadian arts festivals.

Also, in this issue: The St. Lambert Choral Society celebrates 90 years while the Guarneri Quartet retires after 45 years of music making. We provide you with a behind-the-scenes look into the 2009 Edition of the Montreal International Music Competition (Voice) with an interview with baritone Sherrill Milnes. We also meet international soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.

The May Discovery CD features composer Francesco Tárrega’s (1852-1909) works for guitar, presented by Canadian guitarist Michel Beauchamp. Remember that this CD (a collaboration with XXI Records) is free for paying copies of La Scena Musicale. As we continue our 2009 Subscription Campaign, I am pleased to announce that the Canadian music recording industry is lending its support with prizes for a Super Subscription Contest. So far, we have $20,000 in prizes: XXI Records will contribute a collection of 260 CDs, SRI Distribution 200 CDs, Analekta 200 CDs, ATMA 200 CDs, Naxos 200 CDs and CBC Records 100 CDs. What better way to start or complete your CD collection? This contest is open to current and new subscribers as of August 15, 2009.

Lucia di Lammermoor is next on Opéra de Montréal’s bill, and we provide a musicological view of Donizetti’s masterpiece. Lucia is also part of our next fundraising event: Opera weekend in Montreal on May 23rd an ideal Mother’s Day gift. Call 514-948-2520 for tickets and more information.

Download the PDF version.

Wah Keung Chan
Founding Editor/Publisher,

La Scena Musicale



Le mois dernier, j’ai assisté au xie Concert-bénéfice Big band du collège Vanier, dédié cette année aux femmes de Vanier. La prestation enthousiaste du jeune ensemble dirigé par Jocelyn Couture a été enregistrée par CBC Radio Two pour Lundi en musique, une célébration annuelle de l’amour de la musique dans les écoles primaires et secondaires, qui se tiendra le 4 mai en 2009. L’an dernier, plus de 700 000 jeunes y ont pris part, ce qui augure bien pour l’avenir de la musique. Et alors que je regardais les musiciens, j’ai été étonné de voir une section de trompettes entièrement féminine. J’ai été encouragé par cette nouveauté : lorsque je jouais au secondaire, tous les trompettistes étaient des garçons. Quel heureux hasard que notre numéro de mai souligne la présence des femmes dans le jazz : en effet, nous interviewons la compositrice et chef d’orchestre Maria Schneider et la pianiste et chanteuse Patricia Barber.

Pour la treizième année consécutive, La Scena Musicale, le magazine de musique classique et de jazz le plus lu au Canada et respecté dans le monde entier, célébrera de nouveau l’été en musique. Cette année, notre travail revêt une pertinence particulière, en raison de la crise économique et de l’importante contribution des festivals aux économies locales. Les 100 millions de dollars d’aide fédérale accordée aux festivals sont les bienvenus et nous espérons que les fonds seront distribués équitablement et utilisés de façon judicieuse.

Comme chaque année, en mai nous mettons l’accent sur les plus de 130 festivals d’été canadiens de jazz, de musiques du monde et de musique folklorique – sans compter de nombreux festivals de printemps de musique classique. Le mois prochain, le numéro national de juin sera consacré aux plus de 90 festivals d’été de musique classique et d’art au Canada.

Également dans ce numéro : la Société chorale de Saint-Lambert célèbre ses 90 ans et le célèbre Quatuor Guarneri prend sa retraite après 45 ans d’existence. Nous vous amenons dans les coulisses de l’édition 2009 du Concours Musical International de Montréal (chant) dans une entrevue avec le baryton Sherrill Milnes. Enfin, nous rencontrons la soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.

Le CD Découverte de mai est consacré aux œuvres pour guitare de Francesco Tárrega (1852-1909), interprétées par le guitariste Michel Beauchamp. Ce CD (une collaboration avec les Disques XXI) est offert gratuitement à tous les lecteurs qui achètent La Scena Musicale. Nous poursuivons notre campagne d’abonnement 2009 et je suis particulièrement heureux d’annoncer que l’industrie canadienne du disque apporte un soutien généreux à notre grand concours d’abonnement. Jusqu’ici, nous avons 20 000 $ de prix à offrir : les Disques XXI offrent une collection de 260 CD, SRI Distribution 200 CD, Analekta 200 CD, ATMA 200 CD, Naxos 200 CD et les Disques SRC 100 CD. Quelle meilleure façon de commencer ou d’arrondir votre collection de musique ? Ce concours est ouvert aux abonnés existants et nouveaux en date du 15 août 2009.

Lucia di Lammermoor sera la prochaine production de l’Opéra de Montréal et nous publions une analyse musicologique du chef-d’œuvre de Donizetti. Lucia sera également notre prochaine activité de collecte de fonds, un week-end d’opéra à Montréal le 23 mai – un cadeau idéal pour la fête des Mères. Appeler au 514-948-2520 pour des billets ou plus d’information.

Téléchargez la version PDF.

Wah Keung Chan
L’éditeur et rédacteur en chef fondateur


Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fear and Faith: Austin Lyric Opera Does Justice to Poulenc's Dialogues

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

In a world gone mad, it makes sense to be afraid, but it is the ultimate test of character to get beyond fear and take a stand for what one truly believes. This is the argument of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. Premiered in 1957, it deals specifically with the fate of a group of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution, but its theme, at once inspirational and unsettling, is universal and still relevant today.

The new Austin Lyric Opera production of Dialogues of the Carmelites makes a powerful case for including this opera in the repertoire.

Dialogues moves very slowly and deliberately through its first hour or so – think Parsifal, which unfolds with similar deliberation – but if one allows oneself to be drawn into this world of faith and fear, the payoff is nothing less than devastating.

From a musical point of view, the opera is a peculiar amalgam of Debussy’s Pelléas and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. The Dialogues score seems to meander and the orchestral sonorities are often acerbic, but Poulenc created exactly the musical language he needed to make this particular drama fresh and credible, just as he did in Gloria, which similarly brings something new and beautiful to liturgical music.

In this production, Austin Lyric Opera stage director Erik Einhorn and scenic designers Harry Frehner and Scott Reid bring Poulenc’s opera to life with a minimalist imaginative touch that exquisitely complements this music.

The sets and props are sparse and appropriate, placed and moved without obstructing the narrative flow. Lighting designer Shawn Kaufman also deserves credit for his deft employment of rear lighting. The use of black curtains, mysteriously opening and closing, served to underscore the spiritual elements of the drama. The production was created originally for the Calgary Opera, but what we saw in Austin was perfectly suited to the work and to the house.

The music onstage is dominated by the women (photo: above right) who sing the roles of the Carmelite nuns. Quite simply, they were first-rate. For an opening night, the level of ensemble precision was remarkable.

It is somewhat unfair to single out individuals in such an ensemble effort, but Sheila Nadler as the dying Prioress in Act One – she has sung this role in more than twenty productions of the opera - gave a heart-rending performance, and Jennifer Check as the new Prioress sang with moving eloquence toward the end of Act Two. Emily Pulley (photo: right) as Blanche has the largest role and her personal crisis is at the heart of the opera. She gave a compelling performance and her voice is clearly first-class. Pulley was originally to have played Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress, but the change in casting proved quite satisfactory. Richard Buckley conducted with authority and sensitivity.

Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites was Austin Lyric Opera’s last production of the season, following on equally fine presentations of Verdi’s Rigoletto and Rossini’s Cinderella. For next season general director Kevin Patterson has chosen Puccini’s La Bohème, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and a real novelty, Chabrier’s The Star (L’Étoile).

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

Photos by Mark Matson

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