La Scena Musicale

Saturday, May 30, 2009

This Week in Toronto (May 30 - June 5)

Now that the opera season in Toronto has more or less come to an end - the COC Ensemble's Cosi fan tutte excepted, there is still the symphony and ballet, thankfully! The Toronto Symphony has Mahler Symphony No. 6, with the return of former TS conductor Gunther Herbig. Opening night was last Thursday, and tonight at 8 pm is the second and last performance. Also on the program is Haydn's Cello Concerto, a rather unusual combination, I must say! The cellist is Johannes Moser.

Tomorrow, Sunday 2pm in Massey Hall is the second performance of Haydn's oratorio The Creation by Tafelmusik, conducted by Bruno Weil. Soloists include Canadian soprano Nancy Argenta making one of her comparatively rare appearances in Toronto. Also featured are tenor Jan Kobow and baritone Locky Chung. This concert is part of Tafelmusik's Baroque Summer Festival.

Next week marks the return of violinist extraordinaire, Gil Shaham, playing the Canadian premiere of William Bolcom's Violin Concerto. Also on the program is Brahms Symphony No. 1. The conductor is Leonard Slatkin, Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. On Saturday June 6 (8 pm), American violinist Joshua Bell returns for a single performance of Lalo's Symphonie espagnole with the Toronto Symphony, also under the baton of Slatkin.

If you are into ballet, the National Ballet of Canada's spring season is in full swing. The big news is the farewell performance of Chinese-Canadian ballerina Chan Hong Goh, as Giselle on Sunday 2 pm. She will be partnered by Zdenek Konvalina. This show is completely sold out. However, there are two performances today, a matinee at 2 pm (danced by Xiao Nan Yu) and an evening performance at 7:30 pm, with Sonia Rodriguez as Giselle.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jaap van Zweden's 1st Season in Dallas a Phenomenal Success!

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

There is no doubt about it. A new era of musical excellence is underway in Dallas. Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden has just finished his first season as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and even the musicians are shaking their heads in disbelief. Is he really this good? Are we this good? “Yes,” and “yes” to both questions.

All this excitement notwithstanding, on May 21st at the Meyerson, the 'curtain went up' on a program that appeared neither well planned nor very convincing – at least on paper.

Van Zweden is passionate about opera. For this evening, he and the DSO had scheduled a concert performance of Madama Butterfly, but like orchestras everywhere, the Dallas Symphony has had to rework its budget in the face of a punishing recession; thus, instead of Madama Butterfly, we had, on the face of it, a mishmash of Tchaikovsky and Brahms culminating in yet another unnecessary performance of the 1812 Overture.

No matter. I would pay to hear Jaap van Zweden conduct Happy Birthday because I know he would give it one of the finest performances I have ever heard.

A Rousing but Anti-climactic 1812 Overture
The 1812 Overture, on this occasion, was the version by Igor Buketoff in which a chorus is substituted for lower strings in the opening bars and then makes several later appearances in the piece. We didn’t have cannons or fireworks in this performance, but the sparks were flying nonetheless in the overheated tempi chosen by van Zweden. The Dallas Symphony Chorus didn’t sound very Russian – not enough Russian basses have emigrated to Dallas, I guess – but they did their work with accuracy and gusto.

As good as it was, the 1812 Overture was an anticlimax after the most stunning performance of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien I have ever heard.

Superb Performance Recorded for DSO's Own Label!
Capriccio Italien begins with brass fanfares, based apparently on bugle calls Tchaikovsky heard played by an Italian cavalry regiment. It goes on to a series of Italian folk songs and street music and finishes with a wild tarantella.

One particular section in this performance of the work sounded more intense and ominous than I ever imagined it could. It was the soft, triplet accompaniment in the brass that did it. This figure was played with such rhythmic accuracy and so darkly that it became progressively more menacing.

‘Menacing’ or ‘ominous’ are not adjectives one normally associates with pop concert fare like Capriccio Italien. Hearing this performance, I began to suspect that the Italian influence here was Verdi.

This is what a conductor like van Zweden can do for ‘familiar’ repertoire. He approaches such pieces as if they deserved the commitment he would give to a Mahler symphony. Each phrase is given new life. Note values are accurately observed and balances are worked out in careful detail.

When Capriccio Italien moved into dance territory, van Zweden nearly danced himself off the podium and this involvement was infectious. The string sound soared and surged; it was fulsome and joyous. And the best was yet to come.

In this piece, Tchaikovsky’s brass section is headed by pairs of cornets and trumpets, the former employed for their sound and their super chromatic capabilities compared to the trumpet in Tchaikovsky’s time. Principal trumpet Ryan Anthony chose to play a cornet for this piece and the results were wonderful. It was just the right Italian folk music sound for the lyrical sections – with a generous helping of vibrato - and the agility of the instrument (and the player!) in the quick passages worked perfectly too.

For all its extraordinary nuances, what I’ll remember most about this performance is how van Zweden steadily increased the tempo in the proverbial ‘race to the finish.’ Van Zweden was fearless in his acceleration and the DSO players were with him every step of the way. This was virtuoso playing of the highest order.

Fortunately, this concert was being recorded for broadcast. Even better, the Capriccio Italien is scheduled for release later this year on the DSO’s own label. It will be coupled with a Tchaikovsky Fifth recorded earlier this season. If the recording of Capriccio Italien is anything close to what I heard Thursday night, it will be sensational.

Violinist Simone Lamsma Wows Audience!
The first half of the concert was pretty remarkable too. The young Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma made her debut with the DSO in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.

Ms. Lamsma was scheduled to be a featured soloist with the orchestra in its forthcoming European tour; unfortunately, the tour has been scrubbed for the time being. It is hard to justify foreign tours when the basic operating budget is taking such a beating.

In any case, it was a pleasure to make the acquaintance of the gifted Ms. Lamsma, winner of at least four major violin competitions in the past three years. She has a formidable technique and a warm, distinctive sound. With van Zweden on the podium - a colleague who has played this concerto himself -this was a fine collaboration. The orchestra played with great sensitivity and panache!

Ms. Lamsma returns next season to play the Britten Violin Concerto.

The concert opened with BrahmsSchicksalslied (Song of Destiny) , a setting for chorus and orchestra of a poem by Hölderlin. This is a beautiful if slight work by Brahms but it hardly fits in an all-Tchaikovsky program. And while the chorus sang beautifully, I thought that van Zweden miscalculated both dynamics and tempo. He started the piece so slowly and so softly that the line could not be sustained. Nor could the strings produce sufficient weight of sound. Still, this piece does not turn up often in concert and it was a pleasure to hear it, especially in an ideal acoustical setting like the Meyerson.

Jaap van Zweden has given Dallas a season of insight and excitement, with much more to come. Among the highlights next season will be the Mahler First and Second Symphonies, the Bruckner Ninth, the Rachmaninov Second Symphony and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad.)

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chant 2009 Finals (Day 2 May 26)

left to right: Angela Meade, soprano; Yannick-Muriel Noah, soprano; Andrew Garland, baritone
Photo: Joseph So
Tonight was the second of two evenings of the MIMC Finals. Four competitors -

Jennifer Borghi, mezzo-soprano (Italy)

Borghi has a modest-sized high mezzo of pleasant timbre. She began with "Or la tromba" from Handel's Rinaldo, showing good coloratura, although she did not sound entirely comfortable in this repertoire. This was followed by "Erbarme dich" from St. Matthew Passion, a really moving piece that requires solid legato and smoothness of vocal production. Borghi's tone, while quite lovely, lacked sufficient legato and her phrasing was choppy. I think oratorio and baroque does not show off her voice very well. Her third piece, Air des lettres from Werther was easily her best moment - she has just the right instincts for Charlotte. The voice was freer here, and her attention to the text and her expression were exemplary. She ended with the Composer's Aria from Ariadne, an extremely popular choice for high mezzos in competitions. She sang it very well, but overall, I found her a bit subdued and low voltage. She didn't really connect with the audience. She received polite applause, although she did get a very good hand for the Ariadne at the end.

Seil Kim, tenor (Korea)

I remember Kim from the last Montreal vocal competition. I thought he sang beautifully but missed the finals. I recalled a quality tenore di grazia, used with taste. So it was good to have him back. He opened with "Comfort Ye...Every valley" from Messiah. I have heard this probably a hundred times if not more in performance from Jon Vickers on down, so I confess it is hard to get too excited. Kim sang it well, with plangent tone and excellent English. But his voice sounded smaller than I remembered, and it didn't make the impact it should, even in the modest sized Theatre Maisonneuve. His coloratura, while quite good, is aspirated. Dies Bildnis from Die Zauberfloete went very well - his best singing of the evening. He sang it with attractive tone, his most successful piece. Then he went off stage for an unusually long time and came back with a bottle of water, the only contestant in the two evenings that used water. His aria from Iphigenie en Tauride had its moments, but it was also marred by a very tight top. And his final piece, Kuda, Kuda from Eugene Onegin was a bit of a disappointment. I expected him to be really good in this. His singing lacked that plaintive quality one has come to expect in Lenski's aria, and again his top was very tight, distorting the line.

Andrew Garland, baritone (USA)

If the first half was a little underwhelming, things picked up decidedly with the appearance of Andrew Garland. His is a lyric baritone of very good quality, well schooled, and he communicates very well. His Rinaldo aria was authoritatively sung, making a big, robust sound. He received the first bravos of the evening. I was impressed with his long breath-line. Yeletsky's aria from Pique Dame, another very popular choice in singing competitions, was gorgeously sung. For me, the monologue from Billy Budd was his best moment - I liked his acting and his total commitment to the character. He will make a very good Billy. Interesting that he made Ich bin der Welt from Ruckert Lieder his final choice, instead of something flashy. If the countertenor Costanzo was unable to sing a high pianissimo, Garland had pianissimos galore, and overall, his execution of this piece was far superior. The orchestra, especially the horns, always played better, and Trudel was able to get the right balance from the orchestra. Overall, an excellent performance. This guy is the total package.

Angela Meade, soprano (USA)

What can I say about Meade? When you have a young singer picked by the Met to step in to replace an indisposed Sondra Radvanovsky, you know she has got to be special. Meade has a great voice, excellent technical control, from impressive fortes down to the smallest high pianissimos, she has it all. She began with D'Oreste d'Ajace from Idomeneo. Very impressive singing, although those staccato runs at the end were not as wonderful as I expected them to be. Her Beim Schlafengehen from Four Last Songs - a real test piece - was impressive, but I missed that ethereal entrance of the voice after the violin solo. Her third piece was "Casta Diva" from Norma. It takes guts - ok, chutzpah - to sing this in a competition! Meade has the legato and the rock solid intonation to do it justice, only the forte top notes were a little steely. This piece allows her to show off her piano singing, and the final note was extremely impressive. It elicited the first big salvo of bravos from the audience. She saved her best for last - Pace, pace - a truly fabulous piece of singing, absolutely perfect technical control. A big woman, she has found the art of stillness and the economy of gestures. Again, the last note she held on seemingly forever. And for that she received a standing ovation, the only one of the evening.

The jury panel retired to deliberate for about 30 minutes, and returned with the following three winners -

First Prize - Angela Meade
Second Prize - Yannick-Muriel Noah
Third Prize- Andrew Garland

Like most others in the audience, I played the game of picking my own winners. I had the same top three singers on my list, although in a slightly different order. Tomorrow is the press conference where we will get to meet the jury members. I hope to have more to report afterwards.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Chant 2009 Finals Day 1 (Monday May 25)

Tonight was the first of two evenings of MIMC Chant 2009 Finals. There are eight candidates in total, and tonight we heard four. Having attended everyone of the MIMC vocal competitions since 2002, I think this one is arguably the highest in terms of overall quality of the voices. Just to make it into the final 8 is already a recognition of true excellence. The candidates this evening were ( in order of appearance)

Anthony Roth Costanzo, countertenor (USA) His program was long - aria from Giulio Cesare, a Ruckert Lieder, and back to back arias from Rodelinda. One of the most impressive things about Costanzo's countertenor is the smoothness of his delivery and his seamless registers - the voice is even from top to bottom. When required by the music to dip into what is normally considered chest voice in a man, there is no harshness to his tone or any abrupt change of gear. His sound is as "natural" as any I have heard from a countertenor. His voice is surprisingly large for such a slight person, and there is lots of power in reserve. But his best singing is in the quiet moments. There is a plaintive quality to his sound that is at its best in soft, quiet music, and he chose just the right repertoire to show it off, particularly Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen". The tempo chosen by conductor Alain Trudel was a little too slow, even for this famously slow piece. If I were to nitpick, Costanzo was a little reluctant to sing high pianissimi, which is absolutely necessary in the Mahler. Overall, it was a very fine performance of an exceptionally beautiful countertenor voice.

Falko Hoenisch, baritone (Germany) Mr. Hoenisch has a high lyric baritone that is flexible, good in coloratura, and best in lieder. It is a fairly slender instrument as baritone voices go, but he uses it stylishly and with discerning taste. His Hugo Wolf songs were wonderfully sung, and the most successful part of his program. Unfortunately, he ran into some problems with his next piece, an aria from I Puritani. I have to say Bellini doesn't really suit him stylistically. He lacks the fullness of tone necessary in the bel canto repertoire. He also ran into some technical difficulties, turning raspy in a couple of places. Perhaps it unnerved him, as by his third aria from Gounod's Romeo et Juliette, he was holding back and sounded small. The same could be said about "Why do the nations" from Messiah. The top simply did not bloom. Perhaps he did not pace himself properly, or maybe he simply had an off night, but overall, I felt he sang better in the semi-finals.

Sidney Outlaw, baritone (USA) Mr. Outlaw is also a high baritone. The voice is compact-sized, pleasant and warm in timbre - perhaps not so fantastic in terms of beauty of tone, but the way he uses it is very impressive - this guy is an artist. He communicates the text and the moods of a piece of music exceptionally well - this guy likes drama! Sometimes it can come across as a little stentorian, but his strength of conviction is such that he convinces you, and as we all know, judges look for a singer with something to say to the audience. Technically he is very secure, especially in the high register - top notes hold no terror for him. While he is best in the very dramatic pieces, he also shows that he can sing quietly, as in Fritz's aria from Die tote Stadt. This aria is a surefire audience favourite and Outlaw sang it beautifully. Overall, his performance was wonderful tonight, and he was rewarded with vociferous applause.

Yannick-Muriel Noah (Canada) Unlike previous years, there is only a single Canadian in the finals this time. Since she has been connected with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto the last three or so years, I am very familiar with her voice. And what an exceptional instrument it is! Spinto sopranos don't grow on trees, and Noah is a genuine lirico-spinto, one that is large, rich, gleaming, with plenty of power in reserve yet capable of delicacy. She opened her program with "Hear Ye, Israel" from Elijah. She sang this long and demanding aria with gleaming tone. But she has a tendency to suppress her consonants in English - I have to say I had difficulty understanding what she was singing. Her second piece is Jenufa's aria. While it is a rather unusual choice in a competition, her timbre is ideal. The abrupt ending took the audience by surprise - I personally don't think this is a particularly good choice. Her third piece was "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca. Now, it must be said that Noah covered Tosca at the Canadian Opera last season, and when the Tosca, Hungarian Ezster Sumegi, became indisposed, Noah stepped in and sang two performances that absolutely wowed everyone. The quiet, descending musical line in the opening phrase was very beautifully rendered, and in the two and a half minute aria, she sang it with passion, power and delicacy. She reserved her best for the end - "Ritorna vincitor" from Aida. Her voice, with it rich, luscious timbre, is ideal. She has all the chiaroscuro one would want. Perhaps a little longer breathline here and there would have been nicer, but overall, it was a magnificent piece of singing.

There you have it - a marvelous evening. For me, the outstanding singers tonight were Sidney Outlaw and Yannick Muriel Noah. I would place both of them in the winners circle, possibly with the countertenor Costanzo a dark horse.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Concours de Montréal (CMIM) 5e journée - demi-finale II

CMIM – Samedi 24 mai,

Dernière journée de l’épreuve demi-finale. Une journée chargée (10 candidats) et riche en émotions. Chez les femmes, les sopranos Angela Meade et Yannick-Muriel Noah ont particulièrement dominé. Deux sopranos à la voix puissante et à la technique infaillible, produisant un pianissimo étonnamment bien contrôlé dans l’aigu. Impressionnant, tout ce qu’Angela Meade peut faire avec sa voix, ce qu’elle a particulièrement démontré dans l’extrait de Il Trovatore de Verdi. Quant à Yannick-Muriel Noah, elle module admirablement sa voix au timbre chaud, spécialement dans l’extrait de La Forza del destino.

Chez les hommes, le baryton Falko Hönish a démontré sa versatilité, sa compréhension du texte et du style en présentant un programme très varié. D’abord Mozart, Wagner et Bach. Suivent le très court La Grenouillère de Poulenc et Black Max de William Bolcom, dans lesquels il se révèle un vrai comédien et conteur. Il termine sa prestation par Erlkönig de Schubert, en interprétant de façon explicite les voix du père et du fils. Voilà ce qu’on peut appeler toute une palette de couleurs! Vient ensuite le baryton Sidney Outlaw qui a obtenu en 2006 une 1re place aux auditions du Metropolitan Opera. On ne sera pas surpris de découvrir un chanteur solide qui possède une voix riche et puissante, habilement modulée. Son programme consistant comprenait entre autres deux Mozart, l’un en italien et l’autre en allemand. On retient surtout du troisième baryton, Andrew Garland, une belle voix au registre large qui chante avec facilité jusque dans l’aigu. Son talent de comédien a bien fait rire l’auditoire. Dernier candidat à se produire, le ténor Seil Kim a souffert d’un problème de santé en après-midi et sa prestation a dû être reportée à la fin. On sentait chez lui une certaine prudence, mais il se rendit au bout de son programme sans difficulté apparente. Ceux qui l’ont entendu en quart de finale savent qu’il peut faire encore mieux.

Les délibérations du jury on duré moins d’une heure. Le président, M. André Bourbeau, est venu le présenter à la salle et a donné les noms des 8 finalistes par ordre alphabétique : Jennifer Borghi, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Andrew Garland, Falko Hönish, Seil Kim, Angela Meade, Yannick-Muriel Noah et Sidney Outlaw.

L'ordre de passage:

Lundi le 25 mai à 19 h 30 :

1. Anthony Roth Costanzo
2. Falko Hönish
3. Sidney Outlaw
4. Yannick-Muriel Noah

Mardi le 26 mai à 19 h 30 :

1. Jennifer Borghi
2. Seil Kim
3. Andrew Garland
4. Angela Mead

Pour savoir plus :

L’épreuve finale avec l’Orchestre Métropolitain, sous la direction d’Alain Trudel, aura lieu lundi 25 mai et mardi 26 mai à 19 h au Théâtre Maisonneuve et sera diffusé en direct. Pour information :

Dimanche 24 mai : Deux classes de maître ont lieu à la Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, en après-midi et en soirée. Pour information : (514) 872-5338

- Renée Banville

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