La Scena Musicale

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Nagano, OSM and Idyllic Brahms

by Paul E. Robinson

The Knowlton Festival, which started life as Festival Bel Canto last summer, opened officially last night with an all Brahms program. Maestro Kent Nagano did his best, in a well-attended pre-concert talk, to make the case that one could legitimately see the music of Brahms as no less bel canto than the operas of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. Basically, he was saying that all music is 'singing' or an attempt to emulate 'singing' using instruments. But such a broad definition obscures most of the very real and interesting differences between styles of music.

Nagano was on firmer ground when he took baton in hand and mounted the podium. His Brahms was decidedly lyrical rather than dramatic or rugged, as it is in the hands of some conductors. One didn’t have to agree with Nagano’s general approach to find his Brahms conducting refreshing and satisfying in its own way.

The concert opened with a musical but all too careful reading of the Academic Festival Overture. In this rousing piece based on German student songs, being careful doesn’t get the job done. Even in the big moments, the brass was kept on a tight leash and the extra percussion might as well have stayed at home.

On the other hand, the Alto Rhapsody Op. 53 was fascinating. It too was careful, but more appropriately so. This is a dark, brooding piece that can easily sound thick and ponderous. With his sharp ear for balances, Nagano made the piece exquisitely beautiful. He was helped enormously by mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the men of the OSM Chorus. I am sure the sound system had something to do it with it, but the balance between voices and orchestra was nearly perfect. Quite a feat in this piece in which voices and instruments alike are pretty much all in the same register.

Lemieux was even better in the Two Songs for Contralto with Viola and Piano. Her phrasing was remarkably expressive and she fully deserved the ovation she received.

The major work on the program was Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major Op. 73. Over the course of the festival, Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) will perform all four symphonies of Brahms and it was fitting to start this festival set in the Québec countryside with the symphony often called Brahms’ “Pastoral”.

This symphony also made the best case for Nagano’s bel canto approach. From the opening bars, each player was directed to ‘sing’ his or her part and did just that. But it was not only the singing quality in the music that Nagano captured; the transparency of the sound was astonishing. Nothing was covered in over-saturated textures. Even the trumpets managed to function as extensions of the woodwind section rather than as the aggressive intruders they often seem to be in this music. The final coda never fails to bring a crowd to its feet and Nagano and the OSM whipped up plenty of excitement. Some prefer a more ‘hell for leather’ approach, but Nagano showed that precision and taste work wonders too.

With this successful ‘official’ opening, the Knowlton Festival is off and running. This concert was sold out and the size of the crowd made for long waits for buses out of the festival site. Last night’s audience made the most of the camaraderie that standing in line can effect after a shared ‘good’ experience; nevertheless, if there are more big crowds – and there probably will be – something may yet have to be done to get the buses in and out much faster.

The festival tent is much larger than the one used last year. It is decidedly less claustrophobic and now has a bar area under cover. That it is still acoustically challenged should come as no surprise; it is still a tent and as such has no effective reflecting surfaces. Without amplification one guesses that very little sound would get to the audience.

When it comes to the amplification of classical music, I have serious reservations. On the other hand, music is meant to be enjoyed and it can be enjoyed in many different ways and in different settings. As executive director, Marco Genoni pointed out in his pre-concert talk there are very few concert halls where you can sit in your seat and see a sunset behind you and a little later a full moon rising in front of you. And I have to say that in quiet passages, the sound system works extremely well to give you not only more sound, but good quality sound. It is only when the music gets loud, that the lack of real resonance becomes an issue. And for the fine OSM musicians who have endured Place des Arts all these years, acoustical imperfection has become as way of life.

Everything considered a visit to the Knowlton Festival should be on every music-lovers list of things to do this year. The setting is beautiful and a conductor with refreshing ideas is leading a terrific orchestra in some of the greatest music ever written.

More Brahms Saturday night, with tenor Ben Heppner adding some songs by Richard Strauss, and Sunday afternoon a concert performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula with Nagano conducting and Sumi Jo as Amina. And there are other weekend events too including a master class by Bruno Cagli and two recitals. For more information visit the festival website.

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 Marita

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Knowlton Festival 2009: Youth Orchestra of the Americas

by Paul E. Robinson

Last August, the charming village of Knowlton, Quebec, 70 km east of Montreal, welcomed the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal (OSM) and the birth of Bel Canto, a summer music festival that focussed on music written for the human voice - more specifically, music composed by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

This summer the OSM is back in Knowlton, with a new name - Knowlton Festival - in a new venue, with a more varied slate of programs, and bel canto still at the heart of it all.

The Knowlton Festival's opening event this season was an orchestra concert that started and finished with infectious South American rhythms, and after several encores, had musicians and audience members dancing onstage and off - in a conga line! What a party! Who would have guessed? Well, if you've been paying attention to South American conductor Gustavo Dudamel and his tours with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (SBYO) you'll know what I'm talking about. The dancing and the party finish are typical Dudamel/SBYO. The Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA) – though less well-known than the SBYO, is definitely a relative, and it was this group that we had the pleasure of hearing in Knowlton this week.

The YOA, founded in 2001, is made up of young people from twenty-four countries and its artistic leadership includes the likes of Dudamel, Placido Domingo and the man who conducted the Knowlton concert, Carlos Miguel Prieto.

Selected via auditions throughout the Americas, 100 or so gifted musicians gather every summer as the SBYO in one of the member countries for intensive training, rehearsals and a tour. This summer Prieto is conducting most of the concerts, but Benjamin Zander and others are also lending a hand.

On the strength of the Knowlton concert, Prieto seems an ideal leader. He's young, personable, and has two professional orchestras of his own in Mexico City and New Orleans. He got the evening off to a rousing start with a virtuoso piece by Canadian composer John Estacio. Fast tempi and tricky rhythms held no terror for this band and Bootlegger’s Tarantella was a great success.

Next came pianist Gabriela Montero, featured earlier this year at the Obama inauguration with Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. She played with power and passion in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The orchestra played well too, especially the first horn. After the performance, Montero honoured a friend in the audience by not only playing Happy Birthday, but improvising an elaborate set of variations on the familiar tune. There was even a tango version!

After intermission, the YOA played Dvorak’s New World Symphony. In Prieto’s version, it was loud and fast, and a little rushed here and there. No matter. This was totally committed and joyous music-making. I couldn’t help but notice that four of the six bass players were female and that they played with both polish and pride. The principal player – also female – seemed to be in constant motion. Too theatrical? When she graduates to a full-time orchestra, she may have to rein in her terpsichorean tendencies. But many conductors and soloists love to literally strut their stuff. Why not orchestra players too?

After the Dvorak, the audience demanded an encore and Prieto and the YOA readily obliged. Not surprisingly, Prieto borrowed a Latin-American crowd-pleaser from the Dudamel playbook: Arturo Marquez’ Danzon No. 2. The YOA dug into the Latin rhythms with both authority and abandon.

Then came the topper. From out of the wings, wearing a dazzling white jacket, stepped trumpet virtuoso Mauro Maur, kicking off an exciting and infectious performance of Tico-Tico. Maur is principal trumpet of the Rome Opera Orchestra, a teacher at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia and a YOA coach. Some members of the orchestra broke into dancing at the edge of the stage and before long half the audience had joined them. Inevitably, a conga line materialized.

This concert was not the festival’s official opening night – that's coming up Friday with Nagano conducting the OSM in an all-Brahms program – rather, it was billed as a “Special Preview Concert.” Some preview! Some concert! This night's audience certainly went home happy with the new face of the festival.

More about the Knowlton Festival’s new facility this year – bigger and better – after Friday’s concert.

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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