La Scena Musicale

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ratcliff's Uncommon "Ode to Common Things" Superb Marriage of Words and Music!

Classical Travels
This Week in Texas

Like many institutions in the state of Texas, the Austin Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is more than a little to the right of center - it takes few risks in matters of programming; nonetheless, music director Peter Bay keeps finding ways to energize his concerts and challenge his listeners. The latest example of this irrepressible spirit was a performance of Cary Ratcliff's (
photo: above) Ode to Common Things, a major work for soloists, chorus and orchestra based on poems by the Chilean master poet, Pablo Neruda.

Comfort Food: Words by Shakespeare, Music by Mendelssohn

The concert began with Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Nights Dream (MND), programmed as part of the ASO's ongoing celebration of the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. In this performance, the ASO was joined by the Conspirare Symphonic Choir.

From the Incidental Music that he had composed for Shakespeare's play, Mendelssohn later extracted a purely orchestral suite comprised of some of his best-loved music, including the glorious 'Wedding March' which has ushered millions of happy couples out the door of a church into a life of 'wedded bliss'.

Maestro Bay chose to add to Mendelssohn's orchestral suite some other bits and pieces from Mendelssohn's MND Incidental Music. The problem is that these bits are ,well - incidental, and don't make a lot of sense on their own without some of the text they were meant to support.

For me, the best options are, either 1) to play the suite of stand-alone orchestral pieces, or 2) to add some linking text comprised of narration and/or spoken excerpts from the play.

Be that as it may, Bay and his musicians played the music very well indeed. The horn and flute solos were not impeccable, but the style of playing was impressive. I particularly liked Bay's tempo for the scherzo, which is marked Allegro vivace and not Presto, as too many conductors seem to think. Bay's comfortable tempo adeptly brought out the charm of the piece.

The brief vocal solos were a little shaky and the chorus occasionally lacked clarity and rhythmic precision, but overall this was a good night for Mendelssohn.

Eclectic Traditional: Words by Neruda, Music by Ratcliff

What made the evening a spectacular triumph for me was the opportunity to hear a wonderful recent work by American composer Cary Ratcliff.

Cary Ratcliff has lived in Rochester, NY for many years and plays keyboards with the Rochester Philharmonic. He has produced a large body of work which includes, among other things, songs for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The Ode to Common Things, composed in 1995, is a very ambitious piece lasting nearly an hour. Its quality more than justifies its length.

The poetry Ratcliff chose to set to music in Ode to Common Things is by Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, and dates from the years 1954-59.

Some years ago I became interested in Neruda and that interest deepened considerably after a visit to Chile in 2008. Then - as it happens - just this last week, during an ocean voyage, I read a fine biography of Neruda by Adam Feinstein.

Neruda is perhaps most widely known and admired for his love poetry, but during much of his life, he was a political activist and diplomat. An ardent communist, he got into all kinds of trouble with friends and opponents alike. At one stage, when the Chilean government sought to arrest him, Neruda was forced into hiding. He later escaped on horseback over the Andes into Argentina. In another period, he alienated friends by stubbornly continuing to support Stalin even after the dictator's monstrous crimes came to light.

Neruda died of prostate cancer in 1973, just after the heartbreak of seeing his friend Salvator Allende overthrown and probably murdered in a coup led by General Pinochet. Neruda's funeral procession became one of the first public protests against the Pinochet government.

Neruda wrote numerous odes, but the Ode to Common Things is perhaps exceptional. An analysis and celebration of everything we take for granted in our lives, Neruda's poetry in this piece is perceptive, surprising, beautiful, sad and funny - often all at the same time. And so too is Ratcliff's music. In fact, when the poetry and the music are combined, there is almost too much sound and information to comprehend - at least at first hearing.

Fortunately, for this performance, Neruda's poetry was made available to the audience as an addition to the printed program. Unfortunately, when words are set to music they are often elongated to the point of being unrecognizable, especially when the tempo is quick, and so the tiny font size (7-8pt?) used in the program accentuated the difficulty of digesting large blocks of text in time to appreciate its particular musical expression.

These are problems, however, that will likely disappear with repeated hearings as one becomes more familiar with this complex piece. And let me be clear about this: Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things deserves repeated hearings.

Ratcliff composes in a style that I would describe as 'eclectic traditional'. The harmonies are traditional but the ways in which voices and instruments are used and combined are decidedly original.

In a choral work based on Chilean poetry, most composers would go all out with Latin rhythms. The orchestration would include a good deal of Latin percussion and bits of tango and samba would be everywhere. Ratcliff's composition is more subtle; its Latin elements are never predominant.

Ratcliff pays Neruda the compliment of respecting him as not only Chile's greatest poet, but also as a man whose thoughts and words have universal significance.

Power and Poetry: Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists Deliver!

Singing in the original Spanish, the Conspirare Symphonic Chorus, prepared by Craig Hella Johnson, was wonderful. The nearly 100 voices handled the tricky rhythms and textures with both finesse and enthusiasm.

Soprano Ava Pine, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller and tenor Bryan Griffin were all excellent. Miller was particularly impressive in her duet with acoustic guitar in 'Ode to the Guitar'.

Maestro Peter Bay is to be commended not only for introducing Ratcliff's Ode to Common Things to Austin, but also for conducting it with extraordinary technical command and acute sensitivity to the myriad expressive demands of the piece.

A good night for Mendelssohn! A great night for Pablo Neruda, Cary Ratcliff and Peter Bay.

As you Like it!

After hearing a work like Ode to Common Things, listeners may want to read more poetry by Pablo Neruda and listen to other pieces composed by Cary Ratcliff. They may also want to watch a beautiful film about Neruda during a period of exile when he lived in Italy, and make the acquaintance of some Neruda songs by another composer, Peter Lieberson.

The Essential Neruda (ed. Mark Eisner). City Lights Press, 2004
Cary Ratcliff: Songs. Kathryn Lewek, sop., Cary Ratcliff, piano. Albany Records, 2008
Il Postino. Philippe Noiret. Dir: Michael Radford. Miramax DVD, 1995
Peter Lieberson: Neruda Songs. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Boston Symphony/James Levine.Trumpet Swan Records, 2006.

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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This Week in Toronto (November 23 - 29)

Photo: An early portrait of the soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom in 1957

I begin this week's post with a piece of sad news for opera fans. The beloved Swedish soprano Elizabeth Soderstrom passed away from complications of a stroke at the age of 82. She made her debut in 1947, singing mainly light lyric and soubrette roles - she was a marvelous Susanna in her early days. She sang at the Met in the early 60's, but later restricted her appearances closer to her home in Sweden to raise a family. She reappeared on the international scene in the 1970's until her retirement in the late 1980's. A frequent visitor to Toronto, I have many fond memories of her performing here - a concert Tatiana that also featured Nicolai Gedda as Lensky in Massey Hall; Hanna Glawari for the COC; several Rachmaninoff songs recitals. But my most memorable experience of her was as the Marschallin, opposite the Octavian of Frederica von Stade and the Sophie of Kathleen Battle with the Met on tour in Cleveland. She remains my favourite Marschallin to this day. I also remember a late-career Nozze di Figaro Contessa at the Met around 1987. By that time she was past her best vocally but remained a supreme artist.

Now to happier news. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 5 on Nov. 25 at a rather odd time of 6:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Stephane Deneve leads the TSO forces. On Nov. 26 2 pm, 28 at 8 pm and 29 at 3 pm, the great Canadian violinist James Ehnes plays the Prokofiev violin concerto No. 2, in addition to the Shostakovich symphony and the Prokofiev Suite to Love For Three Oranges, with Deneve on the podium.

The Aradia Ensemble under Irish conductor kevin Mallon presents a interesting concert to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the death of Haydn, on Nov. 27, 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio. On the program is Mallon's reconstruction of mass fragment Missa Sunt Bona Mixta Malis. It is billed as a world premiere. The centerpiece is Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, with a quartet of soloists led by soprano Charlotte Corwin.

The RCM's Glenn Gould School is presenting an English-language version of Bohuslav Martinu's rarely performed comic opera, Comedy on the Bridge. This opera, staged at the RCM for the first time, is part of an all-Martinu program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the composer's death. The opera represents the first
conducting assignment for Uri Mayer since he was appointed as Director of The Glenn Gould School Orchestral Programme and Resident Conductor. Also on the program is Anagnoson & Kinton, who will perform Martinu's
Three Czech Dances for Two Pianos. It takes place on Wednesday, November 25, 2009, 12:00 pm and > Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 8:00 pm, at the venerable Mazzoleni Hall of the RCM.

The National Ballet of Canada follows an ultra-traditional Sleeping Beauty with a cutting-edge contemporary mixed program, Nov. 25 - 29 at the Four Seasons Centre. On the program is choreographer Aszure Barton's world premiere, Watch Her. This is paired with George Ballanchine's scintillating The Four Temperaments, set to a score by Paul Hindemith.

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Leon Fleisher Brings Out True Musicianship at Koerner Hall

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

There was a moment during Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand on Nov. 20 when members of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra watched in wonder the piano man on centre stage.

With his glasses off, his back to the audience, Leon Fleisher, 81, immersed himself in a wash of sound as large as a tsunami; his low hum was audible throughout the cadenza, his left hand worked itself into a blur up and down the keyboard.

As the sound gradually diminished, Fleisher lifted his right hand over the piano — his left hand playing all the same — and masterfully gave cue to the orchestra in a different time signature.

In a program that featured him both as a soloist and conductor, the American pianist who had to abandon the standard piano repertoire at the height of his career at the age of 37, when he lost the use of his right hand due to a neurological movement disorder, dazzled the audience in the sold-out Koerner Hall with his tenacity to do just one thing — make music.

A familiar face in Toronto’s classical music community, especially at the Royal Conservatory of Music where he has given master classes since the inception of the Glenn Gould School in 1997, Fleisher has, thanks to a combination of Botox injections and Rolfing, enjoyed a successful comeback to two-hand playing in the last several years.

In Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, he proved once again that a true musician does not need 10 fingers to make beautiful music on a piano.

Commissioned by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War, the single-movement concerto displays Ravel’s versatility as a composer to write full colour and texture for one hand.

Fleisher’s fast finger work throughout the piece’s harmonic, melodic, percussive, and glissando passages made the dark and mighty piece sound as if it were played with two hands. Conducting the orchestra from the piano bench, he was sensitive to Ravel’s brilliant orchestration and brought out layers of nuances from various sections of the orchestra. Here, the musicians must have been infected with Fleisher’s deep devotion to music, because they sounded like a professional orchestra rather than one that is in training.

The Royal Conservatory Orchestra, comprised of some of the country’s brightest young musicians, produced for the most part an expansive and expressive sound. In Rachmaninoff’s epic Symphony No. 2, the musicians were shamelessly giving to Fleisher’s lyrical and romantic treatment of the big tune. As a whole, there was excessive drama and passion, but that is never overdone in this more-is-more work.

The orchestra suffered, though, in their ability to play together consistently. This deficiency showed especially in the opening work, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, a rhythmically theatrical work that requires dead-on synchronization and chemistry from each player.

But with an orchestra that is so eager to give and please — and give and please they did — one can easily forgive the rest.


Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen in Florence

by Giuseppe Pennisi 

Italians are not fond of fairy tales. There is very little Italian literature of that kind, even of high quality fantastic books and novels. The same applies to music theatre. Attempts to develop an Italian “Zauberoper” in the 19th and 20th Century were – by-and-large – doomed to fail. The Japanese, particularly love their fairy tales, with its long literary roots, plus a very rich musical theatre. Leóš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Příhody Lišky Bystroušky), a fable set to musical theatre, lands in Florence in a new co-production with the Japanese Saito Kinen Festival, with Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa as the musical director. Frenchman Laurent Pelly, a rising star of international theatre, is the stage director and the costume designer, whilst the set are entrusted to Barbara De Limburg Stirum. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (one the best in Italy) and an international cast of 13 soloists – to cover nearly 25 different characters - complete the playbill. 

On opening night (November 8, 2009), the fable enchanted, indeed enthralled, the Florentine audience and European critics reviewers. There was considerable interest in Seiji Ozawa, as he has reduced his conducting duties to a comparatively small number of fully staged operas every year. There was also interest in Laurent Pelly’s stage direction, especially after the semi-flop of his Traviata in Santa Fé and Turin – the entire plot was set in the Parisian Père-Lachaise grave yard. The Cunning Little Vixen has been seldom staged in Italy, even though in the last ten years the opera was seen at the Spoleto Festival, La Scala and La Fenice. 

The opera was based on a novel published by installments on a Brnò’s daily paper, as a set of cartoons giving life to both human and animal characters. The cartoons compare and confront two different worlds: the gritty, petty and hypocritical lower middle class of a small town, and the healthy and generous animals of a nearby woods. There, the animals – first of all the cunning little vixen – live in full freedom and nature regenerates itself. The action does not have a dramatic development (like Jenufa, Kat’ia or Makropoulos) but is made up of a number of episodes welded into a coherent structure by the music – mostly by a continuous forest’s murmur. In the middle of the third act, the vixen is shot by the gamekeeper, but with a real coup de theatre, in the final scene of the opera she seems to appear again in full bloom and with her very cunning eyes. In short, the forces of nature are stronger than that of mankind; sensual and physical love are at the root of such a strength, an optimistic outcome of Janáček’s meditation on death and rebirth, which is the dominant theme of his three last operas. In Janáček’s biography, his friend Adolf E. Vaseck recalls that, at the composer’s request, at his funeral service, the Orchestra of the Brnò National Opera played the end of The Cunning Little Vixen as an anthem to the eternity of nature. 

Seiji Ozawa chooses the meditation on death and rebirth as the key element of his musical direction. His baton strikes the right balance between melancholic Slavic melody and Richard Strauss’s pagan and pantheistic symphonic approach. He also draws up front Debussy’s influence on The Cunning Little Vixen's orchestration - Janáček knew both La Mer and Pelléas quite well. The Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino provided the right tinta in both the forest and the urban setting. 

Pelly’s stage direction and costumes and Barbara De Limburg Stirum’s sets are visionnaire - viz a blown up vision of a naturalistic staging. The forest is lush and at the same time almost somber. 

In the excellent international cast, two singers stand out: Isabel Bayrakdarian, the sexy and sensual cunning vixen, and Quinn Kelsey, the brash, albeit, reflective gamekeeper.



Leóš Janàček
text and music

Seiji Ozawa conductor
Laurent Pelly stage director and customs designer
Barbara de Limburg Stirum sets
Lionel Hoche choreography
Peter van Praet

Quinn Kelsey
The Gamekeeper

Judith Christin
His Wife, The Owl

Dennis Petersen
The Schoolmaster,The Mosquito

Kevin Langan
The Priest, The Badger

Gustáv Belácek
Harašta, a tramp

Federico Lepre
Pásek, The Innkeeper

Marcella Polidori
Páskova, His Wife

Isabel Bayrakdarian
Bystrouška, the Cunning Little Vixen

Lauren Curnow
The Fox

Eleonora Bravi

Bystrouška as a Child

Elena Mascii

Riccardo Zurlo

Marie Lenormand
Lapák, the Dog

Mayumi Kuroki
The Cock

Gregorio Spotti
The Grasshopper

The Hen
Elena Cavini
Gabriella Cecchi
Laura Lensi
Delia Palmieri
Sarina Rausa
Maria Rosaria Rossini
Maria Livia Sponton
Nadia Sturlese

The other animals of the wood

Carlotta Favino
Elena Mascii
Eleonora Bravi
Alessia Marchiani
Riccardo Zurlo
Pietro Achatz Antonelli

The little foxes

Leone Barilli

Paola Fazioli
Kristina Grigorova
Margherita Mana
Gaia Mazzeranghi
Christine Vezzani
Judith Vincent
Paolo Arcangeli
Michelangelo Chelucci
Cristiano Colangelo
Antonio Guadagno
Zhani Lukaj
Pierangelo Preziosa

Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio
Musicale Fiorentino
Piero Monti

Soloists of MaggioDanza

The Children Chorus of Florencee
Marisol Carballo Chorusmaster

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