La Scena Musicale

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cette semaine à Montréal (18 à 24 jan) / This Week in Montreal (Jan. 18 - 24)

Musique, danse, arts visuels et théâtre à Montréal cette semaine
Music, dance, visual arts and theatre in Montreal this week

Danse : Pierre Lecours présente Les steppes, résultat de son travail avec huit interprètes de la compagnie Cas Public, à L’Agora, du 20 au 23. Kathy Ward occupe la scène de Tangente du 21 au 24 avec Rock Steady. —Fabienne Cabado

Théâtre : Sextett. Intrigante proposition que cette « comédie érotique » imaginée par l’auteur français Rémi De Vos. Présentée cet automne au Théâtre du Rond-Point, à Paris, la pièce met en scène un jeune homme poursuivi par le désir de plusieurs femmes délirantes. Une coproduction à la distribution internationale, incluant la charmante Portugaise Maria de Medeiros et notre Anne-Marie Cadieux. » Du 12 janvier au 6 février, à l’Espace Go —Marie Labrecque

 Theatre: The McGill Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society is putting on their 4th annual musical opening on January 14th and continuing its run on the 15th, 16th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd. Doors open each night at 7:00 pm. The AUTS is a student run organization seeking to empower young actors, singers, dancers, directors, designers and musicians through peer-organized theatre. This year, the AUTS is putting on the well-known classic Cabaret, directed by Julian Silverman, choreographed by Claire Hughes, produced by Meg Annand, stage managed by Genevieve Hill with musical direction by Chris Barrilaro. This vibrant production stars Nicolas Allen as the MC, Callie Armstrong as English cabaret performer Sally Bowles and Adrian Steiner as young American writer Cliff Bradshaw. Tickets are $10 for students and $15 for adults and are available at SNAX cafe in Leacock or online at

Théâtre : La Liste. Avant même de voir le jour sur scène, cette pièce de Jennifer Tremblay a remporté l’an dernier le Prix du Gouverneur général en théâtre. Le jury a louangé l’universalité de ce monologue où une mère de famille se questionne sur sa culpabilité dans la mort d’une voisine. Le soliloque dispose déjà d’un atout de taille : l’éblouissante interprète Sylvie Drapeau. » Du 12 janvier au 6 février, au Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui —Marie Labrecque

The off-Broadway smash hit Menopause The Musical comes to the Centaur from January 12th to February 7th.  Four women of completely different backgrounds meet at Bloomingdale’s lingerie sale with nothing in common but a black lace bra and the day-to-day hectic challenges of aging. The musical hilariously re-lyricizes songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s to suit the situation. The Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” becomes “Stayin’ Awake”, “My Guy”, changes to “My Thighs” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is transformed into “In the Guest Room or on the Sofa, My Husband Sleeps at Night”. Celebrating life transitions and the perks and pains of womanhood, this show promises a rollicking good time for all ages. —Jessica Hill

Orchestral Music: On January 20, OSM Solo Trombonist James Box performs a concerto that fuses sounds of jazz, swing and world music by the American composer Nathaniel Shilkret. Also on the programme are works by Chabrier and de Falla conducted by Julian Kuerti. 514-842-2112

Jazz : Ven. 22, sam. 23 »  Cordâme (trio à cordes du contrebassiste Jean Félix Mailloux). Upstairs Jazz Bar. (20 h 30)

Musique de chambre : Acclamé comme le premier ensemble de musique de chambre du pays, Musica Camerata célèbre cette année sa quarantième saison. Le 23 janvier à 20 h, l’ensemble présente deux chefs-d’œuvre pour piano et quatuor à cordes de Franck et Elgar. Salle Redpath, Université McGill, 3461 rue McTavish – 514-489-8713

Orchestral Music: The incomparable jazz musician Branford Marsalis performs Debussy’s colourful Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone with the OSM under the direction of Kent Nagano on the afternoon of January 24. Also on the programme is Stravinski’s The Firebird. Pianist Olga Gross will be performing Messiaen’s Couleurs de la cité céleste, a fascinating work that draws on plainsong, Greek and Hindu rhythms, birdsong and more. 514-842-2112

Musique vocale : Le 24 janvier à 19 h 30, l’ensemble vocal VivaVoce sous la direction de Peter Schubert propose de faire place aux poètes de tous les temps. Composée sur des textes de Guillaume de Machaut et de Gaston Miron, L’espace du cœur de Tremblay prend place parmi eux. Salle Redpath, Université McGill, 3461 rue McTavish – 514-398-4547

Jazz : Dim. 24 » D’Australie le trio piano The Necks. (Musique improvisée minimaliste). Sala Rossa

Arts visuels : Vous découvrirez lors de l’exposition J. W. Waterhouse. Le jardin des sortilèges un artiste captivé par la beauté des femmes et leur pouvoir d’attraction. Élevé à Londres et à Leeds, J. W. Waterhouse (1849-1917) est né à Rome de parents d’origine britannique. Le parcours de son œuvre, qui couvre cinq décennies, est imprégné de l’Antiquité classique. Il fait ressortir à la fois sa fascination pour la mélancolie et la magie, mais aussi les dangers de l’amour et de la beauté. Pour la première fois, tous les tableaux consacrés à la Dame de Shalott sont exposés ensemble. Cette exposition offre donc la chance unique d’analyser et de comprendre la façon dont l’artiste a exploré le poème romantique du poète anglais Alfred Tennyson, et ce, sur une période de trente ans. Une œuvre à la fois poétique, mythique et hypnotique, empreinte d’une grande théâtralité, vous attend au Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.  » Montréal, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal jusqu’au 2 février 2010 —Julie Beaulieu

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conspirare Rings in New Year with Seldom Heard Strauss Motette

The last time I looked in on Conspirare, they were offering Christmas music at the Long Center in Austin. Last week, they moved a few blocks uptown to St. Martin’s Lutheran Church for a concert titled "A New Year’s Conspirare Classic". I had no idea what that meant, but a perusal of the program suggested that we were in for an evening of German choral music - except for a short piece by Samuel Barber - which turned out to be Conspirare’s tribute to the American composer on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth (March 9, 1910).

First Half of Program Somewhat Disappointing

I could have done without the five excerpts from Max Reger’s Acht Geistliche Gesänge Op. 138 which opened the concert. This is boring music by any standard. In my opinion, the concert should have opened with Bach’s wonderful motet Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied BWV 225 for double chorus. This music is full of energy and the sort of inspired contrapuntal variety that only Bach could write. Conductor Craig Hella Johnson went to the trouble of bringing in some continuo players just for this piece. I would have preferred an organ – the harpsichord was all but inaudible – but the cellos and bass sounded fine.

The Samuel Barber selection was too short and inconsequential to serve as an appropriate tribute to a composer of his stature.

The first half of the concert ended with two choral songs by Robert Schumann. Zigeunerleben is an amazingly vivid piece and Conspirare sang it very well indeed. They followed up with Schumann’s An die Sterne.

Here is one of those thematic connections that Johnson likes to make in his programs. The poetry Schumann set to music in both songs is by Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), the same man whose poetry was used by Richard Strauss for his Deutsche Motette, the major work in the second half of the concert. I am sure that Johnson also wanted us to note the pivotal role played by stars in the heavens in both An die Sterne and the Deutsche Motette, and, for good measure, in Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night.

Chameleon Conspirare Takes Several Forms

For readers unfamiliar with Conspirare, let me provide some background. ‘Conspirare’ is the name of the organization based in Austin devoted to the performance of choral music. But there are several different ensembles that perform under this umbrella. One of these is the ‘Conspirare Symphonic Choir’, a large group with a nucleus of professionals and community singers recruited locally. This choir took part in an excellent performance of Cary Ratcliff’s Ode to Common Things with the Austin Symphony earlier this season. Then there is the smaller ensemble of about forty voices that appears under the name ‘Company of Voices.’ This is an all-star festival choir which brings together top professionals from all over the country.

Rare Strauss Composition Program Highlight

This was just about the coldest night I have ever experienced in Austin, and all things being equal I would rather have curled up in front of a roaring fire at home. But all things weren’t equal. What drew me out into wintry discomfort was the prospect of hearing a rare performance of Richard Strauss’ magnificent Deutsche Motette. This is one of the most daunting challenges in choral literature, but I knew that Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare ‘Company of Voices’ had what it takes to do it justice. And so they did, giving us a glorious performance of the piece.

The Deutsche Motette was composed in 1913, around the time of Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, but he revised it in 1943. As a result of this revision, it must be grouped with several other works of Strauss’ late years. What these later works have in common – the Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings and the two Sonatinas or Symphonies for Winds – is a preoccupation with contrapuntal complexity.

Strauss had great gifts as a melodist and was a master of orchestration, but far less appreciated was his ability to write complicated fugues and other contrapuntal textures. It is almost incredible that in his last years, when he was in his eighties, when he could have rested on his laurels or written only tuneful miniatures, he set himself some of the most difficult musical challenges imaginable. Strauss was apt to refer to these late works as “wrist exercises” or “workshop” pieces, but one cannot help but marvel at the level of craftsmanship Strauss maintained until his final days.

For the singers, the most difficult aspects of the Deutsche Motette are technical. Strauss takes his sopranos and basses to the extremes of their ranges, and often keeps them there for bars on end. The harmonies are also unusual and not easy to tune. Finally, Strauss sometimes seems to forget that singers have to breathe! But no music endures simply because it is difficult. The Deutsche Motette is a great piece because of its beauty and power. Rückert’s words suggest someone in the depths of depression, perhaps at the end of a troubled life, searching for reassurance and peace of mind.

Strauss was outwardly one of the most confident of men, but his music often reflected sadness and disappointment. One thinks of the Marshallin in Der Rosenkavalier, and those heartbreaking epilogues in works like Ein Heldenleben, Don Quixote, and Eine Alpensymphonie. In the Deutsche Motette, Strauss finds a profoundly moving musical expression of the essence of Rückert’s poetry. I have no doubt that individually and collectively, the 'Company of Voices' must have spent many long hours preparing this piece. For at least one listener, it was worth every minute. This was a performance to treasure.

And to Cap off the Evening...Humor and Charm!

The next piece performed was also German, but very different from anything else on the program. It was from the repertoire of that legendary close harmony group, the Comedian Harmonists, who had flourished from 1927 to 1934. Craig Hella Johnson programmed a choral version of My Little Green Cactus in order to “cleanse the palate” after the Strauss. It was great fun and I would love to have heard several more.

Finally, we had a selection from BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes. These are charming choral songs, with accompaniment by two pianists at one keyboard. It was the perfect way to end a concert of mostly German music and it sent the audience back out into the cold with at least a warm glow to fortify themselves.

Additional Listening

You can hear the Comedian Harmonists singing Mein kleiner grüner Kaktus (My Little Green Cactus) on YouTube. A whole album of their recordings is available on Naxos 8.120613.

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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Pierre Dionne nous a quittés / Has Passed Away

Pierre Dionne, a friend to the music world and La Scena Musicale, has passed away. Here is an email from André Dupras:

J'ai le regret de  vous annoncer que notre ami Pierre Dionne nous a quittés vers 1 h 30 cette nuit, dans un hôpital de Trois-Rivières. Son courageux combat contre le cancer aura duré un peu plus d'un an. 
Stay tuned for funeral details. Any comments will be forwarded to the family.

- Wah Keung Chan 

Monday, January 11, 2010

A World Premiere in Rome: Pappano Conducts Henze's Latest "Konzertoper"

By Giuseppe Pennisi

Much awaited in the international music world, Hans Werner Henze’s Opfergang had its debut on January 10th at the main 2832-seat Santa Cecilia auditorium of the Parco della Musica in Roma. There were about 80 music critics from ten countries at this world premiere.

Maestro Henze is the most frequently performed living contemporary musician. He has lived in Italy since the early 1950s, more specifically since the beginning of the 1960s in a magnificent villa near Rome. Yet Opfergang is the first musical composition commissioned by an Italian institution (the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia). Maestro Henze is 83 years old. His fans and the musical world in general thought that his last major work would have been “Upupa,” premiered at the 2003 Summer Salzburg Festival and, since them, performed in many countries (but not yet in Italy) as well as considered the first major opera of the 21st Century. Thereafter, for a long period, Maestro Henze was seriously ill. He was in a coma for five months and seemed to be about to die. After his recovery, he had to cope with the death of his life-long partner. Surprisingly, in the last few years a new Spring appears to have begun for him. A flow of new major compositions: Sebastiam in Traum in 2005, Gogo no eiko (from a text by Japanese writer Mishima) in 2006, Pheadra in 2007, Elegium Musicum Amatissimi Amici Nunc Remoti in 2008 and now Opfergang (Immolazione, or Holocaust in the Italian translation in the program, but more accurately Sacrificium, Sacrifice).

Opfergang is classified a Konzertopera by Maestro Henze himself. Like many other works of his (e.g. El Cimarron, Pheadra, Das Floss of Medusa) the composition maintains Maestro Henze’s very strong flair for dramatic action; most of his works are for the operatic stage or for movies. But it is conceived for a concert hall: a few solo singers and a chamber orchestra with no need for elaborate stage sets or costumes. Opfergang requires an oversized chamber orchestra with quite a few peculiar instruments, two main soloists (a Wagnerian baritone and a Schubertian tenor), a second baritone in a minor role and a chorus-like quarter of baritones and tenors. There is limited acting, but in this production, lighting is critical in providing the dramatic context and pulse.

The text is a dramatic poem of Franz Werfel, an expressionist writer and poet from Prague. He was a very close friend of Franz Kafka and the last of Alma Mahler’s three husbands. The plot is simple but disquieting. In the suburbs of a large European town, a man is on the run; in a monologue he tells us about his life and problems but never reveals the specifics of what he is escaping from. He is befriended by a small white and well-tendered dog, who has left the upper class villa where he was the pet-toy of a young girl. The man is violent, brutal. The dog is kind, gentle. They attempt to communicate, but when the police is getting at the man, in a moment of insane rage, he kills the dog. The man runs away but is left in abysmal desperation while the soul of the dog sings his affection for him. There is, of course, quite a bit of symbolism – a movement contemporary to expressionism. The man is Violence; the dog Innocence. With the Violence-Innocence contrast and an all-male cast, there is an immediate reference to Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd - of which Britten himself adapted the grand opéra version to a chamber music edition (with two pianos in lieu of the large orchestra). However, the man on-the-run is not the sadistic Glaggart of Billy Budd; rather he seems to be like the protagonist of Albert Camus’s L’Etranger; in the German text, he is a Fremd, a stranger. We feel almost empathy for him in spite of his troubled soul, for his escaping from something we do not know, and even of his gratuitous killing of the sweet little white dog. In short, the text leaves the audience with many questions about the meaning of life and of existence in an absurd world – another reference to Camus’s novel.

Musically, the overall framework is dodecaphonic. The 12-tone scale is utilized both horizontally and vertically to build an eclectic score with melodies and melismas. In this manner, once more Maestro Hence brings the 12-tone scale to a large audience, as he did nearly 55 years ago with his first operatic masterpiece Boulevard Solitude. After an agitato introduction (a man is on the run), the score is dominated by ethereal string measures, a large melody of the Heckelphon (a baritone oboe), the “a solo” of the piano to accompany the recitatives, a vague dance movement of the accordion and a Wagnerian leitmotiv in F sharp major and C major. The vocal score is a declamation sliding into ariosos and even includes two tender duets, with the counterpoint of the quartet. Ian Bostridge is a lied singer at this best, Sir John Tomlinson is a powerful, yet suffering Fremd; he reminds the audience of the many Wotan he sang in Bayreuth. Maestro Antonio Pappano conducts the Santa Cecilia orchestra and plays the piano in an exquisite manner.

The audience erupted in real accolades at the end of the performance, even if the 2,832-seat auditorium was perhaps too vast for such an intimate Konzertopera.

The Playbill
Antonio Pappano, Conductor and pianist

Ian Bostridge The white dog
Sir John Tomlinson The man-on-the-run
Roberto Valentini, The police inspector
Gian Paolo Fiocchi ,Maurizio Trementini, Anselmo Fabiani
Antonio MameliThe Chorus, The Policemen

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This Week in Toronto (Jan. 11 - 17)

Photo: Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca burns up the stage in a new Metropolitan Opera production of Bizet's Carmen, coming to your nearest participating Met in HD Cineplex on Saturday Jan. 16 at 1 pm. (photo courtesy of Metropolitan Opera)

Now that we are into the second full week of the new year, the winter concert season is in full swing. Since Mozart's 250 anniversary celebration in 2006, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra has turned January into more or less a "Mozart Month". Last year we had concert performances of Die Zauberfloete. This year's offerings, billed as Mozart@254, are a little more modest in scale but hopefully just as enjoyable. On January 13 and 14 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, and January 17 at 3 pm at the George Weston Recital Hall in North York, Peter Oundjian conducts a mixed program consisting of Symphony No. 25, a horn concerto with soloist horn player Neil Deland, the famous concert aria Ch'io mi scordi di te....Non temer, amato bene with soprano Shannon Mercer, and the even more famous Piano Concerto No. 21, which for years was called the "Elvira Madigan" because the gorgeous slow movement was used in the soundtrack of a 1967 Swedish film by that name. Interestingly there is absolutely no mention of the film in the TSO promotional material, so I guess with the passage of time, this little bit of trivia is forgotten. The pianist is Jonathan Biss. At the intermission on January 13 and 14, audience members will get an opportunity to hear the performers speak about the program. On Jan. 14 at 7:15 pm, broadcaster Rick Phillips will give a pre-concert talk in the lobby. On Saturday Jan. 16 at 7:30pm, the National Arts Centre Orchestra visits Roy Thomson Hall. Pinchas Zukerman does double-duty as conductor and violin soloist in Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 "Turkish". Also on the program is Clarinet Concerto in A Major (second movement) with soloist Kimball Sykes. The beloved Canadian baritone Russell Braun sings Songs for an Acrobat, a cycle of love songs by Linda Bouchard. This is a "Casual Concert", with no intermission and a chance to mingle with the performers after the show in the lobby with live music.

On January 14 at 8 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto presents a joint recital featuring cellist Rachel Mercer and pianist Minsoo Sohn. Mercer plays on 1696 Stradivarius cello on loan to her from the instrument bank of the Canada Council. Korean pianist Sohn is the first Laureate of the 2006 Honens International Piano Competition in Calgary. On the program are cello sonatas by Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Schostakovich. Tickets are a real bargain at $15!

On Tuesday in Walter Hall at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, soprano Leslie Ann Bradley gives a noon hour recital. Those of you who followed the Montreal International Vocal Competition may remember her in the semi-finals three years ago. She is the recipient of the Charlotte and James Norcop Song Prize at the Faculty. No information on the program is available - I went to the U of T Faculty of Music website and found no details whatsoever, not even the name of the singer!

On Sunday, Jan. 17 at 2 pm in Mazzoleni Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music on 273 Bloor Street, cellist Bryan Epperson, principal cello of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, together with pianist Dianne Werner, give a recital of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Panufnik. It is a good opportunity to hear the excellent Epperson out of the pit and on the main stage.

And as the photo at the top of my post makes clear, this Saturday is another must-see event from the Met in HD series - a new production of Bizet's Carmen starring Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca and French tenor Roberto Alagna. Originally the Carmen was supposed to be Angela Gheorghiu, but she bowed out because she didn't want to sing opposite her estranged husband Alagna now that they are divorcing. I don't miss her one bit - I'd much rather hear a genuine mezzo in this role any day. However, if you are a Gheorghiu fan, she is scheduled to sing two performances later in the run, opposite German tenor sensation Jonas Kaufmann. This is worth attending for Kaufmann's Don Jose alone. Micaela is Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien is Escamillo. Canada's own Yannick Nezet-Seguin conducts. Preliminary reports from opening night praised Garanca and Nezet-Seguin, with a mixed response for Alagna. Frittoli and Kwiecien were both tepidly received. But I am sure everyone will give his/her all for the telecast. Not to be missed!

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