La Scena Musicale

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pianist Anton Kuerti's Beethoven Mesmerizes UT Austin Audience

Anton Kuerti arrived in Canada in 1965, and Toronto has been his home base ever since. In that span of 45 years, this extraordinary artist has demonstrated time and again that he has no peer in the performance of the piano music of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

In Canada, Kuerti is a national treasure; in the United States, he has had an illustrious career, stemming from his student days in Cleveland and Philadelphia, to his now regular concertizing in America's major cities. Those fortunate enough to be in McCullough Hall at the University of Texas (Austin) last week, had the rare pleasure of hearing Kuerti in an all-Beethoven recital presented by Texas Performing Arts.

Masterful: Insight, Technique and Temperament

Kuerti’s Austin engagement included an inspiring master class with students from UT's Butler School of Music. In works by Mozart, Clementi and Brahms, he encouraged those who performed for him to dig deeper, especially in matters of research and phrasing. He suggested various ways in which the meaning of the music can be realized through careful attention to accents and the placement of chords. On the question of how to play trills and other ornaments in early music, he made it clear that while extensive study of all the appropriate sources is absolutely essential, in the end the artist must use his intuition to solve these kinds of challenges.

His reputation having obviously preceded him, McCullough Hall was packed for Kuerti’s recital. He opened with the Sonata No. 26 in E flat major Op. 81a Les Adieux. The program notes - penned by Kuerti himself - suggested that we should not press the extra-musical allusions in this piece too hard: “…what really matters are not the events, but the universal emotions associated with them.”

Briefly, the sonata deals with the departure of Beethoven’s friend and benefactor (the Archduke Rudolph), on a long trip. The first movement depicts the farewell; the second the loneliness Beethoven felt during his friend's absence; and the last, the Archduke's joyous return.

From the opening bars, Kuerti captured the tenderness of the piece, as well as Beethoven’s obvious sincerity. Too often, in performances of Les Adieux, the slow music is too loud and lacking in repose and the fast music is trivialized. Not so on this occasion. In Kuerti’s hands, each note was imbued with feeling and nobility.

Incomparable Appassionata Brings Audience to its Feet!

For many listeners, the Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 Appassionata, is the greatest of all Beethoven’s works for piano. It has beauty, excitement and grandeur, and most of all, perhaps, the power that we associate with the mature Beethoven. It was all there, in Kuerti’s performance.

There is nothing quite like the opening bars of the Appassionata. The music starts pianissimo and continues at this volume for almost fourteen bars. Like most pianists, Kuerti ignored the allegro assai tempo marking in order to accentuate the mystery of this remarkable introduction. Then come the true Beethovenian outbursts, first in forte and then in a shattering fortissimo. Before long we arrive at the noble theme in A flat major, which is really a transformation of the mysterious passage in F minor which had opened the movement. Kuerti fully realized the intensity of the piece without sacrificing its architecture. A great performance!

Kuerti received a standing ovation for his performance of the Appassionata, but after several returns to the stage he cut off the applause with a wave of his hand. He suggested to audience members that before they left for intermission, they might like some helpful comments about the Diabelli Variations, the next work on the programme. Having said this, he launched into a brilliant twenty-minute analysis of this long and difficult work, illustrating - among other things - which elements of Diabelli’s waltz tune were used in which variation.Taking their seats after intermission, the capacity audience was primed and ready for the Diabelli.

Exposing Diabelli Variations as Indisputable Masterpiece

Kuerti’s tempo for the waltz theme was very moderate indeed. Compare, for example, another celebrated interpreter of this great work, Alfred Brendel. Brendel comes out of the gate at about double Kuerti’s tempo. Beethoven’s marking was simply vivace with no metronome marking, and that is vague enough to allow for almost any tempo. In my opinion, Kuerti’s approach makes more sense than Brendel's, both as an interpretation of the waltz tune and as a lead-in to the 'Variation 1' 'march,' which follows.

In any case, Kuerti brought out of the distinct character of each of the thirty-three variations without rushing, and without getting bogged down in over-interpretation. I was particularly struck by what he did with 'Variation 20,' with its long notes in the manner of a chorale played by trombones. There are very few dynamic markings in this variation and it can easily sound ponderous and boring. Kuerti’s piano was so well-regulated – by Kuerti himself - that we could hear and be moved by the strange harmonies of this music, as if for the first time. Who but Beethoven could have found foreshadowings of Wagner’s Parsifal and Mussorgsky’s Catacombs in Diabelli’s little waltz?

As impossible as it may seem, Kuerti’s playing appears to get even better with the passing of time. Of course, one expects serious artists to deepen their interpretations as they get older, but in Kuerti’s case technique continues on the upswing as well. The Diabelli Variations is a formidable technical challenge for any pianist particularly in the fugue of 'Variation 32.' Kuerti played it up to speed (allegro) and with the most incredible clarity.

Some listeners have found the concluding minuet of the piece to be anti-climactic after the fugue, but again Kuerti found just the right tempo and held down the dynamics exactly as Beethoven had indicated. The result was surely what the composer intended - a reminiscence of the waltz theme incorporating elements of almost everything that had happened in the previous variations, a sort of affectionate farewell to the theme after so many adventures.

As if that Weren't Enough!

After such a formidable and thoughtful performance, an encore was neither expected nor offered; instead, there was a relaxing, forthright ‘Talkback’ session for those who chose to stay. Anton Nel, the chairman of the piano department at the Butler School of Music acted as moderator for audience questions and jumped in with a few of his own.

Anton Kuerti is known to be a plain-spoken man, to say the least, and he was not shy about expressing his opinions. With reference to his teachers, he was effusive in his praise of Arthur Loesser (“the most widely cultured man I ever met”), but very critical of the methods of Rudolf Serkin (“I don’t think scolding has a big role in education."). He spoke at length about teaching children to love music. He thinks there is too much emphasis put on mechanics. He referred to his own childhood and the moment that changed everything for him: “I remember the day I discovered that I could shape the music.” In other words, the teacher’s goal should be to encourage children to express themselves through music, not simply hound them into learning pieces by rote.

"And what is the most important thing to be learned from Beethoven?" “Beethoven," said Kuerti, "shows that by persevering you can achieve great things. If we look at his manuscripts, we see that he often crossed things out and he often revised what he had done before. Composing, for Beethoven, was torture. But as with so many things in life, hard work and commitment pay off. Don’t give up.”

For those wanting more…

Anton Kuerti has recorded all 32 Beethoven Sonatas, the Diabelli Variations and the Piano Concertos. You can find them here. Kuerti’s study of Beethoven is a life-long process. Recently, he spent some time with a piano concerto Beethoven wrote when he was thirteen years old. Kuerti calls it Piano Concerto No. 0. Unfortunately, only the piano part survives. Kuerti, a composer as well as a pianist and a scholar, wrote an orchestration for the piece and played it for the first time at a recent concert in Vancouver; he hopes to release that performance on a CD in the near future.

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Interview: Brooks Riley and Rainer Mockert on Filming Opera

Photos (t.) Rainer Mockert

(b.) Brooks Riley

It may come as a surprise to many that the august art form of grand opera is a "growth industry" these days. In Toronto for example, the Canadian Opera Company reports that attendance last season was an extremely impressive 99.4% capacity. There is also a concomitant increase of operas captured live for showing in movie houses or at home on DVD. The Met in HD showing of Carmen in January set an attendance record worldwide. While classical music sales constitute an ever-shrinking segment of overall record sales, and studio recordings of operas have all but disappeared, there is one bright spot - record companies have moved to capturing live performances to issue as CDs and DVDs. Certainly it is less expensive than taking a cast of opera stars and a 100 piece orchestra into the recording studio, plus a live performance has a sense of occasion that a studio recording cannot duplicate.

Last summer when I was in Munich for the Opera Festival, I had the great good fortune of meeting Brooks Riley and Rainer Mockert. A team in life and in art, Mockert and Riley are involved in videotaping live performances, almost exclusively operas, for commercial release on the Arthaus Musik label, and now on their own company label, VCL Klassik, part of Zoom Productions. Mockert worked for 8 years for UNITEL as line producer, then executive producer of many of its opera productions and feature films. He also produced Peter Sellar's ground-breaking Mozart-Da Ponte Trilogy that wowed audiences in the late 1980s. Also noteworthy is a documentary on Sellar's staging of Messiaen's St. Francois d'Assisse in Salzburg.

Brooks Riley is a director, producer, film critic, screenwriter and a former Senior Editor of FILM COMMENT magazine. She has written for the New York Times, Opera News, and the Washington Post. Her first four opera productions, Ice and Steel, Werther, Hansel und Gretel and Tristan und Isolde were released in 2008. I enjoyed the Tristan DVD from Dessau very much. I visited them at their spacious home in Munich, where we had a long, wide-ranging conversation on their thoughts on producing opera videos. Rather than writing about our conversation in prose, I think it is best to reproduce their answers to my many queries verbatim. Here is a transcript of our interview -

J.S. There seems to be more and more operas presented on DVD nowadays. What do you think account for its rise in popularity?

B.R.: It has in part to do with advances in technology. Operas are now filmed in sharp High Definition Video, and more people have big flat-screen televisions which makes the viewing in 16:9 format far more pleasurable, and intense too.

There’s another important reason: opera singers these days are encouraged to give acting performances on stage. Gone are the days when the tenor planted himself downstage and spread his arms out wide to sing an aria. Modern directors expect acting from their singers. This makes an opera on DVD a dramatic experience. There’s actually more to see than an open mouth and pretty costumes.

A third reason which will no doubt raise a few hackles: Regietheater is producing many interesting stagings. It is in part thanks to the serious re-interpretations of great operas, that opera is more popular today. Opera-going used to be a cultural duty for many of those who could afford it. They knew what to expect. Now, with so much directorial talent available, every new production is awaited with anticipation and curiosity. Opera is no longer a museum event, it is a thriving art form, even if many of the operas were written a long time ago. Today’s productions are more challenging for the video director, but when they’re done well, the result can be great to watch.

J.S. How would you compare the experience of watching an opera at home on DVD, versus seeing it in the theater?

B.R.: Of course, there is nothing quite like seeing an opera in the theatre. But there are disadvantages too, the most obvious being that you’re always seeing the long shot. And depending on where you’re sitting, you may miss a lot of directorial nuances which give a production its effect. At home, you’re seeing a range of different shots, from close ups to medium shots and long shots, or the establishing shot. The job of the video director is to enter the production, so that the viewer has a dramatic perspective he may not get in the theatre, without losing the value of the whole. Of course I determine what the viewer will see, but I always try to remain true to the production. Because my background is the cinema, I try to direct opera productions with the cinematic experience in mind. For instance, I am just as interested in reaction shots as I am in the shot of the person singing. When I edit, I edit the material like a film. I also try to make the shots themselves interesting. There’s more going on in directing a production than coverage and reportage.

J.S. I noticed a huge difference in older opera videos compared to the videos today, which have many more closeup shots than the past. How do you balance closeups versus the "big picture" ? I noticed that with some of the more recent opera videos, one doesn't always get a sense of the scale of the production.... everything is closeup... what is your view on this? What do you think of the use of split screens like the Met Tristan telecast last March?

B.R.: Balance is the key word. You try to establish the mise-en-scene and then you go closer. I am not a big fan of extreme close-ups, or what I call the ‘singing head’ shot. For one thing, there are issues, such as make-up, sweat, gold-capped molars. But more than that, an extreme close-up has the effect of removing the singer from his context, which is the stage. Operas are not talk shows or news broadcasts: They occur on a stage, where things are happening. The singer may be doing something interesting with his hands, or with his body, so I like to show that as well. I prefer the medium close shot, which gives you more of the singer’s body than his open mouth. I do use extreme close-ups occasionally but there has to be a good reason for it. Close-ups can be interesting if it’s a particularly momentous part of the libretto. But even then, I prefer to move in to a close-up rather than abruptly cut to one.

One always has to occasionally return to the master shot, so that that viewer doesn’t lose his or her orientation. But I also use what I call mini-masters, which show an area of the stage where things are happening. Context is everything when choosing a shot.

As for split screens: I didn’t see the Met broadcast, but my feeling is the same as it is for split screens in the cinema—a way to compensate for lack of preparation. In an opera, the split screen immediately removes the viewer from the cinematic experience. It’s a device that doesn’t belong: It calls attention to itself. The only use of it that I condone is in a concert broadcast. I recently saw a concert with Cecilia Bartoli which made clever use of split screens. In this case, it was a welcome addition to customary concert broadcasts, which can be very predictable and rather boring. And a concert is not a narrative entity like an opera—you have more freedom to experiment.

J.S. As a video director, do you try to present the production "faithfully" , or do you have a special "take" or "concept" in how a particular production should look on the home screen?

B.R.: I try to make the best film possible of the production, one which succeeds on its own terms but which remains faithful to the production.

J.S. Obviously some productions are going to be more "video-genic" than others. How do you deal with that? Do you see your job as trying to make a production look as good as possible? Do you think the videographer can (or should) improve on the original?

B.R.: Sometimes. But it isn’t necessarily because the production isn’t ‘video-genic’ as you call it. An interesting case in point: the revolving stage in the Dessau Tristan and Isolde was certainly effective in the theatre. But on video it becomes vividly cinematic, in a way that could not be experienced in the theatre. Especially the finale of Act I and the beginning of Act 2 create the effect of travelling shots, giving the production added kinetic intensity.

Another case in point: Vladimir Deshevov’s ICE AND STEEL has a huge cast, may of whom have solo parts. There is so much going on onstage that an audience might only get some of what’s going on. I was able to make far more of it available through judicious choices of shots. I certainly didn’t improve on the original, which was magnificent. But I made more of it available.

Every new production has its own set of challenges for the video director. You have to be flexible and daring at the same time.

J.S. Do you have complete artistic freedom in capturing the performance? Or do you believe the stage director's ideas come first?

B.R.: I have complete artistic freedom, but I always try to be at the service of the stage director’s work. When I am finished with editing the material, I invite the stage director to look at it. So far, all of the directors whose work I have filmed have been pleased with the result. I am always open to suggestions, but they are rare—and often good.

J.S. What is your views on the current Regietheater aesthetic? Do you think all operas can be (or should be) "updated"? I am thinking of the Bregenz Aida that I just saw on TV, or the Munich Lucrezia you saw, or the Konwitschny Don Carlos from Vienna and Barcelona. What do you think of these updating?

B.R.: There is a misconception about Regietheater that it’s all about blood and guts, trenchcoats and black leather jackets. Regietheater is not about making motorcycle molls out of the Valkyries, although that is precisely what Götz Friedrich did nearly 30 years ago. Regietheater is about a serious appraisal of the dramatic elements of an opera.

I am a big fan of Regietheater as long as it’s good--and a lot of it is great. And I think that opera has gained a wider audience because of it. There’s a tendency in America to bash Regietheater as ‘Eurotrash’. To prove their points, critics always point to the most egregious examples, as Heather MacDonald did a few years ago in City magazine; and more recently, the novelist Daniel Kehlman, bashed Regietheater in a speech at the opening of this year’s Salzburg Festival. But operas staged the original way seem quaint, possibly enjoyable as déjà vu, but irrelevant and often boring. Updating them can certainly do operas no harm, and if successful, can actually make a work written one or two centuries ago, seem astonishingly of the moment.

Regietheater has less to do with updating than it does with intensifying the dramaturgy of an opera, and going deeper into the work. There are examples of Regietheater which do not update, but which apply 21st century aesthetics to achieve the mise-en-scene.

Wouldn’t life be boring if every production of Wagner’s RING OF THE NIBELUNG took place on a Styrofoam rock? There are far deeper investigations of that great work being produced all over the world, without a rock in sight. And the work is resilient enough to accommodate many more interpretations.

J.S. Of your many past projects, which one(s) are you most proud of?

B.R.: This is a difficult question to answer. I love all my children (nine, so far), but for different reasons. I am proudest of the Weimar RING OF THE NIBELUNG because it was such a fantastic complex staging enriched by magnificent acting. I am also proud of ICE AND STEEL because I only had one go at it, the last performance, and was able to capture everything I wanted in spite of the huge cast and complicated staging. And for sheer beauty, I am proud of AGRIPPINA, which will be released later this year. It was a gorgeous, funny and profoundly moving stage production and I dare to say that about the video as well.

J.S. I personally find including interviews of performers, conductor and particularly the director very important in a DVD release. I want to hear what they have to say. (I missed that in the Dessau Tristan and the Weimar Rheingold) Failing that, perhaps an essay by the director, or some sort of a Q & A, in the program booklet would be very helpful. Would you consider adding these in future projects?

R.M.: I agree and we hope we can add material like this in the future. It is not easy to do this in each case, because we tape performances at a time when the stage director has already left. We see him or her only during the final editing period. Next season we will be more around during the opening nights and final rehearsals, so that we will definitely shoot additional material. We also hope to add portraits of the cities where the opera houses are located..

J.S. What new projects are you working on?

R.M.: Later this year a new classical DVD label will be launched by a well- established feature film DVD company, VCL. The new label, VCL KLASSIK, will be distributed worldwide. VCL has broadened its scope in the last few years, producing more special interest DVDs in the area of Art, Health, Sport, Architecture, Nature, Animals and Travelling guides. With VCL Klassik, VCL hopes to make new as well as hitherto unreleased concerts and operas available to a worldwide audience.

The program will be a good mixture of well known titles and titles which are not on DVD, or only as old productions. The new productions will be chosen from the best produced in Europe in a given season.

We are preparing five new productions for this year and are in the closing stage with the theatres. With each new production that is released, an archive title acquired from existing license stocks will be released for the first time on DVD. VCL Klassik plans to release at least 12 new productions and 12 archive titles every year.

In Germany, Austria and Switzerland we are lucky to have over 250 opera houses, and therefore a lot of possibilities. The opera houses also benefit from the DVD. And the exposure is extremely helpful in finding new sponsors in addition to public funding and ticket sales.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Composer Jacques Hétu passes away at 71

By Crystal Chan

The prolific Canadian composer Jacques Hétu passed away yesterday from cancer. He was 71. Just several days ago on January 31, Hétu received the Opus lifetime achievement award from the Conseil québécois de la musique. Hétu has also been named an Officer of the Order of Canada and of the Order of Quebec as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

The composer took a brave path in his time, melding the Romantic and the Contemporary and first and foremost creating accessible works. His over 80 works have brought New Music far beyond the isolation of the avant-garde community. His works have ranged from symphonies to film music and have been played by such ensembles as the New York Philharmonic and such soloists as Glenn Gould.

Read our 2008 featured cover article in conversation with the composer at:


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Salzburg Easter Festival's financial scandal woes

By Frank Cadenhead

The financial scandal at the Salzburg Easter Festival, just before its opening, has been a huge story in Austria for the last two weeks. Screaming headlines and stories of stolen donations suggest a long term mismanagement of the financial affairs of the legendary festival founded by Herbert von Karajan in 1967.

Oddly, the news has remained largely in the German press, although the problems with the Easter Festival are certain to be linked with the summer festival. The staff and headquarters of the two festivals are are in the same building. The high ticket prices and wealthy supporters provide the bulk of the income for the two festivals but the Austrian government does also provide substantial support. 

The suggestions of long-running embezzlement, which might exceed two million euros, will very likely seriously damage not only the prestige but the financial base of this legendary festival. And the investigatory audit is still ongoing.

In a few weeks Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic will be presenting Wagner's final Ring epic, Die Götterdämmerung. One hopes that the festival has not been so damaged that its future is in question.

The best summary in English of the staggering story was published yesterday in the UK's Independent.


Monday, February 8, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 8 - 14)

COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts RCM Orchestra on Feb. 12.
Photo: courtesy of Michael Cooper Canadian Opera Company

With practically all the major music organizations going full steam this week, one can choose from a delectable selection of events. Conductor Johannes Debus, appointed last year as the COC's music director starting this current season, comes to town to conduct the RCM Orchestra in the RCO In Concert Series at Koerner Hall on Feb. 12 8 pm. The program features Prokofiev's Symphony Classique, Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos, Ravel's Sheherazade, and Stravinsky's Firebird. Soloists are mezzo Wallis Giunta, a RCM alumna and now with the COC Ensemble Studio, as well as pianists Nicholas King and Lucas Porter. Debus conducts the upcoming COC production of The Flying Dutchman. Concert is at the RCM Koerner Hall at 273 Bloor Street West. Tickets are a bargain at $20.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 with guest conductor Douglas Boyd on Feb. 10 and 11, 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Also on the program is the Beethoven's Overture to Fidelio, plus the North American premiere of a percussion concerto, A table of noises, by Simon Holt.

On Friday Feb. 12th 8 pm, Canada's Angela Hewitt, one of the foremost Bach interpretors of the world, celebrates the 25th anniversary of her win at the International Bach Piano Competition, with a concert at Roy Thomson Hall, the very venue of her triumph in 1985. On the program is Bach's Italian Concerto, Beethoven's Sonata in D Major, Op. 10, no.3, and Brahm's Sonata in F Minor. I understand this program is a reprise of her winning concert.

There are several interesting offerings on the vocal scene. First of all, the great Karina Gauvin is coming to Roy Thomson Hall in a recital as part of the RTH Vocal Series on Sunday Feb. 14, 2pm. In keeping with Valentine's Day, she will have a program of love songs by Scarlatti, Chausson, Bizet, Ravel, and Kurt Weill. She will be accompanied by collaborative pianist Michael McMahon. On Wednesday Feb. 10 at 7:30pm, the Aldeburgh Connection presents A Night in Spain, as part of it Discovery Series featuring up and coming singers. It is a program of love songs by Schumann. Soloists are soprano Johane Ansell, mezzo Erica Huang, tenor Christopher Enns, and baritone James Baldwin. As usual, with Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata at the piano.

The Talisker Players presents a program called To the Sea in Ships: Songs of Swashbucklers. The soloists are Vicki St. Pierre, Keith Klassen, and Alexander Dobson. It takes place on Feb. 9 and 10 at 8 pm at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre. For a free preview, you can line up at the COC Noon Hour Chamber series on Feb. 9 at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre, when the artists will present selections from the program. Be sure to line up at least 45 minutes early for a seat.

The Canadian Opera Company continues its winter season with Carmen (Feb. 9 and 11 at 7:30 pm and Feb. 14 at 2 pm) and Otello (Feb. 10 at 7:30 pm). Both shows have received excellent reviews and are not to be missed. All performances at the Four Seasons Centre. For something much more modest in scale but presented with enthusiasm, try the Toronto Opera Repertoire, which is in its 43rd year of existence. It is a community-based organization supported by local opera enthusiasts and volunteers. Its program of typically two staged operas with piano accompaniment per season constitute a course with the Continuing Education Program of the Toronto District School Board. It is the brainchild of former tenor Giuseppe Macina, who has run it since its inception in 1967. The singers are non-professionals. This year, the TOR is presenting Marriage of Figaro (Feb. 10, 13, 19, 21, 24, 27) and the double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci (Feb. 12, 13, 17, 20, 26, 28) . All performances are at the Bickford Centre 777 Bloor Street West in downtown Toronto. Go to for additional information.

Finally, the retired National Ballet of Canada's ballerina Veronica Tenant will be appearing this evening (Monday Feb. 8 at 7:30 pm) as part of the Roy Thomson Hall Unique Lives and Experiences Series. I have great memories of Tenant - she was my first Aurora and Giselle. This series has presented some of the highest profile women in the past and is always interesting, entertaining, and often thought-provoking and moving.

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