La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Spanish Maestro Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos Returns to Toronto

Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos (Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists Management)

Review: Spanish Maestro Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos returns to Toronto

Joseph K. So

We are in an era of the "youth movement" in conducting, witness the ascent of wunderkinder the likes of Gustavo Dudamel, Yannick Nezet-Seguin and Philippe Jordan, just to name a few. Yet, conductors are like fine wine - they get better with age, or if they are great to begin with, the best ones have staying power. This is certainly true with Spaniard Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos. Born in Burgos, Spain in 1933 and trained in Spain and Germany, de Burgos at 76 is an elder statesman among conductors, having led many of the great orchestras of the world, including a stint as the chief conductor of the Montreal Symphony in the pre-Charles Dutoit era. Colourful and flamboyant are oft-used adjectives to describe the conducting style of de Burgos - it seems that he is incapable of making ugly sounds. Among conductors, his fluid and graceful movements make him a joy to watch. Despite the aforementioned youth movement, de Burgos is still around and going strong, his energy and charisma in full display this evening, the first of his two performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

The first half of the evening’s program consisted of two Spanish pieces – Joaquin Turina’s La Oracion del torero, Op. 34, and the famous Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. Originally composed in 1925 for string quartet, it was later adapted for string orchestra and is one of Turina's most popular pieces. de Burgos gave a masterful reading of the score, bringing out the lush, Debussy-like lyricism of the work. This was followed by arguably the most popular piece of the evening - Concierto de Aranjuez. The appearance of Pepe Romero elicited quite a stir from the large audience. Pepe Romero is of course a member of the legendary Romero family that dominated classical guitar for generations. I recall my undergrad days attending many Angel Romero’s concerts on campus, hearing him play many pieces including the Concierto de Aranjuez. The magical second movement remains one of the most evocative in all of classical repertoire. There is no denying that the large Roy Thomson Hall isn’t an ideal venue for the guitar, an instrument that requires a more intimate space. The soloist was discreetly miked, and de Burgos held down the orchestra for him. A beloved figure, the audience was very supportive of Romero, although I feel that at 66, he has lost a bit of the fleetness in his fingers, more noticeable in the first movement, which came across as rather choppy and tentative. The long second movement with it exquisite lyricism went considerably better. With such wondrous music, it's hard to criticize! The audience clearly loved him and gave him a standing ovation.

The centerpiece of the evening was Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which took up all of the second half. This piece is considered by many to be the composer's signature work. It certainly is a staple in the standard repertoire. The composer revised it several times between 1830 and 1855. In the 1855 version, Berlioz was supposedly under the influence of opium, through which he saw visions which inspired the central themes of the work. This massive work with its five moments can be challenging for any conductor, but de Burgos held it together beautifully, bringing out fully the lyricism without sacrificing the intensity inherent in the score. He was rewarded with sustained ovations at the end. All in all, a most enjoyable evening of music-making.

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Strauss's Don Quixote Brought to Life by Bay and Austin Symphony

What a revolutionary idea it was to provide surtitles (“translated or transcribed lyrics/dialogue projected above a stage or displayed on a screen”) in the opera house! All of a sudden, people actually understood what was going on. An art form that had been forbidding and impenetrable for millions was transformed into something welcoming and meaningful. Shame on the Karajans and Levines who, for whatever reason, delayed that monumental breakthrough in communication.

I believe the concert hall could use the same communication overhaul afforded the opera house. To my mind, vocal works should always have surtitles; most often, they do not. To take it a step further, as conductor Peter Bay demonstrated in Austin with StraussDon Quixote this week, many purely orchestral works could also benefit enormously from surtitles.

Richard Strauss’s great tone poem Don Quixote, like most of his orchestral music, has a story or programme attached. The work is based on episodes from Don Quixote, the classic novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Curiously, in his notes for this Austin Symphony concert at the Long Center, David Mead never once mentioned Cervantes.

A Verbal Match for Musical Humour

Much of the enjoyment of Don Quixote springs from an understanding of the episode that is being depicted at any given moment. Strauss complicates Cervantes’ scenarios by casting his tone poem in the form of a theme or themes and variations, with each variation flowing into the next without pause. The listener is hard put to know which episode from the Cervantes’ novel is being portrayed at any given time.

Peter Bay solved this problem by using surtitles, a practice frequently used in performances of this piece, but never, in my experience, this effectively. The surtitles, on this occasion, gave the audience far more than a simple headline for each variation/episode. In a few carefully chosen words and at just the right moments (setups followed by punchlines), they also revealed much of the humour present in the music. Audience members clearly loved the process since they readily laughed in all the right places - a phenomenon I had never before witnessed in performances of Don Quixote.

Again, the programme book erred in failing to mention the person responsible for this brilliant contribution to our understanding. In fact, the text for the surtitles was written by Maestro Peter Bay. Technical operation (assuring that text and music meshed perfectly) was by Susan Threadgill of the Austin Lyric Opera. The work of this pair was so good that it could be used as a model for other orchestras and other works in the repertoire.

The Austin Symphony was substantially enlarged for this performance of Don Quixote, with many more strings, including no fewer than eight double basses - additions which made a huge difference in the depth and timbre of the string sound. The entire orchestra played superbly and the solo parts, taken by section leaders, were equally good. Violist Bruce Williams made a colorful Sancho Panza and the extraordinarily gifted young cellist, Douglas Harvey, (photo: right) played Don Quixote with his usual impeccable technical command and beautiful tone. In short, this performance of Stauss’s brilliant tone poem was entirely worthy of the imaginative effort that went into the surtitles.

Harvey’s Dying Don Quixote not Altogether Credible

I do have one small quibble, however; it seemed to me that the expression of the final section of the piece was a little on the formal side for what should be one of the most poignant moments in the classical repertoire.

Strauss was a master of writing deeply moving orchestral and operatic epilogues and in Don Quixote he has given us one of the best of them. These epilogues are often nostalgic reflections on lives lived and loves lost and in this case, of a life lived in fantasy and delusion.

We can all relate to Strauss’s themes to some degree and so we see and hear in Don Quixote’s music the sobering recognition of what could have been and will never be. Strauss indicates in the score that this music is to be played expressively, quietly, for the most part, and with the tempo getting slower and slower as the moment of death approaches.

I suspect that when Douglas Harvey returns to this piece later in his life, this section will mean more to him and he will give the music a more personal character. What is needed is a slower tempo, to be sure, but also a more inward quality perhaps achieved through a greater use of tonal colors and more flexibility in the phrasing.

As always, of course, there is a fine line between genuine depth of feeling and tasteless sentimentality. For example, Strauss himself cautioned cellists performing this piece against drawing out the final glissando inordinately. Like any great masterpiece, however, Don Quixote cannot possibly yield up all its riches in any single performance; for both performer and audience, there is always more to discover.

Maestro Peter Bay deserves credit, not only for rehearsing the ASO to such a high standard in this detailed and complex repertoire, but also for his imaginative programming.

Stories and Music from Dukas and Tchaikovsky

On the first half of the program were two other well-known works inspired by literature: Dukas The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Together with Strauss’ Don Quixote, these three are very successful examples of their genre and give the audience a good deal to ponder with regard to how words and ideas can be translated into music.

The Dukas piece, as Maestro Bay pointed out in his pre-performance remarks, is already a vivid memory for many as portrayed on the screen by Walt Disney, with Mickey Mouse as the hapless apprentice. For many, Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is also familiar from classroom study, theatrical productions or screen adaptations. By contrast, Cervantes’ Don Quixote is unlikely to have been studied by many at school, at least in North America. Those listeners who are familiar with the work, probably know the highly successful Broadway musical version (Man of La Mancha), or the movie version starring Peter O’Toole as a truly memorable Don Quixote.

Overall, one might say that this evening’s programme was a ‘popular’ one. But at the same time, each of these three works is a classical masterpiece and deserves to be taken seriously. And so they were.

I have written at length about Don Quixote. The other pieces also deserve discussion. Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a tightly-constructed orchestral scherzo that builds inexorably in excitement and has a programme (or story) that is easy to follow in the music. The piece is also notable for the brilliance of its orchestration. Bay and the ASO gave us a very good performance, albeit a tad too careful to be as exciting as it can be.

The same could be said of Romeo and Juliet. The performance was disciplined and well-balanced where it could have been intense and passionate. The final timpani roll was uneven and the punctuating chords half-hearted and anti-climactic. In my experience, the sustained power desired here is best accomplished by using two sets of timpani.

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

Photo: Maestro Peter Bay and Austin Symphony rehearsal by Marita

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Massenet's Cendrillon at Koerner Hall

(top) Meghan Lindsay (Cendrillon) and Michael Ciufo (Prince Charming)
(bottom) Joelle Tan (Fairy Godmother)
Photos by Nicola Betts

One of the pleasures of springtime in Toronto is the opera production from the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music. This year, it is particularly momentous because for the first time, it is taking place in the spanking new Koerner Hall. Opened since last September, this venue boasts excellent sight lines and superb acoustics. Having heard a number of concerts there already, most recently the Canadian Chopin Competition Winners' Concert, I was eager to hear (and see) an opera production. This year, the GGS Opera is Jules Massenet's Cendrillon. To most opera buffs, when they think of Cinderella, it is usually Rossini's La Cenerentola, with Cendrillon a distant second, a real shame as there's some beautiful music in the Massenet score. Depending on the production, it can be either rollickingly funny or whimsical and touching. It's not performed very often, but quite remarkably, it is being done by both GGS-RCM as well as Opera de Montreal within a couple of months this spring! The last time I saw this piece was a screamingly funny Paris Opera production by Laurent Pelly. It was one of the more memorable nights in the theatre in recent years.

GGS operas are sung by advanced students earmarked for professional careers, and each year there are new voices to discover. Last year's Cosi, for example, featured two excellent sisters - Inga Fillipova-Williams as Fiordiligi and Wallis Giunta as Dorabella. I attended today's show expecting some fine singing and I was not disappointed. The principal roles are all double-cast. Today's performance was the "first cast" with a bunch of fresh, appealing voices. Top vocal honours today went to soprano Meghan Lindsay as Cendrillon, a role usually sung by a mezzo. She has lovely stage presence and sang with silvery tone, with an exquisite mezza voce. Partnering her was tenor Michael Ciufo. Darkly handsome and singing with bright sound, excellent French and ingratiating tone save for a few tight top notes, Ciufo was a fine Prince Charming, a role sometimes also taken by a mezzo. The big Act 3 duet between Lindsay and Ciufo was the highlight of the opera. As Madame de la Haltiere, Ramona Carmelly had the right comic flair and rich tone. Baritone Maciej Bujnowicz looked a bit too young to be the father, but he was an unusually sympathetic Pandolfe. Also noteworthy was the crystalline, soubrette tones of Joelle Tan as the Fairy Godmother - this fairy had no magic wand but held a crystal globe in her palm! The supporting roles were all cast from strength.

The production benefited from the more spacious staging area of Koerner Hall, compared to the old Mazzoleni Hall. The simple but stylish sets by Brent Krysa worked very well in this space - it's amazing what an archway, a few screens, a settee, and a fireplace mantel can do! The presence of balconies allowed the Fairy to deliver her ethereal lines in Act 3 from high above - an effective moment. The costumes are sumptuous, particularly when you consider this is a student production. However, a few wigs would have been nice to match the period costumes, particularly for Madame Haltiere. I must say I was expecting some belly laughs along the lines of the Laurent Pelly production I saw. But it didn't happen - director Graham Cozzubbo underplayed the comic moments and emphasized the more wistful and sad elements of the story. The lighting by Robert Thomson was particularly well executed, helping the story telling greatly. The orchestra under the expert direction of conductor Uri Mayer sounded really wonderful, even if a little too loud during climactic moments. There were even surtitles, although placed a bit too high and the text too small for the audience. All in all, a most enjoyable show. The last performance takes place on March 25

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

This Week in Toronto (March 22 - 28)

Soprano Karina Gauvin (Photo: Michael Slobodian)

There are a number of very interesting concerts on offer this week. For one thing, English Canada's favourite Quebec singer, soprano Karina Gauvin is in town. She is appearing with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra in selections from Handel's Alcina. Gauvin has had a big success in this piece, so it is a great chance to hear her live singing these arias. It is part of a program called Enchantress - the character of Alcina is a sorceress afterall. In addition to Alcina, we also get to hear the Vivaldi Motet In furore justissimae irae. The dates are March 25, 27, and 28 at the Trinity St. Paul's Centre, and March 30 at the George Weston Hall. It is good to have Tafelmusik still playing at this woefully underused North York venue. I remember so fondly the wonderful music I heard there throughout the 1990's. For concert times and tickets, go to

The Royal Conservatory of Music's production of Massenet's Cendrillon continues this week, with performances on Tuesday March 23 at the very odd time of 11:00 am at Koerner Hall. The last of four performances is on Thursday, March 25 at 7:30 pm. It features students from the Glenn Gould School program.

Another high profile visitor to TO this week is welcome return of conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, the music director of the Dresden Philharmonic. He conducts Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, together with Spanish music - a piece by Turina and the perennial audience favourite Concierto di Aranjuez by Rodriqo, with Pepe Romero as the guitar soloist. Pepe Romero is of course part of the legendary Romero Family of great guitar players. Throughout my undergraduate days, I went to all the concerts of Angel Romero whenever I could. If you like the guitar, this is not to be missed - two performances on March 24 and 25 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. On Saturday March 27, at 1:30 and 3:30 pm, the TSO presents Spanish Fire! a program for young audiences of Spanish music at popular prices, featuring Pepe Romeo and the Esmeralda Enrique Spanish Dance Company.

On March 23 8 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre, Music Toronto presents pianist Stephane Lamelin in a program of Schubert Sonatas. The innovative Tapestry New Opera Works under music director Wayne Strongman - who incidentally was recently award the Order of Canada - is presenting Opera To Go, a revival of five short operas it had previously presented. It takes place at the fermenting Cellar, 55 Mills Street in the Distillery District of downtown Toronto. Performances on March 24, 25, and 26 at 8 pm. On Sunday March 28 at 2:30 pm, Opera in Concert presents Bellini's I Puritani at the Jane Mallet Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. This is a concert performance and with piano, but it seems unlikely this opera will be staged by our opera companies in town, so this is a good opportunity to hear it live.

Finally, a company previously unfamiliar to me, Wish Opera, is presenting an opera concert on March 25 and 27 8 pm at the Sandra Faire and Ivan Fecan Theatre of York University. Soloists are tenor Ermanno Mauro, soprano Sinead Sugrue, baritone James Westman, with orchestra conducted by Sabatino Vacca. Globe and Mail's Deirdre Kelly is the emcee. Wish Opera's very intriguing mission is to "create a modern vision of opera by fusing the existing beauty of operatic sound with contemporary fashion and design" - a most intriguing idea! For more information, go to

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