La Scena Musicale

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 22 - 28)

Quebec conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads the Rotterdam Philharmonic at Roy Thomson Hall
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Toronto classical music lovers rejoice - your cups truly runneth over this week! The opera and the symphony are both in full swing, plus there are a number of special events, including several eminent international artists in town for recitals and workshops. For me, the highest profile visitor this week is Quebec wunderkind Yannick Nezet-Seguin who is making a stop at Roy Thomson Hall, this time with his own band, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, as part of their North American Tour. The single performance takes place on Wednesday Feb. 24 8 pm. The soloist is the ever-colorful pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The concert opens with Messaien's Les offrandes oubliees, and ends with Richard Strauss' magnificent tone poem Ein Heldenleben. This event is not to be missed!

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents two interesting program in its New Creations Festival showcasing the works of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, who will be in town for a number of appearances. On Thursday Feb. 25 8 pm, Peruvian-born American conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya who last conducted Barber of Seville at the Canadian Opera Company in 2008 returns to Toronto to lead Azul, a program showcasing works by Golijov and others. American soprano Dawn Upshaw, long a champion of Golijov, sings the Canadian premiere of Three Songs by the composer. Also on the program is Azul for Cello and Orchestra, which is also receiving its Canadian premiere. On Saturday Feb. 27 7:30 pm, the concert is named La Pasion, featuring works by Golijov, Andrew Paul MacDonald, and Peter Lieberson, the husband of the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, conducted by both Peter Oundjian and Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The Labeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, are also featured.

During this Osvaldo Golijov Week, in addition to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the composer will also appear in events with Soundstreams and the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. On Monday, Feb. 22, 7 pm at the Gardiner Museum, Soundstreams is hosting The Diverse World of Osvaldo Golijov. Attendance is free but you need to register to ensure a spot. Go to for details. On Wednesday, Feb. 24 8 pm at the Jane Mallett Theatre, Soundstreams presents Ashes in the Wind, featuring music of Golijov and Jose Evangelista. Soloists include mezzo Wallis Giunta and pianist Serouj Kradjian. Also appearing is American soprano Dawn Upshaw singing three Schubert lieder that have inspired Golijov. For additional information and tickets, go to On Friday, Feb. 26 7 - 9 pm at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at the University of Toronto, the Faculty of Music presents Golijov at its Composer's Forum, an excellent opportunity to hear Golijov talk about his creative world.

The Canadian Opera Company's two winter productions, Carmen and Otello, are in their final week of performances. Opera being opera, there is no shortage of drama on stage and off. As reported before, the Carmen run has not one but two replacement mezzos in the title role. As reported in this space last week, the final four performances will be sung by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. Also of interest is the appearance of American tenor Garrett Sorenson as Don Jose this week. Another cast change is COC Ensemble soprano Simone Osborne taking over the role of Frasquita. The two final performances are on Feb. 23 and 27. Meanwhile, Otello is having its own unintended drama. Tenor Clifton Forbis became indisposed during the show last Friday but finished the performance. I understand that the COC has since flown in American tenor Frank Porretta over the weekend, but so far there is no official announcement from the COC as to who will sing the performance on Monday Feb. 22 7:30 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. Frank Porretta comes from an eminent musical family. In fact his full name is Frank Porretta III, as his father, Frank Porretta II, was a well known tenor at the New York City Opera, on Broadway, movies and television in the 50's and 60's. The younger Porretta has a dramatic tenor with a baritonal timbre and a ringing top, ideal as Otello, a role he has sung previously. His repertoire also includes Calaf (with which he recently made his debut at the Met), Samson, Don Jose, Canio, and Cavaradossi. The last two performances of Otello are on Feb. 25 and 28.

UPDATE: I just got news at 12:15 pm that Frank Porretta will indeed be singing the title role in this evening's Otello!

The eminent pianist Andras Schiff returns to Toronto for a recital, this time at Royal Conservatory of Music's new Koerner Hall on Tuesday Feb. 23 8 pm. On the program are works by Mendelssohn and Schumann. Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and pianist Serouj Kradjian give a recital under the auspices of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto on Thursday Feb. 25 1:30 pm at Koerner Hall. On the program are songs by Heggie, Berlioz, Poulenc, Bellini, Gomidas, Ravel and Obradors.

As if the concert schedule on Feb. 24 isn't crowded enough, the glamorous violinist Sarah Chang is giving a recital with pianist Andrew von Oeyen at the Markham Theatre north of Toronto. It is a shame that the concert, at 8 pm, conflicts directly with Nezet-Seguin and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. I have not been able to find out anything about the program - there is no mention of it at the Markham Theatre website, nor Chang's own website. On Thursday at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of the Four Seasons Centre, soprano Jessica Muirhead and mezzo Lauren Segal will be giving a joint concert of arias and duets. Muirhead is currently singing Micaela and Segal is Mercedes at the current run of Carmen. This is bound to be popular so be sure to show up at least 45 minutes early to secure a seat.

Last but not least, Opera York stages Verdi's Rigoletto at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday Feb. 28 2 pm. It stars soprano Charlotte Corwin as Gilda, Romulo Delgado as the Duke, and baritone Nicolae Raiciu in the title role. Sabatino Vacca conducts. For more information, go to

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Friday, May 1, 2009

Schiff Concludes Beethoven Sonata Cycle in San Francisco

Review by Paul E. Robinson

Classical Travels

I first met András Schiff in1984, when he appeared as guest artist with the CJRT Orchestra in Toronto, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It was a joy for me to collaborate with such a gifted young musician. He had all the musical skills imaginable, but he had more. He was curious about everything, and each performance was a voyage of discovery. He later did me the honor of attending my performance of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony (May, 1986) at Roy Thomson Hall, and returned the following season to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 (March 22, 1987), again with the CJRT Orchestra.

Many years have passed since our first meeting, and András Schiff has long since been recognized as one of the leading artists of his generation. He has been highly praised for his Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Beethoven; one of his current projects is performing all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in chronological order in major cities around the world. I caught up with him for the last three sonatas in a recital at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on April 5. It was an unforgettable experience.

In an interview about Beethoven's last three sonatas, Schiff describes them as “a splendid combination of order and freedom,” and that is exactly how he played them. Each marking in the score was carefully observed but not in a dry, scholarly way. Every bar had the feeling of improvisation. In fact, Schiff so completely inhabited the spirit of the music that at times I had the sense that Beethoven himself was improvising on his own melodic and rhythmic ideas. This is a fanciful idea to be sure, but the point is that Schiff is able to lift this music off the page and make it sing and dance in wholly convincing ways.

Together with the discipline and freedom of his playing, Schiff brings to bear a remarkable understanding of how this music should sound. There are many young keyboard lions at work today who can play fast and loud; few of them can approach Schiff in his ability to generate intensity without banging.

The popular image of Beethoven as angry and unpredictable has some basis in fact and some of that unbridled energy is occasionally expressed in his music. The first movement of Op. 111 is certainly forceful and impassioned; Beethoven even marks the episode Allegro con brio ed appassionato. Some pianists approach such passages with something approaching violence. But while the emotion is real and personal, it is expressed within the most meticulously disciplined music ever composed. The supreme achievement of Schiff’s Beethoven is to balance the wide range of emotion with the intellectual complexities.

Schiff has thought deeply about this music for a very long time, and about how best to present it on a concert program. Not only did he play the sonatas in chronological sequence; he played the last three without intermission. Furthermore, he never left the stage during the course of the concert.

The idea conveyed by this presentation format was that we should think of these three sonatas, not as movements of the same large work, but as a triptych. They were composed as a group between 1820 and 1822, and while they are thematically independent, they share a common approach to musical problem-solving and exploration. Beethoven’s last major work for piano solo was still to come – the massive Diabelli Variations – but as a group, these sonatas represent Beethoven’s last word in composing for piano in the sonata form tradition of Mozart and Haydn.

The first sonata in the group – Op. 109 in E major – is an ideal point of departure. It opens quietly and with music which seems easygoing and uneventful. This is Beethoven musing at the keyboard - vamping, as it were - getting the fingers warmed up while he organizes his thoughts. Schiff caught just the right improvisatory feeling in these languid opening bars and in the stop-start music which follows. A wake-up call comes in the quick and stormy minor-key scherzo, but the heart of the matter is in the last movement; a theme and variations. The theme itself is one of Beethoven’s most heartfelt utterances, and Schiff played it with simplicity and sensitivity. Variation II recalls the dreamy opening of the first movement, but the variations gradually become more complex in their figuration. In the sixth and last variation, Beethoven builds a remarkable aural texture combining thirty-second note figuration with continuous trills, often in both hands simultaneously. This was something completely new in music, and Beethoven’s listeners must have been astonished. Schiff built this movement with extraordinary control and clarity.

The Sonata Op. 110, in A flat major, is emotionally more profound than its predecessor, especially in the Adagio section, but it is also a technical marvel. For me, it all comes together in the two fugal sections interrupted by a deeply moving reprise of the Arioso dolente. The slow sections are heartbreaking, but so too in a different way are the climactic moments in the fugal sections. Joy through tears, we might say. Schiff’s performance was as fine as I have ever heard, or expect to hear.

There is more turmoil and heartbreak in Op. 111. Here again, the subtlety and beauty of Schiff’s playing in the Arietta perfectly revealed the profound emotion in the music. In the last movement, as in Op. 109, Beethoven again uses the device of continuous trills to extraordinary effect, and Schiff’s playing was magical. Listeners who want to hear a sense of struggle in late Beethoven would have been disappointed. Schiff makes it sound easy. But make no mistake, this is some of the most difficult piano music ever written. Schiff’s technical mastery is truly amazing. More importantly, it is only through this technical proficiency that we get to appreciate Beethoven’s music as a unique amalgam of form, feeling and beauty.

After the concert, scores of listeners lined up in the lobby at Davies Symphony Hall to have Schiff sign copies of his recordings. I suspect that these fortunate music-lovers will treasure their personalized mementos for years to come.

András Schiff has recorded all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas. Volume VIII, recorded in Germany in 2007, contains the last three sonatas (ECM Records ECM 1949).

Photo by Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times

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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