La Scena Musicale

Friday, September 19, 2008

OSM’s 75th with Mehta & Messiaen a Celebration of Sound!

reviewed by Paul Robinson

Canada doesn’t see much of Zubin Mehta these days but he still has a soft spot for Montreal and tries to return as often as he can to the city that helped him so much in his early days as a conductor. He was back again to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) last week and it turned into a great event for all concerned. Mehta has a home in Los Angeles, but he doesn’t conduct there much any more. His primary musical responsibilities are to the Israel Philharmonic – he was appointed music director for life in 1981 – and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence, where he is currently at work on a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Montreal Symphony and Zubin Mehta Grew Together in the 60s
In 1961, at the very beginning of his career, the OSM took a chance on 25-year-old Zubin Mehta and hired him as music director. For the next six years, he and the orchestra learned repertoire together, but within a year of his OSM appointment, Mehta also became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-77). His career quickly became international. In 1977, he became music director of the Israel Philharmonic, and then the New York Philharmonic (1978-91), and later, the Bavarian State Opera (1998-2006) in Munich. He is a regular guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and has been invited by its members to conduct no fewer than four of its famous New Year’s concerts.

For his return visit to Montreal to celebrate the OSM’s 75th, Mehta put together a programme of works by Messiaen and Saint-Saens to be presented in the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (Messiaen) was part of “Automne Messiaen 2008” being celebrated all over Montreal from September to December and culminating in performances of Messiaen’s opera Saint Francis of Assisi conducted by Kent Nagano. In fact, 2008 is the centenary of Messiaen’s birth: the actual date is December 10.

Mehta on Messiaen: “I really miss him!”

I had not realized that Mehta has been a great champion of Messiaen’s music over the years. At his press conference held a few days before the Montreal concert, Mehta talked about his relationship with Messiaen and his music, and passed on an amusing anecdote. It seems that Messiaen was in Tel Aviv for rehearsals of his Turangalila Symphony with the Israel Philharmonic. During the course of rehearsals the players became bored and restless and at one of the breaks some of them went to Messiaen and asked him to cut a couple of movements. Naturally, Messiaen was offended and made a counter-suggestion. Better they should cut the other work on the programme – Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony – and he would tell them exactly where to make the cuts! Mehta had to apologize to Messiaen over the incident. No word on whether anyone apologized to Mozart.

Mehta recalled that Messiaen often came to rehearsals wearing a colourful Hawaiian shirt with girls in hula skirts on it, but when it came to the performance of his music he was very serious and very strict.

Wind, Brass & Percussion Orchestration – When “Bigger” is “Better”
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum was given its first performance in 1965 at the Church of St. Chapelle in Paris and then a month later at Chartres Cathedral. It is obviously designed to be performed in a large space with long reverberation time. The orchestra comprises only winds, brass and percussion and the music features slow-moving chords and percussion effects from various kinds of bells, gongs and tam-tams that are intended to reverberate in a large space. Notre Dame Basilica is indeed a large space, but in this case “bigger” is even better. The piece sounded wonderful in Notre Dame – especially the almost deafening percussion crescendos – but to have heard it in Chartres Cathedral would have been something else again.

Mehta conducted the Messiaen with his customary efficiency. Messiaen pupil Pierre Boulez could hardly have done better. Nor was Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum the only Messiaen heard during the evening. The concert began with a performance of the early (1932) organ piece Apparition de l’Église éternelle played by Pierre Grandmaison. This ten-minute work begins with a series of unsettling tone clusters, but gradually out of extreme dissonance comes relief in the form of the grandest and loudest major chords one is ever likely to hear from an organ. Presumably, this is the “apparition” of the title.

Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony Pure Sound, Beautifully Balanced

The major work on the programme - and the best-known - was Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 Organ, with organist Patrick Wedd. For all its deserved popularity, this symphony is seldom heard under ideal conditions. It is most often performed in concert halls and often with electronic organs, but this performance was the real deal and I never expect to hear it done better. I was sitting about half-way back in Notre Dame, which meant that I was about the same distance from Mehta and the orchestra in front of me and the organ console and pipes behind me. Thanks to careful preparation by the performers, balances in both soft and loud passages were just about right. Given the size of the place and the vast distance between orchestra and organ this was an amazing achievement; of course, the performers have the benefit of video cameras to see and hear each other, but it still takes musicians with sharp ears and cool nerves to make it all work.

Mehta has had a lot of experience with the Organ Symphony. He has recorded it several times, most recently with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1997, and his view of the piece has become more refined over the years. Saint-Saens saves all the bombast for the last movement – this is the only time in the piece that the organ is allowed to play fortissimo – and Mehta made sure that the really big guns were saved until the end. In fact, the only other section of the score where the organ plays is the second movement ‘Poco Adagio,’ and there it mostly meshes softly with the orchestra in an accompanying role.

From the OSM Mehta got all the power he needed, but also a beautifully dark and blended sound. At the same time, Mehta had obviously asked the timpanist to use hard sticks so that the important timpani solos would register clearly in the reverberant acoustic.

In both the Messiaen and the Saint-Saens, we saw a master conductor at work. Mehta is a consummate technician, but he also loves the music he plays. It was a treat to see him at work and to hear this music so well performed.

Mehta Discography, Autobiography, and a Well Deserved Award
For listeners who wish to hear more of Mehta, there is a huge catalogue of recordings and DVDs and it continues to expand with new releases almost every month. Among his recent releases are the VPO New Year’s Concert 2007 from DG on both CD and DVD; the Israel Philharmonic’s 70th Anniversary Concert from 2007 released by Euroarts on DVD; and of special interest to those who want to see how he does it, there is a DVD called Zubin Mehta in Rehearsal from Image Entertainment. We see Mehta rehearsing Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel with the Israel Philharmonic, followed by a complete performance. Also scheduled for release on September 30 by Medici Masters is a 1977 concert with Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the title Zubin Mehta: Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For more information about Zubin Mehta, his life, recordings and upcoming performances visit his website at

It was announced this week that Mehta has been awarded the prestigious Praemium Imperiale by the Japan Arts Foundation. The prize is given for lifetime achievement and is worth US$143,000. It will be officially presented in a special ceremony in Tokyo on October 15.

Finally, Mehta has recently written his autobiography. It is available now in German (Partitur meines Leben), Italian, and Hebrew, and the English version will be released by Amadeus Press November 15 with the title Zubin Mehta: a Memoir.

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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at
Blog Photos by Marita

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Kent Nagano & Montreal Symphony Take on The General

reviewed by Paul E. Robinson

The General: for orchestra with soprano, choir and narrator. Music by Beethoven: Symphony #5 in C minor Op.67; Egmont Op.84; Incidental Music (exerpts); Opferlied Op.121b
Text by Paul Griffiths. (English version)
Maximilian Schell, narrator/Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano/Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal/OSM Chorus/Kent Nagano, conductor; Analekta: AN 2 9942-3 (2 cds)

For his first recording with the OSM, Kent Nagano has come up with a fascinating project. This album features the music of Beethoven, but it is presented from a distinctly Canadian point of view.

Musically, The General is essentially Beethoven’s incidental music for Goethe’s play, Egmont; the original Goethe text, however, has been set aside and replaced by a new one created by the Welsh music critic, Paul Griffiths. The new story is based on the Rwandan experiences of Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, as recounted in his book, Shake Hands With the Devil. Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-4 and as the Hutus prepared to massacre hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, Dallaire did everything he could to prevent it but failed; the world was simply not interested. Dallaire returned to Canada a disillusioned and broken man - one of the great tragic heroes of our time.

Nagano and Griffiths came up with the concept and then Griffiths set to work. He decided to tell the Rwanda story without mentioning either names or places. For the most part, the narration is given between the musical numbers. As I mentioned, the music is mostly from Egmont, but Griffiths also drew on excerpts from other Beethoven works, most of them little-known.

While one wants to applaud Griffiths and Nagano for their ambition, The General is ultimately disappointing. By avoiding naming names and places, Griffiths has robbed the piece of its potential power. The genocide in Rwanda has already taken its place in history as one of the greatest horrors of modern times and Dallaire’s own account of it is totally engrossing. But without any mention of Rwanda, Dallaire, Tutsis and Hutus, Griffiths’ text is almost meaningless and incomprehensible. The bits of narration are far too brief to establish any context, nor is there really any coherent story being told.

In the performances which preceded the recording, the narrator was the celebrated Canadian actor Colm Feore; unfortunately, he was unavailable for the recording. In choosing Maximilian Schell (left) as narrator, Nagano and Griffiths have the benefit of a great actor, but he has nothing to work with. What’s more, judging by the mismatches in tempo and volume, one can assume that he did his work alone in a studio rather than with the orchestra.

Finally, Griffiths chose to end The General with Beethoven’s Opferlied for soprano, chorus and orchestra. In his notes Griffiths tells us that he wrote new words for Opferlied and he tells us that these words and Beethoven’s music were exactly what was needed to end the piece. Beethoven’s Egmont music ends with a Victory symphony and that was hardly appropriate for the Rwandan story. Unfortunately, since there are no texts included in the CD booklet, we have no idea what those words are. This recording has been issued in both an English and a French version, but neither one includes the text.

Beethoven’s music for Egmont is wonderful and with carefully chosen excerpts from Goethe’s play, a performance with narration can be moving and inspiring. Griffith’s new version left me totally uninvolved and baffled by the whole enterprise. It is curious that Dallaire himself was not associated with this project in any way even though he has readily gotten involved with several film projects relating to his experience in Rwanda. In fact, while Griffiths explicitly names Dallaire as ‘the protagonist’ of his drama he never even mentions the title of Dallaire’s book in his notes. Could it be that Dallaire or his publisher had something to do with that, and with Griffiths’ decision to avoid any mention of either Dallaire or Rwanda in his text?

On the positive side, Nagano and the OSM play Beethoven’s music with great intensity. The same goes for their performance of the Fifth Symphony on the second CD. Nagano’s approach indicates he has been strongly influenced by the period instrument specialists. He takes all the repeats and very quick tempi in accordance with Beethoven’s metronome markings. He has the strings play with little or no vibrato much of the time. The opening of the slow movement sounds strikingly different with this approach. And he makes the most of Beethoven’s timpani writing. There are some inconsistencies: why eliminate vibrato in the strings at the opening of the slow movement, but allow it in the bassoon solos later on? On the whole, however, this performance of an old warhorse is fresh and exciting. Still, one can’t help wondering what the Fifth Symphony has to do with “the ideals of the French Revolution.”

For some reason, the overture and two songs from Egmont and Opferlied are repeated at the end of the second CD. I can understand repeating the vocal works – in The General they are given in English (or French) while here they are performed with the original German texts – but why repeat the overture?

The music for The General was recorded in Studio MMR at McGill University, and the Fifth Symphony was done in the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts; neither one has the warmth of the famous church in St. Eustache where so many of the OSM/Dutoit recordings were made by Decca.

Some fine music-making on this 2-CD set but lots of questions too. Fans of Kent Nagano – and there are a growing number of them – will want to have this album in any case, as the first recorded documentation of his work in Montreal.

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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Nagano & OSM Rise to the Challenge: Mahler's Epic Symphony of One Thousand!

The final ‘Chorus mysticus’ is one of the most powerful passages in his entire oeuvre, if not in the whole history of musicHenry-Louis de La Grange

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. Few works require such vast resources - hundreds of singers and instrumentalists. Fewer still rise to such towering climaxes, and yet the Mahler Eighth is not about size, but about love and death and the meaning of it all. Mahler wrestled with these concepts his whole life and tried his best to express what he felt through his music. Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal opened the OSM’s 75th season with two performances of the Eighth Symphony and the one I heard - the second - on Wednesday night, was extraordinary.

An Opera Disguised as a Symphony, or a New Kind of Symphony?
It is often remarked on that Mahler was one of the great opera conductors of his time yet wrote no operas. Each of his symphonies, however, is a music drama and many of them use one or more voices. The Eighth Symphony begins with a hymn, but its entire second part is a setting of much of Goethe’s Faust: Part Two, an operatic scene if ever there was one. At the same time, Mahler was not writing an opera disguised as a symphony; he was writing a new kind of symphony. In fact, he composed the entire first movement before he had a text and then fit his selected text to the music.

One can analyze the Eighth Symphony in purely musical terms. The first movement, for example, is in sonata form and the second movement is a kind of Lisztian symphonic poem in which themes from the first movement reappear. In both movements Mahler employs the most complex contrapuntal devices. It all hangs together as a musical structure on a very large scale, but Mahler was also trying to go beyond traditional musical forms by adding voices to the orchestra just as Beethoven had done in his Ninth or Choral symphony. The Beethoven Ninth is also coherent as a purely musical structure. Remember how Beethoven brings back themes from earlier movements to start the last movement. Mahler does the same thing in his Eighth Symphony, only on a larger scale and with a more elaborate extra-musical purpose.

Part One: The Agony of Struggle and the Ecstasy of Hope A Wild Ride to Faith
The first movement of the Eighth Symphony makes use of a Ninth Century Latin hymn attributed to Hrabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. It is a fervent glorification of God and the equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the hope that all men will be brothers. In the words of Maurus’ hymn:

Give us joy,
Grant us Thy grace,
Smooth our quarrels,
Preserve us in bonds of peace.

Like Beethoven, Mahler uses his soloists and chorus in this movement simply as different kinds of instruments, and so extends the expressive range and colour of the symphony orchestra. Mahler also gives us a hymn setting that goes far beyond Bach and Beethoven in its extreme emotionalism. There are moments when the music gets so wild it seems on the verge of spinning out of control.

Part Two: Repentance, Divine Love, Forgiveness and Life Everlasting
The second movement of the symphony is something else again. Here, through the medium of lines from Goethe’s Faust, Mahler continues his lifelong exploration of the mysteries of love, faith and death. In his Symphony No. 2 Resurrection, Mahler had given us a powerful vision of life after death, and in his Fourth Symphony he had shown us what heaven could be like through the eyes of a child. In the Eighth Symphony we have Goethe’s depiction of life after death as Faust’s soul is welcomed into heaven and Faust is reunited with his beloved Gretchen. In Goethe’s telling of the Faust legend, the scholar Faust makes a pact with the devil that in return for getting everything he wants in earthly life, he will serve the devil in hell. One thing leads to another - Faust falls in love with Gretchen and gets her pregnant. She gives birth but then drowns her illegitimate child. Convicted of murder, she is sent to prison. Faust is doomed to hell and damnation, but at the end of Part One, voices from heaven proclaim that Gretchen will be forgiven and saved.

By the end of Part Two, Faust is forgiven his overweening ambitions and desires and accepted in heaven where Gretchen awaits him. Like Schumann and Liszt before him, Mahler found in Goethe’s text the most profound expression of the human condition and the path to everlasting life through earthly love and Christian faith.

Thriving on Challenges, Nagano Delivers Full Scope of Mahler’s Masterpiece
Given its enormous musical and philosophical challenges, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is a daunting challenge for any conductor. Kent Nagano showed Montreal listeners once again that he thrives on challenges. He conducted with remarkable technical control and a deep sense of what lay behind the notes. The overwhelming climaxes at the end of each of the two movements were built with care and realized with maximum intensity. Yet it was often in the quiet passages that one felt Nagano’s total identification with the music. Mahler loved to storm the heavens, but some of his most profound music is whispered rather than shouted.

Nagano’s soloists were all first-rate and added immeasurably to the success of the performance. Soprano Jennifer Wilson got off to a shaky start but settled in later on to soar fearlessly over the huge orchestra. Soprano Janice Chandler-Eteme impressed me with the beautiful colour of her voice. The star soloist, however, was undoubtedly tenor Simon O’Neill (left:photo by Lisa Kohler). He has been singing some of the great Heldentenor roles in opera houses around the world and one can see why he is in such demand. In the Mahler Eighth he was heroic indeed but never lost his fine lyric sound.

The OSM Chorus sang magnificently under its guest chorus master, Michael Zaugg. The OSM winds have shown themselves capable of producing finer intonation on other nights, but then Mahler’s writing is often cruelly exposed. On the whole, however, the orchestra played with total commitment and careful attention to balances.

The eminent Mahler authority Henri-Louis de La Grange gave us something to ponder in calling the final 'Chorus Mysticus' one of “the most powerful passages in the history of music.” As Kent Nagano led his stellar ensemble of soloists, chorus and orchestra through this inspiring music at Place des Arts, one had no choice but to concur wholeheartedly.

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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Knowlton's Festival Bel Canto: From Dream to Reality

The fifth and final report from Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton by Paul E. Robinson

In a mere matter of months, three gifted idealists – Swiss-Quebec businessman Marco Genoni, OSM (Montreal Symphony Orchestra) music director Kent Nagano and Santa Cecilia National Academy director Bruno Cagli – created a new music festival with international scope in one of the most unlikely of places – Knowlton, Quebec – and carried it off with huge success!

Now that the applause has died away, the performers have gone home and the chapiteau (tent) has been folded and put away, it is time to take stock of what was accomplished and to consider what the future might hold.

Festival's Major Events Drew Larger than Expected Audiences
The day after the festival, I sat down for a chat over a cup of cappuccino with festival founder Marco Genoni. While he was obviously still basking in the glow of success, Genoni was already hard at work analyzing what took place and planning next year's festival. He could look back with pride on the fact that all the major events were virtually sold out, that the artistic standard met or surpassed expectations and, not least of all, that there was no significant rainfall during the festival. Although advance publicity advertised a tent seating 600, for some events there were as many as 817 people in attendance.

Time and Talent of Local Volunteers Much Appreciated
On the negative side there were rumblings that local residents were dismayed by the high prices, couldn’t get tickets or couldn’t relate to the unfamiliar musical fare. As a reaction to some of the criticism, Genoni announced during the festival that as a way of “giving something back to the community” the OSM would give a free concert in Lion’s Park in Knowlton on Labour Day weekend. Unfortunately, it turned out that this free concert would not take place after all. The problem was that the concert would have been in direct conflict with the annual Brome Fair, a major local event. In addition, the local volunteers who worked so hard and so well for Festival Bel Canto could not handle another major event so soon. As Genoni put it, “it was a mistake made with goodwill in mind.”

Bel Canto and the Santa Cecilia Connection
As Genoni, Nagano and Cagli look to the future they must try to clarify the mission of the festival. Given the origin of this year’s festival as a collaboration between the OSM and the Santa Cecilia National Academy in Rome, the bel canto feature is important. Or perhaps it is less bel canto than Italian singing that is important. Most music-lovers can surely relate to a celebration of Italian singing and vocal music in the broader sense, but even that repertoire can be very limiting. I suspect the festival would have greater appeal if it could include symphonic repertoire and instrumental concertos.

Clearly, Genoni and his colleagues realize on the one hand that a concert featuring pop singer Gino Vanelli hardly fits any meaningful definition of bel canto; on the other hand, any festival devoted solely to bel canto will probably appeal largely to connoisseurs.

The Santa Cecilia connection is a good one and provides an interesting training component. Each year the festival will feature international singers but also some newcomers who can benefit from working with the stars. Knowlton will also have the opportunity to see some outstanding young singers before they become well-known.

I like the concept of a festival with a bel canto focus. Nagano and the OSM will enjoy their annual immersion in this repertoire, and I believe they will attract an audience for it. At the same time it may not be wise to limit the festival to a single theme.

Even Mozart’s huge repertoire has been found too limiting by some international festival organizers to carry an annual festival on its own. The founders of Festival Bel Canto may find that they too need to broaden their concept beyond bel canto style. Broadening it enough to include pop singer Gino Vannelli may, however, be going too far.

I would suggest rather broadening the musical scope to include non-vocal fare. After all, the OSM, one of the stars of this festival, is a world-class orchestra and most of the bel canto repertoire for orchestra is very limiting. It is interesting for them to work on the style but there are no great bel canto symphonies or concertos. Bel canto describes a certain period in the history of Italian opera and it was a period in which the orchestra was largely limited to an accompanying role.

If the facility in Knowlton is to be limited to less than 1,000 seats, the size of the orchestra may have to be limited too as it was this year, to something around 50 players. This means the OSM cannot do Berlioz, Mahler or Tchaikovsky but they can do Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. I am sure Nagano can come up with plenty of interesting programmes with this broader repertoire base.

The challenge then, is to market the festival in future as featuring bel canto but definitely not limited to it. The bel canto “plus” programming should attract not only fans of bel canto who will soon discover what wonderful work Nagano and Cagli are doing in Knowlton, but also customers with a more general love of classical music.

Addressing the Question of Acoustics
Another question mark is the performing facility itself. The tent used this year was expensive and not well-suited to classical music. The acoustics were only fair at best. According to Genoni, festival organizers would like to keep the size of the facility to less than 1,000 seats to simulate the experience of a small Italian opera house. Next year, he said, in addition to the refinements planned for the tent, the OSM will bring to Knowlton the portable shell which has served it well in its regular concerts in the parks in and around Montreal.

Where Have all the Critics Gone?
Overall marketing of this new festival’s debut was certainly not what it should have been. As far as I know, there were no critics from New York, London or Toronto and even coverage in Montreal was far less than the festival deserved. I suspect that this was one of those organizational aspects that failed to get enough attention due to the festival’s somewhat impetuous launch.

Festival Bel Canto Richly Supported by Knowlton Community
Finally, how does one answer those critics who say that Quebec or Canada already has enough festivals and that the money is spread too thin already? While very little taxpayer money went directly to the festival this year, festival organizers will soon be drawing up their grant applications for future years. If they can enrich the community, attract audiences and do a better job than competing organizations then they can claim legitimacy. It is early yet, after only one festival, to make firm pronouncements, but Genoni, Nagano, Cagli and their colleagues have at least earned the right to continue the realization of their dream.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Conductor as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: his Life and Music. For more on Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Bellini's Norma Triumphant Finale for Festival Bel Canto

This is the fourth in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton, Quebec, by Paul E. Robinson

The organizers of Festival Bel Canto 2008 programmed a lot of music by the great bel canto composers – Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini – but only one full-length opera. And they chose well in the inaugural season; Bellini's Norma is generally regarded as perhaps the greatest of the genre. But Norma has always been problematic too in that it requires an exceptional artist to conquer the challenges of the title role. Callas, Sutherland and Gruberova have done it, but very few others in recent memory. Micaela Carosi accepted the challenge in Knowlton this past Sunday, in the closing performance of the festival, and acquitted herself admirably, as did the rest of the cast, conductor Kent Nagano and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM).

Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) is one of those composers – Mozart and Schubert are the prime examples – who died well before his time and accomplished extraordinary things during a short life. Bellini wrote very little instrumental music, preferring to compose operas. He is sometimes dismissed as "superficial." Musicians point to the simple harmonies and accompanying figures as evidence that he had nothing new or profound to say, but one could argue that Bellini's "simplicity" is often like Mozart's: with simple means both composers could portray great depth of feeling. The character Norma, for example, is one of the most complex personages in opera; she is a Druid leader dedicated to throwing off the yoke of the hated Romans and yet she has had two children by the Roman leader Pollione. When she discovers that Pollione has been having an affair with her fellow priestess Adalgisa, her sorrow and rage lead her to thoughts of kill ing her children, Pollione and Adalgisa. In the end she decides to sacrifice her own life.

Wagner might have depicted all of Norma's varied emotions with distinct musical ideas, but like Mozart, Bellini proceeds with more subtlety. He never forgets that his medium is primarily vocal music and that vocal music can never be less than beautiful.

Bellini's vocal lines are often florid and highly ornamented, thereby conveying extremes of emotion from the heights of joy to the depths of sadness. It is the measure of a bel canto performer how well he or she uses this ornamentation to convey emotion. For many singers the goal seems to be accuracy; this approach reduces Bellini's art to empty display. Yesterday afternoon Micaela Carosi treated the bel canto festival audience not only to a mastery of the notes but also to a clear understing of how the notes can be used to enhance expression. She has a large and beautiful voice and gave a convincing portrayal. Her performance of the famous "Casta diva" was both accurate and moving.

As good as Carosi was, I felt others in the cast provided a greater range of emotion. Mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich as Aldalgisa has an even more beautiful voice than Carosi and brought her character to life with much more intensity. Aldrich conveyed a great deal through facial expression and careful attention to rhythmic detail.

Tenor Francisco Casanova was also in command of the technical requirements of Bellini's score and in the final scenes he captured the pain and agony of the situation with remarkable power. And he did it without resorting to the Italian tenor's usual tricks of holding high notes for effect or adding crude sobbing. With strong singing and a few well-chosen gestures he helped to make these scenes intensely poignant.

Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea played the chief druid Oroveso, also Norma's father, and showed why he has rapidly risen to become a star at many of the world's great opera houses including the Met. While hardly old enough to be credible as Norma's father, he sang with strength and an uncommonly beautiful sound.

Special credit must be given to Kent Nagano who masterminded the entire production. He set the tempi, adjusted the delicate balances between singers and orchestra and within the orchestra, and gave clear guidelines as to the style of singing and playing. In conversation onstage with the CBC's Kelly Rice before the performance Nagano commented on how much the orchestra had learned about bel canto style from being immersed in it for the past few weeks. Nagano pointed out how a recent Mendelssohn performance by the OSM sounded quite different, and appropriately so, from this concentrated work on the music of one period.

But Nagano is that kind of conductor - very serious about his work and always curious about learning something new and better. Montreal is lucky to have his inquiring mind, not to mention his enormous conducting skill. Norma is full of recitatives which many conductors find either boring or impossible to sort out. Nagano gave clear and strong directions for every recitative passage; it may not mean much to the audience but I am sure the singers and the members of the OSM were very appreciative. The orchestra played superbly throughout the performance and the OSM Chorus was excellent too.

Incidentally, there was a huge gong which sat on the left front of the stage throughout the performance but it was never used. In Act 2 Scene 7 Norma strikes a sacred gong three times to indicate that it is time to go to war against the Romans. In the Jürgen Rose production of Norma given in Munich in 2006 and issued recently on DVD, Norma (Edita Gruberova) is seen to strike a remarkably similar gong. What happened in Knowlton? We heard the three strokes on the gong but the strokes were delivered by the percussion section of the OSM. Why have the gong on stage if it is never going to be used? It reminded me of Chekhov's old maxim about a gun; if a pistol is seen on the wall in the first act one expects it to be fired later in the play or it shouldn't be there.

Breaking News From Knowlton:

At the Norma performance on Sunday, Honorary Chairman of the festival Marco Genoni announced that at next year's festival the featured opera will be Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment, sung in French.

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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Bel Canto Diva Sumi Jo Wows Festival Audience!

The third in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 in Knowlton, Quebec, by Paul E. Robinson.

Korean-born Sumi Jo is well-known as an international artist specializing in the coloratura soprano repertoire. She was an excellent choice for the first Festival Bel Canto with her success in a wide range of roles in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. In addition, Sumi Jo studied at the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome, one of the artistic collaborators on the festival with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). Sumi Jo gave us a taste of this repertoire last night but she also dazzled the audience with superb performances of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate and, as a much deserved encore, with a highly theatrical excerpt from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman.

Once again Le Chapiteau on Tibbits Hill overlooking Lac Brome was filled to capacity as Festival Bel Canto 2008 entered its second and last weekend. And in this summer of near legendary rainfall in the Eastern Townships the sun was shining and the temperature was, well, as it should be in the middle of summer – warm. Kent Nagano and the OSM opened the evening with Haydn's Symphony No. 101, nicknamed "the Clock" for its tick-tock effect in the second movement. How this piece fits into a bel canto festival is a mystery to me, and Dieter Rexroth's essay on bel canto in the festival's programme book sheds no light on the matter. More likely than not, we were treated to the Haydn simply because the OSM presented this entire Tibbits Hill programme in Montreal just a few days ago minus the bel canto focus.

In any case, Nagano gave us a welcome taste of his current approach to music of the classical period. To my ears, it shows the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. This means a preference for quick tempi, particularly in slow movements and minuets, very little vibrato, lots of expressive variety in bowing, strong accents, and forceful trumpets and timpani. Whether one agrees with all of the interpretative decisions or not, Nagano's Haydn is fresh and thoughtful and on this occasion the OSM gave him everything he asked for.

Even before she sang a note Sumi Jo's first appearance in a tight low-cut blue green evening gown was greeted with oohs and aahs and even cheers. The same thing happened again in the second half when she reappeared in an even more dazzling gold gown. Sumi Jo is a beautiful woman and her sparkling form-fitting gowns were designed to show her off to the max. After only a few bars of Mozart's Exultate, jubilate it was clear to all in the hall that she is not only a great beauty, but also a great artist. Her bel canto runs and trills were delivered with effortless clarity and the top note in the final Alleluia rang out with confidence and fullness. Nagano and the OSM were with her every step of the way.

After intermission Nagano warmed up the band again with Rossini's La scala di seta overture. Wonderful playing especially from the oboe soloist. It is a challenge to keep track of who is playing on any given night at the festival since the OSM has split the 100-piece orchestra into two sections, and sends only one section for each concert. I can't be sure but I believe it was associate principal Margaret Morse who played so many notes so quickly and so well in the oboe solos. Later, Nagano led a performance of the overture to Bellini's Norma, perhaps for those unable to get a ticket for the full opera in its two performances at the festival.

Ultimately, the night belonged to Sumi Jo who was featured in excerpts from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix, Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi, and Bellini's I Puritani. All were performed with total involvement and mastery of the numerous technical challenges. It should be emphasized that Sumi Jo chose arias of substance rather than those with crowd-pleasing virtuosity, just as June Anderson had done in her concert in the festival last weekend. My favourite in Sumi Jo's bel canto group was Giulietta's romance from I Capuletti e I Montecchi, not least of all because of the hauntingly beautiful French horn obbligato.

Sumi Jo has recently enjoyed great success in performances of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and on the basis of what she showed us last night one can see why. Offenbach is not one of the "official" bel canto composers but much of this opera draws heavily on stylistic features of the vocal writing of Bellini and Donizetti. With Kent Nagano alternately wielding a baton and a key, Sumi Jo sang the great aria for Olympia the mechanical doll. Music and movement were presented with almost uncanny skill in this immensely entertaining aria. The audience demanded more and Sumi Jo sent them home even happier with "O mio babbino" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.

I'll be at Bellini's Norma today, the festival's final offering in this inaugural season. I'll post a report on that and then offer an overview of the festival's achievements and shortcomings based on my own thoughts and observations and a conversation with the festival's founding spirit and honorary chairman, Marco Genoni.

> 2nd report

> 1st report


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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bel Canto "Greatest Hits" Program Thrills Audiences

The second in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 by Paul E. Robinson

Although Festival Bel Canto had its official inaugural concert in Knowlton, Quebec on Friday, August 15 with a recital by Jennifer Larmore, one could argue that the real opening came the next night with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) making its first appearance and with a program that amounted to a virtual bel canto –“Greatest Hits.”

American soprano June Anderson provided star power and was joined by members of the Opera Studio of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in operatic excerpts from works by Donizetti and Rossini. There were copious excerpts from the Barber of Seville by Rossini, and shorter arias, ensembles and overtures from various Donizetti operas including L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor. The best-known piece on the programme was undoubtedly Rossini’s overplayed warhorse, the William Tell overture.

If the idea was to send the audience members away with a smile on their faces and a desire to hear more bel canto then the festival organizers certainly achieved that goal; all the performances were at least competent and some were even memorable. To my taste June Anderson provided the musical highlights beginning with an exquisite ‘Piangete voi…Al dolce guidami’ from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. The duet with English horn was especially beautiful. Later came an aria from Rossini’s Otello. Verdi’s Otello is, of course the finest opera ever written based on this Shakespeare play but Anderson and Nagano reminded us that parts of Rossini’s Otello are also well worth hearing from time to time. Members of the OSM matched Anderson’s finely-controlled expressiveness with notable obbligato contributions.

Santa Cecilia Academy’s Maestro Carlo Rizzari Shares Podium With Nagano

Kent Nagano, the OSM’s music director, shared the podium with the young Italian conductor Carlo Rizzari. This was another example of the festival’s collaboration between the OSM and the Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. Rizzari is the assistant conductor of the Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, a distinguished and wholly professional ensemble connected with the Academy. Rizzari proved to be highly competent if a little flamboyant in his gestures especially as compared to the austere Nagano. But then Nagano is a special case. Like the legendary Fritz Reiner, Nagano is a minimalist who gets maximum results. More on that subject in a later blog.

The young singers from Italy acquitted themselves well, although I doubt that we were seeing any stars in the making. Although Italy prides itself on being the country that gave birth to bel canto and often suggests that it produces the finest current practitioners, one might justifiably question that claim; Jennifer Larmore and June Anderson are both Americans. That too is a subject for a later blog.

Making Music in a Tent an Acoustical Conundrum

I have now heard two concerts in the Chapiteau Tibbits Hill, the tent especially constructed for Festival Bel Canto 2008, and I can offer at least a preliminary assessment of its acoustics. As one might expect, a canvas tent seating 600 with nothing like a proper shell to reflect sound on the stage is not going to sound like Symphony Hall in Boston or the Musikverein in Vienna. It will not even sound like Place des Arts in Montreal. It is, after all, a small tent. Classical music needs space and it needs reflecting surfaces. For symphony orchestras a big shoebox design usually gets the best results. The size of the tent also forced Nagano to reduce the size of his orchestra to about 50 players. Fortunately, that is about the optimum size for an orchestra specializing in bel canto repertoire.

With all of this in mind Nagano and the festival organizers prepared themselves to improve on nature by bringing along a sound system. All the instruments are miked and a sound engineer at the back of the tent tries to mix the sound as best he can to produce a pleasing effect. At the Friday afternoon dress rehearsal for “Norma, the result was far from pleasing. In fact, it was harsh and unmusical. But that is why orchestras (and sound engineers) have rehearsals. Last night the sound quality was much improved.

In quiet passages the winds sounded focused and clean. I was reminded of the classic RCA recordings from the 1950s in which wind solos were always prominent and not recessed somewhere at the back of the orchestra. Solo cellos sounded fine too in the beginning of the “William Tell” Overture. When the music got loud, however, the strings virtually disappeared and we were often left with a brass band effect. Unfortunately, this is a criticism often made of the orchestral writing of Bellini and Donizetti at the best of times. The last thing a conductor wants to do is emphasize this quality.

Kent Nagano is a very perceptive musician and no doubt he was very much aware of the problems of making music in a tent. Between the “Norma” rehearsal on Friday and the bel canto highlights concert last night he had obviously had a heart-to-heart with his brass players; they were now playing nearly everything at about half the normal dynamics. Another factor that should be mentioned is that in taking bel canto as his theme for the festival Nagano was interested not only in celebrating the glories of the human voice, but also in learning as much as he could about bel canto orchestral playing. With this in mind he hired violinist Riccardo Minasi, a specialist in early nineteenth-century performance practice, to work with the OSM string players. Minasi was particularly involved in the Norma rehearsals but his approach is probably going to be reflected in every Nagano-conducted performance of music from this period.

Nagano’s new approach undoubtedly means less vibrato and a more sustained and inflected melodic line, analogous to bel canto singing. It also means trying to achieve a much lighter, less Germanic style of orchestral playing.

Lighter, More Authentic Approach Makes a Virtue of Necessity

The best example of what Nagano has achieved so far was on display last night in his conducting of Rossini’s William Tell overture. With modern instruments and the size of today’s orchestras this piece is invariably done today in a “hell for leather” fashion for maximum noise and excitement. But in the early nineteenth century orchestras were much smaller and orchestral instruments capable of producing much more limited volume. The trombones we hear blazing away today in the “Storm” section of the overture had much smaller bores in Rossini’s day and produced a far lighter and more blended sound. Cynics might say that Nagano made a virtue out of necessity by going for a lighter approach last night but in fact his search for a lighter, more authentic bel canto orchestral sound is real. More on this subject after I attend the Norma performance next Sunday.

Incidentally, those attending one of the Norma performances in Knowlton should look in the OSM brass section for another example of Nagano’s search for authenticity. Instead of the usual tuba, you will see a large and strange-looking trombone called a cimbasso; apparently, Bellini called for it in Norma and Verdi was also very fond of it.

Breaking News From Knowlton

At last night’s concert, Marco Genoni, Honorary Chairman of Festival Bel Canto 2008, announced from the stage that the OSM will be performing a free concert in the park in Knowlton on Saturday, August 30. As Mr. Genoni put it, the orchestra “wishes to give something back to the community” in return for its generosity and cooperation in hosting this new festival. Perhaps this was another way of saying that the festival organizers were responding to criticism that most tickets for their concerts were sold out far in advance and few “local” music-lovers had a chance to attend any of the major offerings. If so, credit is due to festival organizers for being sensitive to host community concerns and for acting quickly.

> First Report

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Report from Bel Canto, New Music Festival in Quebec

The first in a series of reports from Festival Bel Canto 2008 by Paul E. Robinson

In a feature article last week, Christopher Huss of Le Devoir chose the heading “Knowlton, le Glyndebourne du Nouveau Monde?” (Knowlton, Glyndebourne of the New World?). Even with the question mark attached, this was heady stuff. Knowlton is a charming but tiny town (population: 5,000) in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, with scarcely a single memorable concert to its name let alone a world-class festival. What is going on here?

Festival Bel Canto was created almost overnight by the combined talents and energy of two men: Kent Nagano, music director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (OSM), and Marco Genoni, a Swiss businessman who has a home in Knowlton (Lac Brome). Late last year Nagano came to Knowlton as Genoni’s guest and before the visit was over they had inspired each other to launch a new festival. The initial inspiration had a lot to do with the natural, unspoiled splendour of the area – “One of the most beautiful places in the world” Nagano enthused at his Press Conference at the festival site held just hours before opening night – and its proximity to Montreal.

But reality usually sets in a few days later when the visionaries float back to earth and face the problem of finding the money. In most cases, that is the end of it, especially when the dream involves an orchestra and major artists. But Nagano and Genoni are not most cases. Genoni formed an advisory group of Knowlton residents and among them and their friends they found the money. The game was on!

For Nagano and Genoni it was not enough to create a festival with Nagano and his orchestra as the prime focus. They had bigger dreams. One idea led to another and before long they were in touch with Bruno Cagli, director of the famed Santa Cecilia Academy in Rome. Cagli is one of the greatest living authorities on Italian opera, and particularly that period – 1820-1840 – in which Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini produced their greatest works. This is often called the Age of Bel Canto although the term is also used to describe virtually the whole history of singing in Italy.

For Nagano and Cagli the term will be used primarily in its narrower sense at their new festival. Thus, the major event at the inaugural festival will be Bellini’s opera “Norma”, and music by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini figures in almost every concert. The festival runs from August 15 to August 24 and features some of the biggest stars in opera, and all of them have excelled in this repertoire. Not only will they be heard singing this music but they will take time to give master classes too. The vision of Genoni, Nagano and Cagli is not only to create a major festival but to include in its activities an important teaching component.

Opening night at Festival Bel Canto was filled with excitement and anticipation. Patrons and donors rubbed shoulders with local folk and there were even two former prime ministers in attendance (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin). The site itself is in a field overlooking Lac Brome. Patrons leave their cars at the famous Canards du Lac Brome (Brome Lake Duck Farm) and are taken by bus to the site, about a five-minute ride. The performance space is a white tent seating about 600. The shuttle system worked remarkably well on opening night and avoided the problem of where to park nearly 300 cars, especially if it rains and cars are stuck in fields turned into muddy swamps. The tent is not an ideal acoustic for classical music but on opening night it worked well enough. A sophisticated sound system is in place to enhance the sound coming off the stage but Nagano said that this was put in mainly to guard against disaster. For this first festival they had no idea what the sound would be like and wanted to have other options.

As expected on such occasions, there were speeches and more speeches and finally we got to the music. And there was something else. Master of Ceremonies Kelly Rice, a CBC Radio Music producer, asked all the participants in the festival to come on stage together so that when Knowlton residents saw them in town going to the grocery store or sitting in a pub they would recognize them and say hello. This was a fine gesture and an important one if Knowlton is going to embrace this strange encroachment on their idyllic community.

Still another inspired Nagano gesture. This evening was advertised as a recital featuring American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore but before she came on Nagano conducted two short pieces with a small ensemble of recent prizewinners in OSM competitions. The idea was to 1) give pride of place to the musicians of the future who will inherit the festival, and 2) underscore the pedagogical aspect of the festival. For this purpose Nagano chose two short pieces in keeping with the festival’s theme: Boccherini’s very familiar Menuet and Rossini’s little-known “Serenata per piccolo complesso.” Both were played with skill and style by Nagano and his young players.

Jennifer Larmore opened her program with Rossini’s delightful “La Regata Veneziana.” Larmore never loses sight of the fact that she is an entertainer - a point she also emphasized at her master class the next day. She exudes joy and enthusiasm when she takes the stage and she uses her face and body with great skill to tell us about the characters she is portraying and the stories in the music. She is so good at this aspect of her art she could easily have a career as a mime if she ever decides to stop singing.

“La Regata Veneziana” is delightful and funny and Larmore did everything she could to bring it alive for us, but she would have been even more successful had she explained the piece beforehand or had the texts been included in the program. Another option might have the use of the surtitle equipment being used for the festival’s “Norma” performances. Surtitles would be equally effective for vocal recitals.

But make no mistake. While Larmore is a superlative actress, she is also possessed of an extraordinarily beautiful voice. What is more to the point at this new festival is that she knows how to create the beautiful line and toss off the virtuoso requirements demanded by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. She gave us excerpts from operas by all three bel canto masters and threw in some Mozart for good measure.

Larmore was in equally fine form the next afternoon as she led a master class devoted to bel canto at Chapelle Saint-Édouard. Some talented young singers presented excerpts from operas by Bellini and Donizetti and Larmore worked with them with obvious love and commitment.

On Saturday morning in the same venue singers from l’Atelier lyrique de l’Opera de Montréal offered their takes on excerpts from more operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. For each of the events in the chapel there were about 70 people and they seemed to enjoy what they heard. Both events were free.

In my next blog I’ll be able to report on the first concert at the festival involving the OSM. On the basis of what I have heard so far, anyone with the slightest interest in Italian opera should be in their cars and headed for Knowlton. Kent Nagano, his colleagues and friends are in the process of creating something very special.

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 For more about Paul E. Robinson please visit his website at

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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Letters from Munich: Das Gehege/Salome

Angela Denoke as Salome

Photo: Wilfrid Hoesl

The climax of my Strauss week in Munich was reached in a spectacularly powerful performance of the double-bill, Wolfgang Rihm's Das Gehege paired with Strauss's Salome. Given that the director was William Friedkin of Exorcist fame, the audience rightly expected something visceral and galvanizing, if not downright gory - what better opera for gore than Salome? The public largely got its wish when it premiered in 2006. Critical reactions were positive. According to Dr. Ulrike Hessler, director of communications and development of the Bavarian State Opera, for once there was no booing after the performance, only cheers. This certainly was true on July 26.

The opening piece was the 35-minute Das Gehege ("The Cage"). At the premiere in October 2006, critics and audience had a field day speculating on the meaning of this work. Rihm based it on Botho Strauss's 1991 play Final Chorus, on the fall of the Berlin Wall. There are only two characters, one singer (Die Frau), and a non-speaking role of the caged eagle, masked and costumed in black tights and black feathers. The woman sets the eagle free, yet cannot resist taunting it and eventually killing it. Perhaps the "eagle" represents East Germany, and setting it free would be an allegory on the fall of the Wall. Its subsequent demise in the hands of Die Frau would appear to be a dark commentary on present-day German politics. But to my eyes and ears, this piece is strong enough musically to stand on its own without the political subtext. Rihm has composed a powerful - yes, even occasionally beautiful - score that is distinctly contemporary without being inaccessible or alienating. He wrote the role of Die Frau for soprano Gabriele Schnaut, who has a reputation for championing contemporary compositions. She was on stage the whole 35 minutes, showing remarkable stamina given that she had just sung the taxing Elektra the previous evening! She displayed the utmost dramatic commitment, sang with vocal abandon if not beauty of tone, but then perhaps none is required here! Der Adler ("The Eagle") was vividly acted by Steven Barrett. If I were to nitpick, I find the sets aesthetically icy, but then perhaps that was the point.

After a 40 minute intermission came Salome, with Angela Denoke reprising the title role. I have not always enjoyed her work, especially in roles too heavy for her instrument such as Leonore in Fidelio. But she is superb here, the very embodiment of Salome in every way. Costumed in a low cut black gown with slits on both sides up to the hip, this Salome is child-like, petulant, wilfull, seductive, playful, vulgar, sexy, manipulative, and altogether lethal as any good Salome should be. Denoke finds the role more vocally congenial than one would imagine possible, paying great attention to textual nuances, and varying her tone in the repeated demands for the head of Jochanaan. Having seen about a dozen Salome productions, I wasn't really expecting any surprises, but surprised I was! The sheer inventiveness of the Dance of the Seven Veils rivals the Atom Egoyan production for the COC, and Friedkin doesn't have the benefit of projections and shadows to mask any potential problems. Salome dances not just to Herod, but to Herodias, the Page, the Jews, even Jochanaan, coveniently brought up from underground thanks to the marvels of modern stage machinery. The veils fall the ceiling, caught by Salome who proceeds to use them to lasso her victims. As the dance approached climax, Denoke stripped to the waist, but unlike others, she remained topless and sang for extended periods afterwards. At this point, the Eagle in Das Gehege reappeared as a sort of "Angel of Death", directing the stage action, leading the drama inexorably to its denouement.

With such a powerful singing actress, others in the cast were rather overshadowed. Alan Held (Jochanaan) sang strongly, but this rather one-dimensional character didn't offer a whole lot of dramatic nuances. Iris Vermillion made the most of Herodias, a most ungrateful role. Herod has much meatier music to sing, and former heldentenor Wolfgang Schmidt certainly dug into it with relish, his voice in surprisingly good condition, a hint of a wobble notwithstanding. But the most outstanding singing in a supporting role came from the Narraboth of Korean tenor Wookyung Kim, whose trumpety tones were a pleasure. He was extremely well applauded at the end. Hans Schavernoch's rather anticeptic set design served both the Rihm and the Strauss - its many moving arches worked better in the latter. If Denoke was the star of the evening, she arguably shared it with the orchestra under the splendid conducting of Kent Nagano - how often does one feel the orchestral sounds all the way down to one's toes?


Friday, August 1, 2008

Letters from Munich: Ariadne auf Naxos

Photos: Wilfrid Hoesl

Joseph So

If Arabella on Wednesday wasn't quite up to the normally high Festival standards, the premiere of a new production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Prinzregententheater was just about as good as it gets. As the ecstatic strains of the finale faded away, the house erupted for minutes of prolonged cheering and foot-stamping, and many curtain calls. Given that we live in an age of hyperbole, the word “great” is thrown around rather indiscriminately, but not in this case. This performance qualifies as great, one that will withstand the test of time in my memory bank.
Ariadne had its Munich premiere in January 1918 in the exquisite Rococo Cuvilliés Theater. With its reopening recently to celebrate the city's 850th anniversary, it would appear to be a logical venue, but the Company wisely chose to make it more accessible by using the larger Prinzregententheater. With only three performances, it was an extremely hot ticket. Fortunately Munich Opera is bringing it back next July, with an essentially identical cast, but with Bertrand de Billy replacing Kent Nagano. Rumour has it that the run next summer will be filmed for release on DVD.

The director of this Ariadne is none other than Canadian Robert Carsen, whose cutting edge productions have won kudos from the Met to Paris Opera. For Munich, he has created an production of layered symbolism that provokes and challenges our conventional views of this piece. Before a bar of music was played, onstage was a ballet studio with dancers warming up in front of mirrored panels. They proceeded to dance the orchestral prelude in pleasant if rather conventional choreography. Setting the prologue in a ballet studio isn't all that surprising, given that Robert Carsen, as the son of important National Ballet patron Walter Carsen, likely grew up in a dance milieu. The predominanatly black modern dress costumes served to lend the focus on the drama and the internal psychological states of the characters.

Carsen's direction tends towards uber-symbolism, with many interesting touches throughout, sometimes surprising and more often than not amusing, refreshing and provocative, and frequently brilliant. In the “seduction scene” in the prologue, in a darkened stage when Zerbinetta tells the Komponist that she isn't what she seems, Damrau takes off her black wig letting her long blond hair tumbling down – a magical moment. The prologue ended with the Komponist in front of the stage, delivering the score to the conductor and then moving to the side where she stays in full view of the audience throughout the opera. The opera was performed without an intermission.

Lovers of opulent stagings of the desert island of Naxos must have felt deprived, since all they got was a bare stage. I am not particularly fond of minimalist staging, but this time it really worked. A dozen or so supernumeraries, consisting of the mixed corp de ballet from the opening plus the comedians in drag, populated the stage, dressed identically as Ariadne and moving in unison with her – it says to me that Ariadne's dilemma is every women's dilemma. In a traditional interpretation, this piece can be seen as anti-feminist. Afterall, we have the suicidal Ariadne stranded on Naxos, abandoned by “her man”. She can only be fulfilled and redeemed when Bacchus shows up to rescue her. At the moment of Bacchus' arrival, the black backdrop opened to blinding light. In this production, the many supers, some representing Ariadne and an equal number representing Bacchus on opposite sides of the stage, implying a sort of gender opposition At the moment of reconciliation, Ariadne and Bacchus cross over to the other opposite sides, a nice symbolic stroke.

To be sure, not everything worked equally well. The significance of three upright pianos being wheeled on and off stage eluded me, ditto to have Zerbinetta popping out of the piano. Overall, there were enough brilliant directorial touches that it made for a very rewarding evening in the theatre. Much of the pleasure of this production was vocal, with a dream cast, led by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, reprising her celebrated Ariadne. She was ably partnered by tenor Burkhard Fritz. The cruelly high tessitura of.Bacchus posed no problem for Fritz, who sang with exemplary freedom at the top of his range. Diana Damrau made a vocally and dramatically scintillating Zerbinetta. Surrounded by a chorus line of ten buff boys, Damrau clearly was enjoying herself as a sassy and sexy Zerbinetta, bringing the house down with a dynamite “Grossmachtige Prinzessin”. Munich Opera ensemble artist Daniela Sindram was a big-voiced, intense, ponytailed, slightly hysterical Komponist. She looked so much like a man that it's positively scary. The other roles were all well taken, with special mention going to Nikolay Borchov (Harlekin), and the three nymphs, particularly Sine Bundgaard (the Fiakermilli two nights ago) as Echo. As expected in this meat-and-potatoes Straussian score, the orchestra under the baton of Kent Nagano, produced appropriately thrilling sounds. All in all, a most memorable evening.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Gala des prix Opus 2006-2007

par Caroline Louis

Le 27 janvier 2008, à la salle Claude-Champagne à Montréal, le Conseil québécois de la musique remettait les prix Opus, récompensant ainsi les interprètes, compositeurs, créateurs, promoteurs, organisations musicales et musicologues québécois qui se sont illustrés entre le 1er septembre 2006 et le 31 août 2007. Pas moins de vingt-six trophées furent distribués lors de cette 11e édition du gala des prix Opus, animée avec beaucoup d'humour par Mario Paquet et Martin Bernier. Tout au long du gala, nous avons pu entendre des arrangements musicaux de Louis Babin, qui dirigeait un ensemble d'une douzaine de musiciens, tandis que des ¦uvres picturales du compositeur Otto Joachim défilaient sur écran géant en haut de la scène.

Sans grande surprise, le prix de l'Événement musical de l'année fut remporté par l'Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, pour le concert d'ouverture du 6 septembre 2006 dirigé par Kent Nagano. Ce concert, projeté en direct de la salle Wilfrid-Pelletier et de l'esplanade de la Place des Arts, avait attiré quelques centaines de milliers d'auditeurs via le site Internet, la télévision, la Première Chaîne de la radio de Radio-Canada et Espace musique.

Le prix d'Interprète de l'année fut remis à l'ensemble Les Voix humaines, et le jury a sélectionné le compositeur et électroacousticien montréalais Serge Arcuri comme Compositeur de l'année. L'exceptionnelle saison du 30e anniversaire du Festival de Lanaudière fut soulignée par le prix Diffuseur de l'année. La soprano Marianne Fiset a obtenu le prix Découverte de l'année, prix qui fut par le passé accordé à des artistes tels que Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux et le Quatuor Molinari.

Le jeune musicologue Philip Gareau, étudiant à l'Université de Montréal, reçut le prix du Livre de l'année, ayant vu son mémoire de maîtrise publié chez L'Harmattan sous le titre La musique de Morton Feldman ou le temps en liberté. Le baryton Marc Boucher, partageant avec le pianiste Olivier Godin le prix du Disque de l'année - Musiques classique, romantique, postromantique, impressionniste, a pour sa part invité les compositeurs à s'inspirer plus souvent de la poésie québécoise, déclarant : « Commettez-vous, chers musiciens, et nous serons heureux de vous interpréter. »

Par ailleurs, le Conseil québécois de la musique soulignait cette année la carrière du musicien Otto Joachim, récipiendaire du prix Hommage. Davis Joachim, fils du compositeur émérite, interpréta avec simplicité une ¦uvre pour guitare de son père et le critique musical Claude Gingras prononça un bref discours en l'honneur de son ami de longue date. Déplorant de se retrouver sur scène plutôt que dans l'assistance, l'intransigeant critique du journal La Presse provoqua de francs éclats de rire en s'exclamant, plissant des yeux sous l'intensité des projecteurs, « C'est ça, être artiste? » et cherchant le compositeur dans la salle obscure, afin de pouvoir le féliciter directement : « Wo bist du, Otto ? »

Parmi les moments forts du gala, mentionnons l'interprétation virtuose que donna le Quatuor Molinari du périlleux deuxième mouvement du Quatuor à cordes no 2 d'Alfred Schnittke et la surprenante prestation multimédia d'Espaces Sonores Illimités, intitulée Spatio-Lumino. L'exécution d'une ¦uvre pour percussions d'Iannis Xenakis par l'ensemble Sixtrum fut également très appréciée.

> La liste des lauréates.

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