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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Sunday, March 7, 2010

This Week in Toronto (March 8 - 14)

Baritone Nathan Gunn (Photo: Dario Acosta)

The big news for voice fans this week is the first Toronto appearance of American baritone Nathan Gunn, in town on Wednesday, March 10 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall as part of its Vocal Series. Mr. Gunn is the archetypal "bari-hunk", a term invented some years ago by person unknown to describe baritones who are as pleasing to the eye as to the ear. There is a long tradition of singers of this ilk, from Lawrence Tibbett in the 1930's to Sherrill Milnes in the 1970's - hunky baritones with great voices. But there seems to be many more of them today, undoubtedly a reflection of the public favoring singers who look good on stage. In addition to Nathan Gunn, baritone poster boys today include the New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Italian Luca Pisaroni, Uruguayan Erwin Schrott, American Jason Hardy, and Canada's own Dan Okulitch. There are many more, but these ones come to mind readily. They all have beautiful voices and are convincing actors onstage. With Mr. Gunn in town for a recital at Roy Thomson Hall, we'll get to judge for ourselves. I first heard him thirteen years ago, as Orestes in the famous Francesca Zambello production of Iphigenie en Tauride in Glimmerglass, arguably the show that propelled him to fame. He is singing better than ever. On the program are songs by Schubert, Charles Ives and American spirituals, accompanied by his wife Julie Gunn.

On the subject of voice, a worthwhile concert to attend is one given by Canadian soprano Yannick Muriel Noah. Several years ago, she was plucked out of the COC Ensemble to fill in for an indisposed soprano as Tosca. Critics and audience were impressed with her huge, gleaming lirico-spinto. She has since sung La Wally at Klagenfurt in Austria, and was Cio-Cio-San in COC's Madama Butterfly last fall. This spring, she returns to Klagenfurt as Aida. Noah will be giving a recital of songs and arias by Weill, Strauss, Verdi, and Puccini, with Liz Upchurch at the piano. It takes place on Saturday March 13, 8 pm at the Runnymede United Church, 432 Runnymede Road. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and arts workers) and can be purchased as her website

On Sunday March 14 2:30 pm at Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building at the U of Toronto Faculty of Music, the Aldeburgh Connection presents Hugo Wolf: Mighty Miniaturist. Soloists are soprano Monica Whicher, tenor Michael Colvin, and baritone Brett Polegato, with Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata at the piano. As usual, there will be tea at intermission! I have attended a few of their concerts in the past and they are never less than delightful.

Elsewhere, the Canadian Opera Company free noon hour concert series presents The Composer and His Music, on Thursday March 11, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, with student soloists from the University of Toronto Opera Division under the music directorship of Sandra Horst. It is an eclectic - and highly interesting - program with arias and ensembles from Nixon in China, Hamlet, Leoncavallo's Boheme, Rigoletto, Gloriana, Ghosts of Versailles, Don Pasquale, Madama Butterfly, and Candide. Remember to show up a good 45 minutes early to ensure a seat. On Tuesday, March 9 is another noon hour concert - 18 year old pianist Suren Barry plays music by Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Enigma Variations on March 11 at 3 pm and March 13 at 8 pm, with soloist Lars Vogt playing the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor. Also on the program are Elgar's Enigma Variations, Sibelius Suite from King Kristian II and Magnus Lindberg's Chorale. Robin Ticciati conducts.

Tafelmusik, Canada's premiere baroque orchestra, presents Bach in Leipzig, with Jeanne Lamon directing the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus in a program of Bach and Telemann. Performances on March 10, 7:30 pm, March 11, 12, and 13 at 8 pm, at the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre.

Finally, a bit of very sad news. The great British tenor Philip Langridge passed away from cancer this week at the age of 70. He carried on the tradition of English tenors in the mode of Peter Pears, championing the music of Benjamin Britten - he was a supremely moving Peter Grimes - as well as a wide ranging repertoire from Mozart to Janacek to Stravinsky. When I first heard the news two days ago, it just didn't seem possible - after all, he was singing as recently as December and January as the Witch in the Met's revival of Hansel und Gretel! He is survived by his widow, mezzo-soprano Ann Murray and four children. As a remembrance, here is a link to his most moving rendition of Comfort Ye from Handel's Messiah on Youtube -

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

This Week in Toronto (March 1- 7)

Painting of Frederic Chopin by Eugene Delacroix, 1838.

On Monday (March 1) two hundred years ago, the great Frederic Chopin was born. Although he died in 1849 in Paris, at the young age of 39, his impact on the piano world was indelible. This week, there will be numerous events around the world celebrating his 200th anniversary. (In fact, the celebration has already begun on Feb. 22, the date of his actual birthday based on church records) Famous pianists and Chopin interpreters the likes of Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim and Yundi Li, to name a few, are giving concerts to commemorate the milestone. Here in the GTA, we have the Canadian Chopin Festival's Third Canadian Chopin Competition: Senior Division. It takes place at the John Paul II Cultural Centre at 4300 Cawthra Road in Mississauga. The Preliminary Round is at 10 am on March 1 and 2. Attendance is free. Semi-finals take place on March 3 and 4, also at 10 am. Finals take place on Saturday March 6 10 am, with the Winners Concert on Sunday March 7 at 2 pm at Royal Conservatory of Music's Koerner Hall ($20 - 50). For more information, call (289) 937-6545, or visit the website at

Other Chopin festivities include a noon hour concert at the Canadian Opera Company's free concert series - Homage a Chopin: a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Chopin. Pianist is Lucas Porter, on Tuesday March 2, at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre. Admission is free, but remember to show up at least 45 minutes to line up. On the same day at 7 pm, as part of the Canadian Chopin Festival, well known pianist William Aide will give a lecture-recital, at the John Paul II Cultural Centre in Mississauga. On Thursday, March 4 at 7 pm, Liszt scholar Alan Walker will give a lecture on Chopin, the Poet of the Piano. Admission to these events is $10 each. On Friday March 5 7:30 pm, there is a show called Chopin and Friends: A Parisian Salon Recital at the same venue. There is no details as to performers or program, but go to for any additional information.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents Le Plus Forte, its last concert of the New Creations Festival on Wednesday, March 3, at 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall. On the program is Osvaldo Golijov's The Last Round and Jacques Hetu's Symphony No. 5 (world premiere). Soloist is soprano Barbara Hannigan, whose repertoire is predominantly contemporary music. There will be a post-concert live event in the lobby called Spotlight on Piazzolla - not to be missed by Astor Piazzolla fans! On Saturday March 6 7:30 pm Sunday 3 pm March 7, the TSO presents Best of British, a mixed program of British music, including works by Walton, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, and Bruch. Christopher Bell conducts and soloist is violinist Nicola Benedetti.

Opera York, a young professional opera company in York Region, continues its presentation of Verdi's Rigoletto, at the new Richmond Hill Performing Arts Centre. Soprano Charlotte Corwin is Gilda, tenor Romulo Delgado is the Duke and Nicolae Raiciu is Rigoletto. Sabatino Vacca conducts. It opened on Sunday, Feb. 28 and continues with two more shows on March 4 and 6 at 8 pm.

On Sunday March 7, Off Centre Music Salon presents its Russian Italian Salon: Multiple Choice. Singers are sopranos Lucia Cesaroni and Ilana Zarankin, who happens to be the daughter of Inna and Boris Zarankin, co-artistic director of Off Centre. Also on the program is mezzo Emilia Boteva, cellist Winona Zelenka and violinist Marie Berard. It takes place at 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 18 - 24)

Photo: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Mozart@254 celebration continues this week. On Jan. 20 and 21, at 8 pm in Roy Thomson Hall, TSO presents a program featuring several women artists in the music of Mozart - conductor Jane Glover, pianist Imogen Cooper, violinist Anne Akiko Meyers, and violist Teng Li. The three pieces on the program are Symphony No. 32 in G major, Piano Concert No. 25 in C Major, and Sinfonia concertante for Vilin and Viola K. 320d. During intermission, the performers will be interviewed in the lobby about their thoughts on playing Mozart. On Jan. 23 (7 pm) and 24 (3 pm), the TSO presents Beyond the Score: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27. Billed as a "light classics" event, this concert is designed for "newcomers" to Mozart and classical music in general. Actor Paul Gross and conductor Peter Oundjian join forces to offer a "cultural and historical exploration of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27", followed by a performance by pianist/leader Ignat Solzhenitsyn.

On January 22 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio, Sinfonia Toronto presents The Romantic Century, a celebration of Chopin's 200th anniversary. Pianist Yuval Fichman plays Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2. Also on the program is Somers' North Country, and Ravel's Sinfonia in F Major.

On January 20 at 10 am at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, the Canadian Opera Company will be announcing its 2010-11 season. I will be attending the press conference, and will have more to report afterwards. Incidentally, the press conference will be taped for streaming in the COC website: afterwards.

Ever wonder why your opinions are so similar - or so different! - from your local newspaper critic? Well, you'll have a chance to hear from the horse's mouth! Toronto Star arts critic John Terauds will be interviewed at the Toronto Wagner Society on Monday Jan. 18, at 8 pm, in the Arts and Letters Club on 14 Elm Street in downtown Toronto. This event is open to members only, but you can join on the spot! I have been a member for the last twenty seven years, and this is a great organization for anyone interested in the music of Wagner. So if you are a budding or seasoned Wagnerite, do come! You can find out more information at their website

For art song enthusiasts, there are two noteworthy concerts on Sunday, Jan. 24. Unfortunately, these two concerts overlap, so you will have to make a choice! The Aldeburgh Connection , the brainchild of retired professor of music Stephen Ralls and his partner Bruce Ubukata, is one of the most respected vocal recital series in the Toronto area. Their theme-based recital programs are always thoughtful and interesting. We are fortunate that Aldeburgh Connection is still going strong even though Ralls has now retired from the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. On Sunday at 2:30 pm in U of T's intimate Walter Hall is their annual Schubertiad, this year focusing on Schubert's setting of text by Sir Walter Scott. Soloists are mezzo Anita Krause, tenor Christopher Enns, and baritone James Levesque. A second worthwhile concert is Off Centre Music Salon's German Spanish Salon, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of Pauline Viardot and the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann's birth. In addition to songs by Schumann and Viardot, works by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Chopin will also be featured. Soloists are soprano Shannon Mercer, mezzo Wallis Giunta, violinist Marie Berard joining hosts Boris and Inna Zarankin at the keyboard. The concert takes place on Sunday 2 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio.

Finally, for anyone who missed the terrific Met in HD Tales of Hoffmann on December 19, the encore performance is on Jan. 23, in the participating Cineplex theatres in Toronto and across Canada. For more information, go to

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Monday, January 11, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 11 - 17)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, December 14, 2009

This Week in Toronto (December 14 - 20)

Baritone Russell Braun gives a lieder recital in celebration of Jeunesses Musicales du Canada's 60th anniversary at the Toronto French School on December 9th. Pianist is Talisa Blackman
(Photo: Joseph So)

The feast of Holiday Season music continues this week with literally dozens of concerts and events big and small, all over the GTA. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra bills its Messiah as Toronto's favourite - it probably is among the most august of Messiah traditions in Canada and likely has the highest attendance numbers. This year's version begins on Dec. 16 at Roy Thomson Hall and continues on Dec 18, 19, 20, and 21, all at 8 pm except for Sunday Dec. 20 at 3 pm. The soloists are soprano Shannon Mercer, countertenor Matthew White, tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Tyler Duncan. Quebec conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni leads the TS forces and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. This is a massive Messiah and well worth attending if you like this work performed by huge forces. For a more intimate Messiah, I can recommend Tafelmusik's baroque Messiah. Ivar Taurins conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and a quartet of soloists (soprano Ann Monoyios, mezzo Meg Bragle, tenor Benjamin Hulett, and bass Sumner Thompson). Performances from Dec. 16 to 19 7:30 pm at the Trinity-St. Paul Centre. On Dec. 20 2 pm is the ever-popular Sing Along Messiah at Massey Hall. There is something about a whole Massey Hall audience raising their collective voice to the Hallelujah Chorus that is awe-inspiring - so if you haven't experienced it before, go! This is general admission so be sure to get there early if you want a good seat!

The Nathaniel Dett Chorale offers An Indigo Christmas at the Glenn Gould Studio on Dec. 16 and 19, at 8 pm. According to the promotional material, this choral group is called "magical and transformative, their voices....will carry you on a journey through the beauty and intricacies of Afrocentric music from around the world" - I couldn't agree more. Also of note is the Via Salzburg Chamber Orchestra performing on Dec. 17 and 18 at the Glenn Gould. On the program are music of Handel, Vivaldi and Mendelssohn, plus Imant Raminsh singing Songs of Sorrow, Songs of Joy, in a work commissioned by Via Salzburg in 2003.

On December 17, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, who received a degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Toronto before she went into a musical career, headlines a concert in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the U of T Engineering Science program. It takes place at the Hart House Theatre at 6:30 pm on Thursday. Julian Kuerti conducts the Skule Orchestra in a program of arias and orchestral pieces of Verdi, Rossini, Dvorak and Mozart. There is also a post-concert dinner. I have no idea of the ticket availability - go to for more information.

Finally, I'd like to report on a concert I attended last week, given by Canadian baritone Russell Braun, in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada. It took place at the Toronto French School on December 9th, attended by a small group of invited guests. Also in attendance was Mr. Jacques Marquis, the Executive and Artistic Director of JMC, and Mr. Joseph Rouleau, the President of JMC. In fabulous voice, Braun sang songs by Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Ravel, all delivered with beauty of tone and depth of feeling. No wonder is he one of Canada's greatest singers today. He concluded the evening with a most heart-felt 'Avant de quitter ces lieux', Valentin's prayer from Gounod's Faust. It was a truly memorable evening.

Joseph Rouleau thanks Russell Braun after the concert and spoke a few words to the audience. (Photo: Joseph So)

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Monday, December 7, 2009

This Week in Toronto (December 7 - 13)

White Pine Pictures promotional image of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, a new documentary by Canadian filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2009

In my haste to post last week's blog entry which was already late, I forgot to mention the Toronto screening of Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, the new documentary on this most enigmatic of Canadian cultural icon by filmmakers Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont. I attended the second screening last Thursday at the Royal in downtown Toronto. The filmmakers were there to introduce the documentary, as was Professor Mark Kingwell, who penned the newest Glenn Gould book, as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series on Penguin Books. Gould has been an endless subject of scholarly and popular works, and this film goes a long way in answering some of the many questions about Gould the man, with all his complexities and eccentricities. The film was screened at the TIFF last September. The filmmaker Michele Hozer mentioned at last Thursday's screening that it will be shown on many arts channels, including Arte in Europe and PBS in the United States. The screenings in Toronto ended yesterday, but you can still catch it in Waterloo (Jan. 27-28), Ottawa (Feb. 3), Barrie (Feb. 6 - 8), and Collingwood (March 29). I understand the film is not yet available on DVD, but I imagine it will be at some point after its run of international screenings are completed. Highly recommended.

A main interest this week is the world premiere of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra's co-commissioned piece, The Four Seasons by composer Philip Glass. This intriguing new work is billed as Glass's re-imagining of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Also on the program is Beethoven Symphony No. 6, 'Pastoral'. Two performances on the 9th (8pm) and 12th (7:30pm). The Saturday 12th show is a "casual concert", without an intermission and with lobby entertainment after the show.

Of course the season of Christmas choral music is just beginning. There are multiple offerings on each day of the week, so I won't try to be comprehensive about this! On Wednesday December 9 at the Yorkminster Baptist Church on Yonge Street is Mendelssohn Choir's Ceremony of Carols, featuring Judy Loman (harp). On Thursday at the George Weston Recital Hall, Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York, it's the Toronto Philharmonia and their Carol for Christmas -rather clever play on words I thought - with jazz vocalist Carol Welsman. On Friday, December 11 (2 shows 4 and 8pm), you can catch the Moscow Boys Choir in Christmas Around the World at the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts. Or you can choose to attend Oakville Choral Society's performance of Vivali's Gloria at the Glen Abbey United Church at 7:30 pm. There are at least two Messiahs this week, one presented by the Brott Musical Festival at the St. Christopher Anglican Church in Burlington on Saturday December 12 at 7:30 pm. The second one is The Dublin Messiah, presented in its "original version" by conductor Kevin Mallon and his Aradia Ensemble at the Glenn Gould Studio on Saturday, December 12 8 pm. Soloists are Laura Albino, Marion Newman, Nils Brown and Sean Watson.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This Week in Toronto (November 30 - December 6)

Poster of the Royal Ballet's The Nutcracker

December is Holiday Season, so there is a veritable feast of Messiahs and choral music in general to choose from. And of course it is also the season of Nutcrackers. While the National Ballet of Canada's offering of James Kudelka's production of The Nutcracker doesn't start until December 12, you can whet your appetite with the Royal Ballet's version, to be shown in selected theaters across Canada. I have seen this show some years ago in London and it is nothing short of spectacular. This is being presented by Digiscreen, and for details of theater locations and times, go to

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents the ever-popular Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "New World" on December 2 and 3 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. It is conducted by British maestro Bramwell Tovey, music director of the Vancouver Symphony. Tovey is also a noted composer, and on this occasion he will be conducting two of his own compositions, Urban Runway, and Songs of the Paradise Saloon. Also featured is TSO principal trumpet Andrew McCandless.

Tafelmusik presents Vivaldi's baroque chestnut Four Seasons Dec. 2 - 6 at their home venue Trinity St. Paul's Centre, 427 Bloor St. West, and a single performance at the George Weston Recital Hall on December 8. Also on the program are works by Galuppi, Tartini, and Albinoni. Stefano Montanari is the guest director and violin soloist.

For those interested in "cross-over", be sure to catch the mega-cross-over-star Andrea Bocelli live in concert at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday December 3. Canadian songwriter David Foster is also featured. This concert is part of a tour by Bocelli to promote his new Christmas CD. Steven Mercurio conducts. Tickets go from $75 to a whopping $500, and is available from Ticketmaster.

The first Messiah of the season is offered on Friday December 4th 8 pm, simultaneously by The Elmer Iseler Singers and the Amadeus Choir conducted by Lydia Adams at the Metropolitan United Church, and by the Vocal Horizons Chamber Choir and the Handel Festival Orchestra conducted by Kerry Stratton at the George Weston Recital Hall. The Elmer Iseler Singers Messiah will have soloists Meredith Hall, Allyson McHardy, Michael Colvin and Peter McGillivray. The Stratton Messiah features Caroline Davidson, Deborah Overes, Stephen Harland, and Michael Uloth. The next day, on Saturday December 5, Mississauga Festival Choir offers Messiah in excerpts, in a show called For Unto Us A Child is Born. I will be at the Living Arts Centre, 2 pm and 8 pm. A bit farther afield is a Messiah conducted by Howard Dyck who is retiring after this season. It is at Centre in the Square in Kitchener on Saturday 5, 7:30 pm, an hour west on High 401. The quartet of soloists are Katherine Whyte, Lauren Segal, Joseph Schnurr and James Westman.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

TSO principal clarinetist delivers in Mozart concerto

By L.H. Tiffany Hsieh

It was sweet and robust at Roy Thomson Hall last night, when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra first featured one of its own on centre stage, followed by “the greatest symphony since Beethoven.”

Now in his 30th year with the TSO, principal clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas delivered Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s beloved Clarinet Concert in A Major, K. 622 with grace, temper, and delight.

Valdepeñas, also a founding member of Toronto’s celebrated Amici Chamber Ensemble, began the opening Allegro with flawless technique, in a courtly Mozartian style led by conductor Peter Oundjian. The tone Valdepeñas produced in both high and low registers of his instrument was warm and expressive.

In the Adagio, Valdepeñas displayed a deep and sensitive reading of the score. Both soloist and orchestra demonstrated first-class ensemble work in this poignant movement.

In the finale Rondo: Allegro, Valdepeñas tackled the composer’s intricate runs with lucid articulation and phrasing. Written in October 1791, the Clarinet Concerto was one of Mozart’s last fully completed instrumental works before he died two months later. Mozart did not write a cadenza for this concerto, but Valdepeñas showed off his polished fingering and controlled breathing effortlessly nevertheless.

However, the clarity of sound coming both from Valdepeñas and the orchestra was not always there, although that may have had to do more with the acoustics of the hall rather than the musicians.

With no intermission, the second and final piece of work on the program was English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, completed in 1934, which British composer William Walton once said was "the greatest symphony since Beethoven."

Valdepeñas didn’t get the star treatment and joined his colleagues on stage to tackle this brassy four-movement work.

Vaughan Williams, often known for his collection of English folk music and song, wrote nine symphonies. Fueled with anger, humour, and mania, the fourth is one of his most dissonant and frequently-performed works.

The TSO, under the baton of Oundjian, sculpted a sensible structure for the complex piece that is centred around a four-note motif.

Here, romantic at times and full of surprises, every attack, pizzicato, and pluck was powerful and reached the back of the hall.

The concert, which began at 6:30 p.m. and wrapped up five minutes before 8 p.m., was one of TSO's new Afterworks concert series. The program repeats Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. and Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m., with the addition of the Canadian premiere of Sid Ramin's orchestration of Leonard Bernstein's Clarinet Sonata.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

This Week in Toronto (October 5 - 11)

left: Frederica von Stade

right: Alexander Neef, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company (Photo: Michael Cooper)

In addition to the continuation of COC's long run of Madama Butterfly at the Four Seasons Centre (Oct. 8 and 10, 7:30 pm), there are a number of very interesting vocal and opera-related events this week. On the top of the list is American mezzo Frederica von Stade's likely final appearance in Toronto. She will be at the newly minted Koerner Hall of the Royal Conservatory of Music, in a program of Mahler, Massenet, Mozart, Berlioz, Heggie, and Bernstein. Joining her will be Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, herself a graduate of the RCM Glenn Gould School. von Stade has been in front of the public for some forty years - I remember seeing her in a Met performance of La fanciulla del West in 1970. No, she wasn't Minnie - that was my favourite soprano at the time, Renata Tebaldi. Flicka sang the Indian squaw Wowkle, believe it or not! If I remember correctly, she only had one or two lines that go something like "Neve, neve...Ugh, ugh..."! From that tiny comprimaria, von Stade went on to become a wonderful mezzo soprano, with many memorable performances from Massenet to Strauss. She was my favourite Octavian in the early 1980s. This is our last chance to see Flicka onstage and this concert is not to be missed!

If Flicka is at the end of her career, four Canadians at the bloom of youth are giving a recital at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (Four Seasons Centre) at 12 noon, Tuesday. Soprano Yannick Muriel Noah, mezzo Allyson McHardy, tenor David Pomeroy and baritone James Westman will sing arias and duets. Subject to change, I believe among the selections will be the ever-popular Pearl Fishers Duet with Pomeroy and Westman, love duet from Act One Madama Butterfly with Noah and Pomeroy, and Germont's aria from La Traviata. The concert is free, and as usual this will be totally jammed, so you must be in the line-up at least 30 minutes before for a chance to get in.

On Thursday Oct. 8, 7:30 pm at Walter Hall, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, COC General Director Alexander Neef gives the inaugural Herman Geiger-Torel Lecture. Given that the late Geiger-Torel was a COC intendant back in the 60s and 70s, it is fitting that Neef has been invited to give the lecture. I interviewed Neef in October of last year for an article in The Music Scene. Youthful, energetic, articulate, and extremely bright, you will enjoy his talk on Thursday. The event is free, but as usual, it is best to arrive early.

Also of interest is a concert the following evening 7:30 pm at the MacMillan Theatre. David Briskin conducts the U of T Symphony Orchestra in a program of Webern, Mahler and Beethoven. This is not free, but at a modest tariff of $18 ($10 for seniors/students) this is a bargain. Of particular interest is Mahler's Ruckert Lieder with baritone Vasil Garvanliev

Saturday Oct. 10 marks the start of the Met in HD series in your local theatres. It is the blockbuster Tosca starring Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the Roman diva. Marcelo Alvarez is Cavaradossi. This production was booed on opening night by a few fanatics, and critical opinions are divided. From what I have read, the Luc Bondy "updating" appears to be quite tame - if the Met audiences think this is crazy, well, they should avoid European houses! See for yourself by going to the box office or online to purchase a ticket. Almost all the theatres have reserved seating this season. This is all to the good as you won't need to line up way early to get a decent seat. If you cannot attend, an encore presentation will be on Oct. 30.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Sept. 28 - Oct. 4)

Photo (l.) COC Butterfly with Adina Nitescu and David Pomeroy (photo credit: Michael Cooper) Photo (r.) Evgeny Kissin (Photo: Sheila Rock)

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened the season with a bang, bringing to town last week Joshua Bell for two concerts. This week, the TSO offers two consummate musicians, the great pianist-pedagogue Leon Fleisher and the extraordinary Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin. Fleisher plays Mozart Piano Concerto No. 12 K414 on Sept. 30 8:00 pm, in a program that also includes Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, conducted by Peter Oundjian. Then on Sunday Oct. 4, 3 pm at Roy Thomson Hall, the ever-popular Evgeny Kissin makes a return to TO in a performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2. On the program is (once again) Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2, and Prelude to Act 3 of Lohengrin, conducted by Oundjian.

On Saturday, Oct. 3 8 pm at the Glenn Gould Studio, pianist Minsoo Sohn, the first Laureate of the Honens' Competition in Calgary, will give a recital, playing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, and Liszt's Transcriptions of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. In case you don't know, the Honens Competition is heating up this month in Calgary and well worth following. I think at least the finals will be carried on CBC - I will check and report on this later.

For opera fans, the COC's Madama Butterfly continues this week for its run of an unprecedented fifteen performances at the Four Seasons Centre. I understand limited tickets for the shows are still available, including rush tickets for seniors. I attended opening night on Saturday. This Puccini warhorse can be a little hackneyed in a routine performance, but with good singing and a good orchestra like the COC, it has a sweep and power that is almost unequaled in verismo. The old Brian Macdonald production is very basic but serviceable, and the stage direction is traditional. The singing is generally very good. Adina Nitescu is a celebrated Butterfly, having sung it in many of the major houses, including La Scala in 2004. The voice isn't so fresh now five years later, and there is no high pianissimo. Hers is a mature Butterfly - this is not meant to be a criticism - I've always thought it was wicked of Puccini to expect a spinto soprano with the vocal heft to sing this very dramatic music while pretending to be a 15-year old geisha - this is an impossibility! Nitescu bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the mature Teresa Stratas, with dramatic intensity to match. I was very impressed with her acting, especially in Acts 2 and 3 (performed together in this production). On opening night, Canadian David Pomeroy was a ringing-voiced Pinkerton with excellent high notes; baritone James Westman was an extroverted, highly sympathetic Sharpless, and mezzo Allyson McHardy a luscious voiced Suzuki. The tempo of the opening overture conducted by Carlo Montanaro was at breakneck speed, as a result there was some ragged playing by the musicians struggling to catch up. Things settled down soon afterwards for a fine performance. Montanaro knows the verismo style well and he milked the climaxes for a big, exciting sound.

Tomorrow is the alternate cast of Canadian soprano Yannick Muriel Noah in her role debut as Cio Cio San, American tenor Bryan Hymel as Pinkerton, Canadian baritone Brett Polegato in his first Sharpless, and Canadian mezzo Anita Krause reprising her Suzuki. This cast will sing 6 performances of the 15-performance run. Not to be missed.

Finally, to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, I will mention Jerry Springer: The Opera, playing from Sept. 24 to Oct. 10 at 8 pm at The Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, University of Toronto. Calling this piece an opera is an inspired stroke to some, and an insult to the Heiligen Kunst to others. If you don't mind a vulgar "libretto" where four letter words are used allegedly 96 times, this "opera" is for you. I have never seen it, but I just might give it a try. I am told that when this was first shown on the BBC, it received a record number of complaints. So there you are - attend at your own risk!

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Monday, June 15, 2009

This Week in Toronto (June 15 - 21)

The centerpiece of this week's vocal scene is the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio's production of Cosi fan tutte. This must be one of the most popular operas for opera schools and young artist programs, and for good reason. First of all, Mozart is good for young voices still in development - it is said that the ability to sing Mozart well is a sign of vocal health and good technique. Cosi is particularly popular because it allows six soloists to show off their voices in many delightful arias and ensembles. The Royal Conservatory of Music's Cosi last April was a smashing success, so it will be interesting to compare it to the COC Ensemble's production. Current and former COC Ensemble Studio members who will be singing in the production are: Sopranos Betty Allison, Ileana Montalbetti and Laura Albino (Fiordiligi), Erin Fisher and Lauren Segal (Dorabella), Alexander Hajek and Justin Welsh (Guglielmo), tenors Michael Barrett and Adam Luther (Ferrando), sopranos Lisa DiMaria and Teiya Kasahara (Despina), and Michael Uloth and Jean-Paul Decosse (Don Alfonso). Conductors are Martin Isepp and Steven Philcox. There will be four performances starting this evening (June 15) at the Imperial Oil Theatre at the COC headquarters on 227 Front Street East. Three more performances take place on June 17, 19, and 21. All performances at 7:30 pm except June 21 at 2 pm. Tickets were all gone a long time ago, which led the COC to add extra seats. Do call the company to ask about availability.

For those who missed the Met in HD documentary The Audition, this evening is your last chance, at selected Cineplex theatres at 7:00 pm. There are quite a few theatres in the GTA carrying these Met shows - the ones I am familiar with are Sheppard Grande at Yonge and Sheppard, Scotiabank Theatres at Queen and John, and Silver City at Yonge and Eglinton. I enjoyed this show enormously the first time around and will see again tonight. In this feature-length documentary you will see American soprano Angela Meade, who won the Montreal competition back in late May. If you like the tenor voice, this documentary of the 2007 auditions is a real treat, with four tenors in the finals. Unfortunately this was one year without a Canadian finalist - soprano Miriam Khalil, seen in the beginning of the documentary, did not make the cut. 2006 had Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, and in 2008 we had Vancouver soprano Simon Osborne. Of the eleven finalists, six were declared "winners", although anyone who reached the finals against such fierce competition should be considered winners. There are also offstage, real life drama in the documentary as well, but I don't want to give it away by mentioning the details here.

While on the subject of Met in HD, it has just been announced that there will be a series of six Met Summer presentations - I Puritani (June 27), Magic Flute (July 11), Eugene Onegin (July 25), Barber of Seville (Aug. 8), La fille du Regiment (Aug. 22). All on Saturdays at 12 noon. These shows are repeats of previous seasons. Tickets are at a bargain price of $9.95, and children age 3 -13 can get in free! These will be at the usual Cineplex locations. Do check your favourite locations for availability.

The mini Bartok-Strauss Festival of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra continues with pianist Emanuel Ax playing Strauss's Burleske, as well as Bartok's Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion. Although I do find the combination of Strauss and Bartok to be a little eclectic, any chance to hear Ax is not to be missed. Also on the program is Strauss's delicious Suite from Der Rosenkavalier. Performances are June 17 and 18 at 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall.

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