La Scena Musicale

Monday, June 22, 2009

This Week in Toronto (June 22 - 28)

Well, the classical music scene in Toronto has definitely hit a lull! The opera companies (COC, OA, plus OIC, OH) are now in hiatus; the National Ballet of Canada has just concluded its spring season. Even the ubiquitous Toronto Symphony Orchestra is in its last week of performances. Summer festivals like Elora, Festival of the Sound, and Westben have not yet started for the most part, and unfortunately the Guelph Spring Festival is no more. The last COC event was the Ensemble Studio Cosi fan tutte that concluded yesterday. (Incidentally I attended the third performance and it was definitely worth seeing. The vocal standout was mezzo Lauren Segal as Dorabella - what a terrific voice she has!) The free concert series at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre had its last how on June 18th. I think I'm suffering from opera withdrawal....

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra is offering a pops program of movie music the likes of Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Rocky etc., conducted by the "king of pop" Erich Kunzel. The shows are on Tuesday June 23 at 8 pm, and Wednesday June 24 (2 pm and 8 pm). If you happen to be a jazz fan, the Toronto Jazz Festival starts June 26 and extends to July 5. Go to for event listing and ticket details.

Further afield - a short drive down the QEW - is the Brott Music Festival. On July 27 is Beethoven and Brott in Burlington, featuring Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 and Symphony No. 7. The soloist is Shoshanna Telner. It takes place as the St. Christopher's Anglican Church, at 662 Guelph Line, Burlington. Call 905 525-7664 for details.

Also of note is a recital given by mezzo Krisztina Szabo on Sunday, June 28, at the Sharon Temple, a short drive up the 404 towards Newmarket. It is part of the Music at Sharon series. Szabo will sing Britten, Mahler, Kodaly, de Falla, Ravel, and Canadian composer Ridout. Sharon Temple is at 18974 Leslie Street, in Sharon, Ontario. Call 416 597-7840 for more information.

Finally, if you have missed some of the Met in HD shows from past seasons, Cineplex is having a summer "re-run" of six of the most popular operas, at a bargain price of $9.95. Children between 3 and 13 get in free - understandably they don't want any babies in the audience! All shows are on Saturdays at noon Toronto time. It begins this Saturday June 26 with I Puritani starring the incomparable Anna Netrebko, followed by Magic Flute (July 11), Eugene Onegin (July 25), Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Aug. 9), La fille du Regiment (Aug. 22), and La boheme (Sept. 5). Eight Ontario locations will carry these shows, with Scotiabank Theatres downtown, Cineplex Odeon Queensway and the Sheppard Grande in North York the three locations in the GTA. Other locations include Oakville, Newmarket and Peterborough. For advance ticket sales, go to

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Friday, January 16, 2009

This Week in Toronto (Jan. 17 - 23, 2009)

Photo: conductor Bernard Labadie

By Joseph So

Welcome to the first installment of the weekly column on the classical music scene in the Greater Toronto Area! In this space, I plan to highlight a few noteworthy concerts and events that are of particular interest. I should say right off that there is no attempt to be comprehensive, as my focus has always been things vocal and operatic, plus a smattering of others.

At the top of the list is the continuation of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra Mozart Festival that runs Jan. 10 to 24. The centerpiece of this festival is the the Magic Flute in Concert, to take place on January 22 and 24, 8 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. It stars a completely Canadian cast - well almost, since Canadian bass-baritone Gary Relyea, originally announced for Sarastro, has been replaced by Oren Gradus. Quebec maestro Bernard Labadie leads an exceptionally strong cast, led by Karin Gauvin as Pamina, Benjamin Butterfield as Tamino, Joshua Hopkins as Papageno, and Aline Kutan as Queen of the Night! All four have not performed in Toronto for some time so this is a great opportunity to hear them. I saw Hopkins sang Papageno opposite the divine Natalie Dessay in her first-ever Pamina about four years ago. He was a particularly engaging birdcatcher and I look forward to hearing him again. Another highlight for me will be the Qeen of Aline Kutan. She sang Der holle Rache at a COC Gala to celebrate the opening of the opera house. When she interpolated the coloratura but singing the HIGH option, the audience let out a collective gasp! Before this, I had not heard a modern-day performance where the soprano dared do such a stratospheric attempt. I wonder if she will do it again...perhaps rather unlikely since this will be a serious performance and not a gala concert.

Supporting cast members include Nathan Berg (Sprecher), Gillian Keith (Papagena), Shannon Mercer (First Lady), Krisztina Szabo (Second Lady), Allyson McHardy (Third Lady), Rufus Muller (Monostatos). Everyone of these singers are well known in Canada and elsewhere, and well worth hearing. The U of T MacMillan Singers will provide the choral voices. I think this will be semi-staged, sung in German with English Surtitles. This is an event absolutely NOT to be missed! I bought myself a ticket several days ago and as I understand it, it is practically sold out.

Other than this blockbuster, I can also recommend the encore performance of Berlioz's La Damnation du Faust, as part of the Met in HD series. It will be on Saturday Jan. 17 at the Cineplex chain. I will attend the show at the Sheppard Grande location. Do call to inquire about ticket availability. When it was shown on Nov. 22, the Robert Lepage direction was stunning. The Quebec director Lepage will bring his cutting-edge sensibilities to the COC for a production of Stravinsky's Le Rossignol, bound to be a highlight of the 2009-10 season.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Music with a Moral: Weill’s 7 Deadly Sins Timely Programming by TSO

Review by Paul E. Robinson

I remember well the opening of Roy Thomson Hall (RTH) in Toronto in 1982. At last the Toronto Symphony (TSO) would have a fine modern hall to replace the legendary, but aging Massey Hall. How disappointed I was to see and hear a facility that seemed to be designed by fools - and we were stuck with it.

I conducted at RTH myself on several occasions – including the Canadian premiere of the Sibelius Kullervo Symphony in 1986 – and the experience only served to confirm the impressions I had formed as a member of the audience; the sound had no presence, no bass response and the high end was extremely hard-edged.

Some tinkering was done with the hall’s acoustics over the years, but not until 2002 did the hall’s owners face reality and close the hall for six months to make major changes. Just last week I returned for the first time since the makeover – officially called the “Roy Thomson Hall Enhancement Project” – to hear for myself whether the project had been successful. I came away with mixed impressions.

The TSO concert I heard featured Ute Lemper in the Kurt Weill-Bertold Brecht stage piece The Seven Deadly Sins. The program also included the Symphony No.11 (The Year 1905) by Shostakovich. The concert was repeated a few nights later at Carnegie Hall in New York. Maestro Peter Oundjian and the TSO deserve full credit for putting together a demanding and slightly offbeat programme to showcase themselves in New York. It wasn’t the original programme. The Weill was a late substitute for Benjamin Yusupov’s Viola Tango Rock Concerto featuring Maxim Vengerov - also an imaginative choice.

Ute Lemper, the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet, & 7 Deadly Sins

The Seven Deadly Sins is a hybrid, a ‘sung ballet’ for female vocalist, male vocal quartet and orchestra. The piece draws on themes already used by Weill and Brecht in other works such as Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera. It is an indictment of capitalism from a Marxist point of view. It made a lot of sense to many people as the Depression began to bite in 1933 and in view of recent global economic problems, it remains relevant today. Greed, unfortunately, is a driving force in our society and it ultimately forces millions into misery, as it always has. Marxism is out of fashion thanks to the horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but the criticism of unbridled capitalism remains as powerful as ever.

Ute Lemper is justly famous for her idiomatic performances of the music of Kurt Weill and she was in fine form in The Seven Deadly Sins. The men of the Hudson Shad Vocal Quartet were also first-rate and with their demeanour and carefully chosen gestures added to the theatrical effect. I wonder, however, if this piece doesn’t lose its edge in a concert version. In concert, the vulgarity and degradation described in the text become rather abstract. While Oundjian and the TSO gave us wonderful playing, they reinforced the ‘concert’ aspect of the piece instead of the ‘down and dirty’ that can be portrayed in the ballet version.

Shostakovich Symphony Sound & Fury Signifying Little
Shostakovich was not shy about tackling big themes. In his Eleventh Symphony of 1957, he set out to describe some of the key events of the Russian Revolution of 1905 - not to be confused with the Communist Revolution of 1917. Shostakovich (b. 1906) was not yet born, but he lived through the effects of not only the 1917 Revolution, but two World Wars and the dark years of Stalin’s tyrannical rule. At times one feels that the music in this symphony could have been more effectively used in a film. Like most ‘programme music,’ with no story or pictures attached, it often falls into sound and fury signifying very little.

There is much that is profoundly expressive in the Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, and some of the climactic moments are tremendously exciting, but there are also pages of repetitive note-spinning and the high volume levels can become tiresome. For me the piece does not hang together as a musical structure and too much of it is hardly more than routine.

That said, Peter Oundjian had a firm grasp of the piece and maintained intensity from the first note to the last, without unnecessary histrionics. This was fine conducting, matched by superb playing from the orchestra.

I have greatly admired principal trumpet Andrew McCandless from his days in Dallas, and on this night he was at the very top of his game. So too was the always splendid timpanist, David Kent. The Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony is notable as one of the few orchestral works to give such prominence to the snare drum and John Rudolf played his part with appropriate virtuosity. Kudos also to the evening’s guest concertmaster, Jonathan Carney. The TSO is currently trying out various applicants for their vacant concertmaster position and Carney showed he can lead with style and passion. While Carney’s name was posted in the lobby for this concert, there was not a word about who he was or where he came from. For the record, he is an American currently serving as concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony and before that he was concertmaster of the Royal Philharmonic in London for twelve years.

In Spite of Renovations Roy Thomson Hall an Acoustical “Turkey”
There were so many problems with the original design of RTH that it must have been a challenge to know where to begin with the makeover.
  • It had too many seats - more than 2800 when the ideal for an orchestra is about 2000: the economics of the business being what they are, the makeover reduced the seating to 2630.
  • It was too large a space: the renovation reduced the volume by 13.5% making RTH comparable to places like Carnegie Hall.
  • It was the wrong shape - the best concert halls in the world are shaped like a shoebox, and RTH was more like an old-fashioned oval opera house: not much could be done about this problem, although the volume reduction done in 2002 somewhat altered the basic shape.
  • There was too much carpeting in the auditorium soaking up the sound: the carpet was eliminated and replaced by hardwood flooring.
  • The annoying continental seating – that is, there were no aisles except on the sides: this was scrapped and the ground floor was reconfigured to make the seating more user-friendly.

In embarking on the 2002 renovation, its owners finally admitted that the RTH acoustics were inferior and engaged one of the best acousticians in the business, the late Russell Johnson, to fix them. Had Johnson been hired at the building design stage, many of the problems would have been avoided. Unfortunately, coming to the job 'after the fact', he was impossibly handicapped by having to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The renovation had to be done and was clearly long overdue, but RTH remains a colossal mistake. The owners of the hall embarked on the original building project without knowing what they were doing and stuck the orchestra and the city with an architectural and acoustical turkey. RTH literature (“The enhancement project altered the hall, while at the same time honoured and revalued Arthur Erickson’s original design.”) suggests they are still oblivious to the damage they have done.

The 2002 renovations certainly improved RTH, but it is still far from a great concert hall. The sound has much more presence than it did and the upper strings don’t sound computer generated, but they don’t have much body or warmth either. The lower strings sound as bland and undernourished as ever.

If Roy Thomson Hall remains a disappointment, it has at least become a tolerable place in which to hear and to make music; as such, it is far more successful than Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts 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

Photos by Marita

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