La Scena Musicale

Sunday, February 21, 2010

This Week in Toronto (Feb. 22 - 28)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Richard Strauss and Nézet-Séguin: A Hero's Life

by Paul E. Robinson

It’s hard to fathom the arrogance of a thirty-four year composer who writes a huge orchestral piece called Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) – about himself! What’s more, in the section called "The Hero’s Works of Peace" he quotes from his own previous compositions! Then you have the case of a thirty-four year old conductor who programs this virtuoso piece with a part-time orchestra. Fortunately, the supremely confident young composer was named Richard Strauss, and, as they say, the rest is history. As for the conductor, he happens to be a leader who can galvanize his players to perform way beyond themselves as they did this week at Place des Arts in Montréal.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin celebrated his tenth anniversary as artistic director and conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain this week and demonstrated yet again why he is not only a Canadian treasure, but also one of the most sought-after maestros on the international scene. It was an all-Richard Strauss programme with Don Juan leading off, followed by a set of orchestral songs featuring soprano Barbara Bonney and, after intermission, Ein Heldenleben.

Don Juan was well-rehearsed and urgent in spite of some shaky trumpet playing and the love music was meltingly beautiful.

I must confess that I am a huge admirer of Strauss’ vocal music, especially in the endlessly imaginative orchestrations by the composer himself. Earlier this summer we heard some of them in fine performances by Ben Heppner and Thomas Hampson at the Knowlton Festival. Strauss had a genius for capturing the very essence of the poetry he set to music. Bonney led off with one of my favourites, Die Heiligen Drei Könige aus Morgenland (Three Holy Kings from the Land of the West). The poem by Heine is a very simple telling of the role of the Wise Men in the Christmas story. Strauss makes it a thing of wonder and childlike innocence.

In the five Strauss songs chosen by Bonney – actually six if you include the encore Morgen – the celebrated soprano was somewhat disappointing. Her voice didn’t have the lyric effortless quality we have associated with this singer in years past. In its place there was an engrossing maturity. Bonney seemed to be using her resources with an excess of caution; the voice never soared. Admittedly, Strauss puts a lot of orchestral weight in the way but Nézet-Séguin and his players accompanied with the utmost care. The lack of power and freedom seemed to be Bonney’s choice. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to welcome back beloved artists even when they are not at their best.

One of Nézet-Séguin’s most impressive qualities is his fearlessness. He thinks nothing of recording all the Bruckner symphonies in Montreal or programming Mahler’s massive Eighth Symphony later this season (June 20). In taking on Ein Heldenleben, a work that has tested the finest ‘full-time’ orchestras, he was asking the Orchestre Métropolitain to do the near impossible.

This Heldenleben opened with a very fast tempo- as befits the spirit of a thirty-four year hero - and in terms of technical mastery, it quickly became apparent that Nézet-Séguin had everything under control. At no time, however, did one sense that this performance was about mere accuracy. This young maestro’s technique is extraordinary – a combination of natural ability and hard work – but his performances are never just about getting the notes right; he always reaches beyond that to capture the full range of emotion and meaning in the music. His players gave him everything he asked for, and the results were spectacular! The augmented horn section was thrilling throughout, with authoritative and eloquent solos from principal horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais. The famous violin solos were played by concertmaster Yukari Cousineau. She may have been a little too careful with her long cadenza, but the warm tone she produced in the epilogue was something special. Her dialogue with Marsolais was as touching as one is ever likely to hear.

Finally, I want to commend Nézet-Séguin for making the last chord of Ein Heldenleben – a trumpet-saturated E flat major - the thing of splendor it was meant to be. I haven’t heard it so well-prepared and sustained since Karajan. Most conductors are content to make a half-hearted crescendo, followed by an anti-climactic punctuation mark. This is neither what Strauss wrote, nor what he meant. This is a Straussian Valhalla moment, as the hero is seen one last time in all his glory. In purely musical terms, this chord must be of a weight and power to balance everything that has come before it in the piece. It is obvious that Nézet-Séguin took enormous care over this moment in rehearsal and inspired his players to give everything they had in the performance. Make no mistake about it. This was a very loud chord but – again, Karajan comes to mind – it had no hint of raucous blaring. This is one of the secrets of great conducting and Nézet-Séguin already knows many of them.

The Orchestre Métropolitain simply has no right playing Ein Heldenleben as well as it did this week. This was a great triumph for both conductor and orchestra.

At the risk of being boring or pedantic, I must mention that I changed my seat during the course of this concert and it made a huge difference. I heard Don Juan from the very back of the Parterre (under the first balcony) and I had the feeling I was standing outside the door of Place des Arts. The music had no presence. Then I moved up to the sixth row of the Parterre. Now I could appreciate the intensity of the performances and hear all the details of balance and phrasing.

I realize that not everyone is able to sit so close to the performers and sitting in close proximity can reveal weaknesses too, but I am making, I think, two valid points: that to really appreciate what musicians are doing in Place des Arts, it is necessary to sit as close to the front as possible, and that in a really good concert hall, one should be able to sit almost anywhere and get something close to the full effect of the music. That said, I and many symphony lovers with me, are ready to bid farewell to Place des Arts and more than ready to hear the OSM and the Orchestre Métropolitain in their new home – a smaller and better (hopefully!) new hall - currently under construction right next door.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music, both available at

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bruckner 9

Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal / Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Atma classique SACD2 2514 (67 min 1 s)
*** $$
L’interprétation de la Neuvième de Bruckner par Nézet-Séguin suscite les mêmes réserves que celle de la Septième, enregistrée il y a deux ans par le même chef. Un trait étonnant, innovateur de l’écriture brucknérienne, consiste à opposer les sections orchestrales pour qu'elles soient à la fois contraires et complémentaires. Privée de ce contraste, l'oeuvre peut paraître malhabile, ainsi que l'ont jugée ses premiers détracteurs. Ici, l’équilibre des blocs sonores laisse à désirer. La section des bois de l’Orchestre Métropolitain tend à s'effacer; les cordes, elles aussi, peinent à se faire entendre lorsque la masse orchestrale est imposante. Dans ces conditions, les thèmes semblent surgir de nulle part et disparaître à l’improviste, et leur mise en relief, dans certains cas, est pratiquée sur un fond plutôt brouillé. Du coup, la présence simultanée d’autres événements musicaux n’est plus perceptible ; le tissu orchestral en sort aminci. Il faut croire que Wand, Jochum, Celibidache ou Giulini ont placé trop haut la barre de cette œuvre exceptionnelle.

- Alexandre Lazaridès

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Today's Birthdays in Music: March 6 (Te Kanawa, Maazel, Nézet-Séguin)

1944 - Kiri Te Kanawa, Gisborne, New Zealand; opera soprano

Wiki entry

Kiri Te Kanawa sings "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" from Puccini's La Rondine. New Zealand Wellington outdoor concert in 1990.

1930 - Lorin Maazel, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France; conductor

Wiki entry

New York Philharmonic, conducted by Lorin Maazel, plays Korean folksong "Arirang" during North Korean visit (February 2008)

1975 - Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Québec, Canada; conductor

Official Website
Yannick Nézet-Séguin — A Soaring Talent (La Scena Musicale, Februay 2000)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin — un talent sans mesure (La Scena Musicale, février 2000)

Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Nézet-Séguin (January 2008)

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