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La Scena Musicale Online Reviews and News / Critiques et Nouvelles

Visit La Scena Musicale Online Reviews. [Index] Critiques de La Scena Musicale Online

The Joy of Singing: Toronto International Choral Festival

By Joseph So July 10, 2002

Opening Night Gala: Penderecki' Credo

Measha Brüggergosman, soprano
Catherine Robbin, mezzo
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto
Paul Frey, tenor
Gary Relyea, bass
Amadeus Choir
Elmer Iseler Singers, Lydia Adams (conductor)
Toronto Children's Chorus, Jean Ashworth Bartle (conductor)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Krzysztof Penderecki, conductor
Friday, May 31, 2002, Massey Hall

To Canadians who regards the single most inviting feature of old age as relief from the drudgery of work, Nicholas Goldschmidt appears to be an anachronism. At ninety-four and having the energy of someone half his age, 'Niki" – as he is affectionately called, shows no sign of slowing down. The Joy of Singing within the Noise of the World, running through most of June in Toronto, is his latest project.

It opened with the premiere of Penderecki' Credo, conducted by the composer himself. It took place at Massey Hall, due to the current closure of Roy Thomson Hall for acoustic renovation. The 'grande dame of Shuter Street' is looking a bit dowdy these days, but its superlative acoustics remains unimpaired. The sound of the TS at Massey is warmer, mellower, and fuller, a refreshing change from the crisp but clinical sound of Roy Thomson Hall.

To celebrate the occasion, Penderecki wrote a short 5-minute piece for children's chorus, Benedictus, sung a capella. For those used to the earlier style of the Polish composer, this new work – as well as the Credo – cannot be more different. His early compositions were marked by astringent and angular tonalities, and an abundance of orchestral and harmonic creations that were highly original, if a bit daunting for the uninitiated. (I am thinking of his opera, The Devils of Loudon, which I heard for the first time in an opera course during my student days) In recent years, Penderecki has reverted back to a style that relies on more conventional tonality and melodic inspiration that is altogether more accessible to the non-musicologists among us. In the case of Credo, which had its premiere at the Oregon Bach Festival in 1998, the work does not break new ground. His detractors might consider it regressive, derivative, and even a response to commercialism. But on a visceral level, I find this work, sets to the Latin Vulgare version of the Nicene Creed with the addition of two Polish hymns a combination of power and lyricism that appeals to the emotions.

It consists of seven sections, each with its own musical idiom reflective of the text. The orchestration and harmonics are decidedly post-romantic, with the interweaving of soloists and choral forces pretty much tradition-bound. Separate solos of varying lengths were given to the principal instruments, with the cello and horn solo writings particularly striking, despite a few moments of insecurity by the horns on opening night. The strategic placement of instruments in different locations in the auditorium, engaging in a 'dialogue' with the orchestra onstage is effective if not exactly original. With the start of the Et resurrexit tertia die section, the mood became dramatic, with unusual, earthy rhythms, such as the use of drums that recall Carl Orff. The orchestration here – and later in the Et in Spiritum Sanctum section - is dense but never bombastic or chaotic – in fact one is struck by its clarity. The vocal writing for the choral forces and the five soloists is 'grateful'. The lower solo voices – bass and contralto – have the most fully developed parts, with Marie-Nicole Lemieux sounding particularly resplendent. If Gary Relyea's low notes were not ideally firm, he informed his music with abundant authority and feeling. Both veteran tenor Paul Frey and mezzo Catherine Robbin acquitted themselves honourably, a few dry patches of tone and a sense of strain at the top aside. The luscious soprano of Measha Brüggergosman was heard to advantage in her very brief moments. The true 'star' of the evening however was the orchestra and choruses under the knowing baton of Penderecki, who drew lovely sounds from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra The respectable but far-from-full audience gave the performers a well-deserved ovation. The concert was broadcast two days later on CBC's 'Choral Concert', and later in 'In Performance'.

Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem

Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano
Nathan Berg, baritone
Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Noel Edison, artistic director
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gunther Herbig, conductor
Massey Hall, Wednesday June 4th and Thursday, June 5th 2002

Part of the Toronto Symphony subscription series, these concerts showcased two of the most estimable of Canadian artists, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and baritone Nathan Berg, both highly respected singers on the international stage. It also marked the return of former TS principal conductor Gunther Herbig. With such a felicitous combination, these two performances proved to be a highlight of the Festival.

Now riding the crest of a major international career with engagements at some of the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls in the world, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka made an infrequent appearance at home. Her lirico-spinto is ideal in Strauss' Four Last Songs. Heard on June 5th, her bright, gleaming tone was a pleasure to the ear. She was sympathetically accompanied by the TS under the capable baton of Gunther Herbig. Perhaps the result of an inevitable impulse to make a bigger sound to counteract the heavy orchestration, a certain shortness of breath – noticeably in the florid line on the word "vogelsang" in Frühling, and the expansive phrase after the violin solo in Beim Schlafengehen – marred an otherwise superlative performance by Pieczonka.

The soprano was joined by baritone Nathan Berg in the Brahms Requiem. Stylistically, the Straus-Brahms combination proved rather problematic – coming after the decidedly post-Romantic sensibilities of the Four Last Songs, the German Requiem seemed ponderous and repetitive. In this piece, the baritone soloist has the lion's share of the solo work, and Berg acquitted himself splendidly. A consummate artist in lieder, oratorio, and opera, Berg's gorgeous baritone is capable of a variety of colours, which he put to good use here. His familiarity of the work – having sung it a dozen times in recent seasons – allowed him the freedom to concentrate on interpretation. The audience was treated to a highly refined and textually nuanced performance. The Mendelssohn Choir under Noel Edison was in superlative form, showing once again why it is arguably the best in Canada. And it was nice to have former TS conductor Gunther Herbig back in a repertoire that he does as well as anyone: namely the German Romantic masterpieces. All in all, a highly memorable evening.

Franz Schmidt: Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln (The Book with Seven Seals)

Howard Dyck, conductor
Measha Bruggergosman, soprano
Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano
Benjamin Butterfield, tenor
Ben Heppner, tenor
Gary Relyea, bass-baritone
Robert Pomakov, bass
Arnold Schönberg Choir
Consort Caritatis
Kitchener Waterloo Philharmonic Choir
Menno Singers
Members of the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony

Massey Hall, Saturday June 22, 2002

The Choral Festival drew to a close with the Canadian premiere of Franz Schmidt's Book with the Seven Seals. Das Buch – which received its premiere three months after the Anschluss (Hitler's occupation of Austria) – is inextricably linked to that historic event, reinforced by the fact that Schmidt was embraced by the Nazi regime as a true-blue German composer. This work is thus considered by many as 'politically incorrect'. In the highly informative program notes by conductor Howard Dyck, he built a strong case against that view. Citing Geroge Tintner, late conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia who was present at the premiere in 1939, Dyck argued that Schmidt was not an anti-Semite, even though his political views remained obscure. What is clear is that this is indeed a modern masterpiece, considered by some to be the greatest oratorio of the last one hundred years.

Given the Herculean forces required (220 singers, 6 soloists and a orchestra of 71 in this revival), performances of this work are understandably rare. The most notable revival occurred last year with the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of the brilliant Swiss conductor Franz Welser-Möst, with noted Danish tenor Stig Anderson as the Evangelist. Set to texts from the Book of Revelations, Das Buch paints an apocalyptic view of the world that is at once frightening and powerful, but also ultimately affirmative in the redemptive power of faith. Dyck feels that Schmidt did not embrace any one style in this work but is uniquely 'his own man', although one hears echoes of the classical tradition from Bach and Handel to that of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler.

One is struck by the exceptionally eloquent choral writing, as well as the extremely important part of the Evangelist, a role comprising as much as two-thirds of the solo singing. Like Waldemar of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, it requires the heft and endurance of a Wagnerian heldentenor. This performance marked the eagerly awaited return of Canadian Ben Heppner, who had not been heard locally since his vocally troubled Roy Thomson Hall recital last January. Having taken time off in the interim to recuperate and to re-work his technique, Heppner was in near-top form last Saturday. His voice was strong, clear, and beautiful, without the midrange heaviness and unsteadiness that have marred his singing in recent seasons. The top voice was in good shape, despite fleeting moments of tightness. He paced superbly and had plenty of voice left to the end. One is also impressed with his total involvement in the proceedings, judging by his body language. It is easy to understand why – the sequential singing by the choral forces on the word Hallelujah! towards the end of the piece was a truly wonderful moment and one can hardly remains unmoved.

The other soloists were all superb, but one must single out for praise mezzo Susan Platts for her glorious tone and heartfelt sincerity; and soprano Measha Bruggergosman who brought plenty of excitement and drama to her moments in the spotlight. The choral forces, both local and imported, outdid themselves. But the ultimate palm went to conductor Howard Dyck, who first encountered the work in a library in Salzburg fifteen years ago. His conducting of Das Buch was marked by a sense of understanding, care, affection, and commitment that made the evening truly special.

This performance will be broadcast on CBC-2, on Friday, June 28th at 8 pm. Check your local schedules for details.

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