Haus Musik: Crossing / Traversée

Patricia Ahern (violin) with Charlotte Nediger (harpsichord) in HausMusik, November 2017. Photo: Haus Musik Twitter account.

I finally got the chance to see one of Tafelmusik’s “alternative” concerts, the November edition of the series known as Haus Musik. It took place at the Great Hall’s Long Boat venue, on Queen and Dovercourt. This is a series of non-traditional chamber-size concerts by Tafelmusicians in venues like night clubs, preceded and followed by a DJ set.

I somehow thought that the concert would be a conversation between electronic and baroque music, but the two stayed safely apart and what we had was a traditional concert (if shorter) alongside a kind of a staging with a dancer, video and, um, curated smell: envelopes with dried lavender were handed to each of the audience member, which connected to some of the shots of lavender fields that we saw in video projections. The DJ Andycapp DJ’d before and probably after (I didn’t hang out for long).

There were no chairs about, hey this is an alternative concert in a club, but people clearly needed them because 20 minutes into the concert much of the audience on the ground level sat on the floor. I don’t think anything will be lost by adding some chairs to the Haus Musik formula? There are no chairs in clubs because people dance in clubs, but there was no opportunity for the audience to dance to baroque here. So: which it is going to be, the chairs or the dancing? that is the question. No chairs and no dancing is the worst combination possible.

The pieces heard were short and well varied – a concert for two violins (Patricia Ahern and Genevieve Gilardeau), a solo piece for the harpsichord (Charlotte Nediger) and another for viola da gamba (Felix Deak), and some pieces that asked for all four musicians. Beside Couperin, Rameau and Marais, two composers who are new to me were played: Jean-Marie Leclair and Louis Constatin.

I feel it would be bitchy and beside the point to “review” this performance and to comment on whether the ensemble sounded under-rehearsed etc. Too, the staging-mit-choreography by Jennifer Nichols wasn’t quite… there. The story unfolding while the music is playing was of two couples, one from the time when the music was composed, one contemporary — and they could be one and the same couple. The contemporary couple has split and we only see the man of the pair (dancer Jack Rennie), struggling with memories or dreams or visions (projected on video; Patrick Hagarty is credited as the filmmaker). There is great potential in this idea of the present, the past and the future disturbing each other’s domains and melding before our eyes, but the thing never really got off the ground. A pre-recorded male voice read a poem in French by “J. Nichols” (Jennifer?) in between the segments, which did not add much to the piece. The props making up the man’s atelier were the familiar scruffy Toronto indie opera no-budget props.

The audience, though, was MUCH younger than one sees in regular Tafelmusik concerts, and the drinks were being carried all around this licensed venue. However, unless tweaked (dancing or chairs?), this kind of a do is not exactly my thing. Especially now that that I live in east end. Dovercourt-Queen is now far west for this autumn cyclist.

Next Haus Musik is scheduled for February 2018.

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The Emerging Art Critic Program 2017

The class of 2017 (front row) with, in the back row (l-r), Francine Labelle, media relations at the TSO, Sara Constant (managing editor, The Wholenote), David Perlman (publisher, The Wholenote), and John Coulbourn (former Toronto Sun performing arts critic, now retired). Photo: the National Ballet of Canada Twitter account.

The Emerging Art Critic Program is in its fourth year, with two additional organizations in the mix and an expanded mission. I first heard of the program when John Coulbourn mentioned it in our long conversation in 2015, and promptly put it out of my mind thinking it was bound to stay a dance criticism training ground only. This year, however, the Wholenote magazine joined the Dance Current on the media side, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra joined the National Ballet of Canada on the arts organization side to make the training program about music criticism as well.

And that’s a good development. There are rumours of orgs in other art disciplines expressing interest — and next year may bring an even bigger program.

This year, the plan is to train all the candidates in music writing (David Perlman and Sara Constant will work with writers on those reviews, which will be published in the Wholenote) and dance performance (John Coulbourn and Megan Andrews, TDC founding editor, guiding and TDC publishing). Each gets assigned two things to review. There are workshops and guest speakers and outings. This was the call that appeared on the TSO website, which joins the National Ballet call.

John, with whom I spoke on the phone  this morning, tells me the level of quality and enthusiasm is high. Many of the young writers are just recently out of school, with degrees in Dance, Music or English.

This is happening in very unfavourable conditions for arts journalism in Canada. Neither the Sun, the Post, the Star or the Globe has a permanent writer on the music beat. The Rogers magazines like Macleans and Chatelaine continue to reduce arts coverage. The CBC Music website as a depressing joke. (While the NYT and the Guardian are actually expanding music coverage.) How will the emerging arts writers monetize their skill in Canada? Well, that is a $50,000 question that will need dealing with later. For now – let’s enjoy the news that there are a good number of young people eager to write about arts each year. Arts journalism, in this one way, is on the renewal trajectory.

And now, the drum roll please: here is the Class of 2017, with Twitter handles embedded for those who are on Twitter:

Arianna Benincasa
Eve van Eeden
Josette Halpert
Kallee Lins 
Taylor Long
Jaimie Nacken
Melissa Poon
Wei Shen

Kristian Bezuidenhout back in Toronto

In rehearsal with Tafelmusik musicians

Kristian Bezuidenhout has added a great deal not only to the HIP circles but to the whole of this music field that we call classical. He is a fortepianist, an occupation probably even more niche than a harpsichordist, but as such has become a one-man movement for period piano. I can’t think of another equally busy fortepianist today; let’s hope the gate is now open for others and that he won’t remain an exception.

What he’s best known for is his recordings and performances of Mozart’s keyboard music, which indeed sounds much different on a fortepiano vs modern piano. It’s almost a transladaptation, Mozart on a fortepiano – though one returning to Mozart-era technology of sound-making. Chamber music in particular, including of the vocal kind, is an inventive field: Classical and early Romantic Lieder to fortepiano, anyone? Why, yes: KB and Mark Padmore recorded two discs of select Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann songs for harmonia mundi, and KB also did a disc for the Canadian label ATMA, a Schoene Muellerin with tenor Jan Kobow back in 2003. All worth sampling.

Bezuidenhout made his Tafelmusik debut in 2013, and returns this year for four performances of the program titled Mozart’s Piano (Nov 9, 10, 11 and 12, Trinity St-Paul). In the first half, he kind of conducted from the fortepiano without much playing it – just from time to time seeking a chord or a few bars as part of his conducting. This was a new thing for me, silent fortepiano conducting, but there’s a first for everything, I suppose. First two symphonies, by two of the junior Bachs, Johann Christian and CPE, were fine and pleasant, if a little same-y. Mozart’s S29 livened things up: it’s a varied, rich piece, with inner unfolding drama of (I’m only ever slightly exaggerating) Beethoven’s Pastoral. There was a lot there to keep you interested through its entire length.

Second part was of course why most of us came – and let me tell you, I’ve rarely seen TSP that full. To the rafters. Tafel-subscribers know their stuff and come out, -10C degrees or not. The audience was also tilting a bit older than usual, which was good too–no Toronto mandatory standing ovation here, ladies and gents, and no rushing to get to the parked car. Second part beginning, Bezuidenhout came back to the emptied stage and did a memorable Mozart Rondo in A Minor for solo piano K511. Too bad there was no possibility of an encore–while some European concert halls allow it, here it wasn’t really an option. I would have happily sat in my crammed seat surrounded by other people’s winter coats for two or more solo encores.

The final piece was a Mozart piano concerto with Tafelmusicians back on stage – the no. 12 in A Major. Solo fortepiano alternated with orchestral sections, and although the piece kind of paled in comparison with no. 29, there was some extraordinary concertare happening.

In short – Bezuidenhout is becoming one of those soloists  whom it’s not wise to miss. If he passes through your fair town, don’t idle.

Kristian Bezuidenhout photo by Marco Borggreve

Catching up

A couple of things that I wrote about recently:

  • went to the Opera Atelier and actually found myself enjoying their Figaro. The dance is used in the usual OA fashion (corps de ballet with men in tights and women in hoop skirts show up, do what they do in every production), but there was not a lot of it, and I decided not to comment on it in the review. The stock gestures would appear in the odd solo aria, and it wasn’t too in-yer-face. All in all, Figaro as commedia dell’arte rather worked for me.
  • A q & a with Barbara Hannigan, which we did over email. I sent her over a few questions, she sent back the replies, so it’s not the most dynamic of conversations, but it’s still very revealing of some of her attitudes, I thought. What and who is being praised, what and who are deemed not good enough, or ‘more accessible’. Including Alma Mahler in the recital program, then explaining that she is not as good as the men on the program, and that she’s included essentially because she was a lover to some of the male geniuses is… interesting. Also, between you (a handful of my faithful readers) and I, not sure if I’ll be going to this recital at all. I listened to all the songs while writing this piece, some in multiple versions, and I can’t imagine them ever being the most exciting of programs, sung one after another, by the same voice. Though Hannigan insists the Schoenberg and the Webern sets are inherently dramatic, she just needs to embed and do justice, rather than interpret, as an audience member I must disagree. Everything depends on the singer. For instance, I’ve listened to two or three versions of Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder while researching, and none compares with a von Otter recording of the cycle. A singer needs to give life to these things, otherwise – zzzzz. Here by the way is the program with Reinbert de Leeuw, an eminence grise of the Dutch new music circles.

Das Lied ohne Erde, and similar experiences

What do you call a Das Lied von der Erde with inaudible soloists? Das Lied ohne Erde.

Sorry, could never resist a bad joke.

I am also trying to cheer myself up after a Das Lied von der Erde with Michael Schade and Susan Platts, neither of whom had a voice big and flexible enough to deliver the songs comfortably.  Neither was audible in anything a bit louder, anything with brass or in any of the tutti. When the orchestra thins out and voices are paired with a small group or one other instrument, then and only then the verses were being heard.

Luckily, some chunks of Der Abschied are chamber-like, so there was at least that. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian saved (some of) the day, because the musicians came through and gave a solid read of this Mahler masterwork. But trying to listen to your favourite song cycle with singers under duress is not an experience I would recommend to anybody.

There was also world premiere on the program, a song cycle by Howard Shore to the words (an ode to nature) by Elizabeth Cotnoir. That was a snooze, I’m sorry to report, a musically static New Age-y set of poems about the plants, animals and “ancestors”.

It’s rare that I get out of a concert having disliked almost everything on the program (but a hat tip to the TSO). Forgive my grumpiness. I hate writing bad reviews, so I’ll leave it at this.

Satie on marimba, an androgynous dancer & sophisticated pop

One week late (due to technical difficulties at The Wholenote blog, where this appears originally), here are my thoughts about Against the Grain’s pairing up with Kyrie Kristmanson. ‘Twas good.

A scene from Reverie at Alliance Francaise, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo by Jonathan Russell MacArthur / Against the Grain Theatre

Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.

Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.

Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.

It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.

The second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.

Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.

Kyrie Kristmanson

Arabella reviewed

[I liked it but didn’t love it, is how I’d sum it up in one sentence. Here’s the review that was just published in the Globe online. What I’d like to add as there wasn’t much space to analyze smaller roles: Michael Brandenburg’s Matteo needs to have more appeal. A better mustache, a less whiney personality? Something. As it is now, it’s not clear why Zdenka would wreck her life for him.]

– Tim Albery’s Arabella –

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Arabella is a money story more than a love story, I realize halfway through Tim Albery’s elegant production that opened at the Canadian Opera Company Thursday, and the last of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal creations reveals itself as an unexpectedly sombre enterprise.

Money is its core, and also an escape from a troubled family, as there is no other way to account for the heroine’s decision to marry a rural landowner with a short temper and shifting moods and leave Vienna and everybody she knows for the countryside at the edge of the empire. Much is made in the libretto of the difference between the sophisticated but corrupt metropolis in decline and the moral simplicity of rural life, but Vienna to which the landowner from a far-flung province arrives to search for his bride is a rather civilized place where a woman can date three people at once, or live dressed as a man and date nobody. Once married off to the dark stranger, Arabella will be, as she herself sings in Act 2, obedient as a child.

Albery’s approach is as directorially neutral as they come, with sets in grey, costumes largely white and black in fin-de-siècle tailoring (both by Tobias Hoheisel). He lets the libretto breathe, and lets Arabella be a conflicted story of a frantic search for The One amidst a family solvency crisis. The Waldners are a titled family trying to fend off debtors and marry off Arabella, the reluctant older daughter, when the wealthy but uncouth Count Mandryka of the South Slavic lands arrives. Arabella and Mandryka are not the most logical of matches as they differ in just about everything, and she is after sincerity (or is it his fortune?) while he is struck by her beauty (or is it the insider Viennese glamour he is after?), but they are certain they are meant to be. Arabella’s younger sister, Zdenka, lives as a man as a money-saving measure, but also because she enjoys it – she will rather remain a boy, she tells her choosy sister right at the beginning, than be a woman like her: “proud, coquettish and cold.”

Some resplendent music is given to the sisters in the intimate Act 1 – the conversations, Arabella’s aria Er ist der Richtige für mich and the concluding monologue in which she considers whether to settle for Count Elemer, one of her other suitors. The strings are used to flirt with but promptly unsettle any outpouring of lyricism in Mein Elemer. If there is one certain thing, it’s that the sisters love and protect one other. Zdenka is a peculiar character, gender-defying while also being highly sexual: She is in love with her pal Matteo, who is also one of Arabella’s suitors, and lures him to Arabella’s bedroom by pretending to be her. The resulting confusion – Mandryka has overheard something about another man getting hold of Arabella’s bedroom key – almost wrecks Arabella’s engagements to Mandryka. Almost. After an agonizing Act 3 argument among the principals which wakes up other hotel guests at an ungodly hour, matters get solved. Mandryka trusts Arabella again, she forgives him his distrust and Matteo seems to be finally taking interest in Zdenka.

It’s Erin Wall who gives Arabella coherence and depth amid her contradictions. She is exquisitely melancholy in her first amorous duo with Mandryka in which she foresees the time when she will call him master. There are subtlest hints of regret in her individual farewells with the favourite Viennese suitors, and her request to Mandryka to have one more hour of dancing at the ball before she is his and his only. There is emphatically not to be any dancing with other men from then on. It’s no coincidence that pure spring water works as an important symbol in the opera.

Jane Archibald is a sweet and more-boyish-than-masculine Zdenko. Archibald’s voice, with its bright and secure high notes, easily soars above all the duos and group scenes. Both Wall and Archibald are apt operatic conversationalists in this, Konversationsstück genre and it’s to their and Albery’s credit that parts of Arabella feel like naturalist straight theatre. The COC orchestra under Patrick Lange is nimble in its tempos alongside the goings-on on stage, often sounding like a much lighter orchestra. It’s well-balanced, brass well reined in.

Bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny gives Mandryka the required rough edge and abruptness. His timbre is fairly bright for a baritone, while his vocal heft is Wagnerian, which makes Mandryka stand out from the Viennese crowd. I’m all in favour of South Slavs, imaginary or historical, appearing in Austrian and German opera and operetta, as I’m from that part of the world myself, but I just couldn’t warm up to the man. He easily seduces the elder Waldners, however, with his plain talk and ostentatious spending. There is a darkly comic scene in Act 1 in which he literally opens his wallet for Count Waldner (excellent John Fanning) to help himself with whatever he needs to settle his gambling debt of the day. Strauss distances us from the ugliness of the situation with the cheery melody given to the returning line, “Teschek, bedien dich!” – “Help yourself!” – and by turning Waldner into an overall comic character, but the discomfort lingers on.

Strauss wanted to repeat some of the success of Der Rosenkavalier, but those of us who are fans of Der Rosenkavalier will find it hard to love Arabella, a piece with less dazzling music and fewer dramatic layers. Strauss taunts us a little in Arabella‘s score, too, with Rosenkavalier motifs wiggling their way into the sisters’ conversation about the roses, and those soaring moments when it sounds like one or both sopranos are about to take a turn into some version of the final trio of the Rosenkavalier. Still, there is much to appreciate about Arabella – its knowingness about the ways of the world and the female lot, and that sublime soprano music most of all.

A fine Austrian-Balkan romance

Hello, and good weekend, my dear blog readers.

Head over the Globe to read my article on Tim Albery’s COC-Santa Fe-Minnesota produced Arabella which will open at the COC next week. I look at the politics and geography of Hofmannsthal’s libretto — it concerns me not only as a lover of Strauss-Hofmannsthal collabs but personally as well, as I am South Slav, like Mandryka. South Slavs appear in Austrian and German opera and operetta with some regularity, and I’m all in favour. The Merry Widow, for example, both lampoons and celebrates Montenegrin culture, and I can’t really muster any amount of cultural appropriation outrage (actually these cultural crossings are crucial if humanity is to progress and de-parochialize, but that’s a topic for another post. Cultural theft is also another, and very different topic).

Strauss consulted South Slav folk song sources and gave Mandryka some of the stuff, if of course Straussified and deconstructed. But the text to “I went through the wood” sounded familiar, and after some memory refresher journey through YouTube, I remembered and tracked down the actual song that still exists and is still being performed in various musical arrangements in Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia. The text is utterly absurd, and perhaps an allegory for proposing or propositioning or getting married:

I went through the wood, I don’t know which one
I met a girl, don’t know whose daughter
I stepped on her foot, don’t know which one
She screamed, no idea why.

which is almost word for word (with one extra line added) what Mandryka says:

Gieng durch einen Wald, weiss nicht durch welchen
Fand ein Mädchen, weiss nicht, wessen Tochter!
Trat ihm auf den Fuss, weiss nicht auf welchen,
fieng es an zu schrein, weiss nicht warum doch:
seht den Wicht, wie der sich denkt die Liebe!

Now, stepping on somebody’s foot is odd, but there’s a slang expression to step on a crazy rock, stati na ludi kamen that means to get married, to get hitched, so maybe it’s connected. I also read in a Balkan folkie forum that in some parts of Serbia this version of the song is usually sung at weddings. (There’s another version of I walked through the wood, in which there’s no stepping on feet but in which the man and the woman come across each other and just know they’re meant to be.)

I think Hofmannsthal and Strauss knew a thing or two about the Balkans. There are clues that Arabella and Mandryka are meant to be, and this song appears as one of those clues, I think. I don’t think it’s there to illustrate how bizarre those “Slavonian” songs are, though that’s a legit surface read too. It’s both a clue, and something that’ll sound absurd to the Viennese.

Another thing also intrigued me. Zdenka (a Slav name, by the way) lives as a man Zdenko because the family can’t afford the dresses, the balls, the accoutrements required to bring another daughter into the high society. This is also what has been happening in some impoverished families in rural, mountainous parts of Montenegro, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Albania. There is no money to raise a daughter, so she is raised as a boy – and will later dress as a man, work as a man, run the farm or the household as a man. In order to be able to live as a man, though, she can never marry — or even date. Did Hofmannsthal know about the Balkan sworn virgins (virdzinas)?  I wouldn’t be surprised. (Croatia and Bosnia don’t have them any more, the last one in Montenegro died recently, but Albania still has a couple of dozen, to the delight of western documentary filmmakers, journalists and novelists.)