End of year highlights: performing arts

George Benjamin, Gary Kulesha, Barbara Hannigan at Roy Thomson Hall, New Creations Festival, 2015

Best Hybrid Concert Performances, Hands Down

The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert that included Jordan Nobles’ π and Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams. (RCM, 21C Festival, May, Toronto)

Against the Grain’s Death and Desire, the Messiaen & Schubert mashup. (Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, June, Toronto)

CASP’s Living Spectacle concert (The Extension Room, November, Toronto)

Best Concerts

Barbara Hannigan, George Benjamin, Peter Oundjian and the TSO in “Let Me Tell You” by Hans Abrahamsen, etc. (New Creations Festival, RTH, February, Toronto). The TSO in Dutilleux’s Métaboles (same festival)–probably my TSO highlight of the year: they were positively levitating. The TSO again with George Benjamin conducting Written on Skin (still the same festival). This very scenic opera hampered by the lack of staging, but managed to impress.

Tania Miller conducts the RCM orchestra in Mahler 5 at Koerner Hall. Glorious acoustics; Mahler like I’ve never heard him before. (Koerner Hall, November, Toronto)

Spin Cycle: Afiara String Quartet with DJ Skratch Bastid (C21, Koerner Hall, May, Toronto). This is one instance where the electronica and the analogica really conversed.

Gewandhaus Orc with Ricardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015
Gewandhaus Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly at Musikverein, October 2015

Riccardo Chailly conducts Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig in a program of lesser known Strauss works. A Technicolor Dream Strauss. (Musikverein, October, Vienna, Austria)

Laurence Equilbey conducts Insula Orchestra in Mozart’s Concertante Symphony for Violin and Viola, Schubert’s 4th Symphony and a Fanny Mendelssohn overture. Rarely heard pieces done justice, in gorgeous period instruments colours. (Cité de la Musique / Philharmonie II, March, Paris, France)

Paris Philharmonie I & II
Paris Philharmonie I & II

Greatest disappointments in the Concert category

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor with the TSO (RTH, January, Toronto) – chiefly because of the two female soloists who indifferently phoned it in. Never seen a colder soloist than Julie Boulianne in “Laudate Me”; a bit terrifying, actually.

Andrew Davis’ orchestration of the Messiah with the TSO (RTH, December, Toronto). The add-ons add nothing to the sound and sometimes even take away from it. It’s the marimba, the snare drum and the xylophone, but it might as well have been pots and pans, bugles, and a vuvuzela—the latter as logical and organic to the sound as the former. And Toronto has heard it well by now; time for another conductor to do the big Messiah next year in whatever orchestration he/she chooses.

Best Operas

Not a lot of gushing to report here. It’s between Lepage’s Bluebeard, Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni and Alden’s Pyramus, all good productions but neither for various reasons will push through as life-long memorable. But I’m really glad I discovered Barbara Monk Feldman.

The most er unusual performance in an opera

Michael Schade in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni was in his own production entirely. Gives me a chuckle even now thinking about it.

Best performance in an otherwise er unusual staging

Christine Rice in the ROH Mahagonny (ROH, March, London, UK). I feel obligated to like every attempt to mount a Brecht-Weill joint, so people would continue to do it, but still not sure if I can form an opinion, any opinion, about this one.

Royal Opera House detail (March 2015, Mahagonny)
A Royal Opera House detail (March 2015)

Greatest unexpected disappointment in the Opera category

Matthew Jocelyn’s staging of Philippe Boesmans’ Julie (Canadian Stage, November, Toronto). More fundamentally, Julie the opera itself. The Strindberg play can work as a claustrophobic battle of wills where subtle acting and silences matter, but as an opera? Not for this opera-goer. The dread of class miscegenation and the fear of female desire as sources of drama haven’t aged well into our own time. And opera has treated the master-servant shenanigans—and female desire–through its librettos for a couple of centuries now. I fail to fathom why any composer would want to turn Strindberg’s Miss Julie into a libretto, or why any director would hail such a work as one of the best contemporary operas today (as Matthew Jocelyn did in an interview).

Vienna Staatsoper, Macbeth (October, Vienna, Austria). The set was cement blocks, the costumes mid-twentieth-century dictatorship, Mid-Eastern or East European. Singing was fine, but the production overall showed no signs of life, no circulation, no breathing. How long was I going to stay on that balcony, craning my neck? I left at the intermission.

Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015
Inside Vienna Staatsoper, October 2015

Best Theatre

NTLive’s The Hard Problem by Tom Stoppard. I hate to put a screening in this category, but I have to. (Cineplex, April, Toronto)

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie at the Young Vic (March, London, UK). Here’s a good conversation about this production between the director Natalie Abrahami and Juliet Stevenson with the BBC’s Matthew Sweet.

Dario Fo is good news any time, and Soulpepper’s adaptation of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist was a solid effort. It didn’t entirely work for me—the adaptation text didn’t emerge out of a movement or even a common experience or solidarity, as Fo’s original text did: Toronto theatre-goers are as likely to be Conservative as NDP, and have largely middle-class expectations and tastes. The play also appeared conflicted about what it wanted of us, to participate or be a silent audience; the foray into the audience was more odd than provocative. All that said, a theatre putting its resources into the social difficulty that is Fo should be saluted. (February, Toronto)

The most regretful miss-outs

Robert Lepage’s 887. I became aware of this play one day after it had closed! It’s touring now around the world, maybe it’ll return. Takes the PanAm Games to distribute some serious commissioning money around.

Betroffenheit: there were no tickets to be found. They’re returning to town next February, though.

Lisa Dwan in the three Beckett plays on women in extremis. Months preceding, I was looking forward to this, but that very month I had a death in the family and it all felt a little too close. I decided not to go. I hope to catch this somewhere eventually.

Would have loved to have seen Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at the Shaw, but it’s difficult to get there (train plus bus, and you need to match your itineraries very carefully to the minute while the GO website is working against you achieving that goal), and no ticket under $100. So to watch a leftist play about an Italian working-class family, you have to own a car, have hotel accommodation money and pay the not at all cheap ticket.

What I realized this year

I lost interest in the star-vehicle recitals.

I will miss Rdio. Am now between streaming loyalties—dipping my toes into Spotify and not particularly liking what I’m seeing there.

As for the books of the year… Well, the books deserve their own post.

Memories of Vienna on bicycle, October 2015
Memories of Vienna, October 2015

2011 in other cultural consumption

2011 in other cultural consumption

As this blog documented in great detail my operatic pets and peeves of the last year, I thought I’d sift through other kind of arts & culture stuff for the end-of-year review post.

Back in February, I decided to start keeping record of my readings. I never have any clear idea how much I manage to get read—and I don’t mean internet reading, journal articles and reference book sampling, and the multiple types of skimming which we are all becoming experts in. No: I mean the sit-down-and-get-lost, cover-to-cover consumption of the analogue product called Book.

I started writing down the titles read per month so I can stop  the anorexic-bulimic cycle of reading which I had begun developing. If I didn’t finish a book within two days at the expense of any other type of art consumption, the said book would move from the table to the chair seat to the couch until the passage of time would kill any connection between me and it. So I thought, let’s just start writing down what I had, not so I could police myself, but just fmi, to see whether I can keep on track of the barest minimum of four books per month.

Thanks to this record-keeping, I now at the end of the year have a clear idea of the authors who had a profound impact, and those who I will never pick up again.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint. I read Fuir, Camera and Faire l’amour.
Harold Pinter. Read Complete Works Vol 1, 1954-1960, which includes The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, A Night Out.
Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden and the short story collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman. Not everything by Drabble gets me (I gave up on the Millstone some years ago), but these two are fantastic. I will keep exploring Drabble.
CarsonMcCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. I don’t know her other stuff; I may not care for her other stuff. But this novel is unbelievable.

Deborah Eisenberg (The Twilight of the Superheroes)
Alan Bennett (Talking Heads, plus The Lady in the Van)
Mavis Gallant (Going Ashore collection)
Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)
Annabel Lyon (The Golden Mean)
Dany Lafferière (I am a Japanese Writer)

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Mary Gaitskill, Veronica
Paul Auster, Brooklyn Follies
Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters
Haruki Murakami, After Dark

Ali Smith (with heavy heart. I read First Person collection last year, and Here but for the this year, and I just can’t. There’s no chemistry.)
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story
Joan Didion. I read The Year of Magical Thinking, and saw her being interviewed in Toronto recently, a conversation which Didion made much more difficult than it should have been. The Year is an exercise in North-American upper-middle-class mindset (Cars! Planes! More cars! Real estate! Wedding! Cocktails! Best connections anybody can have! Upper West Side and Beverly Hills! More car drives! Expensive medical care! Cars!). I love the idea of Where I Was From, but I have yet to read it. I won’t be rushing to it.

Paola Capriolo’s The Watching Woman (La spettatrice). Lovely to read a non-realist novel, as always, but there’s something disjunct and not working at the core of this book. Which doesn’t make it any less exciting.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child

The Iris Murdoch novels I read this year are The Bell and A Word Child. Both glorious and now in the top five of my IM favourites.

Virgine Despentes, The King Kong Theory. Powerful, riotous, messy, and the best use of Camille Paglia found anywhere.

Et cetera. Not enough theory or social sciences or musicology read this year. (about 1-2 of each) Too much light gossipiness (David Gilmour’s essais à clef). Too many memoirs! I need to lay off the memoirs. I will, after I’ve seen Cinderella and Company out.

2011 in Theatre

For this I haven’t kept records, so must go by the printed programmes which have survived the recycling purges. Writing this in a cloud of dust.

– The Life and Times of Mackenzie King (Michael Hollingsworth, Video Cabaret) stands out immediately. I am a convert and can’t miss any of their future ‘episodes’.
– Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen (via National Theatre Live). Brilliant. Brilliant brilliant.
– Compagnia Pippo Delbono visited early this year with Questo Buio Feroce. It was nice to have them in town, even though this is probably not one of their best productions.
– The Misanthrope by Molière, translation and adaptation by Martin Crimp at Tarragon Theatre.
– Bernard Shaw on DVD: The Millionairess, The Heartbreak House, Devil’s Disciple, again Mrs Warren’s Profession. To a lesser degree, Pygmalion and Arms and the Man.
(I missed the Summerworks entirely. It was a particularly broke summer. I did see recently Ride the Cyclone, the indie musical that people can’t stop talking about. I say, Get a life, people.)

Visual arts

– Rabih Mroué, The Inhabitants of Images at Prefix Institute. The man can do no wrong.
– The post-Communist countries exhibit at the Power Plant, Rearview Mirror curated by Christopher Eamon. A hodge-podge of hits and misses, but the hits make the exhibit good: Katarina Zdjelar, David Maljkovic and more.
– Contact Photography Festival for the Suzy Lake retrospective (she did Cindy Sherman performative femininity stuff before Cindy Sherman did) and Abbas Kiarostami’s series of photographs The Wall.
– Emmanuelle Léonard photo exhibit Une sale affaire at Gallery 44.
– Renzo Martens‘s film Enjoy Poverty at Cinecycle/Gallery TPW. Infuriating. Yet what it says needs to be heard.
– Otto Dix in Montreal (that was end of year 2010, but still)
– Angela Grauerholz at UoT Arts Centre, for its ambition, philosophical scope, love of text.

Most exciting symphonic performance:

John Adams conducting Toronto Symphony Orchestra in his own City Noir and Mason Bates’s Liquid Interface; tied with another TSO performance two days earlier, Peter Oundjian conducting Evelyn Glennie in Vincent Ho’s Shaman and Adams’s Harmonielehre. Both at New Creations Festival 2011.


Criminally neglected, but there was some Toronto Dance Theatre to soothe the soul.

Happy New Year, lovelies!

Mezzo in da house

Mezzo in da house

The public house, that is. The COC’s Opera 101 was held today for the first time north of Bloor (NoBlo? I don’t think it will take), in the patio of the multi-storey Duke of York. Brent Bambury MC’d with guests Susan Graham and Russell Braun, with audiences filling almost every available chair and table on two floors.

Brent opened with an impromptu call to action regarding the municipal arts cuts on the horizon and actually took the trouble to read the the wards where citizen input would be most effective (hint: those are the wards with councillors that the Mayor whips, and a couple of waffley ones). Excellent use of the podium, and a diplomatic and very gentle nudge. “COC doesn’t know I prepared this, but I must say a few words…” He finished with “You may disagree with me, you can tell me after,” but nobody seemed to as he got a hearty applause and a wave of approving nods. Then he did his usual “There are no bad questions” thing, adding “You may be wondering, for example, what is the difference between the mezzo soprano and a nutso-soprano. We’ll try to answer.”

Graham and Braun were great as guests, comfortable in the setting and with each other. Here are some of the highlights:

There are 25 dancers in this production, so Brent asked what will they all do. Braun at first joked that that many are required to lift him off the ground (which they will be doing), and then talked about the functions that dancers will take in the story-telling. In one Orestes scene, they will all be dressed as his mother.

This would be Susan Graham’s 5th go at the Carsen Iphigenia production.

But the first one for Russell Braun, though the two of them have been in an Iphigenia before, a Paris production which Graham proceeded to pan hilariously and kept returning to in the course of the evening. Braun remembered that his first entrance was usually delayed by the shouting from the audience, with pro- and contra-Gerard Mortier factions equally vocal. Graham later recalled that during her most important aria she was in the dark, while the silent actor who doubled as Iphigenia (a head shorter and “twenty years older”) was placed centre stage. She also developed laryngitis and had to cancel the prima and provide a doctor’s report (!) so that the director could magnify it and put it on an easel at the entrance to the Garnier for the audience to see. What made her keep going? Marc Minkowski in the pit. An unexpected bonus was that in one scene she got to make out with Braun. [It’s the 2006 Krzysztof Warlikowski production we’re talking about.]

Braun then explained that he can easily get behind a lot of seemingly crazy concepts. “Once I start liking the director, it’s not that hard to go along. I start liking the production. Also, in part, it’s a survival mechanism, since you’re stuck together for the run of the production and should make the best of it. Tell yourself ten times a day, ‘It could be worse.'”

In the recent Met production of Iphigenia, Graham never leaves the stage. “The problem is, you get thirsty,” she said. She had devised a special method of smuggling a sip or two while still on stage: one of the chorus singers had bottled water hidden in her costume and when she embraces Iphigenia, Graham seizes the opportunity.

We also learned that the mezzo is not a stranger to karaoke. What is her karaoke repertoire? “The Queen–“Bohemian Rhapsody”, of course. Then Hair and the “Age of Aquarius”. “La vie en rose” also sometimes comes up.”

“Susan is revered in Paris.” — Russell Braun

“The point when you forget you’re singing, when it feels like you’re simply talking, getting the point across” is the best that can happen, says Graham. She then described how this happened with Braun in their most recent ORCA rehearsal.

Braun: “I’m always nervous when I need to sing in Toronto.”  “Home town is tough,” — SG.

We also learn that her favourite mode of transport in Paris is bicycle. (Another mezzo who cycles–Rockout!)

After the formal part of the event, the singers stayed on to be mobbed for signing, hand-shaking and compliments.

Iphie opens on September 22.

How to properly accessorize your bike

How to properly accessorize your bike

Cycling is a love letter to one’s city. This diva knows it.

You will notice a perfectly equipped bike later in the video. Two strong lights at the front, and three red lights at  the back, I think two reflectors and one blinking. Front and back wheel fenders. The rack for the baskets is on the back wheel. The seat is waist-high (which reminds me, I should extend mine…) There’s a license plate! Well, I am jealous. We should all live in cities where cycling is taken as seriously as to involve license plates (not just online registration with the municipal police. I still have to register mine, mind…)

I’m also jealous of the bike paths in Stockholm. This is a good overview (though I wish I had the map legend for those interrupted lines. Maybe they’re their equivalent of sharrows?) This is a cycling planner, seems a City of Stockholm + Google mashup. And this is some sort of user-created idiosyncratic (and inter-city!) cycling path mashup. NB the ‘Grocery-shopping path’. Hey, I think I should make an ‘Arts and Crafts houses in Toronto’s West End’ path, or ‘Good seafood shopping path’ or ‘Cooking Indian tonight? Take this path.’ You can go wild with these things. ‘Cat’s Eye path’. ‘Post-industrial warehouse path.’

We do have Ride the City on IBikeTO, and the big map of course. There’s also a Twitter hashtag for cycling updates, #BikeTOu.