ALERT: A mezzo Cesare coming up

Britain’s Opera North recently announced the 19/20 season and whaddaya know: a mezzo Cesare is in the offing, that precious and almost extinct species.

This fall, the northern four-city opera is reviving Tim Albery’s 2012 Cesare, which also starred a mezzo in the title role, Pamela Helen Stephen (below). This year, the role goes to Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte alongside Sophie Bevan’s Cleopatra.

Pamela Helen Stephen in Opera North’s 2012 production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

The concert started with the lights down and a Debussy flute solo, Syrinx, by Kelly Zimba placed not on the stage but up on the centre-mezzanine. The three-minute piece led uninterrupted into Hannigan conducting and singing Sibelius’s Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra. The work uses the first poem from Elias Lönnrot’s nineteenth-century epic cycle Kalevala, on the female nature-spirit of the air who comes down to the water and… interacts with the elements to create the universe. So we start with nothing less than the creation of the universe. The Sibelius tone poem sounds much later than mid-19th–it sounds in fact early modernist with unRomantic, unmelodic, not straightforwardly emo orchestral colours and vocal material for the soprano and with a kinda overall abstractness. We tend to (well, I do) paint the nineteenth with the same brush, but that’s where modernism started–Turner was already painting, Debussy composing, and Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Emily Dickinson writing poems. Hannigan added her Hannigan performing magic to the poem and melded singing and conducting into singer-conducting, and this sometimes meant she wasn’t going to turn to the audience but sing facing the orchestra. It made perfect sense in the context.

Off we went, with a halved orchestra, to Haydn’t upbeat Symphony 86, a delight in all its four movements. I think I heard La Hannigan intone the first bars to the orchestra before the second, Largo, movement, and that too felt perfectly fine. A singer is conducting, why wouldn’t she hum at some point or other?

After the intermission, Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu, which clocks at about 30 min, was the chunkiest chunk on this eclectic menu. The moods of the Rondo, Ostinato, the song, the variations and the Adagio are diverse enough to keep you involved, and while the orchestral forces are considerable, they did not trundle but dance. Midway in, the singing returns, and Hannigan turns around and sings the Lied der Lulu with a fresh, girly voice.

The George Gershwin suite from the musical Girl Grazy, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott and orchestrated by Elliott, concluded the set. The four songs were flowing into one another, without interruptions for applause (excellent decision), and for this performance the singer was miked (logical as she, for the most part, did not sing in operatic voice and the brass section can get intense). I would probably describe this arrangement as a touch Bergian: Gershwin meets Berg in ‘But not for me’, ‘Strike up the band’, ‘Embraceable you’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’. Hannigan had the men of the TSO sing a section of ‘Embraceable you’ and now we know they can definitely carry a tune. Get that hidden choir out for a walk more frequently, conductors.

Hannigan has nothing left to prove as a musician at this point and if orchestras are asking her to conduct and program, more power to her and them. I was skeptical at first–there are a lot of women who have undergone long/endless training to be conductors for whom these doors remain closed shut, and Hannigan’s celebrity certainly precedes her. But so does her musicianship and artistry, which are undeniable. So after initial misgivings I am now completely favour of the already established singers switching to conducting (like Nathalie Stutzmann, and Hannigan herself). Whoever’s in position to make a crack in that stubborn glass ceiling, I’ll celebrate it. Sometimes it will be musicians who have had a career in another area, and that is fine.

As Hannigan’s singer-conducting programs with the TSO and other orchestras show, she can be an innovative programmer and innovative performance director. She may become even freer and more experimental as her reputation as a conductor grows, and I’ll be curious to see where La Ha and partner orchestras will take the concert format in the future.

There’s one more performance tonight

Top and bottom: Hannigan with the TSO. Both photos by Jag Gundu.

I have seen the future of the baroque concert, and it is programmed by Alison Mackay.

Safe Haven / Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins

I’ve read good things about Tafelmusik’s multi-media, through-themed concerts, but did not know how special they are until I finally went to one this Friday. Safe Haven, programmed again by Tafelmusik’s double-bassist Alison Mackay, takes on  the theme of refugees and immigration this time. Pitfalls are many around the topic – sentimentality, didacticism, forced parallels, the idea that it’s incumbent upon art to fix historical injustices – but they were masterfully avoided. The multi- in its multi-media nature came from the video and lights (Raha Javanfar, projections & Glenn Davidson, lighting) and spoken text (researched and written by Mackay), with musical pieces tailored in.

Mackay spins the main thematic thread across the countries and continents while also remaining faithful to the orchestra’s preferred musical era, roughly the baroque style era between Lully on the one end (d. 1687) and Vivaldi (d. 1741) on the other. An extraordinary number of composers are on the program, many more than can be heard during regular Tafelmusik concerts because in most cases, single movements are played rather than the pieces in entirety. (And why not; didn’t, as Lydia Goehr argues, the ‘musical work’ as we understand it today emerge at around 1800 with Beethoven?) There are a few forays into our own time and among our contemporaries. A photo or two early on (the US-Canadian border crossing under snow, say), a recurring quote (“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land”, the verse by Warsan Shire, young Somali-British poet), and at the very end the true story of a Newfoundlander who rescued a boat full of Tamil refugees thirty years ago.

The program itself is knitted into an almost narrative, pieces of music woven into the historical episodes described, often directly tied to the specific people named. The Huguenots had to leave France for England for reasons of religious persecution, the Jews had to leave Spain for The Netherlands, Catholics had to leave England and Scotland for Poland, the Roma had to keep moving through Europe even then, and all the while the slave trade is happening across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Africa is here important part of the narrative and is given voice in the musical program, with Diely Mori Tounkara’s solos on the multi-string plucked instrument from Mali called kora, which sounds a bit like a love child between cello and harp. Plus, the knockout lady percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand added beat to some of the western pieces, and absolutely blew the roof off with her solo on the Iranian daf.

Reading the script was the singer Maryem Tollar. She also sang the two vocal pieces on the program, “Or sus, serviteurs du seigneurs” by Goudimel and Bourgeois in old French and “A la salida de Lisboa” in Portuguese. The voice is non-operatic, which is exactly what was needed in the context – she naturally switched from the speaking mode to singing as a cabaret mezzo. It was simple, and intimate, and right. The only thing that perhaps wasn’t ideal is that during the reading segments she would overemphasize most of the adjectives and add dramatic enunciation to her words where this wasn’t called for. But not too big a deal, ultimately — and not everybody is a trained actor, c’est pas grave. She aptly navigated the microphones, the bows, the chairs and the other musicians–the narrator moves around a lot–and also played the tambourine in the final number with everybody taking part.

Which was Corelli’s legendary Allegro from Concerto grosso in D Major, except rearranged as a jam session between the instruments of the west, east and south with the percussion coming in loud and clear (Toller and Farahmand). A total burst of joy, ear-to-ear-grin ending to an emotional evening that was poignant and playful in turns and so smartly plotted out.

There’s one more performance left – at the big hall of the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Tuesday, January 23. Unmissable.

Safe Have – Tafelmusik. Photo by Jeff Higgins.

The Messiah, liberated

Karina Gauvin, Krisztina Szabó, Frédéric Antoun, Joshua Hopkins, Matthew Halls, TMC, TSO. Photo by Jag Gundu/TSO

British conductor Matthew Halls was unknown to me until last night, but I’ll be following his career from now on with interest since he liberated Toronto’s biggest Messiah from Andrew Davis’ vision and made it exciting again. Thanks also go to those who booked Halls for this run of The Messiah concerts in December (there are four left to go) and to whoever decided–I expect it was Halls himself–to move the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir from the crescent of the back balcony down to the concert stage. Five rows of about 28 singers each are a concentrated, powerful force. The inner intricacies of the sound sculpting among the voices are much more easy to follow too, and the contrasts are easier to spot. After this experience, I can’t see why any conductor would put the choir anywhere but on stage.

Halls also reduced the orchestra to the Mozart era size and skipped all the extraneous instruments that Davis is so fond of. The choir never overpowered the instruments, however. Balance was good throughout. There was the odd moment when this or that soloist was being covered by the orchestra, but they didn’t last long and the scale settled back into balance quickly.

There was opera and mélodies in Karina Gauvin’s solo arias. I don’t think Come unto Him and How beautiful are the feet ever sounded that lush and sensuous–more like Les chansons de Bilitis than religious worship, but you didn’t see me objecting for one second. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was most impressive in He was despised, which more than made up for the occasional drops in volume power earlier in the oratorio. Tenor Frederic Antoun had the volume and coloratura galore, and an unusually dark timbre to boot–or did I get used to the thinned out near-falsetto hautes contres tenors that keep being asked to sing this? Another welcome change, in any case. Bari Joshua Hopkins completed this quartet of capable soloists that left nothing to be desired.

An even bigger draw for me have always been the choruses, and I can report that my favourites (And He shall purify, For unto us, His yoke, Behold the Lamb, All we like sheep, He trusted in God, The Lord gave the word, and Amen — ok, just about all by three) have been handled well. Well worked out tempi, nothing bizarre; limpid sopranos, velvety altos, bright tenors and dark but not too heavy as to sound Orthodox church basses were on at all times. Sometimes the middle alto-tenor section get smudged in complex choruses, but none of that here. (Noel Edison is the TMC’s artistic director and I presume he rehearsed the TMC until it was time for the tutti rehearsals.)

Continues today, tomorrow, Friday and Saturday and definitely worth catching.

Zing-Along Messiah mit Herr Handel at Massey Hall: Instructions for Use

sing-along-messiah_garybeechey
Tafelmusik with conductor Ivars Taurins (as Handel) and the audience in a sing-along Messiah at Massey Hall. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

I am happy to report that I finally experienced my first Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiah in which the audience too sings the choruses (grazie, Luisa!). The 30-year-old event has a cult status and is sold out every year; there were people there who have been coming every year for 10, 20, 30 years. (Conductor Ivars Taurins, he under the Handel costume and wig, asked for the show of hands last night for each of the decades.)  The full libretto can be downloaded beforehand or picked up at the Massey Hall. The soloists that Tafelmusik brings for the Messiah series each December–all concerts of that series but one are performed traditionally, without audience participation, and in a smaller hall–tend to be international HIP stars, and always a good mix of familiar and new-to-Toronto singers.

Since it’s a big, potentially unwieldy, practically pop concert, you should know what to expect from the Sing-Along (or Zing-Along, as Taurins/Haendel called it), and come prepared.

+ Avoid the gallery like the plague. I arrived 30 min before start time and the parterre and the mezzanine were already full so we were directed to the galleries. The seats are wooden there, without any upholstery, and with no leg room. I am not exaggerating: those with sensitive knees should think twice. There’s no room for the jacket behind your back, no room for a bag, let alone a backpack. In the course of the concert you are asked to rise and sit down multiple times. You will know your four neighbours N-S-E-W very closely by the end of it. How do you avoid the gallery? Come earlier, but if you come too early, there will be a long queue to join in the cold. There’s got to be a time when you arrive just as the queue starts being let in? Toronto practices long queues during Tiff, so treat this is a Tiff-size event. Come early.

+ OK so you ended up in  the gallery. If you spot any free seats in the mezzanine during the first half, you can at least move down and take ’em during intermission. It’s general seating, so you’re more than welcome to. Mezzanine and parterre seats are actually decent. This is what I did.

+ It’s a family-friendly event, so there will be children. Toddlers and babies too. Some of them will sit on their parent’s lap and be shown how to follow the score, maybe for the first time in their wee lives. So: don’t be a grump. [It takes one to know one.] These are future classical music audiences and performers. It’s all good. And they tend to be really well-behaved.

+ What I didn’t know was how ethnically diverse the Sing-Along audience is becoming. Lots of Asian families, multi-racial couples, black Canadians, together with the usual hardcore WASP contingent. It wasn’t entirely as diverse as Toronto Islands of a weekend, but it’s definitely  getting there.

+ The Sing-Along is not primarily a music experience, necessarily. Let me explain what I mean. If you like the choruses of The Messiah, you may feel shortchanged, because what you will hear around you will not be particularly pleasant. You won’t be able to hear the choir on stage at all, and depending on what section you’re in, your experience of the choruses may range from OK (the Altos area) to ugh (the Mixed section, where I spent the first half). There will be a lot of smudged coloratura, missed notes and creative tempo-keeping around you. This was particularly the case in the Mixed voices area, with two very loud elderly sopranos behind me, a quiet alto to the left, a guy who sang I’ve no idea what voice part to the right. When I moved to the last row of the Mezzanine Altos, it was like being within a gentle wave of alto base that included me (when I could find it, tonally) or left me alone, whichever I preferred in any given moment.

+ Oh yes: find an edge seat, a top row seat. That way, if you don’t want to get up for every chorus, you won’t attract attention. There were a few of us scattered who sang while remaining seated. It wasn’t unusual.

+ There may be people around you who will quietly “join” the soloist while s/he’s singing. This behaviour is deserving of a glare. Again, I heard it in the Mixed area from two of the sopranos, and there was some arm chair conducting from the guy to the right, but down among the altos, nothing of the sort. While the opposite does happen occasionally, your enjoyment of the soloists will for the most part be undisturbed. Amanda Forsythe’s laser-sharp coloratura stunned everybody into silence last night. (There’s an added task for the soloists here: stun the unruly audience into shutting up.) Tenor Colin Balzer (“Ev’ry valley” kicked the entire engine into motion) and baritone Tyler Duncan (whose “Trumpet will sound” closed it with a glorious clarity of tone) were just as good, and Krisztina Szabó got to shine in “O Thou that tellest” with the chorus/audience coming in at the end.

+ In conclusion, I think my next Messiah will be of the traditional sort. I like my choruses cleanly sung. (You should have heard what dog’s breakfast we all made of “Amen”. Or rather you shoudn’t.) But the Zing-Along has its own culture, its own following and–judging by the diverse multigenerational audience–a very bright future. And there’s room for both forms of concerts, and for some new forms to boot. Could a baroque concert in which the audience are allowed to dance be far behind? I see your sing-along, and I raise you dance, Tafelvolk.