TSO and Koerner Hall announce new seasons

TSO just announced its first season under the new director Gustavo Gimeno, and here’s what I could parse:

+ Samy Moussa to be the inaugural artist-in-residence. He’s one of the more exciting composers this country has, and this could be very good. His work will be wedged in to regular symphonic concerts and he will conduct from time to time. The fact that this Gimeno-led initiative is called “artist-in-residence” and not composer- or musician-in-residence tells me that in the future we may see a stage director, conductor, singer or who knows, playwright or visual/media artist in residence.

+ Dalia Stasevska, Xian Zhang, Barbara Hannigan will conduct a program each. Andrew Davis returns.

-/+ regarding soloists, the picture is more mixed. A lot of the usual crowd (James Ehnes becoming unavoidable, and do we have to hear Karina Gauvin, who is without qualms a fine soprano, every season in Toronto?) A regular at Koerner, Daniil Trifonov will perform at RTH next season. Riding on the wave of great press and hyped as the Icelandic Glenn Gould, Víkingur Ólafsson will too. Baritones Quinn Kelsey (in semi-staged Rigoletto – semi-staged by Joel Ivany) and Vartan Gabrielian, and Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham are always of interest. There is quite a few sopranos and a couple of mezzos whose work I’ve never heard before.

– rep is… the usual. The inevitable Beethoven 250, and the same handful of symphonic composers.

+ an all-Stravinsky night, which includes The Rite of Spring, to be conducted by Gimeno, sounds promising

+ some improvement in the contemporary music department. Press release lists the living composers next season: Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, young Spaniard Francisco Coll, Barbara Croall, Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon, Larysa Kuzmenko, Emilie LeBel, Nicole Lizée, Wynton Marsalis, Gabriela Montero, Samy Moussa, Steve Reich, and the nextGen artists, Adam Scime, Bekah Simms, Roydon Tse. Most of these will probably be smuggled in the otherwise traditionally programmed concerts. Chin, Abrahamsen, Lizee, LeBel, Moussa and the nextGen are the only names I can get remotely excited about. Reich and Glass are becoming unavoidable(tm) too.

+ there’ll be more Bruckner than usual, as far as I can tell.

RCM-Koerner Hall, only partly announced (complete season to be announced later):

+ Anne Sofie von Otter with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout in an early Romantic program, in March 2021.

+ Angelika Kirchschlager doing Schubert’s Winterreise with Julius Drake, Feb 2021.

+ The Distant Voices concert by Jordi Savall Trio sounds good. Music from Afghanistan, Armenia, Istanbul, Bosnia, Persia, and Italy, with Middle-Eastern instruments like kanun and oud.

– I find it hard to get enthusiastic about the rest of the announced stuff. A Beethoven 250 mini festival, of course; again James Ehnes, Stewart Goodyear, Jon Kimura Parker; Pieczonka and Schade in excerpts from Fidelio.

? – potentially maybe good but can’t tell? Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins-commissioned and sung Songs for Murdered Sisters by Jake Heggie and Margaret Atwood – the song cycle that Hopkins had made after his sister was murdered, alongside two other women, in Eastern Ontario. Don’t know what to make of Jake Heggie being asked to do music for this, but maybe I’ll be surprised.

?? – much weirdness here. Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra in a program called Last Words, which includes Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ and Shostakovich’s final string quartet but also the reading (by the violinist Kremer) of texts by Jorge Luis Borges, Harold Pinter, and Steve Jobs (!?)

 

 

 

Angela Hewitt in Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Toronto Summer Music Festival at the Koerner Hall. Photo by James Ireland

There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.

The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.

What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot of piano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.

Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.

The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.

What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).

In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.

Source and inspiration of a Saturday: a bit more Sarah Slean

Sarah Slean / photo Art of Time website

Art of Time Ensemble’s AD Andrew Burashko prepared another concert for the TSMF this year, a mid-day do at Walter Hall this Saturday, the time slot usually reserved for the song or chamber music academy boys and gals. This was different: instead of a master class or a young talent showcase, Burashko, the Rolston String Quartet and the guest singers gave us a sample of songs that have come out the AoT Banff residence created to get composers/arrangers, popular singers and classical instrumentalists to re-work some of  the classical chamber pieces into something new and their own.

Some years before the Banff collab, Burashko had commissioned 4 singer-songwriters to do something with the Schubert piano trio (discussed in the previous post on this blog and performed on July 25 in Koerner Hall). 9 new popular songs came out of the Trio and ended up being recorded on different albums. Burashko repeated this experiment with a Schumann piano quintet and a Korngold piece, at which point Banff asked him to do the program under their auspices. And soon enough, 6 singer-songwriters and 6 composers met in Banff Centre for a three-week collaboration on making new pop songs with elaborate musical tapestries based on a piece out of the classical canon.

Sarah Slean and John Southworth mentored the singers in Banff, and for this concert on Saturday they sang some of what came out of those three weeks. They were joined by two other singers whose names I didn’t manage to write down correctly and could not find online after. One was possibly Neil Hannon, Northern Irish singer-songwriter? Another one, who also arranged one of the songs, had the first name of Kelsey? Alas, AoT doesn’t print detailed programs in advance (they do post them after – this is a good archive of past performances), and as long as that’s the case, the info that I can share about their concerts will unfortunately have to be partial.

Among the singers, La Slean stood out again – not least because her lyrics are unusually clearly enunciated, whereas I missed most of the lyrics in songs performed by other singers. I promise you it’s not my classical art song snobbery talking; I genuinely couldn’t understand what was said and some of those lyrics are probably quite good. Second song of the two that Slean did she explained that she wrote for Rilke – specifically in solidarity to his claim that he communicated with the supernatural. Slean really has the Romantic mythemes down pat, doesn’t she? There are often interesting stories behind her songs; she really is a delightful song artist.

Rolston Quartet, after it accompanied all the singers and Burashko at the piano in the song program, was then joined by pianist Todd Yaniw for an energetic Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 Op 81. Some of the preceding songs, it became clear, had recognizable affiliation with the Quintet.

TSMF continues apace; I will report on at least two other concerts coming up next week.

Art of Time in Schubert, Hatzis, Cohen, Brel, Gershwin and Freddie Mercury

Sarah Slean (singing), l-r Berick, Mercer, Burashko

Last night at the TSMF, Art of Time did that thing that they always do well: a concert of popular songs in classical arrangements for a chamber orchestra with a piano. I’m always curious about the arrangements side of things: the composers that the AoT engages for this purpose come from a variety of backgrounds and styles, and the combinations are sometimes quite inventive. There was a Leonard Cohen song arranged by British composer Gavin Bryars, and I remember hearing Kevin Lau’s name in one of the songs (full list of arrangers updated below).

The traffic went the other way too: pop singer-songwriters taking over classical pieces and making them their own. Projects like this one are among the beacons of this approach, and I’m always on the lookout of good treatments of the classics by the musicians of other genres. Singer-songwriter Sarah Slean has been one of those musicians for a while now, at least since she decided to take a turn from the pop stardom business to classical, chamber orchestras, piano-with-live strings, and smaller venues. Her song Lonely Side of the Moon is a direct response to Schubert’s piano trio op. 100, the movement Andante con moto. In the concert, the two were played side by side. First the AoT artistic director Andrew Burashko (piano) played the trio with Yehonatan Berick (violin) and Rachel Mercer (cello). Slean followed, explaining what she changed (the meter in the opening bars on the piano, as you’ll spot!) and what she developed.

From this (by a different trio, not AoT):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e52IMaE-3As

…to this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlADcEegX9Q

The song can of course stand on its own: we have a very German Romantic preoccupation that is the Nature here revived as a song topic, through an environmentalist perspective. I think she’s onto something. We already have the novel of the climate change and perhaps trad Romanticism will see a revival thanks to the poetry of the climate change?

Slean was also excellent in Leonard Cohen’s rearranged Anthem and Take This Waltz. While Cohen himself was around to perform these songs, what he’s saying and how was of greatest interest (as you can read in the recently published Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Cohen started out as part of the early CanLit poetry contingent and published in small presses before he decided to move to the all-powerful melting pot of American song and become a star). His songs can be read from the page as poems and not a whole lot would be lost (OK! the spoken poetry people will disagree; yes, the delivery etc, but let’s move on). The luxurious arrangements that add layering to the musical side of his songs are therefore a pretty exciting thing to discover. Slean also did a solid job with Brel’s Ne me quitte pas and almost almost managed to make Queen’s spectacular The Show Must Go On intimate.

Singer-songwriter John Southworth was also in the program, performing some of George Gershwin and Cohen songs. He happens to be not the most communicative of performers. I was trying to understand his low-key, coarse-voiced, dispassionate approach and the best I could come up with is: imagine if the characters from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot decided to take up singer-songwriting? That. It’s certainly an original mode to operate in but I have yet catch the bug. Here’s a sample from his songbook.

A  very lively opener started the proceedings: a piece by Christos Hatzis from Constantinople. I believe it was this one: https://youtu.be/o3aUenb2xz0?t=26

AoT return to the TSMF for the reGeneration concert with young musicians of the song academy this Saturday July 27, Walter Hall. AoT were, beside Burashko, Berick and Mercer, Peter Lutek at woodwinds, Rob Piltch on electric guitar, and Joe Phillips on double bass.

Edited to add: Here’s the full list of pieces and composers with (in most cases) arrangers:

Old Photographs by Christos Hatzis
 
Anthem by Leonard Cohen was arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Who Cares by George and Ira Gershwin arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Gavin Bryars
 
Darkness – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Kevin Breit
 
Man I Love – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Kevin Lau
 
Swanee – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Shelley Berger
 
Take This Waltz – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in Eb major, ii. Andante con moto
 
Good Mourning by John Southworth
 
Lonely Side of the Moon by Sarah Slean
 
The Partisan – Anna Marly, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Ne Me Quitte Pas – Jacques Brel, arranged by Jim McGrath
 
Dance Me to the End of Love – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Andrew Downing
 
The Show Must Go On – Queen, arranged by Rob Carli
John Southworth with Berick, Mercer, Burashko and Phillips. Photo: Art of Time

Toronto Summer Music Festival 2019

There are a few things of interest at the TSMF this summer and I think the festival is going to be more exciting than the last year’s.

Rihab Chaieb is singing Das Lied von der Erde with a chamber group of musicians from the TSO in the Schoenberg-Riehn version. Gemma New conducts, Mario Bahg sings the tenor songs. Also in the program, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 “Turkish” with Jonathan Crow as the soloist. August 1, Koerner Hall. More & tickets.

By the way, I profiled Gemma New for the summer issue of the Wholenote here. She and the Hamilton Philharmonic have some excellent ideas about how to rethink the traditional concert format.

To me not particularly known, American tenor Anthony Dean Griffey is the lead song artist in this year’s Academy. His American-British recital program with Warren Jones at the piano however is intriguing: at least two men in the program were gay (Samuel Barber and Charles Tomlinson Griffes); another one, Frank Bridge, though hetero, was Benjamin Britten’s teacher and friend. One is a folkie (John Jacob Niles). There is also Charles Ives, Gerald Finzi and one woman, the prolific US composer Lori Laitman and her Four Dickinson Songs. Which is timely, as Emily Dickinson is having a Cultural Moment, it seems: Terence Davies’ black biopic A Dark Passion has recently had a wacky, joyful rejoinder in Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily:

In other words: I like the Crazy New Englander streak in this program. It’s promising. July 16, Walter Hall (alas).

Then there’s Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Koerner Hall. July 30. Nothing else need be added.

There are a bunch of string quartet repertoire concerts and the reGeneration recitals – and I’ll need to have a closer look and make my choices.

Opening night looks like a good pick-and-mix. Not sure why there’s a radio host in there? Anyway – beside said radio host, there are three pianists, one violin soloist, one string quartet, and soprano Adrianne Pieczonka in a program consisting of a Mozart piano sonata, Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen, Kreisler’s selections for violin and piano, a Chopin Ballade and Strauss Four Last Songs in the arrangement by Canadian composer John Greer. The Strauss and the Ravel are the only two vocal pieces.

Art of Time Ensemble will be performing an unspecified program with Sarah Slean, pop musician who is gradually returning to her original love (and training), classical music. Another singer-songwriter is in the show, John Southworth. The title, From Franz Schubert to Freddie Mercury, is all we have to go by for now. Koerner Hall, July 25.