Dean Burry does a Schoenberg on Romanticism

Talisker Players’ latest recital-with-reading program Cross’d By The Stars looks at the doomed lovers in vocal repertoire and classical literature. Krisztina Szabó started the concert with an immediately enthralling Dido’s Lament. Laura Jones at the cello within the continuo opened with a long, beautifully vibrated line reminding us that this music can be equally stunning on modern instruments (there was a harpsichord in the continuo, but the rest of the strings, as far as I can tell, were modern).

The same instrumental ensemble remained on stage for the ever forgettable “Che farò senza Euridice”, the most incongruously cheerful lament in the history of Western music, here sung by baritone Aaron Durand. That was mercifully short, followed by the evening’s central piece.

Namely, Dean Burry’s musical dramatization of Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman.” It was prefaced by a reading (Stewart Arnott) from Wuthering Heights, and the two texts definitely have things in common. Noyes’ is an early twentieth-century poem but decidedly retro already then—neo-Gothic Romantic in its themes (night is wild, nature a danger and doomed lovers, a highway robber and an innkeeper’s daughter, can only be together in death) and anti-modernist in its narrative drive, rhyme and structure (AABCCB). Burry however fortunately looked elsewhere in the same early 20thC period for musical influence and found it in Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire: the instrumental make-up of the chamber orchestra last night was the same, comprising violin, cello, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano plus a mezzo soprano.

It’s an exciting piece that not only honours but kind of alchemizes the onomatopoeia and the viscerality of the original poem. It’s also a piece that should be seen and heard under more favourable conditions—while the mezzo part was extremely expressive, to a lot of us seated in the middle Szabó was invisible due to the presence of a conductor. Too, it was too dark to read the very long text and there were no surtitles, so unless you knew the poem by heart, you were bound to miss stuff out.

Further, it’s a piece that calls for some sort of staging, perhaps video projections, some imaginative lighting at least. Can some of the Toronto’s indie companies do us all a favour and take up this challenge?

I left at the intermission, reader. I was seriously under the weather but also did not want to mix the experience of The Highwayman with musical theatre that was coming up, the three songs from West Side Story (“Maria, Maria, Mariaaaa”). Would have been good to hear the chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, especially “Zwei blauen Augen”—baritone-, not mezzo-sung, alas–at the far end of the program, but it wasn’t meant to be last night.

And the concert couldn’t have gotten any better than the Burry/Szabó extravaganza. Now let’s hear it again, Toronto.

Turner and Music at the AGO

Snow-Storm-Steam-Boat-off-a-Harbours-Mouth
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, occupying the second floor of the AGO till January 31, is an exhibition of Turner’s later works. It’s Turner at his least ‘realist’ and most experimental, pushing the boundaries of the form this way and that. What’s really new at the AGO, however, is the musical soirees programmed alongside and presented each Friday to the audience that happens to be in the gallery during the AGO Friday Nights extended hours. The music is meant to relate to the exhibition in some way–it’s up to the programmer to establish the connection. One of those pieces is always to be a work especially commissioned for the occasion.

Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori is the first music programmer of the November series. He chose an interesting mix of literally and indirectly Turner-related pieces, first half of which is piano only (Adam Sherkin) and second more of a Liederabend (with mezzo Marion Newman). The commissioned works concluded the concert, the atmospheric “Shade and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” composed by Adam Sherkin and inspired by some of the Turner paintings exhibited.

In Part I, Sherkin played Liszt’s “Orage” (1848) and “La lugubre gondola I” (1882), Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126 (1824), a piano quickie by John Adams, “China Gates” (1978), and Sherkin’s own “The Fire Maker” (2013). The acoustics of the Walker Court dispersed the sound and did not entirely do justice to the evident drive and focus of Sherkin’s playing. People are also bound to mill about, clink glasses and drop programs, but the informality and the extraneous sounds soon enough became a legit part of the experience. As the available chairs quickly filled up, people sat on the stairs, and the un-concert-like seating arrangements abetted an intimate atmosphere.

The sound got much better once the mezzo started singing: Marion Newman rocked the place with her powerful voice and cabaret cheekiness. After Schubert’s sedate “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), the gear switched to flirtatious with Carmen’s “Habanera” (1875) and settled down on poignant with Dido’s Lament. The bright and pretty “Where Corals Lie” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures concluded the historical part of the concert, while Sherkin’s commission concluded the evening.

The program repeats November 20 and 27, 7:30, Walker Court at the AGO. Definitely worth experiencing after a proper visit with Mr. Turner upstairs.

A Purcell celebration

A Purcell celebration

Fact: there’s not enough Purcell in this town.

Toronto Masque Theatre’s all-Purcell program Fairest Isle (November 16 and 17 at Al Green Theatre) was a desperately needed, if temporary, redress.

Much of the program consisted of the scenes from Purcell’s operas, so rarely seen on stage here in North America and performed (many luckily recorded on DVD) in so many imaginative productions in Europe. Not only could we enjoy the glories of Purcell’s music but also revive memories of this Salzburg King Arthur, this Glyndebourne The Fairy Queen, or this Deborah Warner’s Dido. We also heard parts from the less known and heavily plotted The Indian Queen.

The excerpts were usually preceded by either the commentary by two actors stage left explaining where in the drama we find ourselves, or the actual text of the libretto. The orchestral ritornelli and dances were filled by the historically informed choreographies by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière — always intriguing and adding to and expanding the meaning of the musical material. In Dido, she was a sailor in The Sailors Dance and a sorceress in the witches’ scene, and each of the four seasons in The Fairy Queen finale. The concert opened with MNL dancing to the five-movement Dance Suite in G major. The figures she played and costumes she wore made this Purcell celebration so much more than a concert performance.

Here are some other highlights. Soprano Dawn Bailey sung the Lament sweetly and gently, her Dido a very young girl. The casting gods of the TMT took a pass on casting a mezzo or an alto in this group of six singers (counter-tenor Scott Belluz found himself in the role of Sorceress). Baritone Geoffrey Sirett has an appealing timbre, consistent and warm. In part one, the size of his voice sounded two sizes bigger than the other voices, but by part two the volume evened out and the bari belonged in the ensemble. Tenor Lawrence Wiliford shone in the Evening Hymn, which the smart directing left for almost the end, after Purcell’s death was announced in the script. The hymn was rendered in a fairly slow tempo and intimately, accompanied until Halleluja by the lute only (the ever reliable Lucas Harris).

The continuo trio had excellent musical chemistry (Harris, Margaret Gay at the cello and Christopher Bagan harpsichord and organ). They particularly showcased how much of rock stars they can be in the instrumental sections of Aerial spirits from The Indian Queen, which was played with mad energy at a frantic dancey pace. Two violins, one viola and two oboes made the rest of the capable band, led from the violin by Larry Beckwitch. Many of them joined in the singing when Charles Davidson had some fun with the Your hay it is mow’d (as one must).

Fab programming by the TNT and let’s do this again soon.

Full cast and more information here. Photo credits: Marie-Nathalie Lacoursiere top photo by Tariq Kieran. Below, Michele DeBoer, Dawn Bailey and Charles Davidson in a photo by Tariqu Kieran. Bottom, Bailey and Lacoursiere in a photo by Al Uehre.

Ich bin Berliner, says Purcell

Ich bin Berliner, says Purcell

There is a nutty and delightful new Purcell CD out this year: German soprano Dorothee Mields got together again with the early music ensemble Lautten Compagney Berlin under the leitung by Wolfgang Katschner to produce a collection of Purcell-authored and folk traditionals of the era loosely related to madness and bedlam. Mields’ precise, pretty, bell-like voice is perfectly partnered with the witty and inspired playing by the ensemble which crosses into eccentricity with some wonderful results.

There are all manner of curios here. There are the songs of funny madness and those of ‘melancholy’; there are short, less then a minute cris de coeur as well as much longer, cantata-like developed dramatic scene-songs; there are a few frequently recorded pieces like Dido’s Lament and O Solitude but also the relatively obscure bits from the musical theatre of the time (from plays with titles like The History of Dioclesian, Distressed Innocence or Sophobisba) and incidental music composed for Shakespeare’s plays.

The texts are all particular and worthy of close reading, and this includes the sillier variants with alliterations and onomatopoeic play. The music and what the Lautten Compagney does with it, all the brilliant accents and moods, all the unexpected twists, the layer upon layer of joy and hilarity – are the star of the disc. The pieces without the voice are nothing short of mini spectacles. I am now on the search for everything that the Compagney and Wolfgang Katschner ever recorded.

And what to say of Dorothee Mields? Unerring artistic instincts, singing intelligence, dramatic flair that brings alive an entire unruly crowd of characters strike again. (I first witnessed some of that at a Master Class one fine winter.) She moves from Bess of Bedlam to the Madonna to a dark ditty about The Cruel Mother to Mad Maudlin to the quite mad Ophelia to the dying Dido with ease and conviction. The baroque melismas, when summoned, are flawless. The only whinge I have is that the consonants get softened to non-existence every now and again – maybe German speakers fear a hint of Germanness in too blunt consonants? – and some of the clarity of the diction is lost. But in essence — it doesn’t matter. It’s a thing one will forget before the embarrassment of all the other riches.

Well programmed and beautifully executed.

Emmanuelle Haim fest on France Musique

Emmanuelle Haim fest on France Musique

Grandes figures, the France Musique series on notable musicians, is dedicated this week to Emmanuelle Haim the Magnificent. You can listen to the entire series starting with the show 1/5 HERE, with each show’s musical lineup available in precise detail. En plus, Concert D’Astré celebrates its 10th anniversary this year with a gala concert at the TCE on December 19, with the appearances of Patrizia Ciofi, Karine Deshayes, Natalie Dessay, Topi Lehtipuu, Sandrine Piau, Sonia Prina, Camilla Tilling and Anne Sofie von Otter. I’m dying to know what everybody will be singing. More about their ongoing Saison on their official website (in Flash, alas, but it’s worth the trouble).

I always love the videos that EMI/Virgin makes about her recordings, so here’s a couple:

Natalie Dessay opens with a hilarious description of Monteverdi’s “Lamento di ninfa”, and a rehearsal with Joyce DiDonato singing Ottavia’s “Addio, Roma” (which I actually liked!) concludes the video on the CD Lamenti.

Every second of this is lovely. Haim talking, the drums, Ian Bostridge’s Orfeo some of the highlights of this gem video on Orfeo.

And of course the “Voglio il tempo” from Il Trionfo with Dessay, Hallenberg, Prina and Breslik, which shows that the differences between soprano, mezzo and alto are not only to do with tessitura but almost equally timbre: