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 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:

DVD Review: King Arthur, Salzburg 2004

King Arthur 
A Dramatick Opera in Five Acts by Henry Purcell.
Libretto: John Dryden.

Director: Jürgen Flimm, Conductor: Nikolaus Harnoncourt. In multiple singing roles: Isabel Rey (soprano), Barbara Bonney (soprano), Birgit Remmert (contralto), Michael Schade (tenor), Oliver Widmer (baritone). Spoken roles: Sylvie Rohrer (Emmeline), Alexandra Henkel (Philidel), Michael Maertens (King Arthur), Christoph Bantzer (Merlin), Werner Wölbern (Grimbald), Dietmar König (Oswald), Ulli Maier (Mathilda), Roland Renner (Osmond), Peter Maertens (Conon), Christoph Kail (Aurelius). Salzburg Festival, 2004. EuroArts DVD.

Just deciding what King Arthur is on the bases of what remains of it was huge part of the job for Flimm and Harnoncourt. The “Dramatick Opera” is a collection of sung, spoken and danced bits the intended order of which is not known, and neither is the definitive score or instrumentation. The arrangement they decided on works well. This King Arthur doesn’t get unstuck into its sum parts.

The stage is circular and encloses the orchestra pit where Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien are placed. The space inside the pit is also part of the drama. Characters hide there when chased, ask the Maestro if he has a sword, hand him and the musicians toques for the Freeze Scene and so on. There also some action in the auditorium and through the orchestra seats. All that is very fitting for this, genre-anarchic operatic work.

Two tribes are at war: the Britons against the Saxons, who have yet to adopt Christianity and give up Wotan, Freya and Thor. They’re warring over territories, but also over a woman, the blind Emmeline, who favours the Brit King Arthur. There is some WWI imagery in costuming: Britons are very WWI Britain and Saxons are more Teutonic with all manner of unruly Wagnerian ‘dos. Soon enough, though, their allies in the form of fairies, ghosts, wizards and witches take over the action and the historical references luckily withdraw to the background. The would-be lovers, together with their sidekicks, wander around the fantastic landscapes until they are happily reunited.

The interplay of spoken and sung parts is choreographed in many interesting ways; sometimes the sung roles are the aspects of the spoken characters’ personalities or their evil or better doubles. Singing was lovely and well stylized, except for Isabel Rey’s soprano which sounded much too big and vibrato-y for this kind of thing. Barbara Bonney showed that her sense of humour includes laughing at herself: in her final aria she parodies her own image of the cute, forever young and forever debutante type of singer, and her own star status within this production.

The acting is superb in spoken roles. Alexandra Henkel as the air spirit Philidel, Sylvie Rohrer as the blind Emmeline who gains sight and experience (and the boy) on the way to denouement, Werner Wölbern as the hilariously disfigured and stinky spirit of the earth and Christoph Bantzer who played Merlin as a Quentin Crisp old queen, created such rich personalities that you really didn’t miss the music for one second. The physical fight between King Arthur and his opponent Oswald, one among several Oh! What a Lovely War moments, is staged as a boxing match between two least physically apt men in history, refereed by the jittery Sopranos-type performed by Michael Schade. Merlin is given some spectacular entrances, the best of which is the improvised monologue he gives as an old lady subscriber of the Salzburg Festival who claims her seat in the second row was mistakenly given to somebody else and launches into a rant about all the awful liberties directors take with the operas today. “Do you know who you’re talking to? My husband is the CEO of Global Management and Consult Inc. in Frankfurt am Main!… When Mr Mortier was in charge, this kind of thing never happened!… Nothing remains of what we’ve been used to for years! Now we open with this musical! 20-25 years ago we saw classics how they were originally staged!”

Entertainment of the best kind.

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Queer Archeology: Who Was Sarah Fischer?

Due to some work on a small but sweet project with an Ontario summer music festival, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the late Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester (pictured above). There is plenty of good MF music on YT (sample some Mahler, Purcell, Bach and Handel), and her discography spans several Amazon pages. But it’s the memoir Out of Character (with Marci McDonald, McClelland & Stewart, 1986) that grabbed me — brave and frank, usually not the case with the diva memoir genre. Also, of course, well stocked with gossip, slant and unreliability.

Let’s take page 59. On it, we may or may not be witnessing Mighty Mo meeting her very first lesbian. We can’t be sure. We’re given the commentary, not the evidence. It’s a minor episode in this memoir consistently devoid of queer people. By the end of this remarkable tome, you realize that that was it — the only encounter with the queer. And was it really? We can’t be sure.

Have a listen.

I had noticed in reading reviews that whenever the critics mentioned somebody as up-and-coming, she had invariably won a Sarah Fischer Scholarship. Sarah Fischer, a one-time soprano who had enjoyed a brief fling on the world stage, was an incredibly theatrical woman. She looked like Helena Rubinstein with her flowing capes and her hair swept back severely into a bun. By the time I heard of her she was retired and liked to give young talent a break with competitions which she held in the Ritz Carlton ballroom. The programs featured her profile printed on cover.

I entered one of them […] and to my shock I won. […] Preparing for [the two concerts] presented me with a problem I had never anticipated. Sarah Fischer started phoning me all the time, always late at night, on some pretext about the performance. I began to get a little nervous about her. I didn’t know anything about females liking females at the time, but my instincts told me she was interested in more than my voice. Finally I had my father answer the phone one night. “My daughter is a very young and we have rules in this house,” he told her. “Nobody gets calls this late unless it’s an emergency… You can call at a decent hour or not at all.” After that, the weeks left leading up to my prizewinner’s concert, Sarah Fischer was good as gold.”

Now. Isn’t this story good as gold? Could have been written by the authors of The Killing of Sister George. A predatory old lesbo after an innocent young thing. Luckily the father puts everything right.

So of course I immediately send a search party after Sarah Fischer.

I was happy to discover that the Canadian heritage institutions aren’t as flippant about Sarah Fischer as our beloved contralto. A couple of recordings survive! There is a six-page online biography at the Library and Archives Canada, the SF page in the Canadian Encyclopedia, and this treasure collection of photographs on the Jewish Montreal Public Library Archives. Not surprisingly, not a word about the ‘female-liking-female’ business — she was married to a man, natch — but mentions of very special friendships and mentors, yes. A ‘lifelong friendship’ with another singer Emma Albani (p2, LAC bio), and a particularly ardent fan, the wealthy “Mrs. Bracket Bishop of Chicago” (p3) are fine but meagre findings. “She left her personal papers to the National Archives of Canada,” says the Canadian Encyclopedia. I see where my next trip is going to be; the capital, in search of letters or diaries that may turn out to be the earliest record of a glorious opera dyke ancestress.

Sarah (Eugénie, ‘Nini’) Fischer. Born Paris 23 Feb 1896, naturalized Canadian 1912, died Montreal 3 May 1975.

About town

About town

The kids are all right

Last week I went to see COC’s Ensemble performance of the Magic Flute — same costumes and set, same conductor, different singers. We were so close to the stage and the pit that we could see some of the orchestra soloists and smell the stage (yes, you know that magic dust of the stage smell?) Too bad we couldn’t applaud the flute soloist at the end. The audience was all ages, as it’s increasingly the case with full houses at the COC, with strong representation from the 20-35 crowd. The conductor TV was also in my line of sight so I could glimpse Johannes Debus’s conducting frontal.

These attractions in themselves could make for a worthwhile evening, but the Ensemble singers, the reason we were all there, did not disappoint. Michael Uloth as Sarastro impressed the most. He controlled his remarkable old-man basso with a twinkle in the eye and made the abysmally low notes appear an easy game. I look forward to hearing him in the role of Truffaldino in the Ariadne auf Naxos in May.

Simone Osborne improved Pamina considerably for this opera goer (see my Feb 8 review). It’s an interesting voice, not at all light and with a considerable vibrato, possibly a large dramatic voice in the making. Timbre is similar to Bayrakdarian’s, though. We’ll have a chance to hear her in many demanding roles in the next season because she seems to be cast in every other opera or requiem in town next year. She is incredibly cute (we haven’t seen cheeks like that since the young Edita Gruberova) which has its advantages (Gilda in Rigoletto next COC season) and disadvantages (typecasting; defaulting to cuteness in acting). Check out these kisses with Marilyn Horne… cuteness embodied.

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Dorothee Mields, Charles Daniels baroque Master Classes

As part of their ongoing Baroque Mentors program, Tafelmusik recently held the Guest Artist Masterclass with the German soprano Dorothee Mields and British tenor Charles Daniels (February 12). Daniels worked with three singers on the anglophone baroque repertoire, a Purcell hymn and Handel’s Jephtha and Acis arias, while Mields covered Bach, St Matthew Passion recitatives and arias, and the ‘Erbarme dich’ cantata with the preceding Rezitativ. Too bad we never got to hear Erbarme because the thirty minutes alloted were spent on ironing out German articulation of the rezitativ! But it was fascinating whichever way you look at it. Mields started off by recommending to anybody who sings Pontius Pilate to read Bulgakov’s book Master and Margarita (a singer who reads Russian novels!) and then went on to impress all of us present in the Trinity-St. Paul with her mastery of the singing technique, perfectionist nigletizing over articulation and a genuinely warm personality. Many things I had to look up afterward — “I want you to do a messa di voce in this phrase here,” she said to a singer, and as soon as I got home, I grabbed a Richard Miller that’s been lying around and looked up the vaguely familiar expression. (Next time I’m going with a Richard Miller in hand!)

Dorothee Mields sings ‘Ich will dir mein herze schenken’ from Mätthauspassion:

On the subway on my way home I read through the Tafelmusik Intro to Baroque booklet which each audience member received with the program, and what a useful thing it is! The Baroque ABC on the Tafel website is tucked away in a flash file so no wonder I kept missing it. This printed booklet saves the day. The mystery of the changing pitch resolved (and many of us here and at Lucy’s have been wondering about this):  the modern orchestra pitch of 44ohz for the note of a’ was adopted at an international conference which took place in London in 1939. Before that, the pitch was 435hz for the A, which was set in 1859 by the Paris Academy. Before 1859 there was no standard and the pitch varied across European musical capitals and even within the same city depending on the performance hall (church pitch differed from the theatre or court pitch). Tafelmusik performs most of its baroque at 415hz and uses 430hz for classical rep. Some repertoire warrants going all the way to 392hz or to 440hz. (The lovely and indispensable yet in Flash Baroque Learning Centre by Tafelmusik is nestled HERE)

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Four more days. Four more days. Four. More. Days. Meanwhile, can we rename this province ‘Otterio’? They named rOtterdam after her, so I don’t see why not.