Ermanno Mauro: “Great Tenor Arias”

Sometimes recordings can open a window on the past. I’ve got a “new” CD, actually an old one that’s only new to me. Forgive me if I choose to write about something that’s not easily available but the CD immediately took me back decades to several powerful moments.

  1. One of my first live opera experiences, at the U of T Opera School (later the Opera Department)
  2. One of my most powerful moments ever playing for singers
  3. The first night of the Canadian Opera Company under Lotfi Mansouri

What or rather who do these three moments have in common?  Tenor Ermanno Mauro.

#1, up close in the MacMillan Theatre of the Edward Johnson Building, Mauro’s voice was a powerful experience, in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.  I remember very little except the visceral pressure of the voice in a space that seemed tiny when he let fly, an effortless sound, and my first real experience of a huge voice.

#2: Playing? I think it must have been the year my brother sang Schaunard with the Canadian Opera Company opposite Mauro as Rodolfo, and so Ermanno came to dinner at my mom’s house: where I still lived, a teenager.  In Opera Viva (that wonderful and sometimes astonishing history of the COC by Ezra Schabas & Carl Morey), I see that it was in the autumn of 1972, when Peter was all of 23 singing on the COC’s mainstage, and Mauro? a mature singer ten years older than my brother with that huge voice.  His Rodolfo could be lyrical, but from an instrument of such power.  I’ve never heard anything like it before or since.

That 1972 experience (#2), one of the most powerful musical experiences of my young life, felt like I was riding a wild horse, playing the Otello vengeance duet while Peter & Ermanno sang.  I played as loud as I could, barely able to hear the piano, while the two voices enveloped me, in my mom’s back-room.  Afterwards I only recall the kindness of the man, so sweet to me while I had been struggling to keep up, sight-reading Verdi, turning pages,  while these two amazing voices belted out music that I had recently heard and embraced from records.  I was 17 and star-struck, but will never forget.  Ermanno’s voice is remarkable, an ideal instrument honed for verismo, spinto singing.   He can sing soft delicate phrases but has a direct sound and secure high notes.  I hear a bit of Giuseppe di Stefano here (particularly in the gentle oh so Italianate pianissimo passages, a bit of James McCracken there (the vowel diphthongs, a sound we sometimes hear from American tenor Russell Thomas).  But unlike di Stefano or McCracken the voice stayed together, the production impressive even in his maturity.

Listen to him sing Otello in this video, nearly 70 years old, and still an amazing voice.

#3 was a curious moment.  The opening of the 1977 fall season, I was sitting in the cheap seats at the back of the O’Keefe Centre for the opening night of Don Carlos, as the COC got the jump on the Metropolitan Opera as the first company in North America to present the original five act version in French. While its acoustics are famously bad, the back rows of the orchestra under the balcony actually tended to be better for sound, as there was a bit of a concentration of the sound there, unlike the dead spots in the midst of the orchestra.  I was back there because it was all I could get, but by a magical fluke, there he was.

Lotfi Mansouri.

He stood directly behind me, pacing, fidgeting about. What was he thinking, I wondered? I could feel his tension.  But the production was handsome and very beautiful in places.  Mauro played the title role.   And the production was the beginning of a quantum leap for the COC.

Pardon me for the preamble, but that’s more or less meant to indicate that when I slipped the CD into the player in my car, I was somewhat breathless in anticipation, encountering an old friend.  The CD is from the CBC SM5000 series in the 1980s, a DDD recording (meaning, fully digital), Mauro singing a dozen arias accompanied by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conducted by Uri Mayer.  The Boheme aria you see shared via youtube above is from this recording.

In addition?

  • “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen
  • “O souverain” from Le Cid
  • “Nessun dorma” from Turandot
  • “Un di all’azzuro spazio” from Andrea Chenier
  • “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci
  • “Niun mi tema” from Otello
  • “Pourquoi me réveiller” from Werther
  • “Ah! lève-toi soleil” Romeo et Juliette
  • ”Ma, se m’è forza perderti” from Un ballo in maschera
  • “Ah si ben mio” from Il trovatore
  • “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca

While a purist might take issue with some of the interpretations, Mauro’s pragmatic vocalism is a good match for most of these operas.  In 2018, we could use a voice like this. At times his muscular sound is as big and loud as any I’ve ever encountered, wonderfully reliable on top.  I’ve now listened to his “Niun mi tema” from Otello twice, totally destroyed by it both times.  While his “vesti la giubba” skips the histrionic crying, the way this Otello chooses to die is heart-breaking, and very original to my ear (and speaking of crying, I had enough sobs for the both of us).  Mauro has a very vulnerable soft voice he employs in places, for instance to begin the flower aria, or in “E lucevan le stelle”: but not in the places I expected.  His “oh dolce baci”, going up to the F-sharp, is soft as the kisses he would describe, so gently evocative that you can see the scene he is describing.  The middle voice is huge when he wants to call up a dark and passionate power, as Werther or in Le Cid.

Ermanno Mauro? Quite a voice.  I will be listening to the CD again and again.


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Vaughan Williams recording: a joyful valedictory for Oundjian

The last month of Peter Oundjian’s tenure with the Toronto Symphony is unfolding as a celebration.  We’re partway through a series of concerts, with three more programs to come in the next fortnight.

In addition Chandos have released a TSO recording that in some ways epitomizes everything Oundjian stands for. It’s English music but performed by Canadians, a young group of soloists, including some of the talented players recruited & mentored by Oundjian.

CH5201 (1)

I understand that the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams is a special favourite of Oundjian:

  • Serenade to Music, for Four Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra (1938)
  • Concerto for Oboe & Strings (1944)
  • Flos Campi , Suite for Solo Viola, Small Chorus and Small Orchestra (1924-25)
  • Concerto, for Piano and Orchestra (1926-31)

While the four works are varied, they all serve to show off the exquisite sound of a TSO that Oundjian built & trained.

The Serenade to Music is a sensual delight, and as with most of Vaughan Williams output, takes us to a more tuneful & tonal place than what most of his contemporaries were producing.  The Serenade might have been written in the 19th century for its lush tonal palette, a hymn to romance and romantic music itself.  The Elmer Iseler Singers are quicksilver, fluid as breezes and sunshine illuminating the score from within, seemingly effortless.

The Oboe Concerto, composed during the Second World War, came from a composer likely seeking to uplift & inspire, as that’s how this music hits me. It takes us in a more playful & whimsical direction, suggesting a more vulnerable aspect to the composer, both in the achingly beautiful solos from Sarah Jeffrey, and in the textures that surround or answer her oboe.

Flos Campi (or “Flower of the field”) is arguably one of Vaughan Williams very best works.  The inspiration is the Songs of Songs, that most sensual part of the Bible.  Whether you choose to read this as something devotional or just plain sexy, I think your ear will be ravished one way or another, the TSO’s principal viola Teng Li teaming with the Iseler Singers again.

Finally the most surprising piece for me is the concluding Piano Concerto.  It doesn’t sound like the Vaughan Williams I thought I knew.   I’ll have to take the score out of the library to get inside the piece.  The liner notes suggest the influence of Busoni’s Bach transcriptions, which certainly suggests something on the very boundaries of what’s playable: yet I would never have guessed, listening to the ease with which Louis Lortie plays it. There are places that are lyrical, but also places that are more percussive, with a genuine ferocity.

Throughout, the TSO are at the service of the composer & the conductor, a joyful valedictory for Oundjian.  To obtain or download the recording click here.

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Oundjian and TSO: the long goodbye

It was the first in a series of concerts for the month-long celebration of Peter Oundjian’s achievement with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, as he finishes his fourteen year tenure as music director.  In his introduction Oundjian explained some of the rationale for the program, as though in some respect these concerts tell a story.

“Peter Oundjian: this is your life.”

Or so it seemed as he told us some of his connections to the Bernstein, the Gershwin and the Brahms on the program.  We heard a charmingly funny horror story about Herbert von Karajan from his student days at Juilliard, pushed into a conductor’s role for a movement of the symphony we heard tonight, complete with the obligatory imitation of the great man.

It was the perfect preamble, something I will miss when he’s gone. Oundjian has a wonderfully collegial manner at the microphone, a generous teacher & mentor without much evident ego getting in the way.

We heard the TSO in three works:

  • Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free by Leonard Bernstein
  • The piano concerto in F by George Gershwin
  • Johannes Brahms’ 1st Symphony in C Minor

It’s an odd sort of thing, this business of celebration.  Everyone was so pumped up that we were not watching an orchestra drilled by their master so much as an ensemble reminding me of  eager children performing their Christmas Pageant, complete with the adoring audience eating it all up.

The month to come won’t necessarily be the same as tonight, but for this occasion, the adrenaline was high.  Everything felt a bit louder than usual, as though the acoustics of Roy Thomson Hall had improved. But I think it was simply that everyone played with great commitment.

This was especially true of Jon Kimura Parker, substituting on short notice for an indisposed Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who was to have been the soloist in the Gershwin.  Parker practically ran onstage, bouncing in his seat a couple of times while playing.  This concerto is a favourite of mine, but I have to say this was a reading unlike any I’ve ever heard.  Oundjian played up the jazzy element from the orchestra, giving us big dynamic range.  And Oundjian gave Parker lots of room for his occasionally idiosyncratic rubati, an interpretation with genuine soul.  I’ve always found Oundjian especially generous in concerti, very thoughtful around his soloists with a wonderfully supportive approach: and that was again true tonight.

Peter Oundjian, Jon Kimura Parker_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Oundjian shapes the orchestra in support of soloist Parker (photo: Jag Gundu).

Parker’s encore that he introduced as a tribute to Oundjian was a blistering reading of Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude, red hot playing in one of the most impressive displays of pianism I’ve seen in a long time.  Wow.

The three brief Bernstein dance movements were little jewels, exploding with energy & verve.

Then came the Brahms, where the orchestra celebrating Oundjian seemed at odds with the need for balance in a large scale work, colliding with the subtleties of this symphony.  It’s weird, that the piece at times was subverted by energy, when I think I would have preferred something less intense, less edgy, more magisterial, unified and self-assured.  We heard solo after solo played beautifully, stunning playing from the string section (for instance in the main theme of the last movement) or the trombones (the choir near the end of the symphony).  I think tomorrow’s concert will be better when they settle down and simply play.

In the days ahead we’ll be hearing the TSO and Oundjian in Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, a concert featuring Christopher Plummer & music inspired by William Shakespeare, Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and for the final weekend, Beethoven’s joyful Ninth Symphony.

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What I learned from Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain, a man of contradictions, has died.  Yes he ended his life, but he seemed to know more about how to enjoy life than anyone I can think of.  As I watch CNN’s marathon of favourite episodes of Parts Unknown, I’m trying to pay it forward by trying to capture a bit of what I’ve learned from him, a man who was among other things a great teacher.

  1. Say “yum” or “mmm” when someone gives you a taste.  Did Bourdain ever say a critical word EVER? He takes a taste and inevitably says “thank you”.  Music critics? We could learn from this guy.  Be grateful. Getting to listen to beautiful music is a blessing.

    Now of course we don’t see the preparation, the research. But that only means that Bourdain & his team make sure they’re eating something wonderful before they set up the shot where everyone is moaning in ecstasy.  But it’s not so hard to stifle the negative words, is it? Smile, nod, model enjoyment & pleasure.

  2. Curiosity seems to be fundamental to intelligence.  Bourdain asks questions, always trying to figure out how things work, enquiring about what’s in a recipe and how something is made. And most fundamentally he wants to taste things he hasn’t tasted before. Remember to try something new, and when reading a menu, order the strangest thing there.
  3. Don’t stipulate. Open your heart to what’s before you. Sure, it’s all staged for TV, maybe it wasn’t like that in real life. Okay! So maybe we should pretend we’re on Parts Unknown and that we are meeting people whom we admire and embracing beauty and brilliance.  Applaud creativity, laugh at jokes, eat it up, devour what’s before you. Love it unconditionally.

    Later (when you’re writing about it)? then you can dissect and contemplate what might be going on. But when you’re face to face with the artists? Offer them love and support.

    They are apprehensive, or possibly even terrified of what you might say. Me? I’m gentle Pollyanna, so nothing to fear. But even so: be gentle, careful.

    Be nice.

  4. Be profane. Don’t be afraid of bad words. They are truthful, dammit.
  5. Listen to the person you are talking to. What do they know? where have they been? what interests them? Shut up and listen.
  6. Learn martial arts : because walking into strange places is easier if you know ju-jitsu or karate and have a wash-board tummy.  I’ll never get the rock hard abs, but it’s not a bad idea, the morning after pigging out.
  7. Eating is fun and drinking is fun and if you’re not loving it, not having fun don’t do it.  Wait until you have a good reason to eat or drink such as acute thirst or hunger.  This is really about going to see opera or a concert. What was it CS Lewis said? Fans of mystery novels should review mystery novels.  If I am a baroque and classical fan, sitting at a modern opera hating its dissonance: maybe I shouldn’t be there. Love is the answer. No I don’t know what the question is.
  8. Good cheese is better than a naked body on the beach. Although I’d love to have the opportunity to make the comparison.
  9. People are vulnerable when they are eating and  drinking.  Vulnerability? However you get it, it’s indispensable for rapport. The unmasked vulnerable person is the real person: the one you want to meet

    And know.

  10. Bourdain regularly pursues the un-commmon rather than the mainstream, the road less traveled. There’s a great episode I saw tonight celebrating examining how Marseilles is a better alternative to Paris.  So of course when he comes to Canada? he explores Québec or Newfoundland.  Of course.
  11. Compassion for the addict and their addiction: no judgment because he has been there and it could happen to anyone.  How is it that this food & travel show taught me more about heroin than anything I’ve ever seen?  Possibly because Bourdain has literally been there himself.
  12. He’s unafraid to look inept or goofy or incompetent: because he is comfortable in his own skin and in front of the camera.  I am remembering an appearance I made on CBC’s opera quiz, and how I laughed at my own ineptitude.  Nobody really cares about performance, so long as you seem comfortable in your own skin.  This is true when we’re singing or playing the keyboard.  The audience / congregation don’t want to be stressed out about whether you’re able to hit the high note.
  13. Bourdain started in the kitchen himself. He never lost his respect for the hard work of creation. Critics should have some sense of the labour involved, some respect for the work.

    Honouring the worker honours the work.

  14. Parts unknown? Visit them both on the map AND on the menu: explore new music new food new people new books new media.  Indeed, the parts unknown can even be ourselves. Do we know our own parts?

And why did he choose to end his life? Who knows. I am sad for such a death. But i can’t miss his love of life,  joie de vivre.

In the meantime seize the day or seize the bottle or seize the lover.  Enjoy yourself and you’re walking in his footsteps.

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The Little Match Girl Passion

Tonight was the second & concluding performance for Soundstreams presentation of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, paired on the program with the world premiere of James Rolfe’s song cycle I Think We Are Angels at Crow’s Theatre.


Composer David Lang (photo: Peter Serling)

I hesitate to make too much of the similarities between the two pieces when some of them may have been forced onto Rolfe, whose commission likely was framed something like “hello James, could you please write a piece using the same personnel & (more or less the same) instruments as what we’re using for the other work we’re doing…?”   I don’t know how stringent the stipulations may have been upon Rolfe’s commission, which I think he fulfilled admirably.

The two works are similar and match rather well. Both works employ four vocal soloists, namely soprano Vania Chan, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig,  tenor Colin Ainsworth &  bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus.

In addition,

  • Lang’s work included tubular bells,  a bass drum and other hand-held percussion
  • Rolfe’s work included accordion (played by Michael Bridge), bells & additional percussion
  • Where Lang writes a cappella, tonal with occasional ventures into chromaticism, Rolfe is diatonic, the voices tunefully accompanied

I was intrigued by the process behind Lang’s work, which appears to take a sentimental story by Hans Christian Andersen—namely “The Little Match Girl”—and re-tell it employing elements from a Christian passion narrative.  Lang’s dramaturgy employs at least two different modes, at times telling a story, which is certainly something we find in any of Bach’s great passions, at other times stopping the action for something more ritualized, both in language and in the setting of those words.  There are points of contact with Christian passion stories, most explicitly when a voice says “Eli”, which is how Jesus cries out on the cross, but also the beginning of a great psalm where the psalmist says “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (or in other words “God, God, why have you forsaken me”?)

As 21st Century compositions it’s clear we’ve moved well beyond Modernism into something entirely different.   Not only are both of these composers comfortable with tonal writing, but we’re engaged with textual elements that I don’t think we’ve seen in decades.  The source story for Lang is as sentimental as anything you’d encounter in Puccini, mitigated perhaps by the juxtaposition with the passion story.  Even so this is a story wearing its heart on its sleeve, almost demanding that you have tears.

Rolfe’s challenge was greater I think, as his cycle takes poems that don’t have anything remotely as solid as the Hans Christian Andersen storyline; as a result it’s a series of lovely moments, without the textual unity one might wish for.  The best song cycles –thinking for instance of Frauenliebe und Leben, Dichterliebe, Die schöne Müllerin or even Strauss’s Four Last Songs are pulled together by something like a storyline.  For me that’s the chief difference between the Lang piece and Rolfe’s work.  There is something delightful about the use of accordion, which humanizes the romance that’s lurking in several of Rolfe’s songs.  I devoutly wish I could have had more preparation for this work, (perhaps a look at the song texts?) as I never really succeeded in wrapping my head around the work, lovely as it was.  I kept wondering on each successive song if it was about to be over (the lights were out so we couldn’t follow the text that was in the program).  With the Lang piece I studiously read the text, which is maybe a great way to know what’s coming although in another sense, it took away any possibility that I would be surprised.

The four singers were wonderful, particularly in the Lang, where Chan’s small barefoot presence was extremely touching, matched by a clear but delicate delivery throughout.  Ludwig, Hegedus & Ainsworth all had their moments to shine, and all four were pressed into service as instrumentalists as well.  There’s more to it than what I’ve written, as we’re watching something resembling opera; but I feel Soundstreams avoided going there, leaning more towards the realm of a concert rather than a staged piece of drama or opera.  It’s a legitimate choice, allowing for mystery and the excitement of discovery, although for the first piece I was pretty much lost, nice as the music was.


Composer James Rolfe (Photo: Juliet Palmer)

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Circle of Sound – Charm of Finches



Circle of Sound Poster (1)

Charm of Finches, Canada’s Premiere Flute Quintet. Charm of Finches’ musicians are mavericks in the classical genre – all young, vibrant and electrifying musicians – and the force behind brilliant new arrangements and compositions with a reputation for delivering fresh and energetic concerts.

This concert features the Toronto premieres of Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, arranged by Gudrun Hinze, and David Heath’s ‘Return to Avalon’ for SEVEN FLUTES, joined by Kelly Zimba and Camile Watts. The programme also includes the world premiere of ‘First came the temple…’ written by Toronto-based composer, Bekah Simms. And to round off the evening with ‘Raga Terah’ by JUNO and three-time ECMA award-winning Canadian composer, Derek Chark. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear these incredible musicians up close and personal, in the intimate venue of Hart House, East Common Room.


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Opera: Passion, Power, and Politics

There it all is, everything a boy or girl could want in one headline.

Now in fact that’s the title of a big beautiful book that I’ve been reading.  And what good is a book if it doesn’t push your buttons? This one certainly intrigues and excites me.

passionpowerpolitics_PICTUREIn my experience big luscious books about opera that are full of nice pictures rarely have the depth or intellectual heft to match.  Hm, isn’t that funny? A book will be heavy to lift but light-weight where it matters most: in the text.  Aha,  that’s the usual, but not in this case.  I saw Opera: Passion, Power and Politics on the new arrivals shelf at the Edward Johnson Library, where I find so much great stuff (for instance that Bernstein book that I devoured just a few days ago): a book that arose in context with an exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum that ran quite recently, from September 2017 until February of this year.

Ah, if only we had a show like this in Toronto.

When I read you the conceptual overview from the back jacket, please note that I am describing text that is embossed in gold, embedded in the fabric of the cover.  It’s almost too beautiful for me to capture the words, a wonderfully sensuous book to handle, even before you discover the beautiful pictures inside.

Here’s that blurb, which may surprise you by being quite intriguing, certainly more than any such opera picture book I’ve ever seen before. I’ll bold-face it in gold-coloured text, although this doesn’t nearly do justice to this lovely object: as in the gleaming picture above.

Focusing on seven key premieres in seven European cities, this fascinating book –published in collaboration with the Royal opera House, London– captures the passion, power and spectacle of opera over its rich 400-year history.  With introductory essays by some of today’s leading practitioners including Plácido Domingo, Antonio Pappano and Simone Young, it celebrates an innovative and complex art form that continues to inspire new generations of audiences around the world. A product of its own time, each opera also acts as a lens through which we can examine contemporary politics, culture and society.

Claudio Monteverdi L’incoronazione di Poppea 

George Frideric Handel Rinaldo

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Le nozze di Figaro

Giuseppe Verdi Nabucco

Richard Wagner Tannhäuser

Richard Strauss Salome

Dmitri Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

The jacket speaks of Domingo & Pappano perhaps because those names will help sell the book. But I’m more intrigued by Danielle de Niese talking about her role debut as Poppea, Robert Carsen musing on Rinaldo and Handel’s da capo arias, Roger Parker on the young Verdi, Michael Levine speaking of the design of Tannhäuser complete with a couple of intriguing photos, and Graham Vick speaking of Shostakovich.   It may not cover everything, but it does give you essays exploring opera in genuinely inter-disciplinary  ways.  I’m thinking of titles such as

  • Nicholas Till writing about “Vienna and the Englightenment”, aiming to put Mozart into context
  • “Wagner among the boulevards: Tannhäuser in Paris“, talking about the city and its culture as much as the opera
  • “Visions of women: Salome and Dresden”, looking at Wilde, Strauss & Beardsley (yes some lovely images), and Strauss’s opera as seen through the lens of directors Peter Brook (with help from Salvador Dali’s designs), Robert Carsen & David McVicar.
  • “Heroine, victim, or Criminal? Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, an ambitious essay from Elizabeth Wilson exploring the intersection of Soviet politics and opera.

Each of the seven pairings –an opera and a city—elicits a short introductory piece (such as Domingo’s or Carsen’s) plus a longer essay (such as the one by Parker or Wilson).

And there’s a concluding section that isn’t really necessary, that curiously reminds me of the Bernstein book I reviewed a few days ago, the way it weakens the book, perhaps by seeming to be trying too hard.

Even so it’s a magnificent book, a worthy gift for any opera lover of your acquaintance.  (if you follow the link you can see the book in soft or hard cover, an inexpensive opera tote bag and even an Aubrey Beardsley scarf.)

Oh heck, buy it for yourself. You’re worth it.

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