Tick talk

From time to time I venture away from the path of opera, symphony & theatre.

Tuesday night as Erika & I were getting ready for bed, having brushed & flossed and made ourselves ready for slumber, any thoughts of sleep were disrupted decisively by an intruder.

“What is THAT?” Erika was looking at my leg.

What did she mean? I followed her gaze. “Oh… I guess I must have scratched myself”. Yes I had a mark on my calf. I was still intent on sleep so I was brushing off the query, wanting to sleep.

“Let me see that,” she said.  I was expecting to sleep.  It went back and forth a few times. I’ll abbreviate the conversation,…

But she insisted, so I put my leg up on the bathroom counter. A mole? A bump? I was half-asleep, but aware that yes, this is where partners can be so helpful, an extra pair of eyes to spot things that might be growing on parts we can’t see, to prevent cancer, right?

Erika and I were not on the same page. I was out of it, meanwhile she? She looked closely, wanted to disinfect the wound. And as she approached with the alcohol soaked cotton pad, she thought she saw something move.

It all happened so fast. And so this changes from a sleepy bedtime story into a bit of an adventure.

Erika used her cotton pad to pull something out of my leg. She grabbed it. It wouldn’t come out. Erika advised me that she thought there was something in my leg, grabbed at it… Her body language was amazing, while I burst out laughing. As she explained: this strong little thing was pulling against her, and strong.

Me? I always laugh when I’m in pain (…ouch!). Luckily Erika was careful not to let this little beast break apart, so it came out all in one piece. And for the moment still alive.

My leg was still up on the counter where Erika swabbed hydrogen peroxide onto the open wound. I was thinking about Alien, or more accurately the reprise in Spaceballs¸ where John Hurt is hurt indeed, especially when he said “oh no not again”.

I resisted the impulse to sing “hello my baby…”  But yes I did say “CHECK PLEASE!”

I took a picture of the little bugger –whatever it was—before putting it first into a plastic bag between the cotton pads and then into a glass jar.


Erika was shaken but did manage to get to sleep within half an hour, whereas I would be up for ages, googling about ticks. Did I catch something or would I catch something? Lyme disease? Of course the internet stories don’t tell you the whole story.

All kidding aside,

  • Erika is my hero…. I didn’t even realize I had a problem (I was ready to sleep, remember?)
  • Apparently no one expects this, which is how infections can happen. Sometimes the tick is as small as a poppy seed! When in doubt check it out.

I figured out after the fact what had happened. I had been carrying yard waste from the back with the intention of bundling the bigger pieces for collection. While carrying an armful, surely something slipped into the gap between my rubber boot and my jeans; I know this because the wound is exactly where my boots reach, an uncanny coincidence.  While I had the long pants, long-sleeve shirt, and even the gloves (although I wasn’t wearing them), if you don’t tuck your pants carefully into your boots, you’re practically issuing an invitation to the little fellers.


Yes it’s yard waste.  It’s also potentially the opportunity for a tick to get to know you better.

After reading up on ticks and calling Telehealth Ontario (a very helpful nurse), I booked the next morning off work to go see my doctor. Whether or not the tick was dangerous, I wanted her to look at my wound and if necessary give me antibiotics. After looking at the photo (which did not resemble the ticks known to carry the bacteria) and the wound (where there was no sign of any rash or the tell-tale signs of infection) we concluded that it was still a good idea to take a precautionary dose of antibiotic.

I was reassured that the med we gave the dog really make her safe, because if any tick tries to bite her: it dies almost instantly.  If you’re wondering why we don’t have comparable meds at our size and longevity we’d be poisoned; dogs are smaller & live shorter lives.

I took the little specimen in to the public health office. A few days later and I feel great.

Please be careful. If you have any suspicious bumps or wounds, don’t be a stoic, there’s no shame in being certain.

It’s tick season! There are maps showing what parts of the province have the dangerous ticks.  Please be careful.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Food & Nutrition | Tagged | Leave a comment

Resurrection Symphony: that’s how to do it

Tonight was the second of three performances of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall. It’s known as the Resurrection symphony. I’d recommend it to three different groups of people:

  • If you’re religious and conscious of the time of year (Passover / Easter)
  • If you’re seeking an alternative spirituality
  • If you simply want to enjoy a big powerful piece of music executed by a lot of people working together

The last time I reviewed a TSO performance of Mahler’s 2nd I was struggling to be positive, frustrated by the interpretation. While the notes on that occasion may have been played more precisely than this time, what does it matter when the interpretation leaves you cold? I know I can’t be the only one who feels this way, given the rhapsodic response this time, both on social media and especially in the hall.

As with my last TSO concert, there’s been a late replacement at the podium as Matthew Halls was brought in because of an indisposition. And once again the orchestra put in an extra effort.

Matthew Halls_Mahler Resurrection Symphony (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor Matthew Halls (photo: Jag Gundu)

I have a special relationship with this piece. (maybe everyone does?) I feel it was the piece that led me back to spirituality & religion, in a family who had been regular church-goers in my early childhood but who stopped for various reasons.

No wonder.  This work turns the season upside down. While it’s Maundy Thursday as I write this, on the eve of Good Friday, (the day celebrating Christ’s Crucifixion), in the lead-up to Easter (a festival of Jesus’s resurrection), this symphony is the opposite, and no I don’t mean because Mahler was Jewish. No.  Instead of celebrating one person’s rising from the dead, this text proclaims that we shall all rise again.

There is no hell in this theology. We are all forgiven, accepted, included.

But it’s not at all naïve. The text of the song “Urlicht” is an especially poignant reminder of the real world. While the singer tells of an angel who refuses entry, it’s chilling in its reminder of separations in places such as Auschwitz or border crossings. I played this song in church once, watching a singer who was partially disabled, unable to walk easily, to get close to the piano. As the traffic for the offertory collection rolled along with the singer doing her best, a flood of recognition filled my eyes, that we might all be rejected: just as Mahler himself had been in his time. The inclusiveness of the final resurrection chorale might seem sacred or spiritual, but it resonates powerfully in 2019.

While I may not have agreed with every interpretive choice made by Halls, who cares? He was wonderfully decisive, 100 times better than what we had last time. It was an interpretation, an approach that gave the performance a real edge, true passion.

To open Halls took a pace reminiscent of Klemperer, giving the opening a genuine gravitas. Every note seemed thought out and intentional at this pace, even if the movement unfolded a bit slowly. When I was in my teens this is how I understood the piece, at this stately tempo, fitting for a sacred rite. In due course Halls picked up the pace. Sometimes he accelerated, but slowed down for the restatement of the main theme, or for the dreamy second subject. But one saw such a commitment from this orchestra, a readiness to answer cues. While there may have been a fluffed note or two, it doesn’t matter. This was high drama, the way Mahler would have liked it.

I do wish the TSO would follow Mahler’s suggestion, to put a pause between the first movement and the rest of the symphony. It was on my mind as I listened to a few people applauding after the first movement tonight. If there’s an intermission: let them clap. And there was a great deal of restlessness, coughing, rustling of papers, before the second movement began. I think Mahler meant the fifth movement to be like a continuation of the first, with the three middle movements like interludes or intermezzi. If we are to think of that last movement in some sense being at the end of time, an apocalypse when the dead rise, it makes sense to have something in there, including an interval. I think we should be hearing those themes from a distance, recalling them as though time has passed.

Oh well, maybe next time.

One of the highlights of the concert was both musical and acoustical. Our two vocal soloists were situated in the middle of the choir loft upstage of the orchestra. When Marie-Nicole Lemieux stood up to sing “Urlicht” the voice came floating from the back. Yes she does have an amazing voice that you may recall from the Canadian Opera Company’s Falstaff from four and half years ago (apt as we anticipate Gerald Finley’s return for Otello). But the acoustic worked much better than I expected, her tone glorious, joined in the last movement by the soaring soprano voice of Joélle Harvey.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Joelle Harvey surrounded by Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, (photo: Jag Gundu)

I hope we will encounter Halls again, as he clearly knows what he’s doing, and the TSO responds to him, including string portamento like you might have heard a hundred years ago, the trumpets positively schmaltzy. The entry of the chorus (Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, sounding oh so beautiful) in the last movement was accomplished without requiring them to make the noise of standing (even at the very moment they were singing about rising). Perhaps I’m asking too much, dreaming of a performance without the comings & goings of players for the offstage moments; if the chorus standing up is disruptive, why not brass players commuting on and off the stage? Yes I know it would be expensive, perhaps impossible. But I’m just putting it out there, like my request that they honour Mahler’s request for a break after the first movement. I don’t think it even matters if the offstage trumpets or horns are out of synch or less perfect than the ones onstage. It’s theatre, and a magnificent idea. While Mozart & Verdi & Berlioz –to name three—each had a go at giving us their version of the trumpets of judgment (with the words “tuba mirum” in their respective requiem masses), I think Mahler’s is the most convincing, most heart-stoppingly beautiful. When the trumpets are a bit out of synch –as I suspect they would have been back in Mahler’s time, long before cc-TV—the effect is that much more poignant, like a lost corps of ghostly troops marching into the afterworld. Perfection is less important than meaningful playing, music that connects because it’s shaped into something.

Halls gets Mahler.

There is one more of these wonderful concerts to come, on Saturday April 20th . Go if you can.

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Two schools

My review of the Canadian Opera Company La Boheme that I saw last night alluded to two different approaches. I hope you’ll bear with me. I know many people who would roll their eyes. Why bother at all with Boheme, this warhorse?

Perhaps that’s the problem, like the people who have given up on voting, having decided they can’t trust the process or the promises of the candidates.

We can understand two extremes, with all sorts of combinations between the two poles.  Ideally a production would unify styles, rather than offering two or more approaches on display in the same production.  For better or worse, I meant these two extremes:
1: “old fashioned” was what I called it in the headline. It wasn’t a euphemism, it was literally true. Many in the audience gobble this up, and some prefer their opera this way. This is how things used to be done: singers standing and gesturing and mugging, while placing almost their entire focus on singing, a histrionic style rather than one that’s recognizably modern.
2: “naturalistic” might be an absurd word to use, when we’re still talking about operatic performance. But one can sing in a way that the feelings being expressed emerge as though the performer just thought of them (operatic method acting??). Singers who are looking out into the audience, staring at the conductor or parking themselves in one place to sing are less believable than those who engage with the diegetic reality of the story and with one another, reacting and seeming fully alive.

There are moments in Boheme that are more conducive to one style than the other. I think the two arias side by side in Act I don’t have to be done the same way. Where “che gelida manina” does have some business (he touches her hand after all), it’s really about a text that builds to a big high note, followed by a gradual diminuendo to the last notes on a question to Mimi. Just as we might say boys will be boys, so too tenors will be tenors.  I won’t go so far as to say “egomaniacal narcissists will be egomaniacal narcissists” even if I do watch way too much CNN and read the tweets of a certain politician.  If the tenor isn’t totally self-centred, it’s already a win. And so long as the high notes are there, all is forgiven.

Her answering aria is conversational, some of its most beautiful effects are actually in the orchestra –where I hear clearly Puccini telling us that her life is a passive fatal reaction to circumstance, that she has a dark cloud hanging over her–and not in the vocal line, unlike the tenor’s aria. The role of Mimi is different, because it’s really all about what she shows us in her reactions, which tells us how she will live her life.

Maybe I need to admit that this opera is full of moments that I have seen done both ways, both the older style or someone aiming to find something authentic.

When Musetta & Marcello end their exchange in Act III with insults (it’s a bit like a duet but functions as part of a quartet, given that Rodolfo & Mimi are also onstage) , this can seem very real. I was surprised at how natural this exchange seemed last night, as Musetta walked off with another man, while Marcello’s replies had less than the usual anger: because he seemed deflated & jealous. Just when you think you know how a scene should sound, someone surprises you.


(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

The ending of the opera is a musical- drama event that can be very powerful. The way it’s written it should work like clockwork, yet frustrates me over and over. We watch a sequence of events, as

  • Mimi dies
  • Schaunard is the first to notice and tells Marcello
  • The music gives us a little bit of melody then silence.
  • Gradually each of the singers onstage notices & privately responds, until Colline (who has just returned with money) innocently says “how’s it going?” (literally “come va”).

There is silence. What the opera does in this silence can be quite magical, even if done in the old-fashioned way.

  1. Rodolfo speaks into the silence wondering at the others, and the reality begins to dawn on him (and the question for the performance is: how quickly? how much? how soon?).
  2. Marcello is the first to address the reality, saying “Coraggio” (courage) to Rodolfo
  3. And Rodolfo finally understands, going to the bed crying “Mimi!, Mimi! Mimi!

The old fashioned way to do this usually gives us a Rodolfo who is sobbing very early, and alas that’s what we got last night. What I understand in this composition is that Puccini meant for the orchestra’s loud chords to signify recognition, the blast meaning a gut-level knowledge.  The ending is much more powerful if Rodolfo somehow resists the impulse to be a ham, resists the impulse to steal this moment from the audience by over-acting.

I’ve seen it done another way that would seem more naturalistic, in the sense of letting the emotions emerge in tune with the music and building in a way that seems more like what Puccini had in mind. At ‘1’ we don’t need to have a shouting voice. Rodolfo should begin this relatively neutral, if not hopeful At the very least he is questioning, confused, rather than too loud too soon. If he’s too loud he upstages Marcello’s line. I recall Against the Grain doing it with this emotional logic, Ryan Harper as Rodolfo & Justin Welsh as Marcello, directed by Joel Ivany back in 2011. If Rodolfo isn’t too loud, then Marcello’s line has the simple dignity that opens the flood gates to what follows. Rodolfo should not really know too much too soon. I can handle histrionics, stand-and-deliver singing, two-dimensional characterization, sentimentality: so long as there is a clear emotional logic. Otherwise you’re wasting Puccini’s melodrama.

I’ll see it again. Perhaps the production will be more fluid when they’re done a few more performances.

Posted in Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | 2 Comments

Old-fashioned Boheme

Tonight was the opening performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of John Caird’s production of La Boheme directed by Katherine M. Carter. As with their earlier return to Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte a few months ago, the concept wasn’t as tyrannical the second time around, allowing the opera to get back to what it used to be, to work more like usual.

In other words we were watching star performances vying for our attention, Puccini’s wonderful melodies & a sentimental story that can make you cry.

Much of the action is sophomoric, scenes that could be subtitled “boys will be boys:” that is until romance rears its head with the arrival of Mimi. The opera is so well-written that it can’t miss, each performer getting their moments to shine, with a few variations.

I’ve seen a lot of Bohemes in my life, sometimes more realistic in the characterizations, sometimes more operatic, relying on the music to make the biggest statements. This cast is an interesting combination of both approaches.

In the last act everyone is mostly leaning towards that operatic approach –as you might gather from my headline—in readings that are less realistic than operatic, the voices all quite good. Carter reconciles the performances with the concept, so that the images around the stage don’t jar the way they did when Caird first showed us his reading of Boheme.

Atalla Ayan is the impetuous poet Rodolfo, Lucas Meachem is Marcello the painter. Ayan had a lovely Italianate sound & all the high notes you could ask for. Meachem gives us a commanding Marcello, owning the stage every time he wanted our attention with a powerful presence and a bigger voice than one often gets: although I’ve heard it said that Marcello is almost written like a helden baritone. We had the luxury of lots of sound in our Marcello, allowing for a fascinating contrast between the two men, one commanding the other more of a real poet.


Angel Blue and Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

While I used to focus on the music I spoke of as sophomoric –when I was more of a kid myself—with maturity I’ve gradually changed my understanding of the opera, so that Mimi has come to be my favourite character every time she’s on stage. Angel Blue was remarkably original for two acts, accomplishing that miracle in a well-known story like this one, where you dare to dream of a different outcome (which is ridiculous of course). Hers was a youthful & innocent Mimi, giggling and cheerful in ways I haven’t seen in a long while, when so many play her as doomed and tragic. Even in Act III, when the eventual outcome becomes unavoidable, she made a great deal of her encounter with Rodolfo.

Andriana Chuchman’s Musetta was the perfect match for Meachem’s Marcello, every bit as charismatic as he had been and beautifully sung.


(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

You might say that Brandon Cedel as Colline & Phillip Addis as Schaunard were a bit out of step with the others, because their acting was so naturalistic & believable. If this was a problem for me, it was only in the last moment of the opera, when Addis’s response to Mimi’s death totally slayed me, and then the more melodramatic work by everyone else onstage, while normal for this opera, left me cold. But I had tears during Blue’s Act I aria and again in the wonderful duet between her and Ayan in Act III. So it works in some places better than others.  It’s a Boheme with a little something for everyone, gorgeous to look at and beautifully sung.

One other major player had a big impact on the performance, namely conductor Paolo Carignani. I recall once long ago hearing (third hand, quoted from Ernesto Barbini) the assessment that Boheme is the hardest of all operas to conduct, because tempi have to be so variable, sensitive to solos, ensembles, duets, with rubato and nuance and flow. At times Carignani seemed intent on imposing his ego on the performance, leaving soloists scrambling to catch up a few times, and totally hanging the children’s chorus out to dry as though he were a sadistic school-master. So in other words maybe Barbini was right about how difficult this opera is to conduct. The big climaxes were all there, the solos sounded great. In a few a piacere moments he gave a bit more introspective space for the soloists, although this was inconsistent, as in other places the pace was unforgiving. Carignani kept me conscious of the process, keeping me at arm’s length from the story and often unable to really surrender myself to the story: although maybe that’s just me.

I was thinking of Paris, the site of this story and of course the site of the big story in the news this week. Recalling that Victor Hugo said

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society, rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.

So much of Toronto, so much of Canada is new. Our lovely new Four Seasons Centre is our temple to the arts, where the COC presents its operas to us, one of our greatest treasures. I’m so happy to be there, happy we have this wonderful place to gather and celebrate all that is beautiful.

We are so lucky.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pondering wandering

I like the sound of that headline. As I do what it says, pondering wandering, I am a bit lost in the ambiguities. If we knew where we were going it wouldn’t be wandering, would it.

The time of year encourages such thinking, the mind drifting onto certain well-worn pathways as several religions have some of their most important holy days.  I’ve been mulling over some of the things I saw recently, that have taken me on a kind of metaphysical journey.

  • Vivier’s Kopernikus in Against the Grain’s recent production at Theatre Passe Muraille (and because it closed I can now blather on a bit more)
  • Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust in a live performance on youtube that I played while I stumbled through spreadsheets during a long day at work Thursday
  • Mallick’s The Tree of Life, that I watched until midnight Friday night
  • The Third Act of Wagner’s Parsifal, that I played through Saturday afternoon

Composer Claude Vivier

I left out certain aspects of my experience of Kopernikus when I wrote my review.  Am I concerned I might foist my particular spirituality upon anyone?  Or is it simply that I wonder if I am just admitting how totally I felt in synch with Vivier, how deeply I identified with his meditation.  But as I went through this little cycle of spiritual and quasi-spiritual works, the parallels and similarities seem so strong I thought I wanted to write about it, both to capture it for myself in this public diary, but also in case this might be illuminating for anyone else in their own journey.

I wish I could see Kopernikus again for at least a couple of reasons. There was a great deal going on in different places in front of us at the theatre. The first time through has a certain magic, but I submit that we really need to be seeing it more than once, given that it’s written (thinking of Vivier) and presented (thinking of Joel Ivany’s direction, Matjash Mrozewski’s choreography as well as the various performances) as ritual. The opera is subtitled “a ritual opera for the dead”, which put Ivany & Mrozewski into a bit of a bind. We don’t get to see it multiple times, so the movement & action needs to somehow signify ritual. Our handouts in the theatre also clued us in to a great deal, although I don’t know that there’s any one way, no right way. It’s wandering, right? That means some are on the path, some aren’t and indeed, those in the bushes may actually be closest to the true way. I think I am having my usual ambivalence, where an invitation sometimes turns me off if it’s too blatant, thinking of this theatre as a kind of temple of the arts but also as a place for Vivier’s ritual celebration.

After the performance I chatted with Joel & Topher Mokrzewski. I wondered about the closing image, which I alluded to indirectly but left out of the review, as I avoid spoilers at all cost. But I realize maybe it would have been useful to talk about this, to in effect give a future audience some idea as to where the storyline goes. Is it a spoiler when they tell you on Good Friday that Jesus rose 3 days later? that we’re saved? That’s the difference between watching a religious epic without any idea of the import or context, as opposed to being a believer who waits for the expected ending to affirm their faith.  Kopernikus’s conclusion at Theatre Passe Muraille was so similar to Robert Lepage’s final image in his Met Production of Damnation de Faust I wondered if Joel & Topher had seen it. I thought of it as an influence and a wonderful one at that, not taking issue with the similarity but admiring its universality.

But they knocked my socks off when they showed me that it’s in Vivier’s score, the most explicit thing in the whole piece. Where everything in Vivier is ambiguous, a verbal labyrinth that is 70% a made-up language (in Topher’s estimation), the ending is clear-cut, as they (or is it Agni only? I can’t recall because I only had a moment to glance at the score that Topher showed me) ascend and walk out a door, a door that shuts with a big sound, to conclude the work.

Bigtime shivers I am recalling at that moment, and surely everyone in the theatre had them too.

The moment at the end of Lepage / Berlioz was elegance itself, and I recall being frustrated at the time. Marguérite goes to heaven. After the massive celebration of the devils in their funny made-up language (uh-oh! another parallel), Berlioz has the angels gently beckoning to Marguérite, inviting her up to heaven. And so we see Susan Graham climb up a ladder, no magic or fancy mise-en-scène. It’s so simple, very much like what we see in the Vivier (and once again there’s Lepage asking his singer to take a physical risk). It turned things a bit upside down to think that, no, Joel wasn’t influenced by Lepage, but maybe Lepage was influenced by Vivier at some level..?   (did he ever come across the piece? I wonder…. No, I would doubt it)

Berlioz figures again in Tree of Life.  I stumbled on this by accident, the day after choosing to listen to Damnation at work, there it was on TV. I hadn’t seen it in awhile but voila, there it was being broadcast and I was irresistibly drawn. I hadn’t noticed that Mallick employs the opening brooding music from Harold in Italy in a sequence of the young Jack, the brooding character we see as an adult played by Sean Penn. How did I miss it the first time through?

And so when in the final ecstatic reconciliation images, the bodies wandering on a beach, reminding me so much of what Joel & Matjash did in Kopernikus, a labyrinth of wandering spirits in a kind of nowhere (whether it’s a beach as in the film, or the brutally blank space Jason Hand made for us in Theatre Passe Muraille), it made sense that Mallick took us from the misery of his Byronic wanderer Harold to the serene affirmation of Berlioz’s Requiem.

I was left alone yesterday (aka Saturday) with the dog. And not just because of the time of year but also because of where my head is at, I pulled out Parsifal. The last act begins with a musical image of wandering that likely resonated with Vivier. I’ve had this conversation in various ways with a few new music practitioners I admire, and whatever their misgivings about opera or romantic music, it’s surprising how often they admit their admiration (that word again) for Parsifal, one of the earliest 20th century compositions, written in the 1880s. That opening is in its way a version of the passage in Harold in Italy, a melancholy wandering lost in a spiritual waste-land.

Redemption in the story and in the typology is to find one’s way: to no longer be lost. The sacred castle of the Grail Knights can’t be found by just anyone but only through grace, through the intervention of higher powers.

It’s very low-key in much of its preaching, letting the beauty of the spring speak to the healing power of spirit in the world, even if the world seems lost. After hours of yard work it’s the most natural thing in the world to sit at the piano and trace that lost pathway, leading to the Good Friday music, and then the angry confrontation between the Knights & Amfortas, before Parsifal appears in the final apotheosis.

Some of us are luckier than others, that the grace finds its way to us, or that we find our way to grace. If you need proof before you open your heart, if you need to see the happy ending, like a movie trailer where they show you clearly how the film ends? That’s what the journey is for, if it has a purpose at all, to get us past the simplistic questioning, to give us the ability to live with ambivalence and doubt.

(afternoon addendum, wandering with the dog in the rain…Wondering if Faust was written by Berlioz at this time of year. He has his Faust in a comparable moment of misery about to kill himself, and he hears an Easter choir (“Christ vient de ressusciter!” they say.) Salvation!? and a moment later, Mephisto appears.  So the tidy ending is perhaps dangerous. Do not be too cocky about your faith, on holy week)

In the meantime, enjoy the spring, enjoy your journey.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Spirituality & Religion, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Youthful leader inspires TSO

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Kerem Hasan is 27 after all, and we aren’t supposed to be ageist anymore in the 21st century. The conventional wisdom says that an experienced maestro is the ideal leader of an orchestra.

Kerem Hasan_c_TristanFewings

Conductor Kerem Hasan (photo: Tristan Fewings)

But tonight I saw the best Toronto Symphony concert I’ve seen in a long while, led by a very young conductor. I’m sorry I can’t suggest you go see him because it was the final one in the series. I understand that Hasan stepped in at the last minute, a replacement at the podium for an indisposition.

That seems even more impressive, don’t you think?

Perhaps the program helped. All three items represent compositions that were revolutionary works in their time.  Hasan brought an urgency to each one, a kind of excitement as if the music were brand new, no matter what century it was composed.

I wonder if Hasan has conducted them before?

  • Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  • Szymanowski’s first violin concerto
  • Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony

This was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen from the TSO. Young Maestro Hasan inspired the orchestra, drawing committed playing every moment, and intriguing readings, well-thought out and impressive.

It was a fast but tight reading of the Debussy which is how I like it. The ensemble responded to the conductor’s every gesture after allowing the flute solo to unfold.  Every player paid close attention to his every gesture.

The concerto was well played by soloist Christian Tetzlaff. But Hasan kept the orchestra out of the way, never letting the ensemble get too loud when the violin was playing. There was one huge climactic explosion of sound in the leadup to Tetzlaff’s cadenza near the end of the work (a marvelous creation from the soloist), but otherwise this colorful piece was gently expressive.

I wondered as we came to the main work on the program after the interval, namely the Eroica Symphony of Beethoven: what was Hasan’s secret? All three pieces were approached with great energy, care, sensitivity. Inner voices were clear, and the phrasing made everything very coherent.  You would think their lives depended on it, the way they followed the conductor.

Hasan led a crisp energetic reading of the Eroica, among the best playing by the TSO that I have ever heard in all my time attending Roy Thomson Hall.

I wonder if the TSO will try to bring him back? I hope so!

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Boisterously brilliant Bigre

Watching people tortured can be funny.

Bigre, a Compagnie le fils du Grand Réseau Production, presented by Canadian Stage in collaboration with Théâtre Francaise de Toronto, opened tonight at the Berkeley St Theatre. In our modern gentrified cities, the impossibly tight spaces people are being forced to live in present the opportunity for phenomenal physical comedy.

It’s co-written and co-created by Pierre Guillois, Agathe L’Huillier & Olivier Martin Salvan, directed by Pierre Guillois, and performed by Guillois alternating with Bruno Fleury, Eléonore Auzou-Connes alternating with Agathe L’Huillier, and Jonathan Pinto-Rocha.


Agathe L’Huillier, Jonathan Pinto-Rocha and Pierre Guillois (photo: Fabienne Rappeneau)

By accident I watched the recent film Stan & Ollie earlier this week, a bio-pic about the latter years of Laurel & Hardy that reminds you of some of the simplest tropes in comedy. Ditto tonight, including some gags that are literally centuries old: and still getting laughs. Guillois, Auzou-Connes and Pinto-Rocha each had moments of genuine brilliance.

It’s one of those shows that I watched, envying the performers, wishing I could be up there on that stage.  You could see how much fun this was, although the work is hard, not for the faint of heart.

The space –letting us peer into three tiny adjacent apartments—is really a pretense for humour.  The seeming impossibility of life inspires the ingenuity of each of them in different ways, like little flowers that insist on bursting out of the dirt.   Lighting, sound & music help segment the sequences, some long, some short, as we get deeper and deeper into the world of this fascinating trio. I defy you to see this show and not fall in love with them. While there’s pain there is also pathos & vulnerability. The emotional range is surprising.

The laughter moves around in the theatre. I found myself fascinated that at times people near me were guffawing, at other times they were silent when it was my turn.  Sometimes it’s painful, nervous laughs, sometimes pure fun.

Glimpsing three people living in the tiny space, tripping over one another, driving one another nuts? Yet life happens. They eat, they sleep, they have all their bodily functions (yes all of them), desperately human and totally hilarious.

While there’s an enormous amount of sound and noise, we’re not hearing words. Mouths move. Hands & legs gyrate. Hair gets very messed up. The wind blows. But especially bodies, three bodies sometimes discreet and separate, sometimes interacting.  All three performers show genuine physical eloquence.

This is one of those inspiring shows that reminds you of the possibilities of live theatre & creative performance. You will likely hear people telling you to go see this, and I’d echo that sentiment.

What is it exactly? There are elements of burlesque, of Commedia dell’Arte, clowns, comedy. Knowing what to call it is not important. It’s funny. It’s not verbal but physical. And it’s truly magical.

Bigre continues at the Berkeley St Theatre until April 28th.


L’Huillier, Pinto-Rocha & Guillois (photo: Fabienne Rappeneau)

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