Simon Banks’ Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World

For me Christmas came early, when I got my hands on Simon Banks’ new book Opera: The Autobiography of the Western World. I mention that because this is the ideal gift for anyone you know who loves opera or who wants to learn more about the medium. It’s a perfect embellishment to decorate the coffee table.

The goal of Banks’ book is to examine how we find ourselves reflected in opera, literature and painting. These arts have been telling our story for centuries. Banks’ unlikely ambition is to summarize and paraphrase all of that into western culture’s life story: the history of the world.

I felt I need to put this preamble onto my review of the book concerning its goals, both because it is highly original (I was gob-smacked when I saw the table of contents) and fascinating in the execution. In passing I feel the need to observe how Banks is simultaneously studying opera, and writing a media history of the west, composed in words and images. This is a beautiful book, delightful to hold, full of pictures.

It fits nicely into a week when I’m obsessing about theatre history after seeing Red Velvet, a wonderful play reflecting on the discourse about our experiences in the theatre and its relationship to the world outside. I find the nerdy exploration of details in the background of a piece of theatre (operatic or otherwise) endlessly fascinating.

I should mention that I’ve seen other books with a clever concept, a unique pathway into the operas they study: where I was seduced by the concept, grabbed by the title: and then disappointed in how it was executed. In fact this also describes some opera productions I’ve seen, where the concept works for some scenes while failing in others. And so, while I quibbled momentarily against Bank’s bold pathway, I was hooked soon enough, especially by the combination of Banks’ analytical texts and the images he includes as corollary. Paintings portraying his subjects remind me of the smoking gun Banks would show us as evidence, as though from the scene of the crime.

It’s no surprise to discover that Banks has taught art history at the University of St Andrews, given the skillful matching of images to the essays. We’re thinking in multiple media, which is refreshing. I’ve written about inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary creators as the most exciting artists of our time. But opera has always been a hybrid, not just music, but theatre, design, drama, spectacle.

Presumed portrait of Lucile Desmoulins, wife of the French revolutionary Camille Desmoulins (Louis-Léopold Boilly c 1790; Musée Carnavalet, Paris).

In the chapter on The French Revolution, for example, we see the above portrait, with the following caption:
Putting political principle first: presumed painting of Lucile Desmoulins by Louis-Leopold Boilly of 1790. She loyally followed her husband Camille to the guillotine in 1794. Her self sacrifice is reimagined in the fictionalised heroines of Giordano’s ‘Andrea Chenier’ and ‘Massenet’s ‘Therese’.

I’m reminded of something I saw as a teacher, that any subset of a discipline can become a lens for looking closer. Yes the study of film music shows you music: but it also offers you a new angle on film. A history of actors onscreen lets you study actors: but with a history of film as a kind of accidental by-product. Any of these lenses are useful, both in narrowing the purview (because the topic is too vast otherwise) and thereby offering a tighter focus. We go from generalization to the kind of specifics we need if there is to be proof.

Similarly with what Banks was doing, as he explains:
There are two timescales in this book. Firstly there is a single historical narrative, one book-long journey through history beginning with the earliest mythological stories and moving onwards towards the present. Each chapter begins with a table listing clusters of related historical events. The 36 chapters are arranged in broadly chronological order.
But there is also a second timescale. Each of the 36 chapters takes its own mini-journey through the 400 year history of opera

So it’s not so odd that Banks’ history of opera ends up being the autobiography of our culture. It’s poetic and at the same time useful.

I don’t think it would be controversial for the writer seeking to tell the story of the 21st century to devote some of their time to examining how we reflect upon ourselves in television, film, music, social media. For the period from 1600 to 2000, before our modern mass media, we must rely on opera for that kind of reflection.

The history of the West was largely a transition from monarchies towards alternatives such as democracy or dictatorship. That narrative was sometimes dictated by the church or the state, the artists never as free to simply tell their story as what we often enjoy nowadays. No wonder then that opera functions as a kind of barometer, capturing both the aspirations for freedom and the various repressive frameworks against which artists were pushing.

So in other words Banks’ objectives are grand in the tradition of opera itself.

The plan of two time-scales suggests an inter-disciplinary approach, history & opera explaining and informing one another. I can imagine a graduate seminar, not quite sure whether it would more properly belong to or be taught by professors of “history” or “opera”, recognizing that at least for the time being, it would be more apt for the students of drama, music or art than history, even if I believe history students need this too.

There are a few caveats to mention. Opera in the purview of this book really means the text being set by a composer. We’re less concerned with singers or staging, and when we speak of composers we’re mostly using the composer to identify a work, even if the focus is mostly on the libretto, not the music.

As an opera enthusiast one might quibble with some of Banks’ choices. Why this opera and not that one? There are a great many operas in this book, not limited merely to the popular ones. I’m finding Banks’ book tremendous fun to explore, even as he raises some intriguing questions about history and historiography, that slippery question that underlines the relationship between the story being told and how you decide to study / tell that story.

It needs to be said that opera’s relationship to society was very different in the 20th century than before. I’ve often alluded to that seminal year 1927, when talkies are about to appear, when opera’s last popular works premiere. Before this time opera was popular, after this time, film becomes a far better litmus test for western culture. In blunt terms, opera has been on its death-bed since this time, only occasionally twitching since then. That 33 of 36 chapters in Banks’ book concern the period before 1900 is a perfect reflection of opera’s dwindling relevance in the 20th century. Opera isn’t dead, but comes to resemble a dim memory, a mere hobby rather than a preoccupation, an influence rather than a central element.

Banks’ prose does at times resemble an autobiography, flowing smoothly from opera to opera. The many pictures in the book literally illustrate Banks’ ideas, persuading us through another channel, additional evidence to underline what’s in the text.

It’s a perfect Christmas gift idea for the opera lover you know.

Who is Banks?

Author Simon Banks with Oscar, Spring 2022

Simon Banks taught art history at the University of St Andrews and had a career in qualifications management with Cambridge Assessment. Since 2019 his publications include articles in Opera magazine and programme notes for Wexford Festival Opera.

And now he’s written a remarkable book. I suggest you find it and read it (here’s a useful link). While I don’t agree with every word, I know I’ll be coming back to it. It was fun reading.

Posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Velvet history lesson

I feel the need to frame my testimony, reviewing Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre, in the admission that Ira Aldridge, the first black man to portray Othello onstage in London, is almost completely unknown largely because of the way he was reviewed and received.

Lolita Chakrabarti @Lolitachakra

Yes theatre history is full of gaps, an elusive construct distilled from the subjective experience of performance that is only captured in diary entries or eye-witness reviews.

Please don’t hate me because I’m a reviewer.

In her program note Director Cherissa Richards asks
Why is Ira’s legacy largely forgotten?”

Perhaps the play tells us. We open with two people speaking European languages we can’t easily understand. The German-speaking stage-hand stealthily brings a young woman backstage, a Polish writer seeking to interview her father’s hero: the great actor Ira Aldridge.

Nobody seems able to understand anyone for the longest time, an apt beginning for a fictional play about inter-cultural communication. Written by an English woman of Hindu parents Red Velvet shows us change and a variety of reactions to it.

The play bears a content warning:
This production contains themes of racism, and the use of racial epithets — including racial slurs.

The play stirred up powerful feelings in me. At times I was furious.

Yet the story is de facto evidence of the possibility of change even if it’s like an oxymoron. Yes we see Ira portray Othello, and the outrage stirred up in response back in the 1830s. That we are in 2022 watching a brilliant performance and applauding this piece affirms that change is possible.

Red Velvet may be fiction but it’s like a theatre history seminar featuring examples of anachronistic stage devices and overdone histrionics that we don’t see anymore. In a season of excellence Red Velvet is an affirmation of the power of live theatre, the best thing I’ve seen yet.

Allan Louis brings a larger than life presence to the stage as Ira Aldridge, both as the sensitive man backstage and the tragic player creating the first black Othello on the London stage of 1833, sometimes showing us reminders of Ira’s American roots.

Allan Louis and Ellen Denny (photo: John Lauener)

Ellen Denny plays Ellen Tree, the actress who would eventually marry actor Charles Kean. Whatever the facts may be, in this fictional story Ellen has been playing Desdemona opposite the great Edmund Kean, who is taken ill in 1833, creating the opportunity for Ira to step into the role of Othello. We watch the remarkable chemistry of their first rehearsals together.

Jeff Lillico is very strong in the thankless role of Charles, son of the great thespian. Inevitably he’s the strident voice of negativity and convention, never admitting any jealousy while watching his fiancée playing opposite Ira.

Invisibly serving tea in the background, Starr Domingue is one of the key players as Connie. Throughout the play she has been the only person of colour present while members of the company debate Ira’s casting, as though she weren’t even there. Her silent witnessing reminds me of Peter Hinton’s idea to put a silent group of Indigenous performers onstage during Louis Riel. In her brief scene alone with Ira we are again watching two people struggling to communicate, as she castigates Ira for Othello’s violence towards Desdemona (conflating actor and personage), and tries to prevent him from reading his reviews.

Ellen Denny, Amelia Sargisson, Starr Domingue (photo: John Lauener)

Amelia Sargisson plays another sort of quiet observer. I’ve mentioned the framing scene with the young Polish reporter Halina Wozniak, whose enacted frustration at the beginning and end of the play mirrors Ira and perhaps the position of the playwright as well. Sargisson also plays Ira’s wife Margaret Aldridge.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about the role of Pierre Laporte, played by Kyle Blair. He seems to be an ally to Ira, taking a big risk to get him cast against opposition even if he gets caught up in the politics. The two men have been good friends, and have some lovely moments together.

The text of Chakrabarti’s play is so perfect in its construction that I can’t imagine removing a word. The two + hours fly by.

We encounter another fascinating sound design by Thomas Ryder Payne including powerful musical passages adding to the intensity of our experience.

Any student of theatre history must see this play, at least to be reminded of how difficult and elusive that history can be. Tempting as it may be to kill all the reviewers (after you shoot the lawyers and politicians), without us there would be little or no theatre history. Of course I might be a bit biased.

Red Velvet continues at the Guloien Theatre until December 18th.

See it!

Posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Profoundly Creative Requiem for a Gumshoe

The body count is higher than any superhero movie. But there’s no CGI, no fancy effects. Your imagination is engaged as never before. It may scare you, seeing so much death and contemplating the end of the world in Eldritch Theatre’s new show Requiem for a Gumshoe.

Rick Fischmascher is a rumpled private detective and warlock for hire, haunted by the death of his son, and entrenched in the arcane murder of a troubled opera singer.
And he’s the chief suspect.
Requiem for a Gumshoe is a weird-noir, hardboiled mystery, re-telling the Norse legend of Ragnarok in the pulpy style of Raymond Chandler infused with the cosmic horror of HP Lovecraft.

In a very tiny theatre we confront profundities, the end of the world, terror of creatures mythic, morbid and magical. Perhaps they’re all just inside his head, spurting luridly from the madcap imagination of that narrator. Is it real or is he just acting out psychotic fantasies?

You tell me.

Mairi Babb, Lisa Norton & Eric Woolfe

That ambiguity is exciting. When I speak of a delicate razor’s edge it’s sometimes literally true, a sharp blade to divide the quick and the dead, reality from fantasy.

Eric Woolfe is the playwright and the actor portraying Rick, also the designer & builder of the puppets who populate the show. His imagination underlies all of it.

From time to time Eric performs magic that’s as skillfully built into the story as if Eric were composing an opera to show off his voice. To call them “tricks” doesn’t properly honour their contribution.

I lost count of how many characters we meet, created by Mairi Babb and Lisa Norton plus Eric’s many puppets.

There’s a whole team behind Rick /Eric, to help persuade us, taking Eldritch Theatre to a higher level than ever before. Director Dylan Trowbridge, set & costume designer Melanie McNeill, sound designer Verne Good and lighting designer Gareth Crew ensure that we’re engaged, that the craziness grabs us and won’t let go.

I laughed a lot.

I’m asking myself: who should see this? The people I know who love Wagner opera would be boggled by the alliterated lines about Norse gods. I understand Woolfe’s choices as loving and respectful of anything he brings into his story-telling.

Anyone who recalls the similes of Raymond Chandler will enjoy Woolfe’s writing and the way he delivers the lines. Try googling “Raymond Chandler similes”. I found lots, including the following:
• As cute as a washtub.
• As much sex appeal as a turtle.
• As cold as a nun’s breeches.

Woolfe takes it to the next level, expertly sending up the author’s overblown style.

We’re watching virtuoso performances. I didn’t want the show to end. Full disclosure? I’m perhaps as mad as Rick, a devoted fan of Eldritch Theatre and everything they put forth (Frankenstein’s Boy, Doctor Wuthergloom, Space Opera Zero. I dimly remember Eric’s Madhouse Variations, with help from the faded t-shirt I purchased). I’m fascinated by the cathartic interface between laughter and terror.

Requiem for a Gumshoe continues at the Red Sandcastle Theatre until December 4th.

Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Popular Tchaikovsky at the TSO

Handel speaks from beyond the grave to remind musicians how he helps pay the rent in a meme.

Ballet companies owe Tchaikovsky a similar debt, when families flock to the theatre for The Nutcracker.

Popularity can be problematic when it comes to critics, but thank goodness the public don’t really care. We’ll go see La Boheme or Carmen at the opera, just as we’ll see Swan Lake or Nutcracker, or indeed the last 3 symphonies of Tchaikovsky, overflowing with passionate melodies.

Tonight the Toronto Symphony offered the first of four concerts featuring his 1st Piano Concerto and the Symphony No.6.

The well-known concerto was given a highly original reading by Sergei Babayan, our soloist. He has a remarkable dynamic range, playing many parts softer than I’ve heard them before yet boldly bringing out the passages with fast octaves that conclude the outer movements.

Pianist Sergei Babayan

Dalia Stasevska was the guest conductor of the TSO, leading a brilliant reading of the orchestral part, to match Babayan’s delicate playing.

Conductor Dalia Stasevska

We began with Paradisfaglar II (Birds of Paradise II), a shorter work by Andrea Tarrodi.

Composer Andrea Tarrodi (photo: Jonas Bilberg)

While sometimes one finds composers putting clever titles with no apparent connection to what we hear, that’s not what we experienced this time, both in the colours of the orchestra and the occasional solos from violin and cello that seem to imitate bird-song, somewhere in the middle ground between music and noise. Tarrodi’s short piece made a magical beginning to the concert.

It may be heresy but the Pathetique symphony always reminds me of Glenda Jackson in The Music Lovers.

Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers

The film’s over-the-top style matches the emotions lurking in the music, sometimes exultant, sometimes darkly depressed. Stasevska led a very quick reading of the symphony that thrilled the audience even if it wasn’t entirely to my liking. The TSO play wonderfully well these days, undaunted by whatever a conductor asks of them, very impressive.

The first two movements were superb, but I found that the last two movements were too quick for my taste, leaving little space for the nuances one has in a slower more thoughtful interpretation. But it’s still very exciting, and the audience ate it up.

The program is repeated Thursday-Friday-Saturday November 24-25-26.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pre-Democracy with Lucio Silla

I had an epiphany watching today’s presentation of Lucio Silla from Opera in Concert in the St Lawrence Centre.

In my review of the opening night of Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy (that opened at the Tarragon Theatre last Thursday) I included reference to the series Succession, noticing how both the play and the tv shows take us into the creepy family politics of the rich & powerful.

It hit me that the next thing I saw is the 18th century’s version of the same story, even if we’d think of Lucio Silla as “Pre-Democracy” rather than “Post-.” Ditto for works such as Abduction from the Seraglio or La Clemenza di Tito, operas created for a wealthy class as though to reassure the public that tyranny isn’t really that bad.

The families in Moscovitch’s world or in Succession are truthful representations, which is to say, fraught with corruption. Now imagine if they were to emulate Giovanni de Gamerra, Mozart’s librettist: in crafting a happy ending. Of course theatre has become more sophisticated, audiences have stopped swallowing this idea that the aristocrats are really okay, that we just have to let them show us their soft fuzzy side. Daddy Warbucks too is a distant relative, a plutocrat created for and by another era. Now that the guillotines have been misplaced, the masses inured via social media, Donald Trump and the plutocrats don’t need to learn how to fake niceness.

So at least I must thank OIC for bringing this opera back to Toronto. I’m fortunate to have seen Opera Atelier’s production over six years ago, when I was blown away by the inventiveness of the 16 year old Mozart.

We may on occasion miss the sets and the costumes watching concert performances: but this wasn’t one of those times. Music Director Suzy Smith and Chorus Director Robert Cooper made sure that Mozart was well served. We heard some lovely piano elaborations during the recitatives, passages where the intensity can let down if one isn’t thorough. Smith was especially impressive in the last ten minutes of the opera, pages that seem to be ferociously difficult to play: but were executed flawlessly.

Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Voicebox Opera in Concert

I’m sad that it was just a single performance, wishing I could see and hear them again, grateful to OIC General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin for having assembled this remarkable cast. There are no small parts in this opera.

We began with Cecilio and his friend Cinna, sung by Holly Chaplin and Julia MacVicar, two coloraturas smoldering with dramatic intensity. Then we meet Celia and Giunia, sung by Vania Chan and Amy Moodie, also singing remarkable passages including more coloratura with Chan adding a comic dimension to the proceedings. Tenor Owen McCausland in the title role steps forward with enough testosterone to balance the four high voices, a dictator worthy of the name: even if he will abdicate at the end.

(morning after thoughts:
Did this opera fail to catch on because it challenges so many singers? too many challenging coloratura voices at one time? or does it challenge the audience, failing to differentiate sufficiently, not enough variety? The performance was blissful for us, grateful to hear so many excellent voices)

The soloists, the chorus and the piano all sounded wonderful.

I dream of this work finding its way into the standard rep. At least we have OIC to remind us of the possibilities.

Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post-Democracy at Tarragon Theatre

Theatre sometimes takes us into worlds we don’t like, showing us people we’d avoid, situations we might never encounter otherwise. In some respects theatre is like a conceptual hazmat suit, a way to taste poison without dying. We may cower before horrific headlines but drama lets us really see what’s involved.

Chantelle Han and Jesse LaVercombe (Photo: Mike Meehan)

Hannah Moscovitch’s Post-Democracy opened tonight in the Tarragon main space, putting four people onstage for an hour of sparring, groping, sniping, that sometimes got us to laugh when we were not cringing.

I read the playwright’s urgent words in the program, when she says

“We talk a lot about the 1% who hold and exert power in in our culture. We don’t get to meet them much. They are being helicoptered above us, or they have bought out a whole floor in a hotel we couldn’t afford, or they’re staying on a secluded “Jeffrey Epstein ” island offshore somewhere that they own. I hung around with the 1% for a while in my 20s. I listened to how they talk. I saw how they live. I want to show them to you.”

I think I’m as concerned about the world we live in as she is, upset to see our Premier building a highway for his pals, making new rules for governance to ignore the will of the people, while he and the mayors run everything via a few phonecalls. We’re on the cusp of a post-democratic world, under the thumb of corporations making enormous profits while the average person struggles.

I’m very impressed with the quality of the dialogue, with superb performances by four actors (Chantelle Han, Rachel Cairns, Jesse LaVercombe and Diego Matamoros) and with the sensitivity of director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. It’s an hour of well-crafted theatre.

Chantelle Han and Diego Matamoros (Photo: Mike Meehan)

Yet I wonder if the playwright has seen the series Succession, as what I saw onstage tonight seemed like an episode from that show. I won’t spoil anything by making comparisons except to say that I hope Moscovitch hasn’t seen the show and is merely coming up with parallel plot twists to the ones in the series. Perhaps that’s merely to be extrapolated from the corrupt dynamics of any rich family.

All the same, it’s very well done. Jesse LaVercombe is especially unsettling to watch, creating someone truly creepy so believably. It helps that his part is very well written. His relationships are well thought out, the timing of his behaviour very sensitively crafted.

There are some fascinating moral questions lurking in the text. It’s a short play, taking us into a dark place. It feels authentic throughout.

Post-Democracy runs until December 4th at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace.

Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay

It’s a funny week, even if nobody seems to remember what “funny” means anymore.

I didn’t laugh at Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue. I walked out of the room during the big announcement the other night (one too many lies) even if I remember Trump’s presidency as a brief golden age for comics.

Tonight not only did I need to laugh, but I needed to feel okay about laughing. Thank God I got my fix, watching Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay, a gay for pay production in association with Crow’s Theatre: where tonight was opening night. It’s a Fringe Show getting a well-deserved revival, written by Daniel Krolik and Curtis Campbell starring Jonathan Wilson and Krolik, directed by Campbell.

Jonathan Wilson and Daniel Krolik

The premise is that we in the audience are a bunch of straight male actors, looking to get work in film or theatre, taking a training seminar with two gay actors showing us how to be gay. It’s not such a crazy premise when you recall that gender and modern life are totally performative nowadays.

One of the great things to notice about Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay is that, wow, being gay is so normal now that we can joke about it, about the sex, the body parts, the clichés.

Or so it seems.

But I’m looking through the filter of some of the other questions of representation that I’m thinking of lately. There’s Kent Monkman’s indigenous drag-queen persona, regularly confronting me with the question “is it okay to laugh at this”? On the weekend Dave Chappelle seemed to be an angry separatist uninterested in any kind of reconciliation.

Tonight’s show was magical, as we segue from this ongoing laughter, possibly improper and even sexist, to gradually noticing that there’s some very serious questions underlying the show. We get to have our cake (laughter) and eat it too (the serious politics underlying the show). No guilt.

Forgive me if I sound too serious in writing this. But I laughed through most of the show, while many around me laughed even more than I did. This is a show that deserves to be seen and heard. Opening night was made up of people who knew about the show and came ready to laugh.

If you need a laugh, if you want to feel okay about your laughter, or if you’re just an actor who wants to find out how to play a gay man? see Gay for Pay with Blake and Clay, at Crow’s until November 27th.

There’s a bonus if like me you’re hesitant about being in a theatre without a mask. This show requires the audience to wear masks.

Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ARC Ensemble plays The Music of Robert Müller-Hartmann

Today I had the exquisite pleasure of a live encounter with the music of Robert Müller-Hartmann, through the ARC Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Mazzoleni Concert Hall, playing a program to be broadcast by CBC Radio 2. I’ve written recently about ARC Ensemble for their “Music in Exile” recordings for Chandos, such as their October release of “Chamber Works by Alberto Hemsi”, or the chamber works of Dmitri Klebanov in 2021.

As in my previous encounters with the repertoire recorded by the ARC Ensemble, I’m relying upon the excellent notes provided by Simon Wynberg, their Artistic Director. The notion of music in exile is simultaneously exhilarating when we discover someone unknown, yet very upsetting when we look at the life they led, and contemplate what might have been lost. Yes it’s a bitter-sweet experience to encounter the music of a composer whose work is mostly unknown, leading me to wonder (not for the first time) about the process whereby one becomes known, let alone popular.

Born in 1884, a noted composer and teacher, his professional life was disrupted by the arrival of the Nazi race laws in 1933. While Müller-Hartmann was able to get out of the country, settling in England and making some useful contacts including Ralph Vaughan-Williams, yet once the war began his work was again disrupted. In 1939 he and family were interned on the Isle of Man. Although RVW helped secure their release by 1940, he was still not permitted to work as a freelance music teacher until December 1943. In 1950 Müller-Hartmann died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Some people manage to compose under the most adverse situations. One thinks of Hans Krása, or Viktor Ullmann, composers who accomplished amazing things under the adversity of a concentration camp. For whatever reason the works of Müller-Hartmann did not get much attention.

Today’s program:
Two pieces for cello and piano
Sonata for Two Violins, Op 32 (P)
Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op 5 (P)


Three Intermezzi and Scherzo for piano Op 22
String Quartet No 2, Op 38

The “P” above signifies published pieces. The others only existed in manuscript form.

ARC Ensemble: Erika Raum and Marie Bérard (violins), Kevin Ahfat (piano),
Steven Dann (viola), and Thomas Wiebe (cello). (photo: Suane Hupa)

On this occasion ARC Ensemble consists of Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violins, Steven Dann, viola, Thomas Wiebe, cello and Kevin Ahfat piano. I say “on this occasion” because there have been other players joining this core group as recently as the Alberto Hemsi recording, released just last month.

When something is unique, it may be impossible to understand. Musicians have to learn new pieces, playing them in public only if and when they believe someone might want to hear them. Both of the published pieces (shown above with a ”p”) are fascinating works I’d like to hear again. I don’t know how difficult the string-players’ parts are, which is a possible factor in keeping something out of public view. The two violins are sometimes playing a game of cat & mouse, as though chasing one another, sometimes in imitation, sometimes almost like a challenge, as if to say “anything you can play I can play better”. Yet the two violins sometimes offer one another support. The sonata for Violin and Piano poignantly includes a dedication to “Artur Schnabel with sincere admiration”. I wonder, did Müller-Hartmann know the pianist (one of the great interpreters of his era) and perhaps sought his attention this way? The piece has a fabulous but challenging piano part that might remind you of Richard Strauss, or even Korngold. Pianist Kevin Ahfat was unfazed, playing with tremendous sensitivity to the dynamics, considering some of the immense effects in the score. It almost sounded like a violin concerto, where Ahfat was playing a reduction of an orchestral part. This isn’t to say it’s bad so much as to suggest that this too could be a factor in why Müller-Hartmann isn’t better known, having written something daunting to most chamber musicians: or so it would appear from where I sat.

Impressed as I was by Ahfat in the violin sonata, he came out after intermission to play four solo pieces, works that deserve to be known. The unpublished Three Intermezzi and Scherzo for piano Op 22 drew the biggest ovation of the afternoon, (my big mouth included).

The three intermezzi put me in mind of Brahms, tuneful pieces with conservative tonalities that wouldn’t trouble a listener in the 1880s (when Müller-Hartmann was born). Each one reminds me of a Brahms intermezzo, for example in swift fluid passages (#2) or a folk-tune melody (#3).

The scherzo began with something reminding me of Chopin’s 1st (toughest) scherzo, although this piece sounds even harder on its final insanely difficult pages. It’s like Siegfried’s climb of a mountain surrounded by fire, to step through the fiery curtain into the perfect tranquil calm where you kiss Brunnhilde to wake her up: or of course you crash and burn (figuratively or literally). Ahfat was fearless climbing this mountain.

The String Quartet that closed the program was another piece to puzzle the listener, an astonishing work deserving to be heard, played in a sterling account of music that’s new to everyone and therefore that much harder to articulate. ARC Ensemble gave us transparent performances, their dynamics and phrasing taking us deep into the score as though they were witnesses for the defense: of the composer. Arguably any performance is a proposition, demanding that we pay attention to what’s being played. I was persuaded

I was especially in tears listening to the last movement, which builds in frenetic passage work as though someone is fleeing for their life, as scary as anything I’ve heard in a terrifying film-score: and then suddenly we’re hearing a sweet simple tune as though a reminder of the old country or a former life that’s been snatched away. The combinations are unlike anything I’ve heard although this taste for pained ambivalence reminds me of Gustav Mahler, a juxtaposition of horror and sentiment.

And I was teary-eyed thinking of the composer whose life was disrupted.

The next ARC concert will be April 2nd 2023, playing the music of Alberto Hemsi.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Peter Oundjian warmly welcomed back to TSO

How could it be otherwise? Peter Oundjian, the Toronto Symphony’s Conductor Emeritus, was greeted with a huge ovation when he came out at Roy Thomson Hall to begin tonight’s concert. We brought his wit to the microphone, cleverly mangling Shakespeare to say “if music be the love of food”, in reference to a bargain struck by Felix Mendelssohn that exchanged a composition for something delicious.

We were well fed, tonight, in a tastefully varied program:

Rossini: overture to La gazza ladra
Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade in A Minor
Mendelssohn: Concert piece No 2


The Planets

Given that the title of the concert, to be repeated November 10 and 12, is “Oundjian Conducts The Planets”, the other three pieces are a bonus. 

Oundjian walked to the podium, and then to begin the Rossini did something I’ve seen him do before, that reminds me of a talk-show host (he seemed perplexed when I made the comparison a few years ago).  He’s not a power-mad maestro, but rather an affable presence who happily lets a performer take charge when it’s suitable. And so the opening drum-roll was handled almost as a free-form cadenza rather than as a tightly scripted event.

While it’s not the same orchestra anymore, the relationships between the former music director and his players are still solid, a joy to behold. In the Rossini as in the Coleridge-Taylor, they responded eagerly. The flamboyant theatricality of the overture was followed by something much more emotional overflowing with an agitated passion. 

And then came the unexpected fun of the Mendelssohn, a three movement duet for basset horn and clarinet accompanied by a small orchestra that overflows with humour and witty touches. Eric Abramovitz (clarinet) and Miles Jaques (basset horn) surpassed themselves in an unforgettable encore. I have no idea who wrote the piece, but promise you that if your applause is sufficient you’ll probably hear this amazing piece, whose punchline (when Jaques and Abramovitz play it) is a pregnant pause, then an actual exchange of instruments for the final bars of the piece.  Brilliant and yes, very funny.

As I said, those were the bonus before the main event.

This past week I’ve heard parts of Oundjian’s TSO recording of The Planets three times on the radio, including Jupiter on Classical 96.3 as I drove to the concert.  Mark Wigmore said “you’ll be hearing that tonight.”  It’s familiar turf, arguably another signature piece for the TSO, and they played it with that kind of bold confidence.  Mars went from softly brooding to big and brassy. Venus was gently murmuring, then Mercury couldn’t stop running past us.  Jupiter was like a replay of what I heard earlier on the radio, although it’s so much more vivid live, watching all those players working in the panorama before us.

I was sad, noticing that in spite of the nice haircut, notwithstanding the energy of his conducting, the bringer of Old Age Saturn was conducted by someone whose hair is completely white. 

TSO Conductor Emeritus Peter Oundjian (Photo: Jaime Hogge)

Uranus continues to be an amusing mix of rhythms and jagged phrases.  And then we came to mysterious Neptune, complete with the team of Toronto Children’s Chorus and Toronto Youth Choir singing from offstage. 

One of the great pleasures was watching the methodical acknowledgement Oundjian made of every contributor, generous as usual. It was a celebratory finish to a beautiful evening. And it’s great to have our Peter back.

The TSO repeat the program Thursday and Saturday. On Sunday afternoon at George Weston Recital Hall, in a program titled “Oundjian Conducts Mozart’s Jupiter”, the TSO substitute Mozart’s symphony for the Planets suite.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tahara, Royer and SPO play Schubert and Saint-Saëns

Tonight’s Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra was my first live experience of the ensemble, a return to live in person appearances featuring pianist Lisa Tahara conducted by music director Ronald Royer.

It’s a pleasant change of pace to have a concert relatively close to my home in Scarborough. Their website says it succinctly, as “Downtown Sound. Uptown.”

Conductor and Music Director Ronald Royer

Although we were to hear two of my favorite compositions tonight, namely Saint-Saëns 2nd piano concerto and Schubert’s 9th Symphony I was a bit hesitant, knowing that the works are difficult, possibly beyond the capabilities of a community orchestra.

And to make matters even more challenging, the SPO played at the Scarborough Citadel of The Salvation Army, a space with a remarkably clear acoustic. I’d want to hear at least another concert, sitting somewhere else, but from where I sat the sound was pristeen but a bit dry, which makes it a bit unforgiving. It’s ideal for a conductor such as Royer who seeks to mentor, improve and perfect his youthful players, even if they may find it a little scary at times, leaving them nowhere to hide.

But they seem to love playing there, and the audience ate it up.

The concerto is a piece I love so much even though lately it hasn’t been programmed anywhere nearby.

Its three movements build in speed and energy as we go on, from a meditative first movement to a second movement scherzo and a crazed tarantella for the finale. It’s a challenging concerto that is so much more than just a showpiece for a soloist, possibly the best thing Saint-Saëns ever wrote.

Did I mention that I like it? The performance was a thrill.

Pianist Lisa Tahara

Programming a concerto is usually a great idea I’ve seen in other regional orchestras, whereby one foregrounds the virtuoso soloist while the orchestra hides, playing a part that may not be nearly as difficult as a symphony. But this concerto is tougher than that, as the SPO provided excellent support to Tahara, including some challenging passages for the horn player and the timpanist executed perfectly. Her Yamaha instrument was not an ideal vehicle, not as beautiful as her playing. While its tone is brilliant up top as one might expect of a Yamaha, it’s somewhat clunky in the lower registers, even though her phrasing was elegant, light in the scherzo, her quick octaves marvelous to watch. And I was lucky to be sitting really close! On a night when I can’t deny that I was attracted by the popular repertoire choices, it’s fitting that Tahara offered as an encore the piece that might be the most popular piano solo of all, namely Clair de lune, in a thoughtful reading.

For the Schubert 9th, also a favorite of mine, the SPO rose to the occasion. Royer has some excellent ideas on how to make the piece sound good, getting the best out of his ensemble. In the middle movements we were going at a very quick pace, the phrases understated and tending towards softer dynamics, in the interest of getting the notes right: which was a brilliant strategy. It meant that when we came to climaxes they were effective, and the players were able to get through this huge long work.

For further information about the SPO, visit their website.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment