Makeover or decay, vocally and otherwise

I’m preparing to sing something and I am afraid it — that I– will sound terrible.

Ah this blog, it’s a big public diary, my therapy. These gut level perceptions in the moment without too much reflection, are assembled after the fact, so that I can make it look as though there’s a brain in there somewhere, to simulate a rational person.  That’s why I usually post reviews of plays and operas and concerts the night of, rather than the morning after.

Of course I don’t have time to do it any other way.

It’s almost completely devoid of strategic discourse even though there’s lots of planning at the meta level, when I stare at the calendar, often ruefully wondering where the year has flown, why I didn’t get to a particular show.  When I interview Herr Handel or Juan Chioran, it’s planned around something later on the calendar, both to help them promote their event (for example the Singalong Messiah Dec 17th, or Podium Concert Productions’ Nine In Concert, in January 2018), AND for me to wrap my head around it in anticipation of seeing it.  I hope it has value if my effort to unpack / digest / understand / explore helps others to make similar discoveries.


Messiah is tomorrow, and it’s a singalong, gulp.

That little preamble about how the blog is organized is a commentary on how my life is organized.  Or maybe “disorganized”? It’s a kind of dialogue or debate between reflection and impulse, between entropy and order. Sometimes Philip Glass seems to be winning—in endless repetitions especially in the car going to and from work—while at other times it’s a jazzy improvisation, or so I tell myself.  Barcza is barczablog and vice versa. When change happens in my life or on the blog, some of it is planned (as in a makeover or a renovation), and some is organic (as in aging, decay, or growth & evolution).  Necessities precede plans, the way a digger wasp’s home-building in the planks of our deck led to the destruction of that deck and the inevitable rebuild, one of several home renos we’re enduring.

Every year I think about whose Messiah I will see/hear.  There have been years of (what mad heresy is this!) multiple Messiahs, but most years I pick just one, between the various competing options available in the GTA.

  • Tafelmusik or TSO?
  • Electric or AtG?

The fact that I interviewed Herr Handel was a clue as to whose Messiah I’m seeing this time.  But I think I need to address the deeper concerns.  Yes I’m going to the Singalong Messiah Sunday December 17th meaning that I will be singing along.

Or I will try to do so.

The last time I went, I sang the tenor line among other tenors, confident in my knowledge of their part, and arrogantly pumping out a big loud sound as though I were stuck in the 1950s in Thomas Beecham’s chorus, wanting to shove Vickers aside (no he wasn’t there… I’m just extending the wacky metaphor) to sing the solos too (did I say “arrogant”? I’m not sure if the word is really adequate to the hubris of the moment).  And choral singing allows for the kind of anonymous crooning and bleating that wouldn’t or shouldn’t work for a soloist.

But fast forward to 2017. While I have sung a wee bit in church (whenever I sub for David Warrack at the organ), it’s been a long time sing I sang this music.  And let’s be honest. In total it’s a big sing for someone who stopped being a soloist last year, who only sings intermittently, from the organ to lead the congregation (as a sub) or recreationally at home.  When I was a regular soloist I’d always notice that I was out of shape vocally when choir resumed in the fall after the summer holiday, but would gradually became accustomed to singing, getting into shape, building stamina for the extra singing around Christmas and again at Easter.  While I may have explained my decision to give up my regular gig singing in Hillcrest Church’s chancel choir as part of some sort of plan or strategy, in truth it was more like that infestation in the planks.  Something was (or is?) rotten in the state of my voicebox.   However much I implied a strategic motivation, my main concern was that my top notes are not what they used to be, that I am out of practice: perhaps permanently..?

So Sunday will be a bit of an adventure. Today as I sang through “Lift Up Your Heads” and “Worthy Is the Lamb / Amen”, the wasps infesting the chords tell me that I need to accept the realities of age or my lack of practice and sing the bass part rather than the tenor part.  While I did manage to sing a couple of them, when I went on to add “And the Glory of the Lord”, and “Hallelujah” –which doesn’t have any hiding places for the tenors—I sadly had to face the fact.  The scary thing is, that those tenor parts were learned over the years singing with other choirs. I was at St Leonard’s in North Toronto in the 1990s with Arthur Wenk, when he painstakingly taught us a series of choruses and then gave a concert presenting a few solos.  I was lucky to sing “Comfort Ye“ and “Ev’ry Valley” in a concert including a teenaged Robert Pomakov singing “The Trumpet Shall Sound”.  And Sarah Gartshore sang a marvelous “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth”.  But that was in the 1990s.  To sing the bass parts, I will be singing parts that are new to me, that basses usually learn to sing for years, rather than sight-reading.  That’s why I’ll sing in the mixed voice section, so that from time to time I can take a walk on the wild side, and at least try to sing the tenor parts of my youth. I am perhaps also admitting the inadmissible.  People practice and learn over time usually but I am spoiled by being a good sight-reader.

Tomorrow is as much as anything, me getting off my butt and putting my money where my mouth is, rather than just passively drinking in the work of everyone else.  I miss performing. While I know I’ll make mistakes, hopefully Herr Handel won’t hear mine over the thousands of other voices.

It’s a fun thing, this Singalong business.  I want to be perfect, I am sure everyone does.  But first and foremost, it’s a chance to commune with the music and those great artists on the stage, and vanish into that big beautiful sound.

Posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations | Leave a comment

Questions for Juan Chioran: Nine In Concert

Juan Chioran was born and raised in Alberti, Argentina. His parents immigrated from Italy after WWII and raised him and his brother in this small town two hours west of Buenos Aires. In 1975, at age 12 he moved with his family to Toronto where they still live. He graduated from the University of Alberta BFA theatre program in 1987. Shortly thereafter he began performing at the Stratford Festival where he recently completed his 15th season.  He has also performed for the Shaw Festival and several regional theatres across Canada. He has been on Broadway and throughout the US on a national tour of Kiss of the Spiderwoman. Equally at home in musicals and straight plays, he has acted in classical works as well as contemporary, comedy, tragedy, farce, restoration and opera as well as film and television. He is a busy voice actor in Toronto, lending his voices to many animated series as well as commercials. He is the recipient of several awards including a Dora, Gemini, Jeff (Chicago), Ovation (LA) and Carbonell (Miami). He makes his home in Toronto and Stratford with his wife, actress Jacklyn Francis and their dog Cadyna


Juan will be starring in Nine In Concert from Podium Concert Productions, three performances January 12 & 13 at Trinity St Paul’s Centre.

I asked Juan ten questions about him and Nine.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I suppose I am an equal balance 50/50 each of them. Facially, my dad from the eyes up. My mom from the nose down. I would like to think that I have inherited their good qualities because they are both kind people but I would be kidding myself if I didn’t believe I also inherited some of their faults. My dad‘s stubbornness and uncompromising ways. My mom’s OCD and perfectionism. They are both artistic in very different ways. My mom is a great chef. My dad is a great craftsman. I feel very lucky to have had such a nurturing upbringing.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The best thing about what I do is that if I’m lucky enough to be working in my chosen field I am really playing. The worst thing is looking for the next job. After 33 years in the profession it begins to get rather tedious to still have to audition to land the next gig. Getting to do what you love for a living is really not a job. Getting the job is the job. There are, as news of late has shown, some unsavoury types in our biz. Having to deal with such people is never pleasant but that is the reality.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

As my wife has pointed out I am a man of extremes. I love listening to opera but I also watch UFC. I am a walking dichotomy. High art on one end and Neanderthal behaviour on the other. Don’t know that I can explain it any clearer.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I really wish I could type faster. I’m a two finger hunter and pecker. I wish I had taken it up in high school. Never did I think that it would become so essential to our every day lives.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favorite thing to do?


I have to admit I am not very good at relaxing. There is always something to do. We live in Toronto and Stratford in an 1887 and 1920 house respectively. These two places need constant upkeep. As custodian to both there are repairs and upgrades being done regularly. I have also inherited all the crafts and artisan skills passed on from generations of my forbears.  I will send you photos of charcuterie, Winemaking, Cider brewing, Tomato canning, peach canning, gardening and generally making as much of what I eat as possible.

[he did! i have included a couple of these wonderful pictures].

So as you see there isn’t much time left over to relax. I love long walks with my wife and our dog. In the summertime we are partial to the beaches of Lake Huron. I find cooking very relaxing and creative.

RESIZED_charcuterie1The best part of it is you get to enjoy it afterwards.


More questions about NINE In Concert with Podium Concert Productions

The character Guido Contini who is the man at the centre of NINE  is based on film director Federico Fellini, a larger than life artist.  What’s your favourite Fellini film, and have you used any of his films in your preparation for the role?

Fellini 8 and a halfMy favourite Fellini film is La Dolce Vita. I have not seen 8 1/2 yet but intend to. I’m looking forward to it with great anticipation. I do look at films for preparation but I also find that the text and the music is really the Bible and try to adhere to its tenets as closely as possible. I have also seen Satyricon but have every intention to see Amarcord And possibly several others. I think a Fellini Marathon is in order.I can’t answer objectively with any degree of expertise how Guido and Federico differ since I am not well-versed in Fellini’s life yet. I plan to be real soon. The role of Guido is quite complex as he tries to juggle his artist’s block, midlife crisis and several women in his life and their influences on him. The film seems to be quite biographical as Fellini himself was struggling with the subject of his film and how he was going to tell it. He seemed to be making it up as he went. Improvising the narrative as it were. I’ve read that he suggested the memories in his movies are imagined that some would argue they parallel his life story.


Podium Productions present NINE in concert. Please talk about the pros and cons of this approach.

Presenting a show in concert gives us the great advantage of having a 24 piece orchestra. This is something quite cost prohibitive if one were to mount the production fully staged and designed. Since the story and the interaction of characters as well as the music are the primary driving forces of Nine and not the scenographic elements I think the concert format serves the piece extremely well. One could say the cons are that we don’t have scenic elements. What we do have however is the beautiful backdrop of Trinity Saint Pauls as well as its glorious acoustics. There will be some simple staging to help tell the story therefore what the audience will get is the synthesized and concentrated essence of the material.

Yes there’s a single male character surrounded by females, all clamoring for his attention.  But he’s going through a crisis. Please speak for a minute about Guido.  Is Nine a dream or a nightmare?


I’m not certain yet if Guido is having a dream or a nightmare. Perhaps he’s weaving in and out of both. He is the single male character of the piece surrounded by females. As the crisis of his life increases and he feels the pressure from many different angles it forces him to face head on his triumphs and his failures and to look at them reflected back at him by the incredible women in his life. From childhood through to the age he is now on the precipice of hitting 40. The challenge of having to develop the different relationships will become much more manageable when the lines on the page are coupled with the actresses portraying these roles. It is only through the rehearsal process that true relationships can occur. It is very difficult to work in a vacuum and since we don’t have a prolonged rehearsal period the very intense week leading up to performance will be crucial. The actors have been asked to come to this process with the material learned. Once we begin to play the different scenes and situations many puzzle pieces will fall into place. That said I will come to the rehearsal with many ideas of who this man is. I feel I understand him very well since culturally, educationally, professionally and temperamentally we are very similar. I will be able to borrow liberally from my own life.

What’s your favourite moment in Nine? 

I’m not sure why but I find the song the Bells of Saint Sebastian not necessarily my favourite moment but one that resonates quite loudly with me. I grew up in Argentina and from grades 1 to 13 was enrolled in schools run by nuns. The Catholic Church has a long lasting effect on one’s psyche even though one doesn’t realize it at the time. It’s only in hindsight that it becomes clear. It is for that reason that this song lingers longest.

Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

There have been many people in my life that have influenced me greatly. To name one would be unfair to all. My parents, my wife, certain teachers, directors, fellow actors. They each contributed in different but important ways in my development as a human being.


Podium Concert Productions present Nine In Concert at Trinity St Paul’s for three performance January 12 and 13 2018.  To purchase tickets visit or call 647-800-4745 Use discount code “NINE15” to receive an extra 15% off tickets.

Posted in Personal ruminations | 1 Comment

Questions for George Frideric Handel

I feel blessed to have had a chance to interview a hero and one of the most popular of all composers.

“Popularity”? Let’s set aside the 21st century understanding with the weekend “box-office champion”.  When a work of art survives and is loved long after the death of its creators (whether we’re speaking of a painting, an opera or oratorio, a film, a play, or a dance-piece), it becomes part of the collective unconscious. Humanity at its best is the sum of works such as Messiah.  Life is never better than when we’re enjoying one of those great works.

How universal is Handel?

  • This month Handel will be brought to the stage by Against the Grain Theatre in their new transladaptation BOUND.
  • Various versions of Messiah are performed in and around Toronto every year including Electric Messiah from Soundstreams (in its third incarnation),  the Toronto Symphony’s Messiah December 18-23 at Roy Thomson Hall led by Matthew Halls, and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir December 13-16 at Koerner Hall led by Ivars Taurins.
  • And on December 17, a week from today, Herr Handel returns for his annual visit to lead the Sing-Along Messiah with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, plus soloists at Massey Hall, (and because of the upcoming renovation, it will be the last time at this venue until at least 2020).

Herr Handel indulged me with answers to a few of my questions.

Are you more like your father or mother?

My father died at age 75 just some days before my twelfth birthday. That made me, as you say, “the man of the house”, taking care of my dear mother and my two younger sisters, aged seven and ten. My father, who had been a surgeon, wanted me to become a lawyer, and have an honourable, well-paying, and socially well-regarded profession, rather than dabble in music. He forbade me from pursuing music in any form. (My dear friend and colleague Georg Philip Telemann was in the same predicament when we first met – I was sixteen then, studying in Halle, he was twenty – where he was reluctantly enrolled in the University of Leipzig to study law. Well, we all know how that turned out!).


It was my dear mother who, understanding my keen desire for music, secretly conspired to aid me, and procured a clavichord (a very quiet instrument perfect for this subterfuge), which we secreted up to an unused garret in the house, and there I spent many nocturnal hours eagerly learning and playing music to my heart’s content! I was, and remained devoted to her, and drew strength and inspiration from her strong, independent disposition and keen intelligence.

What is the best thing about what you do?

Well, since meeting my Creator and entering the Celestial City, I have been able to enjoy life – or should I say the after-life – and pursue my music without all the – how you say – “hassles” of my career on Earth. No more ignorant critics and nay-sayers, or having to curry the favour of noble and wealthy patrons. No more vain, preening, and dim-witted singers (Mein Gott – those castrati!) who interested themselves in nothing more than showing off their artifice rather than their art. Now I can enjoy the extraordinary company of philosophs, artists, musicians, poets and writers, and perform my music sung and played by angels … for eternity!

Who do you like to listen to or watch? 

Here in the Celestial City we have the opportunity to hear the ongoing work of poets and musicians and philosophs; we enjoy some – how you say – “smoking” evenings of chamber music … well, jam sessions actually. And seeing Shakespeare and Moliere going at it on their improv nights is hilarious.

When you’re just relaxing, what’s your favorite thing to do?

As always in my life, and quoting my friend John Keats: “Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather (which we always have here) and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.” … Though I prefer my own music, or at least that of my most talented colleagues.

But there is no greater enjoyment to me than contemplation, smoking my pipe, and sipping a fine claret (as Martin Luther said: “Beer is made by men, wine by God”).

I also have taken to doing crossword puzzles in five languages.

When you first arrived in 21st-century Toronto, what was the most disorienting thing?

It has been 36 years since my first descent to Toronto for Tafelmusik’s Sing-along Messiah. It was quite the experience – I would have to say it was the enormity of the bustling humanity that overwhelmed me… the noise!! Then at the turn of the century, in the early 2000s, we were inundated with the plague of youPhones and Blueberries… and then mePads, and all the texting and twitching and selfies… even during my concerts!

Of all the places you have lived in [cities in what we now call “Italy” and “Germany”, and of course England] what was your favorite place for the food, the climate, the musicianship, the singers, the appreciation of your music?

In a word: Italy. When I traveled to Italy at the age of 21, the Italian people opened my eyes to music, art, fine food and wine, and a love life, all done with gusto! My experiences in Italy inspired and influenced my creative muse. I used to write like the devil in those days!

Other than your own music, who is your favorite composer? 

I recall, near the end of my life and totally blind, listening to a performance of my oratorio Jephtha. My colleague William Savage commented that it reminded him of old Purcell’s music. I replied: “If Purcell had lived, he would have composed better music than this.”

… and my dear friend Telemann could write a motet for eight voices more quickly than one could write a letter. I recall that as students, Telemann and I were constantly occupied in fashioning melodic movements and examining them, frequently visiting each other as well as writing letters.

And although circumstances prevented us from meeting on Earth, I now enjoy the company and music of Johann Sebastian (and that of his talented son, Wilhelm Friedrich). Though you wouldn’t know it from his portraits, Johann enjoys an evening of lively debate, and a hearty repast. Wilhelm tends to overindulge, … though, in the Celestial City, we don’t experience o̶v̶e̶r̶h̶a̶n̶g̶s̶ hangovers.

Does the church appreciate what you accomplished with Messiah?

I wrote Messiah for my Creator, not to please the Church. Though many people claimed it to be a “fine Entertainment,” I should have been sorry if I only entertained them – I wished to make them better.

Is there a teacher or mentor you might care to mention?

Agostino Steffani was my predecessor as Kapellmeister at Hanover. He was my mentor as a youth, and urged me to study in Italy. He was a master at the Italian duetto, and his fine music was an inspiration to me.That he remained virtually unknown after his death until this century is both lamentable and remarkable. I am glad to see that in the last few years the cognoscenti have come to their senses, and we are now able to   appreciate his music – especially his operas – through many fine productions and concerts.


On Sunday December 17th, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir present their annual Sing-Along Messiah at Massey Hall at 2:00 p.m. led by ‘Herr Handel’ with Joanne Lunn, soprano, James Laing, countertenor Rufus Müller, tenor, and Brett Polegato, baritone.


Posted in Music and musicology, Questions, Questions | 3 Comments

Best of Tchaikovsky

Tonight we heard one of the three Toronto Symphony orchestra concerts titled “Best of Tchaikovsky” at Roy Thomson Hall.  While I’m not sure if I’d agree with the title (I can think of pieces I would prefer), if they’re playing Tchaikovsky? I’m there. And I will enjoy it, especially if they bring the level of commitment to the playing that we experienced tonight.

The evening was mostly Russian with a tiny bit of Canadian:

  • The Talk of the Town (Andrew Ager)
  • Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (Tchaikovsky)
  • Variations on a Rococo Theme (Tchaikovsky)
  • Symphony #5 (Tchaikovsky)

The opening Sesqui by Andrew Ager was a fascinating two minutes of darkly foreboding unison in the lower strings, some impressionistic swirling in the upper strings, and the promise of more in the last thirty seconds, making me think: why must it end so soon?

Speaking of Russians, we grabbed a copy of principal cellist Joseph Johnson’s CD of Russian cello sonatas, with one each from Rachmaninoff & Shostakovich, having heard him as soloist tonight in the Rococo Variations.  It was a nice feeling even if it was bittersweet, with the record store scheduled to close later this month (go while you can!).  On the way home it was a pleasure to bask in that rich cello sound in the car.

Keri-Lynn Wilson_3 (@Nick Wons-TSO) (1)

Keri-Lynn Wilson leading the TSO (photo:: Nick Wons)

It was a happy collaborative experience, as the TSO, led by guest conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, sounded oh so sensitive in dialogue with JJ’s cello.   This is the same conductor who led the Canadian Opera Company’s recent Tosca, a production where everyone seemed to be listening thoughtfully to one another, surely due to her solid leadership.  I have to think we’re now in an era when conductors are less and less the people telling an orchestra what to do, and more and more listening to what they can do. Wilson has a unique presence at the podium. She has a solid stance that’s well-nigh unshakeable, a very athletic approach with her baton & arms.  At the end of tonight’s concert there was no sign of anything resembling fatigue, her energy as inspiring at the end as when she began.

The Romeo and Juliet overture, with melodies that are so well known, did not contain any surprises. Indeed I thought Wilson was trying to avoid over-doing it, steering the orchestra in the direction of subtlety and unity rather than sentimentality and schmaltz.

But in contrast I felt she wore her heart on her sleeve in the big symphony.  The tempi overall tended to the brisk side– which I prefer—with every note in place, every entrance crisp and clean. At times she would observe a rubato, a phrase expanded for pure emotional value.  In the finale, especially the closing few minutes, the orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves, like a horse given their head and allowed to run freely.

Tchaikovsky, Wilson & Johnson are back Thursday night.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | 2 Comments

TIFT Candide

While 2017 was a year to celebrate Canada’s 150th, we’re now coming up on the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein.  Whether you pronounce it Bern–steen or Bern-stine, the composer, pianist & conductor was born in 1918, which means that it will be a year of commemorative programming.

bernstein_1-1483549591-lboximg Credit Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

The first such celebration that I’m aware of has just happened in Barrie Ontario of all places, home of Talk Is Free Theatre.  It was certainly worth the drive to see the closing performance of their production of Candide in an original adaptation at the Mady Centre.  Another production in a different version is coming in just a few weeks from Toronto Operetta Theatre; while I haven’t asked TOT for the details it must be different, because of the uniqueness of TIFT’s version.

I’m not sure which decision is more brash & daring:

  • To adapt the play for five singing actors: director & adaptor Richard Ouzounian taking his cue from Peter Sellars 4-person Midsummernight’s Dream at Stratford in 2014.
  • To adapt the score for a pianist & percussionist: Lily Ling (piano / co-orchestrator) and Jamie Drake (percussion / co-orchestrator), in a genuine tour de force.

Neither of those pathways would mean anything if they hadn’t been done well.  I hope we get to see this version again.

But let me back up for a moment.  Bernstein is or was at least two people. Yes yes, he played the piano brilliantly, he was an amazing conductor (my favourite interpreter of Gustav Mahler): but I mean as a composer, he sometimes seemed to be two people, or a person torn between contrary impulses.  At times his music was very accessible, tuneful.  But he also wrote in more serious styles, music that hasn’t quite caught on as much as the composer might have hoped.  He might be the composer of West Side Story, of On the Town, a successor to Gershwin in bringing jazzy melodies to Broadway or Hollywood, but he also had far more serious aspirations.

And perhaps Candide epitomizes that conflict.

It has been through several incarnations.  Much as some of the songs & ensembles are beloved, Candide was not a big success its first time out in the 1950s, far more successful in Harold Prince’s re-think in the early 1970s, in a version that was still immense & unwieldy.  Some would call it operetta some would call it a musical. The difference between the two is mostly semantics, as musicals are operettas, except that you use different personnel for Hamilton or Dreamgirls or Cats than you’d employ for Student Prince or Mikado.  But on paper, the form isn’t different.  At least one number in Candide seems to epitomize that conflict, namely “Glitter and be Gay”, a song that forces you to cast a coloratura soprano, and then –cruel joke—expects her to act on top of everything else.

Ouzounian, Ling & Drake accomplished a miracle in scaling this colossal work down, without killing it.  We still had the pace, the energy, the theatricality. Indeed, when you require your five actors to play so many parts –plus a few extra ones for good measure—we’re firmly in the realm of something theatrical, making the audience think.

Ah thinking, thinking, there’s the rub and one of the issues Bernstein & his librettists faced in each version, built into the material. Candide for all its music and imagination, is a play of ideas, an appeal more to the head than the heart.  Yes Brecht would approve. When singing about an auto-da-fé with a big smile on your faces, expecting the audience to make the imaginary leap, to follow along with commentaries on the Lisbon Earthquake or taking us through syllogisms right down to the QED, there has to be more than just energy and thought.  And Ouzounian gets it I think.  The smaller cast actually changes the balance, boosting the warmth & heart while deflating a lot of the philosophy & logic that kills warm fuzzies. When there was a chance to be sensual, to ground each character in earthy impulses, to show us vulnerability rather than cleverness, those opportunities were boldly seized, to give the work balance, to make it truly alive.

I confess, I find that brilliant as the work is—a work that makes you nod, impressed with its cleverness—Bernstein didn’t quite convince me with his final song, that leaves me always thinking and pondering, rather than feeling.  And while Brecht and even Bernstein might approve of that response (Brecht feeling like Ouzounian’s secret ghost dramaturg), I think it’s a weakness in the writing, one that Ouzounian made heroic attempts to surmount, in the strong final statement of the show.


Mike Nadajewski, Gabi Epstein and Holly Chaplin (photo: Luca Ragogna.)

Mike Nadajewski was most exceptionally human as Candide, his emotions always crystal clear, his heart on his sleeve.  Thom Allison as Pangloss comfortably strode through the philosophical and vocal challenges of the work.  I probably laughed loudest at Gabi Epstein’s broad repertoire of voices and accents, to go with a huge movement vocabulary, as Paquette & the Old Lady.  Michael Torontow was enjoyable in his many different characterizations.  And Holly Chaplin impressed, singing well and acting sympathetically as Cunegonde.

As we were leaving, I mused on how far TIFT have come, in a downtown where it’s getting increasingly hard to find a parking spot. TIFT’s artistic producer Arkady Spivak has much to be proud of. tift-logolong1

Next up: Shaffer’s Amadeus in 2018.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews, Theatre & musicals | Leave a comment

Four Weddings, a Funeral and a Coronation

That headline is the fanciful title for Tafelmusik’s latest concert.  While it may remind you of a certain British film, it’s a fair description of the evening’s program: one of such remarkable variety, as to constitute a veritable smorgasbord of delights. At times we had Tafelmusik playing, at times, they accompanied Tafelmusik choir, or soloists, sometimes just a few playing.

We were mostly in the French orbit, if you allow that in addition to Lully & Charpentier, English composer Henry Purcell bears the influence of the French style: and we also had Blow, Pachelbel & Handel.


Four Weddings_Taurins_Citterio

Music Director Elisa Citterio, led at this moment by Choir Director Ivars Taurins (Photo: Jeff Higgins)

But it really did feel like several concerts combined into one.  Tafelmusik are at an interesting place in their history, continuing their remarkably collaborative approach to leadership.  As in the days of Jeanne Lamon (who is now gone) Elisa Citterio may be leading the band, but shares the mantle with choral specialist Ivars Taurins and Opera Atelier’s David Fallis (who is also a brilliant choral scholar btw).  No wonder Tafelmusik seem especially inspired, as they are unafraid to allow themselves to grow in all directions.

Tonight there was the electricity that comes with sharp changes of tone & focus.  Consider this program and how the different contexts demanded a different sensibility from the players:

  • Ballet from Xerxes by Lully (the first of four pieces for a wedding), for the full orchestra
  • Symphony and Airs from Ode From hardy climes” by Purcell (second wedding piece), played by a dozen players
  • Coronation Anthem “God spake sometime in visions” by Blow
  • Canon & Gigue by Pachelbel, so often played in our own century at weddings (I know I did on the organ a couple of years ago) played by keyboard, cello, theorbo and three violins
  • Requiem (the funeral piece) by Charpentier
  • Overture & Chorus “S’accenda pur” for another wedding

I can’t recall a concert with so much variety, but also, with so many genuine shifts.  At the end of the first segment, I was in heaven simply from having the experience of new pieces by Lully, arguably the most important unknown composer in history.  You’re always going to do well if he’s programmed and Tafelmusik didn’t disappoint.  From the Lully with its remarkable variety of timbres, including plaintive winds, long melodic lines and even drums played by Ivars Taurins, we came to the Purcell, on a smaller scale yet every bit as vibrant.

Taurins now assumed the conducting duties for the Blow as the choir came out, a piece full of wonderfully long phrases that were reflected in Taurins delightful sweeping gestures at the podium, building to a fervent Allelujah.  The contrast between Citterio & Taurins animated the performance, a visceral shift of gears.

Four Weddings_performance

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, with Music Director Elisa Citterio (far left), and dynamic Choir Director Ivars Taurins (Photo: Jeff Higgins)

And to close the first half came a piece we think we know, but presented with remarkable freshness. It’s that wedding warhorse, the Pachelbel Canon & the Gigue (although the Gigue is not so well known) , played by three solo violins. But for each entry they would ornament as if improvising, bringing a jazzy edge to the work that’s actually apt for a band purporting to offer something historically informed.  How wonderful to make this well-known piece—and the Gigue that follows—seem so new.

To begin the second half we were in an entirely different place emotionally and musically, namely Charpentier’s Messe des morts, a setting of the Requiem texts that we know so well via Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and others. But Charpentier holds up a mirror, suggesting that those others are merely making music, merely creating entertainment.  For Charpentier it’s clear that these texts are real, that he was engaged in an act of piety, a work that stays devoted to its subject rather than spiraling off into decorative orchestration as we hear from the romantics (mentioned above).  At times Charpentier calls upon a soloist, but not as a virtuoso act –as we came to expect with those later composers I mentioned above—but rather to shift from something broad and public, fit for a large chorus, and to speak with the solitary voice of a soloist.  Echoing what I said about Lully, similarly, this too is a work deserving to be better known.

We closed with a Handel chorus including solos, a short celebratory piece for another wedding.  Taurins gets an entirely different sort of response from his chorus to finish, in a piece that isn’t as intense as the Charpentier.

The concert repeats Friday & Saturday night plus Sunday afternoon Dec 1, 2 & 3 at Jeanne Lamon Hall, Trinity-St Paul’s Centre.  For further information click here.

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Tafelmusik Complete Beethoven Symphonies

Tafelmusik have released their recording of the nine Beethoven Symphonies.

Before I start going into detail, getting philosophical, getting all mushy about Beethoven, let me say that if you’re looking for a gift for the music-lover in your life, this is likely the single most perfect gift you could give.


If they know Beethoven well, they get a fresh perspective on music that they likely know. Some people know a few of the symphonies, like those people who go to church only at Christmas or Easter, familiar with # 5 and #9.  For those who know every note, it’s even more exciting, a genuinely fresh approach to the symphonies, that only becomes clear to me now that I hear them as a set.  And even for that person who has never become acquainted with Beethoven, in this set they’ll get a brilliant introduction to some of the greatest music ever written.


Conductor Bruno Weil

There is something truly special in the interpretations of Bruno Weil, conducting Tafelmusik in the decade plus that this cycle was created.  I struggled with it for awhile, trying to identify what I experienced, whether I really was having a concrete experience or just failing to understand. It wasn’t like the Beethoven I knew, and at one time I felt frustrated. In the process, I’ve been moved to re-think the word “interpretation”.

I grew up listening to Toscanini & the NBC Orchestra first (a mono set my father purchased), then the von Karajan set with the Berlin Philharmonic from the 1960s.  Conductors took the music and shaped it, bringing out voices the way a piano player would emphasize a melodic line.  I was listening as a child in the ’60s, an era of the all-powerful conductor.  Imagine that the music is like a facial portrait, and those older recordings all had the hair slicked down, or parted on one side or piled high as though wearing a wig. Bruno Weil dares to let the hair be a bit messy, to let us see the face as it really is.  What if, I now dare ask myself, all that fancy hair (metaphorically speaking) is a distortion?

What I found myself doing was listening to every note, every line, every voice.  Weil does not suppress one part to help bring out another. What’s daring and new for me in these recordings is that I can hear every little part.  I can’t help thinking that this is what Beethoven must have sounded like in his first appearance: that is, in the performances before conductors started regularly “interpreting” symphonies in particular ways (aka distorting and changing the music).

This is especially important when you factor in the use of Tafelmusik and their gentle sound.  Yes the opening of the Eroica is loud, as is the opening of the 5th and 7th and 8th and even the  9th(after a few bars).  And yet, this is a different sort of loud.  I hear every note, and it’s not harsh.  Weil lets us hear every part, without giving undue emphasis to the lines that Karajan or Toscanini (and a host of others) brought out, according to their doctrine of interpretation.  It means we experience the noise, the disorder, that must have presented itself to the listeners who encountered Beethoven early in the 19th Century, when there was not yet any idea how to approach these works. This makes it edgy & new in the most fundamental way.  Moreover, maybe those ideas –of bringing out certain voices—is a wrong-headed approach.  Especially if you explore and discover these works at the piano keyboard via transcription –as some do—there is an automatic tendency to simplify and paraphrase: as a transcription is usually a paraphrase that must leave some of the music out to allow a single person to play it.  I can’t help thinking that conductors are simplifying, domesticating, pruning their Beethoven, by reducing the disorder and complexity, by rationalizing the music into something simpler than it should be.  They become like plastic surgeons, going about their mission to beautify that which is already beautiful.  Why am I suddenly thinking of poor Joan Rivers?

I have to ask this underlying question. Is the job of the conductor to tidy up the music, to be a kind of dramaturg, making a set of assumptions about what we should be hearing, and then editing the original via selective emphasis, to change the music into something different?  We don’t notice this process if there’s a decades long consensus, that leads conductors to tidy and rationalize, if conductors are always being unfaithful to the music.

I found it especially in the 9th Symphony.  This is a performance like no other I’ve ever encountered, and not because they’re doing something so wild and radical. Instead, they’re singing more softly, playing more softly, and letting us hear what Beethoven wrote.

That first movement starts oh so softly, all the voices contributing to the cloud of mystery that builds, resolving in the first big statement of the theme.  It’s not overly loud, not all tidied up, but instead, rough around the edges: the way it was written.  Voices burble up from all sides, woodwinds and brass commenting softly but never entirely taking the focus, the strings solid but not the pristine clear sound one gets from modern strings.  This is a passionate sound, the bite of the bows grabbing you as surely as they grab the strings to make sound.  I’ve been playing this Ninth over and over the past few days (since last week).  The scherzo is perhaps an indication of how good the composition is: that it sounds like most other recordings of this movement, one that I always enjoy.  This one is as good, without the necessity of the colossal climaxes we sometimes get in recordings of this movement.  There is less of that sense of a conductor managing us and controlling us, as the piece simply flows to its climax.  The  third movement moves at a good pace, but again, exquisitely detailed, every inner voice heard, without treating any part as though it is the most important.

When we come to the last movement, Weil is making sense of this movement for me, for the first time. I have heard so many performances that capture choruses straining and sounding pained, stressed –rather than joyful—while competing with an orchestra that is just too loud.  Weil gives us something on a more human scale, which is hardly surprising when we remember what Tafelmusik and Opera Atelier usually accomplish.  The recitative for the lower strings makes so much sense, played very directly, until we get to the first statements of the melody.  I have yet to listen to the full tutti eruption of the main theme without either grinning like a kid on Christmas, crying like a baby, or both.  It’s probably because so much of this recording is done on a human scale, and suddenly we’re hearing a full eruption of passionate sound, that grew organically from the first tentative sounds of the strings in that recitative.

When bass-baritone Simon Tischler declares the famous opening lines of the movement, it’s the calmest and clearest I’ve ever heard.  I recall so many versions, the big loud sound of Walter Berry for example, on that 1960s era Karajan recording.  That orchestra is so loud, the singer so operatic, so over-the-top in his demand for our attention when he says “Oh Freunde”.  It’s a scary sound, actually. I wouldn’t talk to MY friends that way unless they need to be asked to leave, or I had a room that seats 3,000.  Tischler is much gentler, he really sounds like someone addressing his friends in an intimate way.  He articulates every note, and when he starts into the famous tune, it’s effortless and comforting, the way a good tune should be.  We’re not listening to a virtuoso vehicle –which is what Berry makes it feel like—but a simple folk tune.  And when the Tafelmusik chorus echo him, they sound joyful too, not pained the way so many choruses sound in this music.  The gentler quartet lines that follow are again joyful, effortless, and for once, musical. They are in tune.  Soprano Sigrid Plundrich floats up to the high notes rather than the usual struggle one gets.  I can’t help thinking that we’ve been doing it wrong for almost 200 years, when I hear such lovely sound, and so much less tension and pitch struggles.  I’ve never heard a soprano make it sound so easy. Is that because Plundrich is better than Gundula Janowitz (for example)? Or that all those other conductors turn it into a struggle, a titanic display of force comparable to D-Day, instead of letting the piece be calm & joyful.  The Tafelmusik sound is easier on the soloists.

When tenor Colin Balzer sings his solo “Froh, Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen…” we get a similar breath of fresh air.  This should sound like a happy tune, right? And it does. Balzer makes you smile immediately, with his beauty of tone, his easy flexibility, a colour perfectly suited to this music.

There is comparable magic in every symphony of the set.  For awhile I thought the Eroica was my favourite, particularly the epic first two movements.   But then I got stuck for awhile on #4, especially the pulsing Adagio with its alternation between powerful brass and subtler woodwind voices.  And then I disappeared into #5 and 6, back and forth between the two for a couple of days.

This recording encouraged me to think about hearing, about the music a deaf composer writes and how it might have sounded to him inside his head as he wrote it.  There are places where I swear Beethoven seemed to be playing with sound, as though he were testing our ability to hear.  The music can be especially clear on a digital recording yet as one phrase dies out and mixes with the next do we really hear it properly?  In some symphonies, thinking especially of #8, I wonder.  Is he testing our hearing, with those sudden loud passages followed by softness?  In a hall with any kind of reverb, we lose detail, if a loud chord is fading with soft notes following, as we get in the 8th.  And in those carefully rhetorical constructions such as the opening of the Eroica finale, was he telling his audience about his infirmity?  There is something so plaintively mechanical in those first notes, I wonder, was he signalling? Telling us that even this bare bones structure was beyond his ability to hear?

The CDs are beautifully organized, on three pairs of CDs:

  • 1 & 2, then  3
  • 4 & 5 then 6
  • 7 & 8 then 9

I am going to keep listening to these CDs for the next little Weil… I mean while.  They’re quite marvelous, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

For further information see this.

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