La bonne chanson @ RBA

Today’s noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre was the first collaboration between the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio and the COC Orchestra Academy.  As I so often do I’ll begin with a preamble, one that corresponds to the gap between my expectation and the actual recital.

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(l-r) cellist Drew Comstock, violinist Hua-Chu Huang, bassist Doug Ohashi, violist Meagan Turner, and violinist Yada Lee,

This is the third year of the COC-OA, a three-week intensive program, drawing upon students from the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.  This year’s five  are mostly from the GGS:

  • GGS cellist Drew Comstock
  • GGS violinist Hua-Chu Huang
  • GGS violinist Yada Lee
  • GGS bassist Doug Ohashi
  • U of T violist Meagan Turner
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The COC Orchestra and Conductor Johannes Debus. (Photo – Michael Cooper)

The program is a kind of residency including time playing in the orchestra alongside professional mentors.  I understand that the five played last night’s epic dress rehearsal of Siegfried, and today –likely riding the same emotional high mentioned by our host & Master of Ceremonies Johannes Debus—they had to play a very different sort of music in a different venue. Where an orchestra pit is a dark place where you might be able to hide (even if Johannes & your mentor likely hears your errors) the RBA concert is the exact opposite, in its exposed playing, in a kind of fishbowl.  I’m sure some dread this kind of thing, although Drew Comstock seemed very confident as he stepped into the limelight for the introduction to the second—and lengthier—piece on the program by a Mendelssohn.

I came because the title of the concert made me eager to hear “La bonne chanson” of Fauré, to hear Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure sing, in collaboration with pianist Anne Larlee and the five member COCOA (hm… I like chocolate.. perhaps that’s why I enjoyed COCOA?).  While we may be Canadians in a bilingual country, one rarely gets this kind of treat, namely hearing a francophone clearly articulating a subtle piece such as this one in French.   Fortier-Lazure sang long phrases, clear sentences, occasionally opening up the throttle to offer us a passionate mezzo-forte. He puts me in mind of a recording I have of Les Troyens conducted by Charles Dutoit, employing a francophone chorus from Quebec, an eye-opener for me after having heard the way the Met chorus chopped the same work up into a series of discreet syllables of unintelligible gobbledy-gook.  This is very intimate ecstatic music (oh my, a song cycle from a happy person? that almost sounds like an oxymoron). I’m also mindful of Brahm Goldhamer’s subtle playing a few days ago at the RCM, where a small space created an opportunity for gentle music—making.

Fortier-Lazure has a fabulous operatic tenor that we heard for example in Barber of Seville about half a year ago; but he opted for some of the subtlest singing I’ve heard in the RBA space.  It’s a live room to be sure, but with some rep one really must resist the temptation to push. Fortier-Lazure took that quieter road.

I had to wonder how the seven players understood their relationship.  In the old days one might have thought that the musicians must accompany the voice, but that’s not what I saw.  Fortier-Lazure sang at times as though himself an ensemble musician rather than a singer, with no apparent ego on display. That the text is about images of flow and nature and love makes it all the better that we saw such a fluid interaction.

The big piece by a Mendelssohn?  The e-flat string Octet.  When I get a bit ambiguous about the composer it’s in response to the possibility –introduced to me in Comstock’s introduction—that the Octet (and perhaps the famous violin concerto!?) might have been composed by Felix’s sister.  I have no data (say it ain’t so, Giacomo!), only the memory of my outrage when I lost “pur ti miro”, snatched by a scholar in the 1990s from another famous composer whose name begins with M.

Whoever wrote the octet, it’s a very different sort of gig from playing hours of Wagner in the orchestra pit.  Three of the four movements go quite fast, including a great deal of exposed playing for everyone.  I was thinking that it’s not just a test for the COCOA but for their mentors as well.  For this work bassist Ohashi sat down, while the other four were joined by COC Orchestra players Paul Widner, assistant principal cello, Keith Hamm, principal viola, plus violinists Marie Bérard (concertmaster) and James Aylesworth.

Violist Hamm seemed especially comfortable in the spotlight, perhaps the de facto leader of the ensemble, as violists sometimes are, even if Bérard played an enormous number of notes, almost as though it’s her concerto (especially in the first movement).   After my close-up look at the Toronto Symphony earlier this month, I can’t help thinking about the ecology of this orchestra, the ways that this kind of exercise –the mentoring of the young players, and the chamber music recital—is valuable in building the orchestra, valuable for the Music Director and the community of music he wants to grow.  On the heels of last night’s immense opera, it was a delicious performance.

Debus & Alexander Neef were present for this charming hour of music-making, a very different sort of concert from the usual.

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COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef. (Photo: bohuang.ca)

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