Tonight was the opening concert of Toronto Summer Music, running until August 3rd at multiple venues in Toronto. In this the third year of Jonathan Crow’s tenure as Artistic Director the talent pool seems a bit deeper, suggesting exciting days ahead.
The theme of the festival is “beyond borders”, a fascinating concept. CBC’s Tom Allen, our host for the evening, called ironic attention to the relevance of the subject since November 2016 aka the moment Donald Trump’s presidency put an additional spotlight on immigration, walls & refugees.
It was not your usual concert, featuring Allen’s ironic commentary. I’ll only quote one joke, his opening words of appreciation and pride for Toronto’s Koerner Hall: “unlikely to leave Toronto even if someone does give it $150 million”.
What can it mean, to go beyond borders? A great deal and it gets clearer if you look at the adventurous programming we can expect over the next few weeks thanks to Crow & his team. Music sometimes crosses national borders. Allen wanted to suggest that the music doesn’t know borders, but I’m not so sure. While it was kosher to appropriate exotic cultures 100 or more years ago it’s now understood to be problematic, as the Canadian Opera Company’s experience with Louis Riel and a sacred song used without proper consent illustrates. Okay, so for centuries it’s been okay to borrow, whether it was Mozart going alla Turca or the Roma (or “gypsy”) tunes spicing up violin music. There are of course disciplinary borders too, that can be transcended in performance, between popular folk and classical, or even in the norms of what we expect in a concert.
The juxtaposition of solo piano, accompanied violin, and vocal pieces made everything seem a little edgier, the eclecticism making everything sound better. Usually we get several pieces by a composer such as Chopin, not a single shining jewel as we had tonight in the Ballade in F Minor Op 52, played by Jon Kimura Parker. Allen’s little introductions made the curatorial choices that much stronger, a series of light—hearted explanations, although in speaking of Chopin, that curious exile from Poland, Allen was much more serious, and highly illuminating.
Here’s the program:
- Mozart’s piano sonata in A “Alla turca” –Jon Kimura Parker piano
- Ravel’s “Cinq melodies popularies grecques” –Adrianne Pieczonka soprano & Steven Philcox, piano
- Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen –Kerson Leong violin & Rachael Kerr piano
- Four Kreisler pieces (La gitana, Lotus Land, Hungarian Dance 17, and Tambourin chinois)—Leong & Kerr
- Chopin Ballade no 4 in F minor – Parker
- Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in a new arrangement by John Greer for string quartet & piano –Pieczonka, Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet (Crow, Andrew Wan violin, Eric Nowlin Viola, Brian Manker cello)
What an evening of riches, enhanced by the contrasts between items we were hearing. There’s so much I could say, but I’ll limit it to a few key elements.
The reduced version of the Four Last Songs often sounded like a paraphrase, an original approach to a well-known piece, which isn’t to say it was bad, only that it sounded & felt new both to the ear & as I watched the artists. Curiously a paraphrase or an adaptation of an existing piece also takes us across borders to a new place. I missed the horns in the coda of the first song (“Spring”) and the woodwinds again in the opening to “September”, leading a chap behind me as we walked out to call it “fussy”. We were hearing an inner voice elevated to a prime-time role played beautifully by Crow, but all the same, changing the character of the piece. I didn’t mind although the fellow who was speaking wasn’t quite as thrilled by it. The further we went in the cycle, the more I got used to the sounds of the ensemble and accepted it as “Strauss” rather than “Greer”.
Vocal careers seem to be getting shorter. Why? Perhaps the answer is: because few people show the intelligence of Adrianne Pieczonka. I don’t need to mention the voices that are gone because of bad choices. But Pieczonka is sounding amazing, the voice still luscious and round and gleaming top to bottom. Throughout I was astonished to hear her carefully holding back. The high “B” in “Spring” was sung so softly, the B-flat in “Time to Sleep” floated gently. Pieczonka has so much voice to give –she gave us a Liebestod with the Toronto Symphony not so long ago. But contrary to my dumb-ass suggestions (wanting her to undertake bigger tougher roles), the reason she sounds so youthful and indeed so perfect is because she has the backbone to say no to those who can’t see the big picture. Of course this wasn’t opera nor even a normal performance of the Four Last Songs, which normally require a singer to work against the textures of a full orchestra in a big hall, not this tiny group in a small space such as Koerner. Pieczonka’s musicianship was a display of maturity & restraint of the highest order. Artists need to say no more often, resist the temptation to ride the gravy train, because if you sing too much too soon: the career will be over. What a treasure Pieczonka is, what a great voice and especially, what a smart singer, an intelligent artist. She was in tears at the end of the last song, and no wonder. The cycle was given a wonderful original reading. I hope that this version gets performed again.
Parker gave us a very romantic evening of music, whether in the incandescent Chopin that silenced the hall before it exploded in adulation, or the Mozart sonata. And just as Parker was offering virtuosity in the service of beauty & truth, which is to say, without being a show-off, Crow’s programming suggests a comfort with virtuosity for its own sake. Leong’s pieces are all crowd-pleasers, opportunities to tease an audience with pure skill, and Leong didn’t disappoint. Rachael Kerr was mostly functioning in support but had her moments as well.
The festival continues! For further information click here.