Edmonton Classical Music

A comprehensive calendar of classical music concerts being presented in Edmonton, Alberta, and reviews of those concerts.

Category: Review (page 2 of 5)

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

iSoundtrack

Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Lords of the Rings
Howard Shore (arr. John Whitney): suite The Fellowship of the Rings
Tchaikovsky: from suite Swan Lake (op. 20a): Act II, Scene I0
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Op.36: Variation 1 (C.A.E.), Variation 9 (Nimrod)
John Williams (arr. Bob Cerulli): Themes from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Mascagni: ‘Intermezzo’ from Cavalleria rusticana*
Ennio Morricone: Gabriel’s Oboe
Holst: from The Planets: ‘Mars’, ‘Venus’
John Williams: The Empire Strikes Back Medley

Concordia Symphony Orchestra

Conductors: Danielle Lisboa, *Christina Sawchuck

 

Tegler Hall, Concordia University of Edmonton
Wednesday, February 28, 2018

For the past few years, I  have regularly taught a Wednesday evening course at Concordia University of Edmonton, the former Lutheran College that looks down over Wayne Gretzky Bridge and the city’s river valley. Every so often, I have found myself unwittingly pausing from teaching Winnie-the-Pooh or The Hobbit, and the faces of the eager or not so eager students at the desks in front of me have momentarily blurred, as the strain of some familiar orchestral music filters through the door from far away, a snatch of Elgar, perhaps, a grander moment of Beethoven, or, recently, the unmistakable  movie themes from Lord of the Rings.

The source of this distant melodiousness is the Concordia Symphony Orchestra, which rehearses at precisely the same day and time that I teach my class. It was originally founded in 1988 Dr. Barry Bromley and the bassoonist Don Zoell for “well-trained amateurs and former professional musicians” to take part in an amateur, community orchestra. It is not quite the only orchestra of its kind – the Metropolitan Orchestra, another amateur body, was founded in 2015, and gave its most recent concert, a ‘Night at the Opera’, on February 17.

Indeed, the Concordia Symphony Orchestra has itself undergone a metamorphosis in the last year, perhaps reflecting Concordia’s own recent change from a College to a University. For the original Concordia Symphony Orchestra has morphed, under its conductor David Hoyt, into Edmonton’s third amateur orchestra, Orchestra Borealis. That group is now in its second season, and its next concert, at the South Pointe Community Centre on Sunday, April 22, includes Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2. This change provided the opportunity for a re-founding of the actual Concordia Symphony Orchestra.

Like Orchestra Borealis, the new Concordia Symphony Orchestra is an auditioned ensemble, its members drawn from both the community and from the staff and students of Concordia Edmonton University itself – at the moment, rather too few students, and given the university’s reputation for its music, one hopes that the orchestra will come to represent a real opportunity for musical students in the future.

Its conductor is Brazilian-born Danielle Lisboa, who worked with Orchestra Toronto and the Toronto Women’s Symphony Orchestra before moving to Edmonton in 2013 as Assistant Professor of Music at Concordia University of Edmonton. It rehearses and performs in the airy, glass-surrounded centre of the university’s Tegler Hall, which not only serves as the main student meeting area and the venue for such things as convocation, but makes quite an effective and pleasantly informal concert-hall, its various levels acting rather neatly as auditorium balconies. On Wednesday night (February 28) it was merrily festooned with paper ribbons and multi-coloured balloons for its latest concert, iSOUNDTRACK, a faced-paced and quite packed hour of orchestral film music.

An entertaining  and happy event it was, too, with many of the orchestra dressed for the occasion in costumes reflecting the films whose music they were playing – and if there weren’t any orcs, there was an excellent Princess Leia of a cellist, complete with double-bun hairdo and the white dress, and sundry other echoes of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.

For the selections themselves were quite eclectic, from film scores especially written for movies, to pre-existing music chosen for movies – which provided the excellent excuse to hear some Elgar (from the Enigma Variations), though Holst (from The Planets), to Tchaikovsky (from Swan Lake) – and if you were wondering which movies, think The Matrix, Gladiator, and Black Swan respectively.

Lisboa’s tempi were well judged, and if there were moments that reminded one that this is an amateur orchestra, they played with great enthusiasm and considerable conviction. The brass and the woodwind contrasted: the former were much happier playing in consort, less secure when more exposed (they reveled in ‘Mars’ from The Planets, after a slightly uneven start). The woodwind were more ragged when playing together, but included some very attractive solo work, notably the flute and piccolo in the Lord of the Rings selections. These were in the excellent arrangements by John Witney, the former music director of the Southern Tier Symphony in New York State, who died in 2014 – indeed, the selections made a viable and self-contained sort of Middle Earth overture to the whole proceedings.

The strings came into their own in Mascagni’s famous Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana (used in The Godfather, Part III, at the opera house), and produced the best intonation of the evening in Ennio Morricone’s well-known Gabriel’s Oboe from the movie The Mission. This was very ably conducted by a young Concordia student, Christina Sawchuk, and the oboe solo was played by Stephanie Wong, assured and idiomatic, if slightly thin-toned (though that may have in part been the acoustics).

The Harry Potter selection proved to be unexpected (and welcome), for John Williams’ own arrangement was based on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with music  that was largely devoid of the better-known themes from the movie series.

All in all, it was an entertaining evening, clearly enjoyed by the enthusiastic audience, and drawing in the occasional Concordia student who had wandered into their hall and wondered what the occasion was – a great way of introducing new audiences to classical music.

The Concordia Symphony Orchestra’s next concert is on Sunday, April 22nd, and includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (with Ping-Shan Liao), and the Alberta premiere of Canadian Kevin Lau’s Elemental, which includes parts for kaido drums (you can hear audio excerpts here).

That concert is at exactly the same time (3 pm) on exactly the same Sunday as the next concert by Orchestra Borealis, the offshoot of the former Concordia Symphony Orchestra. This seems, to put it mildly, a very unfortunate clash, especially as one would imagine that some of the potential audience would overlap. Since Orchestra Borealis’ publicity seems already quite far advanced, one wonders if there is the possibility of the Concordia forces changing their date, and each orchestra then encouraging their audiences and members to go to the other’s concert.

 

Chamberfest Music Festival: Schubert: Winterreise. Review by Bill Rankin

Chamberfest Music Festival

Review by Bill Rankin

Jason Cutmore (photo by Bob Sasson)

Nils Neubert
photo supplied by Chamberfest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schubert: Winterreise

Nils Neubert (tenor)
Jason Cutmore (piano)

Muttart Hall, Alberta College
Februrary 24th 2018

The inaugural Alberta Chamberfest, a modest two-concert venture with a cabaret evening at a local bar and master classes on Sunday, had plenty of financial backing, based on the list of sponsors and patrons in the glossy program, but clearly the word didn’t get out that a new classical music opportunity was on offer. The vocal recital at Muttart Hall Saturday, not a particularly oppressive winter’s evening, must have made the performers feel much like the hurdy-gurdy man feels in the last song of the featured song cycle, Franz Schubert’s Winterreise:

“No one listens to him, No one notices him …”

The recital drew a measly 18 listeners, scattered about the 250-seat auditorium, including a couple of ticket-taking volunteers. Surely there are more than 18 people in Edmonton open to hearing a live performance of Schubert’s settings of Wilhelm Müller’s archly Romantic poem Winter Journey. The 24 songs tell the story of an itinerant loner trudging through a frigid winter landscape, bemoaning his lot as a lover whose wandering ways were rejected by his most recent conquest or her mother.

It could have been a mistake to listen to the legendary Deutsche Grammophon recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore’s rendition of Schubert’s 1828 composition, the second of Schubert’s three great song cycles, before attending Saturday’s concert. But the musicians performing gave a polished presentation of the work.

Tenor Nils Neubert, based in New York with several teaching affiliations, including the Manhattan and Juilliard schools, and pianist Jason Cutmore, founder of the Alberta Pianofest Society and artistic lead on this new project, presented a better than respectable rendition of this emotionally variegated vocal masterpiece.

Neubert began a bit tremulously; he did after all have a long, musical journey of his own ahead of him in this 80-minute piece. The tenor must negotiate a range of emotional effects, at times urgently relaying his depths of despair, his angst, even his anger, that he’s not getting all he wants with his over-wrought Romantic, unappreciated personality. The key to such a piece is to establish a convincing character for the storyteller, and given the small crowd, the invitation for intimacy was compelling.

Generally, Neubert captured the musical and thematic elements of each song assuredly, and he has a pleasant, if not particularly resonant, voice. He was most effective in the more introspective songs such as ‘Der Lindenbaum’, ‘Rast’ (‘Rest’), the quieter parts of ‘Frülingstraum’ (‘Dream of Spring’), the woeful ‘Der Greise Koft’ (‘The Old-Man’s Head’), and by the last third of the cycle, including the final, subdued ‘Der Leiermann’ (‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man’), his sound grew warmer and the performance more emphatically personal.

This kind of music calls for a technique that is closer to musical conversation (including some artful yelling), but there are moments when a little operatic touch may elevate the message of the moment, and Neubert constrained himself in such moments. I would have enjoyed a little more robust a sound in a few of the song endings, but clearly, Neubert sang with a plan.

Cutmore is clearly an experienced collaborator, and his touch in the more delicate and the more forceful writing, and in the fluid, sensitive support he brought to the quieter elements of the vocal journey had their own assured musical character and understanding of the singer’s needs.

This modest first mini-festival, which organizers expect to continue biennially, offers programming that lovers of vocal recitals should be alert to. I’m sure that by the time the venture returns in 2020, more people will hear about it and attend.

British cellist Robert Cohen in Edmonton

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of cellist Robert Cohen, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Respighi, McPherson, Haydn, Kabalevsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

John McPherson
(photo by Aaron Au)

Winspear
Friday January 13, 2017

Respighi:  Gli uccelli (The Birds)
Kabalevsky: Violin Concerto
Haydn: Symphony No.94 in G Major (Surprise)
John McPherson: Concerto for Two Horns Mountain Triptych (world premiere)

Eric Buchmann (violin)
Megan Evans (horn)
Allene Hackleman (horn)

Conducted by William Eddins

William Eddins, the ESO’s former Music Director, and now Music Director Emeritus, returned to Edmonton for the first of a number of concerts with the orchestra. For Mark Morris’ review of the concert in the Edmonton Journal, click here.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Handel Messiah

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Handel: The Messiah, orchestrated by Sir Eugene Goossens

Winspear

Friday Dec 15, 2017

Claire de Sévigné (soprano)
Catherine Daniel (mezzo soprano)
Ryan Downey (tenor)
Anthony Schneider (bass)

Kokopelli and Òran Choirs

Jeremy Spurgeon (organ)

conducted by Alexander Prior

 

 

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal click here.

Pro Coro: David Lang – The Little Match Girl Passion

Members of Pro Coro

Charles H. Griffen  This Advent moon shines cold and clear
David Lang The Little Match Girl Passion
J.S. Bach  ‘Ich will Dich mit Fleiß bewahren’ from Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, No.33

 

Jolaine Kerley (soprano, sleighbells, brake drum)
Adrienne Sitko (alto, crotales)
Caleb Nelson (tenor, glockenspiel)
Michael Kurschat (bass, bass drum, tubular bells)

Conducted by Michael Zaugg

Holy Trinity Anglican Church

December 10, 2017

It has become a tradition for Pro Coro to present a performance of the American composer David Lang’s haunting The Little Match Girl Passion during Advent. This year was the fifth in this tradition, with a change of venue to the intimate setting of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which, lit by candles and with the side aisles in darkness, had exactly that quality of a ritual space that suits the work.

For Lang’s 2007 work, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008, is ritualistic. It takes Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story The Little Match Girl not as a moral story or a quasi-fairy tale, but as – to use Lang’s own word – a ‘parable’, “drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang then created a structure which deliberately recalls the tradition of the musical passion, and specifically Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – and only the structure, as there is no reference to Bach’s music. Thus there are sections that essentially comment on the actual singing of the Andersen text, as in this passage:

From the sixth hour
From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land
until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour she cried
out:
Eli, Eli.

That 35-minute structure is a mirror structure, with material recognizably returning in the second half, mirroring the first. The four singers also discretely and at intervals play percussive instruments (drums, glockenspiel, tubular bells) that are connected with different elements in the story, notably the glockenspiel, associated directly with the match girl and her story. The music itself is primarily slow, quite strongly rhythmic, and very atmospheric – again, ritualistic in nature. The four voices regularly have what might be described as rolling overlapping (not quite counterpoint, nor quite round, closer to the medieval technique of hocket), and at other times there are shades of some of the vocal techniques of the avant-garde period, such as as a voice used percussively against the main line. Harmonies are generally slow-moving, occasionally setting up dissonances before moving into more concerted combinations or chords of great beauty. When combined with such a powerful and distressing story about a child, it is no wonder that the piece has regularly been performed all over the world.

The move to Holy Trinity, although atmospherically so effective, was, I suspect, the prime cause for what was a perfectly acceptable performance (the audience were clearly moved) being less successful than it perhaps might have been. A number of things seemed to have conspired together, and the first was probably the acoustics of the church blurring the sound. The second, and slightly inexplicably for Pro Coro, was the imbalance between the voices. The two women’s voices predominated, the two men’s voices regularly got lost, and there seemed to be a reluctance to bring one voice forward out of the quartet when needed (for example, the tenor’s “So the little girl…” in the second movement). Equally surprising was the lack of clear articulation – it was difficult (at times impossible) to hear the words, and while some of this might be down to the acoustics of the church, not all of it was. Last was the use of an old glockenspiel (on loan) that had decidedly seen better days – not only  were many of the notes tinny, but quite a few of them were not as pure as they should be. That uncomfortable sense of pitch insecurity was compounded by the quite heavy contralto vibrato and difficulty at times in the clarity of the men’s pitches.

The result was a performance that lacked both musical and verbal clarity and the beauty that comes from pitches and notes perfectly overlapping each other. I don’t want to exaggerate those failings, and I did wonder whether my ears, rather than Pro Coro, were simply having an off-night. So when I got home, with the performance I had just heard still singing around my head, I played the recording conducted by Paul Hillier, who had conducted the premiere in Carnegie Hall in 2007 (Harmonia Mundi HMU807496DI). Immediately it was as everything that had been slightly out of focus – the pitches, the balance, the clarity of the words – had suddenly snapped into sharp relief.

If you think that is an unfair comparison, in one sense it is, since Hillier’s was a studio recording with ideal conditions. But Pro Coro are the one classical music group in Edmonton about whom one can genuinely use that rather hackneyed phrase ‘world-class’, and can stand in comparison to their peers around the globe. The idea of performing The Little Match Girl Passion every year is a welcome one, and Holy Trinity Anglican Church such a worthy setting, that I do hope Pro Coro continues the tradition there, albeit perhaps with some adjustment for the acoustics of the building.

The performance of the Lang was book-ended by two short pieces, neatly filling out the evening. The first was a pleasant but unremarkable This Advent moon shines cold and clear by the St Paul/Minneapolis area choral composer (and former professor of mathematics at the University of Virginia) Charles Giffen – very much in the style of a Christmas song. The concert closed, appropriately, with a short chorale from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the words echoing the spirit of the Little Match Girl:

…to you I shall depart,
with you I shall one day soar aloft
full of joy, beyond time
there in the other life.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Nielsen, Berg, Tchaikovsky

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra

Photograph by Mads Peter Iveresen

Nielsen: Rhapsody Overture “En fantasirejse til Faeroene”, FS 123

Berg: Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.5

 

Robert Uchida (violin)

Alexander Prior (conductor)

 

Winspear

Friday, November 24, 2017

 

 

Nielsen’s picturesque and evocative rhapsody overture En fantasirejse til Faeroene might be better known to English-speaking audiences if only there could be a general agreement on how to translate it into English – it’s variously A Fantastic journey to the Faroe Islands, or An Imaginary Journey to the Faeroe Islands, or An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands, or… well, you get the idea.

The Faroe Islands (or Faeroe Islands) are a stunningly beautiful archipelago of rugged, Nordic islands about 320 kms dead north of Scotland, and have been under Danish (or Norwegian-Danish) control since the 14th century (for some stunning photographs of the Islands by the Danish photographer Mads Peter Iversen, click here).  Nielsen was commissioned to write the overture for the occasion of a visit by a Faroese delegation to Denmark, held in the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He intended it as an overtly programmatic work, and at the first performance there was a list of the events depicted in the piece: the calm sea on the start of the voyage, seeing the land on arrival, the dancing and singing to welcome the visitors, the farewell as they leave, and the calm at sea again.

There are strong touches here of the other great Nordic tone poet, Sibelius, and perhaps even a nod right back to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. It is in essentially two moods or parts – the very evocative foggy start of the ocean journey, and the lively, folk dance mood of the celebrations (with a rambunctiousness that reminds one of Charles Ives in a similar mood). Nielsen weaves genuine Faroe folk-tunes into the work, including a gloriously noble long-breathed Sibelian theme, and, with its elliptical arch shape, the work is a most satisfying and evocative northern seascape painting.

That conductor Alexander Prior should chose to open the concert with this lesser-known work is a reflection of a personal touch that is already evident, only two months after the beginning of his inaugural season as Chief Conductor of the orchestra. Nielsen is one of his favourite composers, and if his music is not (yet) that well known to Edmonton audiences, it does seem so suitable for our northern winter city, with its rugged lyricism, its incisiveness, its combination of the emotional and the pragmatic. Two things are also emerging from Prior’s ascendance to the Winspear podium: his emphasis on colour and tone, be the the colour of an individual instrument, an orchestral section, or the whole orchestra, and his willingness to stamp a strong personal interpretation on a work.

The former came out in the lower string playing that opens the work, a kind of murmur of fog seeping up over the sea on the start of the voyage – emotive, quiet playing from an orchestra who have not in the past been noted for really quiet playing – and in his willingness to let individual instruments  go for a less obvious tone colour: the more raucous (and very effective) cry of a seagull on the clarinet, for example, in place of the more mellow romantic bird call usually heard. He is also (related to that idea of individual colour) requiring a precision, a crispness of playing that hasn’t always been as evident in the ESO’s sound in the past. That is making new demands on the orchestra, to which it is clearly responding (even if the playing was a little ragged after the first woodwind entry), and doubtless will continue to do so. Here Nielsen’s work emerged as  both rugged and alluring, and the performance must have won many in the audience over to its beauties.

The Berg Violin Concerto also makes considerable demands on both soloist and orchestra, and if again the orchestra had moments when they weren’t entirely comfortable in Berg’s idiom, first it hasn’t had many opportunities to play in that idiom, and second this is exactly the kind of music into which an orchestra grows as it becomes more familiar with playing it. Nor did such moments impeded a moving performance, for the solo playing of Robert Uchida (the concertmaster of the ESO) was gorgeous, at times beautifully understated, an equal among equals in the orchestra, at times gently whimsical, floating through the often chamber-like combination of instruments in Berg’s scoring, and throughout with pure and lovely tone, especially in the higher ranges of the solo writing. The end, that dying away sigh, was beautifully played by both soloist and orchestra.

Conservative managements have traditionally been wary of programming works like the Berg Violin Concerto, but this concert showed why they don’t need to be. First, it has been noticeable since the 25-year old Prior has become chief conductor that there are a lot of much younger people attending alongside the more familiar older faces. Indeed, one of my former pupils at the University of Alberta came up to me after the concert to re-introduce himself – it was the first time he had ever been to a symphony concert, and not only had he enjoyed it, but would be coming again.

All this is marvellous, and one hopes it continues, for it is the life-blood of the orchestra’s future. But younger audiences do expect more challenging experiences.  The Berg Violin Concerto was introduced at some length (perhaps just a little too long) and very effectively by Prior, Uchida, and the organist Jeremy Spurgeon, who played on the piano the Bach chorale on which some of the concerto’s material is based, and who had worked with Uchida for over a month preparing the performance.  This introduction was pitched just right, explaining – with musical illustrations – how the work is constructed, and its links both to previous musics and to the street life of Berg’s Vienna.  That this undoubtedly helped the audience was  demonstrated in the post-concert talk in the foyer, when one more elderly member of the audience explained how she had not been looking forward to the Berg. However, after that introduction she had listened to it, her eyes closed, and had clearly been very moved by its beauties.

Prior’s passion for thinking through a work – and re-thinking it if necessary – permeated the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5 that closed the concert. Tchaikovsky is so often played, especially in the west,  as the arch-romantic, in performances that wallow in the poignancy of the themes, and highlight Tchaikovsky’s apparently self-indulgent longings and yearnings. There is of course a place for such approaches – Tchaikovsky’s popularity is based on that emotional indulgence – but there are those (myself included) who haven’t always been comfortable with his music because of that sentimental arch-Romanticism.

Prior’s approach – equally valid, and following a Russian conducting tradition – is, as he told us in his introduction to the work, to blow away those cobwebs and return the music to a much more direct, almost classical, interpretation, devoid of sentimentality. What a compelling performance this was, too. No big rallentandos (apart from one right at the end) or accelerandos here, no indulgently slow tempi, no quasi-portimento, no heavy vibrato. Instead, clean, rigid rhythms, the marches given with a kind of clockwork precision, crisp playing out of a Classical rather than a Romantic tradition (it made me think forward as much to Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony as to the Shostakovitch Prior suggested in his introduction).

The result – especially in the first and last movements – was to present a harsher, harder, more sinuously anguished Tchaikovsky, one that could both appeal to those like me who are antithetical to the Romantic approach to composer, and provide a kind of revelation to those who only know the composer from such Romantic performances. The interpretation was perhaps a little too dry at the end of the second movement (it made me think that Prior could perhaps approach this section  with the same combination of harder sounds and evocation that he had secured in the Nielsen), but the waltz came across more ironically (especially well judged were the little brass snarls in the opening), and, most important, the music did indeed so clearly work with this approach.

This was one of those performances that can make one completely re-evaluate a work. To make it happen, the orchestra had to play it (perhaps, indeed, against their traditions and instincts) with absolute precision and crispness, and that’s exactly what they did. Solo sections from clarinet and horn were beautifully phrased (and played), pure legato, and the entire brass section played with an accuracy and verve they haven’t always displayed.

The enthusiasm and the wide age range of the (very full) audience, the passion of some of the orchestral playing, the willingness to present more challenging or lesser-known works, and a conductor who is clearly not only passionate about music, but can produce new insights into that music – all this augers well for where the ESO is going.

 

 

Edmonton Opera Lilies

 

Zachary Read, left, as the Young Simon and Jean-Michel Richer, right, as Vallier in Edmonton Opera’s production of Kevin March’s Lilies (Les Feluettes)
Nanc Price photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Mark Morris’ Edmonton Journal review of the Edmonton Opera production of Lilies (Les Feluettes) by Australian composer Kevin March and Canadian librettist Michel Marc Bouchard click here.

Review: Pagliacci at the Edmonton Fringe

Pop Goes The Opera !  at the Edmonton Fringe

Leoncavallo: Pagliacci

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Trinity Anglican Church Sanctuary, 101 St. & 84 Ave. (Venue #16)
August 17, 2017

Canio:  Andrea Pinna
Nedda:  Cristina Weiheimer
Tonio:  Bertrand Malo
Silvio:  Ron Long
Beppe:  Taylor Dean Fawcett

Conductor:  Sara Brooks
Stage Directors:  Glynis Price  with  Russell Farmer

 

Further performances:
August 19 – 5.00 pm*
August 20 – 7.00 pm
August 22 – 7.30 pm*
August 24 – 7.45 pm
August 26 – 7.30 pm
August 27 – 6.30 pm*

*with Dan Rowley as Canio

It’s great that there is a group which is now regularly presenting opera at the Edmonton Fringe. The Fringe is definitely not the place – or perhaps the mindset – for large-scale opera productions (even if they were affordable), but it definitely is the place for enterprising groups willing to fit their productions to the spirit of the Festival, and that’s exactly what Pop Goes the Opera! have done in their new production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which opened at Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Friday (August 17) and runs until August 27.

The opera, which Leoncavallo claimed was based on an incident in his childhood (a murder case heard by his father, a judge), was the composer’s 1892 response to the success of Mascagni’s revolutionary 1890 one-act opera, Cavalleria rusticana (which Pop Goes the Opera! presented at the Fringe last year). The two operas are, of course, regularly given as a double bill.

Both operas were in the new style of verismo, that eschewed the epic, historical, or sentimental subjects that had been the staples of Italian opera. No grand figures here – just slices of incidents in the lives (or supposed lives) of ordinary people, the kind of people who had rarely starred in Italian opera before. The action is swift and compressed, the colours bright, the emotions raw and essentially uncomplicated.

Pagliacci is set in a small village in Calabria, and is at its base a love-triangle story, but with a couple of twists. There is a third man involved in the love relationship – the deformed fool, Tonio – and the plot revolves around the visit of a commedia del’ arte group who have come into the village to present the Columbine story. That story – of Columbine, married to the clown figure Pagliaccio, but with her sights set on her lover – exactly matches the real situation, which ends in a double murder.

Art and reality get confused, and the villagers themselves – rather innocent souls – get increasingly confused between the two. There is a sense in the opera (among some wonderful and unforgettable music) that we, as “sophisticated” opera lovers, are spying on a more naive and simple world.

That world is usually seen in the hands of professional opera singers in large opera companies. But it is one of the strengths of this most enjoyable production that the parts are not taken by professional opera singers, but by members of the Edmonton community putting on their own show. None solely sing as their career: for example, Bertrand Malo, the Tonio, is an Alberta prosecutor, Cristina Weiheimer, the alto playing Nedda, is a business analyst with the Government of Alberta, while Francis Price, QC, singing here in the chorus but also supporting the production financially and as one of its producers, is a Chartered Arbitrator.

That does not, though, mean that they are entirely amateur in their music making, for almost all the soloists and the excellent chorus sing regularly in the Edmonton Opera Chorus, and Malo has taken minor roles with the company. So they all have experience, know exactly what they are doing, and clearly have enormous fun doing it.

The result gives an extra layer to the whole proceedings, that really works: not only are we seeing a play within a play, but these are set within another (real) local community who are playing the local community of the village. The set is simple, with a neat scaffolding arch creating a second level, and the church of the opera happily melds into the real church that the audience are in (to take the correspondence further, the Rector [vicar] of Holy Trinity Anglican Church appears as the priest in the opera). The dressing of the scaffolding set could have been more inventive, but the whole arrangement happily accommodates the villagers and the plot. The period is ostensibly updated to the present-day, but apart from a series of mimed comments on the use of cell-phones, the production is essentially and sensibly period-less.

The orchestra is cut down to flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, and cello, with a piano playing the string parts. Again, this worked, the woodwind and brass providing the emotional colour, and the whole ensemble being large and accomplished enough to be effective, creating a chamber version of the opera. Sara Brooks, the conductor, kept the pace going except in the Columbine play-within-a-play, where the tempi were a little too slow to allow the comedy to emerge, or the tension to be built.

Central to this production was the Tonio of Bertrand Malo, and it was good to see him in a more extended role. He has a rich and expressive bass-baritone, and he played the role as a kind of evil mephistopheles, at times a stalker, at times a manipulator of the action. It was appropriate that he should say the last line (“The comedy is finished”) – these days it is usually given by Canio (the Pagliacci) – because Malo was, intentionally, the real outsider in the village, while pulling the strings.

Andrea Pinna is a kind of throw-back to an earlier age of Italian tenors: it is a huge and attractive voice, but one that has but one mode (loud), and I am sure that he himself would not claim to be the world’s best actor. But his stage presence is commanding, and a stand-up-and-sing style suits the part of Canio.

Cristina Weiheimer was more convincing as Columbine than as Nedda – for the later it felt as if she could have used a bit more stage direction and development of character. I wondered if she was under-rehearsed, and she may well develop that character as the run of performances continue.  The other solo roles maintain the overall high standard, backed by the excellent chorus.

Those involved in the love-triangle are often played as if they are all young lovers (regardless of the actual age of the singers), caught in the passions of irresponsible youth. Here, one got the sense that they were in an older age bracket – their thirties, perhaps – and again this suited the work, as the feeling that none of them could claim the innocence of youth added a deeper dimension to the relationships.

What the entire cast does convey is their sheer joy and enthusiasm in presenting the opera. Pop Goes the Opera!’s Pagliacci is a really entertaining evening, a swift (75 minutes) of operatic enjoyment. Opera lovers will find that the cut-down version holds it own, and those who have never seen an opera will experience a theatrical and music evening without that pomp and circumstance that sometimes goes along with the genre.

The opera is sung in Italian, but there are excellent English translations projected onto a screen beside the stage (though these were obscured unnecessarily in the opening chorus, something I trust will be rectified). All in all, strongly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Michael Massey (piano)

Alberta Pianofest

Michael Massey (piano)

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton
Saturday, July 22nd

Johannes Brahms Intermezzo in A major Op.76 no. 6
Capriccio in C sharp minor Op. 76 no. 5
John Ireland Green Ways
Nicolai Medtner Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 no. 1
Fairy Tale in B flat minor Op. 20 no. 1
Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 no. 1
Fairy Tale in F sharp minor Op. 35 no. 4

 

The third biennial  Alberta Pianofest wrapped up on Saturday at Holy Trinity Church, with a piano recital by one of Edmonton’s best known musicians, Michael Massey.

It completed an enlarged festival – nine main concerts, plus talks and a symposium – that took place, for the first time, entirely in Edmonton. The purpose of the festival is to bring high-quality piano playing to  the city in the summer, but also to provide an educational opportunity for a dozen teenage pianists (aged from 12 to 18) to take part in an intensive summer workshop. Four of those young pianists preceded Massey’s recital in an unannounced but welcome prelude to the main part of the recital, showing off their skills in works by Chopin, Kabalevsky, and François Morel.

Michael Massey – who was inducted into the Alberta Order of Excellence last year – is now perhaps best known for his work as conductor of the Edmonton Youth Orchestra, but he has also been influential as a pianist. He initially joined the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, but after two years he became the ESO’s pianist, a position he continues to hold after some four decades. He has taught piano extensively, and indeed the artistic director of Alberta Pianofest, the pianist and now New York resident Jason Cutmore, was a pupil of his.

Massey’s recital on Saturday was notable for the type of music he decided to play. The tone was set by Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major Op.76 no. 6, in a contemplative performance that suited Massey’s general emotional feel – its mellowness was rather like Gandalf taking a break from the action to light a pipe of Old Toby and ruminating away.

That  tone entirely suited the little suite of three pieces that make up John Ireland’s Green Ways, all inspired by literature.  The first, ‘Cherry’, based on A. E. Houseman’s poem ‘Loveliest of Trees’ (perhaps best known in the vocal setting by George Butterworth), pictures rather dense cherry blossoms in an English pastoral style, that again has an introspective, ruminative element. ‘Cypus’ reflects Shakespeare (Twelfth Night’s Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid”), and is a kind of slow movement in the suite, angular and painterly, and inconclusive in its ending. The final piece, after Thomas Nash’s ‘The Palm and May’ opens as if tone-painting fast-flowing streams, and then has a dance feel to it, as if garlands were being strewn: Massey built up to the ending with exactly the right pace and feel.

It was a pleasure to hear the Ireland, though it should perhaps be said that, attractive though Green Ways is, there is quite a body of the composer’s little-known piano music that is both finer and more challenging. Similarly, it was good to hear some works by the Russian composer (and contemporary of Rachmaninov), Nikolai Medtner, whose music Massey has long cherished, but this was also a mixed blessing.

Medtner did write some very fine music (notably the early Piano Quintet, and the first and third piano concertos), but he was also a composer who could get caught up in his own invention. So it was with the Sonata Reminiscenza Op. 38 no. 1 (one of the composer’s 12 piano sonatas). Its reminiscent tone fitted the pattern of the recital, and it is poetic in its opening, but it shows the composer’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. Its failing (as with quite a lot of Medtner) is that it simply does not have enough variety in the writing to sustain its length. It attempts to keep the listeners in the same sort of ruminative ecstasy throughout, with the song elements in the middle voices and a reliance on repeated patterns in the top and bottom of the range.

Much the same might be said of some of the ‘Fairy Tales’ he wrote throughout his life – little colourful pieces, essentially ballads. The Fairy Tale in B flat minor Op. 20 no. 1 and Fairy Tale in E flat major Op. 26 no. 1 were pleasant enough, richly textured, but the tales, alas, largely unmemorable. The Fairy Tale in F sharp minor Op. 35 no. 4, however, is much more expressive and highly charged, with a freer flow, and showed how effective Medtner can be – a fine way to end the festival. I can see how gratifying these pieces must be to play, but overall Massey’s selection here confirmed that while Medtner is well worth hearing once in a while, perhaps once in a while is the operative element – but all the more important to have the chance to hear it here.

The Alberta Pianofest Society plans to launch another venture this November – an annual chamber music festival. This is a much more crowded field already well served by the Edmonton Recital Society and the Edmonton Chamber Music Society – not to mention the Summer Solstice chamber music festival – and it will be interesting to see how the ‘Alberta Chamberfest’ adds to this. In the meantime, the Society is filling an important niche by bring its summer piano music festival to Edmonton. It deserves to establish a following in the years to come.

 

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