Edmonton Classical Music

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

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 Symphony Orchestra and National Arts Centre Orchestra: Estacio, Mozart, Dvořák

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, National Arts Centre Orchestra

Saturday, October 28th, 2017
Winspear

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

 

John Estacio: King Arthur Suite
Mozart: Violin Concerto No.3
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) 

Jessica Linnebach (violin)
Alexander Shelley (conductor)

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the joint concert of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, on tour from Ottawa, click here .

Edmonton Recital Society: Elgar and Messiaen

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Sir Edward Elgar

Edmonton Recital Society

Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Sunday, November 12, 2017

Elgar: Piano Quintet in A minor

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

Sarah Ho (piano)
Rafael Hoekman (cello)
Clayton Leung (viola)
Julianne Scott (clarinet)
Robert Uchida (violin)
Laura Veeze (violin)

 

For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal of the Edmonton Recital Society’s concert evoking Remembrance Day, and featuring some of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s best musicians, click here .

Calgary Philharmonic live stream October 28

GROUND-BREAKING COMMISSION TRUE NORTH SYMPHONIC BALLET AIRS LIVE TO THE WORLD
WORLD PREMIERE LIVE-STREAMS OCTOBER 28, 2017

Calgary, Alta., October 25, 2017 – With great honour, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) presents its most ambitious Canadian commission since 2012, Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation, which garnered international attention. True North: Symphonic Ballet brings together five-award winning Canadian composers from across the nation, a cultural advisor from the TSUU T’INA Nation in the Treaty 7 territory, and an acclaimed choreographer. The project embodies Canada’s multi-cultural identity and values in symphonic dance form. In partnership with the DeBoni New Works Programme, the CPO commissioned this piece to celebrate Canada 150 and is part of its five-week long True North Festival.

Audiences around the world can enjoy a fully immersive, real-time digital concert experience for no fee.

What: Live-broadcast of True North Symphonic Ballet – World Premiere

When: Saturday, October 28, 2017 at 8 p.m. (MST)

Link: calgaryphil.com/live-stream
Ticket Information: Tickets to this concert are available through the Calgary Philharmonic Box Office at 403.571.0849 or online at calgaryphil.com.

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.

Calgary Philharmonic launches streaming scheme: first stream Saturday September 30

If you want to compare the Calgary Philharmonic with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – or simple listen to their concerts – you now can without having to drive down Highway 2 to Calgary!

Here’s what they have top say about it, and the link:

“The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) launches a live-streaming initiative to feature select concerts in the 2017/2018 Season. This weekend, Rune Bergmann’s first performance as Music Director, featuring prominent Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, will be the first live-streamed concert.

“The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra will now be available to the world. This is an exciting first step in a journey that takes us to places we may never physically arrive at. Join us for the adventure!” said Paul Dornian, President & CEO, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra.

Audiences around the world can enjoy a fully immersive, digital concert experience at calgaryphil.com/live-stream for no fee.”

 

WHAT: Live-broadcast of Brahms & Mahler with Jan Lisiecki

WHEN: Saturday, September 30, 2017 at 8 p.m. (MST)

LINK: calgaryphil.com/live-stream

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.

 

Opera Nuova: Carousel review

Rogers and Hammerstein Carousel

Opera Nuova

Festival Place, Sherwood Park
June 28 2017

Members of the cast of Carousel (photo Nanc Price)

Cast:

Billy Bigelow: Justin Kautz
Julie Jordan: Krista Paton
Jigger Craigin: Nolan Kehler
Carrie Pipperidge: Brittany Rae
Enoch Snow: Ross Mortimer
Netti Fowler: Olivia Barnes

Director: Donna Fletcher
Conductor: Andrew St. Hilaire

 

There are no two ways about it: in 2017, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, which Opera Nuova presented on alternating nights with Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen at Festival Place, Sherwood Park, from June 24th to 30th, is problematic.

For, whereas Janáček’s opera seems all too relevant today, Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway 1945 music does seem awfully dated. There is a paradox here: so many of the songs are (rightly) classics: ‘If I loved You’, ‘You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan’, and that anthem of the British soccer terraces, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, to name but three, will be known to most readers of this, even if they don’t know the source.

The work introduced some musical innovations (the soliloquy, for example) that have become Broadway staples, and the overall tone of the songs and choruses – tuneful, tonal, with a large element of sentimentality that rose-tints the story – picked up on Rogers and Hammerstein’s earlier Oklahoma! (which Opera Nuova presented in 2015), and has largely defined the genre ever since.

So the attractiveness of the music is not in question – it’s that story that is the problem. It is almost a clinical study in dysfunctional relationships, and more pertinently what is known as ‘co-dependency’. The mill girl Julie Jordan is quite willing to give up herself and her job to the clearly ne’er-do-well fair-ground carousel barker Billy Bigelow, as she has a crush on his good looks and silken tongue. The result is almost inevitable: pregnancy, marriage, crime and domestic violence. Most notorious of all is the way that domestic violence is treated, with the horrible line, given completely uncritically in its context: “It’s possible for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and not hurt at all.” In other words, the very musical itself can become part of that dysfunction.

Then there is the peculiar last third, where Billy Bigelow, having committed suicide, is given the opportunity to make amends by returning to earth for one day. However, not only does his violence flare up again as he hits his now-teenage daughter, but actually he doesn’t actually do anything that materially helps that daughter – Louise Bigelow would put the past behind her, one feels, whether he had come back or not. The theme of returning after suicide was much more effectively treated only two years later in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart.

It doesn’t help that the musical framework is so appealing, and largely without a sense of awareness of the underlying dysfunction (the Hungarian novel on which the scenario is based is much darker). It is possible to present the dark side of the musical (by all accounts, the famous National Theatre 1992 production did just that), but that was not the approach of director Donna Fletcher in this Opera Nuova production.

Indeed, I was reminded of J. Kelly Nestruck’s Globe and Mail review of the 2015 Stratford production, which asked whether the director was deliberately trying to sabotage the musical by playing up its such insensitive features. For here was virtually nothing dark – on the contrary, it was played rather as if it was Oklahoma! with a bright cheerie chumminess (Sondheim described Oklahoma! as being about a picnic), even in Heaven, rather than descending into the abyss (Sondheim described Carousel as being about life and death).

This was reinforced by a very strong acting performance from Albertan Justin Kautz as Billy Bigelow when I saw the musical on June 28 (like most of Opera Nuova’s productions, the musical had been double-cast). He was almost frighteningly slick in his seductions, arrogantly self-confident, and his hesitations over committing murder seemed a question of self-preservation rather than of any moral scruple: his body-language expressed his up-tightness throughout the musical.  Churlish in heaven, and still narcissistic back on earth, he thoroughly convinced me what a truly awful person Bigelow actually is, devoid of any redeeming features.

Not that any of this, I suspect, really mattered to the enthusiastic audience, and therein lay the problem with this production. For that cheeriness, that brightness, that melodiousness was engagingly expressed by all the company, very successfully, exactly as if this were Oklahoma! No undercurrents of strong sexual urges, or the equally strong sexual repressions inherent in the musical, here, but rather, let’s fall in love and get on with it (or be a bit jealous), and what do a few blows or a murder matter.

There were some fine individual performances, too: an even-keeled and well sung Julie Jordan from Krista Patton, and a particularly impressive and confident Carrie Pipperidge from soprano Britanny Rae, who had impressed earlier in one of the Festival’s vocal recitals (not to mention the Opera Nuova 2016 production of Bellini’s opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi).  Mezzo-soprano Olivia Barnes was also impressive as Nettie, with a strong stage presence, fine vocal strengths, and the suggestion that she could have taken the role quite a lot further had the directorial approach been different.

Just as successful was the set by Terry Gunvordahl (who had also designed the 2015 Oklahoma!). The central building blocks were upright poles of the diameter of telegraph poles, but grouped into movable modules rather like the wooden construction of the trestles supporting a pier, or the poles a fishing boat might tie up to. These modules, when combined with such elements as fishing nets strung between them, or the sails of a three-masted ship at the back, were adaptable enough to effortlessly suggest the waterfront, Julie Jordan’s house, or the murder scene. Inventive, visually appealing, and a considerable contribution to the staging.

What was less effective was the amplification, which was far too loud (is this a reflection of a millennial age, risking deafness by having the volume of music in ear-buds turned up too high?). At times it was actually grating, and it did a disservice to Justin Kautz by emphasizing the tendency to the nasal in his voice. That it didn’t need to be turned up so high was shown by Krista Paton as Julie Jordan, who, in the second half at least, seemed to have the volume of her headset turned down a little compared to the rest. The result was to allow more of the orchestra, well conducted by Andrew St. Hilaire, to come across without detriment to the solo line.

So, overall, this Carousel was something of a mixture – enjoyable performances of enjoyable music that unwittingly made one question the piece itself. This was no fault of the performers, but I couldn’t help but feel there was a missed opportunity here.

 

 

 

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