Monday, 18 June 2018

National Ballet 2017-2018 # 6: Light-Hearted, Poignant, and Crazy

The National Ballet is winding up its season with a mixed programme that is certainly seasonally appropriate: two light, amusing ballets flanking a much more serious and thought-provoking work.  In performance, this was also an unusually satisfying mixed programme, with all three works striking me as valuable, enjoyable, and well worth the time.

The show began with a company premiere, Paz de la Jolla by young American choreographer Justin Peck.  This artist's career has shot off like a rocket, and with this piece it's not hard to understand why.  Peck grew up in San Diego, and has created a balletic ode to beach life which goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the Sinfonietta La Jolla by Bohuslav Martinu.  The music has a lightweight, sunny, vibe which is rare with Martinu (to put it mildly) but is totally suited to this dancer's ode to Southern California.

The keynote here is the playful character of Peck's choreography.  Rapid movements and steps give the dancing a delightful feeling of ease (although many of the movements are actually complex) and simultaneous energy.  The brightly coloured costumes create a beach-like feeling without slavishly imitating contemporary beach "fashion".

The ballet features a male-female couple and a solo female dancer.  The lead couple, Emma Hawes and Brendan Saye, enacted a nuanced relationship of two people getting closer and edging away before moving together again.  The female solo is the most challenging and complex role, the choreography for her reminding me strongly of Balanchine's Rubies.  Jillian Vanstone totally owned the stage in this role.  These three soloists are supported by a group of 15 other dancers consisting of 6 men and 9 women.  Note the gender imbalance and the odd number of female dancers -- right off the bat, it appears as if Peck is slyly thumbing his nose at the symmetry so beloved of classical ballet practice.

Second work up was a revival of The Man in Black, one of the strongest works ever created by James Kudelka (former Artistic Director of the company).  Not only strong, this is also one of the most unusual, innovative, or just plain "out there" dance works I've ever seen.  

The music, all recorded, consists of six songs laid down by Johnny Cash near the end of his career, all covers of songs previously written and recorded by other artists.  The six songs encompass a wide range of musical styles, but the theme of endings, or farewells, or death runs through all of them.  The dance styles are similarly diverse, and owe nothing to the classical ballet tradition.  Such styles as step dancing, square dancing, line dancing, and swing are the ingredients here.

Kudelka's choreographic vision led him to dress the four dancers (three men, one woman) in western gear, finishing off with cowboy boots.  Those boots become the defining characteristic of the work, since they beat out a remorseless rhythmic tattoo in several of the dances -- notably the first two.

The real hallmark of this ballet is the unified motion of the ensemble of dancers, who spend much of the work linked together in chains, in groups, in pairs and threes, all moving in unison towards whatever goal or destination you may care to imagine.  The few solo passages that do occur are always closely connected with or related to the movements of the other dancers.  The result is uncommonly thoughtful, truly poignant, and touches in me a deep, universal vein of sadness and loss that far transcends any personal event.

Although, I've seen this work staged three times now, this performance notably outweighed the previous ones in connecting with that emotional depth and inwardness.  This was due to the intensely human, heartfelt performances of the cast (Jonathan Renna, Jenna Savella, Piotr Stanczyk, and Robert Stephen).  Throughout the six songs, the feeling that the dancers were totally in tune and in sync with each other was unmistakable.  I was especially impressed by the edgy, abandoned, frenetic quality of Savella's work in the Sam Hall segment.

The concluding work was Alexander Ekman's Cacti, previously staged in 2016.  By turns absurd, farcical, fantastic, and bizarre, this piece simultaneously showcases the virtuosity of the company while madly satirizing the more extreme forms of modern dance and skewering the pomposity and prolixity of some modern dance critics.

(None of this satire, of course, applies to me!)

Cacti uses an ensemble of 16 dancers (8 men, 8 women) who in turn use 16 white-topped riser platforms as their set -- crawling over them, kneeling on them, standing on them, lifting them up to create hiding places, and ultimately piling them up in a huge heap upstage.  And yes, they do use 16 cacti as props.  The choreography demands a fantastic level of energy from these dancers, not just in moving their feet, but in rolling around, gymnastic flips, kneeling hand-dancing, clapping, shouting, laughing -- you name it, they get to do it.

The first part of the piece uses a purpose-composed score of fragmentary music for the string quartet, with many glissandi, high harmonics, and other purposely weird sounds, all played while the four players wander slowly around the stage.  These are interspersed with brief fragments of the presto final movement from Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet.  Later on, the full orchestra joins in with a more nearly complete orchestrated version of the same movement.

The satire gets heavily underlined with the voice-over of a critic, using long strings of 20-dollar words that add up precious little coherent meaning.  And, in case you missed the comedic tone, the deal gets sealed in the second half with a pas de deux in which the two dancers maintain a running, stream-of-consciousness commentary explaining their bizarre actions and movements.  At the end, the critic's voice returns in the most absurd vignette of all -- two minutes of "Okay, I've decided -- this is the end....  This is the end....  This has to be ending now....  Is this it?  Yes, okay.  Yes, this has to be the end."  And so on.

There's only one way to do a piece like this, and today's cast of 16 appropriately put the pedal to the metal and gave it full measure.  All of the chanting, clapping, laughing, and so on, came shooting right out at the audience with a definite in-your-face quality.  Chelsey Meiss and Ben Rudisin totally caught the "crazy factor" in the outrageous movements of the duet sequence.  A hilarious comic excursion to end an uncommonly rewarding mixed programme of dance.

* * * * * * * * * *

Footnote (An Appreciation)

Those of my readers who follow my dance reviews regularly have certainly seen my frequent invocation of the "Conflict of Interest Alert" whenever I was reviewing the work of my nephew, Robert Stephen.

I have decidedly mixed feelings in penning this final review of his career with the National Ballet of Canada.  Although there's still a company tour to Europe coming up, this will be the last time I will see him dance with the National Ballet -- which has been his artistic home for 14 seasons.

I've been a regular subscriber to the ballet since before Robbie was born, and that won't change.  But I must acknowledge the critical role that his career has played in making my dance criticism possible.  I have no ballet background, and little technical knowledge of this unique and demanding art form; I just know what I like.  Whenever Robbie has been dancing, I've always become more focused on the details what was happening, more alert and aware of everything that occurs in all aspects of the performance.

I've also enjoyed our many fascinating post-show conversations, in which we have exchanged our views on the various works the company has staged -- often agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always leaving me with significant new insights into the art of the ballet.

In the fall, Robert Stephen will be relocating to Germany to join a modern dance company in Stuttgart, Gauthier Dance.  It's a great, exciting opportunity for personal and professional growth for him, but I know that his artistry, his dancing, will be very much missed in Toronto.

By his colleagues and friends in the National Ballet of Canada company.

By his many enthusiastic fans in the audience.

And, most definitely, by me.  

Festival of the Sound 2018 # 2: Loving Those Nineties!

For the second time in as many months, I've had the special joy and privilege of listening to a piano performance full of life and high spirits -- given by an artist who's just turned his ninetieth birthday.

The final pre-season piano concert organized by the Festival featured one of the most familiar faces to regular Festival goers, Gene di Novi.  

I've used the tag "jazz" with a broad catch-all sense for this post.  Anyone who's heard Gene perform live knows that he mixes jazz, blues, swing, big band, and more into a totally delightful confection.  He has the most remarkable light touch on the keys, a gentle, almost coaxing singing voice, and a sense of style all his own.

Best of all is his performance of a set where he keeps riffing quietly on the piano after finishing a song, while he tells the audience a story to set up the next number.  He spins his yarns with an amusing variety of vocal tones, and some equally laugh-inducing facial expressions.  Then, he finishes the tale, and with a neat little magic modulation is off into the next melody.  The stories are as much fun as the music itself, since he's played in his time with many of the "greats" of the last century, and has a memory well-stocked with delightful anecdotes about those legendary names.

For this afternoon event, Gene put together a programme of music related to several major cities -- Paris, New York, and Los Angeles among them.  He gave us film songs, club staples, and some relative rarities, all played with his signature jazzy vibe and easy-going approach to rhythm.  As, for instance, in songs where he switched mid-song from 3 beat to 4 beat rhythm, and then switched back again later on.

Along the road, he also told stories about such well-known names as Lena Horne, Edith Piaf, and Benny… -- "you can guess the last name for yourselves" -- to name only a few.

The most awesome aspect of the performance was the fact that he went through an entire nonstop hour of music totally by memory, without a chart in sight anywhere -- just a hand-written list of song titles lying on the piano.  I mean, I'm only in my sixties, and sometimes I have trouble remembering names, words, or where I was planning to go when I got into the car and started driving.

From start to finish, an hour of sheer delight for all the audience.

The strawberry social afterwards, with shortcake and prosecco, didn't do any harm either.

By the way, in case you're wondering, here's a link to the review of the other ninetysomething youngster I heard performing in May:  At Long, Long Last

If there's one thing these remarkable nonagenarian artists prove, it's the value for a long life of devoting yourself to doing something you passionately love doing.

P. S. I've always wanted to use the word "nonagenarian" in a sentence.

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Toronto Symphony 2017-2018 # 7: Back to the Beginning

If it wasn't the very first Toronto Symphony concert I ever attended as a youngster, it was certainly one of the first.  It would have been somewhere around 1968 or so that I sat down in the cheap seats in Massey Hall and heard for the first time Dvorak's Symphony # 8.  Last night, I heard it live again -- for the first time in half a century.  Talk about returning to your roots.

The concert, under guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard, featured a feast of Romantic music, all well known repertoire staples, and all played with immense passion and energy -- the only way to go with these masterpieces from the height of the Romantic era.

The programme opened with a Wagner selection, the one which Sir Donald Tovey once described as "the Prelude-and-Liebestod monstrosity."  I have to agree.  Just because you can attach the final ten minutes of Tristan und Isolde onto the end note of the opera's Vorspiel (prelude) doesn't mean you should.  But musicians have been doing it for over a century and they're not likely to stop any time soon, so this rant will undoubtedly fall on deaf ears.  In any case, I feel more deprived by having to listen to the Liebestod without having an Isolde on hand to sing those exquisite final pages.

Dausgaard and the orchestra played the music beautifully, capturing the swelling, orgasmic quality at the heart of Wagner's most radical inspiration.

The orchestra was then joined by violin soloist Vadim Gluzman for the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 by Tchaikovsky.  This was a big-boned performance, the soloist playing throughout the work with a broad, bold tone that was entirely apt.  But don't mistake "broad" and "bold" as pseudonyms for "raw" or "rough"!  The violin sound remained sweet and clear at all times.  Not only that, but the notes registered clearly throughout the work, even in the wildest acrobatics of the finale.  An impressive performance.

Dausgaard and the orchestra played with great fervour in the first movement, and with equally notable restraint in the slow movement.  If the tempo of the finale was a touch too hell-for-leather for my liking, it was undeniably well played by everyone -- and the resulting standing ovation and five calls for the soloist were absolutely merited.

After the intermission, on to the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88.  This symphony has always fascinated me for its unusual and innovative approach to structure and orchestration.  The composer spoke of working out his ideas in new ways, but that's rather modest -- every movement of this symphony brings unique tactics to the presentation, development, and combination of its themes.  And every movement has a startling interjection or interruption which seems to live outside the structure of the remainder of the movement.  As well, Dvorak here came up with some intriguing, even quirky, tone colours by combining instruments in unexpected ways -- for instance, a high quiet line in the violins combined with a flute playing very low down in its register (only one of many examples).

Dausgaard led the orchestra in a performance which emphasized the huge dramatic contrasts found throughout this score.  Dynamics were taken right to the wall in both loud and soft passages.  Such moments as the tragic eruption in the slow movement or the sudden fast coda in the third movement registered as startling, indeed almost shocking, in a performance of this intensity.

More than any other work of Dvorak's, this symphony highlights the contributions of the woodwind players, and the TSO's wind sections covered themselves with glory from start to finish.  I've never before noticed just how much this emphasis on the winds parallels Mahler's characteristic woodwind writing (Mahler's first symphony was finished the year before Dvorak 8).

Given the intensity heard elsewhere, the third movement (a graceful, light-footed waltz) here became a most necessary relaxation point before the buildup through the final movement.  The unexpected fast coda in duple time took on a playful atmosphere which was truly beguiling.

The dramatic contrasts became larger still in the finale, a kind of theme-and-variations in two different tempi.  The sudden leap from the slower tempo of the first variation to the fast second one shot off like fireworks and the weird chromatic flourishes from the horns came across both clearly and cleanly -- a tricky balancing issue at that point.  The flute solo in the next variation was both aristocratic and acrobatic.  Dausgaard then rolled full steam ahead through the last two bizarre tempo changes in the coda, and brought the symphony to a rousing conclusion.

Thomas Dausgaard first conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2004, and has been back as a guest conductor in virtually every season since then.  His concerts have given me many wonderful musical memories (especially his Mahler Tenth and the Nielsen Third and Fifth Symphonies a few years back), and this fine performance certainly joins the list.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

National Ballet of Canada 2017-2018 # 5: A Dance of Genius

In a stunning world premiere last weekend, the National Ballet of Canada set before the public a production which can fairly be described as a work of genius -- about genius.

Frame by Frame unites the choreography of Guillaume Coté and the staging of Robert Lepage into a remarkable tribute to Canada's genius of film animation, Norman McLaren. Befitting the subject, this performance breaks rules and bends genres on all sides, resulting in an entirely new form of dance theatre. You can hardly even call Frame by Frame a "ballet", although ballet lies at its heart in more ways than one.

The result is a complex tapestry in which segments of dance illustrating key events in McLaren's life and career are interwoven with more abstract segments inspired by -- or re-enacting -- scenes from some of his films. Other scenes feature actual projections of the films themselves on either a backdrop or a front scrim. With one brief exception, the recorded music tracks throughout the performance all derive from the assorted McLaren films.

These diverse elements certainly don't break down into such neat compartments during the actual presentation -- they flow smoothly into and out of and around each other in a way that words can only dimly convey. Dealing with choreography first is purely a matter of my authorial convenience.

Guillaume Coté has used a vivid assortment of modern dance ingredients and movements in staging this multi-layered dance theatre work. Much of the choreography is lively, vivid, energetic, even bouncy, and great fun to watch. This piece does not shirk the opportunity to create humour and to evoke laughter in the audience.

Good examples included the summer cottage scene, the scene of the creation of Begone Dull Care with guest artist Wellesley Robertson as a wildly energetic Oscar Peterson at a pseudo-piano desk, and the re-enactment of Neighbours with Dylan Tedaldi and Skylar Campbell as the two erstwhile friends turned psychotic killers. In Neighbours and A Chairy Tale, Coté has created excellent choreographic equivalents for the more conventional movements of the original film actors, while still conveying the extraordinary energy of the film.

On a partly reflective, but also partly comic level, was the early scene in which the Sadler's Wells Ballet was performing Swan Lake -- the night at which McLaren (Jack Bertinshaw) met Guy Glover, the man who would be his life partner right up until his death 50 years later (Félix Paquet). The two men wove their way on stage around the dancers portraying the Prince and the Swan, symbolising the key role that ballet would continue to play in their lives. An uncommonly thoughtful and thought-provoking conception.

All of this dancing, remember, is only a part of what we saw. Director/designer Robert Lepage and his colleagues at Ex Machina studios created an extraordinary and diverse range of stagings and technical effects to highlight the story and to aid in recreating the imaginative and unique atmospheres of McLaren's films.

Dancers in black under black lights manipulated the energetic chair in A Chairy Tale and bars of lights in another fascinating sequence which I couldn't identify by name. Filmed backdrops supported Neighbours and the cottage scene. The rolling desk-turned-piano became almost like another character in Begone Dull Care. The Swan Lake sequence was staged facing away from us, complete with "footlights" and a row of "audience" facing us from the back of the stage.

The emotional climax of the entire work came in the penultimate scene, a re-creation of McLaren's inspired ballet film, Pas de Deux. Heather Ogden and Harrison James danced with all of the fluid motion which is so much a part of the original film. Not having watched the film for many years, I can't say if Coté used any of Ludmila Chiriaeff's original choreography, but the spirit of the dance was unquestionably right on target.

It was Lepage's contribution which made this scene utterly magical. Using cameras and computers, the team was able to recreate in live motion the stunning multiple images which make that film such an extraordinarily beautiful work of art. Combined with the haunting soundtrack of strings, harp, and pan flute, this scene was so breathtaking that I didn't want it to end -- ever.

Except for one minor detail. Frame by Frame is staged without an intermission, and by this time we were nearing the two-hour mark and I was finding the prolonged sit a little onerous. But I absolutely forgot all about my aching fundament during that heart-tugging Pas de Deux.

I can readily imagine that Frame by Frame will be controversial in some quarters. Ballet traditionalists may balk at the incorporation of so much technological wizardry. Film purists may object to the re-imagining or shortened versions of McLaren's inspirations.

My response is simple: the complainers missed the boat. McLaren was a lifelong lover of the ballet, often spoke of his films in balletic terms, and made three ballet films using live dancers. Best to let McLaren address the issue in his own words: "Film is a form of dance."

Whether this work points the way to the future of ballet is too soon to tell. That we will only know in retrospect, years later. In a world where more and more creative artists are bursting the traditional boundaries of their art to fuse with other artistic disciplines, this work is absolutely on point (pun intended). It's also a great, entertaining, and beautiful artistic creation in its own right, thanks to the three foundations on which it stands.  Frame by Frame is a winner.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Fire and Passion

Once again, I am breaking my own self-appointed mandate of live performance reviews to review a new recording. There's no justification, other than to say that I've been following the career of the musicians involved -- the Cheng²Duo -- for some years now with considerable interest.

Violonchelo del fuego ("Cello of Fire") is the eye-catching title of this new release from the German label Audite. The cover photos underline the Spanish pedigree of the music we'll be hearing.

Unlike the Duo's initial recording, this one contains only one work originally written for the ensemble of cello and piano. It matters not, for the music is all performed with as much fire and passion as if it were specifically composed with these instruments in mind. This new release also includes works for solo piano and solo cello, another innovation on record for these fine Canadian artists.

This Spanish recital constitutes a whirlwind tour through the great Spanish/Catalan music renaissance during the first half of the last century. It might be called a "Greatest Spanish Hits" compilation, but only in part since some of the works definitely live at the rarely-heard edges of the repertoire. As well, there is one work -- the final one on the CD -- which is something of an odd number since it is only Spanish by virtue of the nationality of its composer, certainly not in any stylistic way.

Traditional images of the music of Spain often evoke such comparisons as the strumming and plucking of guitars, the stamping of flamenco dancers' feet, and the clacking of castanets. To capture this feeling on instruments such as cello and piano requires the most precise pedalling and playing of staccato (on piano) and pizzicato (on cello), combined with rapid articulation, plenty of freedom of rhythm, and sudden, sharp dynamic contrasts. But these composers also included many pages of melting lyrical beauty, where the needs shift to sustained legato and careful shaping of phrases.

In all these respects and others, Silvie Cheng (piano) and Bryan Cheng (cello) have entirely captured the voices of these composers, and they've done so with energy, verve, and spirit.

From the very first notes of the opening number, the Intermezzo from the opera Goyescas by Enrique Granados, it's plain that we're in a very different musical world from the one which the Cheng²Duo's previous recording explored. Later in the recording, we encounter Granados again in an arrangement of perhaps his best-known composition, the Andaluza, fifth movement of his twelve Spanish Dances for piano. This is one work where I noted especially the difference in colour of the whole as the melody was taken by the cello in a position in the centre of the harmony, where it originally appeared on the top. This gave the entire dance a more autumnal feeling.

Isaac Albeniz, the most redoubtable of all Spanish composers for the piano, appears for only one work here, but it's a delight: the Malaguena from his suite Espana. This work calls for a lighter texture and colour, and the Duo deliver, finding a real sense of fantasy in this beautiful number.

The music of Manuel de Falla is generously represented. The first Spanish Dance from his opera La vida breve opens with an energetic presentation of the main theme. The central slower section brings the most forceful bass notes on piano, again with matching powerhouse pizzicato playing on the cello. The return of the main theme is decorated in this arrangement with additional virtuosic flourishes, all played with great flair and verve.

Equally powerful, if anything even more vivid and dramatic, is the famous Ritual Fire Dance from de Falla's ballet El amor brujo.  Especially impressive here is the very wide dynamic range of the playing as the music leaps instantly from the very quiet throbbing rhythm to a full-throated fortissimo.

For a microcosm of the entire musical world of this record, turn to de Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs. From the fleet-footed Seguidilla murciana and Jota to the languorous Asturiana and the serene beauty of Nana, the Cheng²Duo capture all the diverse moods of this masterly cycle. In such a performance, one scarcely misses the words. The passionate Polo, with its stabbing chords on the piano and leaping cello line is a highlight of the entire album.

Silvie Cheng plays Turina's Exaltacion with distinction, the dream-like opening giving place to a vigorous treatment of the main theme and a lighter, more fantastic tone for the central section.  It's a pity that room wasn't found to include the other two Fantastic Dances, as these pieces are not heard on record nearly often enough.

Bryan Cheng presents a rare and significant Suite for solo cello by cellist/composer Gaspar Cassadó , a work which not only deserves but demands wider currency. Three movements, each inspired by different traditional dance forms, call for the widest range of tone colours and moods, and this thoughtful performance truly captures that diversity.

Another Cassadó rarity follows, Requiebros ("Flirtations" or "Compliments") for cello and piano -- another dance, this time somewhat more popular in character, and played by the Duo with panache.  For a more detailed look at this music by Cassadó, go to my rare music blog: Cello Beauties From Spain

The final selection is the odd number, the famous Zigeunerweisen by Pablo de Sarasate, one of the staples of the violin repertoire. The central-European gypsy atmosphere of this piece contrasts oddly with the authentic voices of Spain heard in the rest of the album. What's most striking here is the absolute clarity and precision of Bryan Cheng's virtuoso fireworks on the cello, since the notes are much farther apart than on a violin and the cellist's hand has to race back and forth twice as quickly along the fingerboard!

Taken as a whole, this new recording presents a distinguished survey of that proud and magnificent Spanish musical renaissance of the early twentieth century. Silvie and Bryan Cheng fill every selection with the fire and passion which are so essential to this music.

Audite's recording team has captured all the precision and energy of the playing with great clarity, set against a nicely resonant backdrop. A word of warning though: turn your volume down before you play this recording -- it has been transferred at a very high level.  The album includes detailed and informative programme notes in German, English, and French. 

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Hail and Farewell Tour

On Saturday night I attended an uncommon Toronto performance given by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.  This special concert event was sponsored and promoted as part of the Toronto Symphony's programming for the season.  

The VSO is touring across Canada to commemorate the retirement of their Music Director, British conductor Bramwell Tovey, after a tenure of the position for 18 years.  The tour also serves to draw attention to the orchestra's impending 100th anniversary season.

I've only seen Bramwell Tovey at work once before, but it was a memorable occasion indeed: a rare (for Canada) live performance of Britten's War Requiem about (I think) 15 years ago.  That is a particularly challenging and complex work, and his performance not only got the technical aspects of a modern masterpiece right but also captured in full the remarkable spirit of the words and music.

Tovey is a composer of distinction as well as a noted conductor, so it was entirely appropriate that this special commemorative tour programme then moved on to one of his own compositions, a song cycle entitled Ancestral Voices.  Tovey wished to write a work about the impact of the European occupation of Canada on the First Nations peoples, as his own contribution to the process of reconciliation.  He was also determined to avoid any possibility of cultural appropriation or mockery.  In composing Ancestral Voices he relied on advice and input from the singer for whom he was writing the work, Marion Newman.  He also chose to use his normal Euro-classical musical language and set texts by authors of European ancestry, ranging from the early 1800s to the present day.

Newman's role in the creation and performance of the work is critical, due to her fine mezzo-soprano voice, but even more to her Kwagiutl/Stó:lō/English/Irish/Scottish ancestry.  She does much work as an advisor to arts organizations wishing to take an active and ongoing role in reconciliation.

The cycle opens with a Keats poem, In Arcady, expressing an idyllic vision of the land.  The second is an excerpt from a longer poem by naturalist Charles Mair, The Last Bison.  In both of these songs, the orchestra plays short introductions and interludes, then discreetly accompanies the lyrical melodic lines of the singer.

The third song, Dear Sir, brings a dramatic shift.  A savage orchestral scherzo gives way to the declamatory utterance of key words and phrases taken from an anonymous bureaucrat's letter about the role to be played by the residential schools.  The words hammer home remorselessly -- "separate, isolate, educate, assimilate, dominate, assimilate, assimilate" -- before the scherzo resumes.

Bring Light to the Truth combines words from statements by two contemporary Canadian Prime Ministers, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, with text from a United Nations statement, in a heartfelt plea to recognize the great harm done, ending with an ironic reprise of the final line from the Keats poem: "In Arcady, what men or gods are these?"

The final element of this intensely moving performance was Newman's addition of a healing lullaby composed by her, in the traditions of the Kwagiutl/Stó:lō nations, and ending with the slow beat of the traditional drum dwindling away to silence.

The remainder of the concert comprised two repertoire staples.  The orchestra was joined by renowned Canadian violinist James Ehnes for the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 by Brahms, a work which certainly requires no introduction from me.

Tovey led the orchestra in a truly central interpretation, choosing sensible tempi and maintaining the musical flow at all times.  Balance between orchestra and soloist was exemplary.  Throughout there was a clear feeling of a living, breathing performance, firmly anchored but not in the least mechanical or metronomic.

Ehnes gave a five-star account of the solo part, maintaining clarity and sweetness of tone throughout all of the writing on the lower strings and -- particularly notable -- across all the numerous double stops.  His account of the original Joachim cadenza (the one most often heard) brought very quiet, inward reflective playing of the sort that turns the entire gathering into a single, intently listening unity of people.

After the intermission, we heard the famous Variations on an Original Theme "Enigma", Op. 36  by Elgar, the work which first brought Elgar's name before the musical world beyond Britain's shores -- and which probably remains the Elgar work most often performed outside of the British Isles.  The title refers to a double conundrum.  The variations on an original theme (itself called "Enigma") are titled with initials or nicknames, and are musical portraits of various people known to the composer.  This half of the enigma has long since been unravelled and the portraits identified.  One of the women portrayed, Dora Penny ("Dorabella"), actually wrote a memoir of her friendship with Elgar which she called Memories of a Variation!

The second enigma has been much trickier.  Elgar dropped many hints at the nature of this puzzle, indicating that there is a larger theme which goes along with or is somehow related to the original melody on which he based his variations.  Particularly puzzling was his comment that Dora Penny, of all people, should have guessed the answer.  Many candidates have been proposed as solutions.  None has found general acceptance and, since Elgar took the secret with him to his grave, that is as it should be.  So we'll just leave it at that, and go on to consider  the actual performance.

While these Variations demand a wide range of tempo and dynamics, I felt that Tovey's performance occasionally slowed too much in some movements.  As a result, the music at times began to drag and droop in a few spots.  No problem at the other end of the scale -- none of the faster sections were taken at such a swift pace as to hinder musical clarity.

No such criticism can be attached to the splendid playing of the orchestra.  Enigma is a masterpiece by one of the great masters of Romantic orchestration, and is peppered with all kinds of intriguing orchestral effects.  Such moments as the woodwind embroideries in C.A.E, the emphatic door slam of W.M.B., the genteel conversation of Ysobel with its delicate final comment on solo viola, the boisterous energy of Troyte, the slight hesitation or stutter in Dorabella, or the barking bulldog of G.R.S. -- all sprang to vivid life in the hands of these skilled players.

Centring the work, of course, is the splendid nobility of Nimrod.  This movement portrays a late-night conversation about music, although it has come to be much associated with times of pageantry and mourning.  Elgar never achieved greater heights in this central aspect of his musical language, and both Tovey and his players took us all the way to the summit with an ideal combination of passion, power, and restraint.

In the concluding variation E.D.U. (a self-portrait), Tovey included the ad lib organ part to splendid effect, the great concert organ of Roy Thomson Hall underpinning and reinforcing the already grand sound of the orchestra at full throttle, and building up to a thrilling conclusion to the work and the evening.

Or was it?  This concert included a positive embarrassment of riches in the way of encores.  James Ehnes played, after the Brahms concerto, a meltingly beautiful Andante from the A Minor Sonata for solo violin by Bach.  Then the orchestra, far less commonly for Toronto, encored after the Elgar with two of Brahms' Hungarian Dances in orchestral arrangements.

From the sombre, haunting songs of Ancestral Voices to the ebullience of Brahms dances, definitely a concert to remember -- and the capacity audience certainly seemed to agree.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Theatre Ontario Festival # 5: Awards and Thanks

The annual Theatre Ontario Festival brings together four outstanding productions selected from the four regional community theatre festivals.  Days at the Festival are occupied with various workshops, play readings, and other activities, and a different play is presented on each of the four nights, Wednesday through Saturday.  Awards are presented at a brunch on Sunday morning.  As is my custom, I have reviewed all four performances.  This post contains my final thoughts and thanks on another exciting Festival, as well as a complete list of all the award winners as selected by Festival Adjudicator Maja Ardal.

*****      *****     *****

Another Theatre Ontario Festival is now in the history books, and it impressed me as one of the more uneven ones I have attended -- for reasons which I have detailed in some of my reviews.  However, dear readers, please remember that I am only one person and my opinion is just that -- an opinion.

That reality was amply proven when the audience loudly acclaimed Maja Ardal's selection of the play I enjoyed the least as the outstanding production of the Festival!  

There's a fundamental difference between these reviews which I write and the work which Maja has been doing all week with the four companies.  An adjudicator does considerable preparatory work, reading the scripts multiple times, and making notes about things to watch for and important considerations for meeting the playwright's intentions -- the yardstick on which all adjudicated productions are judged.

On the other hand, I prefer to arrive at the theatre completely cold, knowing nothing at all about the play being presented, and refusing even to read programme notes before the performance.  In this, I try to place myself in the position of becoming pure audience.  This week, it worked for all of the plays except Tempting Providence -- and even that one was a brand-new experience for me when I first saw it performed back in March.

Also, it's good for all of us to remember that everything we saw this week was the result of thousands of choices made by directors, actors, designers, technicians, stage managers, producers, all willing workers who have tirelessly given of their time and talents, because community theatre is most certainly a volunteer art form.

This applies equally to all the people who worked so hard behind the scenes to make this Festival a reality.  It's been a delightful week and, for many of us, our annual theatrical family reunion.

I also want to extend heartiest congratulations to my good friend, Sue Perkins of London ON, whose half-century of working, learning, watching, and sharing her passion for top-notch community theatre was worthily recognized with Theatre Ontario's prestigious Michael Spence Award.

In closing, I want to thank all the people who have kindly expressed to me their appreciation for these blog reviews.

With that, here is the list of award winners.

[1]  Adjudicator's Award for carrying the theme of the play
       Presented to Venetia Lawless of Ottawa Little Theatre
       ("Lorna" in Dead Accounts)

[2]  Adjudicator's Award for sharing the love of telling the story with a twinkle in his eye
       Presented to Jim Graham of Elliot Lake Amateur Theatre Ensemble
       ("Angus" in Tempting Providence)

[3]  Adjudicator's Award for clear vision of the play and huge love for the actors
       Presented to Murray Finn of Elliot Lake Amateur Theatre Ensemble
       (Director of Tempting Providence)

[4]  Adjudicator's Award for bringing humour to the task of managing a cantankerous man
       Presented to Deb Deckert of Elmira Theatre Company
       ("Lucy Hopperstaad" in On a First-Name Basis)

[5]  Adjudicator's Award for imaginative and detailed set design
       Presented to Bernadette Hunt and Sean Treacy of Toronto Irish Players
       (Set Designers of Little Gem)

[6]  Outstanding Coordinated Production Award
       Chosen by the Festival Stage Managers
       Presented to Elliot Lake Amateur Theatre Ensemble

[7]  Outstanding Visual Presentation
       Presented to Elliot Lake Amateur Theatre Ensemble for Tempting Providence

[8]  Outstanding Technical Achievement
       Presented to Elmira Theatre Company for On a First-Name Basis

[9]  Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role
       Presented to Jane Morris of Ottawa Little Theatre
       ("Barbara" in Dead Accounts)

[10]  Outstanding Performance in a Supporting Role
         Presented to Josh Sparks of Ottawa Little Theatre
         ("Phil" in Dead Accounts)

[11]  Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role
         Presented to Rebecca de la Cour of Toronto Irish Players
         ("Lorraine" in Little Gem)

[12]  Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role
         Presented to Phillip Merriman of Ottawa Little Theatre
         ("Jack" in Dead Accounts)

[13]  Outstanding Director, Presented in Memory of Richard Howard
         Presented to Geoff Gruson of Ottawa Little Theatre
         (Director of Dead Accounts)

[14]  The Elsie Award for Outstanding Festival Production
         Presented to Ottawa Little Theatre for Dead Accounts