Friday, 21 February 2014

A Repertory Staple and a Canadian Rarity

It's funny, last night's Toronto Symphony concert was billed as "Beethoven's Violin Concerto" and that was not  the reason I came.  Don't get me wrong, I love Beethoven's work, the first of the great symphonic concertos for violin and orchestra.  It just isn't likely that I would make the trek from Woodstock into Toronto (90 minutes minimum each way) just to hear that work.

The first movement of the Beethoven lasts as long as (or longer than) the other two put together.  With that kind of "heavenly length", you might expect the kind of barnstorming musical rhetoric that occurs in many of Beethoven's bigger works -- but no.  The movement unfolds at a moderate tempo, with a large budget of long, singing melodies evidently intended to make the most of the violin's true lyrical quality.  The second movement is one of those simple-sounding middle movements, also found in the 4th and 5th piano concertos, where the orchestra seems to be listening in rapt attention to the quiet voice of the soloist while the audience listens raptly to both.  The finale is a light-hearted, joyous rondo on a very country-dance-like melody.

The soloist was concertmaster Jonathan Crow, and the technical excellence of his playing was unquestionable.  Guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard drew marvellously light playing from the orchestra in all the many quiet passages, with the most delicate pizzicato notes from all the strings in the slow movement.

My only cavil was the interpretive decision to play each of the soloist's main entries in the first movement as if they were solo cadenzas, causing the entire orchestra to mark time while Crow took all the time he wanted to spin out his chains of notes.  The result was a kind of stop-start effect which, for me, detracted from the strong sense of forward movement that is so characteristic of Beethoven's music.  I've never heard this done by anyone else, either live or in recordings, and while it was interesting to hear it once the result was not -- for my money -- a performance to live with through repeated hearings.

The other work on the program was a true rarity in North America: Carl Nielsen's Symphony # 3 (Sinfonia Espansiva).  Given the popularity of Sibelius in North America, I've never really understood why Nielsen hasn't made the same impression.  It's odd that the elements making up his music sound very similar to Sibelius, when described in writing, yet the total effect is very different. 

One of the most important elements of Nielsen's music is its powerful energy and sense of forward movement, much like Beethoven and totally unlike  most other music being written during much of Nielsen's lifetime (or since).  Another is his focus on the inherent energy and force of life itself.  The subtitles of some of his works (Sinfonia Espansive, The Inextinguishable) refer not to the music itself but to the Life Force which informs it.  I sense that in this respect Nielsen could probably have held hands with Bernard Shaw, whose views on the Life Force dominate several of his plays.

Musically, Nielsen works in a diatonic framework -- that is, his harmonies are grounded in the traditional major and minor scales -- but he certainly doesn't confine himself to one key at a time!  The result is a style where you have to think of what chord Nielsen is in at any given moment, as the next main chord is almost certain to be in a different key. 

The first movement opens with an accelerating series of fortissimo chords which whip up to a breathless speed and launch the main theme.  This theme is nothing more than a rising and falling arpeggio figure, but it will reappear many times throughout the movement, and never twice in a row in the same chord!  The power of this opening drives the music forward with immense and expanding energy (hence, Nielsen's direction: allegro espansivo).  The entire movement is in triple time, a Nielsen trademark, and this suits the moto perpetuo character of the music.  In the middle the low strings adopt an oom-pah-pah bass to accompany a quiet theme in the violins, but this soon builds into a ferocious full-throttle waltz from the full orchestra. 

The second movement is marked andante pastorale but its pastoral quality is nothing like Beethoven's 6th!  The movement opens in a brooding silence, sustained horns and bassoons forming a pedal bass to quiet fragments of the other instruments.  Three times this is interrupted by long passionate melodies on the violins, mainly using the low strings.  After the third iteration, the music settles into a brighter sounding background of calm and stillness and two human voices, a soprano and a baritone, join the orchestra, vocalizing quietly but rapturously.  Nielsen originally penned a short text for this section, but then withdrew it and left the singers wordless.  It's a wonderful moment and no substitution with a clarinet and a trombone will do.

Incidentally, the program notes specified that this substitution would be made, but then an inserted sheet gave the biographies of two singers, Andrea Nunez and David Diston.  I'm willing to bet that conductor Dausgaard, himself a Dane and a renowned Nielsen specialist, put his foot down and demanded singers.  Thank goodness they were engaged, because both of them did a fine job with their parts -- the soprano role in particular reaches quite high but has to remain quiet.  I'm sure any other Nielsen fans in the audience, like myself, heaved a massive sigh of relief!

The third movement adopts duple time, and proceeds with great energy.  Most of the fuel for this movement comes from a sustained trill leading to 4 rapid reiterations of a single note.  That figure in fact is treated imitatively in a quasi-fugal episode before the movement winds down into a mysterious quiet coda.

The finale brings a sustained, simple melody built from the notes of the major scale, and for the first time the symphony pursues the melody firmly within that single key.  The movement then becomes a kind of rondo form, with that main melody recurring at landmark moments in contrast with other intervening material.  Another figure becomes the subject of a quasi-fugal treatment during an episode, and the main theme gets a similar fugal treatment near the end.  Finally the music speeds up into a grand climactic statement of the second theme from the full orchestra and the symphony ends with hammered chords slowing down, a mirror of the opening acceleration.

It's not often that a Toronto Symphony audience will burst into cheers for a little-known work, but Dausgaard and the orchestra gave this symphony such a passionate and convincing performance that many were moved to shout their approval. 

As a footnote, Dausgaard will be back in Toronto next season for three more concerts pairing Beethoven and Nielsen.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Mixed Bag of Mahler

Last night, the Toronto Symphony was away on its annual exchange trip and we had the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal under their renowned music director, Kent Nagano.  The program consisted solely of Mahler's Symphony # 7, performed (rightly) without intermission.

To call this a risky calling card is an understatement.  "The schizophrenic Seventh", as somebody once described it, is the most problematic of all the Mahler symphonies, a world at war with itself in many respects.  Oddly enough, this performance was most successful at the precise point where most conductors get into severe difficulties.

The orchestral playing was splendid, full of fire and passion.  In the whole sprawling canvas I only detected one false note and I'm sure the player in question is still blushing.  But then, nobody ever gets through a Mahler symphony without a few minor slips.  After so many years under world-class conductors, the excellence of the Montreal players continues to set a standard for all of Canada.

Which brings me to the question marks of the performance, all of them connected with music director Nagano's interpretive choices.  Mahler necessarily requires a good deal of ebb and flow in tempos, and many of the changes are indicated in the score.  The first movement stayed firmly locked into its initial tempo for a very long time, and this tilted the tone away from dark and spectral towards dogged and determined.  Once Nagano did begin allowing some give and take the music became more lifelike.  Right at the end, the orchestra began to come apart on one of the accelerandos towards the final cadence -- the conductor kept increasing the rate of acceleration exponentially.  But these are all fairly minor issues. 

Real trouble began with the next two movements, the first Nachtmusik ("Night Music" -- so designated by Mahler) and the scherzo which the composer labelled Schattenhaft ("Shadowy").  The Nachtmusik opens with a horn solo followed by its own echo from off stage.  Off stage players feature in many Mahler symphonies, and can easily be made audible at a distance by opening one of the side-stage doors in Roy Thomson Hall.  Nagano chose to keep those doors shut, and even with the audience in pin-drop stillness the echo was all but inaudible.  I'm sure anyone with any degree of hearing impairment would have heard only a long silence. 

Then came the pauses.  Both second and third movements have measured silences built into them -- long rests during which the tempo continues to move.  Why did Nagano choose to add lengthy unmeasured pauses to the measured ones?  The effect was to break the unity of the music.  This was especially disruptive to the scherzo where the moto perpetuo effect is an essential part of the piece's nightmarish quality.  And it happened 3 or 4 times, which made the breaks even more jarring.

The fourth movement, also labelled Nachtmusik, calls for a tempo of andante amoroso.  It's a gentle, smooth-flowing, serenade-like movement with passages for a guitar and a mandolin interwoven.  It's the closest the symphony comes to a slow movement and a point of relative repose.  Nagano chose to take it at a much faster speed than usual, and as a result the relaxed Viennese quality vanished, replaced by a tense, hectic rush to the finish line.  Only in the final bars did the music settle down into the kind of dreamlike close that Mahler obviously wanted, the final notes evaporating into the air.

The raucous, celebratory rondo finale is where most conductors get into trouble, due to the numerous stops and starts and gear changes.  And here was where Nagano really shone, welding the disparate elements of this multi-sectioned movement into a convincing, unified whole. 

The orchestra were magnificent throughout.  If the conductor's interpretation had come up to the standard of his final movement all the way through, this would have been a Mahler Seventh for the ages. 

On March 17 the orchestra and Nagano are performing this symphony in Mahler's home hall, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, and it will be live-streamed on  Personally, I would really be interested to hear how the Vienna critics respond to Nagano's very idiosyncratic interpretation. 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Sheer Stage Power!

Years ago, I acquired a book about one of the early years of the Stratford Festival.  The author gave a detailed description of the rehearsal process leading to the Festival's first-ever production of Shakespeare's final Roman play, Coriolanus.  This legendary production starred Paul Scofield, one of the great stage and (occasionally) film actors of the last half of the 20th century.  Against him in the role of Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia, was the Canadian actor Eleanor Stuart.  The author of the book described how Stuart called on the trait of "sheer power" to play the scene where she has to subdue her strong-willed, powerful son to her own will.  It's a hair-raising concept, the idea of an actor simply cranking the emotional-intensity dial all the way up to the red-line, and then advancing the vocal-authority dial to match.  Subtle, it isn't, but in the right hands and at the right moment, it becomes totally breathtaking!

Which brings me to Thursday night, when the National Theatre Live series at Cineplex presented a production from the still more adventurous Donmar Warehouse theatre in London (UK) of -- wait for it -- Coriolanus.  I never saw that amazing Scofield-Stuart partnership in the play (hey, I was only 7 years old at the time) but I have seen it staged a couple of times at Stratford, and it always leaves me feeling that there has to be more that could be done with it.  The Donmar Warehouse production pushed the limits of stage power in every conceivable direction, leaving me instead with the feeling that I had been involved in a major car wreck.

For Coriolanus, the character, is indeed a man who invites and actively participates in his own destruction.  No blind fate here, as in (for instance) the story of Oedipus.  Coriolanus is indeed the tragic hero brought low by his own faults, and Shakespeare cuts right to the core of the tragic dilemma by showing how his basest faults are in fact his greatest strengths.

It`s a very big role.  Big in length of lines, big in domination of scenes, big in emotional scale, and positively epic in the arc of the character upwards to glory and at once downwards to darkness.  This daunting combination of extremes explains why Coriolanus usually stars an actor of 40-some years, one who has been on the stage long enough to acquire the skills and experience to play this formidable character believably.  Tom Hiddleston, at age 33, is therefore a younger-than-average Coriolanus.  But the casting works magnificently with the script, because the faults of Coriolanus are those often found in younger people: too great a trust in your own innate abilities, too great a certainty that you are always right, and above all too much awareness that you are the only possible person for the job and that they will have to let you do it.  Hiddleston conveyed all these and other sides of a complex character with both power and subtlety.  (The Donmar Warehouse space is small enough that whole scenes can be and are played very quietly without losing the audience`s attention.)

Sometimes on an older man these characteristics can seem like mere pig-headed petulance.  Since Tom Hiddleston actually looks younger than his age, he projects the youthful energy and the youthful stubbornness with equal conviction.

I started with that long story about Eleanor Stuart playing Volumnia, because the surprise of the evening for me came with Deborah Findlay`s performance of that role.  I`ve seen her a couple of times before in National Theatre Live presentations, but always in more kindly, caring, empathetic roles (such as the Steward in Timon of Athens).  I had trouble squaring the needs of Volumnia with my previous experience of her work, fine as it has been.

I needn`t have worried.  Exactly as the play requires, Findlay first encourages and directs her son, then finally wraps him neatly around her middle finger and traps him into doing the one thing he is determined not to do.  Her performance of that powerhouse scene where she persuades him not to take his revenge on Rome was absolutely breathtaking in its strength, nuance, and vocal authority.

Among the smaller roles, I was most impressed by Mark Gatiss as the "humorous patrician", Menenius.  He simply played the role in a manner that I felt clearly derived from that two word self-description -- a most necessary quality, since Menenius provides what little comic relief there is in this dark and dangerous world.

The third main "character" of the play, to my mind, is a composite: the mob of Roman plebeians and the two "tribunes of the people" who direct and control them.  The tribunes, Brutus and Sicinia, were played to great effect by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger.  Now, anyone who knows the play will have caught on right away.  The tribune's real name is Sicinius, and was meant by the author to be a man.  Director Josie Rourke has actually pulled off a double gender-role reversal here.  Of the two, Sicinius/a is the more hard-hearted, violent-tempered, ruder, while Brutus is calmer, quieter, more apt to persuade than to order.  Rourke has given the role of the tribune displaying the more traditionally "masculine" qualities to the woman of the pair.  Schlesinger and Levey made a fine partnership in these smaller roles, sometimes coming across as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and sometimes appearing more as the yin and yang of the populist movement.

The "mob" which they direct and control to such devastating effect is actually a smaller group in this production, just four people with the lines of the people divided between them.  This diverse group of rabble each had their own distinct personalities and each had their own distinct accents.  The scene where they gave their assent to Coriolanus as a consul was played with the extremest degree of irony.

Director Josie Rourke has achieved a taut, electrifying production of the play, creating the most memorable stage pictures on a bare floor with a single ladder rising at the back, and with only a handful of utilitarian chairs used to create interior spaces.  Right from the opening moment when a young boy painted an off-kilter red rectangular outline on the floor, the play gripped.  Lighting is of tremendous importance in this kind of bare-space staging, and the lighting effects were used most convincingly, and thankfully not over-used.  Costuming, too, was thankfully kept simple, with all characters clothed in relatively period-less adaptations of modern dress.

I have two major issues.  The first was that ironic scene of the people assenting to the consulship of Coriolanus.  The ironic tone of their voices led me to think that the script was about to deviate into conspiracy politics on another level, a kind of "Occupy Movement" that doesn't actually exist in the play.  It was, for me, a slightly confusing choice. 

The other one was the use of a literal waterfall of blood at the moment when Coriolanus meets his death.  That his body should be suspended in the air upside down in a kind of reverse crucifixion metaphor is not shocking -- Olivier did something similar in his 1937 Old Vic production, as I have read.  But after Coriolanus had his throat cut by the conspirators, what was the point of having his enemy Aufidius stand underneath him to be drenched by a shower of blood?  Combined with the suspended effect, the net result came across like some kind of ritual of expiation for Aufidius and there is nothing in the text whatsoever to support that.  Indeed, this portrayal of the final scene resulted in a cut of one of the key moments of the script -- when the happily avenged Aufidius plants his foot on the body of the dead Coriolanus, to be told by one of the Volscian senators, "Tread not upon him."  A man capable of stepping on his dead enemy is not a man feeling the need to seek forgiveness of sins!  The more I thought about that revisionist ending, the more I found that it dissatisfied me.

 But that was a minor blot on a remarkable performance -- full of power, subtlety, passion, and with sparks of energy flying off the stage in every scene. 

One other minor technical note: for some reason, the sound level in this cinema broadcast was set lower than usual.  That actually made it a bit difficult to hear the voices in some of the quieter scenes.  No way of knowing if that was a universal problem, or just a technical glitch at the particular location where I viewed the production.