Saturday, 31 May 2014

Decidedly "Varied" Afternoon of Ballet!

It would be hard to create a more varied mixed programme than the National Ballet of Canada staged this week, while still keeping exclusively to work created in the last century!

The overall theme of the programme was billed as "Physical Thinking", and there were definitely three widely divergent views of human physicality on display.  Two of the works I found very rewarding in completely different ways.  The third one...?  Well, let's just say that you can't experiment without creating some duds just as you can't make an omelette without breaking the eggs.  As a writer, I can only say, "Don't I know it?"

The first work on the programme was Le Spectre de la Rose.  Now, don't jump on me just yet -- hang on a minute!  I know perfectly well that Le Spectre was a Romantic warhorse created by the famous choreographer Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev in Paris.  It used the music of Weber -- his Invitation to the Dance (as orchestrated by Berlioz) -- and was primarily a showpiece for Vaclav Nijinsky, ending with the infamous grand jete exit through the girl's bedroom window.

I saw that ballet years ago, before the National moved out of the Hummingbird Centre, and even then could tell that it was dated almost beyond redemption.  The passive female figure, who simply watches in mute admiration while the male soloist executes his spectacular solo, is so out of tune with today's concepts of art that the piece becomes almost laughable.

I was curious, then, to see what choreographer Marco Goecke brought to this tale in his work, originally created in 2009.  From advance comments I had read, I was expecting some sort of more "advanced" version of the familiar Fokine concept.  But what we got was nowhere even close to that.

Goecke's choreographic language is nothing if not unique.  For long stretches of time, perhaps even for over 50% of the total duration of the work, the dancers stand stock-still with their feet pressed together like soldiers on a parade ground.  The dancers' major effort lies in the arms (and, to a lesser extent, the faces).  The classic port de bras, the manner in which the arms are held, is twisted through a thousand bizarre variations, and these variations succeed one another at lightning speed, rather like a slide projector gone crazy.  Rarely, one of the dancers would "unstick" from the floor and move about, execute a modest leap or two, and then come back to anchor.  I certainly admire the amount of physical energy and sheer verve that the National's amazing cast brought to this work -- particularly the two leads, Dylan Tedaldi and Chelsey Meiss -- but apart from that found little to recommend it.

To make matters worse, Goecke stuck with the original music, supplemented by Weber's concert overture Rubezahl ("The Ruler of the Spirits").  The Invitation to the Dance has become much less popular of late, and now seems almost as much a period piece as the original Fokine ballet.  It's a 10-minute chain of waltz melodies, played without interruption, and ending with a reprise of the first melody -- a kind of rondo form.  Surely this piece is at the head of the illustrious genealogical line that was to give birth to all the great concert waltzes of the Strauss family and their numerous followers and successors.

But think about this: a waltz is a dance in which the dancers, once started, continue revolving around and around each other ad infinitum until the music ends.  It's graceful as all get out, when done well, and the music needs to be very much a moto perpetuo (and Weber's piece certainly is that!).  In Goecke's work, the angular choreography necessitates starts and stops several times every second. Exhausting it undoubtedly is, but why on earth he felt it necessary to mismatch it to Weber's fading "Palm Court" waltz medley I can't even imagine.  For my money, epic fail!

Enough said about that one.  The second work on the programme was also the most "classical" in spirit, if not always in movement.  Opus 19/The Dreamer was created in 1979 for Mikhail Baryshnikov by Jerome Robbins.  The music is the Op. 19 of Sergei Prokofiev, his Violin Concerto # 1 in D Major.   This is one of the composer's most lyrical inspirations, and was beautifully executed by soloist Alexandre Da Costa and the orchestra under David Briskin. 

What was most striking about this work (especially in contrast to the preceding one) was the care with which Robbins chose choreographic details that so perfectly fitted the details of the music at every point throughout the ballet.  Without doubt, this was absolutely the most musically aware choreography of the afternoon.  The two leading dancers (Sonia Rodriguez and Naoya Ebe) are set off by a group of male and female dancers who might best be called a choeur de ballet, since their role in the piece often seems to me like the commentary role of the Chorus in a Greek drama.  The stage pictures here were all very beautiful, and gave a definite feeling that his was a work you were meant to feel and experience somewhere well below your normal conscious level of thought.  Robbins' choices of movements were fascinating: some echoed the classic gestures of the Romantic ballet, some seemed to be cribbed from his famous work for West Side Story.  But some of the movements seemed to be as unique, as inevitable and timeless as the music itself.

And finally:  the second detail, choreographed  by William Forsythe to an original synthesized score by Thom Willems.  This work was originally created by Forsythe on the National Ballet in 1990, and has been restaged several times since then.  The language of the dance here is like a kaleidoscope of dance movement in the twentieth century.  You quickly sense the existence of patterns of movement among the various dancers on stage, and then those patterns quickly shift and dissolve into other and quite different patterns.  This was the most monochromatic ballet, as all the dancers wore plain grey leotards and danced in front of a plain white backdrop and side drops, with a row of grey utility steel stacking chairs set up across the back.  Dancers moved to and from the chairs frequently.  Sometimes the seated dancers executed complex patterns with their legs, arms, and upper bodies without standing.  The effect was like a balletic amplification of the traditional "seated step dancing" of Acadia.  Movement was in the main more fluid than in some modern work, and yet there was no shortage of startling, sudden action to follow.  This was a ballet which really challenged you to give your full attention because all parts of the stage were bristling with action at all times.

A note about the music:  one of my favourite bugbears of modern music is the kind of music too frequently written today, where sounds succeed one another without pattern and just sit there for a while with no sense of movement.  I always fear something like that when I see a ballet with a contemporary score coming up, but it sure wasn't an issue here.  Willems' score was chock-a-block with rhythm, carefully controlled by clicking percussion sounds, and carried a strong rhythmic pulse from start to finish.  No wonder the dance seemed to fit into its environment so naturally!

The final verdict?  Two excellent ballets and one... well, if we have to call it a "clanger", at least we can still admire the skill and energy with which the National's wonderful artists executed all three works!

Thursday, 29 May 2014

A Different Kind of Theatre

Tonight, I had the privilege of attending (and informally adjudicating) the 32nd annual presentation of student-written one-act plays at Elliot Lake Secondary School.

Of course I taught at this school for over 3 decades before my retirement 4 years ago.  The one-act plays were always a highlight of the year, and for many years I was honoured by the annual invitation to adjudicate them. 

For the first 20 years or so, this program took place in the context of the Grade 13 English program.  It was a yearly source of amazement to me that these students could write and perform so well, since most of them had never been on a stage before and none of them had ever written a play before!

With the removal of Grade 13 from Ontario's curriculum, the program migrated to the Grade 12 dramatic arts class.  So now the students have had experience with acting but still have (for the most part) never written a play!

It's a requirement of the course that each student has to write a play.  The class goes through a series of workshop sessions covering the ins and outs of play writing, and the significant differences between a theatrical play script and the shooting script for a television show or movie.  The writers develop their ideas through this process, workshopping their scripts through several versions as they go.  In the end, a small group of four plays are chosen, based on such factors as size of cast and stageability (an important consideration in a small studio theatre that used to be a technical shop room!).

At that point, the authors of the chosen pieces become directors and have to cast their shows from the remaining members of the class.  As the program has gotten smaller with the school's declining enrolment, it has sometimes been necessary to have some people appear in more than one play, or to bring in a few outside students (usually those with acting experience) to round out the companies.  Finally, after some weeks of rehearsing, the time has come for the plays to be presented to an audience for two nights.

Part of the fun of attending this event is that you never know what to expect.  Young writers have such vivid imaginations that they can dream up the most surprising scenarios and characters.  While it's true that the material is sometimes derivative in some ways, there are very few writers who haven't had to battle that tendency in their early years.  What counts is the personal "something special" that these writers bring to their ideas and materials.  All of this year's writers showed considerable potential.

To take this year's plays in the order they were performed:

[1]  Not What It Seems (by Nathan Huff).  This was a comedic take on the classic murder mystery.  The play begins with a scream in the dark, and ends with an unresolved question as to what really happened.  Very clever plotting here, and some ingenious twists and turns.  The performance made very good use of the multi-area stage, and generated plenty of giggles.  In this first play of the evening there were some audibility issues and some too-rapid speaking that caused lines to be lost (but all the plays suffered from these issues from time to time).

[2]  Cheque Please by Ricki-Lee Scheck.  This play featured the unending romantic upheavals of Dan, a young man who endures a series of three catastrophic blind dinner dates.  He made a funny but sympathetic character with plenty of comic bewilderment to lead the laughs, and the three dates were beautifully differentiated -- although all three were uniformly wacky.  The sole waitress who keeps reappearing in all four restaurant scenes comes across as a kind of comical Greek chorus, commenting sardonically on Dan's misfortunes.

[3]  The Monsters Inside by Rian Porter.  In contrast to the other plays, this one was deadly serious -- an unnerving psychodrama.  I would classify it as a "chiller" rather than a "thriller".  At a key moment about 2 minutes in, you realise which one of the characters is going to die, and it's just a question of "how?" and "when?".  As the play progresses you then realise further that the answer to "when?" is simply "Whenever the psychopath gets tired of playing the cat-and-mouse game."  Larysa Pye was absolutely terrifying in the role of the psychotic Bethany.  Her every word was pointed with menace, her facial expressions composed of 101 smiles that were no smile at all.  For me, this was the one acting role of the evening that stuck out as a 110% convincing performance.  I hope Larysa plans to continue her involvement in theatre!

[4]  Pig in a Blanket by Brooke Macdonald-Talbot.  A hilarious tale of a contract hit gone horribly wrong in the Montreal Mafia.  There were comic moments aplenty from all of the cast as the tale unfolded.  For me this was the strongest ensemble acting of the evening.  This was also the play that made the best use of all the multiple levels of the stage.  It was a stroke of genius to have the mob ruled by a Godmother, dressed in the highest of 1920s high style -- all she was missing was a foot-long cigarette holder to make the look complete. 

One thing is for certain: I enjoyed the evening enough, between bouts of note-scribbling for my adjudication afterwards, that I'm absolutely looking forward to seeing them again tonight -- in the role of pure audience, just for the fun of it!

Sunday, 18 May 2014

T. O. Festival 2014 # 5: A Postcript

Before signing off on this year's Festival, there are a few additional observations I would like to make.

This Festival was full of tough, challenging scripts that stretched performers, technicians, designers, directors, and audiences -- and me -- every which way.  My opinion may seem heretical in some quarters, but I would rather have a Festival full of this kind of difficult work from any and all countries than an all-Canadian festival if the Canadian works in question are going to be plays that are too easy-peasy.

The detailed adjudications held the morning after the performances were among the best I have ever seen, because of the unusual and provocative questions tossed out by adjudicator Bea Quarrie.  They were also some of the funniest and best-timed performances of the week by Quarrie and the members of the performing companies, and I pity anyone who missed them.  The adjudication of Lenin's Embalmers in particular was even more hysterical than the already-hilarious performance!  But with all that, there was an extraordinary amount to learn by listening in.  Thanks to all for putting so much into the adjudication process so that we who listened could take so much out and away from these discussions.

I want to extend hearty thanks and congratulations to the Festival Committee from Theatre Sarnia.  Hospitality has been wonderful all week, the events have all run smoothly, and the awards brunch was smoothly-organized with excellent food.  What a terrific week of live theatre and good fellowship!  And what a great way to make new friends and reunite with old ones from theatres from all over the province!

To all who so kindly shared the links of this blog, and commented on it to me in person, my thanks.  If you would like to comment directly on any of the blog posts, please feel free!  Also, please note that this blog continues on to cover many performing arts events of all kinds.  If you'd like to follow it, just pop your email address into the window on the left side of the page and you will get an email notice every time I publish a post.  Good things coming up, too:  Stratford and Shaw, the remount of Angels in America at Soulpepper, music from the Festival of the Sound in July and so much more.  And if you are a classical music fan, there's my other blog, an exploration of unusual and rare classical music and classical composers:

With apologies to Richard Howard:  "We love it when you read our blogs.  Come back and read some more soon!"

And now, for those who weren't able to attend in person, a list of the Festival award winners:

[1]  Adjudicator's Award for Clarity of Vision: 

Cast & Crew of Doubt (Theatre Kent)

[2]  Adjudicator's Award for Risk Taking Performance: 

Fabian Levy-Hara ("Stalin"), Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[3]  Adjudicator's Award for Ensemble Acting:

Cast of Glengarry Glen Ross (Gateway Theatre Guild)

[4]  Adjudicator's Award for Risk Takers:

Company of The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Peterborough Theatre Guild)

[5]  Adjudicator's Award for Unsung Heroes (of Set Construction):

Set Construction Crew of Doubt (Theatre Kent)

[6]  Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Major Role:

Mark Hayward ("Vlad"), Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[7]  Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Major Role:

Alex Saul ("Maureen"), The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Peterborough Theatre Guild)

[8]  Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Supporting Role:

Brandon Moore ("Krasin"), Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[9]  Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Supporting Role:

Tamara Van Bakel ("Nadia 1/2/3"), Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[10]  Technical Achievement:

John Hunter (for soundscape), Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[11]  Visual Presentation:

(for spectacular set) Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[12]  Outstanding Coordinated Production (chosen by the Festival Stage Manager):

Glengarry Glen Ross (Gateway Theatre Guild)

[13]  Outstanding Director: 

Joan Burrows, Lenin's Embalmers (Curtain Club)

[14]  Best Production "The Elsie":

The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Peterborough Theatre Guild)

Saturday, 17 May 2014

T.O. Festival 2014 # 4: "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"

This is the blog post about the last of the competing plays in this year's Theatre Ontario Festival, which showcases the best plays of the four regional festivals held earlier.  One more post will follow, as a postscript, with some more general comments and memories about the Festival and a list of award winners.


by Martin McDonagh
Presented by Peterborough Theatre Guild
(EODL Entry)

"Loose lips sink ships."

Every play presented this week has been a cautionary tale on several levels.  In each of the last 3 plays, a character has been undone by flapping their big mouth in the wrong way at the wrong moment -- an odd coincidence.

That's by no means the only or even the deepest or biggest message one takes away from experiencing The Beauty Queen of Leenane but it's an important one all the same.

Carl Jung wrote extensively about the "Shadow", the dark portion hidden inside the human psyche which so influences our behaviour but which we fear to acknowledge and try to ignore.  This play becomes, in effect, the shadow to the work of three other playwrights, two well-known and one not.  And in the process, it bring us uncomfortably face to face with our own inward shadow.

My old theatre friends from Elliot Lake may recall the play Subject to Change by Jules Tasca.  It's an uproariously silly comedy about an ageing woman who imposes endlessly on her sister because she fears trying to live and function on her own.  In the end, the sister marries and leaves anyway and the woman sets her teeth and starts working at independent living.  Well, Beauty Queen focuses on a mother-daughter relationship, and ends much more unpleasantly and unhappily, but the theme of the old imposing on relatives is central here too. 

The other two, of course, are the famous great Irish classic playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey.  These men developed and perfected a lilting, playful style of English speech as spoken by Irish people that has a distinct and captivating music built right into it.  Martin McDonagh has taken this convention as a point of departure, and twisted and subverted it into something far darker and more ominous than either Synge or O'Casey ever wrote (at least, as far as I know).

Let's start right there with the language.  That musical Irish/English speech has a cadence and rhythm so pronounced that, even if the actors don't attempt an accent, you can come away convinced that they in fact spoke with one.  In a way, they did.  Consider a line like, "Is it me it is that you're meaning?"  The music and the consequent accent are built in at least half way just by the sequence and arrangement of the words.  But the Peterborough company did in fact go thoroughly for accents, and very clearly and convincingly too, for my money.  I've never seen or read the play, but I doubt I missed more than a mere handful of words in its 2 1/2 hour span.

The set was a grimy and grubby cottage kitchen-living room in one space, and looked very much lived in.  More detailing might have made it look even more poverty-stricken, but still it created an effective space and atmosphere, with much attention to detail.  It was carefully adapted to this stage so that all main acting areas were clearly visible even from the side seats of the auditorium.

The structure of the play actually reminded me of a major symphonic composer, Bruckner, whose works are built over long spans through a series of wave-like climaxes that just keep getting bigger and more overwhelming on each wave.  It's a nice analogy because, unlike some plays, the cast can pour it on during the build-up to each successive climax, then take the quieter pause-like section that follows, and then begin the next big build-up.  Also, like Bruckner, the biggest, most breathtaking climax of all was followed by a long, quiet passage -- but this scene was not a resting point at all, it was rather a freeze-frame of the gripping climax of the entire story.

The central character is Maureen Folan, played by Alex Saul.  She's a fortysomething woman stuck in the role of caregiver and housekeeper to her mother, Mag Folan (Patricia Young) -- an incredibly cranky hypochondriac, with the conniving heart of a snake where protecting her own interests is concerned.  As the play opens, we sense that Maureen is at the end of her rope in dealing with her mother, and later on we find out just how true that is as Maureen's grasp on reality begins to slip away from her.  Her lapses into madness mark out the successive climaxes of the play, and the challenge to the performer is how to convincingly capture those periodic descents into breakdown without brazenly signalling them to the audience. 

Alex Saul gave an amazing performance shaded in hundreds of separate degrees of intensity, so that the line was never clearly marked -- we just became aware in each case that Maureen had already passed the point of no return.  A true tour de force.

Mag, as the tormentor who spurs on those periodic breakdowns, has to play as close to a one-note samba as any character I recall seeing in any play.  Learning her lines must be a large challenge because she says the same things, or slight variations on them, over and over and over and over.  Patricia Young kept a firm grip on  the character at all times, and the look of cunning that stole over her face whenever she thought herself unobserved spoke volumes about this supposedly "helpless" woman's true abilities in self-protection.

The other two characters are the two adult brothers Dooley, from across the way.  We meet Ray Dooley first (Luke Foster), a streetwise man with a raw street vocabulary and a dead-end life that no doubt fuels his anger.  He comes bringing Mag the message that there will be a farewell party for their relatives from the USA who are returning home, and that Mag and Maureen will be welcome to come.  Despite her mother's conniving, Maureen finds out, goes to the party, meets Pato Dooley (Scott Drummond) and brings him home, partly to begin to have a life for herself, and partly to torment her mother.  Pato is everything his brother is not: gentle, kind, considerate and thoughtful, but still very much a man.

Drummond did a first-rate job of expressing his bewilderment when Maureen turned on him and exploded at him.  Also excellent was his reading of the letter he writes to her before he leaves for Boston himself.

Foster's anger and bafflement in the final scene were likewise impressive.  This last scene serves only one dramatic purpose, and that is to show that Maureen has now become her mother in effect.  Since her every word and action in the last few minutes demonstrates that, it actually seemed to me pretty superfluous for the playwright to have Ray Dooley say so.

All of that is just words.  Only a live performance could give you the feel for the sheer breathtaking quality of this show, the intensity which had people gasping for air at the end of nearly every scene.  If there were an award for "Most Gripping Performance -- the show that just won't let you go", I'd say it would have to go to this company.  For me, this was the ultimate experience of what has been, throughout, a very intense week of gripping theatre.  Kudos to the Peterborough Theatre Guild and to their director, Jerry Allen.

Friday, 16 May 2014

T.O. Festival 2014 # 3: "Glengarry Glen Ross"

This is the third of a series of 4 blog posts about the competing plays in this year's Theatre Ontario Festival.  These plays are the winners of the four regional festivals held earlier in the year.


by David Mamet
Presented by Gateway Theatre Guild
(QUONTA entry)

Those of you who read my blog posts about the QUONTA Festival in March will perhaps remember my extreme negative reaction to the script of this show.  I still don't like it, but this time around I am shifting my focus much more clearly to the production and performance of the play.

Right off the bat as the lights came up, I realized that the back of the set had become much more visible, as had the three men lounging at the bar. The lighting was brighter than before, detail and colour both therefore became clearer, and (I think) a lighter colour of light had been chosen -- at any rate, it no longer looked to me like a stripper bar masquerading as a Chinese restaurant.  I also found that the impressive soundscape of outdoor background noises seemed less intrusive.  Different levels?  Or was it simply that a more brightly-lit space pushed the sound more into the background?

Projection from all characters was clearer throughout.  Partly, they were aided by the more user-friendly space of the Imperial Theatre in Sarnia (as compared to the cavernous Community Theatre Centre in Sault Ste. Marie), but I certainly had the impression that all the actors were working much more in projection and in diction.  They were also materially aided by the brighter lighting plot in Act One.  It may sound odd, but in fact it is much easier to hear people if you can clearly see them!  This difference was especially notable in Roma's first long monologue.  It's actually one of the most poetic parts of a script which is largely gritty and unlovely, and the first half (delivered upstage by the bar) was utterly inaudible before.  Now, every word registered.  I also sensed (and I could be wrong) that the entire show had tightened up and ran more smoothly.

Among the characters, I was most struck this time by the work of Brad Carr as Dave Moss.  I felt as if he had acquired an additional layer of guile, and that the fork in his tongue was about an inch longer than before (speaking metaphorically, of course!).  Certainly, his face seemed to have acquired significant extra expressiveness.  The rapid-fire, intercutting dialogue with George Aaronow, played by Mitch Belanger, shot out crystal clear.  It's interesting that I had no trouble following the trains of thought of both men at the same time as they kept cutting each other off every second.

Rod Carley's portrayal of Richard Roma gained extra resonance because his very long monologue in the third scene of Act One was now totally heard.  His performance was a masterpiece of subtle and smarmy persuasion, leading his intended victim slowly and easily by degrees up to the moment where the trap would be ever-so-gently sprung.  James Lingk, the intended victim (played by John Hewitt), again made the most of the puzzled bewildered expression on his face which said, as loud as words could have done, "I think there's something wrong here if I could just get a minute or two to figure it out."

The villain of the piece, such as he is, is John Williamson, the young office manager.  We're told that he got the job because he's somebody's nephew, and it's quite plain in the text that nobody in the office likes him.  Morgan Bedard played the role with such an unyielding expression on his face, and such a cold, icy disregard for anyone in his voice, that hating him seemed like a natural thing to do.  In the moment in Act Two when it looks like he is going to be fired, all I could think was, "Looks good on you, buddy."  And that's just where this character needs to take you.

The story, however, pivots around Verlyn Plowman's portrayal of Shelley Levene.  Something, by the way, that didn't register last time I saw the show: the two men at the bottom of the food chain in this office just happen to be the two who have Jewish-sounding names.  Nothing gets said about this in the script as far as I heard; the racist jokes and comments we hear are all directed against Polacks and Pakis.  But it's there all the same, and I'm sure it's not accidental.

Very soon, we learn from Shelley's own words that he is living in a past that no longer exists.  His glory days are over, have been over for several years, but he continues to insist that he is important and significant in the pecking order when he is plainly nothing of the sort.  To adjudicator Bea Quarrie I owe the observation that this is a darker, seamier amplification of the tragedy of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.  We don't see Shelley die, but as he's hauled off to be questioned by the police I for one sense that this will happen in his immediate future, as his entire life has collapsed around him.  Plowman's performance lacked the necessary air of desperation in the first act, but he gathered it all together at the climax of the play and made his final destruction a tragic event indeed. 

Pride goeth before a fall, and Shelley certainly illustrates that.  Feeling a little sorry for him is still the closest I can come to having any emotional interaction with any of these unpleasant characters.  That doesn't alter my admiration for the considerable skill and careful thought that director and company brought to their performance.

T.O. Festival 2014 # 2: "Lenin's Embalmers"

This is the second of a series of four blog posts about the competing plays in Theatre Ontario Festival, featuring the winning plays from the four regional festivals.


by Vern Thiessen
Presented by Curtain Club Theatre
(ACT-CO entry)

On the second night, we got knocked down, heaved up, and tossed every which way by a really high-stakes performance of a play that defies conventional categories.

Vern Thiessen is a Canadian writer of fairly recent prominence, and this is the first play of his that I have ever seen.  I've been told that he eschews any kind of certainties, and this script fairly teems with turns on the proverbial dime.  Even when you guess that they are coming, these sudden 180-degree swerves shock you because they happen so suddenly.  In part, this is a result of a particular writing convention.  It's a technique familiar from the writing of -- of all people -- Bernard Shaw, whose plays make a specialty of undercutting the expectation.  In Thiessen's case, he doesn't so much demolish conventions that already exist.  Rather, he creates recurring patterns of text, applies them to different situations, then destroys them to devastating effect.  As a script, it is a spectacular tour de force of writing, but it is loaded with traps for director and actors alike -- not to mention designers, technicians, and stage crew.

So, just what kind of a play is this?  Lenin's Embalmers actually reminds me of David Ives' brilliant, brittle one-act play, Variations on the Death of Trotsky.  This is partly due to similar subject matter, but also due to the downright absurd tone both writers have adopted in dealing with some pretty heavy-duty historical events that nonetheless invite absurdist treatment.  Indeed, Thiessen threads a half-dozen typically mordant Russian jokes about Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, and others throughout the script, which clearly establishes an authentic pedigree for the theatre-of-the-absurd convention.  The result is a first act which is uproariously funny, about things that aren't normally thought funny.

But then, unlike any other play I have ever seen or read, this one abandons absurdity in the second half and descends into the tragic black maelstrom of madness that engulfed Stalinist Russia.  One by one, the major characters get sucked into this trap, and the tragedy is only alleviated a little by one or two lighter touches.  The exact same techniques are still being used in the writing, but nobody laughs any more.  The turning point comes when the drunken Vlad kisses Stalin right on the mouth as he receives his medal.

Which brings us to the Curtain Club's production, under the direction of Joan Burrows.  Burrows made a decision to take the show into the vaudeville era, complete with footlights across the stage and silly visual gags to complement the textual silliness.   The set, by contrast, eliminated the elaborate fake-Grecian scenery so beloved in the vaude theatres, and replaced it with a series of bare beige panels.  With time, though, we came to realize just how versatile this set could be.  Backdrop panels slid back and forth on tracks to different positions, like sliding doors.  Side panels concealed a whole series of practical cupboards which mostly seemed to contain an endless supply of vodka bottles and shot glasses (but were used for other purposes too).   Upstage centre, one extra-wide panel was revealed at the end of Act I as a huge scrim, turning the entire scene of Lenin's embalming into a semi-silhouetted shadow play inside the brilliantly lit and colourfully decorated laboratory.  The climax of this scene was not the endless sausage of Lenin's guts, as they pulled and pulled and pulled (funny as that was).  For me, it was the moment when they held his heart aloft, partly in wonder and partly in triumph, turning it from side to side so we could see it from all angles.

The play teemed with lighting and sound cues, well over 200 of them in total!  (That sound you just heard was the sound of thousands of technicians cringing!).  My sense was that any slight delays were just that, so slight that they did not impede the flow of the play.  A good friend said that the constant shifting of furniture after each of the many short scenes drove her to distraction, but (for whatever reason) it didn't bother me at all.  That's because the actors themselves did all the shifting, in teams, and never in a blackout.  Consequently, the play at all times kept moving, and the overall running time was not inordinately long.  Frankly, I have trouble imagining such a cinematic script being performed with any kind of permanent multi-area setting -- the scene shifts happen far too often for that.

There are 11 characters in all, but in the first act only two show any sort of character development.  These are the two embalmers, Boris (played by Phil Dionne) and Vlad (played by Mark Hayward).  At first, even they seem scarcely real.  The characters step forward one by one to announce who they are.  The short scenes unfold in a series of zany comedic routines, with running gags provided by vodka bottles, the lockstep-marching Krasin (Brandon Moore) with the two Agents (Chuck Therrien and Cam Lund), and the truly ubiquitous Nadia 1, 2, and 3 (all played by Tamara Van Bakel).  Indeed, she got one of the best laughs in the entire show on her third appearance with her perfectly-timed line about every woman in the story being called Nadia.  This was only one of many examples of characters stepping out of the story to address the audience, but these asides were understated and never overt. 

Our two key figures began to develop a life of their own whenever they were alone together.  The script gave us a certain amount of back story, and the faces, voices and actions of the two men told us much more.  Their wrestling match in Act I came across like a childrens' play fight, but when the bout was repeated in Act II it was in deadly earnest, the stakes raised right through the roof.

Lenin (Brian Moore) kept popping up throughout the show, at intervals, and was the main presenter of those Russian jokes, with the actual lines delivered by several company members who appeared variously as peasants, soldiers, lab assistants, and tourists. 

Krasin, too, had to develop many sides to his personality.  In official circles, he had to be the socialist operative par excellence, but in his meetings with Boris he turned much more human.  It was precisely this duality that eventually led to his downfall, his bewilderment most apparent at the moment when he was prevented from grabbing his stack of file folders (lovely touch!).

Which brings us to Stalin (Fabian Levy-Hara).  In Act I he was like a petulant cartoon of a dictator, swerving wildly between explosions of anger and moments of extreme good fellowship and jollity.  After the kiss, he became the thing itself, a subtle shift executed in a masterly way.  The extremes were trimmed back a bit, but what his character lacked in breadth it now developed in depth.  By the time he reached his last interview with Krasin, the man had thoroughly become a monster.

This is definitely not history as it really happened (does anyone know for certain what did happen?  Of course not!).  Thiessen, like all writers producing so-called "historic" plays, has compressed times, conflated events, and combined characters.  It seems superfluous to add such notes to the program, but in our time it seems more and more people accept unthinkingly at face value whatever they are shown as reality.  The particular genius of this script is that it solves that problem by staying so blatantly outside of reality at all times, and the special strength of Burrows' direction and the Curtain Club's performance and presentation is that the show went there instantly, stayed there firmly throughout, and never pretended to be other than what it was: a kaleidoscopic, blackly comic riff on history.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

T.O.Festival 2014 # 1: "Doubt: A Parable"

In March I was at the QUONTA Regional community theatre festival in North-Eastern Ontario.  Theatre Ontario Festival brings together the winning plays from QUONTA and 3 other regional festivals in a province-wide competition.  Here is the first of four blog posts about the four competing plays.

DOUBT:  A Parable 

by John Patrick Shanley
Presented by Theatre Kent
(WODL entry)

Doubt is a very powerful play.  It's a masterly script, using humour to disarm you and then cranking up the dramatic intensity as soon as you let your guard down.  The situation builds up, scene by scene, until the air crackles with the electricity generated by the events and characters.  It's a single act, a little less than 90 minutes long, and you leave the theatre turning over all the events and characters in your mind and trying to resolve your own doubts about what you have just seen and experienced -- because the playwright doesn't do it for you.

The scenario is timely, certainly, although the story takes place in the year 1964.  Sister Aloysius, the principal of a school, comes to believe that Father Flynn, the assisting priest in the parish, is preying on one of the boys in the school.  With great certainty, she sets to work to force him out, aware that she must fight the whole patriarchal world of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the end, she does achieve her objective, but has to tell a blatant lie to do it.  Sister James, the younger teaching nun who triggers these events, is left with certainty that Father Flynn was innocent, while the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller, plainly comes to consider Sister Aloysius as her son's # 1 enemy.  The priest is promoted to priest in charge of another parish and another school, and Sister Aloysius is left with her own doubts, which she never puts into words. 

The play has seven main scenes, plus two sermons by Father Flynn, and must make use of three locations: the church, the office of Sister Aloysius, and a garden between the school and the rectory.  One of the great challenges of this play is to find a convention which will allow the action to flow freely from scene to scene, so that there is no interruption in the buildup of that crackling tension that must exist by the final two scenes.  Sadly, each scene ended with a lengthy full blackout and a resumption of the recorded music sung by a children's choir.  Each time, the tension sagged.  Yet, when Mrs. Muller arrived, it seemed entirely appropriate to have her appear first in the garden, then cross behind the window and finally knock at the door.  Similar moves could, perhaps, have been used throughout, allowing the lights to stay up at all times.

The set was beautiful in a realistic but understated way, with wooden furniture all period-appropriate, and the tone beautifully set by a properly-dated black rotary dial telephone on the desk of Sister Aloysius.  The set was centred and focused by a sizable but simple tracery frame for a stained glass window.  With the rest of the frame left empty (a good choice), why did the very topmost small circular opening have backlit stained glass in it?  The garden scene at stage left was effectively focused on a statue of the Madonna and Child, enfolded by a large tree (which actually blew in the wind, a lovely touch), and nicely balanced by a smaller similar tree in an otherwise unused area at stage right. 

I felt it was a stroke of genius to place the pulpit of the church directly behind and above the desk, reinforcing subconsciously the relative positions of priest and nun in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  The large filing cabinet was placed far enough out onto the stage to obstruct the view of the door from my seat (somewhat left of centre), and this meant that I was unable to see the key moment at the end of the penultimate scene, when Father Flynn was left alone in the office.  Such are the penalties of touring a show to a festival!

Audrey Hummelen as Sister Aloysius has the most difficult of the four roles.  She could easily become a very unlikable person, strict and dry to a fault.  However, as played by Hummelen, Sister Aloysius was tough, but not without humour.  Furthermore, she left room to grow into the final confrontation of the penultimate scene.  It's an easy trap to take this character too far, too quickly, but Hummelen developed six extra degrees of glacial coldness and tempered steel in her face and bearing that hadn't been seen or felt before.  This made her collapse in the final scene the more moving, no less than the fact that her steel backbone couldn't melt even when her face dissolved into tears.

Tracy Schillemore-Morton as Sister James struck me as being a little (only a little) too enthusiastic and energetic for her role.  Sister James has to come across as a young, innocent, wide-eyed girl without experience of the world.  To that, though, Schillemore-Morton added what I felt was a little too much restless energy in the opening scenes.  As a result, when she had to express her relief at Father Flynn's explanation she had to go right over the top, becoming downright comical at a moment that should have been imbued with more tension.  On the other hand, her final moments were among the finest work on the stage last night, as she moved slowly behind Sister Aloysius after the final line of the text and gently rested her hands on her superior's quivering shoulders -- a heart-rending picture of compassion writ large.

Neil Wood provided a fine contrast as Father Flynn.  He had an easy, natural pulpit manner during his two sermons and came across as just that little bit more unbuttoned in other scenes, nicely suited to the way the character is written.  His scene in the garden with Sister James was played in a very appealing way, with no hint of guilt or desperation in his voice and bearing.  This is an important spot to reinforce the audience's doubts about the ultimate outcome of the story.  One technical oddity: why was the first sermon (which opens the play) miked and amplified with a slight echo when the second was not?  Was it intentional or was it another "festival gremlin" at work?  (Everyone who has ever competed in a theatre festival will have a sizable fund of hair-raising stories about festival gremlins!)  Wood also developed another steel backbone during his final scene of confrontation with Sister Aloysius, and the air certainly crackled with the requisite tension here!

Zoe Burbank as Mrs. Muller did an excellent job in her one scene.  It's a tough challenge.  She has to say and show so much about herself and her son in such a short time, and it would be easy to deteriorate into cheap melodramatics.  Burbank did not fall into the trap.  Her emotions were there, obviously rubbed raw under the surface, but what we saw and heard was a woman ruled by her own pride, who refuses to let her emotions get away from her.  Even when she describes how her son could have been killed in the public school, or might yet be killed by his father, for being gay, she refuses to give way entirely.  Masterly timing, too, in the controlled release of "he's... that way" and in her final line as she exits the office. 

Take it by and large, this was a good performance of a tough show.  I've seen it done twice before, and both times for festivals.  Each company has had its challenges in trying to make this play work, and that was no less true for Theatre Kent.  This is not to say that Doubt is unworkable -- it most certainly is not that -- but definitely Shanley's play presents a much bigger set of challenges than might initially appear on the surface.  In the end, the audience has to be left wondering and questioning the motivations of all four characters, and also wondering just what the lesson(s) of this modern parable might be.  In that crucial respect, Theatre Kent's production was highly successful.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Evening of Modern Choral Gems

Last night I attended the final concert of the 20th Anniversary Season of the Burlington Civic Chorale in Burlington, Ontario, a suburban city west of Toronto.  This is a small group of some 30 singers, but the quality of the music-making and the tone and blend were certainly worthy of larger and much longer-lived ensembles such as the ones I heard last week! The choir was skilfully led by Dr. Gary Fisher, and ably accompanied from piano or organ by Jennifer Goodine.

The entire program consisted of music written in the 20th century by three Americans and one British composer.  Lest this sound too daunting, please be assured that all the music was both singable and enjoyable -- although certainly not without challenges for both singers and audience!

The first half of the program was devoted to music of Leonard Bernstein.  The opening selection, entitled A Choral Quilt, was stitched together from 6 different Bernstein numbers by Jack Gottlieb.  I am not, incidentally, just punning by using the words "stitched together" since Gottlieb composed interludes that link the six numbers into a single continuous movement.  Only one of the six could be considered well-known, the penultimate Somewhere from West Side Story.  The cycle concludes with the chorale Almighty Father from Bernstein's Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Dancers and Players.  Here, the choir coped well with the strange yet enticing sequence of odd melodic intervals and odder chords, bringing this first work to a moving conclusion.

The rest of the first half was devoted to Bernstein's best-known and most-performed work for choir, the Chichester Psalms of 1965.  This was composed on a commission for a cathedral music festival in England, but Bernstein deliberately set the music to texts of the Psalms in Hebrew, and explicitly forbade performance in any other language.  He also created a solo part for a boy soprano, with a male counter-tenor as the only acceptable alternative.  The Civic Chorale performed this work in the composer's reduced version for organ, harp, and percussion.

The first movement opens with a dissonant chordal introduction that leads into a vigorous dancing movement in 7/4 time, a favourite time signature of Bernstein's.  Indeed, the number 7 figures in much of the music, both as to the time and with the fiendish parallel 7th intervals separating the tenor and bass lines.  This sounds unlovely, but in a good performance such as this the music has a swing and energy that carry all before it.

The second movement opens with a lovely lyrical solo for counter-tenor (sung here, in an amazing display of virtuosity, by conductor Gary Fisher in a fine counter-tenor voice).  This setting of the 23rd Psalm is taken up by the women, but they are soon interrupted by the basses and tenors singing in jagged cross-rhythms the words of Psalm 2 ("Why do the nations rage?").  These two quite opposite musical materials then continue in counterpoint to each other, a passage of utmost difficulty which the singers and musicians carried off with aplomb, most successfully.  The movement ends with a short recapitulation of the solo and a final reminiscence of the raging music from organ.

The final movement again opens with discordant sounds from the organist, but then settles into a gently flowing 10/4 time for the setting of Psalm 131.  This music perfectly captures the chastened spirit of the text and is a time of quiet beauty and reflection after the storm and stress of what has gone before it.  The final quiet chanting of a verse from Psalm 133 becomes a benediction upon the performers and audience alike, with a strong family resemblance (first cousin, perhaps) to the chorale from Mass which we heard earlier.  The choir maintained perfect balance and clarity through the long-held quiet notes, especially the sustained final Amen.

After the intermission, we heard a selection of poems from A. E. Housman's cycle A Shropshire Lad, set to music by James Mulholland in 1985.  Were it not for the date in the program, I might easily have imagined that this music was written just before World War One when the poems were first published -- and in Britain, not the United States.  The melodies had a folk-like quality that fit in exactly with the renaissance of English folk music in that period, led by such well-known composers as Holst and Vaughan Williams.  This was obviously a point of relaxation for the choristers, as compared to the two major works of the program, but was less rewarding musically for me.  Indeed, I felt that the jiggy 6/8 setting of the fourth poem, "In summertime on Bredon", did not accord at all with the text, although admittedly the music did slow and drop into the minor key at the penultimate verses describing the young woman's funeral.

The program ended with the Gloria by John Rutter, a major concert work from a contemporary composer known world-wide for his tuneful and vigorous short anthems and carols for church use.  This work in three main movements certainly had moments of traditional Rutter sound, but took the style to the next level altogether in the vicious stabbing rhythms of the final section particularly.  Once again, the singers and orchestra mastered the complexities of the work, although there was one moment when I felt as if the organist and choir had gotten away from each other.  Since the piece isn't familiar to me, it was hard to be sure.  What was certain was that this major work, combined with the Chichester Psalms, represented a major challenge to the musicians -- a challenge that they successfully surmounted.

Definitely a rewarding evening of music-making!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Getting My Breath Back!

On Sunday afternoon, May 4, the Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto resounded with the unfamiliar strains of Dvořák's magnificent Requiem, Op.89, receiving its first Toronto performance in over 40 years!  As the capacity audience realized, such neglect is nothing less than scandalous!

This was my first-ever concert at Koerner Hall, and I found that everything said about this hall's magnificent acoustics is absolutely true.  The shape, size, and proportions are ideal for this kind of performance.  The lavish use of wood creates a totally realistic sound picture, clear as a bell with a reasonable degree of reverberation, neither over nor under the ideal length.  In a hall like this, performers certainly must be on their mettle as their smallest error will be obvious to those who are in the know. 

I'm not bragging when I say that this category of "those who are in the know" includes me.  I have never heard the Requiem live before, but it has long been a favourite of mine from recordings (as I discussed in my other blog, Off the Beaten Staff, yesterday: A Beautiful Choral Rarity) and every note is a familiar friend.

I definitely must state that this performance had nothing to fear from any comparison with any other that I might hear in future.  The precision of the entire reading, both instrumental and vocal, was to me truly remarkable.  Given that the work is such a rare bird, a small number of audible mistakes might reasonably be expected but there were none that I could detect.  Very impressive indeed on that technical level.

Artistically, conductor Robert Cooper had trained the two large choral bodies, the Orpheus Choir of Toronto and Chorus Niagara from St. Catharines, so that they sang the music with both precision and passion.  The range of tone from the full fortissimo cries right down to the lightest, most delicate pianissimo, all registered clearly and words were completely audible at all times.  That's important, by the way, when the composer keeps repeating text, and sometimes cuts up and rearranges the words to suit his musical ideas!

The only difficulties I encountered, and they were minor ones, had to do with the orchestra and the soloists.  First, the orchestra.  The Talisker Players are a small body, but play with remarkable skill and finesse.  For this piece, I think the instrumental group was just too small.  Dvořák treated his  orchestra, not as an accompaniment, but as an equal partner (sometimes the leading partner) with distinct musical materials of their own that the singers do not share.  To cope with the rest of the orchestra (such as the essential four horns), a revealing acoustic environment and a 180-strong chorus, the string sections really needed to be bigger.  In several loud passages, most notably the opening of the Dies Irae, the violins were frantically playing their hearts out, but were completely inaudible under the tide of brass, winds, organ, and choir!  Speaking of the four horns, each of these players get saddled with very exposed solo passages at one time or another, and all acquitted themselves with smooth, secure playing.  Also noteworthy was the sizable, and equally exposed, contribution of the bass clarinet, an instrument that is responsible for much of the darker colouring of this entire score.

The soloists also suffered from balance problems to begin with.  Perhaps they were still grasping for the "feel" of the hall with an audience, because at first there was a lot of heavy-duty loud singing going on in passages where it wasn't needed.  The tenor in particular developed an intrusive vibrato under this kind of pressure.  Later on, they settled well into their parts, and balanced each other perfectly in the many passages where Dvořák called for 2, 3, or all 4 to sing as an ensemble.  Indeed, such passages as the quartet line in the middle of the Pie Jesu were positively magical.

The other balance issue may have been caused by having the soloists sit at the front of the choir, but behind the orchestra.  The final Lux aeterna is a resplendent climax in which the soprano and tenor should be heard ringing out over the choral parts on the high A flat.  Plainly they were giving it their all, but (as with the violins in the Dies Irae) they were sadly inaudible.

Soprano Johane Ansell produced lovely tone in her quieter passages, and made the most of ringing high notes in many parts of the work.  Mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal had the firmest voice of the quartet, landing with unerring precision on every note, no matter how high or how big of a leap she had to make to get there.  With that she also contributed a smooth, dark tone in her many melodic passages.  Tenor Adam Luther has an impressive stentorian voice which came across well in big passages (once he tamed the vibrato I mentioned earlier) but could have been pulled back more in some of the quieter parts -- and was later on, especially in the Pie Jesu quartet.  Bass-baritone Giles Tomkins was equally secure in the high registers and in the deepest bass notes of the score. 

Conductor Robert Cooper had a firm grasp of the many complexities of the work, from start to finish, and kept a secure hand leading the proceedings at all times.  His choices of tempo were all beautifully judged, the fiendish Dies Irae in particular not going so fast as to turn the music into a rushing blur of noise.  Only once, I felt, did he put a foot wrong, and that was in his odd decision to suddenly accelerate the tempo as he entered upon the climactic Lux aeterna passage.  I'd have to check my copy of the score, but I'm pretty sure that no such tempo change is marked there as all of the four (or five?) recordings I have heard maintain a steady speed right through the movement and into that glorious crescendo.

Those are nitpicking little details.  The overall emotional impact of this concert was undeniable.  As the choir reached their first great outburst to the words Et lux perpetua luceat eis in the opening Introit, as the four soloists sang their terror-stricken Amen at the end of the Lacrymosa, as the soprano launched into that final glorious ascent to the heights -- each time I found myself shivering with anticipation and then even more with the realization that the performance of this masterwork was indeed living up to my lofty expectations.

Was it worth waiting 40 years for this?  Oh, yes.  Without question.  And with any luck, it won't be another 40 years before Toronto can hear this splendid oratorio again.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Ninth to Remember

Funny how many composers haven't stopped after 9 symphonies.  All the same, Mahler was by no means the only composer who saw the significance of reaching that number.  And just like the final Ninths of Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, the Ninth Symphony of Mahler reveals a vision that transcends the world of here and now in ways that resist logical explanation.

Among all of Mahler's symphonies, no other is so much dominated by the sound of the string sections.  The first and last movements, both slow, have almost all their melodic material announced and developed by the strings.  Only in the two middle movements do we encounter the blasting brasses and shrieking woodwinds so characteristic of this composer.

I'm making a big point of this because the last time I heard Mahler's Ninth played live was before Roy Thomson Hall was renovated 12 years ago.  The pre-renovation hall, with its cavernous roof, hard concrete walls, and carpeted floors was no friend of the strings, and in those days the Toronto Symphony's string section often sounded like it was playing in another room.

With the renovation of the hall, the addition of much Canadian maple made a world of difference to the sound of the strings, and Music Director Peter Oundjian, himself a violinist, has done much to improve the string sound as well.  So, in a way, I feel as if I heard the symphony for the first time tonight.  The person who really heard it for the first time, my sister Barbara, testified to the communicative power and emotional reach of Mahler in her comments after the concert ended.

The conductor for this performance was the Toronto Symphony's Conductor Laureate, Sir Andrew Davis. Well I remember his early performances of Mahler when he was the TSO`s young Music Director in the 1970s and 1980s, and his understanding of the composer has grown notably since then.  Good thing, because the Ninth is in many ways the most subtle and challenging work of the Mahler canon.

That`s a word not many people associate with Mahler, but this performance definitely realized much of the subtlety of the score.  Davis got exactly the pianississimo tone needed in the numerous passages where the ensemble dwindles down to just one or two solo instruments, with the rest of the orchestra raptly awaiting the moment to respond.  In each of these moments, you could feel the audience stillness as well, a most essential part of a good performance of such quiet music.  The long slow adagissimo close of the final movement was both breathtaking and heartaching, a magical suspension of time.

The long opening movement has many stops, starts, and gear shifts and Davis managed all these changes with aplomb.  There are several climaxes, each one followed by one of those chamber-ensemble moments which (in context) evoke an auditory equivalent of the echoing vaults of eternity.  The crisis point of the movement leads to a catastrophic collapse into the opening phrases, now blasted out fortissimo.  Sadly, the quiet passage following this climactic collapse was played a little too matter-of-factly and not quietly enough, losing that spacious echo effect which is ideally wanted.  The quiet ending, though, was perfection -- the final plucked note from the violins perfectly placed and just loud enough to register.

The ländler second movement had just the right rustic swing to it, an essential quality whenever Mahler goes to this Austrian folk dance (in slowish triple time).  The contrasting centre section speeds up into a kind of nightmarish waltz which then takes on the character of a triple-time march, before disintegrating into a return of the opening ländler.  Throughout this movement, the shrilling woodwinds were a delight -- blaring without straining, and screaming without rasping.

The third movement, the Rondo-Burleske, has to be at just-the-right speed.  Too slow and it becomes slack.  Too fast and it becomes overly frantic, especially in the accelerations of the closing pages.  Davis picked a nearly ideal speed, and with crisp playing from all concerned this savagely brilliant showpiece practically shot off the stage.  This seemed likely to actually happen in the high-octane coda where the ominous descending arpeggios registered perfectly, and the final phrase rocketed into the echoing air of the hall.

I was struck tonight, more than ever before, by the family resemblance between the long slow finale and the adagio movement of Bruckner`s Ninth Symphony.  The two pieces aren't exactly brothers, but perhaps second cousins -- both breathing a rarefied air that is not quite of this world any longer.  Both begin with a leap upward for the violins, who then work through a long singing melody.  Mahler's special genius here is that, for the first ten minutes or so, he has the violins and violas singing their song entirely on their lower strings, which have a much more grounded, earthy tone than the high E string where most violin acrobatics take place in other works.  The resemblance with the Bruckner draws closer in the slow sustained endings of the two movements, although Mahler certainly went much farther than Bruckner ever dreamed of going.  The final coda illustrates this concept perfectly: a passage taking several minutes to play, for strings alone, and with note succeeding note with measured deliberation.

Nothing testified to the success of this performance better than the long silence succeeding the end of the Rondo-Burleske -- an orchestral showpiece that practically cries out for cheers and applause.  That is, until the even longer silence the audience held after the final notes of the whole symphony, a silence that continued for some seconds after Davis had lowered his hands.  Of course the ovation that then erupted was loud and sustained, but the mere fact that nobody wanted to be the one to break the spell and start the applause says more than any words of mine about what a truly great performance this was.