Friday, 21 November 2014

A Pair of Fifths

Last season, the Toronto Symphony under guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard gave a memorable performance of Nielsen's Symphony # 3 in harness with Beethoven's Violin Concerto.  I gave this concert a two-thumbs-up review (you can read it here: A Repertory Staple and a Canadian Rarity ).  At this program there was also a printed notice that the series of Beethoven and Nielsen would continue this year, with the same conductor and with pianist Jan Lisiecki playing three of the five Beethoven piano concertos.

So last night I attended the concert which paired the Symphony # 5 of Nielsen with the Piano Concerto # 5 ("Emperor") of Beethoven.  All my remarks last year about the appropriate relationship between these two composers still hold true today.  And the partnership of Dausgaard with the TSO was still memorable in this most unusual symphony.  Dausgaard and Lisiecki, as expected, struck sparks with Beethoven left, right, and centre.

Since the Nielsen symphony is so little-known here, I want to direct you to my blog post about that work before going on to discuss the performance:  A Symphony Like No Other.
The concert opened very appropriately with the overture to Don Giovanni by Mozart.  This was a big-orchestra performance (and none the worse for that), and very much more than just an also-ran in the evening as a whole.  The opening "statue music" is one of the most Romantic and powerful things Mozart ever wrote, which perfectly justified its placing in this program.  Dausgaard and the orchestra played it with appropriately hair-raising intensity, and then followed with a slightly hectic but still tightly integrated reading of the jovial allegro.  The overture normally ends on a dominant chord, upon which the curtain rises and the music flows straight away into the opening aria of the opera.  For this concert, the alternative "tailored" concert ending was used.

Next we got the Beethoven concerto.  This, of course, is a true repertoire "standard", and one where many music lovers know and love the sound at least of every note in the score.  But still, there's nothing quite like a live performance to wake you up to features of music that you might not hear if you weren't really concentrating.

(Yes, I admit it -- I do listen to classical music as a background to other activities.  Mea culpa....)

What struck me was that the long first movement, so grand and dramatic, is mainly grand and dramatic for the orchestra.  A very large percentage of the pianist's contribution is quieter, more meditative, occasionally even dreamlike.  I think maybe my perceptions were clouded by the overwhelming memory of the dramatic opening cadenza-introduction -- but it proves to be very much the exception to the rule.  I've had occasion to write about the impressive musicianship of Jan Lisiecki before, so I won't trouble to say it all again.  But for me, one moment on the piano stood out -- the famous passage of parallel rising and falling octave scales in the middle of the development.  It's marked to be loud, and some pianists make that an excuse to become thunderous.  But this is not Rachmaninoff, not even Brahms, and if the scales are too loud the fascinating bassoon counter-melody will be lost.  Lisiecki began loudly, but scaled his tone back after the first few notes and the bassoon line came through loud and clear.  I also liked the way the coda was built very naturally and organically by conductor and soloist, the crescendo sounding not the least bit "interpreted" but completely integral.

The lyrical slow movement too was simply beautiful, as it must be because like so many of Beethoven's slow movements, the music is beautifully simple.  The transition to the finale without break sounded exactly like the performers were holding their collective breath (and I'm sure they do!) but when the lightning stroke shot out and the rondo began, it was a bit too fast for comfort.  It should be rapid, energetic, lively and life enhancing -- but not hectic, and there were several times when it felt like a hectic scramble to the finish line.  Worse, there were a few spots where it sounded like the soloist and orchestra were getting away from each other in the race.  It wasn't blatantly obvious, it certainly didn't fall apart, but it did take a bit of the shine off the beauty of the two earlier movements.

But cheers all around were certainly well merited, and Lisiecki's playing of a Chopin waltz as encore was lovely, beautifully light and airy, and letting the acoustics of the hall do the work of carrying the sound outwards.

The Nielsen Fifth Symphony was magnificent.  Right from the get-go, it was obvious that the orchestra had the work firmly in their sights.  Dausgaard is a rather "minimalist" conductor whose beat sometimes seems to stop altogether, but he plainly had no trouble keeping the orchestra together in the most wayward passages.  The noble melody that arises during the first movement and leads to a triumphant climax was marked by magnificent horn playing.  The snare drummer gave the wildest, most anarchic account I've ever heard of the famous improvisation ("as if at all costs he wants to stop the progress of the orchestra" as Nielsen said), with positively hair-raising results.  The woodwinds were screaming as wildly as in any of the most extreme passages in Mahler, giving a true feeling of desperation to the struggles of the aspiring melody.  The offstage drumming at the end began loudly but faded slowly right down to the edge of audibility with magnificent control.

The second movement sounds rather confused at the opening (by the composer's intention), but the composer's favourite triple-time asserted itself clearly soon enough.  Dausgaard led the orchestra in a magnificent account of the fiendish fugue, with the different continuation after each entry of the fugue subject clearly delineated.  The second, slower fugue is played by strings with sordines, and sounded as otherworldly and remote as I have ever heard in recordings.  The final triumph was beautifully built up and the timpani rallentando at the end perfectly controlled.  Definitely a performance to remember!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Gripping Dance Melodrama

When I was young, I was given a record that contained a piece of music which I loved at first hearing.  It was a beautiful, arching melody with a kind of deep sadness built right into every note.  The name of the piece was "Elegie" which conveyed nothing to me at the time.

The other night I saw that flowing, lyrical theme given ideal expression in movement during the first act of Kenneth MacMillan's ballet Manon, staged by the National Ballet of Canada.  For the doomed love of Manon and Des Grieux there could hardly be a better musical equivalent -- romantic passion mingled with a foreshadowing of loss. 

Manon is actually a fascinating work, to me, because it sits right at the junction point between the classical and modern dance worlds, and the choreographic arc of the piece represents the efforts of its creator to bring ballet out of its tight little classical mould and grow it into a broader language of expressive movement.

I put it that way because the first scenes of Manon are so close to the classical ballet tradition in movement, in the composition of stage pictures, in the use of mime as an aid to story telling.  The first great pas de deux of the lovers is set to that gorgeous Elegie, and paints a romantic vision of ideal love in almost purely classical terms.

But as the ballet progresses, the modern side of MacMillan's style comes more and more to the forefront.  Leads and corps de ballet alike show increasingly edgy, even spiky, movement, with the elegance and grace of the first scenes receding into the background.  By the time the final scenes arrive, with the death of Manon in the arms of Des Grieux in a swamp in Louisiana, the language is all modern -- the dance expressing a primal scream of desperation, lost hope, and heartbreak.

This sweeping transformation, and the story it helps to tell, are all set to music by Jules Massenet, who in fact composed an operatic setting of the same story by the same title, Manon.  As with Cranko's Onegin, set to a score by Tchaikovsky, here we get a score comprised of works by the same composer as the opera without using any of the themes from the opera. 

The story of Manon looks head-on at the predatory world of wealthy men and their elegant courtesans, with each one seeking to manipulate the situation for all they can get out of it.  In this world, power relationships are all that matter, and money is power -- but so is sex.  Manon is being tossed casually into this world by her family, represented by her brother, Lescaut -- presumably because she is no longer a virgin and therefore not marriageable.  But fate throws her into the path of Des Grieux, a young student, and they fall passionately in love.  The wealthy Monsieur Guillot de Morfontaine desires Manon, and she accedes to her brother's scheme to use Manon as the bait to bilk the wealthy man of his money.  Lescaut is killed in a scuffle, Manon arrested and sent to Louisiana (along with Des Grieux) because she is a prostitute.  The Gaoler (jailer) who violates Manon is killed by Des Grieux, they flee together into the wilderness, and there she dies in his arms.

Hardly the most likable characters, are they?  And yet, the combination of music and dance together draws us into the story, until we feel sorry even for Lescaut, and certainly for the two lovers. 

In the performance I saw, Manon was danced by Greta Hodgkinson -- an ideal choice for this role, as much at home in the classical lyricism of Act I as in the seductive come-hither of Act II or the vehemence and violence of Act III.  Her partner as Des Grieux was guest artist Marcelo Gomes.  The final pas de deux ending in Manon's death was a breathtaking display of virtuoso movement combined with powerful acting and expression in the face from both of these artists.

Her brother, Lescaut, was portrayed with real panache by Jack Bertinshaw.  His role provides one of the few moments of comic relief in the entire piece.  In Act II, Lescaut becomes seriously drunk during a party at the Hotel Particulier operated by Madame (a brothel, of course, but a very high-class one).  His drunken dance has some very tricky choreography, rendered that much more difficult by the need for the dancer to seem on the very edge of falling over.  Indeed, he actually does fall over a few times.  And, unless I am very much mistaken, near the beginning of this dance I saw him give the only belch that I am aware of being choreographed into any ballet I have attended!  Bertinshaw made it all very amusing, and perfectly let the audience's guard down in preparation for the ensuing fight scene in which Lescaut gets shot.

There's a sizable role for one courtesan, danced by Tanya Howard with plenty of flash and flair.  This party scene also includes a very amusing pas de deux for two of Madame's other courtesans, locked in a vehement battle for the front row, place of honour, maximum attention from all present.  This little comic duet, by the way, leads to one serious miscalculation in the choreography.  The battle continues into a full-fledged fight upstage, which has to be broken up.  Since the main action is being played downstage at the same time, I found that the fight pulled my focus right away from what the principal characters were doing.  Having both going on at the same time was just too much of a good thing.  Madame herself was very effectively played by Stephanie Hutchison.  In a massively piled silver-blonde wig and sweeping black gown, Hutchison managed to project perfectly the veneer of sweeping aristocratic dignity which never completely concealed the wily gold-digger underneath it.

In the final act, McGee Maddox gave a powerful performance in his few minutes onstage as the Gaoler, face and bearing alike projecting the brutality of the man, a brutality shown to the ultimate degree during his scene with Manon.

No question about it, Manon is not always an easy or pleasant ballet to watch, but for me it was certainly gripping.  I was particularly intrigued by the apparent summary of classic-to-modern transition contained within the evolving choreography of the work, from Act I to Act III.