Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Twofer Part 2: A Showstopper Concert!

In my previous post about last week's performance of the Verdi Requiem (Magnificent Musical Monument ) I explained about the background of the Andrew Davis concert engagements this month.  This week's main program harks back to the orchestra's historic 1978 tour to China, with the same program, same concerto, and same soloist from that tour.  Also included is a composition by Maestro Davis himself, one which I was especially glad to hear since I had missed the chance back in 1981 when it was first performed in Toronto.

The concert opened with the Davis work:  La Serenissima, a musical tribute to Venice inspired for Davis by his often-renewed association with that city where living is an art and art is life.  I was especially intrigued because Davis chose to use (in the opening and closing parts of the work) Monteverdi's haunting melodic treatment of the hymn Ave maris stella from his Vespers of 1610 (itself one of my all-time favourite choral works).  The seven sections form an arch of music inspired by different aspects of the Queen of the Adriatic, often depicting them in pictorial fashion.  The music was fascinating, and struck me as a true descendant of Debussy, suggesting what the French composer might have done if he had lived another forty years or so.  Apart from musical quotations, the piece had a distinctive, original sound of its own, and clearly showed that the composer was thoroughly familiar with the sound of the orchestra as a body (i.e. the orchestral tutti) and not simply as a collection of individual instruments.  The impressionistic opening was particularly beautiful, as was the wind playing in the succeeding Ave maris stella.  Another highlight was the absolute clarity of the passage depicting Piazza San Marco with different "competing" café orchestras simultaneously playing The Blue Danube and The Barber of Seville!  The final pages, with the Monteverdi theme again fading gently away to silence, were sheer magic.

Next up was Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1, a famous showpiece of the concerto repertoire.  I have to say right up front that I have never particularly cared for this work.  It's 20-minute length is composed largely of solo cadenzas, and you have to wait until about the 16-minute mark before you actually encounter a melody long enough to be called a "theme".  It's become popular and famous because of the opportunities it gives the soloist to show off -- but that's all it does.  Liszt himself wrote many far better and more musically rewarding works than this potboiler. 

But if I must hear it, then Louis Lortie would be the soloist I would choose for that purpose.  His playing of Liszt stands as one of the great highlights of his extraordinary international career (though hardly the only one) and I have several recordings of his versions of major Liszt works for solo piano.  His playing on this occasion was exemplary, the fiendish passagework all coming across clearly and the quiet passages played with a sense of poetry which escapes many interpreters.

His encore, a Chopin Etude, showed up the concerto for the poor cousin which it is.  There's more genuine music, and more musical development, in this one short piece lasting three minutes than in the whole 20 minutes of noise of the programmed work.  And Lortie gave this, too, a magnificent performance.  The cheers he received were entirely merited!

After the intermission, we then heard the memorable concert overture Le Corsaire by Berlioz, the last and most accomplished of seven concert overtures which the composer produced.  I've had this work lodged in my mind since childhood, as it was a firm and frequent favourite of whoever did the program selection for the morning classical show on CBC Radio -- which we always heard at breakfast in our house.  The whizzing scales which launch the work were taken with great aplomb by the orchestra.  The following lyrical section was played with finesse.  In the final pages, the rapid march tempo lifted and rolled right along with no sense of heaviness, and the numerous chord and key changes in the final pages were nailed with energetic sforzandos.

The concert was rounded off with one of the best-known masterpieces of the Romantic era, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky.  It's ironic, to say the least, that so many people know this work only as an orchestral composition.  Mussorgsky composed it as a suite for piano, and in that form it's one of the great virtuoso works of the repertoire.  The orchestral version which is by far the best known is that made in 1922 by Maurice Ravel, which is the one we heard tonight.  I've always thought of it as a genuine tribute by one pianist-composer to another.  Although I have heard the piano version of the Pictures performed three times, this is -- believe it or not -- the first time I have ever heard the Ravel orchestration in live concert!

The brass opened the Promenade with power and clarity to spare.  The succeeding musical portraits call on a number of players for solo contributions, including the unusual saxophone in The Old Castle and the tuba in Bydlo (a personal favourite of mine).  These parts were all played with real finesse -- that tuba line, to mention only one, has to be played quite quietly which is not necessarily the idea most people have of a tuba!  The chattering woodwinds in The Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells were delightful, beautifully balanced and bouncing lightly along.  The trumpet in Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle was clean and precise, not something that can be counted on as a given.  The string tremolos in Con mortuis in lingua mortua were slimmed down right to the verge of audibility, while remaining clean and clear. 

The final two movements bring in the big guns of the percussion department, and here is where the music can easily get muddy and confused as a result of everyone simply pushing too hard.  Davis and company kept it nicely in proportion so that the percussion sounds were audible without overpowering the rest of the orchestra, and the other sections remained balanced at all times.  Even with that careful control, The Hut on Fowl's Legs lacked nothing in ferocity and energy, and the centre section was disquieting and ominous -- the very picture of the Baba Yaga's hut in the middle of a dark forest.  The long slow build-up to the final climactic chords of The Great Gate of Kiev were both sustained and shaped to near-perfection.

Some day it would be interesting to hear a concert in which you get both a pianist playing the Pictures as Mussorgsky composed the work, and the Ravel arrangement on the same program.  I'd also like to hear Sir Henry Wood's arrangement which calls for a large orchestra plus organ (presumably to underpin the concluding Great Gate of Kiev).  In the meantime, this polished performance by the Toronto Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis was rewarding enough for me to thoroughly enjoy it!

The Twofer Part 1: A Beautiful Souvenir

When I booked my ticket for last night's concert, I completely missed the fact that this was Toronto Symphony Chamber Players night.

Four times a year, a selection of first-desk players from the orchestra give a chamber music concert before the main orchestra concert.  Admission is free to ticket holders of the main event.

My first reaction was that chamber music in the cavernous interior of Roy Thomson Hall is a contradiction in terms!  But I decided to give it a whirl anyway because of the work being performed.  And I was glad I did, because it worked better than I expected.  The conductor's podium was replaced with a portable folding screen, and the players sat ranged in front of that -- and facing away from the regular audience seats, towards the back of the stage.  The limited audience for the chamber concert were seated in the choir loft above the rear of the stage.

The concert was introduced by Sir Andrew Davis himself, since he helped to develop the idea of these free concerts when the orchestra moved into Roy Thomson Hall in 1982.  He mentioned that this same piece was performed during that first season of chamber concerts, and that one of the players from that event was also playing tonight: cellist David Hetherington.  Jonathan Crow then told us that this was Hetherington's last hurrah as a member of the Toronto Symphony, after a career spanning forty-five years.

Hetherington was the last remaining member of the orchestra which I first saw on the stage of Massey Hall back when I was in high school.  I guess I must be getting old.

The six players from the string section gave us Tchaikovsky's string sextet, Souvenir de Florence.  This is a really marvellous piece which remains sadly unknown to many who love Tchaikovsky's music.  It offers a wonderful combination of Tchaikovsky's best qualities -- melodious, energetic, lyrical and introspective by turns.  The composer claimed that he found it very difficult to write but you'd never know to hear the music.  Indeed, and unusually for Tchaikovsky, much of the music is dominated by the major keys, and so radiates a sunny, upbeat atmosphere for much of its 35-minute length.  Even when the key is minor, there's a positive energy about the music that belies the composer's melancholic disposition.  But don't let the title deceive you -- there's nothing, apart from the sunshine, which is particularly Italianate in this music.  Tchaikovsky gave it that title simply because he sketched out one of the main themes during a trip to Italy.  Indeed, the last three movements all dip into the world of Russian folk music in their varied ways.

The first movement opens at full speed with an exhilarating crunch of the bows into the strings.  This opening seemed a bit weak, but that was just my ears adjusting to the scale of tone in this particular venue.  In any case, this entire first movement definitely sounds better to me when played in the arrangement for a full string orchestra -- this music seems to demand that weight of tone.  On this occasion, the energy was unquestionably there, right from the get-go, and the six players created the balance, the sense of listening and responding, which is so essential to chamber music (this is the reason why chamber music is often called "a conversation between friends").  Apart from a couple of moments when I felt that the rubato became excessive, the first movement rolled along with unending momentum, and the acceleration to the breathless conclusion was perfectly judged, executed with total unanimity, and perhaps lacking only the last degree of ferocious power.

The second movement's lyrical, singing melody was played with a sweetness of tone that created the maximum contrast to the power just heard.  The strange little interlude with its waves of tremolando scales rose up from near silence in each wave and faded back beautifully to the edge of silence again, until the song was resumed with notable gentleness.

The third movement, plainly inspired by Russian folk music, opened easily but built to an edge of drama as the music grew in complexity.  Notable here was the precision of the ostinato 5-note accompanying figures in the fortissimo passages later in the movement.

The finale, again folk-inspired, involves a great deal of repetition of the opening melodic figure, but it's so ingeniously varied with multiple accompanying ideas that it never outstays its welcome.  The ensemble created the desired feeling of shouts of joy and triumph at the crowning second theme, and the whole movement rolled along to its final emphatic chords with the right kind of energy and joie de vivre.

A great start to a great evening of music!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Magnificent Musical Monument

In 1973, the Toronto Symphony's music director Karel Ančerl died unexpectedly.  The orchestra was left with the need to cover virtually all the concerts for the next season with guest conductors.  Among the guest conductors invited was a young Englishman, and his fiery performance of the rarely-performed Glagolitic Mass by Leoš Janáček created such an impression that he was shortly engaged as the orchestra's new music director, beginning in 1975.  Andrew Davis continued in the position for 13 years.  Upon his retirement, he was named Conductor Emeritus and continues to hold that title.

Now Sir Andrew Davis, he has continued for virtually every season since to fulfil at least one guest conducting engagement with the Toronto orchestra (sometimes more than one), and his performances have always been audience favourites.

For the fortieth anniversary of his assumption of the music director's position, the orchestra's management offered to let him conduct whatever he wanted for three programmes, and one of his choices was the Verdi Requiem.  For me, this concert was a must-attend.  As a young man, I was privileged to sing for one season in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir before my career path took me out of the city.  The last major work in that season was the Verdi Requiem, with Davis conducting.  I was having the damnedest luck with colds that year, or maybe it was all the same cold, and I lost my voice on the day of the first performance.  But I at least had the experience of singing the Verdi under the masterful direction of Andrew Davis at the orchestral rehearsal, and that was memorable enough.

I've heard the work several times since then, but this is one piece I can never hear often enough.  And this is curious, because it definitely has one foot firmly planted in the world of Italian opera which was life and breath, food and drink, to the composer.  And I've always hated Italian opera of the nineteenth century! 

But no matter.  As far as I am concerned, Verdi did not put a foot wrong anywhere in his setting of the ancient Latin text of the Mass for the Dead and few composers anywhere have exceeded the sheer fury of this score in its climactic moments.

Back in the day, the Requiem would be performed with an intermission after the Lacrymosa, but Davis wisely chose for this week to set the intermission aside and take the entire score in one continuous flow of 90 minutes.  This has become more common practice in recent years, and absolutely enhances the essentially dramatic nature of the work.  Notice that I say "dramatic", not "operatic".  That's a criticism that has been levelled at the score often enough, but I disagree.  Intense, yes.  Full of drama, certainly.  But alongside these qualities are set examples of pure ecclesiastical polyphony, of prayerful restraint, and of solemnity befitting the funeral mass.  It's powerful, in places fiery, but it is no opera.

Having said that, it's important to note that most performances call upon the services of experienced opera singers for the solo quartet.  That's because the solo passages of the Requiem are in fact its most operatic moments.  Davis ran true to tradition by calling in a quartet of singers from the Chicago Lyric Opera:  Amber Wagner, Jamie Barton, Frank Lopardo, and Eric Owens,  All except for Owens were making their first appearance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

So, to this performance.  This may sound odd, when the Verdi Requiem is most famed for its loud, dramatic moments, but the most impressive parts of tonight's reading were the quiet passages.  All four soloists possessed the ability to sing quietly while still clearly communicating the text.  This is by no means an ability to be counted on with operatic soloists.  Every other time I have heard the work, there have always been one or more of the solo quartet whose dynamic range works in one direction only:  forte and louder. 

By contrast, these four presented some lovely lyrical moments as they pared their tone right down to the lower limit while still remaining clearly audible.  Among the most memorable were Lopardo's opening of the Ingemisco, Wagner and Barton's limpid duet in the Recordare, and the ethereal balance among the four in the heart-rending Lacrymosa.  A particular highlight for me was the perfectly poised singing of Barton in the Lux aeterna, her notes floating gently over the tremolando strings.

I was impressed throughout the concert by the care with which all four soloists kept in eye contact with each other and with the conductor.  The result was that the ensemble movements had uncommon unity and cohesion, as well as magnificent sounds from all concerned.

Another noteworthy quality of these four soloists was that all were truly steady in their lower register, an area of the voice which Verdi often requires.  I've heard some singers develop the shakes and quivers when confronted with those low notes.  The highlight (lowlight?) here was Eric Owens in the Mors stupebit -- after three iterations of the word Mors given quietly in parlando, he nailed the concluding stupebit with a rich, round -- but still quiet -- deep bass.

Of course, if the soprano does her work well then everyone nearly forgets the other soloists by the time the concluding Libera me is over.  Wagner proved here that she had power and to spare, her voice rising clearly above the mass of the choir and orchestra while she still had four or five notes to go before reaching the searing climax.

This singing by the soloists was absolutely matched by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with that large body of skilled singers.  The opening Requiem aeternam came across as a mere murmur, but still crisp and clear.  The succeeding unaccompanied Te decet hymnus was rock-solid on pitch.  The precision and power of the Dies irae and Tuba mirum (the latter with extra trumpets placed high on either side of the hall) were exemplary.  The Lacrymosa mourned and the Sanctus danced.  The final choral repeat of Libera me at the end was brought down to a very low level of volume but the words still registered clearly.

Sir Andrew Davis did a first-rate job of leading this performance with his customary clear but understated conducting style.  This was a straightforward reading, with only a few accelerando and ritardando passages -- but those were carefully chosen for maximum effect.  The various tempo shifts in the concluding Libera me were especially well managed.  Davis has had many years of experience in leading this score, and it definitely showed.

All in all, a memorable traversal of Verdi's largest sacred work.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Theatre Ontario Festival 2015 # 5: Wrap-Up Thoughts and Award Winners

Now that another Theatre Ontario festival is history, I just want to share a few overall observations as a wrap-up, as well as including a list of the award winners for those of you following through my blog. 

I was thoroughly impressed by the uniformly high quality of the productions this year.  That's what is supposed  to happen at Theatre Ontario, but it can't always be counted on, for any one of a variety of reasons.  In such a tight field, I would have hated to have to be in the adjudicator's shoes, trying to single out only one person or company to win each award.

My memory for Festivals reaches back to the early 1980s (some of my readers, I know, can reach back further than that!).  Today, I was chatting with a Festival newcomer who wanted to know how things have changed over the years.  I mentioned some points like the changes in awards and such, and the coming of open adjudications, and then I told her about the biggest change of all. 

When I first became involved in community theatre, festivals were hyper-competitive.  For many it was about one thing, and one thing only: the awards.  Award ceremonies were sometimes fraught as sore losers booed, yelled insults, sat on their hands when others won, left early, or even stomped out and slammed the door (yes, I did see all of these things happen at one time or another).  Detailed adjudications the morning after a show were strictly "Private" for the company only, and were sometimes (I have been told) marred by pitched arguments between participants and adjudicators.  Also, in the bad old days some adjudicators made rude, brutal and insulting comments to some individuals and groups.

We've come a long way, baby.  All the detailed adjudications from Ron Cameron-Lewis were extremely informative, and were well-attended by members of the various participating groups and other attendees of the Festival, all coming in to see how much we could learn from the interplay between adjudicator and company.  Throughout today's awards ceremony, applause was generous from all companies to all award winners.  And I like it this way much, much better.

Inevitably, with meeting so many old friends again, I am also reminded of those who have come and gone through the years.  Some have moved to other regions, some have become too busy, some have lost interest in the theatre -- and some have passed on from this mortal coil.   Right now, I am remembering and missing two of the finest theatre practitioners and human beings I have ever had the privilege to know: Joyce Johnson from North Bay, and Lee Jourard from Belleville.

I hope you've all enjoyed following the Festival through this blog.  Remember, I write here all year round with plays, operas, ballets, and symphony/chamber concerts in all seasons.  I also have my other two blogs, about rare classical music and about my travel experiences.  There are links on the left-hand side of the page to take you to those. 

Again, with apologies to Richard Howard:  "I love it when you read my blogs.  Come back and read some more soon!"


And now, the award winners, as selected by adjudicator Ron Cameron-Lewis (except for # 12):

[1]  Adjudicator's Award for the dedicated crew of 10 scene shifters from the Peterborough Theatre Guild for Born Yesterday (you had to see the size and scope of this set to appreciate the extent of their labours!).

[2]  Adjudicator's Award for a unique achievement to Frank Canino and Chris Matthews for the title projections for The Clean House from Theatre Sarnia (Ron again specifically mentioned the one we will all remember:  "The audience feels impelled to go and buy a glass of wine" -- projected on the screen right before the intermission!)

[3]  Adjudicator's Award for Ensemble Acting to the company of Agnes of God from Gore Bay Theatre (I concur -- the level of mutual support during the show among this trio of actresses was very inspiring and memorable).

[4]  Adjudicator's Award for Outstanding Performance by a Juvenile to Kayla Greenman from Gore Bay Theatre as "Agnes" in Agnes of God.  (Ron specifically predicted that she will be seen at Theatre Ontario festivals for many years to come).

[5]  Adjudicator's Award for Quick Study in Replacing Another Actor to Stephen Supaul as "Roy" and John Green as "Vinnie" in The Odd Couple from Oshawa Little Theatre.  (both original performers were unable to participate in this remount of the show, which took place on about 3 weeks' notice, six months after the original run and adjudication!).

[6]  Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Supporting Role to Shari Thorne as "Gwendolyn Pigeon" and Tracy McCarten as "Cecily Pigeon" in The Odd Couple from Oshawa Little Theatre.  (Ron very wisely did not try to single out one or the other of what was in effect a duo role, the two being almost as indistinguishable as Tweedledum and Tweedledee).

[7]  Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Supporting Role to Tom Lynch as "Murray" in The Odd Couple from Oshawa Little Theatre. (He makes a very imposing police officer on stage).

[8]  Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Leading Role to James Burrell as "Oscar Madison" in The Odd Couple from Oshawa Little Theatre.  (No disagreement here!  Burrell showed us a uniquely dark interpretation of a very well-known character).

[9]  Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Leading Role to Kellie McKenty as "Billie Dawn" in Born Yesterday.  (I totally agree -- the power, depth and range of her performance was remarkable).

[10]  Outstanding Technical Achievement to Holly Wenning and Diane Hadley for the outstanding sound work in The Clean House from Theatre Sarnia.  (the three nominees here were each cited for a different aspect of their technical work).

[11]  Outstanding Visual Achievement to Andrea Emmerton and Walter Maskel for Agnes of God from Gore Bay Theatre.  (Ron specifically mentioned the simplicity and clear visual concept of their work.)

[12]  Outstanding Coordinated Production to the Peterborough Theatre Guild for their work on the load-in, set-up, set strike and load-out for Born Yesterday.  (the winner of this award is chosen by the Festival Stage Manager(s) for obvious reasons).

[13]  Outstanding Director to Ian Burns and Pat Maitland, first-time directors, for their ambitious work in Born Yesterday from the Peterborough Theatre Guild.  (In presenting this one, Ron referred to his first directing assignment, with three actors, and what he considered "traffic jams" on stage with that small cast.  I totally agree with this one -- I was really shocked when I heard next morning that the directors of this truly polished and accomplished show were first-timers!)

[14]  Outstanding Production ("The Elsie") to The Clean House from Theatre Sarnia.  (Ron stated that his decision was based on how well the entire company, from actors and directors to technicians and crew to designers and builders realized the writer's vision from the script.).

Theatre Ontario Festival 2015 # 4: Stunning Production of a Truly Unique Play

This is my review of the fourth and final entry of this year's Theatre Ontario Festival.  This is a yearly event which brings together the winning productions of four regional festivals held over the previous several months.  Since the selection of shows is entirely in the hands of the four adjudicators of those regional festivals, interesting oddities can definitely crop up in the list of shows.  In this case, for the first time in many years, none of the shows are Canadian scripts.  "That's just the way it turned out!" (Peter Schickele)  Some will lament this, but for myself I have to say that I feel a total concentration on Canadian works to the exclusion of all others would be equally unfortunate.

Saturday, May 16, 2015
The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl
Representing WODL (Western Ontario)
Presented by Theatre Sarnia

After three evenings of more-or-less conventional plays, we have come up on the last night against a wildly unconventional script.  Sarah Ruhl is a currently active American playwright, and her work reflects an uncommon level of psychological sensitivity.  She has said herself that she does not wish to connect the psychological dots in a linear way.  She has referred to her style as "magical reality".  You definitely have to prepare for a certain level of disconnect from rationality when you come to experience The Clean House which was originally performed in 2004.  While at first glance it may resemble theatre of the absurd, it definitely isn't absurdist, although strange things do happen.

Theatre Sarnia's production takes place on a blindingly white set: white walls, white posts, white geometric outlines, white sofa, chair, table, bar, bar stools.  The abstract wall painting made up of squares in shades of grey strikes an almost shocking note of colour!  A 2-door cupboard, when opened, reveals a geometrically neat arrangement of cleaning supplies and a laundry basket.  An upper wall serves as a screen to project subtitles, some explanatory, some with tongue planted firmly in cheek (an excellent example of the latter is the final moment of Act One, "The audience feels impelled to buy a glass of wine.")

I mention all of this because, once the play begins, I simply didn't notice these elements any more. From the moment that Ashley Carlisle, as Mathilde (the Brazilian maid and wannabe comedian), began by telling a joke in Portuguese, I was sucked right into the bizarre yet strangely logical world of the play.  In no time, it made perfect sense that we had a sister who hated to clean her perfectly orderly house, a maid who didn't like cleaning either, and another sister who was obsessed with cleaning everything.

Carlisle's performance as Mathilde anchored the show through the first scenes.  Her storytelling sequences were delivered with clear voice and clear body language.  Although A Man and A Woman (Jay Peckham and Jan Walker-Holt) appeared stage left to portray the stories of her parents, and did so with comic verve and energy to spare, Carlisle's nuanced storytelling alone would have still given us a very clear picture of them. 

Megan Hadley projected icy emotional temperature as Lane, the non-cleaning sister.  One of her most telling moments came when she admitted that she and Charles, her husband (both doctors), had not loved each other but had "admired" each other.  The sheer unlovable nature of this character was so brutally evident that it came as no surprise to me when her husband left her for another woman.  It was at this point, when her frozen façade cracked and she began to let her humanity show through, that I began to care about her -- and little by little, as the play went on, she became a more viable personality in the tangled familial web of the story.  This was a tour de force of acting, as Hadley nudged the character along by tenths of a degree at a time towards her ultimate thaw.

Henri Canino had marvellous comic moments as Virginia, the clean-freak sister.  Her expressive face projected 101 shades of disgust, amusement, anger, puzzlement, arousal, and so much more.  The scene where she was caressing a pair of jockey shorts that she was supposedly ironing was one of many comic highlights.  In thinking back over the show, I'm surprised that with so much craziness going on there were very few moments of high-speed comic action -- but Canino had one of the best in the moment where Virginia had to change places with Mathilde at the ironing board.

Once Lane's husband, Charles, and his new soul-mate Ana appeared on the scene, Peckham and Walker-Holt portrayed those two characters exclusively.  Peckham gave an effective portrait of a man deep in love, probably first love, and Walker-Holt turned the temperature up noticeably as the hot-blooded Argentinian woman who captures him.  The darkly and absurdly comic tone of the entire first act can best be summed up by the scene in which they fall passionately in love -- with subtitles -- as he tells her she has breast cancer and she asks him to remove her breast tomorrow. 

As the play progresses the absurdity gradually falls away.  These characters may sound foolish on paper, but playwright Ruhl does allow them the dignity of the lives they are leading.  Lane in particular has to work through some major transitions in her life as she agrees to share Mathilde's maid services with her ex-husband and Ana.  The scene in which Ana and Mathilde stand on the balcony of Ana's house, eating apples, and pitching away the ones they don't like, seems at first merely comical.  As the apples fall into the living room of Lane's home, where Lane lies weeping on the sofa, she notices them and reacts to them!  At first I laughed, of course -- who wouldn't? -- but then the scene took on an unexpected poignancy and emotional depth.

In the end, Lane takes the biggest step of all by agreeing to help Ana (who has had a recurrence of cancer) and to take her in and care for her.  By this time, the laughter of the play has almost all been spent and the human dimensions of the story become all important.  This is a huge shift in tone, which was beautifully accomplished by all of the company, on and off stage alike.  Although Charles has one more ridiculously comic moment, as he tromps through Alaska in a parka, looking for a tree that can help to heal Ana, it accomplishes nothing -- a fool's errand.  It is Mathilde who attends the dying Ana, and Charles who arrives home too late.

Of all the characters, though, Lane is the one who has been most transformed by all that has passed, and it is Hadley's performance that sticks in my mind, gradually unbending by degrees, the icicle queen thawing, drip by slow drip, into a human woman that she has never been in her life before. 

Lest all of this sound too, too perfect, I did have some difficulties with some of the elements.  I wondered why the detergent bottles in the closet had to be yellow -- there are white ones available in stores, to match the white-everything-else in the set!  I found one of the conventions of an exit annoying.  Everyone always seemed to have to circle the sofa on the stage left side before moving up right to exit.  That circling movement got tedious, and seemed unnecessarily long somehow.  I'm not sure what solution could be used. 

I also found Charles' walk during his Alaska sequences unconvincing.  Given the howling winds (great sound work, by the way), I'm sure it was meant to suggest walking through deep snow, but this is not done by kicking the leg straight out in front before putting it down.  The effect came across as a goose-step, and I'm sure that was not the intended effect, nor the desired association.

I undoubtedly laughed louder and longer than at any other show this week, but also came closer to tears.  Theatre Sarnia has taken on a really tough play, one that is far more subtle than it might appear on the surface, and came up with a powerful performance.  For this, director Holly Wenning and all of her team deserved every bit of the energetic applause they received last night.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Theatre Ontario Festival 2015 # 3: Born Yesterday and Still Lovable Today

This is my third review of the 2015 Theatre Ontario Festival, an event which brings together the winning productions of four regional festivals. 

Friday, May 15, 2015
Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin
Representing EODL (Eastern Ontario)
Presented by Peterborough Theatre Guild

For this performance, the presenting group has reached back to a play which was very famous in its day but is less often staged now.  And it was a huge success in its first Broadway appearance, which lasted for almost four years and ran 1642 performances!  But times change and so do audience tastes.  Subsequent Broadway revivals in 1989 and 2011 lasted only 153 and 101 performances respectively.  Here again we have an example of a script which lives in a world whose social and cultural assumptions were very different from ours.  Part of the acid test is the whole question of whether such a script can truly speak to audiences in later times.

The original show was written for Jean Arthur, but when Arthur withdrew during out-of-town tryouts the play then proved to be the catapult to stardom for Judy Holliday, a comedian of truly remarkable gifts.  The fact that the show still works at all is largely due to the brilliant contrast between the uneducated but deep-down-sensible Billie Dawn (Holliday's role) and her brutish keeper, scrap-metal "businessman" Harry Brock.  Because many in our society have become largely immune to news of governmental scandals, the play stands or falls more than ever by the actor portraying the role of Billie Dawn.

(It's an interesting little side note, to me, that another of Judy Holliday's famous roles -- the musical Bells Are Ringing -- cast her similarly as an uneducated but sensible girl who manages to undo the shenanigans of a bookie mob.)

Anyway, to the Peterborough Theatre Guild's presentation of the play.  The set was spectacular, and carefully thought out.  The deluxe Washington hotel suite was both spare and sumptuous, with a rich red carpet and marble steps, curving walls, simple but elegant furniture, and wall sconce lamps, all in the height of Art Deco, and all beautifully understated.  There were two main acting areas, above and below a step running the width of the room, and some good use was also made of the main staircase running up to the raised bedrooms.  A circular window at the head of the stairs framed a classic night view of Washington.  It niggled at me that this remained a night view even on scenes played in the daytime, but since it was in any case a highly stylized portrayal in the manner of Erté, this wasn't too critical.

The company made good use of a team of manager, bellhops, and housekeepers, not only to lead us into the show in the opening scene but also to do a very fine running scene change between Acts 1 and 2, which were fused together.  David Adams roared into the room, flinging coat and shoes recklessly around, and set the tone of the boorish Harry Brock in a matter of 2 seconds -- the man of power who always gets what he wants, when he wants it.  Chuck Vollmar as Eddie, his gofer guy, and Wyatt Lamoureux as Ed Devery, his lawyer/fixer, played really good contrasting approaches to this perpetually erupting volcano of a man, both metaphorically and literally tiptoeing around him.  Lamoureux in particular made good use of a classic hands-up gesture that was half-defensive, half-apologetic whenever Harry barked at him.  In some ways, Ed Devery is the most sensible person in Harry's entourage, and Lamoureux totally made me believe that Harry should have been listening to him more closely.

Mark Gray gave a smoothly-oiled, well-polished portrayal of the corrupt Senator Hedges, and Audrey Bain did all she could with the ungrateful role of Mrs. Hedges, who appears only in Act 1 -- a walking, talking "Senator's Wife Doll" is perhaps the kindest way to describe how the character is written.

For the first ten minutes or so, the play elicited only a few mild chuckles from the audience.  But then Billie Dawn entered, portrayed by Kellie McKenty, and the show took off.  McKenty made fine use of a high-pitched, giggly voice with a broad back-streets accent.  She was excellent at capturing Billie's airheaded follies and her moments of sterling good sense, and made them all of a piece in her character.  That's critical, because the central action of the play -- the education of Billie Dawn -- couldn't have been done with a woman who was all air-headed.  The duality of the character has to be clearly seen right from the get-go.  McKenty certainly accomplished that.  As the show went on, she moved more often to a slightly lower pitch range, not abandoning the high end of the voice, but still making a telling difference when Billie began to put everything together in her mind.

Paul Verrall, the young journalist who educates, woos and wins Billie, was effectively played by Mark Paton.  The thick-rimmed Clark Kent glasses did nothing to conceal the clear impression (instantly created by Paton) that here was the one man in the story who could not be bought by moneybags Brock.  The scenes between the two of them, as he sets to work to educate Billie, were delightful, the comic repartee flowing easily and naturally, and I found the romantic moments believable too -- except that I really thought one or both of them should have been looking a little more worried about being caught or interrupted by the human volcano in the upstairs room.  Even in the scene in Act 3 when they sneak back into the suite, the worry and fear wasn't coming out as strongly as it could have been. 

I felt that the pacing was a mixed bag, in the first act especially, as things seemed alternately to be going too quickly and then too slowly.  It gave the performance a feel of start-stop-start-stop.  That's not precisely what happened, but the easiest way I can describe the speed shifts that I felt.  In the first act, the speed shifts caused some key lines to get thrown away, making it a little more difficult to follow the detailed plottings of Brock and his henchmen.  That wasn't critical, because his basic intention to own Washington was clearly enough played, but it still would have been more helpful to hear and understand all of those speeches.  In the third act, the company finally hit their stride and the show began to flow much more easily and naturally. 

The trickiest point in the show is the moments of violence.  That's particularly true of the scene where Brock completely snaps and assaults Billie.  It's not pleasant to watch, and that can be credited to the fact that the company didn't cheat the scenes but played them right out.  McKenty's slow, broken walk up the stairs was the ideal counterweight to her earlier free-swinging stair climb in Act 1, and the difference created a moment of sheer heartbreak for me.  But of course, she doesn't stay down for long and comes out swinging again soon enough.

I did find the blocking awkward and clunky in a couple of spots, most notably in the final sequence of the play before Billie and Paul exit together to their new married life.  Scenes like this, with so many characters on stage at once, do present major problems, but I certainly felt this could have been better handled.

Despite all these glitches, on the whole I found this a very strong show, and definitely a very entertaining evening of the theatre.  It was a great fun romp which the audience enjoyed immensely.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Theatre Ontario Festival 2015 # 2: The Struggle for Truth

Tonight we had the second of four shows in the annual Theatre Ontario Festival, bringing together the "best of the best" from four regional festivals around the province.  One of the little oddities of the entire festival routine is the way that certain plays can appear quite often for a year or two.  This is the second year in a row that a production of this play has been entered into the QUONTA Drama Region annual festival.

Thursday, May 14, 2015
Agnes of God  --  John Pielmeier
Representing QUONTA (Northern Ontario region)
Presented by Gore Bay Theatre

John Pielmeier's drama was staged on Broadway in 1982, now 33 years ago.  It was inspired by a historic event happening a few years earlier in upstate New York.

Sister Agnes, a young and naïve nun, has given birth to a baby and then apparently killed it.  Agnes has insisted that she has no memory of the events, but she has been charged with manslaughter.  Dr. Martha Livingstone is a court-appointed psychiatrist, assigned to try to determine whether Agnes is sane enough to stand trial.  She engages in a war of wills with the Superior of the Convent, Mother Miriam Ruth, with the health and soul of Agnes at the centre of their battle.

The nature of this material, and the nature of the climactic scenes of the play, force a director to handle the material with great care so that it does not simply deteriorate into cheap melodrama.  The three roles present supreme challenges to the actors, and especially to the person playing the role of Dr. Livingstone who is on stage for virtually the entire show and has to speak over half of all the text, much of it in the form of lengthy monologues.

Co-directors of this production (and co-producers) are Walter Maskel and Andrea Emmerton.  The note they placed in the programme specified that "A skeletal representation of rooms in a convent and doctor's office is a metaphor for the skeletons we hide within our homes and within ourselves."  I don't care for these kinds of explanatory notes in general, because I feel a play production, like any other artistic creation, should be capable of "explaining" itself on its own terms.  More to the point, any work of art derives its value from the intellectual/emotional interaction between the artwork and the audience.  To tell the audience ahead of time the meaning of what they are going to experience strikes me as a form of domination by the artist -- whereas I would far rather derive my own meaning from what I encounter.  In this case, I found the note doubly unfortunate because the set which I then saw on entering the theatre did not suggest to me either the rooms (too abstract) or the metaphorical skeletons in the closet (too neat and symmetrical).  It's a pity because the set as it was supported the show beautifully.  It was the program note which proved truly unhelpful for me.

Another choice made by this group was to present the play as a long single act.  I've experienced the play before in several productions as a two-act play, and I definitely would prefer the single-act option because of the required build-up of tension across the span of the play. 

Keeping the three actors on the stage at all times and having them moving in and out of the lighted areas is almost a necessity given the play's structure, and was handled with care and sensitivity.  What worked against the build-up of the show's power was the length of the scene changes.  Some of these needed to be quicker, snappier, especially in the later scenes.  As the story moves towards its climax, the same leisurely transitions that were so lovely earlier on now became tedious.  This slow pacing was also a problem during the "inset" scenes, the ones where Mother Miriam Ruth moves into a reminiscence of an earlier event during an interview with Dr. Livingstone, and then returns to the interview scene.

Kayla Greenman gave a haunting, memorable portrayal of Sister Agnes.  This naïve young nun had an extraordinarily expressive face: twisted with fear and terror one moment, and transfused with wonder and joy the next.  Her voice, too, projected all the varied emotions which flooded through her.  Her singing was clear and lovely in tone, but I could have wished for less clunky articulation of each note in her extended phrases, such as this:  "Kyrihe-he-he-he-he-he ele-he-he-he-hison."
Shannon McMullan drew more facets out of the character of Mother Miriam Ruth than any other actor I have seen in the role.  In some ways she is the most likable character of the three, showing a most believable mixture of emotions and feelings, all tempered with a warm sense of humour.  Then, as her anger is roused, the humour takes on a cutting edge and the warmth freezes into ice, until we heard the icicles forming on her every word.  The great challenge of playing this part is the difficulty of projecting emotional response from inside the enveloping shield of the nun's habit.  McMullan developed a whole range of characteristic stances, tilts of the head, and stage positions to work along with her varied facial expressions.  Her great range of vocal tones was a huge asset too.

Tara Bernatchez as Dr. Martha Livingstone faced up strongly to the challenges of a huge role.  She too made broad use of a range of vocal tones, while still remaining consistently audible -- with one exception.  This was in the two sequences where she hypnotises Sister Agnes.  Here her voice dropped below the limit of audibility.  This was partly a matter of positioning, as she was turned to a 90-degree position, facing the wings.  I also would have liked to see a less casual, more thoughtful delivery of the crucial final monologue -- the one that tells us how much the experience of meeting Sister Agnes has changed Dr. Martha's life.

This production was memorable on many levels, and the performances of the actors were all of that and more.  Take the niggling doubts which I've expressed in that context.  It was a gripping evening of theatre, and certainly didn't leave me wanting to check my watch!

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Theatre Ontario Festival 2015 # 1: A Darker Odd Couple

Tonight's performance is the first night of the annual Theatre Ontario Festival, presenting the best community theatre productions from four community theatre regions of the province.  The four shows have each been selected from among the entrants in their respective regional festivals.

This year's Festival is hosted by the Oshawa Little Theatre.
A Festival like this is certainly a competition, but it's also a symposium of theatre people watching, listening and learning.  As well, and by no means a small benefit, it's a family reunion of like-minded friends who gather every year at the same time to enjoy and to grow as theatre audiences, as theatre practitioners, and as human beings.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015
The Odd Couple  --  Neil Simon
Representing ACT-CO (Central Ontario region)
Presented by Oshawa Little Theatre

This first play of the Festival is an interesting choice.  It's a very famous comedy, has been staged uncounted times, was made into an equally famous movie and TV series, has been updated and gender-reversed by the author in the "Female Version" in 1985, spun off the "New Look at the Odd Couple" in 2002, and the original just keeps right on going.  Not hard to see why -- it's as near to a guaranteed vehicle for putting bums on seats as you can find in the theatre.

All the same, I have to confess that for me The Odd Couple is starting to wear a bit thin.  The premise is funny enough, but the cultural assumptions of the characters and the dynamics of the story as it unfolds are now seriously dated.  It has become a definite "period piece" And I have my doubts as to whether this play has enough "legs" to keep it running into genuine "classic" status.

However, no matter how creaky or rickety the material, if you're going to stage it you just have to go for the gusto and give it your best shot.  And that's unquestionably what the Oshawa Little Theatre has done in this production.

The opening curtains revealed a set whose most notable feature was a huge cloud of smoke hovering over the dining table where the weekly poker game was in progress.  That cloud of smoke was a great way to bring us immediately into the "boys-card-night" atmosphere of the opening scene.  The apartment as a whole certainly looked lived-in, with "stuff" strewn everywhere, but there were no details anywhere to tell us about Oscar's career as a sportswriter and the typewriter sat neatly on an upstage table like a decorative element, not a work tool.  On the whole, the look of the room was certainly period-appropriate as were the costumes and colour choices.  Props, too, were for the most part period-appropriate, although the phone appeared to me more Seventies than Sixties. 

The assorted characters of the men at the card table were better differentiated than in some productions, each man developing a very unique voice/face/physical style to suit his character.  Steve Maddiss as Speed and Stephen Suepaul as Roy effectively acted as a pair -- "Angry" and "Angrier" -- to rile things up, while the imposing presence of Tom Lynch as Murray and the quieter Vinnie of John Green gave depth and interest to the group.

The key dynamics of this play develop, of course, with the arrival of Felix (Will van der Zyl), and the impact his strange personality has in the apartment of Oscar (James Burrell).  Burrell struck me as the angriest Oscar I've ever seen, and his anger took the play in the end into an uncommonly dark final scene.  Right from the moment he pulled the cord of the vacuum cleaner, Burrell had murder in his eyes -- the look and manner of a human leopard stalking its prey.  Although I know it won't happen, I felt during that final scene that Felix's life was in genuine danger -- a powerful choice to heighten the dramatic intensity.  The Felix of van der Zyl was uncommonly sad.  He was surrounded by the aura of the classic sad clown.  Facial expressions were a whole roster of unhappy looks, the mouth twisted in a grimace of sorrow as often as all other facial expressions put together.  His voice, too, came across as always tinged with sadness, even under all his other vocal tones -- and they were many.

The best aspect of this production was its physicality.  This play has become so standardized as a comedy of manners in so many productions that it was a relief to see a company up the stakes and take certain key scenes into the realm of farce.  The hilarious Keystone Kops chase sequence around the apartment plainly took advantage of the two doors of the bathroom -- the "seen" one into the living room and the "unseen" one to the bedrooms.  Other slapstick moments were played with excellent timing and precision.  The director then made excellent use of silences, sometimes even of extended silent action sequences, to balance the show and keep it multi-dimensional.  On another, and again more clown-like level, Felix's clumsiness during the arrival of the Pigeon sisters from upstairs was also excellently played -- as was his moment of smiles, half pleased, and half smug as he sat down between them on the sofa.

As for the sisters themselves, here we hit a problem.  Both Shari Thorne as Gwendolyn and Tracy McCarten as Cecily had the right look -- but it was the same look.  Of all the characters in the play, these two were totally interchangeable.  Both flighty, both giggly, and both loud, loud, loud.  And there lay the rub -- the girls began their scene at about a level 9 and had nowhere left to grow their characters as the scene progressed.  Considering how well the highs and lows of the play were orchestrated elsewhere by the director, the failure to build more into this scene was surprising -- and, sadly, somewhat tedious. 

Aside from that difficulty involving the Pigeon sisters, director Geoffrey Coulter led his company in a strong, clear production of a play that's actually much more difficult to stage well and with some originality than many people would believe.


Extra Note: 

Although it's not impossible, it's also not very common for the hosting theatre to end up becoming the region's selected entrant for Theatre Ontario (the last time was in 2006).  In a situation like this, they have a natural advantage in not having to adapt their production or their performance to an unfamiliar space.  However, they still have to abide by the same rules as every other entrant -- that is, they have to start their set-up for their Festival performance at 8:00 in the morning on a bare stage.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Rolling Waves of Music

Oddly enough, none of the 3 works on last night's Toronto Symphony concert was overtly about the sea.  None the less, two of the three pieces had passages which could be interpreted by a listener as towering, slow-moving oceanic waves (the third was another matter altogether).

I'd wondered ahead of time why this program received only a single performance, but that proved to be the orchestra's goodbye before their short weekend tour to Ottawa and Montreal.  This was the programme that they will be presenting to audiences in those two cities.

The climax of the concert, in every sense, came after the intermission with Bruckner's monumental Symphony # 7.  First time I've ever heard this symphony played live.  I'm such a huge fan of Bruckner's music that it seems a pity I wasn't born in Austria, his homeland -- and one of the very few countries where his works appear regularly in concert programmes.  Bruckner's music is really unlike any other composer, and to be able to play it effectively you have to be able to play the game by the composer's rules.  Everything in Bruckner happens over long time spans, and often at only a slow-to-moderate speed.  The real essence of this composer's remarkable music, though, isn't in his unusual structures or long-breathed melodies.  You don't have to share it, but you absolutely must, must understand and take account of Bruckner's very strong faith in God.  Once you do that, you can see his symphonies for what they are, musical equivalents of the great heaven-storming cathedrals found all over Europe.

I'm making this point because the absolute acid test of any performance of Bruckner # 7 is what happens in the long slow second movement.  This is the climax of the entire symphony, and it has to be right.  This music moves in a series of large slow waves, each one looming bigger and bigger.  The fourth and largest wave is built up over a rising series of reiterations of the main theme of the movement, and these reiterations also move through some surprising key changes until the moment when the full orchestra unleashes its power, crowned by the one and only crash of the cymbals in all of Bruckner.  And then, immediately afterwards, comes the slow, dark, mournful chorale intoned by a quartet of Wagner tubas, which Bruckner composed as soon as he heard of the death of Wagner.

Now, all of this was beautifully played, and the power of that astounding climax was undeniable.  But I was still left feeling a bit underwhelmed.  Somehow it all seemed to unfold a little too easily, with not enough sense of tension and build-up in the process.  This might also be partly a question of dynamics.  I felt the orchestra needed to start quieter at the beginning of that last ascent to the mighty peak of the music, and that more ebb and flow could be built into the ascent.  Oundjian and his players certainly demonstrated in several other passages that they could have done so.  This performance certainly put the roof onto the cathedral, but didn't exactly finish the spire that should have been its crowning glory.

No such complaints about the scherzo, a movement which would have been unthinkable without the scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth.  The Austrian peasant dance origins of the music are still there, just barely, but Oundjian and company gave this movement a savage, ferocious reading that took it far into the realm of giants and monsters.  Even the trio section remained intense, far from the relaxing interlude it can become in some hands.

The first and fourth movements definitely worked well too, and the last long build-up to the coda of the symphony was very effectively handled, with the crowning return of the opening theme of the entire work soaring above the orchestra.  If this wasn't the truly great Bruckner for which I was hoping, it was very much better than average overall, and very effective.

By discussing the Bruckner first, I do not by any means intend to suggest that the rest of the concert didn't matter.  The concert opened with Affiliate Composer Kevin Lau's Treeship.  This joins the short-but-growing list of new works I have heard which definitely bear repeating.  Not least this is the case because Lau has evolved a musical language which is capable of growing and developing structurally in an almost Classical manner.  Repeated hearings will be necessary to truly grasp the processes at work in the piece.  What I can certainly state after a single hearing is that Lau has an ability, rare among contemporary composers known to me, to create extended melodic statements lasting for a number of measures.  These long-lined themes are particularly effective when entrusted to the strings as they are at several key points in this work, including it's very opening moments.  The use of the strings as melodic, lyrical instruments has been far more often neglected than exploited among contemporary works I have heard in concert. 

Matters became decidedly more interesting when the winds and brasses joined in to move the music on to its climactic passages, which rear up like huge ocean waves.  The first one, a kind of brass-wind chorale, sounded almost like soundtrack for a 1950s Hollywood Biblical epic movie, but the last major climax had a sound that was positively Brucknerian -- a most unusual direction for any modern composer to go.  At any rate, Treeship was a very appropriate companion to the Bruckner symphony which came after and was well worth another hearing.

The hall was filled right to the limit, and this was largely due to the second piece: the familiar and well-loved Violin Concerto in E Minor by Mendelssohn, featuring Augustin Hadelich as soloist.  Although this isn't overtly tragic music in any way, it is in one sense almost the Hamlet of the classical music world since it is so brim-full of familiar tunes and quotations.  Familiarity in this case has not bred contempt, but I think it has caused many of us (myself certainly) to lose sight of the many remarkable innovations built into this work by the mature composer. 

Mendelssohn decisively broke with the classical concerto model built up by Haydn and others and perfected by Mozart and Beethoven.  Right at the start, it is the violinist (not the orchestra) which introduces the beautiful opening melody.  Instead of the violin concluding the solo cadenza on a trill or shake, it is the full orchestra which produces the trill (twice).  The solo cadenza comes, not at the end of the first movement, but in the middle, bridging from the development section to the recapitulation of the opening theme -- and was written out in full by the composer.  And finally, the end of the movement does not cut off completely, as a solo bassoon sustains its note from the final chord and leads the wandering slow transition which eventually settles into C major for the sweetly lyrical slow movement.

I've never been so thankful that Toronto Symphony audiences are not in the habit of applauding after concerto first movements, as this unique and novel transition would be completely destroyed if they did!

The concerto as a whole is sometimes dramatic, but more often lyrical and melodic, and does not require the same weight of playing as the bigger violin concertos of Brahms, Tchaikovsky or Elgar -- indeed, a certain lightness of touch and grace of style is essential here.  These qualities Augustin Hadelich brought in full to his interpretation.  His solo cadenza was especially noteworthy for the sense of suspension of time that he brought to it, so that the pauses actually felt like breaths taken and held in.  In the slow movement his tone was sweet, but not to the point of cloying.  The light-hearted romp of the finale showed both orchestra and soloist in high spirits, and captured in full measure the essential style -- less like a final concerto movement than like another of Mendelssohn's light-hearted fairy scherzos (as in A Midsummer Night's Dream or the string Octet).  Peter Oundjian did a fine job of balancing the orchestra with the soloist so that neither one was slighted by the other.  All in all, a fine performance, and not just a routine traversal. 

Hadelich's encore was the fifth Caprice by Paganini, and here his virtuoso skills were taxed far beyond anything Mendelssohn's concerto could throw at him.  But all the fast-flying notes and lightning-quick arpeggios registered clearly and sharply, and that's saying a good deal -- I'm sure there are many violinists who wouldn't necessarily care to play a piece like this for an audience of 2500 people!

Definitely a memorable concert, and our fellow concert-goers in Ottawa and Montreal should enjoy themselves as much and feel as richly rewarded as the Toronto audience and I did last night.