Saturday, 10 December 2016

Another Christmas, Another Nutcracker

This article marks the third occasion on which I've reviewed the National Ballet of Canada's fantastic Nutcracker, created on the company by James Kudelka 21 years ago.  There doesn't seem to be much more for me to say about the look and sound of this spectacular, comical, and ultimately moving show that I haven't already said.  So here's the link to last year's review:

The Glorious, Festive Nutcracker

And with that, on we go to my review of this year's outing, which happens to fall on the opening night of the run.  This means that you can compare my review to those found in all the major Toronto media outlets and find out all the good stuff that they missed!  (yeah, right....)

But first, the obligatory announcement.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  Robert Stephen is my nephew.

Now that we have that out of the way....

Right in the first minute, the show hit a technical snag and they kept happening all through the first act -- half a dozen different details all going wrong at once.  You'd think it was Friday the 13th!  But just one of those glitches stood out in my memory as critical to the impact of the show.  The transition to the second scene of Act 1, the magical dissolve of the bedroom into the birch forest, was spoiled by the very loud squealing of the overhead hardware drawing the backdrop and wing pieces in and out.  It seems that the production is beginning to show its age.

Nothing of the kind needs to be said about the choreography and staging.  It still teems with catchy invention, most of all in the Russian-folk-inspired dances of Act 1.  Also inspired was Kudelka's choice to have the magical adventure shared by a brother and sister.  A strong dose of sibling rivalry adds both realism and fun throughout the party scene.

Let's start right there, with the two leading child roles.  Both Marie (Sophie Alexander) and Misha (Simon Adamson DeLuca) have to do some fairly intricate choreography -- a notable departure from what one often sees in other stagings.  The choreography not only expresses their contrasting personalities but also adds much interest to the show.  Both Alexander and DeLuca captured the petulance, the comedy, and the moments of wonder in their roles.

Their friend, Peter, the stable boy, was danced with great success by Skylar Campbell.  More than some dancers I've seen in the role, he clearly brought out the dreamer in the young man as well as the practical and playful sides of the character.  That, as it turns out, is a critical bridge towards the second act of the ballet.  When he completes the metamorphosis into the Nutcracker Prince, the grace he showed in his dreamy solo at the beginning combined with his youthful romantic ardour to become the keynotes of his entire performance.

Baba, the children's nurse, was played with great energy by Rebekah Rimsay.  Her folk dances with Campbell were a whirl of flying feet and flying skirts, and great fun to watch.  Baba is a mix of character work and choreography, and Rimsay was equally successful at finding the 101 shades of frustration as Baba struggles to keep track of her feisty young charges.

Where Peter has some passages of classical choreography, Uncle Nikolai (the magician) is nearly all folk-dance in style, and very energetic.  There was a clear streak of joyful fun and mischief in Robert Stephen's depiction of the character.  There was also energy a-plenty in such moments as the long chain of pirouettes or the stamping dance with his horse (which is animated by two dancers).

After the madly complicated battle scene, which really can't and shouldn't be rationally analyzed, the set and music dramatically change character together and the chains of harp roulades introduce the Snow Queen (Alexandra MacDonald) and her two Icicles (Brent Parolin and Nan Wang).  These three dance the first purely classical number of the entire ballet, a pas de trois which this trio made just as magical as the snow-glistening birch forest in which they danced.

The succeeding Waltz of the Snowflakes continues in a white scene in the classic mode.  This is the great moment of the show for the corps de ballet, and the dancers excelled in the grace of their dancing while carrying out all the complicated intersecting patterns required by the choreographer.  The slow return of the Snow Queen and the Icicles at the very end of the scene was as light, airy and delicate as you could want.

Act Two opens, after a short entrance number, with the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Jillian Vanstone brought much energy and a strong sense of joy to this solo.

Act Two features many short dances, in the traditional mode of the divertissement or entertainment, each one performed by different dancers.  I always look forward to the Arabian Coffee number, one of the most utterly graceful dances I have ever seen anywhere -- and last night's dancers did it full justice (sadly, the programme doesn't sort out these smaller roles by who-danced-which-date).

Chelsy Meiss and Giorgio Galli generated plenty of humour and energy in the duet of the winsome Sheep being chased by a half-dangerous, half-amorous Fox.  Of course, the youngest children of the show, as a flock of sheep were totally adorable in this number -- how could they not be?

Jordana Daumec was notable for her crisp darting changes of direction as the Bee that introduces the Waltz of the Flowers.

All this leads up to the grand adagio which opens the pas de deux of the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Campbell and Vanstone formed a fine partnership here.  Again, this is purely classical choreography.  The deep passion and longing in the music was exactly mirrored in their performance, transforming what might be just another showstopper into a true emotional journey.  And the slow-motion final moves in the sustained coda were rock-solid as well as heartfelt.

Throughout the show, the National Ballet orchestra under guest conductor Paul Hoskins played the score with all their accustomed verve and power.

It's interesting to me that I haven't seen most of the dancers I've discussed dancing these particular roles before, although none are role debuts.  Each year brings forth its own surprises and delights.

All in all, a fine performance of this traditional Christmas favourite from all involved.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Leaving a Big Impression

I am scandalously late with posting this review of a concert in mid-November.  My apologies.

Pity the poor orchestral percussionists.  Of all sections of the orchestra, they're the least likely to get featured solos although the odd exception does exist here and there.  But then there's the senior member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Patricia "Patty" Krueger, who serves as the orchestra's principal keyboard player and doubles on percussion.

At the last concert I went to, conductor Rob Kapilow made a point of complimenting her and pointing out the rarity of having a single performer who combines these two roles.  The orchestra applauded and stamped with greater vigour than usual -- and now I think I know why.

Patty is retiring.  And as a special treat for her final season, the orchestra's management let her go out with a bang by playing the organ part in Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony # 3 in C Minor, Op. 78, composed in 1886 and better known simply as the Organ Symphony.  

I've had a love affair with this piece ever since I was a teenager.  I endured a lot of teasing from one particular family member as a result.  Then, as I got older and learned more about music, I realized what a truly remarkable piece it is.  Of all the musical works inspired by Liszt and Schumann and their concepts of the cyclical transformation of themes, this is one of the most outstandingly successful.  At the same time, it makes use of thoroughly classical procedures in the structure of its themes, and in the organization of its two parts.  Indeed, the way that almost all the musical substance of the entire work grows organically (pun intended) out of the two short phrases in the slow introduction and the first main theme of the allegro is little short of miraculous.  And if all that were not enough, Saint-Saens added two instruments until then almost unknown within the symphony orchestra: the piano and the organ.

This symphony comes high on my list of works which absolutely must, must be heard in live concert to be fully appreciated and felt.  That is, of course, largely (but not entirely) because of the organ part.  Modern recordings can certainly capture the notes, but you'd need a theatre-auditorium-sized sound system in your home to reproduce the physical impact, the quivering in the air caused by the quiet, deep pedal notes in the second movement, or the striking force on the ears of the enormous block chords (also with bass pedals) in the finale.  There are a number of places where a great blast from the brasses in chorus smacks the ears with true physical force.  And that physical dimension is what brings the audience out of the woodwork whenever the symphony is performed.

(By the way, many recordings of this symphony (beginning with Daniel Barenboim for Deutsche Grammophon in 1976) have adopted the trick of recording the organ part separately, and then editing it into the tapes of the orchestral sessions.  If you've ever heard a recording that sounds like organ and orchestra are playing in two different halls, this is likely the reason -- they are!)

I hadn't originally planned to go to this concert, but when I found out that this was Patty Krueger's swan song I simply had to come.  She's always been a real joy to watch from the audience because she plainly derives so much joy herself from the act of playing music!  Naturally, Roy Thomson Hall's movable organ console was placed prominently at front stage tonight.

And therein lies the irony: as prominent and glorious as the organ part inevitably sounds, it's actually not terribly complex from a technical standpoint.  The real challenge of this symphony lies in the work of trying to achieve balance so that the organ doesn't swamp the orchestra, so that the piano doesn't get lost in the shuffle, so that all the many intricacies of string and wind parts don't disappear under a roaring tide of brass and organ sound.  The conductor must manage all of that, while also dealing with such complexities as the steady acceleration through the closing pages, complete with multiple changes of time signature.

Naturally the Organ Symphony was placed at the end of the programme.  The first half of the concert also produced remarkable music for our consideration.

Guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda opened the concert with a rare piece by Alfredo Casella, entitled Elegia eroica.  Written during World War One, this three-movement work plainly shows the composer's attempts to bring Italian orchestral music into the central European mainstream.  The opening allegro and third-movement presto both recall to mind the late Mahler, heavily cross-bred with the Stravinsky of the Rite of Spring.  It was in the more sombre adagio assai and the final "lullaby of death" coda that the music took on a truly moving "elegiac" character.  Noseda has done much work to return the music of Casella to prominence, and he plainly had the measure of this unusual score.

The next work was Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, a sharply-contrasted lightweight work after the much heavier orchestration of Casella.  Not lightweight in skill, of course, nor in interest, but only in using a much smaller neo-classical orchestra.  Soloist for the Concerto was Stefano Bollani, and he delivered a fine account of the solo part: lean in tone, precise and neat-footed throughout, and yet with plenty of bravura in the dramatic passages.  His playing in the slow movement could only be described as a thing of beauty from start to finish.   The orchestra's scaled-down contribution was also finely shaped and shaded to the character of the piece -- gentle when necessary, and more overt in some of the jazzy passages which sound so like Gershwin and even prefigure the blatantly sardonic Two-Piano Concerto of Francis Poulenc.

After the intermission, Maestro Noseda led the orchestra in what I would call a "central" interpretation of the Saint-Saens symphony.  Tempi were all nicely placed in relation to each other, and there were no intrusive interpretive liberties taken with the score.  The first movement was taken at a reasonable speed so that all the repeated notes in the string parts sounded clearly, without the blurring that a hectic rush would cause.  The slow movement brought warm tone from strings, and gentle shading of the slow diminuendo over the organ pedals in the final bars.  The scherzo, again vigorous without being overdone, had plenty of oomph from the timpani.  The piano scales in the trio section were ripped off with style to spare (I could not see who the pianist was, nor could I see the piano from my seat).  The dying fall-away at the end of the movement was again managed beautifully.

As with the opening, the finale was taken at a moderate but near-ideal tempo, and the organ at first was nicely scaled so that, while firm and clear, it didn't outshout the orchestra.  The one sad flaw was that the beautiful four-hand arabesques for the piano were inaudible.  Better balance was needed here.  The movement rolled on with the right sense of unstoppable energy, and with the organ pedals taking on additional weight as the music progressed.  The closing pages with their frequent tempo changes were managed to near-perfection and when Patty opened up the true "big guns" of the organ in the final bars the extra power of the sound was indeed overwhelming.

Now, if you don't yank the audience to their feet at the spectacular end of the Organ Symphony there's something wrong.  But this standing ovation was in another league altogether.  Prolonged cheering, shouting, clapping, stamping, and all for the organist.  The orchestra players were making enough noise to be heard even over the volume from the audience, and refused to stand when summoned by the conductor.  Patty Krueger was presented with a bouquet of red roses, and then something happened that I have never, ever seen before in nearly half a century of concert going in Toronto and half a dozen of the world's musical capitals.

Maestro Noseda invited her up onto the podium with him, hugged her, and then stepped down and left her standing on the podium to receive all the applause and cheers herself.  No wonder she was on the verge of tears -- that's an unheard-of honour for a conductor to extend to a player. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Cinderella Returns!

I just checked back to be sure -- and it is only two and a half years since the National Ballet last staged its brilliant, glittering, hilarious production of Cinderella.  Not surprising, really, since this James Kudelka ballet is such a sure-fire crowd pleaser -- and indeed, one of the best ballets to introduce someone who's not familiar with the art form.  I described the piece in detail in the post I wrote when it was done the last time:

This year, for various reasons, I decided to see the show twice in one day -- which, of course, means that I would see two different casts in the principal roles.  As always, the opportunity to draw comparisons and contrasts between different dancers in the same roles is a fascinating process -- and especially when the two performances are seen in such close proximity, on the same day!

The afternoon show featured the same lead couple as I saw in the production in 2014:  Jillian Vanstone as Cinderella and Naoya Ebe as the Prince.  In the evening, we had Sonia Rodriguez (on whom the role was created) and Guillaume Cote. 

It's no insult to the other dancers to suggest that most of the differences in the performances happened with the lead couples (I'll explain why a bit further on).

Vanstone and Ebe were the two dancers I saw in the lead roles in 2014, when both were making their role debuts.  What really struck me today was a depth and a feeling of honesty, of reality, about both of them.  His boredom with court life, her despair at her endless kitchen drudgery, both came across vividly and believably.  Their pas de deux in the ballroom scene was a thing of beauty, a true dance of courtship in which every move brought them an inch closer and a degree more open to each other.  The final moment of the ballet when the Prince lays his head upon Cinderella's lap brought tears to my eyes.

Rodriguez and Cote gave us a version of the lead couple with slight but significant shifts in tone and feeling.  I felt that Cote in the ballroom scene was just going through the motions -- for one thing, the boredom and ennui that Ebe presented so strongly seemed to be absent, although he did dance with plenty of energy.  Things got better in the pas de deux and by the time we got to Act 3 and the search for Cinderella, he was fully into the role and much more believably so.  The final pas de deux which ends the ballet, then, was wonderful.

Rodriguez differed from Vanstone in having a more lyrical, smoothly graceful line throughout her solo dances.  Vanstone was all youthful ebullience and energy (she always seems to be at her best when dancing well below her actual age -- think of her Alice or Act 1 of Sleeping Beauty) while Rodriguez came across as more thoughtful, more inward, perhaps more of a dreamer.  Both were treasurable performances.

What of the other dancers?  The other roles that are named in the programme are all, in varying degrees, comical roles.  The necessary comic business is built right into the choreography and so it's absolutely necessary to be spot-on with every move in order for the the absurdity to register with the audience.  Thus, there's not as much room to play within the roles as there is for the principal couple.

If there is a comic character who can bring her own special touches in abundance, it's Cinderella's dipsomaniac stepmother -- described before the show by Peter Ottmann as "a drunken cross between Kate Hepburn and Phyllis Diller."  That about covers it.  Rebekah Rimsay in the afternoon got the best mileage out of her attempts to dance in the dancing lesson in Act 1.  Lise-Marie Jourdain in the evening really milked the hilarious Act 3 sequence where she uses the drawers in a cabinet as a stepladder to reach the high shelf where her flask is concealed in what appears to be a coffee can!  Jourdain also upped the ante in her attempts to be sexy, by hitching up her hemlines and showing off her legs under her flaming red housecoat.

The two stepsisters make a great contrasted pair -- the blonde "leader" and the brunette myopic "follower".  Stephanie Hutchison (afternoon) and Tanya Howard (evening) both got maximum mileage out of the blonde sister's endless attempts to climb socially.  Rimsay and Jourdain traded the myopic sister between them, each one taking the part when the other was portraying stepmom.  Here, the honours went to Rimsay in the evening.  The part requires her to bend forward at the waist in her attempts to see clearly without her glasses -- and somehow, Rimsay always managed to bend forward apparently past the point of no return, without actually falling.  Also, her appealing puppy-dog look of "please love me" every time she got anywhere near the Prince was a total delight.  That's not to sell Jourdain short, by any means, for her stepsister in the afternoon was memorable for the sheer clumsiness she brought to the dance lesson.

All four of these fine dancers did magnificent work in the face of Kudelka's requirement that they dance for extended periods en pointe, but will stiff legs and locked knees.  What I said two and half years ago is still true:  "Hard to believe that two fine ballerinas could be so graceless."

As the two Hired Escorts who had to somehow squire these two loose cannons to the ball, we got Brent Parolin and Donald Thom in the afternoon, and Jonathan Renna and Piotr Stanczyk in the evening.  All four were excellent.  An "Oh, no, not again" facial expression is essential for these two parts.  So is a large degree of comic finesse, as they have to supply all the polish and veneer of sophistication for themselves and for the two stepsisters.  If Parolin and Thom generated a little more flash and dash in their efforts to keep up, Renna and Stanczyk were the hands-down winners for delicacy at the point where the girls leave without them and they have to exit hand in hand.  Thom in particular managed a great befuddled expression every time the myopic stepsister got away from him.

The search scene in Act 3, with its high speed world tour, presents wonderful opportunities for the Prince and his four Officers.  Without trying to sort out who was who in which show, I simply want to say that the ensemble work of the Officers in both performances was very strong.  As always, the fun reached its climax in the car-driving sequence.

One of the minor annoyances is the lack of casting information for several roles.  I'd love to pay specific tribute to the woman who portrayed the Spanish flamenco dancer with so much fire and come-hither seductive vibe in the evening show, but I couldn't tell through the makeup who she was and the programme didn't specify.  To call her solo "memorable" is a major understatement!

Kudelka's Cinderella uses the structure of the familiar story but successfully rewrites the rules on the fly and in the process makes everyone in the tale come across as more human, real, and believable.  In 2014, I called it "a Cinderella story for today" and I still wholeheartedly feel that.  But it's also one of the most comical shows the National Ballet presents in its repertoire.  The good news?  There are still eight more performances at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto before the show closes on November 20.

Friday, 21 October 2016

An Impressive Debut Recording

Okay, let's go right up front here: I'm breaking my own rules.  This is supposed to be a blog that reviews live arts performances, as the title clearly states.  And this review is not of a live performance, but of a recording.  But hey, if a fellow can't break his own rules, whose rules can he break?

My justification is that this recording features a Canadian ensemble, the Cheng²Duo, which I have reviewed four times in live performance, and in two cases playing music which is now included on this debut recording.  That may be a thin rationale to some of my readers, but what truly intrigued me was the growth and development of the music over time and in the recording studio.

First, here are the links to the previous blog posts which reviewed the music involved in the CD, and included some comments about the development of the Duo's performance:

And so to the recording.  This impressive CD debut, entitled Violoncelle français, presents a recital of music from France bridging across the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth century.  The composers represented are Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Franck, and Debussy.  The music is an intriguing mixture of small character pieces, which might be termed "salon music," one theatre piece, and two larger chamber works.

With such a blend of styles comes the need for varied styles of performance as well.  The shorter character works, such as the Faure Sicilienne and Elegie, or the Swan of Saint-Saëns, receive performances in lush, rich sound that yet doesn't overpower the simpler character of the music.

Debussy's Sonata is given an interpretation of dramatic contrasts, as the music demands. 

At the heart of the recording is the Franck Sonata in A Minor, and here was where I really noticed a difference from the two occasions when I heard the Cheng²Duo perform the work live.  What a totally involving account of this wonderful score!  The difference is a matter of quality which is not easy to define: an increase in intensity, a deeper digging into the essence of the music, a stronger sense of the drama of the music expressed in restraint rather than excess.

I'd be intrigued to know whether this comes from the closer observation of the microphones, or from the process of the work in studio with multiple takes interspersed with listening to playbacks and discussing the results before continuing.

What was quite clear, after multiple listenings, was that this is an interpretation of the Franck Sonata to live with, and to return to frequently.  This one work alone would make the recording a worthwhile acquisition, and then there are such riches in the rest of the programme as well.

The recording from the German label Audite is impressive, with clear, present sound set in a believable acoustic so the instruments are neither too close nor too distant.  The CD album comes with an impressive booklet of generously detailed programme notes.

I'll close with two footnotes.  One was that I also pulled out my recording of the original violin version of the Sonata for comparison.  Sad to say, it's been eclipsed.  I now have to go shopping for another and better recording with violin.

The other footnote is that the next recording from the Cheng²Duo is going to be a recital of music from Spain.  I have a real "thing" for Spanish music -- maybe I was Spanish in a previous life -- so it's going to be a long year to wait for that one to be issued!

Saturday, 15 October 2016

How It Works

Last night, I attended a very interesting event at the Toronto Symphony.  The orchestra has been presenting conductor Rob Kapilow's What Makes It Great? series for a number of years now, but this is the first time I have ever attended one of these unusual concerts.  I have to admit that the incentive came from hearing a former colleague talk about taking a class of students to hear such a concert, and the impact it had on them.  That's why I selected this particular event when I had a subscription ticket that I needed to exchange.

Of course it didn't do any harm that I particularly enjoy the musical work under consideration!

The format of Kapilow's concerts is organized in two parts.  In the first part, he walks the audience through the structure, thematic material, orchestration, and the like, with the players of the orchestra providing live musical examples as they go.  After the intermission, the work is played complete.  If this sounds a bit too much like Classical Music for Beginners, I can only assure you that you are wrong -- and that, even for an old codger like me who thought he knew the score very well, Kapilow managed to cast surprising new illumination on the structure of an old warhorse.

So, tonight was Ravel's famous orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.  The original work was written in 1874 for solo piano, and is one of the great monuments of the 19th-century piano repertoire.  Ravel's version was created in 1922 when he was himself at the height of his powers as a composer and master orchestrator.  Although many other composers have created their own orchestral versions of the Pictures, none has ever seized the public's fancy -- or the eyes of the professional musicians -- as much as this one.

So it was particularly intriguing to me that Kapilow, in the first half, actually had the orchestra play several excerpts from the hands of other arrangers to highlight the differences in procedure in Ravel's version.  In saying that, I'm not forgetting that the orchestra -- under its previous Music Director, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, recorded the complete work in a version which selected from the orchestrations of Leo Funtek and Sergei Gortchakov.

Since Kapilow also played some sections of Mussorgsky's original piano score on an electronic keyboard during the first half, he gave the audience a good collection of insights into the music and Ravel's approach to recasting it for full orchestra.  All of this explaining and illustrating was done with tremendous energy and plenty of good laugh lines.  After all, who ever said or believed that classical music ought to be boring?

Perhaps the biggest insight was Kapilow's observation that the pictures, at least those that have survived (they were reproduced in the programme) are, frankly speaking, not very good.  Hartmann, the artist, wasn't nearly as memorable as the music might have us think.  Really, Mussorgsky was composing a musical tribute to his recently-deceased friend, and in the process was creating stories in music inspired by the prosaic pictures.

For me, the most startling results come in two of the movements, starting with Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle.  These were actually two separate portraits drawn by Hartmann.  It was Mussorgsky's genius that forever linked them together and memorably created a scene which Hartmann never painted -- a scene with the rich and poor Jews arguing with each other.

The other extraordinary amplification comes in Baba Yaga.  Hartmann's picture depicts a perfectly ordinary folk-styled wall clock in the shape of Baba Yaga's hut.  It was Mussorgsky who ditched the clock and instead created a full-throttle exciting witch's ride for Baba Yaga, with a chilling creepy portrait of the magical hut on chicken's claws dwelling in the centre of the music as the hut lay hidden in the forest.

The predictable result of all this explaining and demonstrating came after the intermission.  I imagine the rest of the audience shared my feeling of hearing the Pictures at an Exhibition with fresh ears and a whole new point of view.

The performance itself was powerful, certainly.  Dynamic ranges were wide without being overwhelming.  A couple of the more rapid passages showed a tendency to start pulling apart for a moment or two, but on the whole we got a good -- if not great -- reading of the Pictures.  Highlights for me were the dwindling quiet ending of Bydlo, the sustained mystical feeling of Con mortuis, and the hair-raising witch's ride.

After the concert ends, there's a question and answer period.  Kapilow took perhaps a dozen questions from different audience members.  I was particularly happy that somebody asked Patricia Krueger about all the different instruments she had to play (tamtam, ratchet, slapstick, triangle, and celesta!).  She simply said, laughingly, that it was fun to be able to do so.  It was Rob Kapilow who pointed out that he had never seen another orchestra in which the chief keyboard player joined in so readily on the percussion as well.  That brought a big wave of applause, from audience and players, for one of the orchestra's senior members!

Take it all in all, it was certainly a fun evening -- informative and entertaining in equal measures.  

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Rousing (Mostly) Russian Concert

A week ago, I was listening to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony, which is not a favourite of mine.  In my review, I compared different aspects of the work to the same composer's Piano Concerto No. 3 and to Mahler's Symphony # 3.
I already knew that I would be hearing the Mahler on Wednesday of this week, but I had totally forgotten that the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra's opening concert on Friday included the Rachmaninoff Concerto.  Joke's on me, I guess.
But first, the non-Russian work of the evening.  One of the delights of the KWSO is the programming of a contemporary work in almost every one of their main stage concerts.  It's a great way to get introduced to the music of a large variety of present day composers.  Tonight's work came from American composer Mason Bates, and was commissioned for an orchestra I had never heard of -- the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.  If you haven't heard of it either, look it up -- it's a fascinating story!
So, tonight we heard Mothership, a most unusual work fusing traditional symphonic writing with such instruments as the electric violin, the Indian tabla, and the pedal steel guitar, as well as electronic percussion.  The piece doesn't contain a great deal of melodic material, but is definitely driven by its rhythms.  These rhythms include fascinating added and dropped bars and beats, so that you are constantly adjusting your mental sense of where the principal beat lies.  As well, the music includes improvised sections for the electric violin, the tabla, and the pedal steel guitar.  If this all sounds complex, it certainly was, but also involving and well worth another hearing.
The orchestra was then joined by pianist Natasha Paremski for Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 43.  To call this a fiendish work is a masterpiece of understatement.  For years it remained almost untouched apart from the composer's own memorable performances.  There can't be many works in the concerto repertoire with so much black ink and so little white space per page in the piano part! 

Together, Paremski and music director Edwin Outwater presented us with a performance of extremes.  Fast passages were dangerously fast, slow passages languorously slow.  The quietest moments were very quiet indeed and the loud moments (there are many) nearly lifted the roof off the Centre in the Square.  Once again, the orchestra provided a large projection screen displaying the keyboard and the pianist's flying hands, and this technological helper let the entire audience see for themselves just how many huge chords are contained in this work.

It was all very thrilling to be sure, but there were moments when I felt a little restraint might have served the music better.  To give just one example: at almost the exact centre of the first movement there is a fortissimo chordal passage for the piano, outlining a theme of great dramatic power which is heard nowhere else in the concerto.  It begins allegro but only after 16 bars does it accelerate into an allegro molto which brings about the movement's catastrophic climax.  Outwater and Paremski hit the ground running with this theme at nearly a presto and kept speeding up from there, and the individual chords disappeared in a mush of noise.

On the other hand, the quieter moments -- such as the bulk of the second movement -- were played with much subtlety and a sense of the poetic air of the music.  Overall, a good performance of this very difficult piece, and Paremski certainly earned every inch of the cheering and applause which she received.

After the intermission, the concert concluded with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36.  I was delighted at having a chance to hear this work again, as it has always been my personal favourite among the composer's six symphonies.  To me it is the most successful as a symphonic structure, but also the most truthfully Russian in the sense that any of the main themes sound as if they could be derived from Russian folk music -- although in fact only the fourth movement depends overtly on a well-known folk tune.

The brass fanfare at the beginning which carries the "Fate" theme that is the symphony's recurring motto was played with great power and emphasis, particularly on the descending scale that gets louder as it plunges into the depths.  The two great staccato chords, like lightning bolts, were nailed with precision that sent the echoes rebounding around the hall.

When the main theme in 9/8 time entered in the strings, it was plain that Outwater heeded the direction "In movimento di Valse" as the music lilted along for the first bars before the intensity began to build up.  The tempo change to moderato for the quiet second theme, and the subsequent acceleration back to full speed were well handled each time that change occurred.  Most memorable of all were the climactic bars of the development section in which the dramatic exertions of the strings and winds were repeatedly punctuated by blazing reiterations of the fanfare motif on the brass.  The end of the movement accelerated briskly up to a breathtaking conclusion.

In the mournful second movement, the winds delicately outlined the main theme and its counter melodies.  The ending faded gently away to inaudible.

The most challenging movement of this work is the scherzo, which is written throughout for the pizzicato (plucked) strings.  It's fast, energetic music, but it is all too easy to get too fast and have the almost percussive textures come apart at the seams, and this I felt did happen once or twice for a few moments -- although the orchestra soon recovered its unity.  The winds and horns were delightful in the trio section, their crisp solo lines bright without being forceful, and the brilliant high-speed ornaments from the piccolo were a particular delight.

The fourth movement opened forcefully, and quickly moved into the folk tune which is (as usually is the case with folk tunes) repeated ad infinitum.  Tchaikovsky did all he could to avoid boredom by moving it up and down in pitch, changing it between minor and major keys, varying the speed, and altering the orchestration -- and indeed, of all his folksong-based movements, this one is the most successful at keeping tedium at bay.  The orchestra found all the varieties of light and shade, of texture and tone, and at the same time managed to maintain the sense of fun inherent in this music.  The unexpected intrusion of the Fate fanfares again at the end was as startling as possible.  After that, Outwater carefully graduated the return of the folksong themes, instrument by instrument, letting it all build up naturally and organically -- while still keeping something of both speed and volume in reserve for the explosive coda.  A very rewarding Tchaikovsky Fourth indeed!

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Symphony of the World

Gustav Mahler, one of the most popular of all orchestral composers, once said that a symphony should encompass the entire world.  More than any other of his works, the magnificent, epic Symphony # 3 does just that.

I first fell in love with this work as a teenager.  After borrowing Jascha Horenstein's wonderful recording with the London Symphony Orchestra a few times from the library, I went out and bought a copy for myself.  I still treasure the same recording in its CD re-release (among several others).

So any time the Toronto Symphony Orchestra wants to perform it, I will be there, and it will always be a special event for me.  This week actually marks Maestro Peter Oundjian's second go at this huge work during his tenure with the orchestra (the last time was in 2008).

As well as being Mahler's longest symphony, and the longest symphony to be regularly performed (with six movements and lasting 1 hour 40 minutes, give or take a bit), this is also Mahler's most diverse work.  To perform it, conductor and players (and singers, too) have to be ready to push all the elements as far as possible.  This isn't a piece for the faint of heart or the overly-fastidious.  The march tune in F major which dominates the first movement has to be brazen to the point of becoming raucous.  The woodwind interjections in the scherzo need the same kind of blaring tone -- there are passages where Mahler directs that the winds and horns lift their instruments up so that the sound comes out as forcefully as possible.  The alto song has to be deeply solemn, the angel chorus verging on the cute and kitschy.  And the long, slow finale has to exude an air of ultimate love and consolation despite the episodes of anguish and fear that intrude.

Mahler divided the work into two parts, the first comprising the huge (35 minute) first movement, the second part comprising the other five.  Last time around, Oundjian performed the entire work without a break but this week there was an intermission between the two parts.

The massive first movement ("Pan awakens; summer marches in) consists of two main elements: the slow, dirge-like music in D minor dominated by the low brasses (and especially by Gordon Wolfe's magnificent trombone solos) and the upbeat, energetic, almost frenetic march in F major which arises from the higher strings and winds before spreading to inflame the entire orchestra.  The measured pacing of the D minor slow music was especially notable in the dead-quiet gentle rhythms tapped out by the bass drum at the end of each section.  Oundjian shaped the march portions with a careful hand, always keeping a bit of volume in reserve for the very final bars of each section.

The central development section is dominated by the marching rhythm but includes intrusions of the melodic figures from the slower parts.  Orchestra and conductor alike made certain that every element of the music came through clearly in the very complex polyphonic layers of this passage.  Sadly, the offstage snare drum passage was so robust that it might just as well have been played on the stage.  It would have been better if the side stage door had been left closed for this.

In the end, of course, it is the march that has the final word and in the coda it seemed that the tempo did become a little too frenetic, a kind of race to the finish line which was tremendously exciting but didn't hold together one hundred percent.

After the intermission, the delicacy of the second movement ("What the Flowers in the Meadows Tell Me") provided the hugest possible contrast.  This short little minuet is full of gentle little solo bits for the high woodwinds and the violin, and all were beautifully played.  The final notes disappeared into the air as gently as could be.

Then came the scherzo ("What the Animals in the Woods Tell Me").  Opening in the same air of quiet gentleness as the minuet, it quickly becomes much more robust and even threatening in tone.  Oundjian made sure that this movement rolled along with the same moto perpetuo quality as the march in the first part.  Woodwind and brass interjections were tart and explosive, as required.  Then, in the slow contrasting sections, the offstage trumpet solo by Andrew McCandless was impeccable -- and suitably distant, with the doors closed -- as they should have been for the snare drum in Part One.  These offstage layers of sound are critical in Mahler for conveying the sense of distance and space which the composer wanted.  The final coda thundered quickly by.

The fourth movement ("What Mankind Tells Me") has to be played dead slow and dead quiet by the orchestra, like a suspended moment in time.  The mezzo-soprano soloist, Jamie Barton, was simply magnificent in this slow, heartfelt song.  Her tone smooth, unmarred by vibrato, her diction clear, her pitch impeccable, she held the audience rapt with her exemplary performance.

Another huge contrast comes with the light, folk-like entrance of the brief fifth movement ("What the Angels Tell Me").  The orchestra and combined women's voices of the Amadeus Choir, Elmer Iseler Singers, Oriana Choir, and the Toronto Children's Chorus combined in a joyful, bouncy rendition of this happy, angelic hymn.  In the contrasting darker centre section Jamie Barton sang with a more dramatic tone than in the previous movement, underlining the fact that this piece is storytelling in contrast to the previous song's meditation.  The final bars, with the bell-sounds ("Bimm, bamm" with a closed hum on the "mm") got quieter and quieter until the last notes evaporated into the sky.

Immediately, Oundjian had the opening notes of the long, slow final movement ("What Love Tells Me") stealing as quietly in upon the strings, before even having the choirs sit down.  This final orchestral song of divine love consists of long chains of melody, with phrase after phrase unfolding in the most organic way for minutes on end.  These long, singing melodic lines are entrusted to the strings, and the TSO players excelled in quiet, smooth, clear-toned playing.  As the movement unfolds, tempo does shift, and other instruments join in, but the strings dominate here as nowhere else in the symphony.  When the music does rise to climaxes of anguish, the tempo quickens, but under Oundjian's guiding hand the acceleration remained entirely natural and unforced.  The last solo passages of the work are the heartfelt consolation of Nora Shulman's flute after the last climax, and then the gentle unfolding of the main theme for the last time by McCandless on trumpet, both played magnificently.  The music then rose slowly to a final grand climax on a long-sustained triumphant major chord.

The Third may be long, but it's quintessential Mahler all the same, and this performance was a magnificent tour through one of music's most remarkable achievements  by all the players, singers, and conductor.  The TSO is repeating the concert tonight and this concert will well repay your time if you can get there!

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Swirls of Strings

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra opened their season four nights back with a one-night-only Gala starring Renee Fleming.  Friday and Saturday, they gave their first concerts of the regular subscription series.  The programme included four works, all of which set the strings swirling.  In three of them the strings had leading roles to play.

The programme opened with Butterfly Wings and Tropical Storms by Canadian composer Randolph Peters.  This work exemplified a recent trend in contemporary composition, a trend which sees many composers abandoning the structural (or de-structural) thinking of the 20th-century avant-garde in favour of such revolutionary qualities as melody, harmony, and rhythm.

This particular piece certainly proved that the possibilities of a more traditional musical language are by no means exhausted.  It began with a duo-cadenza for flutes and these were eventually joined by other woodwinds, and then by the strings, producing a glowing shimmer of sound.  Solemn chords sounding in the deep brasses lent a positively Sibelian tone as each chord was a clear and distinct triad, but not necessarily related to the one before it.  These harmonic shifts eventually worked up to the storm of the title, which was even shorter than the storm in Sibelius' Tapiola but sounded like its first cousin all the same.  A brief coda recalled the shimmers of the opening.

Peters was present to receive the applause of the audience, and so gripping and rewarding was his work that he was called back for a second bow -- a relatively rare event with contemporary music!

The Sibelian resemblance was appropriate, because that composer's Violin Concerto followed next, with Norwegian violinist Henning Kragerrud as soloist.  This piece needs little description, being a well-known repertoire staple.  But I simply have to quote Sir Donald Tovey's delightful description of the final movement's main theme with its cross-rhythmic accompaniment:  "evidently a polonaise for polar bears."  Yes, I know there are no polar bears in Finland!

This concerto, like the composer's symphonies, tends towards a craggy, rough-hewn sound world.  It has a lot to do with Sibelius' insistent use of diatonic harmonies without a firm tonal centre.  In the case of the concerto, it also has a lot to do with the amount of fierce attack versus the relatively modest use of singing lyrical lines in the solo part.

What really struck me about this performance was the achievement of that kind of rugged sound in the first and third movements.  No prettied-up niceties here.  Kragerrud leaned hard on the bow and conductor Peter Oundjian called fierce entries from the orchestra.  Fierce, but not necessarily loud.  In spite of all the heavy-duty attack entries, the orchestra's sound was fully under control so that the soloists was always audible.

The first movement was taken faster than many performances, avoiding any sense of quiet meditation in the opening bars.  While the music became a bit helter-skelter in one or two spots, it was for the most part both exciting and exacting in adhering to the score.

The slow movement, too, passed in a flowing tempo a shade faster than usual so that the music had no opportunity to lose momentum.

In the finale, that intriguing cross-rhythm between drums and low strings in the opening bars was, for once, clearly articulated so that either one could be easily singled out.  The polonaise rhythm of the opening went with quite a swagger, as did the orchestra's fierce cross-rhythmic response in a courante rhythm later.  The final coda, bringing together all the themes of the movement, wound up to an exhilarating conclusion.

For an encore, Kragerrud played something very unusual: one of his own compositions!  Variation Suite is a duo for violin and cello, which he played with the TSO's principal cellist, Joseph Johnson, to loud audience acclaim.  The theme sounds rather like a Norwegian folk tune in style, but the variations are another matter altogether.  One very quick one is either full of added beats or else written in something like 11/8 time -- it flew by too quickly for me to count beats!  Another is slow and lyrical, a third a kind of waltz.  The whole imaginative work lasts about 5 minutes.  It made me very eager to experience more of Kragerrud's composition output -- some of the online reviews he's received sound very intriguing indeed.

After the intermission, for me, a relative letdown -- although I hasten to add that this has nothing to do with the orchestra's performance!  I've never been able to warm up to Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, and this week was no exception.  It's a huge sprawling work (60 minutes) which, especially in the first and last movements, comes across to me as feeling like too little butter scraped over too much bread.

I can think of several possible reasons.  Perhaps Rachminoff missed the stimulus of writing for the piano, his own instrument.  Maybe he felt no affinity for the cut and thrust of symphonic argument, and was just writing a symphony because he felt he ought to.  Perhaps he was padding up his work because he felt that with Mahler as an example, a symphony had to last an hour or more.  Consider that the finished work is 50% longer in playing time than his largest piano concerto, the Third.

There is just one movement that gives signs of coherent structure, and that is the second-movement scherzo.  The main scherzo theme brackets one of those lush, romantic melodies that were Rachmaninoff's great specialty.  Then comes an alternate scherzo, just as fierce, as an alternative to a trio, followed by a repeat of the original scherzo-melody-scherzo complex.  The themes are clear-cut as a bell, underscored by insistent galloping rhythms, and the whole movement is the only one that truly catches fire instead of sitting there smouldering but never really getting going.

(The relative lack of structure is made all the more obvious by comparison with Mahler's enormous Third Symphony which is being played this week.  Its first movement spans 35 whole minutes by itself, but in something very close to a clear and recognizable sonata-form structure with first and second theme groups, development, and recapitulation and coda fused into one.  Quite plainly, Mahler had the symphonic tradition in his bloodstream, in a way that Rachmaninoff and many other Russian composers couldn't quite match.)

Throughout the Rachmaninoff work, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra clearly had the measure of the music.  Sounds were plushy or edgy, as required, and the beauty of the horn choir in particular was notable.  Also notable was the rich sound of the strings, who have more work to do in this symphony than in many other repertoire staples, since they are responsible for presenting so many of the themes.

Oundjian's view of the work was precise and beautiful in many ways, with the soaring lyrical passages in particular flowing smoothly and not getting bogged down in schmaltz.  And that powerful scherzo was as energetic and fiery a performance as anyone could ask.  If I'm ever going to sit through this symphony again, I want it to sound like this.

But if it were up to me, I would just play the scherzo -- and then repeat it!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Shaw Festival 2016 # 4: Our Play

There have been many fine plays written by many fine writers in the United States during the last century.  Many of these plays are justly considered classics of the English-speaking world theatre.  

Among all the other products of this rich theatrical age, Thornton Wilder's Our Town holds a very special place.  Although written consistently in the simplest and most uninvolving of theatrical styles, it still holds the stage because the characters and situations are straightforward, clear, and most of all, honest and believable.  Almost anyone can go to a performance of Our Town and see aspects of themselves, their families, and their friends in the people appearing on the stage.

The other especially appealing feature of Our Town is that it tells about the core aspects of life to which we can all relate: birth and death, love and marriage, everyday chores and special occasions.

It's no wonder, then, that Our Town continues to be performed in schools, colleges, community and professional theatres.  It's the sort of play that will always be sui generis because if anyone else tried to write a similar play in a similar style, they would end up writing Our Town, Mark II.  The play also stubbornly resists classification by theatrical genre.  It is, simply and beautifully, itself.

Wilder designedly planned Our Town as a play which would consistently and thoroughly break down the imaginary fourth wall between actors and audience.  He required a bare stage, minimal furniture, and called for most actions to be mimed without props.  His main character is the Stage Manager, who speaks for the most part directly to the audience, narrating the story and filling in for them the gaps which the onstage action doesn't show.  Wilder also asked for the play to be performed "without sentimentality or ponderousness--simply, dryly, and sincerely."

The Shaw Festival's production respects these requirements for the most part.  When it goes beyond them, it does so in a way that yet respects the play and the author's intention. 

A simple white cyclorama backdrop allows for subtle shades of light to define different times of day and night.  A large circular moon is lowered in front of the cyclorama for two different segments of the play, distinguished by different lighting effects.  Plain furniture, chairs and tables, are moved around and sometimes on and off by the company.  Costumes are period appropriate but simple.

It's difficult to single out certain performers in this show because it is so pre-eminently an ensemble piece.  Few characters, other than the Stage Manager, have any lengthy scenes.  Indeed, the Stage Manager is as apt to interrupt a promising scene, thank the performers, and then fast forward our attention to another key moment.

But there are some truly delightful performances here none the less.  One of the best is Sharry Flett as the garrulous, gossipy Mrs. Soames.  In the wedding scene at the end of Act II, her over-the-chair-back interjections are done with exactly the over-the-top tone that I can associate with an elderly gossip.  It may not be strictly according to the playwright's request, but it's a funny and touching cameo all the same.

The four parents are all good, but it is the two mothers who stick in my mind -- partly by the script pointing your attention towards them, and partly by the subtle but still multi-faceted performances of Catherine McGregor as Mrs. Gibbs and Jenny L. Wright as Mrs. Webb.  Wright was magnificently natural in her slow-motion preparation of breakfast in the return to life scene, while McGregor captured a perfect balance between indifference to the living world and maternal concern for the newcomer in the graveyard.

These two also played a fine partnership in the scene where they are stringing beans.  Not the least part of the effect here was the actors' careful use of every inch of space on the narrow stage of the Royal George Theatre to clearly indicate the locations of the two houses and their respective gardens.

At the heart of the play stand their two elder children, George Gibbs (Charlie Gallant) and Emily Webb (Kate Besworth).  This casting caught my attention because I had seen these two playing two leading child roles last season as well, in Peter and the Starcatcher.  In that show, they (and their fellow actors) didn't really convince me that I was seeing children.  Well, this time out, the two both assumed an entirely believable air as school children, and then kept the transitions completely clear as they grew into teenagers and then adults.

The emotional heart of the piece comes in the third act, with the funeral of Emily after she dies in childbirth with her second child.  One of the most arresting images in this entire production is the rows of chairs representing graves, with the actors seated in them -- facing straight ahead and never turning or moving.  This much, of course, anyone who has seen the play knows will happen.  The extra inspiration here was the cold white-grey moonlight (it is winter) and the gentle dusting of white on the lower ends of the actors' clothing.

Then comes the scene where Emily chooses to go back and witness a day in her life again, despite warnings from the others not to do it.  In another magnificent and subtle touch, the director and designer have the table brought on once more in the Webb house -- but now there are real pots, dishes, utensils.  Although the action continues as if in mime, the presence of these extra articles (actually not wanted by the playwright) underlines gently but clearly the fact the Emily is seeing it all for the first time -- there was so much she didn't see the first time, when she lived it.

Emily's farewell speech seemed a little unnatural to me -- but I suppose it's hard to make it really natural!  Then she returns to her chair (grave), George comes back up to the graveyard by night, and in a moment of terribly real heartbreak flings himself on the ground of her grave.  Gallant's performance in this moment drew sobbing from a few people in the audience.

All of which brings me back to the Stage Manager, the single biggest and most important role in the piece.  This actor has more lines than all the others combined, and has to do so many different linking functions during the show -- as well as playing small roles such as the minister and the soda fountain owner.

Remember what the playwright requested:  "simply, dryly, and sincerely."  With a gentle, coaxing, almost folksy lilt in his voice, Benedict Campbell did exactly that -- never overdone, dramatic, or overly emotional but always engrossing in his storytelling.  It was as near to perfect a realization of the role as I can imagine.

This performance took me further into this play than any other production I've ever seen.  At the end, I came away with a new appreciation for the key message that lies in the very last scene.  It comes in Emily's question: "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Every, every minute?"  The answer, given by the Stage Manager, is: "No.  The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."

Thanks to director Molly Smith and her team of designers, the Shaw Festival has mounted a production of Our Town which more than achieves the most difficult feat of all -- the feat of performing this familiar and deeply-treasured play well.  A remarkable evening of theatre.

Shaw Festival 2016 # 3: In the Money

When I first heard that the Shaw Festival was staging an early comedy by W. S. Gilbert of "____ and Sullivan" fame, I assumed that it would be early in style as well as in skill.  See how wrong you can be?

It was my turn to be surprised when I discovered that Gilbert actually wrote nearly 50 plays, not including the dozen or so operettas with Sullivan as composer.  Engaged is thus part of a much more significant element of the author's total output.

The detailed programme notes provided by the Shaw highlight the indebtedness of the operettas to such earlier pieces as the highly successful Engaged -- and the equal similarity of the much later classic The Importance of Being Earnest.  Well, proving such connections is a delightful impossibility, so I'll just leave it to stand that the similarities undoubtedly exist, and look at this performance instead.

But there are a couple of observations to be made about the script first.  Like all Gilbertian satirical nonsense, this play takes place in a totally imaginary world which resembles the real world in only external details.  Within that imaginary world, the most ridiculous behaviour becomes not only expected but respected.  Also, the nonsense is at all times congruent with its own outrageous rules of behaviour and action.  

Thus, it should come as no surprise that everyone's suitability for marriage in this play is determined by their wealth, or that the one person in the play with substantial means is also blessed -- or cursed -- with the unstoppable urge to propose to every woman he meets.  (Oddly enough, he never seems to face a breach-of-promise lawsuit, the dreaded legal entanglement so often used by P. G. Wodehouse in his comic novels.)  Nor is it a mere coincidence that the play begins in Gretna, the village ambiguously located on the border between England and Scotland, where eloping couples contracted marriages under Scottish law by simply declaring each other to be husband and wife, in front of witnesses.

For a nutty, off the wall piece like this one, the designer-director team of Ken MacDonald and Morris Panych is just the ticket.  MacDonald has made a positive virtue out of the cramped stage of the Royal George Theatre by designing sets of gigantic cartoonish cut-outs coloured in bright pastels: monstrous thistles in Act I and impressionistic flowers in Acts II and III.  

The first obstacle many in the audience encountered was in trying to understand the broad Lowland peasant accents of the first characters to appear: Maggie Mcfarlane (Julia Course), her mother (Mary Haney), and her would-be fiance Angus Macalister (Martin Happer).  An accent like this is not often to be heard in the North American theatrical world, and these three all did it full justice.  Even as one who has travelled frequently in Scotland, it took me a couple of minutes to adjust!

The first outsiders to appear after Angus forces a train to stop are Belvawney (Jeff Meadows) and his fiancee Belinda Treherne (Nicole Underhay).  Belinda in particular comes across just like the heroines of half of the Savoy operas: self-centred, self-consciously sweet, and a melodramatist who never uses two words when twenty will do.  She is the first in the play, but hardly the last, to declare that, despite her romantic attraction to Belvawney, money will decide whether she will marry or not.  After marvelling at her skill in some of the heaviest dramatic roles of the repertoire, what a delight to see Nicole Underhay undertaking such giddily comical material (and she does it very well, no surprise there).

The central figure in the ensuing lunacy now appears: Cheviot Hill (Gray Powell).  Cheviot loses no time in proposing to Maggie, and to Belinda, and the fun is well and truly under way.  Powell has a whole range of daft actions that he undertakes each time his memorized proposal speech begins to make its way out into the world again.  He brushes the hair back from his forehead, plants one foot out in front with bent knee, and begins lifting that foot up and putting it down again like an impatient race horse.  By the third or fourth time you see this routine it's impossible for the audience to stave off the giggles.

One other key figure who appears in the second act is Minnie Symperson (Diana Donnelly), yet another woman who becomes the object of Cheviot's attentions.  Donnelly's gentle, sweet young lady is a perfect foil to the more vehement Belinda, who proves to be an old friend -- naturally.

The story that proceeds to unfold is as complicated and twisted as only a Gilbert could make it.  It includes multiple proposals, the complications brought on by a Scottish marriage which Cheviot didn't realize he was making, the appearance of the three Scots as house servants in London, the whole question of whether Belvawney or Minnie's father will get the one hundred pounds a month, and the issue of who will get beaten up by the fierce Major McGillicuddy.

It's very much to the credit of Panych and his actors that all these incredible and impossible contortions in the plot came across so clearly and seem so believable and even normal.  Just as laudable is the comic timing in such scenes as the abortive wedding, where Belinda liberally helps herself to the cakes set out for the feast, or the ridiculous scenes where Belvawney turns his evil eye on Cheviot to make him behave himself.

Engaged may be a ridiculous comedy, but it's also a revealing satire on a social yardstick far too often wielded in our world today -- money.  In that sense, it's certainly never likely to become dated or seem untimely when revived.  And this Shaw Festival production is both skilfully performed and hilariously amusing.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shaw Festival 2016 # 2: Who's Right?

The Shaw Festival's current production of Mrs. Warren's Profession is powerful, engrossing, and a first-rate staging of one of Shaw's tautest, toughest plays.

In three of his earliest plays, published under the title of Plays Unpleasant, George Bernard Shaw was preoccupied with the social issues and ills of the day.  In this one respect, his work resembles that of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays Shaw helped to bring to the British stage.  But Shaw's treatment of his subject matter is often much more subtle, more leavened with humour to keep the audience off guard while he feeds them his moral lessons.  It's also striking to note that even now, well over a century after the play was written, the attitudes of Shaw's characters still sometimes can startle his audiences.  In many ways, the man was not only ahead of his time but ahead of ours as well.

Mrs. Warren's Profession, originally staged privately in 1902 (nine years after Shaw wrote it) is a noteworthy exception.  In many ways, it's one of Shaw's most Ibsen-like scripts -- which may help to explain the rarity with which it is staged.  That paucity of stage productions may also turn on the relative lack of humour as compared to, say, The Philanderer.  More than anything else, though, I think that Mrs. Warren's Profession simply cuts too close to the bone in confronting a societal issue which is as much a mess now as in Shaw's day.  Our utter failure to make any progress in dealing with the whole area of prostitution and its causes is something most people would rather not be forced to think about.

That is truly unfortunate, because this play presents a powerful study of several fascinating characters, chief among them Vivie Warren and her mother, the title character.  Mrs. Warren may be the title character, but Vivie is the prime mover of the action of the play -- and it really is her story, not her mother's, which is unfolded to us.  And it is Vivie who emerges as the victor, the only one to get exactly what she wants, out of the battle royal which takes place.

Any attempt to describe the plot of Mrs. Warren's Profession is apt to leave it sounding melodramatic but even a tolerably competent performance shows just how wrong this assumption is, and the point is driven home even more forcibly in Shaw's preface to the published edition of the play.

In the fashionable nineteenth-century melodrama, the "fallen woman" is always a beautiful, emotional creature whose "sin" is redeemed by the man who loves her even after he finds out who or what she is.  Since this is also a social sin of the first order, he can only be redeemed in turn after she dies -- a victim of consumption (La Traviata), swamp fever (Manon Lescaut) or suicide (The Second Mrs. Tanqueray).  Shaw's depiction of the relationships surrounding Mrs. Warren is full of conventional people who keep trying to take the story in that direction -- including Mrs. Warren herself -- but Vivie overpowers them all.

Her weapon, by the way, is the dramatic reversal of conventional expectation.  From first to last, this was one of Shaw's principal dramatic techniques.  In many of his more comedic plays, it becomes simply a clever writer's tool to generate unexpected laughs.  But in Mrs. Warren's Profession, the reversals form the essence of the drama as Vivie Warren shows herself to be the natural antagonist of all the social expectations and character traits represented by all the others.

I think that director Eda Holmes has understood this very well.  Her staging of the piece is designed to draw attention to Vivie in many subtle ways, and to highlight the opposition of Vivie to almost everyone else on the stage.  Pacing was subtly varied, but the forward motion of the play never impaired in the least.

The artistic team has chosen to set the play in contemporary time, in the lounge of the New Lyric Gentlemen's Club in London, which was the site of the first private performance.  It's a cute but slightly cross-purposed conception.  Patrick Clark's beautiful set is a London gentleman's club to the life, and adroitly echoes the architecture of the Royal George Theatre's auditorium, giving the audience an even closer feel of integration into the Club's lounge.  Costumes, then, are much more contemporary in style.  But the set undermines its own cleverness because it looks so old.  It still has the effect, in spite of costumes and modern-style acting, of dragging the play back into the past when it was written.

But no matter: the play crackles throughout with dramatic power and intensity.  Jennifer Dzialoszynski completely owns the stage from first to last as Vivie, and in the end compels all the others to do her will.  I've seen her a couple of times before in comical roles, and she was masterly in those.  The dramatic weight and multiple dimensions of her assumption of Vivie Warren are another matter altogether.  Dzialoszynski's performance rang almost all the changes demanded by the author and brought a complex, many-sided character to perfectly clear life.

Opposed to her we had Nicole Underhay as Mrs. Warren, the professional prostitute and brothel-owner.  From her breezy and casual entrance, to her conventional parental talking-down to her daughter, to the powerhouse scene in which she describes her life and family and her decision to go into her field of work, Underhay too covered all the aspects of a different but equally fascinating character.

The one weak link in the show for me was the very last scene in which Vivie dismisses first Frank, and then her mother.  Shaw's text suggests to me a woman whose mind is completely made up, who eschews emotion, and lets her mother's impassioned pleas beat upon her like waves against a cliff.  If Vivie is to crack at all, it should be only momentary -- and I felt that Dzialoszynski came far too close to the emotional edge, breaking down into tears and losing her self-control for more than a few moments.  But after she recovered herself it was Underhay who fell apart completely at the seams in the end.  And that is as the playwright tells us it should be.

Thom Marriott created a truly imposing, suavely threatening Sir George Crofts (Mrs. Warren's business partner).  The scene in which he outlined marriage as a business proposal to Vivie fairly made my flesh creep.  It was then equally fascinating to watch him be baffled by Vivie's adroit thrusts in debate, terrified by Frank's sudden appearance with the gun, and then how quickly he recovered all his smoothness and false civility when he revealed Vivie's possible status as Frank's half sister before walking easily out of the garden.

Gray Powell did all he could with the ungrateful role of Praed, the innocent in a nest of knowing manipulators.  His exposition of the role of art and beauty in life was as believable as it could be made, for this is the one character created by Shaw as a voice of a socially conventional set of attitudes.

Shawn Wright as the Reverend Samuel Gardner presented us with a performance of doubts hidden inside a shell of bitter rectitude, and his morning-after scene was a nice little light-comic interlude.

As his son, Frank, Wade Bogert-O'Brien did once again what he does best.  Shaw here presented his take on the conventional, brainless, ne'er-do-well young British man about town.  While Frank begins by looking and sounding just like so many of the species who littered the society of the period, he goes a good deal further.  And this is where Bogert-O'Brien's performance really began to take off and fly on its own steam: in the garden scene when he appears with the gun to challenge Crofts.  Of course, he is just as quickly upstaged by Vivie's seizure of the gun a moment after Crofts leaves, but the new tone he sets here carries on through the rest of the play.  It's a good indication that this actor has a lot more in him than the vacuous types he too often seems condemned to play at Shaw.

On that note, I have to say that the Shaw Festival is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.  There's a large audience of faithful yearly attendees, and they dearly love to see all their favourite actors year after year.  But I think this theatre ensemble is in danger of becoming too comfortable in its own skin, and will turn into a living monument to itself.  A good indication of that  risk is the situation of Wade Bogert-O'Brien and several others like him in the company.

This is a problem which bedevils all large theatrical institutions from time to time.  It has certainly happened at several eras in the past with Stratford, and is also a major issue with Soulpepper in Toronto right now.  It would be a very good thing to inject new blood into the Shaw company, put new faces on the stages, bring in new directors who will in turn suggest truly new approaches.  The last step is already in the works under incoming artistic director Tim Carroll, and I certainly hope that a shake-up and revitalizing of the acting company will follow.

At the moment, though, what matters is that we have here a taut, incisive, splendidly powerful performance of Mrs. Warren's Profession which is definitely a must-see production.

Shaw Festival 2016 # 1: Who's Important?

This year, the Shaw Festival completes its multi-season presentation of three of the four main plays by Oscar Wilde with the second of the sequence, A Woman of No Importance.  

This is a one of Wilde's earlier efforts for the theatre, and has never achieved the raging success of his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.  It seems plain to me that Wilde was still honing the craft of the playwright, and was having some trouble deciding just what sort of play he wished to write.  Was it to be biting social satire, serious social criticism, trembling melodrama, or a combination of all three?  All three types are certainly represented in the play as it stands.  As well, he still had not acquired the skill in selecting, polishing, and above all rejecting his first thoughts that did so much to shape Earnest into a nearly-perfect jewel of the theatrical repertoire.

Eda Holmes has directed a fine production which makes the best of the contradictory pulls in Wilde's verbose script -- but alas, the contradictions cannot entirely be reconciled.

One of the biggest drawbacks for a modern audience is that Wilde has followed the convention of the day in filling his play with a number of superfluous and often largely interchangeable aristocratic characters.  The main action grinds to an absolute halt in the early going while these carefree aristocrats exchange barbed witticisms about other aristocrats ad infinitum.  There are some good laughs during these scenes -- they contain many of the anticipations of Earnest in the writing -- but confusion about where the play is going cannot be avoided.

In the end, only four of the characters really partake in the main plot: young Gerald Arbuthnot; his mother, Rachel Arbuthnot; the young American socialite, Hester Worsley; and the consummate man-about-town, Lord Illingworth.  But it takes a long time during the first act and half of the second act before this distinction begins to become clear to the audience.  By the fourth act, the aristocrats have virtually disappeared.

That main plot involve the classic device of the concealed identity and the so-called "fallen woman", which brings it into close kinship (thematically) with Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession (also performed this year -- see review # 2), and with Pinero's The Second Mrs. Tanqueray.

But the kinship with Shaw is only thematic, not in the treatment, for it is just in dealing with this main plot that Wilde comes closest to the edge of the melodramatic tearjerker.  Fortunately, he does not fall completely into the trap, and his ending pulls off an almost Shavian pair of reversals which proclaim him, if nothing else, certainly not the absolute slave of theatrical convention.  And it is the women who make these astonishing (for the period) about-face turns, making them in the end the most important people in the play.

The director's notes in the programme explain in some detail why she chose to set the play in 1951 rather than 1889.  My personal feeling is that the difference really isn't worth dwelling upon.  The aristocrats of 1951 were still, in many cases, living in the same stately homes as in 1889 (the mass sell-off to the National Trust having not quite come to a head as of yet).  Not only that, but the clothes they wore -- while hewing to a different stylistic ethic, perhaps -- still evoke a society with piles of money and no concept of value for money.  Both eras are now within the same bracket of past time -- distant enough to seem old, yet recent enough to feel recognizable.

Michael Gianfrancesco's sets and costumes clearly evoke both the distance and the familiarity, with colours keyed to individual characters throughout.  One of the most eye-catching figures, whenever she is on stage, is Mrs. Allonby.  Her evening gown, in striking maroon mingled with darker shades, also has the most daring cut of any of the dresses worn in the play.

She's probably a good place to start on the acting.  Mrs. Allonby is one of two of the aristocratic menage (although not herself an aristocrat) who really claimed my attention, and it wasn't just a matter of costuming.  Her lines in the script suggest a woman who is thoroughly sensual by nature and who treats relations between the sexes as a matter for her own personal amusement rather than any more serious or lasting purpose.  Diana Donnelly did not so much walk as sashay or prowl, she didn't so much stand as pose seductively, and she didn't so much speak words as she drawled out satirical pronouncements laden with hidden little come-hither messages.  

The other was Lady Hunstanton, the hostess of the house where the first three acts take place.  Her most characteristic turn of phrase was the three perfectly-timed little words, "...or is it...?"  Her part is full of little confusions where she manages to reverse whatever she intends to say, and then has to correct it.  Fiona Reid is a master of this kind of verbal comedy, and although her timing of those three key words was always impeccable, it was never quite the same twice running.

Gerald Arbuthnot is a young man of considerable determination and strength of will, characteristics he has inherited from his mother.  Wade Bogert-O'Brien caught both the determination and the petulant stubbornness into which it sometimes falls.  

Martin Happer wore the suave, ironic side of Lord Illingworth like a second skin.  He was less convincing in the last scene where Illingworth tries to appear more genuine and sincere.  Since the ironic tilt of the voice didn't change much, the sum effect was not so much dramatic tension within the character as a kind of subtle telegraphing that the melodrama villain was still twirling his mustache and chortling evilly to himself under the surface.  And perhaps he was.

Julia Course was statuesque and powerful as Hester Worsley.  The scene where she rebukes the aristocratic school for scandal on their shallowness and rudeness is breathtaking.  She comes across as the most morally rigid person present when she demands that the sins of the fathers be visited upon the children.  The process by which she unbends in Act IV was nuanced in voice, gesture, and face, and became totally believable.

As Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald's mother, Fiona Byrne commands the stage.  When she appears at Lady Hunstanton's soiree, her black dress makes her stand out in a roomful of aristocratic peacocks.  So does her straightforward voice and carriage.  As the play proceeds and we realize, more and more, that it is her story we are watching, her dominance of the stage increases.  The final scene in which she firmly rejects Lord Illingworth's proposal of marriage is far better written than any melodramatic "happy ending", and Byrne lifted the entire play to another level with her performance in this scene.

Throughout the play, Holmes staged each scene without any apparent difficulty in highlighting whatever the audience most needs to see and hear.  The action flowed naturally from first to last as much as the awkwardnesses of the script would permit.

In sum: A Woman of No Importance is an entertaining, engrossing production of a playscript which certainly has its moments -- but which is really two quite different plays jammed up against each other, and therefore will always present major difficulties to anyone attempting to stage it.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 6: Dead, and Yet Alive

In case you were wondering, no, the Stratford Festival has not hopped onto the zombie apocalypse bandwagon with any of its shows this year.  Nor are they staging Dracula.

But there are more ways to be dead and yet alive than just those two.  All around you, every day, are people who go through the motions but have long since ceased to live in any truly meaningful sense of the term.

And that is one of the key themes of my last Stratford show of the season (so far), Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman.

I would be the last one to dispute that the plays of Ibsen, like those of Chekhov, are very much an acquired taste.  Even among those who admire and perform Ibsen's work, John Gabriel Borkman is not nearly as well known as, say, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, or A Doll's House.  It's the author's penultimate work, and in it the dramatic realism of earlier plays is pared away in favour of a conflict which is almost entirely internal.  

The play also makes use of elliptical, almost telegraphic language as the characters argue over their situation.  Only gradually, towards the end of the play, does the full story of that situation become plain to the audience -- a technique more often encountered in murder mysteries.

Why, then, do I speak of people being dead and yet alive in this play?  I suppose, as much as any aspect, it's because three of the quartet of principal characters are marking time on an endless treadmill where nothing ever changes and nothing is ever accomplished.  As well, one of them is dying of an unnamed disease while another is told that he is dead, and lying on the ground.

There are four members of the same family circle in Borkman, and their intertwined destinies form the subject matter of the play.  Of the four, only the young man, Erhart Borkman, has a life waiting for him to live it.  His father, John Gabriel Borkman, has returned home after serving a lengthy prison sentence for embezzlement from the bank of which he was the director.  Because of his criminal record, he has no future.  Borkman's wife, Gunhild (Rentheim) Borkman, provided the funds which fueled Borkman's rise in life to his present position -- and she has refused to see him or speak to him since his return.  Gunhild's twin sister, Ella, loved Borkman when they were young and he claimed to love her, but abandoned her for Gunhild when it became apparent that Gunhild would inherit their father's wealth -- and Ella as a consequence has never married.  These three older characters are all trapped in a circle of love-hate relationships with each other, and each of them becomes enmeshed in the battle for the love -- for the soul -- of Erhart.  Each, seems to feel that triumph in this struggle would be a vindication of self as well as a final kiss-off to the other two.

I first saw this play performed almost 40 years ago, at the Shaw Festival in 1978, and was amazed that such unlikely and unlikable people could hold such a powerful and continuing grip on my imagination.  Unlike some plays which depend on one or two key characters, each of the four people I've described has to be depicted by a strong actor with considerable skill and subtlety if the whole play isn't to simply lie down and die on the stage.  I'm sorry I can't remember the names of any of the actors in the Shaw production, but they must have been a powerhouse cast indeed to have such a huge impact on me.

Stratford's production uses a new translation by Paul Walsh, commissioned by the Festival, and developed with the assistance of (among others) all three of the principal actors.  It is being presented on the long, narrow arena stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre -- always a calculated risk with a play written for performance in a standard proscenium theatre.  With a near-ideal cast and very skilled direction from Carey Perloff, the play succeeds magnificently.

Christina Poddubiuk's set consists of heavy furniture and huge piles of paper documents.  It evokes a world of social obligations conflicting with the driven will to succeed.  Her costumes delineate the lives of the characters.  A stern Victorian dress in dull grey-black for Gunhild contrasts nicely with a more glistening black finish on Ella's dress.  Borkman wears a long, below-the-knee black overcoat which clearly telegraphs the cold upstairs Great Hall in which he has lived for the eight years since his release from prison.  Erhart appears in a dapper, fashionable black suit with a top hat, a clear signal that he intends to live in the world.  Notice the preponderance of black -- the colour of death.

Mrs. Wilton, the fashionable lady of doubtful social propriety who finally provides Erhart with his escape route, wears a shorter, fancier, leg-displaying dress in a reddish-brown tone -- the design even more than the colour signifying her equivocal position in the community.

The play takes place in a single evening and night in winter, and the wintry coldness of outside mirrors the winter in the hearts of the characters.  That chill is evoked by a narrow, continuous line of cold, white-blue strip lighting running around the entire perimeter of the stage floor.

Now, to the performers.  I was intrigued to realize that the casting of the two principal women exactly reversed the casting of the same two performers three seasons ago in Schiller's Mary Stuart.  Once again we have a raging, uncertain, ice queen facing off against a woman who, although wounded by life, is still capable of compassion.  Seana McKenna, who played Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, now appears as Ella, while Lucy Peacock (who depicted Mary, Queen of Scots) now takes the stage as the cold, angry Gunhild.  It leads me on to speculate how either of those plays might have appeared if the casting of those roles within each one were to be reversed!

To take the cast from the short roles up to the leads, begin with Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as Gunhild's maid.  Servant roles are notoriously underdeveloped as characters, but Gillard-Rowlings made a strong impact with her characteristic assumption of fear.  Every time she had to enter the room, she looked and sounded frightened, and in the last act this fear rose to outright terror when she found herself face to face with John Gabriel Borkman himself -- whom, it is to be surmised, she has not seen for over a decade even though he has been living in the house.

In her brief appearance, Natalie Francis effectively created the youth and naivete of Frida, the young girl who wishes to become a musician.

The simple-minded clerk, Vilhelm Foldal (Frida's father), was played to such great effect by Joseph Ziegler that he totally vanished into the character.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and is a skill shared by only the strongest of actors.  It's obvious that Vilhelm provides what little comic relief there is in the play, but I always find it uncomfortable laughing at him -- and I feel sure that this was Ibsen's intention.

Antoine Yared projects the youthful energy and determination of Erhart, combining it with an unspoken desire for his mother, father, and aunt to support his wish to go out and live his own life.  But only Ella does so in the end, and his reluctance to leave her alone is also clearly projected.

Sarah Afful's Fanny Wilton can only be described as sensual.  Ibsen's text, elliptical though it is at this point, makes it clear that her relationship with Erhart is primarily sexual, and her sensuality of appearance, walk and voice is a necessary counterweight to all the cold, hard, loveless energy in the Borkman home.

And this brings us to the big three: McKenna as Ella, Peacock as Gunhild, and Scott Wentworth as Borkman.  At this point, words nearly fail me.  It's hard to imagine any way that any of these three powerful actors could  improve on either the depiction of their characters, or the interplay among the three of them.  This was theatrical teamwork of the highest order.

Each one, too, had amazing individual moments.  For Lucy Peacock it was the moment when she identified the remorseless footsteps over her head as those of "the Bank Director -- yes, him."  Her tone made it clear as day that she could not, would not utter her husband's name.

For Seana McKenna as Ella Rentheim it was the moment she first announced that she was dying of her chronic illness.  Cancer?  We aren't told, and it really doesn't matter to the play.  What does matter is how clearly she played the duality of a woman who says that love has been killed in her yet still plainly feels love towards her nephew.

Scott Wentworth as Borkman had one telling moment in the second scene in which he ducked away from Ella's questions about why he didn't use her wealth along with that of all the other investors in the bank.  And in the final scene, his ascent of the piled-up furniture mirrored his monumental speech about his determination to start over and ascend finally to the heights he was denied before.

I find it hard to imagine any cast of actors who could create a stronger team in these three strange, barbed, unfulfilled characters.

There were a couple of staging issues that I felt hampered the play slightly.  Having Gunhild fly into a rage is a perfectly natural outcome of the script.  Having her express her rage by shoving wheeled furniture around the stage at top speed made no sense to me at all.  It was so far outside her character, where shoving the papers off the desk was not (and she did that too).

The penultimate scene is the three-way war among Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel Borkman over the future of Erhart.  It's a powerful scene, not least because of the watching figure of Fanny Wilton, already quite aware that she has won and the other three have all lost.  But it's also the weakest scene in the script, a scene in which the same arguments and ideas are repeated over and over.  Here, I felt that the careful orchestration which director Carey Perloff and her company brought to other parts of the show deserted them.  The scene needs to build in intensity, not just in volume.  As staged, it didn't really grow at all, just played through at one level -- a high-powered level, but definitely not varying at all as it progressed.  All the actors need to keep raising the stakes as each round of the debate rolls along.

That weakness, though, was redeemed in the final scene on the mountainside, a scene which can easily become pointless and boring.  As performed here, and especially with the intensity of those final speeches from Scott Wentworth's Borkman, this indeed became the climactic moment of the show.

There's a tendency with Ibsen to want to slow down, take big beats, and spread the material out over a long time span.  This production avoided the temptation, making all the more telling the few great pauses that did occur.  The final moment of reconciliation offered and accepted stretched the pause of reluctance and final acquiescence to the limit, and scored a powerful final tableau to end the play.

It's unlikely that John Gabriel Borkman will ever be a popular play, but it is unquestionably a powerful and challenging one -- a play whose performance should be dared only by the best of the best among actors and directors.  In spite of a couple of weaknesses I've noted, Stratford's production certainly didn't disappoint in that respect.