Saturday, 27 February 2016

Russian Music: Up, Middle, and Down

This week's concert at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony consists of three Russian works by three different composers.  

I have to confess to wildly varying reactions to these three pieces.  One of them I've never really liked at all.  One of them I desperately want to like -- but can't.  And one has been near and dear to my heart ever since I was a child.

The opening of the concert was the rarest item of the programme by far: Tchaikovsky's "fantasy-overture" The Tempest, after the famous late Shakespeare play.  It was composed in 1873, shortly after his far more famous Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, this work is much more episodic.  The music keeps coming to a dead halt between sections and themes.  Although the work is arranged in a cyclical form that lets it represent the major events and characters of the play, the thematic material used is rather thin and doesn't lend itself to the kind of rich development heard in the earlier work.  The love theme for Miranda and Ferdinand consists of a four-bar phrase, a repeat rising to a higher ending, and that's all.  All the composer could do with this rather weak-kneed melody was to play it again -- louder.  The best parts of the score are the opening and closing sea music, brooding and mysterious and full of subtle touches.  This sea music also brought the most beautiful playing in the work from the orchestra.

Conductor Edwin Outwater, in his pre-concert remarks, asserted his view that the love theme is memorable and so it is -- but not for its high quality.  Despite the care and love he lavished on the performance, he failed to convince me.  I'd like to be to say this is a forgotten Tchaikovsky masterpiece.  But, alas, there are good solid reasons why Romeo and Juliet has soared to immense worldwide popularity while The Tempest has been largely forgotten.

Next work on the programme was Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3, composed when Prokofiev was in his twenties.  It's a fiery, often dissonant work, and it predates the development of his ability to compose extended diatonic melodies (a gift which surfaced later in his life).  The key to the style lies in the composer's oft-quoted observation that the piano is a percussion instrument and ought to be played percussively.  I've heard the concerto played several times, and have never really been able to come to grips with the music -- or even wished to do so.  Indeed, I'm left with the impression that the music consists of half an hour of short snippets succeeded by other and unrelated short snippets. 

More's the pity, then, because the performance was clearly of high quality, tautly conceived and neatly executed by all concerned.  The rapid passagework in the piano part was played by soloist Alon Goldstein with fire and precision, and without beating the piano within an inch of its life.  I think if you are going to play this work, you had much better give it your "next to damnedest," saving the all-out assault for the high-speed final coda.  This both Goldstein and Outwater certainly did. 

The largest work on the concert was Rimsky-Korsakov's "symphonic suite" Scheherazade, Op. 35.  This four-movement work is always cited as one of the three great masterpieces for the orchestra composed by Rimsky-Korsakov before turning to opera, and with good reason.  Familiar as this music is to so many, it still requires a live performance and the resulting higher focus of ear and eye to appreciate the skill and subtlety with which this score was written.  

Unlike many composers of programmatic music, Rimsky-Korsakov didn't write to a detailed outline, rather composing four movements with extensive use of inter-related themes.  He did preface the score with a short note about the Sultan Schariar, who -- convinced of the faithlessness of all women -- puts each of his wives to death after the wedding night.  But then comes the wily Scheherazade, who starts telling him a captivating story, but refuses to finish it until the next night.  After 1001 nights, and bearing him three sons, she persuades him of her fidelity and he rescinds his bloody decree.  This, of course, is the background story of the "1001 Arabian Nights" collection of tales.  

Beyond that point, though, Rimsky-Korsakov declined to offer any specific programmatic outline, giving only the titles of the four movements.  "My aim," he said, "was to direct the hearer's fancy but slightly on the path my own has travelled."  Only in the final movement did he include an overtly programmatic event, but even that serves an important musical function within the structure of the entire work.

Two main themes are heard right at the outset: the thunderous fanfare of the bloody Sultan, and the coaxing violin solo of the wily Scheherazade.  These two themes, and the solo violin in particular, are woven through much of the music.  The orchestra created an appropriately dark and dangerous sound in the fanfare, and soloist Benedicte Lauziere (the concertmaster) played the Scheherazade theme sweetly and seductively.

And then we were launched into The Sea and Sinbad's Ship.  The main theme of this first movement  (derived from the Sultan's theme) was carefully graduated by Outwater so that each subsequent rise in key -- there are many -- came out slightly louder than its predecessor.  Only on the third and final  complete reiteration of the swelling sea melody did the orchestra arrive at a full fortissimo.  

The sinuous voice of Scheherazade and a gentle bassoon solo appropriately launched The Tale of Prince Kalendar.  This movement in particular highlighted the fine quality of the wind sections as each in turn got a chance to shine.  

The third movement, The Young Prince and the Princess was noteworthy for Outwater's gentle rubato.  This allowed for a quality of langour without distorting the shape of the long, lyrical arch of melody.  The gentle sounds of the chiming percussion highlighted the quiet dance-like middle theme.

The fierce playing of the Sultan's theme opening the final movement was almost the only spot where I felt Outwater overplayed his hand.  But if you're going to be fierce, it's just as well that the succeeding violin solo share that quality.  Lauziere's double-stopped notes sacrificed nothing of tone quality, but gave the impression of being wrenched out of the strings -- very gripping.

The Festival of Baghdad is the first really rapid music in the work, and many conductors fall into the trap of playing it too quickly.  It's very important that we hear the distinct notes of the ostinato rhythmic figures which continue obsessively throughout the piece.  Outwater here struck the ideal speed, fast enough to capture the hectic quality desired, slow enough to keep the notes audible. This music also includes some of the densest textures.  Throughout the Festival, the orchestral balance was near-perfect.  The change back to the sea music was powerful indeed, the darker brass well to the fore, and the percussion contributed an apocalyptic stroke on the tam-tam to highlight the hugest climax of all when the ship is wrecked against a rock surmounted by a bronze warrior.

Thereafter, the gentle wind-down as Scheherazade finished her final tale was beautifully paced and scaled.  At the very end, Lauziere's high harmonics maintained the sweetest tone right to the final note.  All in all, a very fine performance of one of my favourite pieces.  I wish I could go back and hear it again tonight, but I have something else on my plate!

Friday, 19 February 2016

Practice Makes Perfect

This post is not so much a review as a description.  Feel free to tune out.  
It's a lay person's reaction to a rehearsal of a highly specialized art form.  
If you're an expert in this field, please be gentle and forgive my gaffes!

Last night, I had the first-time privilege of attending an in-studio working rehearsal (not a final dress run-through) at the National Ballet of Canada.  Over the years I've participated in working rehearsals beyond number for choral music, piano, and theatre, so I was intrigued by the similarities and the differences in the methods, the working language, and the attitudes of all involved.

Right away, there's the almost untranslatable term repetiteur.  In ballet, this term embodies some aspects of the English words "teacher", "director", and "coach" without being precisely the same as any of those words!  The repetiteur's job is to teach the dancers the steps, moves, and expressive possibilities of the work at hand, while at the same time helping them to find their own creativity within the framework.  I suspect that a repetiteur would only be unneeded if a new work were being created in studio, in which case the choreographer would be working with the dancers while a busy assistant would be noting down everything that was done to be used in future stagings by a repetiteur.

In this rehearsal, the repetiteur was a figure of global stature in the field: Joysanne Sidimus.  Anyone familiar with ballet will certainly have heard her name.  She is one of the leading repetiteurs for the unique works of the famous choreographer George Balanchine.  The work under rehearsal was Balanchine's jazzy ballet Rubies, so the company couldn't have had better leadership in this rehearsal process.

As the rehearsal unfolded, I noticed some parallels to the musical and theatrical rehearsals of my own experience.  For example, there were the multiple repetitions of a short sequence, as the dancers ironed out the kinks in the technique and timing.  Balanchine, by the way, often filled his stage with multiple groups of dancers travelling at high speed on opposing courses, so this kind of work is an essential part of the process -- vaguely akin to the theatre's "blocking" rehearsals.  One sequence was repeated with the two different soloists from the two casts each in turn running over the same movements.

There were the comments shared by Sidimus with the dancers as they worked.  Here I sensed the parallel with the notes I would give as a theatre director.  Concern for the well-being of the dancers was exemplified as she warned one dancer that there was no way he could continue coming down on his knee so emphatically without wrecking it.

There were the moments when repetiteur and pianist had to coordinate the exact best point in the score to restart, also a frequent problem in choral rehearsing.  And there were times when the dancers had to confer among themselves on the best way to work through a tricky combination of moves -- again, a situation that all actors can certainly relate to!

On a couple of occasions, the dancers got sufficiently tangled up that Sidimus told them to simply "walk" the part first.  This meant that they moved in time with the music, giving small-scale indications of the full movements, turns, gestures and leaps that would come in the next run-through.  The parallel with a cast of opera singers who are "marking" (singing the parts through at low volume or even in a lower octave) was unmistakable.

Another interesting observation I made was the presence, on the sidelines, of several dancers who walked some parts as the rehearsing cast were working.  At least one of them, I knew, was nursing a minor injury, and others may have been too.

Now, I could take these parallels much too far!  For certain, no theatre or musical rehearsal I've been involved in has ever approached the exhausting physical demands of the ballet studio.  Not for nothing are ballet dancers all superbly conditioned athletes!

Even so, I was impressed by the good humour and cooperation evident among all the company as they worked.  It's easy to see that a team enterprise like this would be dead in the water if anyone were to play the assoluta or prima donna or star to excess.  I was also very impressed as Sidimus reminded the audience, and the dancers, that two of them were actually working through this section for the first time.

The rehearsal lasted for an hour, and ended at the next-to-last minute with a complete top-to-bottom run-through of the sequence they'd been rehearsing.  The result of an hour's intensive work lasted for about two minutes or so.  

After the rehearsal there was a reception, and Joysanne Sidimus spoke at some length about the unique features of the Balanchine approach to ballet, as well as her task as the repetiteur.  It was an apt reminder of the reason why Balanchine's work almost always appeals strongly to me -- the primacy he assigned to the music.  She mentioned in particular the way he would say that the most important person in the studio was the rehearsal pianist.  Sidimus gave some very illuminating examples of things that Balanchine used to ask his dancers to do, to think, to be.  This talk also heightened the value of the rehearsal experience in retrospect for the audience.  All in all, then, a truly fascinating evening.  I hope I've captured some of the flavour of it for you!

P.S.  Speaking of "flavour," the cookies at the reception were delicious too!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Variations on the Theme of Life

Theatre Sarnia's production of the play 33 Variations by Moises Kaufman successfully surmounted the technical, dramatic, and musical challenges of a most unusual script.

33 Variations, which was originally staged on Broadway in 2009, takes its place in an illustrious line of plays that totally subvert our conventional linear understanding of time.  Kaufman's complex script attempts to tell the intertwined stories of three characters, in three different settings, in two different centuries, and in the process allows the audience to draw all kinds of intriguing parallels among the various characters.

Any person with a sizable knowledge of classical music would already infer from the title (correctly) that one of the characters involved is Beethoven.  The title of course refers to his largest masterpiece for the piano, the 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, a work which itself takes most of an hour to play completely through.  It's also one of the most fiendish piano works ever written. 

The four "modern" characters in the play are musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, her daughter Clara, the nurse Mike Clark who becomes Clara's boyfriend, and the Beethoven archivist Dr. Gertie Ladenburger.  Moving around and between these four are Beethoven himself, his secretary and assistant Anton Schindler, and the publisher Anton Diabelli -- the composer of the waltz that started it all.  Behind them all, on the highest level of the stage sits the pianist.

This story allows us to watch as different people cope with their own personal obsessions, with their own deepest needs, as they confront their own impending deaths.  In a very real sense, Diabelli's cute little beer-hall dance tune is the mainspring that drives all the action.  I put it that way because Katherine's obsession is her desire to penetrate the secret of why Beethoven spent so much time in his final years composing these monumental variations on such an -- apparently -- trivial theme.  Meanwhile, Beethoven's obsession remains his need to tease out every last little bit of musical development and growth contained and implied in that simple dance tune.

The first and biggest challenge this play flings at the producing company is the challenge of finding a pianist who can successfully tame this diabolically complex music, not just playing the notes but dropping into and out of variations, out of their numerical order, on the turn of a dime.  Dan Sonier more than met the challenge and I was only sorry that a proper acoustic concert grand piano hadn't been found to better highlight his fine playing. 

Right behind that comes the need to create a performing space which will allow the scenes to flow and intercut as they must.  Jen Paquette's design consisted of a simple arrangement of risers leading up through several performing levels to the top level where the piano was placed.  Immediately by the pianist was a small desk used to contain and hold Beethoven's manuscript notes for the Variations.  This important placement ensured that the music, written and played, did indeed act as the focal point and mainspring of all the dramatic action.

Above the risers hung a series of projection screens which were used to create subtle backdrops in various scenes.  This technical device was handled sensitively so that it always supported the stage action, never (as can sometimes happen) becoming an end in itself.

Recorded music (by Beethoven of course!) supplied the introductory material before each act and also occasional bridge material within acts.  Sound levels were fine throughout.  The one serious error came when Diabelli picked up the score of the Mass which Beethoven had just given him, and the Gloria in excelsis Deo sounded through the theatre.  But it was the wrong Gloria.  I didn't recognize it off hand, but it definitely was not the Gloria of the Missa Solemnis, the work Beethoven was occupied with at the same time as the Ninth Symphony and the Variations.  And it should have been.  The volcanic opening of the Missa Solemnis Gloria would give Diabelli something even better to play against.

Much of the comedy in the play (and there are many fine comic moments) is supplied by the three characters in nineteenth-century Vienna.  The publisher, Diabelli, was played by Ralph D'Alessandro as a congenial fellow with an enormous appetite for money and recognition hidden under the surface.  The congeniality on his face was often contradicted by the greed in his voice.  The need for recognition was apparent every time he mentioned "my waltz".  Very effective.

Shane Davis maintained the immobile expression suited to a servant or bureaucrat in the role of Schindler.  The scenes in which he stonewalled Diabelli were a delight.  Without actually doing anything so blatant, he also gave the impression that he was tiptoeing whenever Beethoven was actually present.  This air of caution underlined the volcanic temperament of the Master, as Schindler usually described him.

Beethoven himself was presented by Trevor Morris as a man not so much driving but driven.   The dishevelled hair and clothes, the sudden outbursts, the swerves of temperament, all became the signs that he simply had to seize Diabelli's waltz by the scruff of the neck and shake the music out that was hiding inside it.  Vocally and physically, a commanding performance as one of music history's most commanding personalities.

When it comes to the modern scenes, we hit the one serious weakness in Kaufman's otherwise admirable script.  The scenes showing the early stages of the Clara-Mike relationship are downright painful, as written -- barely one step, if that, away from the sketch comedy world of Mad TV.  The social ineptness of these two characters -- especially of Mike -- is so heavily underlined by the writing that it doesn't leave a lot of room for the actors to play any other aspects at all.  What was plainly intended as comic relief from the play's serious side became more an embarrassment than an amusement.

The scene where the two attend a classical concert together is a very clever piece of writing (David Ives springs to mind as a reference point).  It would make a fun comic sketch on its own.  In this setting, though, it actually took attention away from the performers by drawing attention to the writer's own cleverness in constructing it.  Or so I felt.

Having said that, Darryl Heater as Mike Clark did his best with a difficult situation.  His scenes in the second act allowed him to appear as a much more rounded, believably human character and here he did his best work.

Claire Ross gave a touching performance as Clara Brandt.  I understood and totally related to her desire to experiment and try different things in life, not settling into one single specialty.  Although exasperation was her keynote in her scenes with her mother, that exasperation came across as the inevitable result of the clash of two such wildly different personalities.

At the centre of the story is the character of Dr. Katherine Brandt.  She is the other driven person in the play, driven by her need to figure out the mindset of Beethoven in composing the Variations, but also driven by the need to come to terms with her impending demise due to ALS.  Audrey Hummelen gave a masterly performance of this complex and sometimes thorny character.  Her first scenes could be called "33 Variations on the Theme of Denial", a theme which she elaborated in all sorts of subtle touches of face, voice, and movement.

When she arrives at the Beethoven archives in Bonn, Germany, she meets the archivist, Dr. Gertie Ladenburger (played by Andrea Hughes Coleman).  At first, Gertie is a forbidding, almost stereotypical "Librarian" figure.  Significantly, though, it is to Gertie that Katherine is talking when she first admits that she has ALS.  From that point on, the two women stop fencing and a growing friendship between them provides all sorts of opportunities for both of them to express more sides of their characters.  This can't be done blatantly, but when done right (as with Hummelen and Coleman) the later scenes between the two become like a series of musical duets.  When Clara and Mike also arrive in Bonn, the four of them become a team, all contributing their efforts to help Katherine finish her work.

Inevitably, the disease takes its toll, and here Hummelen produced her strongest work.  Without ever pushing the "Pity" button overtly, she continued to struggle and adapt most believably as her workable world shrank from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair to a hospital bed.  A virtuoso performance of a truly difficult but very rich role.

I want to commend two remarkable ensemble moments in the show.  One of the most challenging scenes in the play is at the end of Act One.  It's a scene in which all the characters are on stage at once, in New York, Bonn, and in 1823 Vienna.  All seven are speaking across each other, sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously, occasionally coalescing onto a unison phrase spoken by three or more at the same time.  This passage is the greatest example in the script of a scene which needs to be very carefully orchestrated and structured -- and it most certainly was.

Even more moving was the moment near the end of the piece when all seven characters, one by one, joined in singing the Kyrie eleison from the Missa Solemnis.  It was a quiet, gentle moment with the seven each lost in their own thoughts wherever they happened to be on the stage.  This was not the performance of a trained choir but a more personal, inward kind of singing.  And the beauty of it was heartbreaking in its simplicity.

As the director of this very complex piece, Henri Canino orchestrated the entire performance with a certainty of tone and a lightness of touch that were altogether remarkable.  Examples of this are too numerous to mention.  I was particularly taken with how well she led her cast in managing to minimize the weaknesses in the script as well as making the most of its strengths.  The result was a tightly integrated performance in which every element, every line, every sound, every action fitted into the overall picture.

I would have been quite happy to take a 30-minute stretch break, and then go back into the theatre and watch the entire show again.  I'm sure I would have caught many more details that I missed on the first go-round.