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.