Sunday, 23 July 2017

Festival of the Sound 2017 # 1: Celebration Concert

The opening concert of this year's Festival of the Sound was definitely a gala celebration, even though not officially billed as such.

The programme was entitled "Our Paradise: Canada at 150."  Under that umbrella description, the diverse and entertaining evening gathered together the music of the First Nations, traditional country fiddling, jazz, classical, folk, popular song and several works originally commissioned by the Festival of the Sound in earlier years.

The whole evening became a celebration of Canada and of the Parry Sound areas, of the lands, the peoples, the artists, and the art they have brought with them to their lives in this area.

To fit all of that into a single concert sounds implausible, not to say impossible, but James Campbell (Artistic Director) has a long history of dreaming up creative programming that would occur to no one else, and then bringing it vividly to life before us.

The concert opened with a slide show of Georgian Bay sunsets in a darkened hall, a cry of a loon and ripples of water on the sound system, and then the appearance of the Wasauksing Little Spirit Singers, a group of children and young adults presenting two traditional songs of the Anishinabek.  These were a song of welcome, and a song honouring the assembled people.  The clear voices and diction of these singers were impressive.

From there we moved on to Strings Across the Sky.  This is an educational programme that has travelling to First Nations communities across Northern Canada for over a decade, teaching and restoring the tradition of fiddle playing among children.  They've appeared at the Festival for a number of years now, with children from the local First Nations.  I always enjoy watching these young beginners focusing so earnestly on their playing.  And, remembering my own early struggles with trying to tame a violin, I'm impressed at how well they play after just a week of experience!  Strings Across the Sky is always a delight.

The New Zealand String Quartet took the stage next in a set of Three Ojibway Songs, led on the drum by the composer, Richard Mascall, Singing Beaver on Water.

From there, the quartet leaped with equal aplomb into a set of Canadian country fiddle tunes.  All this was a far cry from their core classical repertoire (see below), but they were plainly enjoying the diversity of the experience.

The European folk traditions that have moved into Canadian music were represented by four of the Six Studies in English Folk Song by Vaughan Williams.  I first heard this work at my very first Festival, back in 1994 or 1995, and it made an immediate impression.  What I didn't know at the time is that none of the tunes used are genuine folk songs.  Vaughan Williams created a whole set of melodies in folk style.  James Campbell on clarinet and the quartet played these miniatures with a great deal of affection.

Parry Sound residents were represented by pianist Carolyn Maule.  She's most often heard as an accompanist (and a very fine member of that specialized elite group!) but tonight she appeared as a solo artist, playing Mendelssohn's energetic Andante and Rondo Capriccioso to sustained applause.

The first half of the concert ended up with The Goal by Eric Robertson, originally commissioned by the Festival for the opening of the Stockey Centre in 2003. This work for the Festival Winds commemorates the famous Stanley-Cup-winning goal scored by Parry Sound native Bobby Orr for the Boston Bruins back in 1970. The spoken narration was provided with great aplomb by the well-loved local music teacher, Jim Ferris.

A double Festival commission opened the second half. How can one piece be two commissions? In 1989, Srul Irving Glick undertook a commission to work on a composition in a room in the Parry Sound High School (at the time the Festival's main venue). Here, audience members could come in to watch him at work. Glick would even bounce ideas off his visitors, asking which of two possible chords sounded better to them and the like. The resulting work was workshopped and performed that season, and has been revived a couple of times since -- with good reason.

For this performance, the Festival commissioned artist Alan Stein, a long-time friend and former president of the Festival, to create a series of paintings inspired by the music, and these were shown on the overhead screen during the performance. Images at Nightfall, Georgian Bay is a sequence of songs for soprano, piano, and clarinet. Soprano Chantal Grybas sang with great purity of tone in all parts of the range.  Pianist Leopoldo Erice and James Campbell on clarinet gave an evocative account of their parts, ending with the haunting sound of the clarinet fading into silence while pointed downwards inside the piano case.

The New Zealand Quartet then came back to represent the Festival's core mission of classical chamber music with two movements of Beethoven's Quartet Op. 18, No. 3, played with their customary fervour and precision.

The long-standing jazz tradition of the Festival next came to the stage with a trio performing Canadian selections:  Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell and Swinging Shepherd Blues by Moe Koffman.  Then resident pianist, trumpeter, vocalist and (not least) comic genius Guy Few walked on, draped in a Canadian flag, to lead the audience in singing Bobby Gimby's catchy Centennial song, CA-NA-DA.  There's a tune that wears well -- it's still as much fun in a singalong as ever.

The last entry in a full evening of diverse music was the Parry Sound Community Singers.  They performed the last of the commissioned works, also written for the 2003 opening of the Stockey Centre: Paradise: A Song for Georgian Bay by Parry Sound-born composer Eleanor Daley.  Daley herself led the choir in singing this short but evocative work. 

The entire array of performers then crowded onto the stage and the audience stood to round off the evening with a heartfelt O Canada.

A dash of patriotism, a sense of history, a panorama of cultures, a kaleidoscope of music, a tribute to the people who have built the foundations on which Parry Sound rests today, the Festival's opening concert was all these things.  It made for a long evening, but also a rich and rewarding one.

I now have to take a break from the Festival for the remainder of Week One to 
go elsewhere.  These blog posts will resume in August for the final two weeks.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Steel Beneath The Skin

There can be few tougher challenges in theatre than trying to find something new to say, whether as director or actor, about a play that most people know as a major hit movie.  Worse still, many of your audience may well be convinced that the play derives from the movie, when in fact the opposite is far more likely to be the case.  Robert Harling's Steel Magnolias certainly proves the point.

Much of the dynamism of the justly famous film version (scripted by playwright Harling from his original play) lies in its poetic visual sense and use of different indoor and outdoor settings at different times of day.  The stage play, obviously, can't hope to compete on that level.  In fact, the play has just six characters and takes place in four scenes set entirely in Truvy's hairdressing salon.

The production currently playing at the Cameco Capitol Arts Centre in Port Hope ON until July 22, exemplifies the problem in spades and succeeds in overcoming the inevitable comparisons in large measure -- but not entirely.

The biggest handicap this production faces is in its set.  Whether due to space limitations or other factors, the set consists of a single long wall, exactly parallel to the audience seating, with only short wings angling out on either side.  In front there is a sizable thrust into the auditorium, but upstage, in front of the wall, is a huge space-eating sofa also exactly parallel to the audience seating.

Result: stage pictures inevitably deteriorated into characters moving back and forth in a very two-dimensional way, reminiscent of ducks in a shooting gallery at a fair.  The first act was especially bad for this.  Also, there were too many scenes of stationary seated actors talking to each other -- sideways.  Other scenes were played with actors trapped upstage of the beast, partially hidden from view.  I'd have given a great deal to see that sofa removed, and replaced with smaller chairs that could move around, angle towards each other, and generally create more interesting and flexible spaces for the actors to use.  In particular, the sizable thrust was greatly underused, and could have added much dynamic and visual interest to the show.

 And so to the characters, for this is almost entirely an actor's show.  There are simply no opportunities for flashy audio-visual effects or clever set tricks in this script, and any attempt to bring them in will backfire.

All six characters have to present a complex range of actions and intentions while maintaining a believable emotional arc at all times.  The challenge is greater for some than for others, and for each it is a challenge of a different kind.

Talen Waller as Annelle played the hesitancy of the first scene very well, coming close to overplaying her hand on occasion but never quite getting that far.  I would have liked to see more of the hesitancy transform into greater fervour and determination once she discovered the Baptist Church.

Alyssa McCallum brought many fine grace notes into her early scenes as Truvy.  I'd have liked a clearer sense from her of her relationship with her unseen couch-potato husband.  Her restraint in the opening minutes of the final scene was both subtle and moving.

Brenda Barr-Worsnop certainly caught the flippancy of Clairee, the rich widow with an ear for gossip.  She displayed numerous instances of great comic timing.  I wanted her to slow down the delivery a little during the final scene when she hauls Ouiser around and cries, "Hit her!" (with several subsequent variants).  I know the words but just in that one moment they were flying too fast to be distinguished.

Helen Pitt-Matthew as the rich old curmudgeon Ouiser brought plenty of fire to the role.  She also displayed ample variety of vocal inflection in the later scenes.  But her first scene appearance was delivered in almost a total monotone, scarcely any change in pitch or shaping of phrases.  This had me worried, but she clearly grew into the part as the show progressed.  There's room for more of both physical and vocal fire from Ouiser when Clairee grabs her in the final scene.

Kristy Bird presented the role of Shelby as a young spitfire, not just determined to have her way but determined enough to vocally smack down anyone who crossed her.  Interesting and believable take on a character who is sometimes presented as a sweet goody-two-shoes.  Bird's explanation to her mother of why she needed to have a child of her own was both intense and involving.

The most challenging role undoubtedly falls to Honor Sylvester as Shelby's mother, M'Lynn.  Sylvester stayed firmly inside her character, and all the complex emotions M'Lynn is feeling were palpably present at all times.

The biggest challenge for M'Lynn, for the director, and indeed for the entire company, comes in the final scene when M'Lynn cracks open and cries and rages.  It's a scene that demands extreme power, but also extreme control.  I've always felt that Sally Field in the film went too far over the top here, although her emotional turns-on-a-dime and her diction were both impeccable throughout.  Some day I hope to see the scene played with just two degrees lower temperature.  Here is a case where less would definitely be more, and doing your next-to-damnedest far better than doing your damnedest. 

In his production, the problem was that Sylvester pushed the moment so far and became so weepy that her words began to mush together, and the meaning behind a number of her lines was lost.  No doubt this is just what could well happen in real life.  Theatre, however, can be realistic sometimes, but real never.  The audience needs, and deserves, to hear exactly what M'Lynn is thinking and saying at this climactic moment. 

Director Antonio Sarmiento crafted some fine scenes within the limited space allowed, but also made some choices that hindered the overall results.  Of these, the biggest by far was the failure to make better use of the thrust stage space to vary the angles, pacing, and stage pictures.  Another choice that handicapped the show came in that climactic final scene, where he allowed the other four women to group around M'Lynn's chair and then stay in one place for far too long.  This might be varied, for instance, by having different women take turns to reach out to her at different moments, moving slightly in and out of M'Lynn's close personal space.  

Overall, pacing was both strong and flexible in the first half of the show but seemed to grow a bit slacker after the intermission.  And if that happened because the performers were carefully marshalling their inner forces for that devastating final scene, who could blame them?

Steel Magnolias, as play and as film, is a long-time favourite of mine.  While this is by no means a "definitive" staging of the play (not that I believe in any such foolish possibility!), it was still an enjoyable afternoon of theatre for me and the rest of the capacity audience, and I'm glad I made the trip to come and see the performance.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Not-So-Sancta Simplicitas

Apologia:  This review has been greatly delayed due to my work 
on the 60th anniversary reunion of Elliot Lake Secondary School, 
where I taught for 32 years.  But better late than never, here it is.

This season's final Toronto Symphony concerts concluded the "1930s" segment of the Decades Project with a pair of works representing two completely opposite tendencies in the music of the 1930s -- and both are worlds apart from the music of the Second Viennese School!

However, as has happened at select performances all season, the concert opened with the final "Sesquie" for Canada's 150th: The Bastion by Pierre Simard.  After the work was played, conductor Peter Oundjian joked about how great it was to get a piece that was only 2 minutes long (that was a condition of the commissions for this project).  But he then went on to add seriously that there was at least a 10-minute work in the ideas that Simard presented, and I wholeheartedly agree.  A very gripping little preview of bigger and better things to come -- I hope.

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski developed his compositional style along such unique lines that he sounds like no other.  More than once, I've had the experience of hearing a piece of music on the radio, saying to myself, "That sounds like Szymanowski," and then finding out at the end that it was indeed a work by this modern Polish master.  But what is this distinctive Szymanowski sound?  Commentators have struggled to find appropriate words and metaphors for it.  Some have referred to incense or perfumes; others speak of painting styles.

Best to just listen to the music, and all of Szymanowski's music that I've heard is certainly rewarding.  He composed many piano works, chamber works, symphonies, two violin concerti, and my two personal favourites, his Stabat Mater and his opera King Roger.  This week's concerts featured the Violin Concerto No. 2, with Nicola Benedetti as soloist.

It's a single movement work, with several connected sections, rather in the manner of Sibelius' Symphony No. 7 although the similarity stops right there!  Much of the work is gentle and meditative, with the violin soaring and twisting in complex and beautiful melodies over background shimmerings.  Even when it gets faster and its persistent rhythms get more pronounced, it still tends to remain quiet.  This fact throws into relief the few louder passages, including the energetic ending.

Benedetti's performance was a delight from the very first notes.  She more than met the challenge of persuading the audience to appreciate and love a work that would be unfamiliar to most.  Her playing combined qualities often considered incompatible: a clear singing tone with strong playing in louder passages.  No doubt in my mind that she was thoroughly in tune with the composer's unique and colourful sound world.  Only in that final climax did she vanish under the orchestra, and the fault certainly wasn't hers or the conductor's.  

To wrap up the season, the Toronto Symphony programmed Carl Orff's famous cantata, Carmina Burana.  This is one of the greatest of rarities, a "modern" work that was latched onto with a will by performers and audiences everywhere right from the get-go.  Carmina Burana has had so many live performances and recordings since its premiere in 1937 that it makes composers everywhere go green with envy.  And like so many others of its kind, it remains very much a one-hit wonder -- although Orff wrote much other fine music, and was (and remains) very influential in the realm of music education for children.

Start with the title:  "Songs of Beuern" -- named for the Benedictine monastery in which the medieval manuscript was discovered.  The texts, however, are very secular -- with an earthiness that becomes downright raunchy and must have raised eyebrows when the collection of poetry was first discovered and published in 1847.  In 1936, Orff came across the book, and was immediately seized by the power of the opening verses, "O Fortuna, velut luna, statu variabilis," ("O Fortune, like the moon, forever changing) and the accompanying illustration of Fortune, empress of the world, sitting at the centre of her ever-turning wheel.  He sketched the opening chorus at once -- and in his characteristic, pared-down style.  

After the opening fanfare, the first two lines are sung to a melody which uses just three notes on adjacent pitches, the first three notes of a minor scale.  The melody moves down, up, and down again over these three notes, all the while accompanied by a propulsive motoric rhythm.  And therein lies the key, since this cantata begins as it means to go on.

Orff deliberately cultivated this simplistic musical style, with vivid and constantly varied orchestration providing much of the musical interest.  Harmonies and melodies alike are apparently straight-forward -- but certainly not artless -- and almost folk-like in character.  Counterpoint and polyphony are nowhere to be found.  With only a few exceptions, the two dozen separate songs in the collection are strophic in form, and with little or no real musical variation from one stanza to the next -- other than, perhaps, volume.

Orff's huge success with Carmina Burana owes everything to his skill at creating intriguing diversity within what at first sounds like a recipe for boring sameness.

The real character of the music for Carmina Burana emerges when you consider the huge percussion section, and for this purpose you certainly have to include the two pianos among the percussion department because that's how they are used.  Throughout the score, the percussion provide the driving force in the more energetic movements, and add characteristic little grace notes and touches to the gentler, lyrical movements.  Rhythm is the absolute key to this music -- so much so, in fact, that the composer created a reduced version of the orchestral score for piano and percussion only, to put the work within the reach of choirs of more modest financial means.

Music Director Peter Oundjian led the orchestra in a crisp, precise performance of music which thrives on those very qualities.  Balances are important, and were impeccable throughout.  The percussion parts lead the ensemble, but mustn't overwhelm it either, and that basic need was amply fulfilled.

A weak link was the five-fold refrain of O, o, o, totus floreo in the last part of the work.  It needs to accelerate, and it did, but Oundjian began the acceleration in each verse too late and had to shift gears far too rapidly to reach the right speed for Quo pereo.  This caused some looseness in ensemble, otherwise admirably tight and connected at all times.  A more gradual acceleration over a longer span of the lines would be more usual, and would hold together much more firmly.

The combined forces of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and (in Part 3) the Toronto Children's Chorus admirably met the demands of the music.  It's tempting to take the excellence of both these ensembles for granted, but after my one year in the TMC (1977-78) I thoroughly understand the amount of work underlying the fine results from from this exceptional amateur chorus.  The clear enunciation of the medieval Latin/German texts throughout was a delight.  So was the enthusiasm of the singers in the tavern scene and in Tempus est iocundum.

I've left the soloists till the last because they were the absolute highlight of the performance.  It's hard to think of any time when I've ever heard such a beautifully balanced team of solo singers.  The voices were all of a piece -- firm, clear, only "enough" vibrato (a very subjective call on my part), and well up to the varied demands of their parts, including some cruelly high notes for all three.

Soprano Aline Kutan sang with ease in the higher registers, and subtly captured the range of feeling, from the virginal In trutina mentis dubita to the loving abandon of Dulcissime!  World-famous counter-tenor Daniel Taylor characterized, and acted, more overtly in the comic highlight of the score, the Song of the Roasting Swan, without forgetting that it was still a concert performance and not an opera.  Baritone Philip Addis superbly evoked the dark sadness of Circa mea pectora and the rage of Estuans interius, while his performance of the recitative-styled Ego sum abbas cucaniensis was a dramatic highlight.

All in all, a truly rewarding performance of a work which I have heard far too rarely in its original full-orchestral dress.