Monday, 18 December 2017

The Greatest Christmas Story of All

I am not using the term "greatest" loosely or ill-advisedly.  Johann Sebastian Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium ("Christmas Oratorio") is a magnificent masterpiece, telling the main events of the beloved Christmas story in music that is every bit as beautiful and compelling as the master's great Passions or the Mass in B Minor.

The Christmas Oratorio shares with the Passions the use of a tenor Evangelist to present the narrative portions of the story in recitative, with the other soloists and the chorus portraying the various characters in the story.  In between the narrative sections, the various arias, choruses, and chorales comment on the main action.

Actually, though, the Christmas Oratorio was neither designed nor intended for concert performance.  It consists of six separate cantatas which were performed at church services on six different days of the Christmas season in 1734-35 in Leipzig, as shown here:

Part 1:  Christmas Day (Dec. 25) -- the birth of Jesus.
Part 2:  Dec. 26 -- the annunciation to the shepherds.
Part 3:  Dec. 27 -- the adoration of the shepherds.
Part 4:  New Year's Day (Jan. 1) -- the circumcision and naming of Jesus.
Part 5:  Sunday after New Year (Jan. 5) -- the journey of the Magi.
Part 6:  Epiphany (Jan. 6) -- the adoration of the Magi.

The total work lasts for over 2.5 hours, not counting an intermission, and is thus a major effort to perform in full.  Many choral groups get around the problem by presenting it in two separate concerts, or by giving a selection of several of the cantatas.

As their pre-Christmas offering for this year, the Cellar Singers of Orillia ON presented a concert performance of Parts 2, 4, and 5, with organ accompaniment.  This apparently-odd selection makes sense when you notice that these are the cantatas which do not require trumpets and drums.  The other three parts (#s 1, 3, and 6) are all grand celebratory works in D major, and the trumpets and drums are prominent.  Trying to perform those parts with organ alone would sell the audience short.  But #s 2, 4, and 5 are gentler, more pastoral, more meditative in tone, and an understanding and sensitive organist can work wonders in representing the sounds of oboes, horns, flutes, and strings.

"Understanding" and "sensitive" are terms which describe Blair Bailey's playing very well.  The organ always provided firm support but never overwhelmed either soloists or choir.  Playing a work like this on the organ is a far tougher assignment than you might think, with 80 minutes of Bach's always-challenging music including some of his most florid and intricate writing.  

As tradition dictated (the same tradition followed by Handel in Messiah), the scene of the shepherds in the fields was prefaced by Bach with a pastoral sinfonia -- and this sinfonia thus became the curtain-raiser for the entire performance.  Although Bach did not use the Italian name pifa, the music serves exactly the same scene-setting function.  Unlike Handel's much simpler melody, the Bach sinfonia is a complex web of interweaving lines of counterpoint.  Bailey selected apt registers of his instrument to highlight the different lines.  I've never really appreciated, with an orchestra, the sheer technical complexity of this gentle and apparently (on the surface) self-effacing music.

The tenor soloist has the lion's share of the solo work, giving not only the Evangelist's narrations but also having a major solo or duet in each of these three cantatas.  In Bach's day, these parts would likely have been divided among different singers but tenor Charles Davidson handled them all -- and it's been many a year since I've heard a singer with a voice so ideally suited to the Evangelist role.  With a combination of light tone colour, flexible phrasing and passage work, no audible break from the lower register to the head tone, and immaculate diction, Davidson was virtually ideal.  A stellar performance.  I hope to hear him at some future date in the Evangelist role of one of the two great Passions.

Mezzo soprano Jennifer Enns Modolo was just as fine.  In the cradle song, "Schlafe, mein liebster" she found a soothing, aptly maternal tone without the voice becoming at all plummy or thick in tone.  A different but just as well-judged tone in the trio, "Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?," made her interruptions of the soprano and bass firm and clearly audible without becoming stentorian or overwhelming.  A delight to the ear.

Soprano Jennifer Taverner matched well with her colleagues, singing lightly and flexibly.  Her angel recitative soared effortlessly, and her voice caressed the notes in the famous echo aria,  "Flösst, mein Heiland."  Altogether, another rewarding presentation of a solo role requiring more subtlety than flash and dash.  Mary-Jayne Van Pypen provided the echo, and definitely deserves to be mentioned for achieving a near-perfect match to Taverner's voice and style.  This is by no means as easy as it sounded in this performance.

Bass Andrew Tees was something of a weak link.  His bigger, more dramatic voice and style of singing was out of keeping with the rest of the soloists (and with the tone and style of the performance as a whole).  There were also a couple of synchronisation problems in his duet with Taverner, and with the organ in his major solo.

The 40 voices of the Cellar Singers sang the complex polyphony of "Ehre sei Gott" in Cantata 2 and "Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen" in Cantata 5 with great energy, fully mastering the brisk tempo and the intertwining vocal parts.  Their warm, firm tone in the chorales gave a fine contrast.  Tonal blend was first-rate at all times, as was diction.  If the diction lacked the machine-gun precision which some choirs use, I felt the results were all the more musical for that.

Artistic Director Mitchell Pady brought many dynamic nuances to his interpretation of the chorales -- not, perhaps, the most "authentic" approach  But this is a style that I find more rewarding in a concert performance where my role is to listen, rather than to join in as I would likely have done in the Lutheran services of Bach's day.  Throughout the evening his tempi were nicely-judged for variety, giving plenty of lift to the music while avoiding the sometimes-ridiculous extremes of speed favoured by some modern interpreters.  I especially enjoyed the lilt which developed in Pady's conducting of the numerous triple-time movements, a lilt which reminded us of the secular dance music that Bach also composed with such fluency and skill.

This was such a persuasive and delightful performance of the three quieter cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio that I regret having missed this choir's performance of #s 1, 3, and 6 which took place a couple of years ago.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

A Diverse Christmas Concert

I got my Christmas season off to an entertaining start with a concert of Christmas music given by the Windmill Music ensemble in Mississauga.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  John Stephen, a member of the ensemble, is my brother.  Seems like I have a pretty artistic family!

Windmill Music has a 12-year history of presenting concert performances of Broadway, pop, rock, folk, and light classical music for voices.  That mission was certainly reflected in the very diverse programme performed on this occasion.

I want to get two artistic beefs out of the way right up front before going on to the performance.  As you would expect of a group of this nature, singers and instrumentalists were all amplified through speakers placed at the back of the venue, First United Church in Port Credit -- a church which is of a relatively modest size.  This sound  work needs to be handled with more care and discretion.  Not all of the soloists needed such amplification, and certainly the entire group singing as a choir didn't need it.  The speakers rendered the high overtones all too faithfully and when the singers went for a crescendo to a high note we all winced at the painful impact of the amplification.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, let's go in for the actual performances.  The ensemble for this show consisted of 17 singers, a string quintet, and a pianist.  The programme was chosen with care to allow no less than 12 of the singers to have solo or featured numbers.  There were also several instrumental selections to leaven the mixture.

The show started off on a classical note with the opening Sinfonia from Handel's Messiah.  This was followed by a vigorous performance of the soprano aria Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion.  Loralee McGuirl delivered Handel's endless runs with great energy, and shaped the slower central section with real finesse.

Much of the first half of the programme (after the Handel) consisted of what I would loosely lump together in the category of "Christian pop music" -- pleasant to listen to, firmly grounded in tonic, dominant and subdominant harmonies, moderate in tempo, and lyrical in style.  Even with two lovely solos from Abigail Freeman and one from Heidi Cyfco, it was a bit too much sameness.  

That sameness was highlighted forcefully when the choir launched into the much more adventurous modulations of O Holy Night -- beautifully done -- and then followed on with the high energy and quirky 7-beat rhythms of John Rutter's Rejoice and Sing.  

There were a few intriguing numbers based on older Christmas music, including Rise and Shine set to the tune of the medieval French noel Il est né, le divin enfant.  The last number before the intermission was a medley of several traditional carols in which the audience were invited to join.  

I found the second half both more rewarding and more entertaining because of the greater diversity of musical styles.  I was amused to see several audience members in front of me starting to sway and bob in their seats as soon as they caught the infectious rhythms of the spiritual, Come and See the New Born King.  I was doing it too.

The magnificent solo of Jesus, O What a Wonderful Child, as sung by Jason Hales, was one of the highlights of the evening for me.

Two numbers for the strings, White Christmas and Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, delighted the audience and raised many chuckles as the modern American Christmas songs suddenly found themselves drifting through a chorale fantasia in the style of J. S. Bach.

Christa Clahane sang the famous Panis angelicus of César Franck with a gentle, almost ethereal tone that suited this music beautifully.

The traditional Catalonian carol Fum, Fum, Fum added more rhythmic variety and some good singing on the lower ends of the voices.

In the final number, the fusion of The First Nowell with Pachelbel's well-loved Canon worked like a charm, only one melody note of the hymn having to be modified slightly to fit the Canon's all-important bass line.  The choral tone of the group reached a near-perfect blend in the final soaring bars of this beautiful piece, partnered by some of the finest string playing of the concert.

As an encore, the entire ensemble joined in a rousing performance of the famous Hallelujah chorus from Messiah.  The audience weren't invited to sing along to this one, but there were certainly some singers in the audience who couldn't resist the urge.  I plead guilty to the lesser offence!

All in all, a pleasant evening (if a bit over-lengthy) with an interesting variety of music, and plenty of beautiful singing and playing throughout.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony 2017-2018 # 2: Quietly Epic Beethoven

This week I had the chance -- and eagerly seized it -- to hear a KWSO concert after attending a working rehearsal for the performance. My enjoyment of the performance was multiplied by some quantum factor because the rehearsal reminded me, in spades, of the significance of one of the works of music I was going to hear performed the following night.

It matters a great deal, because the Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 is one of the most monumental works Beethoven ever composed. It's longer than any of his orchestral works except for the 3rd and 9th symphonies! But (and it is a huge "But"), the music disguises its size and power alike by its reticence in volume and scale of tone -- as shown by the very beginning, four notes tapped quietly out on the timpani at a moderate tempo. The opening orchestral tutti lasts for 4 minutes before the soloist's first entry, practically an eternity by classical concerto standards, yet only rises once (briefly) to the level of forte.

In the rehearsal, guest conductor Pablo Rus Broseta and soloist Jonathan Crow played through the entire first movement, all 25 minutes of it, before beginning to pull it apart to work out the details -- a process which required a further hour of work. That elapsed time alone reminded us forcefully of the sheer size of a piece which can often seem somewhat innocuous until you look this closely at it.

During that rehearsal, I also found that I was frequently reminded, by turns of phrase and by the prominent use of the woodwinds, of the composer's Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) which was in process of being composed at the same time. That symphony is another work which, as Sir Donald Tovey observed, conceals its power behind a relatively quiet and gentle surface.

Given the scale of this concerto, it's not surprising that it occupied the final place on the concert programme, after the intermission. The first half was by no means an also-ran.

Well, some of it, anyway. The KWSO always includes a contemporary work in its main series Signature programmes. Some of these contemporary works have been very rewarding -- but German composer Jörg Widmann's Con brio Concert Overture for Orchestra was not among them. It was the outcome of a commission which requested a work related in some way to Beethoven's seventh and eighth symphonies (presumably to be played on a programme with those two works).

The connection certainly eluded me. In the closing pages there were some brief melodic fragments for the trumpets and horns which sounded as if they might fit into Beethoven's Seventh. Otherwise, the music consisted mainly of the kinds of sound effects which were considered avant-garde in the 1960s when Krszsytof Penderecki used them in such works as his famous St. Luke Passion -- strings played col legno, sighs, rattlings, glissando shrieks, noises far removed from whatever each instrument was designed to do, even some vocalizing from players who were not otherwise aggressing upon their instruments (to quote Anna Russell's serendipitous metaphor). Today, this sort of thing can only be called derivative, passé, tedious -- and lifeless with it.

All of this carefully-organized noise was presumably governed by the rhythm being so assiduously beaten out by the conductor but, if I had closed my eyes, I would never have been able to guess what that rhythm might have been. Compare that to Beethoven, in whose output so many works can be readily recognized by their rhythmic profile alone, and the poverty of invention in this modern work becomes only too apparent.

I will kindly assume that the orchestra played with their usual finesse and aplomb in this very sticky wicket -- and with that, let's move on.

The next work was the polar opposite -- an almost perfectly timed choice, considering that it was performed on the weekend immediately after St. Andrew's Day. This was the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 ("Scottish") by Felix Mendelssohn. Don't let the opus number fool you! This was actually the last of Mendelssohn's five full-orchestral symphonies to reach completion, and certainly one of the most accomplished.

It's ironic that after years of never hearing this symphony performed live, I've now heard it twice in the space of four months. Believe me, I am not complaining! Here's how I described the work at the previous performance:

"There's no question in my mind that the composer absolutely captured the feeling of Scotland, not so much as a place, but as a state of mind: mysterious, dramatic, lively, pensive and -- in the end -- standing tall and proud as an equal for any member of the family of nations."

There's a terrific amount of energy in this score, and Rus Broseta led the orchestra in a performance that brought it all flying out at us. The sombre slow introduction gave a definite feeling that bigger matters were at hand. The allegro of the first movement rolled along with great momentum, even with the carefully-judged slowing into the second subject. The violins, so often tasked by this composer with high-speed tremolando passages, tore off their parts with great gusto -- so much so that it was a pity they were sometimes drowned out by the winds and brass. For a work like this, where the winds and brass so often play as a full group, a larger string section would be desirable. The other balance issue was the overly-enthusiastic contribution of the timpani in many places. But the surging, swelling waves at the climax of the movement came pouring over us with much better balance and clarity.

In the light-hearted scherzo, the clarinet melody chuckled and bubbled merrily along, to great effect. The more solemn slow movement brought beautiful horn chording. The finale was taken a little too fast for my liking, giving the music so much lift and energy that it began to sound playful rather than warlike (the score directs the tempo to be allegro guerriero which definitely means a "warlike" sound!). The majestic victory march conclusion was paced beautifully, giving the music plenty of zip and go still (it can easily become too solemn and ponderous here). All in all, a lovely performance of one of the finest of Mendelssohn's great inspirations.

And so to the Beethoven. The lengthy opening tutti set up the feeling of a conversation among the instruments which is so much a part of the flavour of this work. The violinist's first entry was paced with a good deal more rubato than is often used, but quickly settled back into the overall tempo of the performance. As the movement went on, that basic tempo got nudged a little bit here and there, but not too much -- soloist and conductor always remembering that this is Beethoven, not one of the late Romantics. Balance between the soloist and orchestra was always impeccable, and the long melodic lines from the violin developed the kind of singing, almost vocal tone which alone makes this concerto such a thing of beauty. Crow wrapped his fingers around the music's technical difficulties with complete assurance, always maintaining that sense of singing ease. His cadenza was a more heavy-weight affair, with much double-stopping, but not overdone, and the gentle re-entry of the orchestra at the end was all one could ask.

So too was the slow movement -- a miracle of quiet musical poise and lyricism in this performance. The theme and variations is of a kind found often in French Baroque music, where the bass and harmony remain constant and almost unchanging while the melody instrument spins out successive versions with more and more subdivided notes to the bar. (In the French tradition, these variations are often labelled as "doubles" because the number of notes per bar doubles in each variation).

Crow reminded me again of the Pastoral Symphony when he launched the finale with the kind of earthy tone and gusto that would fit perfectly into that symphony's scherzo. The orchestra came right along with him, relishing the country-dance inspiration underlying the main theme -- and then revisiting the lyrical tone of earlier movements in the lovely central episode. The quiet wind-down to the ending and the sudden surprising emphatic cadence to close were beautifully executed as well.

If recorded, this would certainly be a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto to live with and treasure!

Sunday, 3 December 2017

National Ballet of Canada 2017-2018 # 2: The Breaking Point

This review is over a week late -- my apologies to my faithful readers who may have wondered if I had gone off on another trip!

If The Winter's Tale was a stirring narrative, the National Ballet's second fall season production -- John Neumeier's Nijinsky -- is no such thing.  Although it's woven around the events of the life and career of the famous dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, this ballet is less a story than a tortuous, tormented kaleidoscopic journey into a mind which is rapidly going to pieces.  The action begins and ends at the scene of Nijinsky's final performance, but everything happening between the start and finish is plainly unwinding and unravelling within the man's mind and memory.

In 2014, the last time the company staged the ballet, I saw two performances.  That gave me a chance to see two different casts in the work (here's the previous review:  Wow. Just... Wow!).  This time, I saw the show only once -- but got the opportunity to see how one of the two dancers had grown into the leading role in three years.

As Nijinsky, Skylar Campbell owned the stage and the role from the moment of his first entrance.  Poses, gestures, leaps, frantic arm movements, all became larger than life and twice as gripping as my recollection of his performance in the previous run.  In the final scene, when his life and career totally disintegrated before our eyes, Campbell had me gripping the arms of my chair with the intensity of his final great solo.

Sonia Rodriguez was equally riveting and intense as Nijinsky's wife, Romola, creating memorable moments in every scene.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  Robert Stephen is my nephew.

The most tortured, tormented dancing in the work is found in the role of Stanislav, Nijinsky's elder brother, who suffered from acute mental deterioration at an even younger age -- partly as a result of a fall from a window.  In this role, Robert Stephen created a moment of apparent lifelessness with the stylized fall in the first act, and generated a contrasting cutting edge with his repeated violent jerking movements in Act 2.

Jordana Daumec created a strong interpretation of the role of Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava, reaching a powerful climax in the second act where she appeared as the Chosen Maiden in the Sacrificial Dance from Nijinsky's staging of The Rite of Spring.

Among the dancers portraying Nijinsky in his famous roles, Felix Paquet gave a strong double performance as the Gold Slave in Scheherazade and as the Faun in L'apres-midi d'un faune.  Both parts are strongly shaped by the photographs which exist of Nijinsky dancing those roles, and the Faun in particular requires some very peculiar movement to capture the sidewise, two-dimensional posture from the famous photograph.

Donald Thom brought a heart-rending sense of frustration to the angular choreography of Petrushka, the fairground puppet.  His performance registered as that of a human who finds himself unexpectedly trapped in a wooden marionette's body, the reverse of the actual character arc in the original ballet.

Another very strong performance was that of Elena Lobsanova as Nijinsky's most frequent dancing partner, Tamara Karsavina.  She had to range the gamut from the ethereal Sylph in La Sylphide to the mechanistic puppet Ballerina in Petrushka.

The various historic roles, by the way, are choreographed by Neumeier.  Even with much reference to period photographs and documents, the style remains clearly Neumeier's.

Surrounding these performances were many more, too many to enumerate really, for in its totality Nijinsky is a very complex ensemble piece.  It's ironic in a way that the title role is more of a first-among-equals in this ballet when the real Nijinsky had no rival for attention whenever he stepped on stage.

And this is the one real weakness of Neumeier's otherwise powerful and gripping work.  There is so much happening on stage in many parts of this ballet that you miss three or four more events as soon as you focus in on any one of them.  

There is one more highly significant credit for this production.  Neumeier's choice of score calls for the orchestra to play three of the four movements of Rimsky-Korsakov's beloved Scheherazade in Act 1, and then the entire 65 minutes of Shostakovich's monumental Symphony No. 11 "The Year 1905" in Act 2.  That's effectively an entire symphony concert at every performance of the 5-day run, with double performances on Thursday and Saturday.  Not only that, but the Shostakovich is a very challenging work indeed, calling for long-sustained melodic lines from winds, brasses and strings -- and, I suspect, a great deal of watchful counting of bars and rests!

The matinee performance I saw was led by guest conductor Genevieve Leclair, and I give full credit to the orchestra and to the conductor for a memorable performance.  Getting through that symphony is by no means the least of the challenges of staging this piece.