Monday, 3 October 2022

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir 2022/23 # 1: The Pilgrim's Way

The versatility of the renowned Toronto Mendelssohn Choir was on display in a new format at the season-opening concert on Saturday night.
This first performance featured 23 voices of the Toronto Mendelssohn Singers, the professional core group of the larger symphonic choir. 
For this concert, the Singers moved to Jeanne Lamon Hall in the Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, a much friendlier acoustic environment for this smaller group of artists.
The major work on this concert was Path of Miracles, by Joby Talbot. This hour-long work absolutely defies classification. It's neither oratorio nor cantata, neither narrative nor meditative. Perhaps it could best be called a "musical experience." which invites the hearer into a level of participation in the actual pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Catalonia and Galicia. 
Talbot's music is already familiar to followers of the National Ballet of Canada from his full-length scores for the story ballets Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter's Tale. Here, Talbot's wide-ranging and eclectic musical language takes us into a different realm altogether, with the pared-down sounds of unaccompanied voices (and sparing use of chimes and bells) creating fascinating and complex textures in place of the sparkling orchestration of the ballet scores. Certain features, like melodic and rhythmic ostinati, missing or added beats, upbeat jazzy rhythms, and diverse tempi are used here as well, but to startlingly different effect.
Talbot's score casually tosses all kinds of technical challenges at the singers and the conductor. The Toronto Mendelssohn Singers under music director Jean-Sébastien Vallée triumphantly welded this sprawling array of elements into a gripping, unifying whole. And make no mistake, this remarkable work did indeed bring the entire audience along on the journey, right from the staged opening in which the basses and tenors grouped in a circle around the director, until they were joined by the sopranos and altos singing at the rear of the hall. That was only one of a number of simple but evocative staging effects integrated into the performance of Path of Miracles
The sheer drawing power of the piece became abundantly clear at the conclusion when the final bars repeated ad infinitum while the singers and conductor slowly recessed down the central aisle and out the back of the hall, their voices fading slowly away into the distance while the audience sat in rapt silence, straining to hear the voices as they reached the vanishing point.

The three works which opened the programme were by no means also-rans. Diedre Robinson's arrangement of the spiritual Steal Away, which could better be called a recomposition, presented aptly beautiful tone and phrasing, marred only by one or two individual voices which came searing through on high notes.

The Choir's Composer-in-Residence, Shireen Abu-Khader, provided the heart-achingly sorrowful and gripping I Forgive. It's a setting of a last letter written by Egyptian activist Sarah Hejazi before PTSD arising from torture drove her to take her own life in 2020. Mezzo-soprano soloist Raneem Barakat memorably captured the anguish of Hejazi in phrases which often seemed to float in the near neighbourhood of the choral harmonies, rather than landing distinctly within any one chord.

Then came Elgar's Lux aeterna, although that title is misleading. John Cameron set the words of the Latin antiphon from the requiem mass to the music of the Nimrod variation from Elgar's famous Enigma Variations. Elgar himself did set the music with a poetic text in his late work, The Music Makers, although he did not use this Latin text. 

As for the piece itself, it seemed rather out of place among its companions. Although the thematic relationship was unmistakable, the music itself struck me as rather too conventional and backward-looking in such adventurous company.

The near-capacity audience responded with rapturous applause and cheers at the end of the programme with that gently fading conclusion of Talbot's Path of Miracles. This remarkable musical and personal journey of this entire concert will, I think, resonate long in the minds of artists and audience alike.

Friday, 26 August 2022

Shaw Festival 2022 # 3: The Dissection of Morality

George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma brings to its audience a comedic, powerful, and unquestionably timely examination of the ethics and morality of medicine and the value of life as a highlight of the Festival's sixtieth season.

Anyone who thinks Shaw is hopelessly wordy and incredibly dated or irrelevant had far better come and see this production before closing the book on that subject. 

One of the intriguing aspects of this script is that the play spares nobody in laying all of its varied characters open to the judgement of the audience. Unlike some of his works, our sympathy is not totally and irrevocably tilted towards any one person or point of view. At the end of the performance, we are left with more questions than answers, with conflicting visions of morality that are difficult or impossible to sustain, and with even more questions about what will happen next to several of the characters.
Plainly, the only way to approach such a richly layered theatre piece is to simply perform it, allow the various characters fair play to be themselves to the full, and let the chips fall where they may as far as the audience's reaction may go.

This five-act play was designed by the author for the commercial theatres of London in his day, where the concept of a full evening with two intermissions was quite normal. The Shaw has decided to perform it with only a single intermission, and has also opted to place the intermission after Act II, leaving three full scenes to be gotten through in the second "half." As a result, the performance takes just about an hour before the single break, but something closer to ninety minutes after. Audiences be warned. But it does make sense; the dramatic continuity would be fatally compromised by a break any later in the show.

At the outset of the play, we are given first the chance to meet the quartet of specialist doctors who represent one side of the dilemma. Diana Donnelly's production respects the need for each of these four to be entirely sincere about presenting their points of view, even though those views sound richly idiotic to audiences familiar with today's state of medical knowledge. The doctors' obsessions would have seemed somewhat less idiotic in 1906, and were in fact all rooted in theories actively promoted by doctors of that day. However, Shaw had his own views about health and none of the doctors are spared the satirical lash.

The first is Dr. Colenso Ridgeon, who has just received a Nobel Prize and thus is at the very peak of medical fame. He is successively visited and congratulated by three colleagues, Dr. Patricia Cullen, Dr. Cutler Walpole, and Dr. Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington.

Sanjay Talwar brings a dimension of humanity to Ridgeon, a man who could easily come across as a stuck-up, arrogant snob. That sense of humanity becomes critically important as the play unfolds. Allan Louis as Walpole and David Adams as Bonnington give much more highly coloured performances, particularly when each has a pet theory of illness to apply to every case that crosses their path. Sharry Flett, as Cullen, is the only one who seems to have a grasp of the human dimension to medicine, a realization that a doctor must treat not merely the patient but the people around the patient. Flett uses a relatively moderate tone of voice to great effect, becoming by default the one real voice of compassion in the story as it unfolds.

On the other side are two younger men: Dr. Blenkinsop (played for this performance by Kevin McLachlan) and Louis Dubedat, an artist (Johnathan Sousa). There is also Dubedat's wife, Jennifer (Alexis Gordon) -- and, in fact, we meet her first, pleading ardently for her husband's life. Ardour is Jennifer's chief audible characteristic and Gordon plays the ardour and the passion, driving it for almost all she's worth -- but doesn't overplay it. 

Sousa, later on, shares the ardour and passion as Louis but -- and it is a noteworthy "but" -- where her passion is all for him, his is mostly for himself. Blenkinsop's passion is for his patients, driving him to neglect his own health so he can offer maximum service to the residents of the poorer neighbourhood where he lives and works.

All three of these characters were given notable life and vibrancy, in their different ways, by Gordon, Sousa, and McLachlan.
Incidental to the main drama, but each illuminating in their different ways, were four smaller but significant roles: Ridgeon's assistant Redpenny (Michael Man), his receptionist/housekeeper (to judge by her costume) Emmy (Claire Jullien), the unfortunate Minnie Tinwell (Katherine Gauthier), and the Newspaperman (Nathanael Judah).

The dilemma which arises for Ridgeon, and his colleagues, is the fact that both young men are infected with tuberculosis, and both are in an advancing state of the disease. Ridgeon's promising new lifesaving treatment for TB, which earned him the Nobel, can be given to only a limited number of patients at a time and his roster is full. He can squeeze in one more, but not two.

Who lives and who dies? It was a familiar refrain in the early days of the pandemic when hospitals in the hotspot areas were overwhelmed with patients, and doctors had to make such choices over and over. It's when this dilemma emerges that the audience realizes just how timely and contemporary this play actually is. Until this point, the satirical treatment of the specialists has made the carefully modern sets and costumes appear to be so much window dressing on a funny old play -- but now it becomes deadly serious, in the most literal sense of the word.

That's just the first act. The remainder of the play is devoted to the working out of the consequences of this entire situation. In this working out, none of the characters are permitted to be the least bit perfect. One and all suffer from major flaws which knock the pedestals out from other their feet. What all the actors and the director have captured in an ideal way is the fact that each one continues to feel him/herself perfect, while mentally and verbally scourging some or all of the others. Shaw's observation of human nature is uncomfortably on point here -- especially since we, the onlookers, have undoubtedly done just that at some points during the first two acts.

As in so many Shaw plays, the final resolution presents no resolution at all. The fourth act ends with the lengthy but curiously analytical death scene of Louis Dubedat. In this scene, the four doctors become a kind of Greek chorus, observing and occasionally commenting on the main action of Jennifer holding and comforting Louis. At this point, the production resorted to having Sousa speak into a flashy gold microphone and from that point on he became frequently hard to hear as the movements of his hands kept taking the mike away from the key point near his mouth. It was frustrating because this lengthy, quasi-operatic death scene is at least a fine piece of writing, even if it is rather too long to be entirely effective. 
This is followed by the fifth act, a final confrontation between Jennifer and Ridgeon, in which far more questions are posed than are answered. To appearances, and especially from Gordon's strong presentation of her speeches here, Jennifer Dubedat has achieved for herself a resolution which Colenso Ridgeon has not -- but is that really true, behind her finely assured words?

I could go on at much greater length, but the special genius of The Doctor's Dilemma is precisely the way in which the characters appear so certain in themselves but the audience is left so deeply uncertain, acutely and uncomfortably aware that many issues defy all attempts to find pat answers and neat solutions.

Gillian Gallow created extremely effective sets for each of the four locations. The condo set for Act I and the dinner table for Act II spread widely across the Festival Theatre's stage, emphasizing the spacious environments in which the rich and well-to-do get to live and work. The art gallery set for Act V adopted a stark and four-square look, reminding me of the cubist condo set in Act I. 

In between, we got the dark and paint-spattered home of the Dubedats. Said to be a loft, it actually looked and felt, and was lit, like a claustrophobic cellar with an uncomfortably steep staircase the only entry point. This constricted set was squeezed into the centre of the stage, surrounded by uncertain areas of shadow. Here, Gallow built a kind of miniature proscenium "stage" accessed by steps up a stack of milk crates, to act as a centrepiece, with the walls around it covered with Louis' paintings -- including a striking but surreal portrait of Jennifer.

Rachel Forbes designed costumes which gave identity and individuality to the doctors, the artist, the artist's wife, the young doctor, and the side characters. Her costumes for the party scene were noteworthy in presenting all the people in a different and brighter way, just as happens when real-world people dress up for a real party.

Michelle Ramsay's notable lighting designs presented a key link in creating the different worlds of the play: the modern sterile condo, the flashy party table, the dingy cellar, and the crisp gallery.

Above all, director Diana Donnelly has captured the key condition of giving full time and strength to all the viewpoints, bringing out in full the strengths and weaknesses of all the key characters, and letting all the ideas take their turn at centre stage -- all while keeping the play as a whole moving forward with effective momentum and clarity.

I've enjoyed all three plays that I've seen at the Shaw this season, but The Doctor's Dilemma is the one that's made the strongest impact and given me the most thought -- and the most unease. I like to think that GBS would approve.

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Shaw Festival 2022 # 2: The Importance of Rethinking Things

 For this sixtieth anniversary season, the Shaw Festival has undertaken what is only its second staging ever of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. At first glance, this might seem utterly improbable since the play lies squarely in the time period which this Festival takes as the starting point of its mandate. But then, we remember that Bernard Shaw himself heartily disliked the play, and that Wilde's script satirically skewers the social conventions of the world in which it lives without suggesting anything better in the way of societal or human behaviour and thinking (central to Shaw's vision of the theatre) -- and suddenly the Shaw Festival's studied avoidance of Earnest makes much more sense.
On a purely practical level, how on earth is anyone supposed to come up with a fresh take on what is often cited as the second-most-quoted play in the English language? With two wonderful film versions to its credit, and any number of memorable stagings, it seems that everyone has ideas of how Earnest should be approached. Unlike the first-place most quoted play (Hamlet), Earnest simply doesn't allow nearly the same latitude in shaping characters and their motivations.
It's very much to the credit of this company, and of director Tim Carroll, that this staging of The Importance of Being Earnest does indeed blow the cobwebs off a venerable masterpiece, finding new, different and intriguing keys to pitch some of the most memorable lines and moments in theatre.
The key to this new look and sound, for me, lies in Kate Hennig's remarkably understated and underplayed Lady Bracknell. Actors everywhere have struggled for years to find ways of presenting Lady B that calls to mind neither the peculiar vocal tones of Dame Edith Evans nor the ice-cold facial expressions of Dame Judi Dench. Some, alas, go all the way into comic overkill in trying to avoid any resemblance. Hennig, you might say, scorns to try. She simply delivers Wilde's lines -- clearly, precisely,  and with a minimum of undue emphasis -- and leaves it to the director and the other characters to craft reactions which clarify her terrifying impact. She also makes sparing but masterly use of a "speaking silence," a pause while she awaits a response from one of the others which would normally be considered professional suicide in comedic acting. Hennig's voice becomes the yardstick by which the clarity of all other actors on the stage is measured. 

The two young gentlemen in the play, John Worthing (played by Martin Happer) and Algernon Moncrieff (Peter Fernandes) are differentiated far more than most productions will allow -- Happer remaining relatively conventional at all times, while Fernandes goes much farther in shaping and stressing certain key words and expressions to give, overall, a much more effete impression. Fernandes is greatly assisted in this by the choice of designer Christina Poddubiuk to dress him in far more flamboyant clothes, a rare approach but one which the script certainly supports. Happer makes maximum use of the few but well-judged moments of physical comedy -- walking about the room on his knees in the proposal scene, for instance, or his sudden explosion of energy when the time comes to search for the notorious handbag.

In line with this, the two young ladies are also differentiated more clearly than is often the case. In the hands of Julia Course, the Honourable Gwendolyn Fairfax is more clearly her mother's daughter than in many presentations, giving effective voice and face to her moments of anger or outrage. Only in Act III did I find her resort to an indignant squeak to be out of keeping. The diminutive Gabriella Sundar Singh's Cecily Cardew creates a complete contrast, using a delightful variety of vocal tones to show her relative inexperience in the thickly-layered manners of "good society." While her high-speed trotting about the stage becomes a little tedious on repetition, her sudden and well-judged spurts of anger on key pay-off words are masterly.
Together with Carroll, these two make extremely effective use of the height difference between them as the source of some fine comedic moments and memorable stage pictures.
Jacqueline Thair as Miss Prism and Ric Reid as the Reverend Canon Chasuble found some lovely physical moments in their courtship scenes, and Thair's reactions to Hennig's voice ("Prism! Where is that baby?") were far stronger than one often sees, effectively so. In contrast to the clarity of others, I found both of their voices a bit soft-grained and less easy to hear clearly.

Neil Barclay as Lane and Graeme Somerville as Merriman both made the most of their opportunities, with stolid faces and rigidly respectful voices clearly conveying contempt for their supposed social superiors. The opening vignette of Barclay giving a virtuoso performance on the spoons is unforgettable.

Gillian Gallow's settings are both beautiful and distracting. The setting for Algernon's flat in Act I is contained (imprisoned?) within a picture frame which also has the unfortunate effect of swallowing some of the sound. The voice of Peter Fernandes was notably hard to follow in some parts of this first scene, although he became much more audible when Act II allowed him to escape the stricture of that frame.

The parallel hedges of the Act II garden scene give scope for some amusing comic business as people move back and forth behind them. Then, in Act III, the huge wall of fake bookcases again distracts -- the colour choice making it appear as if the books are all turned with their open or page ends towards the outside world, rather than the bindings being shown as would normally be done. Nor are matters helped when Cecily stands, clearly looking at a solid wall of books, yet commenting on what she sees the men doing out in the garden.

Christina Poddubiuk's costumes effectively remain in period, time, and place, while still making use of colour choices to highlight the differences among the characters. 

Overall, then, a highly successful and entertaining take on Oscar Wilde's eternally fascinating comedy of manners.

Shaw Festival 2022 # 1: Too Good to Be Ignored

The hardest things to figure out after seeing a performance of Bernard Shaw's 1931 fantasia Too True to Be Good, which the author called "a political extravaganza," are the exact intentions of GBS in writing and staging this unique and unclassifiable play. 
This sizable and oft heavy-handed script seems to undertake the attempt to solve all the problems of the world, rather like a later postwar and depression-era rerun of Man and Superman. Unlike its predecessor of the early 1900s, though, Too True to Be Good presents us with a group of people living in a morass of failure and dysfunction. The play arrives at no clear solution, no neat apotheosis, but instead ends with a lengthy sermon from the play's Shavian alter ego, a sermon which closes the play on a decidedly depressing note. To me, the final act comes across less like a theatre piece and more like a political pamphlet. It's a common problem with Shaw, but this play presents the problem in an acute form.
As so often in Shaw, the basic authorial technique is to set up conventional expectations with each character for the fun of destroying them, usually by presenting instead their comic polar opposite. The stage dynamics, though, get fatally subverted when the entire last act becomes a reversal of the complete preceding action. As well, there are decidedly absurdist elements in the play which call to mind such other (and equally rare) Shavian oddities as Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction and also anticipate the later absurdist and existential angst of Waiting For Godot, among others.

Given these strange aspects of the show, it's not hard to see why Too True remains a relatively rare bird in live performance. That being said, it does pose intriguing problems for the cast, designers, and director in trying to somehow make this decidedly untheatrical creature "go" in the theatre. The artists must relish the challenge because this is the fifth time the Shaw Festival has taken a swipe at Too True.

Start with the cast. This play calls for a company of nine actors, one of whom plays two entirely separate roles in the first and last acts. The three central characters of the story are each a single person, but their characters shift in and out of a broad array of different self-presentations during the show.

Absurdism is very much to the fore when the first character to speak is The Microbe, played with notable élan and engaging presence by Travis Seetoo. Equally absurd is the notion that it is the Microbe which has been made sick by the moaning and groaning young lady under the bed covers (Donna Soares), and not vice versa. Then her mother appears, and we are certainly on familiar territory here with the anxious woman who only makes her daughter sicker with all the tonics and potions and prescriptions she demands from the doctor. However, when the sickroom gets invaded by two burglars and the young lady flies passionately out of bed to protect her treasured pearl necklace, beating the snot out of the burglars in the process, we realize that even this vignette is not all it seems -- and that is only the first of the astonishing reversals in this farrago of conflicting self-portraits.

The Elderly Lady, a/k/a/ Mrs. Mopply, was played with an overplus of querulous anxiety and frenetic but futile energy by Jenny L. Wright. It was the one really overdone characterization of the show, but that's as it should be since the entire energy of the scene depends on her portrayal being wildly overdone.

As The Patient, a/k/a Miss Mopply and later simply Mops, Donna Soares brought admirable energy to her dramatic reversal of character, and to all her later appearances -- including the scenes where she appears as a non-English-speaking inhabitant of a tropical country. In the end, in spite of the rough start from her mother, she becomes one of the few characters to actually find a way out of the morass of self-doubt.

Martin Happer presented an apt note of weltschmerz as the Doctor who must somehow placate Mrs. Mopply while trying to keep her from making her daughter's condition worse.

This brings us to the two burglars who, as it happens, form together with Mops the triad of characters whose interactions drive the play. Marla McLean gave a memorably edgy performance as The Nurse, a/k/a Susan Simpkins, a/k/a Sweetie, a/k/a The Countess Valbrioni (I did mention that this play had a strong absurdist pedigree, did I not?). The best balancing act of the show comes as she gradually, ever so slightly, allows the uncertainty and fear behind all her bravado to leak out into public view. 

Graeme Somerville gave a strong, play-centring performance as The Burglar, a/k/a Popsy, a/k/a The Honourable Aubrey Bagot. His character becomes the strongest mouthpiece for Shavian ideas through much of the show, somewhat echoing John Tanner in Man and Superman, but in the last act he endures the biggest slump into darkness with the lengthy final sermon of despair in which he tells us that, one by one, all his favourite ideals have deserted him. Somerville gave a valiant shot at making that bizarre ending both tolerable and somehow workable as theatre -- not that it can really be done, mind you, at least in my humble opinion.

The final two acts feature a trio of British military characters who form part of an expedition sent to rescue an English lady who has been kidnapped by brigands. The commander, Colonel Tallboys (Neil Barclay), gives a textbook caricature of the British soldier who lives in impenetrable ignorance that anyone or anything outside of Britain even matters. The moment where he strikes Mrs. Mopply with his umbrella, and the dialogue of the succeeding apology scene, were memorable comic highlights.
Sergeant Fielding (again, Martin Happer) shows us the man of ideas trapped in a uniform. Jonathan Tan gives a notably disciplined training-manual demonstration of military etiquette, all the while proving to his superiors (and the audience) that he is the one truly competent soldier on the expedition. His full name, Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, becomes entirely self-explanatory in context.

Director Sanjay Talwar has led the company in a well-planned presentation making use of all four sides of the Studio Theatre's arena configuration. 

Joyce Padua's costumes, for the most part conventional, were effective. The one unconventional choice of course is the whole question of how one ought to costume a Microbe. Padua outfitted Travis Seetoo in a full-length showpiece of floppy, flowery, stuck-on bits, with red and purple the dominant colours and -- sure enough -- one or two of the stuck-on bits gave more than a nod to microscope photographs of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

Sue Lepage's sets created effective environments for each scene of the play without blocking the views of the action from any side, which sounds easier than it actually is. Her collection of rocks in the second and third acts were among the more effective fake rocks I've seen created for a stage, a point driven home when one of the characters (Mops?) casually picks up a rock and moves it to a new position while others comment on the action.

Nick Andison's lighting design created effective pools of light and shade in the sickroom of Act I, and then gave a much sunnier effect to the tropical second and third acts before finding a deep, cold colour palette for the lengthy final sermon.

I did enjoy Too True to Be Good, and the quality of this performance was high. I'll leave it as an open question whether I would go to see another production in future. On the whole, I think not. I would prefer to chalk this up as one of George Bernard Shaw's misfires. And yes, all great creative artists have them.

Sunday, 21 August 2022

Golden Rings For Flute and Harp

A new recital disc entitled Being Golden comes from well-known Canadian musicians: Suzanne Shulman on flute and Erica Goodman on harp. 
In an intriguing fusion of musical styles, the programme nestles a unique new work from Toronto-based Scottish composer Eric Robertson in the midst of a diverse recital of music from France.
Robertson's 25-minute suite in eight movements, The Rings, creates a series of musical impressions of the role and meanings of wedding rings at different stages of a relationship. It was commissioned by Shulman to commemorate her golden wedding anniversary. It can also be taken as a landmark to celebrate the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of Shulman's and Goodman's artistic collaboration.

For inspiration, Robertson turned to poet Gary Dault, a frequent collaborator. Dault wrote a series of brief but thought-provoking poems which became the source and framework of the composition. The poems are included in the leaflet accompanying the CD, along with Robertson's notes about the various movements.

Not surprisingly for a Scot, the rhythms and melodic turns of Scottish folk music crop up in numerous spots in Robertson's music. It's certainly not the first time that I've realized the aptness of the flute-harp combination for this musical style. The "Scottishness" is most overt in the opening movement, Flame (A Sultry Strathspey), replete with traditional "Scotch snap" rhythms. Another classic moment comes in the sixth movement, Seasons (Ae Fond Kiss), with the use of the traditional Scottish melody to which Burns set his well-loved song.

Mind you, The Rings is certainly neither all Scottish nor all folk-based. Robertson's music keeps ranging in and out of many and diverse sound worlds. The third movement, Coming Around, incorporates the "Scotch snap" again, in the context of a kind of passacaglia in which the harmonies, while remaining mainly diatonic, keep turning in the most unexpected and magical directions. The seventh movement launches into an exuberant outburst of dancing Handelian energy. 
In the final movement, A Geometry of Love (Bells), Robertson works with the traditional art known as "ringing the changes" on a chime of six bells, and the resulting and varied bell peals permeate the first and last parts of the movement, shared between both instruments and highlighted by the contrasting calmer central section in which the slower bell tones in the harp accompany a lyrical melody in the flute. 

Although this is a studio recording, the love and emotional commitment of the artists for this beautiful new score comes through loud and clear in every movement of the work. With its blend of apparent simplicity and great subtlety, Shulman's and Goodman's performance of The Rings will give much pleasure through repeated listening.

This is equally true of the diverse selections of French music surrounding the main offering. The disc opens with the lively and upbeat Swing No. 1 by Jacques Bondon, an aptly vigorous curtain raiser. 

Cinque piccoli duetti by Jean Françaix showcase the witty, occasionally ironic, manner for which this composer is well-known. Just look at the bilingual title!

La plus que lente by Debussy is a good example of this composer at his most poetic.

The concluding group after The Rings is given over to music by Maurice Ravel: the Pièce en forme de Habanera, the famous and well-loved Pavane pour une infante défunte, and the less-frequent but intriguing Deux mélodies hébraïques.
Being Golden is one of the most engaging (pun intended) and delightful new recordings which has come my way in many a moon. Shulman and Goodman give involving performances in all the varied styles of music in this recital. Throughout the programme, the fluid tones of the flute and harp are clearly captured, set against the warm acoustic of the historic St. Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake to magical effect.
This new release can be purchased, either as a download or in the limited-edition compact disc, at this link:


Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Festival of the Sound 2022 # 15: Festival Wrap-Up and My Festival Top Ten

The Festival of the Sound for 2022 is now history. It was amazing! I think I will always remember this one as “the Feel-Good Festival.” Every day, it seemed that somebody or other would say, “It feels so good to be back here!” Or else it was: “It’s so great to see you again!” Or both.
In spite of the reduced length of the Festival (15 days versus the usual 23 or 24), and the reduced capacity of the concerts, the quality of the music-making was as high as it’s ever been, perhaps even more so. Time and again, we heard and saw that it wasn’t just the audiences who felt the joy of the return to live music!
Classical chamber music has always been the bread-and-butter of this Festival, but diverse styles are also firmly rooted in the programming. Blues, jazz, big band, comedy, and some much more technologically up-to-date performances involving live looping could also be heard.
Out of all of that profusion of creativity and artistry, I once again set myself the task of choosing my own personal “Festival Top Ten.” These aren’t necessarily the performances that might be judged “the best,” however one judges such a thing. These are simply ten special moments that resonated in my memory after the performances.
Without further ado, then:
Ken Stephen's Festival Top Ten!

10:       Ryan Davis creating music with his viola and live looping technology.
9:         Janina Fialkowska’s fascinating master class session with rising star Bruce Liu.

8:         Leslie Fagan’s hilarious take as the mechanical doll, Olympia, in The Tales of Hoffman.

7:         Turina’s Oracion del Torero at Cameron Crozman’s musical tapas concert.

6:         Amusing choreography in Me and My Shadow from the Toronto All-Star Big Band.

5:         Suzanne Shulman & Erica Goodman playing The Rings and encoring one movement.

4:         The restaging of Sounding Thunder – still as gripping, relevant, and unsettling as ever.

3:         Charles Richard-Hamelin’s sensitive playing of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin.

2:         Hearing Janina Fialkowska playing both of the Op. 40 Polonaises by Chopin – twice!

And finally, my Number One memorable moment of Festival 2022…
1:         Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Elgar, played by the National Academy Orchestra, in memory of Boris Brott. I cried.

Festival of the Sound 2022 # 14: Jazz Canada Weekend

By tradition, the August long weekend is always reserved by the Festival as the Jazz Canada weekend. Like everything else at the Festival, the scale of the programme was reduced this year but the performances of three programmes in this weekend were a spectacular success.

The first was a Saturday night concert in the Stockey Centre by the Dave Young Quartet. If you want really fine traditional jazz today in Canada, you’ve come to the right place. Dave Young and his three collaborators have been spinning out jazz standards practically ever since I was born back in the Fifties, and their lists of personal contacts with the jazz greats of the past would make any jazz fan’s eyes pop.
For this show, the quartet was joined by vocalist Heather Bambrick, and her top-notch jazz singing and hilarious patter between songs quickly transformed the entire evening with more than a passing  resemblance to a Newfoundland kitchen party.
I’m not by nature a jazz fan, but I remain endlessly fascinated by the skillful improv work of the players (and Bambrick!), and especially by the effortless flying fingers of Dave Young himself on his full-size string bass – no electric guitar for this man!
The repertoire included some well-known tunes, and others less well known, but in every number the instrumentalists produced some fascinating improv solos, and Bambrick’s singing added the final touch of style and fun.
On Sunday afternoon, the Stockey Centre filled right up again for the signature rousing work of the Toronto All-Star Big Band. Their music harks clear back to the dance bands of the 1930s and 1940s, the kind of music my parents’ generation danced to when young, and the ensemble of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, piano, keyboard, bass guitar, and percussion gave a polished performance that would have done credit to any professional troupe.
What makes it even more amazing is that these are all young musicians – “young” as in teenagers, in many cases – and the TABB is a musical training program, but one which holds to incredible levels of quality and draws phenomenal performances out of the young artists.
Many of the numbers included the kind of choreography for the players that was a hallmark of the era -- Glenn Miller’s famous “Pennsylvania 6-5000” wasn’t the only big band number that had musicians popping up and down, swinging from side to side in their seats, or calling out.
The ensemble includes a group of five vocalists who each displayed strong singing voices and remarkable acting ability and stage presence.
The real keynote of the Toronto All-Star Big Band’s performances is that they are unfailingly fun, and the audience certainly enjoyed the fun to the full. Seeing the whole crowd leaving at the end of the show with wide smiles spread across their faces was a real tribute to this band’s quality of work and grasp of the entertainment value of a well-staged show.
On Sunday evening, the Festival wrapped up with a final cruise – on a perfect, calm, sunny summer evening. The Dave Young Quartet came along for the ride, and entertained with two great sets of music, selecting some lower-key numbers to suit the more laid-back atmosphere of the boat.
Great music, beautiful weather, the unfailingly friendly staff of the Island Queen V, and a last chance to exchange comments and memories about the last two weeks with friends old and new – what better way to spend a summer evening?
I’ll have one more Festival post before I’m done: a wrap-up which will include my Top Ten Festival highlights of the summer.