Another unusual and interesting show from Larry Beckwith’s Confluence Concerts last night at the Aki Studio. The first half of the programme was a reading of Madeleine Thien’s short story Bullet Train. It’s sort of a double coming of age story that also looks at what we hang onto and what we don’t as we move through life. It was beautifully read by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster with cunningly chosen piano interludes played by Gregory Oh.
After the interval it was Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Yoko Ono inspired piece; Witch on Thin Ice. At it’s centre was virtuoso percussionist Beverly Johnstone who displayed great skill on a range of untuned and tuned percussion while executing parts of Melissa Bettio’s choreography and producing all but indescribable vocals! She was supported by soprano Vania Chan and dancer Jessica Mak with a rap number by Gregory Oh. Playing over all of this were really rather striking videos and electronics designed by Alice. It was a bit overwhelming really. Maybe like being in the middle of an immersive video game and a very complex percussion piece at the same time. Anyway, great fun and totally unexpected!
There’s another chance to catch this programme tonight at 8pm at the Aki Studio.
The Ward Cabaret, which opened at Harbourfront last night, is an exuberant celebration of the Ward; a Toronto neighbourhood that once covered the area bounded by Queen and College and Yonge and University. From the mid 1800s until well into the 20th century it was far from the highly respectable quartier it’s become. It was the first landing place for immigrants; Irish, Jews, Chinese, fugitive slaves, Italians. A neighbourhood of low rent housing, cheap restaurants, the factories that fed Mr. Eaton’s catalogue and a bunch of rather more dubious businesses. The City Fathers hated it but it had a life of its own that David Buchbinder (he of Yiddish Glory) and his team have turned into a spectacular evening of theatre/cabaret.
Last night at the COC there was a special performance of Puccini’s La Bohème. The cast was made up, for the most part, of current and past Ensemble Studio members and tickets had been made available free to a variety of community groups. It was billed as “Opera for Toronto”. There had also been a small number of tickets available on line on a first come basis and, by the looks of things , a fair number of comps for the cast.
Afarin Mansouri giving an introductory talk in Farsi – Credit: Gaetz Photography
This was baritone Sam Chan and pianist Stéphane Mayer’s farewell to the Ensemble Studio. It was an all Schubert program; Poetisches Tagebuch (Schulze), the Impromptu in G flat and the Goethe Lieder. It was a very classy performance by any standards. There was no need here to make allowances for “young artists”. One would have been happy to pay Koerner Hall prices to hear a recital of this quality.
Stéphane Mayer and Samuel Chan performing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, photo: Dan Truong
No big surprises in the announcement of new members of the COC Ensemble Studio. It’s the three prize winners from last year’s Centre Stage; tenor Matthew Cairns, bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian and mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote. Also joining is pianist and intern coach Alex Soloway. Cairns and Groote are UoT grads and are well known to many Toronto opera goers through their appearances in UoT productions and elsewhere. Gabrielian is a Toronto native but studied at the Curtis so is not so well known. It will be interesting to get to know him.
New COC Ensemble Studio members (l – r): tenor Matthew Cairns, bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote, pianist and intern coach Alex Soloway
Here are a few more February items of interest in addition to those mentioned here. Tapestry’s new piece Hook Up opens on January 30th at Theatre Passe Muraille and runs for most of February. Then on Sunday 3rd February at 2.30 pm VOICEBOX have a performance of Schubert’s rather rare opera Fierrebras. Kevin Mallon conducts the Aradia Ensemble for this one. Also there’s Opera Pub as usual on Thursday 7th February.
On February 16th at Gallery 345 at 8pm there will be an Against the Grain presentation of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. The “twist” here is that Elle becomes Lui and will be sung by tenor Jacques Arsenault. Topher Mokrzewski at the piano. Aria Umezawa directs the first in what is planned as a series of “twisted” concerts.
In free concert news there’s the Quilico Prize competition on February 11th at 5.30pm in the RBA. Once again the members of theEnsemble Studio compete for cash. At the nnon hour there’s Susan Bullock and Liz Upchurch on the 19th with a programme of Wagner, Strauss and Duparc and on the 20th there’s Samuel Chan and Stéphane Mayer with an all Schubert programme. Then on the 21st there’s Lauren Eberwein and Rachel Kerr with a Messiaen and Ravel show. Given that it’s the Jessye Norman Gala on the 20th as well I think I’ll just schlep my sleeping bag over to the Four Seasons Centre.
Also at the COC of course Elektra continues until February 22nd with Così fan tutte opening on February 5th and running until the 23rd.
Yesterday’s concert in the RBA, the first I’ve been to in a while, featured the five members of the Orchestra Academy; violinists Joella Pinto and Gloria Yip, violist Carolyn Farnand and cellists Erin Patterson and Alison Rich, with Joel Allison and Samuel Chan and Rachael Kerr on keyboards. It was an interesting concert in many ways. We don’t get to see the young instrumentalists much nor do we often see Ensemble members sing with a chamber ensemble. It was also interesting to hear the contrast between Joel’s dark toned bass-baritone, often singing in a very low tessitura, with Sam’s much brighter, lighter baritone which sometimes was well up in tenor territory.
This year’s Canadian Children’s Opera Company main stage performance is The Monkiest King. It’s from the team of Marjorie Chan and Alice Ping Yee Ho who collaborated most successfully to create another highly successful Western/Chinese fusion piece; The Lesson Of Da Jee. The inspiration for this one is the antics of Sun Wukong, the mischievous and arrogant Monkey King in the Chinese classic Journey to the West.
For the last few years the COC has had a fairly glitzy evening at which the next season is announced and there are interviews, a few performances etc. This year, for whatever reason, the two elements were divorced. The season was announced in a press release win January with no fanfare; not even a press conference. The glitzy bit happened last night with a cocktail reception and a stage event hosted by Brent Bambury.
The full Ensemble Studio was on display yesterday for an all Russian lunchtime concert. First up was Megan Quick with a couple of Rachmaninov songs. Megan’s timbre is very dark and it seems to be a natural fit for those Russian vowels. She was followed by Bruno Roy with a couple of Tchaikovsky numbers. He’s come on a lot in his time in the Studio. There’s some heft to the voice now and some quite impressive top notes. Good stuff.