I found out yesterday that Vancouver based composer Jeffrey Ryan has won the 2021 Art Song Prize from the National Association of Singing Teachers (a US based body) for his song cycle Everything Already Lost. This is believed to be a first for a Canadian composer. Now, readers with good memories might recall that I was decidedly impressed by Ryan’s Miss Carr in Seven Scenes which was the 2018 CASP commission so, obviously, I was keen to check out the new work.
I’ve been impressed by Jonathan Dove’s art songs so I was glad to be able to take a look at one of his operas. It’s The Adventures of Pinocchio and it was recorded in a production by Opera North at Sadlers Wells in 2008. I feel a bit ambivalent about it. I really like the music but I’m not hugely engaged by the libretto. I think this is largely because of the subject matter so it may come off better for someone else.
There’s much to like in this year’s unfussy TSO Messiah. It’s not bloated. For most of the piece conductor Johannes Debus deploys around thirty strings, chamber organ, harpsichord, oboes and bassoon. Trumpets and timpani are added for the grand moments later in the piece. He even manages to get quite a delicate sound out of the largish (100+) Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. The delicacy is a recurrent thread. That and a really bouncy sense of rhythm. One could dance to Debus’ Handel.
I haven’t heard a lot of music by Andrew Staniland but what I’ve heard I’ve liked so I was pleased to get my paws on a recent recording of songs by him; Go by Contraries. There are three pieces on the disk. The first, and longest piece; Earthquakes and Islands, is a setting of eight poems by Toronto poet Robin Richardson. It’s the work that reminds me most of Dark Star Requiem. Words and music are both quite quirky. My Voice, In My Mouth, for example. is a meditation in an oncologist’s waiting room about the consequences of getting close to a lion. The music is full of variation; tonally, rhythmically, harmonically and dynamically. It’s quite surprising the range of sounds Staniland can conjure up from a piano and two singers. It always appears to be rooted in the text though and even long voiceless passages come back logically to words. Continue reading →
Wouldn’t that make a really good title for a pipe tune? But that aside Peter Oundjian is marking the end of his long run as Music Director of the TSO with a series of three Beethoven 9ths with Kirsten MacKinnon, Lauren Segal, Andrew Haji, Tyler Duncan and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir joining the TSO. I caught the second yesterday evening. It’s always a bit odd listening to a piece one has been familiar with for years. Will I hear or learn something new tonight? Will this performance probe the nature of the piece like I have never heard it probed? The Tafelmusik performance and recording of this piece did just that. I felt I was hearing it for the very first time. Alas, the only new thought I had last night was about how repetitive certain sections are. So there it was, an OK run through but no more. The soloists were fine, though perhaps possessing a weight of voice better suited to Tafelmusik at Koerner than the TSO in full cry in the unforgiving sonic deserts of Roy Thomson. I did think Ms. MacKinnon and the sopranos of the choir managed the fiendishly high setting of their part (probably a good job that Beethoven didn’t have to listen to complaints from his sopranos) very well. Nice work from the piccolo accompanying them too. Otherwise it was a bit unremarkable though that didn’t stop the obligatory idolatry from the RTH audience. Heaven knows what would happen if they ever heard a truly great performance…
I went to Roy Thomson Hall last night to hear an all Vaughan Williams program conducted by Peter Oundjian. It’s not really my thing but there was a fine quartet of soloists lined up for the Serenade to Music.
Things got going with the Fantasia on “Greensleeves” which was perfectly OK if a bit hackneyed. There was a decent account of the Concerto for Oboe and Strings with Sarah Jeffrey as the soloist. Then there was the Serenade. For some reason the soloists were lined up with the choir (the Elmer Iseler singers) behind the orchestra. The result was sonic mush and textual porridge. I caught exactly one word of the text; “stratagems” for what it’s worth. The rest was not recognisable as English, let alone understandable. And, of course, it was too dark to read the supplied text. This despite soloists; Carla Huhtanen, Emily D’Angelo, Lawrence Wiliford and Tyler Duncan, who are consistently excellent with text. This is becoming very annoying. As often as not when I go to see the TSO do vocal works the soloists are either inaudible or incomprehensible. I know the hall is difficult but the performance of the Ryan Requiem last week showed that it is possible to showcase singers. I think it’s really unfair to audiences and singers alike. Anyway, I was so fed up that I left at the interval.
Sometimes it takes some time away from home to be able to see things clearly again. That’s rather how I felt about last night’s Messiah performed by Tafelmusik at Koerner Hall. In the last few years I’ve seen choreographed and fully staged versions, the Andrew Davis version with sleigh bells and whoopee cushions and Soundstreams eclectic Electric Messiah, all of which helped bring a conventional small scale performance with period instruments into focus.
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, now billed as “annual”, opened last night at a packed Drake Underground. It’s substantially reworked from last year’s show though structurally it’s similar in that the same arias are sung by the same singers in the same order with similar linking sections. The differences though are notable. The space is configured differently with more conventional seating which makes it feel more like a concert than a happening, though there’s still lots of movement and action happening in different parts of the space. The electro-acoustic orchestra is gone; replaced by keyboards. John Gzowski and his electric guitar are up on stage rather than tucked away in an alcove. The linking choral sections have been remixed and the influence of Adam Scime on that is clear. It’s still a very interesting show and well worth seeing but I enjoyed it rather less than last year.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a preview for Peepshow which opened last night at Campbell House. Summarizing crudely, the idea was to present a show that broke down some of the barriers of formality that make the opera house intimidating and so open up the genre to a different kind of audience. So did Peepshow do that? The answer has to be “to some extent”. There were four shows in four rooms and in an ideal world they would have each played at intervals throughout the evening and people would have been able to drop in and out as they chose. The geography of Campbell House simply doesn’t make that possible. It’s a 19th century house with stairs and corridors and fairly small rooms with mostly “do not touch” furniture. Each room will only hold a dozen, in a couple of cases perhaps twenty people, in comfort levels ranging from OK to excruciating. This means that audience members must be assigned to specific performances, rounded up and herded to their allotted place at the right time; or as close to it as possible as it always takes longer to herd an opera audience than anyone imagines. And no drinks in the performance rooms. Once in, for an admittedly only fifteen minute show, you are as stuck as in a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth. In other words, rather than a fluid experience it’s a series of chunks of more or less traditional concert hall broken up by some socializing at the bar.
I find it somewhat ironic that while “traditionalists” want to return to the opera house experience of the 1950s, there are younger, more radical, groups that look more to the opera audience experience of the 1750s. The argument goes “Young people don’t come to the opera house because of the experience. It’s a stuffy crowd. You have to sit still and quiet for hours in the hushed, darkened auditorium. You can’t get trashed, just maybe a glass of wine at the interval if you are lucky”. Thank you Mahler and Wagner with your Holy Temple of the Arts! Whatever happened to going to the opera house to hang out with your friends, play cards and bonk that rather cute countess in the discretely dark recesses of her box?