Today’s RBA recital was Allyson McHardy and Rachel Andrist in a program called Women on the Edge. What we got was a sampler from what will eventually be a longer show. First up was Schumann’s Poèmes de Marie, Reine des Écossais. It’s a very late Schumann work and, I think, one of his best vocal works. But there’s some history here. Schumann set German translations of five poems by Mary in French plus a Latin prayer Mary’s Latin is very classically elegant). The original French was subsequently rearrranged by Bernard Diamant for Maureen Forrester and that’s the version Allyson sang today. But wait, there’s a snag. The second piece Après la naissance de son fils is a bit of an anomaly. There is no French text by Mary Stuart or anyone else. The text is Scots and probably not by Mary at all. Some sources suggest it was actually graffiti in Edinburgh castle. How/why did Diamant render it into French? Who knows. Scholarly quibbling aside these are really gorgeous works and beautifully suited to Allyson’s voice. She has a really beautiful voice and it seems to be gravitating to contralto territory as she (tries desperately to find appropriately not ungallant phrase). Anyhow it was very fine.
The TSO’s season opener on Wednesday night featured Renée Fleming in one of her rare visits to Toronto. As one might expect for a crowd friendly season opener it was largely a collection of “lollipops” though the all Ravel first half of the program perhaps had higher ambitions. The orchestra kicked off with Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso; a rather vulgar piece full of castanets, twiddly Spanish tunes and solo bassoon standing in for a clown. I guess one could at least say that Peter Oundjian and the orchestra were well into the spirit of the thing. It was followed up with Schéhérazade. I’m not sure what the score markings on this are… perhaps “très langueurezzzzz”. It was a very Renée performance with beauty of tone (even in the soprano killing acoustic) dominating over drama or diction (though again I’m cognisant that the hall swallows words). It was a bit understated and I heard comments in the interval from people less well seated than myself that “they couldn’t hear a thing”.
A vocalist accompanying himself on the guitar (or one of it’s predecessors) is one of the oldest and most prevalent tropes in western music. From Blondel to Billy Bragg it’s always been with us but it’s quite rare in the world of modern art music where the roles of singer and accompanist are trades as rigidly delineated as anything in a Clydeside shipyard. Doug MacNaughton breaks the rules by playing a variety of kinds of guitar and singing in a range of styles. For that question of style is vital too. The mechanics of doing two jobs simultaneously affect singing style and centuries of performance history offer a bewildering range of stylistic choices. It’s an issue I examined once before when reviewing a Bud Roach CD for Opera Canada.
There Toronto Summer Music Festival, inevitably Americas themed this year, opened with a concert called Americans in Paris featuring music by Copland, Gershwin and Bolcom. It was a pretty mixed bag. It opened with Copland’s Appalachian Spring played by 13 members of the TSMF Ensemble and conducted by Tania Miller. It’s not a work I’m particularly fond of but here it was particularly unfocussed and soporific.
Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess has a really interesting history. It was always intended as a “grand opera”; pretty much the first American one. It was written for the Metropolitan Opera but not performed there until 1985 and between it’s Boston debut in 1935 and a production in Houston in 1976 it was virtually always performed in a much cut edition designed for Broadway. In fact by the time of the Houston production it was being done much at all; being seen as dated and dealing with issues of race that were particularly highly charged in Civil Rights Era America. It took a bold, young Deneral Manager, David Gockley, and a Gershwin enthusiast, John DeMain, to recreate an opera rather than a musical. It’s been following them round ever since and so, not very surprisingly, Gockley, now in charge in San Francisco, chose to stage it there last year in a new production by Francesca Zambello with DeMain conducting.