It didn't occur to me until this afternoon to look for something on video to go with today's release of Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón's new Deutsche Grammophon album of arias from George Frideric Handel Italian operas.
So, to go with my review in today's Star, here's a recent clip from a German TV show.
The host calls Villazón's performance "Baroque 'n' roll" as the tenor tackles the album's title track, Bajazet's fiery aria "Ciel e terra armi di sdegno" (Rouse heaven and earth to anger) from the opera Tamerlano.
A recent blog posting by New Yorker music critic, Alex Ross, points to a phenomenal web archive of live concerts at Trinity Church on Wall St. in New York City. The well-endowed parish has a long and glorious history of providing for great music by its resident organist and choir, as well as visiting musicians.
A particular seasonal treat is a concert the Trinity Choir and Chamber Orchestra gave last Tuesday. Under the leadership of guest conductor Andrew Megill, we hear three great sacred works from the Baroque era appropriate for Lent: J.S. Bach's Jesu, Meine Freunde, Dietrich Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri and Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater.
In response to CBC Radio/Radio-Canada's new Evolution competition for young composers, Toronto-based composer Andrew Staniland thought he'd translate Charles Darwin's theories into music. But as he worked on his composition for small orchestra, he realised that he was working from the complex back to more simple structures -- turning the famous scientist's ideas upside down.
The resulting three-movement composition, Devolution, was the top winner of the competition on Friday night, picking up the $20,000 Grand Prize as well as the $5,000 Orchestre de la francophonie canadienne prize. Written in the company of four other competition finalists ensconced at the Banff Centre starting March 2, the composition brings together textures and atmospheres in fairly stark ways.
The other winner on Friday was Ottawa-born Vincent Ho, who received the $5,000 People's Choice award for a piece entitled "Nature's Whisper." Each of the five finalists was also given $5,000 commissioning money.
You can see and hear the Ensemble Concemporain de Montreal (under Veronique Lacroix) perform Devolution in an arty music video from the CBC's Evolution website.
Today's New York Times introduces us to more people who believe that listening to certain kinds of music is central to our wellbeing.
Chief among these purveyors of sonic spoonfuls of sugar is Austrian researcher (and skilled entrepreneur) Vera Brandes (shown above in a photo by Franz Helmreich).
Read all about it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/arts/music/29gure.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper
Although I'll be the first person to agree that listening to music we like (in the broadest sense of everything that word implies) has to be good for us, our increasingly frantic quest to find a magic bullet to fight daily stress and its consequent ravages on our psyches and bodies is making many people forget that anything that we do to reserve a slice of the day for something meditative is likely to do us good.
For me, it may be listening to Bach. To you, it could be a tour of the crocus shoots in the front yard.
Today would have been the 107th birthday of English composer
William Walton, who died in 1983.
His violin, viola and cellos concertos have earned a
permanent place in the repertoire. His movie soundtracks for Laurence Olivier’s
post-World War II Shakespeare films (which earned him two Oscar nominations)
will always be around. Guitar students love the Bagatelles he wrote for Julian
Breem. But the rest of his considerable output of chamber, symphonic, choral,
theatre, ballet and sacred music is slowly disappearing under a layer of dust.
With lights turned out but video screen glowing, my Earth
Hour activity last night was watching Tony Palmer’s 1980 film biography of
Walton, At the Haunted End of the Day. (The title comes from a truly haunting
aria sung by Cressida in his 1954 opera Troilus and Cressida.)
Walton was not a flamboyant or controversial man. He was
someone who, in the classic British sense, got on with what he had to do.
Palmer says his is the only full-length interview ever recorded with Walton. Even so we learn little about what may have been going on inside Walton’s head.
As with most of Palmer's DVD reissues, there is no
full-length performance of any one work included on the disc, so one has to go
Walton’s Oldham, Lancashire boyhood, lucky admission to
Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral choir and precocious talent for composition make a
Walton had no knack for mastering piano or violin at school. “So I
had to find a way to make myself interesting, or risk being sent back to
Oldham. So I tried composing,” he recalls.
His years at Oxford placed him amidst people who would later
help kick start his career. The most prominent were Sacheverell (Sacha)
Sitwell and his poet sister Edith, who eased his entry into the clique of
London’s bright young things in the 1920s.
But the documentary’s 95-minute march forward can’t pause,
and must plod on. What we do begin to see forming is a morose, self-absorbed
One of the film’s unintentional laughs comes when Walton
laments the onset of World War II: “It was a shame, because I had just bought a
house in Belgravia, and it was bombed flat.”
We catch excerpts of the major musical highlights --
including Belshazzar’s Feast, conducted by a very young Simon Rattle.
When Palmer asks the composer what he is looking forward to
next, the old man shrugs slightly. “I don’t know. Death, I suppose.”
Fortunately, enough of his music does live on to perhaps inspire future musicians. Don’t miss an
opportunity to give it a listen.
There’s an excellent resource site (that hasn’t been updated
for a couple of years) at www.williamwalton.net
Given that it’s his birthday, and that it’s a Sunday, let’s
celebrate with William Walton’s extravagant setting of Te Deum (We Praise Thee, O God) for
Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation (as performed ata memorial service for Laurence Olivier in Westminster Abbey, in 1989):
This weekend offers Toronto opera fans a rare opportunity to
witness two opposing points view in new music. There is much more to this coincidence than meets the ear.
On the one side, we have four new, short works getting their
world premieres at the hands of Tapestry New Opera Works at Harbourfront’sEnwave Theatre. Three of them place
humour front and centre, daring us to laugh along with the composers’,
librettists’ and performers’ comedic antics.
Passing through a metaphoric black curtain, we have Opera in
Concert’s premiere of Charles Wilson’s adaptation of Anne Hebert’s Canadian classic, the gothic melodrama Kamouraska, at the Jane Mallett Theatre. There is no comedy here. Not even a chuckle.
Wilson’s serialist-inspired atonal score is as dense and
claustrophobic as the story. I asked him earlier this week if he had considered
quoting some Quebecois folk tunes in his score, given that the action takes
place on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river in the early 19th century.
The composer’s piercing, dark eyes bulged at the effrontery
of my question. “This is a serious story, there’s no room for folk tunes here,”
was his stern reply.
He added how he dislikes the current practice of many
composers to quote other people’s music freely. For him, serious music is no
place for the mischievous winks that artists routinely weave into their work -- be it
literature, music, theatre, or the visual arts -- in the 21st century.
The Tapestry comedies liberally quoted other music and
worked hard to make us laugh with traditional shtick as well as clever use of
irony. The Perfect Screw, by composer Abigail Richardson and librettist Alexis
Diamond, went a step further in borrowing the devices of operatic melodrama
(both written and sung) to create a biting satire. (The photo above shows baritone Peter McGillivray, right, and countertenor Scott Belluz in The Perfect Screw.)
As wonderful as the Tapestry creations are, they are too
light to be the basis for an intellectually and emotionally fulfilling evening.
It’s fun snack food, not a meal.
As culturally significant as Kamouraska is (I’ve struggled
with the score at home on the piano, but have not been to see it), the
intensity leaves me physically and metaphorically gasping for air and sunshine.
Can there be a middle ground between laughter and tears?
Yes, but it doesn’t come easily. I’ll let Robertson Davies explain.
Less then15 years since the death of this iconic Canadian,
his novels, set amidst the white, Anglo-Saxon culture of historical Ontario,
already feel like museum pieces. But his insights into human nature and arts
criticism are as sharp as ever, transcending their time and place.
Among the wide range of essays and lectures collected in
Happy Alchemy (published by McClelland & Stewart in 1997), is a fascinating
lecture entitled “Opera and Humour,” Davies gave in 1991 at England’sAldeburgh Festival (founded by Benjamin
Britten and his partner Peter Pears).
The lecture’s argument is so tightly structured that I’d
literally have to quote the entire thing to do it full justice. But hopefully it won't need further explanation to look at his main point, which is that tragedy and comedy need to coexist in our narratives.
“The Comic, pursued without discretion, runs into a
shallowness which brings in its wake a triviality of mind and spirit which
produces results that may be tragic [You can almost hear the voice of
Lady Bracknell]; the Tragic, as with my friend who declared it to be the only
endurable intellectual stance for an intelligent man, produces in its farthest
reaches a gloomy egotism which impresses the onlooker as comic. But in seeking
the Golden Mean, we cannot be content with a bland rejection of both the Tragic
and Comic until life becomes a kind of vanilla custard, fit only for spiritual
and intellectual invalids. No, the Golden Mean is not a sunny, untroubled
nullity, but a deep awareness of possibilities, with one eye cocked toward
Comedy and the other eye skewed toward Tragedy, and out of this feat of
balanced observation emerges Humour, not as a foolish amusement or an escape
from reality, but as a breadth of perception, and what Heracleitus called ‘an
attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.’ A
reconciliation of opposites, indeed.”
Davies asserts that the Golden
Mean is a rare find: “Quite simply because to introduce tragedy into comedy and vice
versa is work for a great master, and great masters are few.”
The late novelist does provide several examples, starting with
Shakespeare. His operatic paragon is Richard Strauss and Hugo von
Hoffmansthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
“It moves us not precisely as optimism, because that word has
been abused and suggests a shallow refusal to see and take heed of the dark
side of life. Perhaps the word for that feeling I mean is serenity, a high
acceptance, a recognition that Heraclitus’s doctrine of eternal flow is a great
truth, and while we may not, in ourselves, find the moment when the one element
changes into the other, that moment will come and the consciousness of its
inevitability may give us courage in adversity, and balance in good fortune.”
There are several younger Canadian composers who, I think, have the means to deliver this kind of satisfaction (Dean Burry and James Rolfe are two Torontonians who come immediately to mind). Let’s hope Canada can one day lay claim to a
full-length opera that can give us even a fleeting glimpse of that Golden Mean.
My counterpart at the Montreal Gazette, Arthur Kaptainis, has just written that the people who designed Toronto's new opera house, Diamond and Schmitt Architects, has been chosen to come up with the long, long, log-awaited new home from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
The contracts have not been signed yet, but the parameters are finally set for a projected 2011 completion date.
Kaptainis quotes chief architect Jack Diamond as saying that the hall will follow the classic shoebox model as Vienna's Musikverein, which is pretty much the same thinking that informed Toronto's opera house. Where the two are likely to differ most is in the details. The cost of the Montreal project is projected at $267 million, more than twice the budget for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
Although Toronto's hall is a freestanding structure, the new home of the Montreal Symphony is being built on the downtown block occupied by the Place des Arts. Diamond's neo-Modernist aesthetic should blend nicely with the elegant 1960s Modernism of the existing three halls (as well as the post-Modern contemporary art museum designed in the late 1990s).
See the full article at: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Entertainment/concert+hall+price+267M/1429335/story.html
Toronto-Montreal role reversal
Older Montrealers, raised at a time when the city could still remember being Canada's financial and cultural centre, tend to look down their noses at Toronto. But this week's announcement, coming the same week as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra announced its 2009-10 season, shows that Toronto may be setting some precedents that Montrealers are eager to embrace.
Included in the orchestra's season announcement was a series of after-work, early-evening concerts, a concept the Toronto Symphony has been trying with apparent success this season. Also on the roster is a fall Beethoven festival to showcase one of music director Kent Nagano's strengths. The Toronto orchestra did the same for Peter Oundjian a couple of seasons ago.
Full season details are available at http://www.osm.ca/en/index.cfm
You will never get to see me in one of my favourite early-1980s evening accessories: a black-and-gold brocade smoking jacket long since banished to fashion-crime Elyseum. But you may get a chance to see New Romantic pop icons Spandau Ballet in live concert sometime soon.
The famed British pop band, which split up in 1989, announced yesterday (on the HMS Belfast, on which they performed and landed their first major record deal in 1980) that it will regroup for a series of concert dates in the U.K. and Ireland. But with somewhere around 25 million records sold, there's a glimmer of hope that they will eventually make it to this side of the Atlantic.
For more details, check out this video story from yesterday's edition of The Guardian:
Sonic Mosaics: Conversations with Composers should have been called Talking Points, because the book’s interviews are about what the composers are thinking at the moment. Listening to the music itself is for another time.
Just published by University of Alberta Press, Sonic Mosaics collects interviews with 31 composers – Canadian as well as international -- by Canadian composer Paul Steenhuisen. It may sound a bit too inward-looking, but, because most of these interviews were done for Toronto’s Whole Note magazine (a free monthly bible for the city’s music lovers), the writing is light and accessible.
Steenhuisen is able to focus the discussion in a way that resonates outside a circle of composers. They include the great Pierre Boulez, Canadian veteran John Beckwith as well as many much younger voices.
I thought it would be neat to pick out some of the composers’ statements over the next few weeks, and use them as an occasional food for thought:
The Toronto composer who has become best-known for his opera scores, addresses the slow pace of change in the music world:
“It’s always been said that music is more conservative than other arts, and that change comes more slowly in music, but I think the word convention is key when thinking about that. Music is an art form that operates with conventions passed down through oral history. Playing an instrument is taught verbally, with physical examples. The mechanism of teaching is by word of mouth, and there is a conservatism about that kind of tradition. Things will evolve more slowly as a result, or there may be more resistance to change, by the nature of the means of transmission.”
John Terauds started at the Toronto Star as a freelance writer in 1988, and has been on staff since 1997. He began writing on classical music in 2001, and has been the full-time classical music critic since 2005.
He is also the organist and choir director at St. Peter's Anglican Church, a parish founded in 1863 in downtown Toronto.
If he's not listening to, writing about or playing music, it means he's either asleep, unconscious, walking his dog -- or all of the above.
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