Organizers have worked hard over the past couple of years to change rules and balance juries for the quadrennial event so that no one can argue with the results (something competition watchers tend to do compulsively anyway).
They are also promising live web streaming of all competition rounds, which are being held on seven different halls in St. Petersburg and Moscow (including a first look inside the Moscow Conservatory's newly renovated concert spaces). The producer for the webcasts is Molly McBride, who did a brilliant job in getting the 2009 Cliburn competition online.
It promises to be a great window on one of the world's biggest and most prestigious competitions in piano, violin, cello and voice. Instrumental competitors are aged 16 to 30, vocal competitors are 18 to 32.
Piano and cello rounds began today at 1 p.m. local time in Moscow. Vocal and violin begin tomorrow in St. Petersburg.
There are two Canadians competing this time: Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio alumna, soprano Yannick Muriel Noah, and remarkable 18-year-old Montrealer, cellist Stéphane Tetrault, a student of Yuli Turovsky's and the youngest member selected for the first YouTube Symphony Orchestra.
As is so often the case on the first day of a webcast from a new setup, there are teething problems. My first check of today's piano webcast wasn't promising: the stream repeatedly stalled, and I couldn't figure out how to switch away from the piano competitors to check in to the cello rounds.
American composer Nico Muhly is getting some time in the spotlight for his new opera, Two Boys, which is about to have its premiere at the hands of English National Opera.
Last week, Muhly and his English collaborators, the Aurora Orchestra, released a new album, which is equally noteworthy.
The album, named after its title piece, Seeing is Believing, is brilliant -- and totally Elizabethan.
Muhly has interwoven his own works (Elizabeth II) with instrumental arrangements (enriched with the young composer's own embellishments) of works by William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons (Elizabeth I).
The aesthetics are, of course, vastly different, but they share the trait of pre-dating and post-dating J.S. Bach's conventions of harmony and counterpoint. As "new" alternates with "old" on the disc, it quickly became apparent to me how much devotion and love Muhly has for the Renaissance masters. His composerly interventions (an extra shimmer of piano or celeste here, an embroidery of clarinet or oboe or English horn there) are elegant and respectful while making the music sound fresh and beguiling. The vast majority of listeners will have no idea that these pieces started off as motets -- and, in the case of Muhly's arrangements, it hardly matters.
The four new pieces by Muhly deftly mix orchestral colours and pulse with lively rhythms and overlays of melodic textures. The most humorous is the closing "Step Team," which sounds like something by a member of Les Six that's been snipped into short bits and then pasted together in a different order. "By all Means" and "Motion" rest on expertly built-up sets of overlaid note patterns.
"Seeing is Believing" is feels like an elaborate call to prayer -- in this case rendered as a sort of extended opening cadenza in a concerto for six-stringed electric violin performed by Thomas Gould -- that starts off powerfully, but then gets scattered in a sea of competing ideas and colours. It has to be intentional, structurally, but comes across as a bit unfocussed in the middle.
Overall, though, I think the mix, and the musical message, are brilliant. Young Brits, conductor Thomas Collon and Gould's Aurora Orchestra, are positively electric in their assurance and clarity from beginning to end.
Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, no stranger to Toronto, and piano accompanist Itamar Golan presented an recital at Salle Pleyel in Paris on Thursday night. It's a largely French programme that offers something for everyone: Sonatas by Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel (the jazzy second one) and Franz Schubert (the "Grand Duo") as well as Olivier Messiaen's Theme and Variations and a clutch of encore bonbons. (The photo is from a recital at Wigmore Hall.)
The Schubert doesn't really fit the rest of the prorgamme. Jansen isn't the warmest of interpreters, but she plays with incredible assurance and Golan is a wonderful accompanist.
The sound was fine but the video went all wonky on me for the encores, which included the Paris premiere of a Ravel-inspried work -- Retour à Montfort-L'Amaury (the historic town in the outer suburbs of Paris where Ravel's house, Le Belvedère, is located) -- that Swiss composer Richard Dubugnon wrote for Jansen and Golan.
The recital was part of the free live streaming series on www.medici.tv. They now have more than 600 concerts and operas available for streaming on their (very reasonably priced) subscription service.
The Helios label has reissued an excellent 1997 British recording of music for violin and piano by Antonin Dvorák, interpreted by violinist Anthony Marwood and pianist Susan Tomes.
The disc's programme showcases the composer's wide range of styles. You'll find all the details as well as audio samples here.
A salon piece like the Op. 100 Sonatina in G Major, one of the gorgeous pieces Dvorák wrote while vacationing in Iowa, gets the gossamer treatment from both Marwood and Tomes.
The duo changes approach and really dig into their instruments in the brooding (and misleadingly titled) Op. 15 Ballad.
The most notable thing about this recording is balance and clarity. The violin and piano are equal partners in all of these elegant performances.
There isn't anything on YouTube from this album, so, instead, here are Marwood and Tomes joined by cellist Richard Lester in Dvorák's "Dumky" Piano Trio No. 3, in E Minor, Op. 90 (If you only have time to listen to one clip, I recommend the second, which begins with the third of the piece's six dumkas):
If you really love this trio, there is a gorgeous recording of it by Toronto's Gryphon Trio on the Analekta label. Details here.
This week's Tafelmusik concerts, which begin Wednesday at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre, should close the season with a high-voltage, violin-focused programme led by Italian violinist Stefano Montanari. Unfortunately, the visitor has injured himself, so he will be conducting, not leading on his instrument, but it should still make for a great concert experience. Montanari has been increasing the number of concerts he conducts, and will lead the orchestra in Opera Atelier's new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni next fall.
Because we won't see him play, I thought I'd share some music of Henry Purcell he performed last year with Montanari's regular ensemble, Accademia Bizantina, and countertenor Andreas Scholl. Here are a Sonata (No. 8, in G Major) and Chaconne, followed by Scholl singing "Here the Deities Approve" with continuo.
(This concert was a prelude to the making of Scholl's recent all-Purcell album, O Solitude, just as this week's Tafelmusik's concerts are a prelude to the recording of a new album here.)
It's time to banish the 20th century tradition of not speaking from the stage at classical music concerts. The printed programme provided background information and the stage time was to be devoted entirely to music. Even encores were not announced.
Presenters and musicians who have done their research know that a 21st century audience enjoys a little bit of a verbal introduction to what's going on. For one thing, no one should take for granted that we've arrived at the concert knowing everything about the composers and why particular pieces were chosen for the programme.
Yesterday's Handelfest 2011 concert was a perfect example of what I'm talking about. It was an evening of excellent Baroque-era musicmaking, but communication regarding the programme was a different story.
The printed programme provided no background whatsoever about the music (and, in what must have been a slip of a finger, got Handel's death year wrong).
I suspected that artistic director and harpsichord player Ashiq Aziz didn't say a word about the first two pieces or their composers, François Duval and Handel. Even though I'm supposed to come to a concert prepared, I would have liked to know more about Duval and why Aziz chose this piece instead of one by, say, Corelli, whose style Duval was imitating, within the traditional French-suite strucutre.
On the other hand, I could feel the audience warm up to lutenist Lucas Harris and violinist Geneviève Gilardeau, as they explained the fascinating Bach-Weiss connection in the evening's title work, and how they personally worked through their interpretation of the piece.
It was informative and, very importantly, humanizing.
They didn't speak long; just enough to make clear that what we were about to hear was something we would not have been able to hear anywhere else in the world yesterday. That is special in and of itself -- and we would not have known if they had merely tuned up and played, bowed and gone home.
Gilardeau and Harris run a free summer concert series called Beaches Baroque in Toronto -- an excellent excuse to grab an ice cream, take a walk on the boardwalk and catch their warm musicality before or after.
They haven't posted their 2011 season yet, so here's a teaser from 2009: On period instruments, Gilardeau and Harris perform a sonata by Bernhard Joachim Hagen (1720-1787):
In 2005, the Paris Opera ballet presented a new ballet built by dancer Nicholas Le Riche on mentally unstable Roman emperor Caligula, who was 29 when he was killed by the Pretorian Guard in 41 A.D. Le Riche says he spent five years researching Caligula's life and fashioning this ballet built on the music of Vivaldi's Four Seasons violin concertos and newly composed electro-acoustic interludes by Louis Dandrel. As the choice of music suggests, le Riche sees more than wantonness and evil in Caligula's life.
The results are debatable from a historical point of view, and the choice of music really is strange. But, in a remount captured on video last month, the Paris Opera orchestra is fantastic (led by violin soloist and concertmaster Frédéric Laroque) and the dancing is, I think, extraordinary from the corps de ballet up to Stéphane Buillion as Caligula. I found it mesmerising -- and enjoyable once I stopped thinking about the historical Caligula.
Even back then, people were trying to give classical music a bit of popular sparkle. It's too bad that Fodor didn't really live up to his early promise.
He was 24 when he placed in the finals of the Tchaikovsky violin competition in Moscow in 1974. For a decade, he was a star -- even making regular appearances on late-night TV talk shows. But then he self-destructed. The public nadir came with a drug-related arrest in 1989.
I was struck by one particular paragraph in the obit:
"I think that cocaine was sort of a crutch for me," (Fodor) told CBS News in 1996. It helped him "rid myself of the pain of not having the career that I felt would make me happy."
Fodor's website cuts off in 1999. The contact information is a personal email address, meaning he had no agent, making it difficut to quickly check up on what he was up to in recent years.
But what, exactly, would have this dream career been? Doing more big violin concertos with big orchestras? Being able to do just chamber music? Teaching?
For me, the moral in Fodor's unfulfilled life is in being careful with prodigiously talented children. Too much focus on a goal and not a journey is a set-up for getting lost of once the goal is fulfilled.
I found a nice reminiscence of Fodor and his first (and third) wife, Daniella Davis, on the blog of Salt Lake City resident Peggy Pendleton, who blogs as Utah Savage. This was written in 2008:
This was the Eugene Fodor I knew. His fiance was a student of my husband's in the mid to late 1970's. I remember entertaining them in our tiny apartment in the Cherry Creek section of Denver. She was a small, voluptuous, dark haired beauty and she and I hit it off immediately. I was not so sure about Eugene. He was more politically conservative than she, and if I remember correctly, an ardent gun enthusiast. And when we met them, he was already a virtuoso concert violinist, world famous, and with a certain rock star following of lovesick young women. So I watched him for signs of arrogance, but what I saw instead was inexperience with anything other than his doting mother and his ambitious father whose talent was not so great, but a fierce desire for his sons to have what he could not. Eugene was a boy who grew up on a large ranch with an older brother who was also a talented violinist. Eugene was both a young genius and a strutting cowboy. And then it came so early, this star stature. Underneath that wattage was a sweet, generous, romantic young man with great good looks, a bit of a rough edge and a monster talent.
We were invited to the family ranch for an engagement party. It was a Spanish style event with a Mariachi band. And a short time later we were invited to the wedding. They moved to New York and I remember working on a painting in a new medium to send to them for a wedding present a few months later.
Shortly after that we moved to Missouri, where my husband got a teaching job at one of the lovely State Universities. We used to see Eugene play now and then on Johnny Carson.
They wrote letters, called occasionally, and then we got a call that they were playing in a concert in another Missouri City and wanted to come stay with us the night and day before the concert and that we would be their guests for the event. We were both delighted and worried. I more worried than my husband. Eugene's wife, my friend, whose name I can no longer recall I'm embarrassed to say, was very pregnant with twins. I worried that the bed in the guest room wasn't big enough or comfortable enough. But they were both so sweet. We had a lovely afternoon. Fixed dinner at home. We ate simply, at their request. And when she went to bed, he wandered into the backyard and played. So under a cool autumn sky full of stars on the edge of the Ozarks, we listened to perhaps the worlds most famous Paganini virtuoso play Paginini. It was the most magical, transcendent musical moment of my life.
And again, late the next afternoon, he wandered the backyard and played for at least an hour. Then the black limousine came to pick us up for the two hour ride to the concert hall. When we got out of the limousine, hordes of girls began screaming. Eugene signed some autographs and then we were herded into his dressing room. We had champaign, caviar, cheeses, fruit. And then we were taken to the first box in the balcony to look down on the stage. Before he began playing he blew his wife a kiss, and people rose from their seats to look up at us, she looked around and smiled and then the concert began.
I had never been a fan of classical music. I grew up with jazz. Oh I'd certainly heard plenty of classical music. My dad's mother loved it. But not until high school had I gone to concerts or listened to classical music of my own accord, until I heard Rachmaninoff's Isle of the Dead did I find something other than Jazz that really moved me. Then I discovered Stravinski's Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. And then Vivaldi, and so it went. Yet still, I did not like Beethoven, or Motzart, or Wagner, especially not Wagner. Then later found Bach and that was the sweet spot, classically speaking.
After the concert in an unnamed city in Missouri, there was a reception. As we walked into the room, a wave of applause swept over us, Eugene's wife grabbed me by the hand, asked me to come with her, approached the nearest matron in a flowered dress, and asked her where the ladies room was, all the while tightly clutching my hand to her ample bosom. She dragged me to the crowded ladies and then, just inside the door to the packed room, put a hand to either side of my face and pulled mine to hers and planted a juicy kiss on my startled lips. And the room went silent for just a moment as most of the waiting women held their breath. Then my hugely pregnant friend spoke in her rich musical contralto and asked to cut in line, as her husband was waiting for her, and because she was so very preggers, she needed to pee so very badly. And we walked into the first available stall together, since she still held my hand. Once inside, she opened her little evening bag and pulled a tiny silver vial out, unscrewed the lid, dipped in her little finger and scooped out a nail full of coke. She snorted rather noisily, then giggled and kissed me again. She had me backed against the wall, leaning into me slightly as she bent back and scooped another nail full. She whispered, don't breathe or you'll blow it all around. Then she snorted another. She said, close your eyes and hold your breath. I did. She said, "breathe" and I sucked air in through my nose along with a powerful hit of coke. And again. Then she pulled a joint from her purse and hiked her skirt and sat on the toilet. I whispered, "Do you think this is wise in here?" Never mind, "You're pregnant, aren't you?" She lit it, and we giggled through a joint while the ladies room emptied.
That is my last memory of them other than a birth announcement and a couple of letters. His career was in full swing, and she was hanging around with the guys in Divo and going to all the hot clubs and parites. I heard she was studying Opera Singning. Then silence.
Here is the final item mentioned in the "events" section of Fodor's website, an interview/performance segment from NBC's Today Show from 1999:
American violinist Hilary Hahn (the photo shows her at the Grammy Awards two years ago) arrives at Koerner Hall for a solo recital tonight -- some of it accompanied by pianist Valentina Lisitsa. It's a gruelling programme:
-Fritz Kreisler: Variations on a Theme by Corelli (in the style of Giuseppe Tartini) -Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major, Op. 24 "Spring" -Charles Ives: Violin Sonata No. 4, Children's Day at the Camp Meeting, S.63 -Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita No. 1 in B Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1002 -George Antheil: Violin Sonata No.1, W. 130
In case you're not familiar with the Antheil sonata, which dates from the early 1920s, here is the third (of four) movements, "Funebre, lento expressivo:"
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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