The St. Lawrence String Quartet opened this year’s Toronto Summer Music Festival with a really interesting programme. They kicked off with the Haydn String Quartet No. 25 in C Major. This very much belied the idea that Haydn is a skilful but not especially inventive composer. It’s full of invention; especially rhythmic and really suited the intensely physical style of the St. Lawrences; especially the hyperkinetic first violin, Geoff Nuttall, who also contributed a rather extraordinary pair of socks to the evening’s festivities. Watching, too, is a different experience from listening and here pointed up the extent to which chamber music like this is a conversation between the players rather than a regimented or choreographed thing.
Opera 5’s double bill of Ethel Smyth one acters, Suffragette, opened last night at Theatre Passe Muraille in productions by Jessica Derventzis. The second piece, The Boatswain’s Mate, was in every way the more successful of the two. It’s a straightforward enough story. Mrs. Waters is a widow and landlord of The Outlaw (renamed in deference to the production’s beer sponsor). She is being very unsuccessfully courted by retired boatswain Harry Benn. Mrs. Waters doesn’t want or need a husband but Benn decides that by enlisting a casual acquaintance, the former soldier Ned Travers, as a fake burglar from whom he can “rescue” the hapless landlady. Much mayhem ensues but the upshot is that Mrs. Waters takes a shine to the hunky soldier and they, at least, live happily ever after.
The Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra and their conductor, Vladimir Spivakov, played Roy Thomson Hall last night. The first part of the concert was all instrumental and rather fine. I was struck by the small band’s ability to vary the weight and richness of their sound to match the mood of the music. Their treatment of Mozart’s Divertimento No.1, for example, was quite lean and sinewy. On the other hand the string sound, especially the cellos, was much richer in a very moving and idiomatic account of the Shostakovich Chamber Symphony in C minor. Things got even richer for Bruch’s Kol Nidrei where the orchestra was joined by 14 year old Israeli cellist Danielle Akta. The orchestral sound was sumptuous here but the real star was Ms. Akta. One expects virtuosity from the sort of young musician who tours with a major orchestra but one does not necessarily expect the kind of intensity that we got from Ms. Akta. She played as if she had the sort of life experience one would simply not wish on a young girl. Her instrument, an Orselli loaned by Dr. Moshe Kantor, was rather wonderful too. She can do virtuoso too as she showed in the Popper Concert Polonaise that closed a very satisfying first half.
The closing concert of this year’s 21C, presented by Soundstreams at Koerner Hall, featured music by Chris Paul Harman and Unsuk Chin. In the first half we heard two related pieces by Harman based on songs by Ray Noble. The first, Love Locked Out started with a tape recorded interview and a scratchy recording of Al Bowlly before morphing into a complex piece with allusions to the original song. It’s not in any sense a set of variations. Harman’s sound world is complex. It’s very modern and varied. There were warring pianos and tubular bells in passages that were almost violent but which morphed into more playful sections. Parts of the string writing and the transitions reminded me of Shostakovich; though Harman tends to genuinely playful rather than sardonic. But the comparison should not be taken too far because there’s also a tendency to build tension and logic through repetition rather than symphonic development in a vaguely John Adamsish sort of way and there are passages that are meditative à la Messiaen. The piece closed with a slowed down tape of the song. So complex and intriguing stuff very well played by 21C Chamber Orchestra conducted by Guillaume Bourgogne.
Last night’s Canadian Art Song Project, part of the Conservatory’s 21C festival, was sold out. Yep, a sold out concert of contemporary Canadian art song not featuring an A-list singer. Clearly Mercury is in retrograde or something. Anyway, the first half of the concert featured baritone Iain MacNeil with one of my favourite collaborative pianists Mélisande Sinsoulier. They gave us Lloyd Burritt’s The Moth Poem to texts by Robin Blaser. This is a basically tonal work with a piano part that I found more interesting than the vocal writing (common enough in contemporary art song). There was some nice delicate singing from Ian and complete mastery of the intricate piano part by Mélisande. Andrew Staniland’s setting of Wallace Stevens’ Peter Quince at the Clavier followed. This is a more ambitious work with quite a complex soundscape and a piano part that requires a range of technique as much of it is written to sound “mechanical” as a nod to the title of the poem. Oddly, despite the title, the text is a rich but highly allusive rendering of the story of Susanna and the Elders and a reminder of how much a really interesting text can enhance a song. I’d like to hear this again.
Aaron Gervais’ and Colleen Murphy’s Oksana G. finally made it to the stage last night after a most convoluted journey. It’s being produced by Tapestry at the Imperial Oil Theatre with Tom Diamond directing. The wait, I think has been worth it. The story, set in 1997, of a naive country girl from the Ukraine who gets caught up in sex trafficking is dramatic and the it convincingly depicts the sleazy underworld of southern and eastern Europe created by the collapse of the USSR, the civil wars in the Balkans and the pervasive official corruption in countries like Ukraine, Greece and Italy. It’s gritty and, at times, not at all easy to watch.
Six years ago a bunch of unknowns calling themselves “Against the Grain Theatre” put on Joel Ivany’s English language, updated version of Puccini’s La Bohème in the back room of the Tranzac club. I was there. I reviewed it on my LiveJournal because it would be another six months before I started this blog. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. The Tranzac has been tarted up quite a bit since La Bohème 1.0, though even by 2011 it had become a lot smarter than when the Nomads hung out there and the wall featured a photo of Sorbie with the McCormick cup. Lets face it anywhere would be more sedate without Neil (RIP mate). Oh yeah, and the original AtG crowd have become quite respectable, even famous perhaps. The singers are all Equity members and get paid properly. There are sets and props that weren’t borrowed from Topher’s mum. Topher and Joel have done the conducting and directing thing for major companies in real opera houses. And I’ve been writing this stuff most every day for six years.