Monday, November 03, 2014

On the Velvet Highway or On the Road Again; a Musical Journey

September 4 2014 Calgary I went to this Honens Piano Festival 2014 Concrete Sonata noon hour piano concert and enjoyed the performances of Georgy Tchaidze, 2009 Honens Prize Laureate

While "Gabriel’s Oboe" by Ennio Morricone, from the soundtrack of Roland Joffé 1986 film “The Missions,” may float somewhere in our collective memories as part of a larger score, it is perhaps more embedded into the zeitgeist of the era as an emerging yet mournful plea for release from Reaganomics -- rather than merely a piece music of Oboe music. If a musical composition can paint a picture, I can think of it as a cartoon for a tapestry, the instruments and voices being the different coloured yarns with which the performance / tapestry is woven. This will provide the context for me to write about music in fQaroundtown which, until now, has been a Textile blog rather then a place for reviews of other media. Do I have you attention?

On Tuesday, October 21 at 12 p.m., I attended the COC Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre and heard “two of Canada's most passionate young performers, oboist Vincent Boilard and pianist Olivier Hébert-Bouchard, shine the spotlight on the oboe in a selection of spirited pieces by Mozart, Poulenc and everything in between.” this concert was co-presented with Jeunesses Musicales Ontario. In recent months the urge to write about the music I have been experiencing live has been pretty persistent starting with attending Rebecca Jenkins' remarkable launch of “Live at the Cellar” in June at the Jazz Bistro, followed by attending three of the seven concerts at the inaugural Honens Piano Festival in Calgary in September and the COC Free Concert Series I have been attending since my return to Toronto. Putting Jenkins' aside for the moment, there has been a thread of “Modern” music running through these concerts “Modern” being late Victorian / Post- Romantic era (Romantic period 1800 to 1850 approx). This genre was firmly established, though often greeted with hostility, by the time Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” premiered in Paris in 1913. Experimenting with new ways in which to use the instruments in Orchestral, Chamber and Choral music has been ongoing since then

 Pavel Kolesnikov Honens Prize Laureate 2012A was the other pianist performing in the Concrete Sonata concert on the "Garden Piano" in downtown Calgary
In Calgary the Honen Piano Festival had a program of music that was centred around 2014 being the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War One and was therefore from the Modern repertoire. French pianist Alexander Tharaud played Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes Nos 1, 3, and 4 (written between 1889-1893) and Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs (1904 1905). His light touch made the Satie sound as if the notes were floating by on the breeze. In the performance of Miroirs, which consists of five sound portraits of Ravel’s friends and fellow “Apaches,” there were moments which sounded like six hands playing at the same time. It was breath taking. At the last concert, another Ravel piece was played: “Piano trio in A minor” (1914), with Pavel Kolesnikov, Honens Prize Laureate 2012 playing, followed by Elgar’s “Piano quintet in A minor Op. 84” (1918) played by Georgy Tchaidze Honens, Prize Laureate of 2009. The finale of the concert and the festival was also the debut performance by the newly formed Wild West New Music Ensemble led by Mélanie Léonard. The piece was Kammermusik Op. 24 No. 1 (1922) composed by the German composer Paul Hindemith. Samson Tsoy Santander, International Piano Competition Laureate, 2012, joined the Wild West New Music Ensemble in this chaotic, frenzied and ultimately disturbing yet enlightening vision of the WW1 battlefield ending with a siren blast which leaves you hopeful rather then mournful. It is an incredible piece of music

Alexander Tharaud taking many bows for those applauding his great performance at the Jack Singer  Hall which at times sounded like 6 hands playing. September 6 2014, Calgary, Alberta.
And now for a Musical Interlude 

With my appetite whetted by this (shall we say “post-classical”/ “early modern” sound) I returned to Toronto with a need to keep the live music coming and conveniently the “COC Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre” 2014-15 season had begun. Being informed of the date and time (October 7, 12 noon), and not being aware of what I was going to hear, I headed off to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen St and University Ave for Colin Ainsworth, Tenor, and Stephen Ralls, Piano. I was introduced to the “Art Song” of the living Canadian composer Derek Holman (*1) and his song cycles. “Lieder” or “Art Song” consists of piano accompaniment of a solo voice; the composer is creating a musical setting for existing written words -- usually poetry such as Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s. Since the late Victoria period, this genre has become a site of experimentation for modern composers. Holman was born in England in 1931, immigrated to Canada in the mid 1960s, taught in the University of Toronto in the Faculty of Music's Department of Theory and Composition, retired as a Professor in 1996 and received the Order of Canada in 2003. His output consists of mostly choral work; of Holman's sixty-plus songs, most are found in twelve song-cycles. Colin Ainsworth performed works composed in the past decade: “A Lasting Spring” (2004), “The Death of Orpheus” (2005), and “A Passion Play” (2012); these are settings for the words of numerous poets. Ainsworth, who is/was in the COC recent production of Falstaff, has a clear full tenor voice with rich bottom and crystalline top which instilled a poignant beauty to these challenging compositions which demanded the full use of his range. This was a very satisfying concert and the perfect next experience after the Honens.

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts 145 Queen St W, Toronto, ON
In early October, I was transported back to my high school music class and choir days which had been acted out under the rather hard core eye of Duncan Addison -- a church organist, choral master and music history teacher who introduced me to British composer George Butterworth’s (12 July 1885 – 5 August 1916) setting for A. E. Housman's poems from ‘A Shropshire Lad.’ All this in an attempt to take my lazy baritone up to the true tenor range he heard in my voice (I was in my church choir at six and in is high school choir until I was 18 and sang 7 days a week for 12 years or so it seemed). On October 9, Members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio: Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Tenor, Iain MacNeil, bass-baritone and Jennifer Szeto, piano, preformed two composer’s setting of Housman’s words. MacNiel sang Butterworth’s compositions, while Fortier-Lazure sand the music of another British composer, Ivor Gurney (28 August 1890 – 26 December 1937), who was previously unknown to me. The WWI theme that started with the Honens in Calgary seemed to be continuing since Temporary Lt. George Butterworth, aged 31 was wounded in the trenches near Pozières in July 1916 and died before receiving Military Cross, and Gurney, who survived the trenches but by 1922 was declared insane and institutionalized for the remainder of his life.

These performances were professional but not as confident as one might hope for the delivery of this seductive material. The pure love that Housman’s words convey and the music magnifies was a bit mechanical and technique dependent rather than emotionally charged as other presentations of Butterworth I have heard as performed on record. Hearing it live and being introduction to the work of Ivor Gurney made this concert a worthwhile investment of time and exposed me to two new singers who, having made it into the COC Ensemble obviously have the chops, but not the solo tract record which give confidence needed for these songs.

October 15th brought the 15 year old piano prodigy Anastasia Rizikov to the stage with a program of Russian Masterworks: Romance in F Minor, Op.5 Tchaikovsky (b. May 7, 1840, d. November 6, 1893), written 1868 (Post romantic pre modern period), Pictures at the Exhibition by Mussorgsky written in 1874 (not published until 1886 on the cusp of post Romantic and Modern) These she played with the mechanical precision with which they are written as well as with a slight maniacal joy that comes from “rocking it” or getting it right and having fun doing it and letting the audience feel that joy. Followed by Prelude No. 6 in E-flat Major, op. 23 (1901-1903) by Rachmaninov (April 1, 1873, Novgorod Governorate, died: March 28, 1943-- in Hollywood you can’t get more Modern then that) which was an expected part of an all Russian program. Islamey (1869) by Mily Balakirev (b. January 2, 1837 d, May 29, 1910) was new to me. Islamey (subtitled Oriental Fantasy) was written after a trip to the Caucasus and the Caucasus for me means the Silk route and rugs rather then music.

It is this Orientalism which also inspired Mozart - Piano Sonata No 11 in A major, K 331, which I heard Alexander Tharaud perform in September. In Mozart’s time, the Ottoman court was represented in most Royal courts of Europe, which means he no doubt had first hand knowledge of oriental pentatonic scale which has 5 notes per octave rather then the western’s 8 notes per octave and rhythms. By the late 1800s, at the 1862 International Exhibition in London and Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, the 12 tone scale of Traditional Japanese court music was added to the mix. I think you can find the beginnings of what becomes post romantic / modern music in the blending of these. However that is a different story and one for ethnographic musicologist to disprove. When Anastasia Rizikov finished Islamey, I thought I would like to hear her play some Boogie Woogie -- and suddenly for her encore, she basically did: Variations (Op. 41), by Russian/Ukrainian, pianist/composer Nikolai Kapustin. He's a living composer (born in 1937) and famous for fusing the jazz and classical idioms, meticulously writing out note for note what sounds like an improvised jazz piece. (This according to a COC social networker on Facebook). It was a bluesy jazzy barrel house rolling number that was a perfect end to what might have been a dispassionate display of virtuosity.

This is the performance space of  The Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre at the Four Seasons Preforming Arts Centre seen from above

This brings me back to the Oboe and oboist Vincent Boilard and pianist Olivier Hébert-Bouchard’s performance on Tuesday, October 21. Sonata for oboe and piano, FP 185, by Francis Poulenc (b. January 7, 1899, d. January 30, 1963), was performed with all the charm it has in its notation. Written in the last year of Poulenc’s life, this piece may be rather nostalgic and old fashioned sounding compared to the then contemporary composers, such as Italy’s Luciano Berio or America’s John Cage, it has the texture/ sound of the 1920s but it also sounds fresh, newly minted each time you hear it Poulenc was part of a group dubbed “the Six” by music critic Henri Collet in an article. "Les cinq Russes, les six Français et M. Satie/ The Five Russians, the Six Frenchmen and Satie". (Comoedia, 16 January 1920) was at the heart of the modern movement, in post WW1 Paris. Mily Balakirev was one of the “Five Russians”.

Their next piece, “Romance for oboe d’amore and piano, op. 29 ” (1997) by Quebecois composer Mathieu Lussier (b.1973), was simply joyful and they played it with a pride in their fellow Quebecois clarity of composition. It is perfectly written blend of harmonics and rhythms that have the two separate instruments circling around and bouncing away from each other and intertwining in a pre-waltz dance possibly happening in the Assembly rooms of Jane Austin’s Bath rather then a dance club today throbbing but not floating like the Lussier. In a “Music Appreciation 101” moment at the beginning of the concert, Vincent Boilard played the oboe solo from Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake, Op. 20 - Act II. Scene ; Dance of the Swans, as a way of introducing his instrument and spoke of how it is often used to give mournful or ominous impressions in film soundtracks

The repertoire for solo Oboe is not large compared to say violin and piano. Antonio Pasculli (1842-1924) was a virtuosic oboe player who took that bull by the horn and transcribed a large number of opera pieces for oboe and piano/harp. The third piece played by this duo was Concerto sopra motive dell’opera La Favorita di Donizetti by Antonio Pasculli. In introducing this piece, Boilard explained how as a player himself, Pasculli wrote extremely demanding pieces with constant use of arpeggiations, trills, and scales, that require the oboist to practice circular breathing -- and then he jumped right into it. While not a near mechanical 15 year old piano prodigy like Anastasia Rizikov, Boilard’s playing is engaging, emotional and filled with the charm of the instrument. He rose to the demands that this composition puts on breath control; at some points it seemed the audience was holding its breath, while silent, in their anticipation of his making it through these rapid fire sections where his fingers where running up and down the instrument at the speed of light, or so it seemed. There was more of the lighter then air dance between the two instruments as Olivier Hébert-Bouchard’s piano playing seem to romance the oboe, it was not in the background, subservient or an armature to these works but integral to their effect. Both of these pieces are on their debut CD Dialogue, which is worth purchasing -- as I did after the concert. They finished the program with Gabriel’s Oboe by Ennio Morricone from the soundtrack of Roland Joffé 1986 film “the Missions” which seem fresh and new.

It is the fresh and new that comes to music heard live in performances that make festivals like the Honens Piano Festival in Calgary and the COC Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre essential to acquiring a liking for chamber music, Opera, Broadway musicals, jazz music beyond the canned pop/ rock hip hop house music heard on radio. Music of any ilk heard live and played well is persuasive and having spent the last 8 weeks making the effort to go out and listen has reawakened old loves. On Sunday October 26th, I went to the last concert of the Global Cabaret put on by Soul Pepper Theatre to hear jazz singer Jackie Richardson roar like a dove and coo like a lion as she has always done. She is a performer I have been seeing live since she stopped the show in a production of the Three Penney Opera by Brecht and Weill at Young People’s Theatre in 1979. She still stops the show and with that I will also stop.

Step out side your door and go hear some live music. Its good for your insides.


1*  You can hear the works of Derek Holman on line through the Canadian Music Centre website

2*  Canadian Art Song Project, Colin Ainsworth and his former U of T instructor and accompanist Stephen Ralls are part of the Canadian Art Song Project  which is looking to record, archive and preserve the works of Canadian composers including the works of Derek Holman

I have made a "Play List" on YouTube to track the music I have been hearing, most of the pieces in this article are on it, few are by the performers I have heard.

You can find it here:

 Visual interlude Weather/ Tree/ Double Landscape, 1993, acrylic on canvas board,  by  Joe Lewis 1993
Performers seen in the order they are mentioned 

Oboist Vincent Boilard

Pianist Olivier Hébert-Bouchard

Jazz Vocalist Rebecca Jenkins

Pianist Alexander Tharaud

Pianist Pavel Kolesnikov

Pianist Georgy Tchaidze

Ensemble Wild West New Music Ensemble

Pianist Samson Tsoy

Vocalist Colin Ainsworth, Tenor

Pianist Stephen Ralls

Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio members

Vocalist Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, Tenor,
Vocalist Iain MacNeil, bass-baritone

Pianist Jennifer Szeto,

Pianist Anastasia Rizikov


Honens Piano Festival

Canadian Opera Company

Jeunesses Musicales Ontario
Composers mentioned in article (all from Wikipedai)

Igor Stravinsky (b. June 17 1882 d, April 6 1971)

Richard Wagner (b.22 May 1813 d. 13 February 1883)

Mahler, (b.7 July 1860 – d. 18 May 1911)

Erik Satie (b. 17 May 1866 – d. 1 July 1925)

Maurice Ravel (b. March 7, 1875 – d. December 28, 1937)

Sir Edward William Elgar, 1st Baronet, OM, GCVO (b. 2 June 1857 – d. 23 February 1934)

Paul Hindemith (b. 16 November 1895 – d. 28 December 1963)

Derek Holman (b. 16 May 1931)

George Butterworth (12 July 18855 August 1916)

Ivor Gurney (28 August 189026 December 1937)

Tchaikovsky (b. May 7, 1840,  d. November 6, 1893)

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky 21 March 1839 – 28 March 1881)

Sergei Rachmaninov (b. April 1, 1873 – d. March 28, 1943)

Mily Balakirev (b. January 2, 1837 d, May 29, 1910)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  (b.27 January 1756 – d. 5 December 1791)

Nikolai Kapustin (b. November 22, 1937)

Francis Poulenc (b. January 7, 1899, d. January 30, 1963)

Mathieu Lussier (b.1973)
Luciano Berio (b. October 24, 1925 – d. May 27, 2003)

John Cage (b. September 5, 1912 – d. August 12, 1992)