“A Zoological Fantasy”
© Reviewed by John Arkelian
The Ontario Philharmonic closed out its season with two performances of a mixed program on April 28, 2012 at Oshawa’s Regent Theater. Things got
off to a lively start with Darius Milhaud’s “Scaramouche,” a piano duet with eclectic changes in tempo. The soloists were two young pianists with roots right here in Durham Region — Cuban-born Beatriz Boizan and 13-year-old Joel Zhang. Boizan stayed on stage for the next piece, the Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s “Rapsodia Sinfonica” — a romantic dialogue between piano and orchestra. The word tempestuous comes to mind. Sounding like the score from a 1940’s movie, it offered lots of intensity and speed, with a nice part for lead violinist Conrad Chow. Musical storytelling of a more literal sort followed, with Sergei Prokofiev’s instantly familiar “Peter and the Wolf.” Typically Russian, the music was exotic, bold, and irresistibly emotional — sending shivers of delight, even as its themes for Peter and the hunters brought to mind the same composer’s masterfully balletic score for “Romeo and Juliet.” The weak link was the spoken-word narration. Television host Christian Pritchard did serviceable work, but to make a real impact, the narration needed the finely-honed acting skills and gravitas of a Christopher Plummer, James Earl Jones, or the late, lamented Jonathan Frid; or the folksy charm of a Burl Ives. Truth be told, though, Prokofiev’s music tells the story just fine on its own; words are really superfluous.
After the intermission, we were treated to the standout of the evening — a dramatic, powerful performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.” Instantly recognizable (and riveting) from its first notes, this breathtaking work held listeners rapt. Music Director and Conductor Marco Parisotto brought his customary energy, finesse, and control to the piece; and the same can be said for Boizan. The evening’s final piece, Camille Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” which was comprised of fourteen short movements or vignettes, shone in its serene “Aquarium” section, its percussion-driven “Fossils” section, and its achingly yearning “Swan” section. (The spoken-word narration was, again, a needless interruption to the evocative music.) Here’s hoping the Ontario Philharmonic will perform the same composer’s “Symphony No. 3” in a future season.
© May 2012 by John Arkelian.
“Big Apple Bound”
© Reviewed by John Arkelian
Durham’s esteemed County Town Singers, under Music Director Barbara Ouelette, are taking their show on the road this summer as Canada’s representatives at an international choir festival in New York City. They’ll be performing at the United Nations headquarters as well as the Lincoln Center; and, if their May 5, 2012 concert in Courtice is any indication, they’re all set to take a memorable bite out of the Big Apple. The concert featured 19 songs by Canadian composers — works made famous by performers as diverse as Stan Rogers, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, Avril Lavigne, and Celine Dion. A couple of familiar songs (“Big Yellow Taxi” and “Everything I Do”) had unfamiliar arrangements. The evening’s standouts were the lovely, touching “A Mother’s Prayer;” the inspirational “We Rise Again,” featuring a first-rate solo by Jennifer Stewart, who sings like a pro; Leonard Cohen’s moving “Hallelujah;” the infectiously zestful 200-year-old sea-shanty “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?;” Neil Young’s familiar, bittersweet pop song “After the Gold Rush;” the rousing “O Siem” by Inuit-Canadian Susan Aglukark, a song that’s quintessentially Canadian with lyrics like, “We’re all one family, We’re all the same;” the lovely French-Canadian folksong “Ah Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser;” and Stephan Moccio’s “I Believe,” the optimism-evoking theme of Canada’s very own 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The choir left its appreciative audience uplifted and happy!
© May 2012 by John Arkelian.
A Latin Romance
A romantically enchanted evening was in store for the sold-out audience at
Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio on April 14, 2012. All of the components were there — a talented quintet of musicians, an intimate venue, and the music of South American composers — and it all came together in one word — captivating. Ensemble Vivant’s artistic director and abundantly gifted pianist Catherine Wilson was joined on this evening by jazz great Dave Young on bass, Erica Beston on violin, Sybil Herceg-Shanahan on cello, and Norman Hathaway on violin and viola. Each of the five had individual moments to shine in repertoire gleaned mostly from their latest album, “Homage to Astor Piazzolla,” and, collectively, these talented musicians demonstrated all the passion, range, and sheer virtuosity which chamber music has to offer. One of the stand-outs was Carmago Guarnieri’s “Dansa Negra,” which combined classical elements with its composer’s Brazilian roots. It opened with solo piano and a lovely, bittersweet, jazzy melody that hinted of folk and spiritual music influences. Other instruments joined in one-by-one; and the pleasing over-all effect was that of a symphony in miniature.
The other stand-out was Piazzolla’s “Ave Maria,” which originally appeared in the score for an Italian film before finding a new name and a life of its own off the silver screen. J.S. Bach’s “Little Fugue” started off not just the evening, but also the fugue motif adopted by the predominately Latin cast of composers. That was apparent in the very next piece, Piazzolla’s “Fuga Y Misterio,” in which fast-paced patter gave way to a dreamily languid romantic section (which showcased the piano), like a tango morphing into a slow dance. And dance sprang instantly to mind in “Serenata” by the American composer Leroy Anderson. This time, the violin took pride of place, while the music conjured a swank New York City nightclub with elegant couples gliding across a dance floor. Elsewhere, tango met ragtime in two pieces by the Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth. But Catherine Wilson and Ensemble Vivant provided the best “dance” of all — heartfelt, emotive, and full of musical joie de vivre, it was not just a romantic evening, it was also a musically fulfilling one.
Review © April 2012 by John Arkelian.
A Balm in Gilead
In a perfect musical embodiment of Good Friday, the Durham Philharmonic Choir, under its director Robert Phillips, hit all the right notes in its April 6, 2012 concert at the stately St. George’s Anglican Church in Oshawa. The first half of the program was devoted to a work by K. Lee Scott, one of the leading contemporary composers of sacred music in the United States. With lyrics drawn from the Book of Revelations and poet John Donne, Scott’s “Requiem” adroitly combined influences as diverse as Faure, Rutter, and folk melodies, with modern elements like five-note “tone clusters.” The result was a thing of beauty — emotionally stirring the sacred spark within the listener’s soul. Its second section was triumphal and dramatic, then gentle, by turns, with a very nice flute section introducing the exquisite clarity of voice of guest soprano Marion Samuel-Stevens. For its part, the fifth section ended with a shiver of spiritual delight, as guest mezzo Catherine Carew expertly pinch-hit for a baritone felled by the flu. The second half of the concert was given over to an octet of individual selections, of which the stand-outs were: Dawson’s moving “There is a Balm in Gilead,” Faure’s gentle “Cantique de Jean Racine,” and “Hallelujah” and “How Beautiful are the Feet” from Handel’s masterwork “Messiah.”
Review © April 2012 by John Arkelian.
Music to Chase the February Blues Away
© By John Arkelian
On February 25, 2012, the Ontario Philharmonic, under Music Director and Conductor Marco Parisotto, demonstrated again why it is a gem in the crown of the region’s cultural life. The orchestra returned temporarily to its past home at the elegant and spacious Calvary Baptist Church in Oshawa while repairs are being effected to the Regent Theater’s plastic ceiling. The evening was devoted to all things Brahms. The first half of the concert consisted of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D-major, op. 77; and South Korean-born violinist Ye-Eun Choi dazzled in her Ontario debut. The first allegro section of the
work was a melodic dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The program notes claim that it is not virtuoso music, but you could have fooled this reviewer. It was an irresistible immersion in sweeping romanticism, with engaging changes in tempo and tone. At various moments tempestuous, yearning, confident, questioning, happy, and bittersweet, the stand-out first section came to an end in a rousing finish. By the third (and closing) section, we were treated to what the notes described as “rondo in structure, a Hungarian dance in style.” The closing section was certainly more rousing than the middle adagio section. Offering up passion with a hint of the exotic, it was a genuine showstopper! For the second half of the evening, we were treated to Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D-Major, op. 73. Critics refer to its pastoral serenity. But its third movement offered pleasing bursts of emotional intensity, while the intensity of the music in the fourth movement was flat-out and thrilling. The concert was reprised in toto on February 28th at Toronto’s Koerner Hall; and, by all accounts, the standing ovation it earned there was as eminently well-deserved as it had been in its home base of Oshawa!
The Clarington Concert Band, under its able new director John Kraus,
generously devoted half its concert on February 12, 2012 to guest violin soloist Andrew Sords, who was accompanied by Cheryl Duvall on piano. He is based in the United States; she is based in Toronto. And they made beautiful music together at the Bowmanville venue. An eleven-minute medley from Carmen thrilled with its musical representation of seduction, exhilaration, bullfighting, and a walk to one’s doom. Every bit as good was the Csardas (or Hungarian Dances) by Vittorio Monti. The emotive passion of the music and the skill of the performers were utterly radiant. Sords and Duvall also played work by Chopin, Debussy, and the Belgian composer Cesar Franck. As for the band, they delivered a full-tilt program of excitement and energy, with stand-outs like Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” from Rodeo, a selection that was rousing, inspirational, and down-to-earth all at the same time. The other hits of the evening were Czech composer Vaclav Nelhybel’s March to Nowhere, which combined a
demanding percussion section with an endearing melody. The band executed both elements with polish and finesse, as the piece gradually added more and more instruments to the mix. Then there was Catherine McMichael’s Cape Breton Postcard, which offered up memorable vignettes from this reviewer’s favorite place in its three sections – The Dawn, The Mist, and The Thunderer. The first of those sections was unforgettable, starting off, as it did, with sprightly Gaelic whimsy, then gathering the rolling power of wind and wave in a perfect musical representation of the land by the sea.
© 2012 by John Arkelian.
Star-Crossed Lovers under a Starry Sky –
Music Inspired by Shakespeare
Concert review by John Arkelian
“For stony limits cannot hold love out / And what love can do that dares love attempt.” (William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”)
There is something magical about attending a concert or play under the stars on a summer evening — something akin to love, mayhap, something that speaks to us in music or word of imagination and beauty, of tremulous desire and fevered brow, and of dreams both monstrous and sublime. The sublime was fully present on a wonderfully cool and breezy night on June 29, 2011 at a concert dubbed “Music Inspired by Shakespeare.” The setting was the Rexall Center, an ultramodern tennis amphitheater on the grounds of York University in north Toronto. The concert was part of the inaugural season of the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival, a newcomer to the cultural scene that aims to present top-flight work from classical music, opera, jazz, folk, Broadway, rock, and pop music, featuring some of the best and brightest of contemporary performers.
This evening featured acclaimed European conductor Lorin Maazel
leading the Castleton Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Based in Virginia, that 89-musician strong orchestra, and its attendant 21-women chorus, is comprised of promising young (university-aged, from the look of them) musicians. They were joined by the talented sopranos Joyce El-Khoury and Tharanga Goonetilleke. But, the concert’s first half was devoted to instrumental music from two great composers’ takes on the story of “Romeo and Juliet.” Who better to compose for the ballet inspired by Shakespeare’
s play about ill-fated love than Russian composers? For the work of the greatest Russian composers, like that of so many Russian ballet and ice dancers, represents the very epitome of tumultuous passion and refined artistry. And so it was on this evening.
Sergei Prokofiev’s music for the inimical Montague and Capulet families is imperious and proud, full of gripping drama punctuated by gentle introspection. It was the show-stopper of the evening. The same composer’s musical interpretation of the death of Tybalt is the stuff of somber dread and despair, with flashbacks to the protagonists’ love theme. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s version of the same story is passionate, lyrical, and touching by turns, rising to the very heights of the ecstasy, and carrying a transfixed audience along on the journey.
There was a change of pace after the intermission, with the entire second
half of the concert devoted to selections from Felix Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Op. 21 & Op. 61. The orchestra was joined by the chorus, the two su
blime guest sopranos, and, in a truly royal treat, by the acclaimed British actors of stage and screen Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons. Those accomplished thespians punctuated the music (which includes the famous “Wedding March,” sounding especially grand with
a full orchestral rendition) with dramatic readings from Shakespeare’s play: “How fond we are of mishap and illusion.” Both actors were worth the price of admission all by themselves; but Irons was particularly outstanding (often bringing to mind the too little-known, in this his native country, Canad
ian virtuoso of the Shakespearian stage, Jonathan Frid) with his sure command of roles ranging from ribald to regal. Together, actors, musicians, and vocalists earned the audience’s enthusiastic kudos. “To show our simple skill,” indeed, as the Bard said in the most modest of understatement.
It was surprising to see as many empty seats as were evident at the June 29th concert. True, the ticket prices are costly (too costly for many pocketbooks) and the price of parking on campus ($20) wildly exorbitant; but the quality of the concert was far, far too great to reconcile with anything less than a sold-out house. Concert organizers ought to work on substantially reducing their prices; but they’ve got everything else right, with a summer program that offers delights from an eclectic range of musical genres. Although the passage of aircraft far overhead was audible from time to time, it only competed with the orchestra for a few moments and then only during softer sections of the music.
© 2011 by John Arkelian.
There and Back Again: A Critic at Large
Concerts in Durham Region — Spring 2011
© By John Arkelian
The Pickering Community Concert Band, under Doug Manning, celebrated its 20th anniversary on April 16th. If the concert was a tad shorter than the norm, to make room for various spoken acknowledgments and awards, the music itself was testimony to the band’s mandate to bring together musicians of all ages and abilities to play and have fun. Best in show was Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malaguena.” It is one of the band’s favorites, and it was not hard to hear why. Its enchanting swirl of musical colors and rhythms evoked everything from flamenco to bull-fighting, as it transported the listener to Spain with sounds that were at once exotic, passionate, and fast-paced. “Winged Victory” by Brian Balmages was a close second. A musical fantasy based on the sea-shanty “The Drunken Sailor,” was the stuff of high adventure on the high seas — a stirring work with nice emotional sweep. It was one of three compositions selected by the band for their competition in this year’s Kinsmen Music Festival. Honorable mention goes to Leopold Mozart’s (Wolfgang’s father) “Kinder Symphony,” an exercise in good spirits written for toy instruments; and “Pickering Suite” by Vern Kennedy, the winning entry in a competition to honor the band’s anniversary. As catchy as a hockey-night theme, it opened with an effective flourish and proceeded to nice melodies and changes in tempo. The evening ended with a lovely reception, complete with sparkling blue lights, a generous array of wine and cheese, and the music of the Brian Rose Little Big Band. Bravo to all concerned for the concert and hospitality.
The Durham Philharmonic Choir, under Robert Phillips, closed out its season on Good Friday (April 22) with a capacity crowd at the stately St. George Anglican Church in Oshawa. The concert was dedicated to the memory of local musical talent Monica Cotton. The highlight of the first half was an arrangement of “Kumbayah” for men only that offered very nice part work by the bass and tenor sections. The entire second half was devoted to a choir favorite, John Rutter’s “Requiem.” Its first section, “Requiem aeternam,” opened with ominous instrumental music; it was followed by vocals that brought to mind the filmscore for “Ben-Hur,” with melodies that were gentle, melodic, and at moments rousing. The next section brought to mind a black spiritual. Then, guest soprano Laura Klassen brought a lovely wistfulness to “Pie Jesu.” Later, the “Agnus Dei” section opened with what brought to mind majestic choral music from “The Lord of the Rings” films, before closing with a gentle prayer in English. All in all, the concert delivered what the DPC always offers — a fine combination of solemnity, reverence, beauty, and musical skill.
The Ontario Philharmonic closed out its season, under Marco Parisotto, on April 29 with an evening of music by Johannes Brahms — a concert it repeated the next night at Toronto’s toney Koerner Hall. The local venue was the nicely renovated Regent Theater in Oshawa, which is the OP’s new home. And an appealing venue it is, too, with comfortable seating, extremely generous legroom (what a blessed rarity at theaters!), and admirable sightlines — all of which would be the envy of better known Toronto theaters. (On the down-side, however, the Regent’s small lobby cannot comfortably accommodate a capacity crowd in intermission — a good reason why the building’s owner (UOIT) should excavate a large new lobby below grade and connect it to the surface with wide, sweeping staircases and elevators.) As to the music, acclaimed pianist Anton Kuerti was the featured guest for the first half — an assured performance of Brahms’ difficult “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15,” a work that is atmospheric, stately, and gentle, with sudden rising crescendos of intensity. In the second half, the orchestra, which regularly demonstrates why it deserves to be known as one of the finest in Canada, performed Brahms’ “Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.” For this reviewer, that work’s energy, drama, and fast-pacing made it the memorable standout of the evening.
The Uxbridge Chamber Choir, under Thomas Baker, is another of the region’s finest choirs, and they demonstrated why at their closing performance of the season on May 7. (The concert was dedicated to the memory of longtime member Ruth Wade.) The first half was devoted to selections from “All Night Vigil (Vespers), Op. 37” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, which the choir’s director aptly described as “one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever composed.” Each section of the choir did a lovely job of giving vocal contrast to the others, with a result that was engrossing. The second half was just for fun — with J.S. Bach’s “A Peasant Cantata,” a folksy, tongue-in-check confection that brought the form of operetta to mind.
The Clarington Concert Band, under Glenn Ward, never fails to deliver a good time, and their last concert of the season, on May 15, was no exception. Things got off to an infectious start with popular works by Leroy Anderson like “Blue Tango,” “Bugler’s Holiday,” and “The Syncopated Clock.” There were plenty of standouts to follow, starting with Anderson’s “The Irish Washerwoman,” a piece which, despite its name, sounded like it sprang fully born from a John Wayne western or a cavalry march by General George Custer. Building in tempo, it was rousing and irresistible! The same goes for Anderson’s fast and lively “The Rakes of Mallow;” and a medley of themes from Michael Kamen’s 1991 filmscore for “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (the Kevin Costner version); and the closing medley of Henry Mancini songs, like “Moon River,” “Baby Elephant Walk,” “Charade,” “Dear Heart,” and “Peter Gunn.” Two other standouts came courtesy of guest soloists Fr. Paul Massel and Donna Lajeunesse. They sang an extended version of the duet “If I Loved You” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel;” later, he sang “You Raise Me Up,” and she sang “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Here, truly, were downtown Toronto concert hall voices in the intimate setting of a suburban church! The pair will join the band again this summer, and it’s a three-way collaboration that’s not to be missed! Contributions by the host church’s young in-house singers were okay, but the Gospel-pop music they favored did not fit well with the rest of the concert’s play-list.
“Paco Peña’s Flamenco Vivo”
Reviewed by John Arkelian
The northern reaches of the Greater Toronto Area played host on March 4, 2011 to a virtuoso celebration of dance, song, and guitar from sunny Iberia. The Markham Theater’s single performance booking of Spanish flamenco guitar sensation Paco Peña’s latest show, dubbed “Flamenco Vivo,” was a hot-blooded hit with the appreciative sell-out audience. And how could it be otherwise? For here was the very embodiment of passion — captured in a kaleidoscopic swirl of supple dancers, emotive singers, and classical guitar work that transported the audience to the realm of raw, unabashed emotion. Now based in London, England, Peña hails from the Andalucian city of Cordoba in southern Spain, where he made his first professional appearance with a guitar at the age of 12. For Peña, flamenco is at once inextricably rooted in its place of origin and borderless: “Although the roots of flamenco are deeply imbedded in the soil and culture of Andalucia…it nevertheless deals with emotional ingredients that are universal and timeless.” In its origins, flamenco was all about the singing. Ironically, for non-Andalucian audiences, that forceful singing — typically a soloist belting-out inner angst in a full-voiced, rough-edged surge of emotion — is the one component of flamenco that’s the least accessible. There’s nothing in it of ‘glamour’ or even conventional (by North American standards) musicality. Instead, the name of the singer’s game is visceral power — unconcerned with superficial niceties and grounded instead in a powerful wellspring of raw emotion.
Peña’s show combined the master guitarist himself — a virtuoso of such musical discernment, range, and improvisational flair, that a solo classical guitar performance by the man alone would be more than worth the price of admission — and two colleagues on guitar, a barefoot percussionist who worked wonders with his instrument of choice (a wooden box), a pair of singers (one female, the other male) clad in plain black, and three dancers (a man and two women) whose lightning fast footwork, supple wrist and hand movements, ramrod posture, and stylized sexuality were to die for. One of the dancers did double-duty, playfully accompanying Peña on castanets for one number. The result was always mesmerizing and often thrilling, though, truth be told, it lacked some of the fierce impact of Peña’s appearance in Quebec City in October 2009. (And for reasons unknown, the female dancers were clad in much more subdued colors than in that earlier Canadian appearance.)
As to the venue, Markham Theater offers an eclectic, appealing array of performers each year — and admirable sightlines from any of its 530 seats. In the minus-column, however, the seating occupied by this reviewer was woefully cramped. Presumably, that is the trade-off for keeping all of the theater’s seats within 20 meters of the stage; but comfort is too high a price to pay for mere proximity.
© 2011 by John Arkelian.
Photos courtesy of Paco Peña.
Note: The accompanying photograph of a brightly-clad dancer is from Paco Peña’s 2009 show in Québec City. As noted above, the colors on offer in March 2011 were considerably more muted.
On July 25.10
Bon Jovi in Concert
© Reviewed by Adriana Pacheco
Bon Jovi rocked out in Toronto to a packed Rogers Center on July 20 & 21, creating a memorable show for fans both old and new. The band played hits from all eleven of their studio albums, which have sold over 130 million copies, including the 1986 anthem “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Work for the Working Man” from their new album “The Circle,” which went platinum on the day of the concert.
The show kicked-off with an hour-long performance by guest artist Kid Rock, who revved the audience up as he danced around the stage in rock-and-roll frenzy. He performed six songs, including his hit “All Summer Long,” before the main act hit the stage to a plethora of screams from the predominately female audience of about thirty thousand.
True to the form of rock-and-roll, there were a lot of lights, flames, and fireworks, as well as repeated encouragement from John Bon Jovi for the fans to sing along: “Finish the song!” he yelled to the screaming fans as the band segued into the end of their hit “You Give Love a Bad Name.” At one point, the fans started to sing the song “Wanted Dead or Alive” before Bon Jovi could start singing, causing him to flash a pair of perfect pearly whites, which caused the crowd to again break out into screams.
From beginning to end there was no lack of energy from either the audience or the band, even though they did not stop for an intermission, as so many others would have. Massive screens showed close-ups of the band and doubled as spotlights. All-in-all one thing can definitely be said for Bon Jovi: When they do something, they go big.
Adriana Pacheco is a journalism student.