Monday, October 24, 2022

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told

It has been a few years now since Seattle Opera presented a Wagner opera. The company’s current production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde firmly re-establishes it as one of North America’s premiere Wagner capitals. For me, the performance was an overwhelmingly moving theatrical, musical and emotional experience. 


Heidi Melton (Isolde) and Amber Wagner (Bragane) were well-matched in dramatic qualities and beauty of their voices. Melton had, in recent years, sang and recorded Sieglinde in the composer’s Die Walkure and Brunnhilde in Siegfried, with Jaap van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic as part of their outstanding of Ring Cycle recording. Vocally theirs were the highlights of yesterday’s performance. Amber Wagner’s voice is truly something to behold. She has the power to sail through the orchestral texture, but at the same time never losing the velvety beauty of the quality of her voice. Melton’s voice also possesses great beauty, but also a dramatic quality that matches the text and context.


Stefan Vinke’s Tristan does not quite possess the beauty of Ben Hepner (Seattle’s last Tristan) or the dramatic declamatory qualities of Jon Vickers. Nevertheless, his voice much improved in the second and third acts, and in the end successfully conveyed the tortured passions of the tragic character. 


Morris Robinson had a commanding dramatic as well as vocal presence, and portrayed a most dignified, human and sympathetic King Marke. 


The supporting roles in the opera also had uniformly strong voices. Ryan McKinny was convincing as Kurwenal, in his youthful passion and complete devotion to his master. Andrew Stenson (Sailor/Shepherd), Viktor Antipenko (Melot) and Joshua Jeremiah (Steersman) all contributed to make this a truly uniformly strong cast. 


As with any Wagner, the orchestra plays a vital role in any presentation of this Gesamtkunstwerk. Members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra shone with their magnificent playing yesterday. Principal oboe Mary Lynch Vanderkolk, bass clarinetist Eric Jacobs and of course Stefan Farkas playing the English horn, were outstanding in the beauty of their individual sounds as well as how they blended with the orchestral fabric.


I was bowled over by Canadian conductor Jordan De Souza’s control of the orchestra and singers, as well as his passionate conductor of the complex score, while maintaining the flow of the music and imparting great tension into the orchestral sound. According to his biography, he has already conducted in Bayreuth, the Wagner capital of the world. Certainly, a young conductor to watch. If yesterday’s performance was any indication, I am certain that we will be seeing great things from this hugely talented young man. 


The remarkable stage design truly deserves special mention. Using digital projection onto a scrim in front of the singers as well as on the backdrop, set and video designer Diego Siliano and video animator Luciana Gutman created real stage magic in all three acts – from the bowels of the ship in Act One, to the love scene in Act Two, where Isolde’s bedchamber surrounded by the forest transformed into a full backdrop of the constellation in the climax, to the black and white, bleak and desolate landscape of Act Three – I would boldly say that this current set design is as ground-breaking as Wieland Wagner’s “painting with light” productions were in post-war Bayreuth. In yesterday’s production, the transformations of the backdrops created a synergistic effect with the music, which I found to be emotionally overwhelming. 


I am gratified and thankful that in this current production, the director and set designers did not use Wagner to further their own political ideologies, as we so often see in European productions. I am so glad to see Wagner back in Seattle Opera’s repertory again. Buy a ticket and run to see this production. I can safely say that it will be nothing like you have seen or heard before.



Light of Humanity

In spite of the horrors of finding parking in downtown Vancouver – an Iranian protest, Elton John’s concert and a hockey game were going on at the same time – the Vancouver Cantata Singers’ opening concert of their season reminded us that this group is truly one of the jewels in our city vibrant choral scene.


The programme is “ecumenical”, with music that drew inspiration from Aboriginal sources (The Gift by Russell Wallace), the great Catholic choral tradition (Versa est in luctum by Alonso Lobo and a Kyrie setting by Larry Nickel), and the Ismali heritage (Nur: Reflections on Light, by Hussein Janmohamed). In addition, there were music by Tracy Wong – Antara - drawing from the words of Malaysian writer Hohd Tauid, Benjamin Britten’s anti-war Advance Democracy, Craig Galbraith’s Lux humanitas, which draws from a variety of text sources, and the work that served as the centerpiece of the entire concert, as well as giving the concert its title. 


The final work, This is My Song, with lyrics set to Sibelius’ Finlandia, became for me especially meaningful and poignant, with so many displaced people everywhere in the world – Iran, Ukraine, China, and Hong Kong, to name just a few - persecuted because of their political or religious beliefs. 


Artistic Director Paula Kremer returned to conduct the choir, and brought to the music a depth, subtlety and flexibility of sound. The voices of the choir, as well as the solo singers featured, remain strong and blended beautifully from first note to last. 


We welcome back Ms. Kremer and wish her continuing good health, and many more years of music-making with this outstanding group of singers.


Friday, October 21, 2022

The Goldberg Variations

At the end of Sir Andras Schiff’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations Thursday evening, I felt that applause would almost have been an intrusion, a rude awakening from the magical reverie of the past hour, almost like King Marke bursting in upon the dazed lovers at the end of Act II of Tristan und Isolde.


What an incredible evening of Bach, brought to us by one of today’s great artists and musicians. As with Schiff’s recital on Tuesday, it was a generous evening of music – the Italian Concerto, BWV 971, the Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, and then the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Before each piece, Schiff would enlighten us with brief works about the piece in question, in the process also revealing a little of his thoughts of our present human and societal condition.


As a prelude to the evening, Schiff played a beautifully shaded performance of Bach’s Sinfonia in F minor, BWV 795, probably one of his most profound keyboard works – certainly one of his most difficult and complex - saying so much, as Schiff said, in so little time. 


In the 1st movement of the Italian Concerto, Schiff brought about the contrast between the ripieno and concertino not so much with different volume, but with different qualities of sound. In the Andante, the right-hand passage of the “solo” was beautifully shaped by the artist, making it truly sounding like a solo instrument in a concerto, like an oboe, for which Bach wrote such incredible music, and the left hand provided a subtle but beautifully shaped accompaniment by the “strings”. Schiff’s tempo choice for the Presto was a shade slower than some other pianists who literally takes on a breathless quality with this music, but the absolute steadiness at which he played made the experience just as stunning. As in the first movement, he effectively brought out the contrast between the ripieno and concertino, in this case almost like a shift between light and darkness.


I would have to say that Schiff’s performance of the Overture in the French Style was the epitome of elegance and style. He did not fall prey to ponderousness in the French overture, by giving the music a palpable forward motion. The B section of the overture betrayed a deftness and lightness of fingerwork, and again an almost concerto grosso-like contrast between piano and forte. The artist observed all of Bach’s repeats, allowing him to explore and highlight the well-thought out and beautifully executed ornaments in the repeats. The rhythmically tricky Gigue was, I thought, particularly brilliantly handled, and his playing of the Echo was truly humourous.


I had heard Sir Andras Schiff play the miraculous Goldberg Variations many years ago, in Seattle. After a lifetime of performing and thinking about the piece, I think it has now really become a part of him. Last night’s performance was so focused and so intimate, that I had the impression that we were eavesdropping upon him playing for himself. The hour went by very quickly indeed.


Schiff managed to bring out the unique character of each variation. Tempi were judiciously chosen. I think he now takes time to let the music breathe, even some of the variations that are usually played in a much quicker tempo. Variation 7 (al tempo di Giga), for instance, has a very nice “swing” to it – as did Variation 24. Variation 13 was played with absolute grace and beautiful shaping of the long phrases. I liked the sense of motion he imparted on Variation 15, a good reminder that Andante is really only a walking tempo. Likewise, in the French Overture of Variation 16, he played the music with a palpable sense of forward motion, as well as an appropriate lightness. In Variation 25 (adagio), the emotional centerpiece of the entire work, he did not “milk” the tragedy of the music, but kept the pace of the movement of the music. In the B section of the variation, he truly highlighted the absolute “weirdness” of the melodic contour, giving the music a sense of utter bleakness and desolation. In Variation 29, from mm. 10 – 14, and again in mm. 27 to 30, he created a kind of “clattering” sound that one usually finds in the harpsichord, a most intriguing sound effect on the Steinway. The Quodlibet(Variation 30) was played with high good humour, Schiff himself obviously relishing every moment of it, a very appropriate interlude before the return of the Aria


When Schiff reached the return of the Aria, I truly felt that he had taken us on an incredible sonic, musical, emotional and spiritual journey, and that there was a sense of returning home, of resolution, or of a closing benediction.


How fortunate it is for Vancouver audience to have experienced this otherworldly musical experience. As Schiff said at the beginning, we do have Leila Getz to thank for bringing a young Andras Schiff to our city some forty years ago. I feel truly thankful to have been a part of this shared musical communion.





Thursday, October 20, 2022

Sir Andras Schiff's Surprise Recital

Sir Andras Schiff made a welcomed return to Vancouver with two recitals this week, under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society.


Yesterday evening’s very generous recital at the Vancouver Playhouse was a surprise, of sorts, because the programme was not given in advance, but announced from the stage by the artist. While it wasn’t exactly a lecture-recital, Sir Andras did enlighten the works he performed with much information about the music, delivered with his inimitable wit and charm. 


The recital got off to a surprising start when Schiff sat down at the piano and played the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, a work that he is scheduled to play this coming Thursday. At the end of this brief performance, he jokingly said that he was merely using this brief piece “to practice for Thursday”, but also as a “test” piece, as he did not have an opportunity to hear the acoustics of the hall earlier in the day.


Schiff then proceeded with a pair of works – J. S. Bach’s Ricercare in 3 voices from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, and Mozart’s Fantasy in C minor, K. 475 – pointing out the similarity between the “Royal theme” from The Musical Offering and the opening theme of Mozart’s work – indeed there was an uncanny similarity between the contour of the two themes. His playing of Bach is always convincing, highlighting the modernity and the chromaticism of the theme which recurred the work. With the Mozart, I have certainly heard more “romantic” interpretation of the Fantasy in C minor, ones that drew from a larger palette of colours and range of emotions, but Schiff, not surprisingly, kept his beautiful interpretation well within classical proportions, remaining firming in the 18th century rather than looking forward to the 19th century.


After the dark colours of these opening works – Schiff did point out his belief in associating different keys with different visual colours – he continued with two sunnier compositions. He proceeded to play Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 and Mozart’s Kleine Gigue in G major, K. 574, the latter composition’s tribute to the Baroque master. Schiff demonstrated the similarity between the opening motive of the B section of the Gigue and the subject of the Gigue. His performance of the French Suite was utterly charming, and was like a museum curator highlighting the beauty of a precious jewel. Highlights for me were his playing of the Courante, which was breathtaking and exhilarating, and the Gavotte and Gigue, which were filled with a ticklish humour. The same good humour carried over into his playing of the Kleine Gigue, which Schiff described as Mozart’s funniest composition. 


The colour of the recital turned sombre once again with the next two works – Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in B minor from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 869 and Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, K. 540, his only work in this “pitch black” key (Schiff’s words). From the floating and beautifully paced playing of the Prelude, to the anguish falling motives of the Fugue’s subject (Schiff compared it to the Kyrie of Bach’s Mass in B minor), to the even darker colour of his moving performance of Mozart’s great Adagio, with the concluding shift to the major key a blessed relief, the pianist once again made a convincing connection between the two composers.


The first half of the recital concluded with Mozart’s Sonata in D major, K. 576, with the artist pointing out how difficult to play this “simple” music, for “anyone between the ages of 8 and 95”. Schiff added that Mozart is only easy for children and very wise old men. While he obviously had not reached the biblical age of 95, Schiff’s beguiling performance of the sonata betrayed, with every note, not only his identification with Mozart, but a lifetime of dedication, thinking and experience. Everything was beautifully proportioned, shone with an inner glow with every note played, and the operatic qualities of the music were very much in evident. 


The second half of the recital began with Haydn’s two-movement Sonata in G minor, Hob XVI:44. His performance of this charming sonata highlighted the composer’s gentle and genteel humour (many of Haydn’s other works often have a more rough, unbuttoned humour, but this was not one of them), with the works many ornaments especially elegantly executed. 


Schiff moved on to the final two works of the recital, the first being Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, his last composition. He pointed out the genius of these brief works, and how they foreshadow Schubert’s Impromptus and Mendelssohn’s Lieder onhe Worte – many of the works in the set did very much have the flavour of Mendelssohn. In his performance of the fourth Bagatelle in B minor – Beethoven’s only work in this key - he highlighted the “tempest in a teacup” quality and rollicking humour of the piece, and Beethoven’s almost deliberate use of this dark key and turned the tables on us with his unique brand of good humour.


The final work presented in last night’s recital was a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in E major, Op. 109, the first of his last three sonatas. Schiff’s conception of the work has deepened since the last time I heard him play this, and the experience had the impression of a connection between the first note and the last. I loved the way he handled the tricky opening of the first movement, making it sound not like a “beginning”, but music that emerged from somewhere. His playing of the return of the aria in the last movement, where the music drifted into silence, had the quality of a benediction, a moving conclusion to an incredible evening of great music. 


Last night’s recital was utterly and overwhelmingly uplifting, both musically and spiritually. 


We can be thankful to Sir Andras Schiff for the generosity of his spirit, and I am grateful to the Leila Getz for making Vancouver a regular stop for his sojourns. I am looking forward to Thursday’s all-Bach recital, which would surely be another experience that elevate us and deliver us from the not-always-beautiful realities of today’s world.