Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Live Review: Brian Yoon (November 25th 2012)

Brian Yoon
Women's Musical Club of Winnipeg
Winnipeg Art Gallery
November 25th 2012

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch
On Sunday, Nov. 25th, the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg presented a recital by cellist Brian Yoon, winner of the 35th annual Eckhardt-Grammaté National Music Competition. Yoon, accompanied by Eliza Ching on piano, introduced the audience at the Muriel Richardson Auditorium to a dramatic collection of contemporary pieces as part of a 2012 E-Gré sponsored national tour.

The afternoon began with String Theory by John Burge, the work specially composed for this year’s Competition. From its hypnotic initial notes onwards, the piece demonstrated Yoon’s outstanding musical skills. The long, sustained strokes of the opening bars gave way to the stirring tremolos and glissandos of the middle section, with Yoon and Ching both impressing the audience with their masterful finale. Ching in particular handled a demanding piano pizzicato interlude with aplomb, and the superb quality of the duo’s first selection set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

Yoon introduced the next piece, Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 143 by Francis Poulenc, as particularly notable for its wide emotional and technical range. The work, comprised of four movements – “Tempo di Marcia,” “Cavatine,” “Ballabile,” and “Finale” – featured lively, playful and romantic tones coupled with a highly rhythmic and invigorating structure. Poulenc’s gorgeously shaded piece, highlighting Yoon and Ching’s perfect synchronicity, ended with a single lighthearted pluck of Yoon’s cello strings.

The following selection, Prayer and Dance of Praise by Elizabeth Raum – written for the 1997 E-Gré Music Competition – lent a satisfying sense of continuity to the concert’s program. The piece, imbued with a sense of longing and deep spirituality, drew its inspiration from Middle Eastern folk melodies that the composer heard as a child at her Syrian grandmother’s family gatherings. Prayer and Dance of Praise featured an impressive array of dynamics, allowing Yoon and Ching to shine as they both deftly navigated the piece’s rapid changes in tempo and tone.

The most anticipated work of the event was perhaps Stigmata by Vincent Ho, Composer-in-Residence to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, who was also present at the concert. Commenting on the selection, Yoon noted that mastering the work, performed without accompaniment, has made him a more confident and mature player.
Charged with a sense of loneliness and anguish, the work was originally written for cellist Jakub Omsky after tragic events in the lives of both the dedicatee and the composer. Stigmata juxtaposed expressive strokes that sounded remarkably like a human voice with periods of frenetic, evocative fingerwork and concluded with a prayer-like section featuring gentle harmonic tremolos. The audience was spellbound.

The last piece of the program, “…and dark time flowed by her like a river…” by Gary Kulesha, inspired by a novel by Thomas Wolfe, featured the best piano work of the afternoon. Ching provided both a roiling undercurrent to Yoon’s darkly rhapsodic tones and exquisite solos of her own. Piano and cello seemed to race each other to the final exhilarating notes of the concert, earning a standing ovation from the enraptured audience.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Live Review: Kyung and Michael Kim (December 9th 2012)

Baroque and Beyond: The Evolution of Romanticism
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
December 9th 2012

On December 9th, Virtuosi Concerts welcomed pianists Kyung and Michael Kim to their stage. Together with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players, the couple treated audience members to a charming ‘potpourri’ of romantic music. Michael Kim served as emcee, and his thoughtful comments on each of the offerings proved to be entertaining and educational, particularly for the many young concert patrons in attendance.

Virtuosi Artistic Director Harry Strub introduced the event, noting that the performance was taking place during the holiday season, and the event had an ambiance appropriately filled with festive cheer. Many of the chosen pieces by Schumann, Rachmaninov and Mendelssohn seemed inspired by hopefulness and love.

The afternoon began with Kyung Kim’s solo rendition of Haydn’s Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI/20, a lively piece that set the tone for the remainder of the concert. The Chamber Players then joined Michael Kim on stage to perform Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard and Strings in F minor, which featured a gorgeous pizzicato interlude from the WSO violins. The Chamber Players accompanied the Kims throughout the concert, and their rendition of the second movement of Chopin’s Piano Concert No. 1 in E. minor, Op. 11 with Michael Kim was particularly outstanding.

Both pianists were able to demonstrate their unique talents during the program. Kyung Kim offered a pure and flawless interpretation of a selection from Mendelssohn’s Song Without Words: Op. 19, No. 1 in E major. Michael Kim’s solo performance of Liszt’s Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto was similarly superb.

As a finale, the Kims performed Rossini’s Overture to Barber of Seville, with four hands, on the piano. The piece, well-known from the Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit of Seville, was a crowd-pleaser, and made for a joyous finale to a lovely afternoon of music imbued with humour, happiness and romance.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Live Review: Canzona (October 28th 2012)

Concert I – Zelenka and Bach
Crescent Fort Rouge United Church
October 28th 2012
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

On October 28th, Winnipeg’s Canzona treated an audience at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church to an evening of warmth, light, and wonderful music. Accompanied by the MusikBarock Ensemble under the baton of Eric Lussier, the choral ensemble performed Jan Dismas Zelenka’s Missa votiva ZWV 18 and Bach’s Cantata BWV 80 Ein feste Burg, or A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Crescent Fort Rouge United, with its intimate setting, served as a refuge from the cold October weather and was the perfect venue for this performance.

The evening began with Zelenka’s Missa votiva. Zelenka, a seventeenth-century Czech composer, wrote the piece as a form of gratitude to God after recovering from a lengthy and near-lethal illness. The music, “offered as a special intention," felt accordingly charged with energy and devotion. The piece was comprised of five parts, with the Kyrie and Gloria opening the concert and the Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei performed after intermission. 

The first half of the Missa featured several solo performances, with soprano Marni Enns’ lovely, shaded take on “Qui tollis peccata mundi” and bass Paul Wiens’ subtle rendition of “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” as highlights. A “Kyrie eleison” quartet, comprised of alto Kim Brown, tenor Doug Pankratz, bass Kris Kornelson and soprano Sara Clefstad – who shone in her debut as a soloist with the ensemble – provided a further showcase of Canzona’s vocal abilities. The Gloria felt lively and spirited, with the vivacious melodies of “Gratias agimus” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo” bringing to mind the folk dances of Zelenka’s homeland.

The Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei sections of Zelenka’s work captivated the audience with a feeling of spiritual depth and sincerity. Soprano Zohreh Gervais expressed the devotional nature of the Sanctus with her beautiful interpretation of “Benedictus."

While dividing Zelenka’s work into two sections may have seemed unusual, the choice was a wise one, allowing for a stunning ending to the concert. The Credo in particular was exuberant and energetic, with its last words, “Et vita ventum saeculi,” rising to the rafters in a thrilling crescendo of intricate harmonies and passionate bow-work.

Bach’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God, the second selection of the program, found the ensemble taking full advantage of the unique atmosphere of the venue. Soprano Sarah Kirsch impressed in her aria “Komm in meines Herzenshaus," while, in a personal and thoughtful touch, the listeners were invited to sing along with the chorus during “Und wenn die welt voll Teufel wär." Coached by Eric Lussier prior to the performance, the surprisingly adept and boisterous audience did a fantastic job, lending a festive ambiance to the concert.

The evening was an artistically superb and emotionally resonant event. Speaking after the concert, Artistic Director Henry Engbrecht commented that the Missa votiva’s power reflected Zelenka’s sheer joy at being alive and able to continue his artistic vocation. The vitality of the ensemble’s performance was a perfect fit for the composer’s intention.

It’s a shame that Canzona has only one other performance this concert season, but if this evening is any indication, it will be another highlight of Winnipeg’s classical music scene.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Live Review: New Orford String Quartet (October 13th 2012)

 Photo by Alain Lefort.
New Orford String Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
October 13th 2012
Four stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch
On October 13th, Virtuosi Concerts was delighted to present the New Orford String Quartet, a Canadian ensemble comprised of Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan on violin, Eric Nowlin on viola and Brian Manker on cello. The New Orford takes its name from the legendary Orford String Quartet, a chamber music institution that grew to be an integral part of Canada’s musical community over its twenty-six-year career. Since its debut three years ago, the New Orford String Quartet has been the recipient of critical acclaim and rave reviews across the world.
The evening began with Haydn’s String Quartet No. 4 in D major, Op. 20, a piece whose diverse array of moods and textures proved a fitting introduction to the Quartet’s musical dexterity. The Allegro di Molto was lively and captivating, while the Un poco Adagio Affettuoso, featuring Wan’s violin, sounded melancholy and smooth as silk. The vibrant Allegretto alla zingarese – “in gypsy style” – gave Manker’s cello a chance to shine with dazzling bow work. Presto scherzando – “light and playful” – was wonderfully dramatic, with its frequent shifts in tempo masterfully executed by the four musicians.
The program continued with String Quartet No. 1, Op. 19 by Quebecois composer Jacques Hétu, one of the most esteemed figures in modern Canadian classical music. Nowlin introduced the work, noting that it was originally written for the Orford String Quartet, setting high expectations for the piece. The Allegro, built around a canon, showcased the Quartet’s fluidity as the movement’s central melody was passed seamlessly from one player to the next. The Andante started out as smooth and lyrical, but soon built to a furious climax that left one breathless. The stunning third movement, the Vivace, was a truly thrilling demonstration of both the Quartet’s skill and Hétu’s compositional ingenuity; introduced as a scherzo, it featured ponticello, a technique involving playing close to the bridge, which creates an icy, glassy sound in the process. The concluding Allegro brought together the themes in the form of a fugue, ending with one sustained and spellbinding note. 

In the last piece of the program, Brahms’ String Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 51,  Crow took the lead, steering the Quartet through a multi-textured, shaded Allegro and the soothing Allegretto, which, with its simple, repetitive motif, brought to mind the lullabies Brahms is most famous for. The piece featured a more assertive cello part than those written by Haydn and Hétu, allowing for the use of some unexpected percussive effects. Manker took full advantage of the lovely, sweet Romanze poco adagio, where his strumming of the cello provided enchanting baroque-style flourishes. Following a standing ovation, the Quartet returned to the stage for a spirited rendition of the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op.59.

Those in the packed-to-the-rafters Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall seemed especially taken by the truly imaginative, fresh sound of the Quartet. In particular, the artists’ choice of repertoire and their use of many inventive techniques were major contributions to their captivating performance. Speaking after the concert, Nowlin noted that the quartet actively seeks to ensure that each piece “exists in its own sonic space." The ensemble’s contemporary sound is accomplished in part by the artists’ “restrained use of traditional long strokes and vibrato," an approach seen most clearly in their classical selections. The Virtuosi audience appeared to have enthusiastically approved of these stylistic choices. New Orford’s powerful and intricate sound makes one feel that the Quartet’s musical predecessors would have been equally as delighted and impressed.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Live Review: The Musical Offering (April 21th 2012)

I attend a lot of classical music concerts in Winnipeg, many of which I write reviews of. I'm going to post these reviews on here, although first I'll post some older reviews before I post more recent reviews.

As Flows the Avon
The Musical Offering
April 21st
Three stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The Musical Offering’s last regular concert of its 2011/12 season featured a programme highlighting Elizabethan music. Artistic Director and harpsichordist Sylvia Scott Wortley’s home makes for a wonderfully intimate concert setting, and each performance feels like a private recital in one’s own living room.

The Madrigal Singers – Zohreh Gervais, soprano; Susanne Reimer, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Pauls, tenor; and Stephen Haiko, bass –began the afternoon with a gorgeous performance of April is in my Mistress’ Face by Thomas Morley. The foursome’s intricate harmonies made for an impressive start to the afternoon’s programme. Gervais’ sparkling soprano and Haiko’s rich, expansive bass were the indisputable standouts. Gervais returned later for an emotional rendition of As I Walk’d Forth by Robert Johnson, and Johnson’s lament for a lost love was heartbreaking when delivered in Gervais’ gorgeous and crystal-clear voice.

Wortley was joined by Micahel Cobus and Margaret McKenty on alto recorder to perform Two Duo Fantasias by Orlando Gibbons, and the trio’s smooth playing and natural chemistry made the work a treat to hear. Wortley took to the harpsichord alone to perform Gipseis Round by William Byrd, a piece originally written for virginal – an ancient box-like instrument with a similar sound. Her nimble playing brought the piece’s images of dancing gypsies and energetic rhythms to life. Paul Cowie provided entertaining interludes between pieces with his recitations of Shakespearean sonnets while dressed in full Elizabethan costume.

The lutanist Darren Smith, listed as featured artist, was unable to attend, an unfortunate absence that led to several changes in the program. Pieces promising his collaboration with the Madrigal Singers, such as Five knacks for ladies by John Dowland, were pleasing, but would have likely been more compelling with his accompaniment.

Despite its distinctive theme, the programme felt somewhat disjointed. In particular, Cowie’s readings, while enjoyable in themselves, were far too frequent. Placing the readings at the beginning and end of the concert would have allowed the musicians and singers –truly the stars of the afternoon – to shine even brighter.

The Musical Offering’s concerts provide a unique and personal connection between the artists and the audience, as well as a chance to hear compositions that rarely, if ever, get played. If they focus on the music that makes their programmes special, the Musical Offering’s performances may very well be one of the gems of Winnipeg’s chamber music season.

Theatre Review: Gone With the Wind @ RMTC

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

I'm going to be honest with you: when the days came closer to January 7th, the first preview night and world premiere of Gone With the Wind by Niki Landau, I vaguely considered switching my tickets for an RMTC show to a later date. I had no problem with the three-and-a-half-hour long running time - last season's August: Osage County was approximately the same length - but I was expecting, worst case scenario, that there would be three hours of performance and half an hour of glitches. I should have known better; RMTC's productions have grown more and more accomplished over the past six seasons.

Gone With the Wind is practically flawless - sets, costumes and acting included. It's smart, witty and romantic. It transports the audience to Civil War Georgia and is everything I love about theatre.

Landau's script solves all of the problems with both the novel and the Hollywood film; perhaps most significantly, the near-racist portrayal of African-American characters in Mitchell's book has been dealt with in a completely original and satisfactory manner. The basic elements of the film, with its tendency towards caricature and implausible casting, have also been retooled. Let's face it: given Vivien Leigh's difficulties - both physical and marital - during filming, the idea of her portraying a strong Southern woman was absurd. Similarly, Clark Gable was never quite successful as Rhett Butler. All of this made easy ammunition for Carol Burnett's legendary and painfully spot-on TV parody Went With the Wind.

RMTC's Gone With the Wind, on the other hand, is bulletproof. Bethany Jillard makes Scarlett both sympathetic and realistic; the actress and the playwright are not afraid to explore the less admirable aspects of Miss O'Hara's personality. This Scarlett O'Hara is by no means afraid to "lie, cheat, steal and murder," as she declares at the end of Act I and makes clear in Act II. Tom McCamus gives Rhett Butler the nuanced portrayal the character has always deserved, and McCamus's lionine appearance makes Butler far more rugged, handsome and physically imposing than Gable ever was.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Mammy (Miche Braden) and Melanie Wilkes (Sarah Constible), both infamously one-dimensional characters in the film adaptation, are genuine human beings here. Braden gives one of the best supporting performances of the 2012/13 season, and her speech prior to leaving Scarlett in Act III made more than one audience member's eyes fill with tears. Miriam Smith does a wonderful job as Scarlett's nervewracked aunt Miss Pittypat and Terri Cherniak is formidable as the hypocritical Miss Merriweather.

L-R: Sarah Constible (Melanie), Jennifer Dzialoszynski (Carreen) and Kate Besworth (Suellan O'Hara). All photos are by Bruce Monk from the RMTC website.

The sets are incredible and the wardrobe is impressive; Jillard wears at least ten, maybe even fifteen different outfits during the production, each of her gowns fit for a real Atlanta charity ball. Epic history and personal struggle come together in a play that captivates us with its emotional intensity; miraculously, the three-and-a-half-hour show seems not a minute too long.

If there's one play you see this season, make it this one.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Live Review: The Ying Quartet (April 14th 2012)

I attend a lot of classical music concerts in Winnipeg, many of which I write reviews of. I'm going to post these reviews on here, although first I'll post some older reviews before I post more recent reviews.

The Ying Quartet
Virtuosi Concerts
Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall
April 14th 2012
Four and a half stars

Reviewed by Paul R. McCulloch

The 2011/12 Virtuosi Concerts season came to a stellar close with a performance by the internationally-renowned Ying String Quartet. Made up of Ayano Ninomiya and Janet Ying on violin, Phillip Ying on viola and David Ying on cello, the quartet treated a capacity crowd at Eckhardt-Grammaté Hall Saturday night to an evening of warmth, life, and flawless performances.

The concert began with Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35, a work inspired by the composer’s friendship with Pyotr Tchaikovsky and incorporating elements of Tchaikovsky’s exultant Coronation March into its third movement. Arensky’s piece opened with a stunning evocation of chanting bass voices and played with an impressive variety of moods and textures – including a gorgeous pizzicato interlude in the Moderato – before ending with a spellbinding, violin-led race to the finish.

The following piece, Awakening by Billy Childs, replaced a work by Kenji Bunch listed in the program. The Quartet commissioned the work as part of an ongoing series in which composers are invited to reflect on their personal experiences. Childs took inspiration from his wife's life-threatening illness, with his anxiety reflected in the piece's often harrowing feel and sharp, dramatic contrasts. The mournful second movement broight the unsettling atmosphere of a hospital room to life, right down to the eerie beeping of a lung machine. Childs' work was also influenced by Leoš Janáček’s famous "Intimate Letters" Quartet, a piece inspired by the composer's ill-fated relationship with a younger woman. Awakening felt propelled by a similar sense of emotional tension.  

For the last selection of the night, the Quartet offered a glorious and vibrant rendition of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2. The romantic character of the work was highlighted by the hymn-like quality of the second movement and the use of a Russian theme, first introduced by Modest Mussorgsky, in its Allegretto. The musicians’ interpretation of the quartet was masterful, with Ninomiya and David Ying impressing as the indisputable stars of the evening. Ninomiya dazzled with her lightning-speed bow work and flawless technique, while cellist Ying lent both an important rhythmic foundation and an awe-inspiring level of passion and energy to the performance.
As the last notes sounded in the auditorium, the audience rewarded the Ying Quartet with a long and sustained standing ovation. The concert proved to be the perfect ending to a fabulous season of great music and memorable performances. Alas, no encore was offered.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

15,000 Hits: A Celebration

A few days ago, Paul's Winnipeg hit 15,000 views. I decided that I had to celebrate this in some way, considering the last time I did something similar was when the blog got 1000 views back in 2009.

I wasn't sure what to do, especially after my original idea - to celebrate by posting the musical Red, White and Blaine from Christopher Guest's classic parody of small-town musical theatre Waiting for Guffman - couldn't happen due to copyright issues. Some of the best numbers from the show, including the big dramatic climax, "This Bulging River," had been removed from YouTube because of copyright infringement. (This is actually an incentive for anyone who hasn't seen Waiting for Guffman to rent or buy it so you can no longer be denied the pleasure of watching this incredibly hilarious film.)

Instead, I've chosen to do a post featuring some of my favorite scenes from Christopher Guest's mockumentary films. Guest's films are almost entirely improvised, and he's notorious for being a very "cut-happy" director: in other words, quite a few of the best scenes aren't even included in the released movie and are instead relegated to the 'deleted scenes' portion of the DVD.

There's no particular order to the scenes I picked, although I haven't chosen any clips from This is Spinal Tap because while Guest did co-write the film, he wasn't the director. Also, as hilarious and brilliant as it is, it's probably the one film in Guest's oeuvre that most people have seen already. Think of this list as somewhat lesser-known personal favorites with a few classics thrown in.

I hope you enjoy these clips as much as I enjoyed selecting them.

Head on below the fold for my list.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #6

6. A Fine Frenzy, Pines

Inspired by the majesty and beauty of the redwood forests of Northern California and Washington, Pines may be the most unexpectedly brilliant album released this year. Alison Sudol, known previously for her charming blend of folk and upbeat pop, has crafted an immediate, raw and mesmerizing work. The hushed breaths that open “Pinesong” give way to the eerie “The Sighting,” triumphant “Sailingsong” and thunderous “They Can’t If You Don’t Let Them.” From start to finish, Pines is an album to get lost in.


20 Best Albums of 2012: #7

7. Melody Gardot, The Absence

Melody Gardot took inspiration for The Absence from time spent in Morocco, Brazil and Spain, and many of its songs, including “Lisboa” and “Mira,” reflect the album’s nature as a sun-filled and romantic travelogue. The record balances this breezy island feel with excursions into the underground jazz clubs of a noir-type city, spaces where “Goodbye” and “If I Tell You I Love You” bring out the grit and sensuality in Gardot’s amazing voice. The Absence is a bold, sultry and multifaceted work that surprises the listener at each new turn.  

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #8

8. Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur

Voyageur is a masterclass in how to take one’s pain and transform it into great music. Using Edwards’ recent divorce as a catalyst, the record traverses a wide range of emotions, from anger and disappointment to recognition and, eventually, release. Voyageur’s most accomplished songs, such as the outstanding “Going to Hell” – which describes an intimate relationship as a journey across the Canadian wilderness – and the wearied waltz “A Soft Place to Land” manage to evoke all these sentiments at once.


Tuesday, 1 January 2013

20 Best Albums of 2012: #11

11. The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth
Transcendental Youth is a captivating record. John Darnielle has a gift for writing evocative lyrics, such as “long black night / morning frost / I’m still here / but all is lost,” that strike a deeply personal chord with listeners. He can be unflinchingly direct as well, especially on “Harlem Roulette” and “Spent Gladiator 2.” The album prominently features a brass section, a choice that results in some absolutely gorgeous arrangements, including the trombone line on the title track.

20 Best Albums of 2012: #9

9. Grizzly Bear, Shields

Shields is a record perfect for the period of time between autumn and winter when the barrier between warmth and cold begins to be defined. The songs on the album embrace the listener even as their lyrics speak of distances and isolation. Despite the band's avowed efforts to make the album ‘less dreamy’ than previous releases, Shields is never truly dissonant in mood or tone. This doesn’t make Shields any less satisfying: it’s a beautifully shaded work that reveals the complexity of its melodies and structures over time.