Music Review- Show One Productions/soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and pianist Anthony Manoli in Recital

Radvanovsky1At the recent Sondra Radvanovsky concert at Koerner Hall, my former boss at Classical 96 FM joked that I had discovered the soprano who is now considered the belle of the opera world. That is not far from the truth in terms of Toronto. He remembered when I came back from Spoleto Festival USA in 2000, and in my review, raved about a young singer who had been very impressive, both in vocal and acting skills, in the title role of Verdi’s Luisa Miller. Two years later, I extolled her prowess in Verdi’s La traviata at Santa Fe. Admittedly, I do take pride in the fact that I alerted Classical 96 listeners to the fact that Radvanovsky was on the road to greatness and attention must be paid.

My next encounter was one of those weird coincidences. The year after Santa Fe, I got a press release announcing that St. Michael’s Choir School would be giving a special concert at Toronto’s historic St. Anne’s Anglican Church with guest soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. I was totally mystified about the how and the why behind this rising star American soprano and, (in what must be), her first Toronto appearance. It was not exactly a highly visible debut. Nonetheless, I kept badgering everyone I knew to get themselves to St. Anne’s (historic because of its Group of Seven murals). I wanted my fellow opera lovers to experience this great new voice.

For the life of me, I can’t remember the repertoire (it was either Christmas or Easter), but I certainly recall that Radvanovsky and the boys were glorious. The last part of the concert was a sing-along of some sort and I was instantly aware of the fine robust voice coming from the row behind me. When I complimented the gentleman on his singing at the end of the concert, he turned out to be Duncan Lear, Radvanovsky’s husband/manager, and a former St. Michael’s chorister himself. His wife was performing with the choir as a return favour to the St. Mike’s choirmaster who had arranged the music for their wedding. (It was the great Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a former St. Mike’s boy soprano, and a close friend of Lear’s, who had engineered the meeting between the two).

And so began an acquaintance with Radvanovsky and Lear. I attended operas in New York and Chicago when Radvanovsky appeared in those cities, and would meet with the couple for a late dinner after. In fact, it was after a stunning Il trovatore in Chicago that I broached the subject of Radvanovsky and bel canto. I thought she’d be a natural. It was on her list, she remarked, but way into the future. And now here she is this season performing the three queens in Donizetti’s Tudor Trilogy at the Met to great acclaim. I’d like to think I was a prophet in my own time. I just knew that Radvanovsky had the big spinto voice and the coloratura skills that those operas were written for. (Incidentally, an interview I did with Radvanovsky, with Lear present, was probably the first she gave in Canada. The meeting took place at the Windsor Arms Hotel tearoom, and I vividly remember this encounter because Radvanovsky was bubbling over with joy. That very day she had just received her Canadian landed immigrant status.)

sondra2What the Koerner Hall concert demonstrated was that the very attributes I first noticed in the prima donna (we can call her that now) have flowered to perfection. At 46, Radvanovsky is clearly at the peak of her game. The singer did one more than the de rigueur three-language concert repertoire. She performed in Italian, French, German and English in songs and arias crafted by composers Vivaldi, Bellini, Richard Strauss, Liszt, Barber and Giordano. Encores were arias from Rusalka, La forza del destino and Gianni Schicchi, as well as the song Beneath the Lights of Home (the latter a favourite of her father’s). It was a concert designed to show off Radvanovsky’s impressive vocal range and consummate technical and interpretive skills. The least part was Barber’s Hermit Songs, not because they weren’t well sung, but because they seemed bland and constrained by not allowing her magnificent voice to soar. The concert was graced by Anthony Manoli, Radvanovsky’s very accomplished accompanist and coach of twenty years. He was completely sympathetic to her tempi, and like glove to hand, they were a perfect fit, piano to voice.

The first thing one notices about Radvanovsky is her unbelievable control. She loves to take her voice back to sotto voce and then burst forth in a wondrous cannonade of sound. She is a master of vocal manipulation, and revels at taking tempi at an extra slow gait. The smoothness of her legato is brilliant, and one is never aware of when she breathes. The notes pouring out of her are a stream of unbroken liquid gold. The reason she excels at bel canto is because she has what I call the necessary ingredients – a growly bottom, lyrical middle, and thrilling top. And speaking of the top, Radvanovsky can take her upper notes to the stratosphere, but it is still a sweet sound, just this side of shrill. True bel canto singers have to induce goose bumps in the listener, and Radvanovsky certainly does. In latter years, the bel canto repertoire has been coopted by what I call the “chirpers” or lighter-voiced, bird-like coloratura sopranos. Radvanovsky brings back the heaviness one craves – a substantive voice able to attack with blood and guts force, but never losing sight of either the precision of her formidable coloratura placement, or the clear presentation of the repertoire’s dreamy, floating fragility. Her honey-coated, woodsy voice is not beautiful, but rather full-bodied, penetrating and insistent, and that is what makes her performances so dynamic and exciting.

The folksy Radvanovsky on stage, breaking concert tradition by chatting away about the songs, is the same unpretentious Midwest girl she is in life. One story she told is a classic. She described how conductor James Levine introduced her to her idol Leontyne Price by saying, “Leontyne, meet Sondra, the new you.” Apparently the legendary soprano quipped back, “Don’t be the new me, be the one and only new you”. And the supremely talented Radvanovsky is certainly that, her distinctive voice now commanding attention in opera houses around the world.

Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano, and Anthony Manoli, pianist, presented by Show One Productions, Koerner Hall, Dec. 4, 2015.


Concert Review – Great Songs of Italy with tenor Richard Margison and the Ontario Philharmonic

Marco Parisotto_conducting Richard MargisonI had heard through friends that the Oshawa-based Ontario Philharmonic was not your average community orchestra, and that turned out to be correct. In fact, OP is a crackerjack professional orchestra. The guest concertmaster was none other than the excellent Marie Bérard who is concertmaster of the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine Bérard affiliating her brand with a no-name outfit. In reality, OP is festooned with musicians from the COC and National Ballet Orchestras. Apparently, even TSO folk sit in from time to time, so, we’re not talking chopped liver here.

The occasion was a periodic foray into the Big Smoke by the philharmonic. Last season, OP began a series of concerts called Great Soloists, which are performed in both Oshawa and Toronto – the soloists, presumably, being of sufficient fame to entice Toronto audiences to a virtually unknown ensemble. The soloist this time around was the esteemed Canadian tenor Richard Margison performing Great Songs of Italy. The fact that OP holds these Great Soloists concerts in the aurally and visually beautiful Koerner Hall is no hardship, and certainly adds to the drawing power.

It seems that OP music director Marco Parisotto is responsible for the transformation of the Oshawa Symphony with its merry band of enthusiastic community players, to the hard core professional Ontario Philharmonic. Parisotto is another of a long line of talented conductors coming out of Quebec. (It has to be something in that province’s drinking water.) He joined the Oshawa Symphony in 1996, with the Ontario Philharmonic officially coming into being in 2008.

Needless to say, Great Songs of Italy, a compendium of Neapolitan songs and opera arias was pure schlock, or “ear candy” as Maestro Parisotto called it. Margison, however, was in fine form. It always amazes me how sweet his voice remains despite its robust, hearty sound. He is, after all, a meat and potato tenor (read Verdi and Puccini). There is no shrillness at all and just the barest trace of a quaver. He also took great chances with his voice, for example, pulling back for sotto voce and falsetto to create more colour. He is, in recital, an expressive singer. His Recitar…Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci was heart-breaking. Margison also went for every money note and made every one. There is one amusing incident to report. He announced that after over 25 years in the business, it was his first time singing O sole mio in public. Margison brought down the house with his exaggerated melisma on the repeat of the chorus.

As for Maestro Parisotto, he is a very sympathetic conductor to singers, taking care not to crowd Margison. It was also clear that he is a detail man who works on the drama within the music, even with kitsch material. There were several orchestral interludes of mostly light fare including, I kid you not, Dance of the Hours from La Giaconda, which certainly brought snickers from the audience. For his part, Parisotto treated each selection, no matter how insubstantial, with maximum respect.

To show what his outfit could do, Parisotto did program a serious piece of orchestral music. Although the playing of Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien was a little too compartmentalized and halting for me (I would have preferred more continuity between the sections), Parisotto’s reading of the piece was downright exciting and theatrical. He pulled out all the stops.

The Ontario Philharmonic is well worth keeping an eye on.

Great Songs Of Italy, tenor Richard Margison with the Ontario Philharmonic, Marco Parisotto, conductor

Koerner Hall, Dec. 10, 2013




Review of Nicole Brooks’ Obeah Opera (b current/Theatre Archipelago)

Obeah Opera is an astonishing piece of music theatre. Imagine 15 women with powerful voices, many well-known soloists in their own right, singing a cappella in almost every style of black music. Then layer in majestic solos and ensemble pieces rich in harmony. This just scratches the surface of the impact of Obeah Opera.

Produced by two of Toronto’s small black companies, the mesmerizing work gives voice to the black slaves from the Caribbean sold into the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 17th century where many were accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch hunts. This is the starting point for composer/ librettist Nicole Brooks, clearly a woman of many talents.

Obeah was a healing art practiced by an ancient order of, for lack of a better word, witchdoctors in West Africa. Once the African blacks were brought to the Americas, the pressure of Christianity converted the concept of obeah into an evil force. Even today, some superstitious people from the Caribbean fear the very sound of the word.

Brooks’ opera features five soloists and a Greek chorus of 10 women. The five represent the accused Obeahwomen, imprisoned for their so-called destructive influence on young white women. And can they ever sing – Joni NehRita (Tituba), Saphire Demitro (Sarah), Saidah Baba Talibah (Mary) and Brooks herself (Candy) all have magnificent “can belto” voices. The fifth character, the old woman Elder, performed by Eulith Tara Woods (also known by her calypso name Macomere Fifi), represents the ancestors. She is the spirit guide who keeps African traditions alive in the black diaspora, and her voice literally soars to the rafters during her African chants.

Obeah Opera doesn’t have a linear storyline. Rather, the opera is a collection of experiences, the first act setting the stage for the arrests, the second act taking place in the holding cells of the prison. I would have preferred not to have an intermission because it broke the spell. Perhaps Brooks and her creative team should consider this.

Brooks has given suitable music for each segment. For example, in describing how the force of obeah overtakes them, the women sing in African harmonies, like those of Ladysmith Black Mombazo. The smug Puritans are tightly operatic, while the accused women finding their own inner strength is pure gospel. There is even mélodrame when the Puritan preacher (Neema Bickersteth) speaks her accusation over a humming chorus. Other sections mirror black musical influences including blues, jazz, spirituals, R&B, folk, calypso and even doo wop. I’d buy a CD of this enticing score in a heartbeat.

Kudos must be given to musical director Tova Kardonne and her assistant Wilma Cromwell for the superb discipline of the singers. Considering they are performing on stage without a visible conductor, their synchronization is simply marvellous.

The always inventive designer Julia Tribe has built a square wooden stage with a ramp.  The ceiling is draped in torn pieces of cloth reflective of the shabby creole clothing and turbans of the women. Everything looks wonderfully period. To separate out the Puritans, the 10 chorus members have reversible shawls, which is a very clever theatrical device. By turning the shawls over, they transform creole covering to the white collar and black cape associated with Pilgrim women.

C.J. Astronomo’s simple lighting makes good use of lanterns and pin spots. The lighting beneath the wooden platform stage provides moody atmosphere. Choreographer Anthony Guerra has supplied traditional West African ritual dance steps and seductively rhythmic Caribbean movement.

Which brings us to director ahdri zhina mandiela. Hers is not an easy task. She has to manoeuvre a large cast over a narrow space while not impeding the singing which is non-stop. Mandiela has cleverly isolated the Elder from the rest by having her traverse the central aisle between the audience seating. The director’s main modus operandi is all about patterning and positioning. For example, she uses military drill formation for the march of the Puritans, and small, scattered clusters for the children supposedly made ill by the obeahwomen slaves. Her minimal but effective direction takes the line of least resistance so as not to trample on the music.

In the final analysis, this ambitious production is a triumph of music and theatre, and is not to be missed.

Obeah Opera, music and libretto by Nicole Brooks, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, featuring Joni NehRita, Saphire Demitro, Saidah Baba Talibah, Nicole Brooks and Eulith Tara Woods (aka Macomere Fifi), 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Feb. 16 to Mar. 4, 2012.

Review of Everything Under the Moon (Harbourfront Centre World Stage)

Just in time for Family Day, World Stage kicked off with, Everything Under the Moon, a collaboration between Toronto visual artist Shary Boyle and Winnipeg composer Christine Fellows.

You know a show has hit the mark with children when they are absolutely quiet, and both the younger and older members of the sold-out audience sat in rapt attention. On the other hand, the little girl behind me asked her father: “What are they flying off to find?” In other words, Everything Under the Moon has a lot to recommend it, but there are also problems in clarity.

Told through song and shadow puppets, the story is about Idared, a honeybee, and Limbertwig, a little brown bat, and their joint quest for a way to save their species. (The story is ripped right out of environmental headlines. Apparently both honeybees and brown bats have been disappearing since 2006.) Unfortunately, because the ideas are expressed in song, the message of the plot is muddy. I didn’t have problems following the stages of the quest, but I did have trouble as to the why of it. There has to be an introduction of some sort to state the case, as it were.

Fellows’ music is charming and gentle, with beautiful harmony. The composer (keyboard, ukulele) did most of the singing, supported by Alex McMaster (cello, vocals, clarinet, trumpet, keyboards) and Ed Reifel (percussion, vocals). Fellows does not have the best voice in the world, but it is pleasant and heartfelt nonetheless.

Boyle’s images are a delight, whimsical and humorous by turn. They employ all manner of shadow puppetry –stick, projected images and human body etc. – against a riot of colour. This variety lets the imagination fly, and the characters that the honeybee and bat meet on their quest, including a chain-smoking Inuit trapper, a woolly mammoth, and an ancient Inca sacrificial child, are never clones. Each has its own look. However, the performers (including Boyle’s two assistants, Emma Letki and Amy Siegel) were decked out in some kind of indeterminate creature costume by Heather Goodchild that had no definition.

Alas, there was no director, and the performance could have used an outside eye to help with comings and goings. Fellows, for example, would disappear behind a monitor from time to time. We heard her voice, but didn’t see her, which made no sense at all.

There is certainly a show in Everything Under the Moon. It just needs refinement. It is clear, however, that the children were entranced by the visual images, and lulled by the pretty music.

Everything Under the Moon, created and performed by Shary Boyle and Christine Fellows, Harbourfront Centre World Stage, Enwave Theatre, Feb. 18 to 23, 2012.

A Gay Wedding Celebration – A Trimuph for the Arts

On Valentine’s Day, Helmut Reichenbächer and John Stanley got married. This wedding was an affirmation of 20 years together. There was a private ceremony, lunch and dinner for close family and friends. It’s the middle part of the day I want to talk about.

Both men are patrons of the arts in a very big way. I always run into them at performances. Not surprisingly, they put on a concert at the Glenn Gould Studio with a very showy group of singers and musicians (listed at the end of this blog). What a grand way to celebrate a marriage, coupled with a love of the arts.

More to the point, John commissioned a world premiere from composer Alexina Louie dedicated to Helmut. Filigree for oboe and piano, performed by Keith Atkinson, oboe, and Robert Kortgaard, piano, was a virtuoso tour de force and an absolute delight.

I really connected to Filigree. When my late father turned 90, I commissioned a song cycle from the late composer Srul Irving Glick in his honour. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll remount Songs for Isaac.

The point is, Helmut and John’s concert featured a new work for the repertoire. In the Renaissance, patrons commissioned music and visual arts all the time. If more people did that, the arts could really become a centre piece of the significant events of our lives.

Congratulations to Helmut and John. Thank you for the brilliant concert and the new work. I wish you many more happy and “art-ful” years together.

(The concert featured Isabel Bayrakdarian, soprano, Brett Polegato and James Levesque, baritones, Jean Stilwell and Laura Tucker, mezzo-sopranos, pianists Stuart Hamilton, Robert Kortgaard, Serouj Kradjian, Stephen Ralls, Peter Tiefenbach and Bruce Ubukata, Keith Atkinson, oboe, Camille Watts, flute, produced by the CBC’s Neil Crory.)