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




Paula’s Picks and Pans – Dec 11th 2013


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