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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Words of Wisdom: Craig Rutenberg Teaches a Masterclass At Toronto Summer Music

By Joseph So on July 15, 2016

Craig Rutenberg (left) and Douglas McNabney (right) at the opening masterclass for the Toronto Summer Music Festival at Walter Hall. (Photo: Joseph So)
Craig Rutenberg (left) and Douglas McNabney (right) at the opening masterclass for the Toronto Summer Music Festival at Walter Hall. (Photo: Joseph So)

The 2016 edition of the Toronto Summer Music Festival officially opens on July 14, but its Academy wing has had a head start, beginning on July 10th.  Yesterday afternoon, American pianist–vocal coach Craig Rutenberg gave a masterclass at Walter Hall.  Rutenberg is no stranger to TSMF, having been a mentor in the Art of the Song program some years ago. And of course, he’s well-known and respected as a collaborative pianist, working with many singers over many years, including Canada’s own Ben Heppner. Originally, the pianist mentor this year was Malcolm Martineau, who cancelled due to illness. TSMF is extremely lucky to have Rutenberg here on such short notice, even though he can only be here for three days. The rest will be taken by another well-known collaborative pianist, Cameron Stowe. Canada’s own Steven Philcox is the program coordinator.

The participants yesterday afternoon were sopranos Adanya Dunn, Ellen McAteer, and Whitney Mather, mezzos Rose Naggar-Tremblay and Simone McIntosh, and tenor Asitha Tennekoon. Also, there were four pianists — Helen Becqué, Rachael Kerr, Madeleine Christie, and Stéphane Mayer. While these young artists are at various stages (all quite advanced, I must say) of their respective development, they’re all prodigiously gifted, possessing solid grounding, highly motivated and eager to learn from the master. To my ears, the singers all have beautiful voices. Some are quicker to catch on to what Rutenberg had to say and to make the adjustments necessary. The pianists are all extremely well prepared and have the right instincts to offer solid support to the singer. Rutenberg, being a pianist himself, did not neglect the pianists and offered them sage advice at all times. Unlike some masterclass teachers, Rutenberg completely stayed away from issues of technique, dealing primarily with language, tempo, dynamics, and interpretation. In the end, every single participant, without fail, showed marked improvement. It was an excellent three-hour session.

First up was soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Helen Becqué with three short Poulenc songs. She has a naturally produced instrument with a very beautiful timbre, perhaps a bit darker and more substantial than most in these delicate Poulenc songs. Poulenc has a very distinctive melodic signature — I keep hearing Soeur Constance (usually sung by a light soprano) from Les dialogues des Carmélites in these songs! Rutenberg offered suggestions on tempi, on the appropriateness of accents, and advised her to sing the text as connected words and not as a string of unconnected syllables. To achieve that, Rutenberg had the singers speak the words, to emphasise the connectedness of the words and sentences, rather than as individual syllables. Overall, a very fine start to the proceedings.

Following Dunn was soprano Ellen McAteer and pianist Rachael Kerr. They chose Schumann’s “Süsser Freund” from the famous Frauenliebe und Leben.  McAteer is also singing in the upcoming Banff-TSMF production of The Rape of Lucretia at the Winter Garden. She sang this song with a lovely tone. Rutenberg felt the tempo was too slow, lacking forward motion, making it hard for McAteer to sustain the line. He also offered pointers on her German diction and where to breath. Then it was mezzo Rose Naggar-Tremblay singing “Extase” by Henri Duparc, with Madeleine Christie at the piano. To my ears, the timbre of her voice could easily be a high mezzo or a soprano, with an unusually soft high pianissimo. Once again, Rutenberg pointed out the importance of the connectedness of the text as whole words and whole sentences, and to avoid singing the syllables as independent sounds. He also offered advice on interpretation.

After a short break, the class resumed with mezzo Simone McIntosh singing Alban Berg’s “Nacht” from Sieben frühe Lieder, with Stéphane Mayer at the piano. This famously expressionist song cycle can be sung by a soprano or alternately by a high mezzo like McIntosh, who possesses a big, rich sound, very even up and down the scale. This piece has always struck me as a little creepy, the opening bars sort of like music in a suspense movie with bad things just lurking around the corner! I liked her big, gleaming tone, although Rutenberg thought she was giving too much, and recommended more variations of tone colours. The next piece was Debussy’s “Apparition” sung by mezzo Whitney Mather with Kerr again at the piano. Mather has a light lyric soprano, a sweet, soubrette timbre and a fast vibrato. Occasionally the vibrato becomes too fluttery. It’s the kind of voice one expects as Sophie in Werther. She sang the Debussy well, although once again more dynamic and tone colour variations would be nice.

The last participant was tenor Asitha Tennekoon, who impressed with his appearance in Rocking Horse Winner last spring. Given limitations of time, Rutenberg worked mostly with “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” from Dichterliebe, although they worked briefly on “Ich will meine Seele tauchen” at the very end. Tennekoon has a rich lyric tenor of nice timbre, well suited to this Schumann song which he sang well. Rutenberg offered comments on phrasing and a bit on interpretation. At the piano was Madeleine Christie. I must say all four pianists were exemplary in their attention to detail and their support of the singer, bravi tutti! As I understand, they had already been working with Rutenberg for three days, and the master teacher was able to bring out the best in all the participants. The result was impressive. I look forward to attending the next masterclass, to be offered by American mezzo Sasha Cooke, who replaces German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, who is ill.

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Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So

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