As 2018 comes to a close, we have been reflecting on our favourite concerts of the year. And what a year it has been. While it was difficult to choose just one (or two if we must), there was much discussion at the LV headquarters about our picks. One thing is certain, our choices were made with as much prudence as we could muster. So here they are, in chronological order.
Tafelmusik Baroque Chamber Orchestra and Choir, Bach Mass in B Minor. February 2018.
Tafelmusik Baroque Chamber Orchestra and Choir presented a masterful, 5-performance run of the incomparable Bach Mass in B Minor in February of 2018. I interviewed two singers from Tafelmusik on the piece for LT. Using period instruments in the intimate space of Trinity-St Paul’s, the performance was an incredible pleasure to hear and enjoy. The relentless vocal athleticism of the Bach Mass in B Minor requires skill and artistic ability and Tafelmusik abounded. Ivars Taurins led a remarkable set of performances. Anytime Tafelmusik chooses to put this on their program; make sure you get tickets!
Opera Atelier’s The Return of Ulysses (Monteverdi), April 2018.
While I didn’t make it to as many concerts as I had liked to in 2018, one stood out most. Opera Atelier’s The Return of Ulysses wasn’t a perfect production, but it pulled me in with a gauntlet of charming characters trying their hands against the influence of the gods above.
The most memorable moments were of Tenor Kresimir Spicer as the legendary Greek hero Ulysses. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams and his side-kick tenors (Michael Taylor and Kevin Skelton) were a marvel to hear. Ulysses’ wife Penelope, played by mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel, managed to keep a character who spends an entire three-hour opera missing her husband interesting.
I’d see it again in a heartbeat.
The Canadian Opera Company’s Anna Bolena (Gaetano Donizetti). April 2018.
My choice for the most memorable operatic event was the Canadian Opera Company’s Anna Bolena. It starred the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. The COC surrounded her with great colleagues in Keri Alkema (Giovanna), Christian Van Horn (Enrico VIII), Bruce Sledge (Percy), and Allyson McHardy (Smeton). But Anna Bolena lives and dies by its prima donna, and Radvanovsky delivered. From caressing mezza voce to penetrating top notes, she sang with torrents of sound and beauty of tone — I felt I was pinned to my seat. Her Anna was dramatically riveting, with a full range of emotions — anger, fear, fury, sadness, irony, vulnerability, resignation, and everything in between.
The production was the same as Roberto Devereux, a Globe Theatre-inspired, functional, straightforward, and it did the job. Italian maestro Corrado Rovaris led the COC Orchestra and Chorus in an idiomatic and well-paced performance. A surprise discovery for me happened on May 8, when Canadian soprano Tracy Cantin deputized for an indisposed Radvanovsky. Only in her early 30’s, Cantin, essentially unknown in Toronto, wowed everyone with her COC debut in the title role. She sang Anna with beauty, sweetness, volume, and flexibility, an exceptional achievement for a singer still near the beginning of her career, in a role as daunting as Anna Bolena.
Toronto opera fans can count themselves lucky as Sondra Radvanovsky is scheduled to sing at the COC in the next four seasons, while Cantin is appearing in the upcoming Elektra in January/February.
The National Ballet of Canada: Frame by Frame (An Homage to Norman McLaren) directed by Robert Lepage, choreographed by Guillaume Côté. June 2018.
I’m cheating by doing a two-for, but the link is visionary director Robert Page who produced both the best dance and the best theatre piece of 2018. Lepage is a master of technology and his eye-popping, even mind-boggling fusion of lighting, video, film, projection, live cam and live action for the National Ballet of Canada’s Frame by Frame was a brilliant homage to film pioneer Norman McLaren, in collaboration with Guillaume Côté’s clever choreography.
The glory of the Stratford Festival’s production of Coriolanus was Lepage’s love of detail. For each scene the director created a specific environment, be it a radio talk show or an upscale restaurant, that added immense context to Shakespeare’s play. Ancient Rome lived and breathed as a sophisticated modern city (including text messaging).
Royal Conservatory of Music: Chilly Gonzales, October 2018
We often say ‘see where your passion takes you.’ However, many musicians dutifully follow the established path, checking off the ‘right things to do,’ and hope that the phone rings. The passion soon becomes a material, which then needs to be formatted, edited and transformed, ready-to-serve. Piano training in particular, with its heavy tradition, leaves many of us wondering ‘what now?’ Chilly Gonzales, who goes by ‘Gonzo,’ is a great surprise. His success has been so great that many of us, including me, never knew about the man, but was familiar with his music (cue that iconic Apple commercial). And to see him in live performance, in a full-house, presenting nothing but Gonzo and friends, was quite an experience.
The program was interesting, had great flow from one number to the next, and every single audience member was engaged and genuinely loved being there — a rarity. I do love music where it currently stands- including classical music. I support classical music’s pursuit of excellency, yet it is also true that I am on the lookout for challengers and innovators who may no longer fit into the normal boxes. And the reason for Gonzo’s global success was evident in his concert: he is genuine, curious, and daring. For the greatest energy and enthusiasm from both sides — the performers and the audience, I choose Chilly Gonzales at the Koerner Hall as my favourite concert of 2018.
Interview with Chilly Gonzales here.
The University of Toronto, Rob Kapilow and the Gryphon Trio and Friends: What Makes It Great: Schumann Piano Quintet, October 2018
Take five great musicians, one superb music commentator, a beloved piece of chamber music and a willing audience, and you get an event that goes beyond uplifting listening to genuine learning. Standing at an electronic keyboard to the side of the quintet, Kapilow extracted portions of the quintet to demonstrate how remarkably basic elements formed the skeleton of a richly complex composition. It’s slightly embarrassing to discover that a simple ascending and descending scale, played in octaves, is the engine of an entire movement of music, but it also enhances admiration for the way fundamentals are elaborated and enriched by master composers.
Being challenged to identify separate strains of the music that were played individually and then recombined and played together shocked me into noticing how much I have missed while complacently thinking I was fully appreciating a score. In music, as in the rest of life, awareness is everything, and Kapilow alerted me to how much more there was to notice in this beautifully performed piece.
Interview with Rob Kapilow here.
Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Earl Lee, conductor: “Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and More.” November 2018.
Permit me to surprise you, and perhaps myself, by selecting one of the least-thought-out concerts of the current TSO season. Just why Tchaikovsky’s heart-on-sleeve Fourth Symphony was considered to be an appropriate element of a program billed as a seasonal boite à bonbons (“Tchaikovsky for the Holidays,” “The Nutcracker and More”) is a great mystery but Earl Lee, the orchestra’s former resident conductor, did well by it. The outer movements were solidly structured as well as contoured for bar-by-bar expression. Fanfares were impressive, not just noisy. The Andantino in modo di canzona (which Lee led without a baton) was a marvel of elegance.
The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin at the beginning of the evening made clear that the orchestra (with many associates in first chairs) was on form. There were delightful touches of colour in the Nutcracker Suite. Lee maintained a hypnotic pulse in the Arabian Dance; the harp in the Waltz of the Flowers was exquisite.
Lee spoke to the crowd — a tough job given the level of elocution to which TSO subscribers became accustomed during the Peter Oundjian years. With no name soloist and three repeats, this night in Roy Thomson Hall was so poorly attended that the upper sections were closed. The concert was worth attending just the same.