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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | RCM Kicks-Off A Surreal Online Beethoven 250 Festival With Adrianne Pieczonka And The COC Orchestra

By Paula Citron on December 6, 2020

Adrianne Pieczonka & Johannes Debus
Adrianne Pieczonka & Johannes Debus join the COC Orchestra for a special evening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and excerpts from the opera Fidelio. (Photo: Handouts)

The Royal Conservatory/Adrianne Pieczonka and the Canadian Opera Company  Orchestra, Beethoven 250 Festival, conducted by Johannes Debus, Koerner Hall, livestream Dec. 3, available online until Dec. 10. Tickets can be purchased at www.rcmusic.com/tickets.

A very strange thing happened when Maestro Johannes Debus began to conduct the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra in Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont, which opened the RCM concert at Koerner Hall. My eyes welled up with tears. This is what I think was the impetus. I have watched many livestream performances since the pandemic began, but this was an orchestra I know well, playing in a concert hall I love, and I wasn’t there in person. I was mourning the live experience. Once, however, I shook myself out of the sentimentality plane, I settled down with my computer screen and headset, and accepted the situation for what it was, namely, that this was the new normal for concert-going during a pandemic.

A short video, shot at the rehearsal the day before, was a pre-show feature with  RCM executive director Mervon Mehta, conductor Dubus, and the concert’s soloist, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, all sitting on socially distanced stools. (Pieczonka also happens to be vocal chair and head of the vocal department at the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School.) We learned some interesting things. For example, this was the first time that the orchestra had played together in nine months. “It was like a kiss waking Sleeping Beauty,” said the maestro. “We were finally doing what we live for, and that is music-making.” As for Pieczonka, the last time she performed in an opera was in Madrid in February, although, surprisingly, she had appeared in a concert in November in Montreal. She stressed the fact that live music was essential to our lives, and compared singers to athletes in their need for the ritual of training, which is what she had been doing during this hiatus.

The three then talked about the program itself, and Mehta made an amusing observation, that nothing had gone right for Beethoven in his lifetime, and things still weren’t going right for the composer, given that the lavishly planned festival celebrating his 250th birthday (Dec. 16 or 17) had to be redrawn because of Covid. This concert,  for example, had gone through several iterations, with Canadian tenor Michael Schade and German actor Michael König trapped in travel restrictions, leaving Pieczonka on her own.

Debus explained why he had chosen Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony as the main orchestral piece of the evening, a work that is often eclipsed by the seven symphonies that followed. The maestro felt there was a freshness here, and that the work’s strong theatrical and operatic elements would suit an opera orchestra. Debus also pointed out that Beethoven was beginning to lose his hearing when he was composing this symphony, and that his growing sense of isolation had a common thread with Covid. In her turn, Pieczonka, who would be singing Leonora’s great first act aria from Fidelio, explained how special Beethoven’s only opera was to her, because of the character’s heroism and courage.  She also pointed out that it was scary knowing there was an audience out there that she couldn’t see. In summary, this video was a clever way to begin the program because context is always valuable.

The concert was not quite an all-Beethoven program. Along with the Fidelio excerpt, Pieczonka performed three orchestrated songs, “Erlkönig” by Schubert, and two of Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder. She is a lyric spinto soprano with a ravishing voice that shows no signs of wear and tear, top or bottom. Rich, creamy, luscious, strong, bright, expressive, are words that barely begin to describe the vocal experience when hearing Pieczonka sing. Her ability to caress the words makes the lyrics an equal match to the music. The main event was, of course, “Abscheulicher, wo eilst Du hin?..Komm, Hoffnung”, when Leonora throws off her disguise as the boy Fidelio, and dedicates herself to finding and freeing her beloved husband Florestan from prison. All the mercurial moods were there — her anger, her defiance, her sweet thoughts of her husband, and Pieczonka performed this recitative and aria-like a theatrical monologue, emoting every word. Clearly, the soprano is at the height of her powers.

Pieczonka’s storytelling skills were on display in “Erlkönig”. The song is scary enough with piano accompaniment, but with Berlioz’s orchestration, he a master of full-frontal effects, the background to the lyrics was menace writ large, and practically Wagnerian in scope. Pieczonka captured all three voices masterfully – the terror of the child, the comfort of the father, and the seductive urgings of the king of death himself.  Maestro Debus and his players ensured the darkness and drama of the atmosphere. As for the two Wesendonck-Lieder, Felix Motti, a conductor and Wagner acolyte, had orchestrated “Der Engel”, while Wagner himself had set “Träume” to orchestral accompaniment.  In each case, Pieczonka was spot on in capturing the rapture of Mathilde Wesendonck’s breathless lyrics of love and death. Mathilde and her poetry, after all, had been the inspiration for Tristan und Isolde. Pieczonka’s voice was still hearty in these selections, but also sweet, with an almost ethereal quality, matched by the orchestra’s romantic, dreamy accompaniment. The even playing of the orchestra made sure that the emotional drama was never overblown.

It was certainly interesting hearing the COC Orchestra performing non-operatic material. Anyone who follows my reviews knows that conductor Debus can do no wrong in my books, and that held true in this concert. On the other hand, it was musicianship of restraint. No one serves the intentions of a composer better than Debus, as was evident in the majestic and stirring rendering of the Overture to Egmont, and the jaunty approach to Symphony No. 2. He is not an auteur conductor, however, although he did take an extra-long pause before the heroic conclusion of Egmont. What I appreciated in this concert was Debus’ clarity. His conducting was like separating the music into chapters, treating each thematic change Beethoven put into the score with equal measure. As such, this was a concert where the interior structure of the music was forefront.

The 2nd Symphony, as Keith Horner explained in his excellent program notes, sits on the cusp of the classical symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, and the new form that Beethoven himself was developing which would come to full flower in Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”.  Debus took the classical roots of No. 2 seriously, and never added in romantic era expansiveness. Clean and clear was his approach, with a lightheartedness throughout: jocular for the first movement, pastoral, bucolic sweetness for the second, high spirits for the third, and a relentless, energetic drive for the fourth. I kept hearing passages that sounded straight out of Rossini’s opera buffas. The music almost laughed its way through the playing – rambunctious, but never over the top. And let’s put in a special kudos for the French horns who had a lot to do in this concert and were bang on. A cute touch was the orchestra musicians shouting together, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Beethoven!” at the concert’s end.

And a few final notes.

As the roving camera darted around, you could see the social distancing measures in place. Any musician who didn’t have to use their mouth, as well as Debus, were masked, while scattered throughout were Plexiglass dividers sealing off the winds and brass from the strings and each other. Pieczonka also had a divider behind her.

I treasured hearing the familiar sounds of a concert hall, the rustling of the paper of the musicians’ scores, the creaking of their chairs, their tuning up, the footsteps of the conductor crossing the wooden floor.

There was applause despite the absence of an audience. Pieczonka got a rousing ovation from the orchestra before and after her songs, and amusingly, the orchestra members applauded and hooted and cheered after the final bow.

And finally, just once, the camera pointed out to the dark hall. It was just once, but it was enough of a reminder that none of us was there.

+++

RCM’s Beethoven 250 Festival continues through December 13, 2020. Full details HERE

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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
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