Tag: concert (Page 1 of 2)

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Memories, Magic, And “Significant Presence”

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Trovatore

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky didn’t shock me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The experience of living with a loved one with cancer for over a decade has made me cynical about happy outcomes, but, my reaction yesterday was less related to cynicism than to the direct experience of seeing the baritone this past April, recalling the last time my mother saw him, and accepting, with a heavy sigh, the finite nature of humans living with terminal illness.

Dima, as he was known by friends and fans alike, sounded magnificent on that cool April evening. Part of a concert event called Trio Magnifiico which marked the Canadian debuts of fellow Russian opera singers Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, it was, I later realized, powerful for not only the chosen repertoire (largely by Hvorostovsky himself, as Netrebko had told me in an earlier interview), but for the inherent power of a man clawing at his own fate through his art. The appearance marked Hvorostovsky’s first public performance in several months, following the announcement of brain cancer in 2015. If ever there was an occasion when one could say a man was raging against the dying of the light, April was it. Hvorostovsky didn’t seem sad, but his performance (consisting mostly of Russian repertoire) had the fiery edge of anger, an impulse I remember thinking my mother would have recognized and wholly understood. His body language, especially in one aria (from Rigoletto, an opera about a man struggling against his own dying light, embodied in Gilda, the character’s daughter), expressed rage, sorrow, an intensity of flesh and spirit — of their collision, and the chaos that created. I remember clenching my jaw toward the end of the aria in a vain attempt to prevent tears. (It didn’t work.)

When I learned of Hvorostovsky’s appearance at the 50th Anniversary Met Gala shortly thereafter, I had to smile; I was in Berlin at the time, and I had wondered, with every deep-voiced performance I had heard, “how would Dima have done this?” I wasn’t comparing so much as curious: where would he have taken a breath? How would he have finished that phrase? How would he have approached this role? Why would he have made x or y choice? I equally realized, with many heavy sighs, that I would never see Dima onstage in Berlin, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, again. There’s a bittersweet fatalism that develops when you’ve lived with death for so long, sat across from it at every forced meal, driven with it humming in the backseat to doctor’s appointments, dragged it around shopping malls at the holidays. When it forces you to its logical endpoint, somehow the goodbye feels too soon — too mean, too heartless, and you realize the unfair bargain you were forced to make and live with. It makes perfect sense, and no sense at all. Cancer is grotesque that way, and no amount of fighting language popularly attached to it will ever remove the sting of sudden loss, much less the slow, dull ache of a long one.

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Boccanegra

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

And so yesterday, as I attempted some degree of work productivity, I found myself listening to his voice blazing out of my radio, watching clips of him from 1989 (when he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and being plunged into a deep well of memories, recent and far, fond and bittersweet. In trips to New York, my mother and I saw him in a variety of works, including The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Don CarloRigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. One didn’t merely hear his voice or watch him move; one experienced him and the force of his artistry, his confidence, his je ne sais quoi as a whole. It wasn’t just his considerable physical beauty — there are lots of good-looking people in opera, and always have been — but a kind of magic he conjured, contoured, and conveyed in waves. Few and far-between are the times in my life when I’ve sat in an opera house and been thoroughly, utterly thunderstruck by a perfect combination of vocal power, theatricality, confidence, ease, and … what? It isn’t easy to name. Call it star power, call it magnetism, call it presence; Hvorostovsky had it in jar-fulls, but carried it so lightly, like any star should. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, he commented that “(t)he sex appeal is part of the package. My voice is sensual, too, and it is part of my image and my character and my personality. It has something to do with a little magic called the “significant presence,” or whatever.”

Saint Cecilia

“Saint Cecilia”, Circle of Simon Vouet, 1613-1627

The velvet-smoke sound of his baritone was every bit as ubiquitous in my house growing up as the silvery tones of a certain famous Italian tenor; if Pav was the soundtrack of my childhood, Dima’s filled the role for my youth. I felt what virility was before I understood it. That sound would make everything stop: thinking, activities, hearts, breath. It commanded attention. He existed firmly within the world of opera, but also without, in an entirely different category, one I think he carried inside of him, guided by his homeland, by family, by the responsibility he felt toward the composers whose work he performed as well as the spirit behind those works There’s a bitter irony to Hvorostovsky passing away on November 22nd, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians; it’s the day before Pavarotti made his Metropolitan Opera debut (in Puccini’s La bohème), in 1968. The sad realization that two of my mother’s very favorite singers, both of whom I saw live on multiple occasions, were taken by the same disease that took her, has forced some painful contemplations, though she’d remind me not to be so morbid, to simply “think of the music!”

The last time my mother and I saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky live together was at a 2014 recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto. My mother was suffering the horrendous effects of her umpteenth round of chemotherapy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to use the (great) tickets I’d hastily bought the day they went on sale months before. But something — her music passion, love of his work, curiosity, happiness to escape the house, worry at letting me down (or a mix of everything) — propelled her. I remember dropping her off along a bustling Bloor Street; she waited on a shady bench as I parked and ran back to meet her, trying to hide how rotten she felt, how tired she was, how fragile and thin she’d become. We slowly made our way through the venue, and she clutched her program as she carefully lowered herself into her seat. Trying to describe her face as Hvorostovsky stepped onstage is still impossible; I only remember her being lit from within. Over the next two hours, something happened: suffering stopped, disease stopped, the horrible daily details of illness stopped. There was purely sound, presence, pull — of being with Hvorostovsky through every breath, pause, roar, turn, smile. closing of eyes. We were with him.

Trio Magnifico Hvorostovsky

Hvorostovsky at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts for Trio Magnifico, April 24, 2017. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

I felt this once again in April, and I remember it now. Watching Hvorostovsky, I am in that world where everything stops; death gets out of the car, steps away from the table, is rendered powerless. It’s what magic does, and what music does, and it is pure magic.

Old World, Brand New

Philadelphia’s Academy of Music  (Photo: B. Krist)

Welcome to The Opera Queen.

The name, as you will learn in the “About Me” section, is firmly done with tongue in cheek, and in no way implies this site is about one art form alone. How could it be? Opera itself incorporates so many disciplines — music, theatre, visual art, dance, literature — and my tastes and passion are too wide to ever focus on one art form. The name actually comes from a friend who teasingly called me “the opera queen” in 2015, when I decided to more fully immerse myself in reporting on the art form following the passing of my opera-loving mother in 2015. (There’s also the fact my first and last names are frequently misspelled; theoperaqueen.com eliminates the possibility of any confusion, I hope.) The name was chosen with a playful spirit (and in the interests of clarity), though hopefully you’ll find a variety of things here, both playful and serious, vivacious and thought-provoking, joyous and contemplative.

This premiere post integrates so many of the things I believe in when it comes to culture; it is being done from Berlin, a city I seem to be visiting frequently. I was here in both January and May, each time for opera-heavy visits; this time I’m attending the Musikfest portion of annual Berliner Festspiele, (which is considerably, and wonderfully, heavy on symphonic work. (Look for a full report in a future edition of Opera Canada magazine.) Tonight I am seeing Riccardo Chailly conduct the Filarmonica della Scala, whom I saw at last year’s Salzburg Festival, with a program chalk-full of Verdi works. “It is an orchestra which is living daily with opera,” Chailly said recently.

A scene from Komsiche Oper Berlin’s “The Magic Flute”  (Photo: Robert Millard/LA Opera; (©) Copyright 2013 Robert Millard www.MillardPhotos.com)

Lots of people live that way, I think, including David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia. A fellow Canadian who’s been with OP since the mid 2000s, Devan is the driving force behind the company’s visionary new 017 Festival, which focuses solely on contemporary work. You won’t find any Verdi at 017 — but you will find Mozart, specifically The Magic Flute, and more specifically yet, the famous Komische Oper Berlin production. Also being presented during the 017 Festival is the world premiere of We Shall Not Be Moved, by an incredible team of people: composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and director Bill T. Jones. The work explores a painful episode in Philadelphia’s history, and speaks to very timely issues of race, politics, and power. The Wake World, another world premiere (by Opera Philly’s composer-in-residence, David Hertzberg), is being presented in the famous galleries of The Barnes Foundation, and brings together the work of physician and collector Dr. Albert Barnes, and British magician and occultist Aleister Crowley, for what OP terms “a mystical world of hallucinatory vividness.”

The creators of “We Shall Not Be Moved”, L-R Daniel Bernard Roumain, Bill T. Jones, Marc Bamuthi Joseph (Photo: Dave DiRentis)

Devan’s vision is, as you will hear, wide-ranging and very inclusive; he’s worked to make an old art form, in an old and very historic city, into something entirely for and of the 21st century, while still firmly retaining all the flavour, beauty, drama, and originality of opera, in and of itself. Devan’s ideas about audiences, art, and engagement are so thoughtful, and so worth considering, not for purely administrators — but for artists, creators, and yes, arts media as well.

The Opera Queen is officially here — to entertain and delight, yes, but to make you think as well. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Virtuosi

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions

Is this the year of great singers making their Canadian debuts? Perhaps.

Soprano Anna Netrebko and husband, tenor Yusif Eyvazov, appeared in Toronto this past April (along with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky), as part of a concert co-presented by the Canadian Opera Company and Show One Productions. This past Thursday, (8 June) soprano Hibla Gerzmava made her debut in the city, joined by conductor Vladimir Spivakov and the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra, who has led the ensemble since formation it in 1979.

Gerzmava, who hails from Abkhazia (located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea), is a singer of some acclaim. I’ve been following Gerzmava’s work for a number of years, particularly her annual gala concerts (called “Hibla Gerzmava Invites”) that feature a who’s-who of great classical-world talent. She’s a singer with a laser-pointed tone and a warm, textured sound. I had the chance to see her live last fall in Don Giovanni (not shocking to those of aware of my fascination with that work) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with famous baritone Simon Keenlyside in the lead; Gerzmava’s Donna Anna was pleading, angst-filled, guilt-wracked. Her performance of “Non Mi Dir” was lovely, with Gerzmava shaping her rolled consonants and luxurious vowels into a rapturous embrace.

Paul Appleby as Don Ottavio, Hibla Gerzmava as Donna Anna, and Simon Keenlyside in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Aside from that memorable voice, what makes Gerzmava interesting to me is that the same year she graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, in 1994, she became the first singer — and the sole woman ever — to earn the prestigious Grand Prize in the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition. Since then, she’s appeared on some very notable opera stages, including the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna), the Bayerische Staatsoper (Munich), Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris,  the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Met of course, and the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, among many others. This past spring she sang the title role in Donizetti’s dramatic opera Anna Bolena (part of his Tudor trilogy) at Teatro Alla Scala Milan (opposite venerable Italian bass Carlo Columbara as Enrico / Henry), one of the most challenging of roles within the repertoire, both musically and dramatically.

(via Melodiya)

Gerzmava’s recent albums,  Hibla Gerzmava, Soprano (Melodiya), released in 2014) and Opera. Jazz. Blues. (Melodiya), from 2016, explore an array of sounds, with the latter focusing on jazzy forays into traditionally classical repertoire (with arrangements by Daniel Kramer), and the former an impressive live recording of a concert she gave in Moscow with Spivakov and the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia in 2013. She gives thrilling readings of many opera classics on this album, every piece full of laser clear tone and dramatic verve; it’s a highly listenable album, and I think it works really well as an introduction to opera overall, offering a nice selection of well-known favorites, wonderful interpretations (including a lively rendering, together with baritone Arsen Sogomonian, of the duet between the main female character and the charlatan-doctor character in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’Amore, or The Elixir of Love, another huge favorite of mine), and the sparky dynamism of live performance. Consider that a recommendation for those of you who are a bit nervous about sticking your toe into the opera ocean; trust me, this is a nice bubbly jacuzzi best enjoyed with a good cold glass of rose.

Currently on tour with the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra through North America, Gerzmava made her Canadian debut Thursday night at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall (the regular home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), offering a highly eclectic program featuring works by mainly French and Italian composers. After a first half that featured Spivakov leading the Ensemble in an a wide array of works (including Mozart, Shostakovich, Bruch), as well as a sparky performance by young cellist Danielle Akta, Gerzmava appeared, splendid in a grand, floor-sweeping red/blue/gold dress, with long hair neatly pinned up, and launched straight into one of the best-known arias within the operatic repertoire (also featured on her live album), “Casta Diva”, from Bellini’s Norma. It could well be suspected that Gerzmava was facing a few challenges (she appeared to be sucking on some kind of lozenge or candy at several points), what with some uneven moments vocally, and a gradually diminishing volume throughout the concert that left her with a small but very sweet tone for the evening’s encores, the famous “O Mio Babbino Caro” (from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) and Strauss’ ethereal “Morgen“, also featured on her live album. Whatever vocal color she may have been lacking, Gerzmava made up for with brilliant flashes of the muscular tone for which she’s rightly celebrated, particularly in the middle portion of the program. Her renderings of the showpiece stretto aria from Verdi’s I Masnadieri (The Robbers) and “Ecco… Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble servant) from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur were standouts for their tonal clarity, light if well-considered vibrato, and the fierce dramatic heft of their delivery.

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi at Roy Thomson Hall. Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions.

Gerzmava showed herself so deeply cocooned within the music she was performing at points as to be acting out the parts to and with various orchestra members, who gamely played to her, along with conductor Spivakov; it would have all come off unbearably corny but for the fact that Gerzmava, and her fellow musicians, were so very clearly committed to the music, and to the moments of both intimacy and grandeur within the music. Some pieces were more like duets, which made Gerzmava’s and the Virtuosi’s connection with the music that much more touching. Here’s to many more appearances by Gerzmava in Canada in the future, and fingers crossed for not only some Russian repertoire in that program, but some Mozart, too.

An Evolving Tapestry

Photo via my Flickr

Canadian company Tapestry Opera are known for being inventive. Their creative takes on presentation, production, and composition are, in many senses, helping to redefine what opera’s role is (and perhaps should be) moving into the 21st century. Next month they’ll be presenting the North American premiere of The Devil Inside, an adaptation of a scary tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that has been given a contemporary update. A co-commission and co-production by Scottish Opera & Music Theatre Wales, the show was lauded upon its premiere last month in Glasgow and is already creating something of a stir in Toronto’s music scene.

Before that, Tapestry is getting set to present Songbook VI, which continues their popular songbook series. The evenings are notable for their mix of old and new with a kind of aplomb that keeps respect of opera’s history intact while throwing its starchy pretensions out the window. Past concerts have heartily thrown together opera and electronic music, and presented the mournful with the playful in equal measure (and sometimes on the same bill). The concert, happening this Friday and Saturday (February 5th and 6th, respectively), is set in the intimate confines of the company’s studio spaces in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. The physical environment makes one feel as though dropped in the middle of a no-holds-barred rehearsal and an ever-unfolding artwork whose resolution is decidedly unknown.

No details from the evening have been released yet, but audiences are being promised snatches of works from some of Tapestry’s most popular shows, including 1992’s award-winning Nigredo Hotel, which features a libretto by acclaimed Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald. While we can’t expect any murderous wives or mid-aria heavy metal guitar solos, I’m also thinking: it’s a Tapestry show, so go with the flow. Anything could happen. That’s the great appeal of Tapestry’s approach, and, perhaps, of modern opera itself. 

Songbook VI will feature the talents of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and Tapestry Resident Conductor Jordan de Souza. Giunta, whom Toronto audiences may remember from her turn in the memorable Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Canadian Opera Company in early 2014, took some time between gigs recently to answer a few questions about singing and repertoire; Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori, who was a regular panelist on my radio show last year, adds his thoughts about diversity in opera.

Photo by Michael Edwards

Last year you performed in a recital that featured music written from both male and female perspectives; what do you get out of singing parts written for men? 

WG: It always adds a layer of interest and intrigue when a person performs in drag, whether male or female. I’m hired to perform many male roles in opera, because of my voice and body type. It’s just what I do, and I’m totally used to it. (I also love it!) Whether in opera or recital, it’s very interesting to witness a character interpreted by a performer of the opposite gender. That artist can bring something to it, perhaps a more conscious approach, that a performer of the “correct” gender would not necessarily be able to do.

How difficult is it for you as a singer to go between various ‘sounds’ – from Mozart to modern work like that of Gordon Lightfoot?

WG: Not difficult at all. In fact, it is a joy for me, and often a welcome feeling for my voice to switch between different styles of singing, either within one performance or from contract to contract. There are basic principles of my vocal production that stay consistent no matter what the style is, like how I breathe, but for the rest of it, it’s like one part of my voice get a little break, while the other takes over.

Do you think it’s important for singers to embrace genres other than opera? 

WG: I think it’s totally up to each performer, and where their interests and abilities can take them. It’s neither important, nor necessary, for all of us performers to be terribly diverse. To each their own. There are some people who can sing the bejeezus out of one particular style or role, better than anyone in the world, and then there are people like me: chameleons. As long as we have all the bases covered in this industry (and with the amount of singers on the market, that will never be an issue) I think artists can define themselves as they choose, and stray from the trodden path as much or as little as they like.

Photo by Amy Gottung

What are your thoughts around diversity in opera? 

MM: Diversity in opera is a loaded topic. The traditional repertoire is filled with works that stereotype, exoticize, villainize, parody, and/or simply exclude (perceived) “others”. Larger houses similarly face challenges in existing in the present, with diversity as one of many things that has not been dealt well with. (Name a big-house General Director, Composer, or Conductor that is either a woman or a minority.) 

Contemporary opera, on the other hand, if true to its etymological roots (con meaning “with”; tempo meaning “times,” or “with the times”) should reflect the time and place that it is created in. So if a producer / commissioner / arts council does their job, it is a welcoming, inclusive… a normal place to be for a diverse public.
There is an old rule that if you can see yourself reflected in the thing you are looking at, then it is more attractive and welcoming. (Potential “things” can include administrative leadership, performers, stories, creators, audiences, design, style, and language.) Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the world; why wouldn’t its contemporary opera embrace that? Tapestry has a history and practice of representing gender and race diversity at all levels. Inclusion is a great opportunity to take advantage of a wealth of talent and perspective that reflects and informs who we are today.

Why is contemporary opera important?

MM: For the same reason that sex is important to humankind. Without contemporary opera
collaborations and the subsequent conception and birth of works, the art form is doomed. A new generation of art builds a new generation of art goers…and when it is really good, there is nothing quite like it!

WG: It is relevant today and speaks directly to people’s experiences in life. Sure, the usual themes of opera drama will always be the same (love, revenge, and betrayal), but with modern opera, we hear stories that we know, and socio-cultural references that make sense to us, just as our classical operas did to the audiences of their time. I think this is very exciting and very important for the future of opera.

“Sometimes I Feel So Happy”

At this time last week, I was on a bus racing towards the Canadian/American border, luggage in tow and pie-eyed with worry, anxiety, sadness, and excitement. It was a strange feeling, to zoom by all the familiar sights -first the CN Tower (bathed in red in honour of the city’s various charity efforts for Japan), then the low-slung buildings and depressing box malls of the suburbs, and finally the vast vineyards of Niagara. I wasn’t sentimental so much as impatient, though I kept telling myself it was a long journey ahead – both literally, on the damn bumpy bus, and figuratively, in the oh-my-gawd-what-am-I-doing? sense.

What lit my resolve through that long, dark ride was the thought that I was seeing Patti Smith soon. Looking back on it six nights later, it feels like a beautiful illusion. Did I really ride 11 hours, sleep barely 2, haul 3 suitcases up 4 flights of stairs, madly clean for 4 hours, rest for (maybe) 1, and then run out the door 7 (or so) subway stops to (le poisson rouge)? Yes. And hallelujah.
To Japan With Love was announced a week before my departure. It featured Cibo Matto, Antony (Hegarty), Patti Smith, and Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono band, which included son Sean Lennon. I knew precious little about Yoko, but she’s always been a woman for whom I have a deep and abiding respect. It can’t be easy to live with the musty old you-broke-up-The-Beatles moniker for decades, much less the ‘Shrieking Weirdo Artist‘ one (tho I suspect she’d like that). I made sure to leave early and line up outside the Bleecker Street club for a prime spot, and soon began chatting with enthusiastic New Yorkers who not only knew Yoko’s work well, but who were big fans and admirers. One Japanese fan even identified a club across the street – Kenny’s Castaways – as being a spot where she’d played an important gig in 1974. Everything -and everyone -has a story, especially here in New York.
After 2+ hours of a cold, impatient wait, I wound up being stuck behind one of New York’s tallest and most obnoxious (oh, and gassiest) photographers. I managed to angle next to a group of cool women with similarly-small builds but gigantic oodles of rock-and-roll enthusiasm (one of whom’s husband kindly provided the photos), and they provided me with good intros to both Cibo Matto, who were on first, and Yoko Ono, who came on later. It was a refreshingly diverse crowd, with nary a hipster or glamazon to be found (though Sean Lennon’s bass-playing model-girlfriend definitely threw some good pouts). I kept pinching myself that I was standing there, though the coughing jags provided painful, regular reminders. A constant was my wish that my health could’ve been better to more fully enjoy the splendor of what was unfolding before me.
Still, the coughing took a definite backseat when Patti came on. With her long, grey-streaked hair, bright eyes, broad smile, thick socks and big army boots, she looked utterly glamorous, strong, defiant, and beautiful. Her voice was like caramel: rich, deep, solid, the sort you want to swim in through a cold, rainy evening. She and her band (which included original members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, along with Tony Shanahan, as well as her daughter on piano and son on guitar) held the room’s rapt attention as they launched into slower hits, as Patti gently, elegantly reminded the audience about the purpose of the evening. She showed her annoyance with that obnoxious photographer in front of me, as her eyes flashed with anger after he kept madly snapping past the fourth song. During an angry, passionate, spit-inducing performance of “Pissing In A River” (one of my all-time favorites), Patti folded her hands, bowed her grand head, and went… somewhere else. Somewhere very deep within herself physically, occupying a private space within a public context, showing herself to be both deeply theatrical and deeply veneered, all at once. Captivating.
As the soft, meandering guitar-rich intro for “Beneath The Southern Cross” was played, I let out a huge, audible sigh, clasping my hands together and shutting my eyes: “Oh to be / not anyone / gone / this maze of being / skin…” When I opened them, Patti Smith was looking at me and smiling. I still recall that look almost a week later. We held that gaze for a while and something in me said, don’t look away. Maybe it was a test. Maybe not. Later on, I exchanged a smile with Yoko, who beamed a huge, broad grin right in my direction. When Lou Reed came onstage to play a loud, fantastically raucous version of “Leave Me Alone”, us small ladies upfront couldn’t help but rock out – and it was apparent Lou liked the input. He kept extending the song, one, two, three times, a false ending, a stare with the Plastic Ono Band’s drummer, and then… more. He looked directly at me and… yep, smiled. The spirit was infectious.

Another memorable moment came when Antony and Yoko sang “I Love You, Earth” -another song that continued past its original ending, as Antony’s beautiful, eerily ethereal voice floated above the din, the sweat, and the feedback. He towered over the elfish, clearly-awed Yoko, as the two exchanged the words of the chorus, acapella: “I love you… / I love you / I love you… / I love you / I love you… earth.” At the song’s eventual end, Antony remarked, “that’s a fucking punk rock lyric.” Hell yeah. Hallelujah. A warm fuzzy goodness enveloped the room as a result and I’ll never forget the embrace he and Ono exchanged before they left the stage.
But that look from Patti -that smile, from someone I hold as a hero -quietly whispers to me a week on. It breaths an inspiration not yet discovered, an energy not yet channeled, a path barely begun but already so, so hard. It soothes all the bitter tears of homesickness, the sleepless nights of worry, the crying out for community and the sentimentality over small acts of kindness from strangers. Seeing her majestic goddess-like energy, coupled with a casual, comfortable, confident unpretentiousness, still feels like a dream. But it was real. And hearing her – being mere feet from her – my first night in New York was the best landing-gift I could’ve possibly asked for.

All photos by Jon Rosenbaum.

And Back Again

Twelve years on and here I am, I thought as I stood outside the Phoenix Concert Theatre Thursday night, shivering and thirsty and impatient. Here I am again to see this man and his noisy band. Well.

It was at the exact same location that I experienced the wonder of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in September 1998. That was a different time, and a vastly different place for me emotionally and spiritually, but experiencing the wonder of Grinderman live was a beautiful kind of awakening and embrace -of age, maturity, confidence, and the keen understand that rock and roll is not, in fact, a young man’s game. The raucous four-piece band started their North American tour here in Toronto, and what a holy noise they made. There was a mix of dread at my own sentimentality coupled with an intense curiosity, mainly because I am a new convert to Cave’s “side” project (I write it that way because the band feels more and more like a main event, musically and creatively) and I haven’t been following Cave’s work as keenly as at the ass-end of the 90s. In fact, the last time I saw Nick Cave perform live was in 1999 as part of his own programmed Meltdown festival at the Southbank Centre in 1999. Lives change, tastes shift, other experiences come and go. And yet and yet.

In seeing this same group of men perform together in the past, comparisons are inevitable. Cave, along with percussionist Sclavunos, violinist/guitarist Ellis, and bassist Martyn Casey, formed Grinderman in 2006. Now touring their second album, the band’s sound conjures a surreal if wholly intoxicating combination of old-soul confidence, middle-aged angst and youthful musicality: turn it up, balls out, blindfold on, 100 miles an hour, wear something smart, don’t do anything stupid. And if you don’t like it, get out hell of the car. The ride Grinderman provides -as listeners, though moreso, in a live setting -is thrilling, and utterly enveloping in its monstrous magic. It’s one ride I was horribly overdue in taking, and all nerves aside at going to a rock show solo, I’m so very, very glad I did. Huzzah for inspiring friends and the kindness of strangers.

Still, I was reminded more than once I’m not that young girl from 1998. Some of us folk at the front had been standing about four or five hours by the time Grinderman took to the stage. Ouch. I can relate to the frustrated disgust in Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues”: “I must above all things… love myself!” Ha. There’s something about Cave’s wry observations on aging and attraction to (and of) the opposite sex I find comforting to hear, especially amidst the sonic cacophony that howls over having “no pussy blues.” Semantics aside, it’s a sentiment many -especially those in the mid-30s-and-up crowd Thursday -could relate to.

Thankfully, the physical discomfort melted away, slowly but surely, over the course of the show. With stage crew flashlights providing tiny points of light, Sclavunos, Casey, Ellis and Cave, all stylishly attired in beautiful, tailored suits, came on to thunderous cheers and clamour. “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” was a blistering, brutal opening. “And he sucked her /and he sucked her /and he sucked her dry…” That nasty, repeated refrain spat out with aplomb by Cave and crew was possibly the best revenge on a world where cinematic vampires are sugary-safe and vamps are princessy teens with raccoon eyes. Cave slung his guitar like he was born to do it, and any sentimentality over his Seed-y times playing a grand piano was quickly erased by the look of determined, comfortable confidence he wore as easily as his natty dark suit. Dressed in black, with silver strands of charmed necklaces dangling from his neck, his left hand adorned with jeweled rings, Cave (now 53, and handsome as hell) was the picture of supreme rock and rollery, by turns theatrical, boyish, leering, scary, and always, always utterly magnetic.

Watching him work the room, mere feet (sometimes inches) away from me, I had a moment of questioning whether this was an act, this scenery-chewing, Artaud-like rioting. Real? Not-real? All the lines get so blurry in live performances, and over the course of ten years, those lines have shifted and moved in sometimes thrilling, sometimes bewildering ways for me. I know this much: Cave is a supremely good frontman. His exchanges with the audience were both sincere and enigmatic. Like the good rock and roll man he is, he likes to keep a bit of mystery intact, but there’s no denying the push-pull of fear and attraction within that onstage persona. Like in 1998, the audience noticeably leaned back whenever Cave came a-clomping, in shiny black patent-leather shoes, to proclaim his Grinderman gospel. Hot damn, we couldn’t take our eyes off him, and he definitely fed off us; venturing onto a side speaker to shriek the spoken-word intro to “Get It On” was like a profane pirate mass, with a chorus of voices all shrieking the same words, or playing call and response to his every gesture. During “Heathen Child”, Cave prowled along the edge of the stage, pointing, grabbing hands, shaking hips. At one point he took the hand of a very short girl who was behind a very tall man and dragged her up to the front. She looked up and, blushing, smiled in gratitude, but Cave kept on going, not looking down to meet her blissed-out gaze. Lesson? Do the right thing and get the hell on with it.

That mystery-man persona cracked somewhat in Cave’s onstage chemistry with his bandmates. There was something undeniably beguiling about the tiny smiles that would come bubbling up or bursting out, whether it was playing the keyboard, or (usually) guitar, or (most often) exchanged between he and Ellis. This came to the fore during “Get It On”, the third number played live, when Cave, lost in the song’s aggro-sexy groove, literally shoved Ellis to the ground, mosh-style. It was a weirdly comic moment, and totally indicative of the good-natured fellowship between the band members. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cave smile so much, so naturally, onstage, ever. Dark Lord, my ass. The words to the songs might be dark, but they’re one aspect of a very complex, deeply curious mind. The mind that produced the gory fairytale of “Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man” and the restless drama of “Love Bomb” (not to mention the depraved surrealism of “The Death Of Bunny Munro“, a book I liked a lot) also produced “The Palaces of Montezuma”, with beautiful lines like “a Java princess of Hindu Birth / a woman of flesh / a child of earth / I give to you“. This was easily one of my favorite songs live – the marriage of noise, melody, words and beats was perfect. It felt like a melodic, gentle grace amidst the yowling feedback and aggressive stomping.

What?, you’re saying, grace? Grinderman?! Never the twain would’ve met within the world of the first album (from 2007) but, as the band’s members grow and change, so does the music. This is good. It’s not all thudding boom-boom-boom and static-like feedback, though those still play hugely important roles sonically, and I’d argue, spiritually. It was the kind of booming thud you felt within the depth of your spinal column, going straight to that strange, intangible thing called “soul.” Again, this is good. The stage featured an extensive array of percussive equipment which Jim Sclavunos and Warren Ellis whacked with great enthusiasm and skilled showmanship, but it’s notable how much the other instruments contributed to the percussive sound of the band too: guitars, pianos, even sequenced loops were all used to great percussive -and, it must be noted, theatrical -effect to create a sound I can only describe as raw, primal rock and roll. (Sidenote: CIUT‘s Chris Berube did an interview with Big Jim, which you can listen to/download here. They talk about how that primal sound got created -and it sounds like fun.) This clearly isn’t meant to be a band of high art or instrumental virtuosos (not that they all aren’t a hugely, ridiculously talented bunch -they are) -but perfection and tidiness aren’t the point at all. Noise is. And sometimes, subtlety makes it in there too. It’s all about balance.

Which is why I couldn’t help but think of Blixa Bargeld, who sits in my head as the godfather of the noisy feedback-meets-percussive-ear-bleeding chaos-meets-creepy-subtlety sound that emanated from the stage of the Phoenix Thursday night. Blixa was the longtime guitarist for the Bad Seeds until his departure in 2003, and is now touring with his original band, the hugely influential Einsturzende Neubaten (they’ll be in Toronto next month; yes, I’m seeing them). So does this audible influence take away from Grinderman’s originality? Not one bit. What separates this band from its Teutonic forebears is the blood-and-guts emotionalism its members put into every moment, combined with a palpable sense of theatre and a wrenching forward-sweeping sonic momentum that combines deep dread and high exuberance in one thrilling ride. Warren Ellis is one seriously talented (and prolific) man. I’ve seen him play many times with renowned band The Dirty Three, and while his musical forays into crazyman-land may seem loopy half-cocked, they’re all carefully, meticulously considered, and executed with a maximum of compelling kick-ass mayhem. Really, there’s nothing quite like the brilliant cacophony Grinderman creates live. No wonder their North American shows have sold out. This is rock and roll at its best. I’m so glad I was there. It was a return, and a new beginning, all at once. My ears are still ringing, and my heart’s in knots. Hail hail, the Grinderman. I thought you’d never come.

Photo credits:
Band photo (top) by Deirdre O’Callaghan.
Live Toronto photos by Henry Faber.

Starry Night

Considering Toronto is cold at least half the year (if not more), anytime there’s an opportunity to get outside, in the nice weather, to … do stuff (read: anything!)… us locals take it. We’ll even sit on a beach that isn’t a real beach.

One of these carpe-diem-esque activities in watching movies out of doors. True, other locations around the city have had this very-same activity -including screenings at the loud and cruelly bright (and equally chaotic and utterly manky) Yonge-Dundas Square. I love Y-D Square for live music shows and some other live events (World Cup time is always interesting… if a bit dangerous if you’re a small woman) but for movies? Hmm. Would it be silly of me to want something intimate in an outdoor arena? Or is that being a bit… outre?

Enter Open Roof Films. Started by a group of art-minded Torontonians (including Michael MacMillan, former Executive Chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis), the series has a special focus on showcasing Canadian talent, as well as building community among the vast network of Toronto’s numerous cultural and economic pseudo-villages. I interviewed one of the founders of this newly-minted series a couple weeks back on the radio, and during that interview I was told the series is based on a similar idea out of New York City, and arose from that, as well as casual conversations between people who just… love movies (a lot), and, like me, were seeking a way of bringing people with similar passions together. Seated in a group, illuminated by a screen’s glow and a canopy of stars, one becomes enraptured with the night, the sound, the music, and the crowd. Really, you can’t much more intimate.

Part of what gives the Open Roof Film series this special brand of intimacy is its location; situated in the parking lot of a local brewery, the space is nestled between a raised highway (and Lake Ontario) to the south (and yes, you can actually see the lake), the thick-set brick building of the Amsterdam Brewery to the West, and a massive screen and sound system to the north . The East opens to the spectacular light show of the CN Tower and the cluster of skyscraper in the financial district. You’re close enough to the lake that you can actually see stars when the sky darkens. A gaggle of portable chairs is set up where the seriously filmy-minded can situate themselves, while a wide bar runs the length of space at the back, for the more social among us. It’s a nice set-up that encourages interaction and conversation, while providing a respectful option for those who want to sit and concentrate.

Not that there was a whole lot of that happening the night I attended. This Movie Is Broken, the film featuring band Broken Social Scene, was being screened, and the evening had the distinct feel of a gigantic party, much like the band’s own concerts. Observing the crowd swaying and smiling (some even danced), I couldn’t help but wonder how many had (or hadn’t) gone to see Bruce MacDonald’s movie when it was shown in a cinema proper. How much did being outside on a beautiful summer night influence their decision to see it? To go to a place where they could drink beer, smoke, dance with their girl/boyfriends, and laugh and chat with their friends? Probably a whole lot.

This Movie Is Broken is just the sort of film that was perfect for an outdoor film series; with a romantic storyline interspersed with some genuinely excellent concert footage (taken from a Toronto show last year), MacDonald’s dreamy, gorgeous homage to love and music was a genius choice to play at Open Roof Films, and a great example of the power of outdoor event to draw disparate group of people together. While the age of attendees ranged from anywhere between 25 and 40, there was no “average” anything (other than the challenging parking, which is de rigeur in Toronto, alas). There was a nice casual vibe to the entire evening, even though the audience maintained a respectful (ahem, Canadian) silence through much of the movie’s running time.

It was interesting when, peeking through the brewery windows (that lead to the loos) at one point, seeing the tiny dots of enraptured faces sitting mute and staring at a screen as the CN Tower flashed sades of blue and red past them. It says something about the power of cinema, music, and togetherness that simply can’t be replicated in a multiplex. Combined with the gorgeous after-film visuals of artist Brian T. Moore and the shining skyline, one couldn’t help but be intoxicated. Noise, motion, light, stillness, silence -and lots of gravel: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful romance… or maybe a re-introduction to an old lover -movie-going -I thought I’d forgotten the smell and taste and touch of. What bliss.

Prima Rufus


The only things that seem to be suitable to listen to after seeing Rufus Wainwright live are classical music and Queen, which is exactly what I did driving home from his concert last week. Wainwright, the son of Canadian music royalty (his father is Loudan Wainwright III, his mother was Kate McGarrigle, who passed away in January), hit Toronto last week as part of the 2010 Luminato Festival of Arts and Culture. Along with premiering his opera, Prima Donna, during the artsy fest, the beautiful, deeply mercurial Wainwright launched the tour for his latest album, All Days Are Nights: Songs For Lulu.

Last week’s show at the grand, gilded-lined Elgin Theatre was equal parts drama, camp, comedy, and bitchy commentary; infusing the entire evening was Wainwright’s intense sense of musicality and flair for drama. The first half of the concert was strange, surreal, and not a little operatic. Before his appearance, the audience was duly informed that we were to hold our applause until the very end of the set, when Rufus had exited the stage. The lights dimmed and in he came, moving lowly and deliberately, his thin frame beddecked in feathers, eyeliner, and a very long black coat-dress. The look was very Mad-Max-meets-Monteverdi -not necessarily a bad thing if you’re aiming for drama. Playing songs mainly from the new album, the effect was equal parts impressive and infuriating: Why isn’t he looking at us? Why doesn’t he want applause? What’s with those giant blinky eyes? And that damn crazy outfit? Who does he think he is? DIVA! But maybe that was the point.

Turns out Rufus took inspiration from both silent and romance-horror films, as well as -surprise -opera. But for all the grand poetic majesty, it was obvious (sometimes painfully) that Rufus, with pale skin and fair locks, is a resolutely unapologetic, wildly insecure artist with a grand sense of talent and a keen awareness of its fragility. While he plumbs the depths of his own sonic genius, he isn’t afraid to look back to the masters, either. Traces of Glass, Gerhswin, Liszt, Elton John and Jeff Buckley ran through each chord like gold threads through grey rocks. It was as musically magical as it was theatrically maddening to sit through at points. I wanted to run as much as I wanted to stay to see what he’d do next.

Entering in a floral-print suit for the show’s second half (when we were -hurrah! -allowed to applaud), Rufus’s warm smile banished any fears of poe-faced serious artiste attitude. With songs like “Matinee Idol” and “Moulin Rouge” played to marvelous, if marvelously playful effect, he threw in a slew of bitchy asides, including one directed at a recent review of his opera that likened the work to a Loblaws shopping bag. “That just proves you’re label queens,” he sniped, to cackling applause.

And as if to underline the importance of his connection with his fans, he made the point of recognizing the dedicated bunch who follow him around. “They’re obviously very rich,” he quiped, before adding, “Actually, they’re probably not… but they’re good at looking like they are.”

Beat.

“Just like me!”

This refreshing lack of pretension, tinged with outlines of insecurity, sensitivity and deep feeling, made for an eminently watchable, involving performance. Again and again, we were reminded of just how damn great a musician Rufus really is. His performance of the controversial 2007 song “Going To A Town” was biting, angry, and bitter, and showed, to beautiful effect, his gorgeous, sonorous voice ringing through the deepe cavernous space of the Elgin. A showman, an artist, a diva, a child. And, in the end, a son. The concert ended with him playing “Walking Song”, one of his mother’s tunes about the happy times with family.

I left feeling confused, overwhelmed, and more than a little impressed. Between the strains of Ludwig van and the tender-loud yowls of Freddie Mercury driving home, I found a spot where drama, sound, and persona came together like so many crushing chords. Music doesn’t always exist to coddle, entertain, amuse or remove; sometimes it’s a complicated combination of notes, colors, feelings and memories, housed within palaces, hovels, and caves. We don’t know the spot but we trudge ahead anyway, thanks to a trusty guide with a beautiful voice. Rufus as Pied Piper? Maybe. But if I wind up over a cliff, I’ll hang onto that damn long coat for dear life. I want another tune, after all.

Hallelujah

Tonight the Help for Haiti Now concert took over every major North American network. This tune was a huge favourite -a moving, tender, insightful moment full of soul and musicality. I never thought I’d enjoy JT singing a favourite Leonard Cohen song but… I was wrong. He should just sit and damn well sing more often. Even my mother (the opera fan) sat, enraptured, and enthused on the simple beauty of Justin’s voice. Accompanying him was Matt Morris, a multi-talented singer/songwriter who’s worked with fellow Mouseketeers Timberlake and Christina Aguilera in the past.

The gorgeousness purity of “Hallelujah” was indicative of the soulful, stripped-down nature of all the performances. Gospel sounds were heard throughout the night, with Stevie Wonder, John Legend, and Jennifer Hudson all making a noise most joyous; Hudson’s rendition of “Let It Be” was another highlight for me. Madonna took the two-decade-old “Like A Prayer” out of retirement and let fly; the rousing gospel chorus that carries the song to its conclusion was hugely uplifting and moving. Even Madge had to move around.

Overall, Hope For Haiti Now was full of great sounds and some genuinely moving moments. Anderson Cooper’s reports, featuring overwhelmed survivors (mainly children), could’ve turned maudlin and saccharine, but miraculously, stuck with being gently hopeful, while maintaining the appropriate hum of urgency. It was a lot better than the sentimental pap I was half-expecting/dreading. Well-done, all-around.

For a complete list of ways you can help and donate, click here.

Viva!

I wish I’d seen Maria Callas] live. She has to be my very-favourite female opera singer -make that female vocalist – ever. Her voice has a real, non-operatic, throaty, real sound, and you get the sense listening to her or seeing her that she lived her parts -and if you know anything about her life and tumultuous relationship with a certain Onassis fellow, you’ll know that stabbing scene in Tosca wasn’t exactly her faking it… sheesh.

Still very much in the earthy vein, lastnight I attended one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to, bar none. Obnoxious audience members notwithstanding, seeing Goran Bregovic live rates as one of the best experiences for me, ever. The fact I got to meet and speak with him the day before was a nice bonus too (insert smarmy journalistic smirk … now). There was a real sense of community (for the most part), and a palpable joy in the air as Bregovic and his 18-piece band (yes, eighteen) tore through his biggest hits from both film scores and rock albums. Again, as with Callas, Bregovic doesn’t suit the genre he’s ascribed to; “rock” doesn’t quite fit him, nor does “folk” or “roots” or “gypsy” or that eponymous (and hipsterish) label “gypsy-punk.” I asked him Friday what he thought about the label “world” and he let out a sigh. His basic answer: labels are a waste of time, just do what you love, and enjoy it.

Good advice. While his passion for gypsy culture is undeniable (I was quizzed about my own background at length), I’ve always been the most taken with artists who take existing artforms and make it entirely their own. It’s what brings life, joy, and celebration. At least that’s my theory for now.

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