Sunday, 29 September 2013

Fine cast buoys grim O'Neill classic

Bill Rankin

The Citadel Theatre gives its audience several surefire crowd pleasers each season. It has done Beauty and the Beast a couple of times in the past half dozen years, and the Sound of Music and the wacky Spamalot, among others. But Bob Baker also programs theatre that can depress, even when it's served as a musical. Ride the Cyclone is a songfest about teens sent to their graves before their time, and Next to Normal manages to entertain while probing the toxic effects of living with a mental patient.

The opening work of the company's 48th season, Eugene O'Neill's grim autobiographical drama about the Tyrone family, is in a category of its own as a work of art that challenges an audience's tolerance for unhappy people in unhappy situations.

The wonder, though, is that Long Day's Journey Into Night, all three-and-a-half hours of it, a  a play where four characters burdened by addiction, mortal sickness, guilt and chronic self-delusion natter at and viciously judge one another, can still be compelling entertainment.
Much of the success of this production can be credited to the way Tom Wood portrays the villain of the piece: James Tyrone. The vain, alcoholic patriarch of the Tyrone clan is the engine that drives the family dysfunction O'Neill so relentlessly explores, and Wood plays the role with symphonic depth, charting the domestic drama through its descent into hopelessness and in the case of James's wife, Mary, oblivion. Without a strong James Tyrone, the play won't work, and ironically, Wood, playing a man who has little to give, gives this production the security it needs to hold course till the end.

The whole cast is strong. John Ulyatt as James Jr. appears restless and impatient in the early going, non-descript really, like a dormant volcano, perhaps, but by the end when he rants in an alcoholic fury against his father's weaknesses and failures, the stage is Ulyatt's, and he spews forth magnificently. The words of recrimination are O'Neill's, of course, but Ullyatt delivers the acid bath for his father's dunking with demonic zeal.

Brenda Bazinet plays the woman of the house, a morphine addict whose recurring lament is that because of her husband's itinerant life as an actor, she lived like a homeless person. Her drug habit, caused by her husband's neglect, made her a dependent in every way, incapable of nurturing her two boys or resisting her husband's self-aggrandisement to protect them or herself. Bazinet takes Mary to the abyss of psychological dissolution rather conservatively. O'Neill offers cues in his words to just how distant she becomes from the fractured lives of her family, and Bazinet uses the words to shape a character who is the most extremely dysfunctional family member but who disrupts the way carbon monoxide might, a kind of smothering threat that unbalances everybody else's effort to relate. She drifts away, but she does so almost methodically, as deliberately as she withdraws periodically to get another fix.

David Patrick Fleming is the consumptive son Edmund, who has left the family before the play begins to discovery the larger world but has returned as aimless as he ever was. His destiny, we understand, is death, both literally and figuratively. Edmund is obsessed with the transgressive philosophies of Baudelaire and Nietzsche, and is unquestionably an introvert, but except for the delightful (but depressing) scene with his father playing cards in Act 3. Fleming feels more peripheral than he might have been. He's the only good thing about the family, in a way, but underneath he's a maverick and at least theoretically, a radical, and I didn't see much of that potential in his brooding-poet persona. Nonetheless, for a young actor, he holds his own with a much more experienced cast.

In Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill proves Tolstoy's point about the two types of families, perhaps. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." An audience isn't expected to identify with the very particular kind of pain O'Neill depicts, but he knows the scene of a train wreck is hard to resist. Dysfunction comes in degrees, and O'Neill's depiction of it helps define the dark end of the spectrum for good.

Set and lighting designers Leslie Frankish deserves applause for the rough-hewn space and atmosphere she creates the players' miserable journey, and Stancil Campbell's lighting makes the evening go by like a long, full day.
If you go, you'll get a 15 minute break, which you will be grateful for.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

ESO presents broad palette of French musical colours

 Bill Rankin

The Edmonton Symphony was in its element Saturday night in a program that the group's Francophile conductor Bill Eddins was clearly happy to direct.
The arc of the evening moved from deeply pleasurable, lyrical music, orchestral luxuriance focusing on conventional notions of musical beauty.
Ravel figured prominently in this concert, and the Ravel we got first is a friendly Ravel, full of musical ideas dedicated to melody and harmonic sweetness. The orchestra delivered all the Mother Goose Suite's charms; each tableau made its own lovely impression, but the final one, Le jardin féerique, was indeed enchanting.
Some of the music later in the program invites the concert hall standing ovation; this group of tableaux, when played as sensitively as the ESO played it Saturday, likely left listeners in spellbound reverie.
The suite was followed by Jean Françaix's Piano Concertino. Françaix has written music more challenging than the Concertino, but programming it after the enchanting Mother Goose Suite woke the audience from any dream it might have been in; the new mood was mood was still positive but more
The night's soloist was Christopher O'Riley, one of the world's most eclectic keyboardist. (Check out his collaboration with cellist Matt Haimovitz Shuffle, Play, Listen, which covers a spectrum of musical sensibilities that shows how classically trained musicians can play just about any kind of music and some, like O'Riley, do convincingly.) 
The Françaix has a spirit that really suggests generous musical concord between soloist and orchestra, and the musical partners made friendly music delightfully.
           Photo by Wendy Lynch
Christopher O'Riley
And then came a harsher Ravel, a Ravel that shakes and agitates and harumphs. O'Riley, a longtime friend of Eddins's, introduced the background of Ravel's Piano Concerto for Left Hand, explaining that Ravel wrote the unusual concerto for philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's brother Paul, who had lost his right arm in the First World War. It's hard not to look for war commentary in a piece with such provenance.
The opening movement begins darkly but not ominously, with the basses exploring their lower range in a tentative, neutral mood. Whatever allusions to the insanity of war may be in this concerto are on the horizon and not yet evoked.
The work is seamless; it doesn't have the typical three-movement divisions, giving the soloist and the orchestra an certain advantage in shaping the emotional frame of the music as a single developed statement.
The one-handed pianist may have an obvious physical impediment, but O'Riley made clear that feelings of defiance and even militaristic gestures in the late part of the piece aren't out of reach. Ravel gave the disadvantaged pianist opportunity to take out frustrations with emphatically pounding force, and he kindly left the pianist alone for most of his one-handed musical leadership, which O'Riley displayed exuberantly. The orchestra, for its part, delivered that edge and martial momentum that give the piece its symphonic stature.
O'Riley established his reputation as more than just another hot-shot concert hall soloist in the early eighties. I heard him play and hour and a half of his Radiohead piano arrangements in Royce Hall at UCLA in 2004, I think it was. He played it like a man on a mission. As an encore on Saturday, O'Riley played Radiohead's "You", giving the audience a taste of one other place he is musically.
It was O'Riley's first performance with ESO, and it was a great success.
In the second half, the orchestra played Sibelius's second symphony. The last time they played it, the guest conductor was the ESO's first music director, Brian Priestman. He could barely stand at the time, and directed it from a stool. Eddins had no such constraint.
This symphony has a through-composed aspect to it, revisiting repeatedly a theme introduced in the ebb-and-flow opening movement that begins with a kind of groping energy looking for a firmer musical footing.The symphony does finally find that footing and rises to a triumphal finale that Eddins and company delivered triumphally.
The audience clearly appreciated the big symphonic gesture that completed a very intelligently designed program that began in the world of idyllic dreaming and ended with an orchestral chestnut that screams confidence and strength.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Splendid Penelopiad revisits epic domestic tragedy

                                                                                    Epic Photography
The full cast of Penelopiad at the Citadel Theatre
The central character of Margaret Atwood's theatrical adaptation of her novella Penelopiad is the paradigm of the patient, virtuous wife. She is the woman who withstands every inconvenience and even every humiliation that her husband submits her to and still remains faithful and, in the traditional telling, uncomplaining. Penelope, wife of überadventurer Odysseus, hero of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, is a secondary character in the ancient tale, but in Atwood's re-imagining of the Odysseus story, the wife gets top billing, and she has a few things to complain about.
Her adventures, while she waited steadfastly for twenty years to see her wayfaring spouse return from the trouncing of Troy and ten years of nautical meanderings and a very bachelor-spirited drift back to Ithaca, are dramatic in their own way. But in the end, the drama she recounts in the play from her place in Hades, dead and gone but still remembering the hope and despair of her time on earth as the famous Wanderer's loyal consort, is the drama that Odysseus caused. Penelope may get her voice heard in  Penelopiad, but the story she tells and the eternal suffering she endures continue to be remnants of the aftershocks of her husband's self-centred, violent life on earth.
Nevertheless, Atwood's reflections on Penelope's place in the heroic, and ultimately anticlimactic ending of the Odysseus saga, are compelling, and compellingly rendered in this MacLab staging.
The Citadel production, running until April 21, features the 13 women in this season's Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Program. Beth Graham is the ever-present narrator of this version of the Odysseus story; she plays the storyteller role engagingly, at times roused to anger by recollections of her unlucky life, at times movingly pathetic in revisiting her helplessness, her helplessness especially to save the 12 maids who spied for her against the brutish suitors who vied for Penelope's hand as she waited for her husband to come home. When Odysseus finally returned, he hanged the women, ostensibly because the despicable suitors had used them as concubines, and they were no longer fit to serve his household.
The spirits of the dead women haunt Penelope in the afterlife. The scene in Act Two when the women sing of their betrayal is beautifully staged and dramatically poignant.
Except for Gorham's starring role, this is an ensemble production; however, a few women do get some solo attention, and they deliver strong performances.
Mary Hulbert milks the role of the vain, self-possessed Helen for all it's worth, antagonizing Penelope in the early part of the play when the two are still alive and sexual rivals, and she continues to gall Penelope, playing the beauty card in the Underworld at already miserable Penelope's expense to some good comic effect.
Lisa Norton keeps the treble to a minimum in her depiction of the charismatic trickster Odysseus, portraying the clever man as masculinely as a woman could without resorting to caricature, and Claire Hesselgrave's Telemachus, the scion to the Odysseus legacy, does fine work in capturing the youth's false bravado and impotence against the grisly suitors who bully him mercilessly. Nadien Chu reminded me a little of Maureen Stapleton's inimitable Edith Bunker, not so squawky, but earthy and often very funny. She has some of the toughest Atwood language in the play.
Dressed in a form-fitting, stylish, white winding-sheet, Graham is the pivot of this Atwood take on the story, the quarterback of her own memoir and the victim of historic spousal neglect. Graham is on stage from start to finish, recounting and witnessing and participating in the story of her life. (This play resembles in a way The Kite Runner in its narrator-based structure.)
In the beginning, Graham recounts her early life with Odysseus, who wins her in race he cheated in, their short time as lovers (long enough to produce one son, Telemachus) and his departure to Troy, to, of all things, try to help Menelaus, Helen of Troy's cuckolded husband, fetch his wife back from her abductor, the Trojan Paris.
The legend has it that although Helen had been defiled by Paris (an old-fashioned notion now, perhaps), Menelaus was helpless against her renowned beauty and let her live after retrieving her with his Greek cohorts' military assistance.) Odysseus wasn't so kind to the household maids for their dubious service to their besieged mistress.
Penelopiad is simply but beautifully staged. I especially liked the way the sung chorus parts are integrated into the witty and forceful Atwood script, and all the women, thankfully, have triple-threat abilities as actors, singers and dancers.
This culmination of another year of intensive performance training in the Citadel/Banff program is wonderful theatre, full of wonderful writing and strong stage talent.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pro Coro's Good Friday tradition continues

 Bill Rankin

Pro Coro's Good Friday concert tradition on, uh, Friday, attracted about a thousand listeners to Edmonton's Winspear Centre. The Good Friday event has always been an excellent draw for Pro Coro, especially when there's a well-known choral work on the program, and this year it was one of the top five pieces in the canon: Mozart's Requiem.
But before the audience heard the Requiem in the second half, Pro Coro did what it has always done best; it sang a couple of acapella pieces, demonstrating that as music directors come and go, the ethos of the choir stays the same. Its strength has always been attention to exquisite tuning and entrancing harmonic blend, and it's still its strength.
Under the relatively new leadership of Michael Zaugg, the choir opened the evening with the short piece In manus tuas by Ottawa-based composer Nicholas Piper. The piece offered Pro Coro the opportunity to display its power in a slow, only occasionally dissonant liturgical work rich in close harmony luxuriating choral writing. With the bolstered forces of 26 singers, the choir, on risers upstage at the Winspear, projected effectively into the hall, and the voices of all sections made a strong impression.
The under card also included the North American premiere of Peter Togni's Missa Liberationis, an acapella piece written for the Latvian youth choir Balsis. Togni's Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae was nominated for a Juno in 2011, and in my opinion, should have taken the prize that year rather than R. Murray Schafer's Wild Bird, a duo for violin and piano.
The mass we heard Friday was quite appropriate for the most somber day of the Christian calendar. Togni's mass includes five of the six parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, absent a Benedictus, and each section remains tethered to moods of reverence, contemplation and other sober religious sentiments. The tempi by and large are slow, and with the exception of a few sharp soprano stabs at more elevated, even inspirational emotion in the Sanctus, the overall tenor of the piece is subdued and severe. The piece eschews declamatory feelings; the Credo begins so inwardly that it carries no evangelical weight.
The choir, of course, immersed itself in the overall stillness of Togni's approach, rendering the work impeccably in the spirit the composer likely intended. Togni was in the audience for the performance, and when called to the stage, emanated the unpretentious, good-humoured demeanour he conveys in his various stints on CBC Radio Two, where he hosts Choral Concert on Sunday mornings.
Incidentally, in years past, the CBC would certainly have recorded this concert for future broadcast. Relentless cutbacks to live classical music recording renders so much excellent Canadian talent nearly invisible to the rest of the nation, and that's nothing to be proud of. On Good Friday, one might even say it is something to be ashamed of.
Mozart's Requiem, the Süssmayr completion, featured the string players of the Alberta Baroque Ensemble interspersed with the singers on the risers. This is a professional choir with singers who can hold their own in difficult musical circumstances, so there was no evidence that having an instrumentalists stationed so close to the vocalists had any untoward effect on the performance. The ABE was supplemented with winds, brass, organ and timpani, and the instrumentalists played a consistently supportive role for the singers. (Recently retired Edmonton Arts Council director John Mahon, a clarinetist, has more time to play his instrument these day; he appeared in the orchestra on the basset horn.)
The soloists, who, by and large, appear and disappear intermittently after small contributions to the Requiem, made a strong impression. Bass Philippe Sly, whom I've never heard, has physical and vocal charisma. His Tuba Mirum was commanding, and made me feel, at least, that it was too bad the Requiem didn't have more for him to do.
Sly was the first prize winner of the 2012 Concours Musical International de Montréal and a grand prize winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. He'll have a real career, I predict, and it would be great to hear him in an Edmonton Opera production sometime down the line.
Local soprano Jolaine Kerley is a Pro Coro alumnus, and since I first heard her about a decade ago, she has become a rich musical presence in the Edmonton community. Her performance Friday was immensely satisfying, penetrating and supremely confident and relaxed, not qualities she always exuded in her early career.
Edmonton-born mezzo Aidan Ferguson, trained at McGill, is making a name for herself in North America. The Requiem doesn't give the mezzo much spotlight time, but Ferguson made the most of her opportunity, demonstrating poise and unaffected professionalism every time she was called to centre stage. She, too, is a talent Edmonton Opera should take a look at. She's just finished her third season with Montreal Opera's Atelier Lyrique, and has had the good fortune to work with Yannick Nézet-Séguin as well. She's been singing since she was a kid (she sang with two of my kids in the Edmonton Children's Choir) years ago), and it's great to see that her passion is bearing fruit in her chosen profession.
Tenor Tim Shantz has a timbre that is both sweet and penetrating. He distinguished himself beautifully in the small part Mozart gave him.
Overall, the choir and company presented a fine Requiem. The men's sound didn't always make it to the back wall of the Winspear as well as the sopranos so effortlessly can, but in general, the performance reinforced the longstanding programming decision made years ago to make a big splash on Good Friday in one of Canada's best concert halls, and the standing O the Requiem received was well-deserved.
Mr. Zaugg appears to be doing a terrific job of maintaining the high-standard of choral excellence Edmontonians have come to expect from its professional chamber choir.
Postscript: It was a great idea to get CKUA's Orest Soltykevych to emcee the opening of the concert. In the past, with the best of intentions, the Pro Coro board members who've done the introductions, haven't quite shown the polish that Soltykevych displayed.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Staging of Kite Runner keeps story aloft

                                                                                              Photo by Trudie Lee
The kite flying scene in the Citadel production of the stage adaptation
of the novel The Kite Runner


Bill Rankin

One thing that's almost certain is that Yann Martel's Life of Pi will not be adapted for the stage after the cinematically spectacular treatment Ang Lee gave it. Khaled Hosseini's bestseller The Kite Runner, however, has in just ten years been the source of both a successful film and most recently, a stage adaptation, which the Citadel Theatre, in collaboration with Theatre Calgary, is presenting until the end of the month.

Matthew Spangler's play, to give it credit, serves the original, compelling family drama well. The playwright  has planted a narrator in the middle of the drama, which makes following the story of the Afghan religious and class conflicts and the characters' personal challenges pre-and-post Taliban an effortless experience. The audience is told the story as a reader would read a story to an interested listener; the theatrical overlay, however, emerges only intermittently as the central reason for coming to the theatre to experience the undeniable drama of The Kite Runner story. The words, more than the play, are the thing.

In Act One, the narrator, Amir, performed engagingly by Anousha Almanian, tells the story of his youth in Kabul, where he lived an upper-class life with his father, Baba (Michael Peng). In those days, in Afghanistan before Baba and Amir flee their war-torn country for refuge in San Francisco, leaving behind their wealth and social status, the motherless family had a faithful servant whose son, Hassan, was Amir's playmate. The boys played like friends, but Amir's sense of class entitlement prevented him from seeing Hassan (Norman Yeung) as his equal; he was his servant, the kite runner of the title, who fetches the downed competitors' kites during the annual kite fighting competition that Amir participated in with Hassan's assistance.

The dramatic tension of The Kite Runner comes from a moment after the kite-flying episode when Amir betrays Hassan in a cowardly sin of omission. The moral failure is the dramatic centre of The Kite Runner. The boys' relationship is never the same, and eventually they lose touch with each other after Hassan and his father leave Baba's household and Amir and Baba leave Kabul for the States.

There are several effective theatrical scenes in this adaptation, and some very good performances, especially from Peng and in the second act, Gerry Mendicino as Amir's father-in-law. The kite flying tournament captures the aggression and elation in Amir's desperate attempt to be the last kite flying as his somewhat neglectful father had been in his youth. The father's unfatherly ambivilence toward Amir turns out to be a complicating aspect of the plot that becomes clear much later in the play after Amir has grown up and settled into married life in America.

As the narration reveals the story of betrayal and relative redemption, the play the actors control moves in and out of focus. When Spangler gives the actors control of the drama, a night-in-the-theatre experience gets some needed energy.

Often, the secondary role the actors play makes the play seem like a grade-school theatrical, and stage designer Kerem Cetinel's colourful pastel backdrop in the happier scenes of Amir's childhood do elevate the mood of the staging in ways even an effective storyteller can't. The simplicity of the stage design reinforces the skeletal aspects of Spangler's dramatization to great effect. There is a coherence to the understated way the setting is laid out.

However, since the story touches on Afghanistan's violent history during the Soviet invasion and later the maniacal Taliban consolidation of power, some multimedia effects might have intensified the part the back story plays in the domestic drama. We don't need scenes of Taliban execution festivals in the Kabul stadium, but reminders on scrims of the actual Soviet and Taliban effects on Afghan life might have helped us imagine these characters' lives more vividly and reduced the need for a narrator to keep us interested.

Director Eric Rose had a challenge working with this language-heavy adaptation, but his approach to the theatrical aspects of the play is fluid. The scenes in Act Two, when Amir's childhood bully, Assef (Ali Momen) reappears as a Taliban overlord and when the older Amir constructs his new life among the Afghan diaspora in San Francisco, are tightly managed and do empower the actors to tell their version of the story.

This Canadian premiere of Hosseini's story, which has also garnered the attention of a filmmaker, is weakened by the playwright's attachment to the original medium, but the strong story itself, played out in all its disturbing and moderately uplifting aspects in this theatrical version, deserves an audience in whatever medium it comes to it.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Ride the Cyclone to beyond the grave

                                                                                                     Photos by Tim Matheson
Elliott Loran as Ricky Potts in Ride the Cyclone
Since the teenage characters in Atomic Vaudeville's now well-travelled Ride the Cyclone are dead the moment we meet them, the issue of character development doesn't figure much in this very witty reflection on that tiny question, "What is the meaning of an individual life?"
   The structure of Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell's musical is boxy, somewhat like the standard performance of a bebop tune — ensemble support for soloists who bask in the spotlight for a time, one after the other. Everybody plays, but there's only one star at a time at centre stage.
   Another limitation of the musical's premise is that the effect of drawing portraits of each of the individual dead ones, stitched together with the very funny material Richmond gives to Karnak, the all-seeing, all-knowing hirsute stage manager of the essentially grim proceedings, creates a somewhat static dramatic effect. Static but still very funny, like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe crossed with an old Twilight Zone episode.
   Interactions among the characters is limited; the thrust is personal biography. The energy comes from the music and the lyrics, which one expects from any musical, of course, but narrative glue that normally engages an audience in the characters' lives isn't sticky enough in Ride the Cyclone.
   Rielle Braid, left, and Kelly Hudson play Ocean
Rosenberg and Constance Blackwood
in Ride the Cyclone
   Each of the six kids killed on the Cyclone roller coaster in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, has a more or less compelling story, and the young performers in the production do a professional job of transmitting those stories through the tunes and staging they're given. The vehicle they're working with offers a manageable frame in which to display their developing theatrical chops, and none seems out of place on the Maclab stage.
   Some of them are very good singers; none of them is asked to tear up the dance floor. A couple of them have some real presence on stage.
   After the Cyclone goes flying off the rails at the Uranium City amusement park, the six young people arrive on the other side, where Karnak, a hirsute mechanical fortune-teller greets them. Karnak, voiced by Carey Wass, is a sardonic game-show host, offering the freshly dead contestants a second chance at life.      And here's were the premise generates only tenuous dramatic tension. Although the winner of the prize will be the teen everyone agrees deserves a rebirth, there's very little interaction among the contending ghosts, and the game show conceit never really acts as a pivot for the action, such as it is.
   Rielle Braid's character, Ocean Rosenberg, an overachieving girl who feels her superior qualities entitle her to Karak's gift, establishes herself as the least likable member of the group, but none of the other characters show much interest in vying for the singular opportunity Karnak offers.
   Like I said, each character sings in a box; each has unrealized potential they'd like to have fulfilled before their lives were cut short, but except for Ocean, performed with just the right amount of youthful arrogance by Braid, none of them really does their number like it could be their last. Ocean's character is also the only one that could said to develop over the course of the evening.
   None of these reservations about the musical itself are meant to suggest that there aren't some excellent performances in this production. Braid has a strong Broadway belt, and does have material that she uses to make the musical feel like it's going somewhere.
   Noel Gruber, the only gay guy in Uranium City, is exceptional fantasizing himself a beautiful Parisian prostitute, dressed in tacky showgirl inducements. Ricky Potts (Elliott Loran) comes alive after he's dead. In Uranium City, he was trapped in a seriously disabled body, but his imagination was irrepressible. In the afterlife, he's liberated, and Loran conjures a boy who is really ready to live again.
  Kelly Hudson's Constance is perhaps the most sympathetic character in Ride the Cyclone because she is the most pathetic. Overweight and unambitious, she would have lived out her life working at her family's store in dead-end Uranium City if she hadn't be splattered by the roller coaster accident. Hudson is not the strongest singer in the cast, but she does build a character that seems the most small-town genuine of the bunch.
   Jane Doe (Sarah Jane Pelzer) haunts the show. She was on the ride when it derailed and crashed, but no one seems to know her. It hasn't helped that she was decapitated in the accident.
   Pelzer has classical voice training, and it's always nice to hear a legit vocal sound in a Broadway-type musical. Her style adds to the weirdness of her role in the beyond-the-grave proceedings.
   The video sequences, especially the scene capturing the unrequited love of Mischa Bachinsky (Jameson Matthew Parker), a Ukrainian immigrant longing for the girl he left behind, are very imaginatively integrated into the production.
   Special mention must go to the rat-faced band. Stage designer Treen Stubel has the live musicians playing in the dark in what looks like a midway-game booth. The players wear rat masks with red-glowing beady eyes. The effect is otherworldly befitting this contemporary metaphysical musical.
   Ride the Cyclone is very cleverly written and is performed with youthful enthusiasm by a solid cast. It doesn't have the narrative fluidity of Next to Normal or Spring Awakening, which have played in town recently, but scene to scene, Ride the Cyclone does much more than just stay on the rails.
Ride the Cyclone is at the Citadel's MacLab Theatre until March 10.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Water music, near and far

   The Edmonton Symphony performed an eclectic program Friday evening, including a new 25-minute piece by its composer-in-residence Robert Rival entitled Symphony No. 2 "Water". They'll repeat the program Saturday night.
    The orchestra opened with Britten's Four Sea Interludes, collected from the composer's opera Peter Grimes. The small orchestra does "Moonlight" and "Dawn" with refinement and sensitivity, and "Sunday Morning" had the requisite urgency; the brass, woodwinds and timpani conjured the Storm effects, but the strings are always at a disadvantage when the music wants to make a grander, even menacing impression.
   Besides the world premiere of the Rival, the stars of the evening were a couple of violinists from Victoria, Nikki Chooi and his younger brother Timothy. Each had his moment to show off his virtuosity, Timothy with Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo capriccioso and Nikki with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen, but in the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor that followed the Britten, the young musicians displayed a taut, engaging talent for strong ensemble playing. The piece has no true primo and secundo violin structure. The two violinists and the orchestra in the two outer movements, especially, make music as an ensemble, and they made music with a real sense of together, under the direction of ESO music director Bill Eddins.
   In the slow middle movement the brothers showed they're more than pyrotechnicians, something they definitely demonstrated in the Saint-Saëns and the Saraste.
   Nikki plays a Stradivarius and Timothy a Del Gesu, borrowed from the Canada Council instrument bank, and in the slow movement of the Bach, the audience was treated to violin sound of the highest order. In an after-concert interview, Nikki characterized his instrument as the brighter-sounding, the more delicate of the two, but in the Bach, the effect was undifferentiated sweetness and light.
Robert Rival
   Rival's second symphony is vividly programmatic. The first movement shifts interestingly through a variety of moods; the notion of structure is secondary to the musical ideas that lead the piece to its quiet fade away. In between, Rival creates brief moments of stormy emotion, gentle passages of unanxious longing and short periods of dark, harsher brass and woodwind writing. None of the transitions feel forced; his strength is musical narrative.
The first and third movements also feature snippets of folk themes, the last one in a distinctly Celtic vein.
   The Second Movement suggested to me the caves of ice in Coleridge's Kubla Khan, casting a cool, remote glare on the world. In the middle of the movement Rival has written a small string quartet section where the rest of the orchestra withdraws into the background, mostly in silence. The overall mood of the movement is a blend of prayfulness and gratitude, perhaps. It finishes with subdued viola writing, subdued but not sad.
   The last movement is full of cheerful energy, a pastoral, a dancing day. The harp and horn figure prominently. Muted trumpet and snare together create an optimistic feel, and the echoic effects buzzing about the orchestra conjure images of happy, unself-conscious nature. Short stentorian brass and agitated strings episodes never really presage a descent into anything truly wild and dangerous. Overall, the water theme of the symphony never touches the monstrous aspects of the liquid medium. The last movement finishes with a kind of fanfare for a symphonic conclusion, upbeat and emphatically symphonic.
   Rival is a contemporary composer, in a line of other ESO composers-in-residence like Allan Gilliland and John Estacio, who resist antagonizing experiments in untested musical theories, preferring styles that audiences like to listen to, not music that imposes its experimental aesthetics on them.
   The audience on Friday saluted Rival for his considerate musical inclinations. Throughout the evening, the audience had no qualms about applauding individual movements, a healthy sign that classical music concerts can be occasions for spontaneous expressions of appreciation.