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.