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John Corigliano in Edmonton

October 25, 2010

I was delighted to find out that John Corigliano would be spending a week in Edmonton during my rehearsal period for La boheme.  He was in residence at the University of Alberta, giving master classes and lectures, but most importantly supervising a performance of his Circus Maximus, which was played at the Winspear Center last Thursday night.

Circus Maximus is a HUGE piece, requiring a massive contingent of instrumentalists– mostly wind players.  By my count there were 111 players in this performance, mostly arrayed on the stage of the Winspear Center, but with at least two dozen in various surround-sound locations throughout the concert hall’s main floor and balconies.  And this does not even count the firearms guy who fires the rifle which triggers the final blackout and end of the 40-minute piece.  It is clearly a daunting undertaking to mount a performance of Circus Maximus, and it is something that you CANNOT miss if you ever have a chance to hear it.

I count myself in a very fortunate group of people who have managed to hear Circus Maximus on more than one occasion!  The first time was last Spring at Northwestern University, as part of their big Corigliano Festival.  When I heard that U of A was performing it this month I hoped desperately that I would not have a rehearsal that evening.  In fact our final dress rehearsal was that morning at 11 am (not particularly pleasant) with an audience of a couple thousand students (very fun), and I was free to hear John’s piece, and even managed to coerce several of the cast members of La boheme to come along.

The piece itself is extremely hard to describe.  Inspired by the Roman Circus it is full of brutality, and draws on the manic need the Roman government felt to distract the populous from the destruction it would fairly soon experience.  This manic overload of stimuli, and danger of imminent destruction resonates deeply for John to today’s society, in particular New York City, and New York’s modern influence is felt heavily throughout the piece.  The first movement “”(Introitus ) with its rips of brass surrounding the audience, gives way to  “Screen/Siren” which is dominated by a far-off saxophone ensemble.  Waves of sound that are overwhelming and come at the listener from 360 degrees, alternate with passages that are hard to locate, and which the listener’s ears need to strain to hear.  “Channel Surfing” is a montage of stimuli that each of us has experienced from our own sofas, while “Night Music I” and Night Music II” are evocations of nightscapes in prairie and city respectively.  The climax of the piece is a massive chord played by every instrumentalist in the room.  Billed as the “loudest chord ever played in a concert hall” it does not fail to satisfy, and especially on this second hearing, had me just shivering to soak the sound in.  The chord melts away over the course of 2 minutes, eventually leaving a single clarinet sustaining.  Never before has a single note played by a single player felt so meaningful and satisfying.

The concert was an overwhelming experience, and I was so pleased to have several of our cast members along for the ride.  Jon-Paul likened it to the first time he heard Le Sacre du Printemps performed, and how staggering that was, and I know exactly what he is talking about.  It is just amazing that that amount (and kind) of sound is being generated by living breathing individuals, and that we are sitting in the middle of it.  As I walked back to may apartment following the performance, my ears felt as if they had been scrubbed clean.  VIGOROUSLY scrubbed clean.  Refreshing.  It may be a long long time before I hear the piece performed again live, but this will be ringing in my ears for many many days.


La boheme – Performance 1

October 25, 2010

Last night was the opening of La boheme, and I think I am in very good company in how pleased I am with how the performance went.  Everyone in the cast was in very good voice, the chorus sang wonderfully, and the orchestra was terrific.  And most exciting– the KIDS!  The kids were spot on, and after the final dress rehearsal, this was a particular relief.

Our cast of 7 principals represent a wide range of boheme-experience, and that has been fun to watch throughout the production process.  We have one boheme-newbie in the cast– Benjamin Covey (Schaunard).  His debut was a great success, and I am sure he has many boheme’s in his future.  Our Musetta (Miriam Khalil) was making her role debut, but has previously sung the role of Mimi.  Similarly our Colline (Jon-Paul Decosse) has sung Schaunard in this very production, but was singing Colline for the first time on this set (and maybe for the first time?).  Our Mimi (Laura Whalen) sang the role only once before, and it was a number of years ago– so this has been a nice journey of discovery.  Eric Fennell, Etienne Dupuis and Doug MacNaughton (Rodolfo, Marcello, and Benoit/Alcindoro) each have a number of productions under their belts, and so the process has been a re-exploration of the characters as they relate to this particular staging by Brian Deedrick.  It is always a give and take, a sharing of knowledge and experience, and a rediscovery of this FABULOUS score through this unique collection of performers.

Two days off now, and then two more performances.  It is always fun to see how the production grows, and each singer’s performance settles in with opening-night nerves out of the way.

The weather in Edmonton has turned cold.  Good incentive to hole up in the apartment and get as much studying done as possible with the free days!

ESO – Anu Tali & Janina Fialkowska

October 20, 2010

Last Saturday night I went to hear the Edmonton Symphony’s last concert prior to their turning themselves over to “La boheme.”  I love it when I get to do this, as it is a chance to hear the orchestra play other repertoire, as well as a chance to get reacquainted with their sound and faces.  Kind of like visiting old friends, without all the pressures of rehearsal.

The program:

Berlioz – Overture to “Beatrice and Benedict”

Chopin – Piano Concerto #1

Part – Symphony #4 (“Los Angeles”)

Anu Tali was the guest conductor, and Janina Fialkowska was the pianist.


I find the Berlioz Overture a hard way to start a program– challenging to grasp the big architecture, and not extremely rewarding as an opener.  But that’s me.  Others likely feel differently.  Either way, it was very elegantly played, and showed the various sections of the orchestra off to good effect.

The Chopin was beautiful, subtle and elegant.  I had not heard Fialkowska play before, and was drawn in by the gentleness of her touch, and her ability to shade the solo part.  She danced over the keyboard, and cascades of sound rippled out.  It was never crashing, always fluid.

After the intermission (daring) came the Part Symphony, a 36 minute work for Strings, Harp and Percussion.  Terrific, surprising colors and timbres.  Wonderful passages for marimba and pizzicato strings.  The harp was a nice glue between the strings and the percussion.  Lots of sudden pauses where the wonderful acoustics of the Winspear Center kept the sound ringing and present.  One pause that I most liked was broken by a lone crotale strike… time… time… and then another crotale a half-step lower.  A very intriguing piece, and I was more than happy to give myself over to Part’s structure.  I lost track of time, and eventually was not even sure which movement we were in.  A winding eighth-note figure emerged in the low strings, section by section adding the cellos, violas and violins, climbing higher and higher, until only the first violins were left, and even they were out of room on the instruments to play higher.  And then it was over.  The ESO audience was riveted throughout.


Orchestra Time & Return Engagements

October 20, 2010

Tuesday night now, and we are only two rehearsals away from opening night.  But much happens in that very compressed time.  Take for instance what has taken place in the last two days:

Monday was my first time with the orchestra for this particular production– a relatively leisurely double-service day, with reads in the morning and afternoon.  Plenty of time to stop, be sure that the players’ parts clearly showed my beat patterns, and that they all had a general sense of how we are shaping the score.  At the end of the afternoon Laura (Mimi) came in to sing her two big arias, and we enjoyed the luxury of taking time with these challenging bits.  Then after a quick dinner we had our first stage/piano rehearsal.  4 hours to tech through the most challenging scenes (read Act 2 with the chorus and kids).

Today was our sitzprobe, and we managed to get through everything handily, if sometimes a little sloppily, in the 2 1/2 hour rehearsal.  Most important was that the orchestra get to hear the cast singing out, so they can see the moment to moment shading and shaping of the score.  Still lots to fix, but there will be time in the next two rehearsals.  And tonight we had the piano dress– principals marking, having sung the sitz only a few hours earlier.  This went pretty darn well, considering the complexity of the production.  Again, lots to shuffle into place, but nothing extraordinary or too daunting.


Yesterday, as we launched into the orchestra rehearsals, I was very aware of how much I appreciate return engagements!  Virtually all of the orchestra players have now played two productions for me, and we get along quite well.  Any sense of “getting to know you” or “sussing each other out” is completely absent from the rehearsals.  We are able to just get down to work right away, and what a joy that is!   I am able to push harder right from the outset, and the music-making is stronger from the outset, which is rewarding to both them and me.  A real treat.

The cast of La boheme

October 17, 2010


Laura Whalen (Mimi)



Eric Fennell (Rodolfo)



Miriam Khalil (Musetta)



Etienne Dupuis (Marcello)



Jon-Paul Decosse (Colline)



Benjamin Covey (Schaunard)



Doug MacNaughton (Benoit/Alcindoro)



Leanne Regehr (pianist extraordinaire) and Jeff McCune (Artistic Administrator)



Brian Deedrick (Our Fearless Leader)



October 16, 2010

The last time I conducted “La boheme” was in 2003, and was my New York City Opera debut.  It was Jim Robinson’s production, and I was taking the last three performances of the run.  The wonderful and talented Jerry Steichen was conducting the first cast, and he had already conducted the production at NYCO in prior seasons.  I remember very fondly how kind he was at the end of his orchestra read (and only orchestra time prior to the dress rehearsal).  He had taken the orchestra through the score, and there were about 5 minutes left.  He said to them– “Ladies and gentlemen, one of my most terrifying experiences was standing in front of you in the pit for a performance of this very opera, having had absolutely no time to rehearse.  Steven Osgood will be conducting several performances of this run, and would you be so kind as to let him just start Act 1 with the few minutes we have remaining?”  And so I got to get up, start Act 1 (terrifying), and get through a couple of pages of the score.  Very calming when the day came to enter the pit, and assail the piece in my house debut!

While we were rehearsing that production, I was also conducting Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” at Juilliard.  I was shuttling back and forth each day– City Opera in the morning, Juilliard in the afternoon, back to City Opera in the evening, Juilliard the next morning for orchestra, then back to “Boheme”….  You get the picture.  For a variety of reasons, I was having to keep a very tight rein on the Britten, imploring the cast to keep the rhythmic drive of the score as taut as possible.  Challenging material to get “just right” and a big learning experience for all of the Juilliard singers and players involved.

I remember getting back to rehearsals for “Boheme” though, and being baffled by how elusive I was finding Puccini to be.  It just didn’t feel natural– the push and pull more jerky than anything else.  It was very troubling, and I kept thinking “Why don’t I seem to understand how Puccini WORKS!  This has never been a problem before!”

Well, “Turn of the Screw” opened, ran, and closed.  And literally the DAY after putting away the Britten score, I felt my arm just relax, let go of the rhythmic drive that it had been pumping into “Turn of the Screw,” and embrace the ebb and flow of “La boheme.”  What a HUGE relief, and important lesson in how deeply the physicality of conducting influences the music-making.  Of course that was almost 8 years ago, and I imagine that the same situation would affect me differently now.  But it is an experience I have carried with me those 8 years, and that has been much on my mind this past couple of weeks.

This afternoon we had our principals run-through– first time through the score from cover to cover with staging.  It had everyone sobbing at the end.  The level of detail that Brian Deedrick has brought to the staging and each of the opera’s wonderful characters is touching on a very deep level, and the work of our very fine cast is exhilarating.  Tomorrow afternoon is the final room run with chorus and supers.  Monday is orchestra reads, and onto the stage in the evening for tech.  Here we go!

The many faces of Edmonton

October 13, 2010

I am continually intrigued by the mix of city and rural that one finds in very close proximity in Edmonton. The city itself is cut in two from west to east by the Upper Saskatchewan River, with downtown Edmonton on the north side of the river. The south side of the river was once a separate city, Strathcona, but is now part of the city of Edmonton.

I have rented an apartment on the Strathcona side of the river for my last two engagements in Edmonton. It is closer to the Jubilee Hall, where the opera rehearses and performs, and the feel is markedly different from being in the City Center. And the juxtaposition of urban and rural is captured everywhere you look.


That's Strathcona House (my building) in the center of the picture.


Out one side of my building one finds an old railroad track, still used during the warmer months for a historic railroad. I have never seen the train, but walking along the tracks for a few blocks can be a shortcut into some of Stratchona’s shopping areas. And it is just fun to walk along railroad tracks! Along the tracks you see small houses, bigger apartment buildings, gardens, and sometimes a glimpse between buildings over the river to downtown.


You can just catch a glimpse of the Capitol Building over the white garage.



A better view of downtown Edmonton


Out the other side of my building, and in fact the best views are right out my window, is the Saskatchewan River Valley– a beautiful place to run (except for the steep climb back out).


The view from the 20th floor of Strathcona House


New blog site

October 13, 2010

I’m in Edmonton now, rehearsing La boheme, and as usual when out of town on gigs I now have some time on my hands to work on the ever-expanding to-do list.  I’m trying a new blog format to see if it ends up being easier to use, and more conducive to updating than just maintaining another page on my website.  Fingers crossed.  Let’s see how it goes!

Building a Super-Extended Family

October 13, 2010

One of the things I am enjoying on this my third engagement at Edmonton Opera is how the individual people in the company– administration, soloists, chorus, orchestra– become part of your super-extended family. You know more and more about them, and they know more and more about you.

Last Saturday was my son Ronan’s 3rd birthday, and I was very sad not to be there to celebrate with him. The night before though we had a big Act 2 rehearsal with chorus and principals, oh and kids too. Before letting everyone go I asked if they would mind singing Happy Birthday to Ronan, so I could video it and post it online for him to see when he woke up. Well, it was the most raucus and enthusiastic rendition I have heard in a long time, and made Ronan very happy. And now everyone comes up and asks “Did your son like his birthday video?!?!”

This is one of the wonderful perks of my job, and one of the things that makes being away from home for these long stretches just a little more bearable.