Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Lighter Classics, From the Heart of Broadway

Dickson had been looking forward to the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s From the Heart of Broadway edition of Lighter Classics for some time, and I was eager to see what Sheri Somerville could do on a non-theatrical stage.

After a few concerts, I now know that my personal enjoyment of the symphony hinges on: 1) whether I recognize or have a prior connection to the music; and 2) have non-music distractions to focus on. The only song that I had heard before was parts of Oklahoma!, but other than that, the majority of the pieces were too slow for my sleep-deprived brain to follow. The upbeat, brass heavy songs were my favorite – so much so that I kept wishing they would reprieve some of the Big Band jazz from the concert I attended earlier in February. Thankfully, James Campbell on the clarinet was a saving grace of sorts – an undeniable talent, his encore was much appreciated.

As for Somerville, her attempts at opera-fying Porter and Gershwin tunes were miserable failures. Dickson said it sounded as if she had a cold, or was trying to sing with something stuck in her throat, and I couldn’t disagree – her efforts at falsetto were misplaced. As such, I thought she was completely the wrong choice for the type of songs she was asked to sing…until “Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Tood. Part acting, part singing, she nailed it, though the cheekiness of the song helped as well.

William Eddins conducted this concert, and watching him is always a treat. While he didn’t jump on the stage this time around, he is always a wonderful host, vibrant and deeply passionate about music. He would undoubtedly make a great dinner party guest! Dickson was really impressed by his ability to simultaneously play the piano and conduct. (On a related note, he will be guest conducting Porgy & Bess in Lyon in May, and invited those in the audience to join him in France. He offered a free ticket to the concert, as well as a dinner together in September. Any takers?)

While I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this concert, the ESO continues to amaze me with their sheer number of events, and consistent ability to pack the house. I really relish my membership in the Pulse8 Club for providing these inexpensive opportunities of exposure to the symphony and its surrounding music community.

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Robbins Pops Big Band Celebration

On Saturday night, Dickson and I headed to the Winspear Centre for an Edmonton Symphony Orchestra concert, the latest instalment of the Robbins Pops series: Big Band Celebration.

Our tickets were purchased before I knew about the Pulse8 Club, so instead of sitting in the more agreeable terrace or first balcony, we were in the gallery. I didn’t really have any complaints about the distance, but the Winspear management might want to look at the safety issues of those trying to navigate to their seats in the first row of the gallery – the narrow space between the chairs combined with the low railing is a safety hazard.

The view from the gallery

I just started going to the Symphony in September, so I don’t have that many concerts to compare with, but in my limited experience with the ESO, this has been my favorite so far. Big Band jazz especially puts a smile on the listener’s face, so while the spirited introductions from Conductor Erich Kunzel about the history of the era and the songs were lost on me, I still immensely enjoyed the music. “In the Mood” and the concert-ending “Sing, Sing, Sing” were my favorites.

This performance was extra-special because of the non-ESO performers. Steve Bailey and Nathalie Gomes, Lindy Hop Champions in their own right, danced through some of the numbers. They made it look easy, effortless, and incredibly fluid through some very difficult lifts and throws, and made the audience gasp on more than one occasion. Singer Jefferey Berger, on the other hand, I could have done without. His weak voice was exposed on “New York, New York” in particular, though he did do better with the slower “My Way”. Yes, Berger is only 21 and still a student, but I can’t help but think that Kunzel could have picked someone better.

On a related note, the ESO is looking for bloggers interested in live blogging during an upcoming concert. More information here.

Edmonton Opera: “H.M.S. Pinafore”

I had heard about Edmonton Opera‘s Explorers’ Club a few years ago, but it didn’t seem economical to join until I read about their 2007/2008 lineup. The venerable Stewart Lemoine would be rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and thus, even if I didn’t use my membership to purchase tickets for the other shows that season, it would still be worthwhile.

As the play neared, it was released that Jeff Haslam would be among the cast members. At the time, I thought his involvement was more of a token gesture; a thoughtful inclusion of a longtime Teatro associate. Little did I know that he would play a leading role, if not one that upstaged the rest of the cast all together.

While this was my first opera, it wasn’t my first experience at the opera. I had volunteered during the earlier run of Carmen, so I knew that many, if not most of the patrons dressed to the nines (yes, cocktail dresses and four-inch heels in the dead of winter). The majority of the audience was not surprisingly comprised of the older set, though I do think the Explorers’ Club is doing a fine job of trying to foster appreciation of this art form with younger professionals.

I convinced Mack that the Opera Talk prior to curtain was a good way to orient ourselves to the history, plotline and characters of Pinafore, so we arrived earlier enough to join a modest crowd in the Kasaa lobby. I didn’t understand all of Dr. David Cook’s jokes, but the overview of the story would be helpful to my appreciation of the show later on. Mack and I both thought that he seemed a little too keen on Jeff Haslam, however.

I don’t know Gilbert & Sullivan well enough (well, at all, really) to recognize how Lemoine “improved” the script, but in the end, Pinafore really didn’t seem like that much of a leap for him – farce is his specialty, romance his standard, and unusual settings his forte. This opera could be considered typical Lemoine…with musical interludes. I will admit that it was no small joy on being able to hear “He is an Englishman” sung live, as it was used in one of my favorite episodes of West Wing (“It’s from Penzance!” “No, it was from Pinafore!”). And Haslam? He was tailor-made for the role of flamboyant, self-centered Sir Joseph Porter, so much so that I can’t help but think that Lemoine must have specifically requested his participation, as the part was undoubtedly written with him in mind. He was hilarious in his mannerisms, delivery, and even his uproarious laughter (because no one has a cackle as distinctive as his).

As for the production itself, I had a few nitpicks. The lighting was odd throughout, bordering on distracting, actually (was the blue, spinning, simulation of the waves really necessary?). It also seemed that the costume designers should have given Ralph Rackstraw’s character some kind of distinctive piece to wear; otherwise, he too easily blended in with the rest of the ship’s crew. The symmetrical set was functional and allowed for great visuals and movement during the chorus numbers, but I couldn’t see how it was as “special” as continuously touted in the program and in the show’s introduction by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick.

As a member of the Explorers’ Club, Mack and I were able to partake in a pizza and beer reception during intermission. Getting to and from the second balcony to the basement of the Jubilee Auditorium in twenty minutes was a slight challenge though.

Opera really isn’t my area of expertise, but all I hear is how expensive it is to produce, and how ticket prices barely cover the costs (Deedrick offered the statistic that only 42% is reimbursed through ticket sales, while the rest is supported by government donations and private sponsorship). If that’s the case, isn’t it possible to offer more than three shows, given what must be a very large overhead to construct sets and costume from scratch, on top of rehearsals and expenses that I can’t even begin to know? Perhaps there isn’t enough demand (or people who can afford to see it) in Edmonton, but it just seems an extraordinary waste of resources to only offer three opportunities to see a very good local production.

I’d like to attend Falstaff in the spring (my last chance to get “cheap” tickets this year), and I do think that will be a more genuine litmus test as to whether or not I truly enjoy opera. Pinafore was a treat, there being just a slim chance that I wouldn’t find it entertaining – it was in English (making the availability of supertitles less of an issue), penned by Lemoine, featuring Haslam, and more light hearted than what I’d expect from more traditional operas. This was “opera-lite”, so after Falstaff, I will reassess my feeling about the medium then.

Haslam in H.M.S. Pinafore

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Robbins Pops, a 75th Birthday Tribute to John Williams

Mack and I met up with Dickson and headed to the Winspear Centre for my second concert in three days – the first Robbins Pops of the season, a 75th birthday tribute to John Williams.

Through the wonderful Pulse8 Club, we purchased tickets for just $20 each (including service charges), and ended up with seats in the second row, orchestra centre. After this experience however, I know that the symphony is just about the only exception to the rule of stage proximity. For a view of the entire orchestra, first balcony seating, or at least further back on orchestra level, is essential. From our vantage point that night, we couldn’t see much beyond the conductor and the string musicians. Live and learn.

In between songs, conductor Bruce Hangen introduced video clips of an interview he conducted with John Williams himself. It was a treat to be able to hear Williams talk about the process he went through to compose some of his best known works, including the theme from Jaws, “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter, and music from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Of all the songs, I was most looking forward to hearing the title theme from Star Wars, and of course, the choir-infused, pulse-racing marvel “Duel of the Fates” from Episode I. I was not disappointed, and couldn’t help but be brought back to the time when I watched Star Wars for the first time. The costumed characters (Darth Vader, Leia, and an array of Storm Troopers) that appeared during these pieces was admittedly over the top, but as I ended up taking a picture with one of them, I can’t say much else.

Darth Vader and Unknown Baddie (even better – Dickson’s Mum and Vader)

It’s Leia! (hair buns and all)

Dickson and I pose with a Storm Trooper

Also, who knew the Symphony was the place to be? After running into a friend and a coworker at the show on Wednesday, I saw a few other workmates on Saturday. I had no idea the ESO was so well-frequented.

There are a few upcoming shows I want to check out, and armed with a fabulous discount, I really have no excuse!

Edmonton Symphony Orchestra: Midweek Classics

While I’ve known for a while about the existence of discounted programs created by local arts companies in an attempt to build loyalty in the 18-29 age group (whom they hope will become lifelong patrons), I hadn’t looked closely into it until this year. The Citadel has Club Friday (which is outrageously expensive, especially in the face of pay what you can Sundays), Edmonton Opera runs an Explorers’ Club (which I joined this year), and last but not least, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra operates the Pulse8 Club.

Of the three, Pulse8 offers the best deal hands down – free to join, members can purchase up to two tickets to most of ESO’s concerts for $15 each. Best of all, when tickets are released to Pulse8 members, it is the best available seats that are up for grabs. Keeping in mind that gallery seats are regularly $42 each, this provides a great opportunity to inexpensively enjoy a night of music. One tip – if possible, buy the tickets in person, otherwise one ends up paying $4 more in service charges when ordering over the phone.

Another unexpected benefit of Pulse8 membership ended up being free tickets to the opening Midweek Classics concert that took place last night. Dickson and I were given terrace seats, not bad considering the tickets were complimentary to begin with.

As this was my first classical concert, I relied heavily on Dickson to explain to me why a conductor is necessary at all (sacrilege for those intimate with the orchestral workings), and had a juvenile laugh at the fact that the conductor’s right hand man is called the Concertmaster (anyone else think he should wear a sash of some kind?). I will say that it was a lovely sight to be able to see the synchronized bow movements of the stringed instruments, and the gradual addition of each section to the song as a whole. The music itself was nice, though to be entirely honest I haven’t been exposed to enough classical repetoire to really appreciate it. I am used to such music in a supporting role, and never as the end itself, so I think learning to appreciate such music for music’s sake will take time.

The real surprise of the night was ESO’s Music Director. Anyone who has seen William Eddins on stage will know that he is entertaining in his own right – I’ve never before encountered such an animated conductor. He actually physically left the ground a few times, and I was afraid some of his jerky arm movements would push him into a coronary. His comments between pieces and introductions of the featured musicians showed his charisma and humor, as well as his respect and passion for the music.

I am fortunate that I will be getting another opportunity to enjoy the symphony very soon – a few friends and I will be heading to the Robbins Pops celebration of John Williams’ 75th birthday this weekend.

Queen Elizabeth High School’s Night of Music

Dickson and I headed to Annie’s school of Queen Elizabeth High for their annual Night of Music event. It seems I’ve been so far removed from the school environment that I had to be reminded of the positive, infectious energy young people exude when they are focused on achieving a goal. In this case, it was musical performance.

The students did better than I expected, and I enjoyed in particular the rendition of the always charming Barenaked Ladies’ song “If I Had A Million Dollars,” and the vocally-challenging Elvis Presley number “A Little Less Conversation.” Before the acapella group HOJA closed out the concert, the audience was treated to a version of the “Evolution of Dance” (check out the original on YouTube; the guy is now paid to perform his act all over the U.S. at various conferences and events).

Thanks for the invite, Annie!

Music: Norah Jones’s “Not Too Late”

I’ve been listening to Norah Jones’s third CD, Not Too Late, for just over a week, and I’m happy to say that I am appreciating it more over time.

I loved her debut album, Come Away With Me, with its sultry and sumptuous ballads, and really disliked her second, country-tinged release, Feels Like Home, so I was a bit apprehensive with this new CD. Though not untouched by country (“Sinkin’ Soon” and “My Dear Country”), there are enough jazz and blues numbers to balance out the remainder of the disc.

My favorites so far include the first single, “Thinking About You,” (which has one of the oddest videos I’ve seen to date), the mellow “Rosie’s Lullaby,” and the strikingly nostalgic “Until the End” (I may be musically off, but the song transports me back to the 50s, all twilight and lavender, innocence at a high school dance, and could be perfect for an episode-ending House montage). And as you may have guessed, I lean heavily towards tunes that remind me most of Come Away With Me.

Not Too Late is worth a listen, particularly if you’re a Jones fan, or want to give a new incarnation of the blues and jazz a try.