Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Così fan tutte

was a disappointment. To be fair, the opera is a thicket of dramatic problems, but playing the opera as a farce misunderstands and wastes the depth of Mozart's musical setting.

It seems that the director spent more time reading Da Ponte's libretto than studying Mozart's score. Finding the middle ground between the two is the key to success with Così, and it was not achieved in this production.


This was also my first time inside the new opera house. It is, just as the critics note, fairly boring, architecturally speaking. It's nice, very clean looking, kind of Scandinavian in its feel, despite the absence of Scandinavian levels of subsidy. The all-glass staircase is a novelty, but not nearly as visually exciting as it had been made out to be.

As for the hall itself, it too is bright and clean, with great sightlines and an astonishing immediacy to the sound from the pit of the stage - it sounds as though you're listened to the piece through headphones.

Like many others, I was disappointed that this opera house wasn't an of architectural marvel, or the jewel in our city's crown of arts institutions. However, sitting in the house last week, it occurred to me that perhaps this was exactly the right decision for Toronto.

By making the inside of the house, the acoustics, the backstage, the most important part of the house, Richard Bradshaw and the COC have made a commitment to opera in Toronto. Something people neglect to remember when pointing to the Sydney Opera House as what we could have had is that the Sydney Opera House is a lousy place to stage operas!

Yes, that's right. Richard Bradshaw felt it was best to put the horse before the cart here in Toronto, to ensure that if one day, in the glorious future of opera in Toronto, where people stop clapping for everything, including brightly lit sets, and boo an all-nude production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten for it's lack of dramatic urgency.

Building a nice, but not great, opera house is Bradshaw's greatest gift to the city. Now we have no excuse but to focus on the quality of the productions. We can no longer lament how awful the sound is, or how the stage is too large. There are no excuses anymore. Our opera culture can mature a bit now, in a way that a Gehry-designed opera house on stilts with a roof that opened would have never allowed us.

Dare I say it....it's time to start booing.

The disappointment of Così fan tutte hit this home. The sets were old, the dramatic intent of the opera misunderstood, and the balance between the orchestra and the singers surprisingly bad. What we need now is for the audience to no longer pity the circumstances, and force the COC to improve the overall quality of its productions, as they are wildly inconsistent. (How did they manage to make Carmen boring last year?)

Nonetheless, we opera lovers are very much of the side of the COC. Mr. Bradshaw, you have set the bar very high. Here's to hoping you can vault it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Massey Harris Park

This is Massey Harris Park. It is one of Toronto's newest parks, and it is wonderful.

The site is nestled between a brand new condo development, and what was the Massey-Harris building, now a loft building full of the well-off urban professionals who make up a good number of the locals around here (you may draw your own conclusions about where I lie within that description.)

The park has its own website here, which gives a brief history of the Massey-Harris Company which, in its day, was one of the largest manufacturers of farm equipment around.

The Masseys were a tremendously influential family in their day. Vincent Massey was the first Canadian-born Governor General of Canada, and his brother Raymond was a well-known actor. Indeed, the University of Toronto would lack both Hart House and Massey College, the Commons and the Lords of St. George campus, had it not been for the munificence of this family. Or, to be more precise, my family.

In some strange, roundabout way, I am related to them, by blood or by birth I cannot remember. Long ago, I was told stories of moderately distant relatives being invited to the "Massey Family Reunion". In fact, as a small child, I considered myself a Massey, although this form of self-identification has long since expired.

The park itself is a mélange of outdoor styles, with manicured lawns:

and untamed shrubbery:

wooden walkways (which constitute the east and west edges of the park):

and stairs that lead to nowhere:

It is a cheeky place, where one is expected to wonder why there are stair that lead to nowhere, or why if you put you hand on a pole with a rounded tip (hmmmm....) water starts shooting out of the ground:

It's really quite a show.

For those of you who don't live here, Toronto has become quite the dog city. Reflecting that trend, we find a new style of water fountain, with three separate spouts - one for an adult, one for a marginally shorter adult, and, down at the very bottom, one for your poochy buddy:

And just when you thought things couldn't be any better, it also happens to be a free Wifi spot thanks to the fine folks at Wireless Toronto.

Picture this. A hot, sunny day, accompanied by your faithful dog and a sleeping infant. You find a spot to sit under the trellis, which both blocks and reflects the sun:

You have water, you have wilderness, you have pelouse, and you have internet access. Dare I mention there's a Starbucks just steps from the park?


As a Calgarian, I was amused by the generous number of "parkettes" that dot Toronto. They were small, and for the longest time, I didn't get them- what's the point of sitting in a park. Aren't parks for walking, listening to Beethoven's sixth symphony and imagining yourself strolling through Heiligenstadt?

How wrong I was. These small green spaces, these points throughout the city where one can catch their breath, have just as much value as a long walk through Edworthy Park would. They show an entirely different approach to bringing the natural back to the city.

We don't have to cordon off the nature already there - we can make it.

In fact, what makes Massey Harris Park work is that it is very much a product of thought. It is not a few trees surrounded by grass, but a deliberate attempt by some very creative people to create an oasis in the desert that makes up much of the modern urban landscape. The attention to detail is appreciated because it's obvious that they cared about what they were building here.

I would argue that it is how we treat the small spaces around us, the ones that don't get much publicity, and not the giant megaprojects Toronto Star columnists demand the city build, that speak to whether or not our urban landscape is improving or deteriorating.

If Massey Harris park, and the transformation at the Princes' Gates are any indication, and I think they are, then the Cassandras in our local media should find another hobby horse to ride because their discourse serves very little. except perhaps to sell papers.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Lister Sinclair

died this morning.

If I had to name a single Canadian who would comfortably bear the title of Renaissance Man, it would be him. Ideas will run a three-part series, starting today, on Sinclair's life, and I would encourage all and sundry to tune in and enjoy a tribute to a man who seems to have been the embodiment of curiosity.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Hammerklavier Sonata - Schnabel

What does one say about a work of art such as this? Something that feels forged, an analogue of Achilles' Shield, an miniature epic sweeping you away for a short while before depositing you in a grassy field to rest, where a quartet of satyrs plays late Haydn just to bring you back to earth?

My first encounter with this work was through the recording I'm listening to right now - the 1935 recording of Op. 106 by the legendary Artur Schnabel. (The Naxos Music Libary yields its riches so willingly - it almost seems wrong)

What does one say about this recording? The breathtaking speed and stunning virtuosity? The complete disregard for Beethoven's metronome markings?

Schnabel was the first to record the complete cycle of Sonatas, for HMV, to be sold by subscription to the Beethoven Sonata Society. I wonder what people must have thought, the day the latest Schnabel seventy-eight arrived on their front porch, fresh off the press.

You can see the lucky family gathering around the phonograph table, hurriedly tearing the brown paper open to discover which sonata they were to be graced with this evening - the Hammerklavier! Kids, finish your stew because we're in for a long night!

And what a night it would have been. Yes, Schnabel misses notes, but never has missing a few notes mattered less - it's thrilling nonetheless.

If however, you need technical perfection with your piano, I would suggest Maurizio Pollini's fine recording on Deutsche Grammophon, which is the recording I own. Pollini is often accused of an overly cerebral style, but if like cerebral, as I do, this shouldn't be a problem.

Beyond his stunning technique, and despite the reputation, there's a delicacy and sophistication to his playing of the Hammerklavier which complements the breathtaking Schnabel very well.

I would recommend listening to both, over and over again. Make a day, or perhaps a week of it.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bits and Pieces

Why I blog:

I believe that boredom is the result of a lack of personal meaning, and that this is to a great extent is due precisely to the fact that all objects and actions come to us fully coded while we - as the descendants of Romanticism - insist on a personal meaning.

- Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom
For a Baroque affect, please go check this out (via Crooked Timber). The "Behaves So Strangely" segment should inspire, in anyone, a sense of wonder about the world, or more precisely, your brain and the strange work it does on your behalf to make the world something meaningful. Before accusing me of espousing un relativisme with respect to the world, just a friendly reminder about the universality of the effect demonstrated in the above clip. We all hear what happens, don't we? If you don't, I'm sure Dr. Deutsch would be very interested in hearing from you! It's a win-win situation!


For my Italian-speaking readers, the inimitable Tyler Brûlé recommended what surely must be the most expensive newspaper per page in the world - Italy's Il Foglio. Coming in at an average of one folded broadsheet, it's loaded with insightful opinion, and as Brûlé says, could point the way of the future for newspapers. I for one, would love something like this in Toronto, a daily morning briefing, crammed with great, intelligent writing.

I dislike big, artery-clogging newspapers, and this slim, elegant approach seems perfect to me. Sure it costs as much as the Corriere Della Sera, but honestly, how many of you make it through the entire Globe, Star or National Post? (I assume none of my readers peruse the Sun dailies, except perhaps for anthropological reasons.)

I'd also be happy to pay a premium to get better content than 24 and Metro, Toronto's free dailies, as they are little more than newswire stories strung together with advertising. A Foglio-like broadsheet would be like your favourite online essayists (or bloggers, if you will), and a spot of the major news stories of the day, in a highly manageable package that one could take on the subway or streetcar, listening to whatever it is people listen to these days on their iPods.

And guess what? They let you download the paper for free later in the day!

Who's up for getting something like this off the ground? Any takers, please? Ken Alexander?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Good Food: Banu

While Valhalla burned, I ate saffron chicken kebobs and drank vodka and pomegranate juice.

I should explain. Through a series of fortunate events, my wife and I managed to slip out after work last night and head over to Banu, a popular new spot on Queen Street West.

I walk in, freshly shorn, with my beautiful wife sitting at an aqua-blue plastic bar stool (you can see them here! Does anyone else think those are teal? Not enough green in them to my eye).

The place is all clean lines, with pale blue mosaic tables, and comfy white bench seating for dinner. Just past the open kitchen, I noticed an upstairs loungish-looking area, perfect for a late evening or a small gathering. My wife had ordered a vodka and cranberry, and I followed her lead with the aforementioned vodka and pomegranate.

We sit at the bar, and, between gazing into each other's ever so gently inebriated eyes, check out their menu, which is both short and interesting.

It's all salads, dips and kebobs. This may sound like a lack of choice, until you start to see what they're willing to put on a skewer and into a flame. Beef heart, lamb, prawns, testicles, it's pretty much all there. Although I had an offal hankering for the delights of organ meat, my wife is disinclined towards cooked testicles, and given it's summer, we went safe, and ordered a a selection of their salads, dips and their saffron chicken breast skewers.

Then one of the waiters mentioned there was a fire outside. We had, somehow, missed all this. We looked outside, and sure enough, there was a fire about half a block down on the same side of the street. There were also fire trucks. And then more fire trucks. And then the Fire Command Truck. And then the Hazardous Materials Unit Truck. And then police cars. I suddenly wished my toddler son were here, as he would have gone mad with all these giant fire-fighting machines!

The centre of the conflagration was a card and gift shop named Valhalla. Seriously. It was impossible to keep the last act of Götterdämmerung from playing in my mind. (Note to COC- this is what Valhalla-burning should look like, not the Macdonald's heat lamp glow your artistic team thought would be an appropriate ending to your current Ring Cycle...)

Then the food came. We had the nan o paneer, which was bread, goat's cheese and walnuts, a salad, the citrus-saffron chicken breast, and, thanks to an error in our favour, the kashkeh bademjan, a delightful eggplant dip that only needed a spritz of lemon to make it perfect. Accompanying all these dishes was copious amounts of flat bread, cut into strips for ideal sharing and scooping.

The chicken was revelatory - moist, succulent, its flavour as bright as its saffron-dyed flesh. The dips and salads were refreshing, and we left the main course full. We finished the meal with some Iranian tea (black tea with cardamom), served with dates and sweet chickpea cookes, and a pomegranate sorbet.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, so what about the hookah? Or, given this was an Iranian restaurant, the ghalyan? They had one, but it was not to be.

We were about to sit outside, which is, in smoke-free Toronto, the last place you can smoke, when a couple, who appeared to be tourists (well, they looked like tourists, shorts and fanny packs and the like), sat down at the lone patio seat and proceeded to smoke it themselves. We were thwarted! But we’ll be back.

I should also mention that the service is gracious and unpretentious, and the prices reasonable. Most of all, despite the location, the place has managed already to show a depth of character in what is arguably the trendiest strip in the city. A great place for dinner and probably an even better one for a night of drinking and talking. I highly recommend it.

Banu’s at 777 Queen Street West. Phone number’s 416 777 2268.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Ring of TFO

If you can believe it, TFO, Ontario's French public television station, will be showing the complete Ring cycle over four weeks!

They're showing the Patrice Chéreau-directed Beyreuth centenary production, with Pierre Boulez conducting. Last night, they showed a documentary on the production and Das Rheingold, and it looks like they will be showing all of them, Sunday nights, beginning at 8pm. (Just a warning - there won't be any intermissions, so you'd best make those little interact pastries before the show starts!)

This production on DVD is at the top of my opera "to buy" list, and I wasn't disappointed by the first installment. I'm also glad I get to watch before buying! It's like some TFO programmer reads my mind, or at least blog.

This is an "updated" production, meaning it's set in the 19th Century, but as far as Rheingold went, it worked beautifully. If, like me, you didn't get to the COC ring now's your chance to watch a great productin of the tetrology!