Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Eugene Onegin at the COC

Went to see Eugene Onegin at the Canadian Opera Company last Friday, and I do not know if I've ever come away from a performance more confused about how I felt about it.

There were some wonderful things - the singing, for example. Giselle Allen as Tatyana and Brett Polegato as Onegin were superb. Allen handled the letter scene beautifully, although the letter scene's staging, as well some real balance problems with the orchestra, completely undermined the work.

My main issue with the staging was its central premise. This production opens with Onegin meeting Tatyana as the Princess. In other words, the opera is staged as Onegin's reminiscences of what happened.

Now this isn't a bad premise. However, its execution in this production ruined the letter scene. Why? Onegin is on stage, presumably imagining Tatyana's feverish writing, turning the scene into something about him, and not her. But the scene is all about her, isn't it?

Making this his memory of something he couldn't have been privy to renders their reunion in the Third Act problematic though, doesn't it? We only know what Onegin's been thinking, so what do we make of with Tatyana's feelings at the end?

Worse, during Lensky's famous aria, Kuda, kuda vï udalilis, Onegin isn't there! Why? Why do we leave Lensky to his own devices here? Moreover, the duel itself is staged as Lensky committing suicide, not being shot by Onegin, again downplaying the tragedy of the entire opera.

By turning Onegin into a kind of crypto-Werther, where it all becomes about Onegin, the opera loses its tragic element. Onegin is indeed a cautionary tale, but doesn't come out much more clearly when we are exposed to his actions as an objective feature of the work, and not a subjective outcome of his own, perhaps deluded mind?

What about the rest of it? The set was beautiful, and the staging, beyond this, was quite beautiful. That's the word that keeps coming to mind - beautiful. Except for the orchestra, which played worse than I have ever heard them. And I saw something I haven't seen in the new opera house - the orchestra and chorus came completely apart in the Act II, Scene I finale.

It was scary - it almost looked like it was going to fall apart. It didn't, but I hate to say it - the rapturous applause the audience gave the orchestra at the end was undeserved. Toronto, do you actually listen to the opera? Or is applause like tipping here, where you do it out of obligation and not as a sign of the quality of the performance?

The orchestra is so much better than they were last Friday, and I fear that the darkest consequence of Bradshaw's passing is that the COC orchestra is beginning to lose its way. Let's hope I am wrong.

I should also mention that one of the interesting aspects of the production was how it brought out Onegin's boredom. In this production, Onegin becomes a thoroughly Romantic figure stuck in an aristocratic past, an interesting line of inquiry which got somewhat lost in the other strangeness of the production.

So was Onegin good, or was it bad? Friends, that is no kind of question. This production is well worth seeing, precisely because of the problems it poses. Check it out if you can.

Sign of the Times

Have we been reduced to taking pictures and building posts around them here at the Transcontinental?

While playing with my son at a park, I came across this sign:

As the sign says, the park has been "designed" for 2 to 5 year olds, so one can be assured that a phalanx of experts were consulted to ensure the everyone's child develops while they play. For that is what all the kids are doing these days - developing isn't just for teenage girls anymore!

Am I suspicious of the idea of childhood development? Well, yes. And, it seems, so is the Toronto District School Board - note the rules immediately below, which are the real reason I decided to snap and share this sign with you.

I suppose the Rules here are really meant for the parents. Perhaps we are meant to read them to our 2 to 5 year olds before they begin playing, and they are to sign a little form letting parents and the School Board know that they understand the rules.

However, it was rule 4 that really got me - "Think before you act". Ah yes, this is little bit of wisdom is well understood by the toddler set. Indeed, most children think before they act, which is why they tend to contravene the first three rules!

I can imagine many the small child thinking "walking won't get me to the slide soon enough, so I'll run", causing them to act.

Do you see how the oh so clever aphorism of the bureaucratic scribe who penned this edict slips away?

"But Daddy, I did think about it before I punched little Natalie!"

"Son, that's true. You upheld rule 4 of the playground despite breaking rule 1."

Two wrongs don't make a right, but what do a wrong and a right make?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Brachvogel's Freidemann Bach

Last year, I suggested that I would try to get at the heart of why J.S. Bach's eldest son, W.F. Bach, didn't get much respect these days despite his being acknowledged as the finest composer of the sons of Bach.

Well, it seems there's more to this than Bach fils wrapping fish in ol' Vater's cantatas! Turns out Albert Emil Brachvogel wrote a book entitled Friedemann Bach that traces the travails, and yes, my friends, the loves, of our dashing organist and Kapellmeister!

Now I have to say, it's a bit of a potboiler, but I would say that this little novel has had more to do with Bach's problems than just about anything else.

Don't take my word for it though- read it yourself. What's that? You dont read German? Well, that's OK, because I'm going to translate the thing and serialize it, right here on the Transcontintental!

One caveat - It will get done, but it will take me some time. Here's to hoping it is enjoyed, and that in getting it out in English, we can begin to examine the like of W.F. Bach in a new light.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Larval Subjects on Bureaucracies

Larval Subjects, a site I have only recently discovered, has an excellent post on bureaucracy - here!

The rant is anything but incoherent.

It seems to me that, over the past decade, public sector bureaucracies have left their traditional vocation as a group of professionals charged with doing the public good to become a part of the service sector. Broader public sector workers are no longer there to provide advice in a dialectical relationship with those in power, rather, they are there to provide value-added services to their diverse set of clients (my god, that all rolls off the keyboard so easily...).

The evidence for this is everywhere. Isn't this what the CBC is doing to Radio Two?

The chilling thing is that I do not doubt the sincerity of the bureaucrats responsible for dismantling an orchestra and attempting to make CBC Radio Two more "inviting". Indeed, I suspect many of them believe they're fighting the good fight, the good fight being whatever it is they've been told to fight for. They are serving their client. That is all that matters.

In the comments, Larval Subjects makes another important point, this time about writing. These words should be given to each and every bureaucrat instead of the rules foisted upon everyone by plain/clear language industry:

...teaching writing is not simply a matter of transmitting information that the student can then replicate and reproduce as in the case of an assembly line. Rather, it is an art where the student learns an entirely new way of relating to language, thought, arguments, etc. As such, it is not the sort of thing that can be mechanized or easily standardized, though there are certainly techniques for developing these skills and improving them.

Why is this so difficult to grasp in an institutional setting? Because it's so difficult to quantify, it's labour intensive, and it's slow and painful. A rule about avoiding the passive voice is much simpler to enforce than teaching people how to use it best, to give people a feel for their own language.

It requires institutions to make a committment to better writing on an individual level, instead of a corporate communications strategy to demonstrate what "proven steps" bureaucracies are taking to communicate to the people.

The grand irony of all this "quality control" is that most participants in the system know that there is little actual quality, indeed, that it is a virtual quality, a quality on paper instead of a quality in practice.

Serve your client, show your superiors that they've been served in a quantifiable way, and you are good.

But this is not good, is it?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


The Toronto Symphony Orchestra musician who left his violin at a streetcar stop will be getting it today. The Toronto Star has the full story here.

Is it just me, or does anyone else get a bit of an awkward feeling about the circumstances while reading it?

I'm not going to anything except this: wouldn't it have been more
honourable to point out to the homeless woman that she had in her posession a valuable violin, and that there was a reward attached? $1000 would have paid for a lot of coffee and smokes, or perhaps failing that, rent.

Anyway...a least it's a happy story for the TSO violinist.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Back In Your Cage, Classical Monkey!

So how is the media greeting the outrage of classical music lovers after the one-two combo of losing classical music programming on CBC Radio 2 as well as the CBC Radio Orchestra?


One shouldn't be surprised. The stuffy strawman that is the skinny white-haired man in his cardigan comparing his twelve recordings of Beethoven's Fifth is as entrenched as the dumb blonde in the pantheon of pop culture derision.

The tale of the tape? Let's take a look at three, count em', three separate columns, whose message can be distilled to the following:


They are like parents calming an errant child, and their patronizing tone is ironic given that it is the classical music listener who is the premier patronizor in our civic space, merely by virtue of his tastes in music.

Ken Rockburn in the Calgary Herald:

It has long been known among CBC types that Radio 2, with its unrelenting focus on classical music, has been a dusty corner of the broadcast world with audience numbers that, even in the imaginary world of public broadcasting where such things are not supposed to matter, are laughably tiny. When the semi-annual ratings come out, Radio 2 suffers from what private broadcasters refer to as "dash disease." That means that for each quarter-hour average audience number there is no number, only a dash. In other words, no measurable audience.

CBC types, like him, I guess.

But what about the facts? Well, you, like Ken here, could have looked at the ratings over at BBM. But then you'd see that Radio 2 not only doesn't appear to suffer from "dash disease", it seems that there are a whole bunch of private broadcasters who lose to CBC Radio 2 on a regular basis. Here, look!

But let's not let data get in the way of setting that straw man ablaze, eh Ken?

And then there's our John Doyle, Canada's Flann O'Brien, writing in yesterday's Globe, cleverly entitled "Note to classical music fans: Get over yourselves":

To be perfectly honest with you, I'm not all that worried about CBC Radio 2 reducing the amount of classical music it airs.

No, he's really worried about TV. But John, why do you feel the need to dismiss the loss of an entire orchestra to make your point? A smart, funny man like you? Who cares if you don't care for classical music? If the classical music people are bothering you with e-mails, and you don't care, just ignore them.

Finally, John Terauds last week. It starts out by infantilizing classical music listeners (note, Terauds is the Classical Music critic of the Toronto Star):

Don't mess with what we know and love – especially if it's our music.

We treat our radio stations like an infant who has grown attached to her first teddy bear.

CBC Radio 2 has for years been the favourite plush toy for the country's classical music listeners.

Like many a teddy, our radio network has lost its eyes somewhere along the way. The fur is stained and matted. The ripped fabric around the neck has let some stuffing spill out.

It's not pretty. But no matter. Radio 2 is ours and we're not letting go.

Wow. According to John, classical music fans need a course in change management.

Yes, but I wonder when the Star decides it doesn't need a classical music reviewer Mr. Terauds will embrace "change" when they reassign him to the faith desk to cover the latest church bake sale.

So what do we make of all this? Is it just payback for that snooty Russell Smith for always being so snobby, with his cultivation of tastes in food, clothes and the arts, a veritable scourge?

As anyone who reads me knows, my feelings about the changes at CBC are ambivalent at best. I no longer consider the CBC a classical music station, and I haven't for a while.

My sense is that, pace Ken Rockburn, is that the best thing for classical music listeners to do would be let the CBC succumb to dash disease and let them reconsider their actions through of the humiliation of broadcasting Feist only to have no one listen to her, because no one goes to the CBC to listen to Feist!

What bothers me, however, isn't the content, it's their tone. What's the the source of that nastiness, that patronizing?

As many lovers of classical music know, telling someone you listen to Beethoven is a throw down to a lot of people. People get defensive, or angry, or feel a need to defend their music from my "elitist" tastes.

What's interesting is that this reaction often comes not from the utterance itself (I listen to Beethoven), but the context in which most people think about classical music lovers (pompous jerks who hate rock, also known as the music of the people).

Classical music listeners usually have to go to great lengths to reassure people that they do not in fact hate popular music, or that they are also just ordinary people, usually by talking about Radiohead or Sarah Harmer, or perhaps by drinking cheap domestic beer in front of people suspicious of their classical music listening tendencies.

So what do we have here? Could it be that when it comes to classical music, the ghost of the French Revolution hangs over our collective thoughts? Could it be simply that we still see classical music as an aristocratic pursuit, and that this offends our egalitarian sensibilities? Could it really be something as ridiculous as that?

Could this be the very source of all our problems as classical music listener? Any thoughts?

Monday, April 07, 2008

East Village Opera Company Redux

A.C. Douglas at Sounds and Fury posted recently on an interview he'd heard by the East Village Opera Company.

The comments of the Company, as well as A.C. Douglas' comments on their stance, reminded me of a post I had written on one of my old blogs, the name which shall remain forever forgotten...you'll note the striking similarities between my post and that of Mr. Douglas, although I would note that I go to great lengths to explain what he assumes needs not be said.


On Studio Sparks, Eric Friesen asked listeners for their opinions on his guests, the East Village Opera Company, who came to the CBC studios in Ottawa to sell some records yesterday. Here goes…

They suck. No, that's not quite right, nor fair...

The East Village Opera Company was formed by a couple of Canadians who take opera arias and turn them into “rock” songs, to make them more accessible.

There is a long-standing tradition of popular artists pilfering classical music for tunes, all with varying degrees of success. I don’t mind this. If you can make it work, by all means, pilfer away. The East Village Opera Company does not, and I am afraid they do not even fail badly enough to put them in the category of Florence Foster Jenkins, and therefore worth listening to.

However, their tepid popera stylings (you can listen here) were not what really rankled me. Instead, it was their shameless use of common pop culture tropes about classical music to help sell their records.

The narrative goes something like this:

Mean, conservative classical musicians wouldn’t let them near the sacred bookcase containing the good opera music, so they had to go and find a way to bring this music to the masses, so it would reach out and touch more people, and get more people in the seats of the, for example, sold out Canadian Opera Company season. They're doing the classical world a favour, by making this music more accessible.

Not by singing it in English, of course. Nope, the Puccini arias are in Italian, the native language of rock. To boot, the lead singer’s voice is that of a young Aaron Neville, so you know he’s got that rock edge to his sound.

It got worse. There was their feigned surprise that classical musicians didn't despise them, or try to kick them out of the classical musicians club for raiding the sacred bookcase.

Check out their web site. Don't these guys look edgy, standing around, arms folded, on their East Village stage set, while accompanied by their edgy cremonese cellos?

Go watch the video. I think it sums up this project nicely.

The aria being performed is the very famous cabaletta from Verdi's Rigoletto, La donna è mobile. For those of you who don't speak Italian, what he's singing about is that women are fickle, unpredictable, like feathers in the wind. But you'd never know that watching the video.

The women should be slapping him for what he's singing, and at least that would have been a nod to what the song was about. Instead it's all E-infused 20-somethings clubbing to opera.

Now I know some of you re thinking, "But don't classical musicians do this all the time? Sing this stuff out of context?" Yes, but most classical musicians don't pretend to represent the intentions of dead composers if they were alive and composing today, as this pair did on CBC.

The frontmen for the group went on and on about how they felt that if Mozart were around today, he'd be using microphones and electric guitars. Sure, and he'd be writing his rock songs in Italian, just like everyone else.

Look, I don't doubt the skill or the sincerity of the musicians involved in this project. What I find frustrating is that their marketing sets them up as a bunch of rebels, who somehow got those stodgy old men at Decca, the giant classical music label, to let them record an album.

But here's the rub - I suspect that's exactly what happened. Some record exec took a look at this, and thought, "Hey, there's a whole segment of the population out there who want to look sophisticated but don't want to take the time to learn all the ins and outs of opera. Let's sell them this. They'll think they're getting "culture", and these nice boys are more than willing to be the front for us."

More power to them, because it appears to be working. Go check out the Amazon reviews for the CD.

Reading straight from the marketing copy, this light rock take on opera seems to be a hit for all those people who are frustrated with all the stuffy, boring, traditional approaches to classical music.

Make no mistake, the East Village Opera Company makes classical music fun!

All you have to do to believe this is to forget that the classical music recording industry pushes out these controversial, fun artists with an astonishing regularity that, surprise surprise, mirrors the popular music industry. Given that they're all owned by the same people, this shouldn't come as a surprise.

Or what about all this need to make classical music more accessible? Here we find some twisted logic, a logic many classical music lovers support enthusiastically - the need to "convert" people over to classical music.

Indeed, the East Village Opera Company, while trying to make classical music more "accessible", find their very footing in the proselytizing zeal which grounds the classical music industry.

They are part of an infrastructure which assumes that classical music is in dire need of help, and that if only people got to hear it they would become fanatics.

But how about the possibility that classical music doesn't need any help? Like all other musical genres, not everyone listens to it - do you see folk musicians going out there saying things like this?

And just take a look at the local classical music scene here in Toronto. You can go to a concert at lunch and attend one in the evening nearly every day this month.

In fact, you're spoiled for choice! Or how about, if you took the combined listening audience of CBC Radio 2 (even now) and classical 96.3 FM here in Toronto, classical music has one of the largest market shares in the city?

No one's listening to classical music? HA!

So please, East Village Opera Company, do your thing, just don't sell it as a kind of public service, and just let it be the capitalist music industry confection that it is.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

CBC National Day of Action

Peter McGillivray left a comment on one of my CBC posts that deserves to be put up top!

Here it is:

Just to let you know, a National Day of Action is planned for Friday April 11th. We're going to have demonstrations at as many CBC installations as we possibly can to protest the changes to Radio Two and the axing of the CBC Radio Orchestra. Come visit the Facebook event site for more details

For those of you who aren't on Facebook, here are the details, from the site:

9am PST: Victoria: 1025 Pandora Avenue

9am PST: Vancouver: 775 Cambie Street
John Oliver, are you interested?

10am MST: Calgary: 1724 Westmount Blvd. NW
Contact - Andrew Nowry Andrewnowry@gmail.com

10am MST: Edmonton: 23 Edmonton City Centre, 10062-102nd Avenue
Contact - Scott Bursey

11am CST: Regina: 2440 Broad Street

11am CST: Winnipeg: 541 Portage Avenue

11am CST: Thunder Bay: 213 East Miles Street

12pm EST: Toronto: 250 Front Street West
Contact Peter McGillivray radio2@petermcgillivray.com (though I will probably be in Edmonton - could somebody else take over Toronto?)

12pm EST: Sudbury: 15 MacKenzie Street

12pm EST: Windsor:825 Riverside Drive West

12pm EST: Ottawa: 181 Queen Street, Ottawa
Meet at Sparks Street entrance

12pm EST: Montreal: 1400 Rene Levesque East
Contact-Alexandra Fol

1pm AST: Fredericton: 1160 Regent Street

1pm AST: Saint John: 560 Main Street

1pm AST: Moncton: 250 University Avenue

1pm AST: Halifax: 1601 South Park

1pm AST: Charlottetown: 430 University Avenue
Contact Kate Huston drummingdiva@hotmail.com

1:30pm NST: St John's: 25 Henry Street

Let's make sure we get this movement off Facebook and into the general public as well. over 100 people showed up in Vancouver. If we can get even 20 to show up at each CBC station we will have made a huge statement.

For inspiration check out the following group sites:
Save Classical Music at the CBC

Save the CBC Radio Orchestra

If you agree to show up to one of the protests, please sign the Facebook wall and tell us which city you live in so we can get an idea of numbers. Thanks, Canada!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Good Liar's Paradox

The dilemma of the bad liar is that no one believes them even when they are telling the truth.

The paradox of the good liar is that everyone believes them.

The Sufferings of the Bourgeoisie

John Saunders, the White Anglo-Saxon Ravi Shankar, honked repeatedly as he edged his Volvo backwards out of the driveway of his North Toronto semi-detached. Turning his head, he glanced over at his daughter Britney in her 5-point harness, and Sir Pantsalot, the Saunder's family year-old Afghan Hound.

A Mozart rondo faded to the voice of Peter Togni:

"..ewelbox surprise for today..."

"Daddy, I want some candy."

"Honey, we'll get you some candy once Sir Pantsalot gets his shots at the vet."

The dog looked up at him suddenly, dropping his Bark and Fitz chew toy onto the floor.


Sir Pantsalot sat straight up, and began to howl in the style of a branded cow. He quickly tired of howling, and settled upon a mix of heavy panting and wild barking, while pacing the leather bench like an expectant father.

"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Britney screamed. "Shut up supantslot! Shut up!"

Her anger quickly turned to tears. In her rage, she realised that the only solution to the noise would be to strike the Sir Pantsalot with her right hand, sticky from a recently consumed bag of Fruit Gushers.

The dog, equally frustrated by his circumstance, returned her volley by biting her on the hand. Britney screamed.

John sighed, and thought to himself, "This was no way to start the Saturday drive to Starbucks..."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008