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Looking back at 2013: Best and worst Toronto classical concert and opera performances

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8-year-old Laurelle Lassonde premiered Christ Thornborrow's Mini Piano Concerto No. 1 at St Barnabas Church on May 5 (John terauds photo).
8-year-old Laurelle Lassonde premiered Christ Thornborrow’s Mini Piano Concerto No. 1 at St Barnabas Church on May 5 (John terauds photo).

I don’t keep a running list of best and worst concerts and operas, so the year-end tally can lead to surprises. I’ve picked one big winner in each category, along with three runners-up:

Best Opera/Theatre

Miriam Khalia and Stephen Hegedus in Figaro's Wedding (Darryl Block photo).
Miriam Khalil and Stephen Hegedus in Figaro’s Wedding (Darryl Block photo).

Figaro’s Wedding: Against the Grain Theatre

We use the term adaptation a lot, and it has as many meanings as uses. Against the Grain Theatre used it to its fullest, richest, most-eye-opening extent in adapting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro to Toronto 2013 in May. The results contained everything that the magic of theatre implies: new material interwoven with old, great performances, and a willing suspension of all disbelief. You can read my original review here.

Runners-up:

  • Mark Morris Dance Group’s L’Allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato: Thanks to Luminato, we finally got to see this wonderful amalgam of movement and music that has been around for a generation. The dancers were imported, but the locally sourced orchestra and singers made this Torontonian very proud. You can read my original review here.
  • Canadian Opera Company’s La Bohème: This was the third opera I saw as a child. I love it dearly, but would be just as happy never to sit through it again. So I was thrilled when this new production — as traditional and straightforward as any out there these days — and its cast of wonderful singers reminded me of everything I loved. You can read my original review here and the follow-up here.

Best Concert

Peter and the Dinosaurs: Musica Reflecta

Joy can come from the most unlikely places: In 2013 it was a fledgling group in an obscure church on the Danforth presenting new music in a multimedia setting. The result? Wow.

The magic extended from the transformation of gloomy St Barnabas Church into once-upon-a-time enchantment by the Madeleine Collective, to the capable premieres of two excellent new works by Toronto composers: Dean Burry’s own take on the young person’s guide to the orchestra — Carnival of the Dinosaurs — and Chris Thornborrow’s Mini Piano Concerto No. 1, designed to allow a beginner pianist to play with an orchestra just like Yuja Wang.

Musica Reflecta and its young artistic director Anastasia Tchernikova deserve a long, loud, standing ovation. Thornborrow and Burry need little gold medals (the foil-wrapped kind, with waxy milk chocolate inside) for their invaluable work in getting kids excited about music and theatre.

You can read my original review here.

Runners-up:

The Alderbugh Connection farewell at Waler Hall on May 26 (John Terauds photo).
The Alderbugh Connection farewell at Waler Hall on May 26 (John Terauds photo).
  • The Aldeburgh Connection’s farewell concert: Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, the co-artistic directors who had run art music salons for three decades said goodbye with the grace, humour and finely tuned artistry that was their calling card. They closed up shop in style — and while we were all still hungry for more. You can read my original review here.
  • Pianist Yuja Wang at Koerner Hall: There’s good, better, best — and then there’s Yuja Wang. Grace, power, speed, languor, lyricism and extroverted virtuosity; there aren’t enough adjectives to describe what she did at Koerner Hall’s magnificent German Steinway at the end of October (she had also impressed with the Toronto Symphony in June — but we got her all to ourselves in the later recital). You can read my original review here.

The worst of 2013

Concerts and opera in Toronto are like the paint grades at Home Hardware: good, better and best. There’s no such thing as bad — well, hardly:

A Toronto Symphony: Tod Machover

The grand turkey prize of 2013 has to go to Boston-based composer Tod Machover’s A Toronto Symphony, which was truly beyond awful. It was a cringefest of clichés strung together with no conception of effective musical storytelling. The experience was all the more unpalatable after a year of public involvement and interaction, where Machover tried all sorts of ingenious means to get the people of this city to participate in the creation of this work.

Machover is a brilliant and engaging experimenter. As we all know, some experiments fail miserably — as they must. But we must draw conclusions, and perhaps even turn to the past for help: Never in the history of the world has a committee created art that is good, better or best.

You can read my original review here.

Runners up:

  • The Minimalist Dream House Project at Koerner Hall: Toronto Summer Music has found its groove with artistic director Douglas McNabney, bringing us fabulous chamber music and steadily growing its audience. Then there was this wank-fest by the Labècque sisters and friends, who had collectively forgotten that an audience needs to be pleased as much as the artists. You can read my original review here.
  • The Mariinsky Orchestra and Valery Gergiev at Roy Thomson Hall: To be clear, Russia’s flagship orchestra played superbly. The problem was an all-Stravinsky ballet-music programme perfect for the obsessive-collector mentality that produces composer-survey recordings by the boatload. This was a lot less satisfying for an audience member expecting a bit of variation in sound and mood when sacrificing an entire afternoon to the concert hall. You can read my original review here.

Disclaimer: Your results will certainly vary. Please feel free to share your best and worst.

John Terauds

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