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SCRUTINY | Mazzoleni Songmasters Recital Explores Words, Images, and Music

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Mazzoleni Songmasters Recital (Photo: Joseph So)
Mazzoleni Songmasters Recital (Photo: Joseph So)

RCM Mazzoleni Songmasters Recital at Mazzoleni Concert Hall. Sunday March 6

Toronto voice fans are fond of spending Sundays in a recital hall for a good old Liederabend – albeit in the afternoon. For years, the main attraction was the Aldeburgh Connection with its richly detailed and always satisfying, theme-based programming. With the retirement of its co-creators Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata, suddenly there was a void.

Then two seasons ago, pianist/coach Rachel Andrist and pianist/composer John Greer started the Recital in Rosedale series with intelligent and thoughtful programming, earmarked to fill the void left by the Aldeburgh Connection. But given its location, attendance was low. With the relocation to the Mazzoleni Recital Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music, it was hoped that a bigger crowd would show up. With soprano Monica Whicher having taken over from Greer and in partnership with Andrist, they are continuing the tradition of Sunday afternoon celebrations of song.

I wasn’t able to attend the first in the series but I made it to the second one yesterday. It was indeed a very respectably sized crowd, with many familiar faces. The discerning audience was attentive and supportive, reminiscent of the typical song recital audiences I’ve come across over the years in London, New York and Toronto. In this new venue and with its imaginative programming, it bodes well for the future.

The soloists on this occasion were soprano Mireille Asselin and baritone Brett Polegato. A former member of the COC Ensemble, Asselin recently scored a triumph as the saucy Adele in Die Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera. With over twenty years in front of the public, Polegato is a veteran, having sung in many of the major opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic. He has recently moved into Wagner. In May, he’ll be singing Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde in Paris.

On the program were songs in French, German and English. It began with Faure, Poulenc, and Debussy, before moving on to a small group of Schumann. The final pieces were British songs by MacNutt, Walton, and Britten, ending with “lighter” fare by Jake Heggie, Sheldon Harnick, Ray Evans/Jay Livingston and Cole Porter.  A focal point on stage right was Bach Cello Suites, a strikingly beautiful canvas by Toronto visual artist Paula Arciniega, who also holds a Masters in Vocal Performance and is an active performer. This painting underscores the theme of the recital – inspired cross currents of the visual, the aural and the textual – how words, music and images meld in the creative process.

Asselin kicked off the proceedings with Faure’s Mandoline and A Clymene, both inspired by paintings of mandolin players by Tiepolo, Watteau and others. She sang with sweet tone and nice attention to dynamics, well supported by pianist Peter Tiefenbach.  This was followed by Poulenc’s Le travail du peintre, sung by Polegato with Andrist at the piano. He told the audience that Poulenc was composing Les dialogues des Carmelites at the time, and one could indeed detect strong melodic commonalities, particularly the first song, Pablo Picasso. The very small Mazzoleni Hall with its lively acoustics, and with the Steinway lid all the way up, meant the sound coming from the stage was substantial for these rather “delicate” French pieces. Polegato wisely scaled back his now quite robust baritone for several of the songs. This was followed by Asselin singing Debussy’s Fetes galantes (Book One). Some of it was a bit low for her, with the voice happiest in the higher reaches. The droll Pantomime from Quatre chansons de jeunesse allowed the soprano to show off her fioritura and charm.

The second half opened with two Schumann, sung nicely by Polegato, with enviable legato in Liebesbotschaft. The rest of the program was in English.  I was happy to discover the songs composed by Walter McNutt and Benjamin Britten set to poems by William Blake, particularly charming was the McNutt piece, Spring. The group of three songs by Jake Heggie underscores for me why he’s one of the most performed American composers today – he simply writes brilliantly for the voice!  As I was sitting there listening to Lucky Child, I was struck by his melodic inspiration – he’s one contemporary composer not afraid to write a true melody.  Incidentally, Peter Tiefenbach’s deadpan introduction of the Heggie song added to the enjoyment.  Also delightful was The Ballad of the Shape of Things, a very cute piece. The two that ended the afternoon were gems of the American Songbook, Mona Lisa and You’re the Top. The first piece was of course immortalized by Nat King Cole. Polegato delivered it most stylishly – I had forgotten that he sang in musicals like Show Boat albeit some years ago! Then the final piece was You’re the Top. Okay, I confess to being a Cole Porter fan. And Peter Tiefenbach was the most likely suspect in devising new lyrics for this performance! With Asselin and Polegato giving their all in this very clever piece, is there a more delightful way to end an afternoon?


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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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