Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Yearling

The Yearling, 1946, should come with a disclaimer: "Animals were offed in the making of this so-called classic, which incidentally is shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies." And The Yearling isn't the only one. There's also Old Yeller and let's not even talk about Bambi.
These are the bring-downs of all time since in each one, an adorable animal is "killed", and why? So we can learn a life-lesson. So children can pick up some tips about "coming of age", though if they're like me, they're more likely to run screaming from the theatre and bear the trauma for life.
What was the point of these exercises in sadism?
Suppressed feelings perhaps, if you note the time when they were made. There was a cold war going on that you could feel even domestically. Toughness made you good. Kids could be kids but only up to a point and not for too long. And nothing could spell out the death of innocence like the death of an animal — the cuter the better. It's funny kittens didn't come in for it.
But there is a stunning exception to the use of animals as propagandistic devices in Leos Janacek's opera, The Cunning Little Vixen from 1924.
This has everything — talking, singing, dancing animals, gaiety, sadness, exquisite music that seems to have come from the very forest, and tears that have been earned.
— Lloyd Dykk

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Madama Butterfly

Vancouver Opera's big season-closing production is Puccini's Madama Butterfly, easily one of the world's top three favorites. Maybe because it is so overdone, the company decided to give it a difference, at least visually.
Musically it's very strong and the voices are good, though I didn't really care for soprano Mihoko Kinoshita's Cio-Cio-San, who never moved me; I much preferred Zheng Cao's Suzuki.
This is a very stark Butterfly, you could say almost an ungraceful one. The production designers have gone very Japanese on this conception but it's not a Japan from the turn of the century, it looks more like a set for Wagner as conceived by the Bauhaus school. A high rake to the stage, huge concentric circles, flat colored parasol-like discs carried by the geishas, a long slanting pathway, and screens, screens, screens with projections, projections, projections and five or six black-clad, square-headed bunraku figures to manipulate them "invisibly."
It looks very beautiful in a clinical way, and that's the problem. When was Madama Butterfly ever clinical? The production has erased every bit of charm from this great opera and left it a cold, beautiful thing. That was felt most significantly in the first act love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton. There's so much going on in this overproduced "minimal" extravaganza that I hardly felt touched by the music at all.
Jun Kaneko, the designer of the sets, the videos and the unattractive costumes, is said not to have worked in opera before and, as preparation, to have listened to Madama Butterfly three times a day. Why would you need to?

Friday, May 7, 2010

musica intima

On May 12, one of the best choirs in the country, the 12-voice musica intima (who are self-conducting and prefer the lower case) are holding a joint fundraiser to benefit the BC Cancer Foundation at Heritage Hall on Main Street.

They're co-presenting the event with Team Finn, named after Finn Sullivan, an adorable little boy who died at 3 of cancer. It's called "Run, Jump, Bounce, Dance, Sing, Smile, Love, and Ride," which seems to sum up Finn's philosophy.

The event is casual and starts at 7:30. You can meet the members of the choir and Team Finn in an atmosphere of cupcake tasting, music and a silent auction. Guests who purchase their tickets by Monday, May 10 will also be entered to win a special gift of their choice from Sikora’s Classical Records. Tickets are $50 and include one complimentary beverage.

Tickets can be purchased at http://www.musicaintima.org/experience/season_soire/20100512/193000/

And musica intima has just released a new CD called into light. It's stunning. It can be ordered from



Friday, April 23, 2010

Splinter in Your Eye

And now let us praise famous men. I adore the photographs of Lee Bacchus, a direct heir to the work of Walker Evans, who was a great Depression Era cameraman subsidized by the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. In an age where so much loudly commands attention, his faultlessly skillful images have the grace to imply, to glance with their knowing immediacy, to reflect a meaning best taken in on the sly, though if you're like me, you will stare at them.

They are immensely subtle, beautifully composed, and often haunted by a sense of the past: Bacchus doesn't let you forget that the city is old. His photographs have a genius loci, a feeling that evokes a place beyond its physical location. It could be a barber shop while watching his son get a haircut, an old movie theatre with its detritus of worn out drawers, a tiny mouldering pizza shop with its crumbling ochre facade and its sidewalk weeds bravely poking out of a crevice, or it could be something as magical as a shot taken on the beach at Spanish Banks. The mysterious box washed up on the shore ... the pinprick of lighthouse light in the distance. This is a glimpse of infinity.

Bacchus is also an extraordinary writer. Check out his website at http://splinterinyoureye.blogspot.com/


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Gathie Falk

On Saturday a friend and I went to the Equinox Gallery for a showing of new work by Gathie Falk. There were a lot of people there because Gathie always attracts attention.
The critics Ann Rosenberg and Robin Laurence were among those who'd come. There were also Elizabeth Klassen and Tom Graff, Gathie's close friends from way back. I've known these three for a long time, back to the days in the early 1970s when I played cello and finger cymbals in a theatre piece by Tom called, I think, Portable Palestrina at the Vancouver Art Gallery -- one of his unforgettably strange theatre pieces. The song might have been an old, luscious Edwardian tune called It's Never Too Late to Be Sorry, which he sang in his big lustrous baritone that won him a place in the Metropolitan Opera auditions, which he couldn't go onto because as an American, he'd come up to dodge the draft.
Someone I knew back then once described Gathie, Elizabeth and Tom, who lived together in a house in Kitsilano, as "a houseful of elves." But that wasn't accurate and didn't begin to say what they were. Even then I recognized their unique brilliance. Being with them was as close as I'd probably ever come to knowing what it must have been like to be with the Sitwell clique -- Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell.
But there was an element of nuttiness to the Sitwells while Gathie is as sane a woman as you'll ever meet. No one I know has a greater eye for beauty and its infinite vagaries. She'd once made what she considered the perfect waffle and instead of eating it, nailed it to the wall over an archway and believe it or not, it wasn't funny. She was a potter at the time and produced a line of coffee mugs glazed in a mouth-watering color she called "rotten apple red." I longed to have some but was too poor to buy any.
Over the decades she's become an art star with her work collected by major galleries and museums. The most amazing thing about her is the range of what she produces and its absolute consistency of vision within its stunning thematic scope. Many of her pieces are epic in size (she calls herself a conceptual artist though I've never liked the term: what art isn't conceptual, excepting the butterflies and flowers of, say, the Ontario Watercolor Society, but that isn't art, it's mimicry).
Her new show is much smaller in scale, however. It's a collection of still lifes and there's nothing stiller or less magical about them for their littler dimension. Probably they could only be small, like the title piece, which shows a round table top bearing white cups and saucers, a plunger full of coffee, flowers, silverware and a dreamy looking chiffon cake.
It, and all the rest of her pieces, hum with a quiet sense of small pleasures magnified by an aura of, in a phrase that Gathie's used before, "a veneration of the ordinary."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Essential Jargon

Tax time. Which has made me feel like an idiot since I have a tremendous wide-eyed ignorance of anything financial, just as I have of all things related to the computer, which I naively persist in regarding as a tool. Actually, I seem to be its tool.
Why are people expected to be so in the know about fields utterly alien to them? Perhaps it's a life skill but these are skills I am absolutely no good at. At this point I should be saying, "I couldn't tell a ----- from a ----- or a ------ from a ------ but I'm too techno-illiterate to even think of examples. But specialists often seem so eager to impress you with their own technical expertise, even when it's in an area I'm not vaguely interested in. It would be like me rubbing it in someone's face that they don't know why a baroque trio sonata requires four musicians, not three. I would never do that and wouldn't even think it. It would seem more than a little ungenerous.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Nixon in China

"The myths of our time are not Cupid and Psyche but characters like Mao and Nixon," said the American composer John Adams.
He was referring of course to his opera, Nixon in China, first performed in 1987 and having to wait, incredibly, this long for its first Canadian production, and we have Vancouver Opera to thank for it.
The situation deals with Richard Nixon's visit in 1972 to red China, until then a terra incognita, which in many ways it remains. Richard and Pat, Chairman and Madame Mao, Chou-En lai and Henry Kissinger are the subjects of some very strange music that bears a superficial resemblance to Philip Glass's motoric rhythms and ostinatos but in a decidedly superior way. Adams's is more subtle and variable, more deftly scored, more expressive, warmer but only up to an important point.
It serves to underline the alienation of some extremely alien circumstances.
The characters seem to have reached an entente by the end of the second act but it's an illusory one. Both sides are left stunned by a set of paradoxes in which they've found themselves—a parallel inscrutability which is echoed by Edel Rodriguez's wonderful poster.
The production is nothing less than superb and goes across the board: the direction of Michael Cavanagh, John DeMain conducting the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the scenic design of Erhard Rom, the costuming of Parvin Mirhady, and especially the singing. Here we have the untouchable Robert Orth as Richard Nixon, Sally Dibblee as Pat, Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao, Alan Woodrow as Mao, ChenYe Yuan as Chou-En lai and the faultless Vancouver Opera Chorus, which has a very big part here. The audience was rapt.
Adams and his excellent librettist Alice Goodman are very generous to the humbly-born Pat Nixon, whose lines include memorably, perhaps prophetically, "I foresee a time when luxury evaporates into the atmosphere, like perfume."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Last week the Marion Scott Gallery in Gastown held an opening for Kananginak Pootoogook, an important Inuit artist who was having his first showing in five years.
He was there for it, as was his fellow Cape Dorset artist Jamasie Pitseolak, whose small jewel-like sculptures glistened in a glass case, and the former Kinngait Studio manager Jimmy Manning had come as well.
The evening was packed with people and had the flair of a Soho opening. A guitarist sat by one wall, playing tirelessly and without fault. It was great to see so many people turn out to see the work of Kananginak, a man who'd brought a modern sensibility to Inuit art decades before his well-known niece, Annie Pootoogook.
He's been at work for about 50 years and what he's produced is stunning, not only the meticulous and brilliantly colored depictions of Northern bird life but his often sly interpretations of how life is changing for the modern Inuit: this is social realism at its realest. There are 31 works in the show, including two that are epic in size. By the time of the opening, 28 had sold.
I couldn't take my eyes off one piece in particular. It was of a husky in the process of being created. You can see Kananginak's hand just putting the final touches on one of its hindpaws, one small area still white. The dog looks up at him and it's that expression in its eyes that makes it unforgettable. The drawing is like a witty play on transformation myth. The hands frame the image and in a way, define it. This is the closest work I know that manages to speak of an inter-special understanding, the word referring to species.
At one point, Kananginak spoke to the crowd in English. Then he sang a song in Inuktitut as his granddaughter's eyes welled with tears. His beautiful song had the same effect on others.
The enormous dignity of the man.
The show runs to April 4.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Russian Romances

A stunning thing arrived in my mailbox a day or so ago from Dallas, the cellist Eugene Osadchy's new CD recorded with the young pianist Anastasia Markina and called Russian Romances — Joys and Sorrows.
I'm disclosing that Eugene is a friend of mine but that has absolutely nothing to do with it. I'd be in raptures about this CD if he were an enemy, though after this we wouldn't be enemies long if I had my way about it.
Eugene used to be principal cellist with the CBC Radio Orchestera, then moved with his wife and son to Dallas, where he's a professor of cello at the University of North Texas while keeping a solo career that takes him around the world. Markina was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. Together they play his transcription of songs and arias by Tchaikovsky and Rakhmaninov and one all but unknown song by Nikolai Medtner.
It is, as said, a rapturous album that any cello lover would cherish. You rarely (and yes I'm including Yo-Yo Ma) hear cello playing like this, so rich in tone, so expressively varied in vibrato, and above all, so vocal; this is an album of what were originally songs, after all. There are of course words to Lensky's aria just before the fatal duel in Eugene Onegin, which he knows he'll lose, but even if you don't know what those heart-breaking words are, Osadchy plays so plangently and movingly, yet with such admirable control, that you should be able to intuit what those words are. The way he scales climaxes alone is a lesson in the emotional power of graduation.
And Markina is a phenomenon. No praise could be too high for her, a virtuoso yet one who plays with her nerves attuned to what makes musical partnering work: listening. And she knows, to go by her postludes in two of the songs, when to surge ahead. I can't think of a pianist who makes the fearsomely difficult piano part in Rakhmaninov's Spring Waters come off better.
CDs will go on sale via Amazon on March 16th, or they can be ordered directly from Lena Osadchy at elenaosadchy@hotmail.com. They sell for $15USD including delivery or CAD$17. Eugene says he and Markina are planning a second CD soon, possibly Shostakovich and Brahms.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


The down side about the computer is that it instantly turned everybody into a "writer" and "critic."
Case in point, some crank called "Goldorak," though this very likely isn't his or her real name--it's so much more convenient to hide behind a pseudonym. It allows you to be brave.
This nut job won't quit. Three or four times I've had "Goldorak" snipe from the sidelines about something I'd written. First, I'd criticized some concert and "Goldorak" chimed in with the fanciful theory that everybody should get his money back for that concert. Some intelligent person swiftly shot that one down, saying, with a live event, you pay your money, you take your chances.
The next time, "Goldorak" came up with a reactionary screed about a concert I didn't even like very much. He didn't either, apparently, though I doubt he'd even gone.
One thing is clear, "Goldorak" isn't blessed with the ability to read.
Most recently, "Goldorak" sounded off about Yuri Bashmet, the Russian violist who's coming with his Moscow Soloists to play at the Orpheum. "Goldorak" claimed he's a has-been and is always drunk onstage. That wasn't my impression the last time I heard him recently.
I know it's inadvisable to even mention cranks like "Goldorak" because the minute you do, it empowers them and you become part of their delusional system. But this person writes a lot and it's always something stupid and cranky.
If you're unlucky enough to come across the name "Goldorak", take it with a pound of salt.

Friday, January 22, 2010

To Russia with Love

On Jan. 22 Vancouver cellist Eugene Osadchy was back from his teaching job at Dallas's University of Northern Texas to play for Vetta, the music series he co-founded 20-odd years ago. It's still running and deserves to be with its fine programs of chamber music which mean that the people close to the Endowment Lands of UBC have less often to go downtown to take in a concert.
It was an all-Russian program with the series' artistic director and violinist Joan Blackman and the virtuosic young Russian pianist Anastasia Markina, and it was a beauty. I've never heard a better concert from Vetta.
Aside from Sergei Prokofiev's Cinq Melodies for piano and violin and Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Trio Elegiac, Osadchy and Markina played Dmitri Shostakovich's lone cello sonata, and this was the highlight for me in a program that was consistently played with passion and artistry. Even the long early Rachmaninov trio was beautiful, making me wonder why I've never particularly liked it. But then I'd never heard it scaled so perfectly. For the first time, it seemed to make perfect sense.
Once again I wondered what it is--aside from having, I suppose, a naturally dark predisposition--that makes me particularly receptive to Russian music. I don't mean I enjoy only Russian music. A tango or a rhythm from Latin America can make me think it was only an accident of birth that put me in this hemisphere, or a piece by Edvard Grieg or Einojuhani Rautavaara will make me powerfully nostalgic for those latitudes. This is the power of music as it ought to be. It can and should dislocate you and make you feel a stranger in your own part of the world.
But the music of Russia is the most consistent in exerting this tidal pull on my aesthetic emotions: Tchaikovsky's overwhelmingly beautiful and balletic music (scales, basically), the color and plains-like spatial sense of Alexander Borodin, the splendidly brooding music of Rachmaninov, the athletic and daring harmonic clashes of Prokofiev, the braininess of Igor Stravinsky, and the virtually autobiographical music of Shostakovich, a composer who was impossible to silence though he was the most harassed of all under the apparatchiks of Joseph Stalin ... these are only the most obvious of the names I love.
The Cello Sonata was written in the afterglow of Shostakovich's scandalous opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was famous—for a short while before getting the most frightening official review of the composer's life. The sonata is unforgettable. Primarily lyrical as it is, it's clear that there are thoughts going on.

Monday, January 18, 2010


Reality TV may be more than Satan's little time-killer, I almost thought one night recently as I watched two shows back to back, though I'm not proud of it.
The first was Hoarders which routinely documents the progress made by a team of removal professionals and clinical mental experts as they enter the homes of people who are clearly on the outer edges of sanity and try not to vomit as they survey scenes of chaos that can only be described as augean.
The owners of these homes, or what once must have been homes, seem outwardly normal though the mental wiring has very obviously become tangled. For the viewer, horror, pity and amusement become tangled as well, watching the poor helpless victims lead the stranger into (what once must have been) the living room and try to be casual about it ("Yes, well, this is my messy living room ..."), the word messy being pushed into a service well beyond euphemism, just as "clutter" doesn't begin to say it.
Things might well have kept going on as they obviously have been going for a very long time, had there not been a civic threat of eviction or possession of the children. That's how bad things have got. Though the process starts off well enough as the removers begin chucking mountains of debris and animal droppings into trucks, it usually doesn't take long to see the owners' defense systems begin to crack as they see their treasures crudely swept up and removed. They "need" these things, though they will never likely see them or even know what's there. Sometimes it doesn't work out. They're too far gone.
There seems a purpose beyond voyeurism to this documentary series on consumerism gone epically wrong. You may sense this feeling the next time you open your fridge and notice that it's only the shallow little bay of utility nearest the door that you seem to use anymore, and that it's been that way for quite some time now.
The other show seems even more moral, an animal rescue show run by what looks like a team of five bikers. They're all beefy and reticent and speak in rough accents of the outer boroughs of New York. That they really do love animals seems undeniable as, hearing rumors of a neglected rottweiler or pit bull terrier, they more or less badger their way into the house of the heartless owner and with a forceful tact, demand that things improve. Commonly they somehow manage to take the dog away for care and medical treatment. Then they return it with clear threats to follow up with as many unannounced commando checks as it will take.
It does work, apparently, or it can, to go by one case study of a hispanic who'd been mistreating his dog by ignoring him. By the time it had finished its therapy it was hard to say who'd got the better of it, the dog, or the owner in his now much spruced-up house. There suddenly seemed to be a genuine affection for a fellow sentient being.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Where were they?

Saturday night I went to the Vancouver Symphony at the Orpheum. Houses recently have been pretty good for the symphony but Saturday was dramatically different. I had to keep looking behind me because I couldn't believe how small the attendance was. The sides of the theatre were all but empty as were the acres of seats behind me, and I was in row 16 on the aisle. What must it have been like in the balcony?

Not once all night did I have to get to my feet to make way for someone else. In my row there was only one other person, down at the end.

It didn't take long to suppose that the usurious new parking rates must be behind it -- also the parking meters' now being in effect until 10 p.m. Stretching my legs, I gave thanks for the consideration and courtesy of Gregor Robertson and City Hall.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Steinbacher no-show

Arabella Steinbacher (pictured, right), who was scheduled to play the Dvorak Violin Concerto announced below, won't be playing with the Vancouver Symphony Jan. 16-18 because she suddenly became ill.

Instead, it'll be Jennifer Koh, a New York violinist who played in Vancouver about a year ago.

She's very good too, and known for taking a sort of post-modern approach to violin repertory. That is, she places music -- often very contemporary music -- in a context that typically goes back to J.S. Bach, the touchstone.

Koh will be playing the Dvorak concerto as well.

But don't overlook Steinbacher, who is an amazingly gifted young musician. I can't recommend her new CD strongly enough, on Pentatone Classics, where she plays the Dvorak, his F Minor Romance, and notably Karol Szymanowski's First Violin Concerto. This is a masterpiece all but unknown outside of Poland. Tremendously sensuous, with a free-form structure, and tremendously difficult to play. I haven't heard a more persuasive argument for it. It deserves to be a Western classic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tango Reunion

Tango is far from just an evening thing, though it was said that Music in the Morning's opening concert on Tuesday, Jan. 12, was the visiting Argentine harmonica player Franco Luciani's first morning ever, and he needed a cup of strong coffee.

Tango Reunion was just that. Two years ago at Festival Vancouver, pianist Linda Lee Thomas, bassist Miles Foxx Hill and Luciani were thrown together as a substitute when Ed Henderson, the guitarist of Thomas's trio Tangissimo, couldn't make it. It was a hit of the festival and the place erupted when they were finished.
It was the same thing on Tuesday.

An older crowd couldn't get enough of an hour of tango magic that passed so quickly it seemed like warp speed. They played tangos by Astor Piazzolla, Anibal Troilo, Julian Plaza and others. What might have grabbed you straight off was the amazing dexterity of the young Luciani, who, throwing his whole body into his reedy instrument, played with the fire and precision of a skilled bandoneonist, and the range of his color was incredible, from locomotive-like chuffs to impossibly high and exposed upper notes that were sounded with the most precise delicacy.

Thomas, invaluable as a charmingly witty commentator, took a back seat but not if you listened carefully. This woman is a national treasure. I can still hear her one piano solo, which combined Rachmaninov and Chopin into an expression that was pure Argentina. And ObliviĆ³n is still with me.

As Thomas said, "But then everybody in Argentina is depressed." Long live this kind of depression.

Music in the Morning website

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A phenomenal new violinist, Arabella Steinbacher, makes her first visit to the Vancouver Symphony January 16 through 18. This 27-year-old is incredibly gifted, a fact made clear by her new CD, sent by her New York publicity firm. It has the concerto she'll be playing here -- Dvorak's only one and conducted by Kazuyoshi Akiyama -- and Karol Szymanowski's first violin concerto. They both floored me but especially the Szymanowski, which is hardly ever played. This is a brave program since both concertos are dark horses. And it was her performance of the Dvorak that persuaded me it's a great one.

She's a protegee of Anne-Sophie Mutter. A friend of mine, the violinist Daniel Bae, studied with Steinbacher in Munich and raves about her playing. Daniel could have had an international career himself but got talked into taking over his parents' business: motel management.

2:39:00 PM
by Lloyd Dykk